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
More
The Democratic Party as a Black Hole

The real surprise on the political left in Americais that nothing is happening. Not that I claim to have seen everything in such a limited time. But I did meet former members of the Clinton, Gore, and Kerry teams. At the AFL-CIO headquarters I attended a "joint conference" of three organizations designed to extract lessons from the defeat and prepare for battles yet to come. I saw union members and intellectuals, elected officials and strategists, the old and the young. For three days I hunted down the New Democrat, that supposedly developing breed of which, I was told, I could find as many specimens as I liked in Washington.

The results, I'm afraid, didn't measure up either to my hopes or—far more serious—to what anyone might reasonably expect given the quality, intensity, and strength of the ideological argument mounted by the right.

At the end of my inquiry I found:

1. Sixty-year-old "young" Democrats whose arguments date back if not to the Kennedy years, then at least to the centrist wave that elected Bill Clinton. Thus Al From (of the Democratic Leadership Council) and Will Marshall (of the Progressive Policy Institute) spent two hours selling me on the merits of a "third way," which I am convinced they would have described in exactly the same terms twenty years ago.

2. Very peculiar progressives whose only concern seemed to be to persuade the visitor—hence, I imagine, the voter—that they shouldn't accept lessons on patriotism, religion, or morality from anyone, least of all their opponents. "The heartland of America is us," is basically what John Podesta, formerly the White House chief of staff, now the head of the Center for American Progress, told me. The Bible, religious faith, the crusade for family values—all that is us too, and letting others monopolize it is simply out of the question. When the Lewinsky affair was brought up, and the key role it played, in my opinion, in America's swerve to the right; when I told him that the founders of MoveOn.org held the same prejudices as their enemies on this question and almost condemned the former president, I beheld the extraordinary spectacle of the grand adviser blushing like a baby, laughing nervously like a maiden aunt, and replying that perhaps Clinton had committed a "blunder."

3. More radical left-wingers, people like Michael Moore, who at least understand that the only way the Democrats can break out of the mess they're in is to take the initiative, construct a world view that's distinct from the Republicans', and stop all their whining that they're good guys too, and that the lowest rates of divorce and teen pregnancy are in the blue states. But here the problem is in the rhapsodic—or worse, populist—flavor of a far too abstract radicalism. And when the question of Iraq is brought up, and—beyond Iraq—the role of America at large, the problem is also a certain pacifism that has a whiff of isolationism, difficult to distinguish from the isolationism of someone like Pat Buchanan.

4. People who supposedly fight for their ideas: activists who explain that they have only one objective, to regenerate the ideological substance of their party; heads of think tanks who, as genuine or feigned progressives, as people who are nostalgic for moral order or who advocate steering away from it, present themselves as ideologues and assure you that their aim is to vanquish the right, and especially the neo-conservatives, on the battlefield of doctrine. But when you push them a little, when you ask them what their time-line is and, within this time-line, what their tactical or strategic priorities are, their only common ground is talk about … money!

During the presidential campaign I had already observed this phenomenon. I had noticed the frequent press releases that informed us, day after day, like so many victory bulletins, about the status of the party's finances. I had seen how, here, money is the very sign and symptom of excellence, whereas in France money is What Must Above All Never Be Discussed.

But now the campaign is over. Now is the time for reconstruction. So let me take the instance of this joint conference. I'll choose those three hours of debate in which the participants, myself included, were meant to question one another about the profound reasons for the increased electoral turnout that occurred during Bush's re-election.

The fact is that two thirds, maybe three quarters, of the speeches were devoted to talking not about "party lines," not even about "communication" or "advocacy," but about marketing, fundraising, the relative merits of the ceremonies financed by the Republicans or the Democrats, the role of the Internet. The fact is that these brilliant pioneers who were supposed to set down the cornerstones for the people's house of tomorrow had only one idea, one obsession, and, fundamentally, one watchword: how, in four years, to fight the Republicans on the battlefield of fundraising …

I have nothing against money as such. And there's a part of me that doesn't hate the complex-free, offhanded manner Americans have of approaching the subject.

Yet on that day, I wanted to hear about something else. I looked for speeches about why this money should be raised. I yearned for one voice, just one, to articulate the three or four major issues that, given the current debate and balance of power, might constitute the framework of a political agenda. A defense of the Enlightenment against the creationist offensive. A Tocquevillian revolution extolling certainly not atheism but secularism, and maintaining the separation of church and state. A new New Deal for the poorest of the poor. An uncompromising defense of human rights, and a rejection of the "exceptional" status of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

No.

Money, and then money yet again. Money, the index and criterion of all things. The hypothesis, the axiom, according to which, in order to win the battle of ideas, you first have to win the battle of money.

An observer—someone who, like me, was struck by the vigor of the neo-conservative awakening and was expecting to see at least its equivalent on the other side—senses a trap in the process of closing. For a long time the Republican Party was the party of money. For a long time the Democrats repeated, "We have ideas, but you have money, and that's why you win."

Today a turnaround—or, rather, a trick of history—has occurred, and all of a sudden the two camps are struggling on opposite fronts: a right wing of money but also of ideas, which in twenty years has renewed its ideological supplies; and a left wing that, by dint of wanting to compete on the battlefield of money, is in the process of losing its footing on the ground of ideas, and thus of losing, period.

Doing Away with Junk Politics

W e are always a little ashamed, Baudelaire wrote, of mentioning names that won't mean anything to anyone in fifty years.

