Seattle Mon Amour
"In the Footsteps of Tocqueville" (May 2005)
A Frenchman hits the road and takes our measure. By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Nothing is more striking about Seattle than the moment of arrival.
I loved the city itself, of course.
I loved that feeling of wide-openness on the Sound, the current of brisk air that touches you despite the summer heat.
I loved Seattle's delicate, sun-speckled docks. Its pulsing, heterogeneous marketplace, where highly specialized bookstores, shops selling collectible posters, myriad bars, are all wedged between two shimmering fish markets. During the day I loved the breeze that rises from the water as if to widen the streets, and in the evening the summer mist, wispy, a little gray, which stops, mysteriously, at the waterfront. I loved the city's hills and its interminable steps, the floating bridge over Lake Washington, the boats leaving for Alaska or Panama. I loved those "boulevards without movement or commerce" around First Avenue, and I loved the "drunkenness of a big capital" that soars over Capitol Hill and its sidewalks inlaid with bronze dance steps. I loved the Jimi Hendrix museum—or is it the Paul Allen museum? Or the Frank Gehry museum? I don't quite know what to call it. What can you say, really, when the most generous patron helps the greatest architect build the most extraordinary rock-and-roll museum? I loved the air of freedom, of nonconformism, that reigns over the economic capital of this state about which they said, during the time of the great strikes after World War I, "There are forty-seven states in the United States, plus the Soviet of Washington." And I loved the fact that this city that in a distant past endured the most savage anti-Asian riots in the history of the United States is today near the top in welcoming the influx of people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing. I loved the fact that this post-American metropolis—where, if it has to invent itself somewhere, the American civilization of tomorrow will invent itself—remains, despite everything, so obstinately European.
I liked Frank Blethen, a man with a white beard, imitation Hemingway and genuine publisher and part owner of the Seattle Times, who is fighting against the Hearst empire for the survival of his paper, and through his paper for the survival of the family press, whose fate, by his lights, is linked to that of democracy.
In Redmond I visited that city-within-a-city, surrounded by pine trees, green lawns, little lakes, that is the headquarters of Microsoft. I met some of the engineers, from Mexico, France, and India, who are inventing the language and social fabric of the future. And here, too, I loved the feeling of imagination, youth, chic and atypical bohemian-ness, irreverence, cosmopolitanism, civilization, intelligence, that this strange group of people radiated. All this recent research, for instance, into graphic recognition. And the enthusiasm when the idea arose to apply the method to the manuscripts of Joyce, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, and to encourage the writers of today to go back to the tradition of handwriting. The uplifting wind of elation that rose in the tiny room, empty and white, aseptic yet warm, at the mere idea of having in their hands—they, the offspring of Bill Gates, prodigies of science and culture—the means of thus crossbreeding the wildest modernity with the very symbol of archaism.
I visited the Boeing factories. I spent half a day in a landscape of girders and giant winches worthy of a larger-than-life Fernand Léger; of mini-buildings inside cavernous hangars; of walls of monitors, monstrous pipes and chrome caterpillars, immense jetways, colossal scaffolding, open bellies and steel guts, fuselages and armor plates, where occurs that miracle of high technology that is the assembling of a new plane. And I loved the fact that the officiants at this miracle, on whose shoulders rests a responsibility made twice as pressing by security issues and terrorist threats, looked like hippies with ponytails as they worked coolly to a Rolling Stones riff.
I loved, on the corner of First Avenue and Virginia Street, the bistro Le Pichet, whose sign says in French that it's "a bar during the day and a café at night" and serves "regional specialties all day." I met Ron Reagan there, son of Ronald and Nancy, whose speech on stem-cell research was one of the two big events of the Democratic convention (Barack Obama's speech was the other), and I liked seeing him this way—in a jean jacket and a khaki T-shirt, looking unkempt and sleepy, improvising a dance step in the morning sun (for, he told me, he was once a dancer, a professional ballet dancer). I liked seeing him again that morning, relaxed and joking, imitating President Bush's diffidence on the day of Reagan's funeral. "Come on, George," Nancy whispered to Bush when she caught sight of him, completely terrified, arms dangling, as un-presidential as could be, faced with the circle of the Reagan family that so impressed him. "Come on, George, say something to us!" And he, petrified with timidity, his Adam's apple quivering, could find nothing to say other than a little strangled "How are you?" And I also liked hearing Ron Reagan tell me about what was behind his Boston speech, and how that very morning the Democratic speechwriters had tried to unload on him a ready-made speech, full of clichés—No, thanks, can't say that, it'll be my text or nothing, and if it's nothing, no problem, I'll go back to Seattle, where I'm happy …
I liked absolutely everything about Seattle.
If I had to choose an American city to live in—if I had to pick a place, and only one, where I had the feeling in America of rediscovering my lost bearings—it would be here, in Seattle.
If I had to choose one moment in this discovery—if I had to say what the instant was when everything was settled and, in the blink of an eye, the genius of the place was revealed to me—it would be the moment when, arriving from Spokane on Highway 90, having stopped at a motel in Moses Lake for a late-afternoon sandwich, having crossed the pine forests of Washington State and then the orchards of Wanatchee, having passed Mercer Island and then the Homer Hadley Bridge, I saw, floating like a torch between two motionless clouds, in a dark-pink sky entirely new to me, the tip of a skyscraper, the Space Needle, already completely lit up, which in my imagination suddenly condensed everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel. Ever since I was little I've so loved saying "gratte-ciels"—"skyscrapers."
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 MoveOn.org, 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.
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.
Highway 101. Then Highway 1, the legendary highway that follows the seacoast; I've seen it so many times in books that I feel I know it before I even take it. Warmth and speed. Desert. Sea sky. That Pacific Wall that Jean-François Lyotard spoke of, about which I no longer know if the mountain is the wall, or the cliffs over the sand, or even the immense, towering white waves that crash onto the beach. In Monterey the landscape suddenly shifts to rounder hills, a coast of deep red, then green, then yet again red because of the kelp—a kind of deep-rooted seaweed, spread out over hundreds of feet, of which we see only the tips. But mostly one notices steep hillsides; sharp bends winding through the hillsides; well-defined cliff ridges, dotted with dwarf cacti in some places and giant redwoods in others; grandiose, jagged contours; huge masses and overwhelming skies; a scenery not of the end but of the morning of the world, where man may still be absent; and down below, in the other direction, more waves, the sun glittering in the waves, seals, the new, limitless luminosity of this inhuman desert that has thrown itself into the ocean. Lunch stop in Carmel Valley, at a bikers' restaurant, where we eat bad tacos and boiled corn on the cob that remain leaden in the stomach. Another stop, at a campground for RVs, where, in the torrid heat, a colony of white youths are playing. Everything about them—their trousers with the crotch falling down to their knees, the backwards baseball caps, the shape of their T-shirts, their slang, their tone of voice, their disaffected look—is trying hard to imitate black kids in American movies. A gas station in the middle of nowhere. A McDonald's, at a turn in the road, where an American flag is flying listlessly and a billboard urges, Support our troops. A farm where a roaming pack of coyotes was reported yesterday. A providential phone booth: after Monterey, cell phones can't get any signal. Needless to say, the least sign or detail of this sort, the least billboard (like the one in front of the phone booth, Jesus saves, come to us), the least Greyhound bus (all of which bring Ginsberg and Kerouac to mind), seems in this desert landscape miraculous, almost like a mirage. In Big Sur I discover, set back a little from the highway, in the woods, the humble memorial set up to the glory of Henry Miller by a literature buff: library; little museum; bookstore where anything that has to do, however remotely, with the author or his work can be found; in a clearing a movie screen on which a documentary will be projected in a few days; a platform, also out in the open, where the best "Miller scholars" in the country sometimes give lectures before a tiny audience of literature-loving locals; an old guitar-playing hippie; beneath a canopy of greenery and low-lying trees, on a pedestal of television screens artistically crushed and piled, a big crucified Jesus, made of wire intertwined with branches, and meant, I imagine, to incarnate the suffering of the author of Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus.
