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American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville


American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville Cover




chapter I

First Visions

(from Newport to Des Moines)

A People and Its Flag

It was here, not too far south of Boston, on the East Coast, which still bears the mark of Europe so clearly, that Alexis de Tocqueville came ashore: Newport, Rhode Island. This well-kept Easton?s Beach. These yachts. These Palladian mansions and painted wooden houses that remind me of the beach towns of Normandy. A naval museum. An athenaeum library. Bed-and-breakfasts with a picture of the owner displayed instead of a sign. Gorgeous trees. Tennis courts. A Georgian-style synagogue, exhibited as the oldest in the United States: with its well-polished pale wood, its fluted columns, its spotless black rattan chairs, its large candelabra, its plaque engraved with clear-cut letters in memory of Isaac Touro and the six or seven great spiritual leaders who succeeded him, its American flag standing next to the Torah scroll under glass, it seems to me, on the contrary, strangely modern.

And then, precisely, the flags: a riot of American flags, at crossroads, on building fronts, on car hoods, on pay phones, on the furniture displayed in the windows along Thames Street, on the boats tied to the dock and on the moorings with no boats, on beach umbrellas, on parasols, on bicycle saddlebags?everywhere, in every form, flapping in the wind or on stickers, an epidemic of flags that has spread throughout the city. There are also, as it happens, a lot of Japanese flags. A Japanese cultural festival is opening, with exhibitions of prints, sushi samples on the boardwalk, sumo wrestling in the street, barkers enticing passersby to come see these wonders, these monsters: ?Come on! Look at them?all white and powdered! Three hundred pounds! Legs like hams! So fat they can?t even walk! They needed three seats in the airplane! Step right up!? And, therefore, white flags with a red ball, symbol of the Land of the Rising Sun, hang from the balconies on this street of jewelers near the harbor where I?m searching for a restaurant, to have lunch. In the end, though, it?s the American flag that dominates. One is struck by the omnipresence of the Star-Spangled Banner, even on the T-shirts of the kids who come to watch the sumo wrestlers as the little crowd cheers them on.

It?s the flag of the American cavalry in westerns. It?s the flag of Frank Capra movies. It?s the fetish that is there, in the frame, every time the American president appears. It?s the beloved flag, almost a living being, the use of which, I understand, is subject not just to rules but to an extremely precise code of flag behavior: don?t get it dirty, don?t copy it, don?t tattoo it onto your body, never let it fall on the ground, never hang it upside down, don?t insult it, don?t burn it. On the other hand, if it gets too old, if it can no longer be used, if it can?t be flown, then you must burn it; yes, instead of throwing it out or bundling it up, better to burn it than abandon it in the trash. It?s the flag that was offended by Kid Rock at the Super Bowl, and it?s the flag of Michael W. Smith in his song ?There She Stands,? written just after September 11, in which ?she? is none other than ?it,? the flag, the American symbol that was targeted, defiled, attacked, scorned by the barbarians, but is always proudly unfurled.

It?s a little strange, this obsession with the flag. It?s incomprehensible for someone who, like me, comes from a country virtually without a flag?where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared; where you see it flying only in front of official buildings; and where any nostalgia and concern for it, any evocation of it, is a sign of an attachment to the past that has become almost ridiculous. Is this flag obsession a result of September 11? A response to that trauma whose violence we Europeans persist in underestimating but which, three years later, haunts American minds as much as ever? Should we reread those pages in Tocqueville on the good fortune of being sheltered by geography from violations of the nation?s territorial space and come to see in this return to the flag a neurotic abreaction to the astonishment that the violation actually occurred? Or is it something else entirely? An older, more conflicted relationship of America with itself and with its national existence? A difficulty in being a nation, more severe than in the flagless countries of old Europe, that produces this compensatory effect?

