By Tyler Flynn, August 27, 2010 in Outside the Classroom, What is Education?
--Walter Lippmann, 1914
If journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) were alive today he would probably call us a “bewildered” people, caught in a state of perpetual war against real or imagined tyrants. Lippmann cited muckraking journalists from his own time as the clearest example of this “anti” tendency: expose newspaper and magazine writers from the early twentieth century were clear in their opposition to monopolies, the wealthy business class, and corrupt politicians, but were hard pressed, in this twenty-five-year-old Harvard graduate’s estimation, to articulate exactly what they were for. Lippmann’s argument in Drift and Mastery (1914), his much-celebrated assessment of American society in the early twentieth century, was that progressive reform, for all its achievements, still suffered from an underlying tendency to define democracy more in opposition to an oppressive force rather than advocacy of a positive vision for a just society. It was now time, Lippmann asserted, that Americans govern themselves the way a mature adult does: to cease defining oneself in contrast to one’s parents and begin living life on one’s own terms, set by one’s own compass, in a responsible, contented, and independent fashion. “Democracy is more than the absence of czars, more than freedom, more than equal opportunity,” he wrote in reference to the young nation after its victory over the British in the Revolution, but rather “It is a way of life, a use of freedom, an embrace of opportunity” requiring a creative and sustained capacity for self-mastery, self-rule. Yes, Lippmann summarized, Americans had achieved their freedom, but no, they had not yet learned how to use it, leaving them in a state of recurring crisis each time a new social problem demanded an immediate and competent response.
In his charge to early twentieth-century Americans to stop treating “life as something that has trickled down to us” from our European parents and instead “deal with life deliberately,” “devise its social organization, alter its tools, formulate its method, educate and control it,” Walter Lippman was uttering words that can benefit us today. It would not be difficult to convince most observers of contemporary American culture that ours is a society whose members, by and large, define themselves in opposition to some establishment or rival faction that threatens their way of life directly or indirectly. We are, it is not hard to see, a people primarily interested in rights and entitlements, protecting our freedoms from outside incursion and protesting those forces which would threaten that freedom. In the shouting that surrounds these wars of protest it is often difficult, furthermore, to hear those advocating on behalf of a positive course of action intended to draw opposing factions in to a place of agreement. Take, for example, the never-ending charges against the tyranny of “big government,” “corporate America,” “Wall Street,” the “liberal media,” Fox News, “conservative talk radio,” “Hollywood,” the “Religious Right,” “Washington insiders,” “Middle America,” the Democrats and the Republicans heard in just about every public venue and outlet today. One may change the names but the rhetoric, be it coming from the ideological left or the right, is identical: “our group” is an embattled minority seeking to preserve its way of life against a nefarious conspiracy plotting to undermine us and the American people.
As Walter Lippmann pointed out a century ago, this habit of defining oneself in opposition to something threatening rather than advocacy of positive has a long history and has often been a crutch Americans have turned to when the task of self-rule has been too much to bear. In the colonial era and stretching into the early twentieth century, for example, during decades when Americans were struggling to come to terms with exactly what democracy entailed, it was never difficult to find a ready audience for anti-Catholic diatribes and violence was often the outcome of such rhetoric. One may interpret the Civil War, the labor strife of the Gilded Age, the reforms of the progressive era, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the anti-war demonstrations of the sixties and post-sixties feminism as much as a protest against some oppressive force threatening one’s way of life as an attempt to fashion one’s historical context into something reflecting a positive vision of equity and prosperity. Granted, there is much good that the oppositional, “anti” tradition of protest has produced on behalf of democracy in America. But every strength is a weakness and Walter Lippmann, trenchant critic of American culture in his own time, seemed to identify a blind spot in Americans’ praise of their own tradition of liberty by showing this perennial tendency dating from Puritan New England to new headlines this very day.
The remedy to this habit is, as Lippmann stated bluntly, to face reality and grow up. Drift and Mastery identified several crutches (in addition to protesting real or imagined tyrants) Lippmann believed Americans leaned on when intimidated by the task of self-governance: idealizing a golden age in the past or a shining utopia in the future, turning from reason to uninformed, blind faith in religion, or clinging to custom simply because it was familiar and comforting. True to his word, Lippmann also set forth his own vision of a restored democracy, championing labor unions as laboratories of self-rule, calling for consumers to “vote” with their dollars to elevate the voice of ordinary citizens vis a vis business conglomerates, and regulating monopolies while leaving them intact so they would continue to provide jobs and quality products unmolested. Irrespective of what one might think of the steps he advocated, Lippmann’s larger point speaks for itself: until Americans set aside their opposition heritage and learn to compromise for the benefit of the whole, democracy would continue to flounder. Drift and Mastery, like any classic of literature and commentary, speaks beyond its own historical context to perennial human dilemmas and provides for us today some quite-nutritional food for thought.