Bernard-Henri Lévy dukes it out with Francis Fukuyama over American virtues and vices, neoconservatives, religion, the future of American muscular internationalism, and the role of intellectuals in a free society.
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Your provocative new book, American Vertigo, begins with an attack on the thoughtless European anti-Americanism that has become rampant since the Iraq war, and argues persuasively that the only antidote for it is to take a fresh look at America, at its virtues as well as its vices. This is frequently something done much better by non-Americans, and you are following in the footsteps of one of the most acute observers of all time—Alexis de Tocqueville.
Nonetheless, I want to begin by criticizing something I think you’ve gotten wrong, namely your dislike of Las Vegas. You find that sex is packaged there in a way that makes it, ironically, puritanical and sterile. This comes as a result of your visits to a strip club and one of those famous legal brothels in rural Nevada, and you keep referring to Las Vegas with considerable distaste throughout the rest of the book.
Now, I happen to know Las Vegas very well, not because I go to strip clubs or brothels, but because I’ve been going out there regularly with my family to visit relatives for the past 15 years. And that is precisely my problem with your account: You have this image of Las Vegas as “sin city”, and then you were disappointed with the poor quality of the sin.
But this view of Las Vegas is at least thirty years out of date. Las Vegas is a real city with real people, not just sex workers, in it. It has been on and off the fastest growing city in the fastest growing county in the United States, with an incredible amount of energy and entrepreneurship. Much of the new employment centers around the gaming industry, but Las Vegas is as economically diverse as other American cities. It is home to huge numbers of retirees, like my relatives; it is the location of Nellis Air Force Base, host to Red Flag exercises and a lot of defense contractors; it has a burgeoning high-tech industry that has escaped the high costs of California; and it has a large Latino population working mainly in low-skill service industries and manufacturing.
The best piece explaining the ethos of Las Vegas (and the American West more generally,) is a short essay by Joan Didion entitled “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles.” In it, she explains that Howard Hughes founded modern Las Vegas in 1967 because he, a reclusive insomniac, couldn’t find a place to buy a cheeseburger in L.A. at three o’clock in the morning—so he created a whole city to cater to that need. It had nothing to do with sin or sex, but rather the perpetual American desire to reinvent oneself in a place where conventional expectations don’t apply. Hughes’ transformation of Las Vegas cleaned the city up: Mob influence was eliminated, and the Nevada Gaming Commission put the whole casino industry under tight regulatory controls (not necessarily tighter, of course, than the way prostitution is regulated in Amsterdam or Hamburg). Today the Bellagio, the Luxor and the MGM Grand are more like family-friendly theme parks than gambling halls. So it’s ersatz and safe, but it hasn’t pretended to be anything else for many years now. The Mormons, after all, are the religious group with the deepest roots throughout Nevada.
What you see when you stand in a buffet line in a Las Vegas casino is the real America: ordinary working- and middle-class Americans, with kids in tow, who want to be entertained. (You remark that you had a hard time finding America’s “fat epidemic”; try a buffet.) Many sophisticates from the East look upon all of this with horror, but it’s not Las Vegas they’re reacting to. What they find distasteful is the American demos itself, with all of its excess and energy.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: The last thing I expected, dear Francis, was to start a discussion with the author of The End of History and the Last Man with an argument about Las Vegas! But after all, why not….
There are three things in what you’re saying. There is, first, the fact that Las Vegas, contrary to the way people perceive it in Europe, is a real city with real people, real neighborhoods, real activity, real pensioners and so on. I think you’re right. And if it doesn’t stand out in my book, if I fail to show the normality of this city—if I fail to say that it is, for example, together with Los Angeles, one of the large American cities where you can also find the largest number of destitute people, the largest number of victims of social exclusion and the largest number of homeless people—then I am at fault.
