Democracy and The Poor

In his truly remarkable novel The Princess Casamassima Henry James describes for us the trials and tribulations of a young man, illegitimate son of a prostitute and raised by a poor seamstress who pledges himself to the cause of the revolution that many were convinced was coming to England in the middle of the nineteenth century. The young man, a gifted bookbinder, is conflicted, but pledges his life to the cause only to meet and become close friends with the heroine of the novel who opens to him a world he had never known existed. As a consequence, he  begins to wonder if the revolution is worth the cost of the treasures of Western civilization. The long novel recounts the growing uncertainties of the young man’s early commitment to the revolution as, ironically, the Princess becomes increasingly committed to that ideal.

We might do well to recall that at the time England saw 10,000 people thrown each year into debtors prison because of their inability to pay their way — despite the fact that they were supposed to pay for their upkeep while in prison! It was, surely, a classic case of “Catch 22.” As many as 90,000 in London alone were estimated to be among the poor and destitute at that time. In any event, the hope of young men, like our hero, was the coming of socialism and democracy (the two were not carefully distinguished in the minds of such people). James describes for us the ruminations going on in the mind of his young hero, Hyacinth:

“What was most in Hyacinth’s mind was the idea, of which every pulsation of the general life of his time was a syllable, that the flood of democracy was rising over the world; that it would sweep traditions of the past before it; that, whatever it might fail to bring, it would at least carry in its bosom a magnificent energy; and that it might be trusted to look after its own. When democracy should have its way everywhere, it would be its fault (who else’s could it be?) if want and suffering and crime should continue to be ingredients of the human lot. . . . [at the same time] he was afraid the democracy wouldn’t care for the perfect bindings [of books] or for the finest sort of conversation. The Princess gave up these things in proportion as she advanced in the direction she had so audaciously chosen; and if the Princess could give them up it would take very transcendent natures to stick to them.”

The Princess, married to a man she had come to deeply dislike and rejecting a way of life she detested, was at this point committed even more deeply than Hyacinth to the revolution that was sure to come. She had given up her worldly wealth and lofty position and moved to the squalor of Soho surrounded by the poor she was determined to help release from their poverty. But the changes in her way of looking at and speaking about the world were palpable, and this is what the narrator refers to in this passage. But what is more interesting is the hope of such people for their deliverance at the hands of a democracy and an economic system that held up to them possibilities beyond their wildest imaginings.

We might also recall that de Tocqueville had visited America in the early part of the nineteenth century and had written his classic study of Democracy In America which was in large measure a contributing factor to the hopes and dreams of young idealists like our hero who were convinced that “the flood of democracy was rising over the world.” More to the point, it would erase poverty and crime and help humankind achieve true equality.

One does wonder, as we can now look back from our lofty perspective, what could possibly have gone wrong?


Tyranny of the Majority

One of the more captivating notions to come out of de Tocqueville’s truly remarkable book Democracy In America was the notion of the tyranny of the majority. Coincidentally, John Stuart Mill arrived at pretty much the same notion at about the same time and the two men became close friends and mutual admirers. The exceptional Lord Acton — whose name (are you ready for this because it will be on the Mid-Term?) was John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton — agreed with de Tocqueville and Mill about the tyranny of the majority, though he thought they were both all wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of Democracy. More about that below.

de Tocqueville convinced the French government to fund his trip to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to examine our prison system. Instead he examined our system of democracy because he was convinced this was the direction that all Western nations were headed and he wanted to be in a position to shout warnings if necessary and to help the process along if possible. But after visiting a number of New England town meetings he came away with a distrust of the majority rule — and with good reason. He said, among other things:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not changes their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

This is, surely, one of the most eloquent statements ever set down regarding the weaknesses of majority rule — which can indeed become tyrannical just as much as a single powerful King, perhaps even more so. But de Tocqueville didn’t stop there; he made an attempt to explain the psychology behind the tyranny of majority opinion:

“. . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. . . .I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and free discussion as in America.”

We do not often find ourselves in decision-making groups where the majority votes on large issues. Not as a rule, certainly. But we can recall the discussion and vote in our Congress not long ago over the question of the invasion of Iraq in which the wave of emotion swept the floor and the yeas had their day and the nays were derided as “unpatriotic” if not “cowards” or “treasonous.” We might call it “peer pressure” these days, but the force of the will of the majority can be powerful indeed; it is not always enlightened or even reasonable, and the voice of dissent is often silenced and refused a hearing when the majority is in full voice.

