If you happen to surf over to C-SPAN when it is replaying the debate between Bernard-Henri Levy and Bill Kristol, you should keep the dial there. Levy is a leading French intellectual and he plays one to the hilt on tv. A reformed Marxist, Levy remains a man of the left in some ways, but he is also perhaps the leading French anti-anti-American. Most of all, he is an intellectual performance artist, if not a rock star.
Levy has written a book called American Vertigo in which he purports to follow in the footsteps of the great Alexis de Tocqueville in an attempt (in the words of his publisher) to “begin a new conversation about the meaning of America.” Levy sampled a wide variety of Americana, ranging from an interview with Bill Kristol to a visit to a lap dance establishment. It is the former experience that led to his appearance with Kristol and Francis Fukuyama at Johns Hopkins University, where he presented his take on American neo-conservatism.
Levy began by commending the neo-cons for their refreshing embrace of democracy. He then moved on to his three main quarrels with neo-conservatism. First, he complained that the neo-cons have devoured the entire Bush administration menu — not just its defensible, democracy-centric foreign policy, but also opposition to abortions, defense of the death penalty, etc. (“when I go to my favoreete restaurante, I ordere a few courseizes, not zee entieyare menu”).
Second, and along the same lines, he expressed astonishment that the neo-cons are so sympathetic to religion. As a professed admirer of Tocqueville, Levy had to admit that religion can play, and has played, a salutary role in American life. But, according to Levy, that was traditional religion — the kind that recognized the wonderful mystery of a God who both speaks to us and is silent; who is simultaneously imminent and transcendent (Levy was at his flamboyant best here). But in the American religion of today, “God eez with you when you arrr mowing zee lawn; ee speaks to you all zee time; ee eez yourr best buddie.” Levy sees this form of religion as a threat to democracy.
Finally, Levy is concerned that, as ex-Marxists, the neo-cons still are Hegelians who believe in historical inevitability. Instead of the pre-ordained triumph of the workers and of Communism, they believe in the pre-ordained triumph of democracy.
Levy’s critique is basically a seductive recitation of certain familiar talking points of the American left. The seduction lies precisely in the ways in which his presentation differs from the American left’s — the lack of overt animosity, the philosophical references, the wit, the charm.
Kristol, of course, was not seduced. Dry and somewhat deadpan, he presented himself as the anti-Levi, even disavowing any status as an intellectual. And he easily punctured each of the Frenchman’s constructs. First, he has not ordered from the entire Bush menu, and to the extent he agrees with Bush on issues like abortion and the death penalty, he formulated these positions decades ago, when Bush was still carousing at Harvard Business School. Second, the religion Tocqueville observed, and found helpful, was not the philosophical Christianity in which Levy finds merit; it was largely the revival-meeting style version that has Levy so worried. Third, Krisol was never a Marxist and he does not think that democracy inevitably will prevail. He just thinks democracy has certain important advantages over its alternatives, and thus he’s optimistic over the long-term.
Wittgenstein said that philosophy is like a ladder. It enables us to climb, but after we’ve reached the top we can throw the ladder away. Here, it was more a case of Kristol knocking Levy off the ladder.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill