American Vertigo

From Tower Books

I originally picked up this book to cover my travel category for the library summer challenge but it’s actually ended up being my political one as the book is a combination of travel journal, philosophical discourse, and examination of the state of American political culture. It was a bit more than I was expecting when I picked it off the library shelf. It was also one of the most challenging books I have read in a long time. I spent a lot of time with the dictionary for this one.

Levy is interesting; at the same time he is a post-modern French philosopher who is not writing for the average person. He is writing for a very specific audience. American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville was commissioned by The Atlantic. Yet, Levy does a good job in the travel journal part of the book of making his observations interesting and approachable. He makes an effort to touch every aspect of our culture in each stop he makes. He clearly finds Americans fascinating and not at all living up to our reputation in Europe. He points out oddities that we as a culture don’t notice: the prevalence of the flag in all things, our very conservative culture that also supports seemingly supports sex industries, our fanatical politically correct practices that also mask some of the things still wrong in our country like poverty, backdoor racism and a broken social welfare system that may or may not exist depending on who you talk to.  It was so interesting to look at America through the eyes of a foreigner, someone who knows our history but doesn’t know us as we see ourselves.

That said, you have to work for this book when you read it. Levy is a philosopher. He writes like one so you go in circles sometimes and often by the time he gets to the point, you’ve forgotten where he started. He’s more likable in the travel journal parts like I said; in the Reflections section of the book, I had to really slow down and take my time to understand the points Levy is trying to make about American political culture and perhaps what might come next for our society, for the original Great Experiment, that Levy sees as in crisis with itself and its role in the new century. It is a book to make you think, to make you ask how much has changed since he published it five years ago (hint: I found it still extremely relevant) and how much further we as a country have gone in either of the directions Levy lays out. Have we started to correct the stagnant nature of a society that is dealing with its greatest challenge, success? Or have we continued to flounder, still reeling from an attack that happened ten years ago and the aftermath we’re still cleaning up?

Levy gets into a lot of political theory trying to justify why he thinks America is still working but is heading towards a crisis if it doesn’t watch its step. I will be honest, I didn’t follow all of it but I think for the most part, I would have to agree with him. We are a nation that seems to be ripping at the seams in terms of what we value and how we value it. We don’t so much have political discussion as political scandals and arguments. It seems to me finding the middle ground is becoming the major challenge with more and more people being absolute. Compromise seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. Religion seems to be dragged into things more and more, or at least it seems to me. Or perhaps, I am just paying attention more than I used to. Perhaps I have finally wised up to the great American myth of the separation of Church and State. It worries me. Levy points out all the places the things I take pride in the most are in danger. Freedom of religion, speech…freedom of choice. The idea of individualism, of following the rules and being rewarded. The idea of the frontier, hard work – the so called “good words” that need no definition when you use them.

So, like I said, one of the hardest and most challenging books I have read in a while and I enjoyed its content if not its style. One must always enjoy a book that makes you think and question the world around you.