March 30, 2020
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The American Political Paradox

More freedom, less democracy? Free speech is fragile and democracy is in danger of disappearing in the United States.

The American Political Paradox

Since September 11, I have been speaking freely in the United States, a nation whose institutions have many democratic features. My free speech, which has been harshly critical of the leaders of the United States and their policies, has been disseminated widely through print publications, web sites, email, radio, and television. Most of the exposure has been in the alternative media, but I also have appeared in a few mainstream channels as well. Extrapolating from the approximately 4,000 email messages, letters, and phone calls I received in the three months after September 11 as a result of this free speech, it is reasonable to assume that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people heard my ideas.

So, while it is true that as a political dissident I have no chance at the access to mainstream channels that "reputable" commentators can expect when they repeat the conventional wisdom, my voice did get amplified by the combination of: new technologies that are relatively open and have not been completely commercialized; a limited but active and committed alternative press; marginal openings in the commercial-corporate media for dissidents who have some claim to "credibility" and can provide the appearance of balance; and the ease with which foreign publications and web sites could pick up my work (I am aware of translations of my work after 9/11 into Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Polish, and Swahili). I have been writing in public as a journalist or scholar since my junior year in high school, and in the last three months of 2001 my work may well have reached more people than the total of the preceding 27 years. This suggests a society that takes seriously the concept of free speech.

Yet after this experience, it has never seemed clearer to me that free speech is fragile and democracy is in danger of disappearing in the United States. This claim rests on two assertions:

1. Meaningful free speech is about more than the guarantee of a legal right to speak freely and the absence of governmental repression.

2. Meaningful democracy is about more than the existence of institutions that have democratic features.

To talk about the state of intellectual and political culture in the United States after September 11, I want to go back to the early 20th century and the life of one of my favorite radical Americans, Scott Nearing.

A radically good life

Nearing contended that three principles guided his life as a teacher, writer, and political activist: the quest "to learn the truth, to teach the truth, and to help build the truth into the life of the community." Nearing began his teaching career in 1906 at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where he was a popular teacher, author of widely used economic textbooks, and well-known speaker on the lecture circuit. He was on his way to what looked like a successful academic career, if not for one problem. He took seriously those three principles, and from them he formulated a simple guide to action: "If there was exploitation and corruption in the society I should speak out against it."[1]

That's when the trouble started.

By 1915 Nearing had been fired by the Penn trustees. They gave no reason publicly, but there's little doubt that his socialist views and participation in the movement to end child labor played a role. Many faculty members, including some who disagreed sharply with his politics, rallied to his defense, but to no avail. Rumors of a demand made by legislators of the university's trustees -- fire Nearing or lose a key appropriation -- were never definitively proved but whatever the trustees' reasons, arguments about academic freedom made by faculty did not save Nearing's job. So Nearing moved on to the University of Toledo, a public university with a broader sense of its social mission. There he quickly became an integral part of the university and community -- until 1917, when he was again fired, this time for his antiwar activity.

Nearing lost his job but not his voice, and he continued his writing and political activity, including an antiwar pamphlet titled, "The Great Madness: A Victory for American Plutocracy." That landed him in federal court, one of the hundreds of political dissidents tried in the World War I era under the draconian Espionage Act. Charged in 1918 with attempting to cause insubordination and mutiny and obstructing recruiting, Nearing went to trial in February 1919 expecting to be convicted and ready to go to prison; sentences of five or 10 years were common at the time. But he was determined to use his trial as a platform to explain his antiwar and socialist views, which he did with his usual clarity and bluntness (often, by his account, frustrating his own attorney's objections to inappropriate questions by prosecutors). His arguments from the witness stand apparently affected the jury; Nearing was found not guilty for writing the pamphlet, although the Rand School was convicted for publishing it and fined $3,000. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld what Nearing called a "unique decision."[2]

Nearing remained a popular lecturer, filling halls as large as Madison Square Garden for solo lectures and debates with Clarence Darrow and other well-known political figures, until promoters would no longer book radical speakers. When shut out of lecture halls, Nearing moved to smaller venues, down to and including the living rooms of other radicals. He continued to write books and pamphlets, many based on his extensive travels around the world, focusing on both the corrupt nature of capitalism and imperialism, and the possibilities for a socialist future. In 1932 he turned his back on the modern economy and began a half-century of successful homesteading with his wife, Helen, first in Vermont and then in Maine.

