Monday, August 3, 2009

Bernard-Henry Lévy's "Left in Dark Times": Book Review

Seldom have I finished so poorly written a book. Yet, I agree with most of this "stand against the new barbarism." Lévy's fame as a public intellectual, coupled perhaps with his French good looks and penchant for celebrity, may lure readers. Yet, for we foreigners less than 'au courant' with Francophone politics, leftist history, and critical feuds among the intelligentsia, this may bewilder you as often as it instructs, alarms, or frustrates you about the "lyrical Left vs. the melancholy Left." The pun of the title? The original French title is absent from the copyright page, intriguingly.

I'm unsure if Benjamin Moser's translation's to blame, or the original text; full of periodic sentences that qualify themselves, swerve, veer, and hesitate, it reminded me of Céline's elliptical prose if not his politics. For, Lévy's bent on correcting the defiant direction of a neo-progressive Left determined to hate America, despise Britain, and especially denounce Israel, the Jewish people, and Zionism. In the current tendency of many on the Left to diminish suffering in Darfur, acclaim the shouts of "one Jew, one bullet" from the streets of Durban, and defend Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Al Qaeda against Western democracies trying to stop "Fascislamism," Lévy strives to remind us of the legacy of the Left. He loves freedom, rationalism, and tolerance, He fears an alliance with those forces and their tenured and pampered advocates who defend despots and fanatics who persist in a twisted refusal to criticize any regime or faction-- as long as they hate the U.S.

It takes him forever to move beyond from his prefatory chat with Sarkozy that ticked him off. Apparently, the French leader's too mealy-mouthed when it comes to standing up for true liberalism. Lévy has an annoying habit of stating "not to mention" and "I won't get into the case of" and then digressing about exactly that. This attitude may work in person, or on a talk show, but on paper, it rankles me.

Lévy seeks, despite stylistic infelicities, to redress rhetorical and practical damage done by his colleagues in universities, the press, and in the trenches. They parrot the same short list of grievances. This may have made a better series of articles-- for in the press he relishes thrusting and parrying-- than a book. Like many pundits weighing in on current events, this screed may have a short shelf life. Or, it may prove a prescient warning. While I do not agree with all that Lévy asserts, he does remind us of how inconsistent, contrary, hateful, and foolish the cant of the pampered Left can be no less than the often-castigated Right.

However, when it comes to the "'cosmopolitan establishment of bankers and business lawyers' that dominate America," (128) I do not think as he alludes that this phrase masks antisemitism. Given the fallout from the Wall Street and mortgage bailouts that happened since this book was published last year, Lévy's assumption that this betrays some leftist phrasing equal to a far-right scoundrel appears doubtful. He seems too trusting throughout this book in altruistic intentions of global capital, the free market, and the lack of government regulation of commerce, He tends to ignore the job losses, ecological damage, and cultural conflicts that the market system cannot exactly extricate itself from, or claim only free choice as the market's impact. I know he has striven to promote moral causes, but he does appear rather naive in his defense of the inevitable capitalist triumph that he commends.

Lévy's best when defining the "four pillars of totalitarianism": the worship of the Absolute, the devotion to Dialectic, the obeisance to History, and the embrace of Evil. He aligns these on the far-Left with anti-semitism's three contemporary manifestations: the elevation of the Palestinian cause above all other oppressions by "competition among victims"; Holocaust denial or at least revisionism; and the determination to destroy Israel, and erase Zionism, which cloak, half-masked, the hatred of Jews themselves. He tracks the Nazi-fascist ties of many Middle Eastern parties, the persistence of "Elders of Zion" and "Secret Relationship" slave-trade libels among many ideologues, and the facile soundbite bromides vs. the private scurrilous prejudice peddled by many activists as public intellectuals-- in the East and the West-- purporting to advance a pluralist Islamic or Third World nationalism.

Haunted by his country's own Vichy collaboration and cognizant of the French who today wish to distort such capitulation to fascism and hatred, Lévy suggests we take on "Fascislamism" without dragging denial of Israel's right to exist into every debate; he reminds us that terrorism does not rely on the Zionist state for its current attacks. Palestine's marginal, a convenient symbol, but hardly even to compare with Kashmir when it comes to a jihadist's savage holy land to conquer. For too long, Lévy finds, the West tolerates bigots who would censor our cartoons, burn our embassies, kill those who do not adhere to one version of one creed, or plot to murder soldiers, civilians, innocents in the name of an intolerant one-world rule.

By separating beliefs from politics, Lévy seeks restoration of the Western balance. Tolerance rather than sectarianism, respect rather than belligerence, and maturity to get along with those with whom one disagrees: simple ideals, still hard to follow for so many who in the misguided genuflection to tolerance permit hatred to flourish. He separates "Judeo-Christian" from "Western," by the way. He finds that liberal principles rest on the autonomy of the individual subject within the public space constructed to allow inhabitants full expression of the "right of a body not to be tortured" but to obtain human rights, democracy, and mutual respect given and taken.

In the recovery of the secular Enlightenment, people everywhere can advance, Lévy argues, towards universal, inalienable, and identical rights for everyone. America may have revolted first to assert these rights, and they did spring first from Europe, but freedom deserves now to be the legacy of people everywhere. These ideals are beyond colonialism, and untethered now to imperialism. "Ideas, too, have no borders. European or not, the idea that an adulterous woman shouldn't be stoned to death is an idea worth universalizing." (193) "We can love a civilization and try to make it even more habitable, more breathable, for its inhabitants: that's the positive lesson from Europe." (199) "We have to imagine happy atheists." (211)

P.S. This reminded me often of Oriana Fallaci's diatribe against Islamism, "The Rage and the Pride," immediately post-9/11 (also reviewed by me on this blog and on Amazon US, where this review appeared 7/31/09).

No comments: