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Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”
“After 37 days at sea aboard Le Havre, Tocqueville and Beaumont landed in Newport, Rhode Island on May 9. The journey had been rough, and the passengers and crew had little to eat or drink during the final days. Indeed, the passengers requested that they be allowed to disembark in Newport once it became obvious that fierce winds would prevent the ship from reaching New York as scheduled. I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or hope from its progress.” Alexis de Tocqueville.
When I went and bought the book Democracy in America I was like ick, do I really have to read it. But it was actually a very good and educational book. I read the entire thing a few weeks ago–(Istarted when the class did), and I am still talking about–don t know how much of an understanding I have, but that’s all right. I enjoyed the last chapter the most. For it was like reading the Bible in revelations- it was Tocqueville’s greatest warning to the new age. The chapter is entitled, “What Sort of Depotism Nations Have to Fear”.
He wrote: “Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratification’s, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains but to spare them all care of thinking and all trouble of living. Some of his writings go in factor with our amendment right–which either I will post an new discussion on Animal Farm, or below this.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Now hasn’t that occurred today?
Technology, including telecommunications and vast computer networks and storage databases, all intertwined and instantly accessible to the government and large corporations only extend the reach of the masters over their children slaves and make individual expression and freedom more difficult by infinite degrees. Add to this, encryption and surveillance technology such that the government has, quite literally, all the keys. Hence any threat to the dominant power can be “neutralized” before it achieves real power and influence. What’s left?
Also, do not forget how readily this “government” will squash individual dissent that threatens it’s true owner- the wealthy and powerful. What after all is one man alone- a pitiful, tired creature withering on the vine- defeated and doomed to death- unable to change a thing- a voice in the wilderness- seldom believed and often ridiculed.
The last thing that I want to bring up is when he wrote:
“At the present time, an oppressed member of the community has therefore only one method of self defense,- he may appeal to the whole nation; and if the whole nation is deaf to his compliant, he may appeal to mankind: the only means he has of making this appeal is by the press. Thus the liberty of the press is infinitely more valuable amongst democratic nations than amongst all others; it is the only cure for the evils which equality may produce.
… Something analogous may be said of the judicial power. It is a part of the essence of judicial power to attend to private interests, and to fix itself with predilection on minute objects submitted to observation: another essential quality of judicial power is never to volunteer its assistance to the oppressed, but always be at the disposal of the humblest of those who solicit it; their compliant, however feeble they may themselves be, will force itself upon the ear of justice and claim redress, for this is inherent in the very constitution of the courts of justice”. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Its crucial to keep all forms of communications free, open and able to withstand the assaults of large corporations, special interest groups and big government. Did Tocqueville foresee how the courts would become politicized? Did he see the death of newspapers and the ownership of those that remain by large conglomerates beholden more to protecting the interests of their stockholders and the current economic regime then to printing the truth?
Tocqueville understood that the power of the federal government would be increased during threats (real or perceived) to national security. He probably did not foresee the Cold War and its knack for keeping the nation in a continual state of threat and hence allow the government to grow even more powerful. However he understood the dangers of a protracted revolution- a condition not entirely different from the half century Cold War. See: The Clinton Vision, Noam Chomsky, Z Magazine, December 1993
He did not totally foresee the rise of powerful multi-national corporations or the military-industrial complex. He could not conceive of the destructive depths of technology- mankind’s god like power to destroy the Earth and all Earthly creation.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.” – Farewell address by former U.S. President (and General) Dwight Eisenhower, January 17, 1961.
He did not foresee the growth of mindless and insidious communication technologies like television. Technologies used to infiltrate the mind and reinforce conformity and the “natural’ acceptance of false, me-to “universal” values.
He understood that higher education would be more universal while critical thinking and powers of observation would become rarer.
It was easy to foresee how the public imagination would be diverted to fantasy and escapism, since it is the exercise of personal fantasy that at least provides the illusion of power.
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