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
The False as Will and Representation

Two hypotheses to work from. Either the visitors in question are ignoramuses who believe, in good faith, that it's all true; or, on the contrary, they are in the know. They know that the story doesn't hold true, but the subject excites them so much that they keep informed about the discoveries of the thousands of baseball scholars who form one of the most curious, but also one of the most serious, learned societies in this country. They are all in full agreement about the falsity of the legend; they celebrate a myth, not believing for an instant that it's true.

Here, then, is a new scene, which makes me lean toward the second hypothesis. We're still in Cooperstown, but now we're in the Farmers' Museum, which owns many artifacts and exhibits the crafts and traditions of rural American life. But you can't escape the simulation. These brand-new nineteenth-century costumes. This canoe that smells of green wood, from which a copy of an Indian knife is dangling. A tomahawk with its wooden handle freshly cut. A cardboard cow, warranted to be a faithful reproduction of the cows of that era. Dr. Jackson's office, his instrument case, his water pitcher, his stethoscope, his washbasin. The garden where the herbalist would have cultivated plants at the time had to be reinvented. A cemetery whose gravestones are real but where no corpses are buried. Finally women who, in their caps, their big aprons, their unbleached cotton dresses, act like real farmers running actual businesses, whereas here again, everything is false. What do you do for a living? I'm a nineteenth-century weaver at the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown (or an herbalist, or a baker). Every day I put on my costume and go play my role. I'm sure the museum has more relics, more actual objects from the era, more vestiges. But there is a taste for facsimile. They wanted the new to simulate the old. The whole idea is not to preserve but to reconstitute a false truth and celebrate it as such. Defeat of the archive. Triumph of kitsch.

And then here's another case, even more extravagant. Far off, right in the middle of the reconstituted village, there is a tent where a crowd larger than the one in front of Dr. Jackson's office or the herbalist's garden is gathered. As we come near it, we see beneath the tent an empty zone surrounded by thick braided ropes, the kind used in museums. And in the middle a gypsum statue, just over ten feet long, lying down, its ribs jutting out, one hand on its stomach, as if mummified. They call it the Cardiff Giant, and its history goes like this:

The scene is Cardiff, New York, in 1869. Workmen digging a well on a farm belonging to William C. "Stub" Newell unearth this mummified giant. Word spreads to Syracuse. Much discussion in the county about whether it's a fossil or a work of art. A consortium is created, which, leaning toward the fossil thesis and thinking it's the remains of a prehistoric man, exhibits the discovery, first in a tent on Newell's farm, then throughout the state, transporting it from town to town. Except there's a catch. The object has a strange look to it. Certain details—the toes, the penis—are too well preserved. Some witnesses, moreover, begin to gossip that they saw a wagon transporting a block of gypsum to a marble sculptor's place in Chicago, and then others saw the same wagon arrive here, loaded with a large wooden crate. So the idea is first insinuated, then asserted, that the whole business is a fake—that the pores of the skin, for instance, were made by pounding the gypsum with a piece of wood studded with nails, and that Newell's friend George Hull, a cigar manufacturer from Binghamton, New York, buried this false mummy on Newell's farm.

But now how does the world react? The hoax giant is still exhibited, as if nothing had happened. P. T. Barnum, the great showman, tries to buy it and, furious at being refused, has a copy made, which he exhibits in New York City. During this time the original false giant goes to the Pan American Exhibition. It is bought in the early 1930s by a rich publisher from Iowa. Then, in 1939, by the New York State Historical Association. Finally, in 1948, it's transported here to Cooperstown, where it has been on display ever since, after its truly national funeral. So today people come from all over the United States to admire the biggest, most famous, most official example of the fake.

To revere a counterfeit as if it were real. To prefer in a museum, even when one has a choice, recent artifacts over relics. To rewrite the history of an age-old pastime as if it were a national sport. What is at stake in each case is a relationship to time, and in particular to the past—as if, with this nation so eminently oriented toward its present and, especially, its future, regret for the past occurs only on condition that the past can be reappropriated with well-calculated words and deeds. As if with all one's strength—including the strength and power of myth and forgery—one had to reassert the power of the present over the past. Or the opposite, which comes down to the same thing: as if the pain was having not enough past rather than too much. So people fall back on the theme of "Since we weren't there for the child's baptism, let's at least be there when the man's last words are spoken." The self-generation of a culture that wants to be descended from its own handiwork and, accordingly, rewrites its great and small genealogies. An American neurosis?

They Shoot Cities, Don't They?

