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That Which You Had To Do

Seamus Deane

Decision Points, by George W Bush, Virgin Books, 512 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-0753539668

Alexis de Tocqueville and the Art of Democratic Statesmanship, Brian Danoff and L Joseph Hebert Jr (eds), Lexington Books, 350 pp, $85, ISBN: 978-0739145296

As if the passage of time were not damaging enough, George W Bush has now (in some remote sense of the word) “written” a book about his presidency that accelerates the speed and the force of the condemnation he deserves. It is, obviously, easy to mock this frat boy’s ignorance and idiocy, but entirely inappropriate when one remembers the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed and maimed on his orders or, as he would say, “on his watch”. This is the man who says, through his ghost writers, that “The deliberate murder of innocent people is an act of pure evil”, that he is speaking out “for a culture that values all innocent human life”.

The killing of those who were never born is a problem that exercised him far more in relation to the abortion and stem cell debates than the killing in the Iraq war of those who have been born, as well as many babies still in the wombs of their vaporised mothers. It’s a rapid decision that he “knows” is right. As Dad said, “But you have done that which you had to do”; the Bush family really has a way with words. The ghost writers who co-operated in producing this account (there are several apparently) have tried to make a style of the subject’s brutal idiocy; the tough sheriff, forever adjusting his gun belt, speaking as tersely as possible; the born again ex-alcoholic acknowledging God’s fascination with his plight, saying his telephone prayers with Kirbyjon Caldwell, his pastor and adviser, before major events. And people used to worry that a Catholic president might phone the pope on state affairs! The only surprise here is that Bush needed a phone to get God’s advice. Now and then his own unmistakable voice comes in to lower even further the overall tone. Remembering his father’s campaign error with Clinton (“It’s the economy, stupid.”), he says: “I did not want to repeat Dad’s mistake of 1992, when he was perceived as disengaged on the economy.” Then there was Dad during Hurricane Andrew and son during Katrina: “The photo of me hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground. That wasn’t how I felt … For all my efforts to avoid the perception problem Dad faced during Hurricane Andrew, I ended up repeating it.” His attitude to the CIA: “I had great respect for the agency as a result of Dad’s time there.” Surely there is no ghost writer with so exquisite a touch? Or are they having fun with this deadbeat who is not so much beyond parody as beneath it? In a Republican party debate, when he was asked to name the political philosopher or thinker he most identified with and why, “I thought about citing someone like Mill or Locke, whose natural law theory had influenced the Founders … or Lincoln maybe … The words tumbled out of my mouth: “Christ”, I said, “because He changed my heart.” It would have been interesting to hear Bush on “someone like Mill or Locke”; as it is “Christ” has a lot to answer for. As has “Dad”.

Usually though, if a political philosopher is going to be “cited” in the USA, the likelihood is that it will be Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville. Since the sun-and-oil belt republicans took over the party from the East Coast brahmins (starting with Nixon over Rockefeller), Burke has been far and away their commentariat’s most favoured foreigner. Before his ascendancy, or more exactly before the boosting of his reputation during the Cold War by running the similarities between the French and Russian revolutions as a political campaign ad, American conservatism, neoconservatism, or palaeoconservatism had scarcely any presence in American political conversation. Woodrow Wilson, perhaps not as far removed from George W as he might initially seem, did though prefer Burke to Christ; in 1896, he had some kind of acoustic rapture in which he heard Burke speaking in a premature BBC newsreader’s accent: “His words, now that they have cast off their brogue, ring out the authentic voice of the best political thought of the English race.”

That brand of conservatism, but not that Barnum rhetoric, faded after the First World War. The liberal America that extended from the presidency of FDR even as far as that of Lyndon B Johnson, from the end of the Depression to the beginning of the American financialisation of the world and the idolatrous cult of the market, seemed to have forgotten that conservatism could be taken seriously as a set of political beliefs and policies. Liberalism became more plainly than ever the ideology of capitalism. In that climate, Tocqueville’s reputation was assured. As recently as 2006, Sharon Crowley said that “Liberalism is the default discourse of American politics because the country’s founding documents, and hence its system of jurisprudence, are saturated with liberal values” ‑ echoing Tocqueville’s remark that “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” And in 2002, Sheldon Wolin, perhaps the finest of all contemporary American political philosophers, published Tocqueville between Two Worlds. Wolin’s book indicates the scale of the change in the American atmosphere by hearing as the central question in Tocqueville’s work (the whole of it, not just the work on America) can liberty survive the new forms of modern despotism? American democracy has mutated into a species of majoritarian despotism, painfully clear to the rest of the world in the most recent phase of its imperial militarism, of which George W Bush is the sorry, but perfect, symbol.

