America Gets a New Tocqueville


Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Following in the footsteps of his countryman, famed French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy — or BHL, as he is widely known — will release “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” the result of a yearlong journey through America. Though Lévy is careful not to compare himself with Tocqueville — the 19th-century French aristocrat who turned an assignment on the American penitentiary system into the seminal tract “Democracy in America” — he certainly hopes that “American Vertigo” (Random House) will make its mark as an original essay on contemporary America, seen through the loving yet demanding eyes of a French intellectual.

The idea to send Lévy across America was the brainchild of Cullen Murphy, senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine ran a five-part series of his writings over the last year. The book’s first part is a series of snapshots mixing Lévy’s impressions and thoughts, from America’s cosmopolitan coastal cities to its rural heartland, from its prisons to its mega-churches, from its destitute inner cities to its posh suburbs. He met fellow writers Norman Mailer and James Elroy, sparred with such neoconservative luminaries as Richard Perle and William Kristol, and plunged into the fury of the 2004 presidential campaign. Lévy also engaged with the country’s ideas and beliefs, from patriotism to militarism, from creationism to neoevangelism. In the second part of the book, he lets all these disparate people, places and ideas coalesce into a deeper reflection on America, a sociological-philosophical essay on the state of the United States.

Last month, Lévy invited Forward reporter Marc Perelman to his richly decorated apartment in the “Quartier Latin” neighborhood of Paris for a chat about his road trip and for a sneak peek into the book that emerged from it.

* * *

Marc Perelman: You have become part of a small clique of French intellectuals known as the anti-anti-Americans. So what happens when an anti-anti-American visits America? Does he change his opinion?

Bernard-Henri Lévy: I began my journey feeling pro-American and I finished it feeling the same, with a “Fasten your seatbelt” sign flashing on a few occasions. I thought I knew America well, but I must confess I was surprised all the time. It is a crazy and at times revolting country, especially when you look at poverty or crime.

MP: But if you had to compare your old country with America, what would you say?

BHL: It seems to me that the American melting pot works better than our famed republican integration model.

MP: In your book, you express amazement at America’s religious practices, not only the weight of God in public life — not really a surprise for someone hailing from largely secular France — but also the lack of transcendence, God as a good buddy. Is this also a Jewish issue?

BHL: This kind of neoevangelism has always been the enemy of the Jews. When a person thinks God is with him when he mows his lawn, God is his old pal or God is in his diet, this is idolatry and paganism. The Jewish people invented transcendence, the distant sacred. A God that talks little and rarely. But the neoevangelists are talking all the time; it’s like an unending whisper! This is why we should beware of them on a theological plane — because we can’t debate with them.

MP: In your book, you mention how American Arabs seemed to be trying to replicate the successful social ascent and political clout of the Jewish community.

BHL: It is encouraging to see the American Arab community want to emulate Jews. In France, many of them are still waging a battle to see who is the main victim of history, unfortunately.

MP: American Jews seem to be doing well, don’t they?

BHL: I feel a malaise for American Jews and Jews in general. Just look at how we are told with absolute certainty that the key problem in the world today is the Middle East. But it’s untrue; the epicenter is much further east. I’m ready to bet that the day you will have a Palestinian state and Israeli-Arab peace, it will not eliminate a single terrorist. In my eyes, this causal link between the Middle East and terrorism has something to do with the “warmongering Jew” theme. This is very dangerous, and we should not accept this logic. It is false and it is dangerous.

MP: But at least the Jews in America can count on the evangelists….

BHL: This is my second malaise. The alliance with the Christian right is an unnatural one. The Christian right does not like Jews and only embraces Israel in anticipation of Armageddon; we know the story. But this is not what Jews and Israel are about. Israelis are not victims or martyrs. They are a normal people. So let’s keep our eyes open; let’s not see a communion in what is in fact a misunderstanding that could last for a while. I would like Jews to sleep, but with their rifle.

MP: A couple of years ago, you told the Forward the neoconservatives had hijacked George Bush’s brain and steered him to war in Iraq. But it now seems that you have a certain liking for them. Is this one of your surprises?

BHL: I did my homework, I met with the neocons, I listened to them. I am still in total disagreement with them, but I understand them better. What touches me is that we have a shared biography on issues such as anti-totalitarianism, the support for Bosnia or the fight against radical Islamism. So while we differ, I now see this more as a family feud.

MP: Beyond the war in Iraq, which you have always opposed, what is this family feud about?

BHL: It is both philosophical and political. Philosophically, they believe in democratic messianism, thus reprising the old Marxist belief that history has a meaning. I am certainly more pessimistic and more political. Politically, I can totally understand that you lend your support on certain issues even if you do not support a government. But what I find revolting about them is their endorsement of all of Bush’s agenda. Support one idea, but don’t toe the line! In doing so, you forswear your freedom of thought. I am very shocked that in order to promote the war in Iraq, you end up supporting the death penalty, the gun lobby, a larger role for religion, etc.

MP: It seems to me that you are becoming more Jewish as the years progress….

BHL: I am more Jewish. I am reading lots of religious texts, the philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries for a book on contemporary Jewish thought. I have always identified with Israel and continue to do so. But this doesn’t mean that I am withdrawing from the world and into a closed community. My way of being Jewish is to recount the forgotten wars of the world, to promote a moderate Islam or Afghan women. So being more Jewish is being more open.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.