On the Nexus of ‘Human Understanding’ and Freedom

            Last week’s Soundings commentary highlighted Hélène Berr’s life and especially her thoughtful insight that tyranny was unlikely to be avoided or overcome unless sufficient numbers of people of good will fully grasp the conditions and claims that lead (or are leading) to the loss of freedom. She did not imagine that she or anyone could reach all in occupied Paris during World War II, but she argued in her journal, rightly in my view, that freedom could not stand, or wholesale discrimination and genocide against a religious group be ended, unless enough people acted to temper their worst instincts, to discipline themselves against those inclinations when they arose and to demand change. Populations run the constant risk of losing sight of their most precious gift when challenges arise and would-be leaders play on human emotions and brokenness to seek or retain power without such self-awareness, temperance and prudence operative among at least a working majority.

            Despite her relative youth, Berr’s understanding was profound. Democracy’s Achilles heel is its requirement of a self-disciplined citizenry ever alive to its own weaknesses and wary of individuals seeking to play to its natural avarice, selfishness, fear, intolerance or jealousy to garner advantage. The lesson is at once age old and ever new and a prime reason why democratically elected states have often faltered historically. That is, electorates in those regimes have willingly ceded their rightful governing authority to false prophets or to those mobilizing them on the basis of malice, hatred or perceived short-term gain. Fear is the weapon of many of these so-called leaders. Many such tyrants, too, have contended that this or that social group enjoyed unfair status typically and ironically, not because that population in fact did, but to claim power or to gain advantage for themselves or those they represent by mobilizing a phalanx against the targeted “other.” These dynamics constitute a sort of shell game that empties society of freedom even as it installs one form or another of autocracy and results in the mistreatment (or much worse) of one or more groups in society.

            Examples of these political movements and conditions are surely afoot in our own nation now and in Europe. In Europe their virility and ugliness were plain in the recent European Parliamentary elections in which relatively small, but vocal xenophobic, jingoistic and nationalistic parties did exceptionally well. Some analysts have suggested that high jobless levels are the cause of the popular venom on display (even though unemployment has been dropping), but that contention simply begs the question of why the individuals mobilized around hate are content to scapegoat immigrants in their midst for problems that those they single out did not create. In the U.S., many on the right have also demonized immigrants in recent years while others have actively sought to discourage African Americans and other minorities from voting; that is, they have de facto sought to deprive those individuals of their civil rights. In both cases, these groups have been targeted out of a combination of derision and fear.

            Meanwhile, those on the far-right fringe in this nation have gone still further to commit sedition or worse in a misplaced display of angst. I have in mind the recent example of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his compatriots. Bundy had grazed his cattle on federal land for many years, but had not paid any user fees for the privilege. When a U.S. Court ordered Bureau of Land Management agents to go to Bundy’s ranch to arrange for payment of the same, he gathered armed friends to confront the government officials. Among much else that made little sense in his long rhetorical diatribes seeking to rationalize his actions, Bundy argued that he did not recognize the legitimacy of the government whose property had provided an important share of his income and way of life for many years. Interestingly, he saw fit to make this claim only when that regime asked for payment of a debt duly owed for a service he had long used.

            Bundy represents a portion of the U.S. citizenry that now is acclimatized to hating their own national government (and misunderstanding their own sovereignty) profoundly. These individuals believe it is appropriate to arm themselves and to commit sedition in their paranoiac and self-righteous confusion. Berr, in her journal, pointed to exactly this sort of deep misunderstanding and ignorance as the bane of freedom and self-governance and so it has proven in our context as well.

            The United States has had political leaders for decades now (and will doubtless always have some would-be leaders pressing such claims) who have not only encouraged the sort of lawless behavior Bundy represents, but who also have been willing otherwise to work diligently to mislead and misinform and to divide groups in the polity when they perceived such steps would assist them in their quest for power. Only an engaged, deliberative and prudent citizenry can prove sufficiently strong as to dismiss such claimants for what they are and refuse to countenance them. Put differently, ignorance, fear and apathy are the enemies of self-governance. These will ever permit individuals to use the population’s emotions against itself to mobilize people in confusion, antipathy and hatred. History suggests that such scenarios will redound against the people’s best interests and often ultimately undermine their claim to popular sovereignty and freedom unless an informed population prevents them from doing so.

            While the U.S. is now evidencing an uncomfortable measure of these well-known anti-democratic tendencies in its population and among its political leaders, such elements are presently in full flower in Myanmar, which ironically is otherwise seeking to democratize after decades of authoritarian rule. Nonetheless, Buddhist political leaders, representatives of the majority faith in that nation, have found that discrimination against the minority Rohingya Muslim population is very popular and garners votes. Accordingly, these leaders are systematically depriving that group of its civil rights and some of its members of their lives by denying them needed health care and nutrition. Some high-profile Burmese Buddhist political leaders have gone so far as to deny that the Rohingya exist (its members have lived in the nation since at least the 1750s), a radical stance that seeks to wipe this population from existence and history. As these leaders do so, they are undermining any real hope their nation has of truly democratizing and assuring the freedom of all its citizens. Too many of the Burmese people now appear content to deny liberty to some in their midst while too few are demanding a stop to the popular vicious hatred and hate-mongering. Berr was right. Democratic self-rule depends on wide awareness in the population of its responsibilities and of the dangers to freedom from unbridled rhetoric aimed at one or another group. Freedom, that is, depends foremost on human understanding.

            Now, as always, the central question for popular self-rule is how to ensure against leaders playing upon a citizenry’s willingness to discriminate and to rationalize its actions, whether those are aimed at Jews, Muslims, Cossacks or any of an incalculable number of other targets for malice, ire and hatred across history. Democratic populations that truly venerate freedom must ensure their governments work assiduously to assist them in gaining and maintaining the capacities necessary to check their own worst impulses and to prevent the rise of individuals who would use their emotions to mobilize for hate, persecution and personal power. One may not take even the first step toward ensuring this outcome without first garnering the understanding of a wide swathe of the citizenry concerning the relative fragility of self-rule and of the dangers to it that inhere in human behavioral potentials. There will always be individuals who will act intemperately and who will find ways to rationalize, support and even celebrate full-throated hatred and vilification of some in their midst. So the challenge is finding enough people of good will, generation after generation, who can see clearly and can act judiciously to preserve the rights of all lest their own freedom be degraded and lost as it is also taken from the targeted “others.” Partisans of liberty should be indefatigable in their efforts to ensure a citizenry of such capacities. As Berr knew well, even as a young adult in World War II, human understanding is the sine qua non of self-governance and freedom.