The idea of reality

A Zippy on reinventing yourself:

Which brings me to Alexis de Tocqueville and to Alan Ryan’s review of Leo Damrosch’s Tocqueville’s Discovery of America (New York Review of Books, December 9).

Did he not see, wonders Damrosch, that there were great disparities of income and wealth in America?

He did, but they were less striking than those he knew in France, and for him the ethos of “equality of condition” trumped inequalities of income and wealth, as it does for Americans today. About 80 percent of Americans today call themselves “middle class,” whereas 57 percent of British respondents call themselves “working class,” although the distribution of income and wealth in Britain and the United States is very similar, as are rates of social mobility.

Social class, as operationally defined by sociologists and sociolinguists by reference to objective measures like income, wealth, education, occupation, and housing, is not the same thing as social class as a tacit construct of ordinary people (who are not engaged in scientific analysis but are acting in their social worlds), nor are these the same thing as social class as explicitly labeled by ordinary speakers (if these speakers do in fact have vocabulary to talk about these matters). All three things are real, but they are three different kinds of reality.

Ryan goes on:

What was this egalitarian ethos? It was the universal belief that with luck and hard work, anyone could become rich, and if he did, his money was as good as anyone else’s; the measure of success was money, and money is uninterested in birth, manners, or refinement. The possibility that a man might start poor and make himself rich by hard work and some luck was also part of the ideology of the frontier, which Tocqueville may have been the first to articulate. The great difference between Europe and America was that in America, a man who had failed might move west and try again; in Europe, he would be trapped. No doubt reality fell far short of this idealized picture, but people are affected by their idea of reality more than by reality itself.

So Dingburgers can imagine that, in America, you can always reinvent yourself — as anything.

3 Responses to “The idea of reality”

  1. Jan Freeman Says:

    Pardon my wandering OT, but for a few long seconds I thought you were describing a joint book review (of a gimmicky sort) when I read “Which brings me to Alexis de Tocqueville and Alan Ryan’s review.” I wonder if anyone else will stumble at that point …

  2. Elli D. Says:

    I have just had exactly the same thought 😀 the gap between your expectations about the article and the actual first sentence is striking! it may not be a bad idea to modify it a little. but otherwise I have to say that I enjoyed it very much, thanks for posting

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