It is especially alarming when we see our universities, which should be a reflection of the best of ourselves, devolve into arenas where there is no free speech, no freedom of association, and no diversity of thought. All enforced by a tiny mob of ignorant failures and then reinforced by fearful administrators lacking the courage to enforce rules or even stand up for the rights of all citizens.
Part of the stoked anxiety is simply in the interests of media. Postmodernists all, they are upset about the yawning gap between their vision of the world and that held by their fellow citizens. This arrogance of a singular view is buttressed by the simple truth that anarchy and dissension sells papers and viewers. It is nice when your confidence in your unshared worldview reinforces your income.
For everyone else, there are, as there always has been, the normal frustrations and tribulations of existence. With the great pace of change (technological, demographic, economic, etc.), there are legitimate concerns and uncertainties about the future and what it means to ourselves and ours. But it has nothing of the apocalyptic existentialism of the media headlines (Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?, really? In the New Yorker?)
More settled thinkers, those with some knowledge of history and context, have sought to explain the media angst as a product of postmodernism, or arrogance, or self-interest, or disdain, or ideological commitment, etc.
And I think all of those lines of argument have some merit. But I think there is something more and I haven't been able to put my finger on it. Coming across a couple of quotes this morning, I wonder if the missing element hasn't been contempt. The contempt that the media, and academia, and government bureaucrats, and the entertainment industry have for the rest of America. Not just class contempt but dehumanizing contempt.
The contempt shown by the academic, media, and political privileged for "the bitter clingers" and "the basket of deplorables." Even the fact that the members of those privileged classes could think in those terms, rejecting, as it implicitly does, the humanity of their fellow citizens. The assumption that laws are for the governed and not for those who govern. This is antithetical to the entire ethos of American culture and yet it has become received wisdom in some quarters.
I am fond of the following Chesterton quote because it so succinctly captures an eternal truth that is rarely discussed. From The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
You’ve got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.But the quotes I came across this morning were from Daniel Webster and from Alexis do Tocqueville. Emphasis added.
From The Works of Daniel Webster, edited by Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851, vol. 1, p. 358.
Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular governments, under pretences of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded. There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully; but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well; but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters; but they mean to be masters. They think there need be but little restraint upon themselves.From Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
Another tendency, which is extremely natural to democratic nations and extremely dangerous, is that which leads them to despise and undervalue the rights of private persons. The attachment which men feel to a right, and the respect which they display for it, is generally proportioned to its importance, or to the length of time during which they have enjoyed it. The rights of private persons amongst democratic nations are commonly of small importance, of recent growth, and extremely precarious—the consequence is that they are often sacrificed without regret, and almost always violated without remorse. But it happens that at the same period and amongst the same nations in which men conceive a natural contempt for the rights of private persons, the rights of society at large are naturally extended and consolidated: in other words, men become less attached to private rights at the very time at which it would be most necessary to retain and to defend what little remains of them. It is therefore most especially in the present democratic ages, that the true friends of the liberty and the greatness of man ought constantly to be on the alert to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs. At such times no citizen is so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed—no private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government. The reason is plain:—if the private right of an individual is violated at a time when the human mind is fully impressed with the importance and the sanctity of such rights, the injury done is confined to the individual whose right is infringed; but to violate such a right, at the present day, is deeply to corrupt the manners of the nation and to put the whole community in jeopardy, because the very notion of this kind of right constantly tends amongst us to be impaired and lost.
From The State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789 by Alexis de Tocqueville.
Despots themselves do not deny the excellence of freedom, but they wish to keep it all to themselves, and maintain that all other men are utterly unworthy of it. Thus it is not on the opinion which may be entertained of freedom that this difference subsists, but on the greater or the less esteem we may have for mankind; and it may be said with strict accuracy that the taste a man may show for absolute government bears an exact ratio to the contempt he may profess for his countrymen.I suspect that it is this contempt for their fellow citizens, this contempt for the rule of law, this contempt for the idea that all humans have the same natural rights and are equally deserving of respect that causes the self-anointed, the media, the academy, to continue to be surprised by elections and referendums.
In America, there is the shared idea that we are all flawed, that we have a common law that applies to everyone equally, and that all people have natural human rights as articulated in our Bill of Rights. When you are in a small philosophical minority and abjure those precepts, it is not especially surprising when the electorate pick up on and reject your contempt for them.