In a recent interview with the German weekly Junge Freiheit, popular satirist and onetime fixture of the left Eckhard Henscheid explained why he had moved toward the libertarian right and was fighting censorship in his “democratic” society. Junge Freiheit had been kept from exhibiting its products at the Leipzig Book Fair and for years has been under investigation by a government organization, the Verfassungsschutz, which goes after what are seen as “fascist” or “far rightist” dangers to German democracy. Although the paper’s editors have been accused of “Holocaust denial,” the newspaper has repeatedly featured articles detailing the Nazi regime’s hideous deeds. Its real sin seems to be operating as an old-fashioned (in the European sense) liberal publication, which calls attention to the outrageous abuses of liberty committed by German antifascists and their collaborators in the government.
Henscheid contrasts the fierce opposition to freedom of thought (Denkfreiheit) among German educators, the German media, and throughout the conformist political class to the far milder censorship in an older and supposedly “authoritarian” German society. In the early nineteenth century, German principalities censored subversive works but with few exceptions did so in a bumbling, halfhearted fashion. These clearly undemocratic regimes retained censors who were supposed to examine publications of a certain page length. If the texts appeared to advocate the government’s overthrow or might produce civil unrest, the authors were prohibited from distributing them in their original form. In some cases, the author could amend the text to remove the offending passages. With sufficient influence in the right quarters, they might even be able to bribe the censors to let their works through.
Unlike modern democracies, these “authoritarian” regimes did not give a damn about indoctrinating their subjects, and least of all about turning them into antifascist automatons. They aimed at a more modest goal: staying in power. As a means toward that end, they kept the masses from getting stirred up. My now deceased polyglot friend Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was fond of telling a story about his conversation with a Spanish fisherman near Bilbao, whom he asked (probably in Basque) what he thought about the government. The fisherman answered laconically: “Franco worries about the government; I just fish.” The point of this narrative was not to show what a good guy El Caudillo was. It was to indicate how a traditional authoritarian regime proceeded to act once it had settled scores with the revolutionary left. It was interested in order, not in creating a new democratic or socialist man/woman or in opening hitherto undiscovered paths to sensitivity.
Democracies are far more ideologically driven, and almost always in a leftist totalitarian fashion that becomes increasingly obvious as “liberal democracies” reveal their true nature. In democratic Europe there are ever increasing attempts to criminalize “insensitive” speech as violating laws that forbid even the implicit denial of the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, or whatever other historical events are now being treated as beyond discussion. In England one stands in fear of violating the Race Relations Act if one notices too conspicuously the propensity of certain visible minorities for violence or if one complains too loudly about the immigration problem. The European Union has become an antifascist “democratic” police state and is now inflicting prohibitions on its subjects against speaking unkindly of gays, immigrants, and other specially protected groups.
In a militant mood last month, Brussels called for special restrictions to be placed on Viktor Orbán’s right-of-center Hungarian government. His administration had the effrontery to replace a leftist coalition that was full of ex-communists, and Orbán has shocked his PC critics by speaking about a “historic Magyar nation.” This Hungarian regime may be described as a national democratic one but certainly not a global antifascist one. The German government, which as Henscheid notes is ever on the alert for the “man from Branau [Hitler’s Austrian birthplace] to rise from the grave,” has now placed the Hungarians “under special vigilance.”
The same ritual of condemnation took place in 2000, when the right-of-center Austrian Freedom Party was about to put together a coalition in Vienna. Anti-immigration national governments in Europe are now deemed “undemocratic” and therefore have to be put on the international quarantine list. We Americans and our European fellow-democrats now seek to micromanage the entire Western world and to bring everyone there into conformity with democratic morality.
This is not an accident, but something inherent in modern democratic ideology. I am not including older democratic models such as the one that Orbán is trying to revive in Hungary or which Swiss or American communities once practiced. I am talking about our notion of “democracy as a way of life,” which may be as totalitarian as what the communists attempted but is also more successfully liberticidal. Contrary to our self-congratulatory bromides, modern democracy is neither in favor of true diversity nor particularly peace-loving.
This was brought home to me dramatically in 2003, when on my return from an anti-discrimination “learning session” at a nearby college—a measure that both state and federal authorities required—I learned that we Americans and our British fellow-democrats had just invaded Iraq to bestow on its inhabitants the blessings of democracy and human rights. Although I would have been delighted to hear something else at the time—for example, that our governing class had been reduced to its pre-New Deal size—this was and is impossible. We now enjoy government social engineering coming through the woodwork and wars of national liberation modeled on Bolshevism.
I do not see these features as a distortion of our democratic system but as fully compatible with democracy’s emphasis on universal rights, equality, and in recent decades, the grand project of modernizing the rest of the world with what Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind praised as “democratic education.”
In the US, older institutions and traditions have prevented this development from producing more harm. The American Constitution was a pre-democratic eighteenth-century exercise in what James Madison called “the physics of government.” It was an ideologically neutral governing document which allowed for a high degree of decentralized power. Those who today insist on strict adherence to this document are actually (to their credit) antidemocrats. Whether or not they know it, they are standing athwart further efforts by democratic state power to extend its already meddlesome reach.
Appeals to universal rights are also a thoroughly democratic practice which arose in the eighteenth century and was used to justify the French revolutionary state’s aggressions. Much to neoconservatives’ regret, Americans after their Revolution ceased paying attention to the decorative phrases about natural rights that Jefferson stuck into our Declaration of Independence (much to the displeasure of many Continental Congress delegates). Therefore it was supposedly a good thing that Lincoln reactivated this universal-rights phraseology during the horrors of the American Civil War. Indeed, we are true to our democratic character by forcing our human rights and political peculiarities on those living in different cultures. And we are morally required to aggressively bring them our state-of-the-art democracy.
The end effect of modern democracy, as Kenneth Minogue observes in The Servile Mind and as I try to show in After Liberalism, is growing submissiveness to the state as a source of both financial support and imposed morality. Democratic regimes do not encourage individuality as much as they socialize their subjects. This priority becomes established and accepted as older centers of authority are weakened and the overriding goal of overcoming inequality and discrimination takes center stage. Although this egalitarian goal can never be reached, the endless journey toward it becomes democratic government’s justification for existing. Compensatory justice for once-scorned minorities is not a departure from the egalitarian ideal but is instead its perfect expression.
Democratic populists argue that the people are being ignored or that the elites are out of touch with them. But most voters seem to like what the system offers and are not hunting for reactionary, antidemocratic options. These citizens fully understand that democracy means the promotion of equality at home and abroad. They believe that such schemes as redistributing income, overcoming discrimination, and forcibly implementing “human rights” in our foreign policy are democratic ideals.
Outside the circles of reactionaries among whom I travel, I have yet to run into people who oppose democracy or equality or who question this ideological consensus. Those who don’t belong to this consensus should not blame politicians. They should indict democracy itself.
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