American Vertigo by Bernard-Henri Levy
American Vertigo by Bernard-Henri Levy

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville

Jan 27, 2006

In his entertaining and sometimes provocative book, celebrated French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy takes a fascinating new look at the country that Americans think they know, investigating issues at the heart of U.S. democracy.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us this morning as we welcome our guest, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who will be discussing his book American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.

In 1831, the French Aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustav de Beaumont came to America. They spent nine months traveling across the United States, analyzing the meaning and functioning of democracy and the influence that politics had on the social, cultural, and economic life of the American people. From the East Coast to the frontier, from the Canadian border to New Orleans, de Tocqueville observed the American people and the revolutionary country they had created. Astonished at the pace of daily life and stimulated by people at all levels of society, they recognized that Americans were driven by a series of internal conflicts, simultaneously religious and materialistic, individualistic and yet deeply involved in community affairs, isolationist and interventionist, pragmatic and ideological.

De Tocqueville saw America as a land of wonders, a country of possibilities, in which everything was in constant motion and every change seemed to be an improvement. His journey formed the basis of his classic book, Democracy in America [Démocracie en Amérique], a book which has become a touchstone for almost any discussion of the American polity today.

That was perhaps so, at least until American Vertigo was published on January 24th, just three days ago. Now, granted, the America that de Tocqueville saw and the America traversed by our speaker are obviously not the same. However, in the interest of understanding our national character as it presents itself in this century and to gain a clearer picture of how others may perceive us today, the Atlantic Monthly thought it might be interesting to trace the historic footsteps of this 19th century Frenchman.

But searching for a 21st century de Tocqueville wasn't all that easy. Yet, determined, the Atlantic found what it was looking for when it beckoned the sympathetic and charismatic Bernard-Henri L?vy to come to our shores—who, I might add, has been making just as big a splash here as he is known to do in France.

There is little doubt that Mr. Lévy's vivid observations and journalistic impressions, which he has so cleverly woven together with his signature—literary authority, political insights, and a philosopher's depth—will coalesce to form a new and refreshing reflection on America at the dawn of the 21st century.

In American Vertigo, he revisits and updates de Tocqueville's most important beliefs and explores what Europe and America have to learn from each other. It is widely anticipated that Mr. Lévy's new work will help us to begin a new conversation about what it means to be an American and what America is all about today. And, perhaps, just as de Tocqueville's Democracy in America set the stage for discussions about democracy which are still being carried out today, American Vertigo will be a stimulus for debate about the forces influencing American politics in the days and years to come.

Now, rested and somewhat restored after having completed this vertiginous tour of America, although his week in New York has been anything but tranquil, please join me in welcoming our guest, who will give us his distinctive and personal spin on America, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Thank you for joining us.


BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: Thank you, Joanne Myers, and thanks to all of you who have come so early in the morning.

I am very pleased and very honored to be hosted here in this very prestigious place, with such a prestigious crowd as well, at the beginning of this long book tour, which will drive me again all around America. I had the first trip, which was for writing this book, and I will have now a second trip. I hope it will go as well as the first one, because I will come to the very cities where I was, and I hope the people whom I will meet again will recognize themselves more or less in what I wrote about them. So I am at the beginning of this book tour and very pleased to be this morning at the Carnegie with you.

Of course, there are many, many topics about which we could speak this morning. I could tell you about the great joy it was to make this investigation and this journey, not only because of Tocqueville. Tocqueville in France, by the way, may be less a star than in America. Tocqueville is yours more than ours. This is a point we might discuss later.

I could tell you about the real enjoyment, the real passion, it was for me to discover as I did it in such good conditions, which means by road, coast to coast, north to south, with a real sense of the distance and the space which is in itself an American experience, this great, amazing country.

I could tell you also about what appeared to me the real great vitality of American democracy, despite all that can be said and thought about the current crisis that it may face. Nevertheless, whether you see the American democracy from above or from the grassroots, I finish this journey and this book with a strong feeling that the workings are still there, still solid, more than ever, and that if there is a crisis, it will be overcome. I am deeply convinced of that.