I mentioned Lord Acton above, and he tended to agree with de Tocqueville and Mill about what Acton called the “despotism of democracy.” In fact, he noted that:

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.”

This devout Catholic witnessed first-hand the tyranny of the majority when in 1870 he fought unsuccessfully the attempts of Pope Pius IX to institute the doctrine of papal Infallibility. As pressure from Rome increased one after another minority Bishop succumbed to the “latent power” of majority opinion until the doctrine was approved. Earlier, in discussing the American Civil War, he analyzed the despotism of democracy noted above. Like many Englishmen, especially among the wealthy classes, his sympathies were on the side of the South. He was convinced that the Northern states were not so much interested in the emancipation of the slaves as in subjecting all of the South to the authority of the national government and reducing the population to a single, undifferentiated mass. He was convinced that a plurality of nations within a single civil state was to be preferred to a homogeneous group of people who all looked, dressed, and thought alike.

Just as majority opinion tends to silence dissent, the movement toward Nationalism, toward a single (isolated?) geographical and political unit, as Acton saw it, was a movement toward homogeneity, toward like-mindedness; he fought it in the name of pluralism. As he noted:

“A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State that labors to neutralize to absorb or to expel [different races] destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include [different races] is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

In a word, the tendency to silence dissent, to follow the “latent power” of the majority opinion to a single point of view — thereby silencing the minority, the attempt to build walls and send certain peoples away from this country, are all insidious and in direct opposition to the open and free discussion of ideas and the freedom of opinion that are the warp and woof of this nation. Without this sort of freedom there can be no real freedom whatever. And this appears to be where we are headed at the present moment. It is time to call “foul” and consider where we are headed.

Mill On Tolerance (Revisited)

I wrote this several years ago, but it seems timely and apt, especially as we are entering an election year and there is so much fodder out there that needs to be worked through to make an informed decision. The key point here is that we don’t know anything unless we try to know as much as possible about an issue looked at from two (or three) sides. How many of us do that today when dialogue seems to degenerate into a shouting match at the drop of a pin and folks seek to score points rather than listen and learn from one another?

Those who agree with me are the brightest people I know. Those who disagree with me are obviously stupid. Of course, I don’t really listen to the latter group, but I must be right. In a word, even though I would like to think I am a tolerant person I strongly suspect that I merely ignore opinions I do not tend to agree with and I suspect that is not what tolerance is all about. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that tolerance may simply be another form of indifference. He’s right, of course. In our culture today we all pride ourselves on tolerance but we may, indeed, simply be indifferent. There is much we don’t care about, and that includes someone else’s point of view. I know it’s true about me and I strongly suspect it is also true about others.

To be truly tolerant, it seems to me, one needs to listen closely to another point of view even knowing it to be totally opposed to our own before we decide whether to reject it or not. I recall the words of John Stuart Mill in his superb essay “On Liberty.” Mill said:

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.”

Let’s take a closer look at tolerance, taking our clue from Mill, even though he doesn’t use the word “tolerance” in the passage I quoted. Let’s say I’m listening to a political rant and after a few minutes I decide the guy is a wacko right-winger (or left-winger — they’re both wacko at the political extremes) and I stop listening to him. In a sense I am being tolerant. I haven’t bought a gun, followed the man into an alley, and shot him — as some in our society seem inclined to do. But I have certainly not been tolerant in the sense of the term Mill is speaking about. de Tocqueville is right, I am being indifferent: I don’t really care what the guy is saying.

Tolerance would require that I listen carefully and weigh what the man says — as Mill suggests. After that, I would then have to work through my own “take” on the issues being discussed and sort out those which seem to be the soundest in light of what I just heard. This might require changing my own beliefs, which is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, it is so difficult we don’t do it very often, if at all. That’s why we tend to dismiss those who disagree with us with a wave of the hand and, usually, a label of derision: he’s a “wacko,” or a “nut-case,” or whatever. Labeling the opposition is simpler than listening to him and taking what he says seriously. It makes things easier for us. So we embrace opinions that are most comfortable.

Tolerance is a very difficult virtue to practice, as Mill’s comment makes clear. We have come to the point in our society where we are bombarded by so much noise posing as personal opinions it is hard, if not impossible, to listen closely. So we don’t listen at all much of the time. We just filter it out. Or we half-listen and then dismiss, especially if we sense ahead of time that the person doesn’t agree with us.

