Tag Archives: Alexis de Tocqueville

The History of Fear, Part 3

29 Sep

Today, in my third post on the intellectual history of fear, I talk about Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. (For Part 1, Hobbes on fear, go here; for Part 2, Montesquieu on terror, go here.)

I suspect readers will be more familiar with Tocqueville’s argument. But that familiarity is part of the problem. Tocqueville’s portrait of the anxious conformist, the private self amid the lonely crowd, has come to seem so obvious that we can no longer see how innovative, how strange and novel, it actually was. And how much it departed from the world of assumption that, for all their differences, bound Hobbes to Montesquieu.

For more on all that, buy the book. But in the meantime…

• • • • •

There are many who pretend that cannon are aimed at them when in reality they are the target of opera glasses.

—Bertolt Brecht

Just fifty years separate Montesquieu’s death in 1755 from Tocqueville’s birth in 1805, but in that intervening half-century, armed revolutionaries marched the transatlantic world into modernity. New World colonials fired the first shot of national liberation at the British Empire, depriving it of its main beachhead in North America. Militants in France lit the torch of equality, and Napoleon carried it throughout the rest of Europe. Black Jacobins in the Caribbean led the first successful slave revolution in the Americas and declared Haiti an independent state. The Age of Democratic Revolution, as it would come to be known, saw borders transformed, colonies liberated, nations created. Warfare took on an ideological fervor not seen in over a century, with men and women staking their lives on the radical promise of the Enlightenment.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

But more than any particular advance, it was a new sense of time and space that distinguished this revolutionary world from its predecessor. Montesquieu came of age in the twilight of Louis XIV’s sixty-three-year reign. The uninterrupted length of Louis’ rule left a deep impression on The Spirit of the Laws—of time standing still, of politics moving at a glacial pace. The Age of Democratic Revolution set a new tempo for political life. Jacobins in France announced a new calendar, proclaiming 1792 the Year One. They tossed out laws bearing the traces of time immemorial. They took new names, affected new manners, and voiced new ideas. History books still register this extraordinary compression of time, with dynasties rising and falling within months and years rather than decades or centuries. Even Kant, with his obsessive punctuality, reportedly could not keep up with the pace of events: on the morning in 1789 when he heard of the fall of the Bastille, he stepped out the door for his daily walk later than usual.

Politics not only accelerated; it thickened, as amateurs rushed on stage, demanding recognition as political actors in their own right. Prior to the Age of Democratic Revolution, political life was a graceful but delicate dance between king and court. But suddenly the lower classes were given the opportunity to make, rather than watch, history. According to Thomas Paine, politics would no longer be “the property of any particular man or family, but of the whole community.” With plebeian recruits jostling for space, “the soil of common life,” Wordsworth noted, grew “too hot to tread upon.”

As late as France’s Revolution of 1848, even the most liberal of aristocrats would feel squeezed by this inrush of new bodies. On the morning of February 24, just after the Parisian insurrections had begun, street demonstrators confronted Alexis de Tocqueville, soon to be minister of foreign affairs, on his stroll to the Chamber of Deputies.

They surrounded me and greedily pressed me for news; I told them that we had obtained all we wanted, that the ministry was changed, that all the abuses complained of were to be reformed, and that the only danger we now ran was lest people should go too far, and that it was for them to prevent it. I soon saw that this view did not appeal to them.

“That’s all very well, sir,” said they, “the Government has got itself into this scrape through its own fault, let it get out of it as best it can.”

“. . . If Paris is delivered into anarchy,” I said, “and all the Kingdom is in confusion, do you think that none but the King will suffer?”

Whether Tocqueville’s “we” was a reference to his interlocutors in the street or colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies, it suggested the populist familiarity that high politics had now acquired, a political immediacy simply unthinkable under the Old Regime.

Honoré Daumier, The Uprising

Honoré Daumier, The Uprising

These changed dimensions of time and space would utterly transform how Tocqueville—indeed, how his entire generation, and generations after them—thought about political fear. It would do so in two ways: first, in his sense that it was the mass, and not the individual, that drove events; second, in his recasting of Hobbes’s fear and Montesquieu’s terror as mass anxiety.

