Originally written for a French audience, Gallic philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism is a paradoxical work that chastises the political left even as its author continues to support it, and injects a Parisian flavor into the deluge of nonfiction books about to descend on us as the presidential race enters its final stages. Although a fervent supporter of Barack Obama, Levy remains deeply troubled by many of the stances and attitudes (anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, moral relativism, perverse sympathy for any thug who happens to defy the West, etc.) taken by the political party he calls his “home,” whether in its French, American or international incarnations. His hope now is that the left can both take power and simultaneously purge itself of its more egregious sins. Obama supporters will be happy to have Lévy on their side, but how will his “critique from within” play stateside?
L.A. WEEKLY: Your book was inspired by a peculiarly French dilemma — whether or not to vote for a dynamic, reformist, right-wing presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, a friend of yours, who actively sought your support, and if not, why not? You chose to vote for his left-wing rival, Ségolène Royal, and this book is in part a defense of that decision. Explain its relevance to a reader on the American left.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: The situations in the two countries are not the same. But there are comparable elements. I don’t believe in saviors on horseback coming in to heal societies in crisis. There is a Sarkozian brutality, which is, in many respects, the equivalent of what a McCain administration would be like. But I also want to tell you that one reason I voted for the left is that the left is ill. Maybe mortally so. And this kind of illness can only be treated from within. Thus, I want to embrace the left, so as to be in a better position to criticize it. To live in it in order to reform it. It’s a principle that works for France, and also for the United States.
One of the many reasons you chose not to vote for Sarkozy had to do with the question of character — a certain “feverish” quality you detected in him and which you thought unsuitable to the office. I thought of this over the summer, when he welcomed Barack Obama to Paris as if he were already the American president, which struck me as a recklessly unstatesmanlike act. Britain’s Gordon Brown and Germany’s Angela Merkel were careful not to do it, and, after all, John McCain may become president. But this also suggests something about the character of Obama — for he could surely have told Sarkozy that he did not want presidential treatment before he had even officially attained the nomination of his party. You are an Obama supporter. Have you seen anything in his character, or behavior, to shake your faith?
No, I wouldn’t say that. That Obama fell into a snare set by Sarkozy is one thing — and he’s not the first. That he wanted to have any part of it is another — which I don’t believe. In any case, the stakes in this election are too enormous to get hung up on such vicissitudes In my mind, the election of Obama would be a chance for America to end the strife between communities. To cool the mad onrush of competing victimizations. To reconcile blacks and Jews, for example. In brief, to reconcile America herself to her own dream.
Comparing America to a country like France, or to the EU in general, many Americans would say that there is barely a left wing in the U.S. at all — just two shades of conservatism, Democrat and Republican, as Gore Vidal has claimed. Do you agree?
No. I think that [the Gore Vidal line you cited] is one of those typically ultraleftist ideas that I criticize in the book. What is the left according to the dreams of Vidal? Castro? Chavez? The morons who find excuses or reasons for the assassins of 9/11? Come on! You do have an American left. On subjects like health care, the role of government, abortion, civil liberties, there are genuine differences. Between McCain and Obama the differences are enormous. And it’s good that it’s that way.
Toward the end of the book, you construct a heavily veiled argument that could easily be read as support for the decision to invade Iraq. For example, “I’m pleading to detach human rights from their original soil; to replant them in the soils of civilizations that might not necessarily have thought of them … [as] a first step toward a real dialogue between cultures.” This sounds to me like an argument that George Bush, whom you refer to as a “fool,” would make, and in fact has made. Isn’t this a book that purports to be a defense of the left, and an impassioned call for the left to reinvigorate itself, but is likely to be praised more by the right than by the left it hopes to inspire?
If Bush says, at midday, that it’s daytime, I’m not going to force myself to claim that it’s the middle of the night! As to the war in Iraq, it’s very simple. It’s always a good thing that a dictator should be put out of business, and there is no society in the world that ought to be off-limits to human rights and democracy. The idea of accompanying Iraq along this road to democracy, the notion of a “duty to intervene,” applied to Iraq, obviously had nothing wrong with it. The problem is the way in which one acted. An idiotic strategy, the lack of an alliance on the ground to provide cover, and then, above all, the ideological error which is engraved in the genetic code of the neocons: To construct a democracy, you need diplomacy, the state — a very strong intervention by the state — but these men who, in their domestic politics, profess not to believe either in the state or in politics, can’t then claim to believe in them abroad.
Conditions in Iraq look a lot better now than a year ago. Is there a single good word you can say for President Bush?
Yes, of course. He’s not autistic. He’s listened to the criticisms. And he has, finally, at the end of two long years, decided to dedicate himself to the kind of nation-building I mentioned earlier.
As well as the travels across the country you undertook for your last book, American Vertigo, you have spent a lot of time in New York and elsewhere in America. If you had to choose a single characteristic that differentiates the Americans and the French, what would it be?
Movement. Which is to say, the sense of space and also of time.
In a brilliant passage, you describe how French or European ideas about America can be highly contradictory, even nonsensical. The idea that we are still a “Puritan” society is one of them. I suspect you agree with this, however, and would be interested to hear why. Or to put it another way, what is the difference between French and American approaches to sexuality?
In effect, Puritanism! Although it seems to me there is a difference here between men and women. Among the former, I see Puritanical strains that are not fading. But I have the feeling that American women are much less Puritanical than they’re reputed to be. Or, more exactly, that Puritanism is often just an element in their arsenal of seduction. It’s an opinion.
Has Sarkozy said anything to you about your book since its publication earlier this year in France?
LEFT IN DARK TIMES: A STAND AGAINST THE NEW BARBARISM | By BERNARD-HENRI LEVY | Random House | 256 pages | $25 hardcover