In the Footsteps of Tocqueville

How does America look to foreign eyes? This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville, our keenest interpreter. We asked another Frenchman to travel deep into America and report on what he found
Translated by Charlotte Mandell

A People and Its Flag

It was here, a little south of Boston, on this East Coast that still bears the mark of Europe so clearly, that Alexis de Tocqueville came ashore: Newport, Rhode Island. Its well-kept Easton's Beach. Its yachts. Its Palladian mansions and painted wooden houses that remind me of the beach towns of Normandy. A naval museum. An athenaeum library. Bed-and-breakfasts with a picture of the owner displayed instead of a sign. Gorgeous trees. Tennis courts. A Georgian-style synagogue, exhibited as the oldest in the United States, but which, with its well-polished pale wood, its fluted columns, its spotless black rattan chairs, its large candelabra, its plaque engraved with clear-cut letters in memory of Isaac Touro and the six or seven great spiritual leaders who succeeded him, its American flag standing next to the Torah scroll under glass, seems to me, on the contrary, strangely modern.

And then, of course, the flags—a riot of American flags, at crossroads, on building fronts, on car hoods, on pay phones, on the furniture displayed in the windows along Thames Street, on the boats tied to the dock and on the moorings with no boats, on beach umbrellas, on parasols, on bicycle saddlebags—everywhere, in every form, flapping in the wind or on stickers, an epidemic of flags that has spread throughout the city. There are also, as it happens, a lot of Japanese flags. A Japanese cultural festival is opening, with exhibitions of prints, sushi samples on the boardwalk, sumo wrestling in the street, barkers enticing passersby to come look at these wonders, these monsters: "Come on! Look at them—all white and powdered! Three hundred pounds! Legs like hams! So fat they can't even walk! They needed three seats in the airplane! Step right up!" White flags with a red ball, symbol of the Land of the Rising Sun, hang from the balconies on this street of jewelers near the harbor, where I'm searching for a restaurant to have lunch in.

In the end, though, it's the American flag that dominates. One is struck by the omnipresence of the Star-Spangled Banner, even on the T-shirts of the kids who come to watch the sumo wrestlers as the little crowd cheers them on. It's the flag of the American cavalry in westerns. It's the flag of Frank Capra movies. It's the fetish that is there, in the frame, every time the American president appears. It's the beloved flag, almost a living being, the use of which I understand is subject to rules—not just rules but an extremely precise code of flag behavior: Don't get it dirty, don't copy it, don't tattoo it onto your body, never let it fall on the ground, never hang it upside-down, don't insult it, don't burn it. On the other hand, if it gets too old, if it can no longer be used, if it can't be flown, then you must burn it. Instead of throwing it out or bundling it up, it's better to burn it than abandon it in the trash. It's the flag that was offended by Kid Rock at the Super Bowl, and it's the flag of Michael W. Smith in his song "There She Stands," written just after September 11, in which "she" is none other than "it," the flag, the American symbol that was targeted, defiled, attacked, scorned by the barbarians, but is always proudly unfurled.

It's a little strange, this obsession with the flag. It's incomprehensible for someone who, like me, comes from a country without a flag—where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared, where you see it flying only in front of official buildings, and where any nostalgia and concern for it, any evocation of it, is a sign of an attachment to the past that has become almost ridiculous. Is this flag obsession a result of September 11? A response to that trauma whose violence we Europeans persist in underestimating but which, three years later, haunts American minds as much as ever? Should we re-read those pages in Tocqueville on the good fortune of being sheltered by geography from violations of the nation's territorial space, and come to see in this return to the flag a neurotic abreaction to the astonishment that the violation actually occurred? Or is it something else entirely? An older, more conflicted relationship of America with itself and with its national existence? A difficulty in being a nation, more severe than in the flagless countries of old Europe, that produces this compensatory effect?

Leafed through the first few pages of One Nation, After All, which the author, the sociologist Alan Wolfe, gave me last night. Maybe the secret lies in this "after all." Maybe American patriotism is more complex, more painful, than it seems at first glance, and perhaps its apparent excessiveness comes from that. Or perhaps it has to do, as Tocqueville saw it, with a kind of "reflective patriotism" that, unlike the "instinctive love" that reigned during the regimes of times past, is forced to exaggerate when it comes to emblems and symbols. To be continued …

But it's a good question to ask oneself, in any case, at the beginning of this journey that will lead me for almost a year from large cities to small towns, on highways and back roads, from one end to the other of this country I really know so little. Lord knows I've come here time and again in the past. Of course I have always loved it, and been molded, from boyhood on, by its literature, its movies, its culture. Anti-Americanism, that strange passion that acts, in my country, like a giant magnet attracting all the most disagreeable qualities that national ideology can produce, has had no adversaries more resolute than I. But there it is. A few flags in the windows, a slight whiff of patriotic celebration—and suddenly I have the feeling I'm approaching terra incognita.

Tell Me What Your Prisons Are ...

