Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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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.

Discussions - 16 Comments

Terrific on both Tocqueville and Winthrop--I hope I can write that well one day (but I doubt it). The cold doctrines of equality and natural rights that shroud our more natural inclinations traces back to the Lockean supression of nature and an exaltation of the historical revision of nature; Locke makes it seem as if marriage and the family are somehow held together by a combination of contract, rights, a confluence of self-interests, and reason. On a closer read, I think it becomes clear that Locke knows better but we do seem to have inherited, consciously and unconsciously, this neglect if not denigration of our natural selves.

Have to combine this with Toc's statement that "Of all the world's countries, America is surely the one where the bond of marriage is most respected and where they have conceived the highest and most just idea of conjugal happiness." (DA, M&W p.279)More than one kind of talk about marriage in America.

And I'd love to know what you make of the somewhat strange passage that follows this, which contrasts the "restlessness"-causing French nuptial bedroom, with the American haven of domestic tranquility.

Carl, I cut it off at a provocative point, and now I've added a couple more paragraphs that point toward the more fair and balanced conclusion. But thanks so much for the good comment. That's what you here for.

Peter, this is really good. You put things together here in a fresh way. The one thing I think of that might be factored in is the pragmatic mind of American women themselves, which is implicit already in your account. Are American women as erotic?

This may have been an accurate description of the way things were in Tocqueville's time. It does not strike me as an accurate depiction of modern America. Our women are every bit as materialistic and superficial as our men.

This strikes me as more an effort to fashion a modern myth than historical or contemporary social analysis. If you want to see what is on the minds of our priestesses, take a stroll through the womens interest section of your local bookstore. Look at the pictures, and in particular, the words on the covers. Far and away the most common word is "sex" and its variants.

. . .talk—even misleading talk—about moral opinion really does influence what we do and even who we are.

As Rick in Casablanca understood when he said, "You want my advice? Go back to Bulgaria." Talk by itself can loosen restraints. Talk can also strengthen them.

Peter, provocative and insightful as always. In a defense of Delba vein: doesn't she rightly note that Tocqueville never talks about "nature" or "babies" in connection with his discussion of men and women; and that he (Tocqueville) places "eros" in the part dealing with "mores," not "sentiments"? He certainly called "eros" "tyrannical." Maybe he wanted to keep it at bay. He certainly personally knew its power. All this would complicate any straightforward presentation of "Tocqueville on men and women." One further note: isn't Tocqueville's perspective on men and women focused on the family and that and how the family contributes to restless democracy's stability? That's a statesman's perspective, not a human happiness-proponent's perspective, much less an egalitarian-permissive one. Let me know what you think. (Probably written the next few paragraphs with such issues in mind.)

Why would any thinking individual attend a "political science" meeting? What a proletarian degree. Even Russell Kirk dismissed the degree of "political science" (and economics) as proletarian nonsense. As a real gentleman, I'd never dirty myself with it. Give me Greek and Latin, French and German, history, poetry, mathematics, philosophy, and even some physics - but keep these low-brow proletarian subjects away.

One consequence of female careerism is not only that women have become immersed in commerce and business, and have lost some of their power and maybe will to moderate the competitive manliness of men, but also now competes with him herself. However, she tends not to compete as well, and so her inequality in business engenders resentment rather than admiration. This often encourages versus moderates manly competitiveness and creates womanly contempt for what now seems like second class status. Now you have the basis for modern feminism: the family gets its full Lockean reduction to its contractual components and doesn't seem like all that fair a contract to either side.

Ivan, I have labored unsuccessfully to find the title of this book, but I heard an author interviewed the other day on a talk show (I think Michael Medved's) and he makes a rather contrary point to yours about female success in "careerism" and that is this: in almost every important career track, when you compare the career and financial success of the group set of unmarried women without children with that of men (and particularly unmarried men without children) women do better than men. Men do better when they are married and better still when they have children. Women fare worse when they have a husband and worse yet when they have a family. His point was that it is not anything inherent in the abilities of women or the prejudices of men that keep women as a whole from working on par with men, but there is something in female nature that seems to cause them to choose (and even in our "careerist" culture of today--still to choose) to put family above career. The author said this showed that women were fortunate to have a "more balanced approach to life." That sounds good, but I have reservations about that (I'll explain later.) Men seem to work on exactly the reverse trajectory. Single and without children, they do not work as hard or earn as much money. So in this guy's conception of things, apparently men are less balanced with a family? He did not say this, but it is one implication of his explanation that should be pointed out.

I think this author offers a decent explanation of his findings and it was a good attempt at understanding that gets very close to the heart of the matter . . . but I think he misunderstands women. I don't think women deserve as much credit for their "balance" as he wants to give them. I think it is good that women still tend to favor family over career but I am dubious about the idea that this means that they are more balanced. An honest woman--no matter how much she loves and is devoted to her family--will tell you that this is no serene meditation in the garden of tranquility. Devotion to family is born more of necessity than of "balance." I don't find that I am constitutionally able to ignore responsibilities in that realm without great stress and distress--felt every bit as deeply as I imagine my husband must feel about the need to provide for us. If men pour some of their erotic soul into their work or career as an outlet--sometimes to the point of obsession--it is no less true of women that they tend to do this in the domestic realm. What else explains the compulsion of some women to be at the forefront of every volunteer effort at school or church, the over-scheduling and hyper-hovering around our children, etc.? You've heard of the Martha Stewart complex? If there are hard-core businessmen, there are also hard-core mothers/homemakers. More often there are Donald Trump and Martha Steward moments/phases. Few are actually living the stereotype.

Probably both types (or both moments) are substituting for something lacking between them. And pointing this out might not be a healthy thing in every instance. Their obsessions in business or in busy-ness may be the only things keeping their families intact and working at that particular moment in time. Perhaps such people should not be envied or emulated--but neither, perhaps, should they be disturbed. Obviously, Donald and Martha had issues with keeping their homes intact--so if it gets to that extreme some intervention may be needed. But the stereotype is an exaggeration of the type, isn't it? For most people, its more an instance or a moment or a period of obsession. And these moments keep our world as we know it functioning.

I think there is room for a more engaging and erotic and truly balanced kind of attachment in this regime. But those who have it might consider whether it is wise to hold it up as the model. As most of us may do a little philosophy and yet never reach the level of philosopher it may be the case that this ideal of truly balanced and erotic friendship is fairly beyond the capacities of most mortals. Beyond that, it depends at least as much upon fortune as it does virtue. It is, for that reason, probably even more rare. And if we were all real philosophers, we would none of us be politicians. If we were all so fabulously matched, why would we ever want to be anywhere or do anything else?

So American women prefer Southern men (as described by Tocqueville), right?

Ken, That's surely true, although the POINT of GONE WITH THE WIND is that the match of a woman with a northern (entrepreneurial) and a man with a southern (beautiful, honorable) soul produces too much instability and even violence to endure.

I agree with Julie: if we were all sun-gazers, who would bother with babies? The same, in my view, applies to erotic friendship, whose purpose seems as removed from the challenges and thrills of domesticity as is philosophizing.

Ewa makes me consider this too: what would life be like as the child of such a couple? Would your interests and happiness ever compete with the affection and regard your parents have for each other?

Peter - Will you make the talk available to us?

Julie and Ewa, I think you're on to something, and isn't that why Shakespeare's "hottest" romances (Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.) were devoid of children?

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