“I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion: within these barriers, an author may write what he pleases; but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority which is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. . . . Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments which tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has perfected despotism itself, though it seemed to have nothing to learn. Monarchs had, so to speak, materialized oppression: the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind, as the will which it is intended to coerce. . . . The master no longer says, ‘You shall think as I do, or you shall die’; but he says, ‘You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow-citizens, if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you, if you ask for their esteem; you will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.’
“The ruling power in the United States is not to be made game of. The smallest reproach irritates its sensibility, and the slightest joke which has any foundation in truth renders it indignant; from the forms of its language up to the solid virtues of its character, everything must be made the subject of encomium. No writer, whatever be his eminence, can escape this tribute of adulation to his fellow-citizens. The majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause; and there are certain truths which the Americans can only learn from strangers or from experience.
“If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America
Like so many of Tocqueville’s observations, his comment on freedom of opinion in America seems more a prophecy than a description. In the century and a half since the publication of Democracy in America, we have given up the prudery, on which Tocqueville remarked, along with the patriotic self-applause he found so amusing. The spectrum of political opinion has also shifted radically—with shades of red predominating—but the intolerance of dissent may be greater in the 1980’s than it was in the 1830’s.
We have a free press, it is true, and almost any variety of opinion can be published, but an advocate of aristocracy will still find himself a stranger in his own land. The list of taboo subjects is extensive, and it is perilous even to mention them: racial differences in physical and intellectual aptitude, the moral status of slavery and apartheid, the demerits of female suffrage, the cost—financial as well as political—of our commitment to Israel (although the last is increasingly fashionable on the pro-Soviet left). On campus and in fashionable circles the list extends to the entire feminist agenda, homosexual rights, and anything connected with the Third World. It is not simply that some positions are accepted as right or denounced as wrong, but that a man who plays devil’s advocate by criticizing Dr. King or attacking women’s rights is read out of the human race, or at least that portion of it that includes all right-thinking Americans.
The real national pastime is not baseball but a more sophisticated game, which might be called “finding the center” or “where do you stand?” It is played by politicians, purnalists, clergymen, and next-door neighbors, by anyone who is eager to locate his own position at the center by shunting someone else to the periphery and beyond the acceptable bounds of deviation. In religious circles the game is played with predictable zeal. Mainstream denominations are OK but not the evangelicals; or, the evangelicals are OK but not the television evangelists; or, even the TV preachers are OK but not the Chalcedonian Calvinists (too apocalyptic) or the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans (too rigid).
Church is not the only place where orthodoxy is imposed. If I cut my grass twice a week in July, this means I will accept a man who cuts his grass only once a week, but anyone who lets it grow for two weeks is beyond the pale. He is causing my property value to go down. He is attracting vermin. He is obviously not a good neighbor and probably not a good American.
While this village mentality is a universal phenomenon and unquestionably a very useful form of social regulation, its influence on serious discourse is less obviously beneficial. Village life is democratic in the best sense of that abused word, because it discourages those distinctions which disrupt the social order. A man of ability who wants to become a small-town mayor had better learn to hide his light under a bushel, because eloquence or ambition are prima facie evidence of social deviance. But the life of the mind is by nature antidemocratic. Any genuine poet or philosopher must some day be willing to swim against the stream, to think his own thoughts, to speak his own words. His motto must be, “publish and be damned”—although not in the sense that Wellington intended.
The fate of an honest writer in America is something like the fate of a Russian dissident. We don’t jail or beat up those who hold extreme views; we simply refuse to publish their books or to give them tenure at a decent university. We don’t send them to Siberia, but we do send them to Coventry. We congratulate ourselves upon the free circulation of ideas, while at the same time set up a system of education whose major function is to turn out the massproduced mentalities that pay their taxes and laugh at David Letterman. It is as efficient a system of statist indoctrination as can be devised, and it works so well that few of us ever complain. Our shoulders have bent themselves to fit the yoke. John Dewey, not Lenin, was the greatest revolutionary of this century, and it is no accident that Dewey came to resent the Soviet system as a rival. He was neither the first nor the last totalitarian intellectual to take refuge in anti-Communism.
If we are still an essentially free country, it is because a sizable part of the population has built up a degree of immunity against the educational propaganda to which they have been overexposed, in regular doses of civics classes and newspaper editorials. Since education has come to be little more than indoctrination, the least-educated enjoy the most freedom of opinion. In the great affairs of state, uneducated Americans are easy enough to manipulate. Who knows the rights and wrongs of Central America policy or has sufficient technical background to judge the merits of SDI? On these faraway subjects, most of us simply don’t care enough to disagree with Dan Rather, but on stories that hit close to home, we refuse to be bullied. It did not matter that virtually every editorialist in the country told us that Bernhard Goetz was a homicidal psychopath. Anyone who had ever spent five minutes in New York or Detroit or St. Louis knew better.
