A People and Its Flag
It was here, a little south of Boston, on this East Coast that still bears the mark of Europe so clearly, that Alexis de Tocqueville came ashore: Newport, Rhode Island. Its well-kept Easton’s Beach. Its yachts. Its Palladian mansions and painted wooden houses that remind me of the beach towns of Normandy. A naval museum. An athenaeum library. Bed-and-breakfasts with a picture of the owner displayed instead of a sign. Gorgeous trees. Tennis courts. A Georgian-style synagogue, exhibited as the oldest in the United States, but which, with its well-polished pale wood, its fluted columns, its spotless black rattan chairs, its large candelabra, its plaque engraved with clear-cut letters in memory of Isaac Touro and the six or seven great spiritual leaders who succeeded him, its American flag standing next to the Torah scroll under glass, seems to me, on the contrary, strangely modern.
And then, of course, the flags—a riot of American flags, at crossroads, on building fronts, on car hoods, on pay phones, on the furniture displayed in the windows along Thames Street, on the boats tied to the dock and on the moorings with no boats, on beach umbrellas, on parasols, on bicycle saddlebags—everywhere, in every form, flapping in the wind or on stickers, an epidemic of flags that has spread throughout the city. There are also, as it happens, a lot of Japanese flags. A Japanese cultural festival is opening, with exhibitions of prints, sushi samples on the boardwalk, sumo wrestling in the street, barkers enticing passersby to come look at these wonders, these monsters: “Come on! Look at them—all white and powdered! Three hundred pounds! Legs like hams! So fat they can’t even walk! They needed three seats in the airplane! Step right up!” White flags with a red ball, symbol of the Land of the Rising Sun, hang from the balconies on this street of jewelers near the harbor, where I’m searching for a restaurant to have lunch in.
In the end, though, it’s the American flag that dominates. One is struck by the omnipresence of the Star-Spangled Banner, even on the T-shirts of the kids who come to watch the sumo wrestlers as the little crowd cheers them on. It’s the flag of the American cavalry in westerns. It’s the flag of Frank Capra movies. It’s the fetish that is there, in the frame, every time the American president appears. It’s the beloved flag, almost a living being, the use of which I understand is subject to rules—not just rules but an extremely precise code of flag behavior: Don’t get it dirty, don’t copy it, don’t tattoo it onto your body, never let it fall on the ground, never hang it upside-down, don’t insult it, don’t burn it. On the other hand, if it gets too old, if it can no longer be used, if it can’t be flown, then you must burn it. Instead of throwing it out or bundling it up, it’s better to burn it than abandon it in the trash. It’s the flag that was offended by Kid Rock at the Super Bowl, and it’s the flag of Michael W. Smith in his song “There She Stands,” written just after September 11, in which “she” is none other than “it,” the flag, the American symbol that was targeted, defiled, attacked, scorned by the barbarians, but is always proudly unfurled.
It’s a little strange, this obsession with the flag. It’s incomprehensible for someone who, like me, comes from a country without a flag—where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared, where you see it flying only in front of official buildings, and where any nostalgia and concern for it, any evocation of it, is a sign of an attachment to the past that has become almost ridiculous. Is this flag obsession a result of September 11? A response to that trauma whose violence we Europeans persist in underestimating but which, three years later, haunts American minds as much as ever? Should we re-read those pages in Tocqueville on the good fortune of being sheltered by geography from violations of the nation’s territorial space, and come to see in this return to the flag a neurotic abreaction to the astonishment that the violation actually occurred? Or is it something else entirely? An older, more conflicted relationship of America with itself and with its national existence? A difficulty in being a nation, more severe than in the flagless countries of old Europe, that produces this compensatory effect?
Leafed through the first few pages of One Nation, After All, which the author, the sociologist Alan Wolfe, gave me last night. Maybe the secret lies in this “after all.” Maybe American patriotism is more complex, more painful, than it seems at first glance, and perhaps its apparent excessiveness comes from that. Or perhaps it has to do, as Tocqueville saw it, with a kind of “reflective patriotism” that, unlike the “instinctive love” that reigned during the regimes of times past, is forced to exaggerate when it comes to emblems and symbols. To be continued …
But it’s a good question to ask oneself, in any case, at the beginning of this journey that will lead me for almost a year from large cities to small towns, on highways and back roads, from one end to the other of this country I really know so little. Lord knows I’ve come here time and again in the past. Of course I have always loved it, and been molded, from boyhood on, by its literature, its movies, its culture. Anti-Americanism, that strange passion that acts, in my country, like a giant magnet attracting all the most disagreeable qualities that national ideology can produce, has had no adversaries more resolute than I. But there it is. A few flags in the windows, a slight whiff of patriotic celebration—and suddenly I have the feeling I’m approaching terra incognita.
Tell Me What Your Prisons Are …
Tocqueville’s first intention was, we tend to forget, to investigate the American penal system. He went beyond that, of course. He analyzed the political system and American society in its entirety better than anyone. But as his notes, his journal, his letters to Kergorlay and others, and the very text of Democracy in America attest, it was with this business of prisons that everything began, and that’s why I, too, after Newport, asked to see the terrible and mysterious New York prison Rikers Island, that city within a city, an island that is not shown on every map and of whose existence few New Yorkers take much notice.
A meeting with Mark J. Cranston, of the New York City Department of Corrections, this Tuesday morning at 5:00 A.M., in Queens, at the entrance to a bridge that officially doesn’t go anywhere open to the public, so it doesn’t really have a name. Landscape of desolate shoreline in the foggy morning light. Electric barbed-wire fences. High walls. A checkpoint, as at the edge of a war zone, where the prison guards, almost all of them black, greet one another as they come on duty; and—heading in the opposite direction, packed into barred buses that look like school buses—the prisoners, also mainly black, or Hispanic, who are being driven with chains on their feet to courthouses in the Bronx and Queens. A security badge along with my photo. Frisked. On the other side of the East River, in the fog, a white boat, like a ghost ship, where, for lack of space, the least dangerous criminals are locked up. And very soon, clinging to New York (La Guardia is so close that there are times, when the wind blows from a certain quarter, that the noise from the planes makes you raise your voice, or even stop talking), the ten prison buildings that make up this fortress, this enclave cut off from everything, this anti-utopian reservation.
The common room, dirty gray, where the people arrested during the night are assembled, seated on makeshift benches. A small cell, No. 14, where two prisoners (white—is that by chance?) have been isolated. A neater dormitory, with clean sheets, where a sign indicates, as in Manhattan taverns, that the zone is “smoke-free.” A man, weirdly agitated, who, taking me for a health inspector, hurries toward me to complain about the mosquitoes. And before we arrive at the detention center proper, before the row of cells, all identical, like minuscule horse stalls, a labyrinth of corridors sliced with bars and opening onto a series of “social” areas they persist in showing me: a chapel; a mosque; a volleyball court from which a distant birdsong rises; a library where everyone can, they say, come to consult the law manuals; another room, finally, where there are three open boxes of letters marked “Grievance,” “Legal Aid,” and “Social Services.” At first sight you’d think it was a dilapidated hospital, but one obsessed with hygiene: the enormous black female guard, her belt studded with keys, who is guiding me through this maze explains that the first thing to do when a delinquent arrives is to have him take a shower in order to disinfect him. Later on she tells me—in the nice booming voice of a guard who has wound up, since there’s no other choice, liking these prisoners—that the second thing to do is to give them psychological tests to identify the suicidal temperaments. Prisoners call to her as we pass, insult her because they’ve been denied the use of the recreation room or the canteen, make farting noises at which she doesn’t bat an eye, stop her sometimes to confide a wish to live or die. It’s only when you look at them up close, obviously, that things become more complicated …
This man with shackled feet. This other one, handcuffs on his wrists and gloves over the handcuffs, because just last week he hid eight razor blades in his ass before throwing himself on a guard to cut his throat. These wild-animal looks, hard to endure. These prisoners for whom a secure system of serving hatches had to be invented, because they took advantage of the moment when their scrap of food was slid over to them to bite the guard’s hand. The little Hispanic man, hand on his ear, streaming blood, screaming that he should be taken to the infirmary, under the shouts of his black co-detainees—the guard tells me he has a “Rikers cut,” a ritual gash made to the ear or face of an inmate by the big shots of the Latin Kings and the Bloods, the gangs that control the prison. The shouts, the “fuck you”s, the enraged banging on the metal doors in the maximum-security section. Farther on, at the end of the section, in one of the three “shower cells,” which open onto the corridor, the spectacle of a bearded, naked giant jerking off in front of an impassive female guard, to whom he shouts in the voice of a madman, “Come and get me, bitch! Come on!” And then the cry of alarm my guard lets out when, dying of thirst, I bend toward a sink in the hallway: “No! Not there! Don’t drink there!” Seeing my surprise, she regains her composure. Excuses herself. Stammers out that it’s all right, it’s just the prisoners’ sink, I could have drunk there. But her reflex says a lot about sanitary conditions in the jail. Rikers Island is actually a “jail,” not a “prison.” It accepts either those who have been charged and await sentencing or those sentenced to less than a year. What would this be like if it were a real prison? How would these people be treated if they were hardened criminals?
On the way back with Mark Cranston, taking the bridge that leads to the normal world, and noticing what I hadn’t noticed when I arrived—namely, that from where I am and, very probably, from the volleyball court and the exercise yard and even certain cells, you can see, as if you were touching it, the Manhattan skyline—I can’t dodge this question: Does the impression of having brushed with hell arise because Rikers is cut off, or because it is so close to everything? And then another question, which occurs to me when Cranston, anxious about the impression his “house” has made, explains that the island used to be a huge garbage dump where the city’s trash was unloaded: Prison or dumping ground, then? A kind of replacement, on the same site, of society’s trash by its rejects? First impressions of the system. First briefing.
On Religion in General, And Baseball in Particular
Leaving the city. Yes, leaving New York, which I know too well, fast, and through a driving rain, we are on the way to Cooperstown, that miniature village in the central part of the state, which has managed at least three times to be in the heart of high-tension zones in American history. It was the town of James Fenimore Cooper, and thus of the symbolic responsibility for the slaughter of the Indians. It lies in a region where, before the Civil War, fleeing slaves and their smugglers passed through. And last but not least, since this is the claim to fame to which it seems most attached, it is the world capital of baseball.
I spend the night in a wooden chalet that has been transformed into a bed-and-breakfast, with ceramic rabbits in the garden and a magazine in the bedroom that explains how “to live comfortably at thirty,” how to be “older than seventy and still be in love,” and “six ways to get your daily glass of milk.” The house is run by two commanding women, mother and daughter, who wear identical blood-red canvas aprons and look the spitting image of Margaret Thatcher at two stages of her life. I spend time in the morning listening to these ladies tell me the history of their house. The building was actually created a century ago by an officer in the Civil War, but it has been renovated so as to hide all antique traces. I am interested in the “bed-and-breakfast business,” which is the passion of their existence: “Is this your first experience? Did you like it? I’m glad you did, since there are as many bed-and-breakfasts as there are owners. Everyone puts their mark on it—it’s an art, a religion. No, that’s not the word, ‘religion’; we don’t make any difference here between religions—no more than we would with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Which one actually won, by the way?” (She has turned toward a customer in shorts and undershirt, who is sitting at the table next to mine and shrugs as he wolfs down a huge slab of bacon.) “See, he doesn’t know. That means it doesn’t count. And you—what are you? Oh! Jewish. Oh! Atheist. That’s okay … Everyone does what they want … In this business you have to like ninety-nine percent of your clients …”
In short, the breakfast was a little long. But now I’m in the immense museum, completely disproportionate to the dollhouses in the rest of the town. Here this great national sport is honored, this sport that establishes people’s identities, becomes part of their imaginative world—almost the American civic and patriotic religion, this baseball. Isn’t there, in the Hall of Fame adjoining the museum, a plaque devoted to those champions who interrupted their careers to serve in American wars?
