Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo

If Only He'd Taken On the Culture War …
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 25 2006 1:24 PM

Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo

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Alan,

Is BHL an opportunist? Despite my aversion to his slapdash reporting and his star-schtupping—now, you'll have to pardon my French—I don't see any merit to the charge. Robustly and persuasively defending America against the standard European critique surely won't make him very popular back in Paris. And there's no hint that he has calibrated this book to appeal to any particular ideological book-buying market over here. He attacks and defends the neocons, fires some deadly shots in the direction of Moveon.org, and venerates Hillary Clinton—all contentious positions. Besides, BHL has taken enough brave contrarian stands to win lifelong immunity against accusations of opportunism.

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Before moving on, I just wanted to mention my favorite BHL moment, where he debunks the charge of American imperialism—and shows he retains his admirable hunger for brawling. He writes, "[Y]ou can no longer say either that the [U.S.] is the malignant nucleus of empire or that it is the empire of evil; or else, yes, you may well say so, but if you do, then you'll need to resign yourself to understanding nothing whatsoever about empire, evil, and America." It felt like the moment in a 1980s action movie when the bare-chested hero bursts into a bar catching his unsuspecting foes, delivers a devastating one-liner, and then eviscerates everyone in the place.

OK, you caught me in a bit of a goof, suggesting that he visit Judith Butler. I'll retract that one. But I'll stand by my broader point. BHL has largely skipped over the culture war, one of the most important and least-understood themes of American politics. It's a subject that could use the eye of a brilliant outsider who could tell us what the hubbub is all about. Why does BHL avoid it? He seems so enamored with the friendliness of Americans that he overlooks their capacity for rhetorically bludgeoning one another.

I think you perfectly capture the most powerful part of BHL's argument: Because he is no knee-jerk anti-American, his criticisms of this country hit me hard. You mentioned his descriptions of prisons in general and Gitmo in particular. There were other moments that affected me deeply. When he examines the American welfare state, he debunks the ignorant European conventional wisdom that we have no social safety net. But then he goes on to powerfully describe the faults of our inadequate system. It is a Rubik's Cube of bureaucratic complexities that relies too heavily on private institutions and private philanthropy. More than any recent speech by liberal politicians, his description of Hurricane Katrina made me feel a sense of shame about how badly we have allowed our government to decay.

So, now I fear that we're being too nice. Unfortunately, this book lends itself to our schizophrenic reaction, because as you initially noted this is actually two books in one—a travelogue and an essay. All the interesting material comes in the essay, which takes up the last 70 pages of the book. It begs the question: If BHL had so many interesting and important things to say about American politics, why does he bother conveying Sharon Stone's extensive thoughts on the subject?

Thanks for the fun back and forth. And thanks for allowing me to sleep with the full confidence that the next Alan Wolfe book will be devoid of conversations about the future of American liberalism with Kirsten Dunst—although, don't get me wrong, I would pay to read that.

Best,
Frank

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