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What does it mean to be an American, and what can America be today? To answer these questions, celebrated philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy spent a year traveling throughout the country in the footsteps of another great Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains the most influential book ever written about our country.
The result is American Vertigo, a fascinating, wholly fresh look at a country we sometimes only think we know. From Rikers Island to Chicago mega-churches, from Muslim communities in Detroit to an Amish enclave in Iowa, Lévy investigates issues at the heart of our democracy: the special nature of American patriotism, the coexistence of freedom and religion (including the religion of baseball), the prison system, the “return of ideology” and the health of our political institutions, and much more. He revisits and updates Tocqueville’s most important beliefs, such as the dangers posed by “the tyranny of the majority,” explores what Europe and America have to learn from each other, and interprets what he sees with a novelist’s eye and a philosopher’s depth.
Through powerful interview-based portraits across the spectrum of the American people, from prison guards to clergymen, from Norman Mailer to Barack Obama, from Sharon Stone to Richard Holbrooke, Lévy fills his book with a tapestry of American voices–some wise, some shocking. Both the grandeur and the hellish dimensions of American life are unflinchingly explored. And big themes emerge throughout, from the crucial choices America faces today to the underlying reality that, unlike the “Old World,” America remains the fulfillment of the world’s desire to worship, earn, and live as one wishes–a place, despite all, where inclusion remains not just an ideal but an actual practice.
At a time when Americans are anxious about how the world perceives them and, indeed, keen to make sense of themselves, a brilliant and sympathetic foreign observer has arrived to help us begin a new conversation about the meaning of America.
From the Hardcover edition.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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By Bernard-Henri Levy
Random HouseBernard-Henri Levy
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(from Newport to Des Moines)
A People and Its Flag
It was here, not too far south of Boston, on the East Coast, which still bears the mark of Europe so clearly, that Alexis de Tocqueville came ashore: Newport, Rhode Island. This well-kept Easton's Beach. These yachts. These Palladian mansions and painted wooden houses that remind me of the beach towns of Normandy. A naval museum. An athenaeum library. Bed-and-breakfasts with a picture of the owner displayed instead of a sign. Gorgeous trees. Tennis courts. A Georgian-style synagogue, exhibited as the oldest in the United States: with its well-polished pale wood, its fluted columns, its spotless black rattan chairs, its large candelabra, its plaque engraved with clear-cut letters in memory of Isaac Touro and the six or seven great spiritual leaders who succeeded him, its American flag standing next to the Torah scroll under glass, it seems to me, on the contrary, strangely modern.
And then, precisely, the flags: a riot of American flags, at crossroads, on building fronts, on car hoods, on pay phones, on the furniture displayed in the windows along Thames Street, on the boats tied to the dock and on the moorings with no boats, on beach umbrellas, on parasols, on bicycle saddlebags--everywhere, in every form, flapping in the wind or on stickers, an epidemic of flags that has spread throughout the city. There are also, as it happens, a lot of Japanese flags. A Japanese cultural festival is opening, with exhibitions of prints, sushi samples on the boardwalk, sumo wrestling in the street, barkers enticing passersby to come see these wonders, these monsters: "Come on! Look at them--all white and powdered! Three hundred pounds! Legs like hams! So fat they can't even walk! They needed three seats in the airplane! Step right up!" And, therefore, white flags with a red ball, symbol of the Land of the Rising Sun, hang from the balconies on this street of jewelers near the harbor where I'm searching for a restaurant, to have lunch. In the end, though, it's the American flag that dominates. One is struck by the omnipresence of the Star-Spangled Banner, even on the T-shirts of the kids who come to watch the sumo wrestlers as the little crowd cheers them on.
