February 9, 2006


A Letter to the American Left (BERNARD-HENRI LEVY, February 27, 2006, The Nation)

Nothing made a more lasting impression during my journey through America than the semi-comatose state in which I found the American left.

I know, of course, that the term "left" does not have the same meaning and ramifications here that it does in France.

And I cannot count how many times I was told there has never been an authentic "left" in the United States, in the European sense.

But at the end of the day, my progressive friends, you may coin ideas in whichever way you like. The fact is: You do have a right. This right, in large part thanks to its neoconservative battalion, has brought about an ideological transformation that is both substantial and striking.

And the fact is that nothing remotely like it has taken shape on the other side--to the contrary, through the looking glass of the American "left" lies a desert of sorts, a deafening silence, a cosmic ideological void that, for a reader of Whitman or Thoreau, is thoroughly enigmatic. The 60-year-old "young" Democrats who have desperately clung to the old formulas of the Kennedy era; the folks of MoveOn.org who have been so great at enlisting people in the electoral lists, at protesting against the war in Iraq and, finally, at helping to revitalize politics but whom I heard in Berkeley, like Puritans of a new sort, treating the lapses of a libertine President as quasi-equivalent to the neo-McCarthyism of his fiercest political rivals; the anti-Republican strategists confessing they had never set foot in one of those neo-evangelical mega-churches that are the ultimate (and most Machiavellian) laboratories of the "enemy," staring in disbelief when I say I've spent quite some time exploring them; ex-candidate Kerry, whom I met in Washington a few weeks after his defeat, haggard, ghostly, faintly whispering in my ear: "If you hear anything about those 50,000 votes in Ohio, let me know"; the supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton who, when I questioned them on how exactly they planned to wage the battle of ideas, casually replied they had to win the battle of money first, and who, when I persisted in asking what the money was meant for, what projects it would fuel, responded like fundraising automatons gone mad: "to raise more money"; and then, perhaps more than anything else, when it comes to the lifeblood of the left, the writers and artists, the men and women who fashion public opinion, the intellectuals--I found a curious lifelessness, a peculiar streak of timidity or irritability, when confronted with so many seething issues that in principle ought to keep them as firmly mobilized as the Iraq War or the so-called "American Empire" (the denunciation of which is, sadly, all that remains when they have nothing left to say).

Despite a typically European fascination with the rather insignificant neocons (Jews) -- whose chosen candidate couldn't even win the GOP nomination -- he gets the Left dead to rights, even if he doesn't understand what he observed at all. Just consider that at the very height of the Left's ascendancy Richard Hofstadter was compelled to write about how much America hated them and how peculiar the phenomenon is to this country.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2006 2:49 PM

I enjoyed the reference to "neo-evangelical mega-churches." Doesn't he mean "mega-synagogues"?

Posted by: Timothy at February 9, 2006 3:18 PM

One man's church is another man's synagogue.

In the end, while Levy may identify the problem, he seems to think the left can find its way by being more focused on championing the causes that have made the left in Europe, and the continent in general, what it is today. He recognizes the lunacy going on in the U.S., but he doesn't seem to understand part of the lunacy is based on the fact that the left can't champion those ideas, because they know Americans aren't going to support them any time in the conceivable future.

Posted by: John at February 9, 2006 3:42 PM

And the European Left is chipper and vital?

Posted by: Luciferous at February 9, 2006 4:08 PM

Hey, I just said "what it is today." I didn't say it was any good.

Posted by: John at February 9, 2006 4:16 PM

The neocons' chosen candidate looks set to do just fine in '08.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at February 9, 2006 4:23 PM

By running Right.

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 4:30 PM

If Kerry was serious about finding 50,000 votes, he should have come here to King County. Ron Sims and his toadies would've found 'em for him.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at February 9, 2006 4:38 PM


Sorry for the confusion. My comment was directed at Levy's presumption at finding the American Left's morose state as somehow un-natural or a strictly local condition.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 9, 2006 4:44 PM

The funny thing is that the neo-cons are the vital American left he couldn't find.

Posted by: Mike Earl at February 9, 2006 4:49 PM

"The American left,"--surely an oxymoron, when speaking of a nation begun in a conservative revolution.

The left failed utterly because it had the tactic of assembling all the misfits and malcontents, the folk-enemies, the haters of the way things are, into a grand coalition of the oppositional-defiant.

This only seemed to work during the brief days of shame when draft-dodgers feigned leftist politics to screen their iniquity.

Once that great error had been corrected, the leftist tactic spun in to destruction.

Here is how they fell: every little component in the hoped-for coalition of the aggrieved provoked a greater weight of opposition to its agenda. There are more pro-life people than pro baby-murder people; mobilizing the latter mobilizes more of the former. There are more RKBA people than there are gun-grabbers; mobilizing the latter mobilzes more of the former.
Repeat the calculation for every leftist cause.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 9, 2006 5:41 PM

There are probably lots of people in Europe who don't support the EU's leftwing agenda, but they are isolated from each other and are afraid to speak out and be ridiculed or even shunned. It's similar to the US when the left was riding high, but we lucked out when both Rush Limbaugh and Ronald Reagan burst into national consciousness and we started getting connected.

Without those two, we'd be pretty much in the same shape as Europe.

Posted by: erp at February 9, 2006 6:08 PM

Um, just a small note. There seems to be a casual accusation of anti-semitism when you write: "Despite a typically European fascination with the rather insignificant neocons (Jews)"

Bernard Henri-Levy is Jewish. He's spent nearly the duration of his professional career castigating anti-semitism in Europe. He's been attacked for his "pro-Israel bias." You might want to be a touch more careful when throwing around those kinds of accusations.

Also, BHL's fascination with the neo-conservatives might suggest that maybe, just maybe, there are some people whose ideological opposition to the neo-conservatives has exactly zero to do with the neo-cons' religious affiliation.

Posted by: Chris at February 9, 2006 7:11 PM


Yes, it's a tres European/Intellectual trope though to think the neocons must be running things. Opposition to the neocons isn't necessarily anti-Semitic, though many of the opponents are. Levy doesn't even seem an opponent.

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 8:05 PM

and hasn't mother europe done swell by her leftist spawn. mourning becomes electra.

Posted by: toe at February 9, 2006 10:03 PM