TCS Daily


Road Trip, Part Deux (Unrated Version)

By Michael Rosen - May 17, 2005 12:00 AM

As a devoté of The Atlantic Monthly, I read with amusement the May issue's first installment of Bernard-Henri Lévy's trek across the United States, purportedly "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville." A few days later, I read with even greater delight TCS Purple America columnist Ilya Shapiro's witty take-down of the piece which, in Shapiro's words, "miss[es] the forest for the trees" and "misunderstands the Natives."

Lévy's second episode -- in which the intrepid Parisian happens upon Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley (where I was born and raised), Los Angeles, and San Diego (where I now live) -- is no improvement, although for different reasons. Levy's latest journey manages, simultaneously, to avoid transcending the purely conventional and obvious and to miss important themes and critical developments in the ports on which he calls (with one notable exception).

This is all a bit strange because Lévy is known in France for his contrarianism. He has taken stances against the Marxism pervading much of the French academy; he has espoused Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion; he has written passionately about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda; and he has lately written about Daniel Pearl and the role of the West in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, before leaving on his American adventure, he apparently forgot to pack his maverick streak.

To his credit, Levy describes physical landscapes -- especially those he encounters on his drive down the coast from the Bay Area to Southern California (which, for pure-at-heart Californians, is the only way to make the trip) -- with brevity, clarity, and vividness vaguely reminiscent of Hemingway (or his Gallic equivalent). And to be fair, his ambitious itinerary does not permit Lévy to expound on each locale's every aspect.

But in the areas he does visit and comment upon, he captures obvious, superficial traits while neglecting the interesting ones. For instance, his journey to the Castro district in San Francisco is a caricature of 1970's-style debauchery which he dubs "An Evening in Gayland." Lévy focuses on the stereotypical notion of a libertine city where anything goes (I will spare you the lurid details), replete with those oh-so-clever tee-shirts likening President Bush to a female body part.

Instead, Lévy, whose trip appears to have occurred sometime during the 2004 election season, might have examined the burning issue of the day among gays and lesbians in the Bay Area: same-sex marriage, specifically San Francisco Major Gavin Newsom's short-lived attempt to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The ferment that this issue caused among all San Franciscans -- gay and straight -- is surely worthier of exposition than a drag show or a "partner-swapping club."

Lévy then glides across the Bay to Berkeley where he interviews Joan Blades, the storied founder of MoveOn.org. Although MoveOn is known most prominently for its opposition to President Bush in the 2004 election as well as its resistance to the Iraq War in 2003, Lévy, channeling Blades, reminds us that the group started during the impeachment saga surrounding President Clinton in 1998. Yet Lévy weaves MoveOn's nominal support for a Congressional censure of Clinton into the outlandish claim that "[t]hese progressives, in the very act of founding their organization, ratified the keystone of conservative reasoning", namely that the president had done something very wrong.

But this argument rests on a laughably thin reed. If anything, the Left -- and in particular the feminist Left, with some notable exceptions -- was marked by an uncharacteristic silence, a shocking inability to criticize Clinton for his unconscionable behavior. It is, at the very least, an absurd exaggeration to say, as Lévy does, that MoveOn and its supporters are willing to "stipulate agreement with the core of the[ir] opponent's premise."

More to the point, Lévy romanticizes the Berkeley Left as the insurgent movement that it once was. But nowadays, liberals on and off the Berkeley campus are noted for their implacable opposition to change (in the university system, in redevelopment of the city, even in political demonstrations) and their even more unyielding demonization of the State of Israel. What was once avant-garde is now blasé, but Lévy's account captures none of this.

Instead, the drumbeat of prosaic conclusions pulsates throughout the article. His impression of Alcatraz? Essentially -- like his analysis of Rikers' Island in the first installment -- a prison, surrounded by water, excluding and confining its inmates, isolated from but in plain view of a thriving metropolis. This far-from-groundbreaking critique could be presented by anyone taking the $26 Alcatraz ferry tour (which, incidentally, Levy eschews for a $250 trip with two Native American guides).

Los Angeles? A sprawling, smoggy, centerless megalopolis containing lots of neighborhoods and spanning five counties across hundreds of miles. A quick visit to the city's chamber of commerce website or somesuch yields an identical assessment, in fewer words. Lévy does leave us with one novel insight: "An unintelligible city is a city whose historicity is nothing more than an ageless remorse." But is it Los Angeles, or the previous sentence, that is unintelligible?

Then, in one shining moment, Lévy takes a brief detour to a weight-loss clinic, hoping to take an investigative bite out of the obesity "epidemic" allegedly overtaking America. Here, Lévy offers a genuinely interesting take on the issue, siding, at least partially, with the debunkers of the "obesity-as-disease" myth. He refers to "inventing obesity", "Big Brother", and "a doctor in every body" as a foreshadowing of the kind of all-controlling state now spreading its tentacles throughout Europe. This brief interlude will, of course, be welcome to most TCS readers, despite the obligatory Foucault reference in its conclusion.

But in his visit to San Diego, Lévy returns to form. Here, he confronts arguably the most important San Diego-based national issue, namely the border and illegal immigration. Yet he ignores related issue of local importance, such as the integration of Latino immigrants into communities in San Diego and Los Angeles, the suggested tripling of the border fence and local opposition on environmental (!) and political grounds, and the phenomenon of "self-help" in policing the border which most recently has been embodied by the Minuteman Project (admittedly, the group began activities months after Lévy's visit but its predecessors have been around for a while).

Perhaps, to be fair to the auteur, Lévy's project was doomed from the beginning. Indeed, the entire series begs the question: does America need another Tocqueville? In the 19th century, when the transatlantic voyage regularly took weeks and lives, when communication with Europe traveled along the same route, and when many in the young American nation yearned for avuncular European approval, Tocqueville's observations, including his constructive criticisms, were insightful, novel, and welcome.

But today, travel and communication are exponentially more convenient while the importance of Europe -- relative to the rest of the world -- has declined precipitously. Plus, who needs a Frenchman to actually visit the United States in order to critique it when Paris newspapers already bash Uncle Sam with such consistency? For that matter, who needs the European media to rail against Bush, obesity, or American Puritanism when we have our own mainstream press?

Of course, then, Lévy's attitudes come as no great surprise. The Atlantic is a left-leaning magazine where sharp, if generally well-informed, criticism of the Bush Administration is de rigeur. Yet the likes of Robert Kaplan, a hawkish and fairly conservative futurist whose latest offering in part takes Bush to task from the right (and whose travel writings are matchless), and Ross Douthat, once an intern at National Review, are equally welcome in its pages. And the magazine's non-political reporting is perennially fascinating and probing (plus, its cryptic crosswords and wordplay columns are unrivalled).

What a shame, then, that its readers are condemned, over the next few months, to encounter further installments of a profoundly conventional and surprisingly vapid road trip.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.

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