Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Tocqueville? I Don't Think So

I just starting subscribing to the Atlantic. I'm not feeling all that positive about that choice. Not only did I end up reading 2 pieces by Christopher Hitchens in the first issue, but I subjected myself to Bernard-Henri Lévy's piece, "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville." This is an idea predestined for disaster. Here's a list of reasons:

1. Tocqueville was writing for his countrymen about a nation which they had little knowledge of. Levy wrote for Americans about a nation that saturates the world with its popular culture products, which is the most powerful nation on Earth, and which everyone in the world knows about, sometimes more than they know their own country. Thus the insights that Levy could have would simply be a shadow at best of what Tocqueville had to say. And in this case, they weren't a shadow.

2. Anyone who decides to follow in Tocqueville's footsteps is going to bring a self-consciousness to the table that will hamper their study. That is certainly the case here.

3. The changing notion of public space in America since the 1820s, as well as advancements in transportation technology, makes a Tocqueville-esque study very difficult today. When Tocqueville struggled to get around America in the early 19th century, people spent almost all of their time in public. Ideas of privacy had little cache with Americans of this time. People pretty well only slept in their homes. Houses were hot or cold depending on the season, poorly lit, disease-filled, and usually just generally unpleasant. So people used the streets in a way that Americans don't today. They walked nearly everywhere. They spent nonworking hours in taverns, public meetings, political events, attending various kinds of popular entertainment, etc. Thus Tocqueville could observe Americans all of the time in many different ways. How would one do this today? We spend almost no time in public spaces today. This situation is a little better in cities like New York or Seattle, but in the vast majority of the nation public space is woefully nonexistent and even where it is, sadly underused. Levy simply cannot overcome this handicap, nor could anyone.

Moreover, early 19th century transportation technology was in its most formative stages. Steampower was just becoming common when Tocqueville was in America and this was quite the revolution. But even with steampower, transportation was slow and, again, very public. If you traveled by horse, you probably spent the night in an inn where you met all kinds of people. If you were on a steamboat, you traveled with dozens or even hundreds of people to talk to. Given the slow and public nature of transportation, you ended up getting to know a lot of people. This was another way in which Tocqueville, and the many other observers of antebellum America including Charles Dickens, got to know the country. Levy travels around in a car, stopping and talking to different people and witnessing different events that he chose. What kind of conclusions about America can you make from such limited observations? The answer is not very good ones.

What's worse about this article is that it's not only is not profound, it's not even very interesting. There are uninteresting discussions with Russell Means and Richard Daley and pointless visits to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Mall of America. So what? What do brief visits to these places tell us about America, except in a very superficial manner? What did I learn about my own country from reading this article? Approximately nothing.