Born in Algeria and raised in France he has the unique perspective of an insider who is an outsider at the same time!
A self-confessed sequential Marxist and Leninist this “soixante huitard” rose to international prominence in 1977 with the publication of the controversial anti-Marxist tract Barbarism with a Human Face. His most recent international best seller was Who Killed Daniel Pearl?
And he backs up his words with action as co-founder of ACTION INTERNATIONALE CONTRE la FAIM and the ant-racist group SOS RACISM.
In a country where anti-American sentiments have been fueled by the Bush government’s war in Iraq he is a passionate anti anti-Americanist whose affection for America rings out loud and clear in American Vertigo.
We met over tea in the lobby of San Francisco’s Prescott Hotel to discuss the journey that became American Vertigo.
TWG: What is the role of a philosopher in contemporary society?
BHL: To go beyond clichés, to break the stone and concrete and cement of idées réçus-received ideas and to try to see the complexity of things.
TWG: Do you see anyone in America that you could characterize as a philosopher in the same manner as a philosphe in France?
BHL: A philosopher? I don’t know but public intellectuals of course. Adam Gopnik and Christopher Hitchens come to mind. You might not agree with their positions but they are public intellectuals, they try to go against the prejudices. They try to seek the truth even if puts them at odds with their natural supporters. They are two examples of public intellectuals.
TWG: Your writing is replete with American cinematic and literary references? When did you first become enamored of America and how has that affected you?
BHL: My love affair with America began very early in my life when I was a youngster. It came through music, cinema and literature and then the country itself. Music-I’ll never forget my first trip to Memphis in 64-65. Movies- I was nourished by (Howard) Hawks, John Ford and then literature, of course Hemingway. I spent all of my youth asking myself whether I felt closer to Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
And then the discovery of the real country. The vastness of America. The very peculiar experience of traveling in America for a European. This feeling of taking you to America’s past via its biblical landscapes and future. I made my first coast-to-coast trip when I was eighteen or nineteen years old with a girlfriend and for the first time I had the sense that travel in America was a metaphysical experience that gives you a whiff of the future and the past and I still feel that today-forty years later.
TWG: Were you speaking and reading English at the time?
BHL: Enough to fall in love.
TWG: When did you first become aware of de Tocqueville?
BHL: I wasn’t aware of him until late in my life. I came from a generation for whom Tocqueville was not such a big name. In America he belongs to your natural political, ideological landscape-like Mount Rushmore, like John Ford westerns, like the Rocky Mountains. He belongs to your intellectual landscape.
In France it is different. Maybe because of our Marxist tradition, maybe because of our structuralist moments, maybe because of our radicalism this old-style democrat with one foot in the new world, one foot in the ancient world; democratic but hesitating in the face of equality, hesitating between liberty and equality seem to us not really the sort of guy we felt comfortable with. So I began to read him very late through François Furet who was a prophet of Toqueville studies in France.
TWG: Like de Tocqueville your first entry into America was through a prison-Riker’s Island. Talk about that experience empirically and how did it affect the rest of your journey?
BHL: It was not the best experience of my journey. Maybe any prison in the world would provoke this sort of feeling. There are no good prisons. It is a place of desolation and distress. I had the feeling that this might be one of the darkest sides of this country. God knows, if I love this country, if I feel close to her, if I have a real deep feeling for this country then as when you love someone you try to tell him the truth. What is so dark about the jails is not so much the material aspect of them. The day-to-day is not worse than in France but there are three things that I feel may be worse.
Number one, that is antithetical to a European-the private ownership of some of your jails. When you leave the responsibility of running a jail to private ownership that needs to generate profits for their shareholders it doesn’t improve sanitary conditions.
Number two- Sometimes there is a feeling as I felt at Riker’s that the penal system is a way of dealing with social issues. Too many petty delinquents, too many little dealers, too many small criminals who upon contact with the prison become much harder criminals.
And thirdly, in several jails the dark cloud of the death penalty and the influence it has over the entire penal system.
TWG: In last week’s New York Times Book Review Garrison Keillor ripped both you and American Vertigo in a front-page review. Is that another example of Francophobia? exemplified by “freedom fries?”
BHL: First of all it was good publicity. Secondly it was fair play. I addressed the book to an American audience so it is absolutely normal that the embodiment of an American would react. It’s a debate and I welcome it. Thirdly it was well written and funny. And finally I had been desperately looking for this Francophobia in my travels and couldn’t find it. I criss-crossed the country and it was nowhere to be found. At last, I finally got this tiny drop of francophobia that I’d been told was out there and couldn’t find–Too late for the book but perhaps in the next edition.
TWG: You write about dead cities: Buffalo and Cleveland, a condition that would never occur in Europe. How surprising was that for you to see that our cities have become disposable?
BHL: More than surprising. It is like a form of social Darwinism. A species does not work-it dies and another follows. A city does not work-it dies and another city follows. It also has a good side. It is a testament to the youthful and vibrant optimism to keep on moving that characterizes America, The bad side is that when it is Buffalo, when it is Detroit with their huge, incredible marvels of architecture it is a disaster, a huge loss for America.
TWG: You write about religion in America and its influence on American political life so unlike Europe where even in nominally Catholic countries like France and Italy the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state still exists. How do you react to that and do you see any positives from American religious practices?
