Agnostic about atheism


Albert Einstein’s letter, containing a short rant about God and the Bible, sold recently for 25 times its expected price — thanks, in part, to professional atheist Richard Dawkins being one of the unsuccessful bidders.

It’s long been said that religion is a racket. Sales figures of other anti-God rants — much longer than Einstein’s letter to Eric Gutkind — suggest that atheism may be catching up. But is it good for the atheists?

As we know, it helps to have a book in circulation. Dawkins’ recent work, “The God Delusion,” is nowhere near as big as the Bible, but shifting 1.5 million copies is more than respectable. Book sales have a legitimizing effect. It’s not just the growing number of readers who may be converted by a polemic. Monetary success confers an impressive, almost magical, aura.

If atheism’s a commercial success, associated with a certain kind of high-flying, worldly proselytizer, we may yet see the advent of an atheist sect — reclusive ascetics who wish to distance themselves from the more ostentatious nonbelievers. Atheist sects? Not as crazy a concept as you might think. In New York, there has even been talk of a “church” — a physical house of nonworship — for atheists. Start a church and, even if you remove all mention of God, a schism seems inevitable.

What would Einstein do? His views on religion can’t be summed up in one letter. They were, in some respects, inconsistent. Religion being what it is — huge, ancient, diverse — only the fanatical or the very dim can have a consistent response to its existence. Einstein found religion “childish” but described atheists as creatures who, harboring a grudge, were resistant to “the music of the spheres.” In other words, resentful puritans.

For it is not only Einstein’s “music of the spheres” but music in general that must be tossed out when you refuse to appreciate religion. If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.

Whether your preference is Bach, Britten, Palestrina, Kanye West or Earth, Wind and Fire, you’ll find some aspect of Christianity in the details. But reggae — such as The Melodians doing Rivers of Babylon, based on a psalm of the exiled Jews — can’t easily be separated from religion, either. Run from religion, if you must, but you can’t hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food.

Given that the influence of religion over the centuries has made them what they are, I can’t help seeing something crude in the impulse for some to bash it. As a “cafeteria” atheist and secular Catholic, I don’t share that impulse. Religion has given us some rather fabulous architecture, a lot of excellent paintings, a variety of head coverings — from yarmulkes through wimples, veils and turbans — which I, for one, find fascinating.

Religion has often been the engine of tourism from which the laity could benefit. All sorts of people made a good living from pilgrims traipsing through Europe to check out the relics of the latest hot saint. Today, some of these pilgrim routes attract eager non-believers, as do many cathedrals and churches. For many tourists, the Way of St James pilgrimage route across the Pyrenees is an exercise in self-improvement through education, a recreational history lesson rather than a form of piety. Religion has staying power because it can adapt.

I enjoy pilgrimage sites as much as I enjoy sampling the obsessive-compulsive cuisine born of a strict religious diet. (I might be wrong, but something tells me Dawkins is not a world-class foodie.) When food is part of learning about the world (and how other people live), almost anything is worth trying once.

Take a look around New York and you’ll realize that halal is the new kosher. In Manhattan, the Jewish restaurants on West 72nd Street (one for meat, one for dairy) have disappeared — while halal pushcarts, dotting the midtown sidewalks, service the city’s office workers.

Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It’s as though they’ve just discovered God doesn’t exist, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy nonbelievers gets on his or her soapbox. Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have helped me to understand how a genteel Anglican must feel about some of those “other” Protestants. As athiests become more strident, a new snobbery arises — or a schism, so sects aren’t out of the question.

Some of us are too delicate for evangelical excess. Whether it’s atheistic or religious, we find it embarrassing. Yes, religion can be abusive, and we’re often told that religion causes war. When people kill each other in the name of religious identity, it’s sickening. If I thought evangelical atheism could end violence, I would be happy to tolerate the embarrassment factor. But I’m not convinced it can.

Hitchens, declaring that “god [sic] is not great,” seems to have designed this phrase expressly to piss off the worshipful. Religion might be childish but so is a show of disrespect. If we’re so comfortable in our nonbelief, do we need to go around nettling the believers?

While finishing my third novel, I faced a dilemma: whether to capitalize the G in God when referring to the Christian deity. God is more of a concept than a being to me, but the lowercase “god” suggested by Hitchens just didn’t look right. If Nancy, Allison and Jasmine (fictional prostitutes in my novel) require the uppercase treatment, it seems democratic to do likewise for God, who is also a product of the imagination.

As a central character in so many other stories, God has legs, but I am not here to defend God’s greatness. Or legs. I prefer to say that God … is just OK.

