Tag Archives: america

From Alexis de Tocqueville to Now

It’s an interesting time to be reading Democracy in America, for not the least reason to see how new forms of self organization are adapted to when they emerge on the scene, as I believe is the case now. It’s also a painful reminder of how much things have changed, how a new de Tocqueville would mourn late modern America as he did his own Europe.

A excerpt from Chapter Five on the centralization of government has a painful sting to it:

In certain countries of Europe the natives consider themselves as a kind of settlers, indifferent to the fate of the spot upon which they live… the citizen is unconcerned as to the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or of the parsonage; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself, and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government. He has only a life-interest in these possessions, and he entertains no notions of ownership or of improvement. This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that, if his own safety or that of his children is endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms, and wait till the nation comes to his assistance… When a nation has arrived at this state it must either change its customs and its laws or perish: the source of public virtue is dry, and, though it may contain subjects, the race of citizens is extinct. Such communities are a natural prey to foreign conquests, and if they do not disappear from the scene of life, it is because they are surrounded by other nations similar or inferior to themselves…

The European generally submits to a public officer because he represents a superior force; but to an American he represents a right…. In America the means which the authorities have at their disposal for the discovery of crimes and the arrest of criminals are few. The State police does not exist, and passports are unknown. The criminal police of the United States cannot be compared to that of France; the magistrates and public prosecutors are not numerous, and the examinations of prisoners are rapid and oral. Nevertheless in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is, that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the act committed, and in stopping the delinquent.

In wider context from more of it, the sting goes deeper.

In certain countries of Europe the natives consider themselves as a kind of settlers, indifferent to the fate of the spot upon which they live. The greatest changes are effected without their concurrence and (unless chance may have apprised them of the event) without their knowledge; nay more, the citizen is unconcerned as to the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or of the parsonage; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself, and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government. He has only a life-interest in these possessions, and he entertains no notions of ownership or of improvement. This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that, if his own safety or that of his children is endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms, and wait till the nation comes to his assistance. This same individual, who has so completely sacrificed his own free will, has no natural propensity to obedience; he cowers, it is true, before the pettiest officer; but he braves the law with the spirit of a conquered foe as soon as its superior force is removed: his oscillations between servitude and license are perpetual. When a nation has arrived at this state it must either change its customs and its laws or perish: the source of public virtue is dry, and, though it may contain subjects, the race of citizens is extinct. Such communities are a natural prey to foreign conquests, and if they do not disappear from the scene of life, it is because they are surrounded by other nations similar or inferior to themselves: it is because the instinctive feeling of their country’s claims still exists in their hearts; and because an involuntary pride in the name it bears, or a vague reminiscence of its bygone fame, suffices to give them the impulse of self-preservation.

Nor can the prodigious exertions made by tribes in the defence of a country to which they did not belong be adduced in favor of such a system; for it will be found that in these cases their main incitement was religion. The permanence, the glory, or the prosperity of the nation were become parts of their faith, and in defending the country they inhabited they defended that Holy City of which they were all citizens. The Turkish tribes have never taken an active share in the conduct of the affairs of society, but they accomplished stupendous enterprises as long as the victories of the Sultan were the triumphs of the Mohammedan faith. In the present age they are in rapid decay, because their religion is departing, and despotism only remains. Montesquieu, who attributed to absolute power an authority peculiar to itself, did it, as I conceive, an undeserved honor; for despotism, taken by itself, can produce no durable results. On close inspection we shall find that religion, and not fear, has ever been the cause of the long-lived prosperity of an absolute government. Whatever exertions may be made, no true power can be founded among men which does not depend upon the free union of their inclinations; and patriotism and religion are the only two motives in the world which can permanently direct the whole of a body politic to one end…

The European generally submits to a public officer because he represents a superior force; but to an American he represents a right. In America it may be said that no one renders obedience to man, but to justice and to law. If the opinion which the citizen entertains of himself is exaggerated, it is at least salutary; he unhesitatingly confides in his own powers, which appear to him to be all-sufficient. When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the Government, but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the State might have been in his position; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the Government could have done.

