LEFT IN DARK TIMES: A STAND AGAINST THE NEW BARBARISM
Bernard-Henri Lévy, Random House, 233 pp., US$ 25.00a
December 15, 2008
A curious thing happened as I was reading Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest book: I found myself moved.
It begins with an account of a phone call from Nicolas Sarkozy in March, 2007. Lévy recalls Sarkozy’s triumphant tone as he asked whether Lévy had seen André Glucksman’s article in Le Monde.
Glucksman, like Lévy, a prominent intellectual of the kind France particularly treasures and like Lévy a man of the Left, had just announced his support for Sarkozy against the pretty socialist airhead Ségolène Royal. “Let’s get to the point,” Sarkozy says to Lévy, cutting him off in mid-pleasantry. “When are you going to write your article about me? Huh, when? Because Glucksman is fine. But you, after all, are my friend.”
Lévy is steamrollered in the face of Sarkozy’s force majeure. “No matter how much I like you,” he at last stammers, “the Left is my family, and … ”
“Emmanuelli, your family? Montebourg, your family? The people who’ve spent thirty years telling you to go fuck yourself? Do you really think I’m an idiot or do you really believe what you’re saying, that these people are your family?”
Lévy captures both Sarkozy’s unctuousness and his steroidal aggression—but captures, as well, his paradox: The man is right about a great many things and braver by far than his enemies. It is me, not Ségo, who speaks out about Chechnya, about Darfur; it is her, not me, who praises Hezbollah and extols the virtues of the Chinese justice system …
Sarkozy hangs up; Lévy is left uneasy. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “he was right … the Left to which I had stayed faithful was behaving strangely.”
At that point, he remarks, this book began. The first half of the book may best be described as Lévy’s apology for voting against Sarkozy all the same. It reflects the thinking of a deeply conflicted man, and while it is to be applauded for its honesty, it cannot be celebrated for its rigor: Again and again, Lévy refuses to follow his own arguments.
Lévy rightly scorns the relativist who has “nothing against the stoning adulterous women in Afghanistan. Nothing against mutilating the genitals of young girls;” he rightly acknowledges that the Left was blind to the evils of Stalinism and a host of other evils as well. He is of course not the first man of the Left to note this: the American neoconservative movement was comprised originally of refugees from the Left; September 11 prompted fresh apostasy among such figures as Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen (whose What’s Left is a more disciplined book). Lévy’s observations are more or less those made, albeit with welcome Anglo-Saxon verbal economy, by the drafters of the Euston Manifesto.
But Lévy cannot bring himself simply to reject and renounce the Left. Like a battered wife who insists from her hospital bed that she cannot leave her husband because he sends her such exquisite roses, Lévy’s beautiful memories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King prevent him, too, from petitioning for divorce. No, he argues, the Left is still the place for the pure of heart; it must only remember what it stands for, to wit, the instinct to support the Dreyfuses of the world, the “good memory of antifascism,” the lessons of anticolonialism and antitotalitarianism. This is well-meant, vaporous and empty. We remain with the question: Is it the Left or the Right that supports the Dreyfuses of the world and opposes colonialism, fascism and totalitarianism?
Lévy makes the case that the Left is morally unmoored, but nonetheless insists he will remain of it—a policy as ruinous in politics as it is dangerous in seamanship—for one belongs on the Left, he insists, if one is sympathetic to human suffering. “Man,” he writes, “the man of the Left, is the only animal who can shed his own self to enter, without fusion or effusion, someone else’s mind and heart.” Now, this is first of all not true on the face of it, and Levy offers no evidence to the contrary. The evidence we do have, but of which he is either unaware or by which he is unimpressed, suggests that those who describe themselves as men of the Right tend to give more—a lot more—to charity, which might hint at an important case to the contrary. In any case, if the Left stands on its natural sense of sympathy, its defense is not apt to persuade those who believe it more important to rectify than to sympathize with suffering; Lévy himself offers ample evidence that many of the Left’s schemes, however well-intentioned, in the end increase the sum of suffering.