There is the more general fact, second, that I arrived in the city with my head full of conventional wisdom about the City of Crime, Sex and Sin and found—what a disappointment!—a mundane capital of merely low-brow mass entertainment. That, too, I am willing to accept. I did everything I could to resist the stereotypes that for a writer constitute the first “given facts” he or she deals with when showing interest in a foreign country. But as you know, the attempt to liquidate, demolish and question the cliché is itself the most arduous and interminable challenge we face. And so I’m willing to admit that I failed, as Sartre put it, to “break the bones in my head.” I’m willing to admit, somewhat, that I fell into the classic trap of the Frenchman on the lookout for the shadows of Bugsy Siegel and Georges Bataille, but finding instead only some lower middle-class people simply out for a good time.
On the other hand, I cannot agree that my distaste for Las Vegas reflects some contempt or abhorrence for the American people. What do you mean by that? That the great American culture, the energy that nurtured it, the pioneering spirit that drove it, the phenomenal array of shapes it has transformed into and is still transforming into, that all that is allegedly coming to an end in this crazy city, this giant amusement park, this meretricious and over-oxygenated world that nonetheless also characterizes Vegas? Does it mean that John Ford can be absorbed into Caesar’s Palace? That Huston’s “Let There Be Light” can be absorbed into the never-ending and sleepless lights of the Strip? Francis, are you implying that all this American grandeur, this fundamental belief, this dream that has inspired so many generations of men and women throughout the world is to find its truth in this empire of imposture, this triumph of tackiness and falsehood, which you cannot deny is the other reality of Las Vegas? I see how some elements of this argument tie up with your earlier Kojèvian observations on Hegel, on the happy animality that will be the fate of post-historical humanity. But I’d rather assume a sort of “other” American people who would not be confused with the Las Vegas norm, a people that would convey other values…
Yes, and that is the real issue: Are we compelled, when fighting as I do against that damned European anti-Americanism, to consider America as a whole? When you love a country and defend it, do you have to love its people the way they are and love them completely? I don’t think so. I think we can make distinctions and still love. And since you were talking about demos, allow me to remind you that the Ancients had two words (demos and laos for the Greeks, populus and turba for the Romans) to oppose the glory of the sovereign people with the dazed and shapeless plebeians that are its caricature.
FF: Of course you are not required to love everything about the United States, and certainly not those grossly overweight Americans on the Las Vegas buffet lines. Your attack on European anti-Americanism would hardly be credible otherwise. But the real virtue of America is not its Fords and Hustons; it is the opportunity it creates for the most ordinary of its citizens, down to the blackjack dealers and immigrant busboys who make Las Vegas run. The very artificiality of the city—its re-creation of Paris, Venice and Bellagio in the middle of the high desert—is testimony to a great American yearning and capacity for re-invention. This is what the American West represented, and still represents—the ability to start over. Say your business in St. Louis went bankrupt, a mob attacked your latter-day prophet in Cairo (Illinois, that is), you were fired from your job and your wife left you back in Buffalo. So you simply headed west and settled in a place where no one knew you and no one cared who you once were or what you did. In America, the frontier still hasn’t really closed; there are still vast empty spaces waiting to be filled up. And not all those spaces are physical: We have an electronic frontier in cyberspace that we have been busily populating these past few years.
That was the real practical meaning of American democracy: Every individual could set their clock to year zero; they could be what they made of themselves and not what their parents and ancestors expected of them. Europeans often look down on Americans for their loss of memory, their rootlessness, and, true enough, this becomes a real defect when Americans fail to understand that the other peoples they encounter do not suffer from their particular form of liberation amnesia. But it has also been very important to the success of American democracy. It meant that the United States has been more open to people from very different places and cultures who were themselves interested in starting over in a place where no one could locate Yerevan or Pusan or Lublin on a map. Europeans, whatever their aspirations to create a Habermasian post-national identity, are still rooted in communities of blood and memory, where people remember their ancestors and are defined by their parents.
This doesn’t lead the American demos to a happy animality, but to a restlessness and an energy and a willingness to bend rules to get ahead. Americans are religious, far more so than Europeans, which means that they actually believe in things that exist beyond the body and its needs, even if it leads them to strange debates over things like intelligent design. The End of History and the Last Man ended with ruminations about the possibility that modern democracy would yield “men without chests”, wedded to ever-increasing peace and prosperity. During the Clinton years, in our preoccupation with the NASDAQ and Monica Lewinsky, that seemed a fair conclusion. But on further reflection, it has seemed to me that America was not remotely in danger of becoming the home of the Hegelian last man. Now that the United States has launched two wars in the new millennium, it seems like an even less apt concern. The last man actually lives in Europe.
