Americanism is an Idea; Flags; Political Debate

I’m fascinated (and newly energized after being abroad for the first time) by the whole notion of what it means to be American. I’m very interested in the supposed “culture war” between the coasts and middle America. I’m intrigued and disturbed at how religion shapes American culture. Issues involving culture and identity – the interplay between individuality and the shared ground on which we all stand – really engage me. So I found this web-only article (subscribers only) on the Atlantic web site pretty interesting. It’s the transcript of a David Brooks-Bernard-Henri Lévy conversation at the NYC Public Library. For any of my fellow Atlantic Monthly fans out there, you’ve been reading Levy (a famous French journalist) re-trace the steps of Tocqueville and re-examine America through foreign eyes. Some good excerpts:

A thing which impressed me there, at the beginning, was the flood of American flags. Everywhere American flags. On the windows, on the shops, on the jackets, on the bicycles, on the cars. I am coming from a country where you never see a flag. I come from a country where to love the flag, or to feel an emotion in front of the flag, is considered as proof that you are a cuckoo and an idiot. And I arrived in a country where there are flags everywhere. My hypothesis is that it has something to do with the fragility of being a nation in this huge space of fifty states. People come from everywhere. The greatness of America is that being a nation has nothing to do with the evidence of the body. It has nothing to do even with the fact of having common roots in common ground. It has to do with an idea. It has to do with contracts. It is to want to be an American. We are not born American, we become American, and this creates a sort of uncertainness, a sort of fragility. Compensation for that is this extreme exhibition of the flag.

I come from a country where there’s a cliché about pragmatic America not belonging in the world of ideas. It’s even the cliché of Tocqueville. This is one of the points on which he was wrong. Tocqueville said that there was an instinctive mistrust of the American people toward great ideas. He called them “les grandes systèmes”—grand, great systems. And this nourished the idea of a pragmatic, un-ideological nation. I found exactly the contrary. I attended the two conventions. And I was stricken, contrary to all that was said abroad, by the strength, the vividness, and the violence, and sometimes the richness of the political debate in this country. There was a book published one year ago, by a good author—and a very good book which I recommend to you—called What’s the Matter With Kansas? The author of this book wondered whether it was a surprise that so many Americans were ready to vote against their economic interests. To vote against one’s economic interests means ideology—means politics. It is the very definition of politics. If people voted only for their economic interests there would not be politics. What this author, Thomas Frank, was surprised by, and in a way discovered, is that America is becoming a place of strong political debate.

It is no longer true that America is a neutral, pragmatic, unpolitical country. This is no longer true. One of the most stupid things I heard during the two last years about America is that the conservative coalition and President Bush went to Iraq because of interests—because of oil. No! For the best or for the worst, America went to Iraq for ideological purposes, for ideas. If the purpose had been to take control of the oil, the best way would have been to lift the sanctions and make a deal with Sadaam Hussein—to bring the companies in America, and to make business. Surely not to make war.

In France, we are are witnessing the end of ideologies. This is a popular theme in France— le fin des idéologies. But in America, there is a big turmoil and an increase of the heat of the political and ideological debate. That’s why I conclude the article by saying to the Americans who will read The Atlantic Monthly, “à votre santé!” We French know all about politics, we know ideology—we know how it can be the worst and the best thing. Now you play; À votre santé!

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