The Morals That Determine Whether We’re Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian

An old friend once wrote a line I’ll never forget: “There are two kinds of people in the world, then there are infinitely many more.” It always comes to mind when I confront binary generalizations that I'm told define two equally opposing positions, but rarely capture, with any accuracy, the complexity and contrariness of human beings—even when said humans live inside the same country.

Voting patterns, social media bubbles, and major network infotainment can make it seem like the U.S. is split in two, but it is split into, if not an infinity, then a plurality of disparate ideological dispositions. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are two kinds of people. Let’s say the U.S. divides neatly into “liberals” and “conservatives.” What makes the difference between them? Fiscal policy? Education? Views on “law and order,” social welfare, science, religion, public versus private good? Yes, but….

Best-selling NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has controversially claimed that morality—based in emotion—really drives the wedge between competing “tribes” engaged in pitched us-versus-them war. The real contest is gut-level, mostly centered on disgust these days, one of the most primitive of emotional responses (we learn in the hand-drawn animation of a Haidt lecture below). Haidt argues that our sense of us and them is rooted, irrevocably, in our earliest cognitions of physical space.

Haidt situates his analysis under the rubric of “moral foundations theory,” a school of thought “created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes.” Another moral foundations theorist, Peter Ditto, professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, uses his research to draw similar conclusions about “hyperpartisanship” in the U.S. According to Ditto, as he describes in the short video at the top, “morals influence if you’re liberal or conservative.”

How? Ditto identifies five broad, universal moral categories, or “pillars,” that predict political thought and behavior: harm reduction, fairness, loyalty, authority/tradition, and purity. These concerns receive different weighting between self-identified liberals and conservatives in surveys, with liberals valuing harm reduction and fairness highly and generally overlooking the other three, and conservatives giving equal weight to all five (on paper at least). Ditto does step outside the binary in the last half of the segment, noting that his studies turned up a significant number of people who identified as libertarians.

He takes a particular interest in this category. Libertarians, says Ditto, don’t rank any moral value highly, marking their worldview as “pragmatic” and strikingly amoral. They appear to be intensely self-focused and lacking in empathy. Other strains—from democratic socialism to anarchism to fascism—that define American politics today, go unmentioned, as if they didn’t exist, though they are arguably as influential as libertarianism in the strange flowerings of the American left and right, and inarguably as deserving of study.

The idea that one's morals define one's politics doesn’t seem particularly novel, but the research of psychologists like Haidt and Ditto offers new ways to think about morality in public life. It also raises pertinent questions about the gulf between what people claim to value and what they actually, consistently, support, and about how the evolution of moral sensibilities seems to sort people into groups that also share historical identities, zip codes, and economic interests. Nor can we cannot discount the active shaping of public opinion through extra-moral means. Finally, in a two-party system, the options are as few as they can be. Political allegiance can be as much convenience, or reaction, as conviction. We might be right to suspect that any seeming political—or moral—unity on one side or the other could be an effect of amplified oversimplification.

via Aeon

Related Content:

Yale’s Free Course on The Moral Foundations of Political Philosophy: Do Governments Deserve Our Allegiance, and When Should They Be Denied It?

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Do Ethicists Behave Any Better Than the Rest of Us?: Here’s What the Research Shows

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Michael Sandel Explains How Meritocracy Degrades Our Democracy

Imagine if governments and institutions took their policy directives straight from George Orwell’s 1984 or Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” We might veer distressingly close to many a literary dystopia in these times, with duckspeak taking over all the discourse. But some lines—bans on thinking or non-procreative sex, or seriously proposing to eat babies—have not yet been crossed.

When it comes, however, to meritocracy—a term that originated in a 1958 satirical dystopian novel by British sociologist Michael Young—it can seem as if the political class had taken fiction as manifesto. Young himself wrote in 2001, “much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realizing the dangers of what he is advocating.”

In Young's historical analysis, what began as an allegedly democratic impulse, a means of breaking up hereditary castes, became itself a way to solidify and entrench a ruling hierarchy. “The new class has the means at hand,” wrote Young, “and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.” (Wealthy people bribing their children's way into elite institutions comes to mind.) Equal opportunity for those who work hard and play by the rules doesn’t actually obtain in the real world, meritocracy's critics demonstrate—prominent among them the man who coined the term “meritocracy.”

One problem, as Harvard’s Michael Sandel frames it in the short RSA animated video above, is an ancient one, characterized by a very ancient word. “Meritocratic hubris,” he says, “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success,” causes them to “forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.” Accidents of birth are ignored in a hyper-individualist ideology that insists on narcissistic notions of self-made people and a just world (for them).

