TCS Daily


De Tocqueville This Ain't

By Ilya Shapiro - April 21, 2005 12:00 AM

I just read the most ridiculous bit of serious non-fiction to have crossed my mailbox in quite some time (not subscribing to the New Yorker, I am spared Seymour Hersh). Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French uber- (or, hyper- it would be in Gallic) intellectual, drove across America in an attempt to recreate his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville's journey. Then he wrote about it in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote for 35 pages that seemed 135, and promises to continue writing for "several" articles. Lord -- or whomever the gleefully atheistic (he wastes no opportunity to inform his conversants of his religious irreligiosity) Lévy prays to -- help us.

Lévy (BHL to the cognoscenti), in the long tradition of continental poseurs who are famous and respected men of lettres mainly for being famous and respected men of lettres, comes to America and gets it all wrong.

But that's a dog-bites-man story; move along, nothing to read here.

What's notable about Lévy's take is that it misses the boat despite not being the typical brand of European condescension reported in a patronizing tone. Instead, he tries very hard (and successfully) to remain neutral and detached and non-judgmental, failing in his Tocquevillean mission not out of a sense of haughty superiority but simply by missing he forest for the trees.

Any amateur sociologist knows that America is more than the sum of its parts -- take two parts NASCAR and barbecue, add a pinch of New England foliage and a dash of surf's up, season with Springsteen and Sinatra, top with a cheesehead -- and requires a "meta-narrative" rather than vignettes. Yet for some strange reason, Lévy feels compelled to track down America's extremities (and extremes) instead of its core, detailing his wanderings around a museum of unnatural history instead of interacting with his subject to present a holistic story.

Lévy spends time with the Amish of Iowa and conflicted Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, Indian activists in the Great Plains and assorted weirdos at last fall's national party conventions. And he supposedly has the following conversation with the Midwestern cop who catches him relieving himself on the side of an interstate:

        "What are you doing?"
        "I'm getting some fresh air."
        "You don't have the right to get fresh air."
        "Okay, I'm pissing."        
        "You don't have the right to piss."
        "What do I have a right to do then?"
        "Nothing; it is forbidden on highways to stop, hang around, dawdle, 
            and to piss."
        "I didn't know... "
        "I don't give a damn what you know-keep moving."
        "I'm French... " 
        "I couldn't care less if you're French-the law's the same for everyone. 
        Keep moving."
        "I wrote a book on Daniel Pearl."
        "Daniel who?"
        "And a book on the forgotten wars."
        "What kind of wars?"
        "I'm writing about following the path of Tocqueville."
        "Tocqueville -- really? Alexis de Tocqueville?"

Monty Python routines notwithstanding, Lévy does hit on some more representative (if conventional) memes, like baseball -- where he can't resist deconstructing the founding myth of our national pastime -- Barack Obama, and Brooklyn rabbis. But all of it is jumbled together in a way that at the end the reader is left empty, if amused.

Such is the tragedy of the post-modernist: here we have a well-written article full of sound and fury, signifying rien. Where Tocqueville unearthed the vitality of civil society, Lévy highlights sumo wrestlers in Newport and the price of weddings at the Mall of America ("Premiere" on sale for $669 on Mondays and Tuesdays). Where Tocqueville spoke of the liberating religiosity and good faith of his hosts, Lévy depicts Tom Daschle's pow-wow participation and the decline of Buffalo as a major metropolis.

As so many urbane sophisticates did before him, Lévy comes to the New World and completely misunderstands the Natives. He is like one of the blind men who examine different parts of an elephant -- or all three at the same -- finding disparate elements but unable to piece together the whole beast.

(Ironically, the page following Lévy's mediocris opum contains a short essay "On Becoming American" by Christopher Hitchens, whose naturalization paperwork is in process. Suffice it to say, Hitchens knows the elephant well.)

At the end of the incredible dialogue quoted above, the state trooper asks Lévy about what continues to be valid in Tocqueville's analysis. It is a deep and important question, and alas one that readers of the Atlantic will still be asking after BHL's ink-spilling is mercifully complete.

Ilya Shapiro a Washington lawyer, writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS and can be reached at ilya.shapiro@gmail.com.

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