I could tell you also, of course, about many things I felt during this journey. For example, the incredible generosity, feeling of solidarity, which Tocqueville already noticed, of which he spoke at length in his famous Démocracie en Amérique, and which I really found intact as he said. One example only, and maybe we will discuss that in the Q&A after this introductory little speech.

The example is the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which revealed for me two things: number one, the tragic lack of power of the federal state, and of the state in general, in a city like New Orleans. As you know, for years and years many observers, many witnesses, the local press, the Times-Picayune, did tell that something had to be done. Number two was the incredible manifestation of solidarity and generosity of the people themselves in front of such a catastrophe.

Newspapers and TV reported, of course, about TV stars, former presidential candidates, the President, opening their hearts and so on, taking a special plane to rescue some people. But what impressed me much more than that was the real average people, the simple people of America and of the South of the country, and especially of Texas, who opened their hearts, opened their arms, and opened their wallets for the survivors of the neighboring state, white and black, rich and poor, former rich and new poor. I am not sure there are so many countries in the world, and I am not sure there is one European country, where you would have found this amount of genuine generosity.

This is the great America.

But this audience being what it is, I would like to speak a little more at length about foreign policy, which is one of the important issues in the book; and not only foreign policy, but maybe a more specific point, which will create a lot of debate in my own country, when the book will be published one month from now.

The question is the question of the relationship between the so-called neoconservatives and foreign policy. There is a big section of the book devoted to the question of "the neoconservative moment"—I take the phrase of the Francis Fukuyama/Charles Krauthammer debates one year ago, which you all know about .

For me the neoconservatives were an important topic, and I developed it at length in the book, because in Europe the neoconservatives have a very bad reputation. Before coming here, before putting my foot on the American soil, I knew that among all the clich?s we Europeans have in mind about Americans, this one might be the biggest, the worst, the one which is the thickest. Clichés are like a thick smoke, a cloud of things, or a fog, which separate you from the reality. We have a big cliché in Europe, and in France in particular, about the neoconservatives. First of all, neocon—that's "neocon" in French— has not the same meaning in France and America. In French it means "neo-crazy" or "neo-buddies" or something like that, "princes of darkness".

So I went to meet them. I met Richard Perle. I met Bill Kristol. I met Francis Fukuyama. I met Samuel Huntington. I met Paul Wolfowitz in Bosnia for the tenth anniversary of the bloodbath of Srebrenica. I tried. In all that I did in this book, I tried to look at the phenomenon with sincerity, honesty, and humility, with the least quantity of prejudice and of cliché as possible. And I tried to have, not a balanced opinion on the phenomenon—balance is not my sort of virtue; I am not a balanced man—but honesty. I tried to have an honest appreciation of what it means in the current state of affairs of America and of the world.

If I had to sum up my position on that as it is expressed much more at length and much more in detail in the book, I would say the following. When I found myself in front of these men and women—there are also some women—I felt really very embarrassed. I would even say that it was maybe one of the biggest embarrassments in my mind during all this journey.

I had many moments of embarrassment—when I heard the pilot of a little helicopter telling me that there were two theories about the creation of the Grand Canyon, and that one was that it was done during years and years and years and millennia; and the other one, that it was done in six days a few millennia ago by the finger of God and so on. I had embarrassment.

With the neoconservatives, I had a bigger embarrassment and real sort of vertigo. Why? Because, on the one hand, when I was in France, sitting and having a chat over lunch or breakfast with these persons, I felt very close to them, to some aspects of them. For example, when some of them told me that they came to their current position because of a reflection in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s about the submission of the Western world in front of totalitarianism, the incapacity of the Western world to resist totalitarianism, that was my story. I shared in my own biography this sentiment about the betrayal of the "captive Europe"; the resignation to the state of slavery of the Soviet Union, of Russia; the idea that the world should be—could be—cut into two, and that one part of it should belong for the next centuries not only to another space but to another temple [?]. It was a scandal—scandal for them, scandal for me. It was my history.

