Thierry Chervel talks to Bernard-Henri Levy, who just wrote an amusing book called American Vertigo based on a one-year sojourn in the United States, about his view of relations between Europe and the U.S.:
Yet [America is] in a crisis with the debacle in Iraq.
No more and no less than during the Vietnam War, or in the decades before, leading up to the civil rights movement. People seem to be completely taken aback by Bush. Why? Before Bush there was Nixon. And before that there was segregation, the Ku Klux Klan. And all that didn’t stop American democracy from thriving, progressing and developing. And where are we today? People act as if America was going through a huge, irreversible shift to the right. But if you look at the last fifty years, you’ll see that today America has progressed a lot. Bush’s two victories, the triumph of the creationists and the religious fundamentalists is nothing compared with the – victorious! – battle for civil equality, for the equality between men and women, and the right to abortion. We’ve seen a democratic revolution the likes of which has happened nowhere else on earth. Compared with all that, the current shift to the right seems much more like the last shudder of a beast that knows it’s doomed.
What did you learn about Europe in America?
I learned that it’s possible. When I came to the USA I was in a melancholy mood over the question of Europe. It was the time of the French debate over the European constitution, the time when even the "yes" partisans didn’t dare say you had to vote "yes" because Europe was a good thing in itself, but because it was good for France. I was close to thinking that the Europe was possible just an illusion of our generation. I said to myself: "I’ve spent my life thinking Europe was one with history, that it will come together no matter what happens, you just have to let it be. We could all go to bed and it would form, behind our backs. But perhaps it won’t form itself at all, perhaps it’s undoing itself before our eyes…"
And America made you see things differently?
Yes. I saw this federation of states, this national community made up of people who speak even less the same language than the Europeans and who are faced with problems of ethnicity far more weighty than those in Europe. And I think that miracles are possible, that the inorganic nation, the inorganic social body, can be constituted. I discover that constitutional patriotism, to speak with Habermas, is not just a philosophical reverie, that it’s something that works. One can create an army, maintain schools, raise taxes, etc. When you cross the country as I did, when you see how a landowner in Alabama has nothing in common with a Mexican from San Diego or a European from Savannah or Charleston, and that despite all that America has been able to constitute itself, that rekindles your hope in Europe.