In the case of David Brock the shame is redoubled.

First of all because you won't need fifty years, or twenty, or even ten, to see this name disappear from American political memory. But also because the character himself is in many respects one of the most objectively loathsome I've met in the ten months I've been traveling through this country.

He is a little over forty years old. Dark brown hair, smug good looks, thin wire-rimmed glasses. The well-defined square jaw of a tennis pro. Yet in the corners of his mouth; in the self-satisfied bitterness of his smile; in his morose, fugitive glance; last, in his odd complacency in not sparing any detail of his shadowy past, there is something that makes me deeply uneasy.

Here is his story, as he tells it to me.

This is the guy that a Republican lawyer summoned to Arkansas in 1994, to offer him, keys in hand, the so-called secrets of Bill Clinton's bodyguards. He is the journalist who, based on these cobbled-together pieces of information, gave The American Spectator the article (titled "His Cheatin' Heart") that launched the whole affair of Clinton's sex scandals.

But after he'd done his dirty work, and the president was crucified and his private life spread out on all the American networks and throughout the world; after the delayed-action bomb had been thrown that would poison the political life of the country for a decade; then he regretted what he had provoked, and made it his new specialty—on all the airwaves, in the columns of all the newspapers, in an interminable, conceited memoir that immediately became a best seller, in a thundering letter of excuse to Clinton himself, published in Esquire, in which he asked forgiveness for wanting "to pop [him] right between the eyes"—to declare his shame, his very great shame, and he went over to the Democratic Party to which he had done so much harm, but which he wanted thereafter, cross his heart, to serve with all his remaining strength.

Now, in this Washington office where he receives me and where, since his conversion, he has set up Media Matters for America, an agency that works against Republican disinformation, and which he created with the help of a handful of Democratic sponsors, here again is this theatrical way of covering his head with ashes. The impression I get comes across like this: I invented facts … I rigged information … I'm a faker … I have no honor … In this affair I did just what I did ten years earlier, to that poor Anita Hill … I didn't even care about the rules of my profession but about fame … not even fame, but money … just money … the lure of a reward … Now I regret it … Oh! I so regret it … There is not enough time left in my life to redeem myself, to ask for forgiveness, to grovel at the feet of my new friends, hoping they'll one day forgive me …

Just think, say the bigwig Democrats who recommended that I see him, for whom the winning over of such an individual is obviously perceived, even today, as a godsend—an apostate! A renegade! Someone who comes to us with, in his beggar's bundle, the stuff, the secrets, the list of the enemy camp's dirty tricks! The ideal political spy! The most valuable of turned spies! He was in the heart of the machine, had close contact with the Beast, and he's just abandoned it all! You can't get much better than that, can you?

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?

So it's one of those interminable lines, typical everywhere since September 11, which form whenever there's a counter open somewhere. Once again, I find it hard to justify the usual clichés about the impatience, feverishness, agitation, even brutality, of American crowds. Quite the contrary—there's calm, discipline, a mixture of docility and curiosity, gregarious submission and civilization. The opposite of the French type of whining, line-cutting crowd; the opposite of the vicious, stamping herd, in which individuals are determined to tear one another to pieces. Here, when your gaze meets someone else's, when people bump into each other, there's a flurry of "It's okay," "You're welcome," "Enjoy your trip"—friendly commonplaces, outward signs of warmth, especially smiles, yes, those smiles that mean nothing, those affectless, emotionless smiles, smiles that seem to be there only to signify the pure will to smile and, by so doing, defuse any conflict that threatens. All that, once again, so quintessentially American …

And then, when my turn finally comes, the most comical of scenarios, because it's the only one I would never have thought of: having discovered that this passenger Lévy is traveling to Paris to spend a total of two hours there—that the flight approval requested includes another flight on the same day, going in the opposite direction—the company computer panics, blocks the request, and refuses to issue my ticket.

Red alert. Sudden commotion.

The distress of functionaries, first from the airline company, then from airport security, faced with this unheard-of situation.

What's all this about wanting to spend the day on a plane? What can you be up to, as you are proposing to spend seven hours flying one way and then seven hours flying back, with just a few minutes on French soil in between?

Grandfather? Prove it …

Writer? No proof …

I remember—since it gives me hope for a quick resolution—the story of my good Tocquevillian cop back at the start of my journey, on the highway.

Tocqueville? That has nothing to do with such a strange situation …

I remember—somewhat more alarming—the story about Cat Stevens's being sent back to England and, especially, the one about Ted Kennedy, who was prevented five times from getting into an airplane because they had confused his with another name on the "no-fly" list.

I can understand American paranoia. I can understand how a nation at war with enemies skilled at making themselves undetectable must equip itself with sophisticated warning and identification systems. But at the risk of the absurd? At the price of interrogations in which you are constrained to disclose details that have to do only with your private life?

Does every passenger need to become a suspect? Every trip an irksome undertaking? With body searches and frisking? And—something I will definitely never get used to—this way of making you stand shoeless, arms outstretched … Isn't there a way to avoid these scenarios?

In this case everything turned out all right, and I was finally able to board my plane and spend my two hours in Paris. But one fact is obvious, and the country's authorities will need to realize it sooner or later. Here is the sign of real disorder: These new surveillance systems pose as many problems as they pretend to solve. And the brand-new Department of Homeland Security is still a long way from the "smart borders" that have been promised to America and the world.

