Discussing de Tocqueville

November 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read four chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As usual, I distributed some questions beforehand intended to help start the conversation. Each discussion lasts 1.5 hours in which I (mostly) lead. I enjoy the responsibility of organizing these discussions because I get to begin with the questions that I have about a specific text. Due to the fact that so much of de Tocqueville’s writings resonate with me, I really struggled to refrain from participating too. His writings also speak to current politics, and therefore, it was doubly hard to avoid participation. I have to thank the participants in Harrison Middleton University’s October Quarterly Discussion who did an admirable job of sticking to the subject.

We began with the formation of political parties in general. He writes, “But when the citizens entertain different opinions upon subjects which affect the whole country alike, such, for instance, as the principles upon which the government is to be conducted, then distinctions arise that may correctly be styled parties. Parties are a necessary evil in free governments; but they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities” (88-9). So, while he finds parties to be a necessary evil, he also does not find them equal in character. From there, we tried to understand de Tocqueville’s delineation between “great” and “small” parties. Despite the way that it sounds, these two types of parties have nothing to do with size. Rather, in de Tocqueville’s mind, the great parties are those that discuss issues and have, what he calls, a “more noble” pursuit. On the other hand, small parties form around an issue or two. The small parties, according to de Tocqueville, care more about a single issue or a private interest than about ideas or the good of society, whereas great parties are concerned with principles and their general application. In 1830, he writes, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered” (89B). According to de Tocqueville, the great parties arose out of necessity and strife, a time when America was suffering. These parties looked at broad issues that would impact all of America. The focus, therefore, was more holistic. However, once these changes were implemented and the need for social cohesion lessoned, special interests overtook the general cohesion of the great parties and replaced them. De Tocqueville describes the effects of the small parties as those which “agitate” society rather than revolutionize it.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s use of happiness and morality is of great interest. In this section, he seems to define happiness as a level of individual comfort and perhaps peace. It appears that his version of happiness in America is one which leads to a sort of immorality. He suggests that the more comfortable we are, the more self-involved we are and therefore, less moral. In other words, morality may demand an ethic that lessens our ease of living. In the future, I would like to further investigate de Tocqueville’s idea of happiness by moving outside of this single chapter. I am curious how happiness (in his terms) aligns with morality throughout the text. Furthermore, I wonder how different translators have dealt with this idea. Is happiness the most appropriate word choice for the original French? How have others translated this section? (The Great Books version was translated by George Lawrence.)

From there, we moved into the chapter on Freedom of the Press. De Tocqueville begins this chapter by stating that he has reservations about a free press. He writes, “I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures” (92A). First, he finds that a free press is invaluable to a democracy because information distribution would be limited by a single entity. On the other hand, freedom implies that nearly anyone can create news if they choose to do so. In the first case, news is singular and perhaps biased or incomplete. In the latter, news may lack data, information, facts and anything pertaining to reality. Furthermore, he writes, “[T]he hallmark of the American journalist is a direct and coarse attack, without any subtleties, on the passions of his readers; he disregards principles to seize on people, following them into their private lives and laying bare their weaknesses and their vices. That is a deplorable abuse of the powers of thought” (95A). He continues that, despite the abuse of thought, each individual newspaper carries little weight, which makes many small voices. This cacophony creates the “spirit” of the press. The multitude of voices also ironically removes the danger of a single voice reaching the level of despotism.

These chapters address very complex issues inherent in America’s being. They are worth more than 1.5 hours of discussion. Rather, de Tocqueville addresses so many contemporary issues that the entire volume is worth (re)reading. Additionally, discussing a work like this one is vital to understanding the depth of democracy’s issues. Democracy in America explains some of the foundations of our country in a way that is both poetic and holistic. My gratitude goes to those who spent time in discussion with me. I look forward to our next conversation!

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Fracturing Millennials Reveal Flaws in Generational Political Narrative

February 9, 2018

Thanks to Carter Vance, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

The idea of the “generational conflict”, written in sociopolitical terms, is a notion at once ancient and modern. One can go back to the writings of Plato and find tropes which sound curiously similar to the proverbial old man ranting at about the indolent youth invading his front lawn. At the same time, the habit affixing labels (“Boomer”, “Gen X”, etc.) and a set of supposed personality characteristics to subsequent cohorts is a relatively recent phenomenon. The notion that people who grow up in the same time period would share more in common with each other than with those who came before them is a fundamentally modern notion. In a time before the industrial revolution massively altered the structure of the economy, most careers would be passed down within families, with each generation for the most part reproducing what their parents had done.

