06 March, 2017

A Parable Concerning Tolerance

There once lived in a far country a people of gentle nature and perceptive understanding. They were led by a man of great vision. At great cost to his person and his standing, he decided to dedicate his life to preserving his people's established way of life. He did this because he saw in them a beauty and virtue he could find nowhere else. In a world of bigotry and darkness they were a rare light: they blindly followed no authority, nor were they were slaves to custom. No trace of the regressive attitudes so common to their countrymen could be found among them. Women were valued highly among them. Indeed, their women were cherished not only as mothers or wives, but also as honored leaders. This was a people filled with a spirit of love: all men and all women were their friends, rich or poor, young or old, saved or heathen. The poor they sustained; the needy they gave generously to (and gave to, no matter how low their background or coarse their appearance). In their eyes, to be learned was considered good. The more learned one was, they supposed, the greater service one could give. Kindness was thus their byword; brotherliness their call-sign. They disdained violence. In politics it was their part to push for less war, smaller armies, and a more peacable way of living with other humans on the Earth. This view extended into the domestic sphere: in political controversies, theirs was always the voice of tolerance. Let the downcast, the unusual, and even the heretic be allowed their natural liberties, they would say, and do not fear if they live among us. In their conception a good society was a society that let men of different beliefs and customs all live happily together. It was a self-serving position: they understood that only if tolerance ruled the day could their less enlightened countrymen be compelled to tolerate them.But this did not bother them: they were happy in the knowledge that in this case self interest aligned so well with virtue.

Their leader was not content (visionaries rarely are). The fight for toleration had been difficult. He and his allies had not been truly victorious. Their future was uncertain. He foresaw a rising tide of anger and reaction that could not be beat back. What then for his happy people? How could they secure their way of life then?

The answer was clear: separation. He would do what he could, of course, to bring about a victory for the light within the kingdom that then existed, but more drastic measures were needed. A new realm was needed. His people would secede. They would establish their own government that would protect the rights of his people. This new country would champion their values: it would be an example to the other nations of the Earth of just what humanity could achieve unencumbered by the dogmatisms and hatreds of the past. But it would be more than that. This new country would not just be an example to the world: it would be an invitation to it. His people would not just protect their own rights--they would protect and cherish the rights of any man or woman who moved there. All sects, all kindreds, all kinds of people would find a home in their homes. Love would be emblazoned in the title of her cities; toleration would be embedded in the hearts of her citizens. It would be a land without war, without fear, and without prejudice. It would be a country man (and woman) was meant to live in.

As he envisioned, so it came to be. The new government was formed. A new nation was forged. Its people lived in prosperity. In less than ten years their average worker and farmer could claim more wealth than their social betters in the old realm. They grew tall and healthy--taller than almost anyone else in the world! Their diets were nutritious, their environment was clean, and their children were happy. Onerous taxes they no longer needed, for they fielded no army, and manned no navy. Instead their leaders learned the languages of all potential enemies, and through deft diplomacy created a stable peace on all of their borders. They honored their treaties and treated all foreigners honorably. Instead of building armies, they built cities; instead of financing navies, they created vast trade empires that brought in wealth from all over the world. Amidst all of this growth and fortune, the original promise of the country was not forgotten. The people of the land did not let lucre crush their love. Nor did ambition warp the tolerance they extended to people who did not believe as they did. Under their government, freedom of conscience was protected. Heretics, communes, minorities--all were sheltered and nurtured. It was truly a land of love and liberty. 

As others saw the freedoms and prosperity citizens of this new realm claimed, the desire to experience these same blessings spread amongst the peoples of the Earth. It was not long before men and women from across the world were emigrating there. The population boomed; the capital became a multicultural entrepot, a critical node in a global trade network, her goods sold on shores thousands of miles away.

The scheme could not have succeeded more brilliantly. Now near the end of his life, the visionary could look on what he created with happy eyes. For the cause of decency and toleration he had bankrupted and exhausted himself. He had lost what influence he once had in the mighty country from which he came. The new land which he had created (filled as it was with men and women who blindly followed no one) had not always followed his plan of things. But in the final sweep of things he could be happy. He had created a new realm--a realm that aspired to embody everything he thought good in the world.

