What Price Democracy?


By MONROE E. DEUTSCH, Vice-President and Provost of the University of California

Delivered before the San Francisco Junior Chamber of Commerce at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, California, February 18, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 377-380.

THERE is in the human heart an innate yearning for freedom. Even those governments which tyrannously rule over their people, pay freedom tribute by the pretence that they rest upon the free will of the people. If real freedom does not exist, at least a veneer of freedom must be set up in order to pay a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

Physical freedom is obviously treasured by man. The prison, the concentration camp, chains and irons)—life is of little worth when these are the conditions. All that enables men to endure them, is the anticipation of the day of release, the day of restoration to one's loved ones and to the normal activities of life.

But freedom of the mind and spirit is assuredly a far greater blessing. The day of release from this type of imprisonment cannot be anticipated. The overthrow of the spirit-crushing regime alone guarantees relief. Life then becomes a hideous mockery, a dungeon from which one cannot escape.

What is the fundamental idea of democracy? It is certainly not based on the notion that the people as a whole, including the wise and the ignorant, the selfish and the unselfish, those willing to devote careful study to the problems of government and those too lazy to do so, will give us better rule than a group of picked men or a single wise and beneficent governor. No, we are well aware that we the people make mistakes which a sage council or an able ruler would not make. And yet we cling to democracy. For we know that if the people do make mistakes, they can be shown the error of their ways; the people are amenable to argument, to proof. But if a despot once embarks on a certain path (dangerous though it be), he may be inaccessible to arguments; his very self-pride, his sense of superior wisdom will lead him to follow that road, even if it should lead to the sheer abyss.

In a democracy our own voice may be infinitesimally small—but we have a voice, and it is equal to that of every other citizen of the democracy. In a despotism the vote is a mockery; who dares to vote other than "Ja"?

True democracy will not tyrannize over the minority, for it really rests on a profound and significant philosophical conception—namely the recognition of the worth and dignity of each individual, the acknowledgement of the importance of the spirit of each human being. This is, I believe, what is meant by the statement that "all men are created equal." Certainly they are not equal mentally; they cannot all attainthe same posts in life; they will not all be equal in possessions. But they are equal in a more profound sense; in the eyes of his Maker each is equal.

In short democracy is based upon the conception of the dignity and value of the soul of the individual. And it is this faith that inevitably guarantees the rights of minorities as well as of majorities.

The mere act of voting is but a symbol of this idea. And at the same time it affords each of us, rich and poor, equal opportunity to have a voice in the government of the nation and its various subdivisions.

The idea on which democracy rests is a sublime one; it is one which required time for its recognition. Aristocracy is so easily accepted by the aristocrats—and imposed on others. The poor, the weak, the ignorant could not easily withstand those possessed of all they lacked. Oligarchy and monarchy alternated, but whether one man or a group ruled, it was on the shoulders of the many that the rule pressed. Slavery was but one manifestation. Sometimes doubtless the rule was good, kindly and generous; often it was not. But whether cruel or kindly, it was always based-on the idea of a fundamental inequality.

And finally democracy, resting on the notion of a fundamental equality, has replaced it. We cannot by any means claim that it has been completely attained—but in our land how much more there is than the past has seen! The vote given to each without discrimination because of wealth or poverty, without discrimination as to sex, form of religion, social standing, position, place of birth, descent—this is indeed a mighty stride forward, not because we collectively have more wisdom but because it expresses the notion that "a man's a man for a' that," that each of us is and is to be treated as spiritually equal.

With democracy thus understood freedom inevitably goes hand in hand. For how can those who respect the individuality of their fellow beings, seek to imprison them in body or in spirit?

What are the essential elements of this freedom of the spirit?

First must be placed freedom of speech. Unless human beings are able to set forth the facts they know, the conclusions that their minds have reached, no one could possibly speak of them as free. It has been said: "The truth shall make you free." And it is equally correct to say: "Only the free willattain the truth." How can those whose mental eyes are blindfolded—nay, rather, blinded—see what the world is?

A democracy above all makes it necessary that the people—all the people—act on a knowledge of the facts. To a democracy freedom of speech is as essential as the air we breathe, the sunlight by which we see.

