Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Bernard-Henry Levy on America

I first encountered Bernard-Henry Levy as the author of Barbarism with a Human Face, a nouvelle philosophe who discovered, flamboyantly albeit belatedly, that Marxism produced immense human suffering. He was once on a panel in Toronto with Allan Bloom, who caught his attention by declaring that there was but a short distance between asserting a "Jewish Question" and devising a "final solution."

Well, never far from the limelight, Mr. Levy (BHL, as everyone calls him apparently), is at it again, this time self-consciously following in Tocqueville’s footsteps to write American Vertigo. The book sounds interesting, at least if these interviews are to be believed. Here are a couple of telling snippets from the WSJ interview (the more substantive of the two):

"In France, with the nation based on roots, on the idea of soil, on a common memory . . . the very existence of America is a mystery and a scandal." This is a particular source of pain, Mr. Lévy says, for "the right." Contrary to what is thought generally, he insists, anti-Americanism "migrated to the left, to the Communist Party, but its origins are on the extreme right." America gives the French right "nightmares," as the country is based on "a social contract. America proves that people can gather at a given moment and decide to form a nation, even if they come from different places." The "ghost that has haunted Europe for two centuries"--and which gives fuel, to this day, to anti-Americanism there--"is America’s coming together as an act of will, of creed. It shows that there is an alternative to organic nations."

These are important insights, and surely gratifying to an American. But is this the whole picture, I ask. Isn’t today’s French gauche--and the European left as embodied by Gerhard Schröder and Spain’s Zapatero, to name but two leading offenders--more than just a passive inheritor of a right-wing anti-Americanism? Why this insistence--and Mr. Lévy does, sometimes, protest too much--on anti-Americanism as a sort of rightist Original Sin? Here, Mr. Lévy is evasive: "It is true of the left," he concedes, nodding his head in accord, but then checks himself: "It is partly true. . . . But you must see that in France you have the Gaullist tradition, which is strongly anti-American."

Would he say that Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, is anti-American? "Chirac is pragmatic. When he plays chess, he plays with both black and white. He thinks two things at the same time, constantly. Mitterrand was like that, too." Ideology, suggests Mr. Lévy with more than a hint of lament, has given way to "pragmatism" in French politics, to cynicism. "The reign of ideologies in France was linked to the concept of revolution. As long as some believed in revolution, you had a distribution of ideologies." The moment when "the dream of revolution collapsed" --a dream of which Mr. Lévy once partook--ideology decamped from the battleground of French politics.


Mr. Lévy regards his own criticism of America not as anti-Americanism, but as tough love. He is an assiduous believer in America’s "manifest destiny," and expects this country, clearly, to uphold the highest standards--as he sees them. Some of these standards he would prescribe to France, in particular the American approach to citizenship. He contrasts the "model of Dearborn"--the Detroit suburb, home to significant numbers of contented Arab-Americans--with the "model of St. Denis," the Parisian banlieu where discontented Arab immigrants (never referred to as Arab-Frenchman) ran riot late last year. "What is good about America is that in order to be a citizen, you are not asked to resign from your former identity. You cannot tell Varadarajan or Lévy, ’You have to erase from your mind the ancestors you had.’ In France, we erase."

Here’s hoping that Jim Ceaser, author of Reconstructing America, will review it somewhere.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Or, perhaps, Dan Mahoney?

Why not both?

You’re just like me when it comes to a variety of desserts (e.g., at Christmas): I can’t make a this-one rather than that-one decision, so I opt for all. Good idea, Joe. (I’m pretty sure Dan will be reviewing it.)

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