There is a sense of the present danger in some of the essays in Brian Danoff’s and L Joseph Hebert’s book on Tocqueville, but most of them are safely sealed off from any audience into the authors’ career resumés. Books of this kind tend to jolt a European into realising how strange it is that the USA, certainly the greatest political experiment of the modern era, has produced only one masterpiece of political thought, and that a founding work, The Federalist Papers. (Although Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated [2008] might be the second.) Tocqueville’s book is not an American but a French masterpiece. It might, in fact, be two books, for the long dispute about the differences between volumes one (1835) and two (1840) of Democracy in America has had the effect not of denying their continuity but of enhancing their differences. The second volume is certainly, more than the first, a meditation on, as the subtitle has it, “The Social Influence of Democracy” ‑ really an investigation of how democracy, if it is to survive as a modern experiment, is to be transacted as a form of government between an elite that is not an aristocracy and a mass that is not a lumpenproletariat. Also, reading the second volume as a distinct work helps us appreciate how continuous it is with Tocqueville’s subsequent, unfinished book on the great eighteenth century French Revolution of 1789 and his Souvenirs, which is on the great nineteenth century French Revolution of 1848. His work is galvanised by the challenge of narrating the Atlantic passage from aristocratic to democratic government, how completely the old world is dismissed in and by the new world and yet how necessary it is to explain the transition or the rupture in order to remain politically and culturally competent in the aftermath. His contemporary Charles de Montalembert said the great book should be called Democracy in America and Europe; for him too, as for that whole French generation, living after the other revolution of 1830, it was an immediate and pressing question ‑ how does one live after the shock, what survives from it that is useful for going on?

All the French historians, political philosophers and politicians of the middle decades of the nineteenth century seemed to agree that the most inescapable fact of the modern era was the gradual and deep privatisation of civic existence. People were drawn into a world of material comforts and interests which effectively depoliticised them. Of course in France that could be true on a Monday and there would be revolution on a Tuesday; that quicksilver exchange between the two conditions puzzled many but was also thought to be a uniquely “modern” (or just French) phenomenon. Equally, it was believed that the only effective anchorage, and the most durable survivor from earlier times, was religion. It provided dogma; it reminded people that material pleasures were transitory; it told them to be citizens not consumers and to welcome limits rather than pursue fantasies. And it was with its help that a democracy especially could escape the soft despotism of organised pleasures and the alienations of an otherwise cherished isolation. Voluntary associations, public debates, indeed almost any activity that would enlarge a citizen’s experience beyond that of self or immediate family, were of tremendous public importance. They made a mass market mob into a participatory. polis. Tocqueville said all this. Ultimately, though, religion had to be more than a system of social control.

When Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont set out for the United States, via England and Ireland, their aim was to study the American penitentiary system and they did produce a research treatise, Système Pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (The Penitentiary System) in 1832. They could hardly have expected to see on their travels a penitentiary system on a national scale, as they did in Ireland, where a sectarian minority operated as judge, jury and jailer for the majority, who were always, by virtue simply of being Catholic, potentially criminal. This was a spectacular display of how the ancien régime could degenerate and how the spirit of religion could be perverted. (See Beaumont’s two-volume Ireland, Political, Social and Religious [1839-42].) Luckily, the Irish Protestant system was not reproducible elsewhere but there were other kinds of criminalised communities, also designedly created by governmental policies, such as the penal colonies in Australia. The question was did they strike the balance between intimidation and reform that penal systems were supposed to do? The answer for Australia was no, because however frightful might be the additional tortures dreamt up by government officials to make transportation an intense as well as an extended agony, exile and jail together were expensive, inhuman and against the interest of the colony that was forming around this criminal nucleus. Besides, some of the victims still preferred transportation to imprisonment at home. Among several other reasons against this enforced colonisation, the authors cited the hatred that many of the transported would have for England; this was the case in Australia and in the American colony too, where they met Irish people who hated the “mother country”. This was bad policy. There was thus a recognisable link between the penal colony of the Australian kind and the rebel colony that had become the United States. The return of the prisoner to the community was, they noted, a much more desirable and useful goal in a colony than in the overpopulated home country. This practical advantage reinforced the liberal belief that prison should reform the prisoner; convicts could become citizens. Penitential reform was therefore a more advanced science in colonies or ex-colonies. That was why Tocqueville and Beaumont went to America to study it.

