Frederick Douglass on…Democracy Promotion?!

A list published last week by the Guardian of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time inspired me to pull Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass off the shelf in our living room and give it a read. (You can find the complete text of Douglass’ 1845 autobiography online here.) After blogging recently about certain U.S. government efforts to promote democratization in other countries (link), I was struck by this passage from Chapter XI:

I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad. I honor those good men and women for their noble daring, and applaud them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the escape of slaves. I, however, can see very little good resulting from such a course, either to themselves or the slaves escaping; while, upon the other hand, I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst they do much towards enlightening the master. They stimulate him to greater watchfulness, and enhance his power to capture his slave. We owe something to the slave south of the line as well as to those north of it; and in aiding the latter on their way to freedom, we should be careful to do nothing which would be likely to hinder the former from escaping from slavery. I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency. Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother.

I have no idea what Mr. Douglass would think of international democracy-promotion efforts and don’t mean to imply that he would have shared my view of the aforementioned programs. I do, however, think that the “strategic logic” he describes gets at an important aspect of the problem that I touched upon in my earlier post.

Here’s the thing: If you’re not in a position to deliver freedom en masse, then anything you do that draws attention to your intentions and tactics stands to hurt your efforts by putting the agents of oppression on the defensive and telling them what to guard against. If the U.S. government really wants to help catalyze liberal activism in authoritarian regimes, it probably shouldn’t shout from the rooftops about its desire for regime change and then jabber on about the ways it’s going to try to make that change happen. Because the United States is a (sometimes lovably, sometimes maddeningly) loud-mouthed democracy with a relatively transparent government, the talking isn’t going to stop any time soon. If that’s right, then the United States’ ability to support democratization without provoking a counterproductive backlash is inherently limited, and U.S. policy-makers would do well to keep those limitations in mind. As Mr. Douglass said, “Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother.”

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