We live by our opinions. While other people’s opinions are called illusions, if they pose no threat to our interests, and prejudices if they do, we call our own opinions “truth” or principles, if we are fools: “the most positive men are the most credulous,” as Pope observed, probably having scientists in mind. If we are more cautious, we prefer to speak of theories and hypotheses. However, most theories are—so far as we arc concerned—mere opinions about which we know virtually nothing. We think that a roughly spherical earth orbits around the sun, but how many of us would know how to go about testing such a theory? I am told that sailors who navigate by the stars are still operating according to the Ptolemaic theory, which is more convenient, and for most of us the sun still appears to rise in the east and set in the west. The theory of humors lies buried just beneath the surface of everyday conversation about character, while the various schools of psychology have contributed little more than a few misunderstood cliches about complexes.
We laugh at the superstitions of peasants who believe that copulating in the field ensures fertility, but peasants are less subject, than civilized men, to illusions. The peasant, like the sailor and the hunter, is forever rubbing up against the brutality of nature, whose ways he has to observe, if he is to survive. His head may be filled with magical and religious nonsense, but he is a hardheaded realist who can read the seasons in the constellations and the flights of birds. He may, upon arising, smooth out the wrinkles from his bed to prevent a witch from working magic on the impression he has left, but he knows which herbs will cure a headache and which will poison his neighbor’s goat.
We, on the other hand, live in a world of fantasies, some of which have a scientific validity that makes technology possible, while others are more ludicrous and less satisfying than sympathetic magic. The peasant teaches his children the facts and habits that will be necessary to their survival: how to speak their language and tell a story, how to make an arrow or a broom, what deeds won ancestors their glory and what brought them into disgrace. We, however, send our children to a school where they are taught theories of English grammar, theories of literary interpretation (New Criticism, Reader Response, feminist interpretation—it is all the same), and scientific theories they will never understand, much less apply. If they are told anything about their ancestors, it will only be to vilify them as a set of racist brutes who have made this earth a hell for women, children, and every color in the ethnic rainbow.
Many theories are practically harmless: what difference does it make if we are wrong about phlogiston or quantum mechanics? But many of them have the effect of clouding our minds, of blocking reality, of damaging our capacity to live in the world effectively. Grammatical theories, for example, as taught in school have excluded the teaching of English as a practical technique of expression; literary theories prevent us from enjoying fiction and poetry and from applying them to our own lives. Psychological and sociological theories—rooted in nothing more solid than verbal playfulness—may even corrupt our morals and stunt our sense of responsibility.
Among the most dangerous of our theoretical illusions are the political fantasies that can be summed up in words like democracy, equality, and natural rights; the principle of one man, one vote and the American tradition of self-government. No one who lives in the world with his eyes open can actually believe any of this, and I used to think that the American faith in democracy was one of those little mass hypocrisies that we all agree to promote as a matter of form, although we can barely keep from laughing, as Cicero says of Roman augurs taking the omens. That is what I used to think in my days of youthful idealism, but I was wrong. Americans have so little contact with reality that they are permitted to go through life like blind men who do not know they are blind.
Every once in a while, though, the country is rocked by some scandal or emergency. We call these periods a “crisis.” Now a crisis is nothing more than an event that challenges our theoretical assumptions, an occasion of doubt, a chink in the dark prison of illusion through which a feeble ray of daylight streams. When the priests of Baal could not persuade their god to start a fire, that was a crisis; when Louis XVI tried to raise taxes and was told he did not have the power to do so, that was a crisis; when murderers go free, because they have the money to hire all the lawyers in the world, that is not a crisis, because everyone knows that there has always been one law for the rich and another for the poor, but when the rich murderer is black, and the verdict—and therefore his crime—is justified by an overwhelming number of black Americans, then some Americans begin to doubt the political illusions on which the regime rests.
