Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo

He's a Fan of Political Correctness!
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 25 2006 7:19 AM

Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo

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To get to the important question first: Did I mind that Bernard-Henri Lévy chose not to make his conversations with me into a mise-en-scène? No; given what you say about him, how could I? I have no way of knowing whether he would have treated me with kindness à la Fukuyama or with rolled-up fists à la Kristol. Besides, I am not enough of a celebrity, and compared to Sharon Stone, my looks are—how shall I put it?—just not very outré.

On celebrity worship, you get BHL right, even if you run the risk of treating Lévy the way Lévy treats Los Angeles. (Bernard-Henri attracted to Hollywood types? I never would have imagined it.) And it is not just celebrities. Russell Means? Refugee from Wounded Knee and one-time friend of Marlon Brando he may be, but now he is a pathetic anti-Semite. "I am happy and proud to meet him," Lévy writes. Clearly BHL lives not only in Paris but in the 1960s, and the latter is actually more damaging to one's critical sensibilities than the former.

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I do disagree with you on one point, though. I am glad BHL never bothered with the culture war theorists. Judith Butler? Far better, I think, to talk with people who study reality as it is, not as it is constructed to be. Leon Kass? Well, that is a better idea; Kass has written a book on courtship—the kind that deals with the sexes, not the kind that surrounds royalty—and that in itself would have made a conversation worthwhile. And now that you mention it, Tocqueville wrote about the relations between the sexes at great length, while BHL does not, another comparison that does not work in the latter's favor.

You write that "BHL misses many opportunities to explicitly contrast France to the U.S." I read the whole book as a contrast between France and the U.S., even, at times, an explicit one. This is certainly true, as I hope you will agree, when he discusses multiculturalism and political correctness. You know as well as I how the French usually treat these subjects; PC is Pol Pot with a human face, a particularly American form of brainwashing in which the dumb impose their will on the smart. There are actually Tocquevillian origins to this French position; for the master, after all, warned of the tyranny of the majority and the "soft despotism" that accompanies it.

It would have been relatively easy for BHL to join in this condemnation of political correctness. And yet, courageously, he does not. "Isn't there something admirable," he asks, "in this way (which has been so derided by Europeans) of training the spotlight on minorities and victims?" Lévy reminds us that there really are minorities, racial and otherwise, and that if majority tyranny exists, it can be found on the side of those who victimize. My friends in Paris tell me that there will be a French version published not long after the American one. I doubt that Lévy's sympathies with identity politics will win him many friends at home. Of course, this just underscores your point that Lévy "possesses a penchant for shocking the French intelligentsia." But don't they deserve a shock from time to time?

Just before the passage you rightfully cite about the "gentleness" and "lightness" in our freedom, Lévy argues that the pride Americans take in their ethnic identities reduces their commitment toward their national identity. It is important for the French to hear this for two reasons. One is that Lévy confronts head-on the idea that because America is imperialist, Americans must be; on the contrary, he finds ordinary people in this country far from arrogant, which may surprise his countrymen. The other is his implication that the French, lacking strong traditions of ethnic identity, are arrogant about their Frenchness. I simply cannot imagine this going over well on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Let's be clear, though, Lévy is not whitewashing the United States. Torture he finds appalling, as well he should. (Alas, in discussing this issue, Lévy misspells the name of my good friend Sanford Levinson, naming him after a university at which he does not teach.) Like Tocqueville, Lévy tours American prisons, and he includes in his itinerary the one in Guantanamo. It is precisely because we know that Lévy is not a reflexive anti-American that his condemnation of our worst practices takes on a power of its own.

You ask, Frank, if you are too hard on BHL. I don't think so; he has ventured over here to tell us what we really are like, and it is perfectly proper to respond by trying to tell him what he is like. Tell me something, though. In your persuasive defense of Bill Kristol and Leon Kass, you point out that they can never be accused of opportunism. Do I detect more than a whiff of the charge that Bernard-Henri Lévy can be?

Best,
Alan

Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?

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