Breaking Down Tocqueville in Arabia

Tocqueville in Arabia is a model for political theory to analyze one of the titanic political struggles of our age.

Joshua Mitchell’s Tocqueville in Arabia is a many-sided book. Part memoir, part geopolitical analysis, part rumination on the souls of the young – focus your reading one way and Mitchell proposes an understanding of the Middle East based on the spiritual sociology of Alexis de Tocqueville. Focus your reading another way and he offers a teacher’s commentary on the tastes and mental habits of elite university students in Qatar, Iraq, and the United States. Taken together, this short book honors and inhabits Tocqueville’s method and voice, illuminating the essence of liberal modernity by the lights of the Middle East and the inner consciousness of the Arab world by the prospect of a dawning modernity.

Mitchell is uniquely situated to his task. A professor of political theory at Georgetown University’s main campus in Washington, D.C., he helped set up Georgetown’s satellite campus in Doha, where he served as an academic dean. From 2008-2010, he was the acting Chancellor of the American University of Iraq, where he sought to bring the liberal arts to an embattled land in search of revitalization. Tocqueville in Arabia invites readers along with Mitchell in these travels, comparing American and Middle Eastern reactions to his classroom teaching in the history of political thought. The spirit that animates Mitchell’s book is grounded in the premise that if you really want to know what a civilization holds dear, see what it teaches its young. The mental and moral nourishment that one generation gives to the next tells more about its fundamental commitments than any other indication. Because education most clearly reveals a culture’s true commitments and worldview, the educator’s insight rivals that of the social scientist.

From his observations about students in America and the Middle East, Mitchell’s core insight is that Tocqueville offers the most incisive explanation of the politics and culture of the contemporary Middle East. That provocative claim might surprise those who know that Tocqueville never wrote about the Arab world. But Mitchell reminds us that Tocqueville is a witness to the transition from one cultural epoch to another. He observed the disappearance of an aristocratic world imbued with memories of ancestral grudges and glories, and shaped by regard for the continuity of generations. In that world, identity was bound up with inherited social roles. So while social mobility was restricted, members of society were immune from the anxiety and restlessness that characterizes the democratic age. Social codes of deference and honor mediated the relationships between members of the aristocratic society, giving everyone a place in the settled order.

European aristocrats in Tocqueville’s day feared the equality of conditions they saw in democracy because of its capacity to undermine the social codes that sustain aristocratic society. They saw that inheritance will mean little, and that our roles will be of our own making. Because the old settled order will give way to the anxieties and excitements of freedom, the democratic world will be a place of psychological restlessness. To calm that restlessness, we small-d democrats will look to government to distribute equality in a way that liberates us from the burdens of our past, opening us to the temptations of a perpetual present and the fantasy of a boundless future. These democratic tendencies might be carried too far, Tocqueville worried, and undermine the very familial, communal, civic, and religious associations that chasten our potentially solipsistic excesses. Borrowing a term from Kantian philosophy, Mitchell’s Tocqueville would have us cherish these “heteronomies” that ground the self in society, lest we find ourselves “delinked,” lonely and alone, reciting one searching monologue after another, deaf to and unheard by our neighbors.

The apprehensions about democracy that Mitchell heard from his students in Iraq and Qatar echo those old nineteenth century fears. Tocqueville’s description of the aristocratic dread of the unsettling of the ancestral order is the very intellectual category most needed to understand the contemporary Middle East.

“Juxtaposed to the firm linkages” that his Middle Eastern students “either still experience or remember, delinked man is…a source of terror for them.” And yet, though frightened of the idea of being delinked, his students are simultaneously enticed by the promise of autonomy. Offering to oblige their criticisms of democracy’s complicity in the erosion of the family and the nursing relationships that make man whole, for instance, Mitchell offered to confiscate each of his students’ mobile phones for the semester. “We all laughed, but the point had been made: around the world, the mobile phone has facilitated a level of independence that previous generations could not have imagined and given an advantage to young men and women in the age-old battle with their fathers and mothers over how much influence tradition and inheritance will have. My students in Qatar were quick to offer criticisms of delinked man, but in their own lives, in what they palpably affirm, they show ample evidence that they are rushing headlong into the very condition they claim to deplore.”

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