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American Vertigo: Traveling America in the…

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville

by Bernard-Henri Lévy

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The Frenchman Bernard-Henri Levy looks at the U.S. through the eyes of a European: there is the bemusement over the flag fetish, when you see more than a hundred in just a couple of blocks in a New England town; America's undeniable belief in itself. So many of the new-fangled social and technological phenomena are very closely observed and thought-provokingly parsed.

Levy explores America's various approaches to international relations; it's a subject close to very many Europeans' hearts. He posits the following threads:

Jeffersonian: isolationist - wishes to avoid foreign entanglements
Jacksonian: the desire to respond to a foreign attack. It seems absurd, Levy writes, to attack Baghdad for the 9/11 attacks, but it's perfectly fit to attack Kabul.
Hamiltonians: these folk want to regulate international trade (cf Kuwait and the First Gulf War)
Wilsonians: hold the idea that the U.S. is accountable for world order and welfare.

Levy contends that those who would label the US an evil empire know nothing about the country, or about evil, or about empires. He says America is neither of these. He writes that it's simply a big, powerful place that believes in itself, and sometimes this belief has come at the expense of its minorities. One further telling point I came across: the 9/11 attacks were timed and targeted to throw off Palestinian-Isreali progress. Pure and simple in his view.

It's always interesting to me to see how our partners in the modern world see us. This is a very useful volume on that score. ( )
  LukeS | Mar 31, 2009 |
Levy has sold himself on his own cliche of America. The reality is our problems are far deeper than our surface ones. I did not find that he had any new insights that have not been covered by Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, and countless others. ( )
  cmeatto | Jan 6, 2009 |
BHL is no Tocqueville, but well worth reading

In this refreshing take on contemporary American culture, French journalist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (known simply as BHL in France) retraces the steps of his compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville who almost 2 centuries ago traversed what was America then and wrote his 2-volume treatise called "Democracy in America".

From the outset, it may sound like some sort of Borat-style charade, but to be sure, BHL is not some clueless fool bumbling around the country, I'd rate his knowledge of America on par with America's top scholars. The result of which is a travelogue that is rich in content based on a solid foundation of historical knowledge.

The first two-thirds of the book is written very much in memoir form. Stories encountered by BHL on his 1-year journey around the country beginning from the northeast through the heartland to the west coast and looping around the south and southeast. For anyone who has been closely following American culture and politics the past 10 years will recognize the familiar themes of rising obesity, conspicuous consumption habits, religiously fundamentalism, gun toting militarism, lingering racial tensions, alarming incarceration and execution rates, and gross inequalities between rich and poor.

If you read just the first two-thirds of "American Vertigo", you would think that BHL was your typical anti-American European socialist. However, in the last third of the book, BHL reveals that he is actually very optimistic about America's future writing: "I can't manage to convince myself of the collapse, heralded in Europe, of the American model" (p.246). Why so optimistic? BHL believes that "despite everything, you can still breathe freely today" (p.256). America to BHL still represents the land of opportunity, the city on the hill, however mythical that may be.

In the words of Tocqueville, BHL believes in America because of it's unwavering dedication to the democratic principles of "individualism" and the "tyranny of the majority". America is everything, anything and nothing all in one. It's Sam Huntington and Francis Fukiyama but also Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. It's New York and San Francisco, but it's also Detroit and Pittsburgh. It's Bill Gates and Michael Dell but also Ross Perot and Kenneth Lay. It's Richard Nixon but also JFK. It's Brittany Spears but also Sheryl Crow. It's Rosanne Barr but also Sharon Stone. It's Muhammad Ali but it's also Mike Tyson. It's Michael Moore but its also Ann Coulter. It's McDonald's but it's also Wolfgang Puck. Only in America as they say can Oprah Winfrey and Jon Stewart become more influential than all the politicians combined.

Does BHL get it all right? No, but he comes pretty darn close. Nor should we expect him to get it all right. Let us not forget that BHL is a foreigner after all, a French philosopher heavy on the French deconstructionisms of Sartre, Foucault, Strauss, and Derrida. That he gets some things wrong about the essence of America is not the point. What matters most is what a man of BHL's stature abroad, his learned background, what he thinks and observes of this "American experiment" called Democracy and why he thinks it will fail or succeed.

BHL is no Tocqueville, if you're looking for Tocqueville, get "Democracy in America". If you want to view contemporary Americanism through a unique lens, get "American Vertigo". ( )
1 vote bruchu | Aug 20, 2008 |
This is a book I've been meaning to read for a long time but it took me a while to get my hands on the original French version. I thought that a book written by a French intellectual and philosopher offering ruminations about America deserved to be read in French... A friend finally got me a copy in France last month and I took it with me on my around-the-world trip this month.