Tracy Quan’s latest novel is “Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl.” Her first, “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl,” is being developed into a television series for HBO. She has also written for Cosmopolitan, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.

Q & A With Russian Jewish Author Gary Shteyngart


Gary Shteyngart is a literary clown with a frown. His biting satire comments on a multi-cultural America in need of self-examination and reassessment.

“Absurdistan” (Random House, $24.95), his extraordinary new novel, takes us on a no-holds-barred journey from post-communist Russia to a mythical former Soviet Union state he calls Absurdistan, with stop-offs in between to his beloved New York City. This Jewish Russian American writer invites us along for the ride. I caught up with Shteyngart earlier this summer in his Manhattan apartment. Shteyngart emigrated from the former U.S.S.R. with his family when he was 7 years old and grew up in Little Neck, N.Y. He currently resides in Manhattan.

Jewish Journal: Would you call yourself a Jewish atheist?

Gary Shteyngart: I would call myself more of a Jewish agnostic. I’m one of these people who would be very happy if there was a god. It doesn’t matter if it is a Jewish God or a Sufi god, or a Christian god. Do I believe it? I’m more than slightly doubtful.

JJ: How important is being Jewish in your writing?

GS: I would say that I am a Russian Jew, or even a Soviet Jew. We are, in our sensibility, a very specific kind of Jew. We lived in a totalitarian system for 70 years where a lot was lost. Jewish humor interests me the most, and Soviet Jewish humor is Jewish humor taken to the max. It’s Jewish humor from the edge of the grave. What’s amazing to me is how Jewish humor has completely permeated this country. I have Korean friends in L.A. who are using Yiddishisms when trying to be funny. Jewish humor is everywhere.

JJ: How would you describe your work? I like the term Jewish burlesque.

GS: There are many different kinds of fiction. There is a kind of restrained style of fiction, and then there is the kind that likes to run around and bare its chest, have a drink and talk to girls. That’s the kind of fiction I write. But there’s room for both.

JJ: When did you know when you were a writer?

GS: Very early on, when I was in Hebrew school. I wrote a take-off of the Torah. I call it the Gnorah and Exodus was Sexodus. I think I wanted to rebel against the very rigid way we were being taught. Most of us needed an outlet, and I tried to supply it. I showed it around, and it was a way to make friends and meet girls. After that, I started to write stories.

JJ: How often did you get into trouble?

GS: I visited the principal quite a lot. In Russia I was interested in orthodoxy, communism, Lenin, Brezhnev or whoever was in charge. In America, I was interested in Reagan, and Bush One. I guess I always have been fascinated by authority and, at the same time, contemptuous of it. In Hebrew school, we were presented with the ultimate authority, God. I remember the Russian kids would sneak pork kielbasa into the school bathroom, and when the rabbi found us he would be incensed and say, “This is what made the Holocaust.

JJ: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we are going?

GS: As a Russian Jew, I am hard-wired to be pessimistic. Pessimism is what I do best. When I wrote my first book, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” [2002], it was during the Clinton years, and I was very hopeful. The Soviet Union had fallen, and I thought Russia would rejoin the league of normal nations, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not sure which government, the Russian or ours, has let me down more. I guess there is a confluence of idiocy taking place in the world.

JJ: Where do you think we are headed?

GS: I think we are entering a post-literate age where people are reading less. Reading a novel requires a lot of time and further time for contemplation. I may be na?ve, but I connect literacy with democracy and being informed. I’m worried about our current state of affairs.

The irony is that people may be reading less, but they are writing more. Everyone wants to express themself, but there is a kind of lack of empathy for other people and cultures.

JJ: It’s sort of like one big blog.

GS: Exactly. And in the blog, the person writing is their own hero, or in the video game they want to be the center of action.

JJ: You describe Manhattan as being the world on an island.

GS: I’m worried that Manhattan’s quirky landscape is fading away. I’m worried that Manhattan is becoming an island of millionaires. Where I live on the Lower East Side, you still have a mixed neighborhood. We have the three H’s: the Hassids, the hipsters and the Hispanics. I spend half my day walking around the city. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I started Stuyvesant High School and discovered Manhattan. I looked beyond my Russian and Jewish roots and saw the enormity of life.

JJ: Have you spent any time in Los Angeles, and what is your reaction to it?

GS: I’m absolutely intrigued by Los Angeles and at one point considered living there. I don’t know how to drive a car to save my life and thought better of it. I think in many ways, for better or worse, L.A. is the model for what a future city might look like.

