Vartan Gregorian

Democracy in America

VTR Date: June 28, 2010

GUEST: Vartan Gregorian


GUEST: Vartan Gregorian
AIR DATE: 07/03/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I honestly never, ever even dreamed over these past many years that one of my all time favorite guests would join me here some day (this day, in fact!) to discuss an historically commanding book… Democracy in America by the astute 19th century French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville…as well as the commanding contemporary theme of democracy in America.

For surely today this is a theme that must concern thoughtful citizens more than ever before in our nation’s past.

Surely, too, I never dreamed that today’s ebullient and always intriguing Armenian guest would some day grace with his brilliant “Afterword” the new Signet Classic edition of my 1956 abridgement of Tocqueville’s classic work.

But he has, and even as this program makes its public television debut, our newly revised book does as well.

Which makes me all the more pleased that my learned friend Vartan Gregorian, historian, librarian, educator, University President, foundation chieftain…now head of Carnegie Corporation of New York…joins me once again today, this time to discuss democracy in America: the book and the reality.

Of course, in The Road to Home, my guest’s enchanting memoir of his extraordinary life journey from the Armenian quarter of Tabriz in Iran to the pinnacle of American intellectual and cultural achievement, he notes that in his early years as student and teacher at Stanford University two books offered him particular insights into his adopted country — The Federalist Papers and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

And I would ask Vartan Gregorian first and foremost about Tocqueville. Indeed, as I look at the Afterword that he wrote in the book just coming out, I note that he says, “After all, Democracy in America is not just the title of a book written by a visitor who passed some time among our Forefathers and then went home. It is a great notion, a living, breathing ideal and a work in progress that all Americans are in the process of creating together.”

And Vartan I guess that’s the essence of your feeling about Tocqueville.

GREGORIAN: Well, Tocqueville, I think work will remain with us even though it’s antiquated in many ways. But not the spirit and not its analysis. Because as I wrote in the Afterword to your wonderful edited book, when Tocqueville wrote his book it was an early phase of American history, first of all.

There was no Civil War yet. The worst tragedy to befall our country. There had not been World War I. There was no American Empire. There was no World War II. There was no … well, concept of utopian socialism was emerging. There was no totalitarian concept or totalitarianism. There was no concept of Orwell. There was no psychology of mass manipulation techniques. There was no mass propaganda techniques.

Our population was very small … rural. But now we’re facing three, three hundred fifty million Americans … soon to be.

Ah, more urban, more diverse, more fast changing, but none of this deters from his main analysis, which is one of the things I like about de Tocqueville.

When he coined the term “individualism” to describe the American character … as distinct from Europe … but in America … the individual … when the new society was being built in which Americans were individualistic, but not necessarily self-centered … so the individualist was a new phenomenon whereby individual Americans could defer their self-gratification for the sake of community. For the sake of … how to combine public good and private good. He thought the two were compatible.

And that individual liberty was very important. That’s one of the reasons why, by the way … speaking of France and de Tocqueville … French Liberals, Republicans were horrified about American Civil War … that it would completely destroy American democracy.

That was the source, origin of why they sent the Statute of Liberty to us. It delayed … took so many years to get here, so many things even to be modeled. But it was important for all Europe to pay tribute to a new country in which freedom and liberty and democracy could be preserved.

So America was best hope for … according to them … best hope for mankind, for experiment for democracy. That’s why I ended Afterwords “that’s an on-going, evolving phenomenon … democracy is”. It’s not a frozen category.

It’s not a catechism … “you do this, you do that” … because it evolved, it demands engaged citizenry.

HEFFNER: But it’s interesting … you say “the emphasis on the individual, but not a self-centered …


HEFFNER: … emphasis… explain that.

GREGORIAN: Well, self-interest is a dominated Europeans phenomenon. Americans because of mutualism, self-help, helping your neighbor … do everything, don’t expect others to do for you. They were self-dependent, so society depended on itself … improving itself.

You did not have to say, like in the Soviet Union … I don’t have to clean the garbage in front of my door, because I pay taxes. Or even here … it’s city’s business.

Americans were in charge of their lives. He welcomed the … all the non-profit organizations … volunteer organizations as first signs and manifestations of, of participating in democracy. You are engaging the system … you are not only engaged in yourself.

