Universal Suffrage?

One of the very thorny problems the English (and later the Americans) worried about in the nineteenth century was the question of suffrage: who should vote? The question centered around the issue of whether only those who know best should vote or whether everyone should vote. The concern expressed was whether those who are “ignorant” — i.e., uneducated or the “luckless poor” in the words of Thomas Carlyle — should be allowed to make political decisions that affect the entire nation.

George Eliot dealt with the question in her novel Felix Holt: Radical and it seemed clear from that novel (if good novels can be said to make any single position “clear”) that Eliot was in favor of extending the vote to all men regardless of whether or not they owned property. Interestingly, however, Eliot, despite her liberal leanings, did not think women should be given the vote. In fact, she said on this topic:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

Eliot’s point is worth pondering, because it touches on a point I made in an earlier post when I noted that the dawning of the Enlightenment and the increasing emphasis on human rights moved the individual from the periphery of the political arena to dead center. The new thinking, from that time on, was that the state exists for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Whereas the state had been regarded as the necessary ingredient in humanizing citizens, educating them and making clear their duties to other citizens — helping to nurture “civic virtue” — this was no longer the case.

Eliot, like Lord Acton before her, is articulating the contrary position: the state, if not all of civilization, would benefit if women, in this case, remained in the home taking care of the children, providing love, and helping them attain maturity and good character. The needs of the whole take precedence over the interests of the parts — — the assumption being that individuals benefit most when they are other-directed (rather than self-involved). Women, in her view (and the view of many, including many women, in her day), provided the moral fiber that held civilization together. If they were to engage in the hurly-burly of business and politics they would be eliminating that moral fiber and civilization would suffer as a result. While it may sound like heresy in our more advanced day and age, it is worth pondering.

But in the main, the question whether or not all men should vote was itself a knotty problem and one that divided such thinkers as John Stuart Mill, on the one hand, and Thomas Carlyle, on the other. Mill was the liberal’s liberal and was active in trying to convince the English that all citizens should vote, regardless of sex or property ownership. Carlyle, on the other hand, despite his deep empathy for the “luckless poor,” fought mightily against the tide that would usher in universal suffrage. He did not think those without adequate education and a vested interest in the decisions of Parliament should be allowed to vote for membership in that august body. Indeed, he took a deeply paternalistic attitude toward the poor and uneducated and was convinced that they needed wise people to govern them and care for them. As he noted in his essay on Chartism:

“The Working Class cannot any longer go on without government; without being actually guided and governed; England cannot subsist in peace till, by some means or other, some guidance and government for them is found.”

Bear in mind that Carlyle was very much aware of what had happened in France during the “reign of terror” and was also aware that the working poor in England were being totally ignored by Parliament; they felt frustrated and were leaning increasingly toward violence. But still, this strikes the modern reader as reactionary nonsense, even though it is also well worth pondering.

In some sense the issue today is, as they say, academic. Universal suffrage has arrived with all its problems — as Americans recently discovered in the election of 2016. But the question worth considering is whether those who are ignorant of politics and have no interest in anything outside of themselves should be allowed to vote — or, indeed, whether they should be allowed to govern!

So the central issue remains: the question of the priority of the individual over the state, rights over responsibilities: whether or not this is a good thing. The radical change in our thinking on this subject has had deep effects on the political landscape and indeed on civilization itself; we have become convinced that the individual is foremost and the state is a mere handmaid that exists to serve the needs and wants of the individual. The ancients, as I have noted in prior posts, would disagree heartily, as would Thomas Carlyle. But the question is whether they are wrong or whether they might have been correct.

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Majority Rules

It is an odd assumption that a majority of men and women will invariably reach the correct decision in matters sometimes too complicated for a single person. Consider the vote — a recent vote in the United States being a case in point. The sitting president received less than the majority of the popular vote (which was remarkable) but a majority of the those in the Electoral College, supposedly of sounder minds, decided to hand the nuclear codes to a man just stupid enough to want to use them.