As the administrative authority is within the reach of the citizens, whom it in some degree represents, it excites neither their jealousy nor their hatred; as its resources are limited, every one feels that he must not rely solely on its assistance. Thus, when the administration thinks fit to interfere, it is not abandoned to itself as in Europe; the duties of the private citizens are not supposed to have lapsed because the State assists in their fulfilment, but every one is ready, on the contrary, to guide and to support it. This action of individual exertions, joined to that of the public authorities, frequently performs what the most energetic central administration would be unable to execute. It would be easy to adduce several facts in proof of what I advance, but I had rather give only one, with which I am more thoroughly acquainted. In America the means which the authorities have at their disposal for the discovery of crimes and the arrest of criminals are few. The State police does not exist, and passports are unknown. The criminal police of the United States cannot be compared to that of France; the magistrates and public prosecutors are not numerous, and the examinations of prisoners are rapid and oral. Nevertheless in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is, that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the act committed, and in stopping the delinquent. During my stay in the United States I witnessed the spontaneous formation of committees for the pursuit and prosecution of a man who had committed a great crime in a certain county. In Europe a criminal is an unhappy being who is struggling for his life against the ministers of justice, whilst the population is merely a spectator of the conflict; in America he is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole of mankind is against him…

On the other hand, I am convinced that democratic nations are most exposed to fall beneath the yoke of a central administration, for several reasons, amongst which is the following. The constant tendency of these nations is to concentrate all the strength of the Government in the hands of the only power which directly represents the people, because beyond the people nothing is to be perceived but a mass of equal individuals confounded together. But when the same power is already in possession of all the attributes of the Government, it can scarcely refrain from penetrating into the details of the administration, and an opportunity of doing so is sure to present itself in the end, as was the case in France. In the French Revolution there were two impulses in opposite directions, which must never be confounded — the one was favorable to liberty, the other to despotism. Under the ancient monarchy the King was the sole author of the laws, and below the power of the sovereign certain vestiges of provincial institutions, half destroyed, were still distinguishable. These provincial institutions were incoherent, ill compacted, and frequently absurd; in the hands of the aristocracy they had sometimes been converted into instruments of oppression. The Revolution declared itself the enemy of royalty and of provincial institutions at the same time; it confounded all that had preceded it — despotic power and the checks to its abuses — in indiscriminate hatred, and its tendency was at once to overthrow and to centralize. This double character of the French Revolution is a fact which has been adroitly handled by the friends of absolute power. Can they be accused of laboring in the cause of despotism when they are defending that central administration which was one of the great innovations of the Revolution? In this manner popularity may be conciliated with hostility to the rights of the people, and the secret slave of tyranny may be the professed admirer of freedom.

Alas and good night, you great experiment.

What Gov 2.0 is making me think

I think we are getting enough examples of what the internet does to things back in the real world to start extracting some possibly slightly predictive behavioral patterns.

The one I think is really important for .gov is that the internet eventually destroys institutions whose main purpose was physical mediation of otherwise interested but unconnected parties. Over time, those middle layers will simply go away. They have to, because they are transformed (through no fault of their own) from conduit to barrier. The transformer is environmental- the internet is kind of ice-9 that way. But this is not a binary, smooth, fast, or simple transition, and the people in the middle of it are understandably confused and angry.

This is why record companies and newspapers are pissed off and pissing other people off that can’t figure out why they won’t just cease to exist. This is painful and hard. This is so painful and so hard that we have an aversion to seeing which institutions are next. Physical mediation is a good starting point to think about it: so what parts of governments exist to physically deliver something that can be described as information? Those parts will eventually go away. They can go away gracefully, or they can not go away gracefully. Government has a possibly unique ability to make that transition as non graceful as possible, but I doubt even it has the power to stop the process altogether.

When I first consulted with all sorts of companies in 1995 about their very first web pages, every one of them did a variation of the same thing: put their catalog or brochures on the web! How cool is that! Not actually that cool, I tried to humbly suggest. “The net,” I said repeatedly until my coworkers were ready to hurl, “is a conversation.” Many of these companies and organizations had never really conversed with anyone connected to them. It never had come up. Learning what that meant is each case has made the last 13 years completely fascinating.

I feel a little like the database fetishism I am seeing is a version of the catalog idea. There is nothing wrong with putting your catalog online, but it’s a serious misunderstanding of the net to think that the net is going to let you do the same thing as printing out all your data and sending it to everyone in the world, only without paying for postage. To explain how it’s different I’m going to dodge the question by hiding behind Tolstoy- pre-internet institutions are all alike, post-internet institutions are structurally disrupted in their own ways.

Like stages of grief, we need to figure out the stages of internet integration for institutions. I suspect grief is in there.

More as my head breaks.

Looking back to Obama’s night

I have recently returned from the inauguration, but this was written the night he was elected. I am running behind, but more on understanding implications than just writing.

Nov. 5/6

Mccain conceded before the polls closed in Alaska or Hawaii; Obama gave his acceptance speech, and the honking and shouting in Cambridge, Massachusetts began. By 1am something frenetic was beginning to sizzle in the air. I walk down Mass Ave to Harvard Square. Encountering a jubilant group of well muscled students, my first (clearly compulsory) high five feels like it’s going to take off my right shoulder.

