Writer Bernard Henri-Levy comments on contemporary American democracy.
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GUEST: Bernard-Henri Levy
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And it was 50 years ago this summer that I completed my abridged New American Library edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic “Democracy in America”. Few things have pleased me more.
Years before at Columbia, my great teacher, writer and critic Lionel Trilling, had introduced me to the young French aristocrat’s remarkable abundance of description, analysis and prophecy concerning so many aspects of American life in the 1830’s … with its central themes, of course, the impact of equality and the growing tyranny of the majority in America.
Now, just two centuries after Tocqueville’s birth, The Atlantic Monthly magazine has asked my guest, modern France’s esteemed writer and public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, to travel months on end through the United States and to publish for us – first in the distinguished magazine itself and later in book form – his own observations
concerning democracy in contemporary America.
Now, Tocqueville had written that “It is not, then…” and let me find it in this edition … “It is not then merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America; my wish has been to find there instruction by which we may ourselves profit.”
By “we”, he meant the rest of the Western world, and he concluded:
“I confess that, in America, I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.”
And I would begin by asking my guest today whether all these years later … the world has as much to learn, to fear or to hope from the progress of democracy in contemporary America.
Does the world draw as much from America today as it seemingly did from the ideas the Tocqueville chronicled more than … so many years ago?
LEVY: I would say even more.
HEFFNER: Even more?
LEVY: Even more today. Yes. Because America has become so overwhelmingly important in the world of today. By the time of Tocqueville it was a great nation, but a nation among others.
Today it is the only super-power on the planet. If … everything which happens in America has an immediate influence all over the world. So what happens here is more important than ever for all of us.
That is one, one of the reasons why I accepted the idea and the project of Atlantic Monthly and of Collin Murphy because I had the feeling that I was here in the eye of the cyclone, in the eye of the tornado, you know. The, the very center of the modern turmoil of the world is here.
HEFFNER: For good or for bad?
LEVY: For both of them. For good and for bad. And I must confess I tried to do this long travel, this long journey with as little as possible of, of preconceived ideas. I tried to make the emptiness in my mind of all the preconceived ideas I could have. I tried to have as more as possible the virgin eye to look at this country as it is.
HEFFNER: And what did you see?
LEVY: I went in every single state of this country, in big cities and in tiny towns, big highways and little roads. I met hundreds of people ranging from big names to ordinary citizens of this country.
And I saw the worst and the best. The best because America is still a grand democracy. It has … America has … lessons to give to Europe and to the world on many fields.
For example, the policy of immigration which, to which I devote part of the current issue of Atlantic … we have a lot to learn. The way … I know there is a debate here about the“Spanish-ation” or not of the nation, and so on.
Nevertheless, the, the way in which America assumes and confronts this problem of bicultural identity and so on, is something as a model … is something rare.
On the other side, you have a backside … you have backside of the American moon today … you have some things who give you vertigo definitely.
When I was … I don’t know, for example, when I went Willow Creek … this meager church near … in the north of America, near Chicago … this church looking a sort of rock-star hall where you had the preacher … was liar and who explained to his poor attendance … thousands and thousand of people … that Darwin was a crook … that the world had been built in 6 days, 6,000 years ago, and that because of that, we should suppress abortion and we should wage the war against the gays.
This was disgusting. This was not the America, which I love and the America which is, in the line of the democratic trend, which Tocqueville foresaw.
So you have the two sides. You have right sides … America is still this great democracy and you have, also, dark sides.
HEFFNER: Which do you think will prevail when you come back again … 20, 30, 40 years from now?
LEVY: Ahhh …
HEFFNER: And you will, I trust.
LEVY: Let’s hope. One cannot know because one thing, one conclusion I draw from this journey is that America of today is the scene, the theater, of a huge, strong struggle, political struggle … ideological debate unprecedented in this country and maybe surprising for a foreign visitor who is accustomed to think that America is a country of pragmatism, no idealism … ideas, ideological debates … strong, very hard struggle between the two lines.
