I have a theory about the way human societies work. It seems that widely varied societies have elements in common. For example, societies everywhere have what you might call a gangster class. Americans, Russians, Italians, Chinese, Arabs – there are always people who gravitate toward criminal enterprise. Most societies have a class of oligarchs – people who amass huge economic power without concern for the public good. Most societies have a class of intellectuals – scholars, writers, artists who may provide a crucial source of wisdom, as intellectuals did in the communist world. But sometimes the intellectual class is craven and deluded.
There are times in history when one group or another gains the ascendancy. Nazi Germany, for example, was a perfect storm of social pathology. Nazi rule represented a hideous alliance of gangsters, oligarchs, psychopaths, and deluded intellectuals. In the turmoil of the time, the worst elements rose to the top. It would be as if the Ku Klux Klan allied itself with the most psychotic Aryan militias, with the Mafia and the Pentagon, and the nation’s top corporations.
Good societies marginalize the gangster element and contain the oligarchs. The stability and freedom enjoyed by Americans has occurred because a society with a large middle class and the rule of law, with broadly available education and abundant resources will have a good solid keel that keeps the boat on a steady course without being buffeted by the crosswinds of social pathology. The pathology is there of course. Racism in America is equivalent to the anti-Semitism that has scarred other societies, and it’s a legacy with which we still struggle.
Liberals in America have been deeply discouraged by the election results, and there is much joking about moving to Canada or New Zealand. They’re afraid the oligarchs are taking control, in alliance with the military, and that dissent is being marginalized.
But there have been times of trouble in the past, and the ship has shown remarkable steadiness. Who would have guessed that two years after his landslide re-election Richard Nixon would have been driven from office because the rule of law would not countenance his crimes? A free press and an open society allow the people to hold their leaders accountable. This nation is not a nation of oligarchs because the people have refused to allow it.
As we sail forward, I’m reminded of a quote from author Alan Paton that was a favorite of the late publisher of the paper where I work. It was Paton’s definition of liberalism. “By liberalism,” Paton said, “I don’t mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.” It’s worth keeping in mind.
This is David Moats from Salisbury.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pultizer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.