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Profile: Bernard Henry Lévy


You cannot be half democrat and half Nazi; this is the message that the international community, the intellectuals, and the people, must send out without delay - Bernard Henry Lévy

The Blanket will feature a biography of each of the 12 signatories of Manifesto: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism, along with each of the Danish cartoons their number represents.

This is the tenth in the series.

Anthony McIntyre • 1 June 2006

Son of a multimillionaire, France's 'most media-savvy public intellectual,' Bernard Henry Lévy was born in Algeria in 1948. 'I come from a family that played a very high price for its anti-fascism.' His family took him to Paris before his first birthday, where he eventually graduated with a degree in philosophy from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. Numbered amongst his professors there were Jacques Derrida who formulated the theory of deconstructionism and Louis Althusser who pioneered a structural Marxism. Universally known in France by the abbreviation BHL he began professional life as a journalist working on Combat, a paper founded by Albert Camus as an act of resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. For a short time BHL found himself adulated as the new Camus.

In Paris, in the wake of the 1968 student revolt, he founded the New Philosophers school. It was a major challenge to the thinking of the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre and the grip his ideas had on French intellectual and radical life. Sartre in what seemed an act of impetuous angst accused him of being a CIA agent. Although BHL would later claim to be 'enough of a Marxist to understand the nuances, even the quarrels, and sometimes the deadly fights' among the different forms of Communism, the New Philosophers subjected Marxism to some critical scrutiny.

In 1977 he published Barbarism with a Human Face - a blistering critique of Marxism on the grounds that it was incorrigibly corrupt. In spite of this he continues to claim he is a child of 1968. 'It was about the spirit of freedom, the taste of revolt, the refusal of all authority. I am still for all of this. I am a human rights activist in fidelity to 1968.' Nor does he harbour any regrets for the Maoist phase he went through. 'I might not be the radical anti-totalitarian I am today if I had not gone through that.'

Of Jewish origin Bernard-Henri Lévy views Judaeism as the brother of the enlightenment. 'The best wall against religion is Jewish thought itself.' While he accepts that Jewish origins shapes his firm support for Israel, it is only part of the story: 'most of it is just because I am a democrat. I think that the building of Israel has been democratic: social contract, Rousseauism, the general will, people coming from everywhere across the world and deciding to form a nation for themselves.'

However he is not dismissive of Palestinian claims to their land and believes in a two state solution.

Palestinians have a right to a state that is the equal of a state for the Jewish people… The mistake of the first Zionists was to believe that there was a land without people for a people without land. There were people there, Palestinians, and they deserve a state.

Although the BBC called him 'one of the foremost living philosophers in the Western world' he is often dismissed as 'the archetypal pretentious Left Bank intellectual.' And it is frequently said that his 'reputation for narcissism' is the stuff of legend. Johann Hari describes him as 'not a man afraid of blowing his own trumpet; in fact, it is permanently affixed to his lips so that he can blow it every other sentence.' Hari points to a BHL idiosyncrasy which typifies his narcissism: 'what writer can deny that the reason he writes is to seduce women?' If he has failed in his mission as a Casanova it is not for the want of trying, having authored as many as 30 books. In spite of this prodigious output his work sometimes faces the accusation that is suffers from too many factual errors.

How the French assign to their philosophers a celebrity status in contrast to the British view of them as somewhat eccentric was captured in a further observation by Hari. 'More than 300 paparazzi staked out BHL's last wedding. I doubt Roger Scruton's next marriage would be featured in Heat magazine.'

Describing himself as being anti 'anti-American,' has helped ignite the incandescence of some critics who have frequently labelled him an advocate for Bush and the neoconservatives. He denies this, pointing out that he is severely critical of George Bush whom he terms a serial killer for having executed 152 people while governor of Texas. On foreign policy issues he portrays depicts Bush as a child 'frightened by the world and trying to frighten it back.' The neoconservatives while much less infantile are nevertheless responsible for:

their unconditional rallying with Bush's crusade for moral values, their adhesion to the creationist creed and the death penalty, their ambiguities on abortion rights, their repugnant campaigns about Clinton's private life, their taste for moral order, etc. etc. In short, they are not my friends.

BHL opposed the US led war in Iraq. 'Saddam Hussein was a dictator … overthrowing a dictator is always good, but are we sure he was the right target? … He was a dictator in his autumn … it was an exhausted dictatorship … I think it was a great error.' He feels the war has increased the number of terrorists in the area. But he does not hold to the popular view on the Left that Chalabi is a U.S.-backed dictator 'whom they tried hard to impose in office by gunfire.'

