The Book Club

Can Foreigners Understand the U.S. Better Than Americans Do?

Dear Frank:

I venture to say that just about every writer who has read Alexis de Tocqueville fantasizes about traveling around the United States and then writing one of the most profound treatises on political philosophy ever published. Fortunately, nearly all of them restrain themselves. Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France’s best-known contemporary philosophers, has not.

Invited by the Atlantic Monthly to revisit many of the same cites that attracted Tocqueville and his partner Gustave de Beaumont, as well as to explore booming subdivisions that were desert when the earlier visitors came here, Lévy spent roughly nine months in the United States (with a trip or two back to France interspersed) and traveled some 15,000 miles around the country, much of it by car. Fascinated by America, he wants to know if it is still a magnet for people fleeing oppression. He asks whether we retain our European heritage or have become a Hispanic and Asian society. He would like to discover whether our democracy stills embodies a Whitmanesque spirit of exuberance and possibility. His impressions, by and large, are positive: “I still do not think there’s reason to despair of this country.” His reaction is not unlike that of his mentor, for even if Tocqueville found himself displeased by much of American democracy, he appreciated its inevitability and told his European readers that they had better get used to it.

You have to admire BHL for—pardon my French—his chutzpah. True, he is, by his own admission, no Tocqueville. American Vertigo is a reflective essay, not a two-volume compendium. It frequently tells us more about its author than his subject. There is no one overarching theme, like there was in Democracy in America, offering a master key to the American experience. The book is more travelogue than philosophy and, frankly, the travelogue tires; do we really need to be told that Los Angeles has no center? “I don’t think the traveler today can have anything to add to the prophetic pages of the second volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,” BHL writes before visiting Salt Lake City (where, he believes, the Mormons do provide something to add). In this he is correct, although his frankness does raise the question of why he tried.

Alexis de Tocqueville and Bernard-Henri Lévy

To Tocqueville, along with Frances Trollope and James Bryce, we owe the convention that foreigners can understand the United States better than Americans. American Vertigo raises the question of whether this is still true. Foreigners have the advantage of distance. But they lose the benefits of familiarity. This may explain why BHL does not get all the details right; Arab-Americans in Michigan are an interesting group to visit, but his conclusion that the American dream can temper Islamic extremism is limited by the fact (never mentioned by BHL) that lots of them are Christian. And it helps explain why he misses the significance of other observations; he cites the “vivacious” Texas controller Carole Keeton Strayhorn for her comment on the ubiquity of guns in her state, not quite realizing—or at least not mentioning—that her two sons, Scott and Mark McClellan, are both major players in the Bush administration, which might have made for a more interesting discussion.

Still, I liked this book, basically because I think Lévy’s take on America is the right one: we ought not to feel that in comparison to the French, our democracy is failing and theirs is succeeding. And I especially like it when BHL sticks to what he knows best: that dangerous intersection of politics and philosophy. French intellectuals just cannot seem to make up their minds about America. Some of them, probably the majority, still hate and fear it, but in recent years others, including Jean-Francois Revel, have become pronounced anti-anti Americans. The former—warmed-over Michael Moores—have as little to offer as the latter, a French version of Fox News. Berrnard-Henri Lévy stands head and shoulders above both.

The French, we are endlessly told, never having gotten over their revolution, think ideologically, while Americans, never having gotten over theirs, think pragmatically. Yet here we have the results-oriented Frenchman meeting neo-conservative American ideologues—and not liking them one bit. “When I sit down for dinner with someone in a restaurant,” BHL writes, “do I have to order all the courses on the menu?” (When he had dinner with me, he did not.) But this, he believes, is what American neo-conservatives such as William Kristol do; having bought George W. Bush’s line on Iraq, they find themselves agreeing with the rest of the conservative agenda. BHL is not off the mark here; Kristol may, for all I know, act as an insider-critic of some of the Bush agenda, but when asked by the New Republic to distance himself from intelligent design, he ducked. About Kristol he muses, “A neoconservative?” “No—he is a Platonist bereft of the ideals.”

America’s best intellectual, in BHL’s view, is Francis Fukuyama. (This may be because Fukuyama is an American version of Alexandre Kojeve, the Russian-born French intellectual who adopted Hegel to the 20th century.) “He is lucid and sardonic,” BHL says of Fukuyama, “as much at ease with complex conceptual gymnastics as he is with geo-strategic considerations, as obviously fascinated by world-historical panoramas as by more down-to-earth political analysis.” It makes sense to Lévy, as it does to me, that Fukuyama would be among the most reasoned opponents of America’s adventure in Iraq. Fukuyama’s realism would never succumb to wishful thinking of the sort that led so many neo-conservatives to believe that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators. Lévy is fascinated by the neo-conservatives, not only because he, like so many of them, is a Jew living in a predominantly Christian country, but because many French sixty-eighters became quite conservative themselves. Appreciating his kinship with neo-conservatives, Lévy is especially critical of them.

Lévy is not quite as sharp when he discusses liberals. He buys David Brock’s story of his transformation from right-wing hardliner to leftist with insufficient skepticism. Despite being warned against his egoism, he likes and admires Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still, he is realistic enough to recognize that the radical left’s desire to get out of Iraq is “difficult to distinguish from the isolationism of someone like Pat Buchanan.”

I am curious, Frank, to learn what you think about this book. (I realize he never discusses soccer, the subject of your own reflections on European-American relations.) You have a great ear for the follies and foibles of American politicians. I would love to know more about the weaknesses and strengths of French intellectuals.