JJ: Final comments on “Absurdistan”?

GS: When I start writing, I write from the perspective of one character. Misha just came to me one day as this big, hulking guy. What I wanted to do with Misha is bring together America and Russia, these two hulking countries. What I love about Misha is his consumerism. He eats his way through the world. He eats sturgeon; he eats women; he eats political ideas; anything that comes along. I wanted to create someone that was much larger than myself and larger than any of the people I know. That was how “Absurdistan” came together.

JJ: What’s next?

GS: Next is a quieter book. I want to calm down a bit, because I feel like I am singing in the same register for too many times in a row. I want to do something more contemplative and more paced. One thing I’m considering is actually writing about other immigrant groups. The Korean American community in L.A. is fascinating, and I’ll probably spend some time in Los Angeles researching my next novel.

Harry Wiland, with partner Dale Bell, was co-executive producer/director/writer of “And Thou Shalt Honor,” a PBS special on elder care and family caregiving. He is currently co-producing and directing “Edens Lost and Found,” a PBS series on urban restoration that will air in early 2007. Wiland and Bell also wrote the companion book (Chelsea Green Publishing), available at

Touring With Lévy a Dizzying Experience


“American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Random House).

Date: Saturday, April 8, 2006.
Time: 9 a.m.
Place: The Beverly Hills Hotel lobby.

I have come to this palace of privilege to meet Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s philosophy king, the author of 30 books, including best sellers “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” released earlier this year, and “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” (Melville House, 2003).

Lévy’s boyish good looks, intellect and swashbuckling charm have made him a superstar in his native France, where he is simply known as BHL, a veritable brand name as famous for his personae as for his words.

In addition to philosopher, he is a novelist, diplomat, TV personality and documentary maker who first made a name for himself nearly three decades ago. In his book, “Barbarism With a Human Face” (Harper & Row, 1979), he had the temerity to call out France’s old-guard intellectuals for their support of Marxism. Soon thereafter, a movement known as Les Nouvelles Philosophes, or the New Philosophers, coalesced around him.

Married to the beautiful French actress, Arielle Dombasle, and the proud owner of a Moroccan palace, the 57-year-old Lévy would appear to have it all. Vanity Fair called him “Superman and prophet,” while The New York Times said, “Bernard-Henri Lévy does nothing that goes unnoticed.”

A rumored recent affair with Sharon Stone has done little to diminish his reputation as a libidinous libertine with a brain.

“Lévy is probably America’s best known French intellectual,” says New Republic Editor in Chief Martin Peretz. Peretz recently defended Lévy and “American Vertigo” in a New Republic column after the appearance of a scathing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review by writer and public-radio raconteur Garrison Keillor.

I sit nervously as the minutes tick by, waiting and waiting and waiting. Suddenly, a frumpy-looking Donald Trump passes by. Like Lévy, Trump knows how to capture the media spotlight and market himself as a star attraction. Unlike him, though, Trump is a crass creation of America’s unbridled capitalism, a man with little charm or class but with lots of cash. French designer Jean Paul Gaultier walks by looking très chic. But still no Bernard-Henri Lévy.

After a flurry of frantic phone calls to his New York publicist, Lévy finally appears — 45 minutes late. European time. He is tall and tan. He wears sunglasses, even though he’s indoors. His stylish shirt is untucked and unbuttoned at his navel, revealing a flat stomach. His black slacks hang just so. Despite middle-age, jet lag and his globetrotting life, Lévy looks more like a male model on holiday than an intellectual hawking his latest work.

“Hi, I’m Bernard-Henri Lévy,” he says, extending his hand.

I am with a veritable French legend. After helping to “dethrone socialism, Marxism and communism in France,” in the words of the New Republic’s Peretz, through his attacks on French intellectuals’ love affair with Stalinism, Lévy trained his sights on Judaism.

His iconoclasm continued with the publication of “The Testament of God” (Harper & Row, 1980), in which he encouraged French Jews — burdened by memories of the Holocaust — to celebrate their identities rather than flee from their heritage through assimilation.

These days, he raises hackles with his “anti-anti-Americanism.” Unlike many French intellectuals, BHL loves America, loves its freedoms, loves its democracy, even if he abhors its penchant for “obesity,” the idea that bigger homes, bigger cars and bigger churches are somehow better.

Lévy, his celebrity notwithstanding, is seen in some circles as lacking intellectual heft and rigor. Many critics note a lack of footnotes and an abundance of opinion in his books.