Tocqueville believed that the crashing entrance of so many untrained political actors made it impossible for anyone to undertake, on his own, significant political action. “We live in a time,” he noted, “and in a democratic society where individuals, even the greatest, are very little of anything.” Or, as Michelet, describing the plight of the individual amid the mass, put it: “Poor and alone, surrounded by immense objects, enormous collective forces which drag him along.” For all their differences, Hobbes’s sovereign and Montesquieu’s despot were singular figures of epic proportion, projecting their shadow across an entire landscape. The mass eclipsed such figures, allowing no one, not even a despot, to put his stamp on the world. There simply wasn’t enough room.

For Tocqueville, the mass meant more than political congestion: it threatened to dissolve the very boundaries of the self. Not by crushing the self, as Montesquieu had envisioned, but by merging self and society. Unlike the frontispiece of Leviathan, where the individuals composing the sovereign’s silhouette insisted upon their own form, the canvas of revolutionary democracy depicted a gathered hulk, with no recognizable human feature or discrete part. So complete was each person’s assimilation to the mass, it simply did not make sense to speak anymore of individuals. “By dint of not following their own nature,” John Stuart Mill gloomily concluded, men and women no longer had a “nature to follow.”

The new political tempo of the Age of Democratic Revolution, Tocqueville claimed, also produced a new kind of fear. With everything in the world changing so fast, no one could get his bearings. This confusion and loss of control made for free-floating anxiety, with no specific object. Montesquieu’s victims were terrified of tangible threats: punishment, torture, prison, death; Hobbes’s subjects feared specific dangers: the state of nature and the coercive state. The anxiety of Tocqueville’s citizens, by contrast, was not focused upon any concrete harm. Theirs was a vague foreboding about the pace of change and the liquefying of common referents. Uncertain about the contours of their world, they sought to fuse themselves with the mass, for only in unity could they find some sense of connection. Or they submitted to an all-powerful, repressive state, which restored to them a sense of authority and permanence. Anxiety, then, was aroused not by intimidating power—as fear had been for Hobbes and terror had been for Montesquieu—but by the existential condition of modern men and women. Anxiety was not a response to state repression; it induced it.

The Lonely Crowd

The Lonely Crowd

With mass anxiety giving rise to political repression, with the experience of those below forcing the actions of those above, Tocqueville completely transformed fear’s political meaning and function, signaling a permanent departure from the worlds of Hobbes and Montesquieu. Redefined as anxiety, fear was no longer thought of as a tool of power; instead, it was a permanent psychic state of the mass. And when the government acted repressively in response to this anxiety, the purpose was not to inhibit potential acts of opposition by keeping people down (Hobbes) or apart (Montesquieu), but to press people together, giving them a feeling of constancy and structure, relieving them, at least temporarily, of their raging anxiety. Thus did Tocqueville take yet one more step away from the political analysis of fear offered by Hobbes, and set the stage for Hannah Arendt, who would complete the journey.

But Tocqueville also departed from assumptions about fear that both Hobbes and Montequieu, despite their considerable differences, had shared. Unlike Hobbes or Montesquieu, Tocqueville saw the lines of anxiety’s genesis, cultivation, and transmission extending upward, from the deepest recesses of the mass psyche to the state. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the state needed to take certain actions to arouse fear or terror, that the initiative came from above. Tocqueville turned that assumption upside down, claiming that anxiety was the automatic condition of lonely men and women, who either forced or facilitated the state’s repressive actions. To the degree that the state acted repressively, it was merely responding to the demands of the mass. Because the mass was leaderless, divested of guiding elites and discrete authorities, state repression was a genuinely popular, democratic affair.

Unlike Montesquieu or Hobbes, Tocqueville suggested that the individual members of the mass who sought to lose themselves in the state’s repressive authority were culturally and psychologically prone to submission. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the individual who was to be afraid or terrified had to be created through the instruments of politics—elites, ideology, and institutions in Hobbes’s case, violence in Montesquieu’s. But in Tocqueville’s eyes, politics did not have to do anything at all. The anxious self was already on hand. No matter how politics and power were configured, the self would be anxious by virtue of his psychology and culture.

Ultimately, it was this vision of the democratic individual amid the lonely crowd that made Tocqueville’s vision of mass anxiety so terrifying. In claiming that anxiety did not have to be crafted, that it was a constitutive feature of the democratic self and its culture, Tocqueville suggested that danger came from within, that the enemy was a psychological fifth column lurking in the heart of every man and woman. As he wrote in a notebook, “This time the barbarians will not come from the frozen North; they will rise in the bosom of our countryside and in the midst of our cities.”