“The smug conviction that those on the top deserve their fate” comes with its inevitable corollary—“those on the bottom deserve theirs too,” no matter the historical, political, and economic circumstances beyond their control, and no matter how hard they might work or how talented they may be. Meritocracy obviates the idea, Sandel says, that “there but for the grace of God or accidents of fortune go I,” which promoted a healthy degree of humility and an acceptance of life's contingency.

Sandel sees meritocratic attitudes as corrosive to democracy, describing their effects in his upcoming book The Tyranny of Merit. Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits, another ivy league academic and heir to Michael Young's critique, has also just released a book (The Meritocracy Trap) decrying meritocracy. He describes the system as a “trap” in which “upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite.”

Markovitz, who holds two degrees from Yale and a doctorate from Oxford, admits at The Atlantic that most of his students “unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities.” Once an advocate of the idea of meritocracy as a democratic force, he now argues that its promises “exclude everyone outside of a narrow elite…. Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity.”

According to Michael Young, meritocracy’s tireless first critic and theorist (he adapted his satire from his 1955 dissertation), “those judged to have merit of a particular kind,” whether they truly have it or not, always had the potential, as he wrote in The Guardian, to “harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” A class that further dispossessed and disempowered those viewed as losers in the endless rounds of competition for social worth.

Young died in 2002. We can only imagine what he would have made of the exponential extremes of inequality in 2019. A utopian socialist and tireless educator, he also became an MP in the House of Lords and a baron in 1978. Perhaps his new position gave him further vantage to see how “with the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; a time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.”

Related Content:

Michael Sandel on the Partially Examined Life Podcast Talks About the Limits of a Free Market Society

Michael Sandel’s Famous Harvard Course on Justice Launches as a MOOC on Tuesday

Free: Listen to John Rawls’ Course on “Modern Political Philosophy” (Recorded at Harvard, 1984)

Piketty’s Capital in a Nutshell

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Nine Things a Woman Couldn’t Do in 1971

As we barrel toward the centennial celebration of women's suffrage in the United States, it’s not enough to bone up on the platforms of female primary candidates (though that’s an excellent start).

A Twitter user and self-described Old Crone named Robyn recently urged her fellow Americans to take a good long gander at a list of nine freedoms women in the United States were not universally granted in 1971, the year Helen Reddy released the soon-to-be anthem, "I Am Woman," above.

Even those of us who remember singing along as children may experience some shock that these facts check out on Snopes.

  1. CREDIT CARDS: Prior to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, married women couldn’t get credit cards without their husbands' signatures. Single women, divorcees, and widows were often required to have a man cosign. The double standard also meant female applicants were frequently issued card limits up to 50% lower than that of males who earned identical wages.
  2. PREGNANT WORKERS: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 protected pregnant women from being fired because of their impending maternity. But it came with a major loophole that’s still in need of closing. The language of the 41-year-old law stipulates that the employers must accommodate pregnant workers only if concessions are being made for other employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”
  3. JURY DUTY: In 1975, the Supreme Court declared it constitutionally unacceptable for states to deny women the opportunity to serve on juries. This is an arena where we've all come a long way, baby. It’s now completely normal for men to be excused from jury duty as the primary caregivers of their young children.
  4. MILITARY COMBAT: In 2013, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey announced that the Pentagon was rescinding the direct combat exclusion rule that barred women from serving in artillery, armor, infantry and other such battle roles. At the time of the announcement, the military had already seen more than 130 female soldiers killed, and 800 wounded on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  5. IVY LEAGUE ADMISSIONS: Those who conceive of elite colleges as breeding grounds for sexual assault protests and Title IX activism would do well to remember that Columbia College didn’t admit women until 1983, following in the marginally deeper footsteps of others in the Ivy League—Harvard (1977), Dartmouth (1972), Brown (1971), Yale (1969), and Princeton (1969). These days, single sex higher education options for women far outnumber those for men, but the networking power and increased earning potential an Ivy League degree confers remains the same.
  6. WORKPLACE HARASSMENT: In 1977, women who'd been sexually harassed in the workplace received confirmation in three separate trials that they could sue their employers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex harassment was also unlawful. In between was the television event of 1991, Anita Hill’s shocking testimony against her former boss, U.S. Supreme Court justice (then nominee) Clarence Thomas.
  7. SPOUSAL CONSENT: In 1993, spousal rape was officially outlawed in all 50 states. Not tonight honey, or you'll have a headache in the form of your wife's legal back up.
  8. HEALTH INSURANCE: In 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act decreed that any health insurance plan established after March of that year could not charge women higher premiums than men for identical benefits. This was bad news for women who got their health insurance through their jobs, and whose employers were grandfathered into discriminatory plans established prior to 2010. Of course, that's all ancient history now.
  9. CONTRACEPTIVES: In 1972, the Supreme Court made it legal for all citizens to possess birth control, irrespective of marital status, stating "if the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child." (It’s worth noting, however, that in 1972, states could still constitutionally prohibit and punish sex outside of marriage.)

