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Levy offers a harsh, revealing look at the flaws of our democracy

Bernard-Henri Levy, a French philosopher, journalist, activist and filmmaker, announces early on in his book, "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville," that he does not possess the anti-American fervor that infuses many of his French contemporaries. That is not to say that in the ensuing pages, he will not provide a frank (sometimes uncomfortably so), unflinching, and above all, intellectual critique of the health of democracy in America.

Yes, "Democracy in America," the masterwork of Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who compiled his observations of democracy in action in America in the 1830s, and provided a penetrating analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, and its potential for ultimate successes and failures. It was particularly important to de Tocqueville, who was studying democracy as the then-new social order in Europe.

"Democracy in America" is the raison d'etre for Levy's book, as he travels, at the original behest of Atlantic Monthly magazine, 15,000 miles throughout the continental United States in de Tocqueville's footsteps to get a pulse on what is wrong -- and right -- with democracy in America today.

De Tocqueville forms the basis of Levy's journey, but Levy's book has much less to do with testing de Tocqueville's hypotheses against the realities of 21st century America than with sharing his no-holds-barred personal viewpoints, with random references to de Tocqueville. These viewpoints are insightful and engaging, evincing the same degree of sharp observation that defined de Tocqueville's thought. This take by an "outsider," and a Frenchman at that, is refreshing. He enjoys his freedom to say whatever he wants, and he exercises it freely, which makes for entertaining reading.

Levy's book is divided into numerous short chapters capturing his observations of various geographical locations, and the highlights of his interviews with Americans, ranging from Sen. John F. Kerry to Woody Allen to a woman in prison on death row. Levy's reflections are scattered throughout these chapters, but in the last section of the book, he sets forth a more global analysis.

The title "vertigo" refers to Levy's perception that that "no large modern nation today is as uncertain as this one, less sure of what it is becoming." He defines "vertigo" as "a disease," calling it "a wavering of points of reference and certainties."

Levy made his year-long journey to America during the 2004 presidential campaign. He declares himself openly as an opponent of the war in Iraq, and as a supporter of Kerry. However, he assails the accusation of many of his compatriots that America is in Iraq for evil, imperialistic purposes. He even goes as far as to say that the idea of spreading democracy is not without nobility, and certainly not immoral.
Levy cites several examples of the tendencies of Americans to withdraw from society and build lives based on the exclusion of others. He admits to being terrified of what he believes something as seemingly innocuous as the Mall of America in Minnesota represents. He explains that it brought to mind "the easily led, almost animal-like face [that] Alexandre Kojeve said would be the face of humanity at the arrival . . . of the end of history." He describes novelist James Ellroy as looking "like a murderer in one of his own novels" and "[like] the perverts in early Polanski films," and he surmises that Ellroy is a man alone, "locked up in his territory of books and graves, cut off from everyone -- but happy."

Levy gives especially rough treatment to a self-contained senior citizens community in Sun City, Arizona. He denounces it as a sign of the continuing "Balkanization of American space." To Levy, this isolated community implies "a profound break with the very tradition of civic-mindedness and civility . . . that was responsible, and continues to be responsible, for this country's greatness."

There is one particular section of the book that hits close to home. Levy thoroughly insults our fair city, describing Buffalo as offering "a landscape of desolation." In contrast, he depicts Cleveland as demonstrating "a real will, above all, to revitalize the destroyed neighborhoods." He applauds philanthropists, who were "thinking of how to rehabilitate the heart of [the] city" even though they had deserted it to reside elsewhere.

Despite all of the negativity, Levy does not see America at the end of its rope. He sees no totalitarian regime or national religion in our future. He believes that America, for the most part, is a secular state, and believes Americans can draw on a history where "religion in America was not the grave of democracy, but its cradle." He praises the generosity of individual Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and seizes upon this tragedy as igniting a trend toward a more civic-minded government that focuses on the wars at home.

While much of what Levy has to say is harsh, and in some cases, a little unfair -- for instance, I think he oversimplified the condition of Buffalo, and I do not believe the Mall of America or a retirement village in Sun City signify the death of democracy as we know it -- there is enough painful truth in what he has to say to make his a book worth reading. My only hope is that the next time Levy, or another French intellectual, follows the footsteps of de Tocqueville to Buffalo, the success of American democracy, and not its failure, will be evident.

Jennifer Snyder-Haas is a de Tocqueville scholar and chief law clerk to State Supreme Court justice Harold L. Galloway.


>American Vertigo

Following in the Footsteps of Tocqueville

By Bernard-Henri Levy

Random House, 320 pages, $24.95

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