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

The father. Same thing for the medical care—same coverage by Medicare and Medicaid. Plus a retirement pension that in his case comes to 75 percent of his last salary. Why three quarters and not 60 percent? And why, in the same profession, two different systems? She doesn't know this either. Maybe because one is drawing money from the retirement system in Colorado and the other in Wyoming, and it changes from state to state. Or maybe because her father also subscribed to a private fund. She doesn't know.

The brothers. They're still working. During periods of unemployment they continue to be paid for fifteen or twenty weeks, but if these periods last longer than that, a private fund, provided by a church, has to take over. As to health and retirement benefits her brothers aren't so confident; they understand that the government system is on the edge of bankruptcy and that there are plans to demolish it, so they have signed up for savings accounts run by their mining company.

And what about her? Oh, her! She laughs … She never would have thought she'd ever get a divorce. So until these past few years she never worried about it. But oh, well. She's started saving a little. She also has private health insurance. Once, when she had a minor health problem, she was treated free by a hospital run by Methodists. The fact that there's an invalid and someone with a major illness in her family also makes her eligible for a special subsidy. And then she has a young son, and that entitles her to an allowance of $800 a month. Despite Clinton's reduction of Aid to Families With Dependent Children? Yes, that has nothing to do with it, since I'm speaking here, she says, of a program run by the state of Utah, where we live.

In short. I don't know how much I can generalize. And I am well aware that none of the people Tracy talked to me about are among the tens of millions who constitute America's poorest and most marginal—the truly problematic category.

But in the end there are three lessons that I would draw from her story.

First, an American social-welfare system exists; it may be threatened, but it does exist.

Second, the American social-welfare system is bewilderingly complex; despite what we say in Europe, it covers the main part of the active population, but it is complicated, varies from state to state, profession to profession, person to person.

Third, the main source of complexity, and thus of misunderstanding—the profound and almost philosophical reason for such a variety of situations—stems from the mistrust of the very idea of a government's centralizing all the tools of distribution in its own hands, as in France. It stems from the methodical "individualism" that, Tocqueville clearly showed, aims to leave with each individual the responsibility for his fate, or to associations chosen by each individual.

I read somewhere that social-welfare expenses per U.S. inhabitant are roughly equal to those in most European countries, including France. But this is true only if you add to the government share the contributions made by private institutions and private philanthropies.

Now, on the road again. Early in the morning, taking not the route that goes fastest from Grand Junction to Colorado Springs but, because we have a little time, the other one, Route 65, which goes through Grand Mesa and then Aspen.

Heat. Blinding, glorious light. Rust-colored ravines, scorched by the sun. Giant rocks, sprawling wherever they please, sometimes crumbling with loose stones, sometimes reaching so high up that their jagged outlines seem to overlap one another in the sky—a barrier of rock, a Great Wall of China in the middle of America.

The Myth of the American Empire

I remember the way we used to demonize the American Army when I was young. I remember the image we had of the My Lai kind of GI—all the makings of a brute and a fascist. And I remember the fever with which a few months ago Europeans in general and the French in particular seized on Seymour Hersh's investigations revealing the despicable crimes committed in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib.

I know, of course, that in all countries in the world, and necessarily in America as well, an army has contradictory faces.

And I'm sure that the United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, which trains officers for one branch of the armed services, is not the ideal observation post from which to judge the recent evolution of the military as a whole.

But when you come down to it …

These boys with chubby, sensible faces …

This girl from St. Louis, Roslyn Schulte, long brown hair pulled back in a bun, beautiful, gentle, deep gaze, who went to one of the best high schools in the country …

This other cadet, who doesn't know the name Clausewitz but who has over his bedside table a copied-out quotation from Rabbi Harold Kushner on the meaning of life, death, suffering …

This table at lunchtime where eight cadets out of twelve confess, in the heat of a surprisingly free debate, that they weren't in favor of the war in Iraq, because, according to them, the chances of a "police option" weren't fully explored.

This class, finally, which I am allowed to observe, where the questions under consideration—the weighty and highly strategic problems that will be debated for an hour by a dozen future knightlings of the sky, as they all sit calmly behind desks arranged in a semicircle—are these: First, "How many times in the morning do you push the snooze button on your alarm clock? In what circumstances? Why? And how can you get rid of this annoying habit?" and second, "How can you stop this other pathological behavior, much more serious for a future pilot and officer—the smoking habit? Do you think the right method is to use chewing gum? To slip the money you've saved from every unbought pack into a piggy bank and see how much you end up with after a certain period of time? If you're married, or dating, should you get a gentle massage every time you don't smoke? Or should you be punished if you smoke, and be made to eat your cigarette?"

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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