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
A Jewish Model for Arab-Americans

How can one be an Arab—I mean, Arab and American? How can one in post-9/11 America remain loyal to one's Muslim faith and not be taken for a bad citizen? For the inhabitants of Dearborn, Michigan, a few miles west of Detroit, the question doesn't even arise. This town is a little special, of course. Its McDonald's, for instance, is halal. A supermarket is called Al Jazeera. There are mosques. I spot an old Ford with one of those personalized license plates that Americans love; it reads TALIBAN. And I quickly see that around River Rouge—the old Ford factory, parts of which are now reduced, like the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, to rusted steel carcasses, useless pipes, empty silos, and half-destroyed warehouses in the middle of which trees are growing—conversations switch easily from Arabic to English and back. But all the people I meet, all the businessmen, politicians, community leaders, when I ask them how, in these times of al-Qaeda, these two interlinked identities can be combined, reply that actually everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The question of twofold allegiance that is poisoning the debate in France about where one belongs does not arise here. Ahmed, wearing a turban like a Sikh, who sells utterly American sodas on Warren Avenue, says, "Of course there were problems; of course there was a backlash; of course the FBI agents came here to look for terrorists. But they didn't find any; we are exemplary American citizens, and they couldn't find any." Nasser M. Beydoun is a high-spirited young businessman, married to a Frenchwoman; it takes me a while to pick up that when he says "we," he means not "we Arabs" but "we Americans." He tells me, in the large conference room of the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce, of which he is a board member, "I was against the war in Iraq, but less for them, the Arabs, than for us, the Americans, this great nation with its fine culture, this exemplary democracy that's preparing a fate for itself as an occupying power."

And then there's Abed Hammoud, of the Arab-American Political Action Committee, a small organization whose role, he tells me, is to interview, review, and, eventually, endorse candidates at all levels of local or national power. When Bush wrote him, in 2000, a beautiful page-and-a-half personal letter beginning with "Dear Abed"; when Kerry asked him what procedure he should follow to get the support of the Arabs in Detroit, and he sent Kerry a copy of the letter to inspire him; when, last January, he organized a series of telephone interviews for Kerry and for Wesley Clark and a representative of Howard Dean; when he had one of his teams follow around a candidate for the Illinois legislature and be present at all his appearances and press conferences, even the smallest ones; when he finished off, this very morning, the information letter he sends to all his members—in all this, do I know what his example is? The Jews, obviously: the incredible success story that is the power of the Jewish community—what they succeeded in creating, this power they knew how to buy, to earn with the sweat of their brows, this path they made that led them to bring together all influences. "How can one not be inspired by that?" he asks. "We are fifty years late, I'll grant that; today they are ten times stronger than us. But you'll see, we'll get there; one day we'll be equal."

I'm not saying this little speech was without ulterior motives. Maybe the restraint of this statement was purely tactical and the idea is still, in the end, to do not just as well as but better than a Jewish community that is identified, without its being said, as the very face of the enemy. And I also felt in him a strong reticence about Israel, whose existence he is careful not to question, but where it is "out of the question" for him to travel as long as the "Palestinian resistance" hasn't been granted its rights by the "occupation."

But finally, the fact still remains. We are far from Islamberg, in the heart of the Catskills, that fundamentalist phalanstery I discovered during my investigation into the death of Daniel Pearl, where the terrorist ideologue Ali Shah Gilani is venerated. And we are even farther from those French suburbs where they shit on the flag and hiss at the national anthem, and where hatred for the country that has taken them in is equaled only by an anti-Semitism eager to go into action. My great American lesson. A fine lesson of democracy at work—that is, of integration and compromise. There are 115,000 Arab-Americans in the metropolitan-Detroit area. There are about 1.2 million scattered through Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and the rest of America. And despite Iraq, despite Bush, despite the hawks of the so-called clash of civilizations, these two traits dominate: the American dream, neither more nor less alive than in all the generations of Irish, Polish, German, or Italian immigrants who came before them; and, linked to that, a passion, an obsession, a mimetic rivalry, with a Jewish community that is regarded as an example and, at bottom, an obscure object of desire—a yearning to be, if I may say so, parodying the famous motto of the French Jews before the Dreyfus affair, as happy as Jews in America.

