Bernard-Henri Levy, the handsome, dashing dandy-philosopher, who is a celebrity in France and whose reading at University Book Store two weeks ago was packed, has been obsessed with experiences of excess—violence, suffering, death—but he has not yet figured out their value. On the one hand, he abhors the pain of the victim and the violence of the mercenary. On the other hand, he is one of the principal supporters of the idea that there are such things as just wars. The problem for Levy is, as we now know after three years of the U.S. war in Iraq, that wars, whether perceived as "just" or "unjust," are bloody affairs that never produce infinite justice, but always result in bountiful profits for a few financiers and infinite suffering for the multitude.
This is why "BHL," as he is commonly known in France, is in America today. For 30 years he has been ardently defending what he still calls "the American Model" against its detractors on the European Left, those old-timers, some of whom at one point sympathized with "the Soviet Model" (public ownership of the economy, universal health care, full employment, guaranteed housing, etc.). But now, his cherished American Model no longer looks like such a beacon of hope in a dark, dark world. After the fall of the Eastern Bloc, America was poised to be the future of humanity, the upholder of universal human rights that had triumphed over the back-to-back surges of fascism and of Communism, and BHL was, since his coming-out party as a "nouveau philosophe" in 1978, its European prophet. But now Moses has crossed the Jordan over to the Promised Land and Israel is no longer what it used to be.
Two years ago, America (in the shape of the Atlantic Monthly) invited BHL to travel across the land of milk and honey and give his honest opinion on the state of the Union. Out of this adventure came his newest book, American Vertigo. In it, BHL nobly, if not very convincingly, defends his beloved American Model. The political situation may be dire, comments our temporarily adopted French philosopher; the politicians may be corrupt; the prison system may be a horror; the abuse of human rights and torture may be escalating; the public response to natural disasters such as Katrina may be more in line with a pogrom than a relief effort, but at least there is no gulag here, there have been no setbacks to American democracy yet, the American people stand in brilliant solidarity with each other.
The philosopher is optimistic! He is reassured. Everything is best in the best of all possible worlds. Now, after his Tocquevillian visit, he can pounce back on all his leftist critics: "The America of Washington, Roosevelt, and Kennedy is indeed finely equipped to deal with the great intellectual and moral reform that will allow it, without renouncing any fraction of its identity, to revive its reasons for believing in itself." We just have to wait for Bush to step down.
Our modern Candide has spoken. But are things really that simple? Will America just get back on track in 2008? Will there be a resurrection of the martyred Clinton miracle, under the guise of Hillary, as BHL seems to so ardently desire?
No, because this memory is a myth and humanity has not taken an eight-year vacation from the task of universal history. The Clinton "miracle" had met its fate some years before the ascension of Bush in the global justice protests from Seattle to Genoa that anathematized the phrase "free trade." In fact, from the standpoint of the global elite it might very well be argued that Bush is the cleanup man, the professional who saved the day by getting rid of the evidence. Of course, now he is getting a bit cumbersome and needs to be swept under the rug, which will be done shortly. But the result will not be a return to paradise. More realistically, there will be a continuation of the same by other means. Whereas the Republicans use death as a means of control (they're only there for your body if it is unconscious—a fetus, a vegetable, or a corpse), the Democrats will use life.
What no party has yet proposed, what no ideologist has yet defended, and the one word you'll never find in all of BHL's book as a solution to our species' mad race toward oblivion, is love.
An interview with BHL is available online at www.thestranger.com.