Discovering America: Levy and De Tocqueville

I just finished reading the first article in a great series from the Atlantic magazine. It arises from a little-known bicentennial which, truth be told, is likely not much more commonly known for the Atlantic’s commemoration of it. (It’s a superb read, but it’s no Entertainment Tonight. (Mercifully!)) And as is typical of my relationship with this fine American publication, I’m in catch-up mode: we’re talking about the May ‘05 edition here. (Oh, that darned Canadian postal system…)

Last year was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alexis de Toqueville, a French scholar and writer. His Democracy in America is still considered among the most wise and influential perspectives on that young and enthusiastic nation that is now an empire. The Atlantic calls him “our keenest interpreter”. In view of this bicentenary, and of the torrid world-wide discussion about the international role and approach of the United States, the magazine “asked another Frenchman to travel deep into America and report on what he found…”

That reporter is the Parisian writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, perhaps best-known to Americans for his book Who Killed Daniel Pearl? In France, he is the thinker-as-rock-star, a public intellectual of the kind that makes Americans nervous and Canadians indignant (consider the widespread grudge against John Ralston Saul — “who does he think he is!?“). Lévy has taken a strong position of what he calls “anti-anti-Americanism” in French public debate, making him a European who might get a hearing in the American conversation. (He’s also a sharp dresser, apparently, which helps.)

He begins the first article with the stars and stripes. “It’s a little strange,” Lévy writes, “this obsession with the flag.” His observations and ruminations about why ‘Old Glory’ is so omnipresent in the American imagination and on most American streets mark his point of departure.  “It’s a good question to ask oneself…at the beginning of this journey that will lead me for almost a year…from one end to the other of this country I really know so little. Lord knows I’ve come here time and again in the past. Of course I have always loved it, and been molded, from boyhood on, by its literature, its movies, its culture.”

As he sets off “In the Footsteps of Tocqueville”, Lévy reminds us that his compatriot’s  initial intention was to study the American penal system. Accordingly, he begins at New York City’s Rikers Island prison. From there, he offers his wry and thoughtful impressions of baseball and religion; the “museumification” of America; the death of its rust-belt cities; George W working his way through hostile electoral territory; looks at Arab Americans, American Indians, the Amish and Orthodox Jews; the “Black Clinton?” Barack Obama and his impact on Democrats; U.S. highways; the ’04 Republican convention and the Mall of America. (I remain amazed that citizens of the Excited States, up to the present moment, have allowed this massive consumer cathedral to remain only the second biggest shopping centre on the globe; the Oilers may not make the NHL playoffs, but the West Edmonton Mall is still the square-footage champion.)

And away Lévy goes: describing, interrogating, comparing and speculating about every aspect of America that intrigues him. There does not appear to be much that doesn’t. His writing is cool and elegant, but his impressions gyrate from bemusement to admiration, from pity to gentle ridicule, from wonder to outright disgust. “Love it or leave it” types will not enjoy Lévy at all – mind you, they miss out on a wide range of the finest things – but anyone wanting to see the U.S. through a lens other than their own will find this a thought-provoking and enriching series. Tocqueville is said to have observed that it is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth, a remarkable reflection given America’s current political climate. The “complex truth” that his compatriot, M. Lévy, is seeking makes compelling reading. I’m eager to continue the trip.

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