Friday, July 22, 2016

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me

Fifteen years ago or so, I read about a fourth of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The point that stuck with me most was the observation that American democracy begins at the local level, that Americans have passion for the politics of their town and take part in running it rather than letting a bureaucrat from the central government take charge of parochial affairs. Interesting as far as it goes, but in that first sample, I didn’t see what might have given the book its lofty reputation and continued popularity. This month I started where I had left off and read up to about the 75% mark. And now I understand.

First, Tocqueville makes many penetrating observations that still seem true today.
  • The press is the greatest protector of freedom in a democracy, but the abundance of newspapers in the United States weakens its power.
  • In a democracy, the goals of the magistrates are usually those of the majority, so even bad leaders do good for society.
  • Americans want success fast, and American entrepreneurs succeed most when they find the best way of doing a thing less expensively than anyone else.
  • The public prefers books that they can read quickly and easily.
  • Poetry has little appeal to the public, and a politician desiring to elevate speaking style tends toward bombast rather than poetic eloquence.
Tocqueville even predicts the state of the world a century and a half after his time when he says that the United States will one day be the premiere naval power on the planet and that it and Russia will between them rule half of the world's population. We should listen to a man who got so many things right.

The heart of the book, the part that I had heard about, comes in volume I, part 2, chapter 9. Here Tocqueville lays out what he sees as the three main reasons for the continued success of American democracy: (1) geographical isolation and the riches of the land, (2) the federal system of laws, giving citizens a part even in local government, and (3) American morality. The geographical situation doesn’t essentially change, and he doesn’t see much chance of the federal distribution of government going away. So the biggest threat comes from a breakdown in morality, which in America would happen with a dwindling of the power of religion. Tocqueville calls for religious toleration. The state not having an afterlife, as Tocqueville the devout Christian reasons, any religion is good for society so long as it teaches morality. Recursively, this morality includes respect and civil treatment toward those who believe differently.

Interestingly, Tocqueville sees no contradiction in respecting a person devoted to a false religion and, despite his otherwise mostly accurate view of the future, has no inkling that such a contradiction would ever occur to anyone. But our weakened democracy can’t reconcile respect with thinking someone is wrong; all assertions are taken as insults, and all truths are seen as relative. In this atmosphere, religion becomes a matter of feeling good about a vague idea, so respect for other religions shrinks to insipid good will towards others’ casually happy thoughts about fuzzy cosmicness. In the words of MAD magazine, blecchh. A pat on the head and a condescending “That’s nice” isn’t respect; it’s what you give your neighbor's kid when he shows you the house he made out of paste and popsicle sticks. It’s what Shirley says to Annie and Abed, and, rightfully, nobody takes her seriously. Respect for someone I disagree with, someone who’s thoughts rise to the level of me believing them wrong, is so much stronger than that, so much healthier – so much more respectful. I would much rather have a nonbeliever tell me I’m wrong than wish me well for believing in something that “works for me.”

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