After 1917 Nearing never held a university position and was blacklisted by mainstream publishers. But he continued his writing, speaking, and activism until he died at the age of 100 in 1983. He went to his grave unwavering in his commitment to his three principles and clear that his adherence to those principles had allowed him to live what he called simply "a good life."[3]

The expansion of free speech and the contraction of democracy

I tell Nearing's story in short form here for comparison to the contemporary political landscape. It is vital to understand both the ways in which formal guarantees of freedom of speech and inquiry have expanded in this culture in the 20th century and, at the same time, the ways in which American democracy has atrophied. Since Nearing was fired and hauled into court, legal protections for freedom of expression have expanded and the culture's commitment to free speech has become more entrenched, which is all to the good. But at the same time, the United States today is a far less vibrant political culture than it was then. This is the paradox to come to terms with: How is it that as formal freedoms that allow democratic participation have expanded, the range and importance of debate and discussion that is essential to democracy has contracted? How is it that in the United States we have arguably the most expansive free speech rights in the industrial world and at the same time an incredibly degraded political culture? How did political freedom produce such a depoliticized culture?

First, the expansion of formal freedoms. On this front, the progress is clear. During World War I, Nearing was only one of about 2,000 people prosecuted under the Espionage act of 1917, which was amended with even harsher provisions in 1918 by what came to be known as the Sedition Act. Hundreds went to prison. The war-related suppression of expression also was merely one component of a wave of repression -- which included not only prison terms but also harassment, deportation, and both state and private violence -- that smashed the American labor movement and crushed radical politics. At that point in U.S. history it is fair to say that freedom of speech literally did not exist. There was no guarantee of public use of public space (such as streets or parks) for expression, and criticism of the government was routinely punished. In one of the most famous, and outrageous, cases of Nearing's time, labor leader and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs was forced to run his fifth and final campaign for president from a federal prison cell after he was sentenced to 10 years under the Espionage Act. His crime was giving a speech which pointed out, among other things, that rich men start wars and poor men fight them.[4]

The struggle to expand the scope of freedom of expression progressed through the century, although not without setbacks. Similar harshly repressive reactions surfaced again after World War II in the 20th century's second major Red Scare. The Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of political discourse in what became known as the Communist conspiracy cases prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940.[5] The law made it a crime to discuss the "duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government," an odd statute in a country created by a revolution against the legal government of that day. It was not until 1957 that the Supreme Court reversed the trend in those cases, overturning convictions under the Act.[6] The 1960s and '70s brought more cases that continued to make more tangible the promise of the First Amendment, including landmark decisions that made it virtually impossible for public officials to use civil libel law to punish sedition[7] and established that government could not punish incendiary speech unless it rose to the level of "incitement to imminent lawless action."[8]

This history leaves the people of the United States much more free to speak critically of government action. For example, since September 11 many people critical of U.S. foreign and military policy have written and spoken in ways that would have without question landed us in jail in previous eras. A sampling of the titles of pieces I wrote, alone and with my political colleague Rahul Mahajan, gives a flavor of the nature of our dissent: "Why I will not rally around the president," "U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts," "War of lies," "Saying goodbye to patriotism."[9] In public speaking and in print, I have argued that the U.S. war on terrorism is a disastrous policy that has more to do with the maintenance of imperial credibility and the extension of U.S. dominance in Central Asia and the Middle East than battling terrorism. I have denounced patriotism as an intellectually and morally bankrupt concept.

I wrote all this as a faculty member of a public university in a politically conservative state. Although there was a letter-writing campaign aimed at getting me fired and I was publicly condemned as a "fountain of undiluted foolishness" by the president of my university, there has been no serious suggestion (that I know of) by anyone in the university that I should be fired. No law enforcement agents have knocked on my door. No judge or jury has passed judgment on me. While many readers who objected to my views have called for my firing, just as many of my critics have said they defend my right to speak even if they find what I say stupid or offensive. I have been called a lot of names, but no formal sanctions have been applied. And, more important, I have never seriously expected formal sanctions for these activities.