Cars go by honking, each with their own tattoo, a couple with a kind of car alarm like regularity. Then a Cambridge night bus goes by, driver pounding out his own song oblivious to any political sanctity of municipal on-the-clock time. Something is starting, and no one is starting it. My own footsteps take on a kind of involuntary musicality. I am happy, an infectious almost involuntary kind of happy, coming on like getting damp in a growing rainstorm. Everything around me is getting more musical.

Harvard Square is packed. Whoo hoo! woah! honk! Then the Yes we Cans begin, mixed with some yes we dids. (I thought it was the earliest concession speech of my life; my mom confirmed she was pretty sure it was the earliest of hers too.) People are feeling powerful, filling the streets and climbing the street furniture, dripping from the fences and climbing over each other, still waving campaign signs. Yes we did.

Pretty soon they are chanting Obama! Obama! But no cry lasts for long against the general exuberance. There is no rally here, no event, not even a party.

This is a riot of happy.

It was, said one bemused cop who was vaguely stopping anyone from heading even deeper into Harvard Square, like when the Red Socks won the World Series. “Did you expect this?” He snorted. “We probably should have.” What we didn’t know at the time was that this involved a lot more of the world than the World Series generally does. Pictures and videos were rolling in of spontaneous happy riots breaking out all over the US, all over the world. They were dancing in the streets in Canada, Jubilant in Europe, singing in Brazil. Everyone owned this election, even if just a little bit. A lot of the world was exhaling in relief. It’s more than relief here, something has broken free, and is riding the crowd every bit as much as the crowd is riding it.

They are happy when they block traffic. They are thrilled when they let it through. The price of getting through: you have to high five everyone beside your car. Another nightbus comes by, empty, to outrageous applause. All this goes for the police as well. An old grizzled black Cambridge policeman missing his front teeth demonstrates an almost magical power to move the crowd around by high fiving people and shouting “Yes we can!” with an honest if dual-purposed glee. He waves people back and frees up the road, while they stumble over each other to come high five him.

Yes we did! Yes we did!

As I walked into Harvard square a middle aged black man in a tatty suit jacket stopped me. He stopped me in particular because I had to know, he had to make me know something.

“I’m going to be a better man from today,” he explained in a thick accent, “I’m not going to cheat on my wife anymore.”

I laughed. I always laugh when a) surprised and b) buying time to make out people’s accents. He didn’t give up on me. “I’m telling you!”

“Yeah? Can I take your picture?”

In fact he wants the moment recorded for posterity, the birth of the new man. He wants the big glowing clock in the background to record the moment. He grabs a random stranger to be part of the picture, pressing him into his story rebirth from cynicism and lying into loyalty, but not actually telling him. They grin, I snap.

He’d cried three times that night, he’d told me. He hadn’t cried since his father died. Unsure what one says when the election of the first black president of the United States of America and a man so eloquent and inspiring as to put to shame two generations worth to come before him, who is overturning perhaps one of the most terrible and hated regimes of the post WWII western world reduces a middle aged black immigrant not only to sobbing but to a kind of religious remaking of character, I settle for “Wow.”

I cried when my father died too, but I also cry at particularly well produced 30 second ad spots. I didn’t cry Obama Night.

“I’ll be a better man,” he tells me again, clearly on his way to cry number four. We melted into the crowd and don’t see each other again.

Why didn’t I cry? I was still ineptly hiding my blubbering on my 4th viewing of the More Perfect Union speech. I care about race, I care about history. All the things that were moving people that night to hug and cry and whoop and honk were things that matter to me a lot, but not a tear. Nothing I can say about what happened in Harvard Square on Obama Night doesn’t sound like the Obama campaign, and that bothers me. I can say it was the kind of hope that hearing about the cure for a disease brings. Hope! Ew! I can say it wasn’t about Obama it was about the people making something different happen by their force of will, but Obama says that! No fair! If the Obama campaign detected what was out on the street and cynically used it to get elected, well, bugger.

But I’m not sure if what I saw out there will let him. There’s an old story about a group of people getting in to see FDR and laying out a proposal. It impressed him, and he advised them “Now go out there and force me to do it.” Politicians are subject to the occult forces of societies. The demons of our collective moods possess them, and the best can mold their possession into something history judges kindly, but they certainly don’t defy it. Whatever strange spirit was traveling around Harvard square wasn’t summoned by the people, it was riding them, it is riding America, not the other way around. I wonder how much the next administration can resist, and how much it would be at their peril.

By late in the evening, people have worked out how to play the car horn. Someone is honking with their own unique stuttering song. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da.

An Iraqi man grabs me from the crowd to take his picture, pointing at a button on his chest that says “Iraqis for Obama”, he asks me to not put his face in the picture. I pause. “I don’t think it matters anymore.” We both hesitate, realizing that really, something has changed. I take the picture, button, hands, and face.