April 05, 2006

American Vertigo

In 1831, a young Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the U.S. for the initial purpose of studying the U.S. prison system. He and his partner, Gustave Beaumont, were also intrigued by the notion of the emerging American democracy, and eager to see the country. The young men spent nine months traveling throughout 17 of the country’s then 24 states, with the majority of their time being spent in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, where they were warmly received by American intellectuals and politicians.

Tocqueville’s meticulous observations of America's social and political institutions eventually became an influential book called Democracy in America, and it set the stage for debates about democracy that continue today.

And now another Frenchman has taken on the task. In American Vertigo, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy (a man lauded by Vanity Fair magazine as “Superman and prophet”) follows roughly in the steps of Alexis de Tocqueville and offers his own observations on the United States. The first part of the book is commentary on his travels, journal entries, and dispatches from the road. He interviews the likes of John Kerry, Bill Kristol, Warren Beatty, Barack Obama, as well plenty of Regular Joes: Militia members, accountants, jailers. I was pleasantly surprised when an old friend of mine even made an appearance about halfway through the book (a devout Christian who homeschools his son because he doesn’t feel that the schools in American cities are proper places for his children to be raised). Some of Levy’s observations are trite (did anyone need to be told that Los Angeles has no center?), some are incongruous (does a visit with Sharon Stone really shed light on the political state of America?), but overall it’s an intriguing collection of essays.

The final part of the book is entitled “Reflections,” and it is in this section that he waxes philosophical, attempting to answer the question, “What shape is this democracy in, the one Americans… are so proud of and which they have always wanted to hold up as an example for the rest of the world?” It’s an interesting book, bound to appeal to travelers and observers of culture alike.

But the best part? There’s this section where BHL concludes that Americans are not, contrary to popular belief, any fatter than French people. Yeah, that part was pretty good.

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