Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bernard-Henri Levy on French riots

Try comparing this article, here (Wall Street Journal opinion page, Wednesday, November 9, 2005), by the famous French social and cultural critic Bernard-Henri Levy - one of the most famous, albeit 'celebratized' intellectuals in France - with the article in the preceding post by Mark Steyn.

I have mixed feelings about Levy. One the one hand, when I was in my early twenties and I came across his first book, Barbarism with a human face, published in 1979 or so, a passionate (and overwrought and occasionally hysterical, says the staid 50 year old professor today, but anyway), break with fashionable neo-marxist philosophy in France, reading him was immensely liberating, even if I didn't know all his fashionable throwaway references to writers I hadn't read, caught in the confines of proper analytic philosophy. I also admired his willingness to break with Europe over the murder of the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl, and I understand why the WSJ took to him, even if I rather doubted that his reporting on the subject was all that objective.

On the other hand, I entirely agree with my good friend Bernard P..., a leading editor in Paris, who regards him as having aimed at celebrityhood in the first place - intellectualism for Levy seems always to have been a vehicle for celebrity, rather than the fundamental aim. There is something of the intellectual buffoon about him - true, it is a rather good idea to propose doing a revisit a la Tocqueville through America, as Levy did in pieces in the Atlantic Monthly - it also inevitably has something of the vaudeville act about it, a new, credulous American audience to bring into one's circle - signalled, inevitably, by volunteering oneself to play Tocqueville.

But the piece below, from the Wall Street Journal of Wednesday, November 9, 2005, is, well, simply incomprehensible. I am tempted to pass it off as simply beyond the scope of adequate translation, were it not, in so many ways, so very, very ... Bernard-Henri Levy. This is, alas, what genuinely passes for deep thought in that handsomely furrowed Gallic skull, at a moment of genuine crisis. As Bernard P... put it to me at dinner in Prague last week, well, one can scarcely snicker at the American rubes falling for this kind of packaged pretentiousness when we, the French, have been doing so for decades.



When Suburbs Burn

By BERNARD-HENRI LEVY Wall Street Journal
November 9, 2005; Page A16

PARIS -- Nothing will stop the movement. I'm not saying that it won't come to a stop, obviously. But I am saying that no gesture, no idea, no long- or short-term policy, will have, by itself, by magic, the prodigious power to break this spiral that will surely have to follow its logic to the end. Physics of the body. Black energy of pure hatred. Nihilistic vortex of a violence that's meaningless, pointless, and that grows drunk on the spectacle of itself from city to city, reflected by televisions that are themselves obsessed.

This is not war. Contrary to what those individuals in France who have an intellectual investment in the discourse of war would like to persuade us (roughly: the far right, the far left, the Islamic fundamentalists), this is not, thank heaven, a matter of an Intifada wearing French colors. But it is a process that's surely unprecedented. It is a group reaching its melting point in almost a Sartrean sense. And it's a group reaching its melting point in a new way, with cell phones, instant text messaging, mobile units, groups rushing in all directions with an anger that, when it's done targeting the neighborhood school and gym, when it's burned down or tried to burn down the last building that stands for France and its government, will start attacking neighbors, friends, their own selves; it's their own father's car that the vandals will, finally, search out and torch.

Then it will be over. It will necessarily come to an end, at some point. But for that to happen, this Telethon of rage, this suicidal, unprecedented tarantella, this meltdown of despair and barbarism, will first have to travel to the end of its own drunkenness.

* * *
Is there nothing to be done, then? Does saying that the movement will follow its workings to the end mean that we should fold our arms and wait? No, of course not. Definitely not. And, without even speaking of the inevitable and complete re-examination of our entire urban policy, let alone that famous "French model of integration" we used to be so proud of that's now shattering into pieces, it is clear that the government of the Republic has some urgent, immediate tasks, beginning with those of the police, that is to say protecting property and people -- a task, by the way, that I think, at the time of this writing, it is carrying out rather less poorly than the sermonizers are saying.

There have been verbal slips, that's true (all the talk of steamblasting the "scum," and all the other words of hatred that should be acknowledged and apologized for). There have been inadmissible blunders (the tear gas bomb thrown into the mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois, which ought to have caused as big a scandal as the profanation of a church or a synagogue). But to go from that to lumping the police together with the rioters, to go from that to saying that the French police today are so profoundly contaminated by Le Pen's ideals that three young inhabitants of Clichy-sous-Bois would rather risk electrocuting themselves than fall into their clutches, that is a step that I, for my part, am not prepared to take.

In 1968, after all, they also had the same paranoia about the police-attack-that-had-to-be-escaped. Back then, the rioters weren't young unemployed sons of immigrants but students, literate, educated, etc. Yet they still had the same illusion that, to keep from falling under the control of the abominable anti-riot police, it was better, not to lock themselves up in a generator, but to drown themselves like Gilles Tautin, in Flins. So enough of this idiotic talk about the riot police -- the CRS -- as "CRS … SS"! Enough political wrangling and popularity-contest stunts! The situation is tragic enough without petty quarrels about political parties and personalities being added to it.

All the more so since what's really needed now is arbitration and talk. Oh! Not political talk in the usual sense of the term. Not those emergency meetings of cabinet ministers the commentators have been reveling in (as if the mere fact that cabinet ministers had met and talked to each other were a colossal event!). No. The other kind of talk. The kind those young people are waiting for, the ones who don't want to hear themselves treated like children of immigrants anymore, because they're simply French. Talk that will express, not rancor and mistrust, but equality, citizenship, consideration, and, as they say, respect. The kind that, to put it another way, can express in one single voice, in one single breath, both mourning for Zyed and Bouna, the ones who were burned alive by the transformer in Clichy-sous-Bois, and for Jean-Claude Irvoas, beaten to death in front of his wife and his daughter because he was photographing a lamppost.

Who will be able to make such speech heard? Who can, in just a few days, find those words of harmony for which we've been yearning for 20 years? The mayors, those Black Hussars of the suburbs? The leaders of citizen groups, so cruelly underfunded? Some politician, it doesn't matter whether from the left or right, but one more inspired than our Head of State, the other Sunday, as he left his meeting on domestic security? That is indeed the question. That is the necessary condition if there is to be renewed, in the lost lands of the Republic, something that will one day resemble a social bond. The other alternative is clear. We have had, in these past few days, a foretaste of it, and, for a secular country, it would be an avowal of ultimate failure: transferring the task of maintaining order and preaching peace to the authorities of the mosques.

Mr. Lévy is the author of "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville," forthcoming from Random House in January. (This piece was translated from the original French by Charlotte Mandell.)


Anonymous said...


BHL's bs is completely meaningless and just goes to show what passes as "rigoureux" intellectual discourse in France today. I am just thankful that in terms of his substantive positions on the major political and social issues of the day BHL is basically pragmatic, moderate and correct most of the time. It could be worse.

Peter Gonzalez

Sildenafil said...

I have read both article and tried to compare them and I found very similar ideas, but also very big differences on both articles, thanks for the post anyway!