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America, in the eyes of a Frenchman

Times Staff Writer

THERE is an emblematic episode in “American Vertigo,” the forthcoming book by Bernard-Henri Levy about his literary odyssey across America.

While rolling west near Battle Creek, Mich., on Interstate 94, the French celebrity intellectual stopped to relieve himself at the roadside. A state highway patrolman zoomed up with lights flashing and a culture clash ensued: Parisians accept public urination even in nice neighborhoods, while Americans see it as an activity confined to drunks, vagrants and madmen.

The patrolman told Levy he was in trouble. Tensions escalated. Then Levy explained he was on a modern-day version of the journey that his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville recounted in the 1835 “Democracy in America.”

"[The officer], who for all I know was getting ready to book me for inappropriate behavior, public sexual display or, in any case, ‘loitering with intent,’ looks at me with sudden affability and begins to ask me what, in my opinion, remains valid in Tocqueville’s analysis,” Levy writes. “What better reply to those who keep telling us that America is a country of backward cowboys and uneducated people? And what a magnificent challenge to those who want to use Francophobia these days as the last word in our trans-Atlantic relations.”

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On Tuesday, Random House will release “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” with much fanfare. In an unusual and commercially risky move, the book will be published in the United States (in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell, who also translated his 2004 book “War, Evil, and the End of History”) before it comes out in France.

“I wrote it for America, about America, so it seemed rather natural,” Levy said, sipping tea recently in his elegant apartment on Boulevard St. Germain. “It’s a more or less faithful mirror ... that I hold out to Americans. It seems fair to me that Americans should be the first to say whether they recognize themselves or not. Also, I had the sentiment of having been really welcomed by this country, so I wanted to give something back.”

Here in France, Levy tops bestseller lists thanks to his 30 books and a swashbuckling, jet-setting, skillfully cultivated image that alternately annoys and enthralls a widespread audience. He is the subject of three recent unauthorized biographies.

In contrast, he’s not a household name among Americans, who do not share the French reverence for philosophers. Some U.S. readers know Levy’s works, such as “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?,” a 2003 book about the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter that drew attention -- and debate over its conspiracy theories and use of fictional techniques.

The Tocqueville book builds on a series of articles last year in the Atlantic Monthly. Levy, 57, and his publishers are gambling that his star power as well as his ideas will translate. The launch of his national book tour in New York will feature talk-show appearances, a reception hosted by the French ambassador and events at top venues such as the New York Public Library, where he will give a reading with Tina Brown, former editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

“One of the things that makes Levy so interesting is that he’s a philosopher who seeks to address a broad audience,” Will Murphy, the book’s editor at Random House, said by telephone from New York. “We don’t have an equivalent figure in the U.S.... He deserves to be better known here. An author like that is good for the intellectual conversation here.”

The idea for the neo-Tocquevillian expedition began 2 1/2 years ago with the editors of the Atlantic Monthly. Levy was initially reluctant. He was not particularly well versed in Tocqueville, who does not have the same aura here, ironically, as in the United States. Levy’s mix of reportage and philosophy had always focused on hot spots such as Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“I told them: ‘I like the field, but the battlefield,’ ” he recalled. “And they had an extraordinary reply: ‘But America is a battlefield.’ ”

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In the end, he decided that it was the right idea at the right time.

“The country was at a crossroads,” he said. “A political, ideological battle unlike anything in the past 40 years, since the events of the 1960s. And it seemed extremely interesting to capture the reality of America at this moment of simultaneous uncertainty, political and geopolitical upheaval, a renewal of all ideas, and a major internal clash ... all this creates a vertigo that is always interesting.”

It was also an interesting, if not dire, moment for the transatlantic alliance, with pessimists warning of a chasm steadily dividing the West. Not only do Europeans and Americans quarrel about the war in Iraq, they clash on cultural issues such as the death penalty, global warming, religion in public life. Many Europeans, especially leftists, have come to accept a caricature of Americans as fat, imperialist, fundamentalist goons.

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Not one for cliches

LEVY has no patience for anti-Americanism. His book blasts President Bush but paints often-sympathetic portraits of neoconservative Washington intellectuals, Air Force cadets, Border Patrol agents and other figures whom foreigners tend to demonize. Although Levy’s friends and political soul mates are mainly on the left, he scolds much of the “progressive” intellectual elite for being “in a profound coma.”

