Tyranny of the Majority, Cubed

It’s everywhere. Well it would be, wouldn’t it. Tocqueville said as much, and Mill reviewed both volumes of his book, each as it came out, and was as worried as Tocqueville, and wrote On Liberty as a result. But they might as well have saved their breath to cool their corn flakes. Only yesterday I was expressing some reservations about the idea of the of the ‘self-conscious reorganisation and administration of scientific disciplines for democratically chosen goals’ – and here we are again. This time at the Supreme Court, of all places where it doesn’t belong, or shouldn’t belong.

A number of the justices declared–dispositively, as they like to say–that “we are a religious nation.” The implication was that there is a quantitative answer to a philosophical question. But what does the prevalence of a belief have to do with its veracity, or with its legitimacy? If every American but one were religious, we would still have to construct our moral and political order upon respect for that one. In its form, the proposition that “we are a religious nation” is like the proposition that “we are a white nation” or that “we are a Christian nation” or that “we are a heterosexual nation,” which is to say, it is a prescription for the tyranny of a majority.

Well said, Mr Wieseltier. What indeed does the prevalence of a belief have to do with either its veracity or its legitimacy. And isn’t that the kind of distinction that Supreme Court justices are really supposed to be particularly sharply aware of? Isn’t that what they’re there for? To protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority? Not that they’ve always done anything like that, of course – the little matter of slavery leaps to mind, what with Dred Scott and all – but that is what they’re supposed to do. They’re not supposed to say things like ‘we are a religious nation.’

The morning’s disputations confirmed me in my view of Antonin Scalia’s lack of intellectual distinction…Scalia does not recognize the difference between a denunciation and a demonstration. At the court last week, he dripped certainties. “Government draws its authority from God.” “Our laws are derived from God.” “The moral order is ordained by God.” “Human affairs are directed by God.” “God is the foundation of the state.” These are dogmas, not proofs. Scalia simply asserts them and moves on to incredulity and indignation. But how does he know these things?

He doesn’t, of course, he just asserts them. That’s why religious people of that type are so exasperating and also why they are such a danger when they are in positions of power – because not only do they have a huge excess of certainty, they also consider that a virtue rather than a disastrous handicap. So it’s not possible to reason with them, because they know they’re right and they don’t even think they ought to pay attention to conflicting opinions. And that’s a Supreme Court justice. Perfect. Absolutely ideal.

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