Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo

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Jan. 24 2006 1:32 PM

Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo

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Before moving on to your interesting questions, I want to register my prime objection to this book: It is exceptionally annoying.

Following Tocqueville's footsteps, BHL naturally leads us to Warren Beatty. While their encounter, recounted at some length, reveals only a few nuances of American civil society, it does capture a certain truth about the author: He is the French intellectual version of the actor. He leads a charmed life—married to a gorgeous actress, living in a Marakesh palace—and possesses a penchant for shocking the French intelligentsia. It's pretty easy to see why BHL has captured the imagination of Vanity Fair, which included him on last year's Best Dressed List—and several years earlier slobbered over him in a long profile.

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An author shouldn't be skewered simply for his public personae. But in this case, BHL wasn't just a passive subject of an Annie Leibowitz photo shoot. He seems to thoroughly share the glossy's affinity for celebrity. In this book, he devotes thousands of words to transcribing the political wisdom of Beatty and Sharon Stone. ("Are you aware that glamorous Los Angeles is also the leading capital of homeless people?" the Basic Instinct star asks BHL.) He accompanies Charlie Rose on a misty visit to the television interviewer's hometown, Henderson, N.C. Here is a small chunk of BHL's extended description of that journey: "Rose in the front of the post office; it, too, just the same as it was before, fixed in time—he has only to close his eyes to see his father again, toddling along to get his mail." Now, that's democracy in America!

You mentioned BHL's trite description of centerless Los Angeles. That just begins to capture the clichés that fill his travelogue: libertine San Francisco, Nevada brothels, nostalgia in Cooperstown, the Kennedy family as Greek tragedy. These superficial descriptions are the inevitable consequence of his hurried traveling style. He spends just enough time in each locale to file a 1,500 word dispatch, never more, before hitting the highway.

And yet … I agree with you that BHL has exceedingly fine moral and political judgment. He always gets the big stuff right: from his early condemnations of communism to his impassioned pleas on behalf of Bosnia to his critique of Islamo-fascism to his condemnation of the Iraq war. And while you're right that he doesn't have many new insights into America, he profoundly understands and appreciates the soul of the place. Where too many smart Europeans are quick to judge America for its religiosity, fat couch potatoes, individualism, and cultural vulgarity, BHL doesn't exaggerate this country's many faults. (I especially appreciated his debunking of the myth that Americans are fatter than Europeans.) He even argues that the parts he doesn't particularly like—say, evangelicalism—may actually be inseparable from its greatness. I found myself quite moved by his paeans. 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."

You rightly turn to his dueling portrayals of Fukayama and Kristol. These sections capture the best and worst of BHL. His dissection of Fukayama is rich with context and insight, while I think that his portrayal of Kristol suffers from insufficient knowledge of the American scene. He's not entirely fair to Bill Kristol, who disappoints him by not appearing sufficiently intellectual in their conversation. But why hold him to such high standards? Irving's boy is a publicist and an inside operator, not an author or academic. Yes, he has a superb sense of political timing. He knows when to take a dramatically orthodox stand, and then he knows how to quickly return to the GOP company line, limiting the long-term damage to his reputation. That's just Kristol being good at his job. Nor is he as cynical as BHL imagines. Even before neoconservatives adopted their idealist foreign policy, they believed in promoting domestic virtue. (Witness the old czar Bill Bennett, Leon Kass' radical opposition to stem cell research, or the Weekly Standard's long opposition to gay marriage.) Neocons have embraced these positions so consistently that you can't possibly accuse them of opportunism.

BHL falters in this characterization, because his animus toward Krstol is personal and stylistic. But I actually wanted BHL to spend more time interrogating American intellectuals and placing them in an international context—like his splendid Adventures on the Freedom Road did for the French scene. If I were planning his itinerary, I would have also sent him to visit culture war theorists—Robert P. George, Leon Kass, Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, etc. That would have made a far more valuable book. Americans rarely give their own intellectual culture and tradition this kind of rigorous tough-love treatment. Perhaps that's because American intellectuals don't treat ideology as seriously as BHL does—or the French do. Were you as disappointed that he focused so heavily, in the end, on foreign-policy wonks?

Alan, I counted two instances where BHL cites insights that he gained from sitting down with you. Are you grateful, or hurt, that he didn't spin your meeting into a full-blown set piece? "He received me in his office, a vast book-lined space with the Boston skyline winking at us in the distance. His hair is short. He is wearing a tweed jacket and paisley tie ..." That reminds me, I wanted to suggest two magisterial books truly in the Tocquevellian grain that offer far more insights into American religion, The Transformation of American Religion,and the culture wars, One Nation, After All.

BHL misses many opportunities to explicitly contrast France to the United States. In what ways do you think France's own crisis of identity has shaped his take on America? Are there places where he gives us too much credit, so that he can score points back on his side of the Atlantic? Finally, I'd like to get your take on my take. Am I too hard on BHL?

Your not-so-secret admirer,
Frank

Franklin Foer is editor at large of the New Republic. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World.

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