Garrison Keillor, Vulgarian
In defense of Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Every now and again you come across the real thing: a case of full-blown, corn-fed, white-bread American nativist bloviation. This often used to take the form of populist and pseudo-egalitarian diatribes against the stuck-up English with their fancy ways, of the sort that Charles Dickens encountered in his 1842 journey to the United States (and summarized in his American Notes, as well as lampooned in his worst novel, Martin Chuzzlewit). But more recently, attacks on the effete and the elite have borrowed from that same England's oldest prejudice, and concentrated themselves on the Gallic. An arsenal of Francophobic clichés lies ready to hand, like a pile of rocks and rotten eggs stacked by a pillory: The French eat frogs and horses, fetishize fromage, practice loose gallantry, chew raw garlic, and behaved badly enough under Vichy to make Woody Allen go see Marcel Ophüls'Le Chagrin et la Pitié until he had it by heart. During the argument over the Gulf War, certain turkey-wattled Congressmen drew on this folkloric store of imagery to urge boycotts of the wine and brie that they never actually drank or ate and drew nearer to what they truly knew by trying to rename pommes frites as "Freedom Fries." Hey ho for Yankee Doodle, cock-a-hoop and strutting away. Not since the xenophobic patriots of World War I took to roughing up German waiters and announcing that sauerkraut was henceforth to be "Liberty Cabbage" has there been such a fiesta of all-American bullshit: of what Kipling of all surprising people called jelly-bellied flag-flapping.
Now comes Garrison Keillor's front-page notice, in the Jan. 29 edition of the Sunday book review of the New York Times of Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo. Here, the Homer of Middle America shows that he sure knows how to sneer and that he's no hick but also knows where Paris is. For instance, and like not a few European visitors and Americans too, and myself as it happens, BHL (as I shall call him for convenience) finds himself specially attracted by Seattle. He very much likes the Space Needle, which to him is an emblem of "everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel." To this minor paean, Keillor shows himself fully-equipped to respond with coruscating wit. And brevity is the soul of it, as well. The response consists of nine words and two letters. "OK, fine. The Eiffel Tower is quite the deal, too."
Well, take that, you baguette-brandishing poseur!You and your high-falutin' ways ain't wanted here, see, and some of us fellas figger we know how to deal with outsiders. If we want someone praising Seattle, we got plenty of fine locals to do it for us, you hear? How astonishing to see such humorless philistinism served up in a serious supplement devoted to books.
I should here confess that I know BHL a little, have debated him in public on his sadly mistaken view of the Iraq war, feature briefly in his pages, and also contribute essays to the Atlantic, which commissioned the Vertigo voyage in the first place. A documentary of the journey was being made at the same time, and I think that the book has some of the faults of a documentary in that it is slightly over-pictorial in its prose. But this also means that much of what BHL writes, you can see. Like his model Alexis de Tocqueville, whose original project—which also fascinated Dickens—was the state of American prisons, he spends some time in our vast network of incarceration. I find his depictions and accounts highly compelling and very disturbing, too. Keillor, who was awarded a good deal of space as well as prominence for his blunt hatchet job, chooses not to make even a single mention of this element in the book. Perhaps he thinks the American prison system is the envy of the world? Or perhaps he just couldn't trust himself to say what he thought about some snooty Parisian poking his big nose in where it wasn't wanted and running down those good folks who look after law and order 'round here.
Yellow-dog Democrats like Keillor spend a lot of time whining about how America's standing in the world has declined of late, but this is how he treats a guest who spends half his time combating anti-Americanism in France. Simply because BHL mentions a fact that has actually caught other eyes (the tendency of Americans to become riotously fat) he is addressed like this: "Thanks pal. … Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was all that about? Were fat people involved?" One moans for shame that such a vulgar jerk is thought of, and even known overseas, as some kind of national entertainer.
"As always with French writers," says Keillor, "Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions." I would give about, oh, five cents to know which ones Keillor has in mind. Perhaps he has been boning up on his Foucault or Balibar or Derrida, in which case he modestly makes no show of his own learning. He cannot mean Albert Camus or Olivier Todd or Michel Houllebecq. Nor can he have read BHL's last book, which was a very detailed investigation of the murder of an American reporter named Daniel Pearl. I think BHL did a service to America there, as he did when he warned years ago of the dangers of the Taliban and Slobodan Milosevic, at a time when America was sleeping. But of course, guarded as it is by stout commonsensical fellows like Keillor, who think we should tend to bidness right here and stay out of them furrin places, our culture has little to fear except fear itself.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Garrison Keillor by Tim Boyle/Getty Images.