The Journey to America

In Baltimore, in the poorest neighborhood of the city, in its landscape of empty lots and half-razed buildings, I wanted to see the red-brick house that's one of the few to have been restored, where a plaque tells us—what an irony—that here Edgar Allan Poe lived for several years and that in this city he died.

I wanted to visit Johns Hopkins University (Hopkins: the maiden name of Elizabeth, Poe's mother—is that merely chance?), where my teacher Jacques Derrida lectured, and where Sartre scholars have gathered for a conference, the caliber of which is almost unimaginable in a European university.

But I also wanted to see the waterfront, where, one fine morning in 1791, at the height of the French Revolution, a great writer dropped anchor: François-René de Chateaubriand, who had set sail from Saint-Malo, and who, having passed by the Azores and then Saint-Pierre, invented the literary voyage to America, forty years before Tocqueville (to whom he was, incidentally, distantly related).

It's quite strange, this business of a voyage to America. Strange, when you think about it, this passion writers have had, not just French ones but other Europeans, too, for this particular journey.

Writers have always traveled, of course. Notwithstanding the famous—too famous, perhaps—saying of Lévi-Strauss at the start of his Tristes Tropiques ("I hate traveling"), Europeans have never ceased to love travels and travelers. But I'm not sure there's any destination in the world that—from the author of Génie du Christianisme to that of Oliver Twist, from Céline to Georges Duhamel, from Franz Kafka to Mario Soldati, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and so many others, for better or worse, whether eliciting hatred or reluctant adoration—more continually, intensely, irresistibly summoned them than America has. And although I can see what they were after when they journeyed to the East (the Exote so dear to Segalen, but also to Claudel and Malraux), to Rome or Florence (the beauty of lines, the metamorphoses of art and its forms), to Jerusalem, Persepolis, Lhasa (mirage of origins and sources, cradle of civilizations), it's harder for me to grasp what it is that continues to beat in the heart of this desire to see America, and that can't be reduced to any of those great canonic motives.

A search for sources? Nonsense, since here we have a new world whose sources are in Europe.

Beauty? Harmony? With a few notable exceptions—a handful of free spirits who were able to discern the beauty of skyscrapers and of the new urban landscapes of these great, mad, artificial cities—most of these observers deplored the poverty, the ignorance, the unsightliness of Americans.

The exotic? The cool gaze of the ethnologist, alert to the customs of a foreign civilization? Those aren't viable reasons either. They bear no relevance to the European underpinnings of America, and also contradict this delight in the modern that, after three centuries, continues to haunt, shape, and pull along the nation of Jefferson and Kennedy, and which is still the best antidote to whatever love of folklore or the picturesque the typical fascination with the exotic may be laden with.

No. The journey to America doesn't fall into any of these categories. It obeys none of these traditional motives. And I even wonder if, point by point, methodically, it doesn't take just the opposite course.

First contradiction: not the exotic but the nearby; not the other but the same. Of course, in a sense, it is the other, America is other—but so much less "other" than the Asian, African, or Amerindian other! An other that talks to us about ourselves; an other that teaches us about our most ordinary, common, and, at bottom, shared reality; an other that always, or almost always, has the puzzling familiarity (or, which comes down to the same thing, the unsettling strangeness) of a caricature or a mirror image, a way of changing places whereby you travel a very long route to meet not the other but yourself, once again and afresh. Observe how among the moderns the journey to America always has the structure of a phenomenological odyssey.

Second contradiction: the future. Usually this kind of mirror reflects the past; it says to us, "This is what you used to be, where you came from, who made you." Here it's just the opposite: a mirror that, to use a well-known title, lends us the image not of our past history but of scenes of future life as American anticipation allows us to imagine them. "This is what you will be," it tells us; "this is where you're going and what kind of world you'll give birth to." If the journey to America is, like all journeys, a journey in time as much as in space, the time is not that of our dreamt, nostalgic, or reinvented memory but of a future that, according to your taste, according to each person's temperament, threatens us or is promised to us—a machine not to descend but to mount the chutes of time.

And then, one last contradiction—a third trail that complicates the preceding one, and makes it more specific: America is skyscrapers, but it is also wide-open spaces and deserts; it is scenes of future life but also (I've seen enough of them, written and talked about them enough!) landscapes of the dawn of the world that are certainly not (see the preceding point) "our" European dawn but that, from Audubon to Baudrillard (along with all those movie westerns), are a kind of reminiscence of it, or a reminder. So there it is; perhaps this journey has the peculiarity, finally, of giving us a taste of both. Perhaps it's one of those very rare experiences capable of offering, in one single bundle of sensations, a whiff of the ultra-modern and another of the extremely archaic. And perhaps the love we feel for the journey stems from the obscure conviction that here, and here alone, the possibility is offered to a human being to see concentrated the materialization of these two dreams, pre- and post-historical, both equally powerful, but which usually we can think of only as separated by thousands of kilometers and, even more, by millennia. The American journey, in one single space (a country), in one short period of time (scarcely three centuries, maybe four), in the scarcely one hundred years, for instance, that sufficed for the first American pioneers who entered the territory of Death Valley and the Grand Canyon to invent the hideous Las Vegas (and, by doing so, to leap from the pre-biblical to the postmodern): the American journey, then, or the endless passage from Eden to Gehenna, the permanent short-circuit of the Bible and science fiction, the journey across humanity's golden age and age of lead …

A Blindness on Tocqueville's Part?