That’s a fascinating phenomenon that he build on this whole thing, American self-reliance, American entrepreneurship, American’s resiliency, America’s “go-get, do it”. And also he did not even mind the fact that all they did was detached from education, by the way. That’s the other thing I forget to mention.

He never deals with American universities, American higher education. There wasn’t much maybe at the time to brag about to Europe, but America despite all of those short comings … he felt a Constitution was created in which freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of individual were going to be preserved.

HEFFNER: Did you feel … your feelings about Tocqueville, do they stem from what you felt when you came here?


HEFFNER: As a young man?

GREGORIAN: Yes. Absolutely. A great influence. In my book I discuss … forgive me for being autobiographical … two things impressed me (laughter) when I came to the United States, mostly.

I should say, initially. One was Elmer Davis, one of the first paper books I read because I could afford to buy … not because of ideological … the title was But We Were Born Free. Left a great impression on me. That individual had rights … individual could defy the whole system.

Second one that impressed me was … I was in a line in Nebraska going to … driving from California to New York. I was standing in Howard Johnson …one of the hotel restaurants … and I looked behind me, there was a Colonel … so I said, “Please, after you”.

It was instinctive … authority … power goes before individual. He told me “There’s a line” … that a very … there was a law … law transcended individuals.

And that was a very important concept, maybe very … silly for many people, but for me it was an eye opener that you … where I came from … important person went ahead of you regardless how long you’ve been waiting … because that was the norm … he’s important … power is important. Law did not equalize opportunity or situations.

And de Tocqueville always has been with me in terms his notion of individual … how he relates to the system, how system is there to protect public good and private good. Reconciliation of public and private.

HEFFNER: Do you think that one could come to this country today … after all, you came here, was it ’56 …

GREGORIAN: 1956 … August.

HEFFNER: When, when my first edition of Tocqueville came out …

GREGORIAN: Yes. I did not read your edition, by the way.

HEFFNER: Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear … but do you think that you would feel that way … that someone coming from Europe today … would feel that same way?

GREGORIAN: I don’t know. Because, as a historian I cannot project, but I can just analyze what I know.

I tell you one thing that worries me. A great deal of de Tocqueville’s emphasis is on liberty, freedom. We have put more emphasis … America is land of opportunity … in terms of economic well-being. To make money.


GREGORIAN: That’s what worries me. Is that people will come here whether they’re concerned as much of being citizen, enjoying economic … not only economic opportunities, but to take part in our society … intellectual and cultural quest. Whether they come … their, their children will be … whether they like it or not.

HEFFNER: But why does that bother you?

GREGORIAN: It bothers me because, again, maybe I’m … it bothers me because America is not just for money and economic well-being. But it also has certain ideals. I want people to know about our Constitution, the fact that they have rights. They’re here as citizens. It’s almost like Roman Empire, in the best sense of the word.

When you are a Roman citizen, you have rights. That arbitrary power cannot destroy those rights. In any other totalitarian, authoritarian … how could that notion of totalitarian or authoritarian … that autocratic societies, but not totalitarian societies or totalitarian ideologies.

HEFFNER: Does this, does this feeling give you … make you more sympathetic to the libertarian movements of our own time?

GREGORIAN: No. Because, again it’s nice to have fewer people, you can be Libertarian, less government and so forth.

But, when we had Civil War, it required massive organization on both the part of the South and the North. They did not say “let’s have less government”.

All Libertarians, everybody exclude the Army, armed forces. Which is one of the major government run organizations. World War I you had to mobilize. World War II you had to mobilize. Massive government.

You have institutions which require (laughter) educating mass … the public health and others, to live at minimum organization … now 50 states … is very difficult.

We have a political system that is nineteenth century, Tocquevillian, in a sense. We have political realities which is 21st century. Something, sometime making the structure cumbersome … how to move, how to act, how to solve our problems.

And that’s one of the things that Tocqueville had never anticipated, that … Libertarians, it’s easy … I mean, you can say, I’m a Libertarian, I don’t believe in this and that … less of everything … taxes … less government and so forth.

But how do you then organize the country? Let’s say we are Soviet Union … what do you do? Say less government, don’t have CIA. We have less government, don’t have Defense Department. We have less government, don’t have broadcasting USIA, don’t have this … don’t have … but in de Tocqueville’s time, or some time … State Department I think had 17 employees. All right? Or 20 or something like that.