Feminism is NOT just for other women.

- Old Crone

Via Kottke

Related Content:

The Library of Congress Digitizes Over 16,000 Pages of Letters & Speeches from the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and You Can Help Transcribe Them

MAKERS Tells the Story of 50 Years of Progress for Women in the U.S.

Women’s Hidden Contributions to Modern Genetics Get Revealed by New Study: No Longer Will They Be Buried in the Footnotes

A Space of Their Own, a New Online Database, Will Feature Works by 600+ Overlooked Female Artists from the 15th-19th Centuries

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch I Signed the Petition, a Philosophical Meditation on the Decision to Sign a Petition Asking Radiohead to Boycott Tel Aviv

From the point of view of political philosophy, both liberals and conservatives should see boycotts as a clear-cut issue. While in practice millions have had to fight for their economic rights, in theory individual citizens should be able to spend, or withhold, their money where they see fit. The politics of boycotts are far more heated on the supply side, however, perhaps signaling that individuals feel increasingly dependent on the wealthy to resolve conflicts.

We may want corporations, for example, to practice good citizenship and withhold business and endorsements from bad actors, while, at the same time, holding serious doubts about legally calling corporations citizens. When it comes to high-profile artists like J.K. Rowling, the Chemical Brothers, or Radiohead, things can get even more heated as the proprietary feelings of fandom collide with political tactics. Add to this the notorious BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and you have instant inflammatory controversy.

In their own words, BDS “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” One of the means at its disposal is cultural boycott, pressuring artists not to perform in Israel. Hundreds have complied, protesting illegal settlements, human rights abuses, state repression, and treatment of artists like Dareen Tatour, a poet who was jailed for several days and given three years house arrest for social media posts.

The three big artists named above all refused to boycott Israel, even when petitions appeared with thousands of signatures. In response to criticism and a Change. Org petition, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke issued an angry response that hardly calmed things down. “The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that’s black or white,” he said in 2017. “I have a problem with that. It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public.”

Whatever your thoughts on the band’s stance, Yorke points to something that is necessary to keep in mind: politics are always personal. They are personal when we expect artists to stay out of political debates, as though they can’t be full human beings in public. They are personal when the expectations levied on artists don’t accord with their sense of the issue, even if they might agree in principle with those pressuring them.

The entanglement of the personal and political bothered Palestinian filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel, who signed the petition to Radiohead then regretted it. For him, however, the issue was not Thom Yorke’s feelings, but his own, as a Palestinian raised in refugee camps in Lebanon, for whom the issues addressed by BDS are not abstractions affecting other people. Fleifel, who now lives in Denmark, called his friend Faris to talk over his misgivings. Then he turned their conversation into the short, abstract documentary above, I Signed the Petition.

The film provides, as Aeon writes, a brief but “complex account of how individuals make their own politics,” and the role power plays in that making. Fleifel confesses that he’s afraid his name will appear on a “blacklist” after he signed the petition for Radiohead to boycott Tel Aviv. He expresses the perfectly legitimate fear that “they’re not gonna let me in next time I go to Palestine.” Faris validates his “concerns and fears,” then paints a decidedly bleak picture of what Fleifel would find on his return to occupied Palestine, and an image of Palestinians as powerless, resentment-fueled “losers” in the global system.

The filmmaker responds with a metaphor: “So why are all these dogs barking in the desert?”—referring to the Palestinian artists who circulated and signed the petition. If a boycott doesn't make sense in this situation, what does? As Naomi Shihab Nye writes of her experience as a diasporic Palestinian artist, "this tragedy with a terrible root / is too big for us. What flag can we wave?"

Fleifel keeps calling our attention to the ways that politics and art and our individual lives are all bound up together. Yorke may have wanted a personal approach, and who can blame him? Who can blame the Palestinian artists under threat of imprisonment or permanent exile for fearing to risk more than a signature, if even that, in exercising the only political power they may have? Fleisel and Faris’s perspectives give needed depth and weight to events, without providing any easy resolution.

