America in Foreign Eyes

Bernard-Henri Lévy speaks with David Brooks about America—its patriotism, its religion, its ideology

In the May Atlantic the first of several installments of Bernard-Henri Lévy's "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville" appears—a travelogue in which Lévy, a renowned author and public intellectual in France, describes his journey throughout this country, visiting various cities, historic sites, landmarks, malls, and churches, and commenting on aspects of our society and culture that only an outsider could perceive. The aim of this long-form piece is, in a sense, to attempt to replicate what the French author Alexis de Tocqueville accomplished in the nineteenth century with his book Democracy in America. Lévy's Atlantic articles will eventually be collected and published by Random House, along with several previously unpublished chapters.

On April 6, Lévy made a joint appearance at the New York Public Library with New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks. Lévy and Brooks engaged in a dialogue about this project, touching on such issues as American patriotism, religion, immigration, and ideology. An edited transcript of their discussion, introduced by the New York Public Library's president, Paul LeClerc, appears below.

Paul LeClerc: Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening and welcome to the New York Public Library. I'm the director of the newly renamed department called Live from the New York Public Library. It is a great pleasure to welcome you tonight. And I might start by saying I'm really regretful for all the people who are standing by upstairs because they couldn't fit into the room. There were about 200 people who didn't make it, but I think that speaks very well for how hungry people are for substance. Things are good in the Republic of Letters.

How in the world does America look to foreign eyes? I think this question is never more important than now. Over the past year, the preeminent French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy has been traveling through America, visiting its prisons, its mega-churches, its high-rises, and military facilities, its brothels—I'm very interested in that!—and malls. Starting in May, and for much of this year, The Atlantic Monthly records his myriad observations, establishing a cultural map of America at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In early 2006, Random House will publish the entire series as a book. Tonight, op-ed columnist David Brooks will ask Bernard-Henry Lévy—or BHL as he's known in France—to report on what struck, irked, and puzzled him in America. Lévy's shrewd observations represent a modern-day version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Or do they? Tonight, as I see it, is really a dialogue between two continents.

And now, it is my very great pleasure to welcome BHL and David Brooks.

David Brooks: When Paul said it was a conversation between two continents, I knew it was time for me to go on a diet! If I were thinner, my shirt would be open down to here. A couple years ago I wrote about what happens when a French intellectual comes to the United States. The pattern is essentially that the great French thinkers come to visit us and we do our best Henry James. We try to be sophisticated. We have nice dinners at fancy townhouses. We prepare subtle sauces and try to have intellectual conversation at his level. And the French intellectual says: "None of this. Take me to your Elvis impersonators." They want the true, dumb, bimbo America. Jean Baudrillard wrote a book called America, which probably should have been called Places Where I've Been Brilliant. Because it was mostly him being brilliant in Utah, him being brilliant in Nevada—emphasizing the paradoxes he saw with a lot of showy sentences that were brilliant. He wrote, "Americans believe in facts but not facticity." Which is a brilliant sentence, but I have no idea what it means. The nicest thing to say about Bernard is that he has eschewed all of these clichés and actually seen America—he's spent a year here, seen things which most people don't see, has not tried to show off, but actually describe the subject material. And I wanted to begin our conversation by saying you are following in the footsteps of Tocqueville. When Tocqueville came here, he did so because he thought that America was the future—that democratic peoples were the future, and that what was happening here was going to happen in Europe. Is there still a sense, do you think, that Europe and the United States, or the United States and the world are growing closer together—that the United States is still a trend-setter for the world? Or is that something that is now obsolete?

BHL: First of all, I want to thank Paul LeClerc and all the board of the library for this very moving moment for me. I'm just at the end of a really important year of my life—this travel in America, whose original idea belongs to Cullen Murphy and to The Atlantic Monthly. This visit to every single state of this country—big cities, little towns, highways, back roads, meetings with lots of people (both important people and average American men and women) —all of this has been a really tremendous, vibrant, important experience. I will try to tell you and to tell David Brooks why it has been so tremendous. To present this experience here—to have the baptism of this experience in the presence of some of my friends—it is really a moving moment.

