Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.
—John Adams, Letters to John Taylor (1814)
From “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” (1942):
The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world. . . .
The Fascists won because . . . they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.
. . . the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. . . . Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time . . . .
. . . the people who support or have supported Fascism . . . are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. . . . the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. . . .
All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done.
From the “History Doesn’t Repeat, but Sometimes It Rhymes” Dept:
In the early days of France’s Third Republic (ca. 1870 – 1890), the major political divide was between monarchists, who wanted a king again, and republicans, who favoured parliamentary democracy.
The moderate republicans, called “opportunists” because they thought new laws should be introduced only when they were expedient, wanted to avoid disruptive issues, to limit the scope of reform, and to deal with one problem at a time. “Nothing must be put in the republican program that the majority of the nation cannot be induced to accept immediately,” Gambetta had said, as spokesman of the opportunist point of view. The radicals, on the other hand, wanted to carry through sweeping reforms at once. . . .
Meanwhile, the mass of the French people remained indifferent to the republic or were becoming increasingly radicalized as a result of the government’s resistance to programs designed to improve the lot of industrial and agricultural workers. . . .
Meanwhile, in the Austro-Hungarian empire,
In 1890 militant German and Slavic nationalists combined to prevent . . . compromise on the nationalities question. In 1891 both Czech and German moderates were routed in the parliamentary elections. . . .
[Prime Minister Taafe failed] to solve the serious financial problems of the empire. . . . Instead of meeting the problem with a large-scale program of tax and financial reform, Taafe simply increased the rate of state borrowing, thereby raising the cost of servicing the national debt.
. . . [His] efforts at social reform were also ineffective. . . . Taafe’s proposals for universal suffrage and labor reform offended every vested interest in the country. . . .
The political response . . . was the spectacular growth of the Christian Socialist movement [led by Vienna mayor] Karl Lueger (1844 – 1910) [who] championed the rights of the worker, peasant, and small businessman against big business and “Jewish” capitalism. He advocated a socialist welfare state . . . where Slavs, Jews, and Protestants would not be welcome. Lueger was enormously popular and was repeatedly elected mayor of Vienna.
—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850 – 1890 (1977)
The obvious parallels with current events in Europe and the U.S. should concern all of us. The Industrial Revolution, the growth of the middle class, and the rise of Western democracies are not finished stories. Neither is the U.S. struggle over slavery and its transformation after 1865 into a struggle over racial equality. These stories continue; the history continues. Our era did not begin in 1945, or in 1900, but in Paris in 1789, and we still do not know how the political, economic, and racial issues unleashed in the French Revolution will finally sort themselves. A racist, authoritarian triumph is not out of the question.
The failure of genuine parliamentary government . . . was due . . . to the absence of the feature most necessary for its successful operation: broad agreement among the main power groups in a country about fundamental issues.
. . . The crucial power to determine government policy remained in the hands of the executive leadership. Hence the quality of leadership in every country was at all times of paramount importance.
—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850-1890 (1977)
In England and the United States, in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, in Switzerland and Canada, democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship, and has not yielded to dictatorship at home. But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.
—Will Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)
“We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”
—Mikhail Bakunin, 1867
In no particular order . . .
- Many American voters simply want to extend their middle fingers to the establishment elites. Trump is that middle finger.
- He has bought the Christian Right’s votes by packing the courts and making the overturning of Roe v. Wade possible.
- The economy is booming; many will ignorantly credit Trump for that.
- He has bought the support of big business with massive tax cuts, deregulation, and zero action to counter climate change.
- Many white people support his attacks on people of color; many more simply ignore those attacks because they just don’t care much about the problems of brown people and foreigners.
- The polls are meaningless because Trump supporters will either lie to pollsters or refuse to talk to them at all.
- Nothing has been done to counter the massive propaganda machine of Fox News, Facebook, Twitter, and the Russian intelligence services.
- Nothing has been done to stop dark money from flooding into the American election. You can bet that the Russians, the Saudis, and the Israelis will be heavily invested.
- Some of that dark money will finance a 3rd-party candidate on the left who will siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate.
- No one the Democrats nominate will be able to withstand the onslaught of lies thrown at them by Trump and the Fox News / social media propaganda machine.
Is that enough?
Here’s the problem.
Democracy depends on an informed citizenry: people who read, people who are educated about how law and government work, people who are well informed.
As democracy made slow progress in Europe and later in what became the United States, political power—most obviously, the right to vote and to hold political office—was restricted to property-owning men. The merchant class, who had wrested these rights from the nobles (after the nobles had wrested them from the kings) fiercely resisted expanding them to larger groups.
On the one hand, this sort of limited democracy ensured a relatively well-educated, well-informed cohort of voters and office holders by severely limiting the power of the poor and working classes. In the U.K., only gentlemen could become Members of Parliament, and only men could vote them into office. In the U.S., the House of Representatives was more broadly democratic, but the Senators were elected by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment changed that provision of the Constitution in 1913).
These arrangements (and others like the U.S. Electoral College) did ensure a relatively well-educated electorate. On the other hand, they were clearly undemocratic attempts by an elite ruling class—white men of property—to hold on to their power. Such men, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading thinkers of the early United States, argued that a pure or complete democracy was nothing less than an invitation to mob rule. Give every ignorant, unwashed working man a vote? Unthinkable. The new nation, they insisted, would be a republic, not a democracy, and the republic would be controlled by men of education and property. Or at least, men of property.
Since then, political power has slowly, grudgingly, and imperfectly been given to previously excluded groups—first to all white males, then to women, then to people of colour. But this expansion of political power has not been accompanied by an expansion of political education. It reminds me of the reform campaigns against the horrific mental institutions of fifty years ago, which were sometimes little more than medieval prisons for the mentally ill. Public sentiment against these institutions grew until, during the Reagan years in the U.S., they were largely abolished. The poor souls previously confined so cruelly were set free. Freedom! But freedom alone meant that most of these people ended up homeless, living on the streets, with little or no care at all.
