Monday, May 09, 2011

de Tocqueville and Sophistication

Chris V asks,

"How would Alexis de Tocqueville see democracy in America today?"
The nice thing about putting words in the mouth of a dead person is that he's not there to correct you. On the one hand, the America of today with its corporate oligarchy is not the America of Jacksonian democracy that de Tocqueville observed. In certain ways, it is more like the aristocracies of old Europe with a landed gentry and a permanent underclass dedicated to propping up the oppressive order -- the system that was falling to pieces before de Tocqueville's eyes. On the other hand, there is still the same general character that he described. I think de Tocqueville would be fascinated by the Bush administration and the Tea Party wherein capitalism and Christianity are still seen as inexorably entwined and a sense of antipathy towards that which is caring, kind, and humane is taken as a sign of strength, authenticity, and truth. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Michael Schmidt asks,
"If sophia is wisdom, why are so many stupid things called sophisticated?"
I think the answer comes from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals wherein he contends that those with political power give meaning to moral vocabulary. When there is a change in power structures, there is a change in meaning of the moral vocabulary. While "sophistication" is not directly an ethical term, it is clearly value-laden. To be sophisticated is to be better than most.

The idea is that with age comes wisdom, but after the industrial revolution this got altered to which money comes wisdom. In the 30s and 40s, when the rest of the nation was reeling from the Depression, movie stars and robber barons became those to whom the rest of us could look for a different way of being. The lifestyles of the rich and famous came not only with comforts and pleasures we could never afford, but also a different set of rules, a new social etiquette that we were shut out from learning. As such, whatever these admired few did, they did with a haughty sense that made it sophisticated by definition. But, some of what they did was stupid and as stupid begets stupid, so the notion of sophisticated became more and more alienated from its etymological roots.

More tomorrow...look for the less sophisticated ones then...