It's the flag of the American cavalry in westerns. It's the flag of Frank Capra movies. It's the fetish that is there, in the frame, every time the American president appears. It's the beloved flag, almost a living being, the use of which, I understand, is subject not just to rules but to an extremely precise code of flag behavior: don't get it dirty, don't copy it, don't tattoo it onto your body, never let it fall on the ground, never hang it upside down, don't insult it, don't burn it. On the other hand, if it gets too old, if it can no longer be used, if it can't be flown, then you must burn it; yes, instead of throwing it out or bundling it up, better to burn it than abandon it in the trash. It's the flag that was offended by Kid Rock at the Super Bowl, and it's the flag of Michael W. Smith in his song "There She Stands," written just after September 11, in which "she" is none other than "it," the flag, the American symbol that was targeted, defiled, attacked, scorned by the barbarians, but is always proudly unfurled.
It's a little strange, this obsession with the flag. It's incomprehensible for someone who, like me, comes from a country virtually without a flag--where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared; where you see it flying only in front of official buildings; and where any nostalgia and concern for it, any evocation of it, is a sign of an attachment to the past that has become almost ridiculous. Is this flag obsession a result of September 11? A response to that trauma whose violence we Europeans persist in underestimating but which, three years later, haunts American minds as much as ever? Should we reread those pages in Tocqueville on the good fortune of being sheltered by geography from violations of the nation's territorial space and come to see in this return to the flag a neurotic abreaction to the astonishment that the violation actually occurred? Or is it something else entirely? An older, more conflicted relationship of America with itself and with its national existence? A difficulty in being a nation, more severe than in the flagless countries of old Europe, that produces this compensatory effect?
Leafed through the first few pages of One Nation, After All, which the author, the sociologist Alan Wolfe, gave me last night. Maybe the secret lies in this "after all." Maybe American patriotism is more complex, more painful, than it seems at first glance, and perhaps its apparent excessiveness comes from that. Or perhaps it has to do, as Tocqueville saw it, rather with a kind of "reflective patriotism" which, unlike the "instinctive love" that reigned during the regimes of times past, is forced to exaggerate when it comes to emblems and symbols. To be continued . . .
Tell Me What Your Prisons Are . . .
Tocqueville's first intention was, we tend to forget, to investigate the American penal system. He went beyond that, of course. He analyzed the political system and American society in its entirety better than anyone. But as his notes, his journal, his letters to Kergorlay and others, and the very text of Democracy in America attest, it was with this business of prisons that everything began, and that's why I too, after Newport, asked to see the New York prison of Rikers Island, that city within a city on an island that is not shown on every map--a place few New Yorkers seem to take much notice of.
A meeting with Mark J. Cranston, of the New York City Department of Corrections, this Tuesday morning at 5:00 a.m. in Queens, at the entrance to a bridge that doesn't lead anywhere open to the public. Landscape of desolate shoreline in the foggy morning light. Electric barbed-wire fences. High walls. A checkpoint, as at the edge of a war zone, where the prison guards, almost all of them black, greet one another as they come on duty, and--heading in the opposite direction, packed into barred buses that look like school buses--the prisoners, also mainly black, or Hispanic, who are driven with chains on their feet to courthouses in the Bronx and Queens. A security badge along with my photo. Frisked. On the other side of the East River, in the fog, a white boat like a ghost ship, where, for lack of space, the least dangerous criminals are locked up. And very soon, clinging to New York (La Guardia is so close that, at times, when the wind blows from a certain quarter, the noise from the planes makes you raise your voice or even stop talking), the ten prison buildings that make up this fortress, this enclave cut off from everything, this anti-utopian reservation.
