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One important reason to study history as a social critic or political observer is that it can help you see continuities across time, the ways that certain social and political dynamics recapitulate themselves in various contexts and circumstances. Even as every particular instance of the thing is different, the fact of continuity helps an observer see that the phenomenon does not simply erupt out of the ether, but is the product of larger forces in the society.
I have been thinking about this in relation to our recurring battles over free speech and censorship, and the question of whether we live in a uniquely censorious time. Now, I am skeptical of that claim for the simple reason that as I see it, it has never been easier to express oneself to an audience or to discuss and debate any issue under the sun, no matter how taboo or controversial.
The flip side, of course, is that it has also never been easier to find oneself on the wrong side of a disagreement and thus subject to the derision, disdain and disapproval of a huge number of people who appear to be acting collectively even if each person is responding as an individual. It is an experience that for its targets can feel overwhelming to the point of being unbearable. I think it’s this, the social media backlash, that fuels at least some of the concern over “cancel culture.”
What I’d like to point out, in brief, is that while the technology is new, the phenomenon is not. The “tyranny of the majority” in public opinion — the way it enforces conformity and reprimands dissent — has been part of American life reaching back to the beginning. And there’s even a case to make that it is intrinsic to democracy and democratic life, an inescapable consequence of the leveling spirit.
“I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America,” the French aristocrat, historian and social critic Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the first volume of “Democracy in America,” in 1835. In Europe, he argued, there is no country “so subject to one single power that he who wants to speak the truth does not find support capable of assuring him against the consequences of his independence.” But in the “heart of a democracy organized as that of the United States, one encounters only a single power, a single element of force and success, and nothing outside of it.”
Specifically, Tocqueville wrote, “the majority draws a formidable circle around thought.” Within those limits “the writer is free,” but “unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them.” Here Tocqueville, who had done a yearlong tour of the United States from 1831 to 1832, expands on what happens to an American who runs afoul of majority opinion:
A political career is closed to him: he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory. Before publishing his opinions, he believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any now that he has uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, keep silent and move away. He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.
He continues with an extended comparison of the difference between tyranny under a monarchy and tyranny in a democracy:
Under the absolute government of one alone, despotism struck the body crudely, so as to reach the soul; and the soul, escaping from those blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says to it: You shall think as I do or you shall die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you are a stranger among us. You shall keep your privileges in the city, but they will become useless to you; for if you crave the vote of your fellow citizens, they will not grant it to you, and if you demand only their esteem, they will still pretend to refuse it to you. You shall remain among men, but you shall lose your rights of humanity. When you approach those like you, they shall flee you as being impure; and those who believe in your innocence, even they shall abandon you, for one would flee them in turn. Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death.
Talk about cancel culture.
The key thing, for Tocqueville, is that this was inextricable from democratic life, the dark side of those institutions, habits and mores that made a democracy such as the United States so lively and dynamic. The same freedom of the press that makes democracy possible in the first place can incite the kinds of passions that threaten free expression and the rights of the minority. The astonishing equality of political life in a democracy — where, as Tocqueville put it, “the sovereign is approachable from all sides and where it is only a question of raising one’s voice to reach its ear” — can produce conformity as much as it can unleash individuality.
“I see very clearly two tendencies in equality: one brings the mind of each man toward new thoughts, and the other would willingly induce it to give up thinking,” Tocqueville wrote. “And I perceive how, under the empire of certain laws, democracy would extinguish the intellectual freedom that the democratic social state favors, so that the human spirit, having broken all the shackles that classes or men formerly imposed on it, would be tightly chained to the general will of the greatest number.”