That a city could die: for a European, that is unthinkable. And yet …

Buffalo, a city that was once the glory of America, its showcase, where two presidents once lived (and where one was shot and another inaugurated), a city that on this late-July afternoon—the anniversary, by the way, of Tocqueville's visit, in 1831—offers a landscape of desolation: long avenues without cars, stretching out to infinity; not one good restaurant to dine in; few hotels; fake gardens in place of buildings; deserted lots in place of gardens; trees that are dead or diseased; boarded-up office buildings, disintegrating or about to be torn down. Yes, a city where you can still find some of the finest specimens of urban architecture in America and some of the earliest skyscrapers, is now reduced to destroying them, because an unoccupied building is a building that is breaking apart and, one day or another, will fall on your head. The library is on the verge of financial collapse. There are streets that seem not to have any running water or mail delivery. Even the main train station, which during the era of the steelworks was a major hub, is now only a shell, an enormous abandoned sugarloaf, with rusted metal signs, wind howling, crows flying around it, and, in big letters, The New York Central RailRoad, already half effaced.

Lackawanna, about ten miles south of Buffalo. The worst thing here is the factory. It was once a modern enterprise, and the region's heart. All that's left is cone-shaped mounds of coal or iron, in lots overgrown with weeds. Extinguished chimneys. Blackened, unmoving freight cars. Warehouses with broken windows. And inside one of the warehouses, which I sneak into: sagging armchairs; shelves of twisted metal where some files have been left; yellowed photographs of beaming employees, confident of the eternal greatness of their factory; crumpled copies of The Buffalo News; charred plastic gas masks; on one wall an assembly of manometers, barometers, steam gauges, thermometers eaten away by humidity; clocks—I count four—all stopped at the same hour, within a few minutes. If I didn't know the history of Bethlehem Steel; if I didn't know that they closed this factory twenty years ago because of tragic but commonplace foreign competition; if I didn't know that the city itself still lives, with a tiny life indeed, but a life all the same; if I hadn't, for instance, read the story of those six Arab-Americans who hid here after September 11, the ones the FBI arrested, I could almost believe in a natural catastrophe, a cataclysm—of the kind that leaves standing the calcified façades of those towns that had to be evacuated with no time to carry anything away, because of an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcano.

Cleveland. Not so sad. Not so broken. A real will, above all, to revitalize the destroyed neighborhoods. At a meeting in a church at breakfast time, with Mort Mandell and Neighborhood Progress Inc., a dozen or so men (mostly) of means, with their slightly old-fashioned pearl-gray suits, white hair, and fine austere faces, successors to the Gunds, the Van Sweringens, the Jacobs—those Protestant or Jewish philanthropists who flourished with the greatness of the city—are gathered. With slides and diagrams at hand, they're thinking about how to rehabilitate the heart of this city that, even if they have deserted it, even if they went elsewhere to make their fortunes or their lives, remains their "little homeland."

Here, too, deserted neighborhoods. Empty parking lots. Cars prowling along Euclid or Prospect, between Fifth and Sixth East. Winos in municipal buildings. Empty churches, or all bricked up, yet I keep being told about the renewal in America of evangelical faith and morality. A fire station with the sign Budget cuts are suicide. A rotary planted with flowers that women feel sorry for and water, since no one goes there anymore. And this detail, which didn't strike me in Buffalo: the absence of public signs on certain avenues. But on the wall of a building whose next-door building has been razed, an inscription, in capital letters from the last century, reappearing the way wreckage washes up: Attorney at Law; and farther on, in a vacant lot, on the last remaining wall of a vanished building, a sign from another time, preposterous witness to a previous life: The hottest jeans on two legs.

And finally Detroit, sublime Detroit, the city that during the war, because of its car and steel factories, vaunted itself as "the arsenal of democracy," and that once one has entered it—whether in the Brush Park area, north of downtown, or, worse, East Detroit—seems like an immense, deserted Babylon, a futuristic city whose inhabitants have fled: more burned or razed houses; collapsed façades and roofs that the next big rain will carry away; trash heaps in former gardens; prowlers; Dumpster divers; nature reasserting its rights; foxes, some nights; crack houses; closed schools; a liquor store ringed with barbed wire. The Fox Theatre intact, with its winged golden lions at the entrance; intact, too, the Wright houses and Orchestra Hall, where people go in tuxedos to a doomsday environment. But the Book Cadillac Hotel and the Statler-Hilton, those architectural wonders whose corbelled construction is museum-quality—they are empty, and padlocked. At times you'd think it was a plague; at other times Dresden or Sarajevo. An observer who knew nothing of the history of the city and the riots that forty years ago accelerated the exodus of the white population to the suburbs might think now that he was in a bombed metropolis. But no; it's just Detroit. It's just an American city whose inhabitants have left, forgetting to close the door behind them. It's just this experience, unique in the world, of a city that people have left as one leaves a spurned partner, and that little by little has returned to chaos.

