The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves, by James Poulos (St. Martin’s, 303 pp., $13.99, 2017)
We’re uploading more and more of our lives in the digital clouds and, as we do so, many of us are learning, at various speeds and with various degrees of horror, the extent to which we are interchangeable and individually insignificant. We seek friendship and recognition online, only to be told in effect that we’re reducible to numbers, useful primarily for making other people’s “content” popular or viral or trending. And we see without fail how opulent wealth or orgiastic pleasure dominates digital visions of paradise. We ourselves can never have that — but it’s always there, tantalizing, especially as other people who otherwise are the same as we are do have it and pretend to enjoy it tremendously.
Celebrity is there to be had. Every day some new thing goes viral. Celebrity is being newly created and celebrated all around us in the digital world. Pre-teen kids who flaunt their shameless parents’ wealth to arouse hatred and envy from the poorer majority are in on the game. Why not you and me? We’re all the same, yet only a fickle few get most of the attention, and the Internet is primed not only to create them but to count just how popular any popular thing is — unlike you and me, who are somehow condemned to unpopularity.
This is the psychodrama of our times, and of course it hits the youngest the worst. It’s worth considering that they, the new generation of Americans, do not even have an experience of pre-digital life, which most of us can still remember, at least if we try really hard. And it is hard, because not to be on social media is to be left behind, behind the times, out of whatever it is most of our peers are in.
So we should be thinking hard about how to deal with this. Happily, we have a guide: James Poulos, author of The Art of Being Free. He is as steeped in Tocqueville, whose wisdom he wants to offer to a large American audience, as in popular culture, which he often turns to in order to find the experiences that we all share and that reveal that we are, as a people, crazy — and for pretty good reasons.
We’re involved in a unique historical change, which we all feel. The old order of different social classes had the legitimacy of centuries of practice and repetition and inheritance. That’s long dead. The new order, where you have to make your own place, defend it, and not infrequently change it — well, it’s just not clear how solid it is or where it’s headed. We all know we’re not at the end of our journey. Most of us therefore are committed to social and technological change, but we’re deeply insecure about whether we’ll ever get to the future we dimly imagine — and whether it will be any good for us personally.
We’re pretty much wired to want — to need new things. We certainly cannot bother to waste time on old things, unless they come into fashion again and become new! And at the same time we have no idea what new things, if any, will prove lasting and worthwhile. We’re leaping into the future because we feel we have no alternative. The world is changing around us too fast for us to feel secure or reasonably well oriented, and it’s filling up with opportunities for — fun, wealth, and celebrity — that we cannot afford to miss, but that we also have no idea how to gain.
Despite what our progressives say, progress is uncertain and often scary. And despite their hatred of inequality, equality scares us even more. Partly, because we believe so deeply in it, we can hardly think of any concept of justice different from equality, so we’re not prepared for it to fail to make us happy and comfortable. Partly, however, it’s because equality and change are together teaching us that we’re all replaceable — that our communities, our jobs, and our personal experience can all disappear or at least be weakened rather suddenly.
Any number of things that might prove catastrophic to any one of us personally would be experienced as minor, if at all, by everyone else. That’s hard to live with at any time, but especially when the experience is vicarious, online, juxtaposed to massive wealth and opulent pleasures.
This has been true of America at least since Tocqueville toured the country almost 200 years ago, and the fear of equality and change has only increased since then. With Millennials, we finally have the strange opportunity to see a generation both experience and spectate their personal insignificance and interchangeability in a high-tech environment, beginning from childhood. Needless to say, they aren’t taking it well. They’re wedded to tech, which now seems to mean strictly Internet-based technology, because they want a future, but their experience of the Internet-based future has not made them happy.
Millennials exhibit our national problem in obvious but neglected terms. It’s not poverty, nuclear war, illegal immigration, or foreign enemies sabotaging our elections. It’s insecurity. Not poverty — but insecurity, the mundane, everyday, unpredictable but inevitable experience that our standard of living, our status, even our expectations are not firmly grounded, nor are our imaginations reliable. They can, instead, be shaken by any kind of natural or social accident. What’s worse, any number of things that might prove catastrophic to any one of us personally would be experienced as minor, if at all, by everyone else. That’s hard to live with at any time, but especially when the experience is vicarious, online, and juxtaposed to the massive wealth and opulent pleasures the visions of which are never more than a few clicks away . . .
Social rejection, humiliation, and the fear, for most of us, that individualism really means anonymity, that nobody cares about us personally as they do about celebrities— this takes new forms for Millennials. It takes the form of sending a Facebook message (for those old and uncool enough to still use Facebook) or a WhatsApp text and seeing that it was received, even read, but not getting an answer. Kids have anxiety attacks over such trivial things every day across the fruited plains.
That’s the ground level of the crisis we’re facing. This is what we have to deal with to learn again that we are not merely individuals but are also relational beings, in need of the love and friendship of others. We’re not social in an abstract sense. We’re not about “relationships” but about relationships you can put a name to, as with family, friends, love, marriage, etc. Real people are the only real opposition to our twin temptations, to chase after change and success almost worshipfully — or to withdraw from society, in fear of humiliation or just exhausted by the uncertainty and the hustle and the hypocrisy.
Poulos deals with these subjects in his book — not just change, but also the role of money in our lives, sex, play, love and faith, and even death, the perpetually unconfessed object of our fear. He works hard to bridge the gap between the esoteric level of political philosophy, where Tocqueville is at home, and the level of pop culture, where we have stories about what troubles us, but never reflections that are honest and thoughtful. He shares our agonies and has also thought through them — and his book is a rare example of the benefits of a liberal-arts education. Humanistic study actually in service of our humanity!
He doesn’t merely tell us that our craziness is constitutive, that it’s baked into the American cake. He tells us how and why and what we can do to rethink our situation and our attitudes. Our problems aren’t something we can fix by policy or an act of faith, although both are in certain ways required. Our urgent problem is to learn the bitter wisdom of “deal with it.” Not making a bargain, not that sort of dealing, but accepting and coping with the hard facts of life — and doing so without becoming bitter or disillusioned or cynical.The Art of Being Free offers a lot of help both for rethinking our situation and for coming to grips with it instead of wishing it away. It’s a book for all Americans, though especially useful for Millennials who live the ghost-lives of the digital era. At the same time, it is useful for anyone who wants to reach Millenials, first of all by understanding something of their experience and how it fits the American pattern of leaping into the future and occasionally recoiling from it.
Poulos makes available to us a wealth of insight spanning the range from pop culture to political philosophy, and, what’s rarer, he does it in a specifically Tocquevillian manner. He doesn’t bring theories to apply to our lives. He follows Tocqueville’s advice to seek within our experience the implicit principles we often grasp, dimly — in works of art or, these days, in pop culture — but find it difficult to articulate or defend in argument. This book is an act of fellowship and an offer of friendship, which is what Poulos advertises. It is also a public service. If any of my observations and arguments touch you, this book should be atop your summer reading list.
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