Now, David Brooks's question. Tocqueville came here because he knew that America was the future of Europe and the world. The comparison with Tocqueville belongs to The Atlantic and I am very shy with it. I am not sure at all that I deserve that. If I came, it is because I don't know if America is still the future of Europe. We don't even know—and I think there is a real debate going on inside this country—what is the future of the link between Europe and America. I belong to those who think that the link between America and Europe is vital, is essential for all of us, both Europeans and Americans. I hope, I pray, for this link remaining living and vibrant. But there is a risk today. You have in America a real current of thought that believes that the time has come to say goodbye to old Europe, and especially to ugly, nasty France. I did this long journey. I spent this long year of my life in little roads, little motels, a lot of Wendy's, Pizza Huts, and McDonald's because I am militant about the link between Europe and America, and because I hope that it is the culture of Europe and vice versa.

I guess I should ask—Wendy's, Burger King, or McDonald's —which is the best? But I will skip that. Let's talk on the layer of culture. If you look at how Americans actually live and how French people actually live, there are measurable differences. The average American works about 350 hours a year longer than the average European, which is nine weeks. If you do a value survey, the World Value Survey, if you ask people, "Do you control your own destiny?" I think eighty percent of Americans say they do, whereas fifty or sixty percent of French people say they do. In the realm of everyday life, did you find vast differences, or did you feel more or less at home?

At home in a way. I belong to the type of European who has been partly shaped by American culture. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and so on shaped my sensibility and my mentality. The American cinema, the American movies, American artists, rock 'n roll. In the sixties I went to Memphis to see the house of Elvis Presley with some emotion. So for somebody like me, to be in America is in a way like coming back home. There are a lot of French, a lot of Europeans, who don't go in for this stupid anti-Americanism and who feel at home in America.

On the other side, of course, there are some huge gaps between the two mentalities. For example, the first piece, which The Atlantic published today, begins in Newport, which is the very place where Tocqueville arrived in America. A thing which impressed me there, at the beginning, was the flood of American flags. Everywhere American flags. On the windows, on the shops, on the jackets, on the bicycles, on the cars. I am coming from a country where you never see a flag. I come from a country where to love the flag, or to feel an emotion in front of the flag, is considered as proof that you are a cuckoo and an idiot. And I arrived in a country where there are flags everywhere. My hypothesis is that it has something to do with the fragility of being a nation in this huge space of fifty states. People come from everywhere. The greatness of America is that being a nation has nothing to do with the evidence of the body. It has nothing to do even with the fact of having common roots in common ground. It has to do with an idea. It has to do with contracts. It is to want to be an American. We are not born American, we become American, and this creates a sort of uncertainness, a sort of fragility. Compensation for that is this extreme exhibition of the flag.

Another difference. I come from a country where religion, the faith, the creed in God, is a declining attitude. Old churches are in a deep crisis. But I landed in a country last year where you cannot find one American —lady or gentleman—saying that he doesn't believe in God. Tocqueville had seen that already. This is a big part of his observation. He stressed the paradox of this being the only nation in the world where freedom and faith did not go in two separate roads. In France, liberty has had to be gained over religion. The less religion we have in France, the more liberty we have. In America, Tocqueville said, it is contrary—the two nourish and feed each other.

Henry Steele Commanger had a great line. He said that in the nineteenth century religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt. The message was that Americans are faithful, but not always doctrinal—theological. You mentioned briefly a different relationship to God between European faith and what has happened in the American faiths. Can you go on a little further? What did you see in the churches you visited that struck you as distinctly American?

There are all these interdenominational churches, and more and more competing against each other with all sorts of spiritual and political weapons. The best example is the Mormons of Salt Lake City who invented the absolute weapon in the war between religions. This weapon being getting sovereignty and power not only over the living—the men and women who go to church—but also over the dead. Because the peculiarity of the Mormon church is to buy all the lists of the dead that they can find from all over the world—from China, to France, to Africa. They have gathered one billion names and stored them in the church of Salt Lake City and also forty miles away in a very secure place in a granite mountain. And with a very theological discourse, they invented the new idea of having power over the dead and over the ghosts. So there is a competition between the religions, which struck me.

