In 2006, leading French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy wowed us with American Vertigo, an account of his travels across the U.S. in the footsteps of Tocqueville. Here BHL gives TAC a preview of the sequel, Un Autre Voyage en Amérique, forthcoming in spring 2010.
EAST SAINT LOUIS, ILL.—There are many impoverished people in this wealthy land, and many of them seem to enjoy no access to even mediocre hair product, a delicious paradox that, at the risk of sounding arrogant, somehow failed to catch Tocqueville’s notice. Yet no one, not even leading intellectuals like Sharon Stone, seems to notice.
MCLEAN, VA.—The Right. The American Right. In America, the Right does not play around. Today I meet Lewis “Scooter” Libby. A man of the Right. A true-blue “neoconservative.” And though I expect to find a man quite different from me, I am struck by our similarities. He is obviously an idealist. He has a luxuriant mane of hair despite his age. He wears an elegant YSL white shirt and has the charming effrontery to wear it open-neck. He comes enveloped in a fragrance that, I am not embarrassed to say, is delicious and intriguing. Whenever I flick my hair out of my eyes with my left hand, he does the same—only with his right hand. And when I scratch myself fleetingly, he does the same, perhaps to put me at my ease. Or does this “neocon” mock me? Oh-ho, now I see. I am on to you, my dear Scooter. Congratulations. You and your hallway mirror have won the first round. En garde.
NEW YORK, N.Y.—While strolling through upper Manhattan in a precinct called Harlem, I see a man of African descent. In fact, more than one: several. Black people. In America. Why has no one ever noticed this before?
MCLEAN, VA.—When the real Scooter Libby leads me into his study for conversation, he is not the American right-winger I had expected. He does not pass me a snake and babble in tongues while firing a machine gun into the air. He does not burn a cross on a neighbor’s lawn while petting at my groin. Not at all. In fact, he immediately impresses me with his courageous zeal to ensure the dignity of Afghan women by sending hundreds of thousands of young soldiers into their villages. And then, after bulldozing the villages to dust, he would rebuild them as low-rise condominiums modeled after graduate-student housing at the University of Chicago. Each cluster of buildings, he tells me, will have its own ice-skating rink, subterranean hydroponic ostrich farm, miniature Eiffel Tower (he is a Francophile, this neocon), interrogation facility, and Applebee’s restaurant. There can be no doubt about the passion of this Scooter. His zeal for liberty. His plain good sense.
And yet, as a man of the Left, I cannot help but think of all the things that separate this man’s views from my own. It’s just that I cannot seem to think of them right now.
PORTLAND, ORE.—A sign in a Starbucks café: “No shoes. No shirt. No service.” This totalitarian pseudo-syllogism is repugnant to me.
Americans, heed the lessons of Sarajevo. Do not let this Stalinist dress code lead you into the Gulag. They shall not stifle our toes with boots nor even with Lycra. And so I remove my loafers and heave a foot onto the counter, wiggle my toes deliciously, knock over a painfully hot cup of tea, and hop out. There comes a time when responsible intellectuals must take a stand for liberal values, no matter the price.
COUNCIL BLUFFS, IA.—The mighty interstates have not just many McDonald’s, but also an astonishing number of Burger Kings. Why has no one pointed this out before?
DEARBORN, MICH.—At a mosque, I am asked by a middle-aged woman at the entrance to remove my shoes. Can she be serious?
“Excuse me, dear Madame, but I prefer to keep my shoes on— both of them.” Yet she asks again: “If you don’t mind, hon, take them off.”
Ah, but you see, I do mind. Islamofascism. Fascislamism. Take your pick. It can happen here. To my antitotalitarian friends in America, I can only say, keep your shoes on! Let us sit on the floor and clap our shoes together! Wear shoes on your hands! Or at least socks! Hang more shoes on your ears, perhaps the lightweight sandals called “flip-flops.”
Oh no, my fascislamistotalitarian friends, we are sorry to disappoint. I am afraid we must insist on wearing our shoes, in fact a whole panoply of footwear, at all hours, in all places. The alternative, as the 20th century shows, is a path straight to the Gulag. A path trod with bare feet.
WEST LOS ANGELES, CALIF.—The Left. The American Left. Yes, I know it will irritate my American friends that I have gained access to the most prominent figures on the American Left—Eva Longoria, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Walzer, even a coveted audience with the enigmatic grandson of Orville Redenbacher, whom we in certain arrondisements have long viewed as a sage—only to be dazzled by an actress who has yet to make her formal political debut. It should be plain by now whom I mean: Khloé Kardashian.
She is a captivating presence whose silence, one feels, masks unmatched political instincts. She fervently believes the Absolute has a place in politics—but the Absolute is only another name for the ethical. She would clearly not hesitate to send paratroopers into Lithuania to defend human rights and does not suffer from the pacifism so prevalent on the Left. Like me, she refuses on principle to wear a tie, or so I surmise by her assenting murmurs to my excited questions.
After a reflective silence, Khloé gives me a look of Zen blankness and inquires if I could “touch up” her highlights tomorrow afternoon instead of today. She asks her hulking factotum (name of “Jerry”) what happened to the Korean woman who did it before. Not for the first time I am baffled by the American sense of humor—is it an automatic, insecure response to crisis moments of intellect? I am led away somewhat briskly by this Jerry.
YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO: A new shade of grey. Ecstasy.
—As told to Chase Madar
Chase Madar is a civil-rights lawyer in New York.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]