There has been much discussion over the years about the wisdom of trusting a majority of folks when perhaps one person might be better positioned to find the correct answer. I, for one, would prefer not to ask a majority of my fellows whether or not my appendix need be removed. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill both warned against the “tyranny of the majority,” the tendency of large numbers of people to sway the remaining few to vote their way. Consider the vote to invade Iraq when the minority was swayed by a vocal majority to engage in what was clearly an immoral action: the invasion of another Sovereign nation on the pretense that they had “weapons of mass destruction” when, in fact, they had none. There is certainly such a thing as the persuasive force of majority opinion. I dare say we have all felt it at one time or another.

A number of people, including Plato, thought the majority nothing more than a collection of uninformed twits. After all, the majority of those determining Socrates’ fate voted for his death. Another to express his disdain for the rule by majority is Thomas Carlyle who considered the minority to be nothing more than a number of like minds all of which might very well be empty. Specifically, regarding the push toward “universal suffrage” in his time, he said:

“. . .can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a [majority] vote in favor of the worthiest man or thing? I have always understood that true worth, in any department, was difficult to recognize; that the worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have a poor chance. John Milton, inquiring of Universal England what the worth of Paradise Lost was, received for answer, Five Pounds Sterling. [Railroad tycoon] George Hudson, inquiring in like manner what his services on the railways might be worth, received for answer, Fifteen Hundred Thousand [pounds sterling]. Alas, Jesus Christ asking the Jews what he deserved, was not the answer Death on the [cross]? — I feel it almost a shame to insist on such truisms.. . .  The mass of men consulted upon any high matter whatever is as ugly an exhibition of human stupidity as this world sees.”

This sentiment was strongly echoed in the 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter in his study of democratic citizenship when he noted that

“And so it is with most of the decisions of everyday life that lie within the little field which the individual citizen’s mind encompasses with a full sense of its reality. Roughly, it consists of the things that directly concern himself . . . for the private citizen musing over national affairs there is no scope for his will and no task at which it could develop. He is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, and this is why he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way that he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

Consider: the majority is nothing more, nor less, than the collective opinion of individuals many (if not all) of which are based on nothing more than gut feelings. If one person can be mistaken then a thousand persons can also, collectively, be mistaken. No one put the point more forcefully than Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable study of Democracy in America:

“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 change their character 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 would never grant to any number of them.”

The problem is, of course, if we don’t trust the majority then whom do we trust? Plato wanted an enlightened despot and Thomas Carlyle also wanted an heroic authority figure who embodied both wisdom and strength, enlightened enough  to keep his eye always on the common good and never to succumb to the temptations of power and self-interest. History has shown that such people are rare — though some, like Marcus Aurelius, have appeared from time to time. In any event, the notion of an enlightened despot may well be the dream of romantics and idealists detached from the real world.

But the real question is why we should trust a majority of men and women when we do not trust even one or a few?

Reactionary Nutter?

I have come late in life to Thomas Carlyle to whom I have been referred many times and had yet to meet. I look forward to the adventure — forewarned that he is a Romantic, Tory reactionary who was far too enamored of authority and not nearly progressive enough for folks like his contemporary John Stuart Mill. At the same time, we are told, he was a seminal thinker and generally regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century — regarded by Charles Dickens as “the man who knows everything.”

Growing up poor himself, Carlyle had a deep and genuine concern for the “luckless poor,” though at the same time he fought vigorously against the notion that all men should be allowed to vote (a fight many in America might join today given recent political events). He felt the mass of men required an education before granted the vote and spoke out in favor of universal education. His main targets during his early years were mechanism, materialism, and utilitarianism: the tendency to reduce all of our experience to quantities that could be measured and weighed. [How much is that painting worth?  I know I like it and they say it’s worth millions. Is this action the right one? Will it lead to greater good for greater numbers of people in the long run?]. Those who are familiar with “analytics” in sports will recognize the tendency today to reduce, say, the management of a baseball team to calculations that predict outcomes — and eliminate anything that smacks of “intuition,” including experienced managers!