In a reasonably healthy community, the people may understand very little of constitutional mechanics or international affairs. However, they are often able to size up their local leaders. Outside the major cities American voters often have a fair idea of the strengths and weaknesses of mayors, aldermen, and local legislators who may live down the block or have married a cousin. In this light, it would make more sense for congressmen and Presidents to be elected by locally chosen electors—the very system established by the authors of the Constitution. Direct democracy, as our ancestors in New England town meetings and in the parishes of the South were well aware, works best when the participants have a face-to-face acquaintance. No kind of democracy will ever work, so long as the people’s representatives spend most of their time a thousand miles away from their relatives and neighbors. The current system, for all the boast of democracy, is a test of comparative wealth and an exercise in systematic bribery.
But any discussion of indirect election will bring out the lynch mob of global democrats, because in a “democracy” the one subject that may not be discussed honestly is democracy itself. This has not always been the case. Few of the Founding Fathers of this republic viewed democracy with anything but alarm, and even 25 years ago, European rightists and their American disciples subjected democracy to a withering attack from their redoubt at National Review. To this day, they continue to trace all our woes to the administrations of Jefferson and Jackson.
What the European right refuses to recognize is the conservative strain in the Jeffersonian tradition. Neither Jefferson nor Jackson were downright levelers, and all that most Americans mean, when they boast of democracy, is that they have control over their own destinies. No one can ask to see their papers (at least, not yet), and no one can force them to revere a degenerate who happens to be rich or to bear a noble name. We are spared the indignity of “His Grace, the Duke of Xanadu,” or “My Lord Kennedy.”
Democracy in this sense has little to do with the principle of one man/one vote, direct election, or with the millennia of speeches pronounced on the subject of equal rights. Democracy in the narrow, legalistic sense of a political system is the sworn enemy of the American democracy Tocqueville described and grudgingly admired. The democratic-populist spirit cannot long coexist with procedural democracy, because the latter makes war upon all natural institutions. In the name of procedural democracy, families are torn apart by feminist legislation and degraded by homosexual propaganda; communities are disrupted by forced busing; and the exercise of religion is driven out of public life as the nation’s majority of believing Christians are compelled by law to be ashamed of their Savior’s name.
The one thing American conservatives used to have clear in their heads was the danger inherent in ideological democracy, which they traced—quite correctly—to the French, not the American Revolution. But now, like Tennessee Pentacostalists, they are beginning to measure the strength of their convictions by the ability to pick up and handle this dangerous serpent. They will go to nearly any lengths to show their willingness to reconcile democratic theory with conservative principle. What is more alarming, some conservative writers are beginning to insist that democracy—in the sense of equal rights—is the summum bonum, and they denounce anyone who declines to worship at this shrine as a gentile, one of the “lesser breeds without the law.”
There is hardly a political animal—liberal or conservative—who is not ready to endorse the American Federation of Teachers’ recent declaration that democracy is “the worthiest form of governance ever conceived,” without questioning what union boss Albert Shanker and his colleagues mean by such a statement. Much that is in the “Education for Democracy” is welcome. The signers—such luminaries as retired tennis star Arthur Ashe, former President Jimmy Carter, and the leader of the once-powerful AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland—call for a beefed-up history curriculum and greater attention to “the whole sweep of Western civilization.” But what they mean by history or civilization is a puzzle. Most of their examples are drawn from the past 40 years of American politics, and for all the details they provide, the democrats might be describing the world of Dune.
It is the mark of the true-believing democrat never to define his terms. Either you are with him or you are “an extremist” (on the right or left). The nearest “Education for Democracy” comes to explicitness is a list of democratic values: “Devotion to human dignity and freedom, to equal rights, to social and economic justice, to the rule of law, to civility and truth, to tolerance of diversity, to mutual assistance, to personal and civic responsibility, to self-restraint and self-respect” . . . but the task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you.
Who doesn’t profess respect for the rule of law or truth or tolerance? But what do they mean by social and economic justice? Ordinarily, in the Soviet empire, Nicaragua, or Scandinavia, it means nothing less than redistribution of wealth through taxation and special policies designed to help the unproductive at the expense of the productive. It means in the U.S. all the cozy legal advantages given to the AFL-CIO, which have enabled union bosses to undermine industrial productivity. It means, in short, the sort of soft-core Trotskyism that has been the mainstay of Northeastern intellectualism for so many years. “Social justice,” commented Irving Babbitt, “means, in practice, class justice, class justice means class war and class war, if we are to go by all the experience of the past and present, means hell.”
If Mr. Shanker were only putting it forward as his private opinion that democracy is the greatest little form of government in the world, one could pardon his patriotic zeal and join him in his pledge of allegiance. But he seems to expect everyone, especially teachers, to endorse it. By implication, any teacher (whether leftist or conservative) whose education is good enough to make him immune to the propaganda of John Dewey and Walter Lippmann should not be teaching in an American public school. The most obvious next step will be the regulation of private schools through some tuition tax credit scheme and, finally, the empowerment of the Secretary of Education as the curriculum commissar of the United States. Then we shall all be such good little democrats, i.e., docile subjects of the total state, that no one will have to worry about freedom of expression ever again.