The Contagion of Liberty

by zunguzungu

Gretchen Head in Jadaliyya:

Since January 15th, media discourse on the Arab world has almost uniformly coalesced around a single term, “contagion.” This is a telling semantic choice given the word’s broader associations with disease; a synonym for “infection” or “contamination,” it carries rhetorical connotations that are hardly subtle.The Wall Street Journal has analyzed Egypt’s “contagion risk” (Feb. 1st) and in the past two and a half weeks The New York Times has published at least half a dozen articles on the topic, with the same word always employed. On Feb. 2nd, for example, Sara Hamdan asked, “which countries will be most susceptible to contagion?” The risk of contagion, the susceptibility to contagion, any possibility of reading the word with a sense of neutrality is destroyed by the resolutely negative context in which we find it. And the obsession with contagion here is simply the flip side of the same coin we’ve seen for years. The political metaphor turned cliche of the “Arab street,” thought until a few weeks ago to be incapable of popular grassroots revolt, is now being homogenized in the opposite direction.

This is a very old metaphor, though, and it almost predates modern medical understanding of “contagion” itself, depending on how you gloss “modern.” In a chapter from his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution on “The Contagion of Liberty,” Bernard Bailyn began with this passage from Benjamin Rush’s 1787 speech on the American war and American revolution:

There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.

Benjamin Rush was both a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and a doctor (if a very late-18th-century sort), and thus regarded the “contagion” of liberty in a very particular way. And as with many of the founders, the upheavals of the 1776 moment had become for him — by that 1787 moment — a problem that had to be solved. It was one thing to unseat a King in a revolutionary fever; but how to constitute a republic that would be safe from such contagous convulsions of liberty?

The indispensable Matt Bors.

As Jason Frank writes, in “Sympathy and Separation: Benjamin Rush and the Contagious Public” (also, the third chapter of his Constituent Moments: Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America, just published in paperback):

Like many of his contemporaries, Rush worried about the contagious volatility of large public assemblies engendered by the Revolution. For Rush, regular gatherings of the people out of doors threatened to corrupt visions both of an orderly and emancipatory public sphere and of the virtuous and independent citizens required by republican government. Rush feared that the unregulated communication of passion between bodies gathered in public might unleash what Michael Meranze has called an “anarchy of reciprocal imitations.”

Rush believed the physician was uniquely positioned to address the physical, moral, and political health of the new nation because he could best understand the physical and physiological dimensions of virtue and vice…If not properly balanced and administered, republican governments too could degenerate into a state of popular licentiousness. For Rush, the corrupting power of popular government was best exemplified by the revolutionary politics of the people out of doors, which, by the 1780s, seemed to Rush and many others to threaten post-Independence political institutions. Because of the “political insanity” of insurgents like Daniel Shays, Rush feared post-Revolutionary Americans were entering a “wilderness of anarchy and vice.”

…Inspired by events like the “Ft. Wilson riot,” Rush eventually developed a quasi-physiological theory of the popular politics that tied political disorder to derangement of mind and body. In “An Account of the Influences of the Military and Political Events of the American Revolution upon the Human Body” (1789) Rush traced the unique impact of the “novelties” of the Revolution not simply upon the “understandings, passions, and morals of the citizens of the United States,” but “upon the human body, through the medium of the mind.”

Frank goes on to place this issue in a broader frame:

The vast expanse of American space was, of course, often considered the key to understanding America’s exceptionalism and to providing the necessary environmental conditions of free and independent citizenship. The focus is generally on the availability of Western land, and its importance to sustaining a yeoman republic. However, the discussions of the spatial distribution of citizens sometimes also focused on the dangers of contagious passion and sympathy in a small republic or in large public assemblies. In his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, John Adams, for example, wrote that because Americans “are sprinkled over large tracts of land, they are not subject to those panics and transports, those contagions of madness and folly, which are seen in countries where large numbers live in small places.”132 This concern with contagious proximity and its corruption of judgment also helped shape the political thought of the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison himself.

Madison made this argument apparent in his Vices of the Political System of the United States, written in April of 1787 as he was preparing for the Philadelphia Convention. There Madison wrote, “the conduct of every popular assembly acting on oath . . . proves that individuals join without remorse in acts, against which their consciences would revolt if proposed to them under the like sanction, separately in their closets.” The judgment-distorting force of passions is, Madison continued, invariably “increased by the sympathy of a multitude.” Elaborating on the consequences of this insight for the extended republic of the United States, and in terms that seem to echo Adams, Madison wrote, “it may be inferred that the inconveniences of popular States contrary to the prevailing Theory, are in proportion not to the extent, but to the narrowness of their limits.”133 Popular governments were not threatened by the dispersion of an “extended sphere,” as suggested by “the prevailing Theory” of small republics, but by too much proximity.

I guess it’s a better metaphor than Glenn Beck’s image of the Egyptian revolution as uncontrollable wildfire: