On Feelings About Nature in America
For a European, one of the most enigmatic characteristics of the American ethos is its relationship with nature.
There’s the wildness of nature here, first of all. The closeness of this wild nature that we tend to think has been domesticated by technology—when in fact it’s just been pushed back a little, moved farther away. Here, for instance, in the Everglades, in this national park scarcely thirty miles from Miami, it’s been contained within an immense reservation right at the edge of populated areas. In Europe, I believe, they would have exterminated the wildlife that continues here to paddle around in the swamp’s deep waters. I am convinced that these boa constrictors, these lizards, these cottonmouths with their deadly poison, these powerful blue herons that feed on baby alligators—and the alligators themselves, presented to us as the “guardians of the Everglades” and carefully observed by the old nature buffs in the county—would doubtless have been victims of the great prophylactic cleanup demanded by European civilization, whose dream ever since Descartes has been to turn us into masters and possessors of nature. Not here. Here there is no real mastery. No possession. The Floridians don’t tame nature; they push it back. Instead of subjugating it, they drive it away. Florida is so vast, and space is of such lesser importance than it is in Europe, that there’s room for both city and nature. And the same goes for California, where, my friend Charlie Lyons tells me, some nights he hears coyotes howling in the hills behind his house.
There is the violence of nature. There is the extreme brutality, also unimaginable in Europe, not just of certain animals but of the elements, especially hurricanes and tornadoes. I heard them talked about at every stage of my journey, and I ended up realizing that they are more numerous and, in a sense, more devastating in the United States than anywhere else among so-called developed countries. “Florida under attack!” a disheveled, livid journalist shouted on CNN the other day, live from some coastal town buffeted by a storm in this paradise for retirees. Attack by what? I wondered. Who was attacking? Which Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein emulator? But it was just Jeanne. It was the nascent Hurricane Jeanne, coming from the Bahamas, fast approaching the southeastern American coast. It would be easy in this case to wax ironic. One could detect in this journalist’s anxiety an additional manifestation of the American taste for grand spectacles and exaggeration. But you might snigger a little less if you tried to imagine behind Jeanne—and also, in recent months, behind the familiar names Alex, Frances, Ivan, Charley, Karl, and Lisa; or, last year, Kate, Larry, Isabel, Erika, Ana, and Claudette—the torrential floods, the walls of furious water beating down on the beaches, the houses with their roofs blown off, the rain of frogs and lizards, the trees uprooted; in short, the landscapes of desolation that we have no actual concept of in France and that three weeks ago in Punta Gorda, for instance, resulted in sixteen dead … People in the United States don’t need to imagine; they know. (And this knowledge feeds their extreme sensitivity to this kind of cataclysm when it takes the form of a tsunami and devastates a destitute country.)
Finally, the most striking aspect for a European when faced with this implacable recurrence of natural catastrophes, some of which (Hurricane Andrew; the Mississippi flood of 1927) have gone down in history and have shaped the construction of the American landscape—the most incomprehensible thing—is the relatively passive roles of politicians and citizens. Oh, I’m well aware of how television carries on about the weather. I know that Florida has the most effective meteorological-forecasting stations in the world. And in New Orleans I saw the ingenuity deployed to avoid a repetition of the 1927 scenario. But let me tell you about Homestead. I’ll take the example of this town on the road to the Everglades, in a landscape of fake trees painted yellow, orange, blue, and red as if to liven things up, this town devastated a dozen years ago by Hurricane Andrew, and also hit by many of the ensuing hurricanes. What takes you by surprise in Homestead is the vulnerability of the houses. What bewilders and stuns you is that everything has been rebuilt just as it was before, with the same prefab kits and the same kinds of trailers, which look as if they’ve been set down ready-made, patched together, a little rickety. You wonder what will keep them from flying apart in the same way when the next Andrew, Mitch, or Allison comes along. America has the means to protect Homestead. The America that hasn’t ceased to dream of the Star Wars missile-defense shield has the most effective warning and prevention systems in the world. But, strangely enough, it doesn’t use even a tenth of its capacity to keep the inhabitants of Homestead out of danger by strengthening building and insurance codes. Just as I’ve never seen a European airport as profoundly paralyzed as the major American airports can be by a snowstorm, for instance, so I can’t imagine the principle of precaution so poorly applied in my country as it is here in Homestead. Why is it so neglected?
There’s the culture of risk, stronger than the culture of security and the inclination to self-protection.
There are the remains of a pioneering spirit that for decades, or rather for centuries, has accommodated itself to a sense of temporary habitat, perched as it were on the side of the road, pressing forward with the frontier, and by definition precarious.
But there is also, anchored deep in the mentality of the country, a magical, semi-superstitious relationship to what Americans, even the secular ones, are prone to call Mother Nature. As if their omnipotence found its limits there, reached its rational confines there. As if the Promethean will to get the better of all things and all people imposed on itself a limit of principle and wisdom in this relationship to the elements. No pity for our enemies, the American of the twenty-first century seems to be saying; no mercy for terrorists, certainly, or even for opponents of the country’s economic supremacy. But we’ll let nature take her best shot.
My Own Phantom in Savannah
All right—I’ve changed my mind. If I had to take up residence in one city in this country—if I had to choose one town, and only one, to live in—it might not be Seattle after all but Savannah. Savannah’s charm. Its striking, Old South beauty. The pastel houses—water-gray, pale mauve, sea-blue, sepia. The mixture of Italianate and Greek Revival architecture, Victorian and Doric, Second Empire and Regency, witnesses to bygone eras when rich shipowners from London, settling in Savannah, vied with one another for style and splendor. The foam-colored stucco imitating cut stone. The rare marble, the columns that lend the town an air of triumphant grace. The wide avenues lined with moss-covered trees—giant magnolias, sycamores, myrtles—where, more than in Atlanta, you really expect to see the ghosts of Gone With the Wind appearing any instant. The squares—there are twenty-one of them—with huge oak trees, around which the town was built. The deliberate, thought-out quality of the city. (Didn’t its founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, mean to create a model city, a utopia, cleansed of the sins of crime, alcohol, prostitution, and—even more unusual for the South—slavery?) At the same time, there is the absence of that hysterical, leveling modernism that swallows up the past and all shades of difference, which almost always goes along with programmed urban growth in America. Here is a city as methodically marked out in grids, as perfectly geometrical, as the city-camps of the West, but which has managed to preserve its past, cultivate it, enhance it, with the same conscientious care of Venice, Amsterdam, or any other European museum-city. This cemetery over here, for instance—this old cemetery with just a few graves scattered among the wild grasses, all, or almost all, dating back to the Civil War or earlier. This necropolis in the middle of the town is not a museum, and anyone can wander through it, without aim or itinerary, without ticket or guided tour. These lopsided obelisks and crypts, these slabs and tombs of cracked or crumbling stone, these monuments, these uneven flagstones, which anywhere else would be either destroyed or museified, like the Cardiff Giant and the dinosaur teeth of South Dakota, but which here, in Savannah, just form part of the landscape, as objects of a discreet but passionate piety. And it’s here I come to realize the importance that the memory of their wars possesses for the men and women of the American South—not so much the world wars but the other wars. Wars that we Europeans barely think about, but that southerners, in one way or another, in shame or glory, bitterness or exaltation, never seem to tire of commemorating. The Indian wars, obviously. The Civil War, which here they call the War of Secession, and which, I begin to realize, remains an open wound in the side of this refined Savannah, infused with aristocratic values, where, one is convinced, this very aristocracy, this art of living and this taste for art in life, even more so than slavery itself, inspired Northern resentment. And then the War of Independence. Here, in this cemetery, in the intricate shadows of 200-year-old trees, are half-effaced plaques from this first American war, on which one can still, with great difficulty, make out the names of young men from England, France, or Poland, caught in obscure affairs of duels, honor offended or avenged, heroic deeds, who now have only these humble inscriptions in these great books of stone to recall them to the memory of the living …
In short, I love Savannah. I love the way the inhabitants love their town. I love the gesture, for instance, of those officers who in 1864 wanted to surrender to General Sherman rather than see Yankee troops sack the city. And I love the story of those citizens who a century later mounted guard in front of the Davenport House to prevent it from being demolished, and thus founded the Historic Savannah Foundation, which watches over the memory and integrity of the city to this day. I have seen so many unloved cities in America since this journey started. In my mind’s eye there are so many cities half destroyed, or simply disfigured, by vandalism and the indifference of their inhabitants. Buffalo … Detroit … Cleveland … Lackawanna … The cities die off, the great shattered cities of the American North and also the northern-style cities in the South. Savannah is the anti-model, then. Savannah—a rare but all the more precious case of metrophilia, or city-love, in America. The love in Savannah of this portion of intelligence and beauty that dies when cities die. The way time passes slowly in Savannah. The extraordinarily special, almost enclosed, space of Savannah. This feeling you have of walking around in a greenhouse, almost a bubble, a minuscule and fragile island protected from barbarian invasions. And also the enchantment of Savannah. And this other feeling that overwhelms you soon enough: that this unostentatious town is subtly poisonous, decadent. And then Savannah by night, even more enigmatic than it seems, less pure, bathed in a twofold light and exhaling the two habitually opposite flavors of flaunted austerity and secret liberty, of the most extreme puritanism and most concealed licentiousness: moral bewilderment, noxious spells, gardens of good and evil. Isn’t that right, John Berendt? For all these reasons my mind is made up. For these reasons and a few others it’s Savannah I choose. Especially since … one last element in my story. I am at John Duncan’s place, on East Taylor Street, facing Monterey Square and the famous Mercer House, which is the center, if ever there was one, of the actual event that gave rise to Berendt’s fiction. On the mezzanine I visit Duncan’s “antique maps and prints” store. Then I visit the several floors of his private apartments, whose wood paneling, costly mirrors, rare books scattered about on polished inlaid tables, offer a concentrated dose of Savannah’s elegance. And impishly Duncan tells me that Savannah has, in a way, already chosen me. Do you know who the first known owner of this house was? he asks, and then corrects himself. Do you know to whom we owe its most drastic renovations? Well, it was a Frenchman … An Alsatian, in fact … He had a store not far from here, on Bryan Street, and then another one on Jefferson, and then, at the end, on East Broughton … And guess what this Alsatian’s name was—this Frenchman whose ghost haunts this house. B.-H. Lévy! He had a brother, his partner, whose name was Henry Lévy. But his name was B.-H. Lévy, Benjamin-Hirsch Lévy—BHL.
Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald
Imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald in Asheville.