Philadelphia. Eastern State Penitentiary. Probably my last prison, but one of the most important ones, along with the one in Auburn, New York, that Tocqueville and his companion, Beaumont, studied. Everything is the same as it was, Sean Kelly tells me. He is the program director of the office that, since the establishment closed, more than thirty years ago, has been in charge of maintaining it, arranging tours, and every year, for Halloween, opening the site to groups of children short on ghosts and vivid emotions. Everything is exactly as our two missionaries found it on that day in October of 1831, when they were welcomed by James J. Barclay, George Washington Smith, and Roberts Vaux, leaders of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of the Public Prisons, an association of Quakers, human-rights advocates, defenders of the Cherokee Indians, and early opponents of slavery, who conceived, created, and, from 1829, managed this new kind of penitentiary, which was not meant to punish the criminal or repair the damage caused to society by crime, or even, like Alcatraz, Angola, and, later on, Rikers Island, put the criminal in quarantine, get rid of him like trash and banish him. Instead it was to help him, through silence and solitude, to redeem himself, repent, and, in the pure Quaker tradition, elevate his soul, which had been led astray by the devil. The same high walls. The same crenellated towers flanked by fake machicolations. The same moats, drawbridges, dungeons, arrow slits. The same Piranesi architecture, which the prisoner, arriving hooded, couldn't possibly see, but the mere idea of which—whatever was told him—was enough, Tocqueville said, to inspire in him the beginning of a religious terror and of a horror for his crime. And finally, inside this desolate setting, flooded by rain at night, resembling a haunted castle more than anything, the same prison complex, made up of a central tower from which seven galleries of individual cells radiate in perfect geometry, each one with a tiny garden, all of which lie open to the view of the guards. Had Tocqueville read Jeremy Bentham's opus, published forty years earlier, at the height of the prison debates initiated by Beccaria and the French revolutionaries? Did he realize, when he marveled at this system, in which, as he wrote, they "translated the intelligence of discipline into stone," that he was in the first detention center in the world that applied the famous "panopticon" schema that the nineteenth century would use not just for prisons, but as the principle of organization for its schools, hospitals, barracks, and factories? As far as I know, Tocqueville never cited either the book or its author. But it is certain that he perceived this system's stroke of genius. He understood that because it gives guards the ability to see without being seen; because it establishes a surveillance that is at once uninterrupted, invisible, and virtual; because no prisoner ever knows, in other words, whether the eye of power is at any given instant actually directed at him, it has the ability to throw souls into "a deeper terror than chains and blows." And above all, he appreciated this other peculiarity of the system, which is directly linked to the ideology of its Quaker promoters: in order to be absolutely certain of making the prisoners face their villainy; urging them to genuine repentance, which was the goal of their imprisonment; and hastening the intellectual and moral reform for which prison, according to the Quakers, should be the opportunity and the setting, they organized everything so as to isolate prisoners both day and night, and cut off any kind of contact—not just with their fellow prisoners but with the outer world and even the guards. Visits were forbidden; the slightest attempt at speech was punished; any reading other than the holy Scriptures was prohibited. Thus were they put in the situation of caring only about God …

Ten years later, Dickens would proclaim his horror at an organization that was meant to convert delinquents to good but which, as far as he could see, managed only to push them over the line into madness. Learning that everything, from meals to religious services and bimonthly showers, was arranged so that no one ever met anyone else, he would denounce "this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain," which is "immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." Others, many other visitors, throughout the entire nineteenth century, would denounce the insanity of a world in which the phobia of noise was so severe that the wheels of the carts that stopped at the cell doors at mealtimes were wrapped in leather; in which the last trick left to prisoners to hold on to the sound of human presence was to tap gently on iron sewage pipes to send one another secret messages; and in which, when a rebel couldn't cure himself of talking, they put into his mouth a piece of cast iron attached to a mechanism that buried it a little deeper in his throat whenever he moved his tongue or glottis, and, on one occasion, that suffocated a prisoner.

But not Tocqueville. He had no fundamental objection to this Quaker vision of redemption by meditation, prayer, and labor. He visited these little rooms whose only opening was a bull's-eye window carved out of the ceiling, looking onto the sky. He visited the prisoners and, despite the rules of silence, obtained permission to question them and extract vague confidences about their detention. And he found almost no faults with the system. He seemed scarcely moved by the notion that speech was the supposed vector of all contagions and, necessarily, of the vilest of evil spells. Beaumont even talked of these cells as a "palace" that must have cost an "astronomical amount," and which, at a time when the president of the United States had to content himself with a coal burner and pitchers of water, was equipped with central heating and running water. In short, compared with Auburn, where prisoners were isolated only at night and devoted themselves during the day to forced collective labor, and finding that here hygiene, food, and the material conditions of life were objectively better, observing that the jails smelled good and were clean, and also noting that corporal punishment had for the time disappeared, the two friends found enough merit in this model to commend it to their own government. Was that a shortcoming of Tocqueville's, or of his context? Was it the blindness of the time, or—perhaps—a faint shadow on the portrayal, so constantly flattering, that a parallel reading of his masterpiece and the great open book of the living America of today invites us to admire?

