jazzoLOG: Letter To The American Left~~~The WHAT?    
 Letter To The American Left~~~The WHAT?6 comments
picture13 Feb 2006 @ 10:54, by Richard Carlson

There is neither heaven nor earth,
only snow,
falling incessantly.


Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the Divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable. It is true.

---Thomas Merton

Don't play as if you've swallowed the metronome!

---Nadia Boulanger

OK, the letter is from Bernard-Henri Lévy...which may be a problem over here. The first a lot of us probably heard of him was due to a review by Garrison Keillor of American Vertigo on the front page in the New York Times last month. [link] I didn't like the review and thought it revealed Keillor at his uptight-pretending-to-be-cool worst. Levy responded to it a little in an interview, but appears not really to know who Keillor is. [link] So they're even. I doubt Garrison did much more, besides reading the book under review, than Google BHL up...an exhausting proposition.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France's leading philosophers and one of the most esteemed writers in Europe. After starting his career as a war reporter for Combat, the legendary newspaper founded by Albert Camus during the Nazi occupation of France, Lévy became famous as the founder of the New Philosophers group. He's the author of 30 books, including works of philosophy, fiction, and biography and is an activist and filmmaker. His books include Barbarism with a Human Face, Reflections on War, Century of Sartre, Evil and the End of History, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and American Vertigo. 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, most recently heading a fact finding mission to Afghanistan in the wake of the war against the Taliban. For at least a dozen years he's been married to Arielle Dombasle, who regularly is voted in France to be the most beautiful woman in the world. I think he's being truthful when he says he really loves the United States. The letter that follows will be in the February 27th issue of The Nation.

A Letter to the American Left
Translated from the original French by Charlotte Mandell.

Nothing made a more lasting impression during my journey through America than the semi-comatose state in which I found the American left.

I know, of course, that the term "left" does not have the same meaning and ramifications here that it does in France.

And I cannot count how many times I was told there has never been an authentic "left" in the United States, in the European sense.

But at the end of the day, my progressive friends, you may coin ideas in whichever way you like. The fact is: You do have a right. This right, in large part thanks to its neoconservative battalion, has brought about an ideological transformation that is both substantial and striking.

And the fact is that nothing remotely like it has taken shape on the other side--to the contrary, through the looking glass of the American "left" lies a desert of sorts, a deafening silence, a cosmic ideological void that, for a reader of Whitman or Thoreau, is thoroughly enigmatic. The 60-year-old "young" Democrats who have desperately clung to the old formulas of the Kennedy era; the folks of MoveOn.org who have been so great at enlisting people in the electoral lists, at protesting against the war in Iraq and, finally, at helping to revitalize politics but whom I heard in Berkeley, like Puritans of a new sort, treating the lapses of a libertine President as quasi-equivalent to the neo-McCarthyism of his fiercest political rivals; the anti-Republican strategists confessing they had never set foot in one of those neo-evangelical mega-churches that are the ultimate (and most Machiavellian) laboratories of the "enemy," staring in disbelief when I say I've spent quite some time exploring them; ex-candidate Kerry, whom I met in Washington a few weeks after his defeat, haggard, ghostly, faintly whispering in my ear: "If you hear anything about those 50,000 votes in Ohio, let me know"; the supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton who, when I questioned them on how exactly they planned to wage the battle of ideas, casually replied they had to win the battle of money first, and who, when I persisted in asking what the money was meant for, what projects it would fuel, responded like fundraising automatons gone mad: "to raise more money"; and then, perhaps more than anything else, when it comes to the lifeblood of the left, the writers and artists, the men and women who fashion public opinion, the intellectuals--I found a curious lifelessness, a peculiar streak of timidity or irritability, when confronted with so many seething issues that in principle ought to keep them as firmly mobilized as the Iraq War or the so-called "American Empire" (the denunciation of which is, sadly, all that remains when they have nothing left to say).

For an outside observer it is passing strange, for instance, that a number of progressives needed, by their own admission, to wait for Hurricane Katrina before they got indignant about, or even learned about, the sheer scale of the outrageous poverty blighting American cities.

For a European intellectual used to the battlefield of ideas, it is simply incomprehensible that more voices weren't raised long ago, in the name of no less than the force of "the Enlightenment," to denounce the ridiculous fraud of the anti-Darwinian supporters of "intelligent design."