Hobbes had tried to focus people’s fear on a state of nature that lay in the future and in the past and on a real sovereign in the present, Montesquieu on a despotic terror that lay in the future or in the far-off lands of Asia. Both sought to focus people’s fear on objects outside themselves or their countries. Tocqueville turned people’s attention inward, toward the quotidian betrayals of liberty inside their anxious psyches. If there was an object to be feared, it was the self’s penchant for submission. From now on, individuals would have to be on guard against themselves, vigilantly policing the boundaries separating them from the mass. At the height of the Cold War, American intellectuals would revive this line of thought, arguing that the greatest danger to Americans was their own anxious self, ever ready to hand over its freedom to a tyrant. Warning against the “anxieties which drive people in free society to become traitors to freedom,” Arthur Schlesinger concluded that there was, in the United States, a “Stalin in every breast.”

The Vital Center

The other object to be feared was the egalitarian culture from which the democratic self arose. Tocqueville did not call for a reversal of democratic gains or a retreat from equality. He was far too much a realist and believer in the revolution’s gains to join the chorus of royalist reaction. Instead, he argued that to preserve the gains of the revolution, to help the democratic individual fulfill his promise as a genuine agent, the self would have to be shored up by creating firm structures of authority, restoring to it a sense of local affiliation, fostering religion and other sources of meaning, situating the self in civic associations whose function was less political than psychological and integrative. To counter mass anxiety, egalitarians and liberals, democrats and republicans, should cease their assault on society’s few remaining hierarchies. They should not participate in the socialist movement to centralize and enhance the power of a redistributive state. Instead, they should actively cultivate localism, institutions, and elite authority; these remnants of the Old Regime were the only bulwark against an anxiety threatening to introduce the worst forms of tyranny seen yet. The task, in other words, was not to continue the assault on the Old Regime but to stop it, to focus attention not on overturning the remains of privilege—local institutions and elites, religion, social hierarchies—but on enhancing them: these were the only social facts standing between democracy and despotism, freedom and anxiety.

One hundred and fifty years later, communitarian intellectuals in North American and Western Europe would offer a similar argument.

Affirmative Action Baby

28 Jun

This is last of my 3-part series on Justice Scalia, Diva of Disdain.  Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.  The introduction is here.

In the United States, Tocqueville observed, a federal judge “must know how to understand the spirit of the age.” While the persona of a Supreme Court Justice may be “purely judicial,” his “prerogatives”—the power to strike down laws in the name of the Constitution—“are entirely political.” If he is to exercise those prerogatives effectively, he must be as culturally nimble and socially attuned as the shrewdest pol.

How then to explain the influence of Scalia? Here is a man who proudly, defiantly, proclaims his disdain for “the spirit of the age”—that is, when he is not embarrassingly ignorant of it. (When the Court voted in 2003 to overturn state laws banning gay sex, Scalia saw the country heading down a slippery slope to…masturbation.) In 1996, he told an audience of Christians that “we must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world,” a world that “will not have anything to do with miracles.” We have “to be prepared to be regarded as idiots.” In a dissent from that same year, Scalia declared, “Day by day, case by case, [the Court] is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize.” As Maureen Dowd wrote, “He’s so Old School, he’s Old Testament.”

And yet, according to Elena Kagan, the newest member of the Court, appointed by Obama in 2010, Scalia “is the justice who has had the most important impact over the years on how we think and talk about the law.” John Paul Stevens, the man Kagan replaced and until his retirement the most liberal Justice on the Court, says that Scalia has “made a huge difference, some of it constructive, some of it unfortunate.” Scalia’s influence, moreover, will in all likelihood extend into the future. “He is in tune with many of the current generation of law students,” observes Ruth Bader Ginsburg, another Court liberal. Give me a law student at an impressionable age, Jean Brodie might have said, and she is mine for life.

It is not Scalia’s particular positions that have prevailed on the Court. Indeed, some of his most famous opinions—against abortion, affirmative action, and gay rights; in favor of the death penalty, prayer in school, and sex discrimination—are dissents. (With the addition of John Roberts to the Court in 2005 and Samuel Alito in 2006, however, that has begun to change.) Scalia’s hand is more evident in the way his colleagues—and other jurists, lawyers, and scholars—make their arguments.

For many years, originalism was derided by the left. As William Brennan, the Court’s liberal titan of the second half of the twentieth century, declared in 1985: “Those who would restrict claims of right to the values of 1789 specifically articulated in the Constitution turn a blind eye to social progress and eschew adaptation of overarching principles to changes of social circumstance.” Against the originalists, Brennan insisted that “the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.”

