Whether in Hong Kong or the US, we are all under threat from the despots spreading hate and fear
Alice Wu says democracy takes hard work, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century insights still hold true – the future is grim unless we are prepared to work through our differences and find common cause
What if Alexis de Tocqueville were to return to America today? Upon arriving in the Land of the Free, he would not be struck so forcibly by the “general equality of conditions” or by the peculiar good nature of American political life. He would most certainly be struck very forcibly by a particular politician, with a most peculiar head of hair.
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Listening to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, de Tocqueville would surely be reminded of his own words in his masterpiece, Democracy in America, which documented his observations from his transatlantic trip 185 years ago.
“No vice of the human heart is so acceptable to [despotism] as egotism,” he wrote. And, “perverting the natural meaning of words”, a despot “applauds as good citizens those who have no sympathy for any but themselves”.
The Land of the Free, the nation and the people de Tocqueville was once so impressed with has turned into a monstrosity, with its old defences against “relapsing into barbarism” now replaced by a despotism that “raises barriers to keep [men] asunder”. No barrier is as great as what is to be the Great Trump Wall.
How warped “liberty” had become in the US – it now includes the liberty to disregard the interests of fellow men and women, to overlook the sacrifices fellow countrymen have made for the nation, and to forget what made America great in the first place. It now includes the liberty to wound, punch and shoot.
Perhaps de Tocqueville’s worst nightmare for America has come true. He warned the world about the ills of individualism almost two centuries ago. Today, we see people who are unable – even discouraged – to work together to achieve common goals. Instead of coming together, upon the understanding that they need one another despite their differences, they are now called to turn against those who are different and to shoot those they find disagreeable.
The America de Tocqueville visited in the 19th century wasn’t without problems, but it was impressive because it was a place where democracy worked. It had enough of the right conditions for democracy to thrive. And, most important of all, it had people who arrived on its shores from different backgrounds,who were willing to work extraordinarily hard to find common ground, towards a common cause, and lived the lives of their choosing as neighbours. That made America great.
But, in today’s America, the “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” bred by what de Tocqueville called “soft despotism” permeate the land.
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De Tocqueville went to great lengths to describe the exceptional conditions that made democracy in America possible; democracy is anything but a simple formula. One size does not, indeed, fit all. And from what we have seen, it takes hard work to protect it from clear and present dangers.
Hong Kong, too, is afflicted with “fear, uncertainty and doubt”, as we try to find our place in the world, and our own path in democracy. The constitutional promise of universal suffrage has yet to be realised, and, yet, we are already struggling with challenges that are tearing our communities apart. There are no short cuts to resolving our problems and realising our democratic aspirations.
Hong Kong was also once a place of opportunity – a new home to many who left their previous lives behind. Today, we, too, are under threat – from people who want us to turn on one another. None of our problems, however, can be resolved by the clear and present dangers of those who are propagating hate, inciting violence, and inflicting harm on others.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA