Politics and revolution

I’m reading a May 30, 2016 (I’m so behind) New Yorker article, “The Big Uneasy: What’s roiling the liberal-arts campus?” by Nathan Heller.

Don’t know how much I would have read had Heller not begun by talking about stuff that’s been going on at Oberlin, where I went to college for a few years.

So I kept reading–reading about what my old friend Dave Van Ronk would have described as neo-Stalinism on campus. (Dave was a life-long Trotskyist.)

Just as I was beginning to think, “Why do I care about kids with totalitarian, grim notions who will eventually learn about life, in all its pleasures and pains and reality?,” I came upon this paragraph, and one particular line that knocked me out. Thus, I have bolded it.

In “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” a study of political ferment in late-eighteenth-century France, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in the decades leading up to the Revolution, France had been notably prosperous and progressive. We hear a lot about the hunger and the song of angry men, and yet the truth is that, objectively, the French at the start of the seventeen-eighties had less cause for anger than they’d had in years. Tocqueville thought it wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

Makes me want to read Tocqueville.

UPDATE 7/29/2016. I get the New York Times both in hard copy and digitally, and via email get the Times daily briefings, i.e., news abstracts.

It was my great pleasure today to see this remarkable notice of de Tocqueville, in the section the Times calls “Back Story.” Now I want to read him even more.

One of the most astute observers of American politics can’t be found on the airwaves or on social media. Oh, how we’d love to know what Alexis de Tocqueville, the aristocratic Frenchman born in Paris on this day in 1805, would make of the last two weeks.
He landed in Newport, R.I., in 1831, commissioned by the French government to report on American prisons. But Tocqueville instead spent nine months visiting more than a dozen states and three sparsely settled territories with his friend Gustave de Beaumont.
The pair did report and write a book on prisons when they returned home. But Tocqueville became an important historical figure because he turned his meticulous diaries and reflections into the two-volume “Democracy in America” (1835, 1840), a prophetic book about the young United States.
He interviewed many Americans, including President Andrew Jackson and his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, and predicted that America would “someday become one of the richest and most powerful countries on earth” and that slavery would produce “the most horrible of all civil wars.”
The book was the first major study of U.S. society, and its insights have been taught in American schools for 180 years.
Political parties are “an inherent evil of free governments,” he wrote, adding that “the most outstanding Americans are seldom summoned to public office.”
But he held much faith in the country’s democracy: “There is one thing which America demonstrates invincibly, and of which I had been in doubt up till now: It is that the middle classes can govern a state.”


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