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Bitch, bitch, bitch
But do so reflectively
“The hatred that men bear to privilege increases in proportion as privileges become fewer and less considerable, so that democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely just when they have least fuel,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s in Democracy in America. “When all conditions are unequal, no inequality is so great as to offend the eye, whereas the slightest dissimilarity is odious in the midst of general uniformity; the more complete this uniformity is, the more insupportable the sight of such a difference becomes.”
Tocqueville’s observation has been borne out often enough to acquire a name: the Tocqueville effect. The more equal things become, the more the remaining inequalities are resented. The principle has played out in American history, and it sheds light on our current situation.
In George Washington’s day, it didn’t occur to the average American to complain about the aloofness Washington cultivated. Washington acted as though he was better than other people, and he got away with it. If anything, it increased his appeal. Americans of that day expected to look up to their leaders.
As democracy set in, attitudes changed. Andrew Jackson was judged by many to be the second coming of Washington, having rescued America at New Orleans much as Washington had done at Yorktown. But Jackson was a different sort of hero. He was of the people, not above the people. An orphan who succeeded by courage and cussedness, Jackson was a model of what millions of Americans could aspire to. No one could aspire to be George Washington who hadn’t been born George Washington.
In politics, the transition to the new model was swift and irreversible. Successful candidates had to demonstrate their common touch. And if they didn’t have it, they had to fake it, as William Henry Harrison contrived to do in his “log cabin and hard cider” campaign in 1840.
The tendency for dissatisfaction to grow even as cause for dissatisfaction decreases helps explain a curious feature of modern American public discourse. Never have all sorts of Americans had less to complain about than they do today, but never have they complained more loudly. More Americans have access to health care than ever before, yet more attention is paid to those who don’t. Women as a group are better educated than they ever were and get more prestigious jobs, yet the slights women suffer have never received more attention. Race relations today are portrayed as being in constant crisis, but the opportunities available to people of color are greater than they have ever been. Middle-class Americans have a lifestyle undreamed of by their grandparents, but the media narrative focuses on the stress they experience.
Some of this reflects the simple fact that people like to complain. Give them what they want, and they ask for more. There is probably adaptive value in this, evolutionarily speaking. The acquisitive were better prepared for unexpected scarcity. The dissatisfied and restless have been more likely to strike out in new directions, make new discoveries, build new empires.
Some of it reflects the phenomenon that until the possibility of change appears, people don’t waste their time railing against the status quo. Until a generation or two ago, a diagnosis of cancer was often a death sentence, sad but unactionable. Nowadays whole hospitals are devoted to the treatment of cancer, and campaigns are constantly underway to raise awareness about this or that form of cancer. Survival rates have soared, but so has frustration with the failure of modern medicine to defeat cancer definitively, as smallpox has been defeated.
Related to this is the circumstance that until you can see that the river has another bank, you don’t fret about not getting there. When girls weren’t even guaranteed an elementary education, few complained that they couldn’t go to college. When homosexuality per se was illegal, gay marriage wasn’t an issue.
“Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue,” wrote François de La Rochefoucauld, echoing many before him. In a similar vein it might be said that complaint is frustration’s acknowledgment of progress.
So complain all you want. It’s what we humans do. But give a thought to the history that has made your complaining pertinent.