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
Meeting with Jim Harrison

Here I discover someone who is not surprised by the reaction of Russell Means.

The meeting takes place the next day, at Chatham's Livingston Bar and Grill, in Livingston, in the heart of Montana, where the novelist Jim Harrison moved because he'd had enough of seeing his Michigan invaded by Republicans and stockbrokers.

God knows he liked them, the Indians … God knows he still likes them when they have the faces of Louis Owens, Ron Querry, Sherman Alexie, his writer friends. But Russell Means … he doesn't know Russell Means, of course. But he can guess. He knows the ravages the white culture makes when it corrupts hearts and souls. He knows how it can transform the best into pathetic clowns, mimes, phantoms of themselves. A memorial? Fine, a memorial. We could even, if I insist, start an international committee for the memorial. But it's not a memorial that will give back Crazy Horse his soul, or save the sublime heritage of Sitting Bull. Have I read the book by James Welch, by the way, on the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Since my arrival have I felt the electric, still magical atmosphere that reigns over Wounded Knee? No, of course I didn't feel anything. The cause is lost; we don't feel anything anymore. Only the writers remain, those guardians of the dead—but good-bye to living souls, farewell to Indian culture.

Big Jim is sad. He looks at me with his one eye, and then looks at the already empty bottle of Côte du Rhône his friend Chatham replenishes pronto, following a wordless but seemingly regular ritual, and he is sad. He becomes more animated when he talks about his house in the mountains, where he hears the song of nature. Or when he talks about the return of wolves to Montana and the fact that never—understand? never—has a case of a wolf's attacking a human being been authenticated. Or when he talks about his taste for Faulkner, whom he prefers to Hemingway—it's annoying, in the end, this way journalists who are in a hurry always compare him to Hemingway, whereas Faulkner is his real brother, Faulkner is the true writer. His enthusiasm revives, too, when he talks about France, which gave him so much, at a time when America was treating him like trash. He gets excited when he begins to talk about jet lag, that delicious state when you're not only between two spaces but between two times, earlier or later, twilight or morning in the world. You'd need a poem to express the blessing of this in-between state when you're in Paris, at the Hotel de Suède, or at your friend Bourgois's place!

But as soon as the conversation turns back to America—not just the Indians but America in general, this America that, he says, has never been so poor, so commonplace, or so freedom-stifling since Nixon—as soon as we start talking about that, a look of overwhelmed weariness settles on his old swashbuckling face, which becomes streaked with red or tinged with mauve the more he drinks.

Okay, I say to him. But Nixon's America was also the America of the 1960s revolution, wasn't it? Can't we imagine the same thing? Doesn't he feel, in the inmost depths of his country, a burst of the same kind of freedom? And shouldn't he put his fame, his legend, at the service of …?

He looks at me then as if I didn't have a clue. Gestures to me to stop speaking. Empties his glass. Looks at the ceiling like a blind man who is trying to remember what light looks like. Then he lets out an enormous, completely unexpected laugh, which makes the restaurant customers in the other room turn around.

Stop with the legend, he tells me. That was exactly what I couldn't stand about Hemingway. And that's what ended up killing him. As for me … I'll die of something, obviously—maybe from that (he points to the new bottle, already diminished). Or from something else (he looks at Anika, my assistant). But definitely not from that damned legend, which has nothing to do with me!

And then, there's no comparison, he goes on to say. The situation now, he insists, is much worse than it was under Nixon. There are the far-right Republicans and the politically correct left. The ones greedy for business, on the one hand; on the other, the morons who want to prevent us, my pal Nicholson and me, from smoking, drinking, and (another look at my assistant) appreciating the beauty of the world. The real problem—I'll tell you what it is. It's Yale. Yes, Yale. The school of Bush and Kerry. I knew that one day Yale would take over. Well, here it is—that day has come. And this triumph of the great predator, this victory of greedy pigs over progressives, that's the absolute truth of America. Do you know that I told Hollywood to fuck off the day I thought the system was going crazy and, by paying me too much, was about to transform me, too, into a big, insatiable, greedy bastard? All you can do is refuse. And laugh. And write literature. And, like the Indians, save the dead. And since we're back to the Indians, all that's left is for each one of us to save the Indian part that's inside himself.

The Indian as a category of the soul? A region of being and of the spirit? Harrison at that instant is talking the way Bohumil Hrabal did in his Prague apartment in 1989. He is talking more or less as my dissident friends did in Russia during the Iron Curtain years, who wanted to believe in nothing but moral resistance, hidden away in the heart of every person. There you have it. Writer and dissident. The fine withdrawal of a man, discouraged but uncompromising, without illusions but on the offensive, who as long as there are free men will despair neither of life nor of America.