Just a decade later, however, the liberal Laurence Tribe, paraphrasing the liberal Ronald Dworkin, would say, “We are all originalists now.” That’s even truer today. Where yesterday’s generation of constitutional scholars looked to philosophy—Rawls, Hart, occasionally Nozick, Marx, or Nietzsche—to interpret the Constitution, today’s looks to history, to the moment when a word or passage became part of the text and acquired its meaning. Not just on the right, but also on the left: Bruce Ackerman, Akhil Amar, and Jack Balkin are just three of the most prominent liberal originalists writing today.

Liberals on the Court have undergone a similar shift. In his Citizens United dissent, Stevens wrote a lengthy excursus on the “original understandings,” “original expectations,” and “original public meaning” of the First Amendment with regard to corporate speech. Opening his discussion with a dutiful sigh of obligation— “Let us start from the beginning”—Stevens felt compelled by Scalia, whose voice and name were present throughout, to demonstrate that his position was consistent with the original meaning of freedom of speech.

Other scholars and jurists have helped bring about this shift, but it is Scalia who has kept the flame at the highest reaches of the law. Not by tact or diplomacy. Scalia is often a pig, mocking his colleagues’ intelligence and questioning their integrity. Sandra Day O’Connor, who sat on the Court from 1981 to 2006, was a frequent object of his ridicule and scorn. Scalia characterized one of her arguments as “devoid of content.” Another, he wrote, “cannot be taken seriously.” Whenever he is asked about his role in Bush v. Gore (2000), which put George W. Bush in the White House through a questionable mode of reasoning, he sneers, “Get over it!” Nor, contrary to his camp followers, has Scalia dominated the Court by force of his intelligence. (“How bright is he?” exhales one representative admirer.) On a Court where everyone is a graduate of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, and Ivy League professors sit on either side of the bench, there are plenty of brains to go around.

Several other factors explain Scalia’s dominance of the Court. For starters, Scalia has the advantage of a straightforward philosophy and nifty method. While he and his army march through the archives, rifling through documents on the right to bear arms, the commerce clause, and much else, the legal left remains “confused and uncertain,” in the words of Yale law professors Robert Post and Reva Siegel, “unable to advance any robust theory of constitutional interpretation” of its own. In an age when the left lacks certainty and will, Scalia’s self-confidence can be a potent and intoxicating force.

Second, there’s an elective affinity, even a tight fit, between the originalism of duresse oblige and Scalia’s idea of the game. And that is Scalia’s vision of what the good life entails: a daily and arduous struggle, where the only surety, if we leave things well enough alone, is that the strong shall win and the weak shall lose. Scalia, it turns out, is not nearly the iconoclast he thinks he is. Far from telling “people what they don’t like to hear,” as he claims, he tells the power elite exactly what they want to hear, that they are superior and that they have a seat at the table because they are superior. Tocqueville, it seems, was right after all. It is not the alienness but the appositeness of Justice Scalia, the way he reflects rather than refracts the spirit of the age, that explains, at least in part, his influence.

But there may be one additional, albeit small and personal, reason for Scalia’s outsized presence in our Constitutional firmament. And that is the patience and forbearance, the general decency and good manners, his liberal colleagues show him. While he rants and raves, smashing guitars and dive-bombing his enemies, they tend to respond with an indulgent shrug, a “that’s just Nino,” as O’Connor was wont to say.

The fact may be small and personal, but the irony is large and political. For Scalia preys on and profits from the very culture of liberalism he claims to abhor: the toleration of opposing views, the generous allowances for other people’s failings, the “benevolent compassion” he derides in his golf course dissent. Should his colleagues ever force him to abide by the same rules of liberal civility, or treat him as he treats them, who knows what might happen? Indeed, as two close observers of the Court have noted—in an article aptly titled “Don’t Poke Scalia!”—whenever advocates before the bench subject him to the gentlest of gibes, he is quickly rattled and thrown off his game. Prone to tantrums, coddled by a different set of rules: now that’s an affirmative action baby.

Ever since the 1960s, it has been a commonplace of our political culture that liberal niceties depend upon conservative not-so-niceties. A dinner party on the Upper West Side requires a police force that doesn’t know from Miranda, the First Amendment a military that doesn’t know from Geneva. That, of course, is the conceit of 24 (not to mention a great many other Hollywood productions like A Few Good Men ). But that formulation may have it exactly backward: without his more liberal colleagues indulging and protecting him, Scalia—like Jack Bauer—would have a much more difficult time. The conservatism of duresse oblige depends upon the liberalism of noblesse oblige, not the other way around. That is the real meaning of Justice Scalia.

