A review of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, by Bernard-Henri Lévy, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Bernard-Henri Lévy's account of his attempt to repeat Tocqueville's American journey is not really a repetition. For one thing, Lévy doesn't know Democracy in America all that well, so he missed all sorts of obvious connections between Tocqueville's analysis and his own.
Besides, as Lévy admits, his image of America owes more to various "on the road" movies than to Tocqueville's weighty prose. And to the extent that Lévy's America is the product of reading, it owes more to another of our friendly critics from Europe, Leo Strauss, than to Tocqueville. This makes American Vertigo an odd sort of book: at once thoughtful, interesting, often instructive, but also diffuse and studded with self-indulgent and random moments.
These distractions are not without their charm, however. For instance, Lévy tells us, out of nowhere, that "I don't like the Atlanta airport. From the first glance I hated its endless underground passageways, its ghost trains that don't go anywhere, its escalators that plunge into hell." Well, that's poetry, to be sure, and as a Georgian, I both share the author's passion and can attest to his accuracy. But so what?
Lévy also proudly presents an insight into regional differences among American lap dancers. Las Vegas's "cloned dolls" are evidence of "[t]he wretchedness of eros in the land of the Puritans," whereas the "bolder and more cheerful" performers in French-formed New Orleans are "[a] bastion of licentiousness in a Puritan land." But our visitor is either too sublimely erotic—a Chauncy Gardener liking, above all, to watch—or in his own way too Puritanical actually to be lap-danced in either city.
Most American lives, of course, are not affected by lap dancing one way or the other; it's a marginal activity for pathetic tourists that reveals little to nothing about the state of our being. An astute observer might have noticed, instead, that the eminently successful revolt of American intellectuals and the mainstream media against all things "Puritanical" has exacted a real erotic cost. A genuine 17th-century Puritan man who caught a glimpse of a young woman's bare ankle might have had difficulty controlling himself. Today's licentious young men watch virtually naked and perfectly sculpted young women gyrate on MTV and yawn. And say what you will about the Puritans, they probably didn't share our burgeoning need for Viagra. Is it possible the Puritans understood something that we have forgotten? The sustained passionate arousal that distinguishes human eros requires that our animal desires be mixed with or enflamed by larger and more enduring social human purposes. To the extent that sex becomes merely safe or recreational, or disconnected from the human responsibilities connected with birth and death, there's not much to it at all. The Francophile Allan Bloom didn't blame the Puritans for ours being the least erotic time in human history.
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The truth is that sophisticated Frenchmen are probably no longer imaginative enough to be able to teach us much about eros. For instance, Lévy completely misses the fact that ordinary Americans—partly in counter-countercultural revolt against sophisticated assaults on the reality of love—are now not merely more Puritanical but also more erotic than his own people. The French and the Europeans in general have become, to borrow Tocqueville's term, more individualistic—more apathetically locked up in their narrow post-religious, post-familial, and post-political lives—than we are. The "heart disease" that Tocqueville diagnosed as arising from the tendency of democratic societies to erode attachments to kin, neighbors, citizens, and God threatens France's future far more than America's. So far, the birth dearth is their problem, not ours.
When it comes to love, death, friendship, and God, therefore, the French (with a few honorable exceptions, such as Pierre Manent) no longer occupy a unique and helpful vantage point from which to survey American democracy. Yet Lévy wants to reprise Tocqueville's role as a friendly critic of America. His book has one crucial similarity to Democracy in America: Lévy and Tocqueville both want to be friendly critics of our country and to use their observations about the real, if quite imperfect, American reconciliation of democracy and liberty as a way of being implicitly quite critical of the France of their time. They both write, even more than it first seems, to correct the sophisticated French prejudice against America.
This leads to the most surprising and worthwhile elements of Lévy's book. Like Tocqueville, Lévy believes that he sees further and better than American and French partisans. And out there beyond partisanship, Lévy beholds the universal, rights-based rationalism of Enlightenment philosophy that he believes was Europe's great contribution to the world. Lévy's deepest devotion is thus not to France but to a "Europe understood as a faith born, as Husserl wrote, from the ideal of reason and the spirit of philosophy." That faith, he argues, was reappropriated for Americans by Leo Strauss and his "neoconservative" disciples, as an antidote to later European relativism and nihilism, which still unfortunately dominates the Continent. Europe (especially France) and America are, or should be, united by a "supranational" "idea" or "creed" that links together the American Founding and the French Revolution. The "abstract" "liberating principle" at the core of the European Enlightenment is embodied by America's founders in the "fundamental Law" of our Declaration and our Constitution. We can't help being willing to listen to any European who reaches out to us on the basis of the political foundation we share in common.
Lévy extends his hand to us even further. In his telling, acceptance of our liberating principle compels nations and statesmen to choose the advance and protection of human rights over any other consideration. LÃ©vy sees our common devotion to human—some might say "natural"—rights as a "left" movement that is perennially threatened from a fascist Right, which includes, for him, Communist and Nazi totalitarianism as well as Islamofascism. Given the recklessness of so many European intellectuals today, Lévy must receive high marks just for saying so clearly that Communism, Nazism, and Islamic radicalism are all extreme forms of evil that were and are worth fighting to the death to oppose. His republican France, whatever our two nations' cultural differences, would have been America's resolute ally from World War II through the Cold War and now the war against the jihadists (though not in Iraq!).
