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The Arab Spring, with its calls for sweeping political change, marked the most profound popular uprising in the Middle East for generations. But if the nascent democracies born of these protests are to succeed in the absence of a strong democratic tradition, their success will depend in part on an understanding of how Middle Easterners view themselves, their allegiances to family and religion, and their relationship with the wider world in which they are increasingly integrated....
The Arab Spring, with its calls for sweeping political change, marked the most profound popular uprising in the Middle East for generations. But if the nascent democracies born of these protests are to succeed in the absence of a strong democratic tradition, their success will depend in part on an understanding of how Middle Easterners view themselves, their allegiances to family and religion, and their relationship with the wider world in which they are increasingly integrated.
Many of these same questions were raised by Alexis de Tocqueville during his 1831 tour of America, itself then a rising democracy. Joshua Mitchell spent years teaching Tocqueville’s classic account, Democracy in America, in America and the Arab Gulf and, with Tocqueville in Arabia, he offers a profound personal take. One of the reasons for the book’s widespread popularity in the region is that its commentary on the challenges of democracy and the seemingly contradictory concepts of equality and individuality continue to speak to current debates. While Mitchell’s American students tended to value the individualism of commercial self-interest, his Middle Eastern students had grave doubts about individualism and a deep suspicion for capitalism, which they saw as risking the destruction of long-held loyalties and obligations. When asked about suffering, American students answered in psychological or sociological terms, while Middle Eastern students understood it in terms of religion. Mitchell describes modern democratic man as becoming what Tocqueville predicted: a “distinct kind of humanity” that would be increasingly isolated and alone. Whatever their differences, students in both worlds were grappling with a sense of disconnectedness that social media does little to remedy.
We live in a time rife with mutual misunderstandings between America and the Middle East, and Tocqueville in Arabia offers a guide to the present, troubled times, leavened by the author’s hopes about the future.
Colliding and Converging Worlds
A book with the odd title Tocqueville in Arabia needs something of an explanation. Those of us who surround ourselves with great books as others surround themselves with friends never lack for good company. While I had read fragments of Tocqueville's Democracy in America in graduate school, the compression of course work, comprehensive exams, and the inordinate focus of dissertation writing allowed me to conclude my studies at the University of Chicago in 1989 with a doctorate in political science without ever having read that magisterial work in its entirety. The following year, with two children under the age of five, a Hyde Park rent to pay, and no tenure-track job in sight, I accepted a postdoc position teaching the important ideas of social science and psychology in the University of Chicago's Common Core, for the demoralizing salary of $12,000. In preparation for one of the courses I was to offer, I trundled off to Regenstein Library with Democracy in America in hand and began to read the "Author's Introduction," which was some twelve pages in length.
I do not recall how long I spent engrossed in those twelve pages. It might have been an hour; it might have been two or three. It did not matter; what I found there was beyond measure. As with friends, no less is true with great books: we know in an instant whether they are to be lifelong companions. When I finished and returned from my transfixed condition, I said to myself with certainty I have seldom known: "You will spend the rest of your life with this book." The words were both recognition and command.
That certainty never left me. In 1990 I was able to secure a tenure-track position at the George Washington University, in no small measure, I was later told, because the search committee members concluded that notwithstanding my formal attire and somewhat arcane job talk, the Swatch watch I happened to be wearing that day gave them some confidence that dusty books were not my only friends. By day I was a teacher. By night I was an alchemist intent on transmuting the leaden weight of a dissertation into the gold of a publishable book manuscript, which I did in 1993 under the title Not by Reason Alone. But even as I tinkered with the formula for how to demonstrate that sixteenth-century Reformation categories suffused early modern political thought, I had already moved into the nineteenth-century world about which Tocqueville was writing, the proof of which was the growing number of interesting but probably superfluous footnotes about Tocqueville that appeared in Not by Reason Alone as I neared the completion of that thought experiment. Upon its publication, I turned my attention fully to Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
It is well to remember that America in the early 1990s had entered uncharted territory. To be more precise, while all nations at all times are always in uncharted territory, the categories that had ordered the American understanding of the world since the end of the Second World War—"East vs. West," "free market vs. command economy," "liberal democracy vs. totalitarian rule"—were no longer the comfortably reliable guides that they once had been. The Soviet Union had fallen. The ghastly clarity of the Cold War was behind us. Now what? Politicians gloated; anyone attuned to the world that sloganeering cannot comprehend was more circumspect.
In the academy, I watched as many tenured Marxists cloaked themselves in new camouflage—some turning to Habermas, others to Arendt, many to Foucault, and not a few to Derrida for their adornment. The revolution had not materialized; the forces of darkness were more sinister than even Marx had imagined. All who moved in these new directions shared Marx's disdain for what can loosely be called the Anglo-American tradition of liberalism. To become a member of this new vanguard, it was necessary to express contemptuous words about America at faculty meetings, conferences, dinner parties, and, of course, in the classroom. The spectacle gave cause to wonder: Protected by a system of lifetime tenure, did not society pay a high cost when professors confuse freedom of thought with polite and sophisticated forms of condescension and belittlement that they defend under the seemingly benign banner of "critique"? There were moments, indeed, when it would have been easy to conclude that the tenure system should have been abolished long ago—except that the cost society pays when freedom of thought is not so protected is higher still.
