Modern America Through a Frenchman's Eyes

Is America in crisis? The Atlantic Monthly was looking for an outsider to provide an answer, and asked reknowned French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy if he was interested in plunging into modern America. He spent a year traveling in the footsteps of another French observer of Americana, Alexis de Tocqueville. Levy has now written a book about his experience and gave an interview to German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine last week.

Interview Conducted By Nils Minkmar

Translated By Carl Bergquist

January 24, 2005

Original Article (German)    

Bernard-Henri Levy Discusses His Year-Long
American Tour and Book, 'American Vertigo.' (above)

— C-SPAN VIDEO SPECIAL: Scholars Debate
Significance of Alex de Tocqueville,
Feb, 1998, 01:16:56
RealVideoAlexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville Was a French Who Visited
the United States in 1825 and Wrote the Book,
'Democracy in America.' (below)

Bernard-Henri Levy and His Wife, Actress
Arielle Dombasle, With Salman Rushdie
and His Wife, Padma Lakshmi, at a New York
Society Event During His Year-Long Journey
of the United States (above).

BHL Met One of Americas Greatest Writers,
Norman Mailer (below)

BHL Met American Actress Sharon Stone (above).

BHL Met With Some 'Political Animosity'
Visiting One of America's Many Mega-Churches

Frankfurter Allgemeine: You spent a year walking in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, traveling around the U.S., and wound up writing a book about your experience. So what is the "State of the Union"?

Bernard-Henri Levy: Well, it's been a while since the actual journey took place, but let me start by revealing what made the greatest impression on me: the U.S. is – and this flies in the face of what people in Europe and within the U.S. itself hear and read so often – not in as bad shape as some think. I don't believe for a second that social cohesion is eroding, that the political class is tilting toward fascism, that the religious zealots are about to assume power or that the entire nation is drifting to the right.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: So the empire is not about to collapse?

BHL: Look, I strongly disagree with that understanding of the term 'empire'. That's simply branding the U.S. with a label that has more to do with our own history and its associated guilt.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: You mean colonialism?

BHL: Yes. The relationship the U.S. has with the rest of the world is complicated – and it is certainly filled with tension – but it is not an imperial one. As Toni Negri states is his latest writings (editor's note: Negri and Michael Hardt together wrote the influential Marxist tract "Empire" and the follow-up "Multitude") I believe that today's hegemonic relationships can no longer be described by applying the terminology of imperial power. That's not how things work any more. Today's power structures are embedded differently and there is no longer just one country – even the biggest of the big – reigning at the center.

I am not even sure that there is a center of power, and if so, that nation-states would form a part of it. The diffuse imperialism of this day and age is the carried out by wholly different actors: by big business, by media empires, but also by public opinion. They are all part participants in a new form of international, imperial exercise of power. Those people, like a part of the German and French Left, who just go about braying "Stop American Imperialism," have neither understood a thing about the condition of our world, nor anything about today's power structures and most definitely nothing about the U.S.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: How did you come up with the unusual idea of traveling the U.S. in de Tocqueville's footsteps?

BHL: It was the idea ... actually, the whole thing was a bit of a hoax. The editors from Atlantic Monthly, the grand old American publication, came to see me, saying: America is in crisis, we are at a crossroads. This was before the Iraq War and the 2004 Presidential Elections, and they were looking for an outsider's perspective. To be totally honest with you, I turned them down at first. I thought it was beyond my scope.

But they were very persistent, and extremely convincing, offering me the help of their network of correspondents. Eventually I succumbed. But then I just acted on my own interests: visiting prisons, museums, churches and Indian reservations, seeing both mythical and ordinary places. I met Norman Mailer and Sharon Stone, it was basically totally random. By the way, the book is being released in the U.S. first and then in France.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: As an atheistic French Jewish intellectual, you do not exactly fit the description of the kind of person who people in rural American like seeing coming up their driveway. How were you treated?

BHL: With a lot more warmth than an American on a similar journey in France could expect. There were hardly any personal animosities or Francophobic comments.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: What about political animosity?

BHL: Sure, plenty, just like everywhere. Like when I visited a fundamentalist mega-church in Illinois and my interviewee noticed that I disliked their methods and found their stance dangerous. It's not like I dissemble. Still, no one seemed to have anything against me personally.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: Were people at all interested in the reason for your journey?

BHL: Absolutely. Two things (about the U.S.) always seem to be underestimated: This country, which was once described as pragmatic and beyond ideology, and where utilitarianism rules, is today the scene of a more fervent ideological debate than European countries. Secondly, at the center of this ideological struggle lies the relationship to Europe and the idea of the U.S.'s European roots. What role will this common heritage play in the American present and future? The answers cut across party lines.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: Could you name an example? You spoke earlier of the mega-churches…

BHL: Yes. In my opinion, these gigantic Baptist churches are the site of something new, a new religion. They preach of a close, everyday God, who is pure presence and sympathy, a neighborhood God. To me this seems like an unspoken break with Judeo-Christian tradition, and also with the traditional Protestant Churches, which always retained the ideas of transcendence and distance, of secrecy and revelation. It is not entirely clear where this is leading. But it is a serious question, one which is representative of what is happening in the country as a whole.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: There are some passages that may strike American readers as unusually up front. For example, you visited swingers' clubs and brothels.

Highway Exit for Nevada'a Famed
Mustang Ranch Brothel (above)

The Air Force Academy Chapel, in Colorado Springs. (below)

Air Force Academy Cadets In Training (above)

BHL Has 'No Sympathy' for President Bush. (below)

BHL Had a Hard Time Meeting Candidate John Kerry
During the 2004 Campaign (above).

BHL Got Some Inspiration from Jack Kerouac, America's
Great Icon of the Counterculture and
Author of On the Road (below).

BHL: Well, that is also shocking to a European, but for completely different reasons. I saw this through the eyes of a not particularly licentious Frenchman, and was simply amazed at this Puritanism, which is flourishing across the entire country. An American brothel is definitely not a den of debauchery. On the left-side of the bed you have the flag, on the right side the Bible, and above it there is a camera ensuring that the customer follows all the rules. On the wall there is a detailed price list and there is a condom requirement even if the client is just watching the girl strip. There is plenty of hypocrisy at work here, and that's the case with both conservative and progressive Americans.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: You were also surprised by the Air Force Academy?

BHL: Indeed, and that was among the more pleasant surprises. I was in Colorado Springs, where they train Air Force officers. These are often Democrats. They don't identify with the culture of war at all; they don't really like war. And they have nothing that might be confused with an imperialist temperament, and the majority was against the Iraq War.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: Your description of President Bush was very thorough. Reading it, I almost felt that you felt pity, or even sympathy, for him.

BHL: No, you read that wrong. I have no sympathy for him. What astonishes me is the mediocrity, the lack of stature, just how ill-suited for the job he is.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: You describe him as a scared, prematurely aged child. You also describe his ease at dealing with a dissenting crowd, how he then just calls everybody by their first name.

In some ways, yes, he is quite a skilled man. But you can be a skilled politician and still be a cretin.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: John Kerry, on the other hand, had to be roused from his sleep by you.

BHL: That was just something his staff came up with. You see, while neither the American people nor Kerry himself are Francophobic, his people were convinced that a meeting with a French writer could still somehow hurt their candidate. I was allowed to fly on their electoral plane, but I was never granted an interview. So when the fourteenth reporter from some third-rate local newspaper had gotten their five minutes, and they kept telling me that the candidate was resting, I nearly lost it. I threatened to spread the rumor, via the news wires, that John Kerry snoozed his days away. This did the trick. In the end, I was very impressed by Kerry.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: What seems to have irritated, and sometimes amused you, is the inclination in the U.S. to antiquate everything. Especially in rural America.

BHL: This reminded me of Nietzsche. There it's also about an antiquarian interest. If you no longer know who you are, and are gripped by giddiness, then you can no longer tell the difference between important and unimportant mementos. This is the mark of a resentful person. Someone who has lost the ability to forget. This is the reality in the U.S. There, faced with the questions of "who you are" and "what you are on the verge of becoming" you are gripped by dizziness, a giddiness that I call "American Vertigo" (the title of the book.) And when you don't know what the future holds, and this makes you anxious and craven, then you hang on to every little detail. Everything is put on display, to absurd excess.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: The John Kerry Cheese Platter …

BHL: In Chicago I was staying in the same hotel in which John Kerry was going to reside during the Democratic Party Convention. In my room, next to my bed there was a cheese platter with a little note proudly proclaiming that this was identical to the one John Kerry would be offered. He was not going to be there for several days. So while he had yet to eat the cheese, this represented the anticipated antiquation of a cheese platter.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: De Tocqueville returned from the U.S. with a slew of democratic theory recommendations. What can we learn?

BHL: Above all, the integration (editor's note: the preferred German word for assimilation) of foreigners. The U.S. is a machine for making Americans out of immigrants. Here Europe has some serious catching up to do. To Europeans, the U.S. is the proof that Europe is possible. The cultural difference between a Hispanic-American from San Diego, a Korean-American from Seattle and an Irish-American from Baltimore is much greater than between a Berliner and a Parisian. What really appeals to me is this poetic idea of a nation that owes nothing to the past, and everything to the projected image of what is to come.

Frankfurter Allgemeine: You don't have a driver's license. How did you get around in the first place?

BHL: I had a driver, and just as Jack Kerouac recommends in "On the Road," I sat next to him in a state of poetic vigilance, searching the horizon.

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