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The Bookshelf: A Love Letter on Democracy and Freedom

In e.b. white on democracy, writings from the legendary late New Yorker contributor speak to us today about supporting freedom at home and abroad, upholding the rule of law, and resisting isolationism.

Article by William McKenzie January 31, 2020 //   11 minute read

My daughter and I were touring colleges last summer when we happened into a bookstore one evening. A few works on democracy sat on a table, so I picked up a copy of a small book with the simple title: e.b. white on democracy.

 I am so glad I did. Martha White, the granddaughter of the legendary late New Yorker contributor, has compiled a book of insightful essays, letters, and poems from her very readable grandfather that speak directly to our contemporary world. Never mind that White, who joined the New Yorker in 1927 and remained there for almost six decades while authoring such children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web, wrote the majority of these pieces during the middle part of the last century. (He wrote the latest ones in the 1970s.) E.B. White’s observations on democracy and freedom during a time of world war, economic calamity, and the rise of communism address some of the underlying tensions we face today.

E.B. White’s observations on democracy and freedom during a time of world war, economic calamity, and the rise of communism address some of the underlying tensions we face today.

The book starts with a perceptive introduction by historian Jon Meacham, who notes that White was not a predictable partisan. Living a large part of his life in Maine, White, like many writers, preferred being left alone. But with so many social and political currents swirling through the middle 1900s, he understood, as Meacham writes, that “... the best way to guarantee freedom and fair play for ourselves is to guarantee it for others.”

 Standing up for freedom

 In other words, preserving freedom abroad preserves liberty at home. And White, by his own admission, had a love affair with freedom. In a September 1940 essay, when some here and abroad preferred isolationism to combatting the rising forces of tyranny, White wrote:

“I feel sick when I find anyone adjusting his mind to the new tyranny which is succeeding abroad. Because of its fundamental strictures, fascism does not seem to me to admit of any compromise or any rationalization, and I resent the patronizing air of persons who find in my plain belief in freedom a sign of immaturity. If it is boyish to believe that a human being should live free, then I’ll gladly arrest my development and let the rest of the world grow up.”

The recipient of a special Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, White was a devoted American who valued our nation’s appreciation for the rule of law, right down to our sporting events. He remarked after Pearl Harbor that the unforeseen attack astonished Americans because we play games that depend upon referees to maintain the foul lines. “We think that the football can’t be kicked off until after the whistle is blown,” he observed. “So it was quite to be expected that America grew purple with rage and fury when the Japanese struck us without warning.”

As much as he prized America’s belief in individual freedom, White was not a nationalist. He strongly advocated for then-emerging international institutions to check the excesses of rampant tribalism and overheated nationalistic fervor.

For readers today, his writings suggest an idealized view of the ability of supranational institutions to contain tyranny and authoritarianism. Perhaps he sought such hope in them because his professional career was developing at the same time many freedom-loving people were coming to realize that the world needed institutions of some kind to check the dark forces that unleashed fascism, Nazism, and communism.

Of course, we possess the benefit of hindsight to see how difficult it is to make some of our international institutions preserve peace and protect human rights. (Former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power provides an illuminating look in her new book, The Education of an Idealist, at how difficult it has been to get the United Nations to call an evil like genocide by its name.) This isn’t to suggest we don’t need the postwar institutions the U.S. rightly led the way in creating. We do, and they have helped stabilize the world. It’s just that White’s extolling of their promise reads a little differently to the modern reader, especially as we see a strong sense of national sovereignty ram straight into the pillars of the European Union.

To his credit, White believed the United States cannot sit by idly while some leaders and their nations seek total control over their citizens and even other lands. Or, as he wrote of Adolf Hitler, leaders who see humans as “capable of being arranged and standardized by a superior intellect.”

White proclaimed being “in love with freedom” and that “I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fascism and dictators merely because they are succeeding in war. From such adaptable natures a smell rises. I pinch my nose.”

Yet more is required at times than pinching one’s nose. “United States policy is to strengthen the free nations and build our defenses,” he argued in December 1950 as the Cold War intensified. “It is a correct policy and we should go at it relentlessly and fast.”

White wrote fiercely about the perils of disarmament as the Russians armed up. But he also valued what we now call “soft power.” Writing about foreign aid’s importance in countering communism’s appeal in some impoverished nations, he warned in that 1950 essay: “To keep it small and timid might be a very big mistake.”

An essayist by trade, White gleaned something even more fundamental: the moral need for Americans and their leaders to resist tyranny. Only hours after France fell to Germany on June 22, 1940, he advocated this response from the United States:

“We are of the opinion that something of a total nature is in store for this country, and we don’t mean dictatorship or vigor. We mean a total rejection of the threat with which we are faced, and a total moral resistance to it.”

An essayist writer by trade, White gleaned something even more fundamental: the moral need for Americans and their leaders to resist tyranny.

Fortunately, the world does not face the same maniacal, immediate threat that Hitler’s march across Europe posed. But nativism, populism, and isolationism are fueling unrest and division around the world, often with great force. Even once-aspiring democracies — see Poland, Hungary, and Turkey — have succumbed to these isms and cracked down on freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, and freedom of dissent.

What’s more, authoritarian rule is firmly cemented in major powers like Russia and China. They are cleverly using technological tools to attempt to undermine our own democracy. We cannot pretend this is not happening and adopt the fierce isolationism that White opposed in his day. Instead, we must use our moral voices as well as strong leadership to counter any effort to retreat from promoting the rule of law and human dignity.

Freedom at home

As he wrote of his times, which saw domestic Red Scares, oppression of civil rights, and cultural conformity, White made the case for freedom here at home, too. Freedom of speech. Academic freedom. A free press. He used his pen to explain those important principles.

His fierce belief in an independent press may seem expected for a journalist, but his writings point to a sensible reason: A free and independent press works for the good of all Americans. “We the people have access to a variety of news and opinion when we have a multitude of individuals owning the press,” White argued in a free-market way. “The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character, but because of its great diversity.” Otherwise, we only get what a few barons or the government want us to read or hear.

His belief in academic freedom and freedom of speech were in contrast to the prevailing winds blown by the literati’s flirtation with communism in the 1930s and by Joe McCarthy’s purging fire in the 1950s. Reacting to a plan for a Cooperative Commonwealth published in the magazine Common Sense, White decried the plan’s proposal for “a sufficient control of the organs of public opinion.” Responding sharply, he wrote:

“We don’t mind changing to a different economy, as to a different shirt, but we will not submit, even for a split second, to controlled opinion. If it is controlled, it isn’t opinion.”

From his support for freedom at home and abroad, to his belief in the rule of law, to his warnings against isolationism, White’s words from the last century speak directly to us in our times. They also give us hope that the human desire to be free will prevail.

From his support for freedom at home and abroad, to his belief in the rule of law, to his warnings against isolationism, White’s words from the last century speak directly to us in our times. They also give us hope that the human desire to be free will prevail.

“Here in America, where our society is based on belief in the individual, not contempt for him, the free principle of life has a chance of surviving,” he wrote. “I believe that it must and will survive.”

Freedom certainly triumphed over the forces that sought to topple it in the last century. We now have the duty to uphold that belief in the individual and remember, as White concluded, that “liberty is an animating cause.”