Again, also for Bosnia. When Bill Kristol, for example, told me how he fought during all these dark years in favor of the Muslim people of Sarajevo, democratic Muslims, enlightened, the nonfundamentalists, and subjects and victims of the worst bloodbath since the Second World War, I felt again so at ease with that.

Also, the idea—not only the history, not only the genealogy—the idea today that foreign policy, and the foreign policy of a great power even more, has the duty and should have as a target to spread democracy all over the world as much as possible—maybe not all over the world, but wherever it is possible here and now—this idea, how again could I not have shared the intention of it?

When I was in front of Wolfowitz, for example, I remembered the old American conservatives of my youth whose friends were Augusto Pinochet and General Videla in Argentina, and who believed that the American foreign policy should be shaped only according to the American interests, and according to real political parameters. And, of course, I thought that these guys who make policy with values, who pretend to re-inject, to re-introduce, moral ethics in politics, whose enemies are named Mullah Omar, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein— if I had to choose between the two, I prefer these. I prefer a man who tells me that his enemy is Saddam Hussein to the one who tells me that his friend is Augusto Pinochet.

So again, I had the strong feeling. I tell you the story as genuinely as I can, if you allow me. I had the strong feeling—I would not say of progress— but that something good happened in foreign policy with the arrival of these sort of people. Who do I prefer, a man whose master thinkers are Leo Strauss and Aristotle, or guys who make foreign policy only with CIA calculations, and petty interests—generally wrong, by the way, or often submitted to wrongness? Of course the first one.

The third idea, which seemed to me so close to all that I have fought for in my life, was the idea that—how would I say this?—democracy is good for everybody, that there is no invisible or secret or feudal decree saying that some people are good for democracy and some are not. I mean, in other words, the fight of these personalities against the relativism, the idea that universal values are not so universal, that they can be universal in America but not in the Middle East, and so on. This fight also appeared to me as being not a bad one.

And again, I remembered the paleo-conservatives of my youth, feeling or believing, on the one hand, that America had just to keep inside its borders and had not "a dog in the fight" of the other continents. I remembered those at this time who believed that black people, for example, were not ready, will never be ready, had a cultural handicap which would prevent them from being ready at any time, for democracy. Of course, these neocons, these princes of darkness, appeared to me as introducing some light in this night.

But I was embarrassed—and more than embarrassed. I left all these encounters— and there were many; I tell them in detail in the book—with a real sentiment of uneasiness and with a real feeling that nevertheless, in spite of all I just told you, these men and women nevertheless are not my family; I don't belong to them, they don't belong to me; at the end of the day, we don't share the same positions. So why? Again, genuinely, frankly, cards on the table, what was it which, in spite of all these reasons to be close, made me so far from, for example Kristol, all of Wolfowitz, all of Richard Perle? (Huntington is another story.)

The first reason is linked to the ideal of equality they and I profess to share—or we, because I don't represent only myself when I say this to you; I think that many in Europe and France would express this in a way that would not be so far from me. There is a distinction in the way we consider ourselves as equals. Maybe different traditions, different calculations, between America and France; maybe the role of an interventionist —I don't know. But the result is that when Bill Kristol goes to a restaurant with George W. Bush, he buys all the menu, everything—foreign affairs, domestic policy. He buys the war in Iraq, and he feels that he—he is not here to answer, but we spoke about this two days ago, and he had the occasion to reply, of course—he buys foreign policy; he buys domestic values; he buys Creationism sometimes, to some extent; and he buys—he said it publicly the day before yesterday in Washington—the goodness of an educational system that allows the two theories to be expressed; he buys the idea that some restrictions should be put on the question of abortion; and so on.

To continue the metaphor of a restaurant, when a French intellectual—when I, for example—approved the position of my President, Jacques Chirac, about the Bosnian war, when Jacques Chirac decided to applaud the bombing of the Serbian positions around Sarajevo, I applauded him. But only for that. I did not endorse all the policies of Chirac on all the other topics on which we disagree. I kept my freedom of spirit. I kept my liberty of saying "no" to the rest. At the Restaurant Chirac, Auberge de Chirac, I took one dish, I took one order, I took one main course, maybe I took a dessert on one other good thing he did. But on all the rest I kept my liberty.

