Road Trip: Part II

What would Tocqueville say? A journey continues, from Seattle to San Diego via Alcatraz and an obesity clinic
An Evening in Gayland

At the entrance to Power Exchange, a partner-swapping club in San Francisco, at the corner of Otis and Gough, this uncompromising sign: No alcohol. no drugs. no sleeping. no uproarious or loud laughter. condoms obligatory. turn all cell phones off. if someone says No to you, please do not insist. The inside is luxurious. Libertine and conventional. Depraved and proper. On the one hand, menacing labyrinths and cells surrounded by wire mesh and painted cobwebs, where torture devices are set up that look straight out of either the Marquis de Sade's The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom or François Reichenbach's Sex O'Clock USA, the film that was so effective in the 1970s at popularizing in Europe the image of a free, bold America, one that was throwing the last conventions out the window and continuing to push the limits of dissoluteness ever further. And on the other hand, a quirky clientele, friendly, almost well-behaved, and, incidentally, surprisingly old. Hesitant cordiality of first encounters. Courteous nods. A fat Japanese lady with red hair and a whip who asks a gentleman if he'd like to be tortured; the gentleman answers, "Yes, but not too much, please—make sure you don't hurt me, and no biting." Women's clothing demurely folded at the entrance to the pleasure tents. An atmosphere in the changing rooms like that at a gym or a pool. And beneath the fake Egyptian pyramid they hinted about at the entrance (with knowing looks that left everything to the imagination and made you suspect that the most inventive and unspeakable acts occurred there), a woman wearing a garter belt who has curled up in a corner and gone to sleep, and two old gay men in conversation, their voices low so as not to wake her up, towels tied around their waists and draped over their shoulders, because they're cold. It's like the gay clubs in the Castro.

How strange, by the way, this name—Castro—is! How ironic that the city's gay district, a place where two men in the streets can hold hands and kiss each other full on the mouth, where at nightfall all the bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and cinemas are gay, and where not being gay makes you feel ill at ease—how ironic that this open-air Cage aux Folles, this carnival of liberated and assertive homosexuality, this permanent Gay Pride, this Gayland, bears the name of the most homophobic of caudillos!

It's like in the Castro, then. There the floor shows have a certain boldness. Tonight, for instance, a drag queen dressed as Rita Hayworth performs and sings like Gilda, not about the "'Cisco quake" of 1906 but about the other one, the real one, the enormous "Big One," the sexual liberation of the sixties and the welcome disintegration of all unnatural prohibitions: "They said that old Mother Nature / Was up to her old tricks / That's the story that went around / But here's the real lowdown / Put the blame on Mame, boys / Put the blame on Mame." Further on, in a New Age cabaret open to the street, its walls plastered with photos of naked men, are two over-the-top drag queens, gesturing frenetically on a makeshift stage. One, in a figure-hugging dress, black stockings, mammoth silicone breasts, and blonde wig, sings and acts out songs that feature Michael Jackson, who "shook his baby out the window. Why? To shake off the sperm." The other, also blonde, but lanky, flat, fake boa around her neck, hurls herself at the clients, goes out to the sidewalk to fetch them, throws herself at their feet, pretends to jerk them off between her fake breasts, utters little cries, swoons. You can find joke-and-trick stores selling Suck Bush pins, T-shirts saying Fuck Bush, postcards showing Bush dressed as a queen with wig, pantyhose, and garter belt, and the caption "Bush lied, thousands died." The trouble is that the only people here to laugh at all this are old homos with neat hair, white legs emerging from ironed shorts, silk ankle socks in high-tops, shirts that say Vote for Kerry or Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction, looking actually as if they're disguised, almost more disguised than the drag queens they've come to applaud. They have the restrained laughter, the ultra-conventional bearing, of nice middle-class men out for a good time, average age about sixty; fear of AIDS, fear of sex—If we've escaped the wildness of our youth, it's not so we can succumb today to the vertigo of a remake; we'll go along with Reichenbach but use only blanks, as a matter of form, making sure to neutralize whatever liberating but dangerous effects that gay practices may have had in the past. San Francisco and its ghosts. San Francisco and its frozen revolution. Once upon a time in San Francisco, the city of all excesses and the wildest orgies—the city, too, it should be said in passing, where in one night, in a former garage at the intersection of Union and Fillmore, the literary generation was born that from Kerouac to Lamantia, from Michael McClure to Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder, most transformed America, and thus the world, for half a century. Now this city has become a conservatory of audacity, a museum of successful liberations, a tomb for 300,000 activists, escapees from the merry apocalypse of the sixties—the proof, too, that perhaps the time has come in America to choose between reality and commemoration, between living and surviving.


