Monday, October 22, 2007

A Tocquevillian Look at American Egalitarianism and Egoism (Part II)

Well, now I endeavor with the most timid of spirits to enquire into the nature of reading and literacy in our democracy in these contemporary days and how perhaps our equality of economic stature has tended us toward an egoism which sadly may undermine our uniting societal fiber, although there is a clear hope for a corrective.

I have always thought it something of an oddity that our culture has tended to lead us all away from being in touch with the important news items of our days and can be assured that this is the case since I too am a product of that, only recently beginning to work my way from the ignorant womb which encourages the childish attitude which so readily declares, “I care little for the goings on in the outside world, for it is nothing more than pageantry and arrogance which affects me but the slightest.” I always equated this condition to be linked to perhaps a dwindling care in our culture for anything which required more than the smallest amount of reflective thought and never wholly attributed it to the growing individualism in the country. It had always seemed to me that the most individualistic persons would take heed of the movements of the world in order to secure a more prosperous future by means of being better informed than those who were viewed as being in direct competition with them. However, after reading a section in Democracy in America on the nature of the press and the arts in democratic societies, I begin to question this tenet of mine and find that we are perhaps in the place of an intellectual stupor precisely because we have become so disconnected from the greater whole of humanity through our relative, independent affluence.

As I spoke of in my last post, it is very evident that the rugged individualism which often is promoted in democratic/republican societies easily and quickly leads to something of an isolation of the individual from the greater structure of the community. (Of course, I must assert firmly that I do not think that rugged individualism is an ill without qualification, for I am in many ways a staunch old-school liberal/libertarian who only yearns for a societal connection to be established among individuals – as opposed to utter fragmentation.) The world becomes more of a realm of individual choice and delectation because humanity, becoming more equal and independent, views much more of the world to based upon the principle of personal choice and self-direction than the common descent of man through the ages toward a certain goal. In many ways, this is quite a remarkable and salutary benefit of individualism, for it elevates all choices to almost an ontological level which affects the whole being of the individual in his or her choices and tastes. However, the danger always lies in the tendency to forget that the world not only is to be built up by us but also that the whole of reality is also a given which we can neither deny nor forsake on the path of personal amelioration and edification. In forgetting that the world (and hence the whole of our communities) are something which we must accept a priori, we forget that we have a true relationship not only to those choices which we have made but also the body of humanity which is inextricably united to us by means of historical and sociological bonds.

There are two prime examples of this detachment of individuals from the substratum of humanity, namely within the two tiers of community which are common to the entire Western world and indeed all of humanity as technological progress marches onward. First of all there is the question of a detachment of one generation from the next, something which seems to be of great strength in many cases as we blur the lines of parenthood and friendship as well as chip away at the respect which the young should have for elders in the community. However, this commonly lamented lack of interest in our previous generation is, to my mind, merely a passing trend which marks nearly every generation and often is surmounted by all, although such realizations lamentably come too late.

More important to me is the continued development of consumer-driven media which is particularly characterized by the culture of the iPod and iTunes as well as the on-demand nature of online news. Now, let me first of all say that I think that great good comes of all these media, for individual choice is perhaps the strongest force for the affixation of a human person to causes which are of the greatest import to all of humanity, linking the human person and his or her choice to each other with greater and truer strength than perhaps any other force in the known world. However, the danger lurks here in the fact that we are also seeing a rapid decline in much of the periodical (newspaper/magazine) industry, for less interest is taken in the local affairs of our provinces as well as in the larger community created by the regular readership of a newspaper. It is as though we do not have the stability which is necessary to retain a sustained connection to a single free association which is created by the choice to be a devoted reader of a given chronicle of news. De Tocqueville struck me deeply when he commented that a lack of readership for the press is more indicative of a lack of communal spirit than it is of a lack of pecuniary means of paying for the reception of the evening post. In the final analysis this is very true, for the readership of a given media is implicitly a community in which rebukes, praises, laurels, and lances are all proffered by the readership to the editorial staff, and this is also found in the readership of magazines.

Now, of all my fears listed in my first entry, this one area is the one for which I have the least amount of despondency, for there are many signs of hope which point that we may yet remain a society united in our literary tastes if only we make sure not to be wholly obliterated by the power of individuation which is possible by means of online pick-and-choose media. The hope which I have is that local reading groups – which much to my delight still exist in great numbers (although more for my elder generations than my own) – will function as a focal point for much unification for the somewhat disparate tastes which are growing in the current age of self-driven media. Perhaps of more import to me is the growth of online communities which are devoted to common reflections on many media sources upon a unified platform. It is quite conceivable that there will come a time when we can combine our reflective possibilities in a new synergy which will create something more of an extended tribe of humanity with even greater power than the felicitous media hybrid of the telephone and the talk radio show.

However, the danger which I fear is that we will become more interested in our own sundry choices in media, a path which certainly will lead us only further apart and into that egoism which certainly will diminish our character as a people. Such a tendency could ultimately lead to a despotism which unites all of society under the solitary banner of “freely chosen media” which means that we will no longer have any choice but to choose to be isolated in our reading tastes, a reality which will without a doubt have foul ramifications for our powers to freely assemble as a sovereign people. Marshall McLuhan considered the media to be defined as any of those methods by which mankind extends its inner life into the physical sphere. If we approach a point in which we no longer desire to extend our own lives into the extensions of our brethren, we will find it a difficult task – at best – to unite ourselves but under an external force, for when we no longer freely assembly, we must do so under duress, as we will have forgotten what it means to undertake the task of human unification.

Blessings and all the Best.

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