Another welcome republican note in American Vertigo is the positive picture that Lévy's Enlightenment rationalism leads him to paint of the beleagured American neoconservatives. In fact, nothing about America seems to fascinate Lévy more than intra-neoconservative debates. He goes on at surprising length about the intellectual and strategic differences that separate Bill Kristol and Francis Fukuyama. Like most Europeans, Lévy overestimates the influence of neocons and Straussians on America's current foreign policy. But unlike his Continental colleagues, he regards that influence as mostly a good thing. He is "delighted when in the most powerful democracy in the world there finally appears a generation of intellectuals who arrive close to the top and can concretely work for the universalization of human rights and freedom." He boldly says that the American intellectuals come "from an ideological tradition less crippled than our own by the weight of consent to earlier totalitarian systems." Having "fewer skeletons in their closet" when it comes to "indulging fascisms both Red and Brown," they are better situated to think clearly about the main fascist threat to human rights today. Bolder still, Lévy criticizes European intellectuals for not joining or at least applauding the neocons.
He is surely right that left-leaning Europeans should, for the sake of consistency if nothing else, support at least the goals of American neoconservatives. His judgment that the Iraq war is "morally right and politically wrong" is nuanced and not unreasonable, but it's not one that his fellow Europeans and especially his fellow Frenchmen often share. Lévy courageously suggests the reason they don't acknowledge the nobility—if not the prudence—of our cause: a toxic mixture of envy and moral and military weakness.
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His insight fails him when he turns to a similar question regarding American politics: why are so many of our natural-rights rationalists on the Right, when it's so clear that the Left is the party of individual liberation? Struggling hard to find a smart and decent American Left, he ends up trying to make sense of the musings of the politically active actor Warren Beatty. This "anti-Schwarzenegger" accepts the Enlightenment and European "values of secularism, rationality, and human rights." Better still, while a man of peace, he does not hold to politically correct Hollywood pacifism but can distinguish between the necessity of the war in Afghanistan and the imprudence of the war in Iraq. Why, Lévy wonders, can't the neocons see what he sees in Beatty? Or even in John Kerry, who is also a "European at heart"—that is, "a rationalist above all"—although one who fatally underestimated the "irrational factors" that distort all political life.
Irrational factors, Lévy thinks, were responsible for the two shameful victories of the infantile conservative George W. Bush. The neocons played along with the irrational "crusade for moral values," Lévy speculates, in order to gain support for a universalistic, rationalistic foreign policy. But he contradicts that speculation by reluctantly admitting that Bill Kristol seems actually to agree with the Bush Administration's anti-Enlightenment positions on issues such as the death penalty, abortion, gay marriage, and "the place of religion in American politics." Lévy doesn't try to make sense out of Kristol's apparent perversity, because it so clearly, to him, makes no sense. Lévy criticizes Kristol's less than perfect devotion to the cause of the Enlightenment by admonishing him to read more Strauss!
But Lévy himself should also read more Strauss, who would (we can hope) persuade Lévy to pay more attention when he reads Tocqueville. Though Lévy does not see it, his rationalism is not Strauss's, much less Tocqueville's. Lévy puts his faith in a philosophy that, while avoiding the traps of nihilism and relativism, is nonetheless dogmatically atheistic. For Lévy, atheistic individualism is rationalism, and the only foundation for a non-repressive morality. That means that the erotic longings that lead us to personal connections with our spouses, children, friends, fellow citizens, and God Himself are illusions, and dangerous illusions at that. Lévy seems willing to surrender the future of the family, genuine friendship, the nation, and God Himself to what he regards as a consistent devotion to reason and rights. He highlights a key difference between American and French republicanism when he warns darkly of a religious Right that may be in the process of "definitively turning its back" on America's "European heritage." This more characteristically French and far less friendly line of criticism is responsible for the book's most significant weakness as a defense of human liberty.
Lévy goes astray when he parts company both with the American Straussians he so admires and Tocqueville's own strange liberalism. Tocqueville admired the Americans' Christian faith, even if he did not share it, and saw it as an indispensable source of moral guidance both for American families and for individuals capable of exercising their political liberty as citizens. Religion, for Tocqueville, above all embodied those truths about the human soul or human individuality most likely to be neglected in a democratic and materialistic time. Lévy sees American belief as mostly vulgar and morally repressive; he usually finds nothing true, good, or liberating about it. He graciously and ironically defends American religion by saying that it is not as dangerously stupid and pervasively oppressive as Europeans usually think. The challenge of "creationism" to the Enlightenment is, in principle, fundamental, but is undercut, Lévy explains, by the sheer banality of American evangelical women exercising to be "fit for Jesus." A real Christian, after all, would believe that Jesus loves fat girls, too.