Sometimes one feels that in America banks look like churches; "In God We Trust." But you also have the feeling that some churches look like banks. At the Willow Creek mega-church, for example, you feel as if you have walked into a big bank. And a new fact for me in this theatre of the religions is the proximity, the banality, the prosaicism of God. In Willow Creek I met (and I can say I met him because he is like this) I met a God who is your best buddy—not the lord of the sky, not the sovereign of the world, but your close buddy who speaks to you at the ear.

According to a poll, seventy-five percent of Americans believe that they once heard God—that God talked to them. It's a God who talks directly, a God who tells you how to solve your problems of romance and how to get fit. You have in Willow Creek a program —an evangelical program with prayers—which is called "Fit for Him." We can laugh, but it is also serious. A lot of these people have a strong, deep belief. So the new thing is this loss of distance—this loss of the absolute eminence of God. It's a new phenomenon, which could announce the appearance of something like a new religion. We often read that the real increasing religion today is Islam. And we have the impression these last days that it is Catholicism. But maybe it could be the prosaic new American mega-churches.

A Harvard historian, Sacvan Bercovitch, said to me one of the smartest things that has been said about the Unites States, which is that a crucial distinction was not recognized here between the sacred and the profane. He said that when people came here in the seventeenth century, they noticed two things. First they noticed the incredible abundance that was in front of them. And then they came to realize that God's plan could be realized here on this continent. So religious fulfillment, and getting rich while doing it, went together. I think that's why churches begin to look like banks and we have companies like Ben and Jerry's ice cream which look like churches. Anyway, let me move on to another subject you've written about, which is also an institution both in France and here, but with very different effects and a very different feel. That's immigration. You were in Dearborn with some Arab immigrant groups. France also has some well-publicized issues with that. How is it different? How did the immigrant experience look to you?

On the topic of immigration, Europe should take lessons from America. I would take the example you mentioned, the Arab minority of Dearborn, Michigan. Again, I was really struck and impressed. You have in Dearborn an Arab city. The McDonald's of Dearborn is halal. There's a club that's devoted to Arab poets. We even saw a car with a license plate that said (I am sure, as a sort of joke) "Taliban." So really, it is a very strange place at first sight, with people who have a strong feeling of belonging to Arab culture and to Islam. Most of them are strong believers. We spoke with one of these guys who was a businessman of Dearborn, recently immigrated there. He said, "we think this," "we believe that," "we, we, we." During the first few minutes I thought that he meant we Arabs. But after a while I understood that he meant we Americans.

We spoke about Israel. It was during a moment of particular tension between Israel and Palestine. This guy thought (and not just him—it was really a very expanded feeling in the area) that the example they would like to follow was the Jewish one. And I felt in front of these American patriots of Arab origin, saying that their dream was the Jewish dream—that what the Jews in this country achieved, they would dream to achieve also—there was something that was really heartwarming. Especially when you come from a country where you don't see so many French of Arab origin having a French flag on their cars, and a country where, when they say "we," they don't mean we French.

Let me go to a more general question then. When you come with fresh eyes to a country— I often say when I was a foreign correspondent that I could write a great story about a country after four days, really capture the country perfectly. But after about three weeks I couldn't do it, because it became a little too complicated. And then stay for a year and you can see it again. Which is why I never stayed more than four days. If you were an American and you loved your country, or if you're French and you love this country, what are the problems we have to worry about? As you traveled around, what is the thing that you see as most threatening to the way of life or to the American dream you've been talking about? Is it economic? Is it cultural? Social? Is it political? Is there something that you found yourself getting angry about as the months rolled along?

First of all, I'm in between the two last periods you mentioned. Maybe I did not complete completely the year, but I came out from this trip, this journey, with—I would not say with answers to all my questions. I would not say with definite ideas of the reality of this country. And I would even say that I had more answers one year ago than today.

