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
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The Sense of the Tragic, Knoxville Style

They give me, at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, the room that's reserved, eight days from now, for John Kerry.

I write down this detail because it's the first thing the receptionist tells me as I'm registering.

Better than that, they've taken care to display on my night table, next to a framed photo of the candidate playing the guitar, a plate of cheese wrapped in cellophane identical to the one that will be served to him on the evening of his arrival, and, in another frame, a copy of the fax sent by his press secretary detailing his mini-bar preferences: "Mixed nuts; chocolate chip cookies; diet soda (preferably Diet Coke in the can); bottled water; plain M&M's (no peanuts); regular Doritos."

The craze for the relic this time. A taste for preservation and for the museum, taken to the nth degree. No longer, as in Cooperstown, the artificial as opposed to the authentic. Nor is it as it was in Dearborn, where, the other day, I visited Henry Ford's Americana museum: everything that has existed will, one day or another, end up in a museum. We might as well make a museum for everything right away. Everything is becoming a relic; a mere plate of cheese is becoming a museum piece—but the museum piece is a plate of cheese that has not been eaten yet, or even served. It's a kind of ante-museum, a pre-relic.

Tour of Des Moines, this city with such an odd name, "Of the Monks," lost in the middle of nowhere, without charm, which must have been, during the time of the French, a great stopping place.

A quick visit to the Iowa State Fair, which opened this morning, and which, with its life-size cow made of butter, its prize for the fattest fowl, its giant hot dogs, seems to me like a festival of American kitsch.

But my real aim, what I came here for, is Knoxville, twenty miles west, where what The Des Moines Register (which, it must be said, doesn't skimp on adjectives for the Iowa State Fair) calls "the greatest car race in the world," the Knoxville Nationals, is beginning its forty-fourth running.

Welcome to Knoxville, says a little road sign. Right next to it, on another, larger sign, are written the names of all the churches in town, most of them evangelical. Then, at the end of a complex of warehouses that contain the drivers' pits along with pizzerias and stands selling hamburgers, T-shirts, and French fries, is another Hall of Fame, where spectators are lining up; this is, in effect, another church, where the names of the greatest drivers—A. J. Foyt Jr., Mario Andretti, Karl Kinser—are venerated. And then, finally, the oval track, surrounded by stands full to the brim but surprisingly quiet: 5,000 or 6,000 people are there, mostly white, wearing shorts, cowboy hats or hunters' caps, and plaid shirts, a lot of them obese. It's a while before I realize that they're so quiet, so far from the European image of wild crowds of fans, because … they're praying.

Taking a closer look, I see that the drivers, too, are praying. There are about a hundred of them, in the central part of the oval, gathered in groups in which one can make out, despite the distance, a sort of subtle hierarchy of allegiances and merits. They have embraced their families. Exchanged a few last words with their managers. Thanked the "dirt crews," those paid volunteers who came from all over the country for the honor of riding around the track in their pickup trucks several hours before the race, in order to pack down the sacred ground and give it good traction. The race drivers are getting ready to climb into their cars, built to their size and almost molded to their bodies; heads in helmets, helmets attached to the seats, so that the drivers can roll over as much as they like without ceasing to be one with their machines. Perhaps, at that instant, the most superstitious of them have one final thought for the martyr Mark Wilson, who died in a crash here in 2001. And so they pray.

When, after the final parade, the contest actually begins; when, after they've turned and turned again around the track, like Achilles and Hector before the ramparts of Troy, the heroes really speed up in earnest, in bunches of eight or ten, in a deafening, hellish roar; when the real champions detach themselves and, with the crowd holding its breath, confront one another in a swift and violent duel that never lasts more than a few dozen seconds, the match takes on the feeling of a joust, an ordeal, an epic and merciless tournament. And then one senses that it is death that's leading the dance—one senses that the drivers are taking all the risks and that the spectators, excited but still silent, deep down both dread and hope for an accident. Theater of cruelty. Waiting, as in duels or at public executions, for the moment of first blood. This ferocity, this violence, which Europe grants—and then halfheartedly—only through marginal ceremonies like bullfighting and boxing, here continues to hold full sway. Knoxville, or a taste of the hellish side of American society.

The Place of the Fanatics

I had seen Peter Weir's film Witness, with Harrison Ford.

I knew that there was a strange, vaguely Anabaptist sect living ascetically, in accord with the old rhythm of nature and the harvests.

So, from Des Moines, before continuing my journey to the West Coast, I go in search of these famous Amish, the "plain people," whose precise whereabouts no one at first seems able to tell me.

