Loving, Latter-Day Tocqueville Takes Democracy’s Temperature

As Bernard-Henri Lévy strolled along the edge of a field in Michigan abutting Highway 94, a police car pulled up. Told by the cop that “it is forbidden to stop on highways, to hang around, to dawdle, to piss,” Mr. Lévy identified himself. The cop was unimpressed. But his face lit up when Mr. Lévy said he was following the path of Tocqueville. Really? the cop exclaimed. Alexis de Tocqueville? The Frenchman who traveled across the United States and in 1831 wrote Democracy in America? Francophobia, Mr. Lévy concluded, is more prevalent inside the Beltway than in the nation’s heartland.

That’s the kind of challenge to conventional wisdom that Bernard-Henri Lévy has mounted since his book, Barbarism with a Human Face, created an international sensation almost three decades ago. “BHL” is a cultural icon in France. An activist-philosopher-filmmaker-journalist, author of 30 books, a liberal critical of the left with access to power, Mr. Lévy, according to Vanity Fair, is “somewhere between gadfly and tribal sage, Superman and prophet.” The perfect choice to take the temperature of democracy in America in the 21st century.

American Vertigo takes its title from the “wavering of points of reference and certainties” that Mr. Lévy has detected in a nation increasingly unsure of itself—“less confident of the very values, that is to say, the myths, that founded it.” The wavering is most evident in the cities of the United States: in Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit, whose white inhabitants have left, “forgetting to close the door behind them”; in Los Angeles, a city with no center, no border, no historical neighborhood, no pulsating heart; and in New Orleans, where neither music nor dance can dispel the “haunted, slightly morbid” feeling “that “someday the water will win out.” Only in Seattle, the city he’d choose to live in, does Mr. Lévy find a place where he can recover his lost bearings.

This perceptive, pugnacious, passionate book—exquisitely written—also reveals Mr. Lévy’s love affair with the United States. “In the sheer fact of being American,” he writes, “there is a gentleness, a lightness, an element of freedom and, in a word, of civilization, that makes this country one of the few countries in the world where, despite everything, you can still breathe freely today.”

It’s tough love, of course. In visits to a lap dancer, a Chicago mega-church and the Great Western Gun Show in Dallas (where a vendor will not sell Osama bin Laden memorabilia because it “wouldn’t have the aesthetic quality of these Nazi artifacts”), Mr. Lévy learns that if America is magnificent, it is also mad, “greedy and modest, at home in the world and self-obsessed, puritan and outrageous.”

America’s greatest shame is in its poverty and prisons. In Harlem, Boston and Washington, and just outside the marked perimeters of Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Mr. Lévy saw “battered human wrecks” living in dumpsters. They seemed to have “cut loose the moorings that tied them to the American Way of Life.” A tad behind Russia as the world champion of imprisonment, the U.S. condemns to invisibility another huge population, its poor people, “who are turning into zombies, troglodytes—a physician would say ‘foreign bodies.’” Whatever the justifications for it, Mr. Lévy writes, the “detention center” at Guantánamo “is a miniature, a condensation, of the entire American prison system.”

Tocqueville worried about a “tyranny of the majority”; Mr. Lévy worries that minority groups are becoming “a dominant component in American discourse and institutional practices.” Americans should not mourn a model—the melting pot—that never existed. Nor should they forget “the vigor and fervor of patriotic sentiment” among the nation’s hyphenates. But, he warns, Balkanization “carries in its wake, by mimicry, thanks to the familiar mechanism of rivalry for victim status,” the demands of other groups, like the Hispanics, who “have no metaphysical wrong to deplore, no transhistoric outrage that demands expiation, but … covet a piece of the identity pie as well.” If “dignity and legitimacy” continue to be bestowed on “this masquerade of Untouchables,” then the institutional edifice built at Philadelphia in 1787 might come “crashing down, once and for all.”

Mr. Lévy’s disdain for identity politics begins to betray his dependence on neoconservative discourse. His assessment of American foreign policy lays it bare. To be sure, Mr. Lévy often sounds like an unabashed liberal. He sees George W. Bush as “a provincial narcissist and a frustrated dilettante, a bad businessman and an overgrown daddy’s boy,” “lover of backfiring cars and drinking bouts with his buddies”—“born to lose”—who somehow mustered the discipline to capture the Presidency. He issues an acid indictment of America’s war on terrorism, at home and abroad, and of the ways in which the administration is playing “faster and looser” with international law, criminal courts and the Kyoto Protocol.

But he defends the war on Iraq as morally right, even if the U.S. “aimed at the wrong target at the wrong time.” The choices Mr. Lévy presents are filched from Dick Cheney’s play book: Would we rather return to an era when the United States cozied up to every tyrant who opposed the Soviet Union? Is it not better to capture “Chemical Ali,” architect of the poison-gas attack on the citizens of Jalabja, than to invite the Kurds and Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein and then abandon them? Mr. Lévy reproaches the neocons for backing Bush’s domestic agenda; he wishes an authentic liberal, faithful to the Enlightenment and revolted by Abu Ghraib, headed the State Department; but he won’t morph conservatives “into paragons of immorality and vice.”

Mr. Lévy’s heroes—his friends, the people he identifies with—include Barack Obama (“The first black man to understand that you should stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”), Hillary Clinton and Norman Mailer. But the serious conversations in American Vertigo, the conversations about philosophy and policy, are with conservatives such as Richard Perle, Samuel Huntington (the Cassandra of “the clash of civilizations”) and Francis Fukuyama (oracle of “the end of history”). As for his time on the left bank, Mr. Lévy spends it mostly with Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Warren Beatty (about whom he goes into “ludicrous ecstasies”).

At the opening of the Presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., Mr. Lévy noted that Bill Clinton looked frail and fragile, his voice thin, his step awkward, his gaze melancholy. By contrast, the Bushes, père et fils, appeared robust, strutting their stuff in “insolent health, seemingly modest but actually triumphant smiles, thick brown or navy-blue wool coats, belted carefully at the waist, upturned at the throat.” Equally fragile, it seems, is the liberalism in American Vertigo, as it reacts to the agenda-setting, shock-and-awe thunder on the right.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. Loving, Latter-Day Tocqueville  Takes Democracy’s Temperature