Pardonnez-moi while I critique your country
French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy roams across the US, seeking to uncover its soul.
After reading American Vertigo, I have decided that countries and families have one major thing in common - no matter how critical you might be of your own, you still don't welcome criticism from outsiders.
And there is no lack of criticism in Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo, a vibrant and rollicking travelogue of a yearlong road trip through the United States.
On an assignment for The Atlantic Monthly, Lévy set out to follow in the footsteps of fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" has made him something of an American prophet (and required reading in government classes across the US). [ Editor's note: The original version attributed the assignment to the wrong magazine. ]
Though Tocqueville's observations are often critical and flawed, they are always a joy to read. The precision of thinking and the wonderful logic yield some impressive predictions (among other things, the Civil War).
So one can't help but start "American Vertigo" with a thirst for Tocqueville's sharp eye and the hope that this book will offer something equivalent to Tocqueville's take on where the US stands today. Lévy certainly picked big shoes to fill.
He starts his journey in the Northeast and works his way across the top of the country, down the West Coast and then back through the South. Along the way, he meets up with an impressive selection of A-listers, including Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Sharon Stone, Warren Beatty, and Norman Mailer.
But from the get-go, Lévy seems to go out of his way to seek out the very worst aspects of American culture. He visits myriad strip clubs, megachurches using marketing techniques to target a maximum number of "customers - sorry - potential faithful," a San Francisco sex club, a death-row prison, a Las Vegas brothel, a Texas gunshow where Nazi paraphernalia is being sold, and, of course, the country's largest mall in Minnesota.
Yes, this is part of America - and such cultural sideshows certainly make for a number of colorful stories. But it all gives one the feeling that Lévy had his ideas about the fanatical, selfish, overfed, wildly materialistic American population firmly in place before his plane hit the tarmac. And he set out to find it.
The overall effect is that of having a stranger point out the very worst characteristics of your family members without seeming to notice any of the good stuff. Sure, your grandmother might be racist, but that's not all she is, and she is your grandmother.
What's worse, Lévy's own political biases infect everything he writes, making many of his opinions tiresome and predictable.
He spends pages deriding President Bush. He hates Texas, but finds that he loves Seattle because it is "so obstinately European." He adores New Orleans, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton, and admires John Kerry for being - you guessed it - "European at heart."
The fact that Lévy's ambition was to offer a kind of postscript to Tocqueville's work makes these problems all the more glaring. His reasoning is often sloppy, and he has the unfortunate habit of posing long series of questions, which he usually answers with more questions.
"Who are the Amish, then? Who are these men and women who live in an economic autarky, their gaze fixed on eternity? A countersociety? An anti-America within America?"
Many of Levy's conclusions are also naive to the point of being laughable. In one memorable section, he imagines a group of right-wing 'furies' objecting to Hillary Clinton becoming president on the grounds that she would only be trying to slay the demons of her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky: "Do you want a female President who ... would only be obsessed morning to night, with what happened there ... beneath the desk?"
In another lapse in logic, Lévy decides that a policeman harassing him for urinating on the side of a highway symbolizes "how paranoid American society after 9/11 has become."
These flaws serve to make the second half of "American Vertigo" all the more surprising. In the section called 'Reflections,' Lévy synthesizes his travels and starts tackling some broader questions.
Here Lévy shines as both a writer and as a thinker. He digs into complicated issues with balance and elegance, and his conclusions are often thought-provoking. In one such section,
Lévy takes on the controversial issue of America's role in the world - and eloquently takes both sides of the issue. He even posits that "a great power always has a dog in all the fights of the world, and America of all countries cannot afford to lose interest in what's happening on the planet."
Lévy also intelligently navigates the country's economic situation, including the paradoxical fact that it is the world's economic superpower and yet at the same time is almost entirely reliant on foreign countries to fund ballooning deficits.
Finally, he concludes that America is unlike any previous world-power. It does not strive to conquer or colonize. It is not an empire "but a reaction to empire." Considering the country's beginnings and the strong social and economic impression left by World War II, the idea is a compelling one.
So, 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.
Still, I wouldn't recommend bringing Lévy home to meet the family anytime soon.
• Stacey Vanek Smith is a reporter and producer for Marketplace on National Public Radio.