In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part V)

A twenty-first-century pilgrim ends a year-long journey where the seventeenth-century Pilgrims ended theirs—on the coast of New England, not far from where his travels began

For me, this man is the embodiment of a manner of acting not just in journalism but in politics, a manner that has undeniably gained widespread acceptance and that, over time, has turned into one of the country's ways of life. In the beginning, Clinton; then the gossip about Gore's mental health; then the scurrilous rumors making Tom Daschle an agent of Saddam Hussein; then, more recently, the ads by the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the 527 group aiming to sully Kerry's military past. I won't go into all that, obviously; I'll also pass over the cases—for there were several—in which the Democrats, through their own 527s, tried their hands at this base game. But in the end, the example is there: each time, it's the same combination, expertly applied, of insinuation, gross lies, and media hype; each time, it's personal attacks and manhunts instead of the exchange or clash of ideas. Step by step, it's a degrading of public debate, of which I know no equivalent in any other democracy, and which, all in all, is profoundly worrisome.

A modest suggestion, then, from a reader of Tocqueville who cannot forget and doesn't want to forget that this is the same America that invented modern democracy. A humble proposition to the newspapers I see involved in the formidable task of self-criticism: I'd like to be able to convince them that David Brock deserves treatment at least as severe as that meted out to Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Mike Barnicle (the falsifiers from, respectively, The New York Times, The New Republic, and The Boston Globe).

Of course, these publications aren't the only ones at fault in the degradation of public life. We should not leave it to them, in place of politicians, to perform a postmortem on the corpse of calumnies; and certainly we should not leave it to them to try to rehabilitate the public arena, without which a democracy wastes away.

But still …

Imagine the leading media reaching a decision on some kind of minimal ethical charter. Imagine them agreeing on the absolute necessity of respecting the private lives of political leaders. Imagine them proclaiming the inalienable character of this new human right: not, as Baudelaire proposed, the right to contradict yourself and the right to leave, but the right to privacy.

Envision a solemn declaration by which the papers, radios, and networks would enjoin one another from ever acting as the echo (whatever the form of this echo, whether underhand, or mock-hypothetical, or warning-like, or seemingly disinterested) of any ad hominem attack that hasn't passed the test of those famous fact-checking techniques at which they're self-professed experts.

Picture a journalist who has publicly confessed that he made up information with the sole aim of hitting a president "between the eyes," or launched, without verification, the appalling accusation against a presidential candidate of having invented, exaggerated, or simulated his war wounds. Imagine this journalist, this rabble-rouser, being banned from his profession with the same vigor as a plagiarist or a fabricator of interviews in this country.

A different paradigm might be created. Junk politics in its entirety might turn out to be less profitable. And for American democracy it would be the most resounding way of reviving the legacy of Thoreau, Emerson, and, of course, Tocqueville.

When Security Breeds Madness

This is a personal anecdote, but one that says so much about the security-related neurosis that reigns in this country that I can't resist the temptation to record it here.

I get a phone call informing me that my daughter has just given birth. Naturally, I decide to travel back to Paris to see mother and child.

The problem is that with a final meeting in Washington that same night, and a dinner the next day in Baltimore that's difficult to cancel, I see I have exactly enough time to make the round trip in its literal sense: takeoff from Dulles Airport on the last plane, at 11:00 P.M.; landing at Charles de Gaulle at noon the next day; a motorcycle that will take me to the clinic, wait for me, and return me just in time, two hours later (having so to speak fit myself into the regulation period for cleaning, inspecting, and refueling the aircraft), to take the same plane back and be in Washington for dinner.

It's tight, but doable. Somewhat ridiculous, but important all the same.

So here I am on that night, at the appointed hour, in the middle of a long line of passengers waiting to check in for the flight to Paris.

In front of me a couple of young people are arguing in low voices about the nature of their affair: Are they "dating" or are they in a relationship? If they are just dating, how serious is it? And isn't the fact that the boy didn't invite the girl to Thanksgiving dinner at his parents' house an obvious obstacle to its being a full-fledged relationship? It's simply a mystery to me, since this most American notion of "dating" has no equivalent in French … This very un-French way of turning the date itself, and later the relationship as such, into a separate entity, living its own life alongside the two lovers … The oddity, too, of the mania these lovers have for verbalizing, evaluating, codifying, and, when it comes down to it, ritualizing anything that might happen within the framework of their relationship … For the sake of a series of social gestures, which suddenly become nothing but gestures, that sense of the unexpected, the romantic, is lost, which in Europe even the most trifling love affairs preserve … I observe all this with infinite curiosity.

Behind me, a woman who read my first articles in The Atlantic starts asking me questions—gently, though, with that extreme politeness that always makes me wonder whether this tone is feigned or sincere, and which in any case is the exact opposite of the outright screaming match I'd have been treated to under similar circumstances in Paris. A reader, smiling, benevolent, who reproaches me for the attitude I adopted in my analysis of the megachurch phenomenon, especially in Willow Creek: Why do I mock these new churches? Why not pay attention to the good they might bestow on the men and women of today? What about the community ties they establish? The generosity they exhibit? The fact that Bono, for instance, appealed to them when he launched his campaign for awareness of AIDS in Africa?

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