Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism

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9781400064359: Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism

In this unprecedented critique, Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of the world’s leading intellectuals revisits his political roots, scrutinizes the totalitarianisms of the past as well as those on the horizon, and argues powerfully for a new political and moral vision for our times. Are human rights Western or universal? Does anti-Semitism have a future, and, if so, what will it look like? And how is it that progressives themselves–those who in the past defended individual rights and fought fascism–have now become the breeding ground for new kinds of dangerous attitudes: an unthinking loathing of Israel; an obsessive anti-Americanism; an idea of “tolerance” that, in its justification of Islamic fanaticism, for example, could become the “cemetery of democracies”; and an indifference, masked by relativism, to the greatest human tragedies facing the world today? Illuminating these and other questions, Lévy also brings to life his own autobiography, highlighting the thinkers he has known and scrutinized and the ideological battles he has fought over thirty years–revealing their bearing on the present.

Above all, Lévy offers a powerful new vision for progressives everywhere, one based neither on the failed idealisms of the past neither nor on their current misguided, bigoted, and dangerously sentimental attachments but on an absolute commitment to combat evil in all its guises. The “new barbarism” Levy compellingly diagnoses is real and must be confronted. At a time of ideological and political transition in America, Left in Dark Times is a polemical, incendiary articulation of the threats we all face–in many cases without our even being aware of it–and a riveting, cogent stand against those threats. Surprising and sure to be controversial, wise and free of cynicism, it is one of the most important books yet written by one of the crucial voices of our time.

Praise for Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo

“An entertaining trip, as much in the tradition of Jack Kerouac as Tocqueville.”
The New York Times

“Perceptive, pugnacious, passionate [and] exquisitely written.”
The New York Observer

“It’s difficult to remember when a writer of any nationality so clearly and thoughtfully delineated both the good and bad in America. [Grade:] A.”
Entertainment Weekly (Editor’s Choice)

“Lévy is a true friend of the American experiment and a comrade in the American struggle against the barbarisms.”
The New Republic

“Lévy writes brilliantly. American Vertigo is filled with insights and goodwill.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Provocative . . . [Lévy is] a writer of enormous power and vitality.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

“Vigorous . . . impressive.”
–The Boston Globe

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About the Author:

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, journalist, activist, and filmmaker. He was hailed by Vanity Fair magazine as “Superman and prophet: we have no equivalent in the United States.” Among his dozens of books are American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, and Who Killed Daniel Pearl? His writing has appeared in a wide range of publications throughout Europe and the United States. His films include the documentaries Bosna! and A Day in the Death of Sarajevo. Lévy is co-founder of the antiracist group SOS Racism and has served on diplomatic missions for the French government.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1.

And Upon This Ruin . . .


Why didn’t I vote for Sarkozy?

Why was I so profoundly convinced, then, that it was literally impossible for me to vote for that man?

First of all, some of the reasons concerned things I knew about him, things that many voters would soon discover.

A kind of feverishness that seemed incompatible with the job.

An indifference to ideas, a cynicism, that has led to incredibly brutal flip-flops on certain important matters (Russia, for example).

An ability to live in denial, which we would see during his grotesque and devastating reception of Colonel Gadhafi in Paris.

The pragmatism—a better word is opportunism—we saw soon after his victory, when, like a kid set loose in a candy store and told: “Here you go! It’s all yours! It’s free! Take what you want!,” he literally took it all, working his way through every bin, snatching up all the most desirable items. The icon Kouchner. The wise Védrine. The knights of Mitterrand’s Holy Grail, whom, when Sarkozy was a young minister, he confessed to admiring. Totems of the Left. Literary and show business legends. Who’s the patron saint of the Socialists? Blum? Then bring me Blum! The Christ of the Communists? Guy Môquet? Then bring him to me—not, of course, Guy Môquet himself, the seventeen-year-old Resistance hero killed by the Nazis, but his last, beautiful, heartbreaking letter to his parents! And the queen of today’s victims? Who wears the dark crown of contemporary suffering and martyrdom? Ingrid Betancourt, you say? Then go fetch them right away, the Betancourt family, and bring them to my palace!

I didn’t deny that all this could have its good sides. Nor that, precisely because of his appetite, Nicolas Sarkozy might have some surprises up his sleeve. All I knew was that he had a strange and worrying way of operating. I also knew that he had an almost deformed memory. People usually have a memory. It can be complex, contradictory, paradoxical. But it’s their own. It is, in large part, the foundation of their identity. Sarkozy, however, is a hijacker of other people’s memories. He lays claim to everyone’s memory, which finally means he has no memory of his own. Our first memory-free president. The first of our presi?dents to wish all ideas well, because he really is indifferent to them. And that is why, if one man in France today incarnates—or claims to incarnate—that famous “post-ideological age” in which I cannot bring myself to believe, then it is Nicolas Sarkozy, sixth president of the Fifth Republic.

None of that subtracts, I repeat, from the charm of his character. Nor, once again, from my personal liking of him. But that was the first group of reasons that prevented me from supporting him.

a second group was more essential.