Imagine Zelda, first of all. Imagine her in the asylum, Highland Hospital, the location of which I finally found, after much searching. Highland? you ask. Zelda? Asheville has its excuses, given that the asylum burned, and Zelda with it, the night of March 10 to 11, 1948, and nothing remains of it. But I would have no excuse if I hadn’t set out this morning in search of some trifle, some ruin, some ashes, maybe a museum, at least a plaque. America makes museums of everything; why shouldn’t it have erected a Zelda museum in Asheville? So I looked. And I eventually discovered the spot, after wandering for a long time along Elizabeth, Magnolia, and Cumberland. But no plaque. Not a word. Not the least shadow of a memory, either in passersby or in the neighbors. And for the oblivion to be complete and the obliteration total, another clinic, Fine Psychological Associates, built—but without anyone’s acknowledgment—on the site of Zelda’s burned-down deathtrap: the perfect crime.
So I have to imagine Zelda here, on the top floor, on a foggy morning like today—yellow foliage beyond her barred window, cries of insanity, convulsions. I imagine her paintings, her exasperated drawings, her severe self-portrait, the sketch of the young Scott in which he appears like an old Baudelaire, the letters reproaching him for plagiarizing her, sterilizing her, killing her slowly, having her locked up—that was convenient, wasn’t it! Disposing of a real madwoman to inspire the madwomen in his novels! Never does her memory become clouded; never does she loosen her grasp; it’s 1936, but she hasn’t turned in her weapons … And you have to imagine him, Scott—a good boy, really, a good husband, unless she’s right and he really can write only when he’s near her—raiding her inner depths, drawing from her diaries and her letters. You have to imagine him settling down here, in contact with his despoiled muse, a few miles away, on Macon Avenue, in this frightful Grove Park Inn, half hotel, half hunting lodge, which still exists. If the memory of Zelda has been lost, the memory of Scott has been reinforced. Scott? Of course, a guy at Reception says to me. Everything’s here. Nothing’s been changed: the paneling in the lounges, the immense terrace looking out onto the void. And then, at the entrance to 441—443, the brass plaque indicating that this was a “place of solace” for the ruined Scott “during frequent visits in 1935 and 1936.” And the obscene insistence with which I am asked to believe that the author of The Great Gatsby came here just to look after his mad wife. He had come here by himself in 1935, one year before Zelda, to cure his lung disease. Asheville is a pretty town; Asheville is a radiant town; he came from Baltimore to Asheville because Asheville is a town that does writers good—that was his idea.
What is he really doing at the Grove Park Inn?
Since Dr. Slocum has told him it isn’t healthy either for him or for her if he sees Zelda too often, what does he do to fill those long days in the summer of ’36, and in the winter, and in the following summer?
He sees the young Pauline Brownell, whom the biographers barely mention, but who is looking after his shoulder, dislocated in an absurd diving accident in July.
He is playing Pygmalion to Dorothy Richardson, his other nurse, whose presence the hotel required after his most recent suicide threat, and whose main mission is to prevent him from drinking.
He is flirting with Laura Guthrie, his typist, to whom he dictates whatever he writes. Soon he will be producing the first drafts of scripts that his new slave drivers in Hollywood have ordered and which he hopes will give him one more shot at glory.
He spends long afternoons locked up in one of his two rooms with Beatrice Dance, a rich Texan. According to Asheville rumors, he seduced her.
He reads psychiatric manuals.
He goes to his friend Tony Buttita’s place, the best bookstore in town, and buys all kinds of psychiatric books from him. Schizophrenia? Manic depression? Is it iron she needs? Salt? Is it merely a fluke that her remissions have always coincided with her asthma attacks? For a long time now he’s been trying to understand …
And then he goes to see her.
Whatever the doctors say, he can’t prevent himself from traveling the few hundred feet. I am Francis Scott Fitzgerald, the ex—famous writer; I’m coming to visit my wife.
I imagine him then, as in the Carl Van Vechten photo, his knitted tie a little short, wide-lapeled jacket a little long, handkerchief in pocket like an aging dandy, cheerless gaze, hair still carefully slicked back, but the part is on the side. The charm has gone flat.
I imagine him with Zelda. Endless arguments. Bitter memory of happier times: Antibes; Murphy; charades in towels; grant me this waltz; the day when, to please her, he ate an orchid; the night in Saint Paul de Vence when Isadora Duncan gave him the address of her hotel on the sly, and so to punish him Zelda threw herself down the steps of the Colombe d’Or restaurant.
And then I imagine him just outside Asheville, prowling like a child around the Vanderbilts’ mansion at Biltmore, touted as the most beautiful house in America. He loved the rich so much! There are writers who write to seduce women; he wrote to get closer to the rich, and to live a bit like them. These rich here, then … This combination, in one place, of Loire chateaux and the Villa Borghese! This intersection, in one family, of the Vanderbilt side and the Gatsby side! I visit this mansion. I look at the portrait, in the tidy ground-floor living room, of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the first offspring of that name. I can’t imagine Fitzgerald’s not being irresistibly drawn to this blending of pomp and style, easy money and austere rectitude. I can’t imagine that living here, in Asheville, he didn’t do everything—really everything, as he used to in his prime—to get himself invited. At the same time, I know—and it was from him I learned it—that there’s never a second chance for American heroes. And I know that they most likely ignored him, even rejected him outright: Who? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Oh … the failed writer. The former dandy. The husband of the madwoman. The outcast. Get lost!