Portrait of the Filmmaker As a Musician

Don't tell Woody Allen he's a filmmaker; he thinks of himself as a musician. That must be what went through the minds of the hundred or so fans who saw him perform tonight in the café at the Carlyle Hotel, on the corner of Madison and Seventy-sixth, where he came, as he does every Monday, accompanied by his New Orleans Jazz Band, to play the clarinet. Here was one of the greatest living American filmmakers. Here was the admirable auteur of Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo. And here he was within arm's reach, sitting on a stool, without any special set, among diners who didn't think it necessary to stop their drinking and eating to listen to him. Here he was, dressed in corduroy trousers and a light-blue shirt; concentrating, eyes half closed or fully shut; defined gestures; confident breath; fingers flat on the open holes of his clarinet; the muscles of his mouth tight, yet not puffing out his cheeks around the mouthpiece; his upper lip surprisingly mobile, at times seeming to inhale and swallow the top of the reed and at times curling back as if to convey its decision to keep its distance, disavow that nasty instrument, and, all of a sudden, with sovereign authority, literally cut off its breath …

In the beginning you say to yourself, That can't be him. You tell yourself that the real Woody Allen wouldn't expose himself this way, in this bar; that this famous little man, the schlemiel with the physique of the eternal loser, heir to Keaton, Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, epitome of the awkward oaf who has never been seen to take a step, come through the door, pick up any utensil, let alone a musical instrument, without tripping up and getting his feet caught in the rug—he can't be this virtuoso, his technique so flawless, with such an impeccable presence and, when he stops playing and starts singing, such a perfect, well-calibrated voice. And then, after a while, you get used to it. Little by little you recognize him. When he isn't playing—when he gives the floor to Cynthia Sayer, his pianist, or Rob Garcia, his drummer, or Eddy Davis, the fat man with the plaid shirt opening onto a buffalo neck, who accompanies him on the banjo; when he starts nodding his head to the rhythm of the trombone or staring at the tips of his shoes with the look of a punished child, waiting for someone to finish a solo—you rediscover the sad gargoyle face, the furrowed mask, the long nose, and the dazed, "nutty professor" side of the actor in Take the Money and Run.

And then, once more the virtuoso gains the upper hand. And the musician launches into a wild rendition of a Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman tune. Now he's stopped being the director of Manhattan Murder Mystery and becomes the disciple of Gene "Honey Bear" Sedric—the one you had to look for, that night thirty years ago, when Annie Hall won four Oscars, at Michael's Pub, where he was performing in front of an audience pretty much like tonight's. Here he is no longer the world superstar who starts a riot in Paris just by stepping out of his hotel, but only little Allen Stewart Konigsberg, who chose his pseudonym in homage to Woody Herman, who called his last daughter Bechet in homage to the great Sidney, and who has said a hundred times over that the two most desirable destinies in this world have always seemed, in his eyes, to be those of a basketball player (which he had to give up rather quickly) and a clarinetist (to which he continues, here at the Carlyle, to sacrifice some of his desire, his time, and his fame). Oh, the intense joy on his face, this countenance of an old, consumptive adolescent metamorphosed into a semi-athlete, his air of absolute triumph, when he reaches the end of one of those solos and you don't know if that amazing breath comes from his mouth, his body movements, the force of his soul, or all three at once.

The history of art is full of these misunderstandings, of misunderstanding, in which you see a great artist living or acting as though he were convinced he had chosen the wrong genre. We know the case of Stendhal, thinking he would owe his immortality to his plays. And that of Chateaubriand, persuaded that his masterpiece was not Les Mémoires d'Outre tombe but Les Natchez. I myself have seen Paul Bowles explaining, with his last breath, that his great works, the ones that would stand the test of time and that had to be taken care of after his death, were not The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down but the delightful musical pieces he composed every spring for the end-of-the-year celebration at the American School of Tangiers and its director, Joe McPhilips. But this case, the case of this great filmmaker coming every Monday to perform: this case of the formal innovator you feel would give up the most beautiful shot in Purple Rose for a well-played bar of music, able to switch successfully from the sound of a bugle to that of a reed flute—this case surpasses anything I know.

I will get to see the other Allen. The next day, in his office, on Park Avenue, I'll get to see the filmmaker and the intellectual, a New Yorker through and through, who will have many things to say, not just about his films but about the mediocrity of Kerry, the nullity of Bush, the state of political collapse of the country, the neo-puritanism that's winning over the middle classes. Of which, I ask him all of a sudden, wasn't his affair with his daughter ("She's not my daughter," he jumps in), just as much as the Lewinsky affair, the harbinger? And about his conviction (the height of pride, when I think about it) that a guy like him, Allen, doesn't have the right—do you understand? the right—to get involved in politics, since he's so unpopular, since he so perfectly embodies all that this Puritan, suicidal America execrates, and since he is at the same time so incredibly famous that each word that might come out of his mouth would be held not for but against his champion, and would thus only weaken him and contribute to his defeat …

But the great moment, the real Woody, the hour of emotion and truth, the one that in any case most impresses me, since I feel that here we are in contact with his most intimate identity, is his euphoric, squandered jazz performance.