Poor Israel

I returned to Washington, and then to New York, for the Republican convention. And since I had a little time to spare, I decided to spend it in Brooklyn, in effect the fourth largest city in the United States. Yes, that's something we tend to forget in Europe, and that I, in any case, am always forgetting: the city of Arthur Miller and Henry Miller, Barbra Streisand, Mel Brooks, Hubert Selby Jr., Spike Lee, the city that symbolizes (in France, at least) the vitality of American Judaism, is, with its 2.5 million inhabitants, the fourth largest city in the United States—or would be, if it had not been incorporated into New York.

Signs in Yiddish. Landscape of garages and warehouses, giving way to houses and kosher restaurants. Men in black. Tefillin. The heavy clothes, despite the summer heat. The hats, the yarmulkes, the long coats, and, for the women, the long skirts and the headscarves. Time standing still. Contemplation. Only sign of activity in this unusually silent world whose only equivalent I know is the Mea Shearim in Jerusalem: the passage, sirens wailing, of the new ambulance of the Hatzoleh, the Jewish volunteers who devote a third or a half of their week to helping people with medical emergencies.

And then, finally, the two events for which I have come. A meeting at the office of the Ohel Children's Home and Family Services, where everything from the old wood wainscoting to the black-and-white photos from the era of the pioneers of Israel—the very Warsaw-ghetto-like caps on most of the men, the cloche hats and old-fashioned makeup on the women, the people's look of having come out of a scene from Exodus, their figures, sometimes their gestures—seems to bear witness to a time gone by that here, in the midst of New York, has been mysteriously recovered. And then, at the neighboring yeshiva, on the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Sixteenth Avenue, in an even more austere setting that reminds me of the shuls of Lithuania, a meeting of the Council of Wise Men of the Torah. Sitting around a long table where an old master with a white beard is enthroned, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Rebbe of Novominsk and spiritual leader of the Agudath Israel of America, an assembly of rabbis, very handsome, very poetic. I don't think I've ever seen anything like this; it seems to come out of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Two strange characters turn up who have come, to put it bluntly, to negotiate for the support of the Orthodox Jews for President Bush and his camp.

One of them, Norm Coleman, Jewish, a Republican candidate for a Senate seat from Minnesota, is a sort of blond yuppie with exceedingly white teeth and the smile of a wolf.

The other is Rick Santorum, Catholic, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania. I would interview him the next day, during a break in the convention, and he would explain to me that as a Catholic he is a fervent supporter of Israel and that traditional Catholics and Orthodox Jews see God and the world in similar ways.

Thank you, Coleman begins, beneath the suspicious and faintly amused gaze of the rabbis. Thank you, not just for being here but for being, for existing … I was born not far from here, but you embody another world … This world is an example … Your world is a model … Vote for me.

Your faith, Santorum adds, even more ingratiating, desperately trying, like a child, to meet the gaze of Rabbi Perlow, who, in the big black satin coat that he won't remove during the entire meeting, his face sealed off, withdrawn, seems completely absent—your faith is my own. The example of your faith and your belonging is what helps me live and believe. Tomorrow I have to talk to a devout assembly of Christians. Well, I hope you know that when I talk to them about faith, about the power and grandeur of hope, it's you I'll be thinking about. It's your example I'll bear in mind.

And the rabbis—diffident, ironic, with an air of immense disdain, and the drifting attention of people who have seen everything, heard everything, and who observe this sales pitch from their age-old summit of history and wisdom—are silently bored, ask a few questions, consult one another with a glance, and end up saying, just like that, without insisting, without abandoning their conspicuous detachment from whatever is not, directly or indirectly, linked to their religious concerns: Well, then, since you must know, here is what our community needs for its schools, synagogues, health services, and support for Israel in its struggle against terrorism.

In this scene, in this confrontation between faith and greed, between the highest demands of the spirit and the crass indifference of fishers for votes, I don't know who should be blamed. Maybe there's no need to blame anyone, and I'm just present at one of those operations of bargaining or lobbying that are the common bill of fare of the "civic pragmatism" Tocqueville spoke of, which at least has the merit, compared with European hypocrisy, of putting its cards on the table. But there's one thing, nonetheless, I'm sure of. I have my own radar. I have my personal instrument panel on which, on a certain number of sensitive subjects, the signs that indicate the best and the worst begin to flash. Well, then: I didn't feel that Rick Santorum and Norm Coleman were the sincere friends they claimed to be, or that they would make this country an unfailing supporter of Israel. I listened to them. Observed them. I saw clearly, in each of them, the requisite consideration for a powerful, close-knit community that held a part of their political destiny in its hands. But what of a situation in which the community in question was less powerful? What of the day when another community, which makes hatred of the Jewish people the heart of its program, acquires more power? And beyond all that, what about the brilliant evangelical Protestant idea of the need to ensure a peaceful, faithful, and above all Jewish Israel for when the (Christian) Day of Judgment comes? How can one not feel that this is the very kind of argument that lasts as long as great misunderstandings last? Perhaps I'm wrong. But I wouldn't like to bet on American support for the survivors of the Shoah if it came down to depending, really depending, on an outlook of this sort.

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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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