This Saturday, from 1015 to 1145 am, they’ll be a panel honoring the work of Delba Winthrop at the Marriott in Newton, Mass. It’ll be part of the New England Political Science Assoc. meeting. Speakers will include Dan Mahoney, Ralph Hanock, Norma Thompson, and me. The theme will be political responsibility. I’ve just started to find a few moments to work on this today, and my tentative title is something like "Winthrop on Tocqueville on the Political Responsibility of American Women." At no extra charge, I’m giving you a "taste," although keep in mind the following is a stream-of-consciousness rough draft:
Now Delba did, I think, miss one level of Tocquevillian and feminine irony about the American bragging displayed in their moral doctrine of self-interest rightly understood. Tocqueville observes that the Americans are better than they say. They sometimes do give way to their natural, social, heart-enlarging instincts and really do serve one another out of love. And when they explain away their moments of genuine, loving dependence and responsibility with their cold doctrine, with the explanation that what appears to be love is nothing but a calculated alliance, they hide from others and even themselves the natural offenses against their individualistic freedom that really do make life worth living. The American women allow American men to exaggerate their emotional self-sufficiency to humor their democratic or individualistic pride and so to protect the natural reality of their love. American deeds more than American talk provide evidence that the American men have souls or social and personal longings that must be and sometimes are satisfied.
But one problem with that sanguine conclusion is that talk—even misleading talk—about moral opinion really does influence what we do and even who we are. The American men, Tocqueville reports, are chaste not because of their own virtue or the discipline of women or even the law. They tend not to be erotic enough to be tempted seriously by or even imagine illicit, dangerous liaisons. And the imaginative impoverishment or hyper-decency of the American that Tocqueville reproaches—the inability to be attracted to forbidden delights—even constrains what goes on in American bedrooms. So, in Delba’s words, American marriages are “strikingly, appallingly unerotic.” Delba even notes carefully in a note that Tocqueville emphatically doesn’t understand American commercial or displaced ambition as a form of frustrated or sublimated sexual desire. The truth is that the American man’s preoccupation with business actually truncates his eros by stifling romantic idealism. It leaves American men with less and less intense passion that might need sublimating. Their busyness keeps them from the leisure in which longings might be cultivated and deepened; the American man is even convinced that leisure, for that reason, is bad for business. So, as Delba shows, the war against love engaged in by the moral doctrine of self-interest rightly understood actually achieves significant success. From a woman’s view, the strength and weakness of the American man is that he’s all about safe sex; he’s not that dangerous but that’s because he’s that boring. His one sexual vice is his weakness for prostitutes, who efficiently takes care of his needs without emotional attachment and whom he pays, as the old joke goes, not to spend the night.
But, thanks to the work of American women, that conclusion is too extreme. It is more about the challenges American women proudly face than how American families actually are. American women understand, as Delba explains, that precisely because they don’t compete with men that the relationship between the sexes is relatively undistorted by status envy and opens the way “for sexual attraction to engender admiration.” And admiration certainly can refine and enlarge eros in a way that might convince some American men, at least, that all their public endeavors are for their private lives, to show them the real point of all their prosperity. Democratic political life will only rarely be worthy of those with the noblest ambition and profound idealism, but surely it’s true that the single-minded pursuit of political liberty—of the greatness that Tocqueville himself prefers to justice--would be worse for women and their particular concerns than the American inclination in the other direction. The truncation of the American imagination by commerce, combined with the salutary influence of the religion encouraged especially by women, keep American men from being tempted to sacrifice the family and private life in general for some general or indefinite cause. The Americans, to their credit, can’t imagine pursuing political reform or wealth by all means necessary.
American women know, like American priests, that the moderation of democratic excesses is unlikely to come through direct intervention into political life. It comes through the “countercultural” impulses that come from the church and the family, from the refusal of priests and wives to allow their domains to be politicized, to be subordinated to the democratic individualism or egalitarian public opinion or the single-minded insistence on one’s own rights or “justice.” The ability of priests to influence American mores, Tocqueville adds, depends upon the more fundamental efforts of women.
The American theory—the relentless conquest of nature in the pursuit of happiness—presupposes, in truth, that human freedom and security are for a life worthy of living, for human dignity and human happiness. That life, in fact, will and should never be, in our country, primarily that of the citizen. The political responsibility of the American woman turns out to be showing the American man how stange, wonderful, and lovable people he can really know are, countering the unerotic and undignified impersonality of both his egalitarianism and his commercialism. American men--and the political life they favor--could easily be worse and are far from hopeless. It’s the always the job of women, Delba shows us, to counter the partisanship and exaggeration of the manly pretenses that always characeristic the reigning political order, and women, as Harvey Mansfield shows us, are even better than philosophers in moderating manliness while preserving personal significance.