In any event, this “impressionistic historian” wrote what many regard as the definitive history of the French Revolution — which he considered the harbinger of things to come. He worried that if the poor were not cared for (hence his authoritarianism) England would suffer the same sort of violence France had recently undergone. He also wrote many seminal works in social criticism, some of them a bit hysterical, warning his contemporaries of the dangers of the coming age of industrialism and mechanism. He waxed poetic when he noted:

“I, for my share, declare the world to be no machine! I say that it does not go by wheel-and-pinion ‘motives,’ self-interests, checks, balances; that there is something other in it than the clank of spinning-jennys, and parliamentary majorities; and, on the whole, that it is not a machine at all! — The old Norse Heathen had a truer notion of God’s world than these poor Machine Skeptics: the old Heathen Norse were sincere men. But for these poor skeptics there was no sincerity, no truth. Half-truth and hear-say was called truth.”

Folks like Anthony Trollope joined him in his concerns about England’s breakneck journey into the unknown future. George Eliot also took him seriously and at times pined for slower times when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

This is not to say that Carlyle didn’t realize the tremendous advantages of mechanization and industrialism to the coming age and the blessings of modern science. As he said in Signs of the Times:

“What wonderful accessions have thus been made, and are still making, to the physical power of mankind; how much better fed, clothed, lodged, and, in all outward aspects, accommodated men now are, or might be, by a given quantity of labour, is a grateful reflection which forces itself on every one.”

So what’s the problem? The problem is, as Carlyle saw it, the danger to the human soul, the loss of a sense of mystery and wonder, the “noble and the divine.”

“Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. . . . . Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, or for Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions turn on mechanisms and are of a mechanical character.”

The question, according to Thomas Carlyle, is who is to be master: the machines or those who operate them? And while the reference to machines may be somewhat dated — the target of the barbs of Cervantes a hundred years or so before Carlyle — the question today might be in reference to the electronic toys that so fascinate and captivate us and threaten to steal our collective soul. Who is to be master? That is the question.

Carlyle was a Calvinist and his pessimism was born of a fixed idea of the inevitability of events and the inability of human beings to determine their own fate. But, at the same time, he fought hard to waken his fellow Englishmen to the dawning of a New Age of machines and calculation, of the tendency to level down and reduce everything to what can be measured and weighed, the loss of “the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all of which have a truly vital and infinite character.” His determinism did not lead him to quietism. On the contrary, he grew hoarse warning his contemporaries of the dangers they were about to face and the need to draw back, proceed with caution, and look around them as they walked through a door that might well lead them into utter darkness.

I look forward to reading more of  what this enigmatic man had to say. He may not have known everything, as Dickens insisted. But he was alive to what was happening around him and something of a prophet — and in any event a very wise man.

Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!

Levelling Down

In 1962 Gabriel Marcel wrote in Man Against Mass Society that as the world trends toward “mass man” (i.e. a homogeneous human population resulting from a growing tendency to be alike) human minds would tend toward mediocrity. There would be a leveling down, not up. The “A” grade would no longer connote excellence, it would be the norm — as indeed it has. Excellence becomes average and average is supposed to represent excellence. Indeed, excellence will no longer be recognized and even despised, as will “greatness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this coming, in America at least, when he visited in 1831 and listened to what people had to say and what sorts of things they thought were important. He concluded that:

“I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they would 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. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

Poets like Shelly also saw this happening around him and fought to maintain his individuality — and others, following his example, became individuals just like Shelly.

But, more to the point, the “freedom” that Tocqueville mentions here is identical with the freedom sought by so many Americans today, namely a freedom from constraints, a freedom from those who would be “in your face.”  But a freedom from constraints is not freedom, it is chaos (by definition). Real freedom requires constraints — as John Locke pointed out long ago and anyone who ever tried to get on a crowded tow-lift at a ski slope can attest.

What Tocqueville is speaking about, of course, is the American tendency to keep up with the Joneses, as we say. If they buy a camper, we must buy one as well — perhaps even one slightly larger than theirs. But the tendency to seek out others who think like ourselves is a part of what Tocqueville is concerned about as well. We avoid reading or listening to those whose opinion differs from our own so we hear only those things that want to hear, those things that reinforce our own preconceptions and make us feel wiser. This is happening on our college campuses, as I have mentioned in previous posts, and it is very worrisome indeed. We fear difference and we find comfort in sameness. Even those who should be champions of difference in the name of cultural diversity.

