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Maya and Alexis in America

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"Ce qu'on va lire n'est pas un voyage."  I haven't read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but I've been hearing about it ad nauseam since 1995 (the text seems irrepressibly ubiquitous in legal academia - not to mention in the pages of The New York Review of Books), and the book's first sentence - "What you're about to read isn't a travel memoir" - strikes me as perfect for this blog post.

I have just completed a four-month tour of the U.S., my first extended stay in the country since 2004.  Granted, my road trip was significantly different than the one Tocqueville took with his buddy, Gustave de Beaumont, in 1831.  I was not, for example, conducting a study of the American prison system, and so I didn't visit Sing Sing; I encountered no near-death experience while aboard a steamboat on the Ohio River; and I didn't chat with the President of the United States.  (Lest any reader of this post conclude, based on the foregoing, that my trip lacked excitement, I hasten to add that - unlike Tocqueville and Beaumont - I didn't take a vow of chastity during my trip.)

On the other hand, my trip may - in a small, personal, anecdotal and highly idiosyncratic way - cast some interesting light on Tocqueville's observations.  As Alan Ryan summarizes in his (yes, New York Review of Books) review of Leo Damrosch's book, Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Tocqueville subscribed to John Stuart Mill's assertion that

in the United States there was "none but a middle class." . . . Damrosch takes him to task for [this conclusion].  Did he not see, wonders Damrosch, that there were great disparities of income and wealth in America?

He did, but they were less striking than those he knew in France, and for him the ethos of "equality of condition" trumped inequalities of income and wealth, as it does for Americans today.  About 80 percent of Americans today call themselves "middle class," whereas 57 percent of British respondents call themselves "working class," although the distribution of income and wealth in Britain and the United States is very similar, as are rates of social mobility.

What was this egalitarian ethos?  It was the universal belief that with luck and hard work, anyone could become rich . . . the measure of success was money . . . . No doubt reality fell far short of this idealized picture, but people are affected by their idea of reality more than by reality itself.
When I moved to China in 2004, I (and everyone I knew) subscribed to this ethos to some greater or lesser degree.  Yes, I knew the platitude about people on their deathbeds never saying they wished they'd spent more time at the office, but everyone who recited that mantra to me earned at least six figures.  (Homeless people, I gather, might very well express a deathbed regret that they hadn't enjoyed the cash reserves necessary to enable them to have neglected the non-monetary rewards in life.)  

My going off to China elicited much concern from my cohort of friends and associates.  One former colleague, meeting me to say good-bye, told me to "pull myself together."  More than one person expressed reservations about my fiscal - to say nothing of my mental - health.  I was going off track - off road, literally - and by the standards of the egalitarian ethos I was taking risks of staggering, if not outright foolish, dimension.

I can't say that my risk-taking was unreservedly rewarding.  Since 2004, I have worked extremely hard, but I haven't gotten rich.  To the contrary.  Whether that outcome is the result of bad luck or an inherent flaw in the egalitarian ethos, I cannot say.  But a little more than three years ago, I experienced extreme anxiety about the fact of my non-affluence.  The measure of success was still - even for me - money.  At that time, I didn't want to return to the U.S., but I felt that (even if I had wanted to) I couldn't.  I wasn't rich; I was a failure.

Shortly thereafter, the economy tanked.  Friends of mine agonized over losing 50% of their net worth.  Possibly coincidentally, I perceived a difference in the way my friends in the States responded to me.  Skepticism and bewilderment no longer predominated in their responses to my life choices.  Curiosity began to mingle with admiration.  I began to be told that I was living what others dreamed about.  What I experienced as inconvenience, danger and uncertainty looked, to my States-bound friends, enviable.

Nonetheless, when I told a Zimbabwean friend that I would be spending months visiting family and friends in the States, he warned me that I'd feel alienated.  Time apart feeds the imagination; as much as others had made a palimpsest of my life, overlaying it with their own fantasies, I was doing the same to them: my expectations of feeling "at home" were sure to be disappointed, he warned.

We were both wrong.  I didn't feel like I belonged, and I didn't feel alienated.  I felt like an extremely welcome guest - supported, but an outsider; a peripheral character whose status on (and reports from) the periphery was (were) both respected and valued.  I was, quite honestly, not expecting this kind of reception.  Lectures about the need for financial stability in uncertain times; well-intentioned exhortations about moving back to the States; references (in varying degrees of stridency) about my biological time clock; these potentials I anticipated.  Congratulatory back-slapping, not so much.

Reading Ryan's review, I couldn't resist wondering if my experience in any way signaled an evolution in the egalitarian ethos Tocqueville described (or, possibly, through his description contributed to creating).  Tocqueville himself had expressed disillusionment about the underbelly of this ethos, as Ryan recounts:

[Towards the end of Tocqueville's life, h]is doubts about American moneymaking and his fear that commerce drove real politics out of everyone's mind had intensified, as had his contempt for the loudmouthed ignorance of both the American public and many American politicians.
Are Americans beginning to embrace a more nuanced egalitarian ethos, one that is less tolerant of income and wealth disparities?  Are they beginning to lose patience with the political ineptness, corruption and ignorance bred by a system that over-values commerce? My experience is too individual to serve as the basis for general answers to these big questions, but I got the distinct impression that Americans are happy to see someone else - a representative of sorts (or, to use more folkloric terminology that crops up in the work of the excellent poet Thomas Lynch, a sin eater) - attempt to fashion a life consistent with this less commerce-driven, more substantively-egalitarian version of Tocqueville's egalitarian ethos.  Changing their own lives may be no more appealing than it was seven years ago, but demonstrating support for someone else doing it seems like it's no longer as threatening.

If people's ideas of reality affect them more than reality itself, perhaps this shift does reflect an evolution in Americans' thinking about reality, regardless of the facts on the ground.  Or perhaps less noble forces are at work: the guy who'd told me to "pull myself together" in 2004 had simply no memory, in 2011, of ever having made the comment or, indeed, have met me to say good-bye at all.

(Image of Alexis de Tocqueville from Seton Hall University; image of Maya Alexandri taken by Alice Forney) 

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