And this is why we have become rather closed-minded and intolerant of others’ opinions. Not only don’t they fit in with the opinions we hold dearly and are reluctant to part with, there are simply too many of them out there and we need to protect ourselves from the bombardment. So we congregate with others of like opinions and watch and read those who agree with us, convinced that these are the bright ones — thereby firming up our own convictions. But, if Mill is right, and I think he is, we do this to our own detriment, because we lose out on the opportunity to learn something and have our minds grow and mature. I need to keep this in mind next time I dismiss the “wacko” on the TV trying to sell me the latest political panacea or farmland in the Everglades. Just because he’s wacko doesn’t mean he can’t be right.

Why Great Books?

Many years ago when “Rosemary’s Baby” was the talk of the country the movie appeared in the town of Marshall near where I live. The local paper was full of letters to the editor from local zealots who were urging people to stay away from the movie — including at least one who proudly admitted that he hadn’t seen it himself and was determined not to do so. That same sort of closed-mindedness is reflected in the outspoken criticism by a great many college teachers of literature in this country who are promoting postmodern literature and trashing the “great books” which they insist are the work of “dead, white, European males” and thus not worth reading. Like the letter-writer, a number of them have apparently not even bothered to read the books they condemn! One might expect closed-mindedness of small-town zealots but one would hope for a broader view from supposedly educated people who are responsible for opening the minds of the students in their charge.

The criticism of the great books tends to center not only on those who wrote them but also on the notion of “greatness” which, it is said, cannot be attributed to any works — except in an arbitrary manner. I have always disagreed with this claim, since there are criteria of greatness which some works of art and literature exhibit and the majority do not. Great books, especially great works of literature, are exceptionally well written, with a rich vocabulary, vivid descriptions, engrossing plots, and characters we recognize immediately. Further, they are rich with insights into the human condition and often contain profound reflections on the world we share in common. They are not just “stories;” they exhibit a kind of intuitive truth that simply cannot be found anywhere else. They make us pause and reflect. And there are great books in philosophy and science which may not be as well written, but have provided us with some of the seminal ideas that have helped shape our world, not to mention our nation’s Constitution — and even brought about revolutions.  Such books are classics in the sense that they are seminal and they ring true today no less than they did when they were written, no matter who wrote them. They are the books that have been read by the exceptional minds that have preceded us; we seem determined to marginalize them — which is our mistake.

I have blogged about the wisdom of George Eliot so I won’t repeat here what I have already said. But Eliot was a superb writer, recognized in her day as one of the brightest and wisest of women who spent her declining years responding to letters from innumerable readers seeking her advice. But there are a great many authors of novels and plays who have exhibited remarkable insight and wisdom as well — and humor, such as Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI, Part II where we are told “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Or this, in King Henry V, “The saying is true, ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”‘  And also Edith Wharton, whose sometimes biting satire leaves one’s head spinning — as in this description of a type: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of those ladies who pursue Culture in bands as though it were dangerous to meet it alone.” Wharton, who knew whereof she spoke, was able to strip the New York upper crust if its pretense and leave it shivering in the cold.

From his remarkable novel, Lost Illusions, I add Balzac’s characterization of a fop who “always behaved with distant politeness, cold, a little supercilious, like a man not in his proper place and waiting the favors of power. He allowed his social talents to be guessed at, and these had everything to gain by remaining unknown.” Pure genius (even in translation!). Like so much humor, these descriptions have the ring of truth in them. We all know women like Mrs. Ballinger, for example. But there is also the disturbing observation about the rapaciousness of humans by writers like the extraordinary Joseph Conrad, writing in a second language, in Heart of Darkness:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . . The Eldorado Exploring Expedition . . .was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

I hesitate to cite passages in the great works of philosophy, but one cannot do better than reflect on the early dialogues of Plato to which John Dewey said the rest of philosophy was mere footnotes. And there is Alexis de Tocqueville who visited this country for nine months in the early nineteenth century and then wrote the most perceptive book on Democracy in America that has ever been written, showing us all our warts and flaws along with the remarkable strengths that arose from the experiment we were then engaged in, such as the following: “I think that the democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery.” Or Mark Twain who had so many penetrating insights into the human condition: “The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” And so it goes.

The pages of great books are filled with such insights and well crafted, profound words that cannot but change those who read them and take them to heart. And that is what ultimately comprises greatness in art: the power to change those who come into contact with it, a power it does not lose as the years pass. Great books, like great art, invite and reward repeat visits. Thus, those who would displace the works of Dead White European Males on the grounds of political correctness had better make damned sure that after reading those works they can find words of equal power and worth in the writings they substitute, because it is a zero-sum game. For every work chosen one is ignored.