Left Is Right
Bernard Henri-Levy may criticize the Left, but it is worth saving. A response to Nick Cohen.
Nevertheless, Lévy is more than a name-caller. He claims two noble callings. One is analytical. Pick your way judiciously through his book and you see that he has a definite feel for the weird dynamics of nasty ideas. For example, he makes a convincing case that anti-Semitism is a mutable virus, that its current incarnations in Europe are not the older variants, and that “anti-Semitism, if it returns will be a union of Holocaust denial, anti-Zionism, and competition among victims.”
The other benefit of the book is that Lévy gives many reasons for wanting to resurrect what he nicely calls “the melancholy Left of Camus,” an unillusioned Left that celebrates its vast achievements without being seduced by a “lyrical left” that never met an end-of-history fantasy it didn’t embrace. What this all means for America is murky, despite Cohen’s warning that the afflicted Left of France could easily migrate across the Atlantic. It bears remembering that the sort of left Lévy has in mind is the French style of intellectual-heavy enterprise that Americans laugh off. There was a time–41 years ago, to be exact–when a left-wing demonstration was led by writers (Robert Lowell, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, and others at the kick-off to the Pentagon march of 1967), but those days are long gone. The purchase of public intellectuals is different in Paris. A few months ago, I participated in an hour-and-a-half-long morning show on France Culture radio, discussing the fate of the press and the American presidential campaign. There were breaks for news and brief round-table insertions, but in the main I was asked intelligent questions by a well-known interviewer, Ali Baddou. America’s public radio and TV shy away from such ventures. “Intellectual” is still a label that Barack Obama is pressed to flee for his political life. Thus, when Cohen warns that the American Left will soon face the same dilemmas as the French, that American liberals after Bush run the risk of sliding down the Europeans’ morally squalid slope, he fails to grasp how marginal intellectual life is altogether on this side of the ocean.
At its most precious, the Left that Lévy affirms is a coterie Left, an abstract and gestural Left that is self-limited even when it is renowned and prestigious. But Lévy’s idea of a Left still matters morally, even for Americans whose purchase on political and intellectual life is so weak. He wants a Left of values, one that would take part in (not lead) a larger political movement extending far beyond intellectuals. Credit Lévy with trying: He doesn’t just denounce what he calls “a frightened Left, shaky, scared of the sound of its own voice if it’s made to recall its previous daring statements, a Left that is no longer the avant-garde of anything at all, except, perhaps, for the sake of being avant-garde.” He is a perpetual-motion cottage industry of just causes. However much he loathed Saddam Hussein and his cheerleaders in Paris, he didn’t fall for the disastrous Bush expedition in Mesopotamia. Not least, Lévy and his friends deserve great credit for a noble attempt to get Francois Mitterrand to lift a finger for Bosnia in the é90s. Then and at other times, they didn’t just write manifestos. They lobbied, and moved toward a new political party, and if they failed–only to see Mitterrand’s successor, the rightist Jacques Chirac, show more concern for beleaguered Bosnia than the wily Mitterrand ever did–they were still deeply admirable. It is one thing to long for movements to do the difficult work of creating new political forces. It is quite another to smirk at Lévy’s efforts to make the most of an unfavorable situation that the Left has botched–all the organized lefts, the brain-dead Communists, the corrupt and opportunistic Socialists, the hallucination-prone Trotskyites, the paranoid anarchists, and the rest of the retrograde crew.
Cohen, practitioner of his own all-or-nothing style, worries too much about the worst of the American Left. He blithely couples Noam Chomsky with Susan Sontag, whose famously outrageous New Yorker squib after the September 11 massacre does not sink to anywhere near the level of Chomsky’s decades-long, systematic blame-America-first politics. Surely there is a fundamentalist Left, some of whom Lévy rightly takes on: Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Arundhati Roy, and Naomi Klein are among the best known (Michael Bérubé’s forthcoming book, The Left at War, is devastatingly detailed about their moral and intellectual shoddiness.) They can be opposed–should be opposed–not because they are on the Left but insofar they trample on reason, on solidarity with the oppressed, on the inalienable rights of human beings–in short, on the Left’s own values. But they are far, far from taking on a meaningful role in American politics anywhere comparable to their intellectual compatriots in Europe.
Cohen’s own extravagance carries over into a certain indiscriminate belligerence. In his review, Cohen asks, “If the majority of people on the European left continue to have no project beyond anti-Americanism; display no willingness to confront [my italic] misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism when they appear in other cultures; and have no interest in the oppressed if they are oppressed by the wrong type of oppressor, can Lévy carry on calling himself left wing? Should he want to?” Yes, he should want to, because values matter. In the actual life of nations, no camps are pure. All hands are dirty. If the political world remains largely bifurcated, the question, unaddressed by Cohen but implicit in Levy’s Left allegiance, is: Are the values of the Right superior?
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