Our fundamental political illusion goes by the name of political equality. “America is a country where every man can grow up to be President,” and if not President, at least dogcatcher or juryman. Free elections and trial by jury were the institutional expressions of our legal and political equality. The predictable black response is: a black man can’t get justice in this country; a black man has never had political equality with whites. This is true, albeit in a trivial sense. When conservatives try to respond that four decades of civil rights legislation and welfare programs have eliminated injustice, they are not only overstating their case; they are missing the point. The poor and powerless will never have full access to the political institutions that are owned by the rich and powerful. When the disabilities of race and culture are added to the condition of poverty, the result is an underclass whose members will only make their way to the top if they possess both the motivation and the skills required by a particular society. Kidnapped by a race of athletes. Woody Allen might become court fool but never a chief.
Whatever trust we are to put in race and IQ correlations, black achievements both in Africa and in North America give little indication that black people, taken statistically en masse, possess the kinds of abilities that are required for success in the modern world, and since the 1960’s, the welfare state has constituted an additional disincentive to black achievement.
This is not to say that modern civilization is particularly admirable or that we should especially esteem the virtues of an executive or technocrat. In Joyce Gary’s Mr. Johnson, it is made very plain that the African hero—however lazy and dishonest—is, in human terms, the superior of the English colonial officials. With the temperament of an artist, Johnson could never succeed in the stultifying colonial bureaucracy. It is the dullest sort of ethnocentrism to imagine that one’s own group is a human benchmark. As Xenophanes observed in the sixth century B.C., the gods of the Thracians are red-haired and blue-eyed, while the Ethiopians’ gods are snub-nosed and woolly-haired. The gods, concluded the poet, were beyond our comprehension. Today, we extend this agnosticism to people.
Of course white “racism” contributes to black failure, but if racism means nothing worse than naive ethnic prejudice, then virtually everyone in this world is either a racist or a hypocrite. It is normal and healthy to prefer your own group to strangers, and the liberal theory that tells us that xenophobia is wrong only poisons us with self-hatred. But even in a color-blind modern society, many blacks would not do as well as, say, Sicilians or Palestinians, and the inevitable result would be a political and legal system that appeared to privilege members of the Mafia and the PLO, when it was really only the age-old story of wealth and power. Even in the most purely republican societies, there is no way of preventing a rich celebrity from buying either a public office or a verdict. If we wish to protest, we shall be told—and quite correctly—that we are simple. “Be angry at the sun for shining,” as Robinson Jeffers admonishes.
The acquittal of a wealthy entertainer, in a country that sends athletes into Congress and puts an actor in the White House, is hardly an occasion of surprise, though it must be said that in a better time, even George Washington would have been lynched out of the White House if the evidence against him were as solid as it is against Mr. Simpson. What is hard for so many middle-class Americans to stomach is the realization that they, despite the burdensome taxes they pay (a majority of our income going, one way or another, to government), constitute a legal and political underclass.
We have all known, for some time, that the children of European Americans would be discriminated against in hiring, college placement, and scholarships; that our culture and our identity were not protected by a regime that had criminalized insensitivity to race and perversity. Now we have to realize that the jury system itself—along with other Anglo-American ethnic artifacts, such as the prohibition on double jeopardy— has been corrupted by ethnic politics. The mere fact that white men were excluded in principle from the Simpson jury means that trial by jury—and all the other institutions of democracy—are dead letters. When one very distinguished foreign scholar told me that you simply could not have juries if “people like that” were admitted to them, he was not speaking primarily of race but of the caliber of humanity that serve, almost exclusively, as jurors. That one or two ordinary people might have doubts about the evidence is conceivable (especially in these days of public schooling), but 12? If the object was to give Mr. Simpson a jury of his peers, then the judge and prosecutor succeeded brilliantly: like Mr. Simpson himself, the 12 jurors represent the intellectual and moral nadir of our society; they are certain proof that democracy is not even theoretically possible in the United States.
For several years, I have been arguing that republican equality was only a temporary phase between systems based on status. In earlier times, the condition of nobility conferred both privileges and obligations, and if a nobleman was killed, the price for his life was higher than it was for a yeoman or a serf. Today, again, human lives are not equal: a child in the womb may be murdered with impunity, and a large majority of the black population apparently believes that the murder of white people is justified on the grounds of the general racism in American society. The political establishment—including the President of the United States—concurs: the same Bill Clinton who expressed outrage at the outcome of the trial of LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King reacted to the O.J. Simpson verdict by telling Americans they had to accept the outcome of a trial-by-jury.
