American Vertigo by Bernard-Henri Lévy
American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville
by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Random House. 308 pp. $24.95
Back in 2004, with an eye to the growing rift between the United States and France in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the Atlantic Monthly commissioned the French philosopher, journalist, and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Lévy to spend a year traveling America and writing up his impressions. With a film crew and assistants in tow, Lévy followed the path set down 173 years earlier by his great predecessor, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains perhaps the most influential book ever written about the U.S. The five prolix articles that resulted, running throughout 2005 in the Atlantic, now form the core of American Vertigo, Lévy’s attempt to take the pulse of our democracy.
Lévy would seem in many ways a sensible choice to carry out a mission of cross-cultural understanding. The dashing, media-savvy fifty-seven-year old—“BHL,” as he is known in France, where he has enjoyed rock-star-like fame since the publication three decades ago of his fiery anti-Marxist polemic, Barbarism with a Human Face—has long held a friendly, if hardly uncritical, view of America. This affection has set him apart from the run of left-wing Parisian intellectuals, for whom virulent anti-Americanism has become second nature. Lévy has even taken to describing himself as an “anti-anti-American.” Also to his credit, he has recognized the menace posed by radical Islam to the West, supporting the U.S. war to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. Though opposed to the intervention in Iraq, he has made his case on prudential grounds and avoided the moral preening of other European critics.
American Vertigo ignited controversy from the moment it hit U.S. bookstores in late January, thanks to a startlingly nasty front-page notice in the New York Times Book Review by Garrison Keillor. Denouncing the book as “the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years,” Keillor let Lévy know that his oh-so-French musings on America were not welcome: “Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” The New Republic‘s editor-in-chief Martin Peretz swiftly rallied to Lévy’s defense, claiming that Keillor was too dull-witted to appreciate the Frenchman’s insightful and often sympathetic portrait of the American experiment, a view echoed by the critic Christopher Hitchens. Subsequent responses to the book have been equally divided, from “brilliant” and “dazzling” to “rotten” and “insufferable.” Amid these extremes, where to find the real BHL?
As Keillor grumpily charged, Lévy does in fact spend a lot of time complaining about what he considers the vices of American democracy, with vulgar materialism leading the way. A 17,000-member Christian church in Illinois, looking more like a bank than a house of worship, repulses him, not because it offends his atheism but because its banal “good-guy God,” he believes, robs religion of any transcendence or grandeur. The horde of shoppers at the gargantuan Mall of America in Minneapolis reminds him in turn of Tocqueville’s prophecy of a new kind of democratic despotism that keeps citizens in a state of sheep-like contentedness, caring for their needs but robbing them of liberty. Much of what Lévy sees—from gas-guzzling SUV’s to acres of parking lots to sprawling cities like Los Angeles—seems “obese” to him, out of proportion to any properly human scale.
Even more troubling for American democracy, Lévy maintains, is the rise of “neo-puritanism.” An obsession with proper sexual behavior shows up not only in the “pestilential practices” of the Moral Majority, he observes, but even where one would never expect it. In a San Francisco sex club, for example, he lingers over a scolding sign: no uproarious or loud laughter. condoms obligatory. turn all cell phones off. if someone says no to you, please do not insist. Interviewing Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org, Lévy learns that the left-wing group first emerged in the 1990’s to derail the Republican effort to impeach then-President Bill Clinton, and that its original name was “Censure and Move On.” Even American radicals, he laments, believed that Clinton deserved moral censure for the mere seduction of an intern!
Most disturbing of all, however, is the American tolerance for social and economic injustice. How can Americans allow once prosperous cities like Buffalo and Detroit to crumble into “modern ruins,” inhabited mostly by desperate minorities and the homeless? Though Lévy acknowledges that the U.S. has a social safety net of sorts, he deems it utterly insufficient. As for America’s prisons and jails, they serve solely to exclude wrongdoers, most of them poor, from normal society, rather than to rehabilitate them, as a humane penal system should. And, of course, he shudders at the fact that some states still embrace the death penalty.