Yet, remarkably, nowhere in the work on penal systems is the influence or use of religion advocated, or even mentioned. Tocqueville and Beaumont say that criminality has two sources, one moral, the other circumstantial; the first of these is described as an energy or appetite that cannot be appeased and that turns, faute de mieux, on society as its prey. That’s it, as far as explorations or explanations go. An evil energy; some have it, some don’t. It is an astonishingly areligious text, especially when we see how much importance is accorded to religion in Democracy, more searchingly so in the second volume. Tocqueville supported the separation of church and state in the USA; of course the situation there was quite unlike that in France, or England, where there was a church which gave the state the sanction of the sacred (England), or a permanent headache (France). In the US there were many sects that for the most part shared in the Puritan tradition. This was an advantage, since the democratic longing for a cohesive community had its roots in that powerful religious tradition which also believed passionately in equality. Although it’s a stressful condition, the juridical separation actually confirms and in a sense legitimises the religious desire for communal redemption. It is of its nature beyond juridical decision.

“It is evident to all alike,” wrote Tocqueville in his introduction to Democracy, “that a great democratic revolution is going on among us … [some] hope it may still be checked, to others it seems irresistible, because it is the most uniform, the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency that is to be found in history”. The opening phrase in the English translation invites and announces agreement; it is of the “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” family. In the original, it is slightly less peremptory; “tous la voient” [Everyone sees] it says of the democratic revolution. In 1832, three years earlier, Victor Hugo announced in his novel Notre-Dame de Paris that “Every civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy.” One can hardly in this instance discount the declaration because it is in a novel; for Hugo, that was simply the most effective soapbox. Anyway, is it true, in any sense? A yes or no answer is no answer. This is history talking through an author not an author talking about history. Of course, it is the latter, but … Jean Cocteau said that Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo. Napoleon and Stendhal both claimed that the French invented equality but countered it with vanity. Certainly they could both speak with authority about the latter. Anyway, Tocqueville’s opinion about the “permanent tendency” of democratic equality was widely shared in his generation. America seemed to confirm it. It is not true to say that Tocqueville claims this is what the future would look like; he was saying this is how one powerful version of it is like. However, there is nothing in Tocqueville to suggest that it could not be resisted.

French equality may be pitched a little too high to be compatible with democracy. Is that also to say that democracy is the only form of government that equality can live with? Tocqueville did not answer the question directly. Instead he said here is a place, America, where equality and democracy have come together. It’s not a philosophical problem, it’s an historical miracle. Europe had been tending that way but without any remarkable results. He was writing this during the July Monarchy, which was later brought down by a mass democratic insurrection. When democracy arrived in full force in Paris in 1848, Tocqueville led the assault on its pretensions. No universal tendency was going to have its way there. It could go tend elsewhere. A good war would stop it; bring the artillery on to the streets and let the army behave as though it were in Algeria. “I had always believed that it was useless to hope to settle the movement of the Revolution of February peacefully and gradually, and that it could only be stopped suddenly, by a great battle fought in the streets of Paris … the days of June … delivered the nation from the tyranny of the Paris workmen and returned it to possession of itself.” (Souvenirs) That’s one way to handle the “tyranny of the majority”. More than twenty thousand died.

This aspect of Tocqueville, no more than his penitentiary writings or his analysis of the old regime in France, does not figure in these essays. Instead what we have is Tocqueville the surrogate Founding Father, who wrote, not a book on America but a democratic bible. Alexis is a kind of “Dad”. He has told us about the risks democracy poses to the Christian family and religion. He has told us how women in America have an important role in restraining the restlessness of the male commercial and technological spirit, the readiness to abandon what did not work and begin all over. It’s all very wise and consoling in one regard; but in another, it’s worrying. Are NGOs, for instance, (one essay asks), really good modern substitutes for Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations”? Are they not too impersonally bureaucratic? Are centralising tendencies in the federal government unhealthy signs of democracy’s failure, since “those who live in ages of equality are naturally fond of central power”? Is his account of the multiple relations between the political idea of equality and the governing form of democracy not a series of warnings that the apocalypse might come any time if these are not carefully monitored?

