Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part One

There's been a dearth of posts these past few days, considering I've finished two books in rapid succession, and started two more. One is Anthony Beevor's acclaimed Stalingrad, which is a beautiful narrative (thus far) account of the eponymous battle during World War II. The other is Alexis de Tocqueville's De la démocratie en Amérique, more commonly known in Anglophonic parts as Democracy in America.

De Tocqueville's writing is clear and prophetic, and he attacks his subject with a great deal of perception and research. He is very interested in the massive differences between the origins of European (particularly his own French) society and American society.

I'm, of course, reading an edited and abridged version (it has been difficult enough to find the book in the first place, although I would have preferred an unedited, unabridged version, possibly in the original French). Korea is not the easiest place in which a foreigner can find books in his own native tongue (although there are places to do so, if you know where to look). Similarly, it is even more difficult to find those works in a format other than one designed for mass-market consumption. And finding works in French or German have proven quite difficult.

De Tocqueville opens his book with a survey of the origins of American society, immediately noting the vast difference between the northern and southern States in their very origins. The northern states were populated by religious separatists who brought along their entire families. Their settlements were political experiments, fusing their religious philosophy with a democratic ideal that they believed God had ordained for them. Their moral laws were incredibly strict, but they possessed near-universal education and literacy (necessary for reading and interpreting the Bible), social welfare of a high and voluntary standard, and most importantly, the people were sovereign in their individual townships.

Southern states were first populated by unscrupulous adventurers seeking fortune. It was only later that agriculturalists and artisans arrived to support the southern colonies, and those who had first settled had immediately seized upon slavery as a means of labor. This, for de Tocqueville, set the tone for the dichotomy between the two areas, North and South.

He pinpoints land-tenure and property inheritance laws as an important source of democracy in America. Aristocracies arise from privilege. Privilege often comes from primogeniture, where land is inherently identified with the family that occupies it. But in America, de Tocqueville sees inheritance laws dividing property equally between all of the inheritors, breaking up great estates and making land a much more fluid commodity. Privilege cannot arise from multi-generational land-ownership. Thus, to de Tocqueville, the only aristocracies that can arise are those of the mind.

What disturbs me about de Tocqueville is how much American society has changed in the last 180 years. The absence of an aristocracy has been reversed of late. The march of industrialism, the emergence of a new, incredibly wealthy class of Americans, started a new trend. Christopher Hitchens wrote a chapter or two in Blood, Class, and Empire on how this new rich class sought to marry into British nobility as a kind of "legitimization" for their new position. They were so affluent that they were vastly removed from the rest of American society, and could afford to spend their time completely idle--thus giving birth to the socialite. Often, they had a very small number of children, making inheritance dispersal versus primogeniture a very moot issue. This marked a shift in American attitudes, reaching so far as to gradually reshape our mentalities, culture, and society away from the form that de Tocqueville described as so strong and so unlike his native France.

When describing his own chaotic home of France, it seems he is describing the political climate of modern America.
The religionists are the enemies of liberty, and the friends of liberty attack religion; the high-minded and the noble advocate bondage, and the meanest and most servile preach independence; honest and enlightened citizens are opposed to all progress, whilst men without patriotism and without principle put themselves forward as the apostles of civilization and intelligence. Has such been the fate of the centuries which have preceded our own? and has man always inhabited a world like the present, where all things are out of their natural connections, where virtue is without genius, and genius without honor; where the love of order is confounded with a taste for oppression, and the holy rites of freedom with a contempt of law; where the light thrown by conscience on human actions is dim, and where nothing seems to be any longer forbidden or allowed, honorable or shameful, false or true?
De Tocqueville saw in France the opposition between the religious institutions and liberty as paradoxic. "Christianity, which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of God, will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law," he writes, and found satisfaction in the Puritans' firm belief in liberty and determinism rested upon and was demanded by their faith.