“I am not sure whether serious philosophers would consider him their equal,” says David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. Still, Myers adds, he finds Lévy “an interesting observer and bellwether of the Jewish condition in Europe today,” and respects Lévy’s ability to synthesize historical and sociological data with philosophy.

Myers recently hosted an April 11, UCLA speech by Lévy on European anti-Semitism before a near-capacity crowd of 400.

My plan is to drive with Lévy around Beverly Hills, Fairfax and the Pico-Robertson district, engaging him in conversation about the city’s Jewish life. He doesn’t like the idea.

“Why do you want to drive around?” he asks sourly. “Don’t you think we could get more done just talking here at the hotel?”

His reaction surprises me. I had cleared the plan with his publicist, who, I assumed, had relayed it to Lévy. More importantly, he amassed the material for “American Vertigo” by traveling more than 15,000 miles around the United States by car.

My sister-in-law, Elizabeth Vitanza, a Ph.D. student in French at UCLA, leads Lévy; my brother, John (doubling as a photographer), and me to her Toyota Corolla. The philosopher reluctantly steps in and takes a seat next to me in the back. I am sure he is accustomed to traveling in a better class of vehicle. He does not put on a seatbelt. As we drive through Beverly Hills, I point to a mansion. I tell him that more than one-third of the residents in this city of multimillion-dollar homes are Jews. Looking at these houses, I ask, what can one say about the concept of Jewish obesity?

A good question, I think. Shows that I’ve read his book and digested the big ideas. He, apparently, doesn’t share my opinion. Lévy furrows his brow. He looks disappointed.

“I would not enter into that,” he says. “I’ve met many poor Jews in my travels in Los Angeles. Some really lower middle-class Jews. They are not victims of this syndrome of obesity at all.”

Strike One. A French intellectual whom I’ve admired since my junior year at La Sorbonne in Paris more than 20 years ago thinks I’m a dolt — perhaps just a cut above the cop who, in Lévy’s book, chastises him for urinating at the side of the road. What to do? Like any good journalist, I do the obvious: I ask Lévy about himself.

“You’re a self-proclaimed agnostic,” I say. “Yet, you call yourself a Jew. Isn’t that a contradiction?”

The cool demeanor melts away, and the conversation, like Lévy himself, perks up.

“I believe [being an agnostic] is one of the best ways to be a Jew,” he says. “Jewishness is an experience of the nonevidence of God. That’s one of the main differences between Judaism and other faiths. The Jewish faith, the Jewish relationship to God, is the one most aware of [God’s] absence sometimes, the silence often. If you read really the prophets of the Bible, you’ll find that their main experience isn’t one of the warm presence of God, but of the despairing absence of it.”

Passionate Jews like himself need not believe in God to embrace the bedrock Jewish value of tikkun olam.

“At least, I would say for me, it is the only viable conception of an individual,” Lévy says. “If you are not committed to repairing the world, better do something else.”

Lévy points out the car window to an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah and says, sadly: “This in Paris, you don’t see so much. In some parts of Paris and the suburbs, it exposes you to blows.”

American Jews, unlike French Jews, have the freedom to openly practice their Judaism without fear. They are also for the most part free, he says, from “the stupid loss of time” of constantly having to fight anti-Semitism.

And what accounts for this anti-Semitism? Many factors, Lévy says, including “the Shoah, the Holocaust. Europe is still bleeding.”

But wouldn’t that historical memory make the French and other Europeans more sensitive to the Jewish plight? I ask.

“They are fed up with guiltiness!”

Then, are teaching and talking about the Holocaust bad for Jews?

Absolutely not, he says. Sure, some people might complain about being bombarded with Jewish suffering, but knowledge of that suffering helps others’ become more compassionate. In France, he says, the Jews, with their history of the Shoah, were among the first to raise their voices against the slaughters in Bosnia, in Rwanda and, now, in Darfur.

“If Holocaust education stopped it would be bad for the Jews,” Lévy says. “It is a wall, a shield against anti-Semitism.”

It quickly becomes clear that he has little desire to comment on the landmarks of Jewish Los Angeles and is far more interested in letting our conversation take us where it will. As we pass Jewish day schools, synagogues and kosher restaurants, he speaks of his pride in his Jewish roots, despite never having set a foot in a synagogue until he began working on “The Testament of God” in the late 1970s.

“The tradition of Talmud is as great as the tradition of Voltaire and Racine and La Fontaine and Rabelais,” he says.

Strong words for a man of French letters.

