Letting a Hundred Flowers Bloom: What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Who We Are | Opinion

There's nothing like a global pandemic to reveal our true character. Here's what we know about the American body politic as a result of coronavirus: the right loves conspiracy theories and the left likes to silence speech it dislikes.

By now, you've probably heard from an uncle or aunt that this plague was either started by the Chinese in order to defeat America, started by Anthony Fauci to make a lot of money or started by Bill Gates in order to microchip us.

In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a piece that could have been written yesterday, entitled "The Paranoid Style of American Politics," in which he argued: "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years, we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated...how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this, I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."

Clearly, not much has changed in the last half-century—many Americans continue to distrust our authorities. But if provenance must be discerned for this, perhaps we might start with the Good Book, which often instructs the reader to not trust those in authority and warns of ulterior motives and plots that the naked eye can't see. Here are some of its greatest hits:

"These people are false apostles. They are deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ. But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."

"Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves."

"Sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it."

"Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many shall come in my name saying, I am the Christ, and they will lead many astray."

"For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God's chosen ones."

"But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived."

"Don't let anyone deceive you in any way."

"For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie."

That's just a sampling of Scripture's many warnings, and these have been so internalized by many Americans that it comes through in their attitudes toward those in positions of power. What many call "paranoia" is more often just the average American responding to people and events in a way that reflects the Bible's dim view of human nature and deep suspicion that things are not necessarily as they appear to be.

But if the right has a soft spot for conspiracy theories, the left's response may be just as bad if not worse. Coronavirus is exposing too many on the left as brittle people who are unable to consider other points of view. They often either brag about refusing to even listen to countering viewpoints or otherwise seek to have such ideas banned from social media platforms.

It's a practice seen often in totalitarian countries, built upon the basic idea that the average person doesn't have the capacity to self-govern and thus must be led by those who have special knowledge and experience in order to protect them from themselves and their own stupidity.

In 1956, for a very brief period of time, one such totalitarian state decided to try something different. Inspired by an ancient Chinese poem: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend," Prime Minister Mao Zedong launched what came to be known as "The Hundred Flowers Campaign" in which he gave his people permission to openly criticize their government. "The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science," he gushed.

In response, Chinese citizens sent letters to their government, openly protested and engaged in vigorous public dialogue, but within a year, Mao had had enough, cracking down viciously on those who had dared to speak out and his brief experiment with tolerating dissent was never repeated.

But the American left is better than that and stands on the shoulders of its forebears who fought for the right to speak freely and share ideas as part of the 1960s free speech movement, confident that good ideas will rise and bad ones fall, when scrutinized with the light of truth.

Flowers blooming in Britain
Flowers blooming in Britain Tim Graham/Getty Images

It's not a unique challenge, but one that has been faced by fair-minded people for centuries. Two thousand years ago, when the disciples of a newly minted religious sect were faced with the ultimate in de-platforming (death), a wise Jewish scholar named Gamaliel addressed his fellow religious leaders this way:

"Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

Gamaliel may not be around today, but we can still learn from his wisdom that the best way to deal with ideas, conspiracy-oriented or otherwise, is not to kill, silence, shame, jail or de-platform those who advocate for them, but to consider them and calmly and rationally respond, disagreeing and disproving them when warranted and adjusting our own views if we were wrong.

For a brief period of time, the Chinese Communists had it right: The best way to find truth is to let a hundred flowers bloom and then choose which ones to display and which to use for compost. We owe ourselves and our fellow citizens no less.

Mark Joseph is a film producer, author and commentator. His film No Safe Spaces is available for streaming now.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.​​​​​