It could not last.

Far away there was another country. This realm was racked by horrors. War. Rebellion. Depression. This land had never been rich. It's soils were poor, its landscape stark. Those travelers who had misfortune to venture inside its bounds described it a land of crags, wastes, and blood. This was a marchland of great armies; the people who lived there survived on the margins, learning to eek out an existence between the ravages of roving armies on the one hand, and the extortions of the tyrannous and petty men who claimed lordship over their impoverished farms on the other. These were a people who could not afford to trust. War and hardship had turned them into a harsh, rough, and vulgar nation. Anything less would have meant their death and dwindling. Painful experience had taught to treat anyone outside of their extended family as an outsider. Their hostility amazed: in an age of general prejudice, they were famous for being filled with prejudice--even practiced bigots were shocked by their rage and xenophobia. Education was not unknown among them, but it was not treasured, nor widely spread. They sought for finer things in life than learning: drinking, brawling, and warring. So accustomed were they to this base way of life, that if they could not find an enemy to war with, they would soon descend into bloody feuds with each other.

Had the Gods purposed to make a more compelling contrast, they could not have found one. Friends of the earth, on the one hand, generous to all and intolerant of none. Scum of the earth, on the other, hostile to all and trusting of no one. They were united in one aspect only: a fervent hope for a future better than their past.

And so the refugees came. First it was a trickle. Then it was a flood. The visionary's people were aware of what was happening--how could they not be? Wherever these new people went, problems followed. Thievery attended their coming; bloodshed followed in their wake. The immigrants were not interested in assimilation. They cloistered themselves together, rejecting the friendship of the old folk. Those who did not speak their language they hounded; those who did not follow their customs were despised. Into this utopia they brought chaos--and even more worrisome, they threatened to spread that chaos outside the borders of the realm itself. None of the new people followed laws. Those who who settled near the frontier did not just break laws, but also brazenly disobeyed the realm's carefully constructed treaties. The newcomer's mere presence threatened to bring war to them all.

The elders of the realm met in council to discuss the problem. Their debates were long--and for a people of kindness, unusually heated. "Perhaps we have found the limits of toleration? The new comers do not understand our way of life," some said. "They are not capable of living it. If we do not halt their migration now, if we do not bar any more of them from entering these lands, we risk putting everything we have built into jeopardy. For the safety of my countrymen, for the peace of the realm, for the sake of the holy experiment being conducted here, whose example promises to benefit all mankind, do not let any more of these men in. They will ruin us all!"

That argument almost carried the day. Almost. At the critical moment one who remembered the visions of past years stood up. He stood to remind them all of why their realm had been founded: "We were created from a vision, and the vision was this: love and tolerance for all. We will be the friends to all. If we turn our backs now on this poor people, subject to lives of poverty and war, what shall we then be? You worry that they shall destroy our way of life. My friends, I worry that we shall destroy it before the newcomers ever get the chance. We were founded on a foundation of tolerance. We claim to be a people of tolerance. If we cannot find room for the newcomers, then we will have failed. The experiment will have ended. We will have ruined ourselves."

And thus the last chance the people of friendship had to preserve their way of live passed away. They had saved their souls, but lost their realm. Within a generation the old people and their descendants were a bare majority; within two generations they were no longer even a plurality.

As the men of the margins flooded in, all that was expected to happen did indeed happen: large parts of the realm became cesspools of senseless violence. The once peaceful borderlands succumbed to the terrors or raid and counter-raid. Warfare afflicted the realm. The special reputation for tolerance and generosity the commonwealth once claimed was forgotten. The realm was forever divided between two peoples, the barbarians on one side, and those who allowed the barbarians into their midst on the other. Never would the barbarians let their benefactors kindness go unpunished: as the centuries passed by, they broke laws, started wars, caused riots, dragged down the local economy, subsisted off the other half's taxes, and then gave the state's electoral votes to Donald J. Trump.

EDIT 6 March 2017: For those who have no idea what this is all in reference to, see here and here 


Brett said...

