Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville, the The Atlantic Monthly has commissioned another Frenchman, Bernard-Henri Lévy, to travel around the United States to interpret the country through foreign eyes.
The first installment of Lévy’s travelogue, published in the current issue, is remarkably banal, but still worth reading. Lévy touches on all manner of Americana, including the ubiquity of the flag, patriotism, prisons, religion, the significance of baseball, the sad decline of post-industrial rustbelt cities, the experience of Arab-Americans. He visits the Amish and the Mall of America.
He meets Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, soon-to-be Senator (and now blogger) Barack Obama and Native American activists of all political stripes.
My favourite bit, though, is about American motorways:
… Or this other detail, perhaps even more bothersome, which says a lot about the anthropology of American automobile customs: in Europe the point of having a road with several lanes is to reserve one for slow cars, so that the fast ones, the ones in a hurry, which often happen to be the prettiest and most expensive cars, can drive as fast as they like in the lane reserved for them; here that is not the case. Both lanes are being used at the same speeds. Quick and slow, big and little, and thus, whether you like it or not, rich and poor, powerful and weak—all use their lane of choice interchangeably. If you’re late, make sure not to blow your horn at the asshole who’s blocking your way and who in France would comply and move over. You can shout, “Get out of the way, moron, and let me pass” all you like; that would make him give way in France. Here, not only will he not give way, not only will he keep going at his imperturbable pace, sure of his right of way, but you’ll see through his window, if you finally manage to pass him, his indignant, alarmed, incredulous look—“Hey! Big and little, we’re all in this together! This is an automobile democracy!” A real lesson, in the field, of equality of conditions where we French flaunt our social distinctions, our privileges. And a real example, once again, of the perspicacity of Tocqueville, who, more than a century before the birth of the highway, noted that “the first and liveliest of the passions inspired by equality of status” is “the love of equality itself.” There we are.
Not sure about that. I suspect it has more to do with anti-government political culture and the ease with which drivers licences are distributed in the United States. A highway code that demands European-style passing rules would never be tolerated.