And then, farther down the road, the Hearst castle, set on an arid mountain facing the ocean: San Simeon, bombastic kitsch, as big as half of Rhode Island, where I arrive full of emotion (wasn't this, after all, the model for Citizen Kane's Xanadu, the fortress of solitude where Orson Welles brought to life, and enclosed, his character?) but which I leave, an hour later, torn between irrepressible and contradictory wishes to laugh, to vomit, and yet at times to applaud.
Why laugh? The crazy image of those sleuths sent all over Europe to flush out an altarpiece the owner was mad about, or the 212th piece of a mosaic that was shattered ten centuries ago but that he wanted to restore, or, finally, a Greco-Roman temple he caught a glimpse of in a book and decided to buy, dismantle, number stone by stone, pack up, transport, and rebuild exactly as it was before.
Vomit? The predatory aspect of it all, the caprice of it, the almighty dollar, the cave-of-Ali-Baba side of it—the fruits of one of the most formidable enterprises of contemporary pillaging all stored in a jumble, your culture and mine. This is what I make of your memory: I buy and I stockpile, I steal and I heap up, move and possibly remodel as I please, as a world-renowned art lover. The world (of yesterday) was created in order to end up in my house; the most sumptuous collections (of artworks, objets d'art) are destined to find their way here, to this nowhere land, this temple of bad taste erected to my glory and to the glory of my mistress, the actress Marion Davies. On his good days William Randolph Hearst must have thought he was making these works live again, that he was offering them a new baptism. On his bad-humored days he must have told himself that the Europeans were dwarfs, subhumans, and that he had the supreme right to walk over, sit down, shit on all that heritage they were so ridiculously proud of.
But why in the world do I feel like applauding, too? Just once won't hurt; there's virtue in mixed feelings—for despite everything, he had a love of these works. There's still a dream of civilization, and—in the very act of placing on the same level an ancient marble bust and a fifteenth-century statue, an Italian Venus from the twentieth century, a Moorish Spanish ceiling, and the Venetian glass tiles in the pool—a desire (pathetic certainly, but touching, and which could have borne a certain nobility) to make the beating heart of Europe, the archive of the Old World, live again here, in the wild heart of America. The ark of another Noah saving all these things from who knows what obscure disaster: perhaps—who knows?—the great European catastrophe. But the animals have become objects, and species have been changed into masterpieces, each one unique.
At nightfall, the coconut palms of Santa Barbara. The cascades of flowers in Santa Monica. Melancholy palm trees in a Riviera-like landscape. And very quickly, without forewarning, a scene of wide rectilinear avenues, lit up like nowhere else in the United States, phosphorescent, from which I deduce that I have entered Los Angeles.
A city is like a text, Roland Barthes once wrote.
Just as there is a language of dreams, so there is a language of cities, more or less well articulated, more or less elegant or legible.
I wonder, then, if the prototype of a city with a poorly developed language, the prototype of unintelligible, illegible discourse, isn't Los Angeles.
For after all, what must be true for a city to be legible?
First, it has to have a center. But Los Angeles has no center. It has districts, neighborhoods, even cities within the city, each of which has a center of some sort. But one center, one unique site as a point of reference for that law of isonomy the Athenians believed was the principle behind every city, a hub or focus with which the inhabitants of Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Venice, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Saigon and Little Tokyo, Malibu, Inglewood, Pico Union (and I could go on, since Los Angeles officially numbers eighty-four neighborhoods, where 120 languages are spoken), could have a relationship at once distinct and regular—nothing like that exists in Los Angeles.
