Sunday, December 11, 2005

De Tocqueville brought forward

So while I should be typing my two 20 page papers and reading ridiculous amounts of political science methods crap, I've instead started to read Alexis De Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America. I had gotten done with a good chunk and decided to switch gears and read one of two shorter essays contained in my volume (Penguin Classics). In Two Weeks in the Wilderness something struck me as oddly familiar and very relevant to the world today, in an era of globalization and cultural integration/tension.

Let me first say that this essay in particular is very amusing in that here we find De Tocqueville and his travel companion trying to get as far from the civilization they had come to study as possible. They take off for Saginaw, Michigan; across the most uncivilized, untouched parts of the new Michigan settlement. De Tocqueville would play the role of potential settler and ask for the best locations to buy land. When directed to the newest, best locations he and co. would ride off in the exact opposite direction, looking for the deepest woods possible, the furthest from white settlers as possible. No one could understand why they would want to go off into the untouched forest...

Anyways, what really struck me was a section where he discusses human nature and culture in a time where a number of cultures were beginning to intersect and interact. French settlers, the natives, English settlers, the half-caste native-French mix who stood between two worlds claimed by neither-- they were converging. But De Tocqueville makes a very interesting statement about this new situation:

Philosophers have thought human nature to be the same everywhere, changing according to the institutions and laws of different societies. That is one of those opinions that every page of the history of the world seems to contradict. All nations, like individuals, display an appearance which is their own. The characteristic features of their faces keep occurring through all the transformations they undergo. Laws, customs, religions suffer changes; power and wealth move around; the external aspects vary, clothing alters, and prejudices disappear or change places with others. Amid these diverse shifts you can still discern the same nation. Something inflexible emerges at the heart of human flexibility.
Something inflexible emerges at the heart of human flexibility... I sat on that line for quite some time. Keep in mind that DT wrote this essay before any major acceptance or knowledge of theories of evolution, natural selection, or anthropological studies on the spread of mankind across the globe. Despite this, he makes some very good points that imply a certain level of malleability in terms of cultural identity and practice. Customs do change, prejudices do appear and disappear.

But it is this last phrase that really stuck to me. It is so easily applied to our world today. The world IS getting smaller. More cultures and peoples ARE coming in closer contact, just like the natives with the French and British settlers. What we see in a lot of cases is adaptation, an acceptance of the new world, fit to meet our cultural norms. But very similarly, we see the inflexibility of our human nature. We see the resistance to change, be it conscious or not. DT saw the resilience of the native's stare. Their eyes burnt holes in his chest no matter where he came upon them. He felt this was innate, this was a primordial aspect of the native peoples. They had the gift of vision and insight.

Without getting into a debate about primordial versus constructed, it s very interesting to see this come up in DT's writings. The humans' ability to move and change has brought out a desire to do neither, a desire to resist change (once again be it conscious or not).

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