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C H A P T E R T W E L V E
In his study of the Scottish intellectual tradition, George Davie identifies its central theme as a recognition of the fundamental role of "natural beliefs or principles of common sense, such as the belief in an independent external world, the belief in causality, the belief in ideal standards, and the belief in the self of conscience as separate from the rest of one." These principles are sometimes considered to have a regulative character; though never fully justified, they provide the foundations for thought and conception. Some held that they contain "an irreducible element of mystery," Davie points out, while others hoped to provide a rational foundation for them. On that issue, the jury is still out.1
We can trace such ideas to 17th century thinkers who reacted to the skeptical crisis of the times by recognizing that there are no absolutely certain grounds for knowledge, but that we do, nevertheless, have ways to gain a reliable understanding of the world and to improve that understanding and apply it -- essentially the standpoint of the working scientist today. Similarly, in normal life a reasonable person relies on the natural beliefs of common sense while recognizing that they may be parochial or misguided, and hoping to refine or alter them as understanding progresses.
Davie credits David Hume with providing this particular cast to Scottish philosophy, and more generally, with having taught philosophy the proper questions to ask. One puzzle that Hume posed is particularly pertinent to the concerns of these essays. In considering the First Principles of Government, Hume found "nothing more surprising" than
to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and to observe the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. `Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.
Hume was an astute observer, and his paradox of government is much to the point. His insight explains why elites are so dedicated to indoctrination and thought control, a major and largely neglected theme of modern history. "The public must be put in its place," Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may "live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd," whose "function" is to be "interested spectators of action," not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.2
Hume's observation raises a number of questions. One dubious feature is the idea that force is on the side of the governed. Reality is more grim. A good part of human history supports the contrary thesis put forth a century earlier by advocates of the rule of Parliament against the King, but more significantly against the people: that "the power of the Sword is, and ever hath been, the Foundation of all Titles to Government."3 Force also has more subtle modes, including an array of costs well short of overt violence that attach to refusal to submit. Nevertheless, Hume's paradox is real. Even despotic rule is commonly founded on a measure of consent, and the abdication of rights is the hallmark of more free societies -- a fact that calls for analysis.
The harsher side of the truth is highlighted by the fate of the popular movements of the past decade. In the Soviet satellites, the governors had ruled by force, not opinion. When force was withdrawn, the fragile tyrannies quickly collapsed, for the most part with little bloodshed. These remarkable successes have elicited some euphoria about the power of "love, tolerance, nonviolence, the human spirit and forgiveness," Vaclav Havel's explanation for the failure of the police and military to crush the Czech uprising.4 The thought is comforting, but illusory, as even the most cursory look at history reveals. The crucial factor was not some novel form of love and nonviolence; no new ground was broken here. Rather, it was the withdrawal of Soviet force, and the collapse of the structures of coercion based upon it. Those who believe otherwise may turn for guidance to the ghost of Archbishop Romero and countless others who have tried to confront unyielding terror with the human spirit.
The recent events of Eastern and Central Europe are a sharp departure from the historical norm. Throughout modern history, popular forces motivated by radical democratic ideals have sought to combat autocratic rule. Sometimes they have been able to expand the realms of freedom and justice before being brought to heel. Often they are simply crushed. But it is hard to think of another case when established power simply withdrew in the face of a popular challenge. No less remarkable is the behavior of the reigning superpower, which not only did not bar these developments by force as in the past, but even encouraged them, alongside of significant internal changes.
The historical norm is illustrated by the dramatically contrasting case of Central America, where any popular effort to overthrow the brutal tyrannies of the oligarchy and the military is met with murderous force, supported or directly organized by the ruler of the hemisphere. Ten years ago, there were signs of hope for an end to the dark ages of terror and misery, with the rise of self-help groups, unions, peasant associations, Christian base communities, and other popular organizations that might have led the way to democracy and social reform. This prospect elicited a stern response by the United States and its clients, generally supported by its European allies, with a campaign of slaughter, torture, and general barbarism that left societies "affected by terror and panic," "collective intimidation and generalized fear" and "internalized acceptance of the terror," in the words of a Church-based Salvadoran human rights organization (see p. 387). Early efforts in Nicaragua to direct resources to the poor majority impelled Washington to economic and ideological warfare, and outright terror, to punish these transgressions by destroying the economy and social life.
Enlightened Western opinion regards such consequences as a success insofar as the challenge to power and privilege is rebuffed and the targets are properly chosen: killing prominent priests in public view is not clever, but rural activists and union leaders are fair game -- and of course peasants, Indians, students, and other low-life generally. Shortly after the murder of the Jesuit priests in El Salvador in November 1989, the wires carried a story by AP correspondent Douglas Grant Mine entitled "Second Salvador Massacre, but of Common Folk," reporting how soldiers entered a working class neighborhood, captured six men, lined them up against a wall and murdered them, adding a 14-year-old boy for good measure. They "were not priests or human rights campaigners," Mine wrote, "so their deaths have gone largely unnoticed" -- as did his story, which was buried. This was, after all, just one more episode in the savage outburst of torture, destruction, and murder that Secretary of State James Baker praised as "absolutely appropriate" at a press conference the next day -- eliciting no comment, another demonstration of our values.
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1 Davie, The Democratic Intellect (U. of Edinburgh, 1961), 274f.
2 See my "Intellectuals and the state," 1977, reprinted in Towards a New Cold War; Necessary Illusions. Clinton Rossiter and James Lare, eds., The Essential Lippmann: a Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy (Harvard, 1982), 91-2.
3 Marchamont Nedham, 1650, cited by Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People (Norton, 1988), 79; Hume, 1, cited with the qualification just noted.
4 Cited with approval by Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books, Jan. 18, 1990, and William Luers, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1990.
5 Mine, AP, Nov. 28; Rita Beamish, AP, Nov. 29, 1989. On the reaction to the murder and torture of priests and human rights campaigners, see Manufacturing Consent, chapter 2; Necessary Illusions, 138f. On failed efforts to explain the facts away and escape the obvious consequences, see ibid., 145-8.