I Signed the Petition will be added to our collection of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Aeon

Related Content:

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke Performs Songs from His New Soundtrack for the Horror Film, Suspiria

Radiohead-Approved, Fan-Made Film of the Band at Roseland for 2011’s The King of Limbs Tour

Arab Photography Archive Puts 22,000 Historic Images Online: Get a Rare Glimpse into Life and Art in the Arab World

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Library of Congress Digitizes Over 16,000 Pages of Letters & Speeches from the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and You Can Help Transcribe Them

“Democracy may not exist,” Astra Taylor declares in the title of her new book, “but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.” This inherent paradox, she argues, is not fatal, but a tension with which each era’s democratic movements must wrestle, in messy struggles against inevitable opposition. “Perfect democracy… may not in fact exist and never will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t disappear.”

Taylor is upfront about “democracy’s dark history, from slavery and colonialism to facilitating the emergence of fascism.” But she is equally celebratory of its successes—moments when those who were denied rights marshaled every means at their disposal, from lobbying campaigns to confrontational direct action, to win the vote and better the lives of millions. For all its imperfections, the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th century did just that.

It did so—even before electronic mass communication systems—by building international activist networks and forming national associations that took highly-visible action for decades until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. We can learn how this all came about from the sources themselves, through the “letters, speeches, newspaper articles, personal diaries, and other materials from famed suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”

So reports Mental Floss, describing the Library of Congress’ digital collection of suffragist papers, which includes dozens of famous and less famous activist voices. In one example of both international cooperation and international tension, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anthony’s successor (see a published excerpt of one of her speeches below), describes her experience at the Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Rome. “A more unpromising place for a Congress I never saw,” she wrote, dismayed. Maybe despite herself she reveals that the differences might have been cultural: “The Italian women could not comprehend our disapproval.”

The fractious, often disappointing, relationships between the larger international women’s suffrage movement, the African American women’s suffrage movement, and mostly male Civil Rights leaders in the U.S. are represented by the diaries. letters, notebooks, and speeches of Mary Church Terrell, “a founder of the National Association of Colored Women. These documents shed light on minorities’ laborious suffrage struggles and her own dealings with Civil Rights figures like W.E.B. Du Bois." (Terrell became an activist in 1892 and lived to fight against Jim Crow segregation in the early 1950s.)

The collection includes “some 16,000 historic papers related to the women’s rights movement alone.” All of them have been digitally scanned, and if you’re eager to dig into this formidable archive, you’re in luck. The Library of Congress is asking for help transcribing so that everyone can read these primary sources of democratic history. So far, reports Smithsonian, over 4200 documents have been transcribed, as part of a larger, crowdsourced project called By the People, which has previously transcribed papers from Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and others.

Rather than focusing on an individual, this project is inclusive of what is arguably the main engine of democracy: large-scale social movements—paradoxically the most democratic means of claiming individual rights. Enter the impressive digital collection “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote” here, and, if you’re moved by civic duty or scholarly curiosity, sign up to transcribe.

via Mental Floss

Related Content:  

The Women’s Suffrage March of 1913: The Parade That Overshadowed Another Presidential Inauguration a Century Ago

Odd Vintage Postcards Document the Propaganda Against Women’s Rights 100 Years Ago

The Library of Congress Makes Thousands of Fabulous Photos, Posters & Images Free to Use & Reuse

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Mister Rogers Creates a Prime Time TV Special to Help Parents Talk to Their Children About the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (1968)

Nearly three minutes into a patient blow-by-blow demonstration of how breathing works, Fred Rogers’ timorous hand puppet Daniel Striped Tiger surprises his human pal, Lady Aberlin, with a whammy: What does assassination mean?

Her answer, while not exactly Webster-Merriam accurate, is both considered and age-appropriate. (Daniel's forever-age is somewhere in the neighborhood of four.)

The exchange is part of a special primetime episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, that aired just two days after Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Rogers, alarmed that America’s children were being exposed to unfiltered descriptions and images of the shocking event, had stayed up late to write it, with the goal of helping parents understand some of the emotions their children might be experiencing in the aftermath:

I’ve been terribly concerned about the graphic display of violence which the mass media has been showing recently. And I plead for your protection and support of your young children. There is just so much that a very young child can take without it being overwhelming.

Rogers was careful to note that not all children process scary news in the same way.

To illustrate, he arranged for a variety of responses throughout the Land of Make Believe. One puppet, Lady Elaine, is eager to act out what she has seen: "That man got shot by that other man at least six times!”

Her neighbor, X the Owl, doesn't want any part of what is to him a frightening-sounding game.

