Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Left in the Dark

Thank you to Anonymous for her/his post in the comments.

Boy oh boy. Democracy: a Journal of Ideas is a strange publication. You could, for instance, follow the link from the index page to Nick Cohen's review of Left in Dark Times by Bernard-Henri Levy. If you did, you'd be disappointed, because only the first paragraph is displayed. The rest requires logging in (for "FREE access to all Democracy content"). Bugger. Or, you could follow Anonymous's lead and read the print friendly version. (I assume this works for all content: just change "article" in the url for "printfriendly" and access is yours - free, gratis, with for nothing thrown in!)

Our commenters have already made several astute points below Anon. I hope that one of my co-bloggers knows more about Levy than I do, but for now I'll limit myself to a couple of observations.

Lévy was embarrassed. He had indeed known Sarkozy for years, and had briefed him before a famous television confrontation with Tariq Ramadan, the leading Muslim Brotherhood apologist in Europe. Sarkozy challenged Ramadan over his support for a "moratorium"–instead of an outright ban–on the stoning of Muslim women found "guilty" of adultery. Soon after their debate, Ramadan moved from France to Britain. Once there, he wasn’t treated as an ideologue for a reactionary movement whose founders had been inspired by European fascism, but was feted by the nominally liberal academics of Oxford University and courted by ministers in the nominally left-of-center Labour government. Was this the European Left Lévy was meant to support?


The last sentence makes no sense. Never mind the caricature of British politics, why does Nick ask if the British Left is what Levy is meant to support after he's outlined differences between British and French leftist politics?

But Lévy couldn’t. "Personal relations are one thing," he said. "Ideas are another. And no matter how much I like and respect you, the Left is my family." It wasn’t much of an answer–and Lévy knew it. Left in Dark Times is his more considered attempt to explain how the left-liberalism he had dedicated his life to had gone wrong in Europe–and how it could easily be perverted in America as well, if liberals do not heed his warnings.


According to Nick, this was Levy's response to Sarkozy in 2007. Wikipedia's entry on Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Returning to Paris, Levy became famous as the young founder of the New Philosophers (Nouveaux Philosophes) school. This was a group of young intellectuals who were disenchanted with communist and socialist responses to the near-revolutionary upheavals in France of May 1968, which articulated a fierce and uncompromising moral critique of Marxist and socialist dogmas years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.[1] In contrast to the neo-conservatism of ex-leftist anti-Marxist American intellectuals, however, neither Lévy nor the New Philosophers was led to embrace capitalist ideology.[citation needed] Throughout the 1970s, Levy taught a course on epistemology at the Université de Strasbourg and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. It was in 1977, on the television show Apostrophes, that Lévy was presented, alongside André Glucksmann, as a nouveau philosophe. In the very same year he published Barbarism with a Human Face (La barbarie à visage humain), arguing that Marxism was inherently corrupt.


So Levy has always been known for criticising parts of the left. If Nick is to be believed, however, he has moved on from "a fierce and uncompromising moral critique of Marxist and socialist dogmas" to attacking everyone who calls themselves "progressive", "leftist", "socialist" or whatever. And Nick knows this:

When Lévy told Sarkozy that he could not vote for him because the Left was his family, Sarkozy cried, "What? Those people who have spent 30 years telling you to go fuck yourself? Do you really think I’m an idiot, or do you really believe what you are saying?"


Sarkozy has a point: it's hard to see what Levy believes. He attacks members of the left, then says the whole thing is his family. And Nick follows the above paragraph with this:

The language of the leader of the French Right was rough, but he asked a good question. It is a question that will soon occupy the American Left’s attention. True liberals should set out now to win the ideological battles that will come after Bush’s departure, so that no gleeful conservative can ever ask the same question of them.


At first I thought the question he meant was "Do you really think I’m an idiot?" but on consideration is has to be "Are you, or have you ever been, a Communist?"

I did like this from Levy's Wikipedia page:

Other critics of Levy attack his support of the Mitterrand doctrine that allows Italian terrorists members of Brigate Rosse to live in France as free men and women despite the fact that the Italian courts have sentenced them to long imprisonment or Life sentence. Levy argues that during the late 1970s and 1980s basic human rights were not respected in Italy.


Our terrorists are bad. Other people's terrorists, or, as I prefer to call them, freedom fighters, are good. Relativist? Moi?

