Weekend Reading

Whenever the government suppresses opinions or beliefs like Schenck’s, it claims to be acting on behalf of values—national security, law and order, public safety—that are neutral and universal:  neutral because they don’t favor one person or group over another, universal because they are shared by everyone and defined by everyone in the same way.  Whatever a person may believe, whatever her party or profession, race or religion, may be, she will need to be safe and secure in order to live the life she wishes to live.  If she is to be safe and secure, society must be safe and secure:  free of crime and violent threats at home or abroad.  The government must be safe and secure as well, if for no other reason than to provide her and society with the safety and security they need. She and society are like that audience in Holmes’s theater:  whether some are black and others white, some rich and others poor, everyone needs to be and to feel safe and secure in order to enjoy the show.  And anyone who jeopardizes that security, or the ability of the government to provide it, is like the man who falsely shouts fire in the theater. He is a criminal, the enemy of everyone.  Not because he has a controversial view or takes unorthodox actions, but because he makes society—and each person’s pursuits in society—impossible.

But Americans always have been divided—and always have argued—about war and peace, what is or is not in the national interest.  What is security, people have asked?  How do we provide it?  Pay for it?  Who gets how much of it?  The personal differences that are irrelevant in Holmes’s theater—race, class, gender, ethnicity, residence, and so on—have had a great influence in the theater of war and peace. During the First World War, Wall Street thought security lay with supporting the British, German-Americans with supporting the Kaiser, Socialists with supporting the international working class.  And while the presence or absence of fire in Holmes’s theater is a question of objective and settled fact, in politics it is a question of judgment and interpretation.  During the war, Americans could never decide whether or not there was a fire, and if there was, where it was—on the Somme, the Atlantic, in the factories, the family, the draft—and who had set it:  the Kaiser, Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Socialists, the unions, the anarchists.  Without agreement on these questions, it wasn’t clear if Schenck was the shouter, the fire, or the fireman.

When you value continuity above all, you glide silently over the fact that “the university” is radically transformed when its primary function is simply to exist. When the president of a university is fighting to get rid of programs that don’t pay for themselves, because they don’t pay for themselves, it doesn’t really matter what they are; the substance of the university’s intellectual work is not what matters, just its bottom line. The result is that managers and academics are in inevitable conflict. Universities are divided between administrators—whose concern for institutional health is expressed in fiscal projections and budgets—and academics who would look at a President spouting historical ignorance in an alumni magazine as a bleeding sore on the academic body.

There is, however, no better example of the mentality that prioritizes institutional continuity over intellectual principles than the 3/5ths compromise. The apparent arbitrary nature of the number is what makes it stick in our minds as a historical scandal, in some ways more than it should; after all, at a time when the vast majority of American adults could not vote—when the franchise rested almost exclusively with white male property-owners—the scandal was not that slaves “only” counted as 3/5ths of a person, it was that they were slaves in the first place. But what the number’s arbitrariness demonstrates is how both sides were simply compromising in order to compromise, prioritizing the continuance of the Union over everything else. “3/5ths” didn’t mean anything, and no one pretended it did. The only important thing was that the power elite came to a consensus, and 3/5ths was where the horse-trading stopped. If that consensus required that millions of dark skinned people be enslaved and brutalized, well, that was a small price to pay for the glorious union. Continuity is what matters, after all.


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