A troubling story, although I'm not certain what the best modern comparison would be.

T. Greer said...

The near future may give what the near past fails to provide.

Anonymous said...

If Pennsylvania was an island this parable might be meaningful, but it wasn't. There were other colonies pursuing their interests, the French pursuing theirs and a multitude of Indian tribes pursuing theirs. Most of them were at each others throats much or most of the time. I don't know much about Pennsylvania's early history but I suspect, given the eternal verities of human nature and history, that if the state was able to construct this vale of tranquility it because an accident put them into a temporarily quiet interstice amongst a number of aggressive and violent powers. The British Navy had a big hand in all this too. Not much need of a a state navy if the Royal one had your back.

T. Greer said...


You are right, the Pennsylvanians benefited from the naval protection provided by the British empire. (Though it didn't always work; early on in the colonies history pirates struck along the Delaware, leaving the Quakers divided on whether or not they could ethically fight back. It was one of the first of their schisms). They benefited in other ways than that from the time they lived--they were a late colony, and thus did not have to worry about "starving times." The warlike Indians to their North, the Iroquois, were a British ally. The colonies of Virginia and Marlyand secured their southern flank.

But that still left the West. Here they were in some ways lucky too--David Hatchet Fisher suggests in Albion's Seed that the Quakers were lucky to choose their colony in a place settled by the They were also lucky in the folks they first met were the Leni Lenape--a tribe as unusually peaceful and tolerant as the Quakers who settled among them. Add to this the Quaker insistence on paying for the land they needed fairly, their commitment to their treaties, and a few Quaker leader's attempts to learn their language, and you can understand why they were one of the few Anglo-Indian success stories of American history.

xcalibur said...

Every society must contend with a few basic questions: Who makes decisions? What are the rules? How are the rules enforced?

No matter how enlightened a society is, no matter how fair and/or minimal its laws, there will always be a few who break the social contract. Therefore, institutions must always be capable of using force in order to remain viable. Without the means of enforcing the social contract, it will inevitably break down in the face of those who oppose it, even if its opposition is an outlier minority.

I came to this conclusion from studying political philosophy, but it's directly related to this story.

Anonymous said...

Tolerance only works when the other side share your value of tolerance as well, and willing to assimilate into your value.

But if the other side has a history of proselytizing their religion, while at same time, refuse to be converted by others, then you are only inviting wolfs into your home.

Also when it come so social values, if the other side is not just extremely tolerant towards others, but also shows the same intolerance towards their own, their own women, other sects within the religion etc... and does not show any sign of improvement, why do you think they will do any better when it come to you???

Also, why would you even consider to do this, when the other side's religion is now in a stage of zealous militant revival? You know, the similar stage that your own society has went through 1000 years ago, which caused the death of countless back then, that they have a strong sense of righteousness, destiny and a sense of inevitability? And of course, they hold up their own value way above your value. Do you still choose to let them in?

You know, I actually don't mind of being converted to their point of view, if they have a more advanced culture, society, technology, social advancement etc... but what if their value is what you have -1000 years ago, do you really think this is the right way to go?

You are not being tolerant, you are being TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF.

Levantine said...

- Never would the barbarians let their benefactors kindness go unpunished: as the centuries passed by, they broke laws, started wars, caused riots, dragged down the local economy, subsisted off the other half's taxes, and then gave the state's electoral votes to ....

John F Kennedy, to Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama (twice each), with a ten percent margin for Obama in 2008, before giving the electoral votes to Donald J. Trump with a margin of 0.70%.
And this Trump guy was one of the most politically tolerant presidents in the country's history: for homosexual rights, for female rights, race tolerant ( What was the brouhaha, then? He just wanted the country to enforce its borders. And there were intolerant radicals who attacked him for that. They were intolerant of the international law in the name of tolerance. Because, perhaps, Id rules in their minds. Just as with true barbarians. Or, perhaps, because they were agents of imperialism, because immigration, as a rule, always benefits the host country: (

Anonymous said...

so much for your "tolerance" refuse to post comments by people that disagree with you. Censorship = tolerance... got it