The common room, dirty gray, where the people arrested during the night are assembled, seated on makeshift benches. A small cell, No. 14, where two prisoners (white--is that by chance?) have been isolated. A neater dormitory, with clean sheets, where a sign indicates, as in Manhattan bars, that the zone is "smoke-free." A man, weirdly agitated, who, taking me for a health inspector, hurries toward me to complain about the mosquitoes. And before we arrive at the detention center proper, before the row of cells, all identical, like minuscule horse stalls, a labyrinth of corridors sliced with bars and opening onto the series of "social" areas they persist in showing me: a chapel; a mosque; a volleyball court from which a distant birdsong rises; a library, where everyone is free, they tell me, to consult law manuals; another room, finally, where there are three open boxes of letters, marked grievance, legal aid, and social services. At first sight you'd think it is a dilapidated hospital, but one obsessed with hygiene: the enormous black female guard, her belt studded with keys, who is guiding me through this maze explains that the first thing to do when a delinquent arrives is to have him take a shower in order to disinfect him, later on she tells me--in the nice booming voice of a guard who has wound up, since there's no other choice, liking these prisoners--that the second urgent thing is to run a battery of psychological tests to identify the suicidal temperaments; prisoners call to her as we pass, insult her because they've been denied the use of the recreation room or the canteen, make farting noises at which she doesn't bat an eye, stop her sometimes to confide a wish to live or die; it's only when you look at them up close, obviously, that things become more complicated.
This man with shackled feet. This other one, handcuffs on his wrists and gloves over the handcuffs, because just last week he hid eight razor blades in his ass before throwing himself on a guard to cut his throat. These wild-animal glares, hard to endure. These prisoners for whom a secure system of serving hatches had to be invented, because they took advantage of the moment when their scrap of food was slid over to them to bite the guard's hand. The little Hispanic man, hand on his ear, streaming blood, screaming that he should be taken to the infirmary, under the shouts of his black co-detainees--the guard tells me he has a "Rikers cut," a ritual gash made to the ear or face of an inmate by the big shots of the Latin Kings and the Bloods, the gangs that control the prison. The shouts, the fuck yous, the enraged banging on the metal doors in the maximum-security section. Farther on, at the end of the section, in one of the three "shower cells," which open onto the corridor, the spectacle of a bearded, naked giant jerking off in front of an impassive female guard, to whom he shouts in the voice of a madman, "Come and get me, bitch! Come on!" And then the cry of alarm my guard lets out when, dying of thirst, I bend toward a sink in the hallway: "No! Not there! Don't drink there!" Marking my surprise, she regains her composure. Excuses herself. Stammers out that it's all right, it's just the prisoners' sink, I could have drunk there. But her reflex says a lot about sanitary conditions in the jail. Rikers Island is actually a "jail," not a "prison." It accepts those who have been charged and await sentencing as well as those sentenced to less than a year. What would this be like if it were a real prison? How would these people be treated if they were hardened criminals?
On the way back with Mark Cranston, taking the bridge that leads to the normal world and noticing what I hadn't noticed when I arrived--namely, that from where I am and, most likely, from the volleyball court and the exercise yard and even certain cells, you can see, as if you were touching it, the Manhattan skyline--I can't dodge this question: Does the impression of having brushed with hell arise because Rikers is cut off or because it is so close to everything? And then another question occurs to me when Cranston, anxious about the impression his "house" has made, explains that the island used to be a huge garbage dump where the city's trash was unloaded: Prison or dumping ground? A kind of replacement, on the same site, of society's trash by its rejects? First impressions of the system. First briefing.
On Religion in General, and Baseball in Particular
Leaving the city behind. Yes, leaving New York, which I know too well. Fast, and through a driving rain. We are on the way to Cooperstown, a miniature village in the central part of the state that has managed at least three times to be in the heart of high-tension zones in American history. It was the town of James Fenimore Cooper, and thus of the symbolic responsibility for the slaughter of the Indians. It lies in a region that, before the Civil War, fleeing slaves and their smugglers passed through. And last but not least, since this is the claim to fame to which it seems most attached, it is the world capital of baseball.