The mystery of these modern ruins. Enigma of an America about which I discover that a certain old feeling (essential to Europe's civility, consubstantial with Europe's urbanity) is perhaps foreign to it: a love of cities.

The Revenge of the Little Man

He can't manage to say "stem cells" without making a mistake. Stumbles over numbers and acronyms. He has in his expression, in his eyes that are too close together, that faint look of panic that dyslexic children have when they think they're going to make a mistake and will be scolded for it, but they can't stop once they've started. Takes on a fake tough-guy look when he broaches the subject of Iraq. When he utters the word "America" or "army," he stops short—or, rather, stiffens, as if at the sound of an invisible bugle. Now, in Detroit, where he has come to speak to the National Urban League, the black civil-rights organization that has invited him, he frowns with concern when he talks about the city's poor neighborhoods.

I think about all that could be said about the ambivalence of his relationship with the earlier President Bush. I think of the discussion Alan Wolfe and I had the other evening about whether he started the war in Iraq in order to take revenge (Saddam humiliated my father, so I will humiliate Saddam), or in order to issue a huge Oedipal challenge (I'll do what he couldn't do—I'll obey another father, who is higher than my own, and who inspires me to actions he couldn't inspire in my father). The truth is that this man is something of a child. Whether he's dependent on his father, his mother, his wife, or God Almighty, he looks to me this morning like one of those humiliated children Georges Bernanos was so good at creating, showing that their hardness stemmed from their shyness and fear.

That said, watch out. This shy man is shrewd, too. This child is a cunning child. He has the cleverness to call the president of the National Urban League, Marc Morial, by his first name, and to begin his speech, just after a prayer, with praise for the Detroit Pistons, the local basketball team. He has the talent to tell joke after joke and, like a good comedian warming up a difficult audience, to be the first to laugh, noisily, at his own jokes. He has the intelligence to call the two important black leaders who are sitting in the front row, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, by their first names too, to defuse their hostility. He does this also, after admitting that his party must earn the vote of African-Americans, by saying to Reverend Jackson, "You don't need to nod your head so hard at that, Jesse," and to Reverend Sharpton, "It's hard to run for office, isn't it, Al?"; everyone in the audience remembers the battle Sharpton has just lost for nomination by the Democratic Party.

Detroit is a city where Bush has, as he knows, "a lot of work to do" to win the hearts of a community that four years ago voted 94 percent for Al Gore. He is in enemy territory. The 2,000 people present came to see the man but don't share his ideology. Yet the trick is working. His riffs on the "American dream" and on small business; his audacity in attacking the power of bureaucracy and Washington, as if he hadn't been in the White House for four years; his vision of America as a blue-chip corporation in which all people are shareholders, and which wants everyone to get only richer; his talk about Sudan, finally, and about the genocide (though he does not use the word, he says that he will do what he can, if he is elected, to see that the rulers of Khartoum bring an end to the slaughter)—all of that ends up working. Nerve and naiveté. Tactical cleverness along with a certain candor. A delegate, as we are leaving, in the crush of radio and television teams that are asking the opinions of the attendees: "The son of a bitch—he got us …" Another one: "That was good, the part about Sudan!" That's what strikes me, too, of course. But, even stranger, it's also that look of a resourceful little boy, a bit mischievous, who has to work hard to be a candidate and to be president. I picture him, in his native Texas, as a difficult youth, an average student, rowdy, worrying his parents no end. I imagine him at Phillips Academy, and then at Yale, trailed by a bad reputation as a string-puller and snubbed by the rich sons of East Coast families who find him useful but a little country-bumpkinish. I see him then, quite clearly, as a provincial narcissist and a frustrated dilettante, a bad businessman, an overgrown daddy's boy whom the family manages to save from each of his semi-failures. When was this pattern reversed? And how? Under whose influence, or under what influence, did the metamorphosis come about for the lover of backfiring cars and drinking bouts with his buddies, for the failure, the nice guy, the man no one for a long time would have thought had a chance of becoming anything at all? How did this man become a formidable machine capable of winning (now twice) the most difficult competition in America and, when it comes down to it, on the planet? There are men—Bill Clinton, for example—you feel were born to be president. Others—John Kennedy—who were formed, trained, for the office. He is the opposite: born to lose; raised above all not to win. And for this change of direction, this late-blooming grace that hasn't even had time to imprint itself on his face, no one has any real explanation—except him, when he talks about "grace," actually. And being born again.

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In