GEORGIA — Some of democracy’s “friendly critics” — as the title of the conference dubbed them — gathered last month at Berry College in Rome, about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta. The topic was timely: lately, few words have been nearer to the lips of politicians and public figures, protesters and pundits, than “democracy.” And it is rarely the object of criticism, friendly or otherwise.
The gathering drew plenty of academics and students (the latter enticed in part by classroom credit, which may explain some of the bobbing heads). Speakers included Eric Cohen of The New Atlantis, Patrick Deneen of Princeton, Werner Dannhauser of Michigan State, and Daniel J. Mahoney of Assumption College. All had engaging and valuable things to say about democracy and its entangling alliances, or its collision with other obsessions of the American mind: religion, philosophy, popular culture, and bioethics. The results were occasionally incendiary.
To wit, Lord Acton once noted that democracy seems to be linked historically with slavery; and this insight may explain the trepidation that underlay Eric Cohen’s full throated warnings about biotechnology and democracy. What our scientific and material mastery over life allows us to do, or soon will allow us to do, he said, is enslave our descendants, and harvest them as raw material for our benefit. It would be a real life version of The Matrix, with us as the machines.
Cohen spoke of the worry that we may become “a nation whose need for health has made us morally mad.” Already the Food and Drug Administration, in groping for a way to regulate biotech research, treats embryos as products intended for consumption. It may be that biotechnology will succeed in concentrating an almost unearthly power in the hands of those who already wield a great deal of it.
WHILE THAT WAS SINKING IN, Werner Dannhauser delivered his talk on Friedrich Nietzsche with an able sense of comic timing. Nietzsche was no friendly critic of democracy at all, but rather a “bitter enemy.” Dannhauser summarized Nietzsche’s judgment on popular government as “a response to the death of God of unusual stupidity.”
This because democracy, historically, has been linked to five things which Nietzsche disdained with a witty unrelenting scorn that was popularized in America by his admirer H.L. Mencken: (1) progress, (2) compassion, (3) equality, (4) Christianity, and (5) peace. Nietzsche’s attitude toward the last, Dannhauser said, was rendered by George C. Scott’s portrayal of Gen. George Patton in the famous film of the same name, in which Patton exclaims of war: “God help me, I love it!”
Nietzsche’s great value was not his ideals but his candor. To rely on an anachronism, we might say he was endearingly politically incorrect. This age of cant and preening priggishness could prosper by a strong dose of straight talk, and Dannhauser recommended Nietzsche as potent medicine.
But the patient could well choke on such a bitter pill. Modern democracy, several panelists agreed, often functions as a program or method of attempting to assimilate irreconcilables. All the cant and catch phrases represent a real effort to paper over the failure to accomplish the impossible. For example, many modern democrats imagine that we can simultaneously have prefect personal autonomy — Prof. Patrick Deneen spoke of an earlier conference at Princeton dedicated to the defense of “voluntary amputation” of “oppressive limbs” — and thriving community.
OF COURSE, such a social condition is impossible. If men are perfectly autonomous, they must be empowered to obliterate community by means of their unconstrained choices. If real community is to exist, it must hold real power, whether legal, moral, or merely conventional, to command the assent of its members. The society of perfect individual autonomy is the ideal of the Open Society, in which all questions are open questions. But this is a dreary contradiction. What it really means is that all questions are open questions, except the question of whether all questions are open.
No society can suffer its very legitimacy to be questioned brazenly and indefinitely, and, in this basic sense, all societies are closed. Even the classical liberal Thomas Babington Macaulay took a sarcastic shot at Socrates, philosophy’s hero of the open society: “The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.”
But these “friendly critics” were not just democracy’s enemies in disguise. Recall that the Whigs of the 18th century — then the party of radical democracy — managed to produce and nurture modernity’s greatest conservative: Edmund Burke, whose own criticisms provided democracy with profound and subtle ballast against its own excesses. This tempering was captured by G. K. Chesterton, despite his dislike of Burke:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who just happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of their death.
By adding the strength of the nonrational — intuition, prescription, veneration: in a word, tradition — to rationalistic democracy, Burke gave it roots with which to anchor itself in the hearts and souls of men, and thus endure the vicissitudes of history.
The America’s founders were also numbered among history’s greatest friendly critics of democracy. The American Revolution, in Acton’s words, “established a pure democracy; but it was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess.” It is fair to say, then, that the conference at Berry College was all about rearmament and restored vigilance.