Number one objection is that most of these people, maybe because of the idea they have of freedom of spirit and so on, endorse the whole menu, endorse the whole program. I feel they are not compelled to. Maybe they think they are. The point is that, and it is the first reason of strong disagreement.

The second one is linked to what I would call "democratic messianism". Some of the neocons and myself come from the same tradition, a tradition of political messianism, which for our generation was usually Marxism. We believed that the history of humanity had a meaning, that this meaning was inevitable, and that we just had to put this story in a good way and it would go all over the world, right to the target, without too much effort. There was a sort of providential conception of history for the former Marxist messianists, as you know, which was a sort of lazy conception of history, that things go well. When you going in the direction of history, no effort; it will go okay.

I have broken with that historical messianism. I have finished with that. I never believe, and I will never believe again, that there is any meaning of history, that there is any reason for the good to happen just because it is the good. I believe in a history which is painstaking, with a democracy which can be built. Of course, I am in theory an activist, but with thoughts and so on.

I have the feeling that for these neoconservatives, there has remained in their minds a remnant of this old messianism which I thought had been and should be forgotten—the idea that you just have to overthrow a tyrant, and democracy will happen, all of a sudden, as a sort of political miracle. For a year now I read in the American press many comments asking, "But why did they not prepare better for their war? Did they not have a plan for the day after? How could such brilliant guys make a war without knowing what they will do to build the peace and the nation after that?"

My belief, which I express in American Vertigo, is that it is not so much a question of haste; it is not so much a question of un-preparation; it is not a question that they did not prepare the plan for the day after. No. The question is that they really are democratic messianists, they really feel that when you are going in the correct direction of history, you don't have to bother with a painstaking nation-building program; things will go as themselves, as easily as the revolutions in the past ages of Trotskyism, Marxism, and so on.

If you add to that their mistrust—which is part also of their vision of the world and their program—their mistrust towards anything which would look like interventions of states, or civil society being shaped by politics; and then if you add their mistrust, which most of them express, for the New Deal, for the Great Society, and for all that, for the interventionist programs in America itself—health care and so on—if you add this democratic messianism, you have the philosophical cocktail. It is not a political mistake; it is a philosophical mistake, which explains largely the terrible quagmire in which you are today in Iraq, and which according to me comes from a certain blindness of theirs.

Now the third one, and the last one, the third reason of my strong embarrassment and, at the end of the day, of my real distance towards this current of thought. We soon came to discuss with some of them about the international system of security, about the international organizations which are supposed to stop war, bring about peace, and have a more peaceful world. Of course, we agreed with Kristol, for example, about the failure of the United Nations in Bosnia; we agreed on that. We agreed with another one about the failure of the international institutions in Timor. We agreed about Rwanda, which is the last genocide of the 20th century, and maybe the genocide which accomplished the very dark record of the biggest number of victims in the shortest piece of time.

But the real distance comes after that. When you admit this, this failure of the system of collective security, you have two positions possible. You have the position which is mine, which is to say the current system has failed; let's build another one. Let's sit around a table—French, Germans, Americans—and let's try to think how we could do better in the future. There are some young leaders at the United Nations. There are some bright observers of that involved in humanitarian politics. It is possible, as it was done after the First World War, as it was done after the Second World War. It should be possible, all of us, to reflect on the way to prevent a new Rwanda and a new Bosnia. This is one position. It is mine, and it is the position of a lot of people, I'm sure, in this crowd and outside.

And then you have the other position, which is the one of the neoconservatists, which consists, as we say in French, of throwing the baby out with the dirty water, jeter le bébé avec l'eau du bain, which means—

VOICE: Bath water.