This is not a museum, it’s a church. These are not rooms, they’re chapels. The visitors themselves aren’t really visitors but devotees, meditative and fervent. I hear one of them asking, in a low voice, if it’s true that the greatest champions are buried here—beneath our feet, as if we were at Westminster Abbey, or in the Imperial Crypt beneath the Kapuziner Church in Vienna. And every effort is made to sanctify Cooperstown itself, this cradle of the national religion, this new Nazareth, this simple little town that nothing prepared for its election and yet which was present at the birth of the thing. An edifying history, told in the exhibition rooms and the brochures, of the scientific commission created at the beginning of the twentieth century by a former baseball player who became a millionaire and launched a nationwide contest on the theme “Send us your oldest baseball memory.” He collected the testimony of an old engineer from Denver who in 1839, in Cooperstown, in front of the tailor’s shop, saw Abner Doubleday, later a Northern general and a Civil War hero, the man who would fire the first shot against the Southerners, explain the game to passersby, set down the rules, and, in fact, baptize it.
It was in honor of this story that the year 1939, exactly a century later, was chosen for the inauguration of the museum. In a well-known article in Natural History, the paleontologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould recalled that a long-ago exhibit at the museum noted that “in the hearts of those who love baseball” the Yankee general remains “the lad in the pasture where the game was invented.” It’s because of this story that the big stadium nearby—where, they say, some of the finest games in the country are played—is called Doubleday Field and bears on its front the fine, proud inscription BIRTHPLACE OF BASEBALL. And what can one say, finally, of the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, who at Arlington a few years ago to place a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, publicly remembered Abner Doubleday, that son of Cooperstown, also buried in the National Cemetery, officially proclaiming him on that day, before the eyes of America and the world, the pope of the national religion? That day it was not just the town but the entire United States that joined in a celebration that had the twofold merit of associating the most popular sport in the country with the traditional rural values that Fenimore Cooper’s town embodies, and also with the patriotic grandeur that the name Doubleday bears.
The only problem, Tim Wiles, the museum’s director of research, tells me, is that Abner Doubleday, in that famous year of 1839, wasn’t in Cooperstown but at West Point; that the old engineer, who was supposed to have played that first game with him, had been just five years old; that the word “baseball” had already appeared in 1815, in a novel by Jane Austen, and in 1748, in a private letter found in England; that a baseball scholar, an eminent member of the Society for American Baseball Research, had just discovered, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, an even older trace; that the Egyptians had, it seems, their own form of the game. The only problem, he says, is that we have always known—since 1939, in fact, since the museum’s opening—that baseball is a sport of the people, and even if, like all sports of the people, it suffers from a lack of written archives, its origin is age-old. The only problem is that this history is a myth, and every year millions of men and women come, like me, to visit a town devoted entirely to its celebration.
The False as Will and Representation
Two hypotheses to work from. Either the visitors in question are ignoramuses who believe, in good faith, that it’s all true; or, on the contrary, they are in the know. They know that the story doesn’t hold true, but the subject excites them so much that they keep informed about the discoveries of the thousands of baseball scholars who form one of the most curious, but also one of the most serious, learned societies in this country. They are all in full agreement about the falsity of the legend; they celebrate a myth, not believing for an instant that it’s true.
Here, then, is a new scene, which makes me lean toward the second hypothesis. We’re still in Cooperstown, but now we’re in the Farmers’ Museum, which owns many artifacts and exhibits the crafts and traditions of rural American life. But you can’t escape the simulation. These brand-new nineteenth-century costumes. This canoe that smells of green wood, from which a copy of an Indian knife is dangling. A tomahawk with its wooden handle freshly cut. A cardboard cow, warranted to be a faithful reproduction of the cows of that era. Dr. Jackson’s office, his instrument case, his water pitcher, his stethoscope, his washbasin. The garden where the herbalist would have cultivated plants at the time had to be reinvented. A cemetery whose gravestones are real but where no corpses are buried. Finally women who, in their caps, their big aprons, their unbleached cotton dresses, act like real farmers running actual businesses, whereas here again, everything is false. What do you do for a living? I’m a nineteenth-century weaver at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown (or an herbalist, or a baker). Every day I put on my costume and go play my role. I’m sure the museum has more relics, more actual objects from the era, more vestiges. But there is a taste for facsimile. They wanted the new to simulate the old. The whole idea is not to preserve but to reconstitute a false truth and celebrate it as such. Defeat of the archive. Triumph of kitsch.
And then here’s another case, even more extravagant. Far off, right in the middle of the reconstituted village, there is a tent where a crowd larger than the one in front of Dr. Jackson’s office or the herbalist’s garden is gathered. As we come near it, we see beneath the tent an empty zone surrounded by thick braided ropes, the kind used in museums. And in the middle a gypsum statue, just over ten feet long, lying down, its ribs jutting out, one hand on its stomach, as if mummified. They call it the Cardiff Giant, and its history goes like this:
The scene is Cardiff, New York, in 1869. Workmen digging a well on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell unearth this mummified giant. Word spreads to Syracuse. Much discussion in the county about whether it’s a fossil or a work of art. A consortium is created, which, leaning toward the fossil thesis and thinking it’s the remains of a prehistoric man, exhibits the discovery, first in a tent on Newell’s farm, then throughout the state, transporting it from town to town. Except there’s a catch. The object has a strange look to it. Certain details—the toes, the penis—are too well preserved. Some witnesses, moreover, begin to gossip that they saw a wagon transporting a block of gypsum to a marble sculptor’s place in Chicago, and then others saw the same wagon arrive here, loaded with a large wooden crate. So the idea is first insinuated, then asserted, that the whole business is a fake—that the pores of the skin, for instance, were made by pounding the gypsum with a piece of wood studded with nails, and that Newell’s friend George Hull, a cigar manufacturer from Binghamton, New York, buried this false mummy on Newell’s farm.
But now how does the world react? The hoax giant is still exhibited, as if nothing had happened. P. T. Barnum, the great showman, tries to buy it and, furious at being refused, has a copy made, which he exhibits in New York City. During this time the original false giant goes to the Pan American Exhibition. It is bought in the early 1930s by a rich publisher from Iowa. Then, in 1939, by the New York State Historical Association. Finally, in 1948, it’s transported here to Cooperstown, where it has been on display ever since, after its truly national funeral. So today people come from all over the United States to admire the biggest, most famous, most official example of the fake.
To revere a counterfeit as if it were real. To prefer in a museum, even when one has a choice, recent artifacts over relics. To rewrite the history of an age-old pastime as if it were a national sport. What is at stake in each case is a relationship to time, and in particular to the past—as if, with this nation so eminently oriented toward its present and, especially, its future, regret for the past occurs only on condition that the past can be reappropriated with well-calculated words and deeds. As if with all one’s strength—including the strength and power of myth and forgery—one had to reassert the power of the present over the past. Or the opposite, which comes down to the same thing: as if the pain was having not enough past rather than too much. So people fall back on the theme of “Since we weren’t there for the child’s baptism, let’s at least be there when the man’s last words are spoken.” The self-generation of a culture that wants to be descended from its own handiwork and, accordingly, rewrites its great and small genealogies. An American neurosis?
They Shoot Cities, Don’t They?
That a city could die: for a European, that is unthinkable. And yet …
Buffalo, a city that was once the glory of America, its showcase, where two presidents once lived (and where one was shot and another inaugurated), a city that on this late-July afternoon—the anniversary, by the way, of Tocqueville’s visit, in 1831—offers a landscape of desolation: long avenues without cars, stretching out to infinity; not one good restaurant to dine in; few hotels; fake gardens in place of buildings; deserted lots in place of gardens; trees that are dead or diseased; boarded-up office buildings, disintegrating or about to be torn down. Yes, a city where you can still find some of the finest specimens of urban architecture in America and some of the earliest skyscrapers, is now reduced to destroying them, because an unoccupied building is a building that is breaking apart and, one day or another, will fall on your head. The library is on the verge of financial collapse. There are streets that seem not to have any running water or mail delivery. Even the main train station, which during the era of the steelworks was a major hub, is now only a shell, an enormous abandoned sugarloaf, with rusted metal signs, wind howling, crows flying around it, and, in big letters, THE NEW YORK CENTRAL RAILROAD, already half effaced.
Lackawanna, about ten miles south of Buffalo. The worst thing here is the factory. It was once a modern enterprise, and the region’s heart. All that’s left is cone-shaped mounds of coal or iron, in lots overgrown with weeds. Extinguished chimneys. Blackened, unmoving freight cars. Warehouses with broken windows. And inside one of the warehouses, which I sneak into: sagging armchairs; shelves of twisted metal where some files have been left; yellowed photographs of beaming employees, confident of the eternal greatness of their factory; crumpled copies of The Buffalo News; charred plastic gas masks; on one wall an assembly of manometers, barometers, steam gauges, thermometers eaten away by humidity; clocks—I count four—all stopped at the same hour, within a few minutes. If I didn’t know the history of Bethlehem Steel; if I didn’t know that they closed this factory twenty years ago because of tragic but commonplace foreign competition; if I didn’t know that the city itself still lives, with a tiny life indeed, but a life all the same; if I hadn’t, for instance, read the story of those six Arab-Americans who hid here after September 11, the ones the FBI arrested, I could almost believe in a natural catastrophe, a cataclysm—of the kind that leaves standing the calcified façades of those towns that had to be evacuated with no time to carry anything away, because of an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcano.
Cleveland. Not so sad. Not so broken. A real will, above all, to revitalize the destroyed neighborhoods. At a meeting in a church at breakfast time, with Mort Mandell and Neighborhood Progress Inc., a dozen or so men (mostly) of means, with their slightly old-fashioned pearl-gray suits, white hair, and fine austere faces, successors to the Gunds, the Van Sweringens, the Jacobs—those Protestant or Jewish philanthropists who flourished with the greatness of the city—are gathered. With slides and diagrams at hand, they’re thinking about how to rehabilitate the heart of this city that, even if they have deserted it, even if they went elsewhere to make their fortunes or their lives, remains their “little homeland.”