The expansion of political power without an expansion of education and social justice has had a similar result: millions of voters or potential voters who do not read, do not understand how law and government work, and who are woefully uninformed or misinformed about the facts. Such an electorate is laughably vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues.
But it’s worse than that.
The propertied middle classes, who live in decent neighbourhoods and send their kids to decent schools, are turning into the same kind of ignorant, uninformed, easily manipulated voters that the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke feared when they warned about mob rule.
Years ago I read an essay by the Canadian-American novelist, Saul Bellow, in which he warned that the U.S. was turning into an “amusement culture.” The phrase stuck with me, and I kept noticing ways in which it seemed true. In older cultures people defined themselves by what they made or did. In the culture I saw around me, people defined themselves by what they bought. And what they bought, overwhelmingly, was entertainment. Amusement. Stimulation. Relief from boredom. I noticed, too, how closely this quest for entertainment resembled drug addiction: the dose that initially produced quite a strong effect gradually lost its power, and so had to be increased—a process whose logical end is overdose and death.
Saul Bellow’s description has now been superseded. We no longer merely live in an “amusement culture.” We now live in an addiction culture.
TV, sugar, junk food, shopping, pro sports, pop music, Hollywood movies—practically all of the major features of popular culture function as addictions. People even say “I need a fix” to explain why they must watch a TV program or eat a donut. Meanwhile, the literal addictions to alcohol and other drugs continue apace and have been multiplied geometrically in recent years by the opioid crisis.
But it’s worse than that.
The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster. Someone should write a 21st-century version of Shelley’s novel and title it Zuckerberg, or The Modern Frankenstein. The internet has not only added to our list of popular addictions such things as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also created a propaganda organ of instant, almost worldwide scope. No longer do demagogues need to print pamphlets or travel from town to town making speeches. A “tweet storm” or a series of inflammatory Facebook posts can do the work infinitely faster and better, as all of us have seen in the Age of Trump.
There are, of course, pockets of resistance. Some people do read books, exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid popular culture, play musical instruments or paint or write, go on long walks, etc. They are a small minority, vastly outnumbered by the millions of avid participants in the Addiction Culture. And since the Addiction Culture is not only self-perpetuating but self-multiplying and almost completely empowered, there’s no end in sight. No way to turn this ship around.
Which is why democracy is breaking.
If history is any guide, nothing short of a violent crisis can change the trends, and if such a violent crisis comes, it is as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. And if after all of this pessimism you think the world is worth saving and want to give it a try, I suggest that you become a teacher and inspire your students to read, think, and become well-informed.
Coda: If becoming a teacher is out of your reach, or not enough, try working on one or both of these essential problems: 1) Ensure that access to large sums of money gives zero advantage to a candidate for political office. 2) Establish an independent, publicly-funded news service that does not need to compete with commercial media.
Yes, 1875. In his novel, The Way We Live Now, Trollope presents Mr. Auguste Melmotte, a thorough-going fraud and swindler who, for a brief period, takes hold of English finance and politics. The following excerpts require no comment.
The chief crime laid to his charge was connected with the ruin of some great continental assurance company, as to which it was said that he had so managed it as to leave it utterly stranded, with an enormous fortune of his own.
The belief naturally to be deduced from such statements, nay, the unavoidable conviction on the minds—of, at any rate, the Conservative newspapers—was that Mr Melmotte had accumulated an immense fortune, and that he had never robbed any shareholder of a shilling.
“Couldn’t he draw it a little milder?” Lord Alfred made his reply almost in a whisper. “If you ask me, I don’t think he could. If you got him down and trampled on him, you might make him mild. I don’t think there’s any other way.” “You couldn’t speak to him, then?” “Not unless I did it with a horsewhip.”
Melmotte was not the first vulgar man whom the Conservatives had taken by the hand, and patted on the back, and told that he was a god.
Rumours, therefore, of his past frauds, rumour also as to the instability of his presumed fortune, were as current as those which declared him to be by far the richest man in England.
“You think Melmotte will turn out a failure.” “A failure! Of course he’s a failure, whether rich or poor;—a miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”
“And yet these leaders of the fashion know,—at any rate they believe,—that he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers. What follows as a natural consequence? Men reconcile themselves to swindling. Though they themselves mean to be honest, dishonesty of itself is no longer odious to them. Then there comes the jealousy that others should be growing rich with the approval of all the world,—and the natural aptitude to do what all the world approves. It seems to me that the existence of a Melmotte is not compatible with a wholesome state of things in general.”
“Of course Mr Melmotte is not the sort of gentleman whom you have been accustomed to regard as a fitting member for a Conservative constituency. But the country is changing.” “It’s going to the dogs, I think;—about as fast as it can go.”
Perhaps the most remarkable circumstance in the career of this remarkable man was the fact that he came almost to believe in himself.
Melmotte had been aware that in his life, as it opened itself out to him, he might come to terrible destruction. He had not always thought, or even hoped, that he would be as he was now, so exalted as to be allowed to entertain the very biggest ones of the earth; but the greatness had grown upon him,—and so had the danger.
Very much might be suspected. Something might be found out. But the task of unravelling it all would not be easy.
With the means which would still be at his command, let the worse come to the worst, he could make a strong fight. When a man’s frauds have been enormous there is a certain safety in their very diversity and proportions.
He read Alf’s speech, and consoled himself with thinking that Mr Alf had not dared to make new accusations against him. All that about Hamburg and Vienna and Paris was as old as the hills, and availed nothing. His whole candidature had been carried in the face of that.
