That which separates America from every country that existed before it, is that its roots are not of blood and soil, but the Idea of a government forged in freedom, for the people and by the people, and it is also for that reason that America perpetually faces an identity crisis, with varying convulsions and seesawing. That is true of America now, 20 years ago, 82 years ago before WWII, at the Civil War certainly, and of course, at its very founding. Because of this identity crisis, Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French public intellectual (just a curious title, it must be said), finds America embroiled in a bit of vertigo, and anyone who visits it, like his compatriot before him, Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled America between 1831 and 1832 (primarily to visit our prisons) and wrote about it in, Democracy in America, they, too, will have a sense of vertigo. Aptly then, BHL (as Lévy is referred to as and how I will henceforth refer to him) titled his 2006 book, American Vertigo: Traveling American in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.
As I insinuated, BHL, after traveling through America, could have written his reflections on America and that sense of an identity crisis causing vertigo, at any point in his intellectual life from the 1970s on, but he did so in the aftermath of 9/11, post-invasion of Iraq (an invasion he opposed, but he’s interestingly gentle on the neoconservatives), and just before Hurricane Katrina, quite the auspicious time in which to unravel the complexities of America’s identity. And certainly interesting as a Frenchman in particular, given the fissure between the U.S. and France at the time over the Iraq War. Francephobia had not been so salient since, I don’t know, early on with WWII? BHL also undertook his journey, it should be said, to get a sense of the real America, far from its anti-Americanism his countrymen favored and caricatured, and especially to ascertain, I think, if America, as it emerged into the 21st century, was indeed tantamount to Rome, but in its “fall” phase. If America in its decadence (most pointedly expressed in its abundant consumerism and materialism, and in the caricature, physically via increasing obesity rates) and apparent wanton imperialism with a war of adventure in Iraq, was a nation in decline, in its last throes, as it were.
Like Tocqueville before him, BHL does investigate a series of prisons, which I’m always skeptical of doing because obviously, if the administration at a prison, or the military at Guantanamo Bay, are allowing you to visit, you’re going to see the most sanitized version of the prison. What they want you to see, in other words. That said, BHL’s takeaway isn’t about the conditions of the prisons on the inside per se, but rather, that American society has taken our prisons and pushed them to the side of civilization, the most obvious example of this being Alcatraz, or more modern, Rikers Island, but all the same, “out of sight, out of mind” is the American motto when it comes to our penitentiary system. The same, incidentally, is true, BHL believes, of our view of nature and its “beasts.” Unlike European cities, BHL says that America is unique in that, say, the Everglades, are a stone’s throw from a city like Homestead, Florida. We keep nature preserved and close. The same, apparently, is true of our prisons.
The eve of the presidential election between incumbent George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry might seem, now 19 years later, far removed from our time — what, with the so-called moral majority ascendant, the U.S. still reeling from 9/11 and its consequences, and a politics that still seems, nonetheless, “normal” as far as that goes — but aside from the overarching theme of American identity crisis and vertigo (particularly, in the eye’s of the left, how America could elect a buffoon like Bush, which I don’t need to paint the obvious parallels to 2016) I put forth, there’s the fact that America has always had an existent tension BHL evidences between its Puritanical, sexless roots, and its more sordid side, between an America seemingly awash in American flag and Americanism paraphernalia (not just a feature of a post-9/11 American consciousness, either, as we know today) and those wronged in the past pushing America to live up to its Ideals (African Americans, Native Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, etc.), and how America writ large ought to function, oscillating between a large welfare and social safety net state and a more limited government, with all sorts of contradictions in between. Many of the players BHL mentions in this book, are and were still relevant in our time and our own post-2016 autopsy: Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bill Kristol (who went from a dominant so-called neoconservative voice in the Bush years to a “conservative” outcast never-Trumper under the Trump years), and a rising star by the name of Barak (sic) Obama, who was just coming off of his “no red states or blue states” keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. BHL, it should be noted, planted his flag in the idea that Obama (who he called the “Black Clinton”) would represent the end of “identity-based ideologies” rather than the furnace for its most fervent manifestation his presidency ended up being.