And what about the death penalty? How can it be that there isn't yet, within the political parties, especially the Democratic Party--which everyone knows will never budge on the question without decisive internal pressure--a trend of opinion calling for the abolition of this civilized barbarity?

And Guantánamo? And Abu Ghraib? And the special prisons in Central Europe, those areas where the rule of law no longer applies? I know, of course, that the press has denounced them. I know you have journalists who, in a matter of days, accomplished what our French press still hasn't finished forty years after our Algerian War. But since when does the press excuse citizens from their political duties? Why haven't we heard from more intellectuals like Susan Sontag--or even Gore Vidal and Tony Kushner (with whom I disagree on most other grounds) on this vexed and vital issue? And what should we make of that handful of individuals who, after September 11, launched the debate about the circumstances in which torture might suddenly be justified?

And I'm not even talking about Bush. I won't even mention Bush's gross lies about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, except for the sake of assembling the conclusive evidence. I know, of course, that you denounce him--but mechanically, I am almost tempted to say ritualistically. And yet the United States nearly impeached Nixon because he had spied on his enemies and lied. They impeached Clinton for a venial lie about inappropriate conduct. How is it, then, that it took so long to draw a parallel between those lies and a lie about which the least you can say is that its consequences were anything but venial? How is it that so few "public intellectuals" have been found, within the confines of this formidable, impetuous American democracy, who can bring up the idea of impeaching George Bush for lying?

Some will retort that the "public intellectual" is a European specialty, that we shouldn't blame Americans for their infidelity to a tradition that is not their own. What do such killjoys make of the Norman Mailer of the 1960s? Of the Arthur Miller of The Crucible? Or of that golden age of civil rights awareness, when great writers enunciated what was right and good and true?

Others will object that the massive, resounding mobilization of civil society is not an American custom. All you need to do to convince yourself of the untruth of this is remember the 1960s and the movement for civil rights, then for the rights of minorities in general, which were the honor of the country and did not stem, let it be emphasized, from any of the major political parties.

Still others will wax ironic about the disease of writing up petitions, a French specialty, warded off by American pragmatism. Here the objection is more serious; and I know the fatuity that can exist in the mania for nonstop political engagement in the name of myriad causes--but aren't you afflicted, my American friends, with the radically opposite sickness? Hasn't the ethics of sobriety won once too often, with you, over the ethics of conviction? And how could one not yearn for a petition that would address our common nausea when faced with the spectacle of a diabetic, blind, nearly deaf old man, pushed in his wheelchair to the San Quentin execution chamber in California?

I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that a large part of the country is waiting for this. Everywhere, in the innermost reaches of America, you can meet men and women who hope for great voices capable of echoing their impatience in a momentous way. If I were an American writer, I would try to ponder the lessons of the totalitarian century and those of democracy, Tocqueville-style, all at once, in the same breath, and with the same rigor.


[< Back] [jazzoLOG]



14 Feb 2006 @ 04:00 by judih : yes, wonderful piece
it seems so easy when he says it. Perhaps it's the accent? Perhaps the way of wearing a shirt? Is it the style? Or is it the chic?

Is is so hard to move mountains?
I look at my small community and see that each member claims her/his own cubit of inertia "don't dare move me. I am unmoveable". Yet, we move, and people move and new realities march in the front door all the time.

It's easy to move reality from across the sea. And here I am, 7,000 miles away.  

16 Feb 2006 @ 14:11 by rayon : When you've had
Henry VIII, Louis X1V, napoleon, Hitler, civilisation arrives after, not that it is wished on anyone, but it does seem to be the course. The bigger the land mass, maybe the longer it takes.  

19 Feb 2006 @ 00:16 by Quinty @ : European intellectuals

Actually, the novelist Elliot Paul once put it nicely. And I wish I could remember where it is: somewhere around here, in some box full of other stuff. But he was referring to my father in Spain before the civil war where he said, and I paraphrase: "in no country in the world are the intellectuals and artists more closely tied to the common people than in Spain." I shudder at what I did to his magnificent prose, but the meaning is clear enough. In the Second Spanish Republic the intellectuals and artists were all friends of the nation’s political leaders: these intellectuals including Unamuno, Garcia Lorca, del Valle Inclan, Antonio Machado, Ortega y Gasset, and many more, including my father. I can still recall having dinner with Juan Negrin (the Republic’s final premier) whenever he visited New York during his and my father's exile. As well as Prieto, del Vayo, and other leaders of the Republic, many of them world travelers, never settling anywhere after the war, whenever they were in New York.

