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"My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. For to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand."

--Martin Luther

And if the Pope could have caught him, in deepest darkest Germany, protected by princes and mountains, surely the Pope would have burned him at the stake. For in Martin Luther's time, dissent from orthodoxy was against the law -- man and God's.

Heresy got you the death penalty. And it wasn't a quick death. (Not long after, Bloody Mary would rationalize her burnings this way: A few minutes of fire in this life was better for the guilty than everlasting fire in the next one.)

When the Pope issued his order ex-communicating Martin Luther, one of the reasons was because the German monk viewed burning of heretics as "against the will of the Holy Spirit." Thus even those who criticized punishments of others were guilty of not being sufficiently servile to the rules. Does that remind you of anything?

If dissent has a long and established history in the world, then the opposition to dissent has another. And maybe more victories. For it is easier to go along to get along. Running against the stampede is much more difficult than running with it.

In modern times, to declare a position against the orthodoxy might not get you the death penalty, but it could ruin your life. Lately, people have lost their jobs. Private citizens have had their reputations destroyed in the public prints. It hasn't been pretty.

The country is going through a sickness now. Fevers, it should be noted, have purposes. The body heats up enough to destroy what's attacking it from the inside. And eventually, it becomes healthier in the process.

With the COVID-19 virus, the economic shutdown, and the civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, the country has been heating up. But as we pursue a more perfect union, with racial and social justice for all, Americans can't at the same time bow to the intolerant climate that has engulfed our culture. Which is exactly what a group of writers said in an open letter this week.

You might have heard that 153 prominent intellectuals and artists have signed that letter, soon to be published in Harper's Magazine. It is titled "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate." The writers say that protests and challenge is one thing, mob rule another:

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.

"We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.

"More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.

"Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement ... ."

Brilliant. The entire letter, including digs at President Trump, can be found here:

Those who signed the letter are people like Margaret Atwood and David Brooks, Wynton Marsalis and J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Gloria Steinem. Not exactly a bunch of right-wing wackos looking for cover.

When Tom Cotton had an op-ed published in The New York Times earlier this summer, it wasn't enough for folks to disagree with his opinions. His opinions were heretical and must be punished. And suppressed. And those who offered him space enough to argue his points must lose their jobs, too. To paraphrase Voltaire, it helps to kill an editor once in a while to discourage the others.

Dissent isn't tolerated. Not today.

In many countries, that has ultimately led to authoritarianism, persecution and executions of the innocent. But it starts out with just intolerance and shaming, which leads toward illiberal and repressive neighborhoods. Some folks might think they'd like to live there. But once you buy that property, you're stuck with it.

As Martin Luther and other philosophers over five centuries have proven, the best way to get to the truth is through discussion, dissent, disagreement and debate. But that takes courage. We're glad to see courage isn't completely lost today.

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