Under the watchful eyes of this cadre of academics, Tocqueville did not fare well. During the Cold War, after all, Tocqueville had been invoked against Marxism by defenders of the Anglo-American world—a fact neither forgotten nor forgiven.
As if that weren't enough for his detractors, Tocqueville's reservations about the coming equality of men and women sealed his fate. Attempts to explain the complexity of his thinking on that matter would fall on deaf ears during classroom lectures and at academic conferences. It was simply not possible in a public setting to doubt the complete equality—indeed the sameness—of men and women. I might have fallen into despair had it not been for the young men and women who would come to my office after class and confess, with some embarrassment, that they thought Tocqueville was right: because the burden of reproduction falls disproportionately to women, the household in which it occurred ought to be somehow protected. My formulation of that claim in class was no doubt stilted; I had, after all, grown up as a member of the sixties generation and had only recently lost my self-assurance about its categories and conclusions. When my eldest son, to whom you have already been introduced, held a Barbie doll by the legs, bent her torso over, and made an imaginary gun out of her when he was three years old, I could no longer believe that boys and girls, men and women, were not definitively different. It was one thing, however, to understand that an idea was ill-founded, and quite another to find a replacement. Two decades ago when I taught them, I passed with some awkwardness over Tocqueville's passages about women; now my students and I labor over those passages, which offer tantalizing hints about our plight, but no more than that. More so than my own generation, many of my students believe that something has gone wrong, even if they can't yet say what it is. Impatient with what appear to be hopelessly time-bound platitudes, they look upon many of my colleagues who disseminate them more as living artifacts of the late 1960s than as exemplars for the future.
At the other end of the political spectrum—which is to say, outside the academy, since conservatives of varying dispositions are only a hushed minority there—Tocqueville was no doubt respected, but I do not think he was well understood. Conservative thought in America has no single guiding principle; indeed, what unites conservatives is a suspicion of the very idea of governance by "principle." Place economic conservatives, social conservatives, libertarians, Protestant evangelicals, and conservative Roman Catholics in a colloquium together for three days, and you will soon discover the deep divisions among them. Disciplined on the airwaves by William F. Buckley and in print by Irving Kristol, and fortified on the ground by Ronald Reagan's political triumphs, conservatives were unified more by arguing with the Left than by agreeing among themselves. When threatened, they formed a circle and aimed their armaments outward. The Left formed a circle, too, but inflicted wounds on its own as oft en as not—until ever-expanding federal expenditures created the clientelist arrangements through which all of its constituencies could be sated.
From the outside, then, conservatives in the 1990s seemed unified; but from the inside, the crosscutting cleavages were painfully evident. Decorum could veil them, and political expediency could temporarily overcome them. The cleavages could not, however, be eliminated. Nowhere did these appear more clearly than in the assessment that conservatives offered of Tocqueville. Economic conservatives saw in him a basis for defending market commerce and rejecting administrative centralization; cultural conservatives saw in him the need to fortify family, local communities, and a legal system based on precedent; libertarians saw in him a defense of a minimalist state; Protestant evangelicals saw in him the claim that without Christianity the American polity would perish; conservative Roman Catholics saw in him a way to reconcile their faith with modernity. Tocqueville: a kaleidoscopic man for a kaleidoscopic coalition.
Against this backdrop, I turned my attention to Tocqueville in the early 1990s. It seemed to me then, as now, that the aspiration of Tocqueville's thought was more profound than Cold War partisans understood. "Left" and "Right" are, after all, terms that date from the French Legislative Assembly of 1791, which is to say to the aftermath of the French Revolution. Tocqueville took the measure of these terms without being implicated by them. His concern seemed deeper, more audacious, more prophetic and anticipatory: to explore and map an emerging psychological terrain, of which the French Revolution was but a résumé and a manifestation. "Democratic man," as Tocqueville called him, was a new type of man. Shorn of the social links that had once held him fast, he oscillated back and forth—now thinking himself capable of all things, now despairing of his insignificance; now throwing himself frantically into the world, now broodingly withdrawing. In short, democratic man was untethered man, in desperate need of salutary bondage, so as to protect him from himself.
Today we have concluded that this oscillation within the soul is a psychiatric "condition," which we have named "manic depression" or, more benignly, "bipolar disorder." Prior to the twentieth century, when man was thought to be more than the tracings of his brain chemistry, there were other accounts. Tocqueville's was that delinked, untethered man had to be voluntarily relinked—through civic associations, freely chosen marriage, freely chosen churches, and participation in local political life. Without these antidotes, he intimated, the democratic age would see an increase in madness and anxiety. Little wonder, then, that in America, the country where individuated, delinked man would prevail were there not palliatives, doctors of one sort prescribe drugs in the way that they do. Tocqueville's doctoring took a different form. Understanding that delinked man is a fragile creature, his prescription was to bring neighbor into proximity with neighbor, to ennoble the natural affection between a man and a woman within the confines of marriage, to remind mortal creatures that the unity God brings about is infinitely more fertile than any version man's imagination and action might contrive, and to encourage a modest politics in which all citizens can participate. Most importantly, Tocqueville sought amelioration, not cure; for he knew that man was an imperfect creature, whose dreams of a fugitive perfection can never see the light of day in this world below. With these insights in mind, and under the title The Fragility of Freedom, my first sustained exploration of Tocqueville came to a close in 1995.
