In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library

"There you are. This belongs to everyone." These resources have no other purpose than to be put back into the hands of their legitimate owners, the people. They can do one of two things with them: If they're Mormon and if they believe in the definitive sanctity of family relations, for this life and the next, they can tighten the link with their ancestors and even, in some cases, if they think ancestors might have died without having had the occasion or the time to accept the tenets of Mormonism, they can offer them a remedial session and baptize them by proxy. Or if they're not Mormon, if they don't believe in baptizing the dead, if this blessing of the dead isn't part of their theology, they still have the possibility, so relevant in a world where more and more people are losing track of their roots, of knowing where they come from, who made them, and who they are. "Would you like to try?" he asked.

The experiment for me isn't that conclusive. In vain do I type, and retype, the names of the few ancestors I can recall; it must be that my family background lies in one of those terrae incognitae yet to yield to Mormon inspection, since the computer remains exasperatingly silent.

But I glance at the faces around me. I look at these people, dreamy or puzzled, as if drugged, sometimes the hint of a smile on their lips, journeying through the mysteries of their own past. And I hesitate between two sentiments. One is a certain respect owed to this relentless interest in one's ancestors, this homage made to the dead, this wish to be, as Baudelaire writes, the living tomb of one's forefathers. But then there's also the idea that these Mormons are peculiarly cunning. In the struggle of all against all that the history of religions has been, and in this other battle for power that I see American churches waging today, the Mormons have found the absolute weapon. How can you possibly fight a church that reigns not just over the living but also over the dead? Who can compete with people who, not content with taking possession of bodies and souls, place the memory of the world under seal?

Twenty thousand victims of the Shoah have been baptized, a non-Mormon in Salt Lake confides, by the companions of the living prophet … Some court proceedings have been started by institutions or churches that, after all is said and done, regret having lost their own … Yes, it's open war!

Social insecurity

Tracy is a bartender in a hotel restaurant in Grand Junction, Colorado, just over the Utah border, where we've stopped for the night.

She's about forty, looks like a fine, solid, happy American, trouble-free, and keeps insisting, "My life is my customers. I'm happy when they're happy."

Except when you dig down a little; when you ask her, after the last customer has left, about her work, her family, her life; when you ask her what she's doing here in this godforsaken hole, with her automatic smiles, her "Did you enjoy your meal?" or "Are you still working on it?," you discover a far less cheerful story.

A father who worked in the Utah coal mines. One day, when he was fifty, he couldn't stop coughing. He had a heart attack and never fully recovered.

A brother, also a miner, but a specialist in mine safety. "That's a cooler kind of work," she admits, "since there's the whole inspection aspect, which takes place mostly aboveground. But if a fire breaks out, or if there's an explosion, or if the roof caves in, he's the one who has to go down to bring back his men, dead or alive. Last time there were eighty dead. He had to walk through all the corpses, and we were so afraid he wouldn't come back up!"

Three other brothers, also miners. But since the coal mines are dying out, they had to move on to soda-ash mining. "And that," she goes on, "is worse. My father says you can't call it worse. But I think you can. I've seen them, my brothers, in Wyoming and Utah, working in all the soda-ash mines of the Green River basin. And I think it's much more exhausting than coal."

And then, finally, her husband, a miner too, the most damaged of the lot, with chronic depression, unable to work at all. They are divorced. But she remembers—in the beginning, when she was pregnant with their first child—those strikes that lasted for months, when no money was coming in. She remembers those mornings when she would awaken crying, unable to get up.

"What is the system in America when you're sick like your husband is? In France they think Americans don't have real social security. Tell me what it's like in this case."

Tracy reflects. Concentrates. And, adopting the expression of someone who is about to embark on a long, complex explanation, borrows my notepad and begins to write down some numbers.

The husband. He benefits from the federal Medicare program for his medical needs, and also from the supplementary Medicaid program, which I understand is state-funded. He lives on $2,000 a month, or 60 percent of his last salary, which comes, in differing proportions that she's not aware of, from the federal government, the state government, and the mining company. He is also entitled to food stamps, but she doesn't know the amount. Finally, he has a subsidized apartment that he rents for about $250 instead of the $600 or $700 it's worth.

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 third of several articles.

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