“Ever Thus to Tyrants”?
This handbill is interesting. I’m reading along in Emma Goldman’s essays, the first time I have done so, and in “Anarchism: What It Stands For,” she says that government and ignorance are linked to each other. It never crossed my mind that every government has at least some motive for keeping its people ignorant of at least some information. Only anarchism, she argues, which opposes government in principle, advocates full education for every person. I had to give that some thought. Like most semi-educated people (I assume I have not achieved a fully clear view of things in the way Goldman favors), I know that anarchism gets a bad rap in the press and in mainstream histories, and that it gets blamed for things it doesn’t advocate and hardly ever gets a full hearing. And I now know that “Red Emma” is not so very red, if by that one means communist or even socialist, neither of which describes her views at all. Communists may want the state to wither away, but they seemed content with a dictatorship of the proletariat that Goldman vigorously attacked (I wonder Lenin or Stalin didn’t have her shot). Socialists are content with the existence of government, indefinitely. Emma Goldman didn’t see the world that way. That being said, I want to understand how it is that democracies might benefit from keeping their citizens ignorant, which seems far-fetched.
But maybe not.
We are all accustomed to the Jeffersonian democratic cant about our limitless confidence in ordinary people to govern themselves. We tie that confidence to our commitment to educate everyone, since it is the educated citizen (note the word “citizen” and look again at the handbill) who can carry off that self-government task, as well as choose those among the populace who can represent them in the formal governing process. How could a sincere advocate of democracy ever have a motive to keep anyone ignorant? I note that communist and fascist propaganda also tout universal education. But since I am not a fascist or a communist, I must deal with my dismay at being told that democracy, when it creates a government, creates at the same time a motive among those who govern for keeping people ignorant. This motive is not inherent in democracy, per se, it is inherent in the creation of a state, Goldman believes.
The exercise of power, wherever it is found, of any one person or group of people over any other, is always facilitated by keeping those who are subordinated ignorant of their genuine alternatives, and even of their subordination, if that can be pulled off. In this sense, then, looking around me, asking whether I see ignorance in the American public, that is, ignorance of a type that is making them easier to “govern,” I must admit that I see it everywhere, including within myself. Rather than anger anyone in the present needlessly, I will consider that poster instead.
The abolition fight had been building in the US for a long time by 1837, and this poster is an interesting plea to preserve the union and defend the Constitution by silencing (what happened to the First Amendment?) this “revolting character” who wants nothing so much as to abolish slavery. His “lecture” is “seditious” because it impugns the rights given to the states by the Constitution, advocating the abolition, using federal power, presumably (but who knows what that vile fanatic was actually saying, or not saying, I suppose, if this poster succeeded?). This silencing is to be done peaceably, however. After all, we are not barbarians, here in the land of the Constitution. We are “Fellow Citizens,” except for that seditious fellow whom the Presbyterians have invited to ruin our union. I have a feeling that some minister may have had a hard time holding onto his job after this event. I’m also pretty sure that these citizens are all male, all white, and own land. In all likelihood, the evil one who wants to destroy the Union is also a white, male, land owner. Let’s call this a family squabble. Thinking back to Emma Goldman’s point about governments, I look for the vested interest in ignorance here. Many of us will have seen Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. Keeping people ignorant and keeping them powerless seems to have been pretty common in those days.
Almost 30 years after this poster was printed, and well over 600,000 deaths (that was just the number of soldiers), the US still couldn’t manage to find the political will to use federal power to abolish slavery by the ordinary Constitutional process. It wasn’t a failure of democracy, it was a failure of government, as Goldman would say (and I would have to agree). It took everything our greatest President had to persuade Congress (and remember, this Congress had no representatives from eleven of the slave states) to put aside self-interest and do the right thing. The bloodiest war in human history all around them, the cause and the right laid before them with a clarity that public life almost never permits, and these people still couldn’t bring themselves to act against powerful interests. This was a democratic republic, by the way.
Looking into an issue as plain as the immorality of slavery, we find powerful forces that are profoundly invested in keeping people ignorant, and not just the slaves themselves, but more importantly the tyranny over the human mind exercised by those with the power to leverage ideology or need or force on people as if it were truth. The poster was written by someone who wants his fellow citizens to support a union that enslaves a large part of its populace, and advocates that policy for the sake of the union. He wants the minds of his fellow citizens to remain closed to the immorality of their own actions, although he (and I’m confident it was a he) does not know he is doing that. Such is tyranny over the mind.
Emma Goldman speaks of three domains in which ignorance does its work: in the domain of mind, where religion (as an “us vs. them” worldview) closes people’s minds to certain kinds of ideas, even quite obvious ones, such as “slavery is wrong.” Second, in the domain of physical need, in which economic forces may drive people into all sorts of oppressive political arrangements, arrangements where people can only choose which group of powerful bullies shall oppress them. And third, in the domain of physical power or force, there is government itself, exercising coercive authority. Goldman thinks that government and force are the same thing. Take away the threat of force (and the means to carry out the threat, and there is no “government.”
There is a barricade to freedom in each of these types of ignorance. Together, they effectively keep people frightened and subordinated, and, as with the author of this poster, ignorant of their ignorance. This characterization sounds so radical, but when I look at the poster above, I cannot help thinking that people in our very midst make exactly the same arguments, not about the abolition of slavery, but about other things, and none of them is very eager to have you hear a “fair and balanced” version from the other side. Good people, well-meaning people struggle with themselves to silence, usually peaceably, those whose words may threaten their religious convictions, their economic well-being, or their tiny shot at influencing government. That poster may seem like it belongs in a parallel universe, but it is parallel.
Today’s versions of that poster are believed because the issues are regarded as living ones, which for Emma Goldman generally means that someone with power and means is using our ignorance of the full story to control us. Those of us whose minds and means and allegiances surround us with American patriotism would not want to know it if, for example, a single media mogul or a pair of brothers was pulling all the strings. We argue: Should we wage war pre-emptively? Should abortion be legal? Should the wealthy be more heavily taxed? Should we allow corporations or governments to destroy the environment? Should we bomb ____________? (fill in the blank) Well, I honestly don’t know. I mean that in the sense of “I’m genuinely ignorant” of many of the sources of my own convictions. Like everyone else, I have absorbed billions of images, leading to thousands of opinions. Very few of those opinions in my head are products of my practical experience. What do I know about slavery, really? What do I know about Arab Spring, really?
The fact that we must rely on others for much of what we learn makes our power arrangements all the more crucial to our happiness, and Goldman was convinced that only the anarchist has a shot at happiness, because only he or she has the courage to refuse the power arrangements that keep us ignorant. Even Thomas Jefferson thought that the tree of liberty must be periodically watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants, and he had in mind that this would happen several times in a century. And even John Wilkes Booth had the temerity to shout “sic semper tyrannis” as he silenced one of the few voices of conscience our system has ever put into actual power. And what did Leon Czoglosz say as he assassinated President McKinley? Was this the act of an anarchist? What actions are justified in the name of happiness and the lifting of human ignorance? That has to be the next question.