Oh, the French

Bernard-Henri Levy has made several careers for himself: war reporter, activist, pundit, philosopher. He puts the lie to the idea, spread idiotically throughout this great country of ours, that the French hate America. (He also exposes the idea that France is deserving of universal scorn as so much nonsense.) He’s a European public intellectual in the truest sense of the term–a thinker who takes no ideologies for granted, who does not suffer fools gladly, and refuses to kowtow to any party line that he doesn’t think is worthwhile. Here he is, for instance, moving quickly from the promise of American intellectualism to one of its greatest failings:

Here’s what surprises me about the American intelligentsia. I can imagine that an intellectual may decide to support the foreign policy of his president if he thinks he’s right. When Chirac decided to bomb Serbian positions in Sarajevo, I said bravo, Chirac. Bravo. But I said bravo to this and to this only. I did not feel obliged, having taken tea with him, so to speak, to take everything else on the menu, as well. The thing about American intellectuals that so surprises me is the way they always take the entire menu. They endorse the foreign policy so they feel obliged to endorse the attacks against the private life of Bill Clinton, the defense of the death penalty, the sale of firearms, and so on.

I had this conversation with Bill Kristol [the editor of the Weekly Standard]. When I met him I saw the most recent issue of the Weekly Standard in the waiting room and there was a truly disgusting article in there about Clinton and his girlfriends. And I asked Kristol why, of course. Bill Kristol doesn’t care about the sexual life of Bill Clinton. But my sense was that he felt that his endorsement of the war in Iraq also obliged him to endorse the attacks on Clinton. This I don’t understand. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe Kristol really, deeply thinks that Clinton is a bastard, and that a blow job is a crime. Maybe. But I don’t think so. There’s this idea that the world is black and white, and if you go with black then everything has to be black–very strange, in a country that is supposed to be so pragmatic. In France we are supposed to be the country of ideologies, and you’re supposed to be the country of pragmatism. And the reverse seems to be true. American intellectuals have this strange need to ally themselves with a single side. I believe that it is the duty of intellectuals to allow and make room for complexity, to ally with no one, and to move freely across all borders, political or otherwise.

The Salon interview is worth reading in full. Over at Slate, Franklin Foer and Alan Wolfe are discussing Levy’s new American Vertigo.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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