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Tocqueville And America
July 2, 2004 6:26 AM   Subscribe

The Man Who Best Understood America Was A French Aristocrat: If there's a book which manages to grow better and more pertinent with every passing year, it's Tocqueville's fascinating, prescient and utterly apposite Democracy in America. Of how many other books could you safely say every American and European should read it and know beforehand they will enjoy it and learn from it? Of none.
posted by MiguelCardoso (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Garry Wills disagrees, but unfortunately his entire article isn't available for free.
posted by mookieproof at 6:35 AM on July 2, 2004


#2 on on this list. Big Deal: One Year As A Professional Poker Player by Anthony Holden.
posted by i_cola at 7:05 AM on July 2, 2004


Wil is right: a newer look at Tokey suggests he missed much and was overly focused on other things....but then revision always takes place in history, no?
posted by Postroad at 7:05 AM on July 2, 2004


"Tokey"? is he a friend of Bunny's?
posted by matteo at 7:12 AM on July 2, 2004


"Tokey"? is he a friend of Bunny's?

- owns a cafe in Amsterdam as I understand it.
posted by johnnyboy at 7:22 AM on July 2, 2004


Hmm.... does anyone think that maybe, just maybe, a lot of the reason we like de Tocqueville's version so much is that we've spent 200 years living up to it?
posted by lodurr at 7:41 AM on July 2, 2004


do you mean you've been alive for 200 years, lodurr? that's a lot, it makes you older than quonsar. how do you like this new Internet thing?
posted by matteo at 8:02 AM on July 2, 2004


Enough of this dead french guy Migs , lets discuss the euro final , i think that portugal will win.
This is based on the fact that greece only win when they are underdogs and having beaten portugal in the first game , they will be overconfident.
posted by sgt.serenity at 8:47 AM on July 2, 2004


(Anyone else wondering why Miguel is posting literary resources on Metafilter instead of raging through the streets of Lisbon in Portugal's colors with a bottle of wine in each hand?)

On topic, this site features the translation I llike the best. I have always loved trotting out this quote from Chapter XIII: WHY THE AMERICANS ARE SO RESTLESS IN THE MIDST OF THEIR PROSPERITY: "In the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics; and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days' vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him."
posted by planetkyoto at 8:49 AM on July 2, 2004


Great quote, planetkyoto, but might it indicate that we're happiest fiddling with things, including our lives, trying to make them a little better, than with settling down and enjoying the fruits? Some people really are at their most blissful when working on things than they are with being done with them. Even plunging into the vortex of politics could be regarded as an expression of this -- fiddling with governance trying to make that better too, but finding pleasure in the journey rather than the destination.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:25 AM on July 2, 2004


(Anyone else wondering why Miguel is posting literary resources on Metafilter instead of raging through the streets of Lisbon in Portugal's colors with a bottle of wine in each hand?)

Anyone else wonder why they're not doing the same thing?
posted by weston at 9:25 AM on July 2, 2004


Of how many other books could you safely say every American and European should read it and know beforehand they will enjoy it and learn from it?
My personal pick: "How to Lie With Statistics" by Darrell Huff. Short humorous book with more truth in it than the memoirs of the last ten presidents. Required reading before accessing a news story about Government Economic Statistics.
posted by wendell at 9:25 AM on July 2, 2004


I spent five years running numbers through spreadsheets and it never ceased to amaze me how subtle changes in assumptions could produce dramatic changes in outcomes. If you wanted to you could make the data say pretty much what ever you wanted.
posted by caddis at 9:54 AM on July 2, 2004


Back on Miguel's post, reading the book several hundred years later is sort of eerie as our distinctive national personality really has not changed much. He could be writing about the present day US.
posted by caddis at 9:59 AM on July 2, 2004


"An involuntary start of terror. What Mr. Williams had said and the look of his face reassure us. We speak to him. He listens quietly and makes a sign that he does not understand English. We give him some brandy and buy his birds. We mount again. After some time we turn round. The Indian following our tracks. We slow down. He slows down. We run. He runs without making the slightest noise. ...

Dinner at Grand Bank. A single shoe-smith. We start out again at 7 o'clock...."

(July 24 entry)

Grand bank...i wonder if this was Grand Blanc?

"In Flint, where Tocqueville encountered an idyllic frontier community in the virgin forest, Cohen found the ruins of the industrial empire. That was where General Motors once offered highly paid union jobs, which turned production workers into middle-class citizens. Now the union has been battered. The jobs have gone to Mexico. The dream is a bad memory.""

or maybe Garry Wills is right when he claims that Tocqueville did not “get” America at all, in fact knew and understood very little about it, and that his picture of the New World was largely constructed out of his French cultural background

I'm not so sure, he got the "feel" of this state (michigan) when he visited, his descrptions are pretty good.

"The Protestant population begins to be preponderant in Michigan on account of emigration. But Catholicism gains some converts among the most enlightened men. Mr. Richard's opinion about the extreme coolness of the upper classes in America towards religion. One of the reasons for the extreme tolerance; anyhow tolerance complete. Nobody asks you of what religion you are, but if you can do the job. The greatest service one can do to religion is to separate it from temporal power. The slightest nuance of ill feeling towards popular government, intrigues and cabals; the elections are even made by the central government. United States systems for the new states. They are made to get accustomed by degrees to governing themselves. Colon of native Christians at Michilimackinac. Their zeal, their ardor, their education.

On leaving Mr. Richard our embarrassment about which way to set out. All the Americans wanted us to choose the best roads and oldest settlements. We wanted the wilderness and savages but did not like to say so too clearly."
posted by clavdivs at 10:43 AM on July 2, 2004


Sarge - I am raging through the streets, as you may well imagine.

But, you being a Scot, will appreciate that already the Greeks have won. They'd never won a game in the European championship - and they're through to the final, after having beaten the hosts, fair and square. That's about seven notches up.

Portugal, on the other hand, are only one notch up: they've often reached the semi-finals. It's the first time we've got to the final - but the fact that the tournament is in Portugal, with massive support, detracts from that achievement.

Greece are, in more ways than one, the Portugal of this championship. If they win, second time in a row, how can we not take our hats off to them? If they lose, it's tit for tat. Either way, they win.

That's why most people here and in Greece regard the final as a flourish, more than a clincher. We're the two poorest countries in the European Union. We're also the oldest and among the tiniest, though our civilizations have changed the world - the Greeks with their philosophers; the Portuguese with their navigators.

We have sunshine. We have good food and friendly people. We enjoy our holidays in each other's countries.

The truth is that two tiny Southern countries dispatched all the richer, many times more populous European nations (Spain, Italy, France, England, Germany) and, on Sunday, will enjoy what amounts to a friendly match. Greece is managed by a very intelligent German; Portugal by a very passionate Brazilian.

Football, Sarge, is like gastronomy: the wealth and size of a country have nothing to do with their tastefulness. It's not about money: it's about joy and natural skill, bravado; fun. Fun is the single most important component. (And this is why Portugal will beat Greece, btw!)

Football is a great leveller and, in the deepest sense, Scotland is playing for both Greece and Portugal on Sunday.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:47 AM on July 2, 2004



”In democratic countries even poor men entertain a lofty notion of their personal importance; they look upon themselves with complacency and are apt to suppose that others are looking at them too. With this disposition, they watch their language and their actions with care and do not lay themselves open so as to betray their deficiencies; to preserve their dignity, they think it necessary to retain their gravity.”

I wonder what he'd say about today's democracies, American or European...
posted by Termite at 11:04 AM on July 2, 2004


I just don't understand why he hated Linux so much.
posted by cortex at 11:35 AM on July 2, 2004


Miguel's eloquent essay on sport and culture should be a sidebar post.
posted by caddis at 1:38 PM on July 2, 2004


What a lovely reply , my mind has opened several notches , thanks migs.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:17 PM on July 2, 2004


We're also the oldest and among the tiniest, though our civilizations have changed the world - the Greeks with their philosophers; the Portuguese with their navigators.

When it comes to oldest, unless you are invoking mythical Tartessos,
I believe that the Italians have the drop on you with that whole Roman Empire thingy and, for a fact, you are speaking what was once Latin at the grocery store, are you not?
posted by y2karl at 5:34 PM on July 2, 2004


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