Nearly two decades after Alexis de Tocqueville's monumental Democracy in America, a French intellectual reassesses the cultural and political climate in the U.S. and, surprise, finds much to criticize.
Tocqueville officially journeyed to America to investigate its prisons, and Lévy takes a lame swipe at this and at following his celebrated countryman's itinerary. But his focus, like that of Tocqueville, is really on understanding American democracy. The author poses as a sympathetic interlocutor, hopeful about the country's future, yet he appears to abandon few preconceptions and, instead, conforms to every cliché Americans hold about European intellectuals. Lévy (Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, 2004, etc.) laments the decay of the country’s northern cities and the crassness of thos. He abhors our prisons, derides our museums and monuments, and has nothing but contempt for organized religion, except when practiced by oppressed blacks. Interviews with left-leaning politicos and celebrities—John Kerry, Sharon Stone, Ron Reagan, Barack Obama, Morris Dees, Charlie Rose and Woody Allen—never fail to charm the author. Anyone to the political right, any confirmed capitalist, and certainly George W. Bush, leave him either baffled or hostile. Periodic attempts at what passes among academic elites for “authenticity”—interviews with a waitress, a lap dancer, a retiree, a prostitute—come off as laughable. You know you're in the hands of a hopelessly adrift narrator when, attending a University of Texas class devoted to Tocqueville, he is stunned to discover liberal sentiments among the students and wonders if this could be a new American trend. Imagine!
Those sharing Lévy's politics will find comfort in his analysis; others will be dismayed by his banal observations and tiresome predictability.