Second, it has to have a border beyond which it dissolves or breaks apart. But Los Angeles has no border. Along with Tokyo, it is the limitless, indeterminate city par excellence. Or if there is one—if there is, necessarily, a space that is the city proper and another that is not yet the city—the property of this border is that it is undetectable, impossible to determine or situate. I looked out for it when I arrived from San Francisco. It's like the border that separates night from day, or day from night, about which I swore to myself every night, and every morning, when I was a child: "There, that's it, I'm going to trap it, I'm going to keep my eyes wide open, and this time I won't miss it"—but no, I failed, every time I mysteriously failed. Night fell, day broke, and once again I had missed the instant of transformation—just as here I missed the borderline of Los Angeles, this burgeoning city that goes on indefinitely, interminably stammering, a huge slow animal, lazy but silently out of control.
Third, it has to have a vantage point, or several, from which it can, as in the Paris of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, be embraced with a single glance. But is it because of its gigantic size? The immensity of the five counties—Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Los Angeles—over which it is spread? The fact that the County of Los Angeles alone, with its nine million inhabitants (17 million in greater Los Angeles), extends more than fifty miles from east to west and sixty from north to south? Is it this precocious horizontality, the product of earthquake threats, which so clearly distinguishes it from New York and Chicago? Is it the smog, the smoke and fog, that envelops it for most of the year and makes it one of the most polluted cities in the country? The fact is, these viewpoints do not exist. There is the classic vantage point of Mulholland Drive, of course, but nowhere can the traveler find a place from which the city in its entirety can be the object of this panoramic gaze—Hugo likened this gaze to "the flight of a bird"—that alone would qualify it as a city. There are other viewpoints: the U.S. Bank Tower; in the east, the Gas Company Tower; in the west, next to the Spanish Steps, the 444 South Flower Street building; in the south, the First Interstate World Center, which, with its seventy-three floors, is the tallest building on the West Coast. But again, from none of these buildings is Hugo's cavalier gaze possible. From none of these heights is the city as a whole perceptible. From Griffith Park's observatory you can see to the horizon in all directions—at least when the air is clear; but Los Angeles itself extends beyond the horizon in a blur. And I realize, as I reflect on this and gather the few memories I have of arriving by plane in Los Angeles, that not until you see it from the sky is the same image offered, from whatever direction you're approaching, of a city that isn't just formless but also elusive. I see that because it is always identically illuminated as far as the eye can see, as in the opening scene of Mulholland Drive, it has the singular quality of systematically concealing itself from the double grip of the eye and the intelligence.
Finally, a legible city has to have a heart, and this heart must be pulsating. It has to have, somewhere, a starting point from which, one feels, the city was produced, and from which its mode of production is still intelligible today. It has to have a historical neighborhood, if you like, but one whose historicity continues to shape, engender, inspire, the rest of the urban space. But this place, too, is nonexistent. In Los Angeles there is nothing like the old neighborhoods from which you feel, almost physically, that the European cities, or even New York, have emerged. They do show me the old neighborhood. Kevin Starr, the excellent California historian, takes me not far from Chinatown, to Olivera Street and Old Plaza, which are supposed to be the nucleus of what was once called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles. But they are dead places. It's a neighborhood frozen in time. However much Starr leaps from house to house, with his considerable bulk proving surprisingly agile, with his ink-blue too-warm suit and his bow tie that makes him look like a private eye out of Raymond Chandler, to explain to me how gargantuan Los Angeles was born from this tiny seed; for all this, something isn't right. You don't feel any possible common denominator between this stone museum, these relics, and the vital, luxuriant enormousness of the city. And the truth is that with its pedestrian islands and its restored façades, its profusion of typical restaurants and its stands selling authentic Mexican products, its wrought-iron bandstands, its cobblestones, the varnished wood of the Avila Adobe, which is supposed to be the first house in the neighborhood, this street makes me think of all the fake "heritage towns" that I keep running into in America.
For an illegible city is also a city without a history.
An unintelligible city is a city whose historicity is nothing more than an ageless remorse.
And a post-historical city is, I fear, a city about which one can predict with some certainty that it will die.
Flashbacks: "The War on Fat" (September 4, 2002)
A trip through The Atlantic's archives offers revealing insights into American body politics.