But not thousands because, again, we live in a very complex world in which we did not complicate them … the world has complicated us, whether we can resist all the trends or not.

So I’m just saying de Tocqueville was not Libertarian. That’s why he loved the Constitution because it balanced public and private interests. And there is a role for State government … states’ rights and all of that.

But that vanished after Civil War made Federal government much more stronger in a sense than states.

HEFFNER: What about his concern about … for the so-called “tyranny of the majority”.

GREGORIAN: Well, that’s always been the case of all the Liberals. As a matter of fact …

HEFFNER: You say that disapprovingly?

GREGORIAN: No. Approvingly. It’s, it’s always there. Tyranny of majority is (laugh) complicated also … tyranny of ignorant majority. Because sometimes that’s why organization I preside over … Andrew Carnegie thought education is the source of strengthening democracy by educating the public.

If you have an educated citizenry, you have a different situation than uneducated citizenry that you can move through sentiments and so forth, propaganda and others … that at complicated times like this.

So de Tocqueville … Bertrand Russell later … same thing. Minority of One … that was the name of the publication of Bertrand Russell. Societies are known … how they treat their minorities. Not how they treat their majorities. That’s where Liberalism comes. How you treat minority.

Because otherwise tyranny of majority is reality … in the name of majority you can outlaw anything you want.

I hate to tell you Hitler came to power through a Parliamentary mechanism … in a very well educated country … Germany.

HEFFNER: Yes, you say “in a very well educated country” …

GREGORIAN: Very well educated … the danger is not just a lack of education. Danger is also, as I mentioned mass manipulation, mass organization, marriage of nationalism with a totalitarian ideology can produce marvelous results for those who want to dominate society.

HEFFNER: You know I notice you’ve said a couple of times now and in all our previous programs, there’s always a, a mention on your part of manipulation …


HEFFNER: … this is a real concern of yours, isn’t it?

GREGORIAN: Very much so. When de Tocqueville wrote, when Orwell later in 1984 wrote, they were concerned that all truths would be accepted, all facts would be accepted as facts.

HEFFNER: Not so.

GREGORIAN: Not so. You have … Orwell came already … how to manipulate the language in such a way that words don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean. How to use psychology, mass psychology in order to steer emotions one way.

Look at Teddy Roosevelt period … look at Hearst newspapers mocking up the sinking of a battleship in order to invade Cuba and so to do away with Spanish rule. Another thing … can easily move masses. It’s minority sometimes who have to defy those … and they are to be protected.

That’s why we have … always going to have heterodoxy and orthodoxy in our … terms of ideologies.

Orthodoxies, heterodoxies come … outlaw or push out orthodoxy … then they become orthodoxy themselves till something else …

We need open society in which all things are criticized, all things are challenged because democracy is not a fixed phenomenon, it provides means to improve, but also has sometimes seeds to deceive it.

HEFFNER: You know I, I … there was some time back and the BBC did a series of films on Freud and his nephew in this country …


HEFFNER: … Edward L. Bernays …


HEFFNER: … and the whole beginning of taking Freud’s insights into the nature of human nature …


HEFFNER: … and exploiting them.


HEFFNER: And it seems to me that we’re in the midst of that now.

GREGORIAN: Yeah … all over the world you can exploit religion, which is supposed to preach tolerance by making it unique, transcendent and you make it now .. absolute. Religion became absolute. You make nationalism … “Who’s the best? We are” and married to “Who’s threatening us” … can build all kinds of forces around that in which individual voices are silenced.

Because democracy marries sometime … or embodies or contains also nationalism, a religion which is absolute.

I told you last time we were here that I’ve attended many inter-faith meetings and de Tocqueville also did not emphasize the importance of religion … that’s why I’m dragging all these things.

And during these discussions, I summed up the following … the Muslim, Jewish and all kinds of Protestant, Catholic and others, Buddhists, coming together. They all say … I summarized … brother, we both serve the Lord. You in your way and I in his.

HEFFNER: “I in his”.

GREGORIAN: … “in his” … his absolutes. It is religion which is supposed to tolerate … but tolerance is not enough. Understanding is important. We can tolerate things and not deal with them. And therefore, tolerance is integral part of Liberalism … in order to understand.

But that’s only halfway. The other thing you have to understand in order to know why you’re tolerating it.

It’s not a legal phenomenon. It’s also a societal problem. If you have a minority of ideologues … be it Conservative or Radical, it does not matter. You’re tolerating them, which means I’m putting up with them. But you’re not engaging with them. Important of ideologies … Libertarianism, Conservatism, of Radicals, Marxists, Liberals, Neo-Liberals, Neo-Conservatives, is people to be engaged in discussion if democracy is to have a common vocabulary and common purpose and constantly improve itself and constantly adjust itself.

HEFFNER: Are you … I was going to say “optimistic”, but I know better than to ask you …


HEFFNER: … about that. Are you hopeful in terms of seeing in the future this dialogue going on? This conversation?

GREGORIAN: We have mostly, in many instances, monologues …


GREGORIAN: … and most dangerous thing that I have encountered recently, where people say, “I have my facts, you have your facts”. Namely, there are no such thing as objective facts.

If we reach that stage then you can have competing societies with competing facts, competing footnotes and others. They confuse interpretation … opinion with fact.

Facts always can be found. Historical fact … when did this happen? 1832, 1833. You can’t say I believe it was 1834. Facts happen … who was President of the United … that’s a fact. That’s not an opinion. But you can interpret others through opinion … and notice, but that’s be challenged, not overcome and undo facts. And that’s one of the reasons, for example, I’m not catechism-oriented … let’s have our text books, the following things that we include.

But we are to discover. One of the things when I read Tocqueville, I just also encountered Shelly’s The Critic, 1799 … which left a great impression on me … one line, said, “the number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is precious few. It’s the role of education to increase the number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves.”

And de Tocqueville’s democracy or democratic system should enable … give the tools … education … for people to become independent minded, rather than become copies.

HEFFNER: But, I think it was Learned Hand who talked about the hardest work of all … thought …


HEFFNER: … which is what you’re, what you’re saying. How, how do we … how do we get ourselves to deal with that in a positive way when everything around us is aimed at making things easier … from kitchen utensils to communications …


HEFFNER: … devices which concern you, I know.


HEFFNER: How do you do that?

GREGORIAN: Well, I don’t have a clear answer on that because people are debating that. The main thing is that everybody wants everything in America to be “light”.


GREGORIAN: Thank God they’re not making also scientific discoveries “light” … light discoveries, heavy discoveries and others. Because our culture … more and more tends to entertain. It doesn’t mean that you have to each science to be boring. It does not mean that you have to each history … you should be boring. But everything is not fun.
Everything is not entertaining necessarily. Life is a very serious business. It has entertaining moments, it has sad moments, there are tragic moments and so forth. So how can you teach everything “light”.

I mentioned sometime ago that I was present at a discussion when somebody wants to make the Encyclopedia Brittanica “Light”. Well, something in America should be “heavy”.

Because, my God, we’re dealing with thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom and these American philosophical traditions … America’s literature and other. We should know what it is and take “light” aspects, if there are and “heavy” aspects, but not say, “Let’s make it light in order to make it popular.”

HEFFNER: But you know …

GREGORIAN: It always reminds me of “50 Great Moments in Music” by Milton Cross … you know only opening lines … so there is Beethoven, let’s go to Mozart. That doesn’t make you a knowledgeable individual. It’s, it’s actually … it’s an insult to Beethoven and others that you have remembered one line. It did not lead you to hear the entire Fifth, or Third … symphonies.

HEFFNER: There was a story that I knew I, I shouldn’t, shouldn’t tell you before I asked you if you would write the “Afterword” to this Democracy in America and that was the realization that many of my colleagues have said my Introduction to it is, is pretty good. Even if you didn’t introduce yourself to it at first all those years ago …


HEFFNER: … to this edition. Now I find and my colleagues tell me many students read only the introduction …


HEFFNER: … because it’s Tocqueville “light” …


HEFFNER: … and … this is something that I relate to when I read about your concerns about communications …


HEFFNER: … in our time.

GREGORIAN: That’s very important observation. But I always … when I was teaching at San Francisco State, the publisher need not be mentioned, the text was titled Intellectual History of Europe … they came to ask me whether I would underline the text book, the text book they were writing. What should people read in order to get A, what should they read … B or C.

I said “My God, why don’t we just have one, one ten page … ten page guide?”

HEFFNER: Vartan that’s what we’re getting to and I’m being told that we have no more time. But thank you very much …

GREGORIAN: Well, thank you, thank you for your time.

HEFFNER: … for joining me again. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.