How Tocqueville Predicted Cancel Culture and Political Correctness

Perhaps it is no surprise that the best characterization of American life comes to us via an outsider: the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who published Democracy in America in 1835. Outsiders have a way of noticing unique and bizarre aspects of society that can seem “normal” to those who live there. We are all strange in our own way, but we cannot see our strangeness. As a man of the Enlightenment and self-described leftist, Tocqueville shared enough of a philosophical foundation with his American counterparts to understand where they were coming from, but with enough distance to see where their path had diverged from that of Europe. Like Solzhenitsyn in the 1970’s, Tocqueville had the perfect vantage point from which to undertake his sociological study.

What’s more surprising to me is just how well someone writing in the 1830’s could foresee the events of 2020, almost two hundred years before they occurred. This suggests that many of our present problems are not recent in their origin. Rather, they evince dangers that have always been present to some degree, perhaps inherent in our own brand of democracy. Only now they are reaching new levels of absurdity.

Both a critic and admirer of America, Tocqueville has remained eminently quotable. This, despite the fact that most people have not waded through Democracy in America in its entirety (I myself have not). Some popular ones: “America is great because she is good.” Here Tocqueville locates the source of America’s strength in the particular religiosity of its people. America was then experiencing the Second Great Awakening, as Europe continued its slow drift toward secularism. Tocqueville understood that: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

Tocqueville also said: “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” Yep.

And: “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

Stop it, Alexis. It hurts us.

But I would like to draw the reader’s attention to these two, longer passages, which are of particular interest considering recent debates over freedom of speech. Consider this first passage, in which Tocqueville describes what we today might call “cancel culture”:

Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. For if you seek the votes of your fellow citizens, they will withhold them, and if you seek only their esteem, they will feign to refuse even that. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.

We are all imperfect. We all make mistakes. What strikes me today is how unforgiving people have become, especially on the internet. Most people have heard the story of Amy Cooper, the infamous “Central Park Karen.” A few months into the quarantine, she was walking her dog when Christian Cooper approached her and insisted she put her dog on a leash. When she refused, he threatened to “do something you’re not going to like,” and proceeded to start calling her dog over with treats. This is all based on a post he later made; see below:

Christian Cooper then began filming the encounter. In the tape, Amy Cooper asks him to stop filming her (he doesn’t). Then she threatens to call the police. His response: “Please do,” something he repeats several times. Again, I don’t know all the details, but he certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’s afraid of the cops. On the video, Amy Cooper proceeds to call the police, stating “an African-American man is threatening me and my dog.”

Now, I don’t know Amy Cooper. I don’t know Christian Cooper. Most of the thousands of people who have shared their opinion on the confrontation don’t know either of its participants. Amy Cooper has been accused of “weaponizing her whiteness,” as if by making that call to NYPD her intention was to initiate a scenario where Christian Cooper was killed by the police. A self-described progressive liberal, Amy Cooper quickly apologized profusely for her actions on social media. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough. She lost her job. She lost her dog. I can’t imagine she’ll ever work again. She just may be the most hated woman in America.

Now Amy Cooper has been charged with making a false report to police, a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to a year in jail. The twitter mob is gleeful at the thought of Amy Cooper being put behind bars. You get the impression that for some people, she could be burnt at the stake and it would not be enough to satisfy their bloodlust. But here’s the kicker… Christian Cooper, the man who posted the video, now says he does not want to see her in jail and will not cooperate with NYPD in their investigation!

A few years ago, this action would have earned almost universal praise. Christian Cooper would have been heralded as having taken the high road, and we would have all celebrated the power of forgiveness. Not today. The twitter mob literally turned on Christian Cooper, saying in so many words that the fate of Amy Cooper was no longer up to him, and that he was part of the problem for not seeking to punish Amy Cooper to the fullest extent of the law. For example:

Again, it is remarkable to me how uncharitable and unforgiving we have become, and this is just one example of many. See this recent article in the Atlantic about how ordinary folks have had their lives ruined.

