Friday, September 23, 2011

"Managing the Future"- Alexis de Tocqueville, in Lapham's Quarterly

The current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is about The Future. Different predictions of the future, thoughts, hopes, dreams, etc., throughout time are shared, some horribly bleak, others remarkably bright. The piece out of this quarter’s issue that I decided to focus on is called “Managing the Future,” by Alexis de Tocqueville.

One of the reasons why I found this essay so interesting was because it’s about the American government and American Nationalism, yet it was written in 1840 by a Frenchman about his brief nine month stay in America. Tocqueville’s take on America is scathing, to say the least. He says that while American politicians always speak of The Future in a lofty and optimistic manner, when it comes to actually doing things that will pay off later (and possibly not now), they don’t. According to him, not only are American politicians truly nearsighted, but they will surrender themselves endlessly to the casual whims of daily desire and that they will abandon entirely anything which requires long-term effort, thus failing to establish anything noble or calm or lasting.”

The reason this essay stuck out to me was because it’s a problem I still see in this country today, even though Tocqueville was observing this in the 1830s, and I think I can safely say that I am not the only one. The call for practicality and teamwork in Tocqueville’s piece was a message that I’d like to see applied today, even though by now Tocqueville was hoping we’d be there already.



Popped said...


I have to say that the first thing I thought of when I read that the current Lapham's Quarterly issue was about the future was Stephen Colbert's predictions for the future super bowl champions (incidentally it is the Miami Dolphins over the Sector B5 Meta-Creatures in 2026).
More seriously though, I agree that a problem apparent in the 1830s ought to have been addressed by now, and the fact that it hasn't doesn't give me much hope for the future. If I'm being honest though I probably didn't have that much hope to begin with. I've never seen much that indicates positive change is probable, and as long as politicians are worried about re-election/election the immediate desires of the voters are their only concern. I suppose we're all guided by selfish motives.
So I guess I second your call for practicality and teamwork, though I'm not hopeful.


Popped said...

On a similar note to Averill, I think it's both incredible that Tocqueville's critique of American politics is scarily accurate, and I also find it sad that it is still as accurate today as it was then. I recently read an article on BBC, however, about how the American public is becoming increasingly more disillusioned with rhetoric and promises of grand change or immediate resolutions and are beginning to push harder for politicians to be more realistic in their words.Though it is common for such articles to appear from time to time, today's current issues (economic crisis in the US and Europe, the possibility of entire countries defaulting, etc) may be creating a unique enough situation that people will either scrutinize their politicians enough to place an emphasis on individuals with long-term plans and fewer elaborate plans/supposed magic bullets, or, what could be even better, is that members of the upcoming generations may feel strongly enough against the current format of politics in order to forget about re-elections and, in some regard, politics itself, in order to actually get the job done. Tragedies such the shooting in Arizona and the suicides of gay youths, as well as the near default of the US have highlighted the polarization and plain bickering of the political parties. There have been calls for reform and compromise, and who knows, maybe the upcoming generation will have a new kind of politician that will finally address and fix the notes in Tocqueville's piece. Admittedly, I am someone who is hopeful, but once again, we just might have to wait and see.
-----Jen G.

Popped said...

Wow, it really is remarkable how applicable Tocqueville's comments are to the current situation. The problem at the moment seems to be that no matter what the American people are saying or thinking, the higher-ups who have the authority are just going along doing their thing. Not that I really think it would be much better if ordinary people were in charge, since they're probably mostly just as worried about satisfaction today as the government is. Maybe it has something to do with what a young country we are, that we don't have the history behind us to see that failing to think ahead never works out well. I mean, we do have the history, but we don't have enough practice paying attention to it.

While I am not hopeful about the situation, I'm not actively pessimistic.

--Sarah Lawrence