Bill Moyers’ A World of Ideas [Quotes]

Barbara Tuchman

How would you sum up the original idea of America? A liberation from tyranny which had existed for centuries, in which government was in the hands of rulers with no particular right other than dynastic, of nobles who had nothing but property to justify their exercise of rule, and the monarchs who had only heredity to justify thiers. The interesting thing was that I found that the Dutch had voiced the same thing when they abjured the rule of Spain. The Oath of Abjuration written almost 200 years before our declaration of independence contains almost the same words.

On the whole, the ruling groups don’t truly govern in the interests of the underprivileged classes. We are going to feel the effects, just as the French did when the French Revolution occurred, through the same ignoring of the misery of the poor classes, and to the same financial irresponsibility. What really started the French Revolution was the condition of the deficit, which was owed because of their help to us – which is again another irony.

If we are moved merely by greed, and there’s no longer any respect for decent or honest government, then we will suffer the results. We’ve been suffering from them ever since Watergate-and now again with the Iran-Contra business.

History’s lessons move very slowly. People don’t put them into operation right away, when they’ve become visible, but only when they rise to the surface, and begin to flood the bottoms of your cellars, only when they affect your own living conditions. In the Middle Ages, the sewage wasn’t properly disposed of, but people didn’t pay attention to it until the waters of the rivers and the filth rose over the doorsteps. Then they had to. That’s what is beginning to happen, it is beginning to rise over the doorsteps. It is already, isn’t it?

We’re becoming accustomed to an almost satisfied with people in government who are either venal or stupid. And with the emphasis on fundraising for all elections, which is ruining the electoral system, we will be accepting entertainers as our candidates, not those who have learned the processes and practices of government. You can’t govern without having to training in it. Even Plato said that a long time ago. You need to be trained in government, to exercise it, to practice it. But the American public is now satisfying itself with entertainers.

I think all these developments must certainly affect, if not the person in government, at least the office. And it would be too bad if we lost respect for the office. I think that’s the point I was trying to make in the chapter on popes in The March of Folly. The activity of the Popes themselves cost the papacy so much respect and so much prestige that it made the Reformation possible. It didn’t cause the Reformation, but it made the idea of overthrowing the Roman Church possible.

The trouble is that our public men are really artificial. They’re created by the most devastating tool technology has invented, which is the Teleprompter. They don’t speak spontaneously. You don’t hear them meet a situation out of their own minds. They read this thing that’s going around there in front of them, these words that have been created for them by PR men. This is not the real man that we see. It allows an inadequate, minor individual to appear to be a statesman because he’s got very good speechwriters, and to read the stuff off because he’s a trained actor.

Governments persist in folly because they don’t want to let go of their position, or their power. They are afraid that if they let go, if they say, we were wrong, or we’re doing the wrong thing, they will be booted out, or they will lose their status. It’s not wanting to be left out in the next White House luncheon, or to be shoved into the wilderness if you report unpleasing information.

People say, what’s the use of reading history? I say, well, what’s the use of Beethoven’s sonatas?

Revolutions produce other men, not new men. Halfway between truth and endless error, the mold of the species is permanent. That is Earth’s burden.

Michael Josephson

Now we don’t know what to believe. People don’t believe their own government. When we reach the point where we can’t even trust the facts are government gives us, then we have lost something very significant in a democracy.

If even a small minority of people will speak up and demand more of themselves and others, even if only in their own lives, we’ll turn the pendulum around, and we’ll begin to swing back to the days when we could be really proud of the kind of people we are because of what we contribute to each other and to society. Ethics is a minority movement, and always will be. But a strong minority can change the tenor of this society in a meaningful way.

Joseph Heller

Most of the voting and party membership is pretty much based on something that might be called parochial loyalties. That’s the reason someone like John Connolly could switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party so easily.

Normally, the candidates are supported by people who are from the same financial and social status. Whether they come from Democrats or Republicans, they are backed by money. Finance is extremely important in American politics. H. L. Menckin says that this is the only society in which virtue has become synonymous with money and that the United States is the only large state ever founded solely on the philosophy of business.

We can’t eliminate politics. And no one who has enjoyed democracy has knowingly voted for a different system of government. It is congenial, it is entertaining. For you and me, who are among those in this country who are well fed and well housed and who can be reasonably sure that their income will continue and enable us to live as we are living, there’s no substitute for democracy. Consider how few the alternatives are.

I do believe the individual is important. But the individual does not count to governments. Governments are not normally concerned with the welfare of the people they govern. Even history is not concerned with them. During Rembrandt’s life, the potato was brought over from South America and cultivated successfully in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. The cultivation of the potato was more important to more people than was Rembrandt’s painting of Aristotle or William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. The potato gave tens of thousands of people life. You will not read about it.

We tend to measure progress by profit. That’s one way of looking at progress, but it’s not the only way. We have more millionaires now than any nation ever had in its history. At the same time, we have more homeless. We have very real problems here, and we don’t even seem to agree on what they are.

The motion in the Athenian assembly to invade Syracuse was deceitful, corrupt, stupid, chauvinistic, irrational and suicidal. It passed by a huge majority.

The emotions of people in a democratic society are no more rational than they are in any other type of society. They are manipulated. It is the function of leader in a democracy, if he wishes to be a leader, to manipulate the emotions and the ideas of the population.

The word quote “democracy” does not appear in the Constitution at all.

Money and conquest and commerce are the constants in human history.

Money goes where it will increase the fastest rather than where it is needed, and it has no national loyalties. We’ve seen that since the end of World War II. It may be that we no longer have to go to war to take possession of a country’s resources.

If you expect the democratic system of government to provide efficient government, you’re going to be disappointed. Hamilton and Jefferson and Carlyle and others assumed that in an industrial society the captains of industry would and should be the political leaders. They assumed that they would be men of intelligence, man of integrity, men of vision, and men who, having achieved wealth, would no longer have the accumulation of wealth as their goal and would be interested in the public good. That has not happened, as we know.

I believe the federal government is ungovernable.

We don’t have a tradition of revolution, and I don’t believe we’ll ever have another revolution, mainly because revolutions are middle-class phenomenon. Revolutions are not conducted by the most underprivileged in a society. They’re usually conducted by educated people. When Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” he was living in a part of the world that have more liberty than any other place.

Noam Chomsky

Even the mainstream Democratic theorists have always understood that when the voice of the people is heard, you’re in trouble, because the stupid and ignorant masses, as they are called, are going to make the wrong decisions. So, therefore, we have to have what Walter Lippman, back in 1920 or so, called “manufacture of consent.” We have to ensure that actual power is in the hands of what he called a specialized class – us smart guys, who are going to make the right decisions. We’ve got to keep the general population marginalized because they’re always going to make mistakes. The Founding Fathers had very strong feelings on this subject. The Federalists, for example, were very much afraid of popular democracy.

From a point of view which perceives democracy as a problem to be overcome, and sees the right solution is being farsighted leaders with a specialized class and social managers – from that point of view, you must find means of marginalizing the population. Reducing them to apathy and obedience, allowing them to participate in the political system, but as consumers, not as true participants.

We are the only major industrial democracy that doesn’t have a labor-based political party – a party based on the poor or the working class. We have only one political party – it’s the business party. We have two factions of the business party called the Democrats and the Republicans.