Three Tycoons

It's his hardness that strikes you first. His air of icy, cautious ferocity. His wolf eyes, unusually far apart, very green, piercing, but which don't really go to the trouble of studying you. His way of making no excuses for himself, never explaining himself. His insistence in declaring, as I distill it, I am Henry Kravis, master of the world; I am the head of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co., the best private equities business there is; I am the son of Ray Kravis, a small-time oilman from Oklahoma, and I have built this enormous business, this empire, where the very practice of forced takeovers has become an industry in itself. People are mad at me? I know. They see me as a predator, a lackey for Bush, an asshole? I couldn't care less! I won't bother to tell you the history of the New York City Investment Fund that we founded with a few friends seven years ago. I won't lower myself to telling you about the tens of thousands of jobs we create with our money in the neighborhoods the state has abandoned; or about its moral code and our own; or about its principles and mine, which are those of big business—and I never for an instant doubted how good they are, not just for me but for America and the world …

After a while, though, something else shows through. A crack in the mask. A fissure. Maybe an old clumsiness. Maybe fear, too. Yes, I'd swear it, Henry Kravis is afraid. Of what? Of whom? Of other people, his fellow men, and of the war of everyone against everyone else that reigns in the jungle of big American capital? Of his own ruthlessness, which he knows only too well? Does he, like Gatsby, live in the obsessive fear of seeing his original sins come back to the surface and inscribe themselves on this face of his, which he has gone to such pains, over so many years, to make as smooth as the varnished mahogany paneling in the library where he receives me? All of that, undoubtedly. And then this picture, over our heads, which I hadn't really noticed at first, this hyper-realist painting, probably done from a photograph, which represents a charming adolescent in a blazer and a white shirt open over a hairless chest—college boy, little prince—his son, who died at the age of nineteen, and about whom he is disconsolate.

Henry Kravis, then, can talk for two hours without saying much about his New York philanthropies. Barry Diller, though, does better. He asked Frank Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim museums, to plan the future headquarters of his empire in Chelsea. For this Gehry conceived of a building constructed almost entirely of glass, with a façade that shows no hint of steel or concrete framework underneath: a great ship of crystal, an intelligible mirage, that will float over the Hudson. In other words, Diller is putting his mark on the city. He is imprinting his signature on it. He is legitimately joining the illustrious lineage of Stuyvesants, Rockefellers, Reynoldses, Singers, Woolworths. But Diller spends a large part of our meeting trying to convince me that, considering the absurd rent he pays here, in these old offices; considering the prices of downtown real estate and its potential for appreciation; considering the impact the building will have, the publicity it will generate, and the energy its sheer possibility is already radiating to his staff, this pharaonic project, this pure gift, this masterpiece, will not only cost his company nothing, it will in fact bring in a substantial profit. Arrogance again, or a supreme form of humility? Is this the honesty of a man who refuses to play the conventional (and excruciatingly European!) game of the ashamed billionaire who expiates his success and strives to appear acceptable—or is it the height of self-punishment and modesty? I observe Barry Diller, with his powerful, vulnerable skull that conveys the air of a Picasso, with his smile that's habitually so melancholic but which, now that I've stopped pestering him about his memories of Paramount, his tussles with Murdoch, his conversion to teleshopping, has become curiously childlike. I listen to him talk passionately about the architectural model, placed between our chairs, of what may be the great work of his life, but for which he begs me to give him no credit, none at all. There is a kind of madness, too, in this man. A mixture of gratuitous talent, potlatch, glorious eccentricity, and, when he explains to me that he couldn't care less about posterity and only his own people count—that is to say, his close friends; his wife, Diane von Furstenberg; his younger, heroin-addict brother, who died alone at the age of thirty-six, shot in a fleabag motel—there is suddenly a brash insolence, a mutely enraged violence, an amorality, that's too flaunted to be completely sincere and not betray some kind of hidden wound.

And then Soros. The implacable George Soros, the impenitent speculator, the virtuoso of hedge funds, the remorseless trader who, when he was playing the currencies market more than a decade ago, almost brought down the pound sterling and, beyond that, the international monetary system. He doesn't regret anything either. He doesn't criticize the operating procedure of the American tycoon, or the notion according to which money is born noble and, everywhere, finds itself in chains. With one exception, though—which makes his case an interesting variation. His style. His looks. His tousled aspect, which reminds you of Elias Canetti. The slight sloppiness of his clothing, which lends him a professorial guise. His accent—this Hungarian accent that, in him, seems like the sign of a resistance to American-ness. And then this way he has, during the lunch we're having in a rather modest dining room adjacent to his office, of talking only about prisons, about the new fascism that is looming, about public-spirited investments, democracy, open society, Karl Popper—this way of quoting his own Popperlike books as though everyone had read them, and his childish disappointment when he understands that I'm here not so much for Sunday philosophy as for the flamboyant, paradoxical billionaire himself. On the one hand, this supertycoon who, when I ask him whether he is sometimes burdened with a guilty conscience, because of these fortunes that are so curiously won, isn't far from replying that attacking a whole currency, throwing banks into a panic, forcing them to react and invent, is not a crime but a service, a revolutionary gesture, a duty. On the other hand, his nostalgia for European values and concerns, which in his mind doesn't seem the least bit contradictory—a nostalgia that leads him to take back to Europe (especially Eastern Europe) the money earned in America, while importing to America (especially Democratic America) whatever European memories remain enclosed within himself. For his problem is Europe. He is in mourning, not for a son or a brother but for Europe. And if there is but one thing for which he is inconsolable, it's being merely George Soros and not one of those Czech or Viennese philosophers he's admired since his youth; a part of him dreams of being their secret successor. Human, too human. Another embodiment of a system that is regarded by half the planet as inhuman, and this touching, pathetic share of humanity. Is he the most peculiar of the three? The most romantic? Or the wackiest?