Of course there are obese people in America.
Of course there is a physical obesity that is often seen as a metaphor for a more general obesity that affects cities, businesses, the hubris of politics and finance.
And yet … Is there really as much of it as they say there is—and, especially, as much as anti-American literature claims there is?
And isn't this matter of obesity more complicated than the caricature of it, including, of course, the American caricature?
Ever since my arrival in America, in all the little towns I've gone through, I have kept my eye out for those notorious clusters of fat people featured in European tabloids. Perhaps I didn't look carefully enough; perhaps I traveled through the wrong places; but I didn't spot many more fat people here than in any provincial French town.
I read the American statistics meant to alert public opinion to this new epidemic, which is supposedly in the process of overtaking smoking-related illnesses as the leading preventable cause of death in the country. I read a study this very morning that explains, in the emphatic "state of emergency" tone the press loves to use when it declares war on crime, drugs, terrorism, or, now, obesity, that the proportion of officially overweight people in America has just risen above 65 percent, while 30 percent of Americans are classified as obese and that number is increasing and will continue to increase by at least five percent a year. I trembled. I thought ahead. Like all readers of the study, I could envision a time when, at this rate, 100 percent of the population would be afflicted by the virus—until I noticed that the method of calculation used, the well-known BMI (body mass index, which measures the relationship between height and weight), places the bar so low that if the same measure were applied to many European countries, roughly the same percentage of people would be affected.
I looked at other statistics, alleged to show the correlation between obesity and mortality; I read the studies of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (what a name!) and the American Obesity Association (which calls, flat out, for the institution of "fat taxes" like the taxes levied on tobacco); I read all the government investigations of obesity, investigations whose comparative alarmism is such that it reduces AIDS to the rank of a flu epidemic. But I also read studies from Cornell University and the National Center for Health Statistics; I read a study by Glenn Gaesser, a professor at the University of Virginia; I read an essay by Paul Campos on the "myth" of obesity; and I've been told that there are experts who, not content with questioning the previous studies, not content with denying a cause-and-effect relationship between the increase of BMI and mortality, demonstrate, for instance, that overweight nonsmoking white men die from cancer less often than non-overweight subjects.
In short, lost in these arguments and numbers, no longer knowing what expert to turn to—and incapable of reaching a decision in the other, connected battle over the responsibility of junk food, or of McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Wendy's, for this degenerative transformation of American bodies—I end up going this morning to the Lindora weight-loss clinic, here in Los Angeles, which is said to be one of the leading establishments in the battle to the death against obesity. I interview Cynthia Stamper Graff, Lindora's president and CEO: dark-green suit, red hair, artificially perfect smile, forehead smoother than nature, photos of Reagan and Thatcher over her desk. Did she know them? No, but she admired them, she said. Wasn't it after they left office that this epidemic began? It could hardly be pure chance, was the implication, that the most famous of America's overweight people, Bill Clinton, became president soon after. I look with her at the other pictures mounted on the walls, "before" and "after" photos of some of the "big losers." It's suddenly unclear to me whether they went through this clinic or the NBC reality show The Biggest Loser. I interview one of these "losers," Traci Smith, thirty-six years old, 488 pounds on arrival, who can't say enough about how much her life has changed since she entered the system. She is only one of many who, each year, for about $1,200, begin by taking a ten-week course of treatment in one of the thirty or so centers belonging to the company. Especially after meeting Traci, after seeing this newly thin woman who has strangely kept all the gestures, postures, ways of walking and thinking—in short, the entire fate—of a fat person, I think I understand two or three things.
I understand, of course, that there is a weight-loss business that is gaining on the junk-food business.
I understand that the former has an advantage over the latter in being able to rely on the prestigious testimonials of science and medicine.
Even better, I understand that inventing obesity—that is to say, claiming first that being fat is a disease, second that this disease must be treated, and third that it will never, despite treatment, be completely cured—creates a type of dependence that is at least equal to that produced by the inventors of flavors, fragrances, and packaging that are designed to develop a loyal following among junk-food consumers.