I spend the night in a wooden chalet that has been transformed into a bed-and-breakfast, with ceramic rabbits in the garden and a magazine in the bedroom that explains how to "live comfortably at thirty," how to be "older than seventy and still be in love," and "six ways to get your daily glass of milk." The house is run by two commanding women, mother and daughter, who wear identical bloodred canvas aprons and look the spitting image of Margaret Thatcher at two stages of her life. I spend time in the morning listening to these ladies tell me the history of their house. The building was actually created a century ago by an officer in the Civil War, but it has been renovated so as to hide all antique traces. "Are you interested in the bed-and-breakfast business, which is the passion of our existence?" one of them asks. "Is this your first experience? Did you like it? I'm glad you did, since there are as many bed-and-breakfasts as there are owners. Everyone puts their mark on it--it's an art, a religion. No, that's not the word, 'religion.' We don't make any difference here between religions--no more than we would with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Who won, by the way?" (She has turned toward a customer in shorts and undershirt who is sitting at the table next to mine. He shrugs as he wolfs down a huge slab of bacon.) "See, he doesn't know. That means it doesn't count. And you--what are you? Oh! Jewish. Oh! Atheist. That's okay . . . Everyone does what they want . . . In this business you have to like ninety-nine percent of your clients . . ."
The breakfast was a little long. But now I'm in the immense museum, completely disproportionate to the dollhouses in the rest of the town, where this great national sport is honored, this sport that establishes people's identities and that has truly become part of their civic and patriotic religion, which is baseball: isn't there, in the Hall of Fame adjoining the museum, a plaque devoted to those champions who interrupted their careers to serve in American wars?
Excerpted from American Vertigo by Bernard-Henri Levy Excerpted by permission.
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An Interview with Bernard-Henri LévyBarnes & Noble.com: American Vertigo recounts your yearlong journey across America following in the footsteps of your countryman Alexis de Tocqueville's legendary 1831 Democracy in America. How did the project come together?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: The idea came from here, America I mean. One of your oldest and most remarkable magazines, the Atlantic Monthly, came to me one day and said, "Here's the deal, we'll give you one year and everything you need to go across this country in whatever way you want. Travel and tell us about it." The rest was up to me. The book goes much further than the reporting published by the Atlantic, much, much further, as I try to tell the story of America as I see it.
B&N.com: The book spans a fairly tumultuous time: the recent presidential campaign, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the Supreme Court selection process. Even though these are still very recent events, do you feel that history will view this as a pivotal time in America?
BHL: Yes, I think it will. America is at a critical moment in its history. For the worst, but also for the best. My American Vertigo is above all a book of hope. I know Americans are worried. I know they ask themselves, with increasing anxiety, "Who are we?" and especially, "Where are we headed?" Paradoxically, I am in fact much less worried than they. This trip into the heart of the country led me to discover its vital forces and to discover that they are intact.
B&N.com: What's the general perception of America by the French these days, and how much has the war colored it?
BHL: There are two sides. America is a political issue in itself in France, and hence the two sides. First, the anti-Americans, those who believe that whatever America does, it must be wrong. For these people, the war in Iraq changed nothing and, if anything, added yet another reason to detest America. And then there are the "anti-anti-Americans," who have a more measured, and friendlier, view of this country. The label "anti-anti-American" and the idea that I am "the leader of the anti-anti-American party in France" originated with [essayist] Adam Gopnik in an article in The New Yorker. I gladly accept this. I like the idea of being a representative of the anti-anti-American party in France. B&N.com: You seem to be searching for a kind of cultural or political champion, someone who embraces the ideals of intellectualism but also engages society and is a positive catalyst for public discourse and social change. Given the supposed Balkanization of American culture, can such people still exist or play a meaningful role in society? BHL: I'm not sure I'm looking for such a cultural or political champion. The truth is that during these travels I kept meeting "champions" over and over. Some famous, some not. That's what struck me the most, the number of admirable, genuinely formidable people I met everywhere, truly everywhere, people you or I have never heard of. Ordinary people. Generous people. A miner's wife in Wisconsin who struggles against adversity. A former journalist in Alabama who fights to preserve the memory of