Of course he had committed forgery,—of course he had committed robbery. That, indeed, was nothing, for he had been cheating and forging and stealing all his life. Of course he was in danger of almost immediate detection and punishment. He hardly hoped that the evil day would be very much longer protracted, and yet he enjoyed his triumph. Whatever they might do, quick as they might be, they could hardly prevent his taking his seat in the House of Commons. Then if they sent him to penal servitude for life, they would have to say that they had so treated the member for Westminster!
He never read. Thinking was altogether beyond him. And he had never done a day’s work in his life. He could lie in bed. He could eat and drink. He could smoke and sit idle. He could play cards; and could amuse himself with women,—the lower the culture of the women, the better the amusement. Beyond these things the world had nothing for him.
There was much that he was ashamed of,—many a little act which recurred to him vividly in this solitary hour as a thing to be repented of with inner sackcloth and ashes. But never once, not for a moment, did it occur to him that he should repent of the fraud in which his whole life had been passed. No idea ever crossed his mind of what might have been the result had he lived the life of an honest man.
Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life, and had so become a part of his blood and bones that even in this extremity of his misery he made no question within himself as to his right judgment in regard to them.
Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly, was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself.
A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Source: Letter to W.T. Barry (4 August 1822), in The Writings of James Madison (1910) edited by Gaillard Hunt, Vol. 9, p. 103.
“This is a monstrous act of savagery.”
“Yes, it’s terrible. But can we talk about the forces that would drive some people to such acts?”
“You want to make excuses for these animals? Outrageous! They are scum, it’s as simple as that, and they need to be exterminated.”
“Well, can we talk about how an innocent baby is turned into ‘scum’ that needs to be ‘exterminated’?”
“NO! Let’s talk about the innocent babies who were killed and orphaned by these monsters. Why are you more concerned with the killers than you are with the victims?!”
Did you imagine the killers as part of a group that you sympathize with, or part of a group for whom you have no sympathy? Go back now and re-read, imagining it the other way.
Because they know that Americans almost always elect a president who is the opposite of the previous president.
President Trump is an old, reactionary, incompetent, rather stupid white male without government experience.
Therefore President Not-Trump will be a young, liberal, competent, intelligent, female person of color with government experience.
Kamala Harris matches that description perfectly.
Hence all the drooling in the media since she announced her candidacy.
Of course, her experience is limited and her track record at least questionable, and we have little idea where she actually stands on issues. But to raise such questions would be a terrible distraction from the overwhelming, vague impression that she’s the right person for the moment, and that she’s a safe choice who can be counted on not to upset the status quo—not, in other words, to alienate the ultra-rich and the corporations and the Pentagon, as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders certainly would.
So there you are: President Harris.
Let us pray.
I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:
‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be.
Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible;
Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war.
Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice.
This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.
What if we decided that accurate information is an essential need in a democracy, just as effective police and fire services are essential in any society that values safety?
The logic here is straightforward. Democracy cannot function properly unless voters are knowledgeable and well-informed. By funding public education, most democracies acknowledge, at least tacitly, that voters must be knowledgeable. The shortcomings and confused aims of public education are obvious, but my point here is simply that education is regarded as so universally valuable that we all agree to pay taxes to fund schools. But what about the need for voters to be well-informed?
We obviously cannot rely on private, for-profit media outlets to provide accurate information to voters. Partisan propaganda is part of the problem, but the profit motive, fundamental to any business, undercuts the desires of conscientious reporters and editors to provide essential information to voters. To understand this, imagine that all police services were privatized. It would soon become apparent that the costs of policing certain areas are just too high. To protect profit margins and please shareholders, services to those areas would be reduced or eliminated.
Similarly, many news stories that would provide essential information to voters are complicated. To explain them requires long, detailed reporting and investigation. An editor or publisher who chooses to run such stories will quickly find that he or she is losing out to competitors who feature punchy, eye-catching, easy-to-understand stories that are full of “human interest.” As a result, the mass media landscape today is dominated by scandal, gossip, and superficiality. So long as journalism remains a for-profit enterprise, this is unlikely to change.
The internet has accellerated journalism’s decline, not only by increasing the competition for eyeballs but by eviscerating what was once a newspaper’s main source of income: the classified ads. Many local newspapers have simply disappeared. Others have been gobbled up by corporate outlets like USA Today. Even at local papers that have survived, reporting staffs have been cut drastically and content is mostly from national syndication. School board meetings and city council meetings go largely unreported.
How are voters expected to make informed decisions under such conditions?
There are some alternative models. Britain’s BBC, Canada’s CBC, and National Public Radio in the U.S. come to mind. All of them have flaws. Public funding is often inadequate. Political pressure is a constant threat. Fundraising through donations, memberships, and sponsorships brings another set of challenges. Keeping a publicly-funded news service both independent and accurate requires a carefully-designed system and unrelenting vigilance. None of that is easy, to say the least. But if we accept the idea that well-informed citizens are essential to a 21st-century democracy, then it follows that a free, independent, non-profit, publicly-funded press is an essential service just as much as policing and firefighting are.
A free press is an essential service.
I saw a tweet yesterday warning that Russian bots, already at work on the 2018 elections, were ginning up fears that Democrats favor open borders. Most Democrats, of course, do not favor open borders, but I do, and that puts me in a funny position. Should I make the argument for open borders, and thus risk playing into Trumpian fear-mongering, or should I just keep my opinions about borders to myself, to help increase the chances of electing an effective opposition to Trump?
