Alexis de Tocqueville was born in 1805, traveled across the United States and some of Canada for nine months in 1831, and returned to France to publish Democracy in America, widely regarded as the best single book about that historical, political, economic, and cultural phenomenon known as “America.”
In 2005, in honor of the bicentennial of his birth, the editors of the Atlantic Monthly commissioned another smart Frenchman to travel about the country, talk to people, and tell us what it all means. And so the “celebrity philosopher” Bernard-Henri Lévy was sent out to reassess America. Hiring a new Tocqueville sounded like a good idea, because America recently has seemed more difficult to understand, for citizens and foreigners alike. Moreover, Lévy was a good candidate. Americans, at least literate academic types, love French intellectuals—though such love is often unrequited.
Tocqueville’s project was not simply to produce a cultural map of America. Instead, he explored America as a way to learn what it meant to found a society on democratic principles. Tocqueville believed democratization was part of the march of history. While he recognized the process at work in both France and England, he considered democratization to be most advanced in the United States, most simply because the newer nation began with less of its society organized along non-democratic lines. A study of the United States could thus reveal something about the character of the future, not just of America, but of the world. This was not an unmitigated good. Democratization resulted in the loss of much that was valuable in the ancient regime, and democracy has perils of its very own. Thus the powerful if vague idea of democracy serves to unify Tocqueville’s account, which in the process becomes an inquiry into the character of democracy per se, ethnography en route to political philosophy.
Lévy’s account of America has no unifying concept comparable to democracy. Instead of treating America in terms of an idea, we get lots of journalism, mostly descriptions of places or paraphrases of interviews. As they accumulate, Lévy’s stories present a composite account of America, a textual mosaic of the United States. Inevitably, certain themes assert themselves. Lévy reports over and over again on things he evidently finds important to understanding America, including religion (both as actual practice and as metaphor for other things), minorities, the politics of left and right, the city (more as idea than place), and prisons.
So, for example, at the very beginning of his journey, Lévy visits a jail, Riker’s Island, which offers the advantage of being in New York’s harbor, allowing a certain notoriety and a stunning contrast between the city of cities and the exile of incarceration. Irresistible. Some pages later, Lévy visits another prison, the even more famous Alcatraz, in San Francisco’s even more beautiful harbor. Of course, Alcatraz is no longer used as a prison, but no matter—the symmetries were evidently too good to pass up.
Lévy is also interested in religion in America, so he sets off to visit an Amish colony. The Amish are a tiny sect of Protestants who reject modern technology and therefore may be seen living in nineteenth-century fashion, with horses and buggies and so forth. The Amish are sufficiently exotic to be the topic of a Hollywood movie starring Harrison Ford (which, naturally, Lévy mentions). Similarly, like Tocqueville and any number of Europeans since Rousseau, Lévy is interested in Indians, and so he visits a number of aging radicals in the West to discuss Wounded Knee, with predictable results. Lévy must say something about black people, so he interviews Barack Obama, son of an African goatherd, Harvard Law graduate, and star of the Democratic party. The United States is huge, and wondrous things are to be found.
Journalism reports, but to what end? Like its signature medium, photography, journalism is rarely completely untrue. The photographed event occurred and was mechanically documented. Even advertisements are true in this sense: A beautiful woman got into a car—that really happened. The implication that one should buy the car is a much more dubious proposition. Riker’s Island is in America; the Amish are indeed an American sect; Barack Obama is certainly both black and American. But they are all unusual, even exotic, and oh-so vivid, and therefore it is difficult to draw general lessons from them. Lévy says some sensible things, and some silly things, but overall the impression is, well, journalistic: a bit sensational, not entirely wrong, and interesting, even amusing.
In an effort to tie his range of images together, and because he evidently thinks it explains American politics, Lévy uses “religion” as a master metaphor. In his account, many things are churches, including shopping malls, race tracks, museums, and various actual churches. Unfortunately, as he confesses, he has almost no understanding of what goes on in actual churches, which somewhat undercuts the trenchancy of his metaphor. But no matter—Lévy soldiers on, visiting Christian fundamentalists in various places, orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, and a black congregation. From this experience, Lévy reports that he has been convinced that southern black congregations “have an intensity of piety” that northern white suburban “megachurches” do not.