It is important to note here that I am white and American-born, with a "normal" sounding American name (meaning, one with European roots). The hostility toward some faculty members has not stayed within such civil boundaries, most notably Sami Al-Arian, the tenured Palestinian computer science professor at the University of South Florida who was vilified in the mass media and fired in December 2001 for his political views. It likely that not only my tenured status -- I can't be fired without cause, protection that few people in this economy have -- but my white skin helped protect me.

In short: I live in a society that is more tolerant of dissidents, legally and culturally, than the one in which Scott Nearing lived. For this, I am grateful. We must always remember that those expansions of our freedom to speak were not gifts from enlightened politicians and judges, but a legacy of the struggles of popular movements -- socialists, labor leaders, civil-rights organizers, and antiwar demonstrators.[10] The freedom of speech we enjoy today was won by people who were despised and denigrated in their time. History has vindicated them, but in their own time they suffered greatly.

So, in many ways I am better off than Scott Nearing; it is nice to know one has a steady job and won't be hauled into court. But even though Nearing's speech was more constrained than mine, in some ways I envy him. That may seem odd, given that in formal terms the United States of 1919 was in many ways a much less democratic nation -- not only was free speech not guaranteed but the majority of the population (women and most non-white citizens) were denied the right to vote. Perhaps we shouldn't call a nation a democracy when it refuses to allow the majority of adults to vote and the ultimate guardians of freedom (the Supreme Court justices) see nothing wrong with jailing a leading intellectual and president candidate for daring to question the judgment of his opponent.

But in another sense, the United States was a far more democratic society when Nearing took the witness stand in 1918. Many commentators have pointed out that democracy is more than simply the presence of certain political institutions and rules. The degree to which a society is democratic also can be judged by how extensive and active is the participation of citizens in the formation of public policy. Even though marginalized and oppressed people had more restrictions on them in 1919, they were in many ways more active participants in democracy, engaging in political discussion and attempting to assert their rights in public.

What does democracy look like?

To make sense of all this requires a definition of democracy. Here I want to discuss not simply the structure of the system but the role that people see themselves as having. One thing that always strikes me as I read accounts of the early part of the 20th century is the vibrancy of political life then compared with today. Far more people -- ordinary people, not the chattering classes -- saw politics as their birthright, not as an activity limited to politicians and intellectuals. Nearing describes boisterous meetings of thousands of people who came to hear speakers and argue politics in the first decades of the century. The Red Scare of the 19-teens and '20s was designed to shut down that kind of political engagement, which was inconsistent with power's conception of democracy. One of the clearest articulations of that conception came from Walter Lippmann, a leading journalist and intellectual of the first half of the 20th century. In a complex society, Lippmann asserted that people did not have the capacity to understand public affairs well enough to have an active role in policy formation:

"The individual man does not have opinions on all public affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. I cannot imagine how he could know, and there is not the least reason for thinking, as mystical democrats have thought, that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses of people can produce a continuous directing force in public affairs."[11]

In such elitist conceptions of democracy, the role of citizens is basically to vote -- to select which group of politicians and their allied experts they would like to run the country -- not to be directly involved in the formation of public policy. In Lippmann's words, "The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd."[12]

Unfortunately, the herd is not only bewildered but unruly, and it keeps jumping the fence; the spirit of participatory democracy doesn't die easily. Another Red Scare was necessary in the late 1940s and '50s. Those renewed challenges to power were beaten down by the end of the 1950s, though it turned out the politically quiescent times weren't permanent, as an expanded notion of democracy re-emerged in the civil rights, women's rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and '70s. These popular struggles produced what those in power saw not as a democratic renewal but as a "crisis of democracy."

Samuel Huntington, a political scientist with solid establishment credentials, warned that the problems of governance in the United States stemmed from what he called "an excess of democracy" and the solution could be found in "a greater degree of moderation in democracy."[13] Citing universities and armies, he pointed out that not all institutions benefit from democratic structures and went on to explain that "the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups." Acknowledging that this "marginality" for some groups is "inherently antidemocratic," Huntington still warned against "overloading the political system with demands which extends its functions and undermine its authority." The answer is, "Less marginality on the part of some groups thus needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups."[14]

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