So we can't put the blame on junk food, fly to the rescue of citizens intoxicated by the new engineers of taste, support them in the lawsuits they are bringing, for instance, against McDonald's, unless we add right away that they are the guinea pigs of not just one but two competing lobbies—one having the advantage over the other for having discovered a regime that is almost more restrictive.
Big Brother once again. No longer a cop but a doctor in everyone's body. Worse than a doctor, a statistician, imprinting his implacable orders onto the quick of live flesh.
Will we end up penalizing the fat?
Will we forbid them access to food deemed harmful?
Will we put scales at the cash registers of fast-food restaurants, to weigh people before selling them Super-Sized Happy Meals?
And will we see, thanks to these new norms, the return of forgotten attitudes that existed during Prohibition?
We know well the mechanisms at play here. How, starting with the control over bodies, one imperceptibly reinforces control over society. How, beginning in Europe, the medical establishment lent a hand to the political establishment by offering procedures of examination, classification, diagnosis, evaluation.
The United States has reached that stage—later than Europe, but making up for lost time. It's the last of those "open medical governments" that Foucault, in The Birth of the Clinic, amusingly contrasted with Fichte's closed commercial State—and in which he saw one more decisive step forward in the history of servitude.
"The Border" (May 1992)
Immigration, drugs, and law enforcement. By William Langewiesche
"The Border, Part II" (June 1992)
The environmental, economic, and social consequences of the fact that Mexico is our neighbor. By William Langewiesche
The helicopter rises high up, very high, heading first toward the ocean, then into the sun, inland.
On one side the suburbs of San Diego, California's second largest city, the last one before the border crossings at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, where 30,000 pedestrians, 65,000 cars, and, in all that crowd, hundreds if not thousands of people without papers attempt to pass through every week.
On the other side Tijuana, its Mexican twin city, more widespread than I had imagined—grayer, too, dirtier. Endless parking lots that look like cemeteries, the flames of rubbish heaps on the outskirts of the city. Cars so dusty they seem to be dried-out chunks of mud. Rare dapples of color—an old colonial house, the remnants of a zocalo—that are all that survives of the quaint little village that numbered barely a few dozen houses a century ago.
And between the two sides, dividing the shore, the stockade fence that, seen from the sky, looks like a long black sheet of metal eaten away by rust. It is lined with a sort of barred grille, not very high, which on the Mexican side has been spray-painted with skulls; one panel of the fence is inscribed with the names of those who have died trying to cross. To my great surprise I see that the fence extends just a hundred or so feet into the ocean and that its other end stops abruptly, less than fifteen miles inland.
How come? I ask the pilot. Less than fifteen miles for a border that's 2,000 miles long? Is this the famous separation, the scar, the border between two worlds, the wall of shame and death, that American left-wingers and Mexican human-rights NGOs compare to the Iron Curtain?
"Well, yes," he replies. "There's no need for more. Nature takes over the job soon enough—you'll see …"
A cloud of dust lifts up at that instant. A whirlwind of red earth clashes with a whirlwind of white earth, which blinds us and causes the helicopter to sway. "If you need to throw up, tell me," he shouts through my headphones. "Don't be shy, tell me—I'm the one who gets landed with cleaning up later."
When visibility returns, I discover below us a landscape that has been virtually transformed—first marshes and then, very quickly, bare mountains and hills. No more ranches. No more maquiladoras, those American-funded factories that use Mexican labor and have migrated to Mexican territory, hugging the border. The river becomes a thin stream and then disappears altogether. Little white crosses, from time to time, on top of hillocks. The dry, parched land, which looks now like scales, now like huge brown slabs. The scorching heat that comes in through the door. Not one bridge to cross the steep ravines. We are over the Imperial Valley desert, which does truly seem to serve as a natural barrier.
The pilot, at my request, begins to descend for a closer look, and to approach the linea, visible on a GPS display. He explains that the Mexicans will react immediately, and, if we get too close, will order us, over the radio, to resume our altitude.
