Talking Tocqueville Too Much

July 5, 2014

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Every year for at least the past thirty years, without fail, I’ve read at least one article, seen or read at least one book, or watched at least one commentary about the great Alexis de Tocqueville. These are almost always about the French political theorist’s grand tour of America in the early 1830s and his affirmation of America’s exceptional democracy, egalitarianism and lack of permanent social classes. Over the years, I’ve found these all too frequent comments and examinations of a long-dead tourist vomit-inducing.

Tocqueville may have gotten it right, that America and its democracy was in a unique position in 1833 to take off and become a powerful nation, if given the time. But he didn’t understand America at all, at least, not really. Tocqueville didn’t understand how central inequality was to the development of America’s unique and exceptional democracy. He assumed, quite wrongly, that any issues of inequality in our then young nation were limited to the American South, where cotton was king and slavery was the backbone of the economy. Tocqueville only saw slavery as a moral dilemma of debasing humanity — slave owner and slave — and not as a political or economic one. So what if he predicted the rise of the US and Russia as world powers if he didn’t predict the American Civil War?

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 -- there's always Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 – there’s always Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (

Tocqueville looked at America outside of the South and saw an egalitarian and agrarian society, one unconnected to the slavery located south of the Mason-Dixon line and spreading southwest across the Mississippi River. Where did he think the money came from to finance plantations, to ship the raw materials of these plantations overseas and to buy more slaves? How did Tocqueville think these plantation owners could turn cotton into cloth and tobacco into cigarettes and cigars? Much of it came from bankers and merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and from the factories of New England and New York. Slavery was the backbone of the rise of the American economic system, and was America’s industrialized foundation. Period.

Tocqueville argued that America was unique because of its lack of a permanent class system, particularly an aristocracy. Our country’s democracy, in fact, guaranteed the constant churning of social mobility. Tocqueville must’ve been high on the tobacco leaves he sniffed in his tour of Virginia! While the nation had shed most of the obvious symbolism that came with wealth in Europe, Tocqueville had completely ignored that for the first half-century of US, only rich, land-owning White males could vote (and in many cases, hold office). Only in the five or ten years before his tour of the US did non-propertied White males gain the right to vote.

On top of this, though most Americans were farmers in the 1831-33 period, American urbanization had already begun. American cities didn’t have the age or splendor of European ones, to be sure. But what Tocqueville didn’t recognize was that wealth was already beginning to be concentrated in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, in the form of commerce, in banking, and in the beginnings of modern industries. And though large-scale exploitation of poor and uneducated Irish immigrations wouldn’t begin for another fifteen years, the exploitation of poor, native White (and frequently, female and child) labor was already well underway, pulling Whites from countryside to cities in the process.

"World's Highest Standard of Living" poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by  Margaret Bourke White, February 15, 1937. (ThunderPeel2001 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- low resolution.

“World’s Highest Standard of Living” poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by Margaret Bourke-White, February 15, 1937. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws — low resolution.

And this is the man who so many of my historian and political scientist colleagues like to cite and quote? Especially around Independence Day! Sorry, but if I did a two-year tour of, say, South Africa right now, and predicted their eventual greatness because of their unique racial democracy and rapid economic development, who’d take me seriously by 2200 CE? Maybe MSNBC host Chris Matthews‘ great-great-great-great grandson, who would then claim South African exceptionalism based on my predictive power from 180 years before.


A Man and a Tank

June 4, 2014

"Tank Man" temporarily stops the advance of a column of tanks, Tianenmen Square, Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP via Wikipedia).

“Tank Man” temporarily stops the advance of a column of tanks, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP via Wikipedia).

[Originally posted June 4, 2009]

Saturday, June 3, 1989, 12:04 pm. Me and my younger siblings were at 616, watching cartoons on ABC. It was a run of old Looney Tunes cartoons, which had Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and especially Eri cracking up. It was a great morning, with my mother taking her Saturday classes at Westchester Business Institute, my idiot stepfather out carousing, and my older brother Darren roaming the streets like the goofball he could be. Then the late Peter Jennings broke into our local New York area broadcast to let us know that Chinese tanks were rolling into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, breaking through seven weeks worth of protests over the government’s continuing limits on the civil and political rights of its citizens.