BHL: I have no problem with religion, especially in America where throughout your history religion has played a positive role. I cannot forget that the civil rights movement was launched and nourished from the pulpits of churches. I cannot forget that Martin Luther King’s dream in his famous “I have a dream” speech was a religious dream. So I have no concerns about religion. My concern is that you have a new situation today. The old “wall of separation” between public affairs and religion has begun to crack. There are signs of cracking and if I were an American I would really be concerned. The phenomenon of the huge mega-churches that look more like rock and roll concert stadia or huge banks than chapels. These places reveal something new that is no longer the old Judeo-Christianity that had an old contract with liberty.
TWG: You visited another type of Church-the Mall of America, What did that tell you about America?
BHL: It told me that there was a growing “massification,” a growing uniformity but America is an incredible country whose great strength is that it immediately feeds the contrary. You have Mall of America and you have people in Los Angeles resisting the entry of Wal-Mart. So you have “massification” and the resistance of “massification.”
TWG: One of the most emotional moments in the book for me was when you entered Russell Means’ home and he greeted you with bone-chilling words of anti-Semitism. The hatred leapt of the page! Was your reaction as visceral as mine and is he just an example of another Jew-baiting demagogue from a minority community or is there something deeper and more dangerous going on?
BHL: My reaction was visceral, of course and I was disappointed because I came to Russell Means as a friend of Indian people. I came to him with the idea of a project for an Indian Yad Vashem. I came with the idea of discussing why there was no memorial to Indian suffering and I found that. I believe it was not just a tactic but something else. I left that meeting feeling that I had touched with a finger the real definition of the new anti-Semitism. The new international anti-Semitism is this: I hate Jews because they are complicit in the murder of Palestinians. The scrutiny of their Shoah (Holocaust) is so deafening, so strongly expressed that it prevents us from seeing the reality of the misery of today beginning with the Palestinian one. Thus the Jew has been transformed from the victim into the guilty.
TWG: As a “pied-noir’ (Algerian) Jew who was raised in Paris you come at the world as an exalted insider who is simultaneously an outsider. How has being a Jew affected your life and work in France and the world?
BHL: I feel very Jewish and very French and for me there is no contradiction. I feel more comfortable in France than you would believe after reading articles in the New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle that France is on the eve of a Kristallnacht. I feel comfortable in France and I feel deeply Jewish in my philosophy and in my way of seeing the world.
TWG: You visited the writer Jim Harrison who loves France and I could sense a palpable weariness and despair in his voice from what he saw happening to America. Is that an accurate reading of what he felt and did that leave you with a feeling of sadness for him and America?
BHL: I tried to cheer him up. It was a paradoxical situation. It was the world à l’envers (upside down.) I tried to tell him that America had always overcome dark periods in her history and I believed she would again but he was very distressed.
TWG: You believe that or were you just trying to mollify him?
BHL: Yes, I believe that. I believe that the workings of American democracy are in place, that the counter poisons (antidotes) are strong. There is a very strong resistance in the population of the country to the worst forms of right-wing tendencies. I’m sure of that. I finished this journey with a real confidence in the strength and health of American democracy.
TWG: The journey of the book or the journey of this tour as well?
BHL: It is of course the conclusion of the book. And perhaps even more on this tour. Everywhere I went I was so warmly welcomed with large and thoughtful crowds. In Boston where the organizers of my appearance had to move the event to a church, in Chicago and New York that it confirmed my conclusions that the signs of a healthy democracy were still there.
TWG: What is your opinion of the American press, especially television, that focuses on the sensational? And contrast it with the French press?
BHL: You can say what you will about the American press but the fact remains that when you had Abu Grahib it took a few weeks for Seymour Hersh’s articles to be published in the New Yorker and for the rest of the American press to echo that story. Radio, television and newspapers were filled with outrage against the administration. It took a few weeks to do what took forty years for the French press to do after the Algerian War.
TWG: What parallels do you see between American use of cheap Mexican labor and France’s use of cheap Arab labor? And what differences do you see in our approaches to deal with the social unrest they engender?
BHL: The hypocrisy is the same. We pretend to be against illegal immigration but we need it and we sort of welcome it.The difference in America is the way that they assimilate. The pattern of citizenship of building a citizen works better in America than in France.
TWG: As the co-author in 1994 with Françoise Giroud of Les Homes et Les Femmes what did you observe about relationships between men and women in America?
BHL: This system of dating, relationships, evaluating and getting married is too formal and excessively ritualized resulting in a loss of mystery. It is an example of American Puritanism, this manner of separating things, of the excessive codification of sexual love.
TWG: Are you optimistic that we can reclaim our mythology as expressed inMr. Smith Goes to Washington?
BHL: You have a vibrant right and a comatose left, a calamity. The right learned from the left of the seventies and now the left has to learn from the right. I would like in this country that I love for the left to challenge the right inspired by the success of the right in the last twenty tears, My dream is for a leftist equivalent of the neo-conservative movement. I don’t see it today but I know it will come. When I consider that I’m speaking in San Francisco and I consider the vitality of the left in the sixties and seventies I can’t imagine that it could remain in this comatose state.
TWG: Finally, how has your thinking about America changed or has it as a result of this journey?
BHL: The crisis is deeper than I believed and the workings are saner than I thought.