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Bernard-Henri Lévy — Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville

How do Bernard-Henri Lévy’s observations of American life compare with those of de Tocqueville?

April 28, 2006

How do Bernard-Henri Lévy's observations of American life compare with those of de Tocqueville?

The latest book by the unique, jaded, idealistic, action-driven and life-tested Monsieur Lévy is not really a book at all.

It is a collection of magazine articles previously published in the Atlantic Monthly, bound loosely together by the trope of a Tocquevillian retread, their presence between hard covers justified by the addition of a characteristically immodest introduction and an Epilogue ("Reflections") which reads as though dictated in some haste.

Indeed the whole book sounds as though it were recorded on the move. It has clearly never benefited from the ministrations of an editor. No topic gets more than three pages of attention.

To do him justice, Bernard-Henri Lévy may be a celebrity-seeker, but he is not a fool. Some of his observations on the contemporary United States are well taken.

He is good on the American cult of victimhood and on the obsession with "memorializing" everything, turning the most banal artifact or event into its own site of commemoration: the biggest this, the smallest that, the site (often mythical) of the first something else.

Whole cities, according to Lévy, have become memorial plaques to their own history: San Francisco is "a conservatory of audacity…a tomb for 300,000 activists."

All this, he suggests, bespeaks a frenetic uncertainty in America. Always terrified of losing itself, the United States is more enslaved to the symbols of its past than any European country. True? I am not sure. But it is an interesting conceit.

Most of Lévy's general observations, however, are re-statements of the obvious.

Whether enthusiastically announcing the peculiarities of popular religion, the un-martial virtues of professional officers ("from now on I will think twice before allowing myself to talk glibly…about the imperial American military"), the unsuspected frailness of housing (he has clearly never listened to Pete Seeger) or the" surprising" (!) importance of memory in the South, Lévy gives the disarming impression of a man discovering for himself an America everyone else already knew.

Perhaps his best "color" segment is on the sordid little universe of Las Vegas lap dancers and their clients.

Here the author edges closer to engaged social commentary — but even so, only a French intellectual could suppose that, in plumbing the "bas fonds" of the titillation industry, he had discovered something distinctively and uniquely "American."

In his Tocquevillian incarnation, Lévy visits a number of prisons. What he has to say about them is sensible — the privatization of prisons is "one more decisive step on the path to civilized barbarism"

He also makes the link, terrifyingly obvious to everyone else in the world but opaque to many Americans, between recent developments in the Global War On Terror and the longer-term degradation of American public life: "What you cannot possibly say is that Guantánamo is a UFO, fallen from some unknown, obscure disaster.

What you are bound to recognize is that it is a miniature, a condensation, of the entire American prison system."

But this is a rare instance of a broader conclusion emerging organically from close observation. The only sustained exception illustrates the rule. Because he hails from a country where the political left has already imploded, Lévy comes well prepared to understand the debilitating torpor of the Democratic Party.

He doesn't have to interpret the evidence; he recognizes it — correctly noting that, compared to the "quality, intensity and strength of the ideological argument mounted by the right", "nothing is happening" on the left.

Seeking to account for this, Lévy probably underestimates the asphyxiating rôle of "bien-pensant" left-conformism (something Tocqueville would not have missed).

Anxious to avoid being typecast as a typical European critic obsessed with "political correctness", he cuts America's radical intellectuals a little too much slack.

But what Lévy has to say about the Democratic Party itself is absolutely on the money. Literally everyone he talks to, from Hillary Clinton to Michael Moore, assures him they are determined to "vanquish the right" and regain the high ground in ideas and policies. "But when you push them a little (…) their only common ground is talk about…money." Indeed so.

Anyone who claims to know how the Democratic Party can raise hundreds of millions of dollars and win the next election is instantly touted as the Great White (or, as it might be, Black) Hope.

But suggest, as I once did, to the president of a major liberal foundation that what is needed is the long haul through ideas and education and watch his eyes glaze over.

The right is not as smart as Lévy thinks, but they spent 30 years planning their present monopoly of intellectual power and they will continue to enjoy the fruits of their efforts for some time to come.

The left may know how to spell "ideological hegemony", but they haven't a clue how to get it. If the rest of Bernard-Henri Lévy's observations were as pertinent as his thoughts on the American left, his book "American Vertigo" might be worth a quick browse.

But like so many of the author's earlier books, this one is a disappointment, and for many of the same reasons. Lévy has a cute, annoying style. Like Tony Blair, he eschews verbs. Thus: "Yearning for succession. Logic of the enclave and the monastery within the great city itself. Times of Decline. Times of Misery."

This very representative instance on page 141 appears to be a passage about religious life in Dallas, but its meaning is obscure to the reader (and perhaps to the author as well).

To suggest unplumbed intellectual depths, Lévy deploys rather irritating strategies. One is that the author manages to drop an unusually large number of names.

Among the names casually slipped into the text are Barthes, Comte, Fichte, Foucault, Fukuyama, Habermas, Joyce, Kant, Lacan, Lyotard, Marx, Nabokov, Nietzsche, Sartre, Strauss (Leo), Thucydides, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Spengler and Schmitt (Carl).

The last four are incongruously dumped into the concluding "Reflections" alongside Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks.

Fortunately for the general reader, Lévy is an equal opportunity name-dropper. Indeed, he is nothing if not indiscriminate. He appears to have spent a quite inordinate amount of his American trip in the company of famous people, all of them duly listed.

For every Spengler, we get a Soros. For every Barthes at least two Tina Browns. "Hillary" (first encountered at a Tina Brown party) figures prominently — but so do Joseph Stiglitz ("the Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz talked with me at length in New York").

Then there are Felix Rohatyn, Charlie Rose, Henry Kravis, Sidney Blumenthal, Christopher Hitchens, Warren Beatty, Sharon Stone, William Kristol and many others — including a palpably reluctant Norman Mailer, trapped in his seafront home by this importuning European.

On the whole, these people congregate in Hollywood, Cape Cod, Manhattan or Georgetown, so it was easy for him to see them.

As for seeing the rest of the country: Lévy, who does not drive and is ferried around Paris in the back seat of his Daimler, was chauffeur-driven across the USA.

He acknowledges the existence of long distances and obscure country places, but there is no evidence that he ever entered a Greyhound Bus Terminal, much less a Greyhound bus. Middle America figures in his book only as an abstraction.

At the same time, Bernard-Henri Lévy takes great pains to distance himself from the caricatured image of a French intellectual. I am no America hater, he rightly insists.

Meanwhile, if Americans want to know what a genuine French intellectual has to teach them about their country, they still have an alternative.

Penguin publishes a one-volume paperback edition of de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America". The prose is translucent, the insights penetrating — and the price just $10. It's the real thing. Accept no substitutes.