The Spirit of No

November 9, 2021 Updated: November 15, 2021


As the United States falls ever deeper into identity politics, as more and more jobs require diversity-equity-inclusion pledges from workers, digital surveillance of private lives continues, words and thoughts undergo fresh political scrutiny, public apologies proliferate, individuals living and dead are canceled … a vital tradition in the American heritage is no more.

I mean the dauntless cry of “No!”—that defiance of tyranny spoken by a free and independent soul. You know the highlights: “Give me liberty or give me death!”; “Don’t tread on me”; “I have not yet begun to fight!”; “Civil Disobedience” (Thoreau); Huck “lighting out for the territory” because he can’t stand “sivilization”; Kerouac and the Beats hitting the road; Terry Malloy testifying against the bosses, and many, many more.

Americans have been this way from the beginning, but not so much anymore. All the way to the 1960s, the lone dissenter, the renegade thinker, the man against the crowd, the sheriff in “High Noon”—America granted them dignity just by virtue of their stern isolation. And, let’s add, that approval of the crowd didn’t mean much to them. A compliment from the authorities or from the herds they led wouldn’t impress Howard Roark, architect-hero of “The Fountainhead,” no, not one bit. That’s not why he goes his own way and does his own thing. It’s visceral, not rational; an instinct, not principle. This is why the mediocre lot, the followers and joiners and Company Men, so often misunderstand them.

The gap has never been wider than it is in 2021. The solitary American hero is the very opposite of the current collectivism, and the tide is against them. Never in my lifetime have Americans been so constantly told what to think and say and do, and what not to. Never have they been so frightened of being caught uttering what just a few years ago was conventional belief, or of acting in a way that can’t even be termed an aggression, only a microaggression, or of refusing to acknowledge their innocence or guilt based upon their race or sex. They don’t speak out or strike back. No, they keep their heads down, watch their words, and stay out of trouble.

How contrary to that binding “woke” collective is the young slave Frederick Douglass warning his master that if he ever tries to whip him again he’ll have to kill him first, or President Ronald Reagan sticking to “Tear down this wall!” in spite of the warnings of his advisers and the diplomatic wisdom of the Beltway experts, or even the pallid Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to.” Those resisters didn’t calculate their chances or consider their futures, as do the professional classes of today (whom the activists and protesters have thoroughly cowed). They just say, “No”; they can’t do otherwise. It’s a matter of character, of what used to be called the “National Character.” Put them and the other stiff-necked figures together and you have a lineage of self-assertion that should inspire every American to tell the mavens of political correctness and social justice to go to the devil.

When “STOP HATE NOW!” signs pop up in yards and on billboards, our classic American thinks, “Who appointed you to command me?” and then opens his Emerson to the line, “The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines” (“Self-Reliance”).  That sounds a little harsh, yes, but that’s how the rebel American experiences the censors and proprietors: as busybodies and petty tyrants, sneaks and tattletales. He can’t imagine joining 1,000 others and signing a petition to get a person fired. The prohibition of jokes because of their potential offensiveness he would find a despotic restraint. The whole thing disgusts him, and he’d say so upfront before he left, not always politely.

We have our high expressions of independence in the Declaration and in “Walden” and other classics, but just as essential to the American way is the brusque repulse, as in the response of the general at Bastogne in December 1944, whose troops were surrounded by German artillery, when formally called upon by the enemy to surrender: “Nuts!”

Oh, it’s a little crude and rowdy, this American nay-saying, but we must remember that the very term “American” signified in Europe through the 18th and 19th centuries just that, a coarse and unschooled creature, living in a land with no castles or cathedrals, no great universities or sumptuous courts. How could they think otherwise? Young European men of status took the Grand Tour through the glories of ancient Rome and Greece, while young Americans ran off to ship out for South Sea adventures, as did Herman Melville and Richard Henry Dana (for whom Dana Point is named).

Europeans had Henry VIII, Catherine the Great, and Frederick the Great, the playing fields of Eton, monasteries such as the Grand Chartreuse, which dates back to the 11th century, and estates that belonged to the same families for almost as long. Americans had the frontier and the Wild West, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, founders and presidents who fought duels (Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson), and gold rushes and land rushes.

Our tradition doesn’t hide that boisterous energy, not even when it verges on barbarity, as was the case of the hand-to-hand fighting at the Alamo where the Americans took many times their number (William Carlos Williams called the particular American savagery a “rich, regenerative violence”). Walt Whitman hailed ordinary Americans for “their deathless attachment to freedom … the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors” (Preface to “Leaves of Grass”). Williams opened his eccentric catalog of insubordinate American spirits, “In the American Grain” (quoted above, first published 1925), with the Icelandic adventurer Eric the Red, whose motto is “Rather the ice than their way.” They go it alone if they have to, and they scorn the comforts of belonging.

As I said, sadly, that gruff independence doesn’t fly any longer, certainly not in elite circles. Entry into the professions requires too much groveling and compromise. A free spirit can’t do it. A young American shooting for a top school or a top job has to be careful all the time. After the Kavanaugh hearings, he knows that a search for skeletons in his biography can go back to his time in high school. I remember hearing a dozen years ago that elite colleges were scanning the social media pages of applicants for bad photos and posts before they offered a slot. Ten years before that, David Brooks wrote an article in The Atlantic titled “The Organization Kid,” in which he described students at Princeton and a few other elite schools (whom he interviewed) as workaholic and savvy, but incurious about matters unrelated to career plans. They were obedient, too, cannily so, deferential and cooperative. The system of getting ahead had made them that way. At age 20, they had become “professional students,” Brooks concluded.

And professionals don’t break with their colleagues or discomfit their superiors. They eschew social tensions, too, which is why the elite of today knuckle under to the current hegemony, the woke wave. It is why college campuses, which used to prize dissent, have become some of the most rigid party-line spots in the entire land. The woke movement fancies itself a protest against entrenched power and systemic discrimination, but given its domination of human resources in corporate America, of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, museums and libraries and the arts, academia and the Democratic Party, we know that it’s no such thing. Woke is the Establishment, and it’s stifling, imperious, and punitive.

We need a revival of the American rebel, of thousands of them, though not because we value rebellion per se. We need it because this particular Establishment is corrupt and stupid, venal and self-serving. If the elite produced for the middle class an economy that let people raise kids on one income and a culture that ennobled their daily affairs, we would have little cause for resistance. If it gave individuals more room to hold and voice refractory opinions, the outrage that fuels rebellion wouldn’t arise. But here we are, a populace rebuked and enjoined and re-educated every day by accusatory columnists, indignant professors, woke activists, solemn corporate leaders, and the president of the United States.

Don’t listen to them. Instead, read the American classics, recall Emerson on the scolds—“you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it” (“Self-Reliance”)—and meet their phony righteousness with a righteousness straight from your heart. Tell these shabby enforcers of leftist dogma that their numbers mean nothing to you, that any man who yearns to join a crowd, who, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “refuses to be alone,” is no virtuous being. He is, rather, “the type and genius of deep crime” (“The Man of the Crowd”). The American heritage can give you moral courage to do so, and I can think of no greater quality at the present time.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.