But that is not the only thing that has disappeared from many facets of American society. De Tocqueville described American industriousness and practicality:
In America, there are but few wealthy persons; nearly all Americans have to take a profession. Now, every profession requires an apprenticeship. The Americans can devote to general education only the early years of life. At fifteen, they enter upon their calling, and thus their education generally ends at the age when ours begins. Whatever is done afterwards is with a view to some special and lucrative object; a science is taken up as a matter of business, and the only branch of it which is attended to is such as admits of an immediate practical application.
The early Americans were ultra-capitalist adherents to the "Protestant work ethic." And in this we can, perhaps, see the origins of the conservative hatred of the welfare system and the idea that wealth is a "reward" for "hard work." Almost two centuries ago, it was a reward for hard work. But things have changed. We're now a consumerist, not capitalist, society. Practicality never enters into it. Where once we "required beautiful things be useful," many Americans crave ostentatious displays of wealth in the form of frivolous accouterments. Wealth equals status for many of us. We want to be envied. This was not always the case, and we are not stronger for it being so. Wealth is no longer defined as land-tenure. The goal is not to be productive, but rather to consume, and conspicuous consumption, something the Jacksonian Americans would have known on a small scale and perhaps sneered at, is to us the end-all be-all of labor. We desire to be aristocrats and to live decadently and wastefully like Paris Hilton. And many Americans are angry and frustrated that they cannot live that dream.

Since wealth and envy have become so important to American society, everyone also, paradoxically demands equality. Hence, there is worship of celebrity and envy of the rich, but also a demand for wealth redistribution, top-down social leveling, welfare systems, and legally enforced equality.
Now I know of only two methods of establishing equality in the political world; every citizen must be put in possession of his rights, or rights must be granted to no one. ... There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality which incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.
It is absolutely key that de Tocqueville identifies equality and liberty/freedom separately, and I suspect this is something I shall touch upon repeatedly as I continue to blog my reactions and thoughts to Democracy in America.

And herein is my enormous gripe with the ideas of liberty and equality, as well as rights and privileges. In the Old World, class carried with it the concept of privilege. The nobility had the capacity to do things that the commoner simply could not. But since the United States never possessed an aristocracy (outside that of the mind), equality was simply a matter of course. By the time of Jackson, all male citizens had suffrage (although other, marginalized groups would achieve it later).

The basis for freedom is the extension of universal rights. Although racism did exist, in the era between Reconstruction and Jim Crow, blacks made it into Congress. Thirteen of the twenty-three first black officeholders in the U.S. legislature were former slaves who were self-taught. Racism did not stop them from getting elected and holding office, it did not impede them from becoming Congressmen and Senators.

Then came Jim Crow. Democracy failed because the law did not provide rights to African Americans during the dark surge of racism that boiled up throughout the United States during the turn of the 20th century. However, it was repealed. Nevertheless, it left deep, gaping wounds in American society. Some of these wounds are so deep that there are many political and philosophical thinkers in American academia that posit that all white males are universally racist, and that it is impossible to be racist if you are not white. (As someone who lives in Korea and experienced racism, I can assure you, this idea that only whites are racist is wholly mythical.) However, the results have been strange. Equality is being enforced, but not of law. It is some sort of other equality. Some claim it is economic, some social. But whatever it is, it is being enforced by removing/adding privileges and, most importantly/dangerously, rights to different sections of American society. Factions have been created based on race, and those factions now have different rights and privileges guaranteed by law.

And it was when I was reading de Tocqueville that it dawned on me--the law can only give or take away rights. The sort of equality these marginalized elements of society are demanding cannot be achieved through law beyond a sort of universal extension of the same rights and liberties. Once there is an imbalance of rights and liberties, all equality is shot. Social and economic inequalities cannot be redressed by law. They must be redressed by the culture and value system of the society as a whole.

But as I sit and read de Tocqueville and hear the marchers screaming for equality in my head, I cannot help but think that, with Civil Rights, women's liberation, and other movements, when does the marching stop? Shouldn't the aspiration of an American to be middle-class, comfortably employed, with a decent standard of living? Then I turn on the television and I realize... no, it isn't. The grass is always greener. Basic human greed is coupled with human laziness. It isn't about race, or gender, in reality. No, those things are just window-dressing, they're distractions.

No, as I read de Tocqueville, I realize that we aren't the Americans that he is describing in his book. Not at all.

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