And Daniel, who Rogers’ wife Joanne intimated was a reflection "the real Fred,” preferred to put the topic on ice for future discussions—a luxury that the grown up Rogers would not allow himself.

The episode has become notorious, in part because it aired but once on the small screen. (The 8-minute clip at the top of the page is the longest segment we were able to truffle up online.)

Writer and gameshow historian Adam Nedeff watched it in its entirety at the Paley Center for Media, and the detailed impressions he shared with the Neighborhood Archive website provides a sense of the piece as a whole.

Meanwhile, the Paley Center’s catalogue credits speak to the drama-in-real-life immediacy of the turnaround from conception to airdate:

Above is some of the footage Rogers feared unsuspecting children would be left to process solo. Readers, are there any among you who remember discussing this event with your parents... or children?

Ever vigilant, Rogers returned in the days immediately following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, with a special message for parents who had grown up watching him.

Related Content:

Mr. Rogers’ Nine Rules for Speaking to Children (1977)

When Fred Rogers and Francois Clemmons Broke Down Race Barriers on a Historic Episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1969)

All 886 episodes of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood Streaming Online (for a Limited Time)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Prediction of How American Democracy Could Lapse Into Despotism, Read by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq's third novel Platform, which involves a terrorist bombing in southeast Asia, came out the year before a similar real-life incident occurred in Thailand. His seventh novel Submission, about the conversion of France into a Muslim country, came out the same day as the massacre at the offices of Islam-provoking satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. His most recent novel Serotonin, in which farmers violently revolt against the French state, happened to come out in the early stages of the populist "yellow vest" movement. Houellebecq has thus, even by some of his many detractors, been credited with a certain prescience about the social and political dangers of the world in which we live today.

So too has a countryman of Houellebecq's who did his writing more than 150 years earlier: Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, the enduring study of that then-new country and its daringly experimental political system. And what does perhaps France's best-known living man of letters think of Tocqueville, one of his best-known predecessors? "I read him for the first time long ago and really found it a bit boring," Houellebecq says in the interview clip above, with a flatness reminiscent of his novels' disaffected narrators. "Then I tried again two years ago and I was thunderstruck."

As an example of Tocqueville's clear-eyed assessment of democracy, Houellebecq reads aloud this passage about its potential to turn into despotism:

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Being a writer, Houellebecq naturally points out the deftness of Tocqueville's style: "It's magnificently punctuated. The distribution of colons and semicolons in the sections is magnificent." But he also has comments on the passage's philosophy, pronouncing that it "contains Nietzsche, only better." The operative Nietzschean concept here is the "last man," described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the presumable end point of modern society. If conditions continue to progress in the way they have been, each and every human being will become this last man, a weak, comfortable, complacent individual with nothing left to fight for, who desires nothing more than his small pleasure for the day, his small pleasure for the night, and a good sleep.

Safe to say that neither Nietzsche nor Tocqueville looked forward, nor does Houellebecq look forward, to the world of enervated last men into which democracy could deliver us. Houellebecq also reads aloud another passage from Democracy in America, one that now appears on the Wikipedia page for soft despotism, describing how a democratic government might gain absolute power over its people without the people even noticing:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm 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 rise 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 nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

"A lot of what I've written could be situated within this scenario," Houellebecq says, adding that in his generation the "definitive transformation of society into individuals" has been more complete than Tocqueville or Nietzsche would have imagined.

In addition to lacking a family, Houellebecq (whose second novel was titled Atomized) also mentions having "the impression of being caught up in a network of complicated, minute, and stupid rules" as well as "of being herded toward a uniform kind of happiness, toward a happiness which doesn't really make me happy." In the end, adds Houellebecq, the aristocratic Tocqueville "is in favor of the development of democracy and equality, while being more aware than anyone else of its dangers." That the 19th-century America Tocqueville knew avoided them he credited to the "habits of the heart" of the American people. We citizens of democratic countries, whichever democratic country we live in, would do well to ask where the habits of our own hearts will lead us next.

Related Content:

Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: An Animated Introduction to the Most Insightful Study of American Democracy

How to Know if Your Country Is Heading Toward Despotism: An Educational Film from 1946

George Orwell’s Final Warning: Don’t Let This Nightmare Situation Happen. It Depends on You!

Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

The History of Western Social Theory, by Alan MacFarlane, Cambridge University

Hunter S. Thompson Gets in a Gunfight with His Neighbor & Dispenses Political Wisdom: “In a Democracy, You Have to Be a Player”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

More in this category... »
Quantcast