So, of what am I afraid? Of what should you be afraid? I would not dare to say. You know yourself. But myself there are a few things which I love and a few which frighten me. For instance, coming back to the topic of religion. One day I was in a helicopter going above the Grand Canyon. The pilot was a young boy, quite up-to-date, modern, liking new music, dating with a beautiful girl, and—I'm completely sure—secular in his mind. A modern, young, American boy. And I asked him "What about this huge, magnificent landscape that we see under our feet?" The canyon. And he said to me, "There are two theories." I felt aie, aie, aie, as we say in French, Problems begin! "First theory," he said, "during millions of years, the erosion of the water," and so on and so on. "Second theory," he said, "six thousand years ago there was a big flood which took place exactly here. And this is the place of the creation of the world." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Yes, there was a second theory which said the world was created six thousand years ago, in six days, and in this very place." We spoke when we landed, and he told me that he frankly did not know if Darwin was a scientist or a crook. That he frankly did not know if the birth of the universe was an immemorial event or a historic event like in the Bible. And I felt that is the thing of which, if I was American, I would be afraid.

Today, they say, there is a Darwinist science and there is a creationist science. What the young pilot of my helicopter meant, by saying there are two theories, was exactly that. This is very serious, because if both of them are scientific then you give to creationism the title of legitimacy. This is a phenomenon which we don't have in France. It might be a little example, but it tells a lot of the dark side of the future of America.

May I point out that only seventeen percent of Americans want to keep Terri Schiavo on the tube, embrace that ideology of life? I'm sort of heartened by everything you've said, because the conventional criticism that comes from people who've come to this country is that we are the dumb bimbo of the earth. They think of us the way we think of Beverly Hills—sort of shallow, materialistic, the country of competitive cheerleading, big cars, and so on. And as you've been speaking here tonight, you've emphasized spiritualism—sometimes out-of-control spiritualism. At the very end of your piece you're at the Republican Convention and you talk about ideology. You talk about yourself coming from a country that was highly ideological and is now less so. And you're describing the United States which is much more hyper-charged in spiritualism and ideology than most people think. And I wanted to pick up on that and take it to politics. We met at one of the conventions over the summer. What was your impression of the political campaign? You were here through much of it. The conventions and then the fall campaign.

I come from a country where there's a cliché about pragmatic America not belonging in the world of ideas. It's even the cliché of Tocqueville. This is one of the points on which he was wrong. Tocqueville said that there was an instinctive mistrust of the American people toward great ideas. He called them "les grandes systèmes"—grand, great systems. And this nourished the idea of a pragmatic, un-ideological nation. I found exactly the contrary. I attended the two conventions. And I was stricken, contrary to all that was said abroad, by the strength, the vividness, and the violence, and sometimes the richness of the political debate in this country. There was a book published one year ago, by a good author—and a very good book which I recommend to you—called What's the Matter With Kansas? The author of this book wondered whether it was a surprise that so many Americans were ready to vote against their economic interests. To vote against one's economic interests means ideology—means politics. It is the very definition of politics. If people voted only for their economic interests there would not be politics. What this author, Thomas Frank, was surprised by, and in a way discovered, is that America is becoming a place of strong political debate.

It is no longer true that America is a neutral, pragmatic, unpolitical country. This is no longer true. One of the most stupid things I heard during the two last years about America is that the conservative coalition and President Bush went to Iraq because of interests—because of oil. No! For the best or for the worst, America went to Iraq for ideological purposes, for ideas. If the purpose had been to take control of the oil, the best way would have been to lift the sanctions and make a deal with Sadaam Hussein—to bring the companies in America, and to make business. Surely not to make war.

In France, we are are witnessing the end of ideologies. This is a popular theme in France— le fin des idéologies. But in America, there is a big turmoil and an increase of the heat of the political and ideological debate. That's why I conclude the article by saying to the Americans who will read The Atlantic Monthly, "à votre santé!" We French know all about politics, we know ideology—we know how it can be the worst and the best thing. Now you play; À votre santé!