Because it had to do with my very being, with my fundamental political identity—something in me bolted at the double idea: first, of rushing to the rescue of someone who I guessed was going to win anyway (Ah! The defectors already rushing in! All the flatterers, the followers, of whom you could say, as of Juvenal’s courtesan, that no cheese can make them retch!); and second, equally, of not voting, as I have for my entire life, for what is known as the Left.

A reflexive vote?

Mechanical?

Had my thinking really become so Pavlovian that, as I’d just said to him, the Left was my family and you don’t betray your family?

There was probably some of that.

And that’s exactly what I say when, a few days later, questioned by a French weekly embarking on its umpteenth report on the “rightward drift” of French intellectuals,1 I remarked that “I belong to the Left out of orientation and almost genetically; the Left is my family and you can’t change families the way you change shirts.”

Except that, put that way, this argument is frankly pathetic—and even goes against some of my most basic convictions.

I’m not crazy about the word family, first of all.

I don’t like the ugly mafia whiff it acquires when applied to politics.

I hate the idea that goes with it, that you always have to choose the “family” in the event of conflict—over, for example, the truth: ah! the holy horror of “families” one finds in all the writers I admire . . . the even greater horror, Louis Aragon thunders, in his Defense of the Infinite, of those “chosen” families, spiritual families and therefore political families . . . the family one subjects oneself to out of free will—he explains as one who knows—the family of the spirit and the heart! It’s “as if you had chosen your own tomb” . . . as if you’d renounced any “morality,” any “human greatness.” . . . Nothing but tuberculosis spreads quicker through families than this kind of lie . . . and when the lie has won the day, when the family of spirit is irremediably corrupted, when the party of the heart no longer fulfills the hopes we’ve invested in it, doesn’t the right thing to do become to betray it exactly as much as—Aragon, again—it has betrayed itself?

And I know better than anyone that everything in the movement of the world and of ideas has broken down, cracked, and sometimes nullified the famous split between Left and Right that has structured French politics for a century—a split that has become harder and harder to believe in.

Let’s go over it again.

The words “Right” and “Left” have long been used to denote the most recent form of the struggle between the old and the modern: though it no longer makes much sense to say, with a straight face, that the Right is condemned to be the “old” and that the Left necessarily represents the “modern,” as it’s been a while since, to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, I’ve been “indifferent about being modern.”

“Right” and “Left” have been seen as two opposing attitudes toward this old belief, no longer exactly in “modernity,” but in Progress, which was the catechism of former centuries: here again, the criteria have shifted; the main issues have been overturned by an increasingly conservative Left and a Right that no longer flinches at the sacred word of progress; and for the author of Barbarism with a Human Face—for one who stepped into the public debate more than thirty years ago by denouncing and deconstructing the “reactionary idea of Progress”—that’s not really the question either.

We’ve believed, or wanted to believe, that the Left stood out for the distance it put between itself and powerful interests in general, and moneyed interests in particular—while the Right was in bed with them; that the Left was free whereas the Right was bought and paid for; that the Left was for average people while the cruel Right was dedicated, under a more or less transparent disguise, to its awful “class poli?tics” which were “making the poor poorer”! As if the Right was completely undemocratic. . . . As if this new age of democracy, under the reign of Opinion, wasn’t precisely the age that made disguises impossible, that tore off masks . . . As if, in this age of all-powerful visibility and transparency at every level, any political force could crudely, clearly, cynically present itself as being on “the side” of money and power and in so doing abandon the people and its votes to the other side . . . As if, with the joint triumph of the desire for vengeance, truth, and purity (these three forms, always leading to the worst, of what Nietzsche called the will to power), anyone could present a platform that was not, from top to bottom, from Right to Left, an appeal to what Nietzsche, again, called the greatest number . . . As if the structure and regime of the Benthamite Panopticon had been overturned ages ago: no longer slaves under the master’s eye but the master himself, every master, under the intractable eye of a people who holds all the cards . . . Or as if, in the new planetary celebritocracy that has taken the place of oligarchy, the rules of the game had not changed entirely: the celebrities under the eye of the people, of its implacable demands and desires, beginning with the desire to cut off the heads of the powerful or, in any case, to appear to—the rule applies to Europe, but almost even more to the United States, as we saw during the misadventures of Bill Clinton, the personal attacks against Hillary, then Obama, and, in general, by the rise of the “political junkie.”

There was, finally, the question of the revolution. Since the French Revolution, the word “revolution,” the pure signifier, was, in France at least, the most serious political dividing line. The Left wanted it; the Right feared it. The Left, even and especially if they hated its provisionary guises, kept alive the dream of society in a happier incarnation and thought that this was exactly what made one a Leftist—the Right was made up of those people whose political outlook meant methodically putting down each and every revolution. That time, too, is past. And, for reasons I’ll come back to, we have entered a period in which, as Michel Foucault once told me,2 the question “Is the revolution possible?” has given way to a more troubling and much more radical question: “Is the revolution desirable?” And now, especially, the answer has become “No,” a clear “No,” not desirable at all, or, in any case, only for very few people. Who in the contemporary political landscape still openly dreams of wiping the slate clean? of a radical new beginning? of history split in two? of society as a blank page upon which the poem of the New M...

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