Friday, January 29, 2010


This month and last I spent an agreeable time reading the entirety of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Penguin, tr. Gerald E. Bevan, 860 pp.).

Naturally, I had read segments in abbreviated editions, but this was the first time I had read the entire book from beginning to end. The experience was enormously rewarding. His understanding of the effect of equality in a new nation was profound, and he saw in the death of the old aristocracy the wave of the future. He also found it difficult to fully understand the nature of government in America, since it seemed to him that there was little or none. He saw that people were independent, free, and beholden to no one. He saw that the primary impulse in America was the love of money, and thus that individualism (he is among the first to use the term) was a power to reckon with. This was in 1830, and clearly little has changed.

He also thought that the real power in America was in the individual states and not in the federal government. Even with Andrew Jackson, a potential "tyrant," in position of president–the man Tocqueville says, "is supposed to be working for the institution of a dictatorship in the United States" (461) has actually very little power to force any state, especially South Carolina, to his will. He has little regard for Jackson ("a man of a violent disposition and mediocre ability" [324]), and he deduces that the federal government's power will probably never soon compete with the power of the 24 confederated states of the union.

He has much to say about the possibility of civil war in the democracy of the United States, and concludes that it is virtually unthinkable. And he concludes this after the 1830sTariff incident in which South Carolina armed its militia in a threat to leave the union over perceived damages to its economy. Jackson backed down and the militia returned home. Twenty five years later the brutal Civil War was begun, Lincoln prevailed, and federalism became the power that forced the states to adhere to law.

De Tocqueville's is one of the most important books in American political history, so, for me, reading it was a really important experience, especially in light of the 2010 State of the Union speech by president Obama. Unlike many politicians he did not quote from de Tocqueville, but he was aware of some of the same stresses in political opinion as are expressed in Democracy in America.

In a moment of intense irony, the Governor of Virginia gave the rebuttal for the Republican party. He stood in the Capitol rotunda of Richmond, the center of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis spoke, in a building designed by Jefferson and built by slaves--a truly symbolic act on his part--and what he did, by quoting Jefferson's comment that local government was the best government, was to reopen the dispute between strong federal government and strong states rights governments, the very things that de Tocqueville focuses on for more than 500 pages. I was amazed.

The Governor ignored the Civil War and the result of Lincoln's decisions to make the federal government strong enough to enforce laws in rebel states. The ignorance of the governor appalled me. But I know he was following an ideology that insists that the federal government be reigned in. Of course, that ideology also forgets that in the 1960s, a hundred years after Fort Sumter, we had to send our young people south to enforce federal rules regarding segregation. If we go back to the states rights version of government, we'll have subtle Jim Crow laws and much other undemocratic legislation designed to restrict abortion, gay rights, and free speech. If that happens, Alexis de Tocqueville would surely recognize the nation he saw in 1830 and feel that his prophecy of a possible tyranny of the majority could come true.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Negotiating With the Dead

Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing is a hymn to literature itself. This is not a self-help book, or a how-to book, but a smart introduction to the meditations that absorb every serious writer. And the word "serious" there implies only that the writer must be serious about his or herself because writers are, as Atwood makes very clear, in a complex relationship with the past and with the dead writers who have established the terrain and clarified the game of writing.

She covers everything one might expect, including the important question of who the writer's audience must be. She almost comes close to saying that the dead may be among the writer's audience, but of course she holds back and reflects upon the possibility that the writer may have only an audience of one--in which case there may be some difficulties. The book is after all the messenger that communicates the message. It is not the writer who does so. Once the book is gone from the writer's hand time moves on and the writer is no longer the person who wrote the book.

These are the Empson lectures at Cambridge and they allude indirectly to the ambiguities that are central to Empson's most famous book, Seven Types of Ambiguity. In one fascinating chapter she addresses the ambiguity implied in the multiple identities of the writer writing. One identity is as a person, another as the poet. The poet is most unpoetical as a person, and that alone creates a curious situation for our contemplation.

In general, this book sweeps through literature from Gilgamesh to Yeats, Delillo, and beyond, and while something short of a book of literary criticism, it is a book of literary discussion and literary communion. So many writers, famous and obscure, are addressed and quoted in these pages that one soon realizes there is a sub-text here that cannot be ignored. Writers must be readers. Such a simple observation may seem unnecssary to the "serious" writer, but the facts are very simple. Many people who think they are going to be writers neglect the most important thing of all: a literary education. Even James Patterson reads Joyce (except for Finnegans Wake). What Atwood does here is create a hymn for the love of literature.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Even in winter, China was at times a vibrant place. I spent three weeks this November in China, during the coldest winter since 1949, the year of Mao's Long March. In general, I have to say that China was gray and sometimes grim because of the weather–no sun, considerable cold, dampness, and eventually lots of snow. It surprised the natives, but as a New Englander, we were prepared. The Peking Opera was a nice surprise. Not only was there an interesting and socially significant libretto, but the visuals were often stunning. The opera was a welcome contrast to the out of doors in several ways. For one, the warmth and colors were lovely and delightful. But the contrast with the outdoor vendors, most of whom were hard working and serious about their business, but who were also desperate and obviously poor, was considerable. China is amazing in many ways, and one of the most remarkable is in the contrasts one sees all around the major cities.
Of course, the size of the cities is overwhelming for most of us. These days almost every city is marked by a plethora of cranes high in the skyline, building condos and business landmarks everywhere. Rarely is there fewer than three to seven visible cranes in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. In the region of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze, one sees cities built for the displaced people whose homes are now below almost 300 meters of water.
People are mixed in their reactions to this gigantic project. Some naturally lament the loss of their ancestral homes, but others revel in the fact that they now have their own condo with indoor plumbing and separate bedrooms. What impresses me as an outsider is the fact that China is rebuilding itself while we are waging war and resisting serious investment in our own infrastructure.