This, it seems to me, is the essential paradox you deal with in American Vertigo: Americans have this incredible energy, they’ve created a faux paradise in the desert at home and now they want to make deserts bloom in the Middle East. But they go about it in a clumsy and self-defeating way, and they have neither the imperial bloody-mindedness nor the steady judgment to see the project through. Maybe so. But if global leadership were left up to Europeans, they would either acquiesce in whatever exists, or they would make cynical deals to preserve their own narrow interests while talking about universal rights and justice.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: I, for one, certainly do not long for the time when Europe had leadership and was calling the shots among the nations! I know its failure well, and I also know the terrible assessment of what my friend Jean-Claude Milner called its “criminal inclinations.” Consider the Armenian genocide. Consider the rise of fascist movements and the Spanish Civil War. Consider the implementation of the Final Solution of the alleged “Jewish question.”
Consider even the next period, the one characterized by the gradual containment of communism and later by the support that had to be provided to the first democratic, anti-totalitarian movements in the countries of captive Europe. On each occasion Europe betrayed. Europe disavowed and made a mockery of its own values. Indeed, on each occasion, Europe was ready to strike the most cynical deals in order to preserve its interests. It’s appalling, it’s pathetic, but that’s the way it is….
Incidentally, the same thing can be said of the supranational organizations, about which I share the same reservations as those expressed by many American intellectuals. The League of Nations was useless; the UN even more so. And every time, or nearly every time, the international community put its trust in the UN to support freedom or the rule of law, it has been a disaster. Take wars in Africa, where the UN has been (and still is) way below par, most recently in Darfur. Or the case of East Timor, where UN-led forces achieved the astounding feat of scurrying away right before the slaughterers started their dirty work. Or the example of Bosnia, where I saw with my own eyes how the UN peacekeeping force, far from being “incapable” of stopping the slaughter, actually facilitated it by their very presence thanks to the absurdity of their mandate.
In the case of Bosnia it took the United States to stop the murderers. Just as in World War II and the fight against communism (albeit in a slower, less aggressive way), it took this odd country that, because of its deep-rooted culture and the philosophy you describe (which I admire as much as you do) is capable of ethical military intervention basically disconnected from any consideration of its narrow and immediate national interest. Praise this aspect of U.S. culture! Praise this ability to act in a manner incomprehensible in terms of any pure power rationale. And praise-this is one of the recurring themes of American Vertigo—its political universalism, which I also link, as you do, to that energy, that faith in the future, that tendency to push back the frontier and start all over from scratch, that way of building communities that owe little to the kind of lethal tradition that has caused so much to damage to Europe, that foul tradition of the soil, the race, the roots.
However, one must also question the health of America’s democratic culture. And here I’m no longer talking about Las Vegas or about the war in Iraq. And I’m not even talking about the sense of discomfort felt by America’s friends throughout the world when they saw how it responded so little, so belatedly and so clumsily to press reports about the scandals of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. No, I’m talking about the rest—about everything else, in no particular order: religious fundamentalism; the return of isolationist movements, both Left and Right; the rise of a nationalism reminiscent on some occasions of the worst trends of European national chauvinism; the upsurge of communitarianism that would negate American spontaneity and energy; the threats posed by mass consumerism—see the Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis, for example—that weigh down the individual spirit; and America’s new hyperamnesia, which denies the “particular form of amnesia” that you rightly said has made this country a great one.
I could go on, but basically, my concerns reduce to a simple question: What is the state of health of American democracy? You know what my answer is: that here, too, there are two Americas, two American cultures. And between these two cultures—the great one and the other one; between the one we both love and the one whose evil characters I constantly ran into during my trip; between the great democratic and universalist America that is open to all newcomers and the America of megachurches, of Texas arms bazaars, and of huge malls, that is the source and at the same time the consequence of what I called a “vertigo” (and where I’m quite close, incidentally, to seeing, unlike yourself, the triumph of what you called “the last man”)—there is a ruthless battle whose outcome neither you nor I can predict. But do you share my concern, especially my worries about American “polarization”?
