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
An Indian Hero and His Joke

Academic question: Does the status of being a victim, or a spokesperson for victims, entitle you to every right?

Field research: meeting with Russell Means, the famous activist, a veteran of a 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee, friend of Marlon Brando, indefatigable advocate of the Indian cause, icon, hero, colorful and legendary figure. I am happy and proud to meet him.

Where the scene takes place: the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation, in the middle of some deserted land between Potato Creek and Porcupine, a dilapidated house, reached by a path leading through wild grass and then over dilapidated boards that straddle a stream of wastewater—his house? His house.

Setting: untidy little kitchen; long table around which we take our places when the interview begins; books on the floor; a big fax machine from twenty years ago; watercolors I think at first are stained-glass windows, which he tells me he painted himself; photos from films in which he appeared, as Chief Big Tree and Chief Thundercloud did before him; poster saying don't blame me, i voted for russell means; leaflets from the campaign he's running now, for the presidency of the Tribal Agency, against the man from yesterday's powwow, John Yellowbird Steele; and leaflets in support of George W. Bush, whose side I already knew he had joined.

First sentence, while he's still standing in the doorway, very tall in the harsh noon light, very imposing, long black hair tied in a ponytail reaching the middle of his back, shorts and ink-blue undershirt, sneakers, strong biceps under bare skin, energy, charisma, rings on his fingers, a bracelet—this is his welcoming sentence, accompanied by an immense burst of laughter: "You here, Mr. Lévy? Not in Israel yet? But I heard on the radio that Sharon wanted all the Jews in France to emigrate to Tel Aviv! Ha, ha!"

And when I give a start, when I let him know that I haven't come all this way to listen to this kind of bad joke, and show that I don't find this sort of thing particularly funny, that I'm a Jew who is sympathetic to the Indian cause and that I came expressly to ask him about creating a kind of Yad Vashem of Indian suffering rather than the casinos that are a slow-working poison, I get this terrible reply, which is hammered out, word by word, in a restrained, affected tone of rage: "I don't need advice from Zionists, you understand? I don't need their advice. When I needed them, they weren't there. I went to see them, I went to see the Jews in Cleveland, and I waited—oh! I waited a long time. And no one—you hear me?—no one answered my call. So don't try to give me advice! A little respect, but no advice!

"What? The Moonies? Yes, sir, that's right, it's not a rumor—it's true that I gave a series of lectures sponsored by the Moonies. They've done less harm to me than the Catholics. Unlike you Jews, they held out their hand to me. When you're in our situation, Mr. Lévy, when the whole world is against you, you're not choosy, you take what you can …"

The rest of the interview is weird, vehement, sometimes zany, but, all the same, more controlled. When I tell him about the powwow, Russell Means replies that "Tom Daschle is a snake," "the worst human being in America," and that's why he's a leader of the Democratic Party. He explains to me that "Indian politics," as it was formalized in "the Indian Reorganization Act" of 1934, accomplished the feat of being the "secret model for Hitler" in its treatment of the "unwanted." It was the "carbon copy," "thirty years early," of "the Bantu Development Act," which "institutionalized apartheid in South Africa," and today, in this beginning of the twenty-first century, is the last case in the world of "pure and simple communism." He warns me, with fiery gaze and stentorian voice, that "every official Indian person you meet in this country" is corrupt and a collaborator—You understand? A collaborator. (He actually says, straining at a French accent, "a Vichy.") He talks, not without eloquence, about these Indians, his people, who are sitting on "forty percent of the wealth of natural resources in America," but who remain "the poorest of the poor," "the most diseased people in the Western hemisphere." I am treated to a comical but sincere exposition on the necessity of "kicking out the white man"—in other words, seceding. At the same time, without seeming to realize any contradiction, he points out that the Indians could take advantage of the fact that reservations "don't have to worry about minimum wage," don't have "health-benefit problems," and, especially, "have no unions" in order to "attract industry." He says fine things about neglected Indian languages. He preaches about the greatness of this culture that, like the culture of the ancient Greeks, emphasized, and continues to emphasize, heroism. Don't talk about Indians in the past tense, he thunders. Don't think that the death of their world and their values is an established fact. That's not the case. That's the surprise. We are the community in America with the highest growth rate: there were 250,000 of us a century ago, but there are more than two million of us today. That's our answer, Mr. Lévy, to the policy of genocide …

But nothing can make me forget his first few sentences.

To whom should the crown of martyrdom go? Who should be awarded the terrible role of king of suffering? Are the Jews, with their Shoah, their obsessive memory, their lobbying, causing us irremediable harm? That, roughly, is what he said. And as long as there are Indian leaders who use this kind of language; as long as they don't break with the crazy logic of a competition for victimhood and a war of memories and sufferings; as long, consequently, as they give in to an anti-Semitism that has always found its most facile arguments in this very war, there will be a shadow over the legitimacy of the cause that they defend.

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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