Some of my earliest memories are of visiting with my great-grandparents (my maternal grandfather’s folks). They were sharecroppers for nearly two-thirds of the 20th century. Even in their dotage, they lived out in the country. I am glad of that because it exposed me to a way of life about which many of my “citified” peers have no knowledge.
Unlike many modern dabblers in fancy backyard poultry, my great grandparents kept a small coup of chicken for more practical purposes. Among their flock was a churlish little bantam rooster. If he had a name, I don’t know it. A fitting name occurs to me, but it’s not polite enough to print. This little rooster was a loud, fussy, Napoleonic bully. Although he was half the size of the other birds, he seemed to get his way in almost every exchange.
Maybe it was the early experience watching that feathery Khrushchev rule the roost with his iron claw that made me wary of submission to bluster. It is in this vein that I disdain the hijacking of American political discourse by the reactionary ultra-right. I’d likely feel pretty much the same if the radical left was similarly indulged, but they don’t seem to have their demagoguery as well defined these days.
In my own home state of Arkansas, every day of the current legislative session seems to bring about one more crackpot bill tailor-made to cloister our state further away from the mainstream of American sentiment. If these folks have their way, the Arkansas state seal will soon feature a flag-wrapped Jesus riding a dinosaur, shootin’ an AR-15 and dragging a gagged and blindfolded woman behind in chains. If they could only work in a coal-fired monster truck crushing a gay black man, it would be perfect.
Before you turn down Fox News long enough to chastise me, take a number. Once it’s your turn, please try to think up something other than “atheist,” “socialist,” “hippie,” or “ivory-tower…” I’ll try to turn down NPR long enough to respond.
Hyperbole aside, the current right-wing overcorrection goes to the heart of a problem that the United States has almost always faced. James Madison summed it up perfectly: “It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”
Alexis de Tocqueville described the issue as the “tyranny of the majority.”
Of this temptation, de Tocqueville says: “If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength.”
While these are valid concerns, I am much less troubled by a tyrannical majority than what has been described by some as “the tyranny of the minority.” In this case, the minority at issue likes to masquerade as though it were the majority.
Over 30 years ago, Hans Staub and Harry Zohn wrote about this tendency amongst bedfellows of the political extremity: “They appear to be a conglomerate of ‘mini-minorities’ held together by a tenuous bond of dubious fighting slogans.”
Staub and Zohn go on to remind us of a notable quote from the German political and social philosopher, Carlo Schmid; “[They are] sectarians by temperament… [people] who turn half-truths into absolutes.”
Like my great-grandparents’ bantam rooster, they scratch and claw, crow and puff up until the rest of us forget they’re the minority. It’s not that they shouldn’t be heard and dutifully, open-mindedly considered. It’s that we don’t owe them our submission because they’re loud and well-financed; and lastly, like that bantam, they occasionally need to be reminded that even tough old roosters sometimes get eaten.
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org