The articles are full of gaffes. Most are minor, and many reveal the faulty knowledge and lack of context that anyone who tries to understand a foreign culture must confront. For example, Lévy says that the French but not the Americans debate the purposes of punishment. But punishment, including capital punishment, has been a huge and very public debate since at least the 1970s, when much of the American electorate lost faith in the idea of rehabilitation. An enormous legal literature exists, and just a few months ago, the Supreme Court decided a major pair of cases, United States v. Booker and United States v. Fanfan, on criminal sentencing in the federal courts that again brought the issue onto the front page of all the major papers. In short, the idea that punishment is not debated in America is just silly, whatever one may think about the outcome of such debates.
Some of Lévy’s mistakes, however, are not minor, at least insofar as the project is to describe America. Addressing his central concern, the politics of right and left, Lévy concludes that the United States has recently become ideological, in contrast to the French, who have outgrown their history of ideology. Thus, by implication, the success of President Bush (whom Lévy opposes) is explained by a sort of ideological madness. Conversely, in a hilarious passage, Lévy can find no higher praise for losing presidential candidate John Kerry than “rationalist” and “European.” (Seattle, a port for the Northern Pacific and Lévy’s favorite American city, is also called “European,” which evidently means “good,” and sometimes also means “French.”) Thus, when Americans in the last election turned away from the European rationalist and voted for Bush—only ideology could explain something like that.
Lévy clearly believes that the roots of what he considers to be the ideological madness of the Americans lie in the religiosity of Americans. His political perspective is highly orthodox for a modern day philosophe, a classically Enlightened understanding of the relationships among politics and faith, in which history, or at least progress, is a process of secularization. Nonetheless, Lévy is on to a real issue. The United States is undergoing a period of political and social polarization, and Lévy thinks, contra the French cliché about the pragmatism of Americans, that this polarization is caused by the recent discovery of ideological politics.
But, as he knows, this is far too simple. The United States was founded, like no nation before and perhaps since, on the basis of ideas. Ideas, while rarely viewed as “ideology” in the Marxist sense, have always been absolutely central to political discourse in a country whose inhabitants share so little. Americans have typically referred to the United States itself as an experiment, a trial of ideas, rather than a patrimony. And, of course, ideology in the self-consciously partisan sense is not unknown in our history, especially in the twentieth century’s explicitly ideological struggles in both World Wars and the Cold War. The claim that America recently discovered ideology does little to explain current developments.
At least, does little to explain current developments to an American. Lévy devotes almost no attention to: the culture of business, the middle class, patterns of work, patterns of consumption, suburbia (he discusses American cities), education (in which America is spectacularly successful and disastrous), the poor (except as represented in literature or by politicians), various forms of cultural production (despite the constant mention of movies), democracy, and perceptions of space and nature and history and risk and home, all of which are quite different in America than in Western Europe.
On reflection, one comes to understand that Lévy’s real topic is not America; Lévy’s topic is France’s imagination of America. More specifically, Lévy addresses the tendencies of French thought, including a fair dose of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and the like, that can be expressed in socially acceptable fashion as “anti-Americanism.” This has been one of his topics for many years, but the present assignment gives Lévy the opportunity to discuss anti-Americanism not in the abstract, in the context of café prejudices, but in the context of actual travels and interviews. America, it is evidently hard to remember in certain circles, is an actual place, not just an idea vaguely synonymous with “imperial” or “consumer.”
In general, the Americans emerge from Lévy’s portrait as friendly, energetic, even passionate, and basically good hearted. They are open, quite willing to share. Very credulous, and so sometimes very wrong. They are more than a little primitive, especially politically and intellectually, but they are not barbaric. They are polite, tolerant rather than domineering. Americans even drive politely, sharing the road in egalitarian fashion. Though many people tell him what they think, Lévy reports few arguments in the sense of debates. At one of the new breed of modern suburban churches, inflected by middle-class business culture (which Lévy loathes), he was urged to “say the atheist’s prayer.” A tiresome hostess at a “bed and breakfast” inn told him of the necessity of liking almost all one’s guests. And so forth. Although he is often harshly judgmental in print (he is a Parisian intellectual), Lévy seems to get along with most of the people he meets.