But the thing about the leveling down of the human mind that is most distressing is that comes at a time when keen minds are absolutely necessary to deal with the many problems of a global nature that humanity faces in our day and age. And the fact that we have a mediocre mind in the White House who has attracted a plethora of mediocre minds around him who all deny such things and global warning, beat their collective chest in the face of international threats, and cut into the budgets of social programs to further develop the military and build walls the keep different people out — all of this is very disturbing indeed.

A democracy, especially, requires open minds  meeting together to seek and try to find the best solution to complex problems. All sides of every issue need to be heard and taken seriously — and not dismissed with a wave of the hand and a sneer. As John Stewart Mill told us years ago, we don’t know anything about an issue until we have heard from those who disagree with us as well as those who agree with us.

But all this is the result of the leveling down of our minds in a mass culture that relies on the entertainment industry to tell us what to like and dislike — and what to buy. In a commodified culture, like ours, the trend toward a leveling down is even more pronounced than it might be otherwise, because the messages drummed into our heads hourly all tell us to be like everyone else. “Buy this coat: it’s very popular.” Be “liked” on Facebook — or else. It does not encourage difference and individuality and while those who seek to be different are at times over the line, they are to be admired — even if they do so in much the same way.

A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.

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.

Reading Great Books

I received an email from a friend and former college classmate recently that highlighted a program initiated by several major universities, including Stanford University, that will involve young people in reading and discussing great books during the Summer. This was encouraging in an age that seems determined to dumb-down the curriculum at our schools until no pupil is left behind — a system that is certain to turn out numbskulls and leave the bright students totally bored and stupefied by their electronic toys. The notion that our kids simply cannot do tough intellectual work is utter nonsense; it sells them short and is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we expect very little from them we will get very little in return. The fault is ours, not theirs.

I taught at several colleges in two of which I required students, including so-called “marginal students,” to read selected great books and was constantly delighted by the results. But unfortunately there are two problems with expanding such programs into our schools and colleges. To begin with, we don’t think that our kids can read challenging books, even though the books were written in the first place for anyone who could read and not just for supposed experts. As John Stuart Mill said, we won’t know what is possible for people until we ask them to do the impossible. Having young people read great books is not impossible, however, as is shown from my own experience and from numerous experiments around the country — including a remarkable program run in a women’s prison in New York a few years back in which a dozen women were encouraged to read and discuss great books; they not only took to the work like ducks to water, they all turned their lives around and several of them went to college and got their degrees after they were released from the prison. A similar program has been introduced in three prisons in Tennessee that is very promising indeed and there are other such programs sponsored by the Great Books Foundation involving prison inmates and former inmates as well. One can, after all, select works carefully with the reader in mind (hint: read Candide, skip Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason).

The second problem is that there are growing numbers of intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities who deny that “greatness” can be defined and reject the notion that any books are great. Instead they prefer the ones they themselves have read that promote whatever political agenda they happen to have up their sleeves at the moment. But, as my friend “Jots” has noted in a recent blog, “greatness” can be defined. She defines it as “ageless and recognized in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and forms.” Indeed. I would only add that greatness can be recognized by those who have been exposed to it and know whereof they speak. And whether or not you accept Jots’ definition, we have the testimony of Robert Pirsig who noted in his seminal book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that value (and greatness) can easily be recognized when we encounter it — if we know what we are looking for. Many of those who reject the notion of greatness in books and the fine arts have never bothered to look closely at what they reject, if they looked at all. But there are books that are “ageless,” and these books can be read by anyone who is willing to make the effort. And they are great because they enliven the minds of those who read them.

One problem that stubbornly remains, however, is the fact that fewer and fewer of our young people read at all and are rapidly losing the ability to read and comprehend what they do read. Thus the reading of books, great or not, becomes an ongoing challenge. But it can be met. Take it from me. Or take it from the folks at Stanford University and other such places of higher learning who are placing the books before young, inquiring minds and expecting great things. And, I predict, they will be pleased by the results. As I said, we sell our kids short — and we should really take the toys out of their hands and replace them with books.

Behind The Curtain

I made a suggestion in a reply to a comment on a recent post that might be offensive to some readers. But since I have very few readers, I doubt that this is much of a problem. I refer to the comment I made that many faculty members in our colleges and universities have agendas they regard as more important than the central agenda of the college itself, which is to educate young minds. I want to expand on that comment since it might be of interest to some who wonder just what goes on behind the curtain that surrounds our ivory towers. If it doesn’t interest anyone, that’s OK, because I simply want to indulge myself.