It would be a vulgar mistake to conclude that blacks had become a privileged class within the United States. They do, of course, absorb a disproportionately high amount of welfare disbursements; they do commit over half the violent crimes in the country, and while in most of these cases other blacks are the victims, it is also true that 90 percent of the victims of interracial crime are white. But no one who visits a black neighborhood can possibly imagine that these people constitute an elite class. They are serfs, just like the rest of us, whose lives are valuable only insofar as they serve the needs and interests of their rulers.
The use of foreigners and ethnic minorities as instruments of terror and oppression is hardly a new strategy. The Turks used Albanians against Serbs and Kurds against Armenians; the English sent Hessian soldiers against the American colonists, partly because they could rely on the Germans not to feel kinship with the rebels. Aristotle and Herodotus both testify that it was the practice of ancient tyrants to champion the rights of the weak against the strong, because the strong—male property owners capable of bearing arms—posed a threat to their authority. The inability of the regime to suppress ethnic gangs—black, Chicano, Asian—would be surprising, if we did not already know that gang violence serves the interest of a ruling class that would like to establish a national police force.
Cut off from the realities of existence, Americans are susceptible to utterly fantastic theories. It is their addiction to theories that has blinded modern Americans to the realities around them. Isolated in the Kremlin, Stalin thought you could produce frost-resistant strains of wheat by exposing them to cold, and his credulity might have destroyed Russian agriculture. If a simple peasant put his trust in such a theory, he would either wise up quickly or starve to death. In simpler times, the peasants may have loved or hated their king, but they did not pretend to themselves that they had equal rights with kings and barons. If a liberal aristocrat had tried to convince a peasant of the ancien regime that he enjoyed political equality with the rich, the poor man would have been outraged at the imposture and assumed, probably correctly, that the nobleman was after his land or his daughter. Today, however, the peasant’s descendants in republican France or democratic America willingly hand over their daughters and their land to the aristocrats who have bewildered them with political fantasies. An exaggeration? How many Americans actually own, unmortgaged, any property that can give them economic security? How many of them are able to protect the chastity of their daughters either from the erotic propaganda of the public schools or from the young male predators who seduce and assault them?
Most Americans are convinced that they live in a democracy. Who can blame them? They have been told nothing else throughout their lives. Until a few years ago, there had been a remnant of conservatives who insisted that the Founding Fathers had established a republic, but the constant jeers from liberals have apparently forced them to drop this affectation. We are all democrats now, especially the Republicans.
The theory of democracy makes much of free elections, political parties, and rights legislation, but alongside of this largely irrelevant theory there is the democratic reality of American life or, at least, of some American life. In the days of Andrew Jackson, the word democracy did not always refer to a theory or system of government; it sometimes was used to designate the common people, the classes who had no particular wealth or privilege. These were no mere serfs or peasants; they were independent and substantial members of the community. They owned land and shops; they provided for their own families; they contributed to the support of their churches and to the relief of the poor; they expected nothing from the rich, including the state whose representatives were almost always wealthy, and in return they were not expected to tip their hat to the squire.
A man with a good-sized farm could consider himself a gentleman and stand for parish elections, but he generally had better things to do than to meddle in state politics or national elections. For the Jeffersonian, the deeper meaning of democracy had little connection with the nice formalities of majority rule or constitutional federalism, and everything to do with minding his own business and getting on in the world on his own terms. He might believe in the principle of majority rule, but only in appropriate circumstances: a father did not poll wife and children for their opinions on what crops to plant or what price to charge for the shoes he made, and he never dreamed that the entire population of the United States could be polled to decide whether a county might teach religion in its schools or restrict the franchise to free white male adults. For the Jeffersonians, democracy did not mean the right of a general majority to oppress particular minorities—on this point Calhoun is the truest of the Jeffersonians—but the right of the little communities of family and parish and county to govern their own affairs without the intrusion of well-intentioned (at least they always claim to be well-intentioned) outsiders.
The tragedy of American history is that the theory and the practice of democracy were at odds with each other, almost from the very first. The theory leads to the Jacobinism of Tom Paine and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom were quite willing to meddle in other people’s business in the name of democracy, while the practice of everyday democracy is exemplified in community schools, town meetings, and committees of vigilance—all of which would be outlawed by theoretically democratic legislation. Just as linguistic and literary theories undermine real language and real literature, so democratic theory has subverted the practical democracy of everyday life.
