The musings of a “luscious locked” Frenchman masquerading as the new Tocqueville in order to ponder the singularity of America is not normally considered news. Except when that Frenchman is BHL — the brand name of philosopher, journalist, director, and millionaire celebrity Bernard-Henri Levy. Then it’s definitely news.
Best known in the U.S. for his nonfiction novel Who Killed Daniel Pearl? BHL is the kind of charming, French-style intellectual that makes bookish American coeds swoon. That he’s heir to a lumber man’s millions doesn’t hurt either. Philosophically, BHL has modeled himself after his former mentors — the post-structuralist literary theorist and babe-magnet Jacques Derrida, and the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (later committed to an insane asylum for murdering his wife). However, besides inheriting substantial sums of money, Levy has little in common with his literary godfather de Tocqueville. Nor is his book, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville in any way comparable to Democracy in America.
What book would be? Ostensibly dispatched on a mission to study the U.S. penal system with its extraordinarily low rates of recidivism, Alexis de Tocqueville was far more intrigued by the success of the American experiment in democracy (an experiment the French had so thoroughly botched four decades earlier) with its attendant and contradictory aspects of self-reliance, majority rule, social conformity and egalitarianism than with the whores and freaks that seem to have occupied BHL in his journeys.
Granted Levy is a more entertaining and charismatic author (and character) than Tocqueville. After all, how many men are mistaken by their wife-to-be for Jesus Christ? Also like the Christian savior, BHL is quite happy to preach to his disciples. Particularly those on the Left.
In a recent Nation piece Levy recounts how nothing made a more lasting impression on him in his year-long gad about the U.S. than the semi-comatose state of the American Left. Of course, you’d never know it from reading American Vertigo. The main impression one takes from Levy’s travelogue is of an America populated by grotesquely obese fundamentalist yahoos and lap-dancing strippers. He seems to have avoided middle-class Americans as one would one avoid a South American leper colony, while spending a curious amount of time among hookers, soused Mardi-Gras revelers, drag queens, and swingers. He visits Mount Rushmore, but to him the monument is but a monstrosity erected by a Klansman on sacred ground expropriated from native Americans, overshadowing the pathetic Wounded Knee memorial. Throughout his account all that Americans hold dear is slighted or ignored. America’s entrepreneurial spirit, and its almost religious regard for free enterprise, egalitarianism, pragmatism, and fundamental freedoms, in other words, all those things that attracted and fascinated Tocqueville seem to have eluded Levy’s observations. Whereas Tocqueville button-holed everyone he came in contact with, Levy seems to have sought out only film stars, politicians and cross-dressers. In the book’s most humorous passage, Levy writes of meeting John Kerry shortly after his election defeat, and finding him “haggard, ghostly, faintly whispering in my ear: ‘If you hear anything about those 50,000 votes in Ohio, let me know.'”
LEVY HAS NOW LAUNCHED a new mission, this one in an effort to save the Democratic Party from itself. Among his observations is the startlingly obvious one that liberals are bereft of ideas and seem devoted to concentrating all their minimal intellectual energies at raising money. He finds American writers and artists stubbornly more concerned with writing and art than politics. What about eliminating the death penalty? Levy asks irritably. “I might be mistaken, but it seems to me a large part of the country is waiting for this.” He is wrong, of course, and had he spent less time in the titty bars he might have learned that two-thirds of Americans support the capital punishment.
Fair enough, but what about Guantanamo? he asks. And Abu Ghraib and the special prisons in Central Europe? Why are not public intellectuals like Gore Vidal and Tony Kushner clamoring for President Bush’s impeachment for his “gross lies”? Why are Americans so cursed with the ethics of sobriety? Why? Why? Why?
Not to worry though, Dr. Levy’s on the case. His prescription for the American Left is that it ape the anti-Semitic French Left, with its utter lack of ideas for dealing with (or even acknowledging) the crucial issues of crime, unemployment and immigration, and its Socialist party weaker now than anytime in history. By all means, look to Paris with its crime rate higher than that of New York, and where on election night one can still gaze upon the hammer-and-sickle hanging limply from the sills on the Champs-Elysees.
There was a time when BHL fiercely combated anti-Americanism in his native land, and when he was among the first to speak out against Serbian and Taliban atrocities. But now even liberals don’t seem to like the guy, and they nearly always love America’s critics. In a recent review of American Vertigo in the New York Times, Garrison Keillor ripped Levy up and down, and signed off with this advice for the Frenchman: “For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?”
Perhaps our nouveau Tocqueville should look to his own backyard, and by that I don’t mean the backyard of his 18th century palace in Marrakech or his apartment on the Left Bank or that villa in the south of France. And perhaps before calling for the impeachment of a U.S. president, BHL should spend just a little more time at ground zero and a little less time at the Penthouse Club.