A house in the Berkeley Hills. A graduate-student sort of living room. A piano. The score of "Für Elise" open on the piano. Black-and-white family photographs. A library where I notice a history of the Russian Revolution, a memoir by Eleanor Roosevelt, an anti-aging handbook. Children's toys lying on the floor. A dog that keeps barging in from the garden and getting fussed over each time. And a woman, pretty but somehow plain, arms and shoulders too thin, a long shapeless blouse that hides her figure, glasses, no makeup—the prototype of the eco-friendly Californian who makes it a point to play the part 100 percent naturally. I am in the home of Joan Blades, the lawyer—or, rather, the mediator—originally a specialist in divorce, and author or co-author of two popular books: Mediate Your Divorce and The Divorce Book. Six years ago she dropped everything in order to create, along with her husband, Wes Boyd, one of the most significant and innovative American alternative political movements in recent times. I am in the holy of holies where began the extraordinary Internet network that is at the origin of at least three large citizen mobilizations: The 2003 petition called "Let the Inspections Work," which was delivered by volunteers in person to all the congressmen and senators in the country. The thousands of phone calls imploring the same members of Congress to vote no on the $87 billion Bush requested to finance the occupation of Iraq. And the huge campaign to get unregistered voters, especially the youngest ones, onto electoral lists and out to vote. I am at the headquarters, in other words, of, about which people have been talking to me ever since my arrival. But what exactly does "MoveOn" mean? What is it referring to, specifically? It's very simple, Joan Blades replies. It's 1998. We're in the middle of the Lewinsky affair. And we're so shocked—we, my husband and I, are so sick of this conservative offensive to put the president out of the running. And above all we can so clearly see the trick that allowed them, by amusing the crowd with a sex case, to avoid the real problems that should have been at the heart of any public debate worthy of the name. We're so deeply scandalized by this that I ended all my activities as a mediator and we sold the software company we had, and we devoted all our energy, all our time, and all our resources to launching the slogan whose full wording is not "Move On" but "Censure and Move On"—or, if you prefer, "Censure (President Clinton) and Move On (to pressing issues facing the nation)."

I understand. I have her repeat it, but I understand perfectly. The idea at the time was to destroy the Republican trap but also, in the same movement, to censure the Democratic president. The target was the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the campaign he was spearheading, but it was also Clinton himself, who in the view of so many Americans, including his political allies, had committed a genuine sin and thus deserved to be "censured." I am in the temple of American radicalism. I am in contact with what could be morphing into another New Left. I am in Berkeley, near Oakland, with the heirs of the great liberation movement born here in the sixties around Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other Black Panthers. I am with resolutely modern people who know a lot about American cultural and social struggles, with unorthodox activists who, when they publish a book that is supposed to offer a fair image of alternative America, title it Fifty Ways to Love Your Country—in homage to the iconic "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." What these activists are telling us, though, what they are conceding in the very name of their movement, is that in order to get a hearing, one had to say that Clinton was just slightly less guilty than his persecutors—that the sin shocked them just as much as the impeachment.

In the eyes of a European, this is absolutely astounding. These enlightened thinkers could have argued what some of them privately believed—that they thought that this business of the "stain" was a non-affair. They could have proclaimed that the president's sex life was his private affair, and that in any event it was out of order to let senators, congressmen, and the press have the least opinion on the subject. But no; maybe because they knew what they had to say in order to have credibility in America, they chose to call, all at once, for the American people to "move on" (out of the crisis) and "censure" (the licentious president). They put side by side the promoters of the new witch-hunt and the venial sin that was its first pretext. These progressives, in the very act of founding their organization, ratified the keystone of conservative reasoning and thus let people think that here was a kind of axiom, an inviolable norm, a kind of prolegomenon for any political reasoning, present or future. As I say, to a European, this is astounding.

I am not, I should point out, intent on diminishing the merit of MoveOn. Nor do I know if its work even has a future—perhaps MoveOn is a seasonal product, the fruit of a passing moment in history. But one can see something here that is larger than the specific phenomenon itself. This detail that is in fact not a detail, this genealogical slip of the tongue, this way of having to stipulate agreement with the core of the opponent's premise—and, by doing so, lending it an evident theoretical advantage—says much about the form of American ideology. Joan Blades joked about it herself, when she told me about a postcard she had received from Australia: "Thank God you got the Puritans and we got the Convicts!" Moralism … Puritanism … The confusion of the realms of politics and ethics, which a democracy worthy of that name should keep separate … A desire for purity … Rigid moral standards and transparency erected as categorical imperatives … Nothing new here, on this subject, for readers of Tocqueville, who will recognize some of the characteristics of the well-known "tyranny of the majority." The real surprise is in the facts, and especially in the oddity of a situation that was not foreseen, and in which we can witness the so-called tyranny vindicated, comforted, and basically legitimized by the very citizens who should have been its natural challengers.

The Absolute Prison

Alcatraz is the prison from which no one ever escaped. That is what literature tells us. That is what each and every movie inspired by Alcatraz tells us. They all have to do, to a greater or lesser degree, with this idea of impossible escape.

That is what the museum, which has occupied most of the island since the prison closed, tells us (for Alcatraz, too, has given in to the trend toward the museumification of everything).

And that is what the two Native American boatmen I met on Fisherman's Wharf, who agreed to take me to "the Rock" for $250, tell me.

