Left Is Right
Bernard Henri-Levy may criticize the Left, but it is worth saving. A response to Nick Cohen.
To appraise the work of Bernard-Henri Lévy while keeping one’s balance is a world-class challenge. Lévy is an extravagant moralist who brings out extravagance in his readers. On the positive side, he is eternally vigilant against human misguidedness, and he stands by the side of the angels. So it is to his credit that, in reviewing Lévy’s worthy but exasperating new book Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, Nick Cohen [“Left Out,” Issue #10] is enthusiastic. He approves of Lévy’s “searing assault” on the French Left for its romances with “the totalitarian temptation,” its dalliances–or worse–with anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, Islamist terrorism, and other currents of wickedness. He goes further, in fact, assuming in black-or-white Republican fashion that those who reject a bomb-bomb foreign policy are turning cold shoulders to totalism’s victims.
But Cohen does not stop at appreciating Lévy’s polemic. He plunges overboard to approve his affectations as well, both stylistic and political, praising his demonological pronouncements. Cohen calls him “an exhilarating writer,” endlessly praising his prose. For my part, I find Lévy a preening, overbearing, overwrought writer, finger-in-face pugnacious, his lucid arguments and pointed epigrams (“it is never a good sign when a great writer devotes too much time to the question of identity”) swamped in a torrent of insinuations, oblique references, watch-me pirouettes, and Dick-and-Jane rhetorical questions. Yet Cohen seems to find Lévy’s flourishes as thrilling as his argument. His adoration of Lévy the stylist distorts his appreciation for Lévy the political thinker: Cohen is so entranced with the writing that he misses the nuanced force of Lévy’s reasons for remaining on the Left, despite the worst of its history.
To be fair, one might extend Lévy a national alibi. He did not invent his self-dramatizing style; it is a patrimony. His flamboyance is a self-parody of a national style that begins and ends every paragraph with a triumphal slapping down of the hole card, accompanied by shouts of take-this-you-fool and only-a-moron-could-disagree and weren’t-you-listening-to-me, sometimes cartwheeling out of control, sending his sentences, not so infrequently, into spasms of incoherence. This is scarcely the only French style–you won’t find it in Proust, and Camus is largely free of the bloat–but it is all too common. The style is so belligerent as to pound the argument, at times, into indefensibility. Which is, as the French say, a pity. And I weary of Lévy’s one-sentence paragraphs.
Not to mention his half-sentence paragraphs.
Lévy’s flourishes, his rhetorical questions, his how-can-you-be-such-an-idiot? declamations are the icing and not the cake. About the awfulness of anti-liberalism, anti-Europeanism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, all the vicious, willfully ignorant oversimplifications of our time, all the unthinking assumptions that the enemy of the enemy is automatically righteous, and the urgent need to resist all of these curdled attitudes masquerading as accurate ideas, Lévy is absolutely right. Again and again, his ringing sarcasm nails hypocrites to the walls of their own self-enclosure. To cite only a sprinkling of his many devastating examples: On French anti-Americanism, he devastates those who accuse America “of having been too late to enter the war against Hitler…and, when it finally made up its mind, of using methods that could have been Hitler’s,” while they celebrate the France that, “during the Civil War, manage[d] to be the only country in the world that was both hostile to slavery…and favorable to a Southern victory.” He is devastating about the 2001 high-horse riders’ masquerade in Durban (also known as the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance), which in a world that includes genocidal Sudan, civil-warring Congo and Nigeria, tyrannical Burma, totalitarian hunger-manufacturing North Korea, nation-destroying Zimbabwe, and the Jew-hatred propaganda industry that thrives in the Arab world, decided that Israel is a singularly damnable regime. Deploring “a Left that feints to the Right,” addressing radicals who get their kicks taking walks on the wild side with revolutionary violence–including the currently fashionable, alternately coruscating and clownish pseudo-theorist Slavoj Zizek–he zeroes in on their penchant for the political theory of the Nazi Carl Schmitt, a liberal-hater for whom the fundamental distinction in politics was that between friend and enemy.
These are rancid fish in a barrel at which Lévy takes aim, but–or therefore–they richly deserve his withering, inflexible scorn. For anyone who takes part in these polemics, or feels the yearning to jump in, his rhetorical services are bristlingly useful, except when they are excessive. And excessive he gets when he is making up his enemies list, an excess that Nick Cohen, who practices his own version of which-side-are-you-on polemics, overlooks. For Lévy can be sloppy. Consider his treatment of Jimmy Carter. “I won’t discuss the case, in the United States, of the ex-president Jimmy Carter,” he begins one paragraph, proceeding, of course, to discuss it, continuing that Carter “never misses a chance to make way for a hatred that, in Europe and certainly in France, would immediately be seen for what it is. Consider his April 2008 journey to Damascus, when he gave unquestioning moral support to the leadership of Hamas.” But according to the BBC, “Hamas spokesmen said Mr. Carter had asked for it to stop rocket attacks on Israel and to enter talks for the release of an Israeli captive.” This doesn’t sound like “unquestioning moral support” to me. Such sloppy demonization is all too typical of Lévy at his worst. He takes no prisoners. Enemies must be crushed. When Bernard-Henri Lévy decides you have gone to the dark side, he gives you a shove and buries you. And Nick Cohen appears to be the one handing him the shovel.
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