But this does not mean that it is not essential for those living under other forms of government. Suppression of freedom of speech makes it possible for a ruler to do what he will, to depict things as he wishes his people to see them, to ruin the nation, to spur them on to a needless and unjust war.

Accordingly if any nation denies to its people freedom of speech, it not merely jeopardizes them and their futures but the lives and well-being of all other peoples. For they resemble most an automobilist who drives his car at headlong speed along the highway—blindfolded. Such a one is a menace to everyone on the road, however carefully and well they may drive.

Freedom of speech is the first stone in the arch of spiritual freedom. Second—and very closely united to it—is freedom of the press. If it is imperative that an individual have the right to tell what he knows and thinks, how much more important is it that the press, whose means of gathering information is so very much greater than the individuals, and whose opinions are more carefully reasoned, should be free to speak? And the voice of the press reaches many thousands, while that of the individual comes to the ears of but a few associates. To a democracy in our times a free press is an absolute essential. A shackled press is a tool of a tyrant, who dares not let the truth appear.

So too must the radio, the modern method of giving information and exchanging ideas, be given the freedom which by common consent democracies have given the press. It has the advantage over the press that it can speak the instant an event occurs; it can let us hear the very voice of the statesman or the official. All the more necessary is it that it be free; governmental interference with it must not be tolerated in the slightest degree, nor must it be allowed to become the tool of any corporation—or group of corporations—or any class. It is exposed to special problems because of its relations to governments and to advertisers; but with its tremendous power, the millions whom it reaches, we must make herculean efforts to keep it free.

Next comes the right of assembly. Men and women have the opportunity to gather without interference to exchange ideas, to discuss, to arrive at conclusions. They must have the right to do more than assemble; there are states where they assemble merely to listen—not to discuss; their minds are—or rather have been—made up for them, they cannot (no, they dare not) make them up for themselves.

Free assembly is essential for a democracy; it is essential for the successful attainment of the truth.

With this group, free speech, free press, free radio, free assembly, must go free schools and universities. If there is any place where the search for the truth should be the primary purpose, it is our educational institutions. Men cannot at one and the same time be told by a government what they must teach, what ideas they must implant, and yet be genuine followers of truth. Academic freedom is far from being an academic question; you cannot shackle universities and have true universities. When the feet of Chinese women were bound in past years, it was with the utmost difficulty that they walked unaided. Nor can you bind the mind and yet expect it to function as a normal mind. The devilish ingenuity with which children are beingplaced mentally in black or brown or red straight-jackets, is one of the great crimes of the world's history.

Obviously an illiterate people is not adapted to the democratic form of government. The more ignorant a people, the more easily will it be beguiled by wild schemes, by the ranting of demagogues. And today with the constant increase in the complexity of our problems, the need for intelligence on the part of the electorate is vastly greater. No matter how well-meaning an individual is, no matter how lofty his character, the harm he may do his country is incalculable, if he is densely ignorant. This it is that calls for general education, an education that is both free and sound.

To be sure the schools will not be able so to train citizenry that each man will be competent to pass judgment on the intricate problems presented to him for decision. Most important is it that he somehow possess or acquire the insight to choose the right man as official and as legislator.

In the totalitarian regimes the leaders climb to the top by means of force, by threats, by trickery, and by demagogic appeals. In such governments it is obviously unnecessary to rely on the ability of the people to choose officials wisely; this is out of their hands. In the same way intelligence is not required in order to wrestle with particular issues. The master decides. In a democracy education is the first and foremost responsibility—education for all.

The right to trial by jury is clearly essential to freemen. If one is charged with a crime, the case must not be tried secretly before some hireling of a despot but publicly before a jury of one's peers. Secret trials have ever been favorite means of terrorism for tyrants.

And greatest of all freedoms is liberty of conscience, the right to worship God as each may choose. We in this land take this doctrine for granted. We assume that of course every man, having the right to his own opinions in such fields as politics and economics, should especially have the right to adhere to that religious faith which he desires and to observe its teachings. This seems to us axiomatic.