Tocqueville's first intention was, we tend to forget, to investigate the American penal system. He went beyond that, of course. He analyzed the political system and American society in its entirety better than anyone. But as his notes, his journal, his letters to Kergorlay and others, and the very text of Democracy in America attest, it was with this business of prisons that everything began, and that's why I, too, after Newport, asked to see the terrible and mysterious New York prison Rikers Island, that city within a city, an island that is not shown on every map and of whose existence few New Yorkers take much notice.

A meeting with Mark J. Cranston, of the New York City Department of Corrections, this Tuesday morning at 5:00 A.M., in Queens, at the entrance to a bridge that officially doesn't go anywhere open to the public, so it doesn't really have a name. Landscape of desolate shoreline in the foggy morning light. Electric barbed-wire fences. High walls. A checkpoint, as at the edge of a war zone, where the prison guards, almost all of them black, greet one another as they come on duty; and—heading in the opposite direction, packed into barred buses that look like school buses—the prisoners, also mainly black, or Hispanic, who are being driven with chains on their feet to courthouses in the Bronx and Queens. A security badge along with my photo. Frisked. On the other side of the East River, in the fog, a white boat, like a ghost ship, where, for lack of space, the least dangerous criminals are locked up. And very soon, clinging to New York (La Guardia is so close that there are times, when the wind blows from a certain quarter, that the noise from the planes makes you raise your voice, or even stop talking), the ten prison buildings that make up this fortress, this enclave cut off from everything, this anti-utopian reservation.

The common room, dirty gray, where the people arrested during the night are assembled, seated on makeshift benches. A small cell, No. 14, where two prisoners (white—is that by chance?) have been isolated. A neater dormitory, with clean sheets, where a sign indicates, as in Manhattan taverns, that the zone is "smoke-free." A man, weirdly agitated, who, taking me for a health inspector, hurries toward me to complain about the mosquitoes. And before we arrive at the detention center proper, before the row of cells, all identical, like minuscule horse stalls, a labyrinth of corridors sliced with bars and opening onto a series of "social" areas they persist in showing me: a chapel; a mosque; a volleyball court from which a distant birdsong rises; a library where everyone can, they say, come to consult the law manuals; another room, finally, where there are three open boxes of letters marked "Grievance," "Legal Aid," and "Social Services." At first sight you'd think it was a dilapidated hospital, but one obsessed with hygiene: the enormous black female guard, her belt studded with keys, who is guiding me through this maze explains that the first thing to do when a delinquent arrives is to have him take a shower in order to disinfect him. Later on she tells me—in the nice booming voice of a guard who has wound up, since there's no other choice, liking these prisoners—that the second thing to do is to give them psychological tests to identify the suicidal temperaments. Prisoners call to her as we pass, insult her because they've been denied the use of the recreation room or the canteen, make farting noises at which she doesn't bat an eye, stop her sometimes to confide a wish to live or die. It's only when you look at them up close, obviously, that things become more complicated …

This man with shackled feet. This other one, handcuffs on his wrists and gloves over the handcuffs, because just last week he hid eight razor blades in his ass before throwing himself on a guard to cut his throat. These wild-animal looks, hard to endure. These prisoners for whom a secure system of serving hatches had to be invented, because they took advantage of the moment when their scrap of food was slid over to them to bite the guard's hand. The little Hispanic man, hand on his ear, streaming blood, screaming that he should be taken to the infirmary, under the shouts of his black co-detainees—the guard tells me he has a "Rikers cut," a ritual gash made to the ear or face of an inmate by the big shots of the Latin Kings and the Bloods, the gangs that control the prison. The shouts, the "fuck you"s, the enraged banging on the metal doors in the maximum-security section. Farther on, at the end of the section, in one of the three "shower cells," which open onto the corridor, the spectacle of a bearded, naked giant jerking off in front of an impassive female guard, to whom he shouts in the voice of a madman, "Come and get me, bitch! Come on!" And then the cry of alarm my guard lets out when, dying of thirst, I bend toward a sink in the hallway: "No! Not there! Don't drink there!" Seeing my surprise, she regains her composure. Excuses herself. Stammers out that it's all right, it's just the prisoners' sink, I could have drunk there. But her reflex says a lot about sanitary conditions in the jail. Rikers Island is actually a "jail," not a "prison." It accepts either those who have been charged and await sentencing or those sentenced to less than a year. What would this be like if it were a real prison? How would these people be treated if they were hardened criminals?

On the way back with Mark Cranston, taking the bridge that leads to the normal world, and noticing what I hadn't noticed when I arrived—namely, that from where I am and, very probably, from the volleyball court and the exercise yard and even certain cells, you can see, as if you were touching it, the Manhattan skyline—I can't dodge this question: Does the impression of having brushed with hell arise because Rikers is cut off, or because it is so close to everything? And then another question, which occurs to me when Cranston, anxious about the impression his "house" has made, explains that the island used to be a huge garbage dump where the city's trash was unloaded: Prison or dumping ground, then? A kind of replacement, on the same site, of society's trash by its rejects? First impressions of the system. First briefing.

