Always pay careful attention to Timothy Snyder. His small book On Tyranny will be remembered as a classic pamphlet, perhaps the classic prophetic pamphlet, of our era, if our era is destined to be remembered at all. Every American who can read at all should buy it and read it, and reread it. His larger book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America tells the story of the spread of a new religion-allied fascism in our world, in our day, by focusing on Vladimir Putin’s falsifying-by-mythologizing of Russian and Ukrainian history, which has worrying parallels in the mythologization of US history by Christian nationalists here. Every American capable of reading books above high-school level should buy or borrow it and read it.
Snyder’s most recent substack post addresses once again the parallels between Putin’s lies-based attacks on democracy in eastern Europe and the Trumpist project in the United States. (Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait for you here.) Why, Snyder asks, don’t the Russian people, who are generally aware that everything Putin says is a lie, shake themselves free of him? Because they have implicated themselves in his lies, and now they may be doing so irrevocably by going to war for him on the basis of his lies. After going that far, how do you admit to yourself and to others that it was all lies from the start? It may be psychologically impossible. More likely you slide from not calling lies lies to calling lies true, and maybe even believing them. As Snyder puts it: “[O]nce one has (directly or indirectly) taken part in a war on the basis of lies, one is implicated in the lies, and will have trouble casting them aside.”
So one can become implicated in lies not only by taking up arms on the basis of lies but also even by failing over time to denounce them. This is what has happened to the Republican Party as a whole. Too many of its leaders and members have failed for too many years to denounce Trump’s lies, and now they are so deeply implicated that they may never be able to get free of them. They could not denounce the Big Lie in November 2020 because they had acquiesced to all the lies from 2015 to 2020, and they cannot denounce the January 6 coup attempt because they did not denounce the Big Lie thhat it exploited. From Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy all the way through to Ben Sasse—that is, from those who pushed the lies to those who merely sat back and said nothing—they became people of the lie. They were leaders, or could have been, but now they are in the same sinking dinghy with My Pillow Man and the other crazies. They used to be serious people—at least some of them—but they threw it all away.
And then there are the many cases in the middle: people who will tell you it’s all lies but then also shrug and tell you it’s not worth condemning. I can’t say much about that position, because I don’t understand it. I don’t think it is a stable position. I wonder whether it is dishonest or cowardly or both, but people are understandably touchy about those words. They are heavy words, and we shouldn’t throw them around lightly.
Rather, for the good of the nation, we must take heed to ourselves and extend the benefit of the doubt to others; we must offer grace and a path to restoration, recognizing that we too need grace. But the way of grace has to run through truth. Reconciliation without truth is the way of despair. It would be false reconciliation. We need true, truth-based reconciliation. As others have observed, the January 6 hearings are an opening for truth and reconciliation. Several remarkable young women have shown the way. Who will follow them?
Blessed are the ones who are not condemned in what they approve—or condone, or tolerate in silence, which eventually amounts to the same thing. Acquiescence (literally, being quiet toward something) eventually amounts to participation.
Within the last few days a well-meaning new friend who saw my post about Angela Rigas and the schoolboard meeting asked me why I would call her out like that. What did I hope to gain? Did it not occur to me that I had nothing to gain and a lot to lose by doing that?
Well, for one thing, not so many people read my posts. As of right now, WordPress’s stats feature tells me that post has 485 views. That’s an outlandishly high number for me, but it’s nothing—nothing—on the broader landscape of social media and blogging. And I’m not sure how these things work, but I would not be surprised if 10 or 20 percent of those “views” are me going back to fix things. I always have to go back and fix things! I just went back and added a new postscript a few minutes ago.
But beyond that, I am perhaps not so strategic a thinker, if strategy means doing whatever it takes to avoid risks and “win.” Integrity is more important than winning. Courage is more important than winning. Truthfulness is more important than winning. It is more important to bear faithful and true witness than to win. Above all, love is more important than winning.
Many of us remember two opening phrases from the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which I think may be the greatest and most moving brief text in the history of this nation. First phrase: “With malice toward none.” This is job 1, it is absolutely essential, and it is hard. Even when we have to oppose someone, we must do it without malice, without hating them or wishing ill for them. This is a spiritual discipline, and sometimes not an easy one. The wording is negative: essentially, “don’t hate.” The negativity of that first phrase highlights its derivative nature. It is not a positive imperative but a corollary of a positive imperative, which is given in the second phrase: “with charity toward all.” As in so much of Lincoln’s most powerful oratory, the phrase is biblically saturated: “love your neighbor as yourself” + “love your enemies” = “charity [Latin caritas for Greek agapē] toward all.
But the third phrase, also vitally important, indispensable, is less remembered: “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Such a precisely calibrated phrase! Shall we unpack it? “Firmness” speaks not of vehemence, not of attack mode, not even of stubbornness; but it does not admit of flexibility. It is perseverance. It is insistence. It means not giving ground in essential matters just to get along, or to get ahead. It does not conflict with humility; humility is implied in the next phrase: “as God gives us to see the right” acknowledges that we can boast no innate ability grasp truth. Rather, whatever truth we grasp, we grasp because we have received it from a higher source. We are not ourselves that higher source. The “as” indicates that our grasp of the truth is not absolute or automatic; it is possible for us not to grasp it. If we have it, we have it as gift. It is nothing for us to be proud of. It does not make us superior.