Here’s another one: since the Vietnam War I have been highly critical of U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA and the FBI for their reprehensible activities, at home and abroad—assassinations, smear campaigns, illegal surveillance, torture, planting agents provocateurs among dissident groups, etc. Now, however, those same agencies are under attack by Trump for quite different reasons, and the nation is depending on them, among others, to protect it from Trump’s worst excesses. So is this a bad time to remind people that Jim Comey’s Boy-Scout version of the FBI is not quite accurate?
Or take Russia’s aggressions in Crimea and Ukraine, and the joint Trump-Putin attacks on NATO. Putin and Trump are both, to different degrees, criminal thugs who must be opposed. Is this the wrong time, then, to point out that Russia’s recent behavior is the predictable response to the decision to expand NATO during Bill Clinton’s presidency? “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia,” said George Kennan in 1998. But perhaps that history would confuse the simple good-guy, bad-guy narrative we need right now.
And then there’s the Democratic Party establishment. Arrogant, elitist, smug, blind with self-satisfaction, so easy to despise. And yet, we need them if we hope to stop Trump and the Republicans from their ongoing attacks on civil rights, the environment, public education, Medicare and Social Security, etc. The Republicans’ main tactic in the approaching elections will be to turn out their base with phony fears about the Democratic Party being taken over by leftists. So by speaking out on the issues important to us, do we progressives actually help Republican propagandists do their work? Should we all just shut up and vote Democratic?
It’s a dilemma.
Problems with the European Union? Brexit will solve them.
Problems with taxis? Uber and Lyft are the answer.
Does the Veterans Administration have problems? Just privatize it.
Problems with government regulations? Deregulate everything.
Problems with the Democratic Party establishment? Vote Trump, or vote for a third-party candidate, or just stay home.
Problems with politics in general? Just forget it.
Or maybe it would be better to . . . work on fixing the problems.
People are not always more reasonable than governments . . . [and] public opinion, or what passes for public opinion, is not invariably a moderating force in the jungle of politics. It may be true, and I suspect it is, that the mass of people everywhere are normally peace-loving and would accept many restraints and sacrifices in preference to the monstrous calamities of war. But I also suspect that what purports to be public opinion in most countries that consider themselves to have popular government is often not really the consensus of the feelings of the mass of the people at all, but rather the expression of the interests of special highly vocal minorities — politicians, commentators, and publicity-seekers of all sorts: people who live by their ability to draw attention to themselves and die, like fish out of water, if they are compelled to remain silent. These people take refuge in the pat and chauvinistic slogans because they are incapable of understanding any others, because these slogans are safer from the standpoint of short-term gain, because the truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemma, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. The counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain. And so the chauvinists of all times and places go their appointed way: plucking the easy fruits, reaping the little triumphs of the day at the expense of someone else tomorrow, deluging in noise and filth anyone who gets in their way, dancing their reckless dance on the prospects for human progress, drawing the shadow of a great doubt over the validity of democratic institutions. And until people learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves — as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government — this sort of thing will continue to occur.
—George Kennan, American Diplomacy (1951)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a constant irritant to the communist leaders of the Soviet Union until he was expelled from the country. After a brief stay in Switzerland he moved his family to Vermont in 1974, where he avoided publicity and worked on The Red Wheel, a series of historical novels tracing the end of imperial Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union. In 1978 he emerged from his rural retreat to deliver a commencement address at Harvard University.
I remember reading press accounts of the speech and thinking that Solzhenitsyn was a man stuck in the past. Like his predecessor, Leo Tolstoy, he seemed mired in a Christianity that was largely irrelevant in the modern world. Re-reading the speech today, I find passages that support those earlier impressions. He bemoans, for example, the West’s moral decadence:
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
He also condemns, not just communism, but any form of socialism:
Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death.
And in remarks on the Vietnam War, which had finally drawn to a close in 1975 after thirty years, he expresses a view that would have been welcomed by the most right-wing generals in the Pentagon.
Your short-sighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing spell; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam was a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small, Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
Such views seemed retrograde and wrong-headed to me in 1978, and still seem so to me now, even though his condemnations of the moral decadence so obvious in American culture, and of the amoral materialism of capitalism, resonate undeniably. Other portions of the speech, however, read today almost like a guide to understanding the initially puzzling sympathy for Russia that Donald Trump’s supporters express.
Distrust of Journalists
Trump has consistently trashed the media, calling every news report that puts him in a bad light “fake news” and even calling the press “enemies” of America. Here is what Solzhenitsyn says about journalism in the West:
What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If he has misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it hardly ever happens, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance. . . .
The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists made heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan “everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information. . . .
Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?
There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.
It is easy to find these themes being echoed today by Trump and his followers.
It is easy, too, to see the appeal of Solzhenitsyn’s views for conservative Christians:
However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred, or even fifty, years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.
Solzhenitsyn closes his speech by imagining a future that revives the best features of the Middle Ages without repeating the mistakes of that era:
It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more important, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the modern era.
Instead of this utopian spiritual revival, however, current events suggest a good old-fashioned upsurge of authoritarianism, tribalism, and nationalism. And so far, at least, Christian conservatives have distinguished themselves only by their craven support of a blatantly immoral leader, not least at his most racist, white-supremacist moments. “Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism,” Solzhenitsyn said in 1978. Forty years later, his dream seems even more naive while his distrust of liberal democracy is echoed far and wide—even in the Oval Office itself.
- The success myth, which tells us that anyone willing to work hard can succeed in America. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Check the flip side: if anyone willing to work can succeed, then it follows that anyone who has not succeeded has only himself to blame. As a result, most Americans either downplay or simply ignore all the other causes of poverty, refuse to pay taxes that might go to address those causes, and thus condemn themselves to living in a society with a huge, chronic gap between rich and poor, and a middle class who can’t figure out why they are having so much trouble making ends meet. (Oh yeah, it’s the illegal immigrants, the brown people, the foreigners ripping us off, etc.)