People cancelling Amy Cooper make the point that there is an uneven power dynamic at play. For a white person, especially a white woman, to accuse a black man is to jeopardize his life. It conjures up memories of Emmett Till, the black teen who was lynched after supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955 (it was later revealed that he did not), or Tom Robinson, protagonist of America’s favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

But today a different power dynamic is also at play, as this other viral video indicates. If Christian Cooper were a white man and Amy Cooper a black woman, we would not be talking about this incident. If anything, she would be seen as the victim. A single bad encounter between a white and a black person should not lead to the black person being killed OR the white person being cancelled, which – though less severe a fate – is still a kind of metaphorical death. (I think most people would rather be dead than be Amy Cooper right now.) We cannot live in peace and harmony with each other if we are always afraid of each other!

Tocqueville also tackles the issue of political correctness, explaining how it can benefit a tyrannical state by making it harder for the people to criticize the government. Too much regulation restrains action by compressing the range of acceptable thought, stupefying the masses into passivity:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Now, a few disclaimers. By criticizing cancel culture, I am not arguing that people should not be held accountable for their actions. They should and they must, especially people with actual political power. What we don’t need is the cancelling and public shaming of random civilians: filmed, doxxed, and reported by complete strangers. We should also extend an extra dose of charity to those under the age of eighteen, who (for their own good) should be kept as far away from social media as possible.

Likewise, by criticizing political correctness, I am not disputing the notion that we should adhere to certain norms of civility and sensitivity. There are some views that are unacceptable to express in polite society, such as support for the Nazis. But a difference of opinion should not be presented as a personal attack. We have to be free to at least question the prevailing view, and follow the evidence where it leads.

I recently had a phone conversation with an old friend, who is much further to the left than myself. I told her that while I am conservative in many ways, I also hold certain classically liberal beliefs. For example: the belief that people should not be judged on the basis of race or skin color, that we should tolerate those with different views, and that freedom of speech is of the utmost importance. I agreed with her that it was a good thing that so many white people were waking up to something Black Americans have been saying for so long: that racism does in fact still exist, and that they suffer as a result. However, I explained to her my concern that in the effort to do something truly noble – to eradicate the last vestiges of racism from our society – we risked losing an essential element of our identity, perhaps even our humanity.

We will not achieve racial equality by tearing down statues of the Founding Fathers. We will not achieve racial equality by imposing a totalitarian system wherein one is not allowed to question the methods of the radical Left. We will not achieve racial equality by employing prejudice and discrimination against white people, as some in the “anti-racist” movement have demanded. (See Robin DiAngelo’s claim that all whites are racist, or Ibram Kendi’s call to use discrimination to address discrimination.) While I completely support the goal of racial equality, I object to these proposals on the basis that they are illiberal (even, one might even say, racist). If implemented, they would lead to the end of America as we know it, and not in a good way.

Despite disagreeing about almost everything, my friend and I ended the conversation on a positive note. She remarked on how good it was to have her ideas challenged, whereas most of her other friends just agreed with her and said the exact same things.

And this is exactly why we need freedom of speech: to avoid the echo chamber that results when it is absent. No author or scientist has ever handed over a manuscript to an editor with the directive to “tell me how wonderful I am.” Only by challenging each other’s arguments and assumptions can we better approximate the Truth, which is such a formidable goal that no man can reach it unaided.

In the words of Tocqueville, “Men will not accept truth at the hands of their enemies, and truth is seldom offered to them by their friends.”

The Ballad of Thomas Smith

Can you feel the memory of this place?
Or does the weight of time erase
Blood from the root, leaving only fear?
Do you know what happened here?

In 1893 they hung me from a hickory tree;
Still hungry, they tore its branches free
And cut my clothes for souvenirs
Like something great had happened here.

What they say I did – does it matter?
Given tribe or truth, would you choose the latter?
All that mattered was that someone pay
The debt that bore their sin away.

Mrs. Bishop was selling grapes,
She led him down the cellar steps…
Man stole two dollars and beat her flat,
A black man, she said, in a slouch hat.

Willie was at the wrong place in the wrong shoes;
They got him at the wrong time, rubber boots…
Oh, don’t think I didn’t pray
That I had left my hat that day!