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: Bath water. This means this system has failed; let's get rid of any system. This system has failed; let's break with our former allies, let's treat the French and Germans as slaves of Saddam Hussein, as valets of the former Soviet system, and let's go to war; let's build our foreign policy alone. This is called, as you know, unilateralism. This for me might be the most important point.

I had this discussion with Fukuyama. I had this discussion with Paul Wolfowitz in Srebrenica. "You call yourselves Wilsonians, "realistic Wilsonians," "armored Wilsonians," the world of Pierre Hassner, and so on and so on. In a way, you could be called Wilsonian. It is true that you are not Jeffersonians; you don't believe that American democracy is a laboratory which should be protected from all of the world contamination and whatever. George Bush was Jacksonian after September 11th, but he moved; you are not Jacksonian; you are not believers in the "hit and run" theory; you are not like in the Westerns, where if we have been killed, we kill and we withdraw. You are not Hamiltonians; you don't believe in a policy which should be conducted only according to the commerce and material interests.

Maybe you are Wilsonian in this way, but beware. Wilson was the inventor of the League of Nations; Wilson was the inventor of the multilateralism; Wilson was a man who deeply believed that nationalism, even when it is enlightened, has to be bypassed, or at least must not be the only law conducting the policy of nations and the relationship between them. So you are not true Wilsonians.

I feel, a French intellectual—nobody is perfect—I feel much closer to the Wilsonian ideal when I say, "We failed in Bosnia, we failed in Rwanda. We have to find a way not to fail any longer", than you who say, "We failed, let's get rid of that and go back to a law which sometimes looks like the law of the jungle.'"

Democratic messianism—a strange habit at the restaurant, a greedy way of taking all the menu except for two dishes, and then this non-Wilsonian attitude. These are, when I think thoroughly about it and when I write about it in all this book, the topics on which I have had, and I hope I will have again, honest, friendly, but harsh discussions with these men, which are not the worst all of what American policy has produced in the decades, but who in my opinion are very often on the wrong path. I thank you very much.

JOANNE MYERS: Now that you've given us food for thought, following your menu analogy, I'd like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you, Bernard. That was really magisterial. Allow me to deliver a few comments and a question. I would simply like to make the point that I agree with you very much in what you said, and there are many of us at the United Nations who feel very strongly about reinventing and renewing the international system so that it can fulfill the ideal on which is was based originally.

But there is a small fallacy in suggesting that the problems and the solutions rise within the structure itself. In other words, it is not only the international system that failed, but the political walls of the states that made up the system, and that ultimately, whatever system and framework we have, it cannot substitute for a political commitment on the part of [inaudible] governments to act decisively, whether it was on Bosnia, Rwanda, or go back a few decades to Bangladesh—example after example. Ultimately, that I think is outside the system but uses the system to operate through. That I believe is an important point.

The question I have is a somewhat different one. I know in your book you traveled through the country, talked to a lot of ordinary men and women, not just the neocons dining at "Auberge Bush." One of the stereotypes, the clich?s, that you have talked about, certainly in Europe and in many other parts of the world, about the American people is that they are profoundly uninterested in the rest of the world. They turn on the world news and see nothing international. To what degree in your conversations with ordinary Americans, not the intellectuals in Washington and New York, did you find that to be true, and to what extent did you find there was a sufficient interest in world affairs?

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: First of all, I would say that the noninterest in foreign affairs is not bigger in America than in my country. If you go to the suburbs of Toulouse, if you go to the countryside of Auvergne, all our beautiful provinces in France, I'm not sure they are much more open to the world than in Wisconsin or Idaho or South Dakota, where I spent quite a great amount of time. South Dakota I recommend. Let's be careful with this clich? of American people being the only developed people who don't care about foreign policy, who live in a sort of hubris of themselves, and so on.

I'm sure that there have been some periods in American history when the interest was lower, and some when it was higher. But at the present moment, I felt I was rather surprised by the height of the interest in foreign policy on one topic, which is the Iraq war. This journey, this year of journeying America, which began in Newport, Rhode Island, where Tocqueville landed, which ended in Guantánamo, Cuba, happened to coincide with the presidential campaign, which was not [inaudible]. It was like that. Of course I attended the conventions, I described them. I met the leaders—Hillary Clinton, John Kerry—a very comic situation and circumstances, by the way—and I had the chance to observe from very close your President, George W. Bush.

