Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Review - American Vertigo

There is, of course, no more lauded book than Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, the account of a Frenchman who, sent to study the prison system in 1831, produced a book that explored the nature of our government and our citizens' interaction with it. It remains a work of insight, giving us not just a picture of 19th century America, but of current-day America, and remains one of the most quoted and read works of its kind. It is not always kind, but it is a reflection of what many consider a unique experiment, and it took, as is so often true, an outsider to explain it to ourselves.

There may have been other attempts to recreate Tocqueville's journey, I don't know, but in 2004 and 2005, the French "philosopher, journalist, activist, and filmmaker" Bernard-Henri Lévy undertook a similar trip, attempting to get to the heart of modern, post-9/11 America. His American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (2006) is an attempt to explain America to, well, I'm not sure who is the audience. One of the pleasures of Tocqueville is the meticulous way he went through detailing what the American system is, laying it out for people who had no idea how our system worked. Lévy spends very little time explaining much of anything, settling instead for a series of vignettes meant to illustrate something.

Actually, AV is two books, one a chronicle of the journey, with short (2-3 page) sections in which Lévy meets various Americans, the other a long (70-page) essay on what he has learned. The first book is disappointing, as we get too little diversity, too few real Americans; Sharon Stone has little to contribute, and Lévy's interviews of authors and thinkers don't get to the heart of the 99.9% of this country that doesn't intellectualize their lives, but lives them.

This is not to say that there aren't affecting moments. Lévy is too good an author and observer not to come away with some images, like those of reservation Native Americans, that will stay with the reader. But he also misses some things that are right under his nose. Let me just pick a couple.

When he writes of Hillary Clinton, and her quest to claim the position her husband once held, he makes vivid the incongruity of a woman inhabiting the same office held by the man who publicly shamed their marriage in that very office. He understands that the Oval Office is a symbol in personal terms to Senator Clinton, but is also a national symbol. When he later, in typical Gallic fashion, fails to understand the opprobrium heaped on the president for his affair (Lévy doesn't say it, but we've certainly heard many times that an affair is no big deal for the heads of sophisticated countries like France), he misses the point.

Clearly, there are many Americans who thought the Lewinsky affair was no big deal. There were many others who were legitimately shocked and appalled. But there were quite a few in the third camp, those who were not bothered so much by the affair itself as by its locale, its defilement of the Oval Office, this symbol of American power and rightness. That it happened in the public's office, apparently while business was being done, and not incidentally in the same building (no matter how removed) as the living quarters in which Hillary and Chelsea were going about their daily business, struck many as the height of disrespect and arrogance. This conflict between "man of the people" and "man of entitlement" created some dissonance even in people disposed to support Bill Clinton, and cast a shadow over his tenure that is greater than would have been caused by a more discreet rendezvous.

Lévy travels to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, and is torn between desires to "laugh, to vomit, and yet at times to applaud." The source of his nausea comes from the jumbling together of works from all over the world, taken from their natural settings and placed without context across the sprawling property. He feels that Hearst is being profoundly disrespectful of European heritage, yet finds an internal conflict when he imagines that, for all the insensitivity, there is also a love of these artifacts, a desire to bring the Old World to the New.

The author misses something vital here, I fear, as he fails to understand the essential similarity of the Castle to America itself. For this is a nation of Old World and Third World people and things, all juxtaposed and tumbling together in strange and unforeseen ways. I picture America not so much as a melting pot but as a pot into which semisolid materials like chunks of paint have been thrown; while an essential part of each solid remains intact, some parts of each bleed off and mingle, creating an infinite blend of colors punctuated by enclaves of purity. If one wishes to vomit at the strange mix of a statue, a ceiling, a tile from different places and different eras, then convulsions should emerge from the Irishman enjoying a burrito...but this is America.

Back to the matter of the audience for this book. Tocqueville doesn't spend much time talking about the French system, presumably because his readers were assumed to be intelligent Frenchmen. Lévy doesn't either, but this is a flaw given that this book is being sold to Americans. We get glimpses of differences, in matters like the death penalty and creationism, but for most matters it's hard to understand his reaction to what he sees and writes about given our lack of knowledge about France.

So the first 233 pages of AV are a bit thin, some interesting stories interspersed with some deeply unhelpful ones (the visit with three tycoons, Kravis, Diller, and Soros, features vivid writing coupled with almost no insight). One suspects that this has all been preface to the 70-page second section, the area in which Lévy takes an opportunity to ruminate and philosophize.