FF: One of the hardest things for me to understand is the degree to which American society itself has genuinely changed in recent years. My instinctive reaction to Europeans who say they no longer recognize the United States is that they never understood it in the first place (Unbelievable! Americans actually believe in God!). But this is obviously not your problem, and in many ways some of the things that have changed may be more obvious to a non-American like yourself who actually goes around the country and talks to people, than to someone like me who may take too much for granted.
Particularly since the 2000 election there has been increasing discussion about polarization and the emergence of “red” and “blue” state America. This polarization is most evident in Congress, where many long-time observers of the institution are deeply troubled by the fact that many individual members of Congress no longer make friendships or even socialize across the partisan divide. It is evident also in the media, where increasing bandwidth in cable television, radio and the Internet has broken the largely liberal dominance of these channels. This has had two effects: It has given conservatives new outlets (e.g., AM talk radio), and it has allowed people to sort themselves out ideologically into niches where they only have to talk to those who already share their opinions.
On the other hand, there is also evidence that conventional wisdom overstates the degree of polarization in the United States today. If you get away from the simple yes-no categories of pollsters and move to more qualitative research, you find that most Americans hold nuanced political views—people who, for example, don’t like abortion but are willing to make exceptions and support stem cell research. Moreover, the different dimensions of the red-blue divide do not correlate with each other: There are blue state Democrats who tend toward isolationism and protectionism, and are intensely opposed to outsourcing and other manifestations of globalization. At the same time there are Protestant Evangelicals working in developing countries to fight HIV/AIDS, whose organizations were indeed critical in convincing President Bush to sharply increase funding to combat the disease.
In my view, the most fundamental divide in the United States is not over foreign policy and internationalism, but over cultural issues. There are large numbers of working-class Americans who should be voting Democratic based on their economic interests, but who distrust a party they regard as hostile to religion and friendly to anti-family feminism and gay rights. They support President Bush over Iraq not because they want to democratize the Middle East, but because they feel that it would be cowardly and dishonorable to make too early an exit. And they are not wrong to hold these views.
But, and this is where I agree with you, there is a certain part of Bush’s red state base—what Walter Russell Mead labels “Jacksonian” America—that is culturally conservative, pugnaciously nationalist, protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-elitist and increasingly angry. The September 11 attacks have added an extra bitterness to their feelings of betrayal, both by an establishment elite and by supposed allies who failed the United States in its time of need. The heart of the Republican Party has become increasingly Southern and reflective of Southern values. Those guided by such values believe that the rest of the country has abandoned honor, duty, belief in God and service to country.
As Robert Kaplan pointed out in the first issue of The American Interest, these views are increasingly held by members of the U.S. military, who feel themselves a caste apart from American society, and who are resurrecting a code of warrior honor last seen during the Confederacy. And in response to criticisms of Iraq and American policy over issues like torture, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, they are fast developing the same kinds of “stabbed-in-the-back by the liberal media” views that existed during the Vietnam War. It is a sign of the times that someone like Ann Coulter can find a substantial audience for books accusing liberals not just of being misguided, but of being treasonous.
Jacksonian America has very little sympathy with the broad-minded internationalist agenda you outline as representing the best of what America has to offer the world. This type of conservative joined with the neoconservatives and the liberal hawks in supporting an internationalist agenda after September 11, including the Afghan and Iraq wars. But they did this because they felt the United States was under attack. The stirring idealist rhetoric of Bush’s second Inaugural Address has little resonance with them, and in almost all other respects, they have virtually nothing in common with neoconservatives. When George W. Bush as a candidate in the 2000 election attacked nation-building and humanitarian intervention, he was reflecting Jacksonian views. When Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard came out in favor of intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, a lot of his conservative readers cancelled their subscriptions.
