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Insightful, but self-important - and not quite as reflective as expected
on June 25, 2011
In some respects, in 'Left In Dark Times' Bernard-Henri Levy has performed a similar service to George Orwell - to provide a critique of the political left's toleration of, and at times enthusiastic acceptance of, totalitarian thought, practice and personalities from a centre-left or social democratic perspective. Levy is not quite Orwell, however, and perhaps a better comparison is with his near-contemporary Christopher Hitchens. As with Hitchens' writing, here Levy poses some excellent challenges for the left today, together with a (admittedly limited and somewhat conditional) 'mea culpa' for personal support for (or ambivalence to) illiberal movements of the left (or otherwise approved of by the left, such as various Arab or Islamist movements or regimes). While I disagree with his conclusions, his argument defending his identification with the left of centre and it's consistency with individual liberty is passionate and a useful contribution to social democratic thought, while his defence of religion (of whatever stripe) as a matter of individual conscience and enlightenment while decrying its use as a vehicle for intolerance or violence is considerably more nuanced, reflective and humane than Hitchens' somewhat absolutist atheism. Levy's recognition that the US is ultimately a vigorous and important vehicle for individual liberty and human dignity - even when significant criticism of US policy or domestic conditions are possible - is a useful corrective to the reflexive anti-Americanism of assorted Chomsky's, Pinter's and Fisk's - even if his own dismissal of Bush appears to owe more to an offended stylistic sensibility than substantive criticism of policy.
There are quite a few jarring notes, however. Perhaps the circular and indirect style reflects a particular Francophone style (although Camus never seemed to have this problem), or is it a matter of imprecise translation? While one would expect a book by a self-described French philosopher to focus on the arguments and personalities of French intellectual life, he is inclined to make too much of their importance - and his own. Who else could think that Levy's references to the important speech made by Levy - or the little-known magazine founded by Levy - were really profound or pivotal moments that significantly influenced western thought or policy? While his self-regard and self-certainty is of the same order of magnitude as that of Hitchens, he has not been quite as reflective in abandoning his tribal loyalty to the left rather than repositioning his personal allegiances to amongst fellow liberals and democrats from the centre-left to the centre-right (which would seem to be the logical destination of his arguments, even if he personally remained firmly on the centre-left). This centre-right reader certainly tired of his apologia of centre-leftists who continued to flirt with the illiberal (such as Segolene Royal's Socialists) while never quite bringing himself to admit that right-of-centre personalities and ideas were at least equally as important to the Enlightenment, the defeat of Nazism, or the collapse of the Soviet Union as those of the left. His inability to recognise anything other than xenophobes or plutocrats on the right detracts from otherwise thoughtful arguments and encourages him to take excessive comfort in left-of-centre tribalism - as a consequence the book speaks far less persuasively to any reader even slightly right of centre than it could otherwise.
Recommended? Readers of a leftist persuasion should find resonant arguments to support a social democratic position while eschewing the extreme, although the moderate right will probably find it less compelling. Enthusiasts and apologists for authoritarianism of the Right, Left (or any other backward-looking direction) could benefit from reading it as well, although I fear the final product is neither clear, rigorous or persuasive enough the convince the latter of their error.