the civil rights struggle in the South. So many others, from every religion, every ethnicity, every political stripe, who make the greatness of this country. B&N.com: Americans have always wrestled with the concept of a national identity, either for themselves or for the rest of the world. You've had the opportunity to meet a more diverse group of Americans than most American citizens have. What European preconceptions about us are true, which are not, and what surprised you the most? BHL: One of the stupidest things that can be said about this country is that it exhibits arrogant nationalism. The contrary is true. The book begins, as you know, in Newport. There I am struck by the proliferation of the American flag in windows, on cars, on bicycle fenders, everywhere. On reflection, however, my conclusion is that this display, this outbreak, is precisely the proof of a fragile nationalism, unsure of itself, almost as though wounded. A self-assured nationalism, sure of its roots and its past, doesn't feel the need to overassert itself in this way. B&N.com: Your observations about the 2004 presidential campaign were especially poignant. The Republicans talked about values and ideas while the Democrats fretted about raising money. What has happened to the American Left? Has it lost faith in its own liberal values? BHL: Yes, and it's unfortunate. For there is a true ideological revival on the right and no equivalent on the other side. As a result, American political life is becoming hemiplegic. B&N.com: You use the phrase "autistic arrogance" to describe the Bush administration, suggesting a certain nonnegotiable devotion to its own agenda, but couldn't this be said of nearly all political discourse in America today? BHL: No. It's the opposite. America's greatness has always dwelled in doubt, in its capacity to think against itself, in its incredible capacity to distance itself from its own certainties. That's true of its cinema, its literature. But also, for instance, it's true of a good part of the political thought of the '60s and '70s. And today? It's still true today. The South, for example. Read what I write about the South and you'll see. B&N.com: In the midst of so much national confrontation and upheaval, you seem to come away with a generally optimistic impression of the United States. What is it about this country that appeals to you the most? BHL: Well, that's precisely it, this fabulous aptitude for putting itself in question. Such a difference from France! I love France, of course. It is my country and I do love it. But there is a core of conservatism in its culture, a traditionalism, a fidelity to received ideas -- sometimes the worst received ideas -- that I do not find in the United States. And that's why I myself find it so easy to breathe in your country. B&N.com: How aware were the Americans you encountered of Tocqueville's writings? BHL: Very aware. And in a very surprising way. Look at the scene where I talk about the cop who wants to give me a ticket for stopping on the side of the highway to urinate but who decides not to when he learns that I am writing a book on Tocqueville. Look, too, at the scene in Houston, where, the day after Bush's reelection, I participate in a class on Tocqueville. There are many such episodes in the book. This 19th-century French aristocrat has a real, living presence. I sometimes feel that Tocqueville is like Mount Rushmore or movie westerns: a constitutive element of American mythology. B&N.com: You've been described as a "rock star" philosopher, which probably puts you in a group of one. How does that description make you feel? BHL: It doesn't affect me really, you know. I am a writer. First and foremost a writer. And, like every writer, it's my books that ultimately count -- and my readers. B&N.com: What are you planning for your next book project? BHL: A philosophy book. On, and from, Jewish thought.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is beautifully written, by an intelligent friend of America who can be critical while still displaying a real affection for and understanding of the USA in the 21st century. The juxtaposition of M. Levy's journey with the much earlier simialr journey by Tocqyerville works really well without being a constricting device. Being a Brit working for an extended period in DC this book was perfect for my feelings towards this fascinatingly varied and paradoxical country. The book is easily digested as each event or visit is described in 2-4 pages making it easy to pick up or dip in and out of. Highly recommended.
Levy is adept at picking apart old political myths. This is a tour of America at the time of the 2004 Bush versus Kerry election, but Levy's observations are as relevant today as four years ago. He has an interesting perspective, one with which I did not always agree, but nevertheless compelling in accentuation of the remarkable in American cultural and political venues. I would recommend this to those interested in the upcoming 2008 presidential tug-of-war. I was unable to discuss the book with my Lazy Girls Book Club in April 2008, as I had another engagement in Greenville that evening, but I heard that the discussion was lively and enjoyable. Maybe your book group would enjoy American Vertigo as well. Levy should come back every four years for an update of his observations.