alexis de tocqueville and american individualism

the heart breaking story of individualism and self delusions

Please don’t read any gender politics into the illustration. My resources are not unlimited, I just happen to have a woman whispering to a man rather than vice-versa. I find men and women are about equal when it comes to self-delusions.

MIT historian’s re-evaluation of Democracy in America emphasizes Alexis de Tocqueville’s doubts and concerns about politics in the United States.

But was Tocqueville as sanguine about American democracy as the popular image of his work suggests? Almost certainly not, Kaledin asserts in his book, Tocqueville and His America: A Darker Horizon, published this fall by Yale University Press.

“Tocqueville from the start also saw cultural and social tendencies that he thought would weaken American democracy,” Kaledin says. In his view, Tocqueville, while indeed recognizing real strengths in American society, had grave worries about the materialism, individualism and anti-intellectualism in American culture. “Tocqueville saw that an excess of materialism would create great problems for democracy, and the belief that everything was possible would lead to cultural and social confusion,” Kaledin says.

[  ]…As Kaledin readily acknowledges, Tocqueville was highly impressed with Americans and their expectations of equality and participation in politics. But those favorable reactions were intertwined with constant concerns. Consider one of the most influential Tocquevillean ideas: that Americans’ propensity to form associations is a distinctive cultural and political strength, enabling the country to have a healthy civic sphere. Yet in Kaledin’s view, Tocqueville was also keenly aware of the “hyperindividualism” of America, which, Kaledin says, “makes it difficult to achieve a feeling for the common good.”

Or, as Tocqueville wrote, the United States offered the prospect of a land where people have “no traditions, or common habits to forge links between their minds, and they have neither power nor the wish nor the time to come to a common understanding.” In such a condition, he believed, the possibility of productive politics would diminish.

There has been a lot of political writing about individualism and the U.S. Some are sure it exists and extoll all that has been accomplished because of it. Some have called it a myth. As a political topic individualism has become just so much jingoism. In the realm of philosophy concepts of self, thus individualism are much more interesting and the views rooted deeper in an honest exploration of the subject, without as much concern with scoring cheap political points. Concepts of self are inexorably intertwined with the concept of indivualism. Brilliant minds from Plato to Kant to Mary Whiton Calkins have tried to define exactly what constitutes the self and individualism. In the last year of her life, concluding a lifetime of study of the subject Calkins declared she had found only one possible certainty about the self, “a totality, a one of many characters… a unique being in the sense that I am I and you are you…”  Tocqueville was justified in his concern with a somewhat particular brand of individualism that had taken root in the U.S. Most libertarians and conservatives claim the individual comes before any desires of the group and personal liberty must come before any allegiance to government or authority. Yet both groups are very focused on the kind of order required to produce goods and services in order to make money. Sure go ahead and be as individualistic as you like, but not so far that you screw with this order we’ve created and spend a lot of money to support. Thus we have conservaterians who lobby for and profit greatly from privatizing as much law enforcement as possible and other than being for the legalization of marijuana form part of the rigid status quo of government they say infringes on their freedom. Talking about individualism is not he same as living it. Conservatives have even offered a kind of bounty for lobbyists to create as negative a picture of the OWS movement as possible because they see them as a counter against the established order.

Yet all of this fighting to protect the vested interests f the John Galts that supposedly compose the top 1% we do have the still very insurrectionist first and fourth amendment. Could those protections for the individual be passed today – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition and protections against unwarranted searches and seizures. In a poll done in 2002 about half of America thought the 1st amendment gave the people too much freedom. You can still be a rugged individualist with fewer freedoms guaranteed by law, but you will suffer the consequences. Popular culture by way of movies offers the public a huge opportunity for catharsis – the flickering images acting out what we cannot and giving some degree of instant gratification. Perhaps since we see the action hero act freely, the catharsis applies to those fantasies about acting out. Our fantasies satiated many people do not fell the urgency of rebelling against the status quo. The media acting as much an opiate for the masses as much as organized religion. When we take a step away from the Constitution and look at our individual laws and how people fell about them we also see another contradiction between the exaltation of the rugged individualist and the desires of the group. Americans see breaking the law as very anti-social. An arrests for almost anything will be a black mark on your reputation. In quite a few cases even a serious misdemeanor can be being barred from certain employment. Gone through some rough times and screwed up you credit rating. Those free-market gurus, pinstriped self made libertarians, conservative capitalists preachers with a new Rolex, no longer see you as an individual, they see a score on a computer file. Move along there will be no judging you an individual. The system has left its scarlet letter on you and that community of pseudo free thinking semi-self made villagers will not be taking any chances.

If the Market Village seems rigid, they’re practically anarchists compared to the cultural views of the religious community who also see themselves as individualist saviors, braving the constant persecution of those, you know, people out there that say happy holidays instead of merry something. When what you as an individual and your uterus or penis conflicts with what the community believes in, all the power of the state must be brought to bear t force you see see the error of your heathen ways. Again this is a circumstance where Jefferson and Madison are on your side, but a large number of Americans believe the teachings of their invisible authority in the sky comes first; The American-Western European Values Gap, Survey Report 

American Christians are more likely than their Western European counterparts to think of themselves first in terms of their religion rather than their nationality; 46% of Christians in the U.S. see themselves primarily as Christians and the same number consider themselves Americans first. In contrast, majorities of Christians in France (90%), Germany (70%), Britain (63%) and Spain (53%) identify primarily with their nationality rather than their religion.

The implications, besides being a little frighteningly, are clear. If there is choice between something their deity says and what the U.S. Constitution says, nearly half of America would go with their god. The irony is also obvious. These people would act against the very document that protects their freedom to worship as they chose. One cannot be a practicing member of such rigid group think and still be an individualist or be counted on to defend the rights of the individual. In the U.S. religious groups regularly defend their rights with shrill indignation while perusing tyranny for others.

Isn’t there some contradictions here in that everyone eventually aligns themselves with a group and is guilty of group think, group defense and advancement of group goals. While there are some tough philosophical contradictions here, there is also some clarity and rationalism. Those closer to genuine individualism, rational self interests and enlightened thought do so much in the same way they know that two plus three equals five. They do the math. They end up with the same answers not out of unjustified beliefs but through logic and the knowledge of normative consequences. The pseudo-indivualism that permeates so much of American culture, politics and religion is based on unjustified beliefs. One of the features of the dogmatists in the U.S. is their need for constant reaffirmation of beliefs. Such reaffirmations are an integral part of their daily lives. The Republican presidential candidates debates are more about reassuring the audience of what they want to believe than gathering new information. When right-wing libertarians and conservative complain about the mythical liberal press there is a certain degree of legitimacy in their argument. Though not for the reasons they claim. When the media tells viewers facts, conservatives see that as bias. They are genuinely perplexed that the all media does not reaffirm what they want to believe. Fox News is successful because they do not report news as much as act as a mass reaffirmation of viewer biases.

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