Perhaps the most eye-opening reading I have encountered thus far comes courtesy of the great observer, Alexis De Tocqueville. His writings are filled with some of the most interesting commentary on our country that one will ever find. A Frenchman who originally came to study the United States’ penitentiary system, Tocqueville offered us a timeless outside perspective of our great country that will forever remain relevant. The beauty of Tocqueville’s observations lies in their clarity and simplicity. As Americans, most of us are not familiar with how foreign governments and societies function, and thus do not always realize how truly unique our country is. Alexis De Tocqueville clearly and succinctly described the United States, contrasted it with his home of France, and painted a picture of our country that opened the eyes of millions of Americans to a new perspective. With his simple observations and writings, Tocqueville held up a mirror into which Americans could look and see the beauty of their country reflected. This simple man has been one of the most important influences in America, and one has to ask, why aren’t there more Alexis De Tocquevilles in the world today?
Unfortunately, many Americans today are too preoccupied with their lives to be anything like Alexis De Tocqueville. Our nation is mostly filled with mindless “sheeple” who are completely incapable of even stringing together two coherent thoughts. Jimmy Kimmel recently discovered that some people still believe MLK is alive and well; a classmate in my college class couldn’t spell the word “specific”, and thought it started with the letters P-E-R…; a co-worker, when asked their thoughts on Louie Gohmert challenging John Boehner, responded with, “I hate sports”; and a caller to a radio talk show thought that socialism was “when you talk to people.” A quick look at our abysmally-ranked education system is further evidence that we are producing a dumbed-down culture of unintelligent citizens who do not think, and that is a very dangerous thing.
Consider the following excerpt from a letter by Alexis De Tocqueville to his friend.
“…What idea do the French have of political institutions in the United States, of the national character, of the different classes of society, of the commercial state, of the future of this country, of its religious position? … What are your thoughts about the power of the Congress over the Union in general and over each state in particular? To what do you attribute the prosperity of this nation–to its political institutions or to material and industrial causes? To what degree of civilization do you suppose this nation has attained, and precisely what forms does its civilization assume? Where do matters stand here as to the spirit of society, the literary culture, the pleasures of the imagination, the fine arts?
Do you believe that there are political parties in the United States? To what extremes is the spirit of equality carried? Do people adhere to that spirit because they are bound to do so by aw or does it profoundly inform their minds and more? What form does it take?
How do you conceive freedom of the press in the United States, freedom of enterprise, electoral rights or eligibility?
And then comes my personal favorite line, “Chat about all that in your reply, chatter on about it, expatiate…” Here was a man who was desperate to have an intelligent conversation. Alexis De Tocqueville took the time to think about things that actually matter in life. He was hungry for debate, discussion, conversation. The man was a lover of truth, and he wanted to find it. He wanted to hear all the perspectives on every important life matter so he could find the truth. To put it simply, the man thought about things; he used his brain. Contrast his attitude and his words with ours today.
Our thoughts are now summed up in a few-character status update or tweet. Our conversations are filled with abbreviations and emoticons. Sometimes we just use pictures or “snaps”, and forget about words altogether. Our positions on matters of importance are usually limited to regurgitated slogans. Original thoughts are rare these days. Logic has been thrown out the window and replaced with emotion. Evil causes all over the nation have massive support from people who hear a catchy slogan and don’t stop to use their minds.
Perhaps the reason that so many Americans are dumbed-down has a lot to do with technology. A recent viral video put it well when the author said we have become “slaves to the technology we mastered,” and also, “We’re a generation of idiots–smart phones and dumb people.” In De Tocqueville’s day, communication was limited to face-to-face and letters. This meant that conversation was typically meaningful, useful, and important. Today, technology has made communication effortless. And while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is no denying that ease of communication has directly led to poor quality of communication.
Whatever the reason for this dumbed-down culture where people no longer use their minds, we have to break free. We have to be more like Alexis De Tocqueville and use God’s great gift of the human mind. It isn’t hard. All one has to do is simply think about things. Don’t take things for granted. Ask questions. Be curious. Go out in the world with questions, come back with answers, and discuss them with your neighbors. Why can’t our conversations today be more like Tocqueville’s conversations? How surprised he would be today if he saw how ignorant we have become. How sad it is that we have permitted ourselves to sink this low! We have to change our course. Start writing, start debating, share your thoughts, make others think, discuss your opinions, research others’ opinions, write an essay, ask a controversial question, record the answers, express your findings, “Chat about all that…chatter on about it, expatiate…”