Monday, July 4, 2016

Two Promises

The American republic turns 240 today–twice the span of the longest conceivable human life. Two Moseses living back to back would not see from one end to the other.

This means that something other than natural human tradition or human memory needs to guarantee the republic’s long-term survival. Humans are flighty people: personal loyalty can’t usually last beyond the first generation. This is what a founding myth and its culture heroes are for. The Asmat have Biriwipitsj beheading Desoipitsj, the Jews have Moses on Sinai, the Germans had Henry the Fowler, and we Americans have the Declaration of Independence. If American liberty is going to survive, this is the myth that should be read and understood by schoolchildren. It should be graven on our minds far more deeply than the prosaic Constitution of 1793. There is another reason to do this besides simple continuity: the Republic is so old that it is liable to take its existence for granted, failing to imagine any alternative to existence. Complacency and ossification are predicable consequences. (The old, relatedly, have a harder time contemplating death than the young. They are deeper into the habit of being alive.) 

Here, then, in honor of July fourth, is our Founders’ Creed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –  
[and] that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
These statements are the bedrock of our civilisation, which has triumphantly rejected old-European power-lust and despotism. The people are promised two things: their rights, and the freedom to choose their own destiny. These promises run together seamlessly if they’re read out in solemn enough a tone. 

But I am afraid that the two promises of the Declaration—(a) rights and (b) government by the consent of the governed—might be growing ever less compatible. Worse, and here’s the real danger, they are in danger of being seen as ever less compatible. This means trouble for elite support of democracy 

Cambridge’s reaction to the Brexit referendum has kept this on my mind for the last week. It is axiomatic at Cambridge—in public, at any rate—that Brexit is an utter catastrophe; a racist and nitwitted reaction to the modern world. I went to a lecture last week on Carolingian palaeography, and the fifteen-minute introduction was devoted to a mournful reflection on the state of Britain; phrased as if ‘the events of last week’ had been a forest fire or a freak hurricane, not something that most of the country actively endorsed. Contempt for the masses is rife. And cue Mary Beard, Cambridge classicist, to write an article in the TLS explaining that the referendum, though touted as democracy, wasn’t really the voice of the people; in oder to get at that, we would need something more ‘radical’. She facetiously offered the cute solution of Athenian ostracism; what she really meant, though, is that democracy can’t be called ‘re-empowering’ enough until it produces what Mary Beard wants, or what she thinks the people want. 

(This is your periodic reminder that Dr Beard once went to the mat with Boris Johnson over the question ‘which is better: Greece or Rome?’) 

This is Boaty McBoatface all over again. The elites ask the people what they want; they say what they want, and the elites say ‘well, we’ll be kind and assume that you couldn’t possibly want something so horrible as that.’ This does not mean that the people cannot be deluded, or that the elites are wrong just for being elites. But it says something about powerful cosmopolitans’ attitude to powerless provincials. They are not to be trusted with their own fates; let alone the fate of the London elites themselves; let extremely alone the fate of Europe.

In a sense, Dr Beard’s insistence that the Brexit vote wasn’t really democratic is a relief, for it gives intellectual space for elites to maintain both their power and their respect for ‘democratic’ rule. (Nevertheless, the claim that the referendum was sham-democracy is so specious and sore-loserish that it can’t last for long.) We will really be in trouble when elites begin distinguish democracy from the protection of rights, for then a choice will have to be made between the two. And then we’ll all be at the mercy of powerful men’s discretion as to which rights and which bits of democracy are worth protecting. America is far further down this path than Britain: it is common to hear praise for the unelected Supreme Court as the only safe protector of liberty.

In May, after Trump had won the Republican primary, I wrote:
Like it or not, the people have spoken. And they might very well speak again on the eighth of November, choosing the man who loves them, unlike the simultaneously icy and unctuous progressive elite. Trump is ludicrous, and unlike that boat, frightening. But he is what a majority of Americans might want. …
In the West, democracy is still treated as a ritual worth protecting, but it is now in danger of producing something too awful for progressives to swallow. And we might end up seeing where American progressives’ commitments really lie: not with democracy, but with progressive dominance.
Brexit has only made me more afraid of this possibility. I would have voted to remain, and by God I’m voting against Trump in November. But I care more about the survival of democracy than I do about preventing Trump’s candidacy, and would line up behind him in a heartbeat in order to honor the Declaration of Independence.

The problem is that my loyalty is to rights as well as democracy. It might happen that President Trump will step on the rights that we hold to be self evident, finally dissolving the 240-year marriage of humane government and democracy. If that day comes, I will stop considering myself bound by his laws. But until it does, I’ll be willing to swallow egregious foolishness out of my stupid faith that the people are capable of ruling themselves wisely.

Happy July fourth. I hope that our descendants will be celebrating 240 years hence. I don’t know what can done practically, but I can repeat the wish of a man who worshipped democracy more keenly than any other person in the republic’s history.
We highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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