It was after midnight in Beijing, already June 4. For the next forty or forty-five minutes, images kept coming on to our TV from Tiananmen Square as the Chinese military and their tanks toppled barricades, ran over cars and literally chased thousands of protesters out of the square. When I saw the first images of a blood-splattered protester and then of another one crying, I started to cry myself. My siblings looked at me like I was crazy. Then, no more images. Jennings reported that the Chinese government had forced ABC to shut down their satellite communications from within China. My guess was that they did it at gun point.

By the time I switched to another station for my siblings to watch, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t followed the story more closely. I mean, I was actually following it. But I guess I assumed that, like the glasnost and perestroika that had been pushed by Gorbachev since ’86, that the protests would be allowed to continue in Beijing. And like many other naive Americans, we were wrong about that. We hardly knew enough about four millennia of Chinese political history to understand how important an unopposed central authority has been to this culture. If I had applied anything I learned from a semester of East Asian History at all, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all.

With me crying — albeit not audibly — my youngest brother Eri asked me what was wrong and what was going on. I explained to them as best I could that this was a government crackdown on dissidents, that the Chinese government engaged in human rights abuses all the time, and that this crackdown meant many people were dying and going to die. Those few minutes were the most in which Eri and my other siblings had shown any interest in the world outside of Mount Vernon and New York City in all of times I spent with them growing up.

Peter Jennings, ABC World News Tonight anchor, November 1989 (broadcasting fall of Berlin Wall). (screenshot via Youtube).

Peter Jennings, ABC World News Tonight anchor, November 1989 (broadcasting fall of Berlin Wall). (screenshot via Youtube).

In the days that followed, the occasional picture or piece of film made it out of China to Hong Kong (still a British territory in ’89) or Japan or South Korea showing images like the man standing in front of a column of tanks, ready to die in the crackdown on him and other protesters. I must admit, it moved me. It was obvious that people would go to jail, likely face torture, that many would die and many more would lick their wounds as the Chinese government would blackout all but the official state news about what really was going on.

Larry Glasco, one of my Pitt history professors, was there for a visit when the crackdown began. He said he saw dead men hanging from lamp posts, bodies of dead and injured in spots, and faced his own crisis in dealing with the military. They confiscated his camera and threatened to hold him in jail in order to make sure he didn’t take his pictures back to the US. From what I remember, he did managed to smuggle some film — not much — out after the crackdown had ended. His wasn’t the only story I would hear during the second half of ’89 about what people witnessed as tourists and researchers in looking at the Tiananmen Square protests. It was the first time I had the chance to see up close what a tyrannical government really looks like when acting to protect itself.

It’s different from police brutality or even a racist mob. For better or worse, we’ve never seen this level of government or military intervention in this country over protesters that those everyday folks in China faced down twenty years ago. Even if we count what Native Americans faced in the late-nineteenth century or the Bonus Army crackdown by General Douglas MacArthur in 1932, that would only get us to a limited sense of what the Tiananmen Square dissidents faced. It made me think about how wrong one of my Humanities classmates was when he argued about the long-term viability of communism because it would reduce economic inequality and give people a greater degree of freedom.

But we were both incorrect. Any economic or political system in which citizens and others must show deference or actually walk in fear of isn’t one that any should follow. I don’t care if the system is communist, capitalist, or socialist, or if the government is a monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, or a representative democracy. If folks living in these systems and under these governments can’t speak their minds or publish their ideas, especially if they contradict whatever the government or system says, the government isn’t a just one. Although governments and systems should fit the cultural and historical context of a given population, it also should remain flexible enough to adjust to the changing needs of a people. That’s what the regime in China failed to understand in ’89 and for years afterward.

I’m hardly advocating the overthrowing of governments or even the imposition of American democracy. If anyone’s bothered to notice, we haven’t exactly been living up to many of our ideals overseas and at home over the last six decades. I’m merely attempting to remember the events of early June ’89 that touched me emotionally, that enabled me to understand that beyond the political and economic theories there’s the reality of the human condition, the need to keep humans who have authority in check. I learned this all too well growing up at 616 and attending Mount Vernon’s public schools. Without those checks and balances, the rights and lives of others face tanks lined up in formation, ready to run them over.

“Early Was Late,” at Gettysburg & Elsewhere

July 3, 2013

"A Harvest of Death," Gettysburg, PA, July 5-6, 1863. (Timothy O'Sullivan). In public domain.

“A Harvest of Death,” Gettysburg, PA, July 5-6, 1863. (Timothy O’Sullivan). In public domain.