- Anti-intellectualism, deep-baked into the culture from the very beginning. Distrust education, distrust “worldliness,” just read the Bible and pray. Today, even where the religion has worn away, the anti-intellectualism persists. Book-reading is effeminate; real men don’t read books. Professors are suspicious by definition. And who needs a college education anyway? Meanwhile the cost of a college education keeps rising further and further out of reach for middle-class, much less poor, students, helping to reinforce the wealth gap (see #1). And who needs to study history? or economics? Who needs actual knowledge and understanding to vote? Any ignoramus can do it.
- The religious worship of Freedom! above all other values, leading to such absurdities as people insisting that they would rather suffer an obscene rate of gun violence than give up their freedom to own weapons of war; or that they would rather risk being bankrupted by the next illness or injury rather than give up their freedom to be ripped off by private insurance companies. Freedom to live on the streets. Freedom from the humiliation of accepting government handouts. Etc. Free! The possibility that freedom is just one ideal among many others like community, safety, health, security, compassion, etc., barely enters the conversation. The delusions about Freedom! lie so deep in that view of the world that millions of Americans actually believe, and will repeat without the slightest doubt, that “the terrorists hate us because we are free.”
- The military-industrial complex. In those irrelevant history books we can read of many a king, prince, or emperor who was infatuated with war. War they must have, but how to pay for it? Tax the peasants? They were already one bad harvest from starvation. Tax the incredibly rich nobles? They would rather overthrow the monarch than pay for his wars. And so, the only alternative (because peace was not an option!) was to borrow the needed funds. Eventually, of course, the country goes bankrupt, the ruler is overthrown, and we start over. Today the U.S. is deeply in debt and headed for bankruptcy because of its ridiculously oversized military budget. The military budget can never be cut, because that is not an option! You see where this is going.
Notice that the racist ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that permeates U.S. history, does not appear on my list except marginally (see #1). That’s because I actually think that, given demographic change (more brown people!) and generational change (“What is all this racist shit about?!?) white supremacy could suddenly flip, in the same way that opposition to gay marriage suddenly flipped. Here’s the problem: even if that happened, all four items on my list would still pertain. Because the success myth, anti-intellectualism, the worship of Freedom!, and the sacred military budget cross all classes, races, genders, and sexual preferences in American society. Those values and beliefs are not going to flip, and sooner or later they are going to bring down the empire.
I wish Hedges could write without hyperventilating, because his inflated rhetoric undercuts his message.
I share his pessimism about the future of America, but I think the reasons for pessimism go deeper than the surface-level events he lists.
- The success myth, which tells us that anyone willing to work hard can succeed in America. The flip side: anyone who has not been successful has only himself to blame, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to give such lazy sods any of my hard-earned dollars.
- Anti-intellectualism, deep-baked into the culture from the very beginning. Distrust education, distrust “worldliness,” just read the Bible and pray. Even where the religion has worn away, the anti-intellectualism persists.
- The religious worship of Freedom above all other values, leading to such absurdities as people insisting that they would rather suffer an obscene rate of gun violence than give up their freedom to own weapons of war; or that they would rather risk being bankrupted by the next illness or injury rather than give up their freedom to be ripped off by private insurance companies. Etc.
I can imagine even white supremacy finally being overturned, just as homophobia has been. But I can’t imagine the success myth, anti-intellectualism, or the religious worship of Freedom disappearing from American culture, and it seems to me that these values, deep-baked into the culture, produce most of the ills that Hedges writes about.
Read Hedges’ article here: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-coming-collapse/.
This is a great article about James Baldwin!
For Baldwin, the whole mythic racial nightmare was based upon “economic arrangements of the Western world [which] are obsolete.” People’s identities as Americans are built on fraudulent terms, terms founded upon criminal economic arrangements. Of the latter, Baldwin told Jamal, “Either the West will revise them or the West will perish.” This was especially acute for white folks gripped in “European hangovers” who fantasized that they had more in common with villagers in Scotland or Ireland than they did with black folks who had been their neighbors (and closer than that!) for generations. Economics and race were mutually reinforcing false witnesses.
With no control by readers (beyond tracking protection which relatively few know how to use, and for which there is no one approach, standard or experience), and no blood valving by the publishers who bare those readers’ necks, who knows what the hell actually happens to the data?
Link to full post: https://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/2018/03/23/nothing/
I suggest the OPB interview first, and then the Radio Open Source podcast. Fascinating and important insights.
- OPB https://www.opb.org/radio/programs/thinkoutloud/segment/mohsin-hamid-pakistan-literary-arts-portland-think-out-loud/
- Radio Open Source http://radioopensource.org/mohsin-hamid-unwritten-constitution/#
Mass surveillance is the business model, and we are being sold.
Another great interview by the invaluable Christopher Lydon on his Radio Open Source podcast. The “cult of wellness” is actually the inevitable result of making healthcare a capitalistic enterprise. It’s why the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on healthcare, with indifferent results.
Link: “Israeli government denounces Natalie Portman for pulling out of prestigious awards ceremony in protest”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—from “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats
Bridges. Airplanes. Political systems. Things fall apart.
You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.
—James Baldwin, 1961
So true. Read the latest news from Gaza and the West Bank to see what the Jews, hapless victims of that monster, Hitler, have become in Israel. Or read Dante and understand that, beyond the endlessly inventive punishments of the damned, the meaning of Hell is quite simple: our punishment is to be who we have become, people who can commit unspeakable crimes and deny them.
The Supreme Court just ruled that a police officer could not be sued for gunning down Amy Hughes. This has vast implications for law enforcement accountability. The details of the case are as damning as the decision. Hughes was not suspected of a crime. She was simply standing still, holding a kitchen knife at her side. The officer gave no warning that he was going to shoot her if she did not comply with his commands. Moments later, the officer shot her four times.