Of course, there were always exceptions to this rule of, for instance, poor individuals who, through luck or skill, ended up in a much different place than where they began. But, the notion that a son would not continue in the trade of his father would have been eccentric at best and a betrayal of duty at worst. The cutting of old ties and the emphasis on individual achievement forged by the dawn of capitalism had the paradoxical effect of sweeping up full generations into epoch-defining economic changes. Demand for particular skills, or just a willingness to work in a particular set of conditions, would ebb and flow over time, rather than being fixed to family names. This, along with the increasing interconnection of economies and cultures at the national and international scale, meant that trends in fashion and job-destroying commodity busts would both be experienced by wide swaths of the population as defining events.

At the same time, the notion of a “generation” did not become fully operational until the era of mass media communication. This gave rise to the second major shared aspect of generational experience: popular culture. Of course, it is not strictly speaking true that every Baby Boomer attended Woodstock or loved The Beatles, but the shared sentiment that they did, and more specifically that they embraced a set of values reflected in this art, came to be retrospective social adhesive. This world of shared experience, of both artistic creation and news events, would have been impossible to achieve without the technology to expose everyone within a “generation”, or at least a wide swath, to such things. It was also with this expansion of media consumption that the notion of a “generational divide” between parents and child, as exemplified by films such as Rebel Without a Cause, began to gain more purchase as a shorthand for a particular kind of social dislocation. It is this image, an irreconcilable split over essential values and worldviews across an age gap, that gives “Greatest Generation”, for instance, a meaning beyond the purely temporal. As much as such terminology flattens out a whole wealth of contradictions and conflicts across various lines within the people it gathers together, it also allows a kind of narrative to be fashioned of global changes over time.

Encountering “generational” writing in the present moment, the standard litany of clichés which accompany writing about millennials from their elders are so well-worn at this point that to critique them as a sign of lazy thinking feels redundant. For every column denouncing the “snowflakes” on campus or the need to hand-hold us fragile young people in the workplace, there is another which counters these claims directly. My point here is to not relitigate the case against a particular set of generational stereotypes, but rather to question if this entire framework for looking at the lives of young people today is not faulty. Though the notion of a “generation” as a contained, relatively homogenous sociopolitical unit sharing a set of experiences, values and aspirations was likely always an overstretched concept, this is particularly true of millennials.

The most obvious fact speaking to our fracturing is that millennials are the most demographically diverse cohort in the history of North America, and therefore come to the table of the social world with much different concerns and experiences. Attempts to describe a singular “millennial” are therefore strained to the point of futility. Beyond this, the increasing social recognition of a wide variety of identities related to gender and sexuality further complicates the picture. This is even before we recognize that this generation has grown up in a cultural environment which is both increasingly global and niche-oriented. “Media” no longer means simply the kind of mass broadcast networks which it once did, but rather a more diverse range of outlets serving particular interests, tastes and views. Though this has been primarily talked about in terms of a negative phenomenon as facilitating increasing epistemic closure in political terms, it is important to note its virtues as well. A greater diversity of means through which to transmit messages into the popular consciousness has meant that injustices previously ignored have come to light, and that communities which have faced historical oppression have been able to come together and find a voice more easily. Whether for good or for ill, this generation does not necessarily share common media reference points with the rest of our cohort in the way Boomers can seemingly all recall listening to Hendrix on the hi-fi or watching the moon landing on TV. In short, the defining condition of being young in this moment is that of notionally infinite choice, both in terms of what we will consume, and how we will define ourselves in relation to the world.

Much more could be written on this, but I would close with the thought that the main option which is not available to us is that of security, in both economic and social terms. If we do all indeed swim in what Umberto Eco has defined as “liquid modernity”, taught to view all things as impermanent and flexible, it is my generation that was born into it. The variety of individual and group attachments, to artifacts of popular culture or internet ephemera, for instance, that we develop are something of a cheap substitute for the kind of shared meaning we believe defined life before our time. The attraction of young people to politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who promise a renewal of both common purpose and social security, testifies to this desire. Much of what is viewed by those above us as signs of some sort of generational psychosis are in fact very rational responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have learned to be as fluid as the world around us, not because we necessarily want to, but because it is demanded of us.

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