“I tried to deconstruct cliches fed by France about America but also by America about itself,” he said. “Sometimes, talking to the intellectuals of the East Coast, I was stunned by their blindness toward their own country.... This idea that America is on the verge of fascism, for example. I think there are fascists in America, there are bad guys. There is a right-wing America, but America is not on the verge of fascism.”

After immersing himself in the writings of Tocqueville, Levy set off on his yearlong road trip in early 2004. He used chauffeurs, partly because he likes his luxuries and partly because he never got around to learning to drive. Though he speaks English, he occasionally enlisted assistants and interpreters to take notes and help with regional accents.

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His interview list reads like a highbrow, high-powered and predominantly male Rolodex: billionaire philanthropist George Soros, former Pentagon advisor Richard Perle, Norman Mailer, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Woody Allen, Warren Beatty.

The author also landed a campaign-plane interview with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) just before the presidential election. But the nominee’s staff feared anti-French backlash so much that an exasperated Levy got access only after insisting that his story would not appear until after the vote.

Levy also talked to real people in the heartland. In Grand Junction, Colo., a good-natured hotel bartender deciphered the complexities of her health-care benefits for him. At an African American gospel convention in Memphis, he soaked up the pageantry of worship and marketing, the spectacle of “ministers who look like lawyers” and “lawyers who look like bodyguards.”

Tocqueville’s panoramic analysis of American society grew out of a scholarly inquiry into the prison system, so Levy visited six penal institutions, including the notorious Angola penitentiary in Louisiana and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a lightning rod for criticism worldwide.

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While acknowledging that France’s prisons are bleak, Levy was disturbed to find that many inmates were small-time criminals and drug addicts who probably would not have been locked up in Europe. The U.S. penal system strikes him as designed to “condemn the absolute poor to invisibility.”

As a result, he sees Guantanamo not as an aberration but as the ultimate logical product of that punitive mentality, which has been worsened, he asserts, by a bare-knuckled anti-terror campaign that foments torture and other abuse.

On the other hand, some of Tocqueville’s admiring observations remain relevant for Levy 170 years later. The book recalls that religion was “the cradle, not the grave” of American democracy. It rejects the notion of a menacing, 21st century version of imperial Rome rising on the western shore of the Atlantic, quoting Tocqueville’s statement that “Americans have even less inclination for war than for politics.”

During the interview, Levy contrasted the progress the U.S. has made against racism with France’s difficulties integrating immigrants, a problem displayed by nationwide riots in November.

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“In France, nationality is considered something that should be granted immediately and without a republican pledge,” he said. “In America, there’s a kind of course to follow that makes it more difficult, and once the process is achieved it’s much more solidly anchored.... The machine that assembles Americans, the factory that produces citizens, works.

“What’s right about the American model is accepting ethnic communities as a basis for creating citizens. What’s bad about the French model is denying ethnicity in order to conjure a citizen who remains imaginary.”

The book explores expanses of the map that did not exist in Tocqueville’s time. Levy covered the West Coast from the Mexican border near San Diego, where he rode with the Border Patrol, to Seattle, whose “wide-openness” and “delicate, sun-speckled docks” make it one of his favorite cities.

And he dutifully did Los Angeles. He had an eminent guide, historian Kevin Starr, for Olvera Street. He visited a weight-loss clinic, though he believes the obesity epidemic is no worse in the United States than in France. He strolled what he calls the “grotesque” CityWalk in Universal Studios. He talked politics with Sharon Stone at her Beverly Hills mansion.

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As much as the disciple of Tocqueville admires America, however, the affection falters in Los Angeles. He does not get Los Angeles. He calls the city “illegible and unintelligible.”

“The definition of a monster according to Aristotle is too much substance and not enough form,” Levy said. “That’s exactly the case of Los Angeles. It may be a European point of view. I say it with all the prudence of someone perhaps with a traditional idea of a city.... I don’t say I hated it, but I was lost. ‘Lost in Translation.’ Perhaps it’s the city of the future. But without me.”


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