In effect, beneath all the anxieties of the hopelessly burdensome prose of these essays is the assumption that Democracy is like Christianity, the universal faith first vouchsafed to a chosen people whose duty it is to spread it worldwide and whose fear is that they might not be good enough for the faith, might betray it, might be overcome by the unbeliever, etc etc. It is not reading Tocqueville that reminds a reader of Bush; it’s reading the commentary on him. This is devotional stuff. But maybe, rather than Tocqueville, it’s Ayn Rand’s dreadful novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) that we should read to see where and when the world of both Bushes, of Reagan and of Alan Greenspan was most ominously anticipated. Even as the financial skyscrapers tumble, the Randians sound like this: “Above all, our country must maintain our faith in free markets … at the same time, we must be careful not to overcorrect. Overregulation slows investment, stifles innovation, and discourages entrepreneurship. The financial crisis should not become an excuse to raise taxes, which would only undermine the economic growth required to regain our strength.”

Bush is comic, but the Bush-Blair patter is recycled out of every western politician’s mouth, Titans holding up a virtual universe, derivative upon derivative piled. This is the world of the speech balloon; it can come out of any elected leader’s mouth. It’s Batman on History: “I believe the human desire for freedom is universal. History shows that, when given the chance, people of every race and religion take extraordinary risks for liberty … History has a way of dulling memories.” In a book like this, one is reduced to looking for the phrase that must be by George W, not the ghost writers. For instance, on American foreign policy: the Americans did not want to be like the Soviets and the British in Afghanistan “who ended up looking like occupiers”. “Looking like” is good; I’d give that phrase to George W. Still on foreign policy: Laura and he used to pick up their kids’ food when they threw it on the floor to get attention ‑ just like Kim Jong-il of North Korea. “‘The United States is through picking up his food,’ I said.” All George W. On the policy of torture: “I knew that an interrogation program this sensitive and controversial would one day become public. When it did, we would open ourselves to criticism that America had compromised our moral values.” [My italics.] “Sensitive” is a choice word here for a torture programme, but I’ll give that to the ghost writers. The italicised statement, though, is pure George W. Can’t he get anything right, even within his own shrivelled compass? He had compromised American values, not the other way round.

Still, Bush is the only president so far who could add to Tocqueville and Beaumont’s Penitentiary System, for he is the only one to have founded a penal colony, discovered a new mode of transportation (extraordinary rendition) and provided and endorsed, at presidential level, horrific tortures. Once more America takes the lead in penitentiary science. Guantánamo is Bush’s only Tocquevillian experiment. On the other hand, one of the essayists in Alexis de Tocqueville and the Art of Democratic Statesmanship, Thad Williamson, invents for Barack Obama a speech given in 2011 in which he confronts the dysfunctional American political system and, citing his Tocqueville, claims that the most radical changes cannot come from the president but from the people. To effect change (Obama’s mantra) they must become participating citizens. Michael Sandel’s [Democracy’s Discontent, 1996] and Iseult Honohan’s [Civic Republicanism, 2002] communitarian ideas about “civic republicanism” are invoked here; make the electorate a community or a series of interlocking communities if you seek a restoration of democratic vigour and accountability. Obama has some way to go. Perhaps he could begin with closing down the domestic penal colony at Guantánamo, then the foreign one, in Palestine. The crime you transplant to another place remains always at home. So said Tocqueville.

Finally, George W Bush said that Hank Paulson, his economic adviser (and something of a disaster in his own right) had “a distinct way of speaking that could be hard to follow”. Doesn’t he mean distinctive? But then, if you want hard to follow, try the next couple of sentences: “Some said his brain was moving too fast for his mouth to keep up. That didn’t bother me. People accused me of having the same problem.”

At last, a joke that works ‑ unlike the Bush presidency.

Seamus Deane is currently editor of Field Day Review and is Keogh Emeritus Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame.