Yale, Mizzou, and the death of liberal toleration

Can a liberal democracy thrive if its citizens embrace the blatantly illiberal proposition that freedom of thought and tolerance of dissent are incompatible with human flourishing?

Students have learned intolerance through tolerance.
(Image credit: Cath Riley/Ikon Images/Corbis)

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of American culture is its tendency to deny that there is any distinctive characteristic of American culture. Our truths, no matter how sectarian, are self-evident. Our partisan convictions — all of them, from far right to far left and everything in between — all somehow boil down to a matter of common sense. Other nations are burdened by the baggage of history. But not Americans, who alone live in the crisp, bracing air of freedom, each generation beginning the world anew, fashioning its preferences, hopes, and ideals from scratch.

This, of course, is a fiction — the American national myth, maybe even more fundamental than the myth of American exceptionalism with which it is often linked. Like all myths, this one can serve positive social purposes while also managing to obscure aspects of reality that lie right under our noses. In the case of this particular myth, the danger of obscurantism is especially great because the American myth explicitly denies the presence and influence of myth on how we view the world. The more vociferously we deny the influence of any external influence on our thinking, the more we testify to the myth's power over our thinking.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.