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De Tocqueville, Part Deux 

Bernard-Henri Lévy on American sex, American religion and American Vertigo

Tuesday, Jan 17 2006
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Page 4 of 6

“What about the fact that many churches end up being replaced by mosques?” I ask. “Which is the other thing that’s happening in England and Europe, and maybe here, too.”

“Could one say that Islam comes in the place of Christianity? I don’t think so. It’s not the problem of Muslims if we, Christians or Jews, get rid of our own creed. It’s our problem, not theirs.”

“But if man is ‘an adoring creature,’ as you say, something is going to fill the vacuum.”

click to enlarge Photo by Thierry Dudoit
  • Photo by Thierry Dudoit

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“Not Islam. [In America] the thing that is filling the vaccuum is the creed of these megachurches, God as a Good Guy and so on. In Europe, what fills it is the [belief] in history, in communism, in racism, in nationhood, in all that. Our idolatric creeds.”

And with that, Lévy, who is coming down with a cold and seems to be growing bored with the subject, loudly blows his nose.

In American Vertigo, Lévy presents sharply etched vignettes of his meetings with, among others, Norman Mailer, Barack Obama, Jim Harrison, Sharon Stone, conservative columnist Rod Dreher and Joan Blades of MoveOn.org. (If it’s in the film version, the sight of Lévy trying out his old-world charms on the ultra-P.C. Blades should make for entertaining viewing.) He meets with Nazi gun-nuts, struggling waitresses, and, in one of the more memorable scenes in the book, a robotic traffic cop who turns out to be a De Tocqueville buff. He also paints a richly detailed picture of the gloomy, rain-ravaged opening of the Clinton Presidential Center just days after George W. Bush’s re-election. But then, most of Lévy’s encounters with the Democrats leave him depressed for the future of the party he identifies with. Though he is surprisingly generous about that ultimate neocon, Richard Perle (perhaps because he keeps a portrait of Rimbaud on the wall), he disses Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol for being an intellectual lightweight. It’s the verbal equivalent of a knife-slashing:

“A neoconservative? No — he is a Platonist bereft of the ideals. An adviser to princes without detachment or reservations. An antitotalitarian who, at bottom, and whatever he may say, has not read enough Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Julien Benda — and who, not having done so, deprives himself of the necessary freedom that the status of intellectual induces in Europe.”

Perhaps Lévy’s most provocative observations about America concern the country’s confidence level, which, despite our president’s tendency to affect a Texan swagger, he judges to be low. “Bush is an epiphenomenon,” he says, which would certainly be news to Bush, even if he were armed with a dictionary. “Over-confidence in politics is the natural reaction to under-confidence in deep being. Same for a nation.”

Of course, Lévy has been hanging out with despairing liberals, who are convinced that America is a couple of jackboot steps away from turning into Nazi Germany. But the surprising part may be that Lévy considers the nation’s faltering self-confidence a positive development. In his eyes, it makes us more attractive.

“Self-confidence is not always a virtue,” says this seemingly most self-confident of men. “I like people who don’t know exactly who they are. I like people who are not exactly sure of their place in the world. And you could even say that it is a virtue not to know. Jean-Paul Sartre defined le salaud [the bastard] as the one who is absolutely sure of what he is and the site that he occupies in the economy of the world. A woman who is not absolutely sure of how beautiful she is, who has doubts about the question of knowing whether she is charming or not, is more charming. But you know that.”

And what of those cocksure neoconservatives, now somewhat chastened? Near the end of his book, Lévy half-admiringly defines a neocon as “someone whose enemies are called Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar, Milosevic . . .” It is tempting, I tell him, to complete that sentence by adding that “a so-called progressive is someone whose enemies are called George Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi.”

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