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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

BHL: Bernard-Henri Levy

Liam O Ruairc • 25 March 2006

Bernard-Henri Levy (often referred to by his initials BHL) is a sort of French Kevin Myers. He is presented by the media as a "new philosopher"(1) whose life long project is the critique of "totalitarianism". But no philosophers worthy of the name take him seriously.

For example, Gilles Deleuze characterised Levy's work as "shallow" and accused him of dissolving philosophy into a "marketing product"(2). BHL's former teacher Jacques Derrida did not want to have anything to do with him.(3)

It is difficult to find someone who takes Bernard-Henri Levy's books seriously because they are well-known for their crude analysis, major factual errors and extraordinary pretensions. The right-wing writer Raymond Aron wrote of Levy's book L'Ideologie Francaise that:

"an author who readily employs adjectives like 'infamous' or 'obscene' to characterise people and ideas invites the critic to apply the same standards to him. I will resist this temptation as much as possible, although Bernard-Henri Lévy's book presents some of the defects which really annoy me: the blister of the style, the pretension to attribute merits and demerits to people whether alive or dead, the pretension to recall to an amnesic nation the accursed share of its past, arbitrarily interpreted quotations detached from their context."(4)

One historian listed some of the major factual mistakes he found in Levy's book Le Testament de Dieu.(5) Readers of the book of Genesis will be surprised to learn that according to Levy, original sin happens on the seventh day of creation (p.238), Sophocles' Antigone produced in Athens in 442 before Christ, was according to BHL written in the 5th century after Christ (p.87), various texts written between the first century before Christ and the first after are dated from somewhere towards the end of Roman era -that is three or four centuries too early (p.79), Robespierre who set up the cult of Supreme Being is accused to have "murdered the one and sovereign god" (p.106), two texts of 1818 and 1864 are according to Levy not only "more or less contemporary" but the first one is responding to the second (p.42), finally when he is not writing pure inventions about Stalin (p.23), he mentions (p. 278) Himmler's deposition to the Nuremberg trial (lasted from 20 November 1945 to 30 September 1946) - it must have been his ghost as Himmler had committed suicide on 23 May 1945.

Levy's books on totalitarianism make Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies or Georg Lukacs' The Destruction of Reason look like models of objective and reliable scholarship. If no serious scholars take Levy's work seriously, his success comes from the extraordinary coverage he receives from his friends in the media, television in particular. Levy has some very powerful friends and backers in the business, political and media worlds; and in return champions their interests. (6)

Central to his status of 'media celebrity' are Levy's public interventions. Trying to emulate his personal hero Andre Malraux, BHL has travelled the world promoting various crusades against 'totalitarianism'. For years, his main target was the world communist movement. He was not just championing 'dissident' writers such as Soljenitsyne or Sakharov. In the name of anti-Sovietism, he sponsored various 'freedom fighters' such as the Contras in Nicaragua; and in March 1985 wrote to the US Congress pleading for nothing less than a US military intervention in Nicaragua and asking it to renew its financial support to the Nicaragua resistance against the 'totalitarian' regime of the Sandinistas.(7) It wasn't the first time (nor the last) that Levy was pleading for military intervention: he had already asked Western governments in 1981/1982 to intervene in Poland in support of the Solidarity movement.

Despite the end of actually existing socialism, Levy is still pursuing his anti-communist crusade. In 2001, he travelled to Colombia and wrote a series of articles blaming the totalitarian FARC for the vast majority of conflict related deaths despite the fact that of the 40 000 killed over the last ten years, the state is to blame for 80%, insurgents being responsible for 8000 deaths.(8)

Minimising or turning a blind eye to the violence of the forces fighting 'totalitarianism' is another hallmark of Bernard-Henri Levy. His series of articles on the recent civil strife in Algeria -praised by various newspapers close to the state - was full of mistakes, approximations and silences. While very vocal about the atrocities committed by the 'totalitarian' islamists, on the state violence (summary executions, torture, disappeared etc) he remained silent.(9)

Levy may now claim that Islamism is the new totalitarianism, but that was not always the case. Since 1979, BHL has been very open about his admiration for the Afghan 'freedom fighters' against Soviet 'totalitarianism'; the Afghan Mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in particular. A few years ago, Levy returned to war-torn Afghanistan to interview Massoud, that "enlightened Muslim and democrat". Levy forgot to mention in his articles that when Massoud controlled Kabul, there were public hangings, cutting off limbs, and limitation of women's rights.

"One can understand that Massoud, in a desperate military position is looking to Western support, but it is regrettable that a writer with a leading media profile (Afghanistan, after Bosnia and Algeria, always with the same disastrous results) agrees to play the fellow traveller of an islamist movement."(10)

Levy has attempted to portray his interventions as being full of dangers and himself as some kind of hero taking major risks when this clearly was not the case. In a famous incident in his film Bosna! Levy was acting as he had been caught under heavy sniper fire in Sarajevo when it subsequently turned out that the whole thing had been staged for the film.