“Shoot first and think later,” according to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is what the officer did.
From November 9, 2016:
The country that slaughtered Native Americans in the name of God and freedom, that built its wealth on the cruel enslavement of Africans, that elected Andrew Jackson as its president, that stole whatever land it wanted from anyone weak enough to steal it from, that needed a catastrophic civil war to end slavery, that murdered and lynched mercilessly to protect white supremacy, that exploited immigrants, the poor, and the working class to enrich Wall Street and the industrialists, that made racism the law of the land and embedded it in its business practices and system of injustice, that applauded the Dred Scott decision, that promoted ignorance among its people and exploited that ignorance to enrich its ruling elites, that subverted democratic movements around the globe in the name of anti-communism while making billions selling weapons to dictators, that murdered the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, that sent its agents to murder and imprison anyone who seemed to pose a threat while advocating for justice, that obscenely declared making money to be the only value in life—that America has now reasserted itself under the banner of a shameless self-promoting demagogue who promises to make the country great again.
The Americans who produced the Abolitionist movement, who organized the Underground Railroad, who protested against wars of aggression from the Mexican War of 1846 to Vietnam to Iraq, who fought for women’s suffrage and equal rights, who organized labor unions, who marched and demonstrated for civil rights for African-Americans, for immigrants, for homosexuals, for dissidents and those labeled as “other” in a myriad ways, who again and again poured into the streets to endure beatings and abuse and arrest and even death to stand up for justice, who really believe in freedom and justice for all—those Americans will now once again rise to the occasion.
Here is the story of one of those Americans.
Joe Hill (1879 – 1915) immigrated to America from Sweden in his early 20s and worked as a laborer all across the country. He became active in the struggle for labor rights and achieved fame as a writer of songs for the labor movement. In 1914 he was falsely arrested on murder charges, convicted, and finally condemned to death. Before his execution by firing squad he wrote to Bill Haywood, one of the leaders of the IWW (International Workers of the World).
“Don’t waste any time in mourning,” he said to Haywood. “Organize.”
From December 2016:
When my mother died in 1978, after a long illness, it was not a surprise. It was a blessed relief for her, and for her sons. Thus I was totally unprepared for the tsunami of grief that hit me. Slowly I realized that I was not grieving the death of my mother, but the loss of my childhood. I would never “go home” again; I would never be a kid again.
All of us want unconditional love, and for most of us that means mom, and childhood. If you cut through the mishmash of conflicting political impulses behind Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again!” boils down to this: “Let’s re-wind to when I was a kid and I didn’t have all these problems and uncertainties.” Unconvinced? Try asking someone bemoaning the terrible state of the world today, “What era, exactly, would be a better age to live in than this one?” There isn’t one.
Similarly, the howls of outraged grief that follow the death of a pop star from our youth has its roots in the same nostalgia for childhood. Most of us never met these people, and had no personal relationship with them. They function as pieces of furniture decorating our younger, happier days. We are mourning the loss of our youth, not the loss of those people we never knew.
And so as 2016 winds mercifully to a close, we can perhaps find some solace in recognizing that the grieving fans of Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, etc., have more in common than they might imagine with the angry, desperate people who voted for a man who promised to make everything better again.
King was murdered fifty years ago on April 4th, 1968.
We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor—both black and white, both here and abroad.
—from “The Three Evils of Society,” an address delivered at the National Conference on New Politics, August 31, 1967.
Lest someone object that capitalism arose in Europe where there were no (or very few) black slaves, it should be pointed out that the Industrial Revolution was fueled primarily by textile factories, specifically cotton mills—and that the economic revolution produced by the cotton trade was founded on the labor of enslaved Africans working on the cotton plantations of the American South. For more on this history I strongly recommend Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert (2014).
I mean, something happened between 1905 and 1970 besides the Vietnam War. If you want to be a revolutionary and change society, you’ve got to study what happened before. I mean, Lenin and Trotsky studied the French Revolution. The French revolutionaries studied the English revolution. The Founders of the Constitution studied the Greek and Roman revolutions. And they really studied it—it’s in the Constitution, it’s in the Federalist Papers, real knowledge, real absorption and distillation of human political experience.
—from the documentary film, “I. F. Stone’s Weekly” (1973)
[Moltke, the German Chief of Staff,] did not himself, he said, attach much value to declarations of war. French hostile acts during [recent] days had already made war a fact. He was referring to the alleged reports of French bombings in the Nuremberg area which the German press had been blazing forth in extras all day with such effect that people in Berlin went about looking nervously at the sky. In fact, no bombings had taken place. Now, according to German logic, a declaration of war was found to be necessary because of the imaginary bombings.
—Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 110
The turn of events in Belgium was a product of the German theory of terror. Clausewitz had prescribed terror as the proper method to shorten war, his whole theory of war being based on the necessity of making it short, sharp, and decisive. The civil population must not be exempted from war’s effects but must be made to feel its pressure and be forced by the severest measures to compel their leaders to make peace. As the object of war was to disarm the enemy, “we must place him in a situation in which continuing the war is more oppressive to him than surrender.” This seemingly sound proposition fitted into the scientific theory of war which throughout the nineteenth century it had been the best intellectual endeavor of the German General Staff to construct. It had already been put into practice in 1870 when French resistance sprang up after Sedan. The ferocity of German reprisal at that time in the form of executions of prisoners and civilians on charges of franc-tireur warfare startled a world agape with admiration at Prussia’s marvelous six-week victory. Suddenly it became aware of the beast beneath the German skin. Although 1870 proved the corollary of the theory and practice of terror, that it deepens antagonism, stimulates resistance, and ends by lengthening war, the Germans remained wedded to it. As Shaw said, they were a people with a contempt for common sense.
