Perspective: The Nutcracker
DECEMBER 01, 1987
Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” has brought joy to Christmas audiences for almost a century.
The story of the ballet is simple. A little girl receives as a Christmas gift a comical nut cracker. In her dreams he becomes a handsome prince who carries her Off to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There graceful dancers perform to Tchaikovsky’s delightful music. When the little girl awakes, her Prince Charming has reverted once more to a comical nutcracker. But memories of the delightful dream linger Oil.
During the Middle Ages, several centuries before Tchaikovsky wrote his music, most of the people in Europe were ruled by petty princes and lived under the yoke of tyrannical governments. They were not free to move about, to work, to worship, to speak as they chose. Some unknown woodcarvers relieved their resentment of political authority by carving the faces of their rulers in caricature on comical wooden dolls or nutcrackers.
So the idea for the lovely “Nutcracker Ballet” stemmed from political satire in an un-free society. Out of adversity came joy.
One of the joys of The New York Times is the daily crossword puzzle. A recent clue, however, made me pause and think.
Clue: “Allow grudgingly.” T O – – R – T -. The answer was obvious: “Tolerate.”
The verb “to tolerate” and the noun “tolerance” typically loom large in the lexicons of men and women committed to liberty. Yet is tolerance, understood as “allowing grudgingly,” really an adequate term to capture the attitude to other people and their dreams the free society must enshrine? Does not the free society rest upon a positive attitude of respect, even reverence, for the autonomy of individual men and women that goes far beyond a willingness “grudgingly to allow” people to dream their own dreams and peacefully to act in ways they believe and hope will lead to those dreams coming true?
Hence question one: Is “mere tolerance”—a patronizing, grudging allowance of visions of the “good life” one does not share or particularly admire—the attitude to other people and their values defenders of the freedom philosophy espouse? Or is something much more positive involved?
A second and more difficult question: How does one distinguish between “tolerance” and “indifference”?
Maybe one widespread use of the word “tolerance” might highlight this problem. Over time, drug users develop a tolerance for their poison of preference. It takes ever-increasing doses of heroin or cocaine or alcohol to get them “high.” After years of abuse, they become suicidally “tolerant” of that which is destroying them.
Is it conceivable that a person committed to liberty can learn to “tolerate” viewpoints and practices which are utterly destructive of liberty—viewpoints and practices one might be tempted to describe as “intolerable”? To put it bluntly, when does “tolerance” of political theorists and activists antagonistic to liberty become de facto indifference to that antagonism and acquiescence in the erosion of liberty?
At its best, “tolerance” hints of an attitude akin to that described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who, in his immortal history of the Peloponnesian War, asserts that citizens of Athens “do not get into a state with [their] next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do [they] give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings.” That at-tirade, however, surely rests upon a positive respect for the autonomy of human beings, and a passionate commitment to defend the political and economic structures that make the exercise of such autonomy possible. “Grudgingly to allow” people to exercise freedom, or mindlessly to acquiesce in actions which erode a people’s freedom, misses the heart of the matter!
—John K. Williams