We stop at Canter’s. He poses for two photos in front of the deli’s mural, one with his sunglasses on, the other with them off. No smile. As we enter, Lévy checks messages on his incessantly ringing blackberry. He grabs his pants as they start to slide off his tiny waist.

“I have to be careful,” he says, flashing a smile.

“I wish I had such a problem,” I respond, suddenly self-conscious about the extra 15 pounds I’ve packed on since college.

We seat ourselves in a booth, with Lévy taking a place next to my attractive sister-in-law, Elizabeth. He orders black tea, but doesn’t touch the chocolate ruggalah on his plate. Then, he holds court, telling us that the old anti-Semitism, the anti-Semitism that blamed the Jews for the killing of Jesus and vilified Jews as an inferior race, is largely dead. In its place, a new anti-Semitism has taken shape that is every bit as dangerous and disturbing.

“If I had to describe this, I would describe it in three words,” he says, pausing for effect. “Israel and anti-Zionism.”

This “anti-Zionism as a vehicle for anti-Semitism,” Lévy says, appears in newspaper and magazine articles that attack Israel without providing the political and historical context found in stories about other countries. Another variant of this new anti-Semitism occurs when the Jews’ enemies resort to anti-Semitic canards in their vicious attacks on Israel.

“A lot of things that you are no longer allowed to express, that you don’t dare to express, you can express through your hatred for Israel,” he says. “For instance, you can no longer say Jews are thieves, but you can say Israel has robbed the earth of the Palestinians.”

There is a final example of this new anti-Semitism, and it is coming from unexpected places, Lévy says. In America, minority groups such as Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos, just like large swaths of Europe’s immigrant communities, have increasingly come to view Jews as competitors for the spoils of suffering. In this zero-sum game, to borrow a political-science term, Lévy says Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and Native American activist Russell Means, among others, have concluded that sympathy for the Jews somehow diverts attention from and diminishes concern for the plight of Indians, Latinos and blacks.

In “American Vertigo,” Lévy writes about his disturbing encounter with Means, a veteran of the 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee. Meeting the Indian icon at his home in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Lévy feels proud to be in the presence of such a hero — until Means opens his mouth.

“You here, Mr. Lévy? Not in Israel yet? But I heard on the radio that Sharon wanted all the Jews in France to emigrate to Tel Aviv! Ha, ha!”

Shocked, Lévy doesn’t laugh. He considers himself sympathetic to the Indian cause, so he asks Means why no one has suggested creating a kind of Yad Vashem of Indian suffering? Why, instead, do Native Americans seem to unite around “the casinos that are a slow-working poison?”

Means response: “I don’t need advice from Zionists; you understand?”

The Indian activist goes on to say that Indians are “the poorest of the poor” in America and the “most diseased people in the Western Hemisphere.” The whole world is against Native Americans.

Back at Canter’s, Lévy argues that this competition among minority groups for “the crown of martyrdom” has mutated into virulent anti-Semitism.

“It’s an absurd, disgusting, ridiculous belief that suffering is like a market, and, in a market, you have a limited number of shares,” he says. “So, if there is a booming share for one community, there will not be for the others. You have some people in America and Europe who believe human consciousness, the human mind is unable to shed tears twice.”

“In the United States, my prediction, my fear is that more and more [minorities] could start to say, ‘Stop with the Shoah, the Holocaust. The more you speak of this past suffering, the less you keep space in the public debate to think about our presence,'” Lévy says.

What about the evangelical Christians? I ask. Are they a danger?

Yes and no, Lévy replies. They say they like us, but offer their friendship for the wrong reasons. He turns to Page 77 in “American Vertigo” and reads: “And beyond all that, what about the brilliant evangelical Protestant idea of the need to ensure a peaceful, faithful, and, above all else, Jewish Israel for the time when the Christian Day of Judgment comes?…. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t like to bet on American support, for the survivors of the Shoah if it comes down to depending, really depending, on an outlook of this sort.”

“Let’s realize we don’t have so many allies,” he later remarks. So let’s take their support; but with a gun under the pillow.”

A sobering thought.

Back in the car, I tell Lévy that, according to the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001, the U.S. Jewish population has dipped 5 percent, to 5.2 million, since 1990. Not to worry, he says. The problem of Jewish assimilation dates back to the fall of the Second Temple.

“You see a tendency to come back, and a tendency to withdrawal,” he says.

From the 12th or 13th century until the end of the 18th, Lévy estimates that maybe half of the Jewish population disappeared, some from pogroms by the majority, from conversion and assimilation.