In Europe, especially France, there is a much greater cultural tie between the so called common people and the writers and intellectuals than there is here in the US. Here, sadly enough, intellectuality is often enough equated with elitism or snobbery. The intellectual left is forced off the stage onto the sidelines. And whereas many of us on this site can remember a time when new books, new books by great writers, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Porter, et al, were greeted with the fanfare of an important national event, those pinnacles in our culture have been replaced by Hollywood. Now it is the new movie that Spielberg directed which captures the nation's media attention and interest. Today movies, more often than not, describe our modern American world to us than novels do. And what was once sought in a great novel is now sought in Hollywood's fantasies.

This is our electronic age. And it has led, I think, to our current cultural isolationism. Our president tells us that we must not be "isolationists." This is his way of vamping the American empire. And because the electronic media, Hollywood and television have captured the American mind, the way we see ourselves, it is all that much easier for Americans to swallow the lurid Hollywoodlike propaganda of a dishonest administration. (Also, when Bush speaks of “isolationism” he is promoting his empire, a US empire which has gone beyond hegemony.) The electronic media, in this vast land our ours, occupies our cultural defining center. Since it is profit driven - news as entertainment, America as the land envied by the rest of the world, reinforcing our congratulatory view of ourselves - it has lost its link to reality. And this is the flip side to the tragedy we see occurring today: that truth is rarely allowed to breathe in the national debate.

Levy is correct, I think. But oh god is his view European: nor does it fully reflect our truth as Americans.  

21 Feb 2006 @ 17:10 by jazzolog : A Weekend Of Reality
Paul's comment greeted me upon our return from a long weekend in Cincinnati, an area of conservative fundamentalist domination. This is the first time I've spent any amount of time soaking up such energy since the 2004 election. There is a strange kind of aggression in the heartland now, transcendent as it is with all the salvation overtones. I would say I could glimpse easily the side of America that is brutality. It was a new experience...actually to be IN it rather than just theorizing about it. I'll try to get some impressions organized and more carefully written.  

21 Jul 2006 @ 13:43 by just passing @ : just in case
Hello, i'm french and just have a few corrections to bring,

BHL is well controversed about many point and not most important whatever.
He is regurlarly splashed with cream pie for being to proud of himself, and he truelly have a good communication/advertissement manager but that's all.
He's often on tv or in gouvernement works may be but more because of his money than his successfull intelligence, some people laught about him since ages.

His wife is not the most pretty girl as well. She's nice, may be she was elected as the most blabla, she's a singer as well and actress.

They both are well know but certainly not the 'most' in any domain.
They are well known but not as the summary pretends.

That's all, sorry for mistakes.  

21 Jul 2006 @ 14:27 by jazzolog : Just Passing, Stick Around
I certainly won't mind any mistakes you make in comment because your meaning is clear. Thank you for visiting and letting us know more about the view in France. I hope you will come again and write more to us.

And what the heck is that surfer site your name links us to? The photos were refreshing to see in this HEAT, eh?  

Your Name:
Your URL: (or email)
For verification, please type the word you see on the left:

Other entries in
16 Jan 2009 @ 13:16: From Duke 'N Satch To Obama: A Personal Triumph
31 Aug 2008 @ 12:48: Election '08: You Make Me Feel So Young!
10 May 2008 @ 11:58: The Snowville Story
8 Feb 2008 @ 10:55: Take A Tip From Me
18 Dec 2007 @ 08:48: Catastrophe Is Coming
1 Sep 2007 @ 12:48: Exactly How Bush Spends Your Money
5 Jun 2007 @ 10:03: The US: One Big Drug Store
11 Mar 2007 @ 09:16: Pardoning Libby
26 Dec 2006 @ 11:29: How's Your Computer?
29 Oct 2006 @ 12:00: Tortured Over The Election?

[< Back] [jazzoLOG] [PermaLink]?