The Left Lane

On the road again. The highway. The great Interstate 94 that leads to Chicago, where we have to be before tonight. Distance. Space. These centimeters on the map, so deceptive to a European. This sense of space and thus of time passing, which is the real sixth sense one has to acquire when traveling in America. And then this legalism, too, this extraordinary sense of the law and the rules, which shapes people's conduct in general and that of motorists in particular. No excessive speeding, for instance. No screaming matches from car to car, as we have in France. No way, either, even on the outskirts of Battle Creek, where the traffic is at a complete standstill, to persuade Tim, the young man who is driving, to try to make up a little time by using the breakdown lane. Or this other detail, perhaps even more bothersome, which says a lot about the anthropology of American automobile customs: in Europe the point of having a road with several lanes is to reserve one for slow cars, so that the fast ones, the ones in a hurry, which often happen to be the prettiest and most expensive cars, can drive as fast as they like in the lane reserved for them; here that is not the case. Both lanes are being used at the same speeds. Quick and slow, big and little, and thus, whether you like it or not, rich and poor, powerful and weak—all use their lane of choice interchangeably. If you're late, make sure not to blow your horn at the asshole who's blocking your way and who in France would comply and move over. You can shout, "Get out of the way, moron, and let me pass" all you like; that would make him give way in France. Here, not only will he not give way, not only will he keep going at his imperturbable pace, sure of his right of way, but you'll see through his window, if you finally manage to pass him, his indignant, alarmed, incredulous look—"Hey! Big and little, we're all in this together! This is an automobile democracy!" A real lesson, in the field, of equality of conditions where we French flaunt our social distinctions, our privileges. And a real example, once again, of the perspicacity of Tocqueville, who, more than a century before the birth of the highway, noted that "the first and liveliest of the passions inspired by equality of status" is "the love of equality itself." There we are.

Another incident, mid-afternoon, no less Tocquevillean.

Seized by a strong need to piss, and tired of the Starbucks, McDonald's, and Pizza Huts, where there are almost always signs telling you the name of the guy who "cleaned this bathroom with pride" and the name of the "supervisor" whom you should call "for comments and compliments," I ask Tim to let me off at the edge of a quiet field bathed in sunlight. Scarcely have I begun when I hear behind me the roar of a motor followed by a screeching of brakes. I turn around. It's a police car.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm getting some fresh air."

"You don't have the right to get fresh air."

"Okay, I'm pissing."

"You don't have the right to piss."

"What do I have a right to, then?"

"Nothing: it is forbidden on highways to stop, hang around, dawdle, and to piss."

"I didn't know …"

"I don't give a damn what you know—keep moving."

"I'm French …"

"I couldn't care less if you're French—the law's the same for everyone. Keep moving."

"I wrote a book on Daniel Pearl."

"Daniel who?"

"And a book on the forgotten wars."

"What kind of wars?"

"I'm writing about following the path of Tocqueville …"

And suddenly, as the name Tocqueville is uttered, a sort of miracle occurs! The cop's face goes from suspicious to curious to almost friendly.

"Tocqueville—really? Alexis de Tocqueville?"

And after I tell him yes, Alexis, I'm following in the footsteps of this great compatriot who, 170 years ago, must have passed somewhere near here, this awkward customer, red with rage, who for all I knew was getting ready to book me for inappropriate behavior, for sexual display on a public highway, or, in any case, for "loitering with intent," looks at me with sudden affability and begins to ask me what, in my opinion, continues to be valid in Tocqueville's analysis.

Three lessons here. First, this "loitering with intent," which shows how paranoid American society after 9/11 has become. (Didn't I read the other day a story about a twenty-four-year-old Pakistani, Ansar Mahmood, who in the fall of 2001 was surprised as he was lingering near a water-treatment facility on the Hudson, and held in custody for three years before being deported?) Second, this command to "keep moving," which I had already noticed in the airports, and at the office in Washington where we went to get press badges, and in front of my hotel, which had the misfortune of being opposite the White House, and then again in New York, in front of the Ground Zero barricades: Paranoia again? Security obsession? Or a much deeper anxiety, ingrained in the American ethos, when faced with the very idea that movement can stop? And third, despite all that, the extraordinary image of this ordinary Michigan cop, a little stubborn, whose face lit up at the mere mention of this French friend of his country—what better reply to those who keep telling us that America is a country of backward cowboys and uneducated people? And what a magnificent challenge to those who want to use Francophobia as the last word these days in our transatlantic relations.