There are two aspects to this comment. To begin with there is the plain fact that a great many faculty members have political agendas and they defend these agendas openly by insisting that there have always been political agendas in higher education and they think it’s about time theirs was attended to. This, of course is bollocks because the reading of “dead, white males” (as many of these people characterize the tradition they pillory) does not comprise a political agenda, since none of these dead men agreed with one another about much of anything. Further, those who defend women’s studies on these grounds ignore the fact that Plato, for one, insisted that women could be philosopher kings in his Republic; Thomas Moore, taking a page from Plato, insisted that his daughter be fully educated, knowing she was the equal of any man he knew; and John Stuart Mill wrote the definitive treatise on women’s rights in the nineteenth century and had a wife who collaborated with him in writing his major works on ethics and logic. Further, the classical tradition includes a number of important and brilliant women. It can hardly be said that these men or women had any agenda at all, political or otherwise.

But there is the second aspect of my claim and that centers around the fact — based on my own experience, my talks with others in teaching, and my reading of works by thinkers who have found the subject noteworthy — that very few faculty members in our colleges and universities ever stop to think about what it is they are doing. This is not odd, of course, since very few of us stop to think why we are doing the things we are doing, but it is of special concern in higher education because in the 1960s when the students themselves started to ask why they were required to take “irrelevant” courses such as history their professors had no answer:  they had never given the question a thought. As a result, “irrelevant” courses such as history, philosophy, mathematics, and foreign language and what used to be the core of required courses at the center of our colleges and universities were seriously weakened or  scrapped altogether.

What remained of the core requirement, if anything did remain, became the battleground for college professors who worried about their jobs. Indeed, to my knowledge, this was the only reason in the minds of a great many college professors for keeping a core requirement at all. After all, if there were core requirements, then all students would have to take them and this would build up enrollments in their own subject areas that otherwise might be so thin the administration might start to ask “why? and folks would be out of jobs. So what remained was a giant pizza pie that the faculty all approached in curriculum committees and faculty meetings with knives keenly sharpened and a determination to get as large a piece as possible. This resulted in a plethora of disjointed core requirements consisting of scads of courses (sometimes dozens) in certain broad areas, such as “critical thinking,” and “language arts,” the “social sciences,” and even “science.” I recall a faculty member of my institution insisting that computer science be allowed as an option in the science requirement because it is a science. This showed how ignorant that man was about the nature of science and once again proved the maxim that it is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. In this case, the faculty voted him down. But in countless other instances I witnessed the faculty pass on courses that simply didn’t belong because they wanted to guarantee that when it was their turn the faculty would support them — no matter how weak their argument. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!

In any event, the core requirement has taken a beating over the years and it is what remains, in most colleges and universities, of the liberal arts which are designed to liberate young, poorly trained minds and help them gain freedom from narrow vision, ignorance, and prejudice. Add to this the business of the hidden agendas and things started to go down hill rapidly. Since most faculty members haven’t thought about what higher education ought to be doing, and since they are well-trained in their own academic discipline, they began to increase the major requirements in their own areas of interest and push for courses in areas they regarded as politically important (such as women’s studies and black studies), keeping a sharp eye on the piece of pizza they had carefully carved out for themselves. They saw their jobs as dependent on an increased number of major students; they desperately wanted students to take courses in their pet areas to push their own political agendas; and they knew how vital it was to hang on to the piece of pizza they fought so hard for in the faculty meetings. The fact that none of this has anything whatever to do with education never entered their minds. What mattered is the preservation of their jobs, pushing hard for those subjects they themselves found most interesting or politically important, and hanging on to that precious piece of pizza. All of this at increasing cost to students.

I realize I have made a number of generalizations and while I also realize that there are exceptions to those generalizations I do think my seemingly outrageous claims will hold up to scrutiny, generally speaking.  Unpleasant though it might be, this is, generally speaking, what is hiding behind the curtain at many, if not most, of our colleges and universities, and it might explain why I go on and on about what should be taking place.