Trust No

In 1835 and 1840, the most important work of the great French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville appeared in two volumes. A philosophic reflection on his visit to the United States in the early 1830s, Democracy in America records Tocqueville's observations on the novel political experiment that was America, a regime founded on classical liberal principles articulated by the likes of Locke, Jefferson, Madison, and Paine. Among a myriad of brilliant insights into the genius of American democracy, Tocqueville noted with favor the superabundance in early-nineteenth-century America of "associations of civil life":

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small: Americans use associations to give fĂȘtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.9

Tocqueville concludes that the very health of American, indeed of all democratic government, depends crucially on its plenitude of voluntary (nongovernmental, purely private) industrial, moral, religious, intellectual, and political associations: "In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one. Among the laws that rule human societies there is one that seems more precise and clearer than all the others. In order that men remain civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them in the same ratio as equality of conditions increases." According to Tocqueville, the freedoms of political and civil association are interdependent. Where one declines or is prohibited, the other will also degenerate or cease to exist.10

But if the robust health of the American republic in the 1830s is to be measured by the vigor of its voluntary associations, what are we to say about the state of American society in the 1990s? If The X-Files and Millennium were accurate gauges of our civic health, then American democracy at the end of the millennium would appear to be on life support. As Rod Serling might say, consider, if you will, both what is and, more importantly, what is not present in the world portrayed in these two television shows. What is nearly as conspicuous as the fact that the chief characters all work for the government or its affiliates is that they tend to be unusually devoted to their jobs. Both shows feature workaholics (Mulder, Scully, and Black) who repeatedly risk their personal happiness and private lives for the sake of their professional objectives. Frank Black's marriage nearly dissolves as a result of his devotion to his job; Mulder maintains an immaculate bachelorhood as he pursues his investigations of the X-Files; Scully finds it difficult to spend time with her family during the holidays, much less to settle down and have her own family, once she joins Mulder in his obsessive quest for the truth. Rarely in either of the two shows do the principal characters spend time with friends or associates with whom they do not work. In the only episode ("Dead Letters") in which Frank and Catherine invite a nonrelative to a meal at their home, their guest is Jim Horn, a former FBI profiler and candidate for the Millennium Group. After he fails to get the job, he is never heard of again. In a seriocomic episode of The X-Files ("Arcadia"), Mulder and Scully go undercover as "Rob and Laura Petrie" (the names of the main characters on The Dick Van Dyke Show), a married suburban couple who move into a new upper-middle-class gated community; of course, the agents are acting, and none too persuasively. Mulder is amusingly inept as the guy next door and Scully dutifully annoyed in her unaccustomed role as devoted wife and homemaker. Neither welcomes the task of mixing with or entertaining their neighbors, and in fact the two spend most of their time trying to keep their new "friends" in the community from entering the house they've staked out.

It is remarkable how infrequently in The X-Files and Millennium we see any of the main characters engaged in the activities of civil associations. Carter's protagonists are not members of local sports clubs; they don't attend concerts or perform in amateur musical groups; they don't volunteer time for charitable organizations; they don't participate in the activities of local business associations or trade groups; they rarely, if ever, attend or throw parties.11 The one notable exception seems to be their rather strained relations with religious organizations. Both Dana Scully and Frank Black occasionally attend Mass, and several episodes of the two shows revolve around their respective struggles with religious faith. But even these civil associations are frayed: Scully resists the entreaties of her priest and family to return to the rituals of the Catholic Church (though she does seem to renew her belief in its doctrines); Black attends services for the sake of his wife and daughter, and on one occasion seeks out the advice of Catherine's priest ("Seven and One") but professes to lack conviction in the teachings and practices of the Church.12 In short, Carter's heroes and heroines, like the criminals they pursue and the acquaintances they make, tend to keep to themselves. Their personal attachments are limited to members of their immediate families and to those with whom they work.13 To cite a pop-sociological phrase that described the apparent decline in American civil associations in the 1990s: it's not so much that Mulder, Scully, and Black go "bowling alone," as that they don't go bowling at all.14

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment