Land of the free, home of hotheads
Don’t get too outraged, those of you who are looking down your noses at those unreasonable, misinformed anti-healthcare-reform town hallers. No matter what particular clan, tribe or party you belong to, you can’t really disown them any more than you can your own grandmother. You may not agree with them, but their brand of hotheaded, self-righteous, obnoxious, stick-it-to-the-manism is as American as apple pie.
Earlier this summer, I decided to reread Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century classic, “Democracy in America.” I came away from the two-volume masterpiece with a picture of Americans as a bunch of agitated, coarse, boisterous, disrespectful know-it-alls. Mind you, Tocqueville had no intention of insulting us. It’s just that, in the course of describing an ambitious, creative, forward-thinking people who were destined to change the course of history, the French aristocrat also illuminated the underbelly of the ideology of equality.
Granted, a lot has changed since Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s. But as I made my way through the pages, I was nonetheless astonished that, despite the millions upon millions of immigrants who’ve arrived on these shores in the intervening years and in spite of the ineluctable evolution of the native born, the essential character of the U.S. has remained constant. Tocqueville would undoubtedly argue that that’s because the core ideology of democracy and equality have continued to shape the national character.
In Volume Two, he describes what the belief in equality of men does to people. Not only do they “seldom take the opinion of their equal, a man like themselves, upon trust,” but they don’t much countenance the idea that anyone can actually know more than they do. As a result, “the general notion of the intellectual superiority which any man whatsoever may acquire in relation to the rest of the community is ... overshadowed” by everyone else pooh-poohing the so-called experts.
That’s because the equal footing we’d like to believe we all live on leads us to believe that we can figure things out for ourselves. We are, in Tocqueville’s biting phrase, “constantly brought back to [our] own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth.” Everyone “shuts himself up in his own breast, and affects from that point to judge the world.”
Millions of know-it-alls in one place are obviously going to make for a messy public square. In Volume One, our French friend writes that “scarcely have you descended on the soil of America when you find yourself in the midst of tumult; a confused clamor is raised on all sides; a thousand voices come to your ear at the same time, each of them expressing some social needs.” A few paragraphs later comes the result: “It is incontestable that the people often direct public affairs very badly.”
Does all this mean that Tocqueville believed that Americans were intrinsically more ornery than other people? Not really. But he understood that equality could bring out two tendencies within a nation.
On the one hand, the disdain and distrust for authority could spur innovation and new thoughts. In a country where everything is challenged sooner or later, you can’t help but come up with new ideas. On the other, he wondered whether our incipient anti-intellectualism couldn’t also “willingly induce” people “to give up thinking” altogether.
Clearly, know-it-allism can also make people intellectually lazy and willing to follow the herd on any given topic. “I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America,” Tocqueville wrote.
That leads us to one of the most glaring paradoxes in U.S. society. Our founders created a government that required an informed citizenry. We were one of the earliest countries to democratize education. And yet, as historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, anti-intellectualism is “older than our national identity,” and it’s part and parcel of our belief that all men are equal.
So as much fun as it may be for some of you to blame idiot right-wingers for the invention of ill-informed political haranguing, it’s really an all-American tradition. It’s in the same spirit of all those lefty bumper stickers that read “Question Authority.” It’s embodied in Benjamin Franklin’s famous advice along the same lines: “The first responsibility of every citizen is to question authority.”
It’s not a pretty process, and it clearly has its dangers. But it’s the price of democracy to suffer fools.