He has a more nuanced view of the war than many.

No matter what one thinks of this idiotic war, no matter what conviction one has … of its uselessness and its perverse effects, it is just not honest to deny the positive effects it has also had; for example, the freedom of the press, the end of the dictatorship, free elections, and the fact that an increasing number of Iraqis are starting to enter this democratic culture …

Since the West is now heavily involved in Iraq his position is one of: 'I think about just the average Iraqi people, just the raped women, the orphans, children, the poor men ruined in this country. And we have now to finish the work.' While not disputing the right wing agenda of the dynamic behind the war he argues for a realpolitik confrontation with some harsh realities and a hard nosed approach to difficult choices:

between this right wing and the right wing of old times - between people who, even awkwardly, even by committing mistakes or crimes, think that America's role is to work for world-wide democracy and those who, like Henry Kissinger in his time, considered that its role was to support and reinforce all the dictatorships of the planet - I prefer the former; I prefer the America that defends the heirs of Ahmed Shah Massoud rather than the one that put Augusto Pinochet in power.

Ultimately, he wishes to see America experience what Europe experienced 30 years ago:

the emergence of a left wing, a true left wing, which, without giving up being the left, without giving up any of its moral heritage or positions on the so-called social issues, would become truly anti-totalitarian.

His objection to the military conquest of Iraq was based on the inappropriateness of war to tackle the fading dictatorship of Saddam. In Pakistan, by contrast, the dictatorship was blooming and there was no Western attempt to crush it. Describing Pakistan as the core of terrorism, he was scathing in his criticism of the Bush administration's courting of the Musharaff government. Dismissing the notion that the West has no choice in such matters he counters:

we made the bad choice since 20 years. We chose the radical against the moderate … we chose the Taliban against Massoud. We chose Saudi Arabia against the democrats of the Arab world. We chose that because we wanted peace. Because we thought that we had to make alliance with the most powerful. Because we thought that our main enemy was the Soviet Union.

In challenging the reactionary stance taken by many opponents of the publication of the Danish cartoons he defended:

the affirmation of the press's right to the expression of idiocies of its choosing - rather than the acts of repentance that too many leaders have resorted to, and which merely encourages in the Arab street the false and counterproductive illusion that a democratic state may exert power over its press.

For the want of something better he has coined the term 'fascislamism' which he regards as a 'formidable hate-and-death machine' that justifies major abuse as, for example, 'when an Algerian fundamentalist emir disembowels, while reciting the Quran, an Algerian woman whose only crime was to have dared show her beautiful face.' Unlike some of his co signatories to the Manifesto Against Totalitarianism he does not see Islam per se as the problem. He rejects the Samuel Huntingdon thesis of a 'war between civilizations.' There is certainly a cleavage but it is 'between democrats and fundamentalists.' The only war of civilizations 'that holds here, in this political division, exclusively political, between these two versions of Islam' something he believes is the most important clash of civilizations in our time. 'The sole clash of civilization is inside Islam, inside the Islamic world between the moderate Islam and the radical Islam.'

He rejects the notion expressed by one critic that the problem of Islamism is one of 'complicated mixture of theocracy and limited democracy.' He defines it in more stark terms of 'totalitarian dictatorship.' He stresses that the fight of his life since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been in defence of modern Islam against the Islamists.

I fought and campaigned for intervention in Bosnia, because the Muslims of Bosnia are the embodiment of the Islam of Enlightenment, and they were being slaughtered. I campaigned for France to support the great Ahmed Shah Massoud … the embodiment of moderate Islam. And I have supported the Chechen resistance, which contains many people who are the embodiment of moderate Islam … Moderate Muslims are alone these days, and in their solitude they more than ever need to be acknowledged and hailed.. .For me, to stand by the side of moderate Muslims today is as important as to stand beside the dissidents of the Soviet Union. This is the fight of our day.

Unlike the communist world where there were very few dissidents there are many in the Islamic world: 'you have a really big minority - and sometimes a majority - of women and men who know that Islamism is their main enemy … Of course, the 3,000 people killed on September 11 was terrible, but the main victims of Islamism are Muslims themselves.'

He is critical of sections of the French Left who think 'Islamic fundamentalism is a legitimate expression of the revolt of the poor, of the disillusioned … they think that Islamism can be embraced and put in the service of the left. This is a terrible mistake.'