I begin with Pella, a "historical village," guaranteed to be 100 percent fake and thus open from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 p.m.: "No, we're not Amish," a man tells me, a little annoyed; he is in charge of the twenty or so buildings erected exactly as if they were nineteenth-century. There's Vermeer Windmill, certified to be the same as a Dutch windmill from 1850, and the founder's office, an actual historic building, where the evocation of the past has been pushed to such a point that they've leaned a cane against the table at the exact place where the founder used to put it. "We aren't Amish; they gave you the wrong information …"

We go on to the Amana Colonies and their seven villages, east of Des Moines, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by a sect of German "True Inspirationists" who had been persecuted by ordinary Lutherans. "We're not Amish," says Meg Merckens, the young actress who every afternoon, in a blue dress and a white cap, delivers "Home on the Iowa," a long monologue telling the stories of the good old times in the Amana Colonies. "People often confuse us, but despite the similarity of our names, we don't have anything to do with the Amish. You'll find them about forty miles farther on, in Kalona."

So we continue on to the Kalona Historical Village, another Potemkin setting, once again empty, with its post office of the era, its saloon, its general store, still the same trompe l'oeil, the same set—except this time the set isn't just a set. On the neighboring farms there are actually men and women living according to the ancestral laws of the Amish.

Those farmers I see in the distance, working with the same kinds of tools they used a century and a half ago, are Amish.

These roads that are purposely not paved, where the wagons—for the Amish drive only in wagons—raise blinding clouds of dust in front of us, are Amish.

These men in brown trousers and wide suspenders, who look as if they'd stepped out of a painting by Le Nain, are Amish, as are these women wearing homespun dresses and white caps, who never cut their hair.

This refusal of electricity—except for the very ill—is Amish.

This rejection of higher education—and, in fact, of any education above eighth grade—is Amish. All this, for the plain people, is in the Bible; existence must be completely governed by what they read in the Bible.

These other farmers, back from the fields, who shun a camera, are Amish: God said, "Thou shalt not make idols or images." All the more reason, then, not to make images of the face or the gaze.

Amish, finally, is the Community County Store, where they sell Amish bread, Amish barley sugar, Amish bobbins (stainless steel), Amish wrapping paper (handmade).

"You're using a calculator?" I ask the old, bent-over Amish woman who's running the till.

"Yes," she says in a surprisingly sharp, fluty voice. "Since it runs on batteries, it doesn't need electricity."

And when I try to find out more about the difficulty of being Amish in contemporary America—when I ask what kind of citizens the Amish are; if they vote, and if so, for whom; if they read the newspapers, and if so, which ones; what they thought of September 11; if they were concerned by the terrorist threat, and if so, in what way—a brief conversation begins, which is, unfortunately, too quickly interrupted by the woman's nephew, who is suspicious of us: No, the Amish generally don't vote; yes, the Amish are bad patriots and bad citizens; an Amish can't be in the civil service or in the Army; to be Amish is to be indifferent to September 11, al-Qaeda, the security of Americans, and all the rest of it.

The old lady, moreover, doesn't say "Americans" but "the English."

For the Amish, the United States is not a country but an abstraction, a fiction.

Who are the Amish, then? Who are these men and women who live in an economic autarky, their gaze fixed on eternity? A countersociety? An anti-America within America? A case, unique in the West, of an a-communal community, putting into practice the biblical precept to set one's camp apart, separate? I remember how in the 1960s people talked about hippies who had modeled themselves on the Indians; maybe not, in the end—maybe the model was the Amish …

Unless we ought to look at the thing in another way. Unless we should regard the stubbornness of the plain people as one aspect of this political philosophy—let's call it "exceptionalist"—that I'm sure is just as present in American hearts now as it was in the time of Tocqueville. A supplement to the social contract. An additional paragraph in the pact. This additional clause, this extra article, which was not foreseen by the Founding Fathers but is in accord with their intentions. Any logician knows that this is a necessity if a totality is not to become supersaturated, and that a society with built-in flexibility can better bring its designs to realization.

Or the opposite. They are witnesses not of God, but of America. The real, final pioneers. The only ones who haven't given in, haven't summed up their religion as the "In God We Trust" of banknotes. They are witnesses to a lost purity. The heirs of the Mayflower. The silent witnesses, truly silent, since, unlike the Indians or the blacks, they don't say anything, don't demand anything, and above all don't reproach others for anything. Silent witnesses, then, to the values that were those of America but on which America has turned its back since it sold itself to the religion of commodity.

Not anti-America but hyper-America. A conservatory. A remnant of the Bible's meaning. America's living bad conscience but, once again, silent. You betrayed the ideals of the Founding Fathers? Turned your back on your principles? America is a failed country? An unrealized utopia? Well, then, here we are. Just here. We don't criticize anything. But we are the Amish. The profound, hidden, forgotten, denied truth of America, alive in us.

The conundrum—and grandeur—of a country that tolerates this. I try to picture the Amish in France. I can't imagine those 200,000 men and women, their testimony, their positive demography, in my old Jacobin country, so finicky about the rites of its own national religion.

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