Back to Square One (or Nearly)

Boston. One year later—or almost. And in this loop that's closing, in this mixed impression of endgame and beginning, the curious feeling of finding myself in a city I scarcely know but where I already have memories.

I return to the Union Oyster House, where The Atlantic hosted its breakfasts during the Democratic convention. I walk back to Copley Square, where on election night the population of Democrats waited so many hours, in vain, for their conquered champion to appear. I wander through the now empty hallways of the Fairmont, where the announcers officiated. I linger in the reading rooms of the Boston Public Library, which I visited briefly one morning between meetings with aides to Obama and Kerry. I didn't realize at that time how beautiful the city is. In the whirlwind of the instant, I didn't take enough note of its affluent, literate charm, aristocratic and European, which so impressed Tocqueville that he stayed here for three weeks, the longest stopover in his journey. Boston was the only American city to have so lastingly bewitched him …

Hence I take my time on this occasion. I look for the place on Washington Street where the Marlboro Hotel stood, where Tocqueville went as soon as he arrived. I have dinner at the Parker House, through which the ghosts of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Longfellow hover, as well as Tocqueville's own, of course. I even let myself be led on an informal tour organized by a friend, which, while not the official tour of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, guides me through the city from one site of social activism to another: the house of Roger Williams, apostle of free thought and of the nascent separation of church and state; the first church in New England where the emancipation of slaves was preached; the bronze relief of Robert Gould Shaw, colonel of the first regiment in the state made up exclusively of black soldiers; the street where, at the height of his combat for racial equality and women's rights, a crowd almost lynched William Lloyd Garrison; the hotel where John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Senate; and even—a final avatar of this process of transforming everything into memory and museums that has continued to manifest itself until the very last day!—the house of the Kerrys, on Beacon Hill …

I like this city. There is something about its cheerful Puritanism; its proud, provincial slowness; its hundred-year-old arbor vitae trees; its houses that exude the rich perfume of polished wood, its period parquet floors, portraits of ancestors on the walls, fashionable, well-used furniture. There is, in its slow dawns and its nights slow to end, in the sight of its narrow streets and their too orderly cobblestones, in its reverberations of the past century—there is in all of this the source of a faint ennui but also an irresistible charm that places it, without contest, in that little cluster of cities (Seattle, New Orleans, Savannah …) where I, too, could spend three weeks or more.

With, perhaps, two reservations.

For there were two painful moments during these pleasant days.

The southern sections of the city—Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury—are also the poorest neighborhoods, where you suddenly have the sense you're on the threshold of another world. A world of brutality and narcotics. A world of abandoned buildings, squatted in by gangs, their walls covered with immense, multicolored, naive murals. The world of that young, homeless Haitian woman who thought the hospital was for other people and who, ten minutes before I arrived, gave birth here, on the floor of a supermarket, with the help of a cop who was passing by, a feat for which he will be decorated by his unit. The world, a little further on, of Adèle—a very old woman, spitting image of Priscilla Ford, the woman on death row in the Las Vegas prison—who lives in the slums on Blue Hill Avenue, and who is being taken to the emergency room by ambulance … But actually, no—she's not that old. When I talk with one of the neighbors huddled around the ambulance, I discover that she's only forty-five, and that she's just very poor, out of work for ten years, exhausted. "Be careful," the neighbor shouts to one of the stretcher bearers, as she pats her friend's sparse hair; "be careful, she's on cortisone and stress medication." And Adèle, her lips white, sweat on her temples, eyes glazed, already gone: "Is it the good Lord that's taking me away?"

And difficult too, disappointing, although for reasons of an entirely different nature, my meeting with the ultra-Bostonian Samuel Huntington. I knew there was a problem with his last book. Like a number of his readers, I had been troubled by his thesis about Spanish-speaking immigrants whose uncontrolled influx would transform the white Protestant nation of the first pioneers into a bicultural polity. But here, in this elegant restaurant on Beacon Hill, where the food is too good and the wine too heady, now, to my great surprise, he throws all caution to the wind and in a few sentences expresses what his opponents have long suspected him of thinking without daring to admit it out loud. What startling violence wells up in his blue eyes when he says to me, "The big thing, the big problem with Hispanics, is that they don't like education!" The sudden explosion of hostility that disfigures the scholarly face of the professor when, anxious to tell me what, after all, annoys him so much in this rise to power of a hardworking, patriotic Mexican minority, he starts explaining that these people, because they'll have the advantage of bilingualism, will get "preferences for jobs," so they'll be able to "take their jobs away" from the "large majority" of other Americans, and that when these other Americans realize it all, when they understand that they, the whites—in principle the bearers of the old founding "creed" of the nation—will henceforth be the object of "discrimination," they will react with a terrible concoction of "resentment" and "nativistic" racism. And then Israel … His strange anger when, at the end of the interview, I put forward the idea that Israel, along with France and America, is one of the rare countries founded on what he calls a "creed." Oh, no, he says. That's not a creed! Don't associate the fine word "creed" with a country based on "ethnicity and culture," where Arabs and Jews have distinct rights! I answer back. I protest. I argue that talking about "ethnicity" in relation to a people, Americans, whose very essence is to be made up of all peoples doesn't make much sense. And when it's almost time to leave, there's a shadow of doubt in his gaze, a sudden anxiety in his voice: "Did I say some things I shouldn't have?"