Forgive me, Asheville. Forgive me, all you in Asheville who welcomed me so warmly. Those days, in my eyes, will have the lasting perfume of a wretched past. This town will remain linked with the image of this great writer destroyed, reduced to obscurity, disowned. Poor Belgium, said Baudelaire toward the end. Poor North Carolina, the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the last days might have said. In his name, and in the name, too, of so many writers that America has humiliated or driven mad, I say it.
Mars Versus Venus, and Vice Versa
Headed for Virginia, and for Norfolk, which is, if I’m not mistaken, one of the oldest towns in a state that was one of the original thirteen in the Union.
It’s the stopover town, halfway between Florida and New York, where, after Tocqueville had decided to skip Charleston for lack of time, he arrived on January 15, 1832, and boarded the ship that would take him to Washington.
Today, along with San Diego, it’s home to one of the biggest naval bases in the country, and it’s also the headquarters of the United States Joint Forces Command, from which the coordination of American forces throughout the world is directed. It’s also—almost more important—the heart of the new Allied Command Transformation, the strategic structure that since the Prague NATO summit of 2002 has been in charge of research and development geared toward the overhaul of the Atlantic Alliance.
When you think of the American Army, you think of GIs and land forces.
When you think of American power, or the so-called American empire, you think of the human—all too human—troops of the expeditionary corps in Iraq. Or, if you are a European, you think of the Portuguese, Italian, or Belgian NATO bases that, it should be stressed, no longer frighten anybody very much.
Well, here in Norfolk it is hard to be so blasé.
The power is palpable.
It is in this research center in Norfolk, ultra high-tech, almost ethereal, that the strategic plans for the future are worked out.
It is in this science-fiction port, tacked on to the old town of traditional southern houses, where cruisers, battleships, colossal aircraft carriers, SSN attack submarines, SSBN strategic submarines, all lie at anchor.
And it is in this particular submarine, the USS Scranton (SSN 756), 360 feet long, 7,000 tons, one of the most modern submarines in the fleet, where I have the opportunity to spend half a day—escorted by a young ensign with shoulder-length blonde hair, so surprisingly charming that if not for her apparel, the military cap cleverly tilted over her ear, nothing would give her away as a sailor on assignment.
It’s a fragile power, of course.
I can’t prevent myself from thinking, while the ensign shows me this concentrated intelligence at the heart of the submarine, that so little is needed (think of the Kursk, but also of the Thresher and the Scorpion, which were American) to transform this admirably buoyant capsule into a coffin.
And when I visit the microscopic cabins into which they’ve managed to cram as many as twelve bunk beds; when I see the hundreds of cans of food that for lack of space have been lined up on the floor, on which people are standing and which in some places cause the tallest men to walk bent over, I can’t prevent myself, as I imagine this closed world, so perfectly silent, where soon no daylight will penetrate, from realizing that of all the prisons I’ve visited, this one may be the most terrifying of all.
But when it comes down to it, there really is immense power here.
The wonder of high technology, of precision, of force.
These nuclear-powered turbines …
This engine room in the stern, which looks like the second stage of a rocket …
These diving controls fore and aft, incredibly complex, which govern the trim or the immersion of the submarine …
These ballast tanks that, depending on whether they’re filled with seawater or air, allow the submarine to dive or stay on the surface …
These diabolical thermal pressures that make the walls of the ship expand, contract, or, at worst, break apart, depending on the location …
These heating and cooling systems …
These sonars …
These antennae that are passive (able to capture the slightest noise, the least vibration outside) or active (emitting a sonar pulse that enables one to calculate, by measuring the time it takes for the echo to bounce back, the distance from a target or a reef, or to gauge the depth of ice or water) …
These consoles and instrument panels—I’m not sure if they’re used to control the reactor or the weapons (maybe both) …
These missile-launch tubes and these jamming systems capable of tricking the enemy’s torpedoes and making them explode in the open sea.
And then the missiles themselves—these tools of death, some of which, like the Trident II, on other submarines, can be equipped with multiple nuclear warheads, giving just one of these submarines a firepower many times that used on Hiroshima …
These torpedoes with magnetic sensors—summit of the art of destruction—which explode not on contact but beneath the targeted ship, and give off an energy from the blast comparable to a tidal wave, the result of which is that the hull, regardless of the solidity of the steel with which it is made, is inevitably torn in half.
The extreme sophistication of all this. Dizzying strategy, technology, logic. The conjoined dread and admiration that I feel when faced with these manifestations of American power.
I leave Norfolk wondering if such a visit would be possible in my country.
I think not, since it’s hard to envision a foreign visitor’s being offered such a comprehensive tour on a French nuclear-submarine base. So I wonder about the motivations of my guides.
American democracy again? The taste for transparency that Tocqueville, before many others, noted as a basic component of its ethos?
A different relationship with secrecy? An open-society aspect even in these zones that tend to be closed everywhere else?
Or else it is this other hypothesis that crosses my mind when I think I can detect a fleeting gleam of irony in the eyes of the pretty ensign, who is telling me for the umpteenth time about the force of a cumulative strike of the MK-48 torpedoes and Tomahawk missiles stored in the ship: Maybe this open-door operation is, in its way, a demonstration of force. Maybe this kind of guided tour is an integral part of the program of the largest military in the world when it has to deal with a representative (who, moreover, is French) of a country that is in principle an ally. Maybe it’s just a case of Mars parading before Venus and telling her, offhandedly, in the good-natured, frank tone suitable to friendly relationships, “This is who we are, and what we are capable of. Take note of the force of your ally before you claim to be its rival, or even its partner. In the era of a multilateralist ideal that has reached an impasse, that, dear Frenchmen, would be wise policy …”
A Conversation with Richard Perle
A picture of Arthur Rimbaud on the wall.