Bernard-Henri Levy remained little-known in the English speaking world until 2003, when he published Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, an account of his efforts to track the killers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl who had been murdered by Islamists in Pakistan. A critic in the New York Review of Books pointed that whatever Levy's pretensions to original investigative journalism and novelistic prose, the book was deeply flawed and riddled with major factual errors. It is worth quoting that review at length, as it identifies all the problems critics had found with Levy's work for almost three decades:

"Although attempting to create a new literary form-what Lévy calls a romanquête-mixing reportage with John Berendt - or Truman Capote-like novelization, it is apparent from its opening pages that with Pakistan Lévy is way out of his depth.(…) The book's principal problem is the amateurish quality of much of Lévy's research. (…) More importantly, Lévy quickly shows that he is deeply ignorant of South Asian politics. (…) More seriously, there are numerous occasions where Lévy distorts his evidence and actually inverts the truth. (…) Lévy's misuse of evidence… is revealing of his general method: if proof does not exist, he writes as if it did. (…) Lévy presents a series of elaborate and unprovable conspiracy theories. (…) Throughout his book Lévy shows an intermittent disdain for Islam, and something approaching hatred for Pakistan. (…) The problem with Lévy's wholesale denunciation of Pakistan and its inhabitants is that it gives a portrait in which there is no room for subtlety and nuance. (…) Most ludicrous of all is the self-portrait of the aspiring James Bond figure BHL draws of himself as he casts himself as the hero of his own spy story. (…) It is an alarming reflection of how widespread is the ignorance of Islam in general and of Pakistan in particular that only one of the many reviews of the book that I have seen in the US, by a Pakistani writer, has called attention to BHL's errors and elisions, or even bothered to note his disturbing expressions of contempt for ordinary Pakistanis. If Islamic terrorism is to be defeated, its causes and terrorists themselves must first be clearly and objectively understood. Instead, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is not only an insult to the memory of a fine journalist who refused to accept the sort of crude ethnic stereotyping that Lévy indulges in, and who was notably rigorous in checking his facts. It also shows the degree to which, since September 11, it has become possible for a writer to make inaccurate and disparaging remarks about Muslims and ordinary Pakistanis as if it were perfectly natural and acceptable to do so."(11)

No one in France has been surprised by BHL's intervention in the Danish cartoons controversy. His intervention was entirely consistent with his life-long agenda of self-promotion.



(1) On the topic of the 'new philosophers, see Dominique Lecourt, The Mediocracy: French Philosophy since the mid-1970s, London: Verso, 2001.
(2) Gilles Deleuze, A propos des nouveaux philosophes et d'un problème plus général, Minuit 2, 1977. He also added : "Plus le contenu de pensée est faible, plus le penseur prend d'importance, plus le sujet d'énonciation se donne de l'importance par rapport aux énoncés vides. "
(3) Philippe Cohen, BHL: une biographie, Paris: Fayard, 2005
(4) The translation has not the same punch as the original: "Un auteur qui emploie volontiers les adjectifs infâme ou obscène pour qualifier les hommes et les idées invite le critique à lui rendre la pareille. Je résisterai autant que possible à la tentation, bien que le livre de Bernard-Henri Lévy présente quelques-uns des défauts qui m'horripilent : la boursouflure du style, la prétention à trancher des mérites et des démérites des vivants et des morts, l'ambition de rappeler à un peuple amnésique la part engloutie de son passé, les citations détachées de leur contexte et interprétées arbitrairement. " (L'Express, 7 février 1981.)
(5) Pierre Vidal Naquet, Letter to Le Nouvel Observateur, 16 June 1979
(6) For a list of some of those friends and backers, see Serge Halimi, Cela dure depuis vingt-cinq ans, Le Monde Diplomatique, Decembre 2003
(7) Serge Halimi, BHL: 'Romanquete' ou mauvaise enquete?, Le Monde Diplomatique Decembre 2003
(8) Maurice Lemoine, Desinformation-Spectacle: La Colombie Selon Bernard-Henri Levy, Le Monde Diplomatique, Juin 2001
(9) Nicolas Beau, Les generaux d'Alger preferent un reportage de BHL a une enquete internationale, Le Canard Enchaine, 14 Janvier 1998
(10) Gilles Dorronsoro, BHL en Afghanistan ou Tintin au Congo? Le Monde 22 Octobre 1998
(11) William Dalrymple, Murder in Karachi, The New York Review of Books, December 4 2003. Levy's subsequent reply to Dalrymple's review "exhibits exactly the same mix of errors, prejudice, and lack of precision that so flaws his book." Cfr. Murder in Karachi: An Exchange, The New York Review of Books, February 12 2004




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