Jewish World Review April 22, 2009 / 28 Nissan 5769
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | After touring Jacksonian America in the1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville would write a wide-ranging, eloquent and still highly relevant analysis of "Democracy in America," the title of his masterwork. But he was interested in more than the America of his time. He was also intrigued by the future of democracy in America.
What shape, he wondered, would tyranny assume when it came to this new, ever-bubbling democracy? Being both a Frenchman seeking refuge from the violent swings of politics in his own country (from autocracy to democracy to terror and back again), and a student of classical political theory, he had little doubt that democracy would prove a prelude to tyranny.
He was in doubt only about what shape such a tyranny would take. For in this new, unique society, surely tyranny, too, would come in a new, unique form. He saw democracy in America as always teetering between its two desires: liberty and equality. Which would triumph?
After long deliberation, the answer came to him: In the end, an oppressive equality would settle upon the land. But it would be a velvet-gloved oppression new in the annals of man. He explained how it would work in a chapter entitled "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear."
Tocqueville envisioned a ruling power that would be "absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild," one that keeps its subjects "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?"
Tocqueville didn't use our contemporary term, the nanny state, but he described it with some precision, and a wry detachment. The soft tyranny he envisioned "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…"
"I have always thought," he added, with his usual insight, "that servitude of the regular, quiet and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people."
If you doubt the relevance of Alexis de Tocqueville's dusty old ideas to today's bright, shiny Twittering America, just look around at the web of maternal regulations we follow from dawn to dusk, and that hovers over us even as we sleep on mattresses with tags we are enjoined not to remove under penalty of law. Or just try to fill out your own income tax form without being shown the way by a certified (public accountant) guide.
Whether by intention, accident or just inertia, the maze of rules and regulations we live under, each with its own extensive bureaucracy to administer it, keeps growing much like the Internal Revenue Code. And all of it is always For Our Own Good, of course.
Today's example: the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) passed last year in reflexive response to the fear of lead toys out of mainland China, which the law banned. But this sloppily drafted law also applies to old children's books because of the lead used in their print. By now the act has had a number of surely unintended consequences. In this case, for libraries, schools, book stores, thrift stores and whoever might deal in old books.
Libraries and booksellers have begun sequestering this contraband, now deemed hazardous-and-dangerous to children's health. As well they might, for exposing children to such sources of contamination carries a fine of up to $100,000 and a prison term of up to five years.
An official spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a Mr. Scott Wolfson, issued a notice/order to school libraries warning that, until further word from the sovereign CPSC, school libraries "should take steps to ensure that the children aren't accessing those books." (We no longer read books, we "access" them, just as events and decisions no longer affect us but "impact" us.)
I thought of the treasured volumes of kids' lit on my shelves at home, the ones I've been saving for my grandchildren. My two sets of the Book of Knowledge are so old that one has a drawing of how the Panama Canal will look once it's completed. Should I lock those forbidden books away, like incriminating evidence?
In the end, shall we have to commit the contents of old books to memory, like the characters in "Fahrenheit 451," lest the book-burners send them up in flames? Think of the Russian poets in the Soviet era who carried their subversive lines around in their heads lest the KGB find evidence of thoughtcrime on the premises.
Those who construct Brave New Worlds always begin by erasing the past, for its values must be stamped out, lest the next generation realize that there was once an alternative to the New Order. It is no coincidence that Winston and Julia, the lovers in 1984, rendezvous above an antique shop. Their original sin is to treasure the past. After that, their fate is sealed; it is only a matter of time before the Thought Police come bursting in. These two subversives must be apprehended. And re-educated. For their own good, of course.
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