Here, too, deserted neighborhoods. Empty parking lots. Cars prowling along Euclid or Prospect, between Fifth and Sixth East. Winos in municipal buildings. Empty churches, or all bricked up, yet I keep being told about the renewal in America of evangelical faith and morality. A fire station with the sign BUDGET CUTS ARE SUICIDE. A rotary planted with flowers that women feel sorry for and water, since no one goes there anymore. And this detail, which didn’t strike me in Buffalo: the absence of public signs on certain avenues. But on the wall of a building whose next-door building has been razed, an inscription, in capital letters from the last century, reappearing the way wreckage washes up: ATTORNEY AT LAW; and farther on, in a vacant lot, on the last remaining wall of a vanished building, a sign from another time, preposterous witness to a previous life: THE HOTTEST JEANS ON TWO LEGS.
And finally Detroit, sublime Detroit, the city that during the war, because of its car and steel factories, vaunted itself as “the arsenal of democracy,” and that once one has entered it—whether in the Brush Park area, north of downtown, or, worse, East Detroit—seems like an immense, deserted Babylon, a futuristic city whose inhabitants have fled: more burned or razed houses; collapsed façades and roofs that the next big rain will carry away; trash heaps in former gardens; prowlers; Dumpster divers; nature reasserting its rights; foxes, some nights; crack houses; closed schools; a liquor store ringed with barbed wire. The Fox Theatre intact, with its winged golden lions at the entrance; intact, too, the Wright houses and Orchestra Hall, where people go in tuxedos to a doomsday environment. But the Book Cadillac Hotel and the Statler-Hilton, those architectural wonders whose corbelled construction is museum-quality—they are empty, and padlocked. At times you’d think it was a plague; at other times Dresden or Sarajevo. An observer who knew nothing of the history of the city and the riots that forty years ago accelerated the exodus of the white population to the suburbs might think now that he was in a bombed metropolis. But no; it’s just Detroit. It’s just an American city whose inhabitants have left, forgetting to close the door behind them. It’s just this experience, unique in the world, of a city that people have left as one leaves a spurned partner, and that little by little has returned to chaos.
The mystery of these modern ruins. Enigma of an America about which I discover that a certain old feeling (essential to Europe’s civility, consubstantial with Europe’s urbanity) is perhaps foreign to it: a love of cities.
The Revenge of the Little Man
He can’t manage to say “stem cells” without making a mistake. Stumbles over numbers and acronyms. He has in his expression, in his eyes that are 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 they can’t stop once they’ve started. Takes on a fake tough-guy look when he broaches the subject of Iraq. When he utters the word “America” or “army,” he stops short—or, rather, stiffens, as if at the sound of an invisible bugle. Now, in Detroit, where he has come to speak to the National Urban League, the black civil-rights organization that has invited him, he frowns with concern when he talks about the city’s poor neighborhoods.
I think about all that could be said about the ambivalence of his relationship with the earlier President Bush. I think of the discussion Alan Wolfe and I had the other evening about whether he started the war in Iraq in order to take revenge (Saddam humiliated my father, so I will humiliate Saddam), or in order to issue a huge Oedipal challenge (I’ll do what he couldn’t do—I’ll obey another father, who is higher than my own, and who inspires me to actions he couldn’t inspire in my father). The truth is that this man is something of a child. Whether he’s dependent on his father, his mother, his wife, or God Almighty, he looks to me this morning like one of those humiliated children Georges Bernanos was so good at creating, showing that their hardness stemmed from their shyness and fear.
That said, watch out. This shy man is shrewd, too. This child is a cunning child. He has the cleverness to call the president of the National Urban League, Marc Morial, by his first name, and to begin his speech, just after a prayer, with praise for the Detroit Pistons, the local basketball team. He has the talent to tell joke after joke and, like a good comedian warming up a difficult audience, to be the first to laugh, noisily, at his own jokes. He has the intelligence to call the two important black leaders who are sitting in the front row, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, by their first names too, to defuse their hostility. He does this also, after admitting that his party must earn the vote of African-Americans, by saying to Reverend Jackson, “You don’t need to nod your head so hard at that, Jesse,” and to Reverend Sharpton, “It’s hard to run for office, isn’t it, Al?”; everyone in the audience remembers the battle Sharpton has just lost for nomination by the Democratic Party.
Detroit is a city where Bush has, as he knows, “a lot of work to do” to win the hearts of a community that four years ago voted 94 percent for Al Gore. He is in enemy territory. The 2,000 people present came to see the man but don’t share his ideology. Yet the trick is working. His riffs on the “American dream” and on small business; his audacity in attacking the power of bureaucracy and Washington, as if he hadn’t been in the White House for four years; his vision of America as a blue-chip corporation in which all people are shareholders, and which wants everyone to get only richer; his talk about Sudan, finally, and about the genocide (though he does not use the word, he says that he will do what he can, if he is elected, to see that the rulers of Khartoum bring an end to the slaughter)—all of that ends up working. Nerve and naiveté. Tactical cleverness along with a certain candor. A delegate, as we are leaving, in the crush of radio and television teams that are asking the opinions of the attendees: “The son of a bitch—he got us …” Another one: “That was good, the part about Sudan!” That’s what strikes me, too, of course. But, even stranger, it’s also that look of a resourceful little boy, a bit mischievous, who has to work hard to be a candidate and to be president. I picture him, in his native Texas, as a difficult youth, an average student, rowdy, worrying his parents no end. I imagine him at Phillips Academy, and then at Yale, trailed by a bad reputation as a string-puller and snubbed by the rich sons of East Coast families who find him useful but a little country-bumpkinish. I see him then, quite clearly, as a provincial narcissist and a frustrated dilettante, a bad businessman, an overgrown daddy’s boy whom the family manages to save from each of his semi-failures. When was this pattern reversed? And how? Under whose influence, or under what influence, did the metamorphosis come about for the lover of backfiring cars and drinking bouts with his buddies, for the failure, the nice guy, the man no one for a long time would have thought had a chance of becoming anything at all? How did this man become a formidable machine capable of winning (now twice) the most difficult competition in America and, when it comes down to it, on the planet? There are men—Bill Clinton, for example—you feel were born to be president. Others—John Kennedy—who were formed, trained, for the office. He is the opposite: born to lose; raised above all not to win. And for this change of direction, this late-blooming grace that hasn’t even had time to imprint itself on his face, no one has any real explanation—except him, when he talks about “grace,” actually. And being born again.
A Jewish Model for Arab-Americans
How can one be an Arab—I mean, Arab and American? How can one in post-9/11 America remain loyal to one’s Muslim faith and not be taken for a bad citizen? For the inhabitants of Dearborn, Michigan, a few miles west of Detroit, the question doesn’t even arise. This town is a little special, of course. Its McDonald’s, for instance, is halal. A supermarket is called Al Jazeera. There are mosques. I spot an old Ford with one of those personalized license plates that Americans love; it reads TALIBAN. And I quickly see that around River Rouge—the old Ford factory, parts of which are now reduced, like the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, to rusted steel carcasses, useless pipes, empty silos, and half-destroyed warehouses in the middle of which trees are growing—conversations switch easily from Arabic to English and back. But all the people I meet, all the businessmen, politicians, community leaders, when I ask them how, in these times of al-Qaeda, these two interlinked identities can be combined, reply that actually everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The question of twofold allegiance that is poisoning the debate in France about where one belongs does not arise here. Ahmed, wearing a turban like a Sikh, who sells utterly American sodas on Warren Avenue, says, “Of course there were problems; of course there was a backlash; of course the FBI agents came here to look for terrorists. But they didn’t find any; we are exemplary American citizens, and they couldn’t find any.” Nasser M. Beydoun is a high-spirited young businessman, married to a Frenchwoman; it takes me a while to pick up that when he says “we,” he means not “we Arabs” but “we Americans.” He tells me, in the large conference room of the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce, of which he is a board member, “I was against the war in Iraq, but less for them, the Arabs, than for us, the Americans, this great nation with its fine culture, this exemplary democracy that’s preparing a fate for itself as an occupying power.”
And then there’s Abed Hammoud, of the Arab-American Political Action Committee, a small organization whose role, he tells me, is to interview, review, and, eventually, endorse candidates at all levels of local or national power. When Bush wrote him, in 2000, a beautiful page-and-a-half personal letter beginning with “Dear Abed”; when Kerry asked him what procedure he should follow to get the support of the Arabs in Detroit, and he sent Kerry a copy of the letter to inspire him; when, last January, he organized a series of telephone interviews for Kerry and for Wesley Clark and a representative of Howard Dean; when he had one of his teams follow around a candidate for the Illinois legislature and be present at all his appearances and press conferences, even the smallest ones; when he finished off, this very morning, the information letter he sends to all his members—in all this, do I know what his example is? The Jews, obviously: the incredible success story that is the power of the Jewish community—what they succeeded in creating, this power they knew how to buy, to earn with the sweat of their brows, this path they made that led them to bring together all influences. “How can one not be inspired by that?” he asks. “We are fifty years late, I’ll grant that; today they are ten times stronger than us. But you’ll see, we’ll get there; one day we’ll be equal.”
I’m not saying this little speech was without ulterior motives. Maybe the restraint of this statement was purely tactical and the idea is still, in the end, to do not just as well as but better than a Jewish community that is identified, without its being said, as the very face of the enemy. And I also felt in him a strong reticence about Israel, whose existence he is careful not to question, but where it is “out of the question” for him to travel as long as the “Palestinian resistance” hasn’t been granted its rights by the “occupation.”
But finally, the fact still remains. We are far from Islamberg, in the heart of the Catskills, that fundamentalist phalanstery I discovered during my investigation into the death of Daniel Pearl, where the terrorist ideologue Ali Shah Gilani is venerated. And we are even farther from those French suburbs where they shit on the flag and hiss at the national anthem, and where hatred for the country that has taken them in is equaled only by an anti-Semitism eager to go into action. My great American lesson. A fine lesson of democracy at work—that is, of integration and compromise. There are 115,000 Arab-Americans in the metropolitan-Detroit area. There are about 1.2 million scattered through Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and the rest of America. And despite Iraq, despite Bush, despite the hawks of the so-called clash of civilizations, these two traits dominate: the American dream, neither more nor less alive than in all the generations of Irish, Polish, German, or Italian immigrants who came before them; and, linked to that, a passion, an obsession, a mimetic rivalry, with a Jewish community that is regarded as an example and, at bottom, an obscure object of desire—a yearning to be, if I may say so, parodying the famous motto of the French Jews before the Dreyfus affair, as happy as Jews in America.
