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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Taking Down Bernard-Henri Lévy


Wow, just when you wonder what ever happened to Garrison Keillor, he comes back with a broadside. His humorless political rants during the last few years were a bummer, but this gave me a chuckle. I'm referring to his classic takedown of popular French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, whose musings on American society have touched the hearts and minds of media and celebrity elites in New York and Hollywood. The occasion is Keillor's NYT review of Lévy's American Vertigo (hello, hello...), a book based on a series of articles Lévy wrote for Atlantic Monthly. The premise was for Lévy to repeat the travels of Alexis De Tocqueville and offer his own reflections on contemporary America. While containing some interesting moments, the overall result of the series was an almost insufferable collection of caricatures, celebrity gawking, and lack of analytical heft. Using the conceit of Tocqueville's journey may not have been the best idea, as it invites comparison.

To be fair, there are cultural critics, including Franklin Foer and Alan Wolfe, who give more credit to Lévy. Their Slate forum rightly steers us from the perception that Lévy is your dye-in-the-wool, American-hating, French intellectual. They argue, accurately from what I gathered from the Atlantic Monthly series, that Lévy mixes criticism of the United States with praise. His opinions would not always be popular back in his homeland. At the same time, I can't help but think some powerful stereotypes of Americans remain (his take on the American gun culture, for starters) that keep him from doing more than skim the surface of our social fabric.

But Keillor takes aim at another frustrating aspect of the Lévy experience:

It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair ("a festival of American kitsch"); Sun City ("gilded apartheid for the old");a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz - you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World's Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French.

Sounds about right to me. The problem with Levy's cultural criticism isn't anti-Americanism, it's his obsession with symbolism (What does this say about America?). This leads him to extravagant destinations and overdrawn conclusions, all while missing the common, actual experiences of most Americans. That's something that would strike the Midwestern sensibilities of Keillor. But one detects in Keillor the sense that even liberal critics of the United States have their limits:

Thanks, pal. I don't imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

Hey, I'm not into Franco-bashing, even though there's lots to criticize. But the irony of watching one of America's preeminent liberal cultural icons do it is just deliciously funny....

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