On Religion in General, And Baseball in Particular

Leaving the city. Yes, leaving New York, which I know too well, fast, and through a driving rain, we are on the way to Cooperstown, that miniature village in the central part of the state, which has managed at least three times to be in the heart of high-tension zones in American history. It was the town of James Fenimore Cooper, and thus of the symbolic responsibility for the slaughter of the Indians. It lies in a region where, before the Civil War, fleeing slaves and their smugglers passed through. And last but not least, since this is the claim to fame to which it seems most attached, it is the world capital of baseball.

I spend the night in a wooden chalet that has been transformed into a bed-and-breakfast, with ceramic rabbits in the garden and a magazine in the bedroom that explains how "to live comfortably at thirty," how to be "older than seventy and still be in love," and "six ways to get your daily glass of milk." The house is run by two commanding women, mother and daughter, who wear identical blood-red canvas aprons and look the spitting image of Margaret Thatcher at two stages of her life. I spend time in the morning listening to these ladies tell me the history of their house. The building was actually created a century ago by an officer in the Civil War, but it has been renovated so as to hide all antique traces. I am interested in the "bed-and-breakfast business," which is the passion of their existence: "Is this your first experience? Did you like it? I'm glad you did, since there are as many bed-and-breakfasts as there are owners. Everyone puts their mark on it—it's an art, a religion. No, that's not the word, 'religion'; we don't make any difference here between religions—no more than we would with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Which one actually won, by the way?" (She has turned toward a customer in shorts and undershirt, who is sitting at the table next to mine and shrugs as he wolfs down a huge slab of bacon.) "See, he doesn't know. That means it doesn't count. And you—what are you? Oh! Jewish. Oh! Atheist. That's okay … Everyone does what they want … In this business you have to like ninety-nine percent of your clients …"

In short, the breakfast was a little long. But now I'm in the immense museum, completely disproportionate to the dollhouses in the rest of the town. Here this great national sport is honored, this sport that establishes people's identities, becomes part of their imaginative world—almost the American civic and patriotic religion, this baseball. Isn't there, in the Hall of Fame adjoining the museum, a plaque devoted to those champions who interrupted their careers to serve in American wars?

This is not a museum, it's a church. These are not rooms, they're chapels. The visitors themselves aren't really visitors but devotees, meditative and fervent. I hear one of them asking, in a low voice, if it's true that the greatest champions are buried here—beneath our feet, as if we were at Westminster Abbey, or in the Imperial Crypt beneath the Kapuziner Church in Vienna. And every effort is made to sanctify Cooperstown itself, this cradle of the national religion, this new Nazareth, this simple little town that nothing prepared for its election and yet which was present at the birth of the thing. An edifying history, told in the exhibition rooms and the brochures, of the scientific commission created at the beginning of the twentieth century by a former baseball player who became a millionaire and launched a nationwide contest on the theme "Send us your oldest baseball memory." He collected the testimony of an old engineer from Denver who in 1839, in Cooperstown, in front of the tailor's shop, saw Abner Doubleday, later a Northern general and a Civil War hero, the man who would fire the first shot against the Southerners, explain the game to passersby, set down the rules, and, in fact, baptize it.

It was in honor of this story that the year 1939, exactly a century later, was chosen for the inauguration of the museum. In a well-known article in Natural History, the paleontologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould recalled that a long-ago exhibit at the museum noted that "in the hearts of those who love baseball" the Yankee general remains "the lad in the pasture where the game was invented." It's because of this story that the big stadium nearby—where, they say, some of the finest games in the country are played—is called Doubleday Field and bears on its front the fine, proud inscription birthplace of baseball. And what can one say, finally, of the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, who at Arlington a few years ago to place a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, publicly remembered Abner Doubleday, that son of Cooperstown, also buried in the National Cemetery, officially proclaiming him on that day, before the eyes of America and the world, the pope of the national religion? That day it was not just the town but the entire United States that joined in a celebration that had the twofold merit of associating the most popular sport in the country with the traditional rural values that Fenimore Cooper's town embodies, and also with the patriotic grandeur that the name Doubleday bears.

The only problem, Tim Wiles, the museum's director of research, tells me, is that Abner Doubleday, in that famous year of 1839, wasn't in Cooperstown but at West Point; that the old engineer, who was supposed to have played that first game with him, had been just five years old; that the word "baseball" had already appeared in 1815, in a novel by Jane Austen, and in 1748, in a private letter found in England; that a baseball scholar, an eminent member of the Society for American Baseball Research, had just discovered, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, an even older trace; that the Egyptians had, it seems, their own form of the game. The only problem, he says, is that we have always known—since 1939, in fact, since the museum's opening—that baseball is a sport of the people, and even if, like all sports of the people, it suffers from a lack of written archives, its origin is age-old. The only problem is that this history is a myth, and every year millions of men and women come, like me, to visit a town devoted entirely to its celebration.

Presented by

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a writer and philosopher who lives in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Barbarism With a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and War, Evil, and the End of History. This is the first of several articles.

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