Alexis de Tocqueville — Political Correctness in America

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"I would like to leave behind a legacy or a think-tank", says President Bush, "a place for people to talk about freedom and liberty, and the de Tocqueville model — what de Tocqueville saw in America." For once I agree with the President. The more Americans talk about de Tocqueville the better.

How’s this for a conversation starter:

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth (Chapter XV).

After visiting the United States in 1831 de Tocqueville wrote "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." He explained that it was the dominance of the majority rather than the power of the ruling elite that limited freedom of thought:

Under the absolute sway of one man the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul; but the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose proudly superior. Such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says: "You shall think as I do or you shall die"; but he says: "You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem.”

Today attempts to police thought are labeled political correctness. But ironically it’s those who complain most loudly about political correctness who are most enthusiastic about enabling majority opinion to dominate. Anti-PC rhetoric is almost always deployed against the opinions of minority groups and ‘elites’ who are supposedly out of touch with what ‘ordinary people’ value and believe. Majority opinion is invoked as an authority. Woe betide anyone who, for example, tries to teach children to “deconstruct dominant views of society”.

***

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, arrived in the United States in 1831. After spending nine months traveling around the country he returned to France and wrote his famous two volume text Democracy in America.

This post inspired by Bush Plans To Start Think Tank Devoted to French Political Thought at Think Progress.

See also: Uwe Reinhardt’s Alexis de Tocqueville on ‘Political Correctness’ in the Daily Princetonian.

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

As you no doubt know Don. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was very much motivated by a similar desire to avoid the stultifying conformism of opinion he found all around him within all classes.

Still, I’m deeply suspicious of attempts to teach children to “deconstruct dominant views of society”

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Nicholas – Maybe you’re right that “attempts to teach this to kids do all sorts of awful things”.

When I look back on my school days I realise that it was probably the most doctrinaire school teachers and religious instructors who helped me the most. Without meaning to, they taught me to question authority and try to find out things for myself.

As a thirteen year old there was nothing I enjoyed more than arguing with fundamentalist Sunday school teachers who said that the Bible was literally true. I spent hours combing through the synoptics looking for contradictory passages.

Perhaps if these teachers had pushed more reasonable opinions I might have grown up with more confidence in authority — less of that suspicion that the people in charge don’t know what they’re talking about.

John
John
15 years ago

What a hoot Bush talking about creating/leaving a think tank as a legacy!
Doesnt he already have dozens of think tanks supporting him?
The Heritage Foundation and the AEI being the most prominant and arent they devoted to promoting the gospel of “freedom” or one market under the Christian “god” idea.

And is not Fox so called “news” an extremely partisan promoter of the Bush world view. There is not much call to exercise discrimative intelligence about any and everything to be found on the Fox!

The author of this essay The Hypocrisy of Popular Disgust (www.dabase.net/popdisgu.htm ) is a great admirer of de Tocqueville.

This profound essay titled Freedom Is The Only Law & Happiness The Only Reality (www.dabase.net/freedom.htm) is in effect a critique of the adolescent Bush/Fox notion of “freedom”.