Early this summer, I set a task for myself that it now seems unlikely that I will complete. I wanted to reread Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which I had taught as a part of KU’s Western Civilization Program for the last four years of the 1980s, alongside “American Vertigo,” by Bernard-Henri Levy, a 2006 retracing of the steps of the original trek with more current comments. I also chose the complete, unexpurgated two-volume Vintage Books version, with all the footnotes and commentary needed to bog down a game effort at completion.
I’m nearly halfway through, so here’s an initial report. Both of them started off badly. Tocqueville (should I, in an attempt at familiarity, call him The Tocquer? Saves letters.) drones on about the structure of local and state government in this new democracy, and I suppose it was necessary for his European readers, but I’ve never met a city council I wanted to hear more about. Levy was even worse. His opening chapter, titled “En Route,” seemed more like an ungainly rant, intended to situate himself on the critical left. His style can get pretentious, at least when it can be identified as having any style at all.
But I forgave them both, and things improved somewhat. Levy seems to have gotten a few things out of his system, and the clear and surprising insights that never fail to make reading Tocqueville rewarding bloomed again and again from what initially seemed to be very infertile ground. An ongoing point that Levy seems to be making, from this mid-point of the narrative, is one that Tocqueville didn’t, and could not have been expected to, but it has brought me to the verge of actually thinking.
Levy notes that we are a museum-crazy culture, and he is not amused. OK, maybe at the Jerry Lewis Museum, but after all, he’s French. An online search revealed no actual building identified as The Jerry Lewis Museum, though there was a wholly online site billing itself as such, but appearing only to be a retail outlet for DVDs and memorabilia. There is, however, a Jerry Lee Lewis Museum in Louisiana, one I am unlikely to visit. It would be fitting, I think, were it curated by a 14 year old girl.
Levy appears to regard askance our tendency to throw together baskets of artifacts with a common theme and call it a museum, and I agree with him. Kansas City alone seems to have nearly fifty such repositories, though he seemed to think Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame for Major League Baseball, a particularly apt example with its grandiose ambitions that only highlight the mundane nature of what it is commemorating.
And he also sees it directly connected to American Democracy, and the democracy that Tocqueville observed with such touching clarity. This frantic cultural attempt at leveling proceeding at the same time as an equally frantic attempt at political and economic disequilibrium, seems natural and comforting only to those who pretend the latter aren’t happening. The American electoral process deifies the trivial, the mean-spirited, the ignorant, and when the concept of the museum can incorporate the dregs of culture, it must mean that democracy is working. Right? The ordinary sits on the same pedestal as the profound. Equality triumphs. One man, one vote; one piece of crap, one museum. Kansas City’s PBS station, KCPT, has a very popular self-produced program, “Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations” devoted to just this phenomenon, and the participants treat the subject with gentle, wry respect, somewhat other than Levy’s attitude toward celebrating the mediocre. I’m with him on that, too.
Every ball of yarn has a museum, along with every discredited mayor of Possum’s Flatulence, Arkansas. You think not? There’s a Museum of Ineffective Insecticides, proudly displaying rusted cans of Raid and Black Flag from yesteryear, or currently being sold at Dirty Don’s. A culture that believes this believes every school essay deserves an A, everyone who remained awake for part of high school deserves to go to college, and everyone deserves to have their self-esteem incessantly propped up by academic boosterism.
As a nation, we need to find a way to value the valuable, even if it means disvaluing, and discarding the trash. Levy sees this inability as one of the gagging canaries in our cultural coal mine. Every semester, I quote an American president, LBJ, in each of my classes. I usually have to explain who LBJ was. I sometimes have to clarify what an American president is. After he declined to run for a full term in 1968, and after Richard M. Nixon was elected, he left the White House and spent most of the rest of his few remaining years at the Johnson Ranch. One day, he was sitting with a visitor, his former Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights, Nick Katzenbach, watching a televised speech by Nixon. As Katzenbach reveals in his memoirs, a few minutes into the speech, LBJ turned to him and declared, “Nick, I may not know much, but I do know the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit.”
I tell my students that the goal of taking a philosophy course, but it should be the goal of all education, is to make it possible for them to leave the classroom and tell the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit. The teacher shouldn’t tell them the difference and have them memorize it. That would be of little help. They need to adopt, understand, honor, and use the tools that they can employ to that purpose. Levy thinks we’re far from that possibility, and we should see that as a challenge to our culture. If you listen closely, you can probably hear a Bobcat starting to break ground on The Museum of Chicken Shit, somewhere on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, financed by Frank Perdue. There’s bound to be a Super 8 Motel nearby, so make your reservations soon, and bring all the family!