Term Paper: American National Character (History)

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[. . .] Meanwhile, Tocqueville argues that "newspapers in America lack power," and he spells out the reasons why through a comparison between French newspapers and American papers. "In America (209), political life is active, varied, and even agitated, but it is rarely roiled by deep passions." And since passions are rarely stirred "unless material interests are compromised, and in the United States material interests prosper," he suggests that thinking alone passionate lines is not very deep nor very frequent.

Further, by glancing at a newspaper in France, Tocqueville sees that "commercial advertising occupies only a very limited space... [and] the vital part of a [French] newspaper is the section that features political debates." However, "three quarters" of "the bulky newspaper that is set before you in America is filled with advertising," and the remainder is "unremarkable anecdotes" and some "political news." As for impassioned debates on social issues, they are found in American papers "only occasionally," and that debate is in "some forgotten corner" of the newspaper. French readers get this impassioned debate Tocqueville speaks of on a "daily" basis.

So, what is he saying here? Is he really putting down America? He certainly seems to have a problem with capitalism, and all those ads in the paper; those who understand how business works know that newspapers don't just pay for themselves in America - the publishers need to have advertisers, sponsors, in order to pay the bills and bring in profit to hire journalists and other talent.

On page 211 Tocqueville, who earlier (209) talked about how in France the newspapers are centralized - "Almost all its power is concentrated in one place, and in a sense, in the same hands..." - critiques the local nature of American newspapers, located in almost every town. "With such a large number of combatants in the field," he writes, "it is easy to see that discipline and unity of action are impossible to achieve. Thus each paper flies its own standard." Because every paper in every town has its own way of expressing freedom of the press, Tocqueville believes that American newspapers "cannot create currents of opinion so powerful that not even the most formidable of dams can withstand them."

Based on these pontifications from Tocqueville, he then declares that "the position of journalist is not a very high one; his education is rudimentary at best, and his ideas are often expressed in a vulgar way."

Perhaps what these opinions are showing readers is that Europeans don't understand the American way of presenting news and information to citizens. Maybe this is also part of the American character - which is not connected to race, gender, and class - and that is the independence each community has from the one next to it. Every town has its own newspaper, of course, and that is part of the provincial spirit, the independent spirit that is reflected in towns and cities, but really has its roots in the people who populate those towns.

In Chapter 4, Tocqueville takes a bite out of American associations, "...the decision of a certain number of individuals to adhere publicly to certain doctrines, and to commit themselves to seek the triumph of shoe doctrines in a certain way." Associations help the launching of opinions, he writes: "when an opinion is represented by an association, it has to be expressed in a clearer, more precise form than would otherwise be the case" (216). Why is that true? The expressing of an opinion (a very big part of the American character, which Tocqueville clearly is in search of) "calls upon supporters to stand up and be counted, and enlists then in the cause."

Moreover, these American characters who have stood up in an association, or a bond, to profess beliefs, "learn about each other." The act of communicating as an association "links the efforts of divergent minds," and further, "vigorously propels them toward a single goal..." From there, Tocqueville goes into the "second stage" in the citizens' right to for associations, and that is to "assemble." What is more closely linked to the American character than protest? Whether it be a "pro-life" gang of protestors in front of an abortion clinic in New Jersey, or a group of animal rights activists gathering (assembling in an association of people with shared ideas but divergent backgrounds) in front of Sea World in San Diego, or San Antonio, and protesting the use of Killer Whales with large signs waving as cars pass?

In these gatherings of associations, "...men [and women] can see one another, pool their resources, and exchange views with a forcefulness and warmth that the written word can never achieve." Now, it is fair to note at this point that Tocqueville is not just extolling the value of associations and gatherings of people who unite to become proponents of a strongly held position. He is also critiquing the freedom of the press, as he did in chapter three. And he is saying that the American character, or the American democracy, is best suited to real live people expressing viewpoints in a public arena, and those American opinions are best conveyed through voices, not the printed word.

Both the use of the printed word, and the assembly of people airing their grievances to others through protest, are elements of the American character - and both of these elements can be and are often employed as forces for change irregardless of race, class, background.

But as to the question posed for this assignment, of problems that arise with our ideals and individualism and our desire for the American dream, there are always snags in the "fishing line" of life when a people have the freedom to express their views and hope for badly needed change. When a person is a strong and long-time ardent advocate of conservation of wilderness, of wildlife and natural resources, for example, and casts his line out into the pond of public opinion (by writing a letter to the editor or speaking out at city council meeting), that person sets himself up for disillusionment.

There is a danger in expressing views that offend others; and for example, if this individual rages in public about the policy of the administration in Washington to allow timber companies to carve new roads in National Forest land - with the intent to (and permission to) clear-cut hundreds of acres of old growth forest - that person runs the risk of seeming unpatriotic, because he is "against the president."

Speaking to a neighbor across the backyard fence about an article that appeared in the paper during the first week in August - that timber companies were clear-cutting old growth forest in Alaska, and the lumber was rotting in huge stacks because there was no market for it - can run the risk of alienating that neighbor. That person next door may believe that America needs to tap into all resources whatever the cost, because the country is at war with terrorists and jobs are important; hence, men who cut timber have to support their families and send their kids to college, too, and it would be "un-American" to shut down the timber interests.

This example is used because it illustrates the possibility of failure to clearly communicate one's message, and also of personal disillusionment in search of the dream that America can be urban and modern but yet still preserve the wonder of wilderness for our children's children. Indeed, there are many millions of Americans who are very concerned about the wanton destruction of wildlife habitat by oil and gas companies seeking to squeeze the last drop of crude oil out of Alaska, and to suck the very last puff of natural gas out of a pristine plot of land adjacent to a national park in Utah. But to go into the streets with an association of those who agree that wilderness must be preserved, and to speak out in public, puts one at risk.

Meantime, Tocqueville in Chapter 14 addresses the fact that "men in democratic times" require freedom in order to "procure for themselves more easily the material gratifications for which they constantly yearn." And he carries this yearning for material things a step further (629) by asserting the "excessive taste for...gratification" by Americans "delivers them into the hands of the first man to assert his mastery." He makes Americans sound like a huge flock of sheep here. But there is truth within his mockery of the American material world, where neighbors take pride that their Lexus sedan is shinier and newer than the Jones Ford wagon next door, and both parents must work in order to keep the mortgage payment up, pay the cable bill, go on vacation to Disneyland and send junior to a good college upstate.

On page 630, Tocqueville takes on democracy and he could be writing in the 21st Century when he claims that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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American National Character (History).  (2004, August 18).  Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/american-national-character-history/7709429

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