Other minor figures of intrigue pop up in BHL’s travels and one-on-one meetings, such as Rod Dreher, the conservative columnist, who is treated as an oddity in this book, because he’s homeschooling his children and believes in scientific creationism (that’s perhaps the biggest break with now compared to then; we don’t quite have the same robust discussions about religion and religion in schools, for example, that we did then, albeit, the same impulse and fights over what to teach in school are still occurring, just about different material). He’s been an at times supporter of Trump, or at least his policies, and at times, distant with him.
The one that made me laugh the most was BHL waxing lovingly over Charlie Rose and his love in turn of his childhood home, Henderson, North Carolina. Rose, for a long time, was one of the most prominent American journalists and TV hosts, who interviewed scores of presidents and stars. In 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and allegations of sexual assault against Rose dating back to the 1990s, he lost his show, his job, and all of his prestige.
As an aside, perhaps the most interesting different (but not in kind) currant BHL mentions is baseball being the “civic religion” in his journey and observations to today, where obviously and clearly, football has become the “civic religion.” Similarly to how we enshrined baseball into our civic religion, BHL notes how important myth (even about baseball) is to our understanding of ourselves, our need to form a shared memory, even if one doesn’t and can’t possibly exist, and an outgrowth of this is the proliferation of museums, BHL notices, of big and small, valuable and seemingly tawdry, a symbol of our national hoarding of anything remotely passing for our pass (and that shared memory). The agitations, or aforementioned convulsions, to this attempt at shared memory is that different groups perceive America’s history differently and express as much, then when BHL was traveling (like to South Dakota and Mount Rushmore and his dialogues with Native Americans), and now, salient as ever, with things like the 1619 project.
Even BHL’s hypothesis that Bush winning reelection and defeating Kerry is like the “last death throes of the conservative majority” rings familiar to today’s ears. People have hypothesized the same with Trump, 12 years after the fact of Bush’s reelection. And less a last death throes of a conservative majority, Trump’s victory ushered in a different kind of “conservativism” entirely, an utter rejection of Bush’s stated form of “compassionate conservativism” and of neoconservative wars of adventure.
Finally, one more point worth engaging with from BHL is his dealing of Francis Fukuyama and his theory arising from, The End of History and the Last Man, that the collapse of the Berlin Wall essentially ushered in a post-history society, a “final form of government” where “nothing can challenge the capitalist, liberal order that is in the process of imposing itself today.” Of course, as we’ve seen, not just in the United States with Donald Trump and the MAGA movement, but the world over, citizens, demagogues, tyrants, and governments are certainly trying their ample best to reverse and tear down that “capitalist, liberal order” they blame for all the ills of modern society.
I found BHL’s book, for the most part (I hedge only that he’s a philosopher, so, it can be rather tedious to read at times), to be a fun journey through America. As I always like to preface, I’m not the patriotic type, and yet, I still find myself feeling some sort of pride and some sort of way when an “outsider” describes America and the best of our abstractions, our people, our cities, our way of life, and our history and what its meant (and continues to mean) for the world. BHL said there’s just something about America writers of his ilk have yearned to understand and investigate, and in the modern context, in a Jack Kerouac On the Road way. America, unlike anywhere else, invites such journeying and investigation.
It’s not likely that a political book about a particular political time in America would seem resonate 17 years after the fact, but BHL’s book, American Vertigo, finds salience to today’s America because history does indeed repeat and rhyme; we have the same fights and discussions and we’re still battling for our American identity, our shared American memory, and our sense of place in the world, and perhaps our duty to the world. In these ways, BHL believes America is actually better than its detractors give it credit for, but also not the harbinger of the “end of history” rather than the unfurling of something new (and old?) altogether. I think that’s a fair characterization of his concluding reflections at the end of the book.