Leafed through the first few pages of One Nation, After All, which the author, the sociologist Alan Wolfe, gave me last night. Maybe the secret lies in this ?after all.? Maybe American patriotism is more complex, more painful, than it seems at first glance, and perhaps its apparent excessiveness comes from that. Or perhaps it has to do, as Tocqueville saw it, rather with a kind of ?reflective patriotism? which, unlike the ?instinctive love? that reigned during the regimes of times past, is forced to exaggerate when it comes to emblems and symbols. To be continued . . .

Tell Me What Your Prisons Are . . .

Tocqueville?s first intention was, we tend to forget, to investigate the American penal system. He went beyond that, of course. He analyzed the political system and American society in its entirety better than anyone. But as his notes, his journal, his letters to Kergorlay and others, and the very text of Democracy in America attest, it was with this business of prisons that everything began, and that?s why I too, after Newport, asked to see the New York prison of Rikers Island, that city within a city on an island that is not shown on every map?a place few New Yorkers seem to take much notice of.

A meeting with Mark J. Cranston, of the New York City Department of Corrections, this Tuesday morning at 5:00 a.m. in Queens, at the entrance to a bridge that doesn?t lead anywhere open to the public. Landscape of desolate shoreline in the foggy morning light. Electric barbed-wire fences. High walls. A checkpoint, as at the edge of a war zone, where the prison guards, almost all of them black, greet one another as they come on duty, and?heading in the opposite direction, packed into barred buses that look like school buses?the prisoners, also mainly black, or Hispanic, who are driven with chains on their feet to courthouses in the Bronx and Queens. A security badge along with my photo. Frisked. On the other side of the East River, in the fog, a white boat like a ghost ship, where, for lack of space, the least dangerous criminals are locked up. And very soon, clinging to New York (La Guardia is so close that, at times, when the wind blows from a certain quarter, the noise from the planes makes you raise your voice or even stop talking), the ten prison buildings that make up this fortress, this enclave cut off from everything, this anti-utopian reservation.

The common room, dirty gray, where the people arrested during the night are assembled, seated on makeshift benches. A small cell, No. 14, where two prisoners (white?is that by chance?) have been isolated. A neater dormitory, with clean sheets, where a sign indicates, as in Manhattan bars, that the zone is ?smoke-free.? A man, weirdly agitated, who, taking me for a health inspector, hurries toward me to complain about the mosquitoes. And before we arrive at the detention center proper, before the row of cells, all identical, like minuscule horse stalls, a labyrinth of corridors sliced with bars and opening onto the series of ?social? areas they persist in showing me: a chapel; a mosque; a volleyball court from which a distant birdsong rises; a library, where everyone is free, they tell me, to consult law manuals; another room, finally, where there are three open boxes of letters, marked grievance, legal aid, and social services. At first sight you?d think it is a dilapidated hospital, but one obsessed with hygiene: the enormous black female guard, her belt studded with keys, who is guiding me through this maze explains that the first thing to do when a delinquent arrives is to have him take a shower in order to disinfect him, later on she tells me?in the nice booming voice of a guard who has wound up, since there?s no other choice, liking these prisoners?that the second urgent thing is to run a battery of psychological tests to identify the suicidal temperaments; prisoners call to her as we pass, insult her because they?ve been denied the use of the recreation room or the canteen, make farting noises at which she doesn?t bat an eye, stop her sometimes to confide a wish to live or die; it?s only when you look at them up close, obviously, that things become more complicated.