And this part is interesting, if ultimately unconvincing. Attempting to justify the title, Lévy wants to understand the American unease, and he finds symptoms: our derangement of memorialization, as our attempts to consecrate our history seem to offend in some way; our obesity not of body, but "an economic, financial, and political obesity," which is true, and troubling, but not definitively a sign of national vertigo (at least not until the current financial crisis which has some rethinking our bargain with gigantism); our factionalization, the growing desire to segment ourselves off in enclaves defined by race or religion; and our poverty, a perennial disconnect, already perceived by many other observers, between our wealth and our reluctance to find a way to alleviate the problems of those in need.

Lévy, then essentially argues against the points he has made, contending that the seeds of solution are contained within the American system itself, so that these distressing problems are likely to be subsumed under the very real positives of the United States. (I wish I could be so positive, especially in light of current events.)

The author then takes up the subject of terrorism which, in 2005, probably seemed like something worth a long essay of its own, given the proximity to 9/11. And here the discussion is relentlessly intellectual, contrasting the Fukuyama view that history is over, that the battle is won and democracy and capitalism are the logical ends of human development, with the view of Huntington that we are likely to devolve into warfare among differing civilizations for the soul of the world, leading one to the conclusion that we must fight against Islamofascism and the rise of China and India and so on and so forth. Lévy finds objections, philosophical objections, to each of these.

This discussion is interesting, unquestioningly, but none of it is rooted in the first part of the book. An essential question, I think, is what influences among Americans themselves argue against these hypotheses. We don't particularly want to believe either, and I don't think we believe that those views are in contrast. The first, the end of history, justifies the second, the clash of civilizations; they are perfectly complementary, as we have seen for the past eight years.

Lévy discusses a third way, as exemplified in the work of Michael Walzer. This exposition is somewhat muddy and not particularly convincing, at least not as a guide to action. (He admits that Walzer "is at the center of an intellectual galaxy whose shifting contours I can't precisely outline.") He then analyzes Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and torture, and this part is interesting insofar as it indicates the attitude of Europe toward these matters; these in particular seemed to shake Europe's view of America, and probably should have shaken more of us.

In the end, in a section called "Has America Gone Mad?," Lévy attempts to reconcile American fundamentalism (which he sees as self-limiting) with American exceptionalism (which he calls messianism, and makes him quite uncomfortable) with neoconservatism. He creates an interesting framework for talking about the last, explaining the American Right as made up of Jeffersonians (who are induced to action only by self-interest), Hamiltonians (we intervene only for commercial interests), Jacksonians (who intervene in other countries for many reasons, but get in and out quickly), and Wilsonians (who must bring Americanism to the world by whatever means). The modern-day Wilsonians, of course, are the neoconservatives.

Unfortunately, after setting up this framework to discuss the past eight years, and the future, and imperialism, the conversation peters out. There are some peculiar assumptions (that Colin Powell was a Hamiltonian allied with the Jacksonian Cheney and Rumsfeld, all questionable assertions), and a conclusion that American imperialism is overstated in the rest of the world, that we are nothing like, as apparently we are so characterized in the world, ancient Rome. Lévy mentions, but does not pursue far enough, the idea that any empire would be limited today by powerful transglobal institutions. And he is far too kind to neoconservatives, arguing that the by-products of their noxious philosophy justify the wrongness.

In the end, American Vertigo is intriguing, maddening, at times pointless. Does Lévy get to the heart of America? I don't think so. There are too many Americans omitted, too much theorizing and not enough engaging. He is, in the end, very pro-America, which is reassuring to those who believe that the French are just the opposite, but he seems enamored of the experiment and its intent, not the reality. It's a matter of balancing the factors, of weighing our non-imperialism on the one hand against our "obesity." To me, the latter is far more of a minus going forward than the former can be a plus. He would, apparently, disagree.

But this book is like having a conversation with a very smart thinker who has seen enough, and thought about what he has seen, to have some startling insights. If the book fails in its aim, to capture the essence of America Tocqueville-style, it will certainly make a reader wish he could engage further with Lévy, draw out some of his conclusions, test him. It's just a shame he couldn't have developed it within the book itself.

Note: after writing this review, I looked about to see what others had to say. I do this not to confirm or deny my own impressions, just to see other takes. I usually discount Amazon reviews, so conflicted are the motivations of the various writers, but the consensus was, well, there was none, just a uniform set of 5 to 1 stars. Of more interest is the Garrison Keillor review, which was not complimentary. He was pretty well outraged:
You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.
He is far more upset than I about the visit to Cooperstown, which I thought pointless (no, people don't go there to affirm the myth of Doubleday's non-invention of baseball, they go there because people who found the myth convenient put the Hall of Fame there), but not quite infuriating. Lévy does wax a bit over-rhapsodic on Charlie Rose and Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, sections I found more unenlightening than maddening, unlike Keillor. Interesting perspective, though.

No comments:

Clicky Web Analytics