A big, rustic kitchen that appears to be one of his favorite rooms—perhaps a discreet homage to Albert Wohlstetter, his intellectual master, whose fiercest passions, they say, included the culinary arts as well as math and strategic planning.
A lot of books, a lot of objects and knickknacks, some of them brought back from the south of France, where this hawk famous for his Francophobia, this man who declared at the height of the tension between Presidents Bush and Chirac that France had “aligned itself with Saddam” and is “no longer the ally it once was,” actually has a second home.
As he makes coffee, we begin talking about the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, whose work he seems to know.
I ask Perle if it is true that his first calling was literature, and that his dream as a young man was to teach a course not on international strategy but on Joyce and the genesis of Finnegans Wake. He shrugs his shoulders a little sadly, but doesn’t answer.
We talk about Tocqueville, and he points out, annoyed, that we shouldn’t exaggerate; my compatriot certainly didn’t foresee everything that has happened to the United States in the past century, and he overlooked America’s quasi-religious belief in a mission—which, according to Perle, the Founding Fathers clearly evinced.
And here we are, facing each other in this garden covered with dead leaves and bathed in sunlight, outside his quaint house in Maryland, where he’s been spending most of his time ever since allegations of a conflict of interest forced him to resign from his chairmanship of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board (he later left the board altogether). Here, sitting on a simple wooden bench, his face sagging and tired, his eyes terribly wrinkled, wearing one of those gray shirts with white collars that I’ve noticed in most of his photos but which he is wearing now without a tie—here is the great architect of American policy in Iraq, out of a job.
Where does he stand now?
What does he say two years later about this war that he and his friend Paul Wolfowitz helped chart, which is eliciting condemnation or debate throughout the world?
To my great surprise, Perle begins by giving vent to reservations about the way the whole thing has been conducted.
He denies, by the way, having been the architect I call him; he insists that he has never, alas, been in a position to decide anything; and he begins by telling me, imitating “our friend Althusser,” about all the things that “cannot last any longer”—not, this time, in the Communist Party but in America’s war policy in Iraq.
He regrets, for instance, that there weren’t more Iraqi troops alongside the Americans from the beginning.
He still has confidence in Ahmed Chalabi, who was also a disciple of Wohlstetter’s, and he maintains that Chalabi refuses to transform himself into a manipulative, unscrupulous, venal politician like everyone else in Washington now.
What’s more, he grumbles, fiddling with his shirt collar as if the mere idea of it were suffocating him—what’s more, he thinks today that the administration committed a major mistake, and that this mistake was neglecting to be sure of the support of the local armed forces from the beginning, as was done in Afghanistan. “We needed scouts,” he says angrily. “Iraqi scouts, and that’s why, even though we started out as liberators, we’re turning into an occupying force.”
About the basic principle, though, of the validity of the war itself; about the appropriateness of the choice that right after 9/11 consisted of targeting Saddam Hussein and bringing him down; about the political aim, then and now, of establishing democracy, in this country martyred and abandoned by the West, in this land of suffering and of methodically ignored mass graves, Perle hasn’t changed one iota. And I even have the feeling that his recovered freedom of speech only makes him more eloquent in hammering home his conviction that no source of disorder or insecurity in this world is worse than the existence of dictatorships and our indulgence of them.
This conversation has the effect of reviving my old questions not about the war itself—of which I disapproved from the first day, and of which my analysis hasn’t varied at all—but about these strange characters whom we in France stubbornly persist in demonizing (“princes of darkness”) or ridiculing with simplistic epithets (“neo-cons,” which can also mean, in French, “neo-dummies”), but who aren’t quite as uni-dimensional as they may seem.
Sometimes, listening to this Bush follower who, among other peculiarities, has remained a registered Democrat and boasts about it, I say to myself, Of course he’s right. How can one be against the overthrow of such a tyrant? How can one spend a lifetime, as I have done, deploring the inaction of rich countries, their pusillanimity, their recurrent Munichism when faced with enemies bent on destroying them and willing to try anything to acquire the means of doing so, and not be delighted when in the most powerful democracy in the world there finally appears a generation of intellectuals who get close to the top and concretely work for the universalization of human rights and freedom?
But then other times I catch a word, an intonation, an offhand phrase, implying that the actual presence or absence in Baghdad of weapons of mass destruction isn’t so important after all. Or I hear a dismissal of people who, like me, recoil from the idea of a preventive war as being similar to a man who waits till he’s sick to sign up for health insurance. Or I hear something that I interpret as a condemnation of the Geneva road map advocating a division of land between Israelis and Palestinians, which I ardently support. It’s a slight hint of populism, a sudden frivolity, a reaction like that of an outraged old conservative when he asks me if Althusser paid the penalty for strangling his wife and I tell him no, a small cabal of people at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he taught, managed to protect him and keep him from going to jail. Or I hear an unfair phrase about John Kerry or his wife. So I swing over to the other side; I rear back internally; I tell myself that this man and I surely don’t belong to the same family.
That’s where I stand …
What Separates Me—Radically—from Bill Kristol?
I have been looking forward to this meeting.
