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In 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville, a twenty-six-year-old French aristocrat, spent nine months travelling across the United States. From the East Coast to the frontier, from the Canadian border to New Orleans, Tocqueville observed the American people and the revolutionary country they'd created. His celebrated Democracy in America, the most quoted work on America ever written, presented the new Americans with a degree of understanding no one had accomplished before or has since. Astonished at the pace of daily life and stimulated by people at all levels of society, Tocqueville recognized that Americans were driven by a series of internal conflicts: simultaneously religious and materialistic; individualistic and yet deeply involved in community affairs; isolationist and interventionist; pragmatic and ideological.
Noted author Michael Ledeen takes a fresh look at Tocqueville's insights into our national psyche and asks whether Americans' national character, which Tocqueville believed to be wholly admirable, has fallen into moral decay and religious indifference.
Michael Ledeen's sparkling new exploration has some surprising answers and provides a lively new look at a time when character is at the center of our national debate.
|Introduction: Restless People Inspired by Ideas, Forever Headed for New Frontiers||1|
|1||Dynamic People Driven by Internal Conflicts||27|
|2||Religious Faith Anchored by Secular Institutions||68|
|3||Rugged Individualists with a Genius for Cooperation||103|
|4||Isolationists Called to International Leadership||135|
|5||Apostles of Freedom Tempted by Luxurious Tyranny||164|
|Conclusion: More Tocquevillian Than Ever Before||201|
Posted May 23, 2001
Many people in America have not read Alexis de Tocqueville's brilliant analysis of the American character, as he experienced on his trip to the United States in 1826. That's too bad, because his work brilliantly defines what is different about American society from any other one on Earth. As an aristocratic Frenchman, perhaps it was easier for him to see us as we are, by seeing how different we are from Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans. The concept of the book is to summarize de Tocqueville, and then to test his observations against what has happened since. I have not seen that done before, and looked forward to seeing the results. When Michael Ledeen is describing de Tocqueville, or political thinking of that time, the book is superb. If the book had stopped there, it would have been a five star book. So if you want to read it for that background, you will be well rewarded. Alternatively, you can read de Tocqueville directly. I would prefer the original, but either would serve. In his contemporary commentary on America, Mr. Ledeen is basically giving us a political sociology analysis. For such work, it is helpful to have facts that look from various perspectives and dimensions. The first problem with this book is that Mr. Ledeen prefers to give just one anecdote or one fact, and build his observations from that. That approach works well for stimulating debate, but falls short of being convincing about our unique character. I found this approach very suspect. Second, Mr. Ledeen prefers to always come at the problem from the perspective of being paranoid about losing our ideal character. I think his point of view is a valid one, but there are others. For example, one can also talk optimistically about how we routinely avoid certain traps (like having the best people decide to become politicians, or failing to use private institutions to serve important social needs). Those other perspectives are missing. The result is a book that seems like an anti-Democrat (as in the political party) rant in many places. The third problem is that the book seems to have been weakly researched. Facts and details seem just a little out of focus, as though drawn from long-remembered impressions, rather than real knowledge or research. For example, I rarely see Jack Welch's (the famous CEO of General Electric) name misspelled in any publication or book. But in this book, he was 'Welsh' all the way through. Now, I believe Mr. Welch is an Irishman by background, so I don't think it's an accurate description of his familial history, either. Then, the book goes on to describe his Mr. Welch's pronouncements of 1980 as creative destruction. The ideas that Mr. Welch advocated in that year were well established and broadly in application throughout American business when he pursued them. He primarily was advocating that the company stay in businesses in which it could be the leader or have the second place in market share. He solved the company's deficiencies by simply selling the lower market share operations, not by destroying them. For example, Utah International (a mining operation) was sold within months of his taking the helm. It was only later that Mr. Welch began to downsize the remaining General Electric operations to get rid of excess layers of bureaucatic fat. The ideas Mr. Welch advocated later in his career were actually more important to General Electric's success, such as freeing General Electric Capital to be very entrepreneurial, focusing on leadership training, and implementing Six Sigma. So at best, Mr. Welch is misdescribed due to misfocus in Mr. Ledeen's example. At worst, Mr. Ledeen simply doesn't seem to grasp the example. There are several other sections of the book that display these kinds of fundamental flaws about contemporary observations. As a result, I have to grade the analysis of current society somewhere in the two to three star range, creating an average of three and a half or four starsWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.