The Moral Universe – Self-Interest Well Understood


Okay, I do have to write about Alexis de Tocqueville again, so bear with me. You can blame him for being so wise in addressing issues that are universal and timeless and also for being so prophetic.
Have you ever practically flown out of your chair upon hearing a concept described that you had thought about for a long time but never knew there was a name for?

This happened to me while listening to the second set of CDs in the “Tocqueville and the American Experiment” Great Courses series.

“Self-interest well understood” is the term that Tocqueville gave to participation in political associations, meaning that when people are involved in serving others, they are also serving themselves. He does relate it fairly narrowly to the importance of participation in democracy and cites all kinds of ramifications in not doing so.

But the term hit me so hard because it is something I’ve given much thought to and had discussions about with my sister. It is a concept I started to define in my own mind in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, when we’d had almost four years of Tea Party campaigning and scare tactics. Since I had come to know people who self-defined as members of the Tea Party, I was trying to understand where they were coming from but finding it difficult to discern anything in their comments but fear and selfishness. The bulk of their objections to the Obama administration started with the words “My” or “I.” “My taxes,” “my health insurance,” “my guns,” etc.

I never heard concern expressed for others who aren’t members of the Tea Party. I heard nothing that expressed a zeitgeist that included one’s neighbors, the country as a whole, or the rest of the world.
As we talked on the telephone while awaiting the results of the 20I2 election, I said to my sister that I never remembered voting for someone because of what I thought that person could do for me personally, but what that person could do for the greater society, whether on a state or national or international level. Since I first voted for George McGovern in 1974, it just never occurred to me that my personal concerns had anything to do with my vote, but that my vote was meant to consider a broader constituency.

My sister felt the same way; I don’t know where we got this from, though we tend to credit our mother with much of the way we look at the world. erhaps growing up in the 1960s also had something to do with it. We protested the Vietnam war not because we personally were going to lose or gain by it, but because we thought it was an unfair, imperial action that was costing too much in terms of both American and Vietnamese lives.

We also grew up during the hottest part of the Cold War and were taught to be afraid, to be very afraid, of atom bombs raining down on us with just the meager protection of a schoolroom desk. That might have formed in us a selfish outlook and overarching concern for our personal safety; instead it taught us that atom bombs are bad for Planet Earth and every living thing on it.

We watched the evening news from an early age and saw black people being fire-hosed and set upon by police dogs and somewhere in our brains we formed the idea that, though those hoses and dogs were not set upon us, it was a bad thing for the country that anyone should be treated this way. We did take it personally when Martin Luther King Jr. and, shortly after, Bobby Kennedy were assassinated because we felt that the country needed them so desperately.

Ultimately, somehow and from whatever inspiration, we grew up feeling that what was good for the larger community was good for us. We had learned self-interest well understood. As adults now in our 60s, we are even more concerned about the reign of terror (I can’t really speak for Sally, but that’s how I have come to see it) unleashed by the hateful war waged against the Obama administration. It has not only paralyzed Congress from acting in any positive way, but it has also seemed to give bigots the audacity to act out their prejudices again as in the days of Jim Crow. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, John Crawford and others have had to pay the ultimate price for the Tea Party’s fomenting of us vs. them.

I shall have much more to say about the NRA in a future blog, but what else but fear and selfishness allows people to think that their right to have military-grade weapons handy trumps innocent people’s right not to be killed by passing bullets and/or psychotics whose voices in their heads tell them to go to an elementary school and kill as many children as possible? It is the ultimate in self-interest not only not well understood, but ignored and trampled on.

It defies belief, but I have to hope it doesn’t defy the hope that if the Beloved Community that John Lewis wrote about really comes together and walks toward this problem, it can be solved. Too many futures have been shattered; we must see that other futures come to fruition.

The Moral Universe – What Would Tocqueville Say About American Democracy Now?


If you had told me when I was in high school that there would come a day when I would be interested in what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say about Democracy in America, I would have laughed myself silly.

At the time, I barely understood a word of it. I remember it as a painful experience. Ironically, it was the 1960s, and we were spouting the words “democracy” and “freedom” and “equality” without having a true understanding of what we were talking about.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

So when I spotted a Great Coursessm CD volume called Tocqueville and the American Experiment, no one was more surprised than I was when I eagerly took it off the library shelf. Taught and read by the very engaging Professor William R. Cook of the State University of New York at Geneseo (think Wallace Shawn), the course reveals not only what Tocqueville thought and wrote about democracy, but also his deep insight into the human condition and an almost prescient vision of American democracy and what might happen to it over the course of the years.