Birth Control McCarthyism

14 Mar

Climbing aboard the anti-birth control bandwagon, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to endorse legislation that would: a) give employers the right to deny health insurance coverage to their employees for religious reasons; b) give employers the right to ask their employees whether their birth control prescriptions are for contraception or other purposes (hormone control, for example, or acne treatment).

There are three things to say about this legislation.

The Private Life of Power

First, as I argue in The Reactionary Mind, conservatism is dedicated to defending hierarchies of power against democratic movements from below, particularly in the so-called private spheres of the family and the workplace. Conservatism is a defense of what I call “the private life of power.” Less a protection of privacy or property in the abstract, as many conservatives and libertarians like to claim, conservatism is a defense of the rights of bosses and husbands/fathers.

So it’s no surprise, as I noted in the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind, that the chief agenda items of the GOP since its string of Tea Party victories in 2010 have been to roll back the rights of workers—not just in the public sector, as this piece by Gordon Lafer makes clear, but also in the private sector—and to roll back the reproductive rights of women, as this chart, which Mike Konczal discusses, makes clear. Often, it’s the same Tea Party-controlled states that are pushing both agendas at the same time.

What I hadn’t predicted was that the GOP would be able to come up with a program—in the form of this anti-birth control employer legislation we’re now seeing everywhere—that would combine both agenda items at the same time.

Fear, American Style

Second, in a way, I should have foreseen this fusion because, as I argued in my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, in the United States, it has historically fallen to employers rather than the state to police the political opinions and practices of citizens. Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While less than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as 2 out of every 5 American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.

I’ve spoken about this issue on this blog before—my apologies to the old timers here; unfortunately, this point can’t be repeated enough—but recall this fascinating exchange between an American physician and Tocqueville during the  latter’s travels to the United States in the early 1830s. Passing through Baltimore, Tocqueville asked the doctor why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

While all of us rightly value the Bill of Rights, it’s important to note that these amendments are limitations on government action. As a result, the tasks of political repression and coercion can often be—and are—simply outsourced to the private sector. As I wrote in Fear:

There is little mystery as to why civil society can serve as a substitute or supplement to state repression. Civil society is not, on the whole, subject to restrictions like the Bill of Rights. So what the state is forbidden to do, private actors in civil society may execute instead. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Justice Jackson famously declared, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” But what star in our constitutional constellation forbids newspapers like the New York Times, which refused during the McCarthy years to hire members of the Communist Party, from prescribing such orthodoxy as a condition of employment? What in the Constitution would stop a publisher from telling poet Langston Hughes that it would not issue his Famous Negro Music Makers unless he removed any discussion of Communist singer Paul Robeson? Or stop Little, Brown from refusing to publish best-selling Communist author Howard Fast?

The Sixth Amendment guarantees “in all criminal prosecutions” that the accused shall “have the assistance of counsel for his defence.” But what in the Constitution would prevent attorney Abe Fortas, who would later serve on the Supreme Court, from refusing to represent a party member during the McCarthy years because, in his words, “We have decided that we don’t think we can ever afford to represent anybody that has ever been a Communist?”

The Fifth Amendment stipulates that the government cannot compel an individual to incriminate herself, but it does not forbid private employers from firing anyone invoking its protections before congressional committees. To the extent that our Constitution works against an intrusive state, how can it even authorize the government to regulate these private decisions of civil society? What the liberal state granteth, then, liberal civil society taketh away.

Let’s come back now to the birth control employer question. Thanks to the gains of the feminist movement and Griswold v. Connecticut, we now understand the Constitution to prohibit the government from imposing restrictions on access to birth control. Even most Republicans, I think, accept that. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.

And here’s where the McCarthy specter becomes particularly troubling. Notice the second provision of the Arizona legislation: employers will now have the right to question their employees about what they plan to do with their birth-control prescriptions. Not only is this a violation of the right to privacy—again, not a right our Constitution currently recognizes in the workplace—but it obviously can give employers the necessary information they need to fire an employee.  If a women admits to using contraception in order to not get pregnant, there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop an anti-birth control employer from firing her.

