Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Alexis de Tocqueville He Ain’t

The Atlantic (subscription required) has hired a Frenchman to wander around the United States and spew criticism. The chosen Frog is one Bernard Henri Levi, the author of Barbarism with a Human Face (a book I have not read but have seen frequently quoted by conservatives. In it Levi attacked his fellow leftists for turning a blind eye to the evils of Communism. For writing such a book he deserves “mad props”). He seems to be a decent fellow and is an avowed anti-anti American:

I have always loved (America), and been molded, from boyhood on, by its literature, its movies, its culture. Anti-Americanism, that strange passion that acts, in my country, like a giant magnet attracting all the most disagreeable qualities that national ideology can produce, has had no adversaries more resolute than I.

Nevertheless, and despite his extensive travels here, Levi clearly doesn’t know a thing about the United States.

His take on the Baseball Hall of Fame is typical. He spends several paragraphs retelling the history of baseball and emphasizing the tale of its supposed founder, Abner Doubleday. He then debunks the myth by pointing out that Abner Doubleday almost certainly didn’t invent baseball (which is true enough). In fact, he says, Jane Austin (of all people) used the word “baseball” in a novel in 1815, and the Egyptians are believed to have played a version of the game in ancient times. (I have Bubba Ho Tep’s rookie card.)

His point is that Americans have a tendency to make up heroic myths about themselves. We are a people that ignore truth in order to forge a false national narrative. That we would do this with baseball is important because it is a sort of secular religion (the title to his section on Cooperstown is “On Religion in General, and Baseball In Particular.”) Baseball he says, isn’t American (it’s British and Egyptian), and Americans have willfully deluded themselves about the sport's nature and history. His clear implication is that our self-delusional tendency is a trait that extends to much more than baseball.

But this is silly. The people who go to Cooperstown don’t give a crap about Abner Doubleday. They’re there to see Babe Ruth’s jockstrap and the ball that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head for a homerun. (If I could have one piece of baseball memorabilia it would be that ball.) And as for Baseball having been discovered by Jane Austen . . . that’s just silly. It is highly doubtful that the sport played by Catherine in Northanger Abbey was very much like the modern game, (“Catherine . . . should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country . . .” – this the sum total of “baseball” in Jane Austen) and though the Egyptians may have played a game with a bat and a ball it was no doubt as much like baseball as Ullamalitzli is like basketball.

The reason Baseball is America’s secular religion has nothing to do with the name of Abner Doubleday. It has everything to do with names like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Lou Gehrig. The Frog just doesn’t get it.

There’s lots of other stuff the Frenchman doesn’t get. For example, at one point during his journey through America he pulled over to the side of the freeway in order to take a piss and he was told to “keep moving” by a cop who happened by. Levi posits a couple of theories in order to explain why the cop told him to move on. First, the cop, inspired by post 9/11 hysteria, may have thought he was “loitering with intent” and was planning some nefarious act of terrorism. Second, the cop may have suffered from “paranoia . . . or a much deeper anxiety, ingrained in the American ethos, when faced with the very idea that movement can stop.”

Why does Levi go looking for his answer in the depths of the American psyche when the obvious answer is whizzing by him at 90 miles an hour? It is illegal to stop on the shoulder of the freeway because it is dangerous! If the guy holding a cheeseburger in one hand and a Pabst Blue Ribbon in the other bends down to change the radio station with his nose at the wrong time, splat! Bernard-Henri Levi would be the flattest Frenchman since the Germans invented the Panzer. It has nothing to do with anti-terrorist hysteria or any profound anxiety “ingrained on the American ethos.” It is typically French to look for the deep, difficult, and unlikely answer when the easy and obviously correct answer is bearing down on them in the form of a fully loaded Dodge Ram Power Wagon.

Perhaps this also explains why they don’t understand our reasons for kicking Saddam’s ass.

The good news is that the Atlantic plans to run an entire series of articles on America by this Frankish gasbag, so there is much more of this crap to come.

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