Democracy is not for sissies.

The ongoing discussion at Crooked Timber about Gatesgate reminds me of something that I’ve found troubling for a long time. There’s a way in which U.S. democracy is milquetoast, relative to its history, to other countries, and to a more, well, vigorous, agonistic, whatever you want to call it ideal of democracy. We have nothing in the U.S. to match the grilling the Government gets in Question Time in the U.K., or the ferocious socialist and other real opposition parties and strikes and protests that shut down whole cities in Europe. Instead, we have this weird ideal of reserve that sometimes seems to strip out the anger and emotion from politics.

The above-linked post seems to reflect this in terms of interaction with the police. The idea that someone might decide to shout at the police seems to strike some people as … disruptive. Messy. The behavior of a troublemaker rather than a good, quiet citizen who likes to cooperate with authority. Well forgive me if I don’t count quiet and cooperative toward authority as among the virtues of good citizenship. Maybe this is a little “boy has been reading too much Mill for his own good and thinks he’s all macho,” but perhaps officials ought to be reminded that citizens are people too, with their own drives and emotions and interests and rights and power, not just noisy obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of nice clean paperwork or sheep to be herded about or impersonal players in denatured “situations” to which officers “proceed” and “respond.”

This is also something that’s at the core of my objections to things like public reason. Democracy is a fight. Roberto Unger would say that politics in general is a fight, and he’s right, but democracy in particular serves, among many other functions, the function of taking social conflict and making it about words and votes instead of blows, and channeling it into social progress. And I think this function is undermined if we strip the really deep conflicts out of our institutional voices — if we don’t sometimes stand up as citizens and say “no, you asshole, that’s not right” to one another.


18 Responses to “Democracy is not for sissies.”

  1. Steve M. Says:

    This is, in general a feature of certain eras in American history. I think one might fairly level this accusation at certain parts of the gilded age, but otherwise, it seems to me, it’s largely a phenomenon that arose after the depression and second world war. Patrick Henry and John Adams, to cite just two of many, many examples, did not count meek submission to authority among the virtues of free citizens.

    I suspect that there’s some deep connection between civility as an American political norm and post-1932 presidency’s essentially charismatic form. Augustine Rome was, after all, decidedly more civil than its republican ancestor.

  2. Steve M. Says:

    Sloppy editing: That first sentence ought to read “This is, in general, only a feature of certain eras in American history.”

  3. x. trapnel Says:

    You might be interested in the discussion at Moskos’ Cop in the Hood blog; and by interested in, I mean depressed by.

    I find it interesting that we both seem to be having such similar reactions, and we both seem to be rather pro-Athens.

    I think the choice of “sissies” for the post title is a poor one, though. This isn’t about a lack of ‘manly virtues’ or whatever. If anything, willingness to excuse pigs’ behavior in cases like this is typically grounded in a misplaced respect for “toughness,” etc.

  4. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    Good post. I often have the same reaction when thinking about speech (and Mill, etc.). There seems to be this bizarre idea that awfully, horribly offensive speech should somehow be regulated in a democracy. Admitting that I am something of a free speech militant, my reaction is always along the lines of this post: allowing almost completely free and unfettered speech is extremely difficult. One has to countenance all sorts of horrible and horrific statements that stigmatize, marginalize, and produce psychological harm.

    No one ever said it was easy; least of all, Mill. The question is whether it is virtually always worth it (I say yes).

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    X, excellent point on the title — there does seem to be this sense on behalf of the defenders of the police that casual use of force (be it arrest or the Chris Rock video that Moskos seemed to endorse about “ass-kicking”) is a-ok, and that’s definitely not an ideal of “toughness” that I want to be invoking.

  6. ellen cassidy Says:

    omg, paul and the police.

  7. Ryan Says:

    So will you be willing to repeal all hate speech regulation? Or is freedom of speech only for disadvantaged minorities and the tenured ‘radicals’ who use their identification with them for personal gain?

    I suppose I agree that democracy isn’t for sissies with regards to free speech, but the the issue here isn’t free speech but avoidance of escalation. The cop certainly made a mistake in arresting Gates, who was in fact likely harmless, but police are aware that what starts out as mere disorderly conduct can degenerate into physical aggression very quickly. The police thus are rightly given the discretion to arrest people for disorderly behavior so as to prevent en esclation. The cop made an error in judgment in this particular case -he should have guessed that a harvard prof wasn’t going to pull out a gun from his kitchen cabinet- but ultimately the practice should be judged on a rule utilitarian standard and on this standard I think it is justified. Things are better if the police have this practice than if they don’t.

  8. Ryan Says:

    Still, I don’t think that giving the police discretion to arrest the disorderly is incompatible with a thriving feisty democracy. There will always be people willing to brave arrest (so long as major charges generally don’t follow) to tell the police off.

    I think that sometimes people ought to act as Gates did and that those people also ought to able to be arrested for their behavior. The good of society requires that we give police this discretion, and the good of society also requires that men and women occassionally become disorderly and do things the police would prefer they not and the law says they can’t under certain circumstances.

  9. Ryan Says:

    Oh, i meant not incompatible -obviously…

    And Mill also suggested that one could censor speech in cases where it would likely incite mobs to riot. One could actually draw from this a Millian justification for allowing police to arrest someone acting as Gates did on the grounds of preventing an esclation (though Mill probably woldn’t approve of this instance of its application). He wasn’t quite the free speech absolutist he seems.