During the McCarthy years, here were some of the questions employers asked their employees: What is your opinion of the Marshall Plan? What do you think about Nato? The Korean War? Reconciliation with the Soviet Union? These questions were directly related to US foreign policy, the assumption being that Communist Party members or sympathizers would offer pro-Soviet answers to them (i.e., against Nato and the Korean War). But many of the questions were more domestic in nature: What do you think of civil rights? Do you own Paul Robeson records? What do you think about segregating the Red Cross blood supply? The Communist Party had taken strong positions on civil rights, including desegregating the Red Cross blood supply, and as one questioner put it, “The fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.” (Though Ellen Schrecker, from whose book Many Are the Crimes I have taken these examples, points out that many of these questions were posed by government loyalty boards, she also notes that the questions posed by private employers were virtually identical.) The upshot, of course, was that support for civil rights came to be viewed as a Communist position, making public support for civil rights a riskier proposition than it already was.

It’s unclear what the future of Birth Control McCarthyism will be, but anyone who thinks the repressive implications of these bills can be simply brushed aside with vague feints to the religious freedoms of employers—more on this in a moment—is overlooking the long and sordid history of Fear, American Style. Private employers punishing their employees for holding disfavored views or engaging in disapproved practices (disapproved by the employer, that is) is the way a lot of repression happens in this country. And it can have toxic effects, as Liza Love, a witness before the Arizona Senate committee, testified:

“I wouldn’t mind showing my employer my medical records,” Love said. “But there are 10 women behind me that would be ashamed to do so.”

In the debate over the legislation, Arizona Republican Majority Whip Debbie Lesko (also the bill’s author) said, “I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the  Soviet Union.” She’s right, though perhaps not in the way she intended: unlike in the Soviet Union, the government here may not be able to punish you simply for holding unorthodox views or engaging in disfavored practices (though the government can certainly find other ways to harass or penalize you, if it wishes). What happens instead is that your employer will do it for the government (or for him or herself). As the president of Barnard College put it during the McCarthy years, “If the colleges take the responsibility to do their own house cleaning, Congress would not feel it has to investigate.”

Whose Freedom?

Third, the standard line from Republicans and some libertarians is that requiring religious or religion-related employers (like the hospitals and universities that are funded by the Catholic Church) to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control is a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. The same arguments have come up in Arizona. Just after she made the comparison above between the United States and the Soviet Union, Lesko added:

“So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.”

“My whole legislation is about our First Amendment rights and freedom of religion,” Lesko said. “All my bill does is that an employer can opt out of the mandate if they have any religious objections.”

Father John Muir, a priest at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center on the Tempe campus, said the controversial issue is not about birth control, but religious freedom and the First Amendment.

“It’s not about birth control,” Muir said. “It’s about the right to live out your beliefs and principles without inference by the state.”

There are many reasons to be wary of this line of argument, which I won’t get into here. Instead, I’d like to recall some more history.

It’s often forgotten that one of the main catalysts for the rise of the Christian Right was not school prayer or abortion but the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave the donors to these schools tax exemptions. And it was none other than Richard Viguerie, founder of the New Right and pioneer of its use of direct-mail tactics, who said that the attack on these public subsidies by the Civil Rights Movement and liberal courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”

According to historian Joseph Crespino, whose essay “Civil Rights and the Religious Right” in Rightward Bound:Making American Conservative in the 1970s is must reading, the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools.” Even so, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities—and religious beliefs—rather than white supremacy. (Initially nonsectarian, most of these schools became evangelical over time.) Their cause, in other words, was freedom, not inequality—not the freedom of whites to associate with other whites (and thereby lord their status and power over blacks), as the previous generation of massive resisters had foolishly and openly admitted, but the freedom of believers to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.

So it is today. Rather than openly pursue their agenda of restricting the rights of women, the GOP claims to be defending the rights of religious dissenters. Instead of powerful employers—for that is what many of these Catholic hospitals and universities are—we have persecuted sects.

Knowing the history of the rise of the Christian Right doesn’t resolve this debate, but it certainly does make you look twice, doesn’t it?

Update (March 15, 4:30 pm)

This post got cross-posted at Salon; check out the comments there. In a very smart piece, also at Salon, Irin Carmon looks at the evolution (and continuities) of the GOP position on this issue. Also check out this excellent piece by Sarah Posner, again at Salon, which looks at the contributions of the Democrats to this morass we’re in.

Also, on the question of whether the Arizona law allows employers to fire employees on the basis of whether they use birth control for contraception purposes or not, check out this.