This man with shackled feet. This other one, handcuffs on his wrists and gloves over the handcuffs, because just last week he hid eight razor blades in his ass before throwing himself on a guard to cut his throat. These wild-animal glares, hard to endure. These prisoners for whom a secure system of serving hatches had to be invented, because they took advantage of the moment when their scrap of food was slid over to them to bite the guard?s hand. The little Hispanic man, hand on his ear, streaming blood, screaming that he should be taken to the infirmary, under the shouts of his black co-detainees?the guard tells me he has a ?Rikers cut,? a ritual gash made to the ear or face of an inmate by the big shots of the Latin Kings and the Bloods, the gangs that control the prison. The shouts, the fuck yous, the enraged banging on the metal doors in the maximum-security section. Farther on, at the end of the section, in one of the three ?shower cells,? which open onto the corridor, the spectacle of a bearded, naked giant jerking off in front of an impassive female guard, to whom he shouts in the voice of a madman, ?Come and get me, bitch! Come on!? And then the cry of alarm my guard lets out when, dying of thirst, I bend toward a sink in the hallway: ?No! Not there! Don?t drink there!? Marking my surprise, she regains her composure. Excuses herself. Stammers out that it?s all right, it?s just the prisoners? sink, I could have drunk there. But her reflex says a lot about sanitary conditions in the jail. Rikers Island is actually a ?jail,? not a ?prison.? It accepts those who have been charged and await sentencing as well as those sentenced to less than a year. What would this be like if it were a real prison? How would these people be treated if they were hardened criminals?

On the way back with Mark Cranston, taking the bridge that leads to the normal world and noticing what I hadn?t noticed when I arrived?namely, that from where I am and, most likely, from the volleyball court and the exercise yard and even certain cells, you can see, as if you were touching it, the Manhattan skyline?I can?t dodge this question: Does the impression of having brushed with hell arise because Rikers is cut off or because it is so close to everything? And then another question occurs to me when Cranston, anxious about the impression his ?house? has made, explains that the island used to be a huge garbage dump where the city?s trash was unloaded: Prison or dumping ground? A kind of replacement, on the same site, of society?s trash by its rejects? First impressions of the system. First briefing.

On Religion in General, and Baseball in Particular

Leaving the city behind. Yes, leaving New York, which I know too well. Fast, and through a driving rain. We are on the way to Cooperstown, a miniature village in the central part of the state that has managed at least three times to be in the heart of high-tension zones in American history. It was the town of James Fenimore Cooper, and thus of the symbolic responsibility for the slaughter of the Indians. It lies in a region that, before the Civil War, fleeing slaves and their smugglers passed through. And last but not least, since this is the claim to fame to which it seems most attached, it is the world capital of baseball.

I spend the night in a wooden chalet that has been transformed into a bed-and-breakfast, with ceramic rabbits in the garden and a magazine in the bedroom that explains how to ?live comfortably at thirty,? how to be ?older than seventy and still be in love,? and ?six ways to get your daily glass of milk.? The house is run by two commanding women, mother and daughter, who wear identical bloodred canvas aprons and look the spitting image of Margaret Thatcher at two stages of her life. I spend time in the morning listening to these ladies tell me the history of their house. The building was actually created a century ago by an officer in the Civil War, but it has been renovated so as to hide all antique traces. ?Are you interested in the bed-and-breakfast business, which is the passion of our existence?? one of them asks. ?Is this your first experience? Did you like it? I?m glad you did, since there are as many bed-and-breakfasts as there are owners. Everyone puts their mark on it?it?s an art, a religion. No, that?s not the word, ?religion.? We don?t make any difference here between religions?no more than we would with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Who won, by the way?? (She has turned toward a customer in shorts and undershirt who is sitting at the table next to mine. He shrugs as he wolfs down a huge slab of bacon.) ?See, he doesn?t know. That means it doesn?t count. And you?what are you? Oh! Jewish. Oh! Atheist. That?s okay . . . Everyone does what they want . . . In this business you have to like ninety-nine percent of your clients . . .?

The breakfast was a little long. But now I?m in the immense museum, completely disproportionate to the dollhouses in the rest of the town, where this great national sport is honored, this sport that establishes people?s identities and that has truly become part of their civic and patriotic religion, which is baseball: isn?t there, in the Hall of Fame adjoining the museum, a plaque devoted to those champions who interrupted their careers to serve in American wars?