In international matters he argues in favour of a 'duty to intervene.' He defends the decision to intervene in Bosnia. 'I regret, more than ever, that we did not support Massoud in Afghanistan. I estimated, and I still estimate, that we had, in Rwanda, the duty to intervene.' To feed his penchant for intervening French president Jacques Chirac chose BHL to be his personal ambassador to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. He firmly believes that tackling the Taliban was the correct thing to do. He sums up his interventionist inclinations:

I still believe today, right now even as we speak, that we are guilty of not giving assistance to people in danger in these areas about which I know quite a lot, namely Sudan and the Nuba Mountains … I continue to dream of an ambitious foreign policy that would help the simple men and women martyrized by their states in cases such as that of Iran or even, a few years ago, Iraq. And perhaps, in essence, it is the great reproach that I feel like making against the neoconservatives: that, with their bad war, their bad policies, their absurd democratic messianism, their errors of perspective and judgment, they have compromised, wasted, and perhaps even discredited this magnificent and necessary duty to intervene - and have caused us, from this point of view, to take a gigantic step backward.

There are many on the Left who hate Bernard Henry Lévy. Some for genuine political reasons and others because hate is their forte. But until they can find something better than the likes of John Rees to challenge his views - pitching the two together could be billed as the intellectual against the ineffectual - the message that he incessantly hammers out will reach millions. The Left will proselytise only to those falling out of pubs, too thoroughly intoxicated to understand that being persuaded to part with 50p in exchange for a paper was their worst transaction of the evening.


 

 

 

See also:

MANIFESTO: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism
Freedom of Speech

Profile:
Bernard Henry-Levy
Salman Rushdie
Ibn Warraq
Chahla Chafiq
Philippe Val
Antoine Sfeir
Maryam Namazie
Taslima Nasrin
Irshad Manji
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Debate:
BHL: Bernard Henri-Levy
The Muslims America Loves
Freedom of Expression: No Ifs and Buts
Manning the Firewalls
Ulster Muslims' Fury at Web Cartoons
For Freedom of Expression
Muslim News Interviews The Blanket
Who Fears to Speak
Fundamentals
Cartoons and Caricatures: An anarchist take on the cartoon row
Taslima Nasrin (2000)
The Clash of the Uncivilized
Misunderstandings Abound
A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away
Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy
Closer to Home
The Right to Offend
Threads
Wrong to Claim Freedom of Speech
The Parameters of Free Speech
Unreal Paradigms
Cowardice on Cartoon Controversary

Letters:
Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech
Irish Republicanism and Islam
Real human rights - without any religious blackmail
Resisting Censorship
Controversy over the publication of cartoons
Stereotypes Must Be Challenged Openly
New Convert
Cartoons
About the Possible Posting of the Muslim Cartoons
Well Done
A Muslim's Response
Straight Talk vs Orthodoxy

One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Prophet
Christ Collage
An Eye for An Eye
Glad to See Someone is Not Afraid
There Are No Sides to Peace
Rights and Responsibilities

Censorship: The Blanket's first article (2001): Silence is Not Golden; It is Complicity


 

 


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



 

 

There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa



Index: Current Articles



6 June 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

We Believe Freddie McGuinness
Anthony McIntyre

Under Scrutiny
John Kennedy

Unionism's New Puppetmasters
Robert Matthews

Omens
Dr John Coulter

Two Peace Processes
Mick Hall

'The Beginning of the End has Past …'
Davy Carlin

How Many Grannies?
Dr John Coulter

Even the Dogs Bark in Irish?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Bards for St Brigid's
Paul Dougherty

USA v Iran
John Kennedy

Threat to Iran Based on Duplicity
David Adams

Manifesto of the Third Camp against US Militarism and Islamic Terrorism

Profile: Bernard Henry-Levy
Anthony McIntyre

BHL: Bernard Henri-Levy
Liam O Ruairc

Freedom of Speech index


28 May 2006

Humpty Dumpty
Anthony McIntyre

1981
Eamon Sweeney

Political Status
Geoffrey Cooling

Enough, Enough of Stormont
David Adams

Joined at the Hip
John Kennedy

Loyal to What
Fred A Wilcox

No Rest In Peace
John Kennedy

'Penetrated' Has Become the Sinn Fein Brand Mark
Anthony McIntyre

Code Red
Dr John Coulter

Review of the Field Day Review 1: Debut Issue, 2005
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Profile: Salman Rushdie
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index

 

 

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