Bernard-Henry Levy (henceforth, BHL) is somewhat of a celebrity in France (perhaps the only country in the world where a philosopher can become a celebrity). In recent years, he has moved away from writing "pure" philosophical works towards a more journalistic role. In 2002 he spent almost a year, travelling to Pakistan several times to investigate the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter that was beheaded by Muslim fanatics. He summarised his findings in a book (Who Killed Daniel Pearl?) in which he minces no words when describing the lawlessness of the Pakistani regime. I vividly recall one sentence from that book (and I'm quoting from memory): "of all the delinquent countries in the world, Pakistan is the most delinquent of all". This was written, mind you, at at time when Pakistan was the US's primary ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

BHL embarked on a year-long journey arounnd the US and wrote his observations in American Vertigo. The project was financed by the Atlantic Monthly journal, which asked BHL to follow the footsteps of Alexis De Tocqueville, the French historian who travelled to America in the early 19th century and wrote an analysis of American civic life in the monumental work Democracy in America, considered one of the classic books in political thought. The idea was for BHL to retrace Tocqueville's journey and provide observations about life in America almost 200 years later. (On a side note: why don't I get offers to travel the world for free for a year? I guess my ruminations are not, sadly, as in demand as BHL's...).

The book turned out to be very different from what I thought it would be like. Instead of a long philosophical treatise about the US, the book is a collection of short vignettes, each 2-3 pages long, about the various encounters BHL had during his journey. Having said that, the last third of the book is a heavy-going "summary" of the journey, more typical to BHL's previous writings.

The journey took place around election time in 2004. BHL covered many walks of American life: politics (he met, among others, Obama, Clinton and Kerry), Hollywood (Sharon Stone, Warren Beatty), prisons (the original aim of Tocqueville was to study the American penitentiary system), entertainment (Vegas, a brothel in Nevada), sports (Baseball Hall of Fame), religion (from born-again evangelists to Brooklyn Jews to Mormons), US history (Mount Rushmore) and much much more. Each vignette describes shortly what he experienced and then expands on the subject by putting it into context. "The big picture" is a motive that runs throughout the book, with BHL trying to frame each experience within the theory he builds for the American experience.

And the theory is as follows: America is indeed an empire, but not of the sort Rome was. Its fierce protection of individualism, coupled with a deep sense of integrity and accountability, make it a power to be reckoned with despite the predictions of its decline. It is a land of contradictions: puritanism coupled with promiscuity, religious fervour coupled with materialism of the lowest kind, isolationism coupled with a sense of global duty. As dysfunctional as America is, BHL believes it will endure. He is an "anti anti-American" and repeatedly berates his compatriots for being so automatically against anything American and for falsely predicting the failure of the American model.

As impartial as BHL tries to be, his love for America is apparent throughout the book (although I think he will refuse to admit "love" is the appropriate word). He writes lovingly about Seattle, calling it the one place he would choose to live in if he were to move to the US, only to trade it later in the book with Savannah, Georgia. All in all, I don't think he was successful in "retracing the footsteps" of Tocqueville, but nevertheless this is still an interesting and stimulating book. ( )
1 vote ashergabbay | Aug 19, 2008 |
Title of this book is apt. The author is dizzy with the diversity (and banality) of America. His "insights" into American character seem obvious and uninformative. In the final chapter he mounts what seems a defense of America against accusations of approaching fascism and religious fundamentalism. But his interviews in his travels don't seem to support his conclusions. I didn't care for this book. --Linda Matson, Electronic Resources & Systems Librarian ( )
  umasslibraries | Mar 5, 2007 |
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Bernard-Henri Lévyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mandell, CharlotteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For a long time, Alexis de Tocqueville was perceived in, in my country, as a second-rate author.
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What does it mean to be an American, and what can America be today? Philosopher-journalist Lévy spent a year traveling in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville. The result is a fresh look at a country we sometimes only think we know. From Rikers Island to Chicago mega-churches, from Muslim communities in Detroit to an Amish enclave in Iowa, Lévy investigates issues at the heart of our democracy: the nature of American patriotism, the coexistence of freedom and religion (including the religion of baseball), the prison system, the health of our political institutions, and much more. Both the grandeur and the hellish dimensions of American life are unflinchingly explored. At a time when Americans are anxious about how the world perceives them and, indeed, keen to make sense of themselves, a brilliant and sympathetic foreign observer has arrived to help us begin a new conversation about the meaning of America.--From publisher description.… (more)

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