Unleashing the Dogs of Intolerance
Walking home from the bakery on a recent Sunday morning, I encountered a young man with two pit bull puppies. He stood in the street with them to avoid a passing Newfoundland. (Dupont Circle is a dog lover’s neighborhood.) I walked over and greeted the pit bulls and said how handsome they were. They happily jumped on me, which was not the owner’s fault since he had them leashed and I was provoking them. Their names were Blueberry and Monroe.
Dogs raised with love return it manifold. Some are high-spirited, and not everyone is as fond of them as I, so it is important to obey leashing laws. This is a compromise: There is a socially respectful middle ground between letting dogs run in packs through the streets on one hand and banning them (or particular breeds) altogether on the other.
They are descended from predators, however. Those sweet puppies slobbering on me had powerful jaws. To be honest, it wasn’t just their coats but their facial bone structure that contributed to their particular beauty.
Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” We don’t need a lot of extra effort to get into bloody conflicts; we can simply let go of the leash. I just watched an unscrupulous politician on television angrily stoking intolerance with the lie that massive voter fraud resulted in a stolen election in 2020. When we reward pleasing yet false narratives with our votes, we are just as guilty for what follows as if we had pulled the trigger.
School officials in southeastern Wisconsin have decided that they can remove politics from the classroom by censoring expressions like pronouns and flags that make people uncomfortable. (To give them credit, they are banning MAGA banners as well as rainbow flags.) If they had faced discrimination, they might realize that going about your business as if you have a right to exist is inherently political.
The trouble is that for those whose identities and views are the default, the political aspect is invisible. It is only differences which cause them discomfort that they regard as political.
How can this suppression affect children whose very existence is labeled political and undesirable, other than to cause harm? I bet those school administrators never read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
When there is no room allowed for diverse expression, we end up with right-wing mobs disrupting peaceful protests; a would-be dictator adopting police-state tactics; and insurrectionists causing mayhem and defiling the Capitol. To claim to be a patriot while opposing the right to speech and religious practices different from yours is a contradiction. Diversity is a fundamental feature of this country that cannot be eliminated even if we go after it with fire, blood, and terror. We must at least tolerate one another or die. If that is not revolutionary enough, leaflet someone else.
In the next few elections, to avoid disintegration, it is necessary for Democrats to defeat Republicans. In the longer term, we have something greater at stake than competing sets of policy preferences. We have a republic, which requires adherence to norms of mutual respect.
As long as we make room for the subversiveness of humor, there is hope. Comedy is often edgy, which brings scolds and worse. Chris Rock was slapped at the Oscars, and Dave Chappelle was tackled at the Hollywood Bowl. At the LGBT March on Washington in 1993, lesbian comic Lea DeLaria provoked a huge controversy by quipping, “We finally have a first lady we could f*ck.”
Whatever one thinks of particular performers, offending someone is unavoidable unless you are too bland to bother with—which offends me. I remember a controversy at a Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington rehearsal in the 1980s over a lyric (possibly a reference to the Virgin Mother instead of the Virgin Parent) to which a progressive member objected. On that occasion the room was with me, and I got applause by pointing out that we were the Gay Men’s Chorus, not the Inoffensive Men’s Chorus. After two decades I moved on, but the chorus is still thriving, having responded to COVID with creative online performances.
To answer the late Rodney King: no, we cannot all just get along. We are a passionate and contentious lot. There are times when we need to put a leash on it, and times when we need to fight aggression and self-destructive folly. A pivotal election is less than three months away. ▼
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at email@example.com.