That sweeping statement raises my suspicions. Smart as Lévy is, he occasionally seems to exaggerate for effect, substituting philosophy and opinion for factual analysis. In “American Vertigo,” for instance, he calls Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, “the cradle of a national religion, the new Nazareth.”

A national pastime, maybe, although the shrinking World Series audience might belie that. But a national religion? Only in Yankee Stadium.

Similarly, Lévy opines that Sun City, Ariz., an upscale retirement community that bars children and teenagers, a “gilded ghetto,” in his words, could serve as a model for future planned cities that bar the elderly, gay men, women or Jews. Nice theory, but existing housing laws prevent such discrimination.

Is Lévy right? Did the Jewish population shrink by half from the late Middle Ages to the Enlightenment?

Although the Jewish population did dip to less than 1 million by 1500, disease and illness accounted for the decline more than Lévy’s claim of conversion and assimilation, UCLA’s Myers says. Furthermore, the drop in the Jewish population was consistent with general societal trends. Contrary to Lévy’s assertion of a Jewish population shrinkage that continued until the 18th century, Myers adds, the number of Jews began to rise in the 16th century with medical advances, among other factors.

As we hurry back to the Beverly Hills Hotel for Lévy’s noon interview, I ask him a final question: Is it easier to be a Jew in America or in France?

“It’s not completely comfortable to be a Jew anywhere,” he says. “Don’t believe, my friends, that there won’t be an uneasy tomorrow. You have uncomfortable friends. You have strong enemies. You have new arguments that make it easier to spread anti-Semitism.

“Of course, you will win,” Lévy adds.

“Rushmore as a Myth,” excerpt from “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Pages 63-66)

Rushmore as a Myth

Three small facts that I’m not sure the countless tourists who come every year in pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore know and that I, at any rate, was unaware of.

First, the architect: the famous John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, to whom we owe the idea for, and then most of the construction of, the four stone faces that are the symbol of American democracy the world over, especially since Hitchcock’s film, “North by Northwest.” In Wounded Knee I learn, from the mouth of an old Indian woman I meet at the entrance to the little monument built on the site of the 1890 massacre, that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; that his first great project was a memorial in Georgia to the glory of the Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson; and that it was only after the failure of this first project — and thus his break with the dubious United Daughters of the Confederacy — that he fell back on Rushmore.

Then the site itself. This magnificent place, chosen for the way it takes the light, the profundity of its granite rock, and its resistance to erosion through the ages. But its other characteristic, its location in the heart of the Black Hills, a holy place for the Indians and for the Lakota Nation in particular, to whom it had been guaranteed by the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Other options had existed. The Rockies, even the Appalachians, weren’t lacking in superb places where the admirer of Rodin could have given shape to his dream. But he chose this one. He and his sponsors, beginning with the secretary of the South Dakota Historical Society, Doane Robinson, could think of nothing better than to stick their monument in this highly disputed area, in the heart of what the Indian nation holds as most sacred.

Finally, the name: Rushmore, which I had always thought, because the sound of it was unfamiliar to my French ear, was some sort of traditional Indian name. Not so. There is nothing less age-old than the name of Mount Rushmore. For here is an extraordinary detail I discovered a little later on, as I was surfing Internet sites devoted to tourism in the regions: it’s the name of Charles E. Rushmore, a lawyer who in 1885 — in the midst of the gold rush, when people were looking for all the military and legal methods of expropriating the last Indians — crisscrossed the Black Hills on behalf on an American mining company. What is the name of this rich mountain? he is supposed to have asked his guide. No name, the guide replied. It’s an old Indian mountain without a name. Give it your name, and this act of naming will justify expropriation….

….This temple of the Idea, this semisanctuary, where millions of Americans come believing they can find the elemental spirit of their country’s manifest destiny, this cluster of icons that that a former member of the Ku Klux Klan sculpted on land that was stolen from the Indians and christened by a gold prospector (I discovered later that, after his break with the KKK, Gutzon Borglum never completely renounced his anti-Semitism or his ideas on the supremacy of the white race) — all this an outrage as well as a memorial. Do the Americans know? Do they feel, even obscurely, that their Founding Fathers are, here, also Profaning Fathers? Is that the reason the memorial, which was originally meant to be enlarged, to make room for and honor other figures, finally remained as it was? All I can say is that the American Idea is too important, too beautiful, and also too indispensable to the symbolic economy of the world to be left in the care of the fetishists of Mount Rushmore.

Excerpted from “American Vertigo” by Bernard-Henri Lévy, copywright 2006 by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.