This warm portrait of the Americans is comforting to the French, too. When Tocqueville wrote, France was still the second most powerful nation on the planet. The geopolitical situation has changed, and so it is good to hear that the Americans are nicer than many people say. Moreover, Lévy makes clear that the Americans are still quite simple and provincial. They believe everything. They have little taste. Lévy could not, as an intellectual, write that all of his reader’s prejudices have been confirmed by his trip to America. So he writes that the prejudices, especially the negative ones, are overdone. The military is not imperial; the people are not fat. But the big picture—the French image of Americans as a strangely childlike religious people, simply not as civilized as the French—is confirmed.
Lévy could write a book on America that would be far more challenging for his French and American audiences than these articles. He could, for example, write much more deeply about how multiple political identities work in America. American identity happens on another plane from cultural identity—hence the conflicts that Lévy expects between American and Mexican, or even American and Arab, identity are rare. One is Mexican or Jewish or Arab, or something non-national like gay or Asian, as well as American. Thus it is subtly wrong to understand flags, or the military, in the sense of competition among nations in a European sense. Most Americans have little serious cognizance of other nations; there is no competition. This is, of course, beyond arrogant. It is an echo of the revolutionary presumptions of the United States (and one of the things Tocqueville was trying to capture); an analogy might be drawn to the French tendency to speak for civilization itself.
Then, too, in paying attention to traditional cities, Lévy misses one of the largest migrations in human history. Millions upon millions of people have been moving to lower density living and working environments. Not merely to suburbia, but moving to places where there is no city, or the city is functionally irrelevant. Much of America is booming, and has been for decades. Very small towns are undergoing a renaissance of sorts, but as pleasant places to live while working in the new economy, rather than as autonomous economic units. Suppose cities, instead of being the site of civilized life, are just an arrangement dictated by the needs of commerce at the level of transportation technology? Suppose Atlanta, hundreds of kilometers of trees and traffic with no discernible center, a highly populated forest, represents the future of cities? What would this mean for the United States? For France?
As perhaps suggested by the fact that so much of the built environment of the United States is new, Lévy might also have noticed the physical energy in the United States. For example, he goes to a small-car race. Typically, his attention is drawn by a prayer, which leads to yet another meditation on religion. Lost in these thoughts, Lévy seems not to have understood what a huge phenomenon car racing in America is.
And not just watching car races: this is a really big country, and engines and gas are cheap. Ordinary people race cars or trucks. Bruce Springsteen sings about racing in the streets; dentists buy Harley Davidsons and ride around in packs in celebration of motorcycle gangs and Vietnam veterans. And something like this lustiness typifies American capitalism, characterizes the swashbuckling entrepreneurialism that so enchanted Schumpeter. In comparison, much of European bureaucratic modernity seems rather pallid. Rephrased, Lévy’s praise of Kerry as a rationalist European goes a long way toward explaining why Kerry lost.
What Lévy of all people could write is, after Tocqueville, Celebrity in America. Lévy visits striking places, meets all the right people, and shamelessly drops names. He introduces places and topics with references to movies, and generally burnishes his persona as the famous intellectual, at ease and at large, attended, we are told, by a comely assistant named Anika. This is very funny, and at times ascends into farce: Trying to get an interview with Kerry during the presidential campaign, Lévy complains about being put “in the second plane, the wrong one, the one without the candidate.” Is nothing sacred for these Americans? Don’t they understand who I am? But perhaps celebrity is inevitable in a world in which communication and political organization encompass people who share so little. And perhaps political thought, if it is to be heard under present circumstances, must compromise with celebrity. What does this mean for the politics of a “rationalist,” as Lévy claims to be?
This may be the wrong thing to ask. Tocqueville and Lévy are not really similar. Tocqueville went to America in 1831, when he was twenty-five. He spent nine months traveling and published Democracy in America in two stages over the next nine years. Lévy has traveled through America in considerable comfort over the last year or so, and almost immediately began publishing his impressions. While Lévy had a driver named Tim and the lovely Anika for traveling companions, Tocqueville was accompanied by his friend Gustave de Beaumont. On their American journey, Tocqueville worked incessantly, while Beaumont often relaxed, sometimes playing a flute. Tocqueville was dead of tuberculosis at fifty three. In contrast to Tocqueville but like Beaumont, Lévy is a conversationalist, a socialite, médiatique rather than aloof. Lévy is already fifty six, appears to be in excellent health, and by all accounts leads a sunny life.
David A. Westbrook is professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of City of Gold: An Apology for Global Capitalism in a Time of Discontent.