I’ve been slowly working my way through Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time in ten years, and I’m wondering if this should be a once-per-decade read so as to take the pulse of American culture. Ten years ago, it was provocative theoretically, but seemingly futuristic. Today, while the brave new world Huxley describes isn’t actually here, the dystopic future it describes seems, in some senses, not all that far off, either. What has happened?
For one thing, yes, I’ve matured ten years, and that has quite a bit to do with the matter. But a recent discussion on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America pricked my brain in a spot that perhaps needed pricking, and I’m wondering if perhaps what else has happened is that our American democracy has done precisely what Tocqueville warned against. We’ve expanded the realm of contingency to, well, just about everything.
I should back up. Tocqueville saw most of American life as contingent rather than fixed, and he took this to be a mark of the new era unfolding in America – a democratic age without the fixed roles determined by heredity and class of the passing aristocratic era of his native France. Americans, he observed, act as individuals, not as the class-bound members of an aristocratic society. They are bootstrappers, self-made men, they believe in hard work and social mobility. In short, where we are born – and who we are born to – doesn’t determine who we are. We do. (For more, see Ray Charles.)
But Tocqueville saw two aspects of American culture that didn’t – and, importantly, shouldn’t – fit this mold of total freedom and flexibility. Church and family were not contingent; rather, these were the source of the very mores that stabilized and undergirded the otherwise constantly in-flux nature of American life. (Even Tocqueville’s famed voluntary associations, which partisans of civil society often tout as the cure to our American social ills, are also contingent – we can join or leave and we are free to change the nature of the associations.) For Tocqueville’s America, “liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” He insisted that “men cannot do without dogmatic belief, and even that it is much to be desired that such belief should exist among them. I now add that, of all the kinds of dogmatic belief, the most desirable appears to me to be dogmatic belief in matters of religion…” Religion, Tocqueville observed, restrained Americans from allowing liberty to devolve into license as this people, freed from the aristocratic tethers of family name and fixed classes, built a new nation under the audacious claim that “all men are created equal.” The “main business of religion,” he wrote, “is to purify, control and restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men acquire during times of equality.”
The family, furthermore – for Tocqueville, particularly the role of women in the family – preserved a zone of safety, stability, and nurturing in a democratic society otherwise driven by delinked individuals pursuing their own ends. That zone, though, had to remain fixed in its basic form – i.e., one man, one woman, and children – rather than join the list of up-for-grab elements of democracy, in order for America to preserve her democracy. While I’m far from advocating a return to his fairly rigid role for women, it is worth considering how much time Tocqueville spent in emphasizing the dangers of extending the drive to equality-as-sameness to the category of the sexes. Men and women are different, and that difference is the basis of the family, and the family is, with religion, the foundation of American democracy.
So why should Americans care about the decline of religion, or about the latest attempts to change the meaning of marriage? Because in dissolving these institutions, or attempting to render them as contingent as all other aspects of life, we remove the last natural safe havens for human life from society, in an ostensible effort to render all aspects of life as zones of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality.’ But as Tocqueville cautioned us, not everything can be contingent if liberty is to survive. The Americans he met were free from class strictures, but firmly tied to the “controls” and “restraints” that it is the “main business of religion” to provide.
It is naïve to believe, however, that if we remove these restraints we will simply be more free. Humans will dogmatize something, Tocqueville reminds us, and Huxley reminds us that the state is all too happy to step in and provide a replacement when we have thrown off the yoke of religion and gender difference.