The Left Lane
On the road again. The highway. The great Interstate 94 that leads to Chicago, where we have to be before tonight. Distance. Space. These centimeters on the map, so deceptive to a European. This sense of space and thus of time passing, which is the real sixth sense one has to acquire when traveling in America. And then this legalism, too, this extraordinary sense of the law and the rules, which shapes people’s conduct in general and that of motorists in particular. No excessive speeding, for instance. No screaming matches from car to car, as we have in France. No way, either, even on the outskirts of Battle Creek, where the traffic is at a complete standstill, to persuade Tim, the young man who is driving, to try to make up a little time by using the breakdown lane. Or this other detail, perhaps even more bothersome, which says a lot about the anthropology of American automobile customs: in Europe the point of having a road with several lanes is to reserve one for slow cars, so that the fast ones, the ones in a hurry, which often happen to be the prettiest and most expensive cars, can drive as fast as they like in the lane reserved for them; here that is not the case. Both lanes are being used at the same speeds. Quick and slow, big and little, and thus, whether you like it or not, rich and poor, powerful and weak—all use their lane of choice interchangeably. If you’re late, make sure not to blow your horn at the asshole who’s blocking your way and who in France would comply and move over. You can shout, “Get out of the way, moron, and let me pass” all you like; that would make him give way in France. Here, not only will he not give way, not only will he keep going at his imperturbable pace, sure of his right of way, but you’ll see through his window, if you finally manage to pass him, his indignant, alarmed, incredulous look—”Hey! Big and little, we’re all in this together! This is an automobile democracy!” A real lesson, in the field, of equality of conditions where we French flaunt our social distinctions, our privileges. And a real example, once again, of the perspicacity of Tocqueville, who, more than a century before the birth of the highway, noted that “the first and liveliest of the passions inspired by equality of status” is “the love of equality itself.” There we are.
Another incident, mid-afternoon, no less Tocquevillean.
Seized by a strong need to piss, and tired of the Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Pizza Huts, where there are almost always signs telling you the name of the guy who “cleaned this bathroom with pride” and the name of the “supervisor” whom you should call “for comments and compliments,” I ask Tim to let me off at the edge of a quiet field bathed in sunlight. Scarcely have I begun when I hear behind me the roar of a motor followed by a screeching of brakes. I turn around. It’s a police car.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting some fresh air.”
“You don’t have the right to get fresh air.”
“Okay, I’m pissing.”
“You don’t have the right to piss.”
“What do I have a right to, then?”
“Nothing: it is forbidden on highways to stop, hang around, dawdle, and to piss.”
“I didn’t know …”
“I don’t give a damn what you know—keep moving.”
“I’m French …”
“I couldn’t care less if you’re French—the law’s the same for everyone. Keep moving.”
“I wrote a book on Daniel Pearl.”
“And a book on the forgotten wars.”
“What kind of wars?”
“I’m writing about following the path of Tocqueville …”
And suddenly, as the name Tocqueville is uttered, a sort of miracle occurs! The cop’s face goes from suspicious to curious to almost friendly.
“Tocqueville—really? Alexis de Tocqueville?”
And after I tell him yes, Alexis, I’m following in the footsteps of this great compatriot who, 170 years ago, must have passed somewhere near here, this awkward customer, red with rage, who for all I knew was getting ready to book me for inappropriate behavior, for sexual display on a public highway, or, in any case, for “loitering with intent,” looks at me with sudden affability and begins to ask me what, in my opinion, continues to be valid in Tocqueville’s analysis.
Three lessons here. First, this “loitering with intent,” which shows how paranoid American society after 9/11 has become. (Didn’t I read the other day a story about a twenty-four-year-old Pakistani, Ansar Mahmood, who in the fall of 2001 was surprised as he was lingering near a water-treatment facility on the Hudson, and held in custody for three years before being deported?) Second, this command to “keep moving,” which I had already noticed in the airports, and at the office in Washington where we went to get press badges, and in front of my hotel, which had the misfortune of being opposite the White House, and then again in New York, in front of the Ground Zero barricades: Paranoia again? Security obsession? Or a much deeper anxiety, ingrained in the American ethos, when faced with the very idea that movement can stop? And third, despite all that, the extraordinary image of this ordinary Michigan cop, a little stubborn, whose face lit up at the mere mention of this French friend of his country—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 as the last word these days in our transatlantic relations.
“Oh, no,” Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, exclaimed yesterday evening during the inauguration of Millennium Park, which will be the pride of his city. “You aren’t going to write us up, like all the visitors who are in a hurry and greedy for the sensational, as just the homeland of Chicago gangs, are you?” Daley, a little flushed in a slightly too small tuxedo, boasted about this other Chicago, the real one, the one that through his father’s willpower and then his own; through the talent of Daniel Hudson Burnham and then of Edward H. Bennett, the city’s architects, its landscapers, its Hausmanns; and thanks also to the simple decision to open up the city onto the lake and let the light in, has become this magical, beautiful city, perhaps the most beautiful city in the United States, whose apotheosis he is now celebrating, along with 2,000 handpicked guests. Mayor Daley is right. And I like the passion he shows as he talks about his taste for urbanism itself, his obsessions with ecology and art, his crusade for “green roofs,” hanging gardens, lakeside towers, and also for Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. I like the idea of the other artists (Anish Kapoor and Frank Gehry, Jaume Plensa and Kathryn Gustafson) whom he has managed to attract for this park, with the help of the successors to the old magnates of steel, chewing gum, and sausages who made the city’s first fortunes—with the help and money of all these new philanthropists parading past him in their evening gowns, their tuxedos, their face-lifts.
Except … except that there is also the city conjured by James T. Farrell. There is, despite Daley’s protests, the Chicago of junkies, bums, whores, freaks, and hoodlums portrayed by Nelson Algren (and Otto Preminger). There is—still on the subject of Nelson Algren—an astounding story that says a lot about the propensity of the city’s inhabitants to forget its shadowy side. On Evergreen Street one can still see the apartment where Algren lived with Simone de Beauvoir. After Algren’s death the street was baptized Nelson Algren Street before being quickly, almost immediately, re-baptized Evergreen Street, after formal protests by residents who did not think the novelist of the dregs of society was worthy of such commemoration.
There is this other part of the city, about which no one wants to speak, but which I took time this morning to explore a little: Chinatown; the neighborhood of the insane, released en masse from asylums during the Reagan years; the slums on Sacramento Avenue … the division between Lawndale and La Villita, “The Little Village,” mostly black on one side and mostly Hispanic on the other … There is this other city, where the signs are in Spanish, where you can eat only tortillas and tacos, where the supermarket is called La Ilusión and the butcher is Aguas Calientes—there is this other city where the gang Latin Kings is still, after thirty years, waging its long war against the gang Two Sixers.
“Two Sixers,” I am told, not without scorn, by the young Hispanic who is guiding me down Broadway to the famous Green Mill—half jazz club, half cocktail lounge, where, it is said, Al Capone was a regular. “Just ‘Two Sixers.’ Two and six. Like Twenty-sixth Street. Isn’t that totally stupid—to call yourself the name of the street where you were born? We don’t give a damn. We’re the biggest gang in the city, with branches all over the country. The only problem is when the bastards come taunt us or try to pick up one of our girls right in front of us. We don’t put up with that, and there can be fighting.”
There was a fight that night. Gunfire near the Pilsen neighborhood. A punitive expedition against two blacks who, eight days before, had disrupted a Latin Kings wedding. Another member of the Latin Kings had discovered on the Internet that the two had made fun of the famous crown, the gang’s symbol. Another incident: a member of the Two Sixers who saw, with his own eyes, a Latin King mimicking the victory sign that, in principle, is the rally sign of the Sixers. And yet another settling of accounts, linked to a matter of unpaid rent. The result of all this shows at the courthouse on California Boulevard, where I have a meeting this morning with Judge Paul B. Biebel: forty-five men, mostly black and Hispanic, arrested overnight. That’s a lot, forty-five. It’s too many for the handsome courtrooms whose coffered ceilings go back to the days of Mafia capos and a different kind of crime. And it’s so much too much that they have to be assembled elsewhere, in a basement room, where they get processed by video conference: “Do you speak English? Name? Age? Occupation? …” And the procession on the video of the faces of these small-time juvenile delinquents, shabby and blank-faced, most of them with no home or job, who seem to have stepped out of the pages of one of the city’s native sons, Richard Wright. One monitor for the families, also packed in, but in waiting rooms with bulletproof glass, and another monitor for the judges, who yawn as they listen to these meager, frightened narratives in which the same stories keep emerging, of drug addiction, unemployment, mentally retarded people who never should have left the institution, two-time losers. The big shots of crime are happy. Thinking the city had become dangerous for their beloved children, they emigrated to the fashionable suburbs, where they live a perfectly bourgeois life as elegant, almost respectable followers of law and order. Perhaps—who knows?—even present, a few of them, last night, at the inauguration of Millennium Park.
The God of Willow Creek
The banks in America look like churches. But here is a church that looks like a bank. It has the coldness of a bank: its futuristic, somber architecture. No cross, no stained-glass windows, no religious symbols at all. It is ten o’clock in the morning. The faithful are beginning to pour in. Or perhaps one should say “the public.” Video screens are pretty much everywhere. A curtain rises to the side of the stage, revealing a picture window that opens onto a landscape of lakes and greenery. And now the bank begins to resemble a congress.
On the stage a man and a child in shorts, under a tent, discussing the origin of the world, eating popcorn.
A female rock singer, thunderously applauded, whose shouts are repeated in chorus by the 5,000 people present: “I’m here to meet with you … Come and meet with me … Drive me into your arms …”
Another man, in jeans and sneakers, jumps onto the stage: “Let’s speak to our Creator.” Then, to heaven, his hands cupping his mouth, “Yes, Creator, talk to us!”—again repeated by the audience.
And then the same man, turning back to the congregation, his voice scarcely able to rise above the noise from the guitars and drums: “Lee Strobel! Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Lee Strobel, who’s coming back to us from California with his new book! On the New York Times best-seller list! TV celebrity! Give him a big round of applause, ladies and gentlemen!”
At which point Lee Strobel arrives, a man about fifty years old, a sales-rep smile on a plump face, also wearing jeans and sneakers, and a nylon jacket—and between the two men, in this place of faith and prayer, this dialogue:
“My goodness! Our minister has changed his hairdo!”
“Bingo! You got that right! Barbra Streisand sent me her hairstylist!”
“And what have you come to talk to us about today?”
“I hesitated between ‘Saving Your Marriage,’ ‘Rediscovering Your Self-Esteem,’ and the ‘Fit for Him’ program that tells you how to lose weight through faith. But I finally decided in favor of the subject of my last book: ‘God Proven by Science and Scholars.'”
A few gags. A quotation from the Epistle to the Romans. Then the lights go down. Now, on the main screen, sound effects blaring, a video begins titled “In the Heart of DNA,” which shows a camera zooming inside a cell, exploring it, getting lost, encountering a thousand obstacles. Then it shows interviews with “former atheists,” who have a whole string of academic titles, explaining how at the end of this maze, à la Adventures of the Lost Ark, there is God.
“The problem is Darwin,” Lee Strobel says, in a tone that makes him sound as if he’s advertising a product rather than preaching a sermon. “That’s the subject of my book: if Darwin is right, then life develops all on its own and God is out of a job. Do you want God to be out of a job?”
The faithful murmur no, they don’t want God to be unemployed, “It’s like the miracle of bacteria—take one atom away from bacteria, and it’s no longer bacteria. Isn’t that proof that God exists? Isn’t that proof that the Bible tells the truth? That, too, is demonstrated in my book.”
This former journalist—who in another book tells how his marriage nearly foundered when his wife became a Christian, and was then salvaged when he converted too—finds ways to quote himself eight times in one hour. So when the time for book-signing arrives, several hundred of us are waiting quietly in line in the cafeteria, between airport-security cordons, to have him scribble “Hi, Matt!” or “Hi, Doug!” for us, accompanied by a promotional smile.