But it is also not something that we are free to pretend we don’t have. If it has been given to us, along with it comes a solemn, binding responsibility to hold fast to it, to stand on it, to stand for it. Here we inevitably remember Martin Luther’s closing words at Worms: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” That is how it is with the gift of truth. It does not make you an infallible authority. You might in fact be wrong, because you are human: but you are not free to forsake your firm conviction because of that theoretical possibility. Your conviction does not make you anyone’s master. It makes you an absolutely bound slave. In another phrase from Luther: it makes you “a most perfectly dutiful servant” not only of the truth that has been given to you, and not only even of the God who burdened you with that truth, but “of all,” that is, of every other person in the world, including especially any who have not yet been given to see that truth.
This is servitude, but it is not servile, not craven. It is not the degradation of a flatterer, or the servility of a keeper of deferential silence. It is the servitude of one who is bound to speak, regardless of the upside or the downside, regardless of what you stand to gain or what you stand to lose. It is not heroic. It is simply your duty. As Leonard Cohen portrays his maker saying of him: “I love to speak with Leonard. He’s a sportsman and a shepherd. He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit. But he does say what I tell him, even though it isn’t welcome. He just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.’
This is why (for example) a Caledonia school board candidate who aspires to a nonpartisan calling cannot remain silent about a culture-warrior state-rep candidate when she shows up at a school board meeting, confers at length in the corridors with a school board candidate who has been presenting himself as a polished apostle of unity, and then stands up in the meeting to denounce the whole district, administrators and teachers and all, accusing them of racism and blatant extreme leftism; and when two other school board candidates are seen marching with her in the July 4 parade two months later. Silence in such a moment is not an option. Speaking up is an inconvenient obligation. Silence is acquiescence, and acquiescence is participation. It is complicity.
The most fundamental challenge that we face is not how we will deal with trans people in the wrong bathroom, or with pandemic measures that turn our lives upside down, or with accusations of racism, or with disagreements about where the school bus should stop, or with grievances about how severely your kid was punished for inadvertently bringing a knife to school, or whether that knife was over or under three inches, or even how to cover the cost increases on construction and renovation projects. These are all significant questions. But our most fundamental challenge is about choosing between truth and falsehood. Education has to be grounded in a commitment to truthfulness. Local education should be separated from national partisan politics, which is why people who are sold out to lies on the national level cannot be allowed to seize control of the schools on the basis of lies about what is happening in our schools. We cannot let people use slanders against our teachers and administrators to grab power for themselves. To the extent that they are committed to falsehood, they cannot be invited to take seats in the room where it happens, where “it” means oversight of education. I hasten to add: of the school board candidates whom I have met or heard, I do not believe that any of them are completely sold out to falsehood; but some of them are certainly compromised. We need serious men and women, people who know the difference between scholarship and provocative posturing, between taking care of business and stirring up a ruckus, between serving our children and using them as pawns in a corrosive and stupid culture war.
We have to stand for truth, and that includes naming falsehoods as falsehoods. We have to do it without malice or bitterness. But we do it without smiling or blinking, telling it like it is, or calling ’em as we see ’em, straightforwardly and publicly (for my Christian friends: the model here is Galatians 2:11, 14) and waiting for an honest answer. Lies are about grabbing power. They have to be answered with truth, which is not about grabbing power. Truth is about becoming a servant, and calling out lies is about inviting others to lay down the burden of falsehood and join together in service to truth. Not to abstract truth, and (I speak now as a Christian) not to a Truth conceived as a God up in heaven in whose service we are free to distrust, despise, and malign our fellow human beings, but to a Truth that is self-giving, which means inevitably: we must serve the actual flawed people around us, while also recognizing our own flaws. In schools, serving those around us means primarily serving the students. All of them. Regardless of their race, creed, social stratum, giftedness—or sexual orientation or gender identity. Minorities should not have to worry that we will try to obliterate them because some of us think we have inherited a doctrine that says they do not exist. Service to truth turns out to mean: love of neighbor. Even and especially the neighbor who makes you uncomfortable.
Can two walk together unless they are in agreement? a prophet once asked. I think people can disagree about many things and still walk and talk together. But people cannot disagree as to whether truth and falsehood matter and still talk together. When truth and falsehood are no longer respected categories, no conversation is possible. When attempts to understand, acknowledge, and remedy the effects of racism are labeled as racism (which is, in a nutshell, what is happening in most of the anti-CRT sophistry), when attempts to undermine or overthrow constitutional government are called patriotic, when commitment to keeping the schools nonpartisan are denounced as partisanship, truth is on the ropes, and anyone who is serious, anyone who cares, must speak up for truth and against lies. Keeping silent is not an option. We must preserve truth in order to maintain a space within which we can honestly disagree about important questions and negotiate solutions to real problems. We must not denounce people with whom we have honest disagreements, and we cannot let people who do not understand the concept of honesty waste our time, much less set us at each other’s throats and wreck the basic institutions of our society. Serious people, honest people, people of goodwill can and do disagree about important things. So we have to meet. We have to talk.
When we have agreed that truth is truth and lies are lies and that we all want the best education for all our children—then we can discuss calmly, with goodwill and mutual forbearance, and with respect for everyone’s concerns, what to do about those bus routes, pandemic measures, curricula and textbooks, building projects, and worries over numbers of students and numbers of dollars. But until we have agreed that we will speak truthfully and respectfully to and about each other, and that we will not choose as our representatives people who are unable to do either, we cannot hope for progress on anything else.
If these thoughts resonate with you, please let me know—and let your friends know, and (if you live in the CCS district) vote for me in November.
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