It is true that a nation which practices censorship cannot remain free. To this axiom, though, I would add that a society which doesn't respond to inflammatory stupidity with universal contempt cannot remain safe for reasoned discussion, as recent political discussion clearly demonstrates.
Over the last week, the Republican Party has provided us with two test cases for that principle. First, there was Senate nominee Todd Akin of Missouri, who claimed that in instances of "legitimate rape" a woman's body would not allow her to become pregnant. While common sense should be enough to undermine this assertion, those in doubt can always turn to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which reports that a single act of rape has a 5% chance of resulting in pregnancy among victims aged 12 to 45 who aren't on birth control. This number increases to 30% if the assault occurs one or two days prior to ovulation.
That said, although Akin was quickly denounced by GOP luminaries – from party chairmen and congressmen to the presidential and vice presidential candidates themselves – amongst the people of his state, he still has a slight lead over his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill While a majority of those voters have made it clear that they don't agree with his comments, as of the moment they would still prefer putting him in power over casting their ballot for a Democrat. (It is a sign of the degree to which we have become psychologically entrenched in the two-party system that the prospect of finding a viable third-party alternative, which has happened before in Senate races, isn't even being seriously considered.)
Now we have an elected county judge in Texas, Tom Head, who in a recent radio broadcast predicted that violence would break out if President Barack Obama is re-elected:
"In this political climate and financial climate, what is the very worst thing that could happen right now? Obama gets back in the White House. No. God forbid," he began. "He is going to make the United States Congress and he's going to make the Constitution irrelevant. He's got his czars in place that don't answer to anybody."
After that, Head declared that Obama would "try to give the sovereignty of the United States away to the United Nations," leading to more than just "riots here and there. I'm talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms, get rid of the dictator."
It should go without saying that such incendiary rhetoric is morally abhorrent. Indeed, given the tempestuousness of our current political climate (to say nothing of last year's shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), there is less excuse than ever for suggesting that such violence is acceptable. Unfortunately, while the vast majority of conservatives are capable of vehemently disagreeing with Obama's policies without resorting to hysterics and zealotry, the extreme right-wing is afflicted with such severe ideological myopia that they find it impossible to perceive Obama's presidency in anything but the most irrationally hysterical terms.
And make no mistake about it, reason is not on their side. Head's fear of Obama's "czars" was long ago disproved by FactCheck.org, which pointed out not only that the term "czar" is a media appellation rather than an official designation, but that George W. Bush had far more "czars" than his Democratic successor.
The same is true of his argument that Obama wishes to subvert the Constitution, one based on a timeworn demagogical canard debunked in books like Frank Bourgin's classic The Great Challenge and my own PolicyMic editorial on the subject.
The remainder of Head's assertions, meanwhile, can be disregarded using the basic source-checking skills one is taught as a college undergraduate – after all, his claims that Obama will make Congress "irrelevant" and turn us over to the "United Nations" are entirely based on "executive orders" and other alleged administration documents that Head is conveniently unable to produce.
One of my favorite historians, Richard Hofstadter, made perhaps the most prescient observation about this paranoid style of American politics in his acclaimed 1964 essay on the subject:
"The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization... he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention."
The only hopeful signs in all of this are that (a) despite their violent rhetoric, the extremists are usually like most other bullies in that they're all bluster and no bite, and (b) established thinkers on both the left and right still overwhelmingly denounce their ideas.
The bad news, though, is that the contempt with which the extremists are being greeted has been far from universal. Millions of Missourians are still willing to cast their ballots for Todd Akin, while countless right-wingers are flocking to message boards and newspaper "Letters to the Editor" sections to support Tom Head. What we must remember is that it only takes a handful of such nuts, or even just one of them, to suddenly make American politics a frightening and dangerous place.
In the meantime, they will continue making our political debate a whole lot dumber.