Forays to Buenos Aires and Lisbon
I had by that time moved further up the Potomac River, to Georgetown University, where I still make my professional home, and through which I eventually had the opportunity to teach in Argentina for three consecutive summers, beginning in 2000. Buenos Aires is the most European of South American cities, a point of pride for many of its citizens and a source of irritation for much of the rest of Latin America. The European architecture that stands watch from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still sets the standard and the tone for much of what transpires there, from fashion to art to the life of the mind.
I quickly learned that as water spirals in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere, so, too, the sentiments of most of my students in Buenos Aires were oft en diametrically opposed to those of my students on Georgetown's main campus in Washington, DC. Tocqueville was on the syllabus, of course, but the vagaries of the program in which I taught required that I focus on the history of political economy rather than the history of political thought. So, in addition to Tocqueville, we read a number of other eighteenth-and nineteenth-century luminaries—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx—whom I took to be representative of an economic debate that had been recently settled.
I was mistaken.
In Washington, the end of the Cold War had meant that the long battle of ideas between Smith and Kant (who both believed in the gradual improvements wrought by commerce) and Rousseau and Marx (who were scandalized by this notion) ceased to be of interest to anyone but the historian and the archivist. This was not to say that the victory had settled all remaining questions: my students on Georgetown's main campus may have known that this view of commerce had won, but many were anxious about what it meant. It is true, of course, that some of them dreamed of an alternative—but only until graduation, after which point they were able to remember the difference between how the world really worked from how it ideally might work. Growing up in Ann Arbor in the 1960s, I quickly grasped the difference between the sometimes harsh realities of the playground and the platitudes our teachers got us to repeat but never fully believe in the classroom. I suspect that my students on Georgetown's main campus had learned the same lesson. America was a nation of traders, Tocqueville noted. It remains so today. Dream what they will, American students sooner or later come back to earth.
In Buenos Aires, a hemisphere away, things looked quite different: there, my students were suspicious of Smith and Kant even after having read them and were sympathetic to Rousseau and Marx without having read them at all. This was an anomaly that could not be explained away by some deficiency in their education. On the whole, my students there were far better educated than the students I had taught on Georgetown's main campus. In Buenos Aires, they wrestled less with the question of how to juxtapose commerce with other facets of life than with whether "commercial man" was anything other than an ideological pretense. The Cold War was over, yet Rousseau and Marx had lost none of their appeal. What, I wondered, allowed this to happen? What loud and resonant chord did these thinkers strike, such that a bad note here or there—say, the repudiation of Marxist economic thought—did not much disturb the ear that heard it?
For three years I flew back and forth between Washington summers and Buenos Aires winters pondering this question. During the days while my students worked, I would wander through the city until my lungs ached from the cold, damp air and the automobile exhaust. During our three-hour evening class sessions, my voice would ache from the labor of explaining ideas that my students evaluated by some supra-textual criteria I could never quite grasp. After our meetings, a number of us would oft en go out for long dinners, until midnight and beyond, where my heart would ache from the stories my students told me about how hard they worked and how little hope many of them held out for the future. In the early years of the twentieth century, the standard of living in the United States and in Argentina was roughly equivalent. It has increasingly diverged ever since. The last year I taught, the currency had recently been devalued and lower-middle-class families—fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters—could be seen on the streets late at night pushing shopping carts and looking for recycled materials they could collect and sell. And still the chord resounded.
Looking back on the first and second of my wondrous three interludes in Buenos Aires, I recall my students thinking that Tocqueville's Democracy in America was a book about and for Americans, those exceptional and curious people to the far north whose development shed little light either on what had happened in Argentina since the era of European colonialism or on what lay ahead for their future. I did nothing to dissuade them. I taught Tocqueville less as a protagonist or detractor in the debate about commerce than as someone who showed why commerce worked in America and, more importantly, why the romantic rejection of commerce (Rousseau) or the revolutionary aspiration to supersede its current "capitalist" form (Marx) had never widely captivated the American imagination. America: the exceptional case. In a short but provocative aside in The Wealth of Nations, Smith noted that nations with growing economies tend to be optimistic, whereas nations with declining economies tend to be melancholic. More than I was prepared to admit, I allowed that distinction to settle my perplexity about the difference between the beautiful souls I taught in Buenos Aires whose melancholy spiraled one way, and the pragmatic souls I taught in Washington whose interests spiraled in the opposite direction. So simple an account should not have satisfied me; but the sad fact about most of us is that having once triumphed over our initial confusion with whatever tools we proudly have at our disposal, we rest there contentedly as if no further work need be done.
Excerpted from TOCQUEVILLE in ARABIA by JOSHUA MITCHELL. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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1 Colliding and Converging
2 Man, the Lonely Animal
3 The Household: Sustenance