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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 1, Book 2, ch. 6-9)

In the paper this morning I found a quote from an Australian: “Maybe only a friendly foreigner could say this. But America needs to realize that not everyone can own a home. The American Dream of home ownership for all is a fraud.” Really? Tocqueville said something similar almost two hundred years ago: “Only foreigners or experience might be able to bring certain truths to the ears of Americans.” The truth of the matter is Americans don’t want to hear that not everyone can own their own home. When told that something can’t be done Americans almost always tend to ask “why not?” Negative thinking is downright un-American. This is, in my opinion, the good side of America. On the other hand, if everyone can’t have a home of their own then it must be somebody’s fault. Somebody out there is cheating. Somebody is taking more than their fair share. Or they’re somehow taking advantage of other Americans. The government should do something about it. This is, in my opinion, the bad side of America. We want it all. What kind of government can give people everything they want?

Tocqueville gives something like a pop quiz about what kind of government the reader wants: “Do you wish to inspire in men a kind of scorn for material possessions?” And we Americans tend to answer yes. But we prefer to scorn those possessions from the comforts of a nice home with lots of amenities like big screen TVs. Tocqueville asks: “Is your main concern to refine manners, to raise behavior, to cause the arts to blossom?” Well of course we want all that stuff too but without getting too hoity-toity about it. Tocqueville goes on: “Is it your desire to engender or foster deep convictions and to prepare the way for acts of deep devotion?” We guess so but only as long as the deep devotion stuff doesn’t interfere with the separation of church and state. This kind of wavering or refusal to make a firm commitment is both America’s strength and its weakness. It’s a kind of strength because America experiments, makes mistakes, then makes adjustments, and gets on with life. It can also be a kind of weakness. The permanent secretary for the Nobel Prize in Literature put it this way: Americans are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture” to produce great literature. We’re busy doing things. We don’t have time to produce great art.

Is this true? Tocqueville made this observation: “If America has not yet found any great writers, we should not look elsewhere for reasons; literary genius does not thrive without freedom of thought and there is not freedom of thought in America.” Because of its vast mass middle-class culture Americans do very well in some areas, not so well in others. The reason? Democracy. In America “The People” rule. For better or for worse the mass culture of America is in the hands of “The People.” And we tend to like it that way. Tocqueville points out that “There exists a patriotism…which binds a man’s heart to his birthplace. This unreflecting love blends with the liking for ancient customs, respect for ancestors, and the memories of the past…” Even in a fast-paced age of technology many Americans still long for baseball, apple pie, Norman Rockwell prints and a home of their own. We still remember the Alamo, the beaches of Normandy and Marilyn Monroe with Joe DiMaggio. Is this a great country or what? Tocqueville’s observation: “There is nothing more irksome in the conduct of life than the irritable patriotism Americans have.” But at least we do it in the privacy of our own homes. Preferably in comfortable homes.


Blogger SMJ said...

I don't believe the American dream is a fraud. And I don't believe that it is dead, either. Though it has been tarnished lately by the complete meltdown of our financial markets due to hubris, bad judgment, and, in some cases, unmitigated greed. Investor confidence in Wall Street has vanished while everyone else is busy arguing over the wisdom or folly of government intervention. But let's take a step back and consider the real meaning of the so-called American dream.

When the first pilgrims came to America in the 17th century, they carried with them no illusions of easy wealth or promises of a golden tomorrow. And when European immigrants embarked for New York City a century later, they didn't come here expecting a free ride on welfare or a government handout. They simply wanted the chance to build a life for themselves and their children that would be better than the one they left behind. Even today, with all the domestic turmoil over illegal aliens and concerns about English becoming a second language, many people still come to the US as a refuge from political tyranny and with the hope of starting over in a place where freedom and respect for individual rights are not just philosophical ideas, but an everyday reality.

I wouldn't expect someone from a place that started out as a prison colony to understand this, nor would I expect anyone born into a life of wealth and privilege to have much sympathy for the dreams of ordinary people. The desire to own your own home is one that is barely imaginable in some parts of the world. But here, in a country that has created more wealth than any nation in human history, the idea of owning a home does not appear to be fantastic. Nor is it something written into law because success or personal happiness can never be guaranteed in a free society. All that can be guaranteed here is the promise that if you work hard, obey the law, and live honorably, you can pursue your dreams without the government or other people getting in your way. All that most people ever want is a chance to succeed. And when the American economy recovers, as it will eventually regardless of who is elected, this wave of pessimism will subside. The dream endures because it reflects a basic belief in the idea of human progress-- not as a prophesy of things to come, but as a kind of enduring faith that our good works and our virtue make a difference in the world; because, in the end, the world is exactly what we make of it, neither more nor less than the sum total of our solitary endeavors.

10/08/2008 12:28 PM  

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