The Occupy Crackdowns: Why Naomi Wolf Got It Wrong

27 Nov

On Friday, Naomi Wolf made the attention-grabbing accusation in the Guardian that federal officials were involved in, indeed ordered, the violent crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street protesters that we’ve been seeing across the country these past few weeks.

Congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.

The next day, Joshua Holland debunked Wolf’s claims on Alternet.

I don’t have anything to add to Holland’s excellent critique. Wolf gets her facts wrong, and he shows it.

To my mind, though, the problem is bigger than that:  The reason Wolf gets her facts wrong is that she’s got her theory wrong. And though many were quick to jump off her conspiracy bandwagon once Holland pointed out its flaws, I suspect that one of the reasons they were so quick to jump on it in the first place is that they subscribe to her theory.

Like many critics of state coercion in America, Wolf seems to assume that political repression requires or entails national coordination and centralized direction from the feds. But as I argued in this piece in the Boston Review in 2005, and in a much longer piece in the Missouri Law Review [pdf], that notion gets it wrong.

From the battles over abolition to the labor wars at the turn of the last century to the Red Squads of the twentieth-century police departments to the struggles over Jim Crow, state repression in America has often been decentralized, displaying that very same can-do spirit of local initiative that has been celebrated by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam. Though Tocqueville and Putnam were talking of course about things like creating churches and buildings roads, the fact is: if the locals can build a church or a road on their own, they can also get rid of dissenters on their own, too, no?

Even where there has been coordination and direction from above, as in the epic cases of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, or now the War on Terror, what’s been most striking is how local police and officials have managed to manipulate that federal involvement to their own ends. As I wrote in the Boston Review:

What history demonstrates is that police officers often use their powers, with or without federal prompting, as instruments of larger political purpose. The danger of cooperation between federal agencies and local police is not that the former will conscript the latter into repressive programs the latter would not otherwise pursue, but that it allows the police to apply the legitimizing gloss of national security to their own pet projects of repression. During the McCarthy era, for example, southern politicians and law-enforcement officers used the language of anti-communism to outlaw the NAACP and to arrest and indict civil-rights leaders for sedition. In the Denver case already mentioned, the police used the rubric of domestic security to keep track of not only the groups cited above but also a local organization working against police brutality in the city. This past summer, during the Republican Party convention in New York City, the NYPD preemptively arrested more than 1,500 protesters—some of them obstreperous, virtually all of them nonviolent—as well as innocent bystanders. How did the mayor justify the arrest and prolonged detainment of these individuals? By drawing parallels, according to The New York Times, “between verbally abusive demonstrators and the Sept. 11 terrorists.”

… if all politics is local in the United States, as Tip O’Neill reminded us, it stands to reason that a good deal of the political repression is as well.

It’s not surprising that faced with the crackdown of OWS protests, Wolf would immediately turn to a theory of national, centralized repression. It’s part of our national DNA, on the left and the right, to assume that tyranny works that way. We’ve inherited a theory that holds, in the words of the Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar, that “liberty and localism work together.” Nothing, as Holland so ably if inadvertently demonstrates in his demolition of Wolf, could be further from the truth.

Update (11/29, 11 am)

This post has been getting a lot of attention, both support and push-back. There’s much interesting discussion in the comments thread here (see below).  It’s gotten warm endorsements from Lawyers, Guns, and Money and The Economist, which ran two blog posts, one of them from Will Wilkinson, with whom we’ve tangled and talked before. The Guardian did a round-up of responses to the Wolf piece, and included it there.  3 Quarks Daily picked it up.  And Al Jazeera English ran a longer version of it.  And if you’re on Twitter, there’s a lot of back and forth there as well.

Fear, American Style: What the Anarchist and Libertarian Don’t Understand about the US

25 Oct

Two Fridays ago, I attended an excellent panel discussion on Occupy Wall Street sponsored by Jacobin magazine. It featured Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean—representing a more state-centered, socialist-style left—and Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard, representing a more anarchist-inflected left.

Lennard is a freelance writer who’s been covering the OWS story for the New York Times. After a video of the panel was brought to the Times‘s attention, the paper reviewed it as well as Lennard’s reporting and decided to take her off the OWS beat.  Despite the fact, according to a spokeswoman for the Times, that “we have reviewed the past stories to which she contributed and have not found any reasons for concern over that reporting.”

Even more troubling, Lennard may not be hired by the Times again at all. Says the spokeswoman: “This freelancer, Natasha Lennard, has not been involved in our coverage of Occupy Wall Street in recent days, and we have no plans to use her for future coverage.”

