Tag Archives: Tocqueville

The intellectual in America: an example

Here’s an example of the intellectual’s situation in contemporary America, courtesy of the American historian of Russia Steven F. Cohen. Cohen is about as well-established a figure as could be imagined (some details here). After thirty years as a professor at Princeton, he now teaches at NYU; he’s published lots of scholarly books and received important honors; he seems to have plenty of money and reasonable access to the media. If anyone should feel secure about expressing opinions, it’s people like Cohen.

So it’s a shocker when he tells us about self-censorship within his well-informed, well-protected milieu. Cohen’s particular concern is American policy toward Russia, an issue on which he’s has spoken eloquently and courageously, but the details here matter less than the intellectual climate that he describes.

In that climate, he tells us, “some people who privately share our concerns” in “the media, universities and think tanks—do not speak out at all. For whatever reason—concern about being stigmatized, about their career, personal disposition—they are silent.” As for young scholars, those “who have more to lose,” Cohen himself urges silence. He reports telling junior colleagues that “‘American dissent in regard to Russia could adversely affect your career. At this stage of life, your first obligation is to your family and thus to your career. Your time to fight lies ahead.’”

This is a seriously depressing account, because Cohen isn’t even talking about outsider radicals, ethnic leaders, or potential “extremists,” the kind of people that the New York City Police Department might put under surveillance (see here and here for examples). He’s only discussing well-trained experts like himself, who work for well-defended, rich institutions. His friends have connections, their opinions fall within the spectrum of American common sense, and the subjects they study have major-league practical relevance. After all, we really don’t want to screw up our relations with another heavily-armed nuclear power. We want to get the story straight, and critical debate contributes to doing that.

Yet fear reigns even in this corner of the academic arcadia. At a minimum, Cohen tells us, university professors wait for tenure before expressing an opinion; until then, they shut up. Many of their elders apparently continue shutting up after when the immediate pressure eases, whether because there are still career steps to climb or for more personal reasons.

In some ways, of course, this is just an updated version of an observation that Alexis de Tocqueville made long ago. “I know of no country,” Tocqueville reported in Democracy in America, “where there prevails, in general, less independence of mind and less true freedom of discussion than in America…. In America, the majority draws a formidable ring around thought. Within those limits, the writer is free; but woe to him if he dares to go outside it.”

But there’s also something more sinister in the story that Cohen tells. Tocqueville believed that American democracy explained the problems he detected. “The tyranny of the majority” (he invented the phrase) ensured that non-conforming opinions wouldn’t be heard, because Americans (metaphorically) voted on their ideas just as they (really) voted on their city councilors. But Cohen and his friends aren’t actually facing the tyranny of the majority. They’re facing instead the readiness of powerful insiders to channel discussion in specific directions, by using among other tools their leverage over academic institutions. In other words, the old fashioned forms of power haven’t lost their relevance in our twenty-first century world– and even historians can feel their effects.