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The gravest danger to US democracy: righteous intolerance

Intolerance is a bipartisan problem, whether from the Jan. 6 insurrectionists and their apologists on the right, or ‘cancel culture’ on the left.

H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff

Michael R. Bloomberg, who served as mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013 and is the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, received the Old North Foundation’s “Third Lantern Award” Wednesday night. The following is an excerpt of the speech he delivered at the Old North Church.

As a child, I didn’t know that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860 to rally public support for the Union against secession and slavery. And I didn’t know that Esther Forbes wrote “Johnny Tremain” after hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor, to rally public support for the young soldiers and sailors going off to war. Both writers used history to inspire a new generation of Americans to believe in the spirit of 1776 and the ideals that gave birth to our nation — so that they would propel us forward.


Those ideals were captured in a single sentence that began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The truths may have been self-evident when those words were written, but how to apply them was not. The founders fiercely debated that question, and so has every generation since. That never-ending debate — over the meaning of equality, and of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — lies at the heart of the American experience. In that debate, we can see all of our national greatness — and all of our failures, too.

We can see the slave owner — and Frederick Douglass. We can see women’s subjugation — and Susan B. Anthony. We can see Jim Crow — and Martin Luther King Jr. We can see Asian exclusion — and Michelle Wu. We can see Mexican exploitation — and Cesar Chavez. We can see the assassination of Harvey Milk — and the marriage of Barney Frank. And we can hear Father Charles Coughlin’s antisemitic radio program — just as we can hear a song written by a Jewish refugee, Irving Berlin, called, “God Bless America.”


We can see and hear all of that in the argument we’ve been carrying on for 246 years about the meaning of those “self-evident” truths. We have settled many of the arguments, thankfully — never without a long and hard struggle. But many more remain — and always will.

Because this is our calling as Americans. To engage in this debate — civilly, democratically, and peacefully — not as enemies, but as fellow citizens. It is the essence of patriotism. And sadly, it is being jeopardized by one of the gravest dangers any democracy can face: righteous intolerance. More and more, there are people who look at US leaders from earlier generations and see flaws that should disqualify them from places of honor. To continue to honor them, these critics say, is to condone racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. And they believe we should cleanse our public spaces of them, and relegate them to museums.

On the other side, there are people who look at the same leaders and see virtues that should insulate them from all criticism. To call attention to their flaws, they say, is to hate America. And they are trying to cleanse schools of books that might make students feel uncomfortable if they were to learn about these flaws and other dark chapters in our history.


Each side scorns the other with righteous intolerance. But I think most of us would agree with the idea that there is a reasonable middle ground. Because the fact is: We can honor a person’s good deeds and be critical of their failings. It’s not an either-or proposition. And doing both is a matter of national survival — because a nation that shares no heroes will not long be a nation. And a democracy that demands blind devotion to heroes will not long be a democracy.

We are not a perfect country. But every time we face up to our mistakes and failures, we grow stronger — because patriotism doesn’t require perfection from the past. It requires honesty in the present.

It’s great to see the Old North Church acknowledging the fullness of its history. Not just the light of freedom in the steeple — but the darkness of slavery in the wood that surrounds us, which was logged by people held in bondage. Talking about that history doesn’t diminish the sacredness of this place. It enriches our understanding of it.

The same is true with the story of Paul Revere’s ride. Longfellow and Forbes both omit any mention of what Revere said he saw as he rode on that famous night: the skeletal remains of an enslaved man who had been executed, now hung from a tree. He went galloping past it — just as freedom would gallop past generations of Black Americans to come.


That doesn’t mean we should stop reading Longfellow’s poem. Or Forbes’s novel. It just means that we should create our own poems and novels — for our own time. Each generation is called to refresh the story of America. Not to rewrite history — but to revisit it, and recast it, and reclaim it.

And pass it down to the next generation of Americans, by teaching them about our civic foundations, cracks and all, so that they can continue the work of building a more perfect union. Sadly, there is growing evidence that we are failing to meet that responsibility — and we can see the failure on both sides of the political aisle — and again, the problem is the same: righteous intolerance.

Today, there are militant groups that hark back to the American Revolution, with names like “The Oath Keepers” and “Three Percenters.” They see themselves as the heirs of the Sons of Liberty, even though their anti-government and often racist ideologies have far more in common with the old Confederates.

While there will always be extremists in politics, before Jan. 6, 2021, we had never seen a mob storm the Capitol to block the peaceful transfer of power after an election. The truly disturbing part wasn’t what happened on that day — but in the days and months that followed.

Far too many people in the former president’s party downplayed the attack, as if it were just another peaceful protest march. Polls show the majority of Republicans today believe not only that the 2020 election was stolen, but also that the mob that stormed the Capitol was actually protecting democracy rather than attempting to overthrow it.


That is a five-alarm fire, and it is burning with the kind of fuel that can consume a democracy: anger, distrust, conspiracy. When righteous intolerance is expressed in apocalyptic terms — like “the end of liberty” and “the end of America” — it can become a justification for doing anything, no matter how extreme or unlawful.

Unless we do more to extinguish this raging fire, the flames will spread and we will again see the torches of mobs, just as we did in Charlottesville five years ago.

To be clear: The righteous intolerance threatening democracy is a bipartisan problem. Almost a decade ago, when I gave a commencement speech at Harvard, I warned against a growing intolerance for free expression and the free exchange of ideas, especially on the left. Since then, the problem has gotten worse. And it has spread far beyond college campuses.

People of all walks of life are increasingly afraid to speak their minds. They fear they might say something that could be taken the wrong way — leading them to be publicly humiliated, socially ostracized, and even fired from their jobs. This is another form of mob rule, and it shares a spirit with the mob that attacked the Capitol. Because, in both cases, the populist wings of our parties are taking a page from the Salem witch trials. They are convinced they know what justice requires based on their own morally absolute views — heretics be damned. And sadly, many elected officials in both parties quietly go along with them, to preserve their political careers.

Although neither side wants to admit it, the challenges to democracy from the right and left are closely related. The spirit of righteous intolerance that silences speakers is the same spirit that bans books. The impulse to nullify other people’s speech is the same impulse that led people to try to nullify an election. Because when people can cancel opinions, they begin to think they can cancel votes, too. In all its forms, “cancel culture” is a cancer on our democracy — and all of us in both parties need to stand up and fight it.

To stand up. To be heard. To be counted. And to be free to pursue our ambitions and express our beliefs. That has always been America’s fight — and it’s the reason why those “self-evident” truths have changed so much since 1776. Because every generation has fought to stand up — to expand the definition of equality and liberty. And time and again, we have supported other nations in their fights to stand up, including the courageous people of Ukraine, who are inspiring the world with their battle against tyranny.

Our commitment to the good fight — the fight against tyranny and intolerance in all their forms — is why America has always been the place where people come when they vote with their feet.

The legend of Paul Revere endures because the fight for freedom and equality for all has never ended. And just as we need Paul Reveres, we need leaders who hang lanterns high for all to see, and citizens who rouse from their slumbers when liberty is threatened, and young people who see that the next chapter in the story of America is theirs to write as they carry on the tradition of debating those “self-evident” truths — and putting their faith in their fellow citizens, even when they passionately disagree. Because that is the essence of democracy, and the obligation of patriotism.