I try my best to get them to talk about something else. I try to question them about why Bobby Kennedy decided to close the most famous federal penitentiary in the country in 1963. I would like them to tell me more about the strange and beautiful story of the eighty-nine Sioux, Blackfoot, Mohawk, Navajo, Cherokee, and Winnebago activists who a few years later, in November of 1969, invoking American legislation concerning unoccupied federal territories as well as the broken but still valid old treaties that were signed after the victory of Red Cloud, offered, not without humor, to buy back the island for a little more than the price the whites paid them, long ago, for Manhattan, and who established a kind of Indian commune there for nineteen months.

I would like, since they tell me, not without pride, that they are old citizens of San Francisco, for them to tell me all they know about the life of the prison, its system of punishment, its fiercest criminals: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud, "the Birdman of Alcatraz."

They could at least talk about what we see from the boat: the Transamerica Pyramid, standing tall on its anti-earthquake foundations; the Golden Gate Bridge, on our left, with its enormous pylons, its suspension cables that seem to be mocking heaven, its orange color made to glow in the fog; the baby seal who's escorting us; the colony of sea lions on the shore behind us; the long-beaked pelicans, known as "Alcatraz birds," circling over our heads.

But no. Nothing's any good. Nothing interests them but incessant commentary about the records of this absolute prison. Nothing makes them happier than to tell about all those escape attempts, each one crazier, more fantastic, more inspired than the previous, not one of which ever succeeded.

Steering around the island, we find the enormous reservoir of water, mounted on pilings, that films have so often shown. We make out a building, gutted, which looks like it was a forced-labor workshop. We can see elements of the fortifications that appear to date back to when Alcatraz was just starting up—to the time when it wasn't yet a prison but a fort, the first one on the Pacific, built to defend San Francisco. We can see a stairway that climbs up into emptiness; the barred, rusty framework of cells. Nearby would be the "hole" where the most intractable prisoners were isolated and sometimes forgotten. We recognize two white stone buildings, still in pretty good shape, where the supervisors must have lived. But my two guides have eyes, and voices, only for the lighthouse, the watchtower, the remains of the "gun gallery" from which the guards could shoot at fugitives; they become talkative only when we manage (at the risk of running into the rocks) to approach the half-effaced notice Persons provoking or concealing escape of prisoners are subject to prosecution and imprisonment, and when, all excited, they can show us the ruins of the bakery that, they explain, allowed the prison to function as a self-sufficient system.

I wonder about this fixation.

I am surprised at the bizarre pleasure they derive from enumerating the names of fugitives recaptured (Fred Hunter, Huron "Ted" Walters, John Giles, Dale Stamphill, John Bayless) or drowned (Ralph Roe, the Anglin brothers, Theodore Cole) or killed by a bullet while in the process of escaping (Joseph Bowers, Thomas R. Limerick, Arthur "Doc" Barker, James Boarman).

And I wonder if there isn't something at stake here, something that touches on the very way America had, and perhaps still has, of conceiving its prisons.

In Europe—or, at any rate, in France—people debate whether prisons should be used for surveillance or punishment, rehabilitation or rectification. People reflect on the severity of the crime and of the punishment, and on the duration of the punishment and the hope for rehabilitation. Once those questions have been answered, and once it has been decided who should require and obtain justice, the person wronged or the sovereign power, one still has to think about the place of the prison in society and the chances that prisoners will have when they leave the former to reinsert themselves into the latter. In America the main concern seems to be the imperviousness of both worlds and the radicality of exclusion. The concern, the obsession, and thus probably everything at issue here involves reassurance that at every instant the separation has been successfully carried out and the two worlds have indeed been isolated.

The freezing water. The wind. The violence of the currents and the beating of the waves against the indented shore. The thick, cold fog that in the winter must isolate "the Rock" even more. The bay itself, so cheerful, so beautiful, which, when you consider it after Alcatraz, seems like a kind of Styx separating the world of the living from the house of the dead this prison was. Alcatraz is the completed form of what I saw sketched out on Rikers Island. It's the confirmation of that conception of the prison as pure machine to exclude, enclose, and, in a way, purify. Not that Alcatraz is the only island prison in the world. Not that I'm forgetting Solovki, in Russia; Lipari, in Italy; Devil's Island, in French Guiana—or even the Château d'If, in France. But Edmond Dantès escaped from the Château d'If. The Italian confino, harsh as it might have been, still shared an island with an ordinary community. But what happens here is that space itself is split in two, and this changes everything: it makes the prison the heart of another world. If it is true, as Foucault believed, that the Western penitentiary mentality oscillated for a long time between two rival models—of leprosy and plague, of power that excludes and banishes and the more modern power that knows, calculates, and in the end includes—it seems that Alcatraz represents the former. Prison as leper colony. To lock people up the same way you would draw a sacred circle. No escapees from Alcatraz, just the damned of Alcatraz and perhaps, beyond Alcatraz, of the American penal system as a whole.

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 second of several articles.

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