Same attempt, farther north. Silence this time. We hover for a while and then circle around and observe our black shadow rolling over the scorched plateaus.
Another helicopter appears, which for a second I think is coming to accompany us back to the base. But that's not the case: it's a helicopter from the Border Patrol, taking over from a patrol SUV that found a group of Mexicans looking for a nighttime passage up a dried-out riverbed—but this happens on the Mexican side, and thus out of the Border Patrol's jurisdiction.
How many people are out there who, like those Mexicans, are preparing for the great leap into the unknown?
How many kids ready to brave the SUVs, the helicopters, and then the desert to escape poverty?
We won't see any more of them during the remaining two hours of our flight.
We'll see other SUVs, winding their way over invisible dirt tracks, or parked like wild animals lying in wait and gathering their strength before they pounce—but no more potential travelers.
But the numbers are there. There are, I know, hundreds of thousands of people every year who entrust their fate to unscrupulous "coyotes" who take their money and then sometimes abandon them halfway. There are hundreds of people who, here in the desert, die the most inhuman of deaths, dehydrated, their skin burned, their brains cooked, burrowing into the searing sand to find a cool place to die. Faced with these two kinds of borders, one has to wonder if it might not have been more rational, more effective, and on the whole more humane to lengthen the fence—and if so, why is it not done?
Money? The prohibitive cost of construction that would extend for more than 2,000 miles, from San Diego to Brownsville? It's hard to say if that would cost so much more than the thousands of new gatekeepers they've just been authorized to recruit, or more than the radar and the infrared or seismic detectors provided by the Pentagon that are designed to reveal suspicious movements.
Image? The negative publicity that a continuous iron fence would generate for a country that Thomas Paine said should be a land of asylum for all humanity? Perhaps. But that, too, is not so definite. For the image of those border patrols, supported by organizations of citizens, which expend so much energy, imagination, and science to organize a hunt for illegal immigrants, is certainly no better.
So I wonder if there isn't, above all, an unconscious perversity in the current arrangement, a Mexican-American version of "The Most Dangerous Game." I wonder if there isn't in this very incompletion an implicit, and cynical, way of saying to the Mexican prey, "Go on—give it a try. I'll give you one chance; try to find it, and if you find it, take it."
Or, even more perverse, it is the hypocrisy of a system that, as everyone (in California and elsewhere) knows, needs these illegal immigrants. They are the fuel for its economy, and its very lawyers—in principle its most zealous guardians, the star players and standard bearers, who, like the former congressman Michael Huffington, seem to be the most hysterically intent in their public speeches on reinforcing border patrols and crackdowns at the border—are in general the first to be caught red-handed hiring illegal immigrants themselves, for their own private use. A cunning system, then, that gives itself a way of having them without wanting them, and thus of controlling both the flow and the cost of this Hispanic proletariat that is as necessary as it is undesirable.
I don't like any of these explanations. And yet …
And then: "What do you say to the Mexicans you arrest when they accuse you of being a tejano, a traitor to the race, a false friend?"
Angel Santa Ana stiffens. The chubby face of this young officer of the San Ysidro Border Patrol suddenly becomes purple.
"I am an American," he replies. "An American first of all. And I'm doing my duty as an American."
Then, regaining his composure: "It's true that by ending the fence they're only encouraging people to keep going and to take horrible risks …"
He points out on the wall behind him a yellow metal sheet that looks like a highway road sign and on which are simple pictures representing a snake, a man drowning, a sun, and steep mountains, accompanied by the warning ¡Cuidado! ¡Zona peligrosa! ¡No arriesgue su vida! ¡No vale la pena! in big black letters.
"It's also true," he continues, "that a part of me understands these people. I have a kind of admiration, or at least sympathy, for them. That's what I tell my men when they arrest one of them. I order them to listen, to talk with them, and especially to sympathize, since we have so much to learn from these heads of families who have taken such risks to come to this country. But at the same time, what do you want me to do? You have to obey the law. And I'm here to uphold the law. Come on, vamonos, I'll take you into the field …"
I look at him at the wheel of his SUV, winding his way over the scorched road that runs alongside the fence. He is frowning, his face tense and serious, watchful, the look of a lawman in the process of turning into a hunter.
When we stop, twenty miles farther on, surrounded by mountains, I observe his demeanor: a scout on the lookout for his prey. "It's a science," he explains, "tracking down illegal immigrants. The golden rule is never to have the sun behind you. But if I keep it in front of me, if I'm facing the sun, then nothing can escape me. The smallest trace of a footstep in the dust, the slightest rustle of grass, alerts me—I know all the signs!"
I listen to him tell me stories of the thousand and one tricks of these people he knows so well—no one in the world knows them better than he does, Angel Santa Ana, whose own family was here, he hints, a generation ago, maybe two, crossing the same border, feeding the same dreams, and taking the same terrible risks that filled him with admiration and sympathy. I listen as he, strong with the twofold knowledge acquired from family memory and the U.S. Border Patrol Academy, tells me about all the ruses of these poor people he is hunting today just as, probably, his own people were hunted before. A child chained beneath the chassis of a car. A woman acrobat who managed to press herself into a space under the hood. A tunnel that began under a billiard room in Mexico and ended up in the stairway of a house in Arizona—that takes years! These people have an incredible imagination! But we know all the tricks they can dream up, and that's why, in the end, we're the ones who win out …
What does win out here? Sympathy or law enforcement? The sensitivity of someone who's been through all this, and who can't hide the obscure tenderness that seizes him when he arrests an illegal immigrant who reminds him of his parents? Or is it the other reflex, also classic, which consists in closing the door behind him precisely because he's been there, and doing so with even more spite because he knows all their tricks? Hard to say. I suppose both possibilities are true, and that each case depends on the circumstances. I also suppose that there is in the situation itself the source of a thousand crises of conscience, when officers, shattered, torn apart, no longer know if they should serve their family or their country. But I'm certain about this: if you put all these questions aside; if you overlook the psychological aspect; if you make an effort, above all, not to think for even an instant about the death and the suffering that are the real cost of these fine phrases, in order to consider only the superficial effects of the arrangement, two elements emerge.
By recruiting only agents who speak Spanish, or those willing to learn it—by choosing a form of positive discrimination that in a country like France would be unthinkable—you demonstrate that Hispanics can hunt other Hispanics, you emphasize that la Raza is neither a unit nor a tribe, and, paradoxically, you put a wedge in American communitarianism.
And by allowing people like Santa Ana to suggest to the desesperados of Tijuana that merely wanting to be American isn't enough (for that, in the end, is what they are doing); by making them spell out that America has to be earned, and that American citizenship is not a gift but a conquest; by setting them up as guardians of the terrible Stations of the Cross their own people have already followed, in tears and blood, not one stage of which can be skipped over today, perhaps they are also maintaining, no less paradoxically, the ancient forms of a desire for America that is as old as the country.
For I see two patterns of immigration in California—and, I believe, in the United States today.
The Korean, Armenian, Iranian, and Chinese immigrations, which maintain newcomers in established economic and cultural cocoons that merely communicate with other cocoons and no longer generate the desire for integration so pervasive in past eras.
And then this kind, the Hispanic kind, which places its participants in a situation that is structurally not so different from that of immigrants of long ago, who, once they had passed through the filter of Ellis Island, once they had let themselves be deloused and examined to verify that they weren't syphilitic, still had to endure a generation of labor and sweat before they deserved to be truly American.
At that time it was "First papers, then sweat." Whereas today it is "First sweat, and later on, if all goes well, papers." But the structure is there. And along with it, this invariant of "becoming American," which is complicated, painful, caught in the patience and frenzy of things, solitary, for a long time uncertain. In Europe newcomers often arrive with a sense of entitlement. In America newcomers take nothing for granted. For them, America is a place that must be earned.