Chicago Transfer

"Oh, no," Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, exclaimed yesterday evening during the inauguration of Millennium Park, which will be the pride of his city. "You aren't going to write us up, like all the visitors who are in a hurry and greedy for the sensational, as just the homeland of Chicago gangs, are you?" Daley, a little flushed in a slightly too small tuxedo, boasted about this other Chicago, the real one, the one that through his father's willpower and then his own; through the talent of Daniel Hudson Burnham and then of Edward H. Bennett, the city's architects, its landscapers, its Hausmanns; and thanks also to the simple decision to open up the city onto the lake and let the light in, has become this magical, beautiful city, perhaps the most beautiful city in the United States, whose apotheosis he is now celebrating, along with 2,000 handpicked guests. Mayor Daley is right. And I like the passion he shows as he talks about his taste for urbanism itself, his obsessions with ecology and art, his crusade for "green roofs," hanging gardens, lakeside towers, and also for Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. I like the idea of the other artists (Anish Kapoor and Frank Gehry, Jaume Plensa and Kathryn Gustafson) whom he has managed to attract for this park, with the help of the successors to the old magnates of steel, chewing gum, and sausages who made the city's first fortunes—with the help and money of all these new philanthropists parading past him in their evening gowns, their tuxedos, their face-lifts.

Except … except that there is also the city conjured by James T. Farrell. There is, despite Daley's protests, the Chicago of junkies, bums, whores, freaks, and hoodlums portrayed by Nelson Algren (and Otto Preminger). There is—still on the subject of Nelson Algren—an astounding story that says a lot about the propensity of the city's inhabitants to forget its shadowy side. On Evergreen Street one can still see the apartment where Algren lived with Simone de Beauvoir. After Algren's death the street was baptized Nelson Algren Street before being quickly, almost immediately, re-baptized Evergreen Street, after formal protests by residents who did not think the novelist of the dregs of society was worthy of such commemoration.

There is this other part of the city, about which no one wants to speak, but which I took time this morning to explore a little: Chinatown; the neighborhood of the insane, released en masse from asylums during the Reagan years; the slums on Sacramento Avenue … the division between Lawndale and La Villita, "The Little Village," mostly black on one side and mostly Hispanic on the other … There is this other city, where the signs are in Spanish, where you can eat only tortillas and tacos, where the supermarket is called La Ilusión and the butcher is Aguas Calientes—there is this other city where the gang Latin Kings is still, after thirty years, waging its long war against the gang Two Sixers.

"Two Sixers," I am told, not without scorn, by the young Hispanic who is guiding me down Broadway to the famous Green Mill—half jazz club, half cocktail lounge, where, it is said, Al Capone was a regular. "Just 'Two Sixers.' Two and six. Like Twenty-sixth Street. Isn't that totally stupid—to call yourself the name of the street where you were born? We don't give a damn. We're the biggest gang in the city, with branches all over the country. The only problem is when the bastards come taunt us or try to pick up one of our girls right in front of us. We don't put up with that, and there can be fighting."

There was a fight that night. Gunfire near the Pilsen neighborhood. A punitive expedition against two blacks who, eight days before, had disrupted a Latin Kings wedding. Another member of the Latin Kings had discovered on the Internet that the two had made fun of the famous crown, the gang's symbol. Another incident: a member of the Two Sixers who saw, with his own eyes, a Latin King mimicking the victory sign that, in principle, is the rally sign of the Sixers. And yet another settling of accounts, linked to a matter of unpaid rent. The result of all this shows at the courthouse on California Boulevard, where I have a meeting this morning with Judge Paul B. Biebel: forty-five men, mostly black and Hispanic, arrested overnight. That's a lot, forty-five. It's too many for the handsome courtrooms whose coffered ceilings go back to the days of Mafia capos and a different kind of crime. And it's so much too much that they have to be assembled elsewhere, in a basement room, where they get processed by video conference: "Do you speak English? Name? Age? Occupation? …" And the procession on the video of the faces of these small-time juvenile delinquents, shabby and blank-faced, most of them with no home or job, who seem to have stepped out of the pages of one of the city's native sons, Richard Wright. One monitor for the families, also packed in, but in waiting rooms with bulletproof glass, and another monitor for the judges, who yawn as they listen to these meager, frightened narratives in which the same stories keep emerging, of drug addiction, unemployment, mentally retarded people who never should have left the institution, two-time losers. The big shots of crime are happy. Thinking the city had become dangerous for their beloved children, they emigrated to the fashionable suburbs, where they live a perfectly bourgeois life as elegant, almost respectable followers of law and order. Perhaps—who knows?—even present, a few of them, last night, at the inauguration of Millennium Park.

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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