“French?” he asks me, looking slightly put off, when my turn comes.
“French, yes. And atheist.”
Then this reply, as if he has changed his mind: “Oh! That’s okay … In that case, say the atheist’s prayer—that works for the French, too …”
And now he closes his eyes, puts his left hand on his heart while continuing to scrawl an almost illegible “Hi, Bernie!” with his right, and says, “‘God, if you are there, show yourself.’ That’s the atheist’s prayer.”
Lee Strobel is not the pastor of Willow Creek. Because the holder of that title happens to be away, Strobel is just filling in. But the scenario, I am told by a couple, my neighbors in line, is always the same. The other churches are dying because they’re churches of yes-men who come there without knowing why. Not us. We’re a living church. Our ministers are of our time, just as Christ was of his time. And we make it a point of honor to have a useful religion: prayer channels, sharing and discussing visions, organizing telephone services transmitted to brothers and sisters in distress, mowing old people’s lawns, feeding the neighbors’ dog when they’re on vacation, cleaning the toilets at Starbucks … “There’s a lot for a Christian to do!”
Inspired by a former member of the Baptist church on the Avenue du Maine, in Paris, deliberately “nondenominational” and, because of this, using every marketing technique to target a maximum number of customers (sorry—potential faithful), the Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, Illinois, gets 17,500 worshippers every weekend, and has 10,000 affiliated churches dotting the country. Power? Political influence and aim? That remains to be seen. What is obvious is the power of a religion whose secret is perhaps, simply, to get rid of the distance, the transcendence, and the remoteness of the divine that are at the heart of European theologies. A present God this time; a God who is there, behind the door or the curtain, and asks only to show himself; a God without mystery; a good-guy God; almost a human being, a good American, someone who loves you one by one, listens to you if you talk to him, answers if you ask him to—God the friend, who has your best interests at heart.
A Black Clinton?
“Bernard-Henri Lévy,” he repeats, mocking me a little, because when I introduced myself, I must have exaggerated the syllables. “With a name like that, you would have been a big hit at the convention.” I have interrupted my westward drive for a few days to see the formal nomination of John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention, in Boston. In this hotel dining room where some of us have been waiting for him for over an hour, I ask, “And what about ‘Barack Obama’? With a name like that, and with the success you had last night, you should be able to become president of the United States in five minutes.” He laughs. Thumps me on the chest, pulls away a little as if to gather momentum to land a better punch, gives me a hug, laughs again, and repeats, like a nursery rhyme, “Barack Obama, Bernard-Henri Lévy …”
This is the man who brought the house down yesterday, in the big Fleet Center. This is the perpetrator of the most authentic single event in an evening whose other attractions included the First Lady of Iowa; the mayor of Trenton; Tom Daschle, the South Dakota senator; and hundreds of people wearing hats draped with flags and hats in the shape of donkeys, skyscrapers, World Trade Centers. True, he didn’t say much. In his insistence on claiming to be a follower of the Founding Fathers, in his saying over and over that America is a religious country and that he himself is a religious man, in the faith with which he exclaimed, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” in his way of saying that the problem is not another president for another policy but a new president for the same policy the old one no longer has enough credit to follow—in all these things there was something desperately accommodating for a Frenchman who’s used to big political disputes. But in the end … his ease; his cheeky humor, a black Clinton; his bad-boy, Harvard-grad good looks; his white mother born in Kansas City, his black father born in Kenya … In other words, this twofold mixture, mixed origins squared, this lively disavowal of all identities—including, and this is perhaps the most original of all, the southern African-American identity. Didn’t his opponent in Illinois, the black Republican Alan Keyes, just reproach him for not being “black enough”? Who is this white black man who isn’t even descended from a slave in the Deep South? His eloquence—this speech, which, like all the speeches over the past two days, was calibrated down to the slightest intonation, but whose smallest sigh he seemed to be improvising. The hall vibrated. As soon as he stood up, you could feel that something important was happening. And the first one to realize this was, as it should have been, the one whose role was being usurped: the Reverend Al Sharpton, the born agitator, the man of all the insolent remarks, and the author, incidentally, of the only unconventional speech at the entire convention, the only one who dared to jump the rails of party speechwriters and quote Ray Charles and shout, fist raised, that poor blacks were still waiting for the forty acres and a mule that had been promised a century and a half ago to the freed slaves. But at that point, suddenly, things didn’t go as planned: his rage fell flat, his maledictions sounded false. Obama was there, and it was as if all the charm had gone out of the faded old star.
Barack Obama. We shouldn’t forget that image of him when, at 11:00 P.M., he leaped onto the stage with his slightly dancing gait, was lit up by the spotlights, and turned his brown American face to an amazed audience. And we shouldn’t forget, either, this image of him today, at the hotel: lighthearted, facetious, and then suddenly tired, a little slow, drugged by his success last night, almost boring when he undertakes to explain, in a drawling voice, inventing a stammer for himself as if he wanted to talk even more slowly, the fragility of all this. We shouldn’t forget this moment of suspense, almost of uncertainty, when he says we shouldn’t go faster than the music, that America is the country of meteoric careers, “next month somebody else will be the story.” I look at Obama. I observe his magnificent gestures. I remember reading an article saying that Barack, in Swahili, means “blessed.” And I feel that whatever he may say, something is at stake in this very posture, in this marked distance from all kinds of communities. The first black man to understand that you should stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead? The first one to want to be America’s promise, rather than its reproach? The beginning of the end for identity-based ideologies?
The Sense of the Tragic, Knoxville Style
They give me, at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, the room that’s reserved, eight days from now, for John Kerry.
I write down this detail because it’s the first thing the receptionist tells me as I’m registering.
Better than that, they’ve taken care to display on my night table, next to a framed photo of the candidate playing the guitar, a plate of cheese wrapped in cellophane identical to the one that will be served to him on the evening of his arrival, and, in another frame, a copy of the fax sent by his press secretary detailing his mini-bar preferences: “Mixed nuts; chocolate chip cookies; diet soda (preferably Diet Coke in the can); bottled water; plain M&M’s (no peanuts); regular Doritos.”
The craze for the relic this time. A taste for preservation and for the museum, taken to the nth degree. No longer, as in Cooperstown, the artificial as opposed to the authentic. Nor is it as it was in Dearborn, where, the other day, I visited Henry Ford’s Americana museum: everything that has existed will, one day or another, end up in a museum. We might as well make a museum for everything right away. Everything is becoming a relic; a mere plate of cheese is becoming a museum piece—but the museum piece is a plate of cheese that has not been eaten yet, or even served. It’s a kind of ante-museum, a pre-relic.
Tour of Des Moines, this city with such an odd name, “Of the Monks,” lost in the middle of nowhere, without charm, which must have been, during the time of the French, a great stopping place.
A quick visit to the Iowa State Fair, which opened this morning, and which, with its life-size cow made of butter, its prize for the fattest fowl, its giant hot dogs, seems to me like a festival of American kitsch.
But my real aim, what I came here for, is Knoxville, twenty miles west, where what The Des Moines Register (which, it must be said, doesn’t skimp on adjectives for the Iowa State Fair) calls “the greatest car race in the world,” the Knoxville Nationals, is beginning its forty-fourth running.
WELCOME TO KNOXVILLE, says a little road sign. Right next to it, on another, larger sign, are written the names of all the churches in town, most of them evangelical. Then, at the end of a complex of warehouses that contain the drivers’ pits along with pizzerias and stands selling hamburgers, T-shirts, and French fries, is another Hall of Fame, where spectators are lining up; this is, in effect, another church, where the names of the greatest drivers—A. J. Foyt Jr., Mario Andretti, Karl Kinser—are venerated. And then, finally, the oval track, surrounded by stands full to the brim but surprisingly quiet: 5,000 or 6,000 people are there, mostly white, wearing shorts, cowboy hats or hunters’ caps, and plaid shirts, a lot of them obese. It’s a while before I realize that they’re so quiet, so far from the European image of wild crowds of fans, because … they’re praying.
Taking a closer look, I see that the drivers, too, are praying. There are about a hundred of them, in the central part of the oval, gathered in groups in which one can make out, despite the distance, a sort of subtle hierarchy of allegiances and merits. They have embraced their families. Exchanged a few last words with their managers. Thanked the “dirt crews,” those paid volunteers who came from all over the country for the honor of riding around the track in their pickup trucks several hours before the race, in order to pack down the sacred ground and give it good traction. The race drivers are getting ready to climb into their cars, built to their size and almost molded to their bodies; heads in helmets, helmets attached to the seats, so that the drivers can roll over as much as they like without ceasing to be one with their machines. Perhaps, at that instant, the most superstitious of them have one final thought for the martyr Mark Wilson, who died in a crash here in 2001. And so they pray.
When, after the final parade, the contest actually begins; when, after they’ve turned and turned again around the track, like Achilles and Hector before the ramparts of Troy, the heroes really speed up in earnest, in bunches of eight or ten, in a deafening, hellish roar; when the real champions detach themselves and, with the crowd holding its breath, confront one another in a swift and violent duel that never lasts more than a few dozen seconds, the match takes on the feeling of a joust, an ordeal, an epic and merciless tournament. And then one senses that it is death that’s leading the dance—one senses that the drivers are taking all the risks and that the spectators, excited but still silent, deep down both dread and hope for an accident. Theater of cruelty. Waiting, as in duels or at public executions, for the moment of first blood. This ferocity, this violence, which Europe grants—and then halfheartedly—only through marginal ceremonies like bullfighting and boxing, here continues to hold full sway. Knoxville, or a taste of the hellish side of American society.
The Place of the Fanatics
I had seen Peter Weir’s film Witness, with Harrison Ford.
I knew that there was a strange, vaguely Anabaptist sect living ascetically, in accord with the old rhythm of nature and the harvests.
So, from Des Moines, before continuing my journey to the West Coast, I go in search of these famous Amish, the “plain people,” whose precise whereabouts no one at first seems able to tell me.
I begin with Pella, a “historical village,” guaranteed to be 100 percent fake and thus open from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.: “No, we’re not Amish,” a man tells me, a little annoyed; he is in charge of the twenty or so buildings erected exactly as if they were nineteenth-century. There’s Vermeer Windmill, certified to be the same as a Dutch windmill from 1850, and the founder’s office, an actual historic building, where the evocation of the past has been pushed to such a point that they’ve leaned a cane against the table at the exact place where the founder used to put it. “We aren’t Amish; they gave you the wrong information …”
We go on to the Amana Colonies and their seven villages, east of Des Moines, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by a sect of German “True Inspirationists” who had been persecuted by ordinary Lutherans. “We’re not Amish,” says Meg Merckens, the young actress who every afternoon, in a blue dress and a white cap, delivers “Home on the Iowa,” a long monologue telling the stories of the good old times in the Amana Colonies. “People often confuse us, but despite the similarity of our names, we don’t have anything to do with the Amish.
You’ll find them about forty miles farther on, in Kalona.”
So we continue on to the Kalona Historical Village, another Potemkin setting, once again empty, with its post office of the era, its saloon, its general store, still the same trompe l’oeil, the same set—except this time the set isn’t just a set. On the neighboring farms there are actually men and women living according to the ancestral laws of the Amish.
