De Tocqueville on Cancel Culture

 Rather prophetic.

Princes had, so to speak, materialized violence; the democratic republics of today have made violence as entirely intellectual as the human will that it wants to constrain. Under the absolute government of one man, despotism, to reach the soul, crudely struck the body; and the soul, escaping from these blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body alone and goes right to the soul. The master no longer says: You will think like me or die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains with you; but from this day on you are a stranger among us. You will keep your privileges as a citizen, but they will become useless to you. If you aspire to be the choice of your fellow citizens, they will not choose you, and if you ask only for their esteem, they will still pretend to refuse it to you. You will remain among men, but you will lose your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellows, they will flee from you like an impure being. And those who believe in your innocence, even they will [419] abandon you, for people would flee from them in turn. Go in peace; I spare your life, but I leave you a life worse than death. (Democracy In America Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 7, “Of the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects,)

3 thoughts on “De Tocqueville on Cancel Culture”

  1. Prophetic and disturbing – and isn’t it always a minority that in the end wants to dominate/guard/rule the majority? Rousseau’s belief government could be run by consensus because reason would bring us all to the same conclusion didn’t understand much. (Benjamin Franklin could have taught him, but I’m not sure he’d listen.) And we see that today in those who would “follow the science” but clearly are following the particular science whose hypothesis agrees with theirs rather than another’s who believes evidence does or will come to a different conclusion.

    I never got through Democracy in America (one would think in retirement time would be plenty, but for me concentration has been diminishing). But I’d happened upon another passage by the wise Frenchman in Pipes Property and Freedom, one from Book IV, Ch 6. It reminds me of a Slovak friend, who said that descriptions of the 60’s to 90’s as oppressive weren’t true, at least for her; it was a time in which they were bound in a soft pillow and didn’t realize they weren’t free. Indeed, she saw that as not good, but she doesn’t seem to long for the freedom we value so highly, decades later, remarried to an American in her second (or third) phase of life.

    This is from de Tocqueville on America as quoted by Pipes: “I have no fear they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians.” Pipes says that he saw a kind of democratic depotism in which ‘”an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and all alike,” incessantly strive to pursue “the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.” De Toqueville believes “such a government willingly labors but it chooses to be the sole and only arbiter of their happiness.” He argues that “‘the principle of equality has prepared men for these things’ and ‘oftentimes to look on them as benefits.'”

    We can, I hope, be more optimistic about man’s desire for freedom, independence – it has been bred into us and our culture for the two centuries since and we’ve become cynical about those who want to soften our fates. But he certainly foresaw the stated goals of the welfare state: “After having thus taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arms over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to raise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

    Pipes’ penultimate chapter focuses on how the modern welfare state – with examples such as redistribution of property, forfeitures, entitlements, eminent domain etc. – limits and diminishes property rights and, thus, as the entire preceding arguments contend, freedom. The final chapter concludes with de Tocqueville, Pipes inserting one last question: “Is this what we want?”

  2. David F: “Doesn’t appear to take an actual majority, just an aggressive and well-positioned minority.”

    In an entirely different work-related context, a colleague once remarked that ‘A man with a plan can generally achieve at least part of what he is aiming for.’ Unfortunately, it seems that a plan which says ‘Please just leave me alone to get on with my own life’ is not robust enough.

    The importance of a determined minority should never be underestimated. The Bolsheviks were a small minority in Russia — a minority even among the Communists. The voters in the UK who pushed through Brexit were a minority in the UK population, considering those Brits who chose not to vote. The proponents of Independence in the North American colonies were a minority, apparently amounting to only about one third of the then-population.

    How to prevent a determined minority from taking over? Aye, there’s the rub.

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