They got me at the train station…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman.
They had someone else too;
He even confessed, but I never knew…
Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman…

They made him swear to leave town
Then let him go;
They had me, and I would do…
“Boss, I didn’t hurt that woman!”

Shouting at the courthouse, gunfire at the jail,
Rough hands pushing me down, bidding me be still…
Would they risk their lives for me now, a negro?
Would they fight and die for me now, a negro?

Eight fell that night, by the Light Infantry,
Eight died that night, but not for me;
Eight men down, but they weren’t done,
They mourned for eight, but I wasn’t one.

Law washed its hands of me then – not proud,
They handed me over to the crowd…
At last, they tied me to the tree…
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

As a child I held my mama’s hand
As salt tears watered the scarred-up land;
She said, “Son, now we’s gon’ be free…”
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

They set me free on Franklin and Mountain…
Bullets biting from every direction…
Mama, why could they not let me be?
Lord… have… mercy…

It’s over now, Mama.
Into His hands I commend my spirit.

And then when they had cut from me
Every last piece that they could gut from me,
They built a pyre for me down on the river bank;
They lit a fire for me down by the river bank.

The blaze left only a few charred bones,
Smooth and polished as river stones…
My sister saw me burn that day;
She heard them sing, then turn away.

Days passed and no one could recall
The wind that blew in early fall
That made them whoop and shout for blood,
That made them throw me on the wood.

Now people pass, but do they hear?
Does my singing reach their ears?
God sent His mercy down on me,
But nothing ever grew from that hickory tree.

Historical Note: This poem is based on actual events. Thomas Smith was lynched in Roanoke in the early morning hours of September 21, 1893. The previous morning, a Mrs. Bishop of nearby Cloverdale had been beaten and robbed near the downtown farmer’s market. She identified Smith as her assailant on the basis of his race and his “slouch hat.” That night, Roanoke mayor Henry Trout called up the Light Infantry to protect Smith from the lynch mob that had gathered at the jail. When the mob tried to storm the jail, the Light Infantry fired into the crowd, killing eight bystanders.

The mob eventually overtook Smith as he was being returned to the jail later that night. They hanged him from a hickory tree on the corner of Franklin Road and Mountain Avenue and shot him numerous times. A man cut souvenirs from the tree and Smith’s clothes, handing them out to the crowd. Many in the mob wanted to bury Smith’s body in the mayor’s front yard, but they were persuaded instead to burn him on the banks of the Roanoke River.

This tragedy was not Roanoke’s first lynching. A little over a year earlier, on February 12, 1892, William Lavender was lynched after twelve-year-old Alice Perry accused him of trying to rape her. He was identified on the basis of his rubber boots.

  1. “Boss I didn’t hurt that woman.” – Thomas Smith’s words from his arrest at the train station.
  2. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me.” – Thomas Smith’s last words as he was being lynched.
Works Cited:
Alexander, Ann Field. “‘Like an Evil Wind’: The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 100, no. 2, 1992, pp. 173–206. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249275. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Why Acknowledging “White Privilege” Won’t Help

America has made tremendous progress on the issue of race over the last fifty years. In 1960, a black man could be lynched for the “crime” of flirting with a white woman, very few African-Americans could exercise the right to vote, almost none held elected office, and the most profitable careers were off-limits. I can only imagine the psychological pain of being barred from restaurants, parks, and theaters restricted for use by “whites only,” or the difficulty of explaining such an unjust system to one’s children. Today, there are no laws left in place specifically discriminating against African-Americans (though some still allege unequal enforcement). Since President Obama’s election, a black man has held the highest office in the land, a feat deemed impossible just a decade ago.

Does racism in America still exist, despite all this progress? Certainly. The everyday experiences of millions of Americans attest to this reality. But the degree of racism depends on how it is defined. Our culture is still heavily influenced by stereotypes, ranging from the “gangbanger” to the “dumb blonde” to the soulless corporate executive. Yet only a very small and discredited minority still claim the superiority of the white race, or favor a return to segregationist policies. In 1958, only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage; by 2013, that figure had jumped to 87%. A Swedish study found that the United States is one of the least racist countries in the world, with less than 5% saying they would not want “people of another race” as neighbors. Compare this to the 40+ percent in countries like India and Jordan, and we seem pretty tolerant.

Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement, most Americans are ready for the sort of “race blind” society envisioned by Dr. King. We want to judge people on the basis of their individual merits – the content of their character – not the color of their skin. Millions of Americans interact peacefully and harmoniously with people of other races on a daily basis. They are our friends, our neighbors, and our coworkers; increasingly, they are our spouses and children. There is a deep yearning on the part of most Americans to come together, acknowledge our common humanity, and truly be one nation under God.

Ironically, a small but powerful segment of mainly liberal activists (black and white) seems unwilling to accept decades of progress on civil rights, or to take the vast majority of white Americans at their word that they are not racist. They prefer a race-obsessed society to a race-blind one. In their view, it is wrong to simply “move on” from the undeniable racism in America’s past, as this glosses over its enduring pain and ongoing legacy. They are determined to lay the blame for every problem affecting black America at the feet of white racists. Recently, the idea has gained traction that it is not enough for whites to simply disavow racism; they must also acknowledge – publicly or privately – the relative “privilege” they enjoy vis a vis their black counterparts.

Many whites are understandably confused and frustrated by the suggestion that they have unfairly profited from the mere fact of being white, especially as they feel themselves disadvantaged by racial preferences benefitting minorities. The term itself seems an insult, insinuating that their success was not entirely earned, but unfairly obtained. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Christine Emba attempts to soften the definition of “white privilege” to be more palatable to reluctant whites:

A request to acknowledge one’s privilege is just a reminder to be aware — aware that you might not be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences, that the assumptions you were brought up with may be blinding you, that some people may have to struggle for reasons foreign to you…

A worthy sentiment indeed, and one that we should all attempt to practice regardless of the race, religion, social class, or nationality of whoever we happen to encounter. But racism is just one of the difficulties an individual can experience in his or her life. Are we to assume that the supposed “benefit” bestowed by white skin cancels out the challenge of being mentally or physically handicapped, the pain of childhood abuse, or even the more commonplace disadvantages of being unattractive, unintelligent, or unhealthy?

I have never met a single person who did not struggle with some significant challenge. This includes people who appear to have it all – the wealthy, the intelligent, the beautiful. It seems a fairly universal aspect of the human condition. Why should I see a non-white person and assume, purely on the basis of their skin color, that they have experienced painful traumas beyond my ability to comprehend? Why should I see a white person and assume they have led an easier life than most? It seems as though the white privilege crowd is calling for just the sort of prejudice that was once part of the standard definition of “racism.” Why can’t we all just focus on being better human beings, as Emba’s explanation of white privilege exhorts?

Even less clear than the basis for this white privilege is how its acknowledgment (just a step below an apology) would result in better lives for African-Americans. Emba writes:

Generally, we expect those with advantages to help out those who are disadvantaged. The leg up provided by white privilege offers a chance to do just that. Understanding that you benefit from white privilege offers the freedom to amplify important issues in ways that those without it cannot. It represents an opportunity to speak out more loudly against injustice, knowing you’re better-protected from negative outcomes. It’s the ability to use the access you’re given to create opportunity and space for others.

There is so much wrong going on here, I hardly know where to start. First, Emba argues that acknowledging white privilege is good because it creates a sense of obligation (some might call it guilt) on the part of the privileged to help the under-privileged. As a Christian, I already believe I have the moral duty to help my fellow man; but this responsibility is derived from our equal value as God’s creations made in His own image, not our unequal power. Instead of partners standing side by side to defend our mutual dignity, Emba sees the obligated looking down at the obligators, the helpless staring up at their benevolent helpers. This unequal power dynamic is more likely to foster patronizing condescension on the part of the part of the in-power group and bitter animosity on the part of the out-of-power group than genuine love or solidarity.

The truth is, we are all called to be helpers; none of us is helpless. Even if I feel myself at the bottom, chances are there is someone even lower than me who would appreciate what I have. We rise by lifting others. But encouraging someone to see himself as a victim does the double injustice of depriving both himself and society of his talents.