In the old democracy of America, O.J. Simpson might have been executed for marrying a woman of another race, but—setting the question of race aside—he probably would have been acquitted (if he had ever been brought to trial in the first place) for killing an adulteress. Everyday democracies do not intrude into the household, even in a case of murder, where it is an affair of family’ honor. Today, on the other hand, men are put on trial for sexually assaulting their wives, even if the couple are Christians who must acknowledge and pay what St. Paul called the conjugal debt. On the theory of equality, no one has the right to mind his own business, so long as a majority in Congress, elected by a tiny fraction of the population in gerrymandered districts, in elections whose rules are rigged by the two parties and whose outcomes are determined by bribery, is induced (bullied or bribed) to pass a bill. In many cases, Congress is not even consulted by the federal judges and bureaucrats who have taken law and public administration into their own hands.
When liberal theorists like Seymour Martin Lipset speak of democracy, they do not mean either everyday democracy or even majority rule; what they have in mind is the vast coercive apparatus of a state that regulates every moment of our private and public lives according to a theory that no one understands. When, in a classic work of obfuscation (Political Man), Professor Lipset faces, however briefly, the light of day, he concedes that high voter turnout is not necessarily a good thing for democracy. Similarly, when the Trilateral Commission in a 1975 report on The Crisis in Democracy spoke of the postwar American regime, their version of democracy was a conspiracy of elite classes that might have been dreamed up by Robert Welch:
For twenty years after World War II presidents operated with the cooperation of a series of informal governing coalitions. Truman made a point of bringing a substantial number of nonpartisan soldiers. Republican bankers, and Wall Street lawyers into his administration. . . . Eisenhower in part inherited this coalition and was in part almost its creation. He also mobilized a substantial number of midwestern businessmen into his administration and established close and effective working relationships with the Democratic leadership of Congress. . . . Both Johnson and his successor were viewed with a certain degree of suspicion by many of the more liberal and intellectual elements which might normally contribute their support to the administration. The Vietnam War and, to a lesser degree, racial issues divided elite groups as well as the mass public. In addition, the number and variety of groups whose support might be necessary had increased tremendously by the 1960’s. Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers. By the mid-1960’s, the sources of power in society had diversified tremendously, and this was no longer possible.
This report, authored in 1975 by Michael Crozier, Samuel Huntingdon, and Joji Watanuki (like Herodotus I include the names to preserve the memory of infamous men), suggests that by the 1970’s the main political problem, at least as politics is conceived of by the Trilateral Commission, was how to reconstitute the stable governing coalition of the Truman and Eisenhower years. The Vietnam War, among other things, had split the elite class, opening up American politicals to the kind of dissidence and protest that had characterized labor struggles and populist movements in the transitional period between the Civil War and the New Deal. The task ahead was to make the country (and the world) safe for “a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.”
How they did it would be a long story, but Maneur Olson has done a superb job of analyzing much of the phenomenon of interest group politics, which is at the heart of modern democratic systems. However, that they did it cannot be doubted by anyone who compares the public reaction to Vietnam with the public responses first to the war against Iraq and the war against the Bosnian Serbs. There is no substantial opposition to these lawless and brutal wars, neither from the political class that runs the government nor from the information class that controls the media and the universities. And there is not a drop of irony, when Presidents Bush and Clinton have described their dirty little campaigns in the language of global democracy.
Vast numbers of real Americans are still attempting to conduct honorable lives in the spirit of everyday democracy. To some extent we have been bought off with middle-class welfare programs that undermine the moral foundations of our independence, but many of us are doing the best we can to take care of ourselves and the people who depend on us, even under the increasingly hostile pressure of high taxes and intrusive government.
The theory of democracy is on the point of making the reality impossible, as fewer and fewer managers exert control over more and more of the world’s population and resources. If the fictive support of 250 million Americans can justify forced busing, affirmative action, the ban on school prayer, and the rights of AIDS-infected homosexual doctors to practice medicine in public hospitals, just imagine what our ruling class will be able to do when it speaks in the name of a global population of billions.