November 9, 2016

Tyranny of the Majority

Gather, several religious congregations have beckoned, for reconciliation, for healing, for hope. Though I would take comfort from being with others who are similarly dismayed by Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, I will not – cannot – attend. Not because I am otherwise engaged. But because I refuse to be reconciled or to heal.

Democrats have tried making nice with Republicans. The result is an even more divided electorate, riven by differences in worldview that I am not willing or able to paper over. Last night’s election is evidence to me not of a need to listen to one another or of a need to acknowledge the validity of another world view. I have turned to Tocqueville, Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown for counsel.

French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed the United States in 1831. The child of nobles who had survived the French Revolution, Tocqueville wondered how a democratic government worked. He picked up on a potentially fatal flaw in the system. The “majority,” he noted “exercise a prodigious actual authority” that had the potential to ignore “the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path. This state of things is harmful in itself and dangerous for the future” (Democracy in America, vol. 1, ch. 15).

Faced with the power of such a majority in 1849 as the nation invaded Mexico and a majority of voters persisted in upholding legalized slavery, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule […] not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.” Why, if the majority favors injustice, “[m]ust the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?”

Thoreau’s essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” advised readers to heed their consciences. He refused to pay taxes, to resist not with violence but with the power of the pocket. To what did he owe allegiance? His conscience. He knew what he thought was right, and he would not betray it. This is a dangerous principle, one that can be used to justify most any atrocious actions, but, in Thoreau’s case, his motives and methods inspired many who would go on to lead their nations to independence, from Mohandas K. Gandhi in India to Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

The words of William Lloyd Garrison, the great Abolitionist and newspaper publisher, also inspire me: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard” (The Liberator, 1, Jan. 1, 1831).

A coincidence that a curator recently unearthed and identified a marble bust of John Brown? I think not. A decade after Thoreau published his essay on civil disobedience, Brown and a band of extremists raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in a bid to arm slaves and end human bondage in this country. Before he was hanged December 2, 1859, months before the outbreak of the Civil War, he allowed a sculptor from Boston to measure his face. The bust was unveiled in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

I do not espouse violence. But I will not sit by as Democrats make nice, yet again. I am motivated by the words and actions of my American forbears as I try to imagine how I can participate in American democracy without appearing to support the revocation of hard-won civil rights. I will never turn my back on equality. I will never bow to the will of a majority that sanctions racism, misogyny, nativism, and ignorance.

N.B.: My daughter remarks that I have only drawn on the thoughts and words of “dead white men.” My point: one does not need to be female or be of color to have a corner on righteousness. These issues belong to all of us. And in solidarity, we are defiant and demand justice and fairness for all.