What would de Tocqueville think ?

by John Q on May 30, 2004

Tim Lambert has more details on yet another Astroturf operation, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, recently in the news for attacking open source software and also a shill for the tobacco industry.

A point of interest for me is that I don’t think you really need detailed evidence in cases like this (though of course, its handy to have the kind of chapter and verse Tim provides). Unless it’s devoted to the life and works of de Tocqueville, an outfit with a name like the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution is bound to be bogus.

Australia has a string of such setups, all run by Ray Evans of the Western Mining Corporation. The most egregious is the Lavoisier Group, an organisation for climate change contrarians (about as plausible as creationists calling themselves the Mendel society) . If you move along to the (anti-Aboriginal rights) Bennelong Society you’ll find an almost identical website with the same postal address, shared with the (anti-union) HR Nicholls Society . The (monarchist) Samuel Griffiths society is from the same production line, though not quite as brazenly so.

So what is it about names like these that screams “Astroturf”? Most named institutes are either named in honour of the founder, or are explicitly partisan institutions whose name indicates their affiliation, as with the Evatt (Labor) and Menzies (Liberal) foundations. It’s not clear that those named would always agree with what is published in their names, but there’s some reasonable basis for presuming that this might be the case.

By contrast, to choose a long-dead person with whom almost everyone has positive associations, then to put forward controversial positions in the name of that person is to be dishonest from the outset.



bellatrys 05.30.04 at 11:08 am

Ouch! That’s really evil! As a longtime de Toqueville fan, I’m *personally* indignant.

This is, after all, the guy who back when both countries were vast stretches of wilderness full of bears, predicted that Russian and the US were the Next Big Thing in terms of world powers, and that the US had so much going for it, it would be a shame if it sabotaged itself which it would it if it didnt’ deal with the craziness of institutionalized racism, and talked about how Americans are so concerned with show and surface (putting fancy columns and facades on 2-bit houses) and how the US valued education and the arts not for themselves but as means to ends of making money, and this was problematic, and oh, by the way, Americans *love* to criticize themselves all day long, but you better not say any of the same things to them, if you’re a foreigner. Don’t agree, or they’ll insist they’re perfect…

(I actually saw this happen, live, in the class where we were studying de Toquville. This girl started getting all bent out of shape at his comments in re education/the arts, saying Who does he think he is? even if there is some truth to it, how dare he! — and then got all grouchy when she read the bit about how he’d predicted she’d do just that…


PG 05.30.04 at 12:53 pm

“By contrast, to choose a long-dead person with whom almost everyone has positive associations, then to put forward controversial positions in the name of that person is to be dishonest from the outset.”

Uh oh. Um, none of y’all have positive associations with Bertrand Russell, do you? Or alternatively, none of y’all find any of this the least bit controversial, do you? Please save me from having been “dishonest from the outset.”


John Quiggin 05.30.04 at 1:33 pm

I think you’re safe enough, PG. Bertrand Russell has more than enough enemies to disqualify him from naming rights for an Astroturf operation.


Jacques Distler 05.30.04 at 4:46 pm

I thought Linus Torvalds’s response to these ADTI bozos was a far-better debunking than anything else I’ve read.

OK, I admit it. I was just a front man for the real fathers of Linux: the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. They (for obvious reasons) couldn’t step forward to admit that they had gotten bitten by the computer bug and had been developing a series of operating systems on their own during the off-season.

But when they started with Linux (which they originally called Freax—they do feel like outsiders, you know, and that’s a whole sad story in itself), they felt that they could no longer just let it languish in obscurity.

They started to look for a front man, and since Santa Claus is from Finland, and thus has connections to Helsinki University, and the Easter Bunny claimed, “He’s got good ears, if a bit small,” I got selected.

Since then, I’ve lived a life of subterfuge, always afraid that somebody would find out the truth. I’m actually relieved that it’s over, and that the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution has finally uncovered the lie. I can now go back to my chosen profession, the exploration of the fascinating mating dance of the aquatic African frog.


Matt McIrvin 05.31.04 at 3:26 am

The Lyndon LaRouche organization really likes to toss Friedrich Schiller’s name around in a similar manner– or, at least, did a lot of this in the 1980s.


Nabakov 05.31.04 at 3:56 am

Love the umbrella company name.

Fergco! For all your right-wing astro-turfing needs – call Fergco now!


q 05.31.04 at 4:15 am

A lot of people have been using Jesus’ name for dodgy purposes for many years. For example, Jesus was not particularly vocal on the moral status of gays, but to listen to campaigners on either side of the argument, you wouldn’t think so.


PG 05.31.04 at 10:08 am

Speaking of using Jesus’s name for dodgy purposes, this site used to be jesus.com (presumably the owner finally decided to cash in) and is an attempt to pick up women.


Cranky Observer 05.31.04 at 6:42 pm

Good discussion of the AdTI situation over at Groklaw.



Decnavda 05.31.04 at 10:48 pm

My instinct is to agree with this post, but I am reluctant to do so, because I like http://www.tompaine.com. Can anyone clear my concious as to why it’s okay for progressives to take Tom Paine’s name for their cause, but not for conservatives to take Alex de Tocqueville’s name for theirs?


John Quiggin 05.31.04 at 11:48 pm

At least for me, there’s no doubt that Tom Paine is a partisan figure of the left, like Bertrand Russell. This is obviously more so outside the US, where he is remembered mainly for The Rights of Man, rather than for his role in the American Revolution. An analogous choice for the other side would, I think, be Alexander Hamilton.


Peter Murphy 06.01.04 at 5:07 am


Calling the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution “conservative” sounds like an insult to conservatives. Think of corporate shilling as just the flip side of the many “_______ for Peace” organizations that turned out to be front groups for the USSR. (Although as the good profesor said, naming them after uncontroversial figures like AdT is particularly outrageous.)

I can’t even see how you can think of the Institution as “conservative”. It’s attacking open source, for god’s sake. You don’t do that unless you have a financial interest in the matter. That’s not ideology – that’s just a flag of convenience.


rea 06.01.04 at 12:41 pm

“Can anyone clear my concious as to why it’s okay for progressives to take Tom Paine’s name for their cause, but not for conservatives to take Alex de Tocqueville’s name for theirs?”

Perhaps because Tom Paine was a progressive, while de Tocqueville was not a conservative?


Decnavda 06.01.04 at 5:53 pm

I posed the above question because de Tocqueville’s observations have usually seemed conservative to me and Paine is a figure, who, like many enlightment thinkers, has been appropriated in all sincerity by right libertarians whose ecconomic views are at odds with many of the individuals whom they have appropriated.

But, okay, I get it. My conscience is now clear.

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