Those farmers I see in the distance, working with the same kinds of tools they used a century and a half ago, are Amish.
These roads that are purposely not paved, where the wagons—for the Amish drive only in wagons—raise blinding clouds of dust in front of us, are Amish.
These men in brown trousers and wide suspenders, who look as if they’d stepped out of a painting by Le Nain, are Amish, as are these women wearing homespun dresses and white caps, who never cut their hair.
This refusal of electricity—except for the very ill—is Amish.
This rejection of higher education—and, in fact, of any education above eighth grade—is Amish. All this, for the plain people, is in the Bible; existence must be completely governed by what they read in the Bible.
These other farmers, back from the fields, who shun a camera, are Amish: God said, “Thou shalt not make idols or images.” All the more reason, then, not to make images of the face or the gaze.
Amish, finally, is the Community County Store, where they sell Amish bread, Amish barley sugar, Amish bobbins (stainless steel), Amish wrapping paper (handmade).
“You’re using a calculator?” I ask the old, bent-over Amish woman who’s running the till.
“Yes,” she says in a surprisingly sharp, fluty voice. “Since it runs on batteries, it doesn’t need electricity.”
And when I try to find out more about the difficulty of being Amish in contemporary America—when I ask what kind of citizens the Amish are; if they vote, and if so, for whom; if they read the newspapers, and if so, which ones; what they thought of September 11; if they were concerned by the terrorist threat, and if so, in what way—a brief conversation begins, which is, unfortunately, too quickly interrupted by the woman’s nephew, who is suspicious of us: No, the Amish generally don’t vote; yes, the Amish are bad patriots and bad citizens; an Amish can’t be in the civil service or in the Army; to be Amish is to be indifferent to September 11, al-Qaeda, the security of Americans, and all the rest of it.
The old lady, moreover, doesn’t say “Americans” but “the English.”
For the Amish, the United States is not a country but an abstraction, a fiction.
Who are the Amish, then? Who are these men and women who live in an economic autarky, their gaze fixed on eternity? A countersociety? An anti-America within America? A case, unique in the West, of an a-communal community, putting into practice the biblical precept to set one’s camp apart, separate? I remember how in the 1960s people talked about hippies who had modeled themselves on the Indians; maybe not, in the end—maybe the model was the Amish …
Unless we ought to look at the thing in another way. Unless we should regard the stubbornness of the plain people as one aspect of this political philosophy—let’s call it “exceptionalist”—that I’m sure is just as present in American hearts now as it was in the time of Tocqueville. A supplement to the social contract. An additional paragraph in the pact. This additional clause, this extra article, which was not foreseen by the Founding Fathers but is in accord with their intentions. Any logician knows that this is a necessity if a totality is not to become supersaturated, and that a society with built-in flexibility can better bring its designs to realization.
Or the opposite. They are witnesses not of God, but of America. The real, final pioneers. The only ones who haven’t given in, haven’t summed up their religion as the “In God We Trust” of banknotes. They are witnesses to a lost purity. The heirs of the Mayflower. The silent witnesses, truly silent, since, unlike the Indians or the blacks, they don’t say anything, don’t demand anything, and above all don’t reproach others for anything. Silent witnesses, then, to the values that were those of America but on which America has turned its back since it sold itself to the religion of commodity.
Not anti-America but hyper-America. A conservatory. A remnant of the Bible’s meaning. America’s living bad conscience but, once again, silent. You betrayed the ideals of the Founding Fathers? Turned your back on your principles? America is a failed country? An unrealized utopia? Well, then, here we are. Just here. We don’t criticize anything. But we are the Amish. The profound, hidden, forgotten, denied truth of America, alive in us.
The conundrum—and grandeur—of a country that tolerates this. I try to picture the Amish in France. I can’t imagine those 200,000 men and women, their testimony, their positive demography, in my old Jacobin country, so finicky about the rites of its own national religion.
Tocqueville in Minnesota
It’s a mall. The biggest one in the United States. The second biggest in the world, after the one in West Edmonton, Alberta. It’s a complex of 500 stores, placed on the southern outskirts of Minneapolis—we have driven north from Iowa—where, let it be said in passing, I saw baseball bats “made in Honduras”; T-shirts “made in Peru”; garden gnomes and beachwear “made in Bangladesh”; dolls “made in Mexico,” in the likenesses of Reagan, Kennedy, and Clinton; all kinds of “Americana” made in Sri Lanka, Egypt, Jamaica, the Philippines, Chile, India, Korea; but not all that much made in America. It’s a New Age temple of consumption. It’s a church—yet another!—to the glory of triumphant capitalism and neo-American living for business. Except—and this is where things get interesting—it’s meant to be a lively gathering place. It’s the one place in maybe all of Minnesota where lonely social misfits, addicted to the Internet and to the glamour of the virtual, come to experience reality and get a shot of physical community. There are day-care centers here. Restaurants. Cinema multiplexes showing the best Hollywood has to offer. A bank where you can deposit your money before you spend it. An amusement park, “Camp Snoopy,” with a roller-coaster and elaborate fountains. Lego dinosaurs in the Lego Imagination Center. A business school, the National American University, for hardworking teenagers. Greenery. A health clinic. What haven’t the mall designers thought of? What possible circumstance of existence hasn’t found a setting in this cocoon, this happy metropolis, where you could, in principle, spend your entire life? There are “mall walkers,” about 200 a day, who come here not to buy anything but just to walk, because it’s free, the weather is always clement, never too hot or too cold, and, above all, it’s safe, without danger, under surveillance 24/7. They even ended up forbidding children under fifteen to enter after 6:00 P.M. on Fridays and Saturdays unless accompanied by an adult, when word got out that bands of wild children were preparing to sow terror here, like wolves. Hence the patrols of volunteer “Mighty Moms” and “Dedicated Dads” who come on the weekends to watch over and chaperone unruly children. So you have to wait till you turn fifteen to have the privilege of attaining the holy of holies and becoming a true Mall goer. The ideal thing is to celebrate your eighteenth birthday here at the Mall. There is an entire population in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul whose dream is to come here on the major occasions of life, to these long, windowless galleries, devoid of fresh air, dotted with surveillance cameras and the occasional sniffer dog, noisy, stifling. They come here to pick one another up. Flirt. Lift their spirits when things aren’t going well. Hang out. Give themselves a festive honeymoon. Get married. Yes, marriage is very important. There is a place on the third floor, next to a store that sells wedding gowns and accessories, where a stout little woman with a machine-gun delivery offers you a choice of weddings: “Premiere” (a one-hour ceremony with music, champagne, and pre-wedding consultation, all for $669 on Mondays and Tuesdays, $699 other weekdays, $799 Saturdays), “Petite Plus” (half an hour; fifty guests instead of seventy; $569, $599, $699), “Petite” (thirty guests; $469, $499, $599), or “Dream Plus” (same thing, but with twelve guests; $369, $399, $499).
The Mall is an adventure—a big, modern, total adventure. Judging from the number of customers in the souvenir shops that sell coffee mugs, glasses, beer mugs, T-shirts, and other trimmings marked with the arms and colors of the Mall, it’s an experience in itself. What does this experience tell us? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist? It brings to mind the easily led, almost animal-like face Alexandre Kojève said would be the face of humanity at the arrival (which he described as imminent) of the end of history. It brings to mind the “absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild” authority predicted by Tocqueville, the dominant characteristic of which would be a state of “perpetual childhood” in which the master is “well content that the people should enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind.” And in both cases we are gripped by an obscure terror, as if, suddenly, we have discovered the true face of Big Brother: enveloping and gentle, pure love—and thus all the more perilous.
Since Sioux Falls, I’ve been in South Dakota. The prairies. The motorcyclists. Bands of bikers headed out of Rapid City with their leather jackets, high boots, metal insignia on their backs, bandannas over their hair, aviator sunglasses. Mitchell and its Corn Palace. Chamberlain and its St. Joseph Indian School, where for a long time Indian children were “re-educated.” The prairies again. The desert. Long, well-defined clouds. At the end of the day, after ten hours on the road, descent into the Lower Brule Reservation: sagebrush, shrubs, bumpy road, old cars, signs posting the number of fatal accidents due to the hairpin turns, bony animals inside ramshackle pens, herds of cows in the distance, drunkards lying by the side of the road, little lakes. And then finally Lower Brule—Lower Brule proper. I was expecting a village, but I find scattered houses, mobile homes; one final pond, infested with mosquitoes; a shabby casino, the Golden Buffalo—nothing like the glittering temples I hear Indian tribes have such a monopoly on, just grimy slot machines in an old-saloon décor, a handful of woozy, sad little white men weaving in and out at the tables, clutching their chips. And then a little farther on, in the middle of a field, a circle marked out as if for a rodeo, tents, plastic chairs and wooden stands beneath the tents. This is where the powwow will take place, the sacred dance at which, as a signal honor, two groups of white people will be in attendance: my companions and I, and the senator from South Dakota, Tom Daschle, in a tough re-election bid, and his family.
Conversation with John Yellowbird Steele, then the president of the Tribal Agency, a small, portly, healthy-looking man, baseball hat and jacket, Ray-Bans, whom I ask why the American Indians haven’t thought of creating a memorial, as the Jews have done. “Our memories are here,” he replies, hitting his chest. “Here, inside of us. A memorial would only make things harder; it would point a finger at the whites and irritate them. It’s much wiser to exploit the suffering of the Indians. Yes, I did say ‘exploit.’ Wait for the senator—you’ll see what I mean.”
Reply of Linda Vargas, a social worker in Lower Brule, dancer’s waist, sexy, pretty gray bun beneath a cowboy hat, a lot like Bardot in Viva Maria, who hears the end of the conversation and explodes: “Corrupt traitor! The people who peddle Indian suffering like that are horrible. There is a reason to reject your idea for a memorial, but it has nothing to do with what that sellout tells you. You make a memorial to signify that the war is over, but this war isn’t over—just look at the expropriations that are continuing, the broken treaties, the genocide that’s still going on. The war isn’t over, so a memorial has no reason to exist.”
Meantime, the stands and the plastic chairs are beginning to fill with people: too-thin, sly-looking children; women prematurely aged; men in jeans and leather jackets, with only their tied-back hair—and, alas, their broken faces, devastated by alcohol and poverty—distinguishing them from average American farmers. The entire local Bureau of Indian Affairs is here, along with employees from Wells Fargo and from the Lower Brule Farm Corporation (the nation’s largest producer of popcorn), people from the Indian Health Services and from the casino, and the unemployed, the tramps. In Lower Brule there are 1,362 Indians registered, of whom at least a third are needy. It looks like all of them are here.
And then, finally, the crowd perks up: Senator Daschle has arrived, hair neatly arranged, clean-cut, beige trousers a little too short, red-checked shirt with no jacket, accompanied by his wife, his daughter, his son. Photos, autographs, a light touch on the shoulders of the disabled, handshakes with Yellowbird, kisses for the young Indian girls in yellow polo shirts, not particularly Indian-looking, who are holding placards that say TOM DASCHLE: A STRONG VOICE FOR INDIAN COUNTRY, and the masquerade can begin.