On many, most of the topics you have had an ideological debate maybe stronger than what we have in Europe and … the end of which is absolutely unpredictable today. I cannot know.
HEFFNER: That’s where Tocqueville was wrong, wasn’t he?
LEVY: On this point, I think he, he was so great and so clever and he foresaw so many things … on this point he did not. When he, when he said that America has a sort of native mistrust against big systems, which means ideologies … maybe it was true in his time.
HEFFNER: That’s the point, isn’t it?
LEVY: Of course, but it is not true today. Today you have … this country which is supposed to be a materialistic one … pragmatic and so on and so on … money first … not so true.
You have … I was here, I happened to be there during the Presidential campaign and I attended the two conventions … Democratic and Republican. And I was struck by the intensity, the brilliancy, also … whatever is your position, you could be with one or the other … but, of the debate … there is a strong debate going on today in this country … on the place of religion, of the role of secularity … on the question of the, the future of what it means to be an American. About the policy of taxes. About the war in Iraq. You have a strong debate.
And even inside the families … for instance, in France we have a sort of, a sort of global hatred and despise towards what we call the neo-Conservatives and what you call, yourself, here neo-Conservative. But the neo-Conservative movement, it is one of the things I’m going to say … in one of the next issues … is such a complicated thing … inside the neo-Conservative movement, you have some strong struggles and of good quality … not just personal struggles … but struggles on ideas.
The debate between Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer, for instance, about the question to know if democracy can be built in one day or not, is a strong struggle. The debate … I happened to be in Pittsburgh, I will tell that in one of the next issues … the day where you had at the same time a big lecture of Henry Kissinger and another lecture of Christopher Hitchens, two big leading faces of the Conservative … current today in America.
But please, what hatred between the two. And not only hatred, what opposition of ideas, opposition of vision of world between Hitchens and … it was, it struck my eyes. I went to one and to the other one. There was more difference between Hitchens and Kissinger then from the Left … than between the Left and the Right in France or in Italy.
This is to say that this country is the siege (site) today, the siege (site), the place of very intense ideological debate and the end of that, nobody can tell.
HEFFNER: You take great pleasure in that, it’s one of the things about America, clearly that you … admire? Is that a fair word?
LEVY: No, I would not say “admire”. It … first of all, I like this country. I was shaped by it when I was a young boy and even a young man. The music, the movies and the literature of this country, shaped me. I would not have written, even recently, my “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” if I had not been literally fed by Norman Mailer, for example.
Norman Mailer, his books were the pater, father, the mother of my “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” So, I am shaped by America. And I love America. You know, when you are shaped by, like the parents, you love what shaped you.
So, all that I see interests me. This fact of America being the siege (site) of … strong ideological debate, I wouldn’t not say that I admire. But I would say, it has surprised me.
We have in Europe so much the idea of politics spectacular, politics reduced to entertainment, I would say. You know, Hollywood politics. And there is part of it, of course, the First Lady of this or that state having a big hat with a rabbit and so on … you have all that in the two Conventions. But it is superficial.
Underground you have a strong debate. Very, very, very hard, very harsh. You have today clearly two Americas … and another thing which I think … a lot of commentators said after the election of Bush, the re-election, that there was a big tide, a big Rightist tide in America, the redness covering the whole of the country except the Coasts and so on. You know that.
It is true. It is a map. But it might be untrue also. And you could have, you could make the reverse hypothesis. This victory of the Moral Majority today might be the last spasm, the last convulsion, the last reaction of a wounded country, of a wounded part of the country who feels that in the depth, he has lost.
What I mean is that, when you go all over America also you feel that, for example … abortion will not be suppressed. Civic rights, Civil Rights Movement of the sixties has won. Equality in progressing.