If Tocqueville seemed deeply worried about the prospect of intellectual conformity in a democracy, it is because he was. But, as the political theorist Jennie Ikuta argues in “Contesting Conformity: Democracy and the Paradox of Political Belonging,” we should also “take seriously his declaration that democracy can lead to intellectual freedom” as well:
The nature of public opinion as an illusory unanimity isolates dissenters from the public and silent unbelievers from one another, undercutting social support for dissent as well as the freedom to dissent. But if the nature of public opinion in a democracy makes intellectual freedom difficult, it is not impossible. Through private and public forms of social support, democratic individuals and collectives can overcome the ostracism that tends to accompany dissent and thereby preserve intellectual freedom. Democracy does not doom individuals to intellectual servitude; rather, it makes intellectual freedom possible.
I think this is a good place for us to end. The things we associate with “cancel culture” or censoriousness are not unique to us. They aren’t unique to a particular faction or ideology either. They are inherent to democracy, an unavoidable part of free society that we can manage and mitigate but never fully eliminate. To see them in these terms is to remember, or to be reminded, that democracy is not benign. It is a powerful force and, at times, a frightening one too.
What I Wrote
My Friday column was on the “independent state legislature” doctrine that Republicans are trying to use to seize unchecked control of the redistricting process in states that they lead.
Imagine, instead, that state legislatures had plenary power over federal elections, which would allow them to overrule state courts, ignore a governor’s veto and even nullify an act of Congress. They would, in essence, be sovereign, with unchecked power over the fundamental political rights of those citizens who lived within their borders.
I also joined the writers Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell to discuss the prospects for a second Civil War on their “Know Your Enemy” podcast. You can listen here.
Angelica Jade Bastién on Catwoman for New York magazine.
Addison Del Mastro on the housing crisis for his Substack newsletter.
Hannah Zeavin on the feminization of therapy for Dissent.
Jill Abramson on George Washington for The New Yorker.
Gabrielle Moss on the legacy of the “teen girl murder film” for RogerEbert.com.
Photo of the Week
I’m not entirely satisfied with this photo but I am sharing it because I like how geometric it is, a showcase of different kinds of squares and rectangles, with some nice shadows and a splash of blue from the sky as well. I took this with my Leica range finder and a 50-millimeter lens.
Now Eating: Farro With Mushrooms
No notes here! This is a great easy-to-make dish, and will go very well with whatever salad you might like and whatever wine (or nonalcoholic beverage) you might want to serve. Recipe from NYT Cooking.
1½ cups farro
½ ounce (½ cup, approximately) dried porcini mushrooms
1 quart chicken stock or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 pound cremini mushrooms or wild mushrooms (or a mixture of the two), cleaned, trimmed and sliced
Salt to taste
2 large garlic cloves, green shoots removed, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
½ cup dry white wine
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 to 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (¼ to ½ cup)
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Place the farro in a bowl, and pour on enough hot water to cover by an inch. Let soak while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Drain.
Place the dried mushrooms in a large Pyrex measuring cup or bowl, and pour in 2 cups boiling water. Let sit 30 minutes.
Drain the mushrooms through a strainer set over a bowl and lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the mushrooms over the strainer, then rinse in several changes of water to remove grit. Chop coarsely if the pieces are large and set aside. Add the broth from the mushrooms to the stock. You should have 6 cups (add water if necessary). Place in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Season with salt to taste.
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy nonstick skillet. Add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about three minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until they begin to soften and sweat. Add salt to taste, the garlic and rosemary. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the farro and reconstituted dried mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until the grains of farro are separate and beginning to crackle, about 2 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook, stirring until the wine has been absorbed. Add all but about 1 cup of the stock, and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer 50 minutes or until the farro is tender; some of the grains will be beginning to splay. Remove the lid and stir vigorously from time to time.
Taste and adjust seasoning. There should be some liquid remaining in the pot but not too much. If the farro is submerged in stock, raise the heat and cook until there is just enough to moisten the grains, like a sauce. If there is not, stir in the remaining stock. If not serving right away, cover and let stand. Just before serving, bring back to a simmer, add the Parmesan, parsley and pepper, and stir together. Remove from the heat and serve."