Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Has Lafayette Found its de Tocqueville?

It seems that Lafayette, the city that honors the Marquis de Lafayette, might well have found its de Tocqueville in Geoff Daily.

De Tocqueville was the Frenchman who toured the newly sovereign nation and became our nation's most insightful commentator. He came to the new United States to survey its penal system and came away an an ardent fan of the new democracy. A product of his own culture and station in French culture his judgments on the way the new nation was growing were oft ambivalent but his insight into the reasons for the growing differences between the old world and the new world aborning were and remain influential. He turned an outsider's eye on something new and saw shapes emerging that were difficult for those participating to recognize. De Toqueville concluded that the free availability of enormous amounts of new land for every citizen —the frontier— made impossible the old world feudal relationship based on the nobility's ownership of the land and the tenant's dependent relationship. In the new world every yeoman could own his own land. And they did. The emerging culture of equality had much to recommend it; and, on de Toqueville's account, much about which to worry. He was concerned that equality might too often become mediocrity and overpower the natural nobility he attributed to the founding fathers. De Toqueville remained hopeful about the American experiment and kept an attentive eye on its development.

Daily came to Lafayette to see a new fiber-optic network. He has repeatedly published his notes on our experiment. He appears to have found something more than just a network--just as de Tocqueville found something more than just a penal system. He finds a community-owned network and attributes much to the culture of the area and the nobility of its leaders. And he Daily has an advantage de Toqueville never had: he may have missed the revolution but is in a position to see the launching of the new network from the beginning and to see if the potential of enormous amounts of new bandwidth has effects on our community that are analogous to the frontier in our nation's history. Like his predecessor, Daily, is already warning that our future is what we will make of it.

A sympathetic outsiders eye has come to Lafayette. That is a good thing, surely. It will be interesting to see if Daily proves as insightful about the cultural changes that follow as his predecessor.

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