Google might be celebrating Franz Kafka’s 130th birthday today. But for us Americans, today’s a bit more significant than Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915).  No, today’s the 150th anniversary of the height of the Battle of Gettysburg, the three-day battle that involved nearly 165,000 Union and Confederate troops at the beginning of July, 1863. During the battle, almost 8,000 soldiers died, and more than 46,000 were wounded or maimed. Thousands of Confederates were wounded on the third day, the day of Pickett’s Charge, when Gen. Jubal Early’s troops never arrived to reinforce the charge to take the high ground away from the Union Army.

Of course, there are thousands of enthusiasts who are recreating the battle this week, along with the battles at Vicksburg, Petersburg, and other burghs throughout the South and Mason-Dixon borderlands. Let’s not forget why these battles were fought, though. They weren’t fought over high protective tariffs for Northern industrial interests, as David John Marotta ridiculously asserted in his Forbes article a couple of weeks ago. Nor was the Civil War fought simply over the grandiose ideal of states’ rights from a Confederate perspective or the mere preservation of the Union from a Northern perspective.

Ultimately, this was a civil war to settle the question of a democratic nation with slavery as its central economic and social underpinnings. Southerners were fighting for states’ rights, all right — the right of states to keep slavery legal, a “way of life” that had made White men fortunes. Northerners were fighting to preserve the Union, but one that would be free of slavery as an institution. Any other arguments are ones made by people who have no understanding of the centrality of slavery and freedom to the very identity on which the US had been founded in 1776.

Later that month, in part as a result of the Battle of Gettysburg, there were draft riots in New York, with Five Points Irish mobs beating up and lynching Blacks in the process of destroying their homes and businesses. So we know that there was at least one group unhappy about the real-life rationale behind fighting the Civil War.

Jubal Early depiction, circa 1911. ( In public domain.

Jubal Early depiction, circa 1911. ( In public domain.

What most Americans don’t understand was the incredible distance between believing that slavery was an evil, archaic and hypocritical institution and believing that African slaves were ones worthy of American democracy and equality. Most Whites fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg believed that Blacks had about as many rights to American equality as most of us would believe in a path to American citizenship for Al-Qaeda terrorists today.

Thank God Jubal Early “was late,” or really, had refused a direct order from Gen. Robert E. Lee to be part of some suicidal charge on July 3rd, 1863. Unfortunately, we still have many “Jubal Early” types who are really, really late in recognizing Blacks as equal human beings, American democracy as imperfect, and the South as a supporter of an evil and profit-maximizing institution.

American Un-Exceptionalism

July 4, 2012

Captain America and waving US flag, July 4, 2012. (http://

One of the great myths of American history is that the US is an exceptional society with an exceptional history, earned as the shining light on the hill of democracy, the first modern republic in world history. Despite all the claims of such luminaries as Chris Matthews (of MSNBC lore) and presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin, America is hardly exceptional. What makes us exceptional is the frequency with which we claim to be so different and so unique from the rest of world. Beyond that, we’re about as exceptional as a C+ level college student.

Chris Matthews at 2011 Time 100 gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Speaking of students, my US history students have laid claim to American exceptionalism almost as often as Chris Matthews. If it’s US history prior to the Civil War, then the claim has been about breaking free from Great Britain’s empire, the Founding Fathers and the writing of the US Constitution, and building the first modern representative democracy. If it’s the twentieth century, then it’s about the good ol’ US saving the world from the tyranny of communism — or at least, anything that wasn’t supportive of US-style capitalism (which isn’t the same as democracy, by the way). Both are hogwash, as full of half-truths as George Washington’s honesty, Abraham Lincoln believing in Black equality and Henry Longfellow’s portrayal of Paul Revere’s ride.

I’m sorry, but I don’t find it exceptional that the US formed a representative democracy that represented the interests of rich, landowning White males, many of whom were plantation slave owners too chicken to deal with the issue in the summer of 1787. Even the comparison to ancient Greece and Rome is specious on a power-blue cloudless day in New York in September. Whether it was direct or representative democracy, both were limited democracies that relied heavily on slavery, warfare, and eventually became empires. America was born out of an empire, and to this day, has imperialist notions about itself and its relationship to the world.

