Americans have many blessings to count, not least among them the foreigners who come here to learn from us and wind up teaching us. The most insightful of them understand us better than we do ourselves, can see us more clearly than we see ourselves, and in their own way become more American than the Americans.
How do they do that -- see what we couldn't before they drew our attention to it? Maybe their vision is so clear because America is still new to them. Familiarity not only breeds contempt, but blurs the vision -- and the rest of us can't see what strikes the foreigner about us so forcefully. And could even be the key to unlocking the question that has intrigued visitors to these shores since Crèvecoeur: "What then is the American, this new man?"
Another Frenchman -- by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville -- supplied an answer to that question in two magisterial volumes that explored Democracy in America, a work that has long outlasted the Jacksonian America he toured. His insights, almost two centuries old now, remain relevant. And not just relevant but indispensable.
However our French visitor would fare when he returned to the turmoil of revolutionary and then counter-revolutionary France, he would become the quintessential American -- except for one difference: he was fully aware of how exceptional America was.
Maybe that's why there hasn't been so perceptive a study of us since his. For he noticed, and recorded, both our greatest strengths and most dangerous weaknesses, and showed where each might lead. O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!
Happily, the Tocquevillean tradition continues. Its latest practitioner and personification was Fouad Ajami, who has just died at the too-young age of 68. A student of the justly celebrated Orientalist, the great Bernard Lewis, he not only learned from his teacher but may have taught his renowned mentor a thing or two -- for Fouad Ajami was a man of two worlds, the Middle East he came from and the America he settled in. With that double vision, he could see what others didn't, or just didn't want to see. And his honesty made them furious.
Can that be the reason for my momentary hesitation before using the term Orientalist? The word has become a red flag to the kind of blinkered intellectual who specializes in what George Orwell called goodthink in his now classic and all too real dystopia, "1984." Goodthink is the opposite of real thought and you can still see it at work in contemporary intellectual fashion, purging any idea that doesn't fit in with today's post-mod, multi-culti ideology.