But, more important than that, I had the chance to be here at the moment when the people of America were at the high tide of the political debate. I have to observe that the main topic on which every single American citizen was an expert was the topic of the war in Iraq. I was so surprised by that. It was so contradictory to the clich? of the American pragmatism, self-centered interest, and so on and so on. All Americans whom I met—a waitress in a Starbucks at the border of Wisconsin and Idaho, a lap dancer in Las Vegas, a teacher in Los Angeles, a border patroller in San Diego—all of them had pretty good information and a real analysis about that.

So I would say it depends. You have low-tide and high-tide moments of interest in foreign policy in America. My feeling is that you are at the high-tide moment. This means that it might be the moment to engage these real deep reflections about not only the structure, but also the responsibility, the power, the delegation of power, the new system of delegation of power from the state to the United Nations. I feel that this country is ripe for that today, ripe for deep thinking about this, a real discussion of what sorts of tasks should be devoted to your organization, what does "collective security" mean, and so on. I deeply think that it is the moment.

QUESTION: Monsieur L?vy, thank you for being so eloquent and so provocative.

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: In French it is better.

QUESTIONER: In your travels across America, you've had an opportunity to observe the American ideal of the melting pot, or pluralism, and to compare it with the French experience. We have a challenge here of integrating people who were born in other countries. France also has such a challenge. You, yourself, I believe, were born in Algeria, and yet you are among the foremost French intellectuals. On the other hand, there are other people who were born in North Africa who have created riots and other things. In the Wall Street Journal in an interview, you were quoted as saying that the Dearborn model is more advanced than that of St. D?nis. Would you comment, please?

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: First of all, a preliminary point. Paris was not burning three months ago. Despite what you might have read in some of your newspapers, despite the image of Kissin Amman [phonetic] in the Place de la Concorde with Gillet Parbal [phonetic], et cetera, we were not. Paris was not burning. You still can come to Paris, which is a welcoming city, as you know. Thank you.

Number two, a preliminary remark. No system is perfect. You have some problems with your system of integration and we have ours. If I had to compare the mutual imperfections and the mutual benefits of the two systems, I would express it in the following way. As far as order is concerned, as far as dealing with such a revolt is concerned, as far as police tasks are concerned, I believe that France is better than America and that the Paris model is better than the Los Angeles model at the beginning of the 1990s.

Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy, three months ago, managed to control these riots without one death, without blood. There was in my opinion, one bad decision, which was to put the curfew on these suburbs as if it was a foreign country. Nevertheless, it was not L.A. in 1991 or 1992, when you had so many dead and so on. On this point I take France.

I take America on another point, which you might find more important, and maybe you would be right. The system of integration in the long run is [inaudible], what I call in the Wall Street Journal in this interview with Tunku Varadarajan "the model of Dearborn," which means the rather magical, rather miraculous, combination which allows a Muslim of Dearborn, a black of Alabama, a Jew, to remain what he is, to remain a black or a Jew or Hispanic and so on, and to be a strong American patriot. There is a combination between the twofold allegiance, between the twofold belongingness, which works well here. It does work. I met so many Americans who are real patriots and who believe themselves to be still good Jews, good faithful Muslims, really rooted in their Chinese or Iranian memory, really rooted and connected with their Hispanic or Mexican neighborhood. And it works.

In France, we have another system, which is a great system too, which has and had its ideological greatness, its nobility, and which worked for a long time, but which no longer works today. This system consists in saying to a man who comes to France, "You must immediately forget what you were—or, at least, if you remember, keep it to yourself." In the history of the Jews, there were teh marannos— you know, you can remain in Portugal as a Jew in secret but officially you must be a Catholic. So in other words, you have to be officially Catholic, or officially French in this case, and repress and keep your other feelings to yourself.

