Eric Hoffer (on fearsome & fearful enemies)

“You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.”

I don’t know an awful lot about Eric Hoffer, or about where and when I came across this quote. Perhaps it was the one memorable line in another’s book, one that I’ve forgotten, but this citation has stayed in my mind. And now that, shamed by the ignorance I’ve confessed here, I know a little more about this mainly self-taught American intellectual (and migrant worker) and philosopher (who worked for decades as a longshoreman), I’m hungry to know more. His most famous book, published in 1951, was called The True Believer.

In my immediate surroundings, I can’t help but think of another quote, from my buddy Joe Pearce, that “China is a fear-based society”. Observing the alternating fear and boredom that oppress my Chinese students and friends, I try to determine what is their “enemy” — “fear itself”, the Roosevelts might have argued — and what that enemy, be it philosophical, historical, or institutional, most fears.

I fear that this is about to turn into an excuse not to write what I was going to write, so here I end.

BHL III: The American Odyssey Continued

Yes, continued, as did (and does) my asynchronous meandering through stale-dated magazines. I’m an Atlantic subscriber, and I can’t keep up. Well, I don’t, at any rate. But I have completed the July/August issue (from 2005), which I went back to because it contained the third instalment of the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy’s study tour of the United States, “In the Footsteps of Toqueville”. Great stuff, and of a nearly timeless quality that makes it more interesting and more useful than any number of contemporary news bites. (I wrote about the first two instalments here and here.)

I’ll try not to go on and on, but I probably will. BHL’s observations are quirky and smart and engagingly written. He’s good. He returns, as his 19th-century countryman repeatedly did, to American prisons. He muses on questions like public versus for-profit incarceration of criminals and the death penalty. Consider this image from his visit with the only woman on death row, having passed by her “’girlfriends’…the hundred or so women, almost all of them black, in the ‘segregation’ section you need to go through to get to her cell – genuine raging beasts, all dressed in the same brightly coloured jumpers, and shouting behind their bars that they haven’t done anything, that they can’t bear it anymore, that they want to be allowed to exercise, that they screw visitors, that I should go to hell.” The travelogue resumes.

He tours the “obscene nether side” of American puritanism at the Chicken Ranch, a legal Nevada brothel in the boondocks that services Las Vegas customers. A flight over the Grand Canyon yields the “two theories” of its creation, and gives the bemused Parisian a close-up view of modern creationism and “intelligent design”. (He finds it alarming, the “most cunning and at bottom most dangerous ideological maneuver [sic, American spelling] of the American right in years…” Lévy is not generally so dogmatic in his views, and for the most part is quite refreshingly non-partisan. For example, when he goes to Salt Lake City, he is fascinated by the Latter-Day Saints’ spectacular obsession with genealogy, based on their belief in retroactive baptism of the dead. “I hesitate between two sentiments. One is a certain respect owed to this relentless interest in one’s ancestors, this homage made to the dead….But then there’s also the idea that these Mormons…have found the absolute weapon. How can you possibly fight a church that reigns not just over the living but also over the dead?”

Midwestern miners and social security; U.S. Air Force cadets (motto: Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do), conversations with whom impel BHL to vow that he will “think twice before allowing myself to talk glibly, like too many of my fellow citizens, about the imperial American military…[or] the imperial calling of the country itself”; the wealthy, white, Arizona “city of the old” that puts him in mind of “casinos, military installations, and internment camps for the Japanese”; his frustrated efforts to interview the campaigning John Kerry, and his impressions once he finally does (“a European at heart”); liberal-minded college students in the heart of Texas (he was surprised); the bizarre carnival of the Great Western Gun Show and its “morbid flirtation with horror”; the Kennedy mystique in Dallas (“What kind of cliché makes you cry? What is a myth you no longer believe in but that still functions?”); the Memphis national convention of the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal movement that forces him to weigh the “ostentatious display and calculating stagecraft” against “this joy, this fervor, this spirit of communion which I haven’t yet seen in any white church”: these are the people and things he has seen through those public intellectual eyes.

Lévy concludes with a mournful description of the storm-drenched opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. Clinton himself is a bit frail after his surgery, and the Democrats after the Kerry defeat. It rains and rains. “It’s not an apotheosis; it’s a debacle…[a] lugubrious ballet…His famous legacy suddenly seems altered by the reflected light of this gloomy, twilit, graceless day…this eclipse…this disaster.” This entry has no proper ending, and neither does the article. Sometime this summer, I’ll get to Part IV. This is me walking along with some good and intriguing writing (don’t you think?).

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.