We all have met that person who has the unsavory habit of interjecting themselves into a topic or conversation so they can force in contrary evidence and set everyone on the straight and narrow. We all cringe when the proverbial “Well, actually…” rears up unwelcome. If you have spent any amount of time on social media, you know how ubiquitous this is. And how annoying. How can someone be so arrogant and selfish?
The problem with being frustrated about this is that we are often the one to interject (or we want to) and correct the abject stupidity in front of us. Of course, when we interject it is to defend truth and set reality back on its course. If you have spent any amount of time on social media, you know the nonsense that is out there. Your correction is sorely needed. How can you let such madness go unchallenged?
We could make several observations about these tendencies, but I want to a point out how this coincides with the practice of history. Further, I think that history—done well—offers help here. Historians are usually categorized among the “Well, actually…” crowd. It’s the historian’s job to remind us that history is complex. Sure, it’s annoying. But often this is necessary. Simplistic answers to complex questions rarely satisfy. Convenient quotes often twist historical facts. And basing an action or movement on an inaccuracy breeds bigger problems. Sometimes adding complexity is beneficial.
Recently, I have come across several examples of this beneficial corrective to problematic or simplistic history. I want to present one of these in order to demonstrate how complexity leads to benefit.
(Mis)Quoting the French
My example is from the recent book by Robert Tracy McKenzie, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy. McKenzie begins with the famous quote from the nineteenth-century French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because America is good.” Tocqueville came to America in the 1830s with express purpose to observe what made American democracy tick. The above quote is one piece of longer quotation:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it probably is. It has been quoted by political figures such as Ronald Reagan, John Kerry, Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Michelle Bachmann, Charles Coulson, Rush Limbaugh, Colin Powell, Ben Carson, and many others (see McKenzie’s prologue for more). The problem is that it’s fake. Tocqueville didn’t say it. What’s worse, as McKenzie shows, is that it is terrible misrepresentation of what Tocqueville argued. As a matter of fact, it is nearly exactly the opposite of Tocqueville’s view. That this quote is fake is a fact that historians have pointed out since at least when Eisenhower evoked it.
McKenzie’s book is not just an effort to correct the record on the quote, that is just the springboard. Rather he shows that Tocqueville was a devout student of democracy with a deft understanding of its dangers and hopes, which he laid out in his famous book, Democracy in America. McKenzie argues that Tocqueville saw within democracy the capability of tyranny, particularly when the collective majority has an uncontrolled desire for something that the minority possesses. “In a democratic society, ‘the omnipotence of the majority’ can readily become ‘the tyranny of the majority’” (204). McKenzie adds complexity not just in a historical presentation of Tocqueville’s work but in the historical background to 1830s America. He lays out the notion of democracy that the founders held and then contrasts it with that which prevailed in the 1830s in the era when Andrew Jackson was president. While the founders held that democracy was the best form of government and also recognized that the people were not naturally virtuous, Jacksonian democracy was a faith that “democracy is intrinsically just” and that “we are individually good and collectively wise” (12).
The complexity McKenzie offers is important. A false quote has been repeated over and over again because it was useful to someone, not because it was true. The historical facts are that Tocqueville and the founding fathers had a different understanding of democracy than the quote recognizes. In fact, he actively warned against the idea that the fake quote puts forward. The historical change to Jacksonian understanding (which McKenzie calls the “Great Reversal”) is a fundamental shift in the understanding of democracy. This is McKenzie’s purpose: to recognize the various philosophies of democracy and realize the differences between them is a shift in how trustworthy the human heart is.
The complexity that McKenzie provides means that a view of democracy that fails to see the latent danger in the democractic system is incomplete. The founding fathers saw this danger, as did Tocqueville. They still believed in democracy as the best option available, but they were unwilling to set aside their convictions that people (even—or especially—the majority of people) have a tendency to mistreat others because their own desires blind them. Tocqueville saw this as the danger of democracy. Christians have traditionally called this fallenness. A faith in democracy to automatically produce the best result needs the complexity that McKenzie is pointing out.
I’ll leave McKenzie’s work there, though much more could be said. It is a book well worth your time. He uses this historical presentation to challenge contemporary Christians who have forgotten the theological idea that we are a fallen people. As you can perhaps gather, he will chastise politicians (former President Trump at the center) as well as Christians.
History and Virtue
Complexity has a few benefits. In most instances, not only is complexity helpful, but it is also necessary to avoid error. If someone appeals to the false Tocqueville quote, it does damage to their credibility (if one knows the problem with the quote) or it does damage to the one listening (if they accept the quote as genuine). An interjection of complexity would help. When we receive correction and someone demands we see more complexity, we should learn to accept such correction as grace. In fact, I would say this is vital even if quite difficult. Finally, when we insist on more complexity in others, we need both to be thorough (don’t correct if you don’t have your facts straight in the first place) and gentle. Proper historical practice requires we do our homework and gentleness is a virtue. In so doing, we build others and ourselves. Understanding and clarity only help.
Perhaps the biggest problems with allowing complexity are that it is hard and it cuts both ways. We are just as susceptible as anyone else to want things to be simple. But good history is complex. It requires us to build virtue. Patience, humility, love of truth, love of others, and grace are all intellectual and social virtues. They are also central to good history. And this is my point. History done well builds virtue. Complexity, when offered or received well, is a benefit.