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James Poulos at Vox.  “In 1831, Tocqueville is sent to America by the French government to study the American prison system. Tocqueville was a very young, very smart aristocrat. He was interested in the changing social and economic conditions of his time, and in the global movement toward greater democracy and equality.

“He saw America as a kind of laboratory of democracy. He sat down with John Quincy Adams a couple of years after his presidency and talked about slavery. He had access to the highest levels of American society. He was also able to go off the beaten path. He got to see America from the bottom up and the top down, and he got to see it through the eyes of an aristocrat that knew aristocracy was finished.

What was his most relevant observation or lesson?

“Tocqueville has many lessons for us, but the biggest one is that we are not fully in the democratic age, the age where the equality of conditions, mores, habits, and thought patterns have slowly set in. But we’re no longer in the aristocratic age, the age of great structural inequalities that persisted over centuries and are based in the fabric of life. Things like hereditary wealth, things like noble titles, monarchy, feudal culture, generation after generation of people tied to their land. All the stuff you see in the Old World, a tight, intimate connection between religious institutions and political institutions. All that kind of stuff has passed away into the irretrievable past, but it hasn’t been fully destroyed. Some of these things persisted into our transitional era.

“Tocqueville observed that Americans are fortunate to not have an aristocratic past annihilated by a democratic revolution like Europe experienced, which caused a great deal of pain and anxiety. But he thought we had a very different kind of pain and anxiety. We feel the tweens of history. It’s a long tweendom. This is not a brief moment.

“As worried as we are that we’re going to get spun out into some dystopia sooner rather than later, Tocqueville’s warning to us is that this is a long period of weirdness as we become what we are as a nation, and there’s no escaping from it, and it is going to make us weird and encourage our weirdness…

You mentioned this historical “tweendom” phase a minute ago, but it’s not clear to me how this manifests in American life today. Your conception of freedom as an activity rather than a condition is apparent enough. What remains somewhat vague is how the peculiar character and history of America shapes or constrains our efforts to live freely right now, in this moment.

“We grow up too quickly in some ways and too slowly in others. And so has our country. Look at the way Europeans tend to see us in a bad mood — as reckless, undereducated babies driving the future without a license. We left the aristocratic age first, and without any real trauma. But because of that, we’ve been able to stretch out our transition to the full-blown democratic age. We’re truants from the logic of history as the Old World knows it.

“In some ways, that opens up huge new vistas of chill and leisure only stylishly laced with brooding affectation. In other ways, though, it creates spaces where this crushing confusion and dislocation and emotional vertigo floods in. Sounds a lot like being a tween morphing into a teenager, or a teenager with unresolved tween issues morphing into a 20-something with unresolved teenage issues.

And how does this emotional and historical vertigo bleed into our culture? How does it influence our view of money, religion, success?

“With money, we develop this insanely weird notion that we deserve to make a decent living pursuing coming-of-age quests to discover our true identity in our true calling. We get trapped in that, yet we persist.

“And that dilemma suffuses our sex lives and our love lives, which are largely shaped by the historically weird idea that romantic unions only last as long as neither partner’s identity drama seems to diminish the other’s. Another trap. No wonder we see teenage infatuation — and youth! — the Katy Perry way, as a precious get-out-of-psychic-jail card you can only play once when you get one.

“It makes us all the more deeply weird and awkward about death, which calls us to attend maturely to mortality in a way that’s apt to cripple us in what we feel are already heroically against-the-odds quests for what we fear is more significance than we deserve. Trap number three.

“No wonder our sense of religion is so weird too, then, right? Ours is not a cathedral civilization. It’s folding chairs and bad coffee. It’s revival meetings in strip malls. The people with the biggest temples, the Mormons, have the “craziest” Christianity.

“Tocqueville suspected we’d run ourselves ragged — a fourth, paradoxical trap — without a deeper, slower, more universal religious experience. He guessed all future Americans would either be secular or Catholic. But then he said the genius of Christianity was it offered the simple vision of equal souls loving God and loving their neighbors. If we help one another stay free of the traps we set for ourselves, there’s a lot of room for wonderful weirdness in religion and well beyond.”

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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