In George Will’s excellent essay in National Review, The Consciousness Project, he touches on the importance of three fundamental principles supporting our constitution:
- Human nature is both flawed and permanent. It has been interesting to note that governments based on this principle have been the most free, and those who treated human nature as malleable have been the most oppressive.
- The centrality of natural rights limits the government to protecting rights; not granting them (or removing them). This was a radical concept at the time often associated with the violent path taken by the French. Our use of it was far more restrained and balanced.
- The Constitution by design limited majoritarian democracy.
The Progressive movement while seeking to address the concentration of economic power came into conflict with all three of these principles. The American project is about liberty more than democracy.
But what if there is no such thing as human nature? What if human nature is a fiction, a pre-modern superstition? What if human beings are merely creatures that take whatever shape is imposed on them by the impress and promptings of the culture in which they are situated? If so, then controlling the culture becomes imperative. And politics must saturate every nook and cranny of life. And this saturation will, inevitably, mean controlling what people say and hear and read and think and teach. Shaping the consciousness of the people — purging the people of what Marxists call “false consciousness” — becomes the great, the encompassing political project.
Once curating consciousness becomes a political project, the jurisdiction of politics becomes enormous — indeed, illimitable. And the aspiration for, the very idea of, limited government disappears. The politics of consciousness promises glittering possibilities. Therefore, muscular progressive politics must not be circumscribed by any limits on coercion. Particularly, any speech, any idea that contributes to false consciousness, must not be tolerated, lest progress be delayed. Such delay would be an intolerable harm. So, censorship is, to the censors, strictly speaking, progressive. And censorship becomes a categorical imperative when the duty to control culture is reinforced by a sense of crisis. Or, to use the adjective that nowadays is promiscuously bandied, an “existential crisis.”
The Leninist temptation — the totalitarian temptation — comes in many flavors and intensities. But it always rests on a denial of human nature. If there is no settled, fixed human nature — if human beings are always and only creatures who are created by the marks made on them by the culture in which they are raised and live — then the stakes of politics are, always and everywhere, enormous. The stakes are, literally, everything — including the sort of beings that humans will be. And everything is, inevitably, politicized. Everything: from work to leisure. What we read, what we eat, how we are entertained. And what is allowed to be said and read and thought and taught.Which brings me to my second hypothesis, which is this: People who believe that culture determines the nature of everyone and everything, and who therefore believe that politics must control culture — everything that is said and read and thought and taught — such people will necessarily believe that they are directly harmed by any speech and all ideas that retard progress, as they understand this. So, they will claim what Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School calls a “license to silence.”
Lincoln’s ascent to greatness began with his instant, implacable, and canny opposition to such thinking. America, he said, is not about a process, majority rule. Rather, America is about a condition, liberty. Lincoln did not say, but could have said, that a written constitution is a counter-majoritarian instrument. It circumscribes the power — the sweep — of majorities. The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. No law. No matter how many people might want one.