On August 23 placards signed by General von Bülow were posted in Liège announcing that the people of Andenne, a small town on the Meuse near Namur, having attacked his troops in the most “traitorous” manner, “with my permission the General commanding these troops has burned the town to ashes and has had 110 persons shot.” The people of Liège were being informed so that they would know what fate to expect if they behaved in the same manner as their neighbors.
The burning of Andenne and the massacre—which Belgian figures put at 211—took place on August 20 and 21 during the Battle of Charleroi. Hewing to their timetable, harassed by the Belgians’ blowing up of bridges and railroads, Bülow’s commanders dealt out reprisals ruthlessly in the villages they entered. At Seilles, across the river from Andenne, 50 civilians were shot and the houses given over to looting and burning. At Tamines, captured on August 21, sack of the town began that evening after the battle and continued all night and next day. The usual orgy of permitted looting accompanied by drinking released inhibitions and brought the soldiers to the desired state of raw excitement which was intended to add to the fearful effect. On the second day at Tamines some 400 citizens were herded together under guard in front of the church in the main square and a firing squad began systematically shooting into the group. Those not dead when the firing ended were bayoneted. In the cemetery at Tamines there are 384 gravestones inscribed 1914: Fusillé par les Allemands.
When Bülow’s Army took Namur, a city of 32,000, notices were posted announcing that ten hostages were being taken from every street who would be shot if any civilian fired on a German. The taking and killing of hostages was practiced as systematically as the requisitioning of food. The farther the Germans advanced, the more hostages were arrested. At first when von Kluck’s Army entered a town, notices immediately went up warning the populace that the burgomaster, the leading magistrate, and the senator of the district were being held as hostages with the usual warning as to their fate. Soon three persons of prestige were not enough; a man from every street, even ten from every street were not enough. Walter Bloem, a novelist mobilized as a reserve officer in von Kluck’s Army whose account of the advance to Paris is invaluable, tells how in villages where his company was billeted each night, “Major von Kleist gave orders that a man or, if no man was available, a woman, be taken from every household as a hostage.” Through some peculiar failure of the system, the greater the terror, the more terror seemed to be necessary.
When sniping was reported in a town, the hostages were executed. Irwin Cobb, accompanying von Kluck’s Army, watched from a window as two civilians were marched between two rows of German soldiers with fixed bayonets. They were taken behind the railroad station; there was a sound of shots, and two litters were carried out bearing still figures covered by blankets with only the rigid toes of their boots showing. Cobb watched while twice more the performance was repeated.
Visé, scene of the first fighting on the way to Liège on the first day of the invasion, was destroyed not by troops fresh from the heat of battle, but by occupation troops long after the battle had moved on. In response to a report of sniping, a German regiment was sent to Visé from Liège on August 23. That night the sound of shooting could be heard at Eysden just over the border in Holland five miles away. Next day Eysden was overwhelmed by a flood of 4,000 refugees, the entire population of Visé except for those who had been shot, and for 700 men and boys who had been deported for harvest labor to Germany. The deportations, which were to have such moral effect, especially upon the United States, began in August. Afterward when Brand Whitlock, the American Minister, visited what had been Visé he saw only empty blackened houses open to the sky, “a vista of ruins that might have been Pompeii.” Every inhabitant was gone. There was not a living thing, not a roof.
At Dinant on the Meuse on August 23 the Saxons of General von Hausen’s Army were fighting the French in a final engagement of the Battle of Charleroi. Von Hausen personally witnessed the “perfidious” activity of Belgian civilians in hampering reconstruction of bridges, “so contrary to international law.” His troops began rounding up “several hundreds” of hostages, men, women, and children. Fifty were taken from church, the day being Sunday. The General saw them “tightly crowded—standing, sitting, lying—in a group under guard of the Grenadiers, their faces displaying fear, nameless anguish, concentrated rage and desire for revenge provoked by all the calamities they had suffered.” Von Hausen, who was very sensitive, felt an “indomitable hostility” emanating from them. He was the general who had been made so unhappy in the house of the Belgian gentleman who clenched his fists in his pockets and refused to speak to von Hausen at dinner. In the group at Dinant he saw a wounded French soldier with blood streaming from his head who lay dying, mute and apathetic, refusing all medical help. Von Hausen ends his description there, too sensitive to tell the fate of Dinant’s citizens. They were kept in the main square till evening, then lined up, women on one side, men opposite in two rows, one kneeling in front of the other. Two firing squads marched to the center of the square, faced either way, and fired till no more of the targets stood upright. Six hundred and twelve bodies were identified and buried, including Félix Fivet, aged three weeks.
The Saxons were then let loose in a riot of pillage and arson. The medieval citadel, perched like an eagle’s nest on the heights of the right bank above the city it had once protected, looked down upon a repetition of the ravages of the Middle Ages. The Saxons left Dinant scorched, crumbled, hollowed out, charred, and sodden. “Profoundly moved” by this picture of desolation wrought by his troops, General von Hausen departed from the ruins of Dinant secure in the conviction that the responsibility lay with the Belgian government “which approved this perfidious street fighting contrary to international law.”
The Germans were obsessively concerned about violations of international law. They succeeded in overlooking the violation created by their presence in Belgium in favor of the violation committed, as they saw it, by Belgians resisting their presence.
—From The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.
From the “Half-Right, Pretty Good” Dept.
1914: The British Ambassador to the United States, Cecil Spring-Rice,
reported that [President Woodrow] Wilson had said to him ‘in the most solemn way that if the German cause succeeds in the present struggle the United States would have to give up its present ideals and devote all its energies to defense which would mean the end of its present system of government.’
