Tocqueville in Georgetown

by James Ceaser

Postmodern conservative moviegoers will under no circumstances want to miss Dnesh D’Souza’s new documentary America.  Some of us — not me! — may find the display of bunting excessive (one torn and battered Old Glory from the Revolutionary War makes her appearance some twenty times), and others of us — again, not me! — may complain of an overdose of patriotic music and gauzy depictions of this nation’s natural beauties. Reasonable questions might also be raised about whether D’Souza’s account of the continuing influence of Saul Alinsky’s philosophy on President Obama and Hillary Clinton, a preoccupation that takes up much of the last part of this 103-minute documentary, is not exaggerated. But no one in our camp can be anything but grateful at the first appearance on the big screen of the personage of pomocon’s house philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville plays no bit part in this movie, but is announced with great solemnity by the narrator (D’Souza) as one of the great interpreters and defenders of the American experiment. This verbal introduction does not begin, however, to prepare the viewer for the splendid visuals that follow. Played by handsome Rett Terrell, who debuted in Vampire Sucks (2010) and made a mark in Army of Frankensteins (2013), Tocqueville cuts quite a striking figure. Clad in impeccable aristocratic garb, he surpasses all the other characters in the movie, George Washington perhaps excepted, in splendor and looks. (The change of genre, from vampire to aristocrat, should also help Terrell to jumpstart his career by showcasing his versatility.) Tocqueville’s  manly image, softened just slightly by a conspicuous habit of jotting down notes in a fine leather tablet, commands the audience’s attention for a good while. Tocqueville is made to look even better by comparison: He is followed around by another person, also dressed in an aristocratic costume but short and portly, who is never identified. The pomocon viewer may flatter him or herself in thinking immediately of Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville’s companion on the journey, but such speculation should await corroboration from genuine Tocqueville experts like Carl Scott and Peter Lawler.

The viewer may be slightly disappointed that Tocqueville has no speaking part — perhaps Terrell’s French accent was not yet up to snuff — but there is no question that he is featured in one of the movie’s most dramatic and original scenes. (I issue here a Spoiler Alert for those who plan to see the film.) Tocqueville is depicted in a crowded tavern seated amidst scores of Americans, all quite democratic in appearance with roughly hewn clothes and shouting loudly as they imbibe the local beverage. The food, evidently hunks of cooked meat, is placed unceremoniously on platters in the middle of the tables. Tocqueville looks very much out of place. Suddenly the good democrats fall silent as they all turn toward Tocqueville, who is observed removing his two hands finger by finger from the most perfect of linen white gloves. The camera lingers on Tocqueville’s hands — the hands that crafted Democracy in America. The Americans are half in awe, half in scorn, wondering at how this alien, almost a being of another species, would eat his food. It is an existential moment for Tocqueville, who is pulled between his heart and manners, formed by aristocracy, and his judgment and sense of the destiny of history, which leans for democracy. After an agonizing second, Tocqueville in a sudden and dramatic burst grabs a knife and stabs it into a piece of the meat. He has chosen democracy! The Americans burst into shouts of joy, as Tocqueville makes common cause with the people.

I found myself applauding, unable in this moment to contain my emotions. All this took place in the K Street cinema in Georgetown, where I was saved from embarrassment by the fortunate, though not entirely surprising, fact of being the sole spectator in the theater. Georgetown is not exactly D’Souza’s home turf. There will be other venues, one hopes, where Tocqueville can be more widely appreciated and earn the cult following he so richly deserves.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.