[Paleopsych] NYT: Touring an America Tocqueville Could Fathom

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Books > Connections: Touring an America Tocqueville Could Fathom
April 11, 2005


    "This entire book was written in the grip of a kind of religious
    terror," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his introduction to "Democracy
    in America." It is difficult to believe. Religious terror?
    Tocqueville, an aristocratic French lawyer, wrote his classic text
    after a nine-month visit to the United States in 1831. And far from
    being saturated with terror, it is a refined, detached series of
    reflections on the effects of American democracy on character,
    commerce, culture and belief: why the arts in America are more
    concerned with utility than beauty, why Americans tend to be restless,
    why democracy encourages a passionate spirituality.

    But what occasioned the terror, Tocqueville informs us, was his
    conviction that American democracy grew out of an "irresistible
    revolution" that had been unfolding for centuries, leaving behind
    ruins of the old world while erecting a strange new one in which
    equality is the guiding principle. That revolution had touched and
    terrorized France; in varying degrees it was coursing through Europe.
    But it was in America that it had taken on its purest form.
    Tocqueville sensed the inevitability of its influence and the trauma
    of its coming transformations: in democracy much is lost even as much
    is gained.

    Yet despite the passage of more than 170 years, and the triumph of
    democratic ideals throughout the West, sentiments of religious terror
    in the face of democratic revolution are still in the air, though
    often felt with far less sympathy than Tocqueville expressed. That
    "irresistible revolution" has now even become an explicit aspect of
    American policy, inspiring accusations - not least in France - of both
    utopianism and imperialism. And while some of the energy behind
    contemporary anti-Americanism is spurred by objections to particular
    policies, its passion is also driven by the same terror that
    Tocqueville felt as he watched early democratic institutions displace
    older orders.

    Given that passion, it was a stroke of genius for The Atlantic Monthly
    to renew the Tocquevillian project by commissioning the distinguished
    French philosopher, journalist and gadfly Bernard-Henri Lévy to repeat
    Tocqueville's journey through America and chronicle his observations
    over the next several months in the magazine before they appear in
    book form early next year.

    The first installment of his account, in the May issue of The
    Atlantic, highlights some of the threads that will be woven through
    the travelogue. It seems that Mr. Lévy, like Tocqueville, is often
    uneasy about America but always entranced by it. And at least so far,
    he can claim, like Tocqueville, that his account "is not precisely
    tailored to anyone's point of view."

    While Tocqueville deduces American character from abstract principles,
    Mr. Lévy wants to discover the abstract principles through observation
    of the American character. So the elegant logic that Tocqueville uses
    to outline democracy's effects is replaced in Mr. Lévy's first
    installment by the accumulation of anecdote and carefully observed

    Visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Mr.
    Lévy ponders the willful deceptions of an invented American past. In
    the stubborn autonomy of the Amish, he sees something of American
    exceptionalism. He watches with ironic dismay as Tom Daschle, then a
    senator, and his family dance with a Lakota Indian tribe in South
    Dakota, and sees a sad masquerade.

    And stopping by the side of Interstate 94 in Michigan to relieve
    himself in a field, he is accosted by a policeman who insists that he
    "keep moving," an American commandment, Mr. Lévy notes. But when Mr.
    Lévy tells him that he is a Frenchman following the path of
    Tocqueville, the discussion with the officer turns affable - an
    encounter, Mr. Lévy says, that poses a "magnificent challenge" to
    those who inflate American Francophobia, which he never once
    encountered in his travels.

    What is almost wholly missing in his account, in fact, are the kinds
    of condescending references to American kitsch and materialism that
    can become reflexive in such travelogues. There are times, in this
    first installment, when there is a reliance on received sentiment or
    when Mr. Lévy seems to misread an event: a car race in Knoxville
    hardly seems a prime example of the bloodthirsty "hellish side of
    American society." There is much, too, that is less than flattering:
    the grim edginess of the prison at Rikers Island, the anti-Semitic
    outbursts of an American Indian activist. And as he is taken over the
    Grand Canyon by a young guide in a helicopter, he is dismayed to be
    told that there are two scientific theories about its origins: it was
    created either by erosion over millions of years or by the effects of
    the biblical flood, 6,000 ago.

    There is much, too, in which his own surprise is as revealing as what
    he sees. The prevalence of American flags is a shock; France, Mr. Lévy
    says, almost shuns its tricolor flag. When visiting members of the
    Arab community in Dearborn, Mich., he is impressed with how the
    American "we" has taken root: "on the topic of immigration, Europe
    should take lessons from America," he said in a talk at the New York
    Public Library on Wednesday night.

    And in the deserted factories and office buildings of Cleveland and
    Detroit and Lackawanna, N.Y., he sees an enigma about America,
    something missing that is taken for granted in Europe: "a love of
    cities." He worries, too, about what he sees as a growing taste for
    rivalrous political ideologies; he has seen the dangers of such
    sweeping convictions in his own country's past.

    The strands are still too miscellaneous and varied to discern all the
    themes that will emerge. But Mr. Lévy expects his observations to be
    far more controversial in France than they will be here: few of the
    standard villains, he suggests, will appear.

    As for the religious terror that Tocqueville felt, and others now
    feel, in the face of democratic change, alleviating that may be beyond
    any writer's powers.

    Connections, a critic's perspective on arts and ideas, appears every
    other Monday.

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