This is hardly the first time that the mainstream media has fired reporters for their political activities, even when there’s no hint of evidence that those activities have led to biased or skewed coverage. Even so, it’s worrisome, and ought to be protested and resisted.

Such political motivated firings fit into a much broader pattern in American history that— in my first book Fear: The History of a Political IdeaI call “Fear, American Style.” While people on the left and the right often focus on state repression—coercion and intimidation that comes from and is wielded by the government (politically driven prosecution and punishment, police violence, and the like)—the fact is that a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state.  More specifically, in the workplace.

Think about McCarthyism. We all remember the McCarthy hearings in the Senate, the Rosenbergs, HUAC, and so on. All of these incidents involve the state. But guess how many people ever went to prison for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era? Less than 200 people. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot. Guess how many workers were investigated or subjected to surveillance for their beliefs?  One to two out of every five. And while we don’t have exact statistics on how many of those workers were fired, it was somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand.

There’s a reason so much of American repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer often is not.  The Bill of Rights, as any union organizer will tell you, does not apply to the workplace.  The federal government can’t convict and imprison you simply and transparently for your political speech; if it does, it has to paint that speech as something other than speech (incitement, say) or as somehow involved in or contributing to a crime (material support for terrorism, say). A newspaper—like any private employer in a non-union workplace—can fire you, simply and transparently, for your political speech, without any due process.

On this blog, I’ve talked a lot about what I call in The Reactionary Mind “the private life of power”: the domination and control we experience in our personal lives at the hands of employers, spouses, and so on. But we should always recall that that private life of power is often wielded for overtly political purposes: not simply for the benefit of an employer but also for the sake of maintaining larger political orthodoxies and suppressing political heresies. That was true during McCarthyism, in the 1960s, and today as well.

It was also true in the 19th century. Tocqueville noticed it while he was traveling here in the 1830s. Stopping off in Baltimore, he had a chat with a physician there. Tocqueville asked him why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

After the Civil War, black Americans in the South became active political agents, mobilizing and agitating for education, political power, economic opportunity, and more. From the very beginning, they were attacked by white supremacists and unreconstructed former slaveholders. Often with the most terrible means of violence. But as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out in his magisterial Black Reconstruction, one of the most effective means of suppressing black citizens was through the workplace.

The decisive influence was the systematic and overwhelming economic pressure. Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. Negroes who wanted to increase their income must not agitate the Negro problem. Positions of influence were only open to those Negroes who were certified as being ‘safe and sane,’ and their careers were closely scrutinized and passed upon. From 1880 onward, in order to earn a living, the American Negro was compelled to give up his political power.

In the last few months, I’ve had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields–and it’s considerable—it’s not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.

Update (1:45 pm)

Just got off the phone with my wife, who reminded me of this amazing quote from Leslie Gelb. Gelb, who was once the epitome of what used to be called the Establishment (Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times; former State and Defense Department official; former president of the Council on Foreign Relations), supported the Iraq War. Later, after the disaster of that war became plain, he explained why he  had initially lent his name to the cause:

My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We ‘experts’ have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we ‘perfect’ the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common—often wrong—wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less.

“To retain political and professional credibility.” We have another word for that: careerism.

I’ve long wanted—and still plan—to write my magnum opus Careerism: Prolegomena to a Political Theory. But since retirement is still a ways away, let me just say this for now. The official reason Lennard is getting canned—or whatever it is; it’s still unclear—from the Times is that the  her political activities could lend her reporting an air of impropriety or bias. In the words of a Times spokeswoman:

All our journalists, staff or freelance, are expected to adhere to our ethical rules and journalistic standards and to avoid doing anything that could call into question the impartiality of their work for the Times.

Yet what Gelb’s quote suggests—a while back I wrote a piece for the London Review of Books that went into this in some greater depth, with more evidence from the Iraq War—is that the real bias one sees in mainstream reporting doesn’t come from one’s involvement in outside political activities. It comes from the desire to do one’s job in accordance with the strictures of one’s supervisors and peers, for fear that should you break ranks, you’ll be fired or somehow blackballed from the profession. Most of the time, that internal policeman will keep you in line. But should he fall asleep on the job, the company’s real police will there to toss you out on your ass. Again, Fear, American Style: the state, bound by the First Amendment, does nothing; editors do the job instead.
Update (October 28, 6:30 pm)
Nearly 10 years ago to the day, there was a Dilbert cartoon that pretty much said it all (h/t John Quiggin).
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