When I say “masquerade,” I am not thinking of the dance itself, which is very beautiful, very moving, with its hundred or so women covered in jewelry, its warriors with painted faces and looks of bliss, its medicine men wearing large angel wings on their backs, its elders at the head of the procession rhythmically striking the ground with their spears, its feathered flutes and its drums, its smooth, modulated chants suddenly rising in pitch: “‘I am a Lakota, I suffer for my people’—that’s Crazy Horse’s song,” my neighbor whispers to me, moved to tears.
No. I’m thinking of the Daschle family leading the dance. I’m thinking of the image of Linda, the senator’s wife, sweater tied over her shoulders as if she were going to Newport for the weekend, dancing to the wrong beat. I’m thinking of his awkward son, his mind elsewhere, stiff, softly tapping his foot, without bothering to follow the rhythm. I’m thinking of his daughter, all smiles, gracefully waving her hand between two Indian women in a trance. And I’m thinking of Daschle himself, angling his way, for the photo op, between the lead dancers. A strange ballet, a little macabre, but one that without him would have been beautiful: one Lakota warrior brandishing the American flag, and another carrying a Lakota banner—long sliding steps, genuflections, modulated cries, then heads thrown up to the sky as a sign of ecstasy or despair.
How can we forget what these dances signified, and what, perhaps, they still signify? How can we not recognize that these are the same ghost dances that a century ago aroused such keen terror in Daschle’s ancestors that they forbade them under penalty of death? How can we not recall Wounded Knee and the end of Sitting Bull? How can we not keep in mind those thousands of Indians massacred because they devoted themselves to these same dances that Tom Daschle and his family are aping? When I say “masquerade,” I’m also thinking of the Indians who consent to this aping. I’m thinking of the chief who, afterward, standing next to the senator, declaims that the Lakota people took the flag from Custer’s hands, and now the flag belongs to them. I’m thinking of the soup being passed out by the senator’s majorettes, in T-shirts and orange caps, at the end of the ceremony.
I think of Tocqueville’s disappointment when he arrived in Buffalo and, instead of those “savages on whose face nature had left a trace of some of those high virtues the spirit of freedom engenders,” met men “of small stature,” their “ignoble and mischievous faces” marked by the “vices” and “depravations” of both their civilization and our own. And the melancholy of Chateaubriand, then of Fenimore Cooper, faced with the “last of the Mohicans.” What would they have said, any of them, about this sacred ceremony in Lower Brule?
An Indian Hero and His Joke
Academic question: Does the status of being a victim, or a spokesperson for victims, entitle you to every right?
Field research: meeting with Russell Means, the famous activist, a veteran of a 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee, friend of Marlon Brando, indefatigable advocate of the Indian cause, icon, hero, colorful and legendary figure. I am happy and proud to meet him.
Where the scene takes place: the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation, in the middle of some deserted land between Potato Creek and Porcupine, a dilapidated house, reached by a path leading through wild grass and then over dilapidated boards that straddle a stream of wastewater—his house? His house.
Setting: untidy little kitchen; long table around which we take our places when the interview begins; books on the floor; a big fax machine from twenty years ago; watercolors I think at first are stained-glass windows, which he tells me he painted himself; photos from films in which he appeared, as Chief Big Tree and Chief Thundercloud did before him; poster saying DON’T BLAME ME, I VOTED FOR RUSSELL MEANS; leaflets from the campaign he’s running now, for the presidency of the Tribal Agency, against the man from yesterday’s powwow, John Yellowbird Steele; and leaflets in support of George W. Bush, whose side I already knew he had joined.
First sentence, while he’s still standing in the doorway, very tall in the harsh noon light, very imposing, long black hair tied in a ponytail reaching the middle of his back, shorts and ink-blue undershirt, sneakers, strong biceps under bare skin, energy, charisma, rings on his fingers, a bracelet—this is his welcoming sentence, accompanied by an immense burst of laughter: “You here, Mr. Lévy? Not in Israel yet? But I heard on the radio that Sharon wanted all the Jews in France to emigrate to Tel Aviv! Ha, ha!”
And when I give a start, when I let him know that I haven’t come all this way to listen to this kind of bad joke, and show that I don’t find this sort of thing particularly funny, that I’m a Jew who is sympathetic to the Indian cause and that I came expressly to ask him about creating a kind of Yad Vashem of Indian suffering rather than the casinos that are a slow-working poison, I get this terrible reply, which is hammered out, word by word, in a restrained, affected tone of rage: “I don’t need advice from Zionists, you understand? I don’t need their advice. When I needed them, they weren’t there. I went to see them, I went to see the Jews in Cleveland, and I waited—oh! I waited a long time. And no one—you hear me?—no one answered my call. So don’t try to give me advice! A little respect, but no advice!
“What? The Moonies? Yes, sir, that’s right, it’s not a rumor—it’s true that I gave a series of lectures sponsored by the Moonies. They’ve done less harm to me than the Catholics. Unlike you Jews, they held out their hand to me. When you’re in our situation, Mr. Lévy, when the whole world is against you, you’re not choosy, you take what you can …”
The rest of the interview is weird, vehement, sometimes zany, but, all the same, more controlled. When I tell him about the powwow, Russell Means replies that “Tom Daschle is a snake,” “the worst human being in America,” and that’s why he’s a leader of the Democratic Party. He explains to me that “Indian politics,” as it was formalized in “the Indian Reorganization Act” of 1934, accomplished the feat of being the “secret model for Hitler” in its treatment of the “unwanted.” It was the “carbon copy,” “thirty years early,” of “the Bantu Development Act,” which “institutionalized apartheid in South Africa,” and today, in this beginning of the twenty-first century, is the last case in the world of “pure and simple communism.” He warns me, with fiery gaze and stentorian voice, that “every official Indian person you meet in this country” is corrupt and a collaborator—You understand? A collaborator. (He actually says, straining at a French accent, “a Vichy.”) He talks, not without eloquence, about these Indians, his people, who are sitting on “forty percent of the wealth of natural resources in America,” but who remain “the poorest of the poor,” “the most diseased people in the Western hemisphere.” I am treated to a comical but sincere exposition on the necessity of “kicking out the white man”—in other words, seceding. At the same time, without seeming to realize any contradiction, he points out that the Indians could take advantage of the fact that reservations “don’t have to worry about minimum wage,” don’t have “health-benefit problems,” and, especially, “have no unions” in order to “attract industry.” He says fine things about neglected Indian languages. He preaches about the greatness of this culture that, like the culture of the ancient Greeks, emphasized, and continues to emphasize, heroism. Don’t talk about Indians in the past tense, he thunders. Don’t think that the death of their world and their values is an established fact. That’s not the case. That’s the surprise. We are the community in America with the highest growth rate: there were 250,000 of us a century ago, but there are more than two million of us today. That’s our answer, Mr. Lévy, to the policy of genocide …
But nothing can make me forget his first few sentences.
To whom should the crown of martyrdom go? Who should be awarded the terrible role of king of suffering? Are the Jews, with their Shoah, their obsessive memory, their lobbying, causing us irremediable harm? That, roughly, is what he said. And as long as there are Indian leaders who use this kind of language; as long as they don’t break with the crazy logic of a competition for victimhood and a war of memories and sufferings; as long, consequently, as they give in to an anti-Semitism that has always found its most facile arguments in this very war, there will be a shadow over the legitimacy of the cause that they defend.
Meeting with Jim Harrison
Here I discover someone who is not surprised by the reaction of Russell Means.
The meeting takes place the next day, at Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grill, in Livingston, in the heart of Montana, where the novelist Jim Harrison moved because he’d had enough of seeing his Michigan invaded by Republicans and stockbrokers.
God knows he liked them, the Indians … God knows he still likes them when they have the faces of Louis Owens, Ron Querry, Sherman Alexie, his writer friends. But Russell Means … he doesn’t know Russell Means, of course. But he can guess. He knows the ravages the white culture makes when it corrupts hearts and souls. He knows how it can transform the best into pathetic clowns, mimes, phantoms of themselves. A memorial? Fine, a memorial. We could even, if I insist, start an international committee for the memorial. But it’s not a memorial that will give back Crazy Horse his soul, or save the sublime heritage of Sitting Bull. Have I read the book by James Welch, by the way, on the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Since my arrival have I felt the electric, still magical atmosphere that reigns over Wounded Knee? No, of course I didn’t feel anything. The cause is lost; we don’t feel anything anymore. Only the writers remain, those guardians of the dead—but good-bye to living souls, farewell to Indian culture.
Big Jim is sad. He looks at me with his one eye, and then looks at the already empty bottle of Côte du Rhône his friend Chatham replenishes pronto, following a wordless but seemingly regular ritual, and he is sad. He becomes more animated when he talks about his house in the mountains, where he hears the song of nature. Or when he talks about the return of wolves to Montana and the fact that never—understand? never—has a case of a wolf’s attacking a human being been authenticated. Or when he talks about his taste for Faulkner, whom he prefers to Hemingway—it’s annoying, in the end, this way journalists who are in a hurry always compare him to Hemingway, whereas Faulkner is his real brother, Faulkner is the true writer. His enthusiasm revives, too, when he talks about France, which gave him so much, at a time when America was treating him like trash. He gets excited when he begins to talk about jet lag, that delicious state when you’re not only between two spaces but between two times, earlier or later, twilight or morning in the world. You’d need a poem to express the blessing of this in-between state when you’re in Paris, at the Hotel de Suède, or at your friend Bourgois’s place!
But as soon as the conversation turns back to America—not just the Indians but America in general, this America that, he says, has never been so poor, so commonplace, or so freedom-stifling since Nixon—as soon as we start talking about that, a look of overwhelmed weariness settles on his old swashbuckling face, which becomes streaked with red or tinged with mauve the more he drinks.
Okay, I say to him. But Nixon’s America was also the America of the 1960s revolution, wasn’t it? Can’t we imagine the same thing? Doesn’t he feel, in the inmost depths of his country, a burst of the same kind of freedom? And shouldn’t he put his fame, his legend, at the service of …?
He looks at me then as if I didn’t have a clue. Gestures to me to stop speaking. Empties his glass. Looks at the ceiling like a blind man who is trying to remember what light looks like. Then he lets out an enormous, completely unexpected laugh, which makes the restaurant customers in the other room turn around.
Stop with the legend, he tells me. That was exactly what I couldn’t stand about Hemingway. And that’s what ended up killing him. As for me … I’ll die of something, obviously—maybe from that (he points to the new bottle, already diminished). Or from something else (he looks at Anika, my assistant). But definitely not from that damned legend, which has nothing to do with me!
And then, there’s no comparison, he goes on to say. The situation now, he insists, is much worse than it was under Nixon. There are the far-right Republicans and the politically correct left. The ones greedy for business, on the one hand; on the other, the morons who want to prevent us, my pal Nicholson and me, from smoking, drinking, and (another look at my assistant) appreciating the beauty of the world. The real problem—I’ll tell you what it is. It’s Yale. Yes, Yale. The school of Bush and Kerry. I knew that one day Yale would take over. Well, here it is—that day has come. And this triumph of the great predator, this victory of greedy pigs over progressives, that’s the absolute truth of America. Do you know that I told Hollywood to fuck off the day I thought the system was going crazy and, by paying me too much, was about to transform me, too, into a big, insatiable, greedy bastard? All you can do is refuse. And laugh. And write literature. And, like the Indians, save the dead. And since we’re back to the Indians, all that’s left is for each one of us to save the Indian part that’s inside himself.
