I am reminded of an earlier traveler, who arrived on our shores just five years before the founding of Emory College. Landing in New York in 1831, the young magistrate had as his sole ostensible purpose a study of prisons. Descended from French aristocrats, he could be presumed to have no favorable predisposition toward democracy. Yet by the time he returned to France, Alexis de Tocqueville had reached some powerful conclusions about the people he had studied.
"I confess that, in America, I saw more than America," he declared. "I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress." He had no doubt that within this huge but sparsely populated young country lay the future. Will our Olympic visitors feel the same way?
De Tocqueville's observations, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, comprise the most incisive book ever written about this country: Democracy in America . The book contains the deepest lessons that the American model of democracy could supply. And it leaves us with questions that reverberate now as they have for a century and a half. I imagine that they will be asked again this summer.
How does a democracy, celebrating the virtue of equal treatment, protect the sanctity of the individual? Anxiety about this tension permeates Democracy in America . If human beings, by nature, wish to leave their individual marks on the world, will democracy accommodate their impulse? Or will the idiosyncratic and eccentric be crushed beneath public opinion?
"The most absolute monarchs in Europe cannot prevent certain opinions hostile to their authority from circulating in secret," de Tocqueville wrote, adding, "It is not so in America; as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, every one is silent. . . . I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America."
Freedom and equality do not necessarily march together in a democracy. As individuals free to behave exactly as we see fit, how do we explain the highly predictable behavior that marks us, that instantly gives us away in foreign countries, that makes us distinct from all other peoples, and that seems to render us more as a tribal group than as nonconformists?
This question immediately leads to another. How does a single person acquire self-esteem in a culture that dwarfs the individual? Crowds will come here this summer, and they will see Americans too in great crowds. As de Tocqueville phrased it, "Each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself. If he ever raises his looks higher, he perceives only the immense form of society at large, or the still more imposing aspect of humanity."
Democratic culture, with its ideals of perfect equality and perfect individuality, can make clear vision seem beyond reach.
This confusion infects our sense of time and history as well. If we cannot view the past or the future clearly, then we cannot see that we live in a continuum, that our antecedents define us just as we will define our descendents. Again, de Tocqueville: "Each is for ever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart."
What can hold together this country of lonely individuals? Will the Olympic Games serve that purpose? Will we, as Americans, come together as a nation in collectively hosting the world? De Tocqueville believed that the inherent wealth of the continent would extend to all Americans the space and the freedom to exert their private ambitions. Put more simply, one thing holding the country together is selfishness.
But another is its opposite: religious practice. In this regard, de Tocqueville was perfectly ecumenical and perfectly pragmatic: the act of belief is important, not what you believe. He also believed that Americans strengthen their condition by continual public engagement: "Citizens who are bound to take part in public affairs must turn from private interests and occasionally take a look at something other than themselves." Through religious and civic associations, individuals learn those "habits of the heart" that make them good citizens. Will the Games function in the same way?
Democracy in America, a meditation on the idea of a country, describes America as democratic, conformist, ambitious, lonely, energetic, torn between the appeals of liberty and equality, and yet, at the end, utterly triumphant. De Tocqueville's vision permanently colors and focuses our own.
So, as thousands of visitors come to our shores, I wonder what they will find in our institutions, in our city, and within our people. Will they find a place where ideas that run counter to the norm can be proposed, disputed, and proved or disproved by peaceful and rational means? Will they find institutions capable of sheltering the sacred individual while meeting the needs of the larger society? Will they find a "lonely crowd"; or will they find public-spirited individuals whose associations with each other on behalf of the common good make better habits--and better habitations--of the heart? What will the Games be, and what, in the deepest sense, will they mean?
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