Copyright © 2006 by Bernard-Henri Levy

Product Details

Levy, Bernard Henri
Random House Trade
Mandell, Charlotte
Mandell, Charlotte
Levy, Bernard-Henri
United States - General
Essays & Travelogues
General Political Science
Travel Writing-General
travel;politics;philosophy;usa;america;tocqueville;culture;social commentary;travelogue
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 x 5.15 x .65 in .75 lb

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » American Studies » 80s to Present
History and Social Science » American Studies » General
History and Social Science » Politics » General
History and Social Science » Politics » Political Science
History and Social Science » Sociology » American Studies
Travel » North America » United States » General
Travel » Travel Writing » General

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Random House Trade - English 9780812974713 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Hoping to gauge the success of America's experiment in democracy, France's leading journalist follows Tocqueville's journey across our once nascent nation to rediscover what it means to be an American. Here in opposing and quick succession, we meet Americans, from the destitute to the famous, as well as glance inside the communities that comprise our land. Much of our culture is exposed in startling but sympathetic light, but Lévy's perspective and perceptiveness provide a unique portrait of a country filled with promise.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Lévy's journey through this 'magnificent, mad country' is indeed vertiginous as he loops from coast to coast and back, mounting to the heights of wealth and power — interviewing the likes of Barry Diller and John Kerry — and plunging into the depths of poverty and powerlessness, in urban ghettoes and prisons. (In this last, he truly follows Tocqueville, whose assignment in the young America was to visit prisons.) Each scene is quite short, which is frustrating at first, but soon the quick succession of images creates a jostling, animated portrait of America, full of resonances and contradictions. Sharon Stone in her luxurious home, railing about the misery of the poor, is quickly followed by Lévy's chat with a waitress in a Colorado town struggling to make ends meet. A gated retirement community in Arizona seems to the author like a prison, while Angola, a prison in Louisiana, has lush grounds that resemble a retirement community's. Lévy (Who Killed Daniel Pearl), the celebrated French thinker and journalist, is a master of the vignette and the miniature, whether explaining why he could feel at home in Seattle or pondering whether Diller's apparent amorality is 'too flaunted to be completely sincere.' In France, where anti-Americanism has been so popular, Lévy has been an anti-anti-Americanist, and while he finds serious fissures in this country's social landscape, in the end he is an optimist about the future of a country he admires for the richness of its culture and its political vision." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "The convoluted style...cannot be blamed on the translator alone. In many instances, the English version faithfully reflects the bombast of the original. Lévy never uses one word when ten will do, and repeats them....Instead of giving a feel for a place or an institution through subtle details, Lévy numbs his readers with hyperbole." (read the entire TLS review)
"Review" by , "Bernard-Henry Lévy does nothing that goes unnoticed. He is an intellectual adventurer who brings publicity to unfashionable political causes."
"Review" by , "[Lévy] provides fascinating vignettes....The result is an engaging but often-disturbing portrait of our nation from an eloquent, brutally honest foreigner who wishes our country well."
"Review" by , "Lévy's writing has always been an arms race between shrewd observation and rapt self-absorption, but that's not the only problem here....Lévy's hortatory prose seethes with provocation and paradox; the trouble is that so many of his observations are so stale and predictable."
"Review" by , "Those sharing Levy's politics will find comfort in his analysis; others will be dismayed by his banal observations and tiresome predictability."
"Review" by , "[A] wide-ranging exploration....Many readers may feel more vertigo from his shoot-from-the-hip commentary than Lévy himself experienced in his travels."
"Review" by , "A vibrant and rollicking travelogue....If you can stomach a few sucker punches, American Vertigo has its gems. Lévy ends the book with a critical but fair view of the US, one that even the most patriotic reader can appreciate."
"Review" by , "It's been said that Lévy writes fast and publishes his work unedited. American Vertigo could have benefited from a more considered presentation."
"Review" by , "Lévy's American Vertigo is blessed and cursed by its own dizzy complexity. At turns, it's obvious, obtuse and insightful....If scale is a problem, how about the size of some of Lévy's sentences? They're constructed as if ideas and words were colliding bumper-cars."
"Review" by , "There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title."
"Synopsis" by , France's leading writer travels the country to discover what it means to be an American, and what America can be, at the dawn of the 21st century.
"Synopsis" by , US
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