President Bush is currently losing control over his party on issues like trade and immigration. The long-term fear is that, if Iraq ends as a debacle, he will lose them on foreign policy as well, and we’ll see a sharp return to isolationism. You see a longer-term change in American society. I am not so sure; this could simply be one of those cyclical swings that occurred last after Vietnam, one that can be countered by the right kind of leadership in the coming years.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: You have just highlighted one of the phenomena that struck me most during my year of investigation, and which I will summarize by saying, once again, that it is one of the threads that weave through American Vertigo.
First point: Yes, America is indeed divided, more so than it thinks and more than what most European observers think. From afar, we believe America is a country of doctrinaire approaches and groupthink, of consensus, of the well-understood interest of each and every one, and of well-calculated passions. But it is not so! America is a riven, torn country, a country where two (perhaps more) models of society stand in direct opposition to each other and are organized around each other. In other words, ideology is making a strong comeback. In my mind this is not a criticism; quite the contrary, actually. It is a sign of democratic vitality. On this issue I’m following the same line as Montesquieu or Machiavelli, who believed that when “you can no longer hear the noise of a single uproar” in a given society, when the hue and cry has receded, then you are not far from “dictatorship.”
Second point: No, this split does not occur along a conventional divide linked to the two major American political parties. It is more subtle—harsh and ruthless, but at the same time more subtle. And the truth is that it cuts completely across both parties. The fracture lines are cultural, they are deep-rooted, and institutional realities no longer account for them. America is faced with a representation crisis; American political parties are lagging behind in terms of the sensitivities they should be expressing, even more so than in Europe or in France.
And now third point, my greatest bone of contention with your neoconservative friends and perhaps with you, as well. I can understand how free-thinking intellectuals would line up with some aspects of a president’s policy, including his international policy. Furthermore, I can understand that, not content with just offering support, they set out to shift the emphasis, inspire and prompt the policy of an administration that everything had separated them from up until then (after all, that’s exactly what I did at the time of the Bosnia crisis). And I find nothing shocking—though this time it was not my personal choice—that people like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle or Bill Kristol, who are, broadly speaking, Wilsonians—have been found for some years now treading along the lines (with regard to Iraqi issues) of the Jacksonians surrounding George W. Bush. But what I don’t understand is that in the process they decided to accept everything else. What I don’t understand, and what upsets me, is that just because they came together on one issue—granted, a key issue—they felt compelled to line up on every other issue and to endorse the Administration’s entire agenda. What I won’t accept—and what I see as a big mistake—is this way you decide, just because you agree on Bosnia, Afghanistan or Iraq, that you also have to agree with the ethos on the death penalty, on abortion, on gun control, on the neurotic fixation on gay marriage, and on all sorts of other issues. When I met Bill Kristol in Washington, I asked him: “When you go to a restaurant, do you order a dish or the whole menu?” He looked at me quizzically. Yet the problem is right there. When I go to the restaurant I choose a dish, maybe two. He takes the entire menu. And that’s absurd, even dangerous, for at least three reasons.
First, it’s an insult to intellectual freedom. An intellectual is someone who never puts himself or herself at someone’s service. An intellectual is no one’s puppet. An intellectual may join the powers that be on a specific issue, but nevertheless continues, with regard to the other issues, to defend not only his or her colors, but also the different hues of those colors.
Second, when neoconservative intellectuals took the full-package approach, they took the risk of compromising a beautiful concept we had in common, and I’m not sure in what state it will emerge from this venture. That concept is the “right to intervene” or “duty to step in.” This is a key concept, a genuine enhancement of applied Western political philosophy. But to see it associated with pathetic attacks on Clinton’s privacy, with absurd religious crusades or to confuse “reasons of state” with lies of state, is a sad sight. It raises fears that this cherished concept might emerge deeply corrupted and weakened from all this.
And third, by eating the entire menu, they diminish American intellectual and political life; they soften whatever sparkle, diversity, conflicting or contradictory nature it might have. Diversity will send a wake-up call on the very day when the true Bushites realize they have nothing in common with idealistic and adventurous neoconservatives and drive them out—which, in my opinion, will come soon. But for the moment, that’s how the matter stands. And neoconservatism, which once invigorated the ideological debate in this country, is now rarifying and simplifying it instead.
