Joshua Mitchell, professor of political theory at Georgetown University, helped establish Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar and taught there from 2005 to 2008. From 2008 to 2010, he was acting chancellor of the American University of Iraq. Tocqueville in Arabia draws mainly on his Qatar years. But the Cairo-born Mitchell, son of a distinguished Arabist, also spent part of his childhood in the Middle East, and the book is deepened by his rich, personal relationship with that part of the world.
Tocqueville in Arabia is the result, says Mitchell, of an “imagined embrace between Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.” Like the former, it “seeks to illuminate the concerns of students in the distant lands of the Middle East.” Like the latter, “it aspires to be a comprehensive reflection on the challenges facing America.” Above all, Tocqueville in Arabia “seeks to foster an understanding about one another that eludes Americans and Middle Easterners alike.”
Mitchell finds the key to such an understanding in an unlikely place, Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century classic Democracy in America. He fell for Tocqueville as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and has lived with and taught him every since. Mitchell’s argument begins with his perplexity at the resistance to Tocqueville he encountered when he taught, early this century, in a declining Buenos Aires and an up-and-coming Lisbon. Later he encounters the same resistance in Qatar. Strangely, in these very different places on three continents, the expression of resistance is “not simply similar” but “identical.”
The expression owes much to the disciples of Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche, whose ideas have spread to Europe’s former colonies. But the resistance itself owes more to students’ doubts about the “delinked” democratic man whom Tocqueville described. Mitchell does not deny that Middle Eastern views of America have much to do with Islam and something to do with wounded pride. But he urges his American students today to see their Middle Eastern counterparts as caught up in the same democratic forces that have shaped them and to understand Middle Eastern anxieties about democratic man as in part warranted.
Tocqueville’s democratic man emerges “amidst the ruins” of aristocratic society. Aristocratic man was firmly linked to “family, to land, to kingdom or empire, and ultimately to the cosmos itself.” With the advance of equality, these artificial links largely dissolved, leaving human beings liberated but weak and alone. If delinked democratic man can be “relinked” by means consistent with democracy—such as civic associations, religion, and strong families—he may become capable of ruling himself. If not, his isolation and anxiety at being alone will cause him to depend on the state to resolve his problems; he will become “somnambulant,” “self-absorbed,” and wont “to die alone, with cats.”
Here is the problem for Mitchell’s Middle Eastern and South American students. They come “from societies where aristocratic linkages still prevail” or are at least remembered fondly. Delinked democratic man is “a source of terror for them.” Yet they are drawn to the prospect of freedom from the bonds of extended family and religion. They are, as Tocqueville puts it, in “an intermediate age” between aristocracy and democracy, “a glorious and troubled period, in which conditions are not fixed enough for the intellect to sleep.”
As for Mitchell’s American students, who have known nothing but democracy, they cannot understand this ambivalence. Their problem is their inability to see the democratic social order as anything other than the inevitable outcome of history or to think of it as having virtues that need support and vices that require vigilant opposition. The “challenges facing America,” Mitchell thinks, stem mainly from such vices—from excessive love of equality, which causes American students and their parents to demand a world in which nobody fails, to excessive impatience with authority and limits, which causes them to adopt an easygoing “spirituality” in place of a demanding religion.
Americans and Middle Easterners share a dangerous wish to retreat from the problems posed by democracy. Middle Easterners long for “the perceived organic union of some bygone age” or for “a revolutionary upheaval” that puts an end to all troubles. Americans, disengaged but experiencing the anxieties that attend democratic life, take refuge in “-isms” that “promise to put an end to the void in their lonely souls” without demanding they talk to their neighbors. Tocqueville’s work is a partial antidote to this problem, “a sober defense of the coming [democratic] age” that “seeks to identify its benefits while warning against its dangers.”
Tocqueville in Arabia succeeds in a task that would have seemed nearly impossible—that of making Tocqueville, who is often pressed into service to comment on contemporary American life, a plausible commentator on the contemporary Middle East.
But Mitchell’s exercise has notable limits. Qatar is among the world’s wealthiest nations. It is stable, and it has virtually no unemployment. While only half of Mitchell’s students in Qatar were actually Qatari, one should be cautious about drawing conclusions about the Middle East from this unusual sample. More generally, while Mitchell briefly acknowledges brutality in Middle Eastern politics and the conspiracy theories that govern the “Arab Street,” mutual understanding would seem to demand a less sanitized view of the preoccupations of young people in the region.
Equally problematic, the students Mitchell offers to help us understand seem atypical to me. Mitchell’s American students are more money-oriented than almost any I have met in 15 years of teaching. They say things like, “What is the value of motherhood… if money is the only value?” But they are also much more critical of capitalism than my students. They sympathize with Marx and “the fact of profit making offends their understanding of justice.” My students rarely sympathize with Marx, and I have met but one who professed to be offended by the idea of profit. As for Mitchell’s students in Qatar, it is not credible that when they hear that America rejects the idea of “permanent winners and losers, they are “dismayed” and wonder “how can this be just?” Mitchell has already told us that these same students have been influenced by Rousseau and Marx. It is impossible not to conclude that Mitchell, under the guise of describing his students, sometimes draws cartoon Tocquevillian democrats and aristocrats.
But as a whole, Mitchell’s portrait of his students is affecting, and I believe him when he says that they find in Tocqueville a man who “reads their own hearts.” Mitchell’s career has taught him that students in America and the Middle East sense that the tools they have for understanding themselves are inadequate. Good teachers dispose them to “solicit help from the authors they read so that they may understand [their experience] more deeply.” With such help, students may see further than “the blur of daily events” and the “liberal triumphalism and colonial indignation” that pass for an analysis of them.
Tocqueville in Arabia ends by arguing that support for liberal arts education in the Middle East is essential. This view may seem quixotic, but Mitchell makes a powerful case that it is the long view—and the right one.
Jonathan Marks is professor of politics at Ursinus College.