“They don’t seem to be big on religious tolerance,” I said, mostly because I couldn’t think of a better response.
But of course Mr. Magundi could. “And that’s not surprising. Religious tolerance is an appalling blasphemy. If my creed is right, then of course yours is wrong. And you’re wrong in precisely the most important thing anyone can ever be wrong about. To say that I must tolerate your wretched error—and even your attempts to spread it—is not just an insult to me, but a slap in God’s face. The only possible excuse for it is that the alternative is an even greater blasphemy. The alternative is to admit a principle that, as soon as some horrible accident placed political power in your hands, would allow you to make your heresy the law of the land, and to trample my true faith into the mud. So I tolerate your religion: not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only way to keep yours from annihilating mine.”
“So, what, are you a communist or something?” Brielle asked.
“No, I’m just not an evangelical capitalist,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Capitalism brings us delightful little luxuries, and perhaps it’s open to less objection than any other economic system we’ve come up with. But it’s a compromise—an accommodation to our fallen nature. There was a time when every reasonable thinker knew that capitalism was an evil, but a necessary one if we were to have our nice things and avoid abridging our freedoms with oppressive laws. But now we insist that capitalism is a positive moral good, and I tremble for our souls.”
“He’s been begging on that same corner for three months now,” said Mr. Bates. “Obviously he’s too lazy to get a real job.”
“Then why don’t you trade places with him?” asked Mr. Magundi.
“I beg your pardon—?”
“If his life is so much easier than yours—if you work so much harder than he does—then why don’t you trade places with him? Tell him you’ll stand out in the snow with a cardboard sign every day, and he can go in to your office in the marketing department and market something. You might not make quite as much money as you do now, but you’d have an easier life, and wouldn’t that be worth it?”
“Yeah, I remember that from high school,” Brielle said. “But the thing I never understood was how a little group of Spanish soldiers could conquer the whole Aztec Empire.”
“I don’t think there’s one single reason,” Mr. Magundi replied. “It may be that the Spanish, with their horses and their gunpowder, were superior to the Americans, in the same way that a boulder is superior to the man it crushes. It’s also true that the Spanish had as their allies huge numbers of Americans who hated their bloodthirsty and tyrannical Aztec overlords and were itching for a chance to shake them off.
“But the biggest problem for the Americans may have been a certain fatal open-mindedness. The Spaniard who murdered his captives and butchered women and children as if they were cattle was absolutely certain that he was the morally superior being. He deserved to rule. It was not that he compared himself with the Americans and judged himself superior: it never occurred to him that the question could be raised. The Americans, however, did ask the question. In the story of the conquest we see a fatal period of indecision while Montezuma and his court conscientiously debated the question of whether the Spanish were in fact divine, while the Spanish gathered their allies and made themselves invincible. By the time the Americans had figured out that Cortes and his gang were just horrible little men with an insatiable lust for gold, it was too late to get rid of them.
“I don’t really know what the moral of this observation is; or perhaps I do, but I don’t want to think about it.”
“But why do people get so mad about it if it won’t even affect them?” asked Mrs. Bowman. “They’ll never see that kind of money.”
“The secret to understanding American politics,” Mr. Magundi replied, “is to understand that there are no poor people in America. The American who is not actually rich thinks of himself as potentially rich. He is certain that he will win that twenty-million-dollar jackpot, and he simply cannot bear the thought of handing ten million of it over to the government.”
“Well, then,” Brielle asked, “what do you think about Jefferson Davis, Mr. Magundi?”
“If Southerners want to celebrate their achievements in the Civil War,” Mr. Magundi replied, “I don’t think they should start with Jefferson Davis. I think it would be fair to say that the North had dithering generals and a strong president, and the South had strong generals and a dithering president. And I suppose it redounds to the honor of both sides that, in the end, the civilian power was more important for the ultimate outcome than the military power.”
“Okay, show of hands,” said Brielle. “Who else here has used the word ‘redounds,’ like, ever?”
“It seems kind of unreasonable,” Mrs. Bowman said, “but they sure get mad if you tell them that.”
“Of course they do,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “The more indefensible the position, the more vigorously it must be defended. Any soldier could tell you that. The proposition that the earth is round doesn’t need much defending; the facts are there for everyone to see, and they’re very hard to ignore. But you will find, in dark corners of the Internet and other disreputable places, people who defend the proposition that the earth is flat with all the fanaticism of a crusade.”