Elsewhere too Lévy seems unwilling to follow his own thoughts. He concedes that there was a “whiff of barbarity” about the rioters who torched the suburbs of France in 2005, but cannot bring himself to agree with Sarkozy, who condemned them as “scum,” for, he admits, all the historic riots so beloved to the historical collective memory of the Left were barbarous. “The Paris Commune, for example … Do we really think that event was purely grandiose, majestic and glowing, worthy of entering, all of a piece, the golden legend of the Republic?” No, I don’t. But I’m not the one with a contradiction in thought to defend.
Lévy rightly deplores the exclusion of these suburban ghettos from French society. He sympathizes with their inhabitants. But he does not ask—no less answer—the important questions, important, at least, if he is trying to buttress the case against Sarkozy he implicitly sets out to make. Beyond saying that this situation makes him feel bad—because he is a sympathetic man—and beyond suggesting that it might be best for France were its leaders to use mollifying rhetoric to describe the inhabitants of the suburbs (rather than suggesting, as Sarkozy did, that they be treated to the business end of an industrial-strength fire hose), what can be done to improve their situation?
Here there is an important debate between the Right and the Left, one that is of much greater moment than a debate over rhetoric: Should France attempt to reduce barriers to entry into its workforce by liberalizing its economy? Or should the state instead redistribute income from France’s wealthier citizens to the inhabitants of the suburbs? I am willing to be persuaded that the more sophisticated theorists of the Left may have something worthwhile to say about this, but is it too much to ask to see the argument and look at the evidence? An appeal for compassion for the wretched of the banlieues is not a policy prescription. Nor is it a reason to regret the defeat of Ségo, who more than ever seems determined to become the Eva Perón of French political life.
But then we come to the second half of the book, where Lévy denounces the anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism of the modern Left, and here something remarkable occurs. Now, I confess to an interesting experience: I read this part of the book out loud. This, obviously, is how Lévy intended it to be read, and read this way, it is exceptionally effective. Those easily-mocked exclamation points and sentence fragments and one-sentence paragraphs and long, run-on passages when declaimed acquire an extremely powerful rhythm.
I read these sections to a Turkish friend (I live in Istanbul) of half-formed but vaguely Leftish political sensibilities, prone, like most Turks, to believing the worst of America and raised in a climate where the proposition “Israel is the world’s worst nation” is taken as a self-evident statement on the order of “the Armenians had it coming.” When I came to the passages in which Lévy denounces the moral disgrace, the appalling apologetics, the sheer imbecility of a Left that would dismiss the suffering of the persecuted of Darfur on the grounds that to admit it might encourage the Americans—the Empire—to intervene, I saw something in his eyes that I had not seen before: a visceral and emotional understanding. For Lévy’s voice, here, is powerful, it is scathing, it is thunderous and outraged; it places this failure in its historical context, it is deeply learned and rich with authority, and it is the best indictment of its kind in print.
His condemnation of the 2001 anti-racism conference in Durban is masterful. His rebuke to those who would diminish or deny the Holocaust is eviscerating. His response to apologists for fascist Islamic movements is furious and deserves to be the final word on the subject. It is entirely worth suffering through the book’s first half to reach his devastating response to Chomsky, Pinter, Badiou, Galloway, Carter, and a long list of similarly craven idiots.
Thus the book leaves the reader with a question. If Lévy knows all of this, and obviously he does, why was he “physically incapable” of voting for Sarkozy? Why did he bother with the first half of this book at all? Surely a man of his intellect isn’t really persuaded by the silly arguments he makes in defense of the Left? Levy does not mention the obvious reason: Sarkozy’s new bride, Carla Bruni, seduced the husband of Levy’s daughter, Justine, destroying her marriage. It is of course understandable that Lévy does not mention this, but it is also obvious, when he writes that he cannot abandon the Left because the left is his family and he cannot betray his family, that the family he is talking about is not the metaphorical one.
So be it: Loyalty to one’s daughter is no moral crime. The first half of the book may thus be forgiven, and the second half embraced as the tour de force it is.