Comfort Zones

January 7 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

De Tocquville said it first. Every time I read some observation about America and Americans, especially by writers from the other side of the Atlantic, I’m almost certain I could find something similar in Democracy in America.

This time it was Geoff Dyer’s “Letter from London” in the New York Times Book Review. Dyer contrasts the pleasantness of life in America with the willingness of his fellow Brits to endure small deprivations. “We didn’t drive big gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, and if we were chilly of an evening we put on a sweater rather than turning up the heating (or, more accurately, turning off the A.C.)”

Americans, he implies, would never resign themselves to a car that was too small or a room that was not a perfect temperature. He traces this British “ostrich stoicism” to the War.
Our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.
Here’s de Tocqueville on the issue of creature comforts, over a century before World War II, nearly two centuries before Geoff Dyer, and with a slightly different spin:
In America the passion for physical well-being is . . . general; it is felt by all. The effort to satisfy even the least wants of the body and to provide the little conveniences of life is uppermost in every mind.

I never perceived among the wealthier inhabitants of the United States that proud contempt of physical gratifications which is sometimes to be met with even in the most opulent and dissolute aristocracies.
For de Tocqueville, stoicism came not from experience (the Blitz) but from structure, specifically aristocracy. For those in the upper levels,
the comforts of life are not the end of life, but simply a way of living. . . . enjoyed but scarcely thought of. . . . The members of an aristocracy often display a haughty contempt of these very enjoyments and exhibit singular powers of endurance under the privation of them.
For the poor in aristocracies, the lack of mobility creates its own kind of stoicism.
They do not think of things which they despair of obtaining and which they hardly know enough of to desire.
Just as the structure of aristocracy made for its stocism, it is the structure of democratic society that breeds the obsession with the comforts of life.
When . . . the distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are destroyed, when hereditary property is subdivided and education and freedom are widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.
De Tocqueville knew nothing about l'empreinte charbon, but our love of comfort is a huge part of the reason that Americans produce, per capita, three times as much CO2 as do Europeans. What do we Americans do when we get to Europe and find that we have to dry our clothes on a line, not a dryer, and that the car we rent has no automatic shift, no air conditioning, and no cup holders?

(All de Toqueville passages are from Democracy in America, Book II, Chapter X.)

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