Monday, January 23, 2006

It's Creed, not Soil

Tunku Varadarajan at the Wall Street Journal has a fascinating 'interview' with Bernard-Henry Levy, a French left-of-center intellectual/historian who has some very interesting comments on the United States. Levy has done a bit of a followup on Tocqueville's journey two hundred years ago called "American Vertigo".

Insights from Levy (not the book):

Why the French hate us?

"In France, with the nation based on roots, on the idea of soil, on a common memory . . . the very existence of America is a mystery and a scandal." This is a particular source of pain, Mr. Lévy says, for "the right." Contrary to what is thought generally, he insists, anti-Americanism "migrated to the left, to the Communist Party, but its origins are on the extreme right." America gives the French right "nightmares," as the country is based on "a social contract. America proves that people can gather at a given moment and decide to form a nation, even if they come from different places." The "ghost that has haunted Europe for two centuries"--and which gives fuel, to this day, to anti-Americanism there--"is America's coming together as an act of will, of creed. It shows that there is an alternative to organic nations."

The end of revolution, Cambodia:

When did the dream of revolution die? "With Cambodia," Mr. Lévy answers. This was an event "much more important than the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Hegel of modern times will write this history, he will say that the real crucial event was Cambodia." Why? "Because till Cambodia all the revolutionaries in the world believed that revolution had failed because it didn't go far enough, because it wasn't radical enough." And then Cambodia happened--"the first revolution in history to be really radical. . . . And what did we discover, all of us? Instead of paradise, revolution gives absolute hell."

Immigration and assimilation:

...He is an assiduous believer in America's "manifest destiny," and expects this country, clearly, to uphold the highest standards--as he sees them. Some of these standards he would prescribe to France, in particular the American approach to citizenship. He contrasts the "model of Dearborn"--the Detroit suburb, home to significant numbers of contented Arab-Americans--with the "model of St. Denis," the Parisian banlieu where discontented Arab immigrants (never referred to as Arab-Frenchman) ran riot late last year. "What is good about America is that in order to be a citizen, you are not asked to resign from your former identity. You cannot tell Varadarajan or Lévy, 'You have to erase from your mind the ancestors you had.' In France, we erase."

America, Mr. Lévy concludes, "is a factory of citizens, which has some defects, some problems, but the country works, not too badly. Better, I think, than mine."

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