Las Vegas? Ah, too many kids

A suprisingly intelligent debate between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy is I suppose what passes for a “pro-American” European intellectual, that is someone who generally likes the influence American culture and policy has on the world, but doesn’t seem to care too much for the reality of American society on its home turf. Which is what their randomly sparring about Las Vegas is about in my mind. Fukuyama sort of gets trapped defending Las Vegas as an expression of the American frontier model, the freedom that allows people to conjure up a metropolis of opportunity and entertainment out of thin air. The obvious riposte, which Lévy dutifully provides, is that the fruit of opportunity and freedom is pretty meager, if this is what it is. But this is actually a larger problem for Lévy and idealists of his ilk. They like the idea of America as some huge liberating force wandering around the world unshackling people from the oppression of tyrannical governments and so forth. But what do people do when they have been liberated, when they have money, leisure and a relative amount of freedom? The go vacation in Las Vegas. So what’s so great about freedom? I might turn that around by asking, what’s so bad about Vegas? And might I suggest that if one is particularly appalled by Las Vegas it might be time to start revising one’s expectations of the human race? I don’t buy into the idea that it is uniquely representative of the country, or even that most people go there. I’ve never been, nor have most of my family or friends. But by the same token, what people do there is not exactly unique to America. Try Amsterdam, or Thailand.

So Lévy looks at America and sees it in a positive light in a negative sense, so to speak. He sees how it has nullified totalitarianism in various parts of the world, has alleviated misery, but he doesn’t seem to think people live in all that great of a way here. The result is a kind of disconnect which I think is one of the almost inevitable pitfalls of observing a foreign culture. The temptation is to see it as a counter-point to one’s own, but not as its own discrete reality. One thinks: “if we could only graft this this and this characteristic onto our own civilization, it would be super.” But then it is easy to forget that maybe certain of those positive qualities are intimately connected to less desirable traits. Many Americans for example think it’s great how much more present history is in European culture than in American, and how much more versed in it people tend to be. But doesn’t that often go hand in hand with the “blood, soil, roots” mentality that Fukuyama and Lévy both condemn as xenophobic? Or, to take another example, I love the poetry and mysticism which seem endemic to Russian culture, but am I thinking about living there long-term? Mightn’t that lack of practicality which is such a refreshing change for an American actually be a bigger problem? So maybe there is more and more a melding of cultures in the world, but one cannot simply cherry-pick attributes–at the root of it all are certain fundamental relationships between the individual and the collective which order all of these secondary traits.

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