We are indeed aware that in the past this has not been the case. We know too that religious persecution is far, very far from being altogether dead. We constantly read in the press of mob attacks—yes, and governmental attacks—upon human beings whose religious ideas and ritual differ from those held by the rulers in power. Within the last two decades once more the fires of intolerance have blazed up, and human beings are made to suffer in countless ways because of their religious faith.

But in our blessed land religious liberty is established not only by the very first amendment to the Constitution but in the hearts of our people, whatever their political views, whatever their religious belief.

It would be easy to cite expressions of fervent faith in this doctrine on the part of the great men to whom we owe our form of government and of our statesmen throughout the century and a half of our national life, as well as our leaders of today.

I shall content myself by quoting from the utterances of one of our greatest Americans.

George Washington, who (you will recall) was president of the convention which drafted the Constitution, thus expressed himself:

"If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention where I had the honour to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the General Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure,

I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution. For you doubtless remember that I have often expressed my sentiments that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity, according to the dictates of his own conscience."

Destroy religious liberty—and there are substituted the terrors of inquisitions, persecutions and pogroms. Such is not the way "to insure domestic tranquillity." No, those who are faithful to the principle of freedom of conscience are supporting and guarding a fundamental principle of our nation.

But the logical outcome of the totalitarian theory of the state is either an attitude completely hostile to the various forms of religion or the establishment of a religion subservient to the state.

Totalitarianism places the state first; men and women are but pawns, tools to be used by it (or rather the Führers who dominate it) in its interest—or rather its pretended interest. Democracy rests on the principle of the worth of the individual, the importance of the human spirit; and so it of course gives man fullest opportunity for expression, freedom of growth and development.

Diametrically opposed to each other are the bases of democracy and totalitarianism. Does man live for the state? Are we of worth as individuals or only as we are tools of the state? If the latter be true, must we not repudiate what mankind has come to accept as fundamental? "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"

The world today once more has the issue presented to it: "Shall men and women be free in body, in mind, in spirit, or shall the symbols of the new order be the concentration camp, the burning of books, the destruction of synagogues and the imprisonment alike of nuns and pastors?"

It is for us to choose. As Americans there can be but one answer.

Underlying it all however must be a profound recognition of our obligation to our fellow-Americans. Our government does not exist for my sake or for yours—for the sake of California or of New York alone—for the sake of capital or of labor—for the sake of industry or of agriculture—but, for the well-being of all. American citizenship therefore carries the obligation with it that each one of us think in terms not of profit to himself or to a group to which he belongs, to his state, city or county, to his trade, his business or profession—but of general benefit to this nation of which we are but a part, but a fraction. When Washington disbanded his army, he wrote to the governors of the several states, emphasizing that the system of policy (as he called it) to be adopted at that time, would determine whether the American revolution should be regarded as a blessing or a curse. And he set forth what he regarded as the "four things . . . essential to the well-being, I may even venture to say to the existence, of the United States as an independent power:

1. An indissoluble union of the states under one federal head.

2. A sacred regard to public justice.

3. The adoption of a proper peace establishment.

4. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies; to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the generalprosperity; and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community." Let me repeat these words—"to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community." Our attitude toward the problems confronting us must be marked by unselfishness—the good of the whole must transcend that of any of its parts. If you say this is beyond the powers of human nature, I shall ask whether you prefer to give up the struggle for an unselfish, democratic government in favor of a tyrannical, freedom-destroying totalitarianism. Neither road is easy—but how can we hesitate in our choice between them?

The one alternative we know all too well. What men may speak, is determined by the state. What they may hear in conversation or over the air, is decided by the state. What they may read—even the list of books and the news in journals—the state chooses. For what purpose they may assemble, whom they may hear, what he may say—all this is at the will of the state. How they shall be tried for crimes charged against them—whether publicly or secretly—is in the hands of the state. Even the pastor in his pulpit is not free from surveillance.

How we should treasure the freedoms that we are promised—and that we assuredly have! And they spring inevitably from the true conception of democracy, which is based on the belief in the value of the individual, each individual, whatever his financial status, whatever his religion.