Racism, racism which was a plague of this country is down and down. When you see … I saw in Alabama, you know, for instance, some, some White people doing quail hunting as in the old South. I was surprised to see how defensive they were, how shy they were in expressing what one would believe to be their old ancestral Southern ideas and so on. They are on the ropes, also. So when you on the ropes, you might have a very strong last reaction, you know, before, before dying. This is also … so, the … the relationship between the two is not so clear as it appears to be. Maybe the Conservatives and the Moral Majority is not so strong as it appears, in the, in the press.
HEFFNER: Let me ask whether this concept of this being a death rattle …
LEVY: Ah …
HEFFNER: … of the Right …
LEVY: Ah …
HEFFNER: … is shared by a good many people that you meet. The more thoughtful, philosophical people.
LEVY: First of all it is shared also by some, some precise figures. I know that my friend George Soros ordered in Ohio, just after the election, a poll … a poll …
LEVY: … a private poll, looking precisely (at) what happened there. Real influence of religion and so on and so on. And the conclusions were not so clear. It was not so clear that there had been a strong mobilization of, of the churches taking power of the mind of all of the people of Ohio. It is not so clear.
And did I mean some people who said that? No. Maybe not so, maybe not so many … but maybe not so many … but it’s my, it’s my feeling. My feeling is not that America …
Of course, there is an America which I don’t like. There is an America which I … which disgusts me sometimes, you know, of course. When I saw in Los Angeles … I, I tell the scene, I think … about when I saw a policeman on a horse, seeing a group of people … of homeless, who were wandering around and there was such a terrible scene which finished by the man on the horse beating the face of a man who had a pair of scissors. This I hate. This for me is so, so painful and so ugly.
But, I don’t … I don’t think it is a real face of America. And I don’t think it is a growing face of America.
HEFFNER: But you know, I, I really want to tease from you, for my own peace of mind, whether this is wishful thinking or whether it is drawn from this experience of thousands of miles.
LEVY: It is not wishful thinking. Example of the South. It is not in this, in this current issue of Atlantic, it is in the next one. Example of the South. You can see the South, as we do in Europe with our prejudices, with our preconceived ideas on the land of racism and so on. But it is not true. Today when you go in Atlanta, when you go in Memphis, Tennessee, when you, when you wander around in … in Little Rock, you see something else. The battle is won.
The ideas of Martin Luther King have triumphed. He won. He won. It doesn’t mean that it is over … the battle has to be kept alive, of course. But globally, he won.
HEFFNER: But you know, why are you so reluctant then, when I ask, in the great battle of ideas that you see taking place here more than any other place in the world, you say contrary to what Tocqueville wrote … and I think you’re absolutely right … that there is this conflict … you’re still unwilling to prophesy, you’re still unwilling to make your own bet as to who will win and who will lose.
LEVY: Yes. Because … it’s the definition of a battle. When you have a battle, you don’t know. I would say that today, my, my bet … I would say two things: today, of course, the Right and not the best part of it because I don’t think that to be Right, to be Rightist is, is a plague. You can be a Rightist man and be a good man and a great man and a really … with real compassion and so on. But, the Right today and the worst part of it has obviously won. This is number one. Number two, I think that in the depths of the country there is something which is growing and growing and which is a contrary. And which is, which will give us good surprise … give you … and us. I am an American by the heart …
HEFFNER: You’re an American lover.
LEVY: American by the heart … in four years.
HEFFNER: In four years.
LEVY: Yeah, this is my bet. This is my bet.
HEFFNER: Why are you so reluctant, or why were you so reluctant to make a bet?
LEVY: Because what interests me is … of course, there is a question of today and a question of the next Presidential race. But you have to see in longer terms, also … and this I don’t know.
But for example, I say … for example, the character of Barak Obama … Barak Obama … I have … I made his profile in one of the installments of Atlantic. Barak Obama is unconceivable in Europe. Unconceivable. You cannot have such … in France … such a prominent political character being on the map of the possible candidates for the highest rank in this country …
HEFFNER: Why can you not in France?