  10. Ryan Says:

    rather, not-not incompatible (it’s early). I also didn’t realize that most of these points are redundant given Brandon del Pozo’s articulate post that you linked to.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ryan, I agree that consistency requires me to oppose hate speech laws… fortunately, I do. It’s much better to educate bigots than to punish them anyway.

    There’s something to the rest of what you say, but if the police have an anti-escalation arrest power, they ought to be required to exercise it honestly and defend its use as such — “I arrested him because he was loud and in public” is a very different kind of statement from “I arrested him before he could flip out and start hitting people.” Importantly, the latter permits the arrest to be challenged with reasons that the cop was not reasonable to think that escalation would actually happen in that situation.

  12. Ryan Says:

    You are definitely right about the cop having to justify himself on those terms. But we should be clear that he need not show that he could ‘expect’ the escalation to happen, I think, to be justified.

    He might think the likelihood is under 50 percent and still be justified in taking preventive action in some cases. How likely the escalation has to be depends partly how bad it would be if things got out of hand (are we worried about a 10 percent chance of riot or a 10 percent chance of bitch slapping?), though that is hard to know too.

    And we should certainly allow for a margin of error in which we can say that the cop made a mistake in judgment but is not in a sense guilty of a wrongdoing because he made an error that a reasonable person trying to weigh all of the goods

  13. Ryan Says:

    We can also disagree on the exact percentages of course.

  14. Steve M. Says:

    Forgive my hijacking a days old thread. But as I’ve been turning l’affaire Gates (francophones: is that correctly spelled?), it calls to mind a view about the harm principle that I’ve been developing for the past few years. Namely, that it’s a bit of a sham. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say this as a Mill-basher, but rather as the most militant possible Mill-backer. When I read Mill, I see him wanting to defend a substantive conception of virtue, under which being a moral busybody is just plain immoral. There’s something horribly wrong with people who sit around thinking about the terrible things that other people are doing behind closed doors. Virtuous liberals exhibit a humane independence from the concerns, or affairs, of others. And they strive to achieve self government, in all the senses of that word. In fact, obsessing about the moral failings of others is weirdly akratic and amazingly servile. Maybe it’s not democracy that’s not for cowards (you be an authoritarian democrat!), it’s liberalism, constitutionalism, and the rest.

    Now, On Liberty is part political tract, so the authors (and I include Harriet Taylor as a author; you should, too) use neutral, vaguely-legalistic language to describe all this. That tendency is rhetorically effective, but really very frustrating — to my mind, mostly because it makes liberalism vulnerable to juvenile attacks from shallow thinkers.

    I’m terribly fascinated by English and American political thinkers and revolutionary leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems to me that they have a similar attitude toward authority — something real, and necessary, but also necessarily suspect and never followed because of its being authoritative.

    It should go without saying that the view I’m outlining does not make a virtue of obeying authority figures — which I’d define to include people with real political or economic power — merely because they’re authority figures. Quite the contrary; Mill might, in his decidedly unsquishy liberal heart, say that resistance to authority qua authority is, all things being equal, a virtue. Of course, you should follow the directives of authority figures who tell you to do things that you should do, or who promulgate rules in situations where one rule is as good as another, but you should follow those rules because of characteristics other than their having come from an authority figure.

    But a lot of people think precisely that authority is owed obedience (to say nothing of lawyers!). They also seem to think that authority figures can never properly be blamed for bringing violence to bear against citizens, and that observers, unless they are also authority figures (or maybe unless they are figures of higher authority?), lack standing to blame police officers. I mean to use the concepts of blame and standing-to-blame in Scanlon’s senses. This is very much the attitude I hear from people defending officer Crowley in the wake of Gatesgate. People who aren’t law enforcement officers don’t, the idea is, “put their lives on the line” and so don’t even have a relationship of the kind that would enable them to say that police officers have impaired it by misbehaving. This authoritarian instinct also very strangely reminds me of the description of nobles’ moral relationships to lesser subjects in feudal systems — blamelessness plus denial of standing-to-blame.

    There are oodles of interesting philosophical questions about exactly what authority is, which, it seems, most liberals shy away from like the plague. I’m tempted to refer readers to Arendt, but I’m not sure I agree with her. And you’d have to have some understanding of the answers to those questions before you formulated a liberalism that dealt explicitly with the proper attitude to authority figures, but all this is worth thinking about. (At least, that is, as long as you don’t say that there’s no such thing as authority or say that it’s totally morally irrelevant.)

  15. Paul Gowder Says:

    Steve, you’ve opened about a billion issues, all close to my heart. I could write about five papers in response, or a lengthy reading list… but I’ll refrain.

    I take it you’ve read Raz’s stuff on authority though? (And also Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism?) (For that matter, also Raz’s perfectionism stuff.) I totally stand with you on the Mill thing — I tend to think that Mill does hold something like a perfectionism that requires (indirectly, via capacity development) people to think for their damn selves. At the same time, however, he holds to an epistemic humility about other elements of the good life — if you’re interested, I have a paper about this that I’ve been meaning to do something with…

  16. Steve M. Says:

    Robert Paul Wolff! I had nearly forgotten about him! Looking on the internet now, I see that he has a blog:

    I do need to read more Raz, though.

  17. Steve M. Says:

    On the subject of authority, this is fascinating. They just patiently waited, all night. Didn’t this happen in Venezuela, recently? And the people staged a mini-riot and just left the plane?

  18. Paul Gowder Says:

    Good christ, we’re a country of sheep.

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