Lévy reproaches our evangelicals for trying "to get rid of the distance, the transcendence, and the remoteness of the divine that is at the heart of European theologies." Their American God is "a good-guy God," "someone who loves you one by one," "a present God," "the friend that has your best interests at heart," "a God without mystery." There is something—maybe a lot—to Lévy's criticism of a certain American tendency to make God too "user friendly" at the expense of mystery and transcendence. Surely Lévy isn't wrong to be repulsed by megachurches that look like banks. But his tirade goes much further: he objects to any understanding of the Creator as someone Who loves each of us in particular and provides authoritative moral guidance for our individual lives. The God of the Bible, after all, really is a "a present God" Who loves us "one by one."
Megachurch-going Americans who attempt to live consistently Christian lives are, in Lévy's view, contemporary subjects of the petty and schoolmarmish soft despotism that Tocqueville feared, people who have surrendered the trouble of thinking about and taking responsibility for their own futures. Disoriented rather than exhilarated by modern freedom, our evangelicals willingly succumb to the most ridiculous, meddlesome, and puritanical form of authority. But Tocqueville himself saw religion as providing Americans a point of view that inspires ennobling resistance to the peculiarly democratic forms of despotism—such as thoughtless and apathetic deference to the majority, fashionable public opinion, impersonal forces, and therapeutic experts.
Lévy notices both that evangelicals actually believe in and try to live according to the Word of the Biblical God, and also that they are in some ways co-opted by our dominant or bourgeois culture. Yet he reserves most of his disdain for what seems authentic and true about their faithful lives. That's because for Lévy (and, he thinks, for Europeans in general) "the divine" is for all practical and psychological purposes irrelevant. His God isn't even the hidden God without Whom, according to the Frenchman Pascal, we are miserable. Lévy rejects Pascal's God—the God of the Bible who haunted Tocqueville—as too personal; Lévy prefers the impersonal or inaccessible god of Aristotle or "the philosophers."
To Lévy's credit, his rationalistic and atheistic contempt for American religion is not consistent, because he doesn't always let his theory get in the way of what he can see with his own eyes. He makes the Tocquevillian observation that American worshipers' beliefs concerning "sin and radical evil and the natural limits they impose on all nations" support political liberty and even reflect the truth about human liberty. He even mentions favorably a "Catholic teacher, a believer in home schooling, who wanted to snatch his children out from the steamroller of dominant thinking," that is, from the "nihilism" of "programmed stupefaction" that always endangers us in the high-tech world.
If Lévy would only think more about these countercultural and sometimes anti-imperial impulses of American religion, he would—following Tocqueville—connect our genuine belief to our patriotism and political responsibility, to our relatively high birth rate and healthy families, and to our willingness to take risks on behalf of our futures and our liberty. He might also have seen that orthodox and evangelical believers are in no danger of being seduced by fascism. The European fascists were the most rootless and alienated people in their societies, looking for some leader to make sense out of their pathetic lives. Fascists begin as individuals in the Tocquevillian sense—disconnected from country, class, community, and friends and family. But America's evangelical and orthodox believers are characteristically our country's least lonely and alienated people. They're the ones most likely to be happy with their spouses, children, friends, country, and church, and they're most likely to see the connection between their political liberty and their personal happiness.
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Lévy himself points to the way out of the apparent impasse—to the way Americans have reconciled their religious faith with their political liberty. In the course of denouncing as irrational the evangelical suspicion of Darwinism, Lévy admits in passing that an intellectually respectable argument against the soullessness of evolutionism might arise from "natural theology." But he doesn't see what some Straussians do: the closest thing Americans have to a "civil theology" is the natural theology of our Declaration of Independence, which distinguishes clearly among the animals, human beings, and the Creator. What distinguishes human beings, among other things, is our openness to the truth about the providential and judgmental Creator, Who is both the God of nature and the biblical God. Lévy could learn from our deepest friendly foreign critic, G. K. Chesterton, to take more seriously the truthful distinctiveness of the American "creed…set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence."
Our founding theology is a form of universalism and a form of creationism. Chesterton observed that because it is not really a civil theology but something higher and genuinely true for all human beings, our natural theology has made our nation a "home for the homeless" everywhere. Chesterton called America "a nation with the soul of a church." In our country, citizens can quite reasonably find themselves equally at home with their country's ennobling political creed and with their church's tenets, from which they learn that man's true home is somewhere else.
Any Frenchman concerned for his country's future should attend to Strauss's thought that the tension between reason and revelation is the secret to the West's vitality. The American Founding's affirmation (no doubt owing to some Puritan influence) of the truth that man is the creature open to his duties to the Creator is our way of perpetuating that tension. The extreme Enlightenment's efforts—the ones that animated the French but not the American Revolution—to resolve that tension by making us totally at home in this world have been, on balance, disastrous for both human rights and philosophy, not to mention the human soul. It is because Americans are so at home with our homelessness that we resist so well the various totalitarian and other self-destructive temptations of the "enlightened," technological world.