Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Tyranny of the Mediocrity

"If ever these lines are read in America, I am well assured of two things: in the first place, that all who peruse them will raise their voices to condemn me; and in the second place, that very many of them will acquit me at the bottom of their conscience," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, fearing public opinion but trusting in private insight. He was talking about the famous "tyranny of the majority" that his work predicted, and, somewhat paradoxically, publicized the notion of. He didn't expect the object of his criticism—mass society—to embrace its own damning critique; but he believed individuals knew better in their heart of hearts. For it was the nature of the beast, in this case, that it should lead people out of the open air of Emersonian nonchalance and candor, and lock them up in cages of cliché. Trapped behind bars of his own making, the disheartened creature yet knows despair.

The French nobleman who adopted democracy as his faith was wrong, of course, in one sense. He has not been damned for this de rigueur teaching—itself in danger of becoming a cliché—but rather celebrated. He was right in a deeper sense, however: How ironic that we mouth the phrase "tyranny of the majority" today, while almost always giving it a firm twist in keeping with the most widely held opinions!

Not mere diversity of skin color was AdT's goal, but diversity of thought and expression. And not mere diversity for its own sake either, as an end in itself—every man his own "culture" and a universe unto himself—but for the sake of vibrant interchange, creativity, and the ennoblement of democracy. For freedom.

This is something—the first thing—our school system should promote; but sadly it's almost the last thing you should expect to see in our increasingly corporatized universities, where the customer is always right. It's more comfortable for everyone to "celebrate diversity" uniformly, and go back to sleep. Walter Benn Michaels' courageous recent book, The Trouble With Diversity, forthrightly exposes this fraud. For a highly abbreviated version of the argument—we love racial and ethnic differences because they serve to obscure the growing gap between rich and poor, and so preserve inequality—read Michaels' NY Times op-ed (reposted in a variety of places, including here,

As Saul Bellow pointed out in 1992, "there is simply too much to think about" these days. And so we get our opinions secondhand for the most part. Not having much time to consider well before purchasing, we buy what's advertised, available cheaply, and what others buy. We feel as offended when our "opinions" are challenged as we would if our blue jeans were questioned. We know our rights as consumers.

The philosopher, Harry G. Frankfurt, called it bullshit, in his book, On Bullshit. The stuff we say because it's the stuff we say. To conceal; to withdraw; to hide in the glare of the florescent light.

"What modern man needs," Bellow wrote in his great novel, Herzog, "is a good 5-cent synthesis." Until we get it, it seems that political correctness—decades after it was identified as such, more than 150 years after Tocqueville's prophecy—will have to do. It serves our laziness as much as anything else, our wish for absolution without effort, and our need for a social lubricant to ease the stress of contact with strangers at work. It's either that—or more of us will have to stand openly and publicly for the importance of freedom of thought and a genuine diversity of reasoned argument.

Has the American university become a graveyard of the intellect? Overspecialized? Gutless? A place where once lively thoughts go, wounded, limping, to be compassionately euthanized by technicians void of passion? Is college then, in the words of J. D. Salinger's disappointed Franny Glass, in Franny and Zooey, "just one more dopey place, dedicated to pilling up treasure"?

Far from it. The tyranny of the majority is simply that. To heck with tyrants!

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