First and foremost because of his surname, associated in my mind with a whole legendary landscape in which the saga of the American extreme left, the secrets of Alcove One at CCNY, the memory of the ideological jousts of Irving Kristol, his father, with Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol’s future wife, are all mixed together.
Also because of the idea that such a small magazine, the Weekly Standard—with a circulation that would seem somewhat ludicrous even on a French or European scale, nearly devoid of advertising, gray, printed on bad paper, never shying away from a long, sometimes indigestible text—can have such a significant influence, including, I am told, on the White House and the State Department.
And then, of course, because of the neo-conservative ideology itself, this famous neo-conservative ideology, the mystery of these people whose intellectual journey increasingly fascinates me. I tell myself that through his status as a journalist, through the autonomy of thought it grants him, through his family origins (although he himself doesn’t come from the extreme left), Kristol is, even more than Perle, an archetype of the neo-conservative. Are these neo-cons truly united? How does their thinking tally with Bush’s? What is the extent of their influence? What should I think of David Brooks’s analysis when he told me the other morning that the media were exaggerating the importance and the impact of this group? What should I think of his notion that this matter of neo-conservative intellectuals’ taking Bush’s brain by storm right after 9/11 is an invention of the extreme right in general and Pat Buchanan in particular, and that we aren’t very far here from the Jewish-conspiracy theory?
In a way I’m disappointed. With his big-boss suit, his impeccably combed hair, his overfriendly showman manners, his laughing blue eyes, his florid complexion, the man opposite me looks more like a leader of the American Enterprise Institute (based, perhaps not by chance, in the same building, one floor up) than like Europe’s idea of an intellectual.
But on the other hand, my hopes are rewarded: the conversation is a long one, and as it progresses, in this modern, efficient office more reminiscent of the conference room in a commercial Manhattan bank than of the office of an editorialist or a man of ideas, I get, if not the answer, at least a part of the answer to the question of what it is that links me to, or separates me from, this man and others of his ilk.
What links us: history, intellectual genealogy, a certain number of formative experiences, the oldest and perhaps most essential of which seems to be his long rebellion against the way the West had consented to the enslavement of the countries in “captive Europe.” When I hear Kristol talk about how his youth was formed by the great antitotalitarian thinkers of the twentieth century; when I see him get carried away about the cultural relativism and the historicism that were used to excuse the most horrible dictatorships; when I imagine him laying siege, as he did in the 1990s, to America’s foreign-policy decision-makers in order to persuade them to intervene in Bosnia and then in Kosovo; and finally when I imagine him pleading against the Taliban and, even more, against our silent assent to the iron rule it imposed on Afghanistan, it’s my own history I find. These are the dates of my own intellectual biography I see quickly pass by; I want to say that though our positions diverge, our axioms are shared.
What separates us: the positions, the differing conclusions that we draw from common premises in the Iraq affair. But certainly other subjects as well raise indications, throughout our conversation, of attitudes far from mine: the death penalty, for instance. I find, to my great surprise, that Kristol supports the death penalty; I find, too, that on the questions of abortion, gay marriage, and the place of religion in American politics he isn’t far from the most extreme positions of the leading players in the Bush administration. Then there’s the copy of the Weekly Standard I found in the waiting room and had time to leaf through before our interview. It’s the issue that talks about the dedication of the Clinton Library, in Little Rock. I see that the Weekly Standard is a magazine in which you can read, under the byline of Matt Labash, an article crammed with the vilest gossip about the private life of the former president. Paula, Gennifer, Monica, Connie, Sally, Dolly, Susan—they’re all there, the “WOCS,” the “women of the Clinton scandals,” the Miss Arkansas, the women who aren’t quite whores, the ex—cover girls turned into married women, they’re all set down in ink, slammed, denounced, in this cartload of filth and accusation that presents itself as an article.
I sense that Kristol is annoyed when I mention it.
I sense that he thinks a European can’t accept this mingling of politics with such trash, so he plays it down.
Don’t jump to the conclusion that I believe in it, he seems to be saying. That’s just the deal, you understand—supporting a crusade for moral values is just the price we have to pay for a foreign policy that we can defend as a whole.
Suppose it is.
Let’s agree that his annoyance isn’t feigned.
In that case the whole question lies right there, and in my mind it’s almost worse.
When you uphold one goal of a given faction, do you have to uphold all its goals?
Because you’re in agreement about Iraq, do you have to force yourself to agree with the death penalty, creationism, the Christian Coalition and its pestilential practices?
When I have dinner with someone in a restaurant, do I have to order all the courses on the menu?
Or, on the contrary, isn’t it the privilege of what we call an intellectual—isn’t it his honor and, at core, his real strength, as well as his duty—to continue to defend his own colors, even the shades of those colors, even and especially when he lends his support to the government on a specific point?
Bill Kristol is listening to me, but I sense I’m not convincing him. And here I grasp, at least for now, the crux of what separates us.
A neo-conservative? No—he is a Platonist without the ideas. An adviser to princes without detachment or reservations. An antitotalitarian who at bottom, and whatever he may say, is not as faithful as he would like to think to the heritage of Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt—and who, for this reason, deprives himself of the necessary freedom that the status of intellectual should imply.
The End of History Is No Banquet
W ashington, still. A visit with Francis Fukuyama. We met in Paris, a little over ten years ago, when everyone was talking about his book The End of History and the Last Man. I had at the time taken a strong stand against his argument. But I remember thinking—and saying—that whether one agreed with it or not, it was one of the boldest statements of the time. He himself is the prototype of an American intellectual. More precisely, he, unlike Kristol, seems to come close to the idea we in Europe have of an intellectual.