FF: I don’t know why you assume that someone like Bill Kristol shares your antipathy to social conservatism and is disingenuously supporting President Bush’s agenda in these areas. As far as I am aware, he sincerely supports the death penalty, favors tough interrogation measures in the war on terrorism, and has real qualms about both gay marriage and Bill Clinton’s character. So he is not selling his soul simply to get his way on Iraq.
But even if he were compromising on some issues for the sake of a larger political goal, I’m not sure how I’d blame or condemn him for it. The idea that an intellectual must always speak truth to power and never compromise means for ends seems to me a rather naive view of how intellectuals actually behave, and reflects in many ways the powerlessness of European intellectuals and their distance from the real world of policy and politics. Of course, the academy must try to remain an institutional bastion of intellectual freedom that is not subject to vagaries of political opinion. But in the United States, to a much greater degree than in Europe, scholars, academics and intellectuals have moved much more easily between government and private life than in Europe, and are much more involved in formulating, promoting and implementing policies than their European counterparts. This necessarily limits certain kinds of intellectual freedom, but I’m not sure that, in the end, this is such a bad thing.
I myself worked for more than ten years at the RAND Corporation, the original “think tank” satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove that did contract research for the U.S. Air Force and Defense Department. Obviously, one cannot be a free thinker in a place like that (Daniel Ellsberg tried to be and he was fired), and that is one of the reasons that I eventually left to go to a university. But overall, I believe that a democracy is better off having intellectuals pay systematic attention to policy issues, even if it is occasionally corrupting. Having to deal not with ideal solutions but with the real world of power and politics is a good discipline for an intellectual. There is a fine line between being realistic and selling one’s soul, and in the case of the Iraq war many neoconservatives got so preoccupied with policy advocacy that they blinded themselves to reality. But it’s not clear that virtue necessarily lies on the side of intellectuals who think they are simply being honest.
Intellectuals make compromises of other sorts. An organization with which you have been associated, SOS Racisme, has been very good over the years at identifying racism on the Right, but not so quick to denounce the anti-Semitism of the European Left, or among Muslims. (I am not accusing you of this; you have been good at seeing the problem of racism on both sides.) Those taking this view either genuinely don’t perceive this kind of racism, or more likely they don’t want to undermine the moral authority of political forces whose agenda they broadly support. This kind of advocacy has been very destructive, and is one of the reasons that Europe to this day cannot have an honest discussion about issues related to Islam, immigration and identity politics. I am not so sure that the behavior I am describing is all that different from what you find so reprehensible on the part of the neoconservatives.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: That’s it. I think we have come to heart of what divides us.
Forget Bill Kristol, about whom you certainly have more information than I do. Forget SOS Racisme as well, which I on the other hand am more familiar with than you are. Let me simply point out that SOS Racisme is one of the driving forces today in France that strongly exposes the devastating effects of communitarianism, political Islamism and anti-Semitism.
The problem lies with the definition of what you and I call an intellectual, and beyond its definition, its function. Unlike you, I don’t think an intellectual’s purpose is to run the RAND Corporation or any institution like it. Not because I despise RAND, or because I believe in Kubrick’s burlesque portrayal of it. No, I just think that while some people are running RAND, others no more or no less worthy or deserving should be dealing with, shall we say, the unfiltered truth. A democracy needs both, imperatively and absolutely both—”realistic” intellectuals and “idealistic” intellectuals. Both types and the functions they embody have recognizable places inside society, even if some societies value one type more than the other. America needs intellectuals with a selfless concern for sense, complexity and truth. This is just as essential to its equilibrium (possibly even to its moral fiber and therefore to its good health) as the existence of universal suffrage or the separation of powers à la Montesquieu.
You of all people won’t deny all this, given your itinerary since your return to university. As I’m sure you know, being the Hegelian you are, that “idealist” intellectuals are no less in direct contact with reality, and are no less concerned with politics, than intellectuals of any other type.