But even if you have not undergone psychoanalysis, you know the lesson of Sigmund Freud: when you repress something so strongly, it comes back as a strong backlash, the return of the repressed. We are facing now in France the return of the repressed. That is the reason for the riots, that is what has been happening in the last month, and that is a point where America has something to teach to us, which some of our politicians are beginning to understand. There is in France a movement, on the Right and on the Left, which consists of saying that the American model, the positive assimilation, might not be completely bad, that we might have something to take from that. That is what I tried to do mostly with this Franco-American book.

QUESTION: I'm a German reporter. I'm interested in your experiences with American religiosity and American religion. It seems to me in your article in the Atlantic that you found something in the impulse behind it very touching and very sympathetic. In your experiences with American religion and American spirituality in your encounters during your travels, it seems that you found something that's at the bottom of this sort of spirituality that touched you very much, and it struck a chord with me. Could you talk about that a little bit?

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: Read the book. I'm sorry. Read the book.

No. I have a problem with the current state of affairs of American religious [inaudible]. I am an agnostic, but I have no problem with faith. On the contrary, I wrote in previous books that human rights, For example, habeas corpus, democracy, could not have been shaped without this big tradition, which we can call, to be very quick, Judeo-Christianity. I believe in that. I believe, as Tocqueville did, that freedom and faith not only can but had to go at the same pace and same speed.

I do believe that the birth of the modern individual, the free individual, free thinker, to which some rights are recognized, integrity of body and so on, of one's flesh, of one's body, is absolutely related to religiosity. I believe this through the history of Judaism and Christianity in its two branches, Protestant and Catholic.

I believe, for example, also that the history of America—and I express that at length in the book—is inseparable from the history of American democracy, impossible to separate from the history of religiosity. Religiosity was not the grave at all; but was, on the contrary, the nest of American democracy. All the great virtues of the American democracy—the tolerance, the taste for debate, the willingness to debate, the free examination, and so on—all these are religious values built in the cocoon, in the nest, of the Protestant churches, sects, I would say at this time, which built the nation coming from Europe, et cetera.

But my feeling, after the journey and after really, I hope, an honest examination of what is happening in these neo-evangelical churches, which look more like stadiums for rock star music or big bands than like churches, my feeling is that with these new churches something new is appearing, a real revolution in the long story of American religions, and that the result of that is that the old law, which permitted democracy and religion to go together, might be broken today—no, not today—might be broken in the following time. For me, it's hard to explain the two worlds like this. Again, a big chapter of the book is devoted to that.

The point is the following. I believe that you are facing today in America a phenomenon, the importance of which has not been completely seen, which is the appearance of a new religion—not only a new awakening, but a real new corpus of beliefs, a real new conception of the faith, and a real new image of God.

The former Judeo-Catholic-Protestant religions were based on one principle: the principle of the presence and absence of God. In the former religions, God was talking and silent; He sometimes expressed, and many times He kept quiet. He gave hope to the worshipper when He talked, and He put him in despair when he disappeared. The story of Judeo-Christianity was the history of this constant going back and forth between distance and closeness, between mystery and clarity. Judeo-Christianity meant an absolute bright clearness at times— illumination; and darkness, mystery, enigma, at other times—the silence of God.

What happens today is something completely different. A God who never stops talking, a God who is over here, a God who is in the kitchen when you cook your fried eggs, a God who is in your machine when you cut your lawn in your garden, a God who is here when you help a child to cross the street, a God who has become your best buddy, a God who has become your closest neighbor, a God who has become a good, plain, straight American guy.

This conception of God, turn it the way you want. This conception of God is no longer either the God of anger or the God of charity, or whatever. It is something new. Something is appearing in this long history of Judeo-Christianity, the result of which you are just beginning to see and be witnesses of. My conclusion is that this transformation might be the key which will break the Tocqueville theorem, the law of Tocqueville, which is the interlinking of freedom and [inaudible--equality?].

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very, very much. American Vertigo really is a capsule of a moment in time in America.

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