Monarchists at heart

Culture | Without the virtues necessary for self-government, people love to be ruled

Issue: "Campaigning from the closet," Sept. 19, 1998

In England, Princess Diana in death is receiving mass adoration. Thousands flock to her shrines. Miracles are even being ascribed to her. Harper's Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis is ascribing the remission of her ovarian cancer to Princess Di's intervention. An editorial in the London Guardian says how she has become the focus of "a spiritual yearning for something larger than ourselves."

"No one has ever seen anything quite like her in the pop imagination," observes Elizabeth Fox, an anthropologist born in England now teaching at the University of Florida. "There are the metaphors of sainthood everywhere. The shrine at Althorp, her grave on a lake-all ancient symbols. People say they 'know' her, describing a personal relationship such as they would have with angels or God." Another scholar, Gregory Payne of Emerson College, calls her "a secular saint, a media-created icon."

Diana worship-like the Elvis worship evident in this country on the recent anniversary of his death-is an extreme example of the celebrity cult evident in today's pop culture, the phenomenon that has given us People magazine and the tabloids that, ironically, hounded the poor woman to her death. People today love to idolize other human beings.

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In the United States, President Clinton is hardly being divinized, but he retains enormous popularity, despite the grotesque moral failings that are paraded daily in the papers.

There may well be a deep, instinctive reason why denizens of the late 20th century are becoming so servile, looking up to our "betters" with such uncritical and superstitious awe. Beneath the veneer of democratic institutions-so rare and so late in coming in human history-we are monarchists at heart. Today the virtues cited by the founders as necessary for citizens to be free and self-governing are fading. No wonder we are reverting to a new peasant mentality, which huzzahs the ruler as long as he takes care of us. We might expect to see a revival of the ancient pagan mindset that deifies royalty.

America's founders recognized that free republics have always been rare, and that if they are going to work, they require certain traits in their citizens. For one thing, citizens who have the responsibility of governing themselves need a certain kind of education. The ordinary voter must be able to understand public policies, see through the rhetorical manipulations of the demagogues, and make informed judgments based on assiduously gathered information and thoughtful analysis. Free citizens must be literate and informed.

The founders emphasized the value of a "liberal" education-from the Latin word meaning "freedom." Free citizens of the Roman Republic were trained to develop their mental faculties to the fullest, through the trivium and quadrivium of the so-called "liberal arts." Slaves were given only a vocational training, taught not to think for themselves but only to serve the economy; in other words, the kind of education being demanded by many Americans today, the curriculum of slavery.

According to a survey conducted by the National Constitution Center, only 25 percent of American young people aged 13-17 can name one of their constitutional rights. Only 41 percent know the three branches of government.

Among their elders, the number of people who actually vote in elections continues to shrink. To be sure, those who do not know or care about the issues have no business cancelling out the votes of those who do. But the point is, fewer and fewer Americans care about politics, study the issues, or stay informed about their government. Consequently, we are not taking the trouble to rule ourselves. Which means we are content to be ruled by others.

The founders, such as James Madison (recognized by only 2 percent of the teenagers as the father of the Constitution), also stressed the necessity of morality for a free society. Individuals must be self-governing morally before they can be self-governing politically.

A person who requires security cameras, electronic alarms, and armed police to keep him from stealing in a convenience store knows only external constraints. Those who can govern themselves, doing voluntarily what they know is right, do not need anyone else keeping them under control. They would not steal-cameras and security guards or not. Their voluntary internal constraints enable them to be free of external constraints.

The founders recognized that the Greek democracies failed because the passions of the people could be so easily manipulated by unscrupulous rabblerousers, who whipped them into frenzies of greed or bloodlust. If the American experiment is to succeed, the founders reasoned, we must cultivate the so-called republican virtues, including public responsibility and personal self-control. This is why even the founders who were not Christians recognized the importance for a free society of morality-producing religion.


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