LEVY: Because we have not. Because France might be today … we were the country of the Declaration of the human rights … 17 … 18 … 19 and so on. Today there is more racism in France than in America. You have racism in America still … equality is not achieved. And so on. So many cities where you have specific areas and so on, of course. But, I would say that there is less … if I had to make, not a bet, but an evaluation … less racism here than in France. And the fact Obama can be quoted by everybody as a possible candidate, possible ticket with Hillary or possible candidate himself. We have not the equivalent in France.
HEFFNER: Does this go back to the point that you made before about immigrant being so important an issue here? Because it is an issue, obviously, in, in old Europe as well. And you feel that we have overcome the opposition to … ah, I, I won’t put it that strongly … how do you feel?
LEVY: Yeah. Overcome, not. Because there is also here some problems and, and when you see, for example from the road or from the helicopter, as I did … this wall in San Diego, Tijuana, and so on … again … it’s disgusting. Again, there is something disgusting there. And you did not find in America the magic filter to solve the problem of immigration.
But, nevertheless, I would say that you have not the problem as acutely as we have in, in France. There is a tolerance to the minorities. There is a way to welcome them, there is a … and also in the minorities, a way, a manner to become American. Which … which does not exist in France. Where you have big, bigger shocks between the communities.
HEFFNER: May I just … in the last few minutes that we have … sort of turn the table and ask you what you think of the future of Europe, of France, Germany?
LEVY: Ah … I’m in America since one year … so I have …
LEVY: … lost [laughter]
LEVY: … the track with France a little. France will remain … I love this country, of course. But the risk today … we have a real problem which is this Constitutional treaty, which we will vote in favor of or against … as you know there was a referendum to know if we will … if France says “no” to the next European Treaty, then I think that it will be very bad news for France, and that my home country will become a very, very tiny country on the map of the world.
And that, for example, what happened with Chirac at the beginning of the war in Iraq when Chirac stood against the entrance in war in the United Nations … you know all this story. Would not be possible again in France … becoming a tiny, little country. This is at stake today … will France remain a country with a great voice, which I hope. Or will France become a little poor country, which I fear. This depends on the 29th of May.
HEFFNER: What do you anticipate?
LEVY: I hope “yes”, but it will be hard. It will be a very tiny majority … very little majority for the “yes”. But when it is tiny when cannot swear … bet … but not swear.
HEFFNER: And other sections of old Europe, as Don Rumsfeld referred to it?
LEVY: Old Europe? Which means a democratic new Europe? I take … I buy the idea because my fear about America … the European part of America is something which must be blessed and cherished by Americans themselves. The European part of America. You are America. America is something else, of course.
But in the bottom of it, at the heart of America there is this European link which is not the worst part of your identity. I hope you will keep it. I hope the forces who try to whisper to your ear that America builds a completely new civilization, breaking the ropes, the ropes … the links with Europe … I hope that this whisper will be more silent.
HEFFNER: And the rest of the world. You, you make a good deal about what you, you feel … you see this very vibrant, active Muslim community in America about which you write very positively. And I see we have one minute left. You are as enthusiastic about that.
LEVY: Yeah. Of course, I saw in Dearborn the representative of this Arab community, this will to become American, this fascination for the Jewish way of becoming American … all this is a good sign. A good sign of the reality of Islam in America.
But you also have the other one. You have the two. I didn’t say it here, but I said that in my book about Daniel Pearl, you have also, not far from New York City, in the Catskills, some compounds of Muslim organizations … Jihadists, fundamentalists, watched out by the FBI I think, and which are linked with a man, a Pakistani cleric which is not the best guy on the planet today. So, again, here battle. Again, here, a real fight. An ideological one.
The real question of today, the real clash of civilization is not between America and the rest of the world. It is inside Islam, between the modern, enlightened democratic Islam which is overwhelmingly dominant and the fundamentalist, radical Islam. This is the real fight.
HEFFNER: Mr. Levy, thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.