And I must admit that I’m happy to see him again, here in his little office full of books and stacked-up files, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is lucid and sardonic, as much at ease with complex conceptual gymnastics as with geostrategic considerations, as obviously fascinated by world-historical panoramas as by more down-to-earth political analysis. (One feature that strikes me about these major American intellectuals who are close to power and its think tanks: their ability to occupy not exactly two careers but two different intellectual cultures at the same time. Wohlstetter is an outstanding mathematician; Harvey Mansfield is a translator of Machiavelli and Tocqueville; Donald Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson are well versed in ancient Greece; not to speak of Wolfowitz, steeped in Hebrew, an eminent neo-Straussian.)
So we were talking, Fukuyama and I, about his famous first book, about the end of history.
I tell him—and this makes him laugh—that like Byron, he became famous in one night thanks to a conversation.
He tells me that he has read some of my writing on Islamic fundamentalism, but—and of course I’m not convinced by this—he doesn’t think Islamism is weighty enough to become the third totalitarianism that will set the great machinery of history back in motion.
Then we start talking about the war in Iraq, which, contrary to my expectations, he, unlike most other neo-conservatives, in fact condemned. We talk about one of his articles, “The Neoconservative Moment,” which he wrote in reaction to a speech given by Charles Krauthammer at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, and which was published in the summer 2004 issue of the neo-conservative journal The National Interest. This article unleashed one of those vigorous debates Fukuyama seems so good at provoking; barely a dozen pages long, it has his typically provocative, cold tone, and his typically Zen-like way of breaking everything in sight without seeming to touch it.
What’s the reason behind his condemnation of the war? What objection does he really have?
No moral objection; for a Hegelian, such an argument would be nonsensical.
No objection from a strategic point of view; the apostle of the end of history, this man who keeps telling us how the provinces of the empire will be brought into line with the victorious world order, could scarcely disagree with the plan to democratize Iraq.
Certainly not the traditional conservative idea that some cultures are better adapted to freedom than others; I sense that Fukuyama isn’t the least bit torn between two great poles, Irving Kristol and Samuel Huntington—between the ex-leftist who has on the whole remained faithful to the universalism of his youth and the postulator of a clash of civilizations who has great difficulty ridding himself of the stumbling block of relativism—and that it’s the former who remains closer to his heart.
No, his great subject, his chief and indeed only disagreement, has to do with the relationship to time that he thinks he can sense in most of his friends who are unconditional supporters of this war—their misunderstanding of the time it actually takes to build democracy, and hence of opportunity and political tactics. (There is also the argument that the pro-war stance is too close to the policies of Israel. But if that issue is raised in the National Interest article—if he may have been reproached for his way of “Likudizing” the opponent during his polemics with Krauthammer—it doesn’t come up in our conversation.)
These people are strange, is the gist of what he says to me.
They’ve spent their whole lives preaching against giving too much power to the government. They told us to beware of the naiveté of the social-engineering specialists who purported to be able to eradicate American poverty with one wave of their political wand. And then they lost all perspective as soon as it was a question of eradicating such poverty, along with the roots of despotism, 6,000 miles away. And they have complete faith in a political decision when it’s an issue—as a nation and a government are being constructed—of winning not just the war but also the peace. And they adopt the same “messianic” tone for which they’ve so often reproached their progressive adversaries as soon as it’s a matter of building a Western-style democracy, ex nihilo, in a country that’s never harbored such a concept!
Odd, this Hegelian who condemns the messianism of others.
Odd, this historicist who used to tell us that the absolute Spirit was about to arrive, and who starts praising the delays and difficulties of post-history.
Paradoxical, the spectacle of this disciple of Kojève, fed on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and on the prosopopeia of the Idea, reproaching others for their excessive idealism.
But captivating, nonetheless.
First of all because it’s another sign, this time inside a single ideological family, of the intensity, the vigor, the quality, of debate that so struck me during the Democratic and Republican conventions: Hegel plus Leo Strauss … Hegelian providentialism chilled, almost reduced, by the “Greek” skepticism of the author of The City and Man … That is the Fukuyama equation. Those are the metaphysical—thus political—coordinates of this agnostic-universalist, this pessimistic progressive. And it’s more than a variation—it’s actually a new position on the American political chessboard.
But above all I get the impression of finding here the first serious—I mean theoretically articulated—objection to the war. Before that operation was launched, I had written that because it mistook the target, because it was aiming at Iraq instead of worrying, for instance, about Pakistan, it was morally right but politically wrong. Quietly, almost whispering, with that special smile whose very reserve oddly reveals a certain intensity, Fukuyama tells me that these people are to him—theoretician that he is of the inevitable triumph of democratic order—what Lenin was to Marx: by trying to act like angels, behaving as if time were not an issue, they condemn themselves to acting like idiots.
The problem with neo-conservatives is not, as Europeans think, their lack of a moral center or their cynicism. On the contrary, it’s an excess of morals. It’s the victory of mysticism over politics. They’re noble spirits who don’t do enough actual politics.
Two (At Least) Rights
The scene occurs in Pittsburgh, three months ago, at the end of a fine autumn day.
Christopher Hitchens is the one who actually persuaded me to come.