But not all of Lévy’s impressions are so gloomy. He comes away pleasantly surprised by students at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, who are anything but the war-loving barbarians that the European Left might lead one to expect. In Dearborn, Michigan, he meets prosperous pro-American Muslim immigrants and contrasts them favorably with the alienated Islamists of the French suburbs, who “shit on the [French] flag and hiss at the national anthem” and among whom “hatred for the country that has taken them in is equaled only by an anti-Semitism eager to shift into action.”
Nor are all U.S. cities dead zones. Seattle in particular dazzles him, its “non-conformism” symbolizing the modern America that he truly admires—the nation of 1960’s revolt, of literary experimentation, of personal liberty. It is the tension between this America and the one of capitalist banality, religious fundamentalism, and injustice that gives Lévy his “vertigo.”
Since Lévy’s sojourn coincided with the 2004 presidential race, he freely offers his opinions on American politics, suggesting that President Bush and Republicans in general are to blame for the darkness that he sees spreading throughout the country. Hobnobbing with the actress Sharon Stone, one of countless celebrities he encounters, Lévy nods affirmatively as she splutters: “The problem is Bush. That ignoramus, that loser, that guy you’d hardly even want to go out for a beer with, who ends up President.” The people who most impressed him during his journey, his “heroes,” are all liberals, some pretty long in the tooth: Morris Dees, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama.
But Lévy is also no pushover for the American Left. Too many American liberals, he complains, irresponsibly downplay the terrorist threat, and bring discredit on themselves by drawing an outrageous moral equivalence between America and its Islamist enemies. As for the Democratic party, it is a “black hole,” obsessed with fundraising but bereft of ideas. Though he does not agree with the neoconservatives, several of whom—including Richard Perle and William Kristol—he spars with in American Vertigo, Lévy credits them with at least having ideas.
At its best, American Vertigo boasts some inspired writing and vignettes, like Lévy’s acid portrait of the Indian activist Russell Means, who turns out to be a spiteful anti-Semite, and an evocative description of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Still, like the Atlantic series on which it is based, the book often feels bloated and disjointed, held together by little more than Lévy’s enormous ego.
Indeed, the book frequently seems more about BHL in America than about America itself. The self-obsession can be comedic, as when Lévy cannot fathom why John Kerry—pilloried during the 2004 campaign for his European air—keeps putting off a meeting. Do Kerry’s handlers not realize who he is? A veteran journalist finally pulls Lévy aside and gives it to him straight: “You’re French. You’re as French as a bottle of Evian or an Hermès tie”—the last kind of person Kerry wanted to be seen with. Sure enough, when Lévy eventually gets his interview, he praises Kerry’s “European” sophistication.
This reaction points to the deeper problem with American Vertigo: Lévy’s inability to free himself from his own prejudices as a bien-pensant European leftist. His relative sobriety on terrorism and his refusal to demonize the United States are welcome, as far as they go. But it remains astonishing that this is what a friend of America—and Lévy has actually come under fire in France for being too kind to the U.S., even for being a “neoconservative”—looks like in the intellectual milieu of today’s Europe. His sympathy for American democracy extends only to those aspects of it that, to his mind, reflect continental beliefs and sensibilities. Not all Americans, he reassures his readers, are fat, money-grubbing, gun-loving racists and reactionaries.
Lévy’s parochialism is nowhere more evident than when he offers the Democrats a new platform to propel the party back into power, including a renewed commitment to Enlightenment rationalism against religious fundamentalism and a “new New Deal” of massive government programs for the poor. Does Lévy really think that transforming the Democrats into European-style social democrats would appeal to Americans? Taking such advice could only drive the party deeper into the political wilderness.
This myopia makes an especially dramatic contrast with the example of Lévy’s famed forebear, Tocqueville. The French aristocrat came to our shores open to what the American experiment in democracy could teach France, especially about preserving liberty in an age of equality. But BHL never troubles to consider what the American model—with its vigorous market economy, social mobility, and respect for religious faith—might offer to statist and relentlessly secularist Europe, with its stagnant welfare economies and alienated and increasingly radicalized Muslims. Like so many literary travelers before him, Lévy came to America and found only himself.