—From Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August.
Barbara Tuchman, in The Proud Tower, describes the political philosophy of Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister:
Class war and irreligion were to him the greatest evils and for this reason he detested Socialism, less for its menace to property than for its preaching of class war and its basis in materialism, which meant to him a denial of spiritual values. He did not deny the need of social reforms, but believed they could be achieved through the interplay and mutual pressures of existing parties. The Workmen’s Compensation Act, for one, making employers liable for work-sustained injuries, though denounced by some of his party as interference with private enterprise, was introduced and passed with his support in 1897.
He fought all proposals designed to increase the political power of the masses. When still a younger son, and not expecting to succeed to the title, he had formulated his political philosophy in a series of some thirty articles which were published in the Quarterly Review in the early 1860’s, when he was in his thirties. Against the growing demand at that time for a new Reform law to extend the suffrage, Lord Robert Cecil, as he then was, had declared it to be the business of the Conservative party to preserve the rights and privileges of the propertied class as the “single bulwark” against the weight of numbers. To extend the suffrage would be, as he saw it, to give the working classes not merely a voice in Parliament but a preponderating one that would give to “mere numbers a power they ought not to have.” He deplored the Liberals’ adulation of the working class “as if they were different from other Englishmen” when in fact the only difference was that they had less education and property and “in proportion as the property is small the danger of misusing the franchise is great.” He believed the workings of democracy to be dangerous to liberty, for under democracy “passion is not the exception but the rule” and it was “perfectly impossible” to commend a farsighted passionless policy to “men whose minds are unused to thought and undisciplined to study.” To widen the suffrage among the poor while increasing taxes upon the rich would end, he wrote, in a complete divorce of power from responsibility; “the rich would pay all the taxes and the poor make all the laws.”
He did not believe in political equality. There was the multitude, he said, and there were “natural” leaders. “Always wealth, in some countries birth, in all countries intellectual power and culture mark out the man to whom, in a healthy state of feeling, a community looks to undertake its government.” These men had the leisure for it and the fortune, “so that the struggles for ambition are not defiled by the taint of sordid greed. . . . They are the aristocracy of a country in the original and best sense of the word. . . . The important point is, that the rulers of a country should be taken from among them,” and as a class they should retain that “political preponderance to which they have every right that superior fitness can confer.
There was a nation in the land of America, whose name was USA; and that nation was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
And there were living therein some three hundred million souls.
The nation’s wealth was infinitely more than seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses; so that this nation was the greatest of all the nations in the world.
And its citizens went and feasted in their houses, every one his day; and sent and called for their fellow citizens to eat and to drink with them.
And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that the leaders of the nation sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for the leaders said, It may be that our citizens have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.
And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered USA, that there is no nation like it in the earth, a perfect and an upright state, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?
Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth USA fear God for nought?
Hast not thou made an hedge about these Americans, and about their houses, and about all that they have on every side? thou hast blessed the work of their hands, and their substance is increased in the land.
But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that they have, and they will curse thee to thy face.
And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that they have is in thy power; only upon the Pentagon put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.
And Satan found a man named Trump, from whose mouth spewed bullshit at every breath; and Satan said, I shall make this man President.
And Satan went to speak with the Russians . . . .
Information has, in the internet age, moved to the forefront in the arsenal of weapons used in political and international struggles. China emphasizes defensive measures in the new information wars, investing heavily in its “Great Firewall” to cut off its citizens’ access to news and ideas the government deems inappropriate or dangerous. Russia is taking the offensive approach, flooding the media with disinformation to such an extent that many people, not knowing what to believe, cease to believe anything they read or hear. The United States, with its Wild West adulation of “Freedom!” above all, has proved particularly vulnerable to the torrent of lies and half-truths found today on the internet. In their responses to this torrent, Americans resemble the young students I have taught over the years. When a claim or idea they previously believed to be true is shown to be false, they rush to the conclusion that there is no truth at all. When political leaders they had formerly admired, or at least had assumed to be honorable, turn out to have been dishonest, they rush to the conclusion that all politicians are corrupt. “The system is rotten to the core!” people exclaim, and others from all points on the political spectrum nod their heads vigorously.
But there are honest, conscientious politicians, and there is a difference between truth and lies. So how can we recover our footing? Our response to these challenges may well determine whether the democratic experiment begun in America in 1776 continues, or whether the chaos grows so pervasive that Americans decide that, for the moment at least, they would prefer more order and less freedom.
Many people wiser and more experienced than I will have ideas, but here are three to start with—none of which is original to me.
•We need to make it possible to run for political office without having to raise millions of dollars. Our politicians should not have to spend their time fundraising instead of working to solve our society’s problems, and they should never have to feel pressured by rich donors and special-interest groups who, if offended, could engineer their defeat in the next election.
•We need to reform or replace PBS and NPR so that we have a completely non-partisan, independently-funded, non-profit source of news that is freely accessible to all. Commercial media organizations depend on advertising for their funding, which means they must keep their ratings as high as possible by publishing sensational content, while avoiding the sort of “boring,” long-form material that would actually do justice to the complex political and social and economic issues before us. Dependence on advertisers also means that commercial media organizations are subject to pressure from their advertisers to avoid controversial material.
•We need to honor education, and educated people. We need to promote education as a good in and of itself, in addition to whatever economic benefits it may bring. The deeply-ingrained suspicion of education in American culture, the denigration of “intellectuals,” the insistence that ignorance and manual labor go together, and that the ignorant manual laborer is more admirable than the ivory-tower university professor—these attitudes are unsustainable in a democracy that depends on every citizen being educated, well-informed, and highly skilled in the critical thinking that, today more than ever, citizens must employ to make wise decisions in the voting booth.