As far as American the Superpower since 1945, I find it laughable that people see us as this shining beacon of truth, justice and the American democratic way on the world stage. There are folks who really think that we were too generous and altruistic in our Marshall Plan largesse, in our dealings with nations whom became aligned with us in the quarter-century after the end of World War II. Hogwash! With the US controlling fifty percent of economic production and activity in the world in 1945, it needed trading partners to ensure its future prosperity and dominance. The Marshall Plan was as much about the creation of stable trading partners and economies as was about checking Soviet influence in Central and Southeastern Europe.

Besides this, for every West Germany, South Korea and Japan, there were also our CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, military disruptions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and protections of American corporate interests throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Middle East. But I’m sure that this was only about spreading our exceptional democracy and economic prowess to the rest of the world. At least, that’s what American exceptionalists keep telling us.

“Dorian Gray” as played by Stuart Townshend, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), July 4, 2012. (

There’s another perspective here, though. One that would describe America as an empire, or an empire in the making, at least. For American history is the stuff of imperialism, including the very justification we use for our actions on the world stage. Based on this point of view, America is unexceptional. As Dorian Gray of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) would say, “Empires rise and fall. There are no exceptions.” The choice we as Americans have is whether we prefer the soft landing that Great Britain recently experienced, or a crash-and-burn.

Maybe They’ve Won After All

September 10, 2010

There's a Hole in the Bucket (Still) at Ground Zero. Source:

I wrote this four days after 9-11, after spending three days stuck in Atlanta and a day on a Greyhound bus from Atlanta to DC, after defending a Sikh man against a hostile White male and Black guy because he looked like one of “them.”


With much of this week’s focus on the atrocities at the former World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the airline crash south of Pittsburgh, there is a disturbing and growing backlash against Americans of Arab descent throughout the nation.  The nation should be outraged because of the wanton destruction of property and life at the hands of suicidal terrorists.  But this in no way should justify the fire bombings of mosques in Texas and marching against Arab communities in Chicago.  This, of course, is among other incidents of hatred and revenge directed at folks who in some cases have been in America for several generations.  And like many Americans, Americans of Arab descent migrated to our multicultural society to escape religious extremism, government persecution, and yes, terrorism.  The backlash against Arab Americans since the attacks on Tuesday sicken me as much as the frightening attacks themselves.

I am a African American male, and I have thought about what the nation’s response might have been if a suicidal group of African American terrorists had done this horrible thing.  Would we be in the midst of race riots in America’s major cities, in which groups of Whites armed with American flags and poles, rocks, guns and whatever else they could find to beat and possibly kill Blacks just because they’re Black?  Would law enforcement agencies search every allegedly suspicious-looking brown-skinned person with kinky hair because they might connect them to an African American terrorist group?

Or what if an Irish terrorist group had hijacked the planes flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon?  Would non-Irish Americans then be so quick to lash out at any “Mic” they could find? Would they intimidate Americans of Irish descent to the point where they would be scared out of going to school or attending a prayer vigil with their fellow Americans?  Would we be so willing to engage in the language of bloodlust toward a group of Irish Americans as we have done to our Arab American brothers and sisters?

We can say that the majority of Americans have not engaged in this bigoted and racist behavior.  But our silence is not good enough.  Mainstream journalism acts as if a few prominent Arab Americans denouncing both the terrorist attack and the expected backlash against Arabs by other Americans ends their responsibility.  It does not.  The press must do a better job of discussing this smouldering problem with all Americans, including representatives of the Arab American community.  It also must do better in explaining the differences between the tenets of Islam and the unspeakable acts of terrorists clinging to a warped version of Islam.  It’s not at all much different from the barbaric actions of the Ku Klux Klan, who claim that they act in defense of White Christians.

If we as Americans continue to commit and condone through our silence acts of hatred against Arab Americans, are we much better than the tortured souls who flew four Boeing jets as weapons of mass destruction, all in the name of Allah?  If we are to defeat terrorism as a nation and a world, we must also defeat its roots, fear and hatred.  If we are to be one undivided and multicultural nation united against terrorism, we can no longer tolerate incidents of terrorism against one another, no matter how much we hurt.


Needless to say, The Washington Post was engaged in blind, raging patriotism for the next couple of years, so my two cents was ignored. Unfortunately, between the racism and religious hatred directed at the proposed Islamic Center near, but not on, Ground Zero in New York City, and the idiot Terry Jones wanting to burn Qur’ans in Florida, it looks like the nineteen suicidal morons from Saudi Arabia have won after all. We still have a big hole in the ground where the Twin Towers once stood. So much for standing together on the platform of America the brave and the free.


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