Interviews May 2005

America in Foreign Eyes

Bernard-Henri Lévy speaks with David Brooks about America—its patriotism, its religion, its ideology
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In the May Atlantic the first of several installments of Bernard-Henri Lévy's "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville" appears—a travelogue in which Lévy, a renowned author and public intellectual in France, describes his journey throughout this country, visiting various cities, historic sites, landmarks, malls, and churches, and commenting on aspects of our society and culture that only an outsider could perceive. The aim of this long-form piece is, in a sense, to attempt to replicate what the French author Alexis de Tocqueville accomplished in the nineteenth century with his book Democracy in America. Lévy's Atlantic articles will eventually be collected and published by Random House, along with several previously unpublished chapters.

On April 6, Lévy made a joint appearance at the New York Public Library with New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks. Lévy and Brooks engaged in a dialogue about this project, touching on such issues as American patriotism, religion, immigration, and ideology. An edited transcript of their discussion, introduced by the New York Public Library's president, Paul LeClerc, appears below.

Paul LeClerc: Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening and welcome to the New York Public Library. I'm the director of the newly renamed department called Live from the New York Public Library. It is a great pleasure to welcome you tonight. And I might start by saying I'm really regretful for all the people who are standing by upstairs because they couldn't fit into the room. There were about 200 people who didn't make it, but I think that speaks very well for how hungry people are for substance. Things are good in the Republic of Letters.

How in the world does America look to foreign eyes? I think this question is never more important than now. Over the past year, the preeminent French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy has been traveling through America, visiting its prisons, its mega-churches, its high-rises, and military facilities, its brothels—I'm very interested in that!—and malls. Starting in May, and for much of this year, The Atlantic Monthly records his myriad observations, establishing a cultural map of America at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In early 2006, Random House will publish the entire series as a book. Tonight, op-ed columnist David Brooks will ask Bernard-Henry Lévy—or BHL as he's known in France—to report on what struck, irked, and puzzled him in America. Lévy's shrewd observations represent a modern-day version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Or do they? Tonight, as I see it, is really a dialogue between two continents.

And now, it is my very great pleasure to welcome BHL and David Brooks.

David Brooks: When Paul said it was a conversation between two continents, I knew it was time for me to go on a diet! If I were thinner, my shirt would be open down to here. A couple years ago I wrote about what happens when a French intellectual comes to the United States. The pattern is essentially that the great French thinkers come to visit us and we do our best Henry James. We try to be sophisticated. We have nice dinners at fancy townhouses. We prepare subtle sauces and try to have intellectual conversation at his level. And the French intellectual says: "None of this. Take me to your Elvis impersonators." They want the true, dumb, bimbo America. Jean Baudrillard wrote a book called America, which probably should have been called Places Where I've Been Brilliant. Because it was mostly him being brilliant in Utah, him being brilliant in Nevada—emphasizing the paradoxes he saw with a lot of showy sentences that were brilliant. He wrote, "Americans believe in facts but not facticity." Which is a brilliant sentence, but I have no idea what it means. The nicest thing to say about Bernard is that he has eschewed all of these clichés and actually seen America—he's spent a year here, seen things which most people don't see, has not tried to show off, but actually describe the subject material. And I wanted to begin our conversation by saying you are following in the footsteps of Tocqueville. When Tocqueville came here, he did so because he thought that America was the future—that democratic peoples were the future, and that what was happening here was going to happen in Europe. Is there still a sense, do you think, that Europe and the United States, or the United States and the world are growing closer together—that the United States is still a trend-setter for the world? Or is that something that is now obsolete?

BHL: First of all, I want to thank Paul LeClerc and all the board of the library for this very moving moment for me. I'm just at the end of a really important year of my life—this travel in America, whose original idea belongs to Cullen Murphy and to The Atlantic Monthly. This visit to every single state of this country—big cities, little towns, highways, back roads, meetings with lots of people (both important people and average American men and women) —all of this has been a really tremendous, vibrant, important experience. I will try to tell you and to tell David Brooks why it has been so tremendous. To present this experience here—to have the baptism of this experience in the presence of some of my friends—it is really a moving moment.

Now, David Brooks's question. Tocqueville came here because he knew that America was the future of Europe and the world. The comparison with Tocqueville belongs to The Atlantic and I am very shy with it. I am not sure at all that I deserve that. If I came, it is because I don't know if America is still the future of Europe. We don't even know—and I think there is a real debate going on inside this country—what is the future of the link between Europe and America. I belong to those who think that the link between America and Europe is vital, is essential for all of us, both Europeans and Americans. I hope, I pray, for this link remaining living and vibrant. But there is a risk today. You have in America a real current of thought that believes that the time has come to say goodbye to old Europe, and especially to ugly, nasty France. I did this long journey. I spent this long year of my life in little roads, little motels, a lot of Wendy's, Pizza Huts, and McDonald's because I am militant about the link between Europe and America, and because I hope that it is the culture of Europe and vice versa.

I guess I should ask—Wendy's, Burger King, or McDonald's —which is the best? But I will skip that. Let's talk on the layer of culture. If you look at how Americans actually live and how French people actually live, there are measurable differences. The average American works about 350 hours a year longer than the average European, which is nine weeks. If you do a value survey, the World Value Survey, if you ask people, "Do you control your own destiny?" I think eighty percent of Americans say they do, whereas fifty or sixty percent of French people say they do. In the realm of everyday life, did you find vast differences, or did you feel more or less at home?

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