Monday, September 3, 2018

Separate but Equal? Homogenity vs. Diversity--Upheavals in Europe and the U.S.



Separate but Equal ?
Individual and Community since the Enlightenment By Richard Herr (Berkeley Public Policy Press).

Richard Herr's book about Individual and Community is academic but accessible and well worth the effort. I read this because I wanted to understand why our Democracy worked in the past and whether our current turmoil seriously threatens that stability. We have "disruption" caused by our government's dismantelling of major institutions, as well as a rise of populist tribalism. It seems sudden that now a homogenous America, led by white males with wealth, are solely entitled to education, health care and national resources as part of their privilege, while  more diverse groups are suspect. Previously, diversity of individuals with all equally sharing resources, was a national ideal. , I look forward to a more inclusive future. So I checked the past. This conflict between a yearning for a homogenous nation vs. a desire for a diverse mosaic of indivuals has happened before.  The origins  go back to the Enlightenment era, the 18th centiury and a French judge.

Separate but Equal? begins with  Montesquieu, an aristocrat who wrote about the 3 basic forms of government, despotism, monarchy, and republic. (Despotism, one man without fixed laws, according to his own will or whim. Monarch, one man following established fixed laws, and a Republic, sovereignty is in the hands of the many.) For each of these he identified the "principle"--the emotion that inspires members of a society to live in harmony and fulfill common needs.

For despotism, the principle is fear-- of the despot whose agents will punish a subject who does not obey his arbitrary commands. Montesquieu believed this wasn't the best system, that a good political system required rule by known laws that precluded arbitrary action. While a Monarchy does qualify, a monarch can be easily tempted into despotism. Montesquieu's solution was nobles, a hierarchy of ranks by promotion and a prince who rewards the service of his subjects. The motivating principle was ambition for advancement or "honor, " and each step up meant advancement for the public good. (Of course, essential to this order is inequality before the law and the tax collector.)

In Montesquie's Republic, there was an aristocracy-- the rule of a few and a democracy, where sovereign power belonged to the people. This Republic had no ranks, for equality is fundamental. Instead of "Honor," there was the idea of "virtue." The few were motivated by this "virtue."You can see echoes of our Founding Fathers in this:

"Virtue in a republic is a most simple thing; it is love of the republic; it is a sensation and not a consequence of acquired knowledge, a sensation that may be felt by the meanest as well as the highest person in the state..."

"This virtue may be defined as the love of the laws and of our country. As such love requires a constant preference of public to private interest, it is the source of all private virtues....The love of one's country is conducive to the purity of morals, and purity of morals to the love of one's country. The love of the republic in a democracy is the love of democracy. The love of democracy is also the love of frugality."

Morality, equality, frugality, love imply the subordination of the individual to the well being of his fellow citizens. But he did realize people could be motivated by selfish ambition, a desire for honor or public esteem, and personal advantage. Yet in his system of virtue all citizens are responsible for the success of their country. Note, he did not believe that democracy could work in a social unit so large people did not know each other.

James Madison updated this "few" with a balance of power between central and local governments to prevent a majority from concentrating efforts against a minority. And, like Adam Smith, he saw the basic motive in human society to be the pursuit of wealth and property.

The French Revolution corrupted Montesquieu's principle of Virtue with the idea of an "other." The farmer and shopkeeper saw the aristocrats as different, not part of their community of virtue. In 19th century England, as well as France and the United States the "other" was the lower class. The unwashed hungry poor in large cities, often immigrants, were considered a threat to the peaceful wealthier classes.

To contain this threat, the nineteenth-century in Europe and the U.S. had drives to create homogeneous national societies by assimilating social minorities into the national culture or, if like African American and Asians in the U.S., they were considered unassimilatable, excluding them from participation. Though the homogeneous ideal grew out of a new spirit that became strong in the Enlightenment combining individual ambition and public spirit, that movment, says Herr, "underlaid the racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination that culminated in the horrors of totalitarian regimes."

Since the end of World War II he explains, Western nations have experimented with different correctives to the problem. How do nations reconcile national identity with a diverse population?  How do individuals reconcile the right to be different with homogenity? Women's liberation and multiculturalism have offered ways of thinking about these issues. 

Are women and men only able to achieve equality in distinct communities?  Is it possible to coexist in a patriarchal community or form one where women are distinctly different but equal? Herr writes, "Androgynous is the term that feminist writing employs to describe this hoped for society where the good qualities would be shared by the sexes."

"In the 21st century, Western countries have been engaged in how to incorporate gays and lesbians into society with equal rights. In Europe acts of terrorism that have killed passengers in a London subway and a Madrid train and murdered journalists in Paris have aroused apprehensions of the danger that disaffected sectors of a marginalized community can present. In the U.S. the continuing biased treatment of nonwhites has led at times to tragic killing of young African Americans by the forces of order and the forced break up of immigrant Latino families has heightened tensions.

We are still faced with the dilemmas of how to create democratic societies that provide justice for all the communities that compose them and satisfy the yearning for societies with an overarching common identity."

In my opinion, an African American president, though a moderate, ushered in a period of tolerance for racial and sexual equality with a focus on public concerns like preserving the environment and affordable health care.. The backlash from businesses that degrade the environment and groups that champion white privilege should not have been a surprise. Yet so accustomed was I to "common values," it was a shock. 

Like Herr, I hope "we may be again an inspiration for the rest of the world, as our championing of democracy and equality has been for two centuries."  But first I think we need to exchange a would-be despot for a President who believes in the "virtue" of Democracy.

Separate but Equal is by Richard Herr, Professor of History emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. Recommended for it's comprehensive look at the metamorphosis of  political ideas, governments, and the aspirations of peoples.

S.W.