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Gates Among Us
American Apartheid

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of those superstar French intellectuals you don’t hear much about anymore, partly due to how Lévy discredited his own kind with a pair of books in 1977 and 1987. He was really clearing the stage for his own halo to shine unobstructed: He has big ideas to go along with his big hair and big mouth, and an addiction to glamour that only begins with his toothpick-model of a wife. Yet he’s as comfortable hiking to Afghanistan to write up an “Afghanistan Study Group”-like report on his own as he is investigating the killing of Daniel Pearl — the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Muslim fanatics in Pakistan in 2002 — or reflecting on “War, Evil and the End of History,” producing a big book every time.

In 2003, The Atlantic magazine asked him to retrace the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville in the United States and write a “Democracy in America ”-like book for the 21 st century. Lévy accepted. The magazine serialized the results, and earlier this year the American edition of “American Vertigo,” a 300-odd page book that ends up only name-dropping Tocqueville for good form. Lévy is too busy with his own reflections about megachurches, lap-dancers, presidential debates, weight-loss clinics, Sharon Stone, a half dozen prisons, kitsch, gun shows, over-the-hill gay sex clubs and up-and-comers like Hillary and Barack to bother with Tocqueville’s ideas (or his steps, for that matter). Just as well. Lévy is alternately infuriating, clueless, dead-on and brilliant — and never dull, which is more than you can say for most intellectuals working today, French or American.

One particular — and particularly acute — observation in “American Vertigo” relates to Sun City in Arizona , where, Levy writes, “the rule is simple. Implacable. No home without at least one resident above fifty-five. Children and teenagers admitted only to visit. A city of the old. A private city, reserved for retired people, cut off from the rest of the world. In this falsely urban space with perfectly straight, almost deserted streets, where once in a while a few granddads in golf carts pass by, an optimist will see an oasis of prosperity in a society plagued by crisis, a bourgeois utopia dreamed up by some grand developer. […] The problem, obviously, is the rest. Everything else. The problem is all the black people you can’t see here, and the Hispanics who, I am told, are here, but whose presence I am not aware of either. Poor people in general, a huge population left out of this suburban dream. […] The problem, in short, is that all this implies a profound break with the very tradition of civic-mindedness and civility — I won’t even say of compassion — that was responsible, and continues to be responsible, for this country’s greatness.”

That last note of optimism aside doesn’t keep Lévy from titling the section, “A Gilded Apartheid for the Old?” The question mark is superfluous, and the word “apartheid” hardly an overstatement. Re-segregation is alive and well in the United States , by all sorts of means and for all sorts of reasons (age, health care, race, education, class), usually with at least these threads in common: The segregation is voluntary. It’s driven by money. And its end result is a separate and unequal arrangement that benefits those included at the expense of those not. It’s country-club rules applied to broader but equally exclusionary and civically destructive ends. To argue, for instance, that gated-community residents are only freely living according to their means ignores how a separate civic and quasi-governmental structure (down to separate “security” patrols, garbage pick-ups, elections and homeowner regulations) cannot exist without the support structure beyond the gates — even as the community’s “profound break” with that support structure impoverishes it by denying it the community’s vested involvement.

Obviously, calling that sort of arrangement in its many variations “apartheid” conflicts with the word’s most precise meaning of organized, specifically racial separation and subjugation on the old South African model. But words aren’t prisoners of history. Their meanings mutate to fit what they evoke. The evocation of the word “apartheid” is repugnant. Using the word in unexpected settings is bound to provoke violent reactions from those to whose social, economic or political arrangements it applies, and who think themselves above it. But sticklers for precision in this case, and there are many, hope to keep the word “apartheid” from resurfacing in more familiar settings because it is both too powerful and too accurate a word for comfort.

One such controversy is raging over former President Jimmy Carter’s use of the word in the title of his latest book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (“ Palestine : Peace Not Apartheid”). To Palestinians living under Israeli occupation the word is a no-brainer — and often an understatement, considering the violence that accompanies the systematic dehumanization of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Debating the word’s latest mutations in the Middle East has its purposes. But it’s also a convenient way of deflecting the word’s implications here at home where t he “two Americas ” John Edwards talked about on the campaign trail in 2004 isn’t a myth. More than racism, and with broader implications on judicial fairness, access to decent health care, economic opportunity and political engagement, inequality — apartheid’s American brand — is incubating its own mutant, and in some cases blossoming at the speed of fence-masking vine.

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