1 February 2006

Tocqueville he ain’t

Garrison Keillor writes a scathing review of Bernard-Henri Levy’s new footsteps-of-Tocqueville-book, American Vertigo. Keillor has some rather strong opinions about the work.

Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a “partner-swapping club” in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair (“a festival of American kitsch”); Sun City (“gilded apartheid for the old”);a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz – you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there’s nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You’ve lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don’t own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There’s no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.

My favorite part is the consideration of Levy’s use of rhetorical questions:

…And what’s with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? “What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?” Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. “What does this experience tell us?” he writes about the Mall of America. “What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?” And what is one to make of the series of questions – 20 in a row – about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?

Good old GK gets more and more like Mark Twain every day.

Posted in Books on 1 February 2006 at 11:25 am by Nate

Where have all the dollars gone?

Good article over in the Revealer, on where the monies from the $15 billion GWB authorized for fighting global HIV:

Nearly a quarter of President Bush’s $15 billion HIV/AIDS program is earmarked for faith-based groups, with $200 million specifically set aside for groups without experience working with government grants. As could be expected, many groups that promote abstinence only, rather than safe sex through condoms or education programs for sex workers, have already been awarded grants, including the mission-minded Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse and the National Association of Evangelical’s World Relief. But beyond these earmarks, Rita Beamish’s AP report on the status of the grant program illustrates that the U.S. guidelines on grant-giving reinforce the same morality by insisting that all “condom programs” also include messages about abstinence, while not insisting that “abstinence programs” make any mention of safe sex or condoms, and have been unofficially tightened after conservative critics, such as James Dobson and Republican congressmen Rep. Chris Smith (NJ) and Sen. Tom Coburn (OK), complained that more liberal grant-recipients were “pro-prostitution,” “pro-abortion” and not focused exclusively enough on the abstinence message.

Posted in Politicks on 1 February 2006 at 11:12 am by Nate