Alexis de Tocqueville: the French aristocrat who understood America—not!
It’s never said, but it’s an unspoken truth: the Left, not the Right, is the snobby political wing in the U.S.
If right means wealthy privilege and left means workers’ rights, how can the left be the snobby class?
As much as other countries mirror the U.S. this would be the case in those places, too, but it has its origins in America, and perhaps this counter-intuitive truth is one of the things that makes this country great, and odd, and complex, and lasting, and hard to figure out.
Who calls the United States an odd country? No one.
But we are.
This explains us better than big, imperial, oppressive, warlike, free, democratic, great, all those epithets that get dragged out whenever this country is described.
Let any scholar describe the U.S. in historical terms, and within five minutes, Tocqueville, an ineffectual historian who made distantly bland, clichéd observations, is held aloft as the foreign genius who captured forever the American soul. What rot. Tocqueville covers up all that we really are. For the United States to be truly, or at least, partially, seen, America needs to wash Tocqueville out of its hair for good.
Tocqueville: Bor-ing! Not America!
Karl Marx, Margaret Fuller, Edgar Poe, Horace Greeley and the New York Tribune. Discuss. There. That’s better. Lafayette. Anyone. Not Tocqueville. Please!
Not that the boring, clueless, readership that eats up Tocqueville is not part of the American character.
The willfully ignorant and dull is truly one of the aspects of America’s greatness. Thickness and density is the secret to a healthy, anti-intellectual, “can-do” character.
What is too interesting carries Americans away from what they need to do: shoot guns, cut down trees. I say this without irony. One must shoot guns and cut down trees. America is the land of the shallow symbol, the no-nonsense, pragmatic “fool.” Every great country needs a certain ignorance and roughness, a purely mechanical nature. And in addition to this, plenty of dull scholars who have nothing interesting to say.
America has lots of this.
I love—but I also pity other countries, with their romantic passion and pretty scarves and almond-eyed women and beautiful churches and philosophy and poetry and fifteen kisses on the cheek.
The oafish simplicity of America has a practical, Niagara Falls energy.
If Ben Franklin had focused on poetry, his genius would have wound up in a quaint British anthology—and America would not exist.
We are too sophisticated for this image now, but the ridiculous picture of funny-looking Ben Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm is the essence of what America is—not the somber, placid beauty of the Statue of Liberty, but thank you, France.
France gave America a greater gift than even the Statue of Liberty: prose poetry.
Prose poetry provided jobs for millions of American intellectuals who were largely unemployed—having had the choice to either 1. write another picturesque nature essay or 2. produce still another parody of “The Raven.” The French rescued us just in time, arriving at our shores when America jumped into World War One—the very instant when Mr. Quinn, Pound and Eliot’s art collector/lawyer friend, got French art shipped over for the Armory Show.
As early 20th century Americans laughed at the newly arrived Cubism, a gift was created that keeps on giving: seeds to build a real intellectual class of pontificating elites. Modern art from France provided the basis, just in time, to further widen the gulf between American brawn and brains—-the secret to America’s odd vigor and contradictory energy.
America, by refusing to listen to intellectuals, made itself into a very pragmatic country. And the intellectuals of America made this easier by being so very stupid, themselves. By getting everything wrong in a Tocqueville-sort of way, America somehow made everything right.
Better a charismatic tree-chopper than a charismatic intellectual, or leader.
Lincoln mumbled for two minutes—and that was the greatest “address” America produced. Perfect!
Puritans made frowning faces in the wilderness and made the natives go away, or so says a symbol so empty, so full, so horrific, that it cannot be put on a shelf, or fathomed. It helped the rapacious Americans that our British overlords, our sworn enemies, allied with the natives, when they attempted to reconquer us in the War of 1812.
Winfield Scott was so polite when he conquered Mexico, he hung his own soldiers for spitting and swearing.
Then a few years later, Americans committed genocide against each other trying to win legitimacy in the eyes of London and Paris, bathing in blood Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. Very odd.
The British got Americans to come over to France and kill Germans, just two generations later, in what for some reason was called World War One.
When that war didn’t work out, Americans died killing Germans and Japanese all over the place, and after that war, the United States, her engines roaring, became rulers of the world, together with Mother England, who tucked us in every night, their royalty nearly becoming ours, as Joe Kennedy, the Irishman, played the role of ambassador to London, a prelude to Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to his son.
America’s peculiarly distant-yet-very-close relationship with older, dysfunctional, decrepit-but-still-highly-elegant, European powers is probably the chief reason why snobbery belongs to the Left in America. PBS is British-accented soap. Homegrown gun shooters and tree choppers propelled America to fantastic material success, sans subtlety or elegance. Modern art is the American counter-truth which possesses that acute combination of feelings of inferiority and superiority, which is at the heart of the complex snobbery only Americans know. Identity politics feature the same mixture of inferiority and superiority: Black (formerly despised) is Beautiful!!
The Left in Britain is defined by the Labor party.
The Left in America is defined by the progressive, witty and glossy pages of Vogue, or the New Yorker. (The American working class have no idea that the snobby New Yorker is left in its politics.) The American Left isn’t Labor. It’s comedians on TV who wear Armani suits.
Those who breed—because they breed—are considered right wing in America, and those who look down upon them belong to the Left. Liberals don’t breed.
The breeders in Britain are Left. Those who look down upon them in Britain belong to the Right.
In the U.S. it is the opposite.
There is no top class in America. There is only the aspiring class, and those who aspire in America are the snobs.
In Britain, those who go to college to improve themselves are part of the great unwashed, far below the ruling class. The British ruling class go to school, but just for show.
In America, education is the whole key to snobbery. Where else can our snobbery come from? Not from relentlessly ridiculed, low-brow celebrities. And since the demise of the Kennedys, America has no ruling class—the “adult learner” single mom who takes online classes and supports Hillary Clinton manifests as much self-righteous snobbery as any duke or king. But the administrative educator (see Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty) in this adult learner’s academic department is true American royalty. Indispensable. Useless.
The American recipe for snobbery is: shop at Lord & Taylor, be in education, and don’t breed. You will be a queen. People will get out of your way when you walk across the parking lot.
A young woman from Brazil once told me, “American women are like men.”
America’s famous sexual freedom hardly exists, and has nothing to do with snobbery.
Snobbery may be defined in the following way: a wrong which is never spoken.
An American woman will never inform a gentleman:
“Sir, I have the right to fuck you if I want and then murder your child inside me.”
Those would never be the words she uses.
A rhetoric far more tasteful would be, “Christianity mitigates the excesses of democracy.”
This sounds like Tocqueville. Polite and plausible.
But then one might easily respond: “Democracy mitigates the excesses of Christianity.”
The sum of these two statements—both used for good or evil—is a nullity. One has said nothing. That’s the problem (and the secret social usefulness) of the polite and the plausible.
This is why the savvy, bland, respectable, intellectuals love Tocqueville.
The truly royal, the truly snobby, the truly impolite, the truly impolitic, have one rule.
They must say things in a certain way.
Some might argue that this American snobbery is not really snobbery or royalty—but something else. No. This is snobbery.
And the whole point is that America is very different from what anyone—especially foreign intellectuals—might suppose.
The symbols and platitudes of America are mostly false, and cover up a very complex nation.
But anything is better than Tocqueville.
Unless you wish to take a nap.
And when you wake up, it is guaranteed—America will be different.