My second objection to Emba’s argument here is that she projects onto whites a special invulnerability, a superhero-like quality that is almost totally out of sync with reality. Whites have the unique ability to “amplify important issues?” When a non-white person raises the issue of unfair treatment, it is often taken far more seriously than if they were white, not less. For example, two University of Virginia students were recently arrested by ABC officers using excessive force – a white female and a black male. You have possibly heard of Martese Johnson, whose troubling arrest video went viral, but what about Elizabeth Daley? Her “white privilege” didn’t keep her from being unfairly arrested for the “crime” of purchasing bottled water, nor did it attract a fraction of the national publicity or outrage. And let’s not forget about “clock boy” Ahmed Mohammed. His arrest for bringing a hoax bomb to school earned him a trip to the White House and international celebrity status.

I also fail to see how whites are “better-protected from negative outcomes,” unless they are the minority of whites with the power or money to insulate themselves from dangerous or costly decisions (a privilege that has extended, at least for a time, to powerful African-Americans like Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson). The racist is the one category of persons almost universally abhorred and despised in this country. No one desires this label, as even the mere suggestion of racial bias can be career-ending. This is why most white people prefer not to discuss race. On this sensitive, emotionally-charged issue, they have less of a voice, not more.

But my biggest problem with the unequal power relationship Emba sets out is that it pits white America against black America in an almost Marxist fashion, assuming that one group’s privilege come at the price of another group’s rights. Once you internalize this belief, there are only two possible responses – acceptance or agitation. I can imagine no greater disservice to an African-American child than to indoctrinate him with the belief that America is still too racist for him to succeed, that he must wait until the day when no white person benefits from his majority-status or holds a single racist idea in his head, a day that will never come. How utterly defeatist and soul-crushing.

The irony is that white people pushing the narrative of white privilege may be the the real “subconscious racists.” They are the ones implying that African-Americans cannot help themselves; they need white allies to “speak out” on their behalf.

Emba concludes:

The use of white privilege tends to be unintentional. White privilege isn’t asked for, but it’s also not earned. The advantages it brings are uncomfortable to acknowledge and easy to take for granted. But they shouldn’t remain invisible. There’s no way to level the playing field unless we first can all see how uneven it is.

But would acknowledging white privilege actually help level the playing field? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that white people do enjoy certain cultural advantages denied to their black peers (a contention that is likely true, at least to a limited extent). They aren’t expected to represent their race in all matters, they don’t get unfairly judged for their exotic-sounding names, and they see more people in positions of power who “look like them.” Let’s then posit that every single white person in America signs an official document acknowledging this ill-begot privilege. How many fewer black men are in prison? How many fewer black children are in poverty? How does this admission of white privilege grow the black middle class? How does it lead to more black CEO’s and business owners?

It’s hard to understand how “confronting” white privilege would improve the lives of African-Americans on any of these measures. But perhaps that’s not the point. If white privilege is, as the liberal narrative holds, the original sin of every white American – a condition inherited at birth through no fault or virtue of one’s own – then acknowledging or denouncing it is but a means of atonement; it is more about consoling white guilt than easing black pain.

Respected African-American philosopher Lewis Gordon adeptly summarizes the whole problem with viewing race through the lens of privileges instead of rights:

A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things? Yes, there is the case of the reality of whites being the majority population in all the sites of actual privilege from prestigious universities to golf clubs and boards of directors for most high-powered corporations. But even among whites as a group, how many whites have those opportunities?

If we truly want to be a country where everyone has a fair chance in life, why not focus on the things that could realistically improve the economic situation of all Americans, black and white: promoting intact families through marriage, ensuring access to high-quality education, fostering greater job and business creation, and reforming corrupt inner-city governments, just to name a few? Or are we really too busy wringing our hands over the lack of diversity in the Oscars to tackle these more meaningful issues?

Emba calls the idea of white privilege “uncomfortable” for whites to accept, but perhaps the narrative of a subconsciously racist America is too comfortable, too convenient for the white privilege crowd to give up. They prefer to see themselves as noble heroes out to slay the dragon of white racism – if only its lingering ghost – than to acknowledge the possibility that their policies, no matter how well-intentioned, may have actually contributed to the problem.