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All come to look for America

Philosopher LÚvy follows an earlier observer through the hearts of US darkness and democracy

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville
By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Translated, from the French, by Charlotte Mandell
Random House, 308 pp., $24.95

Alexis de Tocqueville, French aristocrat, social reformer, and political theorist, was born two centuries ago, in 1805, and toured much of the United States in 1831-32 before writing his brilliant classic, ''Democracy in America" (two volumes, 1835-40). Quite suitably the Atlantic Monthly commissioned Bernard-Henri Lévy, the leading French philosopher and cultural critic, to make a comparable journey in 2004-2005 and record his observations on the contemporary scene, ranging from American mores (Tocqueville's elusive word was ''moeurs," which blends manners with morals) to politics. Like Tocqueville, Lévy had carefully arranged access to numerous persons of consequence, and Levy even attended the nation's two nominating conventions in 2004. He also conversed with many ordinary citizens, ranging from prostitutes and lap dancers to Pentecostal Christians.

Expedited by aircraft and automobile, Lévy covered some 15,000 miles, wending his way from the Pacific Northwest southward, then zigzagging eastward and finally to New England. Like Tocqueville, whose ostensible purpose for coming was to examine prison reform in the United States, Lévy visits no fewer than five penitentiaries, ranging from Rikers Island to Alcatraz (now a National Park Service site) to no-return Angola, near Baton Rouge, to three days at Guantánamo. His favorite cities turn out to have been enchanting Savannah, Ga.; Seattle; New Orleans; and Boston. Gay Provincetown puzzles him because it also provides a haven for the super-macho Norman Mailer and his wife.

Tocqueville's ''Democracy in America" was extremely well received by American readers because it contained warm praise that offset his concerns about the potential for an excess of individualism and the tyranny of the majority. This sequel strikes the same balance. Lévy's criticism of an excess of consumerism, of the neurosis concerning security, and of President George W. Bush's leadership (''a child that never grew up" and later ''a small-minded redneck") is counterbalanced by a vigorous critique of those who regard the ''American empire" as a corrupt polity comparable with the Roman empire on the cusp of collapse. Instead, despite laments about the ''museumification" of everything, the tyranny of minorities (owing to the prevalence of identity politics and the passion for entitlements), and the current dominance of neo-con views, he begins his lengthy epilogue with this astonishingly hopeful sentence: ''In the sheer fact of being American, or at least expressing yourself like one and wanting to be one, there is a gentleness, a lightness, an element of freedom and, in a word, of civilization, that makes this country one of the few countries in the world where, despite everything, you can still breathe freely today."

Lévy's survey could scarcely be more au courant. The body of his text not only anticipates the bizarre vulnerability of sub-sea-level New Orleans to massive flooding, but actually predicts an impending disaster and later notes the actual catastrophe with commentary that Tocqueville might not have agreed with, calling for a greater federal role in preparedness as well as response. (Tocqueville greatly feared the centralization of governmental power in a democracy.)

The author's attentiveness to contemporary politics and politicians keeps the book lively even when the jabs seem unfair or unreliable. He calls Bill Clinton a ''lout" and predicts that Hillary will be elected president. His description of that rain-drenched dedication day at the Clinton Library in Little Rock, in 2004, is droll yet sad. His references to Bush are the most cutting of all: ''He has, in his expression, in his eyes, which are set too close together, that faint look of panic that dyslexic children have when they think they're going to make a mistake and will be scolded for it, but simply can't stop once they've started."

It should be noted that Lévy is extremely well informed. Hence his impressive ability to argue with the leading neo-cons whose work he respects (Francis Fukuyama) and disrespects (Samuel Huntington, Richard Perle, and William Kristol), but also with left-of-liberal dissenters like Michael Walzer, whose work on just and unjust wars he admires but also finds flawed. Lévy writes quite lucid prose and occasionally even strikes memorable chords: ''The Kennedys are not, as is often alleged, an American royal family. They are the brothers in fate of Oedipus, Achilles, Theseus, Narcissus, Prometheus. They are the tragic lining of a nation who thought it could do without tragedy. They are America's Greeks."

Although the vertigo metaphor appears now and again, Lévy's overall impression of the United States is a land of contrasts and contradictions, which has actually been an enduring trope among foreign visitors. In a passage that typifies his ambivalent view, Lévy colors in ''this magnificent, mad country, laboratory of the best and the worst, greedy and modest, drunk at once with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories."

Lapses are inevitable in accounts of this sort, but they are few and far between. There are no pythons in the Florida Everglades (unless escaped pets). The colonists called the Indians, not themselves, ''Americans," until almost the eve of the Revolution. Roger Williams was not an ''apostle of free thought" but rather an advocate of freedom of conscience. And contrary to Lévy's lament about inadequate vistas in Los Angeles, the panoramic view of that city from the Getty Museum is fairly spectacular. Most important, perhaps, I reject the notion that ''there aren't actually that many mixed-race people in America -- not as great an intermingling of communities, their practices, their symbolic systems, their imaginations, as people seem to think." What's impressive is the infrequency of such myopia on Lévy's part.

The ultimate irony in this book involves his extended critical dialogue with the most prominent neo-cons who have supplied the Republican Party with its ideological underpinnings ever since the 1980s and are responsible for our current misadventure in Iraq. For a full generation now, Tocqueville's ''Democracy in America" has served the neo-cons as a scriptural text, excessively quoted and cited as an alternative to Marx and a potential array of liberal gurus. To Tocqueville, an aristocrat, the ideal was a constitutional monarchy. Although he recognized democracy as the wave of the future, it seemed fraught with risks of excess in the United States and genuine barriers to successful implementation elsewhere in the world. Given the current administration's determination to export democracy as-we-know-it hither and yon, heedless of cultural obstacles and resistance, Tocqueville remains remarkably astute on that score, yet Lévy seems loath to acknowledge that his predecessor was right -- despite his strong opposition to current US policy in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Michael Kammen's most recent book is ''A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture." See ''Bookings," Page E8, for information on a local appearance by Bernard-Henri Lévy.

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