The Indian as a category of the soul? A region of being and of the spirit? Harrison at that instant is talking the way Bohumil Hrabal did in his Prague apartment in 1989. He is talking more or less as my dissident friends did in Russia during the Iron Curtain years, who wanted to believe in nothing but moral resistance, hidden away in the heart of every person. There you have it. Writer and dissident. The fine withdrawal of a man, discouraged but uncompromising, without illusions but on the offensive, who as long as there are free men will despair neither of life nor of America.
I returned to Washington, and then to New York, for the Republican convention. And since I had a little time to spare, I decided to spend it in Brooklyn, in effect the fourth largest city in the United States. Yes, that’s something we tend to forget in Europe, and that I, in any case, am always forgetting: the city of Arthur Miller and Henry Miller, Barbra Streisand, Mel Brooks, Hubert Selby Jr., Spike Lee, the city that symbolizes (in France, at least) the vitality of American Judaism, is, with its 2.5 million inhabitants, the fourth largest city in the United States—or would be, if it had not been incorporated into New York.
Signs in Yiddish. Landscape of garages and warehouses, giving way to houses and kosher restaurants. Men in black. Tefillin. The heavy clothes, despite the summer heat. The hats, the yarmulkes, the long coats, and, for the women, the long skirts and the headscarves. Time standing still. Contemplation. Only sign of activity in this unusually silent world whose only equivalent I know is the Mea Shearim in Jerusalem: the passage, sirens wailing, of the new ambulance of the Hatzoleh, the Jewish volunteers who devote a third or a half of their week to helping people with medical emergencies.
And then, finally, the two events for which I have come. A meeting at the office of the Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, where everything from the old wood wainscoting to the black-and-white photos from the era of the pioneers of Israel—the very Warsaw-ghetto-like caps on most of the men, the cloche hats and old-fashioned makeup on the women, the people’s look of having come out of a scene from Exodus, their figures, sometimes their gestures—seems to bear witness to a time gone by that here, in the midst of New York, has been mysteriously recovered. And then, at the neighboring yeshiva, on the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Sixteenth Avenue, in an even more austere setting that reminds me of the shuls of Lithuania, a meeting of the Council of Wise Men of the Torah. Sitting around a long table where an old master with a white beard is enthroned, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Rebbe of Novominsk and spiritual leader of the Agudath Israel of America, an assembly of rabbis, very handsome, very poetic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this; it seems to come out of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Two strange characters turn up who have come, to put it bluntly, to negotiate for the support of the Orthodox Jews for President Bush and his camp.
One of them, Norm Coleman, Jewish, a Republican candidate for a Senate seat from Minnesota, is a sort of blond yuppie with exceedingly white teeth and the smile of a wolf.
The other is Rick Santorum, Catholic, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania. I would interview him the next day, during a break in the convention, and he would explain to me that as a Catholic he is a fervent supporter of Israel and that traditional Catholics and Orthodox Jews see God and the world in similar ways.
Thank you, Coleman begins, beneath the suspicious and faintly amused gaze of the rabbis. Thank you, not just for being here but for being, for existing … I was born not far from here, but you embody another world … This world is an example … Your world is a model … Vote for me.
Your faith, Santorum adds, even more ingratiating, desperately trying, like a child, to meet the gaze of Rabbi Perlow, who, in the big black satin coat that he won’t remove during the entire meeting, his face sealed off, withdrawn, seems completely absent—your faith is my own. The example of your faith and your belonging is what helps me live and believe. Tomorrow I have to talk to a devout assembly of Christians. Well, I hope you know that when I talk to them about faith, about the power and grandeur of hope, it’s you I’ll be thinking about. It’s your example I’ll bear in mind.
And the rabbis—diffident, ironic, with an air of immense disdain, and the drifting attention of people who have seen everything, heard everything, and who observe this sales pitch from their age-old summit of history and wisdom—are silently bored, ask a few questions, consult one another with a glance, and end up saying, just like that, without insisting, without abandoning their conspicuous detachment from whatever is not, directly or indirectly, linked to their religious concerns: Well, then, since you must know, here is what our community needs for its schools, synagogues, health services, and support for Israel in its struggle against terrorism.
In this scene, in this confrontation between faith and greed, between the highest demands of the spirit and the crass indifference of fishers for votes, I don’t know who should be blamed. Maybe there’s no need to blame anyone, and I’m just present at one of those operations of bargaining or lobbying that are the common bill of fare of the “civic pragmatism” Tocqueville spoke of, which at least has the merit, compared with European hypocrisy, of putting its cards on the table. But there’s one thing, nonetheless, I’m sure of. I have my own radar. I have my personal instrument panel on which, on a certain number of sensitive subjects, the signs that indicate the best and the worst begin to flash. Well, then: I didn’t feel that Rick Santorum and Norm Coleman were the sincere friends they claimed to be, or that they would make this country an unfailing supporter of Israel. I listened to them. Observed them. I saw clearly, in each of them, the requisite consideration for a powerful, close-knit community that held a part of their political destiny in its hands. But what of a situation in which the community in question was less powerful? What of the day when another community, which makes hatred of the Jewish people the heart of its program, acquires more power? And beyond all that, what about the brilliant evangelical Protestant idea of the need to ensure a peaceful, faithful, and above all Jewish Israel for when the (Christian) Day of Judgment comes? How can one not feel that this is the very kind of argument that lasts as long as great misunderstandings last? Perhaps I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t like to bet on American support for the survivors of the Shoah if it came down to depending, really depending, on an outlook of this sort.
The Return of Ideology
W hat is a Republican? What distinguishes a Repub- lican in the America of today from a Democrat? Does this division of the two Americas exist, the blue and the red, the progressive and the conservative, which Barack Obama challenged but in which Jim Harrison seems to believe?
On the one hand, I keep meeting Democrats who think like Republicans and who without any qualms, without thinking for a single second of leaving their original party, go and vote for George Bush (the former mayor of New York Ed Koch, the former CIA chief James Woolsey).
In the same vein, I keep seeing Republicans who—also without a qualm, and even without understanding my surprise—go and vote for John Kerry (Ron Reagan, the son of President Reagan) or abstain (that association of conservative gay men, the Log Cabin Republicans, one of whose leaders, Chris Barron, I interviewed in Washington, who don’t want to “endorse” Bush’s stance in favor of a constitutional amendment that would forbid gay marriage).
On one hand, then, a novel system of membership, which has no comparison to what we know in Europe, and in which one’s attachment to a party is both very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty: an essentialist attachment, if you like (Koch, for instance, wouldn’t renounce it at any price, and he proudly shows me, in his Fifth Avenue office overlooking his beloved New York, hanging next to sacred images of Anwar Sadat, Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Kollek, and Mother Teresa, his photos with Hillary Clinton), yet devoid of all content and even of direction. (When I ask him what it can mean, when you vote Republican, to declare yourself a Democrat, he hesitates, becomes a little flustered, looks at the photo of Hillary as if she could whisper the answer to him, and ends up blurting out, “Stubbornness and nostalgia—a mixture of stubbornness and memory, habit and loyalty, that’s all.”)
But on the other hand, for three days I attended the Republican convention in New York. I listened to speeches given by Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki. I listened to Bush. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger tell us, with an emotion that didn’t seem entirely put on, about his experience as an immigrant coming from a socialist country (sic) to discover this America that opened its arms to him. But mostly I interviewed crowds of delegates from Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Kansas, Arkansas, each of whom I asked what being Republican and being there meant to them. And the surprise, the big surprise, is that the answers they gave me had nothing to do with the old French—but also American—cliché of a political spectacle reduced to its purely festive, playful, carnivalesque dimension, and thus without anything at stake.
Some talked to me about abortion and gay marriage. Some explained that nothing seemed more important to them than reinforcing the role of the churches or reducing the role of the urban elite. Others advocated a return to Main Street instead of Wall Street, the rehabilitation of the values of rural America as opposed to those of interventionist and cosmopolitan America, the defense of a concept of human rights that embraces the right to bear arms to defend one’s freedom and property. For others, hatred of the Clintons was a good enough reason. And for still others, the senator from Massachusetts and his plutocrat wife, Teresa, were embodiments of a France that was likened to an uneasy mixture of “femininity,” “decadent immorality,” “snobbish intellectualism,” and “chic radicalism.”
You can think what you like about these issues. You can deem them naive, retrograde, indefensible, contradictory. You can find it amusing to hear the same virtuous people condemning Teresa’s millions and defending, in the same breath, the hedge funds against the welfare state. But what you can’t say is that it’s a question of a weak or half-hearted position. Or one that’s purely pragmatic, and reduces the ideal government of the United States to a glorified board of directors. What you can’t claim is that you were present here at one more bazaar, another level of the circus, a second summit of the same nihilism that offers its two symmetrically standard Democratic and Republican versions. What you can’t argue without bad faith is that between the position of these people and that of the delegates in Boston who gave standing ovations to Howard Dean and Senator Ted Kennedy there is no difference in content or ideology.
For you can take that word, “ideology,” in whatever sense you like. You can understand it in the ordinary sense of a representation of the world. You can understand it in the sense of an illusion that conceals from people the reality of their situation. You can think about the grand philosophical “systems” and other “utopias” that Tocqueville thought Americans “mistrusted.” Or, on the contrary, you can think of this mania for “general causes,” this submission to ideas and broad social forces that act “on so many men’s faculties at once”—a tendency, he warns, that can paralyze individuals and societies. We have reached that point. These people who say “values matter more”; these activists for whom the struggle against Darwin is a sacred cause that should be argued in the schools; this blue-collar man from Buffalo to whom I explain that the promise of the current president to reduce federal taxes will have the automatic effect of impoverishing his native city even more, who replies that he couldn’t care less, because what matters to him is the problem posed by inflation in a quasi-Soviet state. These are men and women who are ready to let the questions that affect them most directly take second place to matters of principle that—in the case, for instance, of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts—do not have, and never will have, any effect on their concrete existence. Aren’t they reacting as ideologues would, according to criteria that have to be called ideological?
A curious affair. And a curious reversal. It surprises me as a Frenchman, coming from a country that has lived under the rule of ideological passion brought to white heat—and yet has recovered from it. But I can clearly see that it is all the more disconcerting to the most careful analysts of the evolution of a society in which each person’s appreciation of the just dividends he can get from the social contract seems to be the first and last word in politics. What’s the matter with Kansas? Since when has politics stopped obeying the honest calculation of self-interest and personal ambition? How can knowledgeable, reasonable, pragmatic men work for their own servitude, thinking they’re struggling for their freedom? That, Thomas Frank, is what is called ideology. That is precisely the mechanism that La Boétie and Karl Marx described in Europe, which we, alas, have experienced only too often. Now it’s your turn, friends. And as we say in France, À votre santé!—To your very good health!