We had taken opposite positions at a debate in New York about the war in Iraq (which he, like Kristol and Perle, ardently supports), and he had let slip in passing, in his very British way of mumbling important things, “Kissinger lecture in Pittsburgh; I’m giving another one, an hour later and a few blocks away, after a screening of The Trials of Henry Kissinger. You should come. You might enjoy yourself …”
As soon as I get there I go to the Gypsy Café, a trendy bar in the South Side district where the enfant terrible of the intelligentsia and a crack team of fellow conspirators (someone from the Warhol museum, the editor of the alternative paper sponsoring Hitchens’s rival lecture, a producer of independent documentaries, a professor) are putting the last touches on what is turning out to be something of a guerrilla operation.
From there I go to Heinz Hall, where, in front of a room filled with burgundy-velvet armchairs that remind me more of a brothel in Maupassant than of a lecture hall, the secretary of state under Nixon and Ford utters, in his gruff, stentorian voice, a litany of self-satisfied platitudes (“the dust of China and India” … the necessity to “identify big problems and reduce them to little problems” … yes to the war, but a half-hearted yes, just for a short while, keeping in mind the perspective of “perpetual peace” that was “proclaimed by Immanuel Kant”).
Suddenly Hitchens arrives; he has evidently made a switch in tactics and, using another journalist’s pass, has been able without warning to get access to the inner lobby of the auditorium. The conspirator turned provocateur hurls abuse at the attendees near him (“Toads! You’re all toads who’ve come to listen to a toad …”) before getting himself thrown out by security guards who, noticing me with him, throw me out too and force me to erase from my camera, in front of them, the part of the lecture I have filmed.
So we walk arm in arm into the night, with obligatory stops at bars on Penn and Liberty Avenues, and with a meager escort of reporters thrilled by the incident and the excitement Hitchens is causing in their sleeping city: Death to toads! A kingdom of toads for a bottle of wine! On our way to the Harris Theater, where the film must be almost over, a signal that the discussion can begin …
This film is Kissinger’s nightmare, Hitchens says, delighted. Wherever that bastard goes, my film precedes or follows him. Wherever he talks, there’s someone there during the question-and-answer session who asks him about his war crimes in Chile, in Indochina, in Timor. Do you realize that because of my film he can’t travel anywhere freely? Do you know that in Paris a magistrate came looking for him, even to his suite at the Ritz? That son of a bitch … Leave that lowly toad to us … You’ll see …
We’ve arrived at the theater.
It’s one of those independent art-house movie theaters, old-fashioned and militant, that still exist in some ordinary American towns. Black-and-white posters for Grand Illusion and Citizen Kane. Ads for the workshops, festivals, and retrospectives that the Pittsburgh Filmmakers are organizing here.
In front of the ticket office flyers saying “Kerry or Bush, it doesn’t matter, as long as we get out of Iraq”—which is, of course, the exact opposite of Hitchens’s stance.
And an audience in keeping with the place, made up of old leftists with salt-and-pepper ponytails, political tattoos on their forearms, pierced ears—and immediately I see that they’re in the uncomfortable position of having come to applaud a cult film (this Kissinger trial, this ultra-left charge against Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, is obviously all they care about) and also to express their incomprehension about what the film’s progenitor has become. How can he, without renouncing what he has said about Kissinger, agree on the Iraq question with Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, and the various others who in their eyes are the new embodiment of the same old American right?
I’m watching Hitchens on the stage, behind his lectern.
I observe him suddenly energized, fielding questions, battling, making fun of his opponents, pleading, insulting, explaining that yes, he is against Saddam just as he was against Pinochet, it’s the same fight that’s going on, the same antitotalitarianism being replayed; democratic revolution (as Clémençeau said about the French Revolution) “has to be taken as a whole”; jihad is just one more fascism. What a pity you didn’t understand; you are the left wing of a big party of toads …
The scene has its appeal.
It always takes a kind of courage to run the risk of disappointing or alienating your own followers; and in this case it takes courage to stand firm on both fronts—to stand in front of these 150 leftists for whom Hitchens used to be a hero, and who ask nothing more than to go on celebrating him as one, and tell them, “I am and I am not one of you. There is Hitchens No. 1, who is responsible for this film, and who, ten years later, wouldn’t take one word or shot away from it. But there is Hitchens No. 2, who continues the fight without you, by supporting the war in Iraq.”
That’s not the essential point, though. The essential point is this: I see him active on both fronts at once, and not lowering his guard on either of them. I see him, unlike Kristol, not giving in about Vietnam on account of Iraq, and thus taking the risk, necessarily, of losing on both counts. I listen to him try Kissinger on two charges, because he reproaches him for his role in Indochina in the 1960s but also for his far too flabby involvement, like that of so many of the realpolitik people, in this war against Islamic fundamentalism. And I tell myself that here, between the two branches of what from afar seems like the American conservative movement, is a debate, even a gulf, of which we have only the faintest conception in Europe.
You have to dig deeper, of course.
You have to try to get a better understanding of this conflict in the heart of the American right between the soft and the radical, the realists and the idealists.
You have to go far back into history—for instance, to the debates between the camps labeled Wilsonians and Jacksonians—and look for hidden keys to this quarrel between those who, like Kissinger, wage war in order to strengthen dictatorships and those who, like Hitchens, think of war as a vector of democracy in the world.
For now, it’s a new sign of the reorganization of the political space that, I sense, has been coming for quite some time, and that is making real divisions emerge not so much between the two political parties as between factions, not yet named, within each of the two parties.