Obviously too this fundamental basis of our society demands the removal of discrimination of all kinds from our life. Discrimination and democracy cannot by any possibility live together. To the exact extent that the former exists, the latter disappears. Neither place of birth nor parentage, neither the faith which one professes nor the color of the skin should be allowed to set up a bar against a human being—whether it be in school, business or profession, in public conveyance, in church or at the ballot-box. And if anyone tells me that he does not accept this, I wonder whether he really believes in democracy in his heart. He only seeks opportunity for himself but is not willing to share it with others. To such I should like to quote the words of Abraham Lincoln: "I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally." And I am absolutely sure that Lincoln would have likewise said that he who believes in discrimination should have it tried first on himself. No compromise can rightly be made. Those who believe in discrimination (whatever its form), would have no right to complain if it were applied to them.

Hard and toilsome is the road of democracy. But when we look from it at the abyss into which missteps would plunge us, we fix our eyes on the heights and resolutely press on. For there beneath us we see the blaze from burning books, sending heavenward the smoke and ashes from pages that spoke of truth and freedom; we see men, with mouths bound; we see them with ears sealed; we see eyes blinded; we see concentration camps enclosed by electrified wire; we hear the blow of the club; we see great and noble men stripped and beaten; before us is the endless, endless line of pitiful refugees, men, women and children, seeking but escape; and we see those who strive by force, by terror, by falsehood to bring the entire world beneath this baleful rule. Yes, when we peer down into that abyss, we draw a deeper draught of freedom and push onward. About us (to use a phrase no. longer permitted in the land of its origin) "Die Luft der Freiheit weht": "The Air of Freedom Blows." And for this our hearts well with gratitude—gratitude to this government of ours, to those who created it, and to all those who have guarded and perpetuated it.

Two words are at times on our lips today, one is security, the other courage. Courage must not be permitted to become truculence and arrogance; the desire for security must not be permitted to become peace at any price. The former would mean a readiness to fight at the slightest provocation, it would mean a resort to brute force to settle all issues; the latter would mean a yielding of the world to the rule of might and terror.

Between them should lie our goal, the true and abiding security of mankind. We should be ready, soberly and without impetuosity, to show that the courage of our ancestors has not turned to water in our veins.

Let us, I beg you, with calmness and sobriety, yet summon back that courage which men and women have shown throughout the ages—the heroes of religion, the pilgrims to our shores, the revolutionary fathers, the pioneers, the Washingtons and the Lincolns—and make clear that what is called security may be obtained at too great a sacrifice—and that genuine and abiding security may require of us the highest form of courage. Surely it did not die out with those to whom we owe so much; it is ours, covered though it be by hostility to strife. But it is only by courage that all we have gained can perchance be protected.

The future is hidden behind the clouds. We know of dangers beyond our borders, we know of those within our land who are using the freedom of speech which democracy grants, to stir up hatred between classes, and against those of other faiths, creeds or blood. However, Americanism may be interpreted, they are disloyal to it. Democracy shouldmean cooperation, it should mean tolerance. Our people made up of those from many diverse strains, has found each making its contribution to our national life. If in this land there should not be respect paid to each stock by the others where should it be? If group is stirred against group, where shall the strife end? Regardless of ancestry and creed, we are all—thank God—-one thing, Americans—with allegiance to this land and to no other.

Look over the roll of those who died in our wars; scan the names on the tombstones in the cemeteries of France. The names originated in all parts of Europe—yes, and Asia too; Russia and France, England and Spain, Germany and Italy all furnished the names carved on the stones in those tranquil burial grounds. And each laid down his life for this country, his country. Whatever their origin, they were and dial Americans.

And America is proud that we have come from all corners of the globe, seeking opportunity and above all, freedom, freedom of the spirit, and we have become Americans by baptism in the waters of that spirit.

To that principle America is dedicated and must remain dedicated—if she be true to herself.

It has taken a world tragedy to remind us of our heritage, of what men and women suffered to make us free. Ours it is to treasure that freedom, to guard it against foes, without and within, to be ready, if need be, to fight and to die for it We the heirs must not be faithless to the trust reposed in us, we must not with craven cowardice surrender it and deny it to the generations who will come after us.

The torch which Liberty bears at New York harbor must be kept shining, a beacon and a light of hope to those across the seas living in the blackness of spiritual imprisonment.