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
Tocqueville in Minnesota

It's a mall. The biggest one in the United States. The second biggest in the world, after the one in West Edmonton, Alberta. It's a complex of 500 stores, placed on the southern outskirts of Minneapolis—we have driven north from Iowa—where, let it be said in passing, I saw baseball bats "made in Honduras"; T-shirts "made in Peru"; garden gnomes and beachwear "made in Bangladesh"; dolls "made in Mexico," in the likenesses of Reagan, Kennedy, and Clinton; all kinds of "Americana" made in Sri Lanka, Egypt, Jamaica, the Philippines, Chile, India, Korea; but not all that much made in America. It's a New Age temple of consumption. It's a church—yet another!—to the glory of triumphant capitalism and neo-American living for business. Except—and this is where things get interesting—it's meant to be a lively gathering place. It's the one place in maybe all of Minnesota where lonely social misfits, addicted to the Internet and to the glamour of the virtual, come to experience reality and get a shot of physical community. There are day-care centers here. Restaurants. Cinema multiplexes showing the best Hollywood has to offer. A bank where you can deposit your money before you spend it. An amusement park, "Camp Snoopy," with a roller-coaster and elaborate fountains. Lego dinosaurs in the Lego Imagination Center. A business school, the National American University, for hardworking teenagers. Greenery. A health clinic. What haven't the mall designers thought of? What possible circumstance of existence hasn't found a setting in this cocoon, this happy metropolis, where you could, in principle, spend your entire life? There are "mall walkers," about 200 a day, who come here not to buy anything but just to walk, because it's free, the weather is always clement, never too hot or too cold, and, above all, it's safe, without danger, under surveillance 24/7. They even ended up forbidding children under fifteen to enter after 6:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays unless accompanied by an adult, when word got out that bands of wild children were preparing to sow terror here, like wolves. Hence the patrols of volunteer "Mighty Moms" and "Dedicated Dads" who come on the weekends to watch over and chaperone unruly children. So you have to wait till you turn fifteen to have the privilege of attaining the holy of holies and becoming a true Mall goer. The ideal thing is to celebrate your eighteenth birthday here at the Mall. There is an entire population in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul whose dream is to come here on the major occasions of life, to these long, windowless galleries, devoid of fresh air, dotted with surveillance cameras and the occasional sniffer dog, noisy, stifling. They come here to pick one another up. Flirt. Lift their spirits when things aren't going well. Hang out. Give themselves a festive honeymoon. Get married. Yes, marriage is very important. There is a place on the third floor, next to a store that sells wedding gowns and accessories, where a stout little woman with a machine-gun delivery offers you a choice of weddings: "Premiere" (a one-hour ceremony with music, champagne, and pre-wedding consultation, all for $669 on Mondays and Tuesdays, $699 other weekdays, $799 Saturdays), "Petite Plus" (half an hour; fifty guests instead of seventy; $569, $599, $699), "Petite" (thirty guests; $469, $499, $599), or "Dream Plus" (same thing, but with twelve guests; $369, $399, $499).

The Mall is an adventure—a big, modern, total adventure. Judging from the number of customers in the souvenir shops that sell coffee mugs, glasses, beer mugs, T-shirts, and other trimmings marked with the arms and colors of the Mall, it's an experience in itself. What does this experience tell us? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist? It brings to mind the easily led, almost animal-like face Alexandre Kojève said would be the face of humanity at the arrival (which he described as imminent) of the end of history. It brings to mind the "absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild" authority predicted by Tocqueville, the dominant characteristic of which would be a state of "perpetual childhood" in which the master is "well content that the people should enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind." And in both cases we are gripped by an obscure terror, as if, suddenly, we have discovered the true face of Big Brother: enveloping and gentle, pure love—and thus all the more perilous.

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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