France, America and the Real World
Bernard-Henri Lévy is not your average French intellectual, for at least three reasons: what he says usually makes sense; he is more or less conservative; and he does not hate America. That makes him a rather rare chap indeed.
But he has been on the right side of things for years now. He was one of the few Frenchmen during the Cold War to be able to see the dangers of communism, and to support Reagan and Thatcher in their efforts to withstand it. His 1977 Barbarism with a Human Face is a classic analysis of the horrors of Marxist ideology. And given that Lévy was once himself a Marxist, he was well placed to write it. (Another Frenchman of note who also condemned communism and praised freedom was Jean-Francois Revel.)
More recently Lévy has penned a book about his year travelling in America, American Vertigo. It is the first French book translated into English to be a bestseller in America for decades. In it Lévy talks about numerous aspects of a country that he greatly loves.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Jasper Gerard interviews Lévy (“Adieu France, ‘allo land of the free,” October 1, 2006). While he is clearly a great fan of America, he does not approve of everything it does. He opposed the Iraq invasion for example. “But BHL, unlike the traditional left, does not shy from hard thought or uncomfortable solutions. Better, he says, that America topples dictators than props them up. We complain whatever America does, and we complain loudest when America does nothing. And while Europeans sneer at President George Bush’s dumbness, many neocons have a grasp of ancient philosophy that would shame our politicians.”
As mentioned, Lévy is no friend of totalitarianism, so he opposes the Islamic variety as much as he did the Communist. Says Gerard, “‘I believe,’ he declares, ‘in the principles of the French revolution and human rights.’ And these are based on Kant’s insistence that there is a morality; that some acts, like Saddam Hussein’s genocide, are evil. And if you really object, morality compels you to intervene.”
Gerard continues, “‘It has become fashionable to spit on Blair but I don’t like this. The war was wrong but he was right globally, about the need to support America and seeing the Islamicist threat as fascism. When you do your accounts you will find Blair is not your worst prime minister.’ When the accounts of the war on Islamism are made, there will be no ambiguity about where BHL stood. He is annoyed the Pope fell into the ‘trap’ of apologising for insulting Islam and decries British and French journals for not publishing the notorious Danish cartoons. ‘Yours is the country of Speaker’s Corner, you can say anything about the Queen, and you have the mosque of Finsbury Park, but no one dares publish those cartoons. That betrays the women in Pakistan and Afghanistan who fight not to have to wear the burqa’.”
While Lévy thinks America still has a long future, he worries greatly when asked about his own Europe: “‘Not so healthy,’ he says, looking down. ‘There is a fear of the future and a sense of crisis.’ As a federalist who wishes Europe would follow the ‘perfect American model’ he despairs at Europe’s ‘chauvinism and nationalism’. Language should be no barrier to unity: ‘In America the first language of some states was German and today it is Spanish, so you can make a community with different languages. But you do need a will’.”
Perhaps not since de Tocqueville and his Democracy in America has a Frenchman come out with so much praise for America. It is admittedly a guarded and nuanced praise, but praise nonetheless. And coming from France, that says a lot.