The most amazing thing is that Tocqueville was only in his 20s when he wrote Democracy in America. Trained as a lawyer, he came to the United States for 10 months between 1831 and 1832 with a friend, Gustave Beaumont. Both young men were working at the court of law in Versailles when they were given a leave of absence to travel to America, ostensibly to study the new penal system here. That new system engaged the philosophy that prison should be a place where a criminal would become repentant (hence, penitentiary) rather than just a place of punishment.

However, Tocqueville’s true interest was in government systems. He wanted to study American democracy as a prelude to envisioning how democracy could work in Europe.

In political science courses, much is made of Tocqueville’s ground-breaking study, but a facet of his book that most interests me, and which Professor Cook says is usually overlooked, is his view of the treatment of African-Americans and Native Americans.

Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled much of the country, as it was then, speaking with ordinary and extraordinary citizens, including former President John Quincy Adams and current President Andrew Jackson who, in a few years, would send the Cherokee nation on the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

marieIt was in Baltimore that Tocqueville and Beaumont were first exposed to large numbers of blacks, some slaves, some free. Slavery appalled both of them, but they expressed their observations of it in different ways. Beaumont, apparently the more passionate of the two, would later write an anti-slavery novel called Marie, or Slavery in the United States and set it in Baltimore.

Tocqueville, the analyst, incorporated his views among the general picture of democracy as practiced in America. One of his keen observations was that slavery made white men lazy. This may seem obvious, but considered in the zeitgeist of the time, it is telling. Tocqueville, though of the French nobility, believed that the aristocracy in Europe was doomed and that democracy was the future. He saw the South as ruled by whites who had built up their own kind of aristocracy, thereby being able to justify class and race distinctions. What were plantations, after all, but fiefdoms where the owner had absolute control over everyone living and working on them? Abolishing slavery would not only take away their means of acquiring wealth, but would also take away their very notion of themselves as aristocrats; would take away the very meaning of their lives.

“In the first paragraph of Democracy in America, Tocqueville introduces the concept of equality of conditions as the foundation for the democratic enterprise. This, rather than freedom, is the bedrock principle of democracy,” writes Professor Cook in the course guidebook.

The distinction Tocqueville makes is that people can have equality without freedom and vice versa, and here is where my special interest comes in. If equality of conditions is the bedrock of a democracy, then every citizen has the right to seek equal opportunities, in housing, employment, etc. If they do not, then they have the right to seek redress.

And there’s the rub, for Tocqueville also found that the judicial system in America did not promote equality of conditions and favored the wealthy (read “white” for the time at which he was writing). Isn’t the same true today? The Supreme Court finds that corporations have the same rights as human beings; how does that promote equality of conditions? How does gutting the most significant parts of the Voting Rights Act promote equality of conditions?

American terrorist groups such as the League of the South rant and rave about freedom from a government that believes the Constitution applies to all, but they obviously have no interest in equality. They are based on white supremacy and can’t see farther than their own very narrow (and psychotic, in my opinion) beliefs. They have no interest in looking at other points of view and, in fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, have murdered other “skinheads” who are anti-racist (yes, there really are such groups!).

One can’t help but wonder what Tocqueville would make of America today. Can there be said to be democracy here now? Equality of conditions is at a low ebb; violence against blacks and other non-whites is terrifyingly high, with new reports coming in daily. Young black men are murdered by vigilantes and police; prisons are overcrowded with black men whose punishments are disproportionate to those given to whites for the same crimes. The Supreme Court is ruled by conservative ideologues. Affirmative action is a four-letter word. Wages and job opportunities are vastly unequal.

That’s American democracy? Tocqueville wept.

The Moral Universe – John Lewis is a True American Hero


When I was choosing dates to visit my sister in Maryland, I realized that if I delayed my vacation I could go with her to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. I had seen that Ishmael Beah was one of the featured authors who would give a talk, and that clinched the deal for me. Never mind that it was Labor Day weekend and the traffic would be horrendous (it was); I had to see this young man who had overcome his past as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war to become a memoirist and novelist and head of a foundation to help other children in war zones.

Then, two weeks before the event, I looked at the updated list of authors. There was Representative John Lewis’s name! Since I began my research into the civil rights movement, his name kept coming up as a front-line soldier, someone who had risked everything in the very beginning of the movement, who had endured beatings and prison and humiliations of all sorts for the cause.

While I had known who he was for a long time, I hadn’t realized the extent of his involvement until the past couple of years. His name was overshadowed for me by Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and others who had been martyred for the cause. Because Lewis has lived into his seventies, it had been difficult to picture him in the turmoil of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But several documentaries and countless books later, he had become an icon to me, a hero and an inspiration, a living embodiment of courage and humility and zeal and faith. I had to meet him.

My sister, who has been to the NBF and many other book expos, chided me. “There’ll be thousands of people there, you know. Your chances of meeting him are nil,” she said.

There were 150,000 people there, according to The Washington Post. We went first to see E.L. Doctorow be interviewed and awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Library of Congress, which sponsors the annual book festival.

Ismael Beah has a 2,000-watt smile.

Ismael Beah has a 2,000-watt smile.

Then we got much closer seats to see Mr. Beah talk about the writing of Radiance of Tomorrow, a novel about Sierra Leoneans who return to their village after the civil war and try to re-create the community they had once had. It is a heart-wrenching story about people who should have lost all hope, but who cling to a belief that tomorrow will be better. Getting an education and maintaining the tradition of story-telling are big themes in the book. The courage of its characters is illuminating and also humbling when you stop to think that those characters represent real people in hundreds of countries around the world right in this moment.

Mr. Lewis’s talk was to begin at 2 pm, and after buying his book March, the first of a trilogy of graphic books about the civil rights movement, I headed up to the ballroom early. As I came off the escalator and walked around the corner, I saw a man standing with some young people, no one else around, no handlers, no security, just this man and the young people having their picture taken with him. My breath left my body.

me and john lewis

John Lewis was so gracious to pose with me.

I waited as patiently as I could for the young folks to have their picture taken with Mr. Lewis, then thrust my cell phone into one young lady’s hand and asked her to take my picture with him. As I took his hand, I said, “Mr. Lewis, this is the fulfilling of a dream to meet you.” Then we turned toward the camera. He asked me where I was from and I said, “Massachusetts.” “Mmm, Massachusetts,” he said, “that’s a good state.” “It is,” I said, “but there is still much work to be done there.”

It was obvious that the picture had been taken, but I didn’t want to let go of him. I was touching history. I had to hold on to it. In the end, it held on to me. As a parting word, I said something to the effect of, “Oh, Mr. Lewis, I bless the day you were born. Thank you for your courage.” I heard him say, “Ooooh” and then he wrapped me in a bear hug and, I blush as I write, I whispered “I love you” in his ear.

I did remember to get my cell phone back; as I walked on to the ballroom, I’m sure that my face could have lit up the entire floor had the electricity gone out.

It was the idea of Mr. Lewis’s media aide, Andrew Aydin, to write a graphic book. Mr. Aydin is a young white man from Atlanta. He is a huge comic-book fan and, after working on Mr. Lewis’ most recent reelection campaign, headed straight for ComCon. It took him three tries to persuade Mr. Lewis that a graphic book was a good idea, and indeed it has turned out to be. They have learned that it has become required reading in many high schools across the country and is also on the freshmen syllabuses at some colleges. It would seem a worthy project to get more volumes into schools where not only will white children learn this important history, but black children will have new role models and all will learn about the power of nonviolent protest.

One of the things that impresses me most about Mr. Lewis, who has the speaking manner of the preacher he initially planned to become, is his insistence on inclusion. This battle for equality is one in which we all need to join hands and fight, white, black, woman, man, gay, straight, all of us. Ironically, Stokely Carmichael’s biographer, Peniel Joseph, was to give a talk later in the day. Mr. Carmichael’s insistence on black separatism and using violence to fight violence hurt Mr. Lewis deeply and broke up the unity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Mr. Lewis’s 1990s memoir is called Walking with the Wind, and he explains the title in his prologue. When he was a child, he was with several of his cousins at a cousin’s home when a fierce storm whipped up. His aunt brought the children into the house. As the storm raged, the house began to sway and floorboards in one corner of the house began to lift. His Aunt Sevena had the children hold hands and huddle together and walk to that corner of the room. Then the planks in another part of the house started to lift.

“And so it went,” he wrote, “back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.”

As he grew older, Mr. Lewis came to see that incident as a metaphor for the storms of life, particularly during the 1960s: “ . . . so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest . . . Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is America to me . . .”

For Mr. Lewis, the metaphor extends beyond race, class, gender, and age. He calls it Beloved Community. He grew up a sharecropper’s son, worked in cotton fields from a very young age, one of 10 children, in a family that had very little to call its own. But that family taught him about Beloved Community, and Mr. Lewis still strives for it today.

As should we all.