I imagine that over the last two or so years the rapid rise of the iPad and other tablet devices has led to a decline in the use of toilet libraries, by which I mean those little collections of books many people keep in their bathrooms for those leisurely times when they have a particularly challenging movement to sit through (perhaps you have your own toilet library. Feel free to share your favorite reads in the comments below).
My own toilet library shows me to be a rather self-righteous, aspiring autodidact. Among my little pile can be found Empires of the World by Nicholas Ostler, The Oxford Book of English Poetry, and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. The books are all left there in the rather grand belief that in the privacy of the privy I might finally learn something. That’s all gone to pot since I got an iPad as I now simply read twitter or play Football Manager on there instead. The books are, sadly, left mostly unread.
One book that should be added to the above trinity – and one that I have fitfully gone through in the last few years – is de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. When I moved to the US it seemed, unsurprising enough, a cornerstone text that I should familiarize myself with.
For those who don’t already know, Democracy in America is a study in American society by an aristocrat from Normandy, Alexis de Tocqueville. He journeyed to America in 1831 when he was sent, along with Gustave de Beaumont, to look into the American penal system, although natural curiosity led to both men investigating a lot more than just prisons.
Book II of Democracy in America, in particular, can move me away from reading twitter and reading an actual book. Its short chapters mark it as perfect for inclusion in any toilet library, and it is extremely perceptive into America and Americans. With that in mind, here’s 5 thing that de Tocqueville can teach expats to the US
Warning: de Tocqueville scholars should look away now. No insightful analysis will be found here.
5. An outsider can bring an interesting perspective to US society
Yesterday two of my least favorite people met on CNN, Piers Morgan and Alex Jones (what incidentally is the collective noun for gits?). Jones, a conspiracy theorist firebrand, was behind the recent campaign to have Piers Morgan in light of his views on gun control. Jones screamed “1776!” over and over again at Morgan as well as calling him a “redcoat”. Morgan’s views on gun control aren’t particularly out-of-the-ordinary within the mainstream media, but his foreignness means that, for some, it is doubly offensive when he attacks a text (the second amendment) that they consider sacrosanct.
Morgan clearly is not a modern de Tocqueville, but it is worth remembering that your own outsider status allows you to see US society with fresh eyes and that you can, respectfully and tactfully, challenge certain assumptions.
4. Regardless of how irritating it is when misused, theoretically American exceptionalism is a fascinating, even wonderful, thing.
Most non-Americans understandably roll their eyes when US politicians, particularly when seeking election, proclaim the US as the greatest country in the world, a country unlike any other that is innately superior. That most US political rallies don’t end with a rousing chorus of “America, f#@k yeah!” from Team America is surprising.
However, the first person to describe America as exceptional was de Tocqueville, and in his writings you’ll find that there is much talk of America as a democratic society as opposed to those Monarchic, aristocratic societies of the Old World. It serves as a reminder that America, for all its faults, is founded upon impressive ideals. The main idea underpinning exceptionalism is not American superiority, but that it is qualitatively different from other nations, the first to build an identity based upon its independence. We can certainly debate that this exceptionalism is no longer the case, but in de Tocqueville’s period I do not think it a contentious claim – indeed, it’s an exciting and invigorating thought.
3. Cynicism need not be the default mode for the Western European dealing with America.
It’s easy to be weary when dealing with American life and Americans. They can be unabashed, earnest, loud. The default mode, of which I am very much guilty of, is to mock and sneer and snark about many aspects of American life. The phrase “only in America” is often invoked for some of the worst aspects of American life, de Tocqueville shows that “only in America” can also be positive.
2. “Never mind the quality, feel the length.” A reminder of the sheer size of America.
The America that6 de Tocqueville visited is half the size that the country is now. But the America of the 1830s was a still a vast land and Democracy in America is, in its own dry way, a travelogue to a new land of strange sights. New expats to the US would do well to remember that they don’t just have a country to discover, but a continent.
1. The gift that keeps giving.
The first thing that you many notice about Democracy in America is that it is a hefty tome. For those expats blogging about life in US, you need never worry that you’ll be short of material. The US really is the gift that keeps giving. Look at dear departed Alistair Cooke, he managed to keep ploughing this particular field for over 60 years. You may never fully understand this country, but you can have an interesting time coming to terms with it.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on reads to tickle the expat’s imagination and intellect.
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