Screwtape on Democracy

As a US expat I have the delightful opportunity to vote by mail in national and state elections (for expats they use your last state of residence, which for me is California), and I cast my vote last week. There’s a strange satisfaction about being able to walk down to the mailbox in our local village, slide in the envelope, and walk away knowing that this particular civic duty’s been handled. And a peculiar feeling of calm settles over the weeks that follow in the runup to the first Tuesday in November in any given election year: now I can sit back and watch it all unfold, my part having been played to the last move before the really hectic and desperate ballyhoo sets in.

I got up this morning and found a phrase tickling at the back of my brain, an itch I couldn’t scratch. “Be like stalks.” It itched and itched and wouldn’t go away.

Be like stalks?? WTF?, I thought while I made the tea, and fed the cats, and cleaned up the kitchen a little, and turned on the computer, and did other morning things. The phrase kept niggling. Fortunately, the source-memory popped up before I had to sink to the level of Googling for it.

The phrase comes from here.  I should have known the source would have been C.S. Lewis, who’s long served as virtual Obi-Wan to my Luke in various matters. (“What, you mean for once you’re not quoting Eddison??” I hear an ironic husband-voice mutter in the next room. To which the only possible response is, “Oh, shut up, sweetie.”)

I don’t know that the sudden irruption of the stalks-memory had anything to do with last week’s debate, or last night’s. But the core of the article, which Lewis wrote for the Guardian in 1961, expresses some sentiments that I’ve been feeling very strongly lately, and does it in language that in our semantically gun-shy times would be difficult (if not impossible) to get away with. A few passages particularly bear quoting:  in them the experienced senior devil Screwtape holds forth on the technique of mass damnation for his colleagues and subordinates at the College of Tempters —

Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.

You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.

The first and most obvious advantage is that you thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid, resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that his statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food: “Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I — it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs — thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox — he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.”

…There’s more, and it’s worth reading. But it resolves to this, where Screwtape says:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no preeminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals.* Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any tyranny other than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.

…So there’s that phrase. Screwtape closes this arc of discussion with a broad policy statement:

We, in Hell, would welcome the disappearance of democracy in the strict sense of that word, the political arrangement so called. Like all forms of government, it often works to our advantage, but on the whole less often than other forms. And what we must realize is that “democracy” in the diabolical sense (I’m as good as you, Being Like Folks, Togetherness) is the fittest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political democracies from the face of the earth.

For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.

…Whew! I seriously wonder if the Guardian would be willing to publish that article these days. (Then again, they might. But I doubt it would ever turn up in the Times of London, for reasons of its ownership’s political polarity.)

Anyway. That itch is scratched. Now back to work…. (BTW, The Screwtape Letters is being developed as a film at the moment. Boy, would I love to see that screenplay.)

*A strange echo here, for me, to the spot in The Incredibles (it was on here last night) where the former Buddy, now the faux-superhero Syndrome, snarls, “And when everybody’s special… nobody will be.”

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Diane Duane