Under the Eye of Eternity

Cape Cod. Land's end. Or—but it's ultimately the same—birth, beginning, the very place where, four centuries ago, the 102 Pilgrims landed, with their dogs, from the Mayflower. And today, in Provincetown, three hours away by car from Boston, these dollhouses, these inexpensive art galleries, these fishing shacks with painted clapboard façades gnawed by salt and snow—this typically middle-class seaside resort whose other peculiarity is to have become, over time, a gay town. What on earth is Norman Mailer doing here? How could this boy from Brooklyn, this New Yorker in heart and mind, this supermale with six marriages, this man whom the feminist Kate Millett called the quintessence of the heterosexual, macho pig—how could this man have chosen to live in a small town of 3,500 souls, most of them homosexuals, whose contribution to local culture consists (if I am to believe the waiter in the faux fisherman's restaurant where I wait till it's time for our interview) of a festival of sexy bodies, a week for leather enthusiasts, and a colloquium on the problems posed by adoption by same-sex couples?

Of course I ask Mailer. It's even one of the first things I ask him when he appears in the sun-drenched living room of his house on Commercial Street, short, thickset, all neck and torso, very round in his sweater vest, full mane of white hair, blue eyes that scrutinize me and that have lost none of their irony. But he doesn't answer. Or, rather, he does, but in a roundabout way. He is with the comely Norris, his wife, and they both reply that that's just how it is. Chance. She for her paintings, he for his novels, were both looking for a quiet setting where they could work at their own pace. So here they are. Cape Cod. And on Cape Cod, Provincetown. Don't look any further than that. There aren't any other specific reasons … All right, then. I suppose it's possible, after all. Possible you should forget the Mayflower and the discovery of America. Possible not to ascribe too much meaning to that peculiar book Tough Guys Don't Dance, published in 1984 and set in Provincetown, the hero of which was gay. And possible, too, that Mailer is here simply because this beautiful, light-filled house in the dunes, facing the sea, was the ideal place to lay up a store of solitude and silence. What, he asks me in substance, is the main problem of writers in general, and of writers who know their time is short in particular? How to isolate themselves, seek exile in their own country. Sometimes, like Philip Roth, vanish in the confines of their own city or household? Leave the ranks not of murderers but of idiots, amnesiacs, noisemakers, culture-haters, all those who seem to exist only to turn to ashes a writer's desire to write. And once you're finally set in this cocoon, in this sanctuary of rest, this chapel, then write books mercilessly, books the age wasn't expecting …

Norman Mailer is eighty-two years old. In a certain way he doesn't look it. No, despite the alcohol, the drugs, the excesses of his successive lives; despite his encroaching deafness; despite his legs that have trouble supporting him and give him the deliberate walk of a little stone golem; despite his air of an old boxer who's just left the ring or an old sailor who's come ashore for good, he radiates an eerie, unsettling youthfulness. But the overwhelming impression he gives is of no longer being always or completely of this world. The only real visible mark of age on the face of this great living successor to Hemingway is the look of absence that appears when you try to talk to him not just about his books but about his exploits of long ago. The war in the Pacific? Vietnam? The Nixon and Kennedy years? His open letter to Castro? His candidacy for mayor of New York? The naked? The dead? The battles for civil rights, and the struggles in the culture war? The old sailor responds, of course. But once again, halfheartedly. Without fervor. Without eloquence. As though his energy were elsewhere, reaching out toward the book he's writing now, gathered into the few years that are left to write it. So he is economical, calculating, and has an altogether different intelligence of time, another quality of presence, a kind of colossal now that, unlike the classic diseases of memory, crushes whatever has been experienced and trains its spotlight only on what is actually happening. But he doesn't regret anything. He is not sad, or worried. He is even the type, like Ravelstein in his amiable rival Bellow's book, who willingly tells his visitor that he "loves existence" and is "not in a hurry to die." And yet, he is counting. He keeps counting: The number of days that are left to him. The number of hours an interview steals away from him. The books he'll never read. His eyes, now so frail, need to be saved for writing his own books. The hours—maybe just the minutes—every day when he is truly master of his art. His hand, which needs to be in training for that very time. His breath, which he needs to hold in, so as not to waste it, so that he can keep on creating. He does not, like another of his old rivals, write to keep from dying; he keeps from dying so that he can finish writing. Not for posterity, that immortality of weak souls, but, like the character in Godard's masterpiece, Breathless, to be immortal, immortal right away, and then die. So sometimes, at nightfall, the ghosts of Gilmore, Marilyn, Oswald, Muhammad Ali, return, those icons of an America that seemed to exist only to end up in great books. Sometimes the door creaks open and the image rises up of an evening spent at the Kennedys', in Hyannisport, where he had paid a neighborly visit; of that cocktail party where he got into a fight with McGeorge Bundy, the ridiculous diplomatic adviser to his personal enemy, Lyndon Johnson; or, more recent, of a dinner with the elder Mrs. Bush, who listened to him, with gaping mouth, describe an article he had recently written about her president son's contract with the devil. But by and large all that has faded. His life, when I press him to recall it, is now nothing but a series of pale shadows, long spans of boredom, sterile provocations, misunderstandings. The most secular of American novelists, the inventor of New Journalism, the engaged writer par excellence, the man who covered the Republican and Democratic conventions and won two Pulitzer Prizes, ends up like Proust or Kafka, his eyes fixed on eternity. This world is no longer my own. My most recent dream is not for you. I am facing up, albeit in a different way. My most daring novel. Wait and see. Cape Cod.

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 last in a series of articles.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In