27 Comments:

Blogger ejh said...

The thing is, Levy's been playing the same game as Glucksmann for thirty years, which is to say that position A leads to outcome B and therefore if you're a Marxist you're responsible for Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Well all right if you think so, but in the first place, if you tell people who are not admireres of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot that they are in effect (or we may say, "objectively") supporters of same then they're not likely to say "well cheers comrade, that's a good point you're making and I thank you for it". And in the second place, it's a very dubious sort of argument in the first place, and very open to abuse. (It's also pretty much the essence of Decency.)

"If put into practice, your ideas would lead to ruin" is one thing, and a perfectly legitimate approach in principle: "because of this, and because you do not issue condemnations on cue and because you have other things to say than condemnation, I can say that you are an apologist for these terrible things that happened" is not quite so legitimate, though it is of course extremely common. But it's unpleasant, and smeary, and intellectually questionable, and Lévy has made himself a media star by doing it.

Playing the victim, treated all horribly by people just because you've called them totalitarians, is not unheard of here of course: but Professor Geras doesn't get on telly as much as Bernard-Henri does.

9/16/2008 06:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/16/2008 07:25:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I pretty much agree with all of that. I've no problem with outing (for want of a better word) of individuals for support of totalitarians. "You supported X, and it really didn't work out, did it?" is a sensible criticism. "Person Z, utterly unknown to you, but having, like you, a mole 3cm below their left armpit committed a horrible murder. We can't find him, so we pronounce you guilty" is not. (I exaggerate.) I've no doubt that some Marxist dogmas were wrong: Einstein was wrong sometimes (the Cosmological Constant is the best example, though I'd include his disagreement with Heisenberg). Everyone is wrong sometimes.

Critiquing arguments is fine. Critiquing persons, especially sub genera is not.

You know, I think there's a book in "playing the victim".

9/16/2008 07:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

The corruption* of the Italian judicial system was very big news in the early 80s, particularly in France. The argument wasn't that Signor X or Dottore Y who had done a bunk to France was innocent of all charges, or that what they had done was justified, but simply that nobody should serve a life sentence as the result of a trial which couldn't possibly be fair - not least because a system that's successfully handing out unsafe life sentences is a menace to many more people than Signor X and Dottore Y. I'm gratified, although not hugely surprised, that BHL was on the right side of that argument.

*Political rather than financial corruption, driven mainly by the paramount necessity of standing up to the terrorists and dissociating the constitutional and law-abiding elements of the Left from all those who, while they claimed to be on the Left, in fact represented... hang on, I think we've done this bit.

9/16/2008 08:49:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

You know, I think there's a book in "playing the victim".

Surely part of the genius of Decency is its ability to be both very self important and very self pitying simultaneously?

9/16/2008 09:49:00 PM  
OpenID splinteredsunrise said...

Not terribly surprised that there would be some Decent admiration for BHL. Back in the 90s he went to Sarajevo and flicked his hair in front of the cameras, and he's just been doing the same thing in Tbilisi. On the previous occasion IIRC Emir Kusturica called him a vampire, which I thought was a bit unfair on vampires.

He also does the thing about appreciation of American culture and tries to make an Atlanticist foreign policy a logical outcome of that. You know the bit in the Euston Manifesto about America's great culture? That sort of thing.

9/17/2008 09:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

You know the bit in the Euston Manifesto about America's great culture?

Greatest hits time...

Item 6: we like America. No, really, we like America. Some Americans are really quite nice. And they do make good TV. Have you seen the Sopranos? Because, you see in the current season - no, I won't spoil it for you. But really, America's great. They say they're great, and they're kind of wrong about that, but you know, in a way they're kind of right. Because of the whole democratic institutions thing, obviously, but that's just item 1 again. What's really special about America - well, you know Curb Your Enthusiasm? It's great, isn't it? That one where... never mind. America, anyway. It's great. And those people who hate America, what's that about? They're just wrong, aren't they? Yeah, that's what I thought. They're just wrong.

I'd have been kinder if I'd thought it deserved it.

9/17/2008 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can understand Sarko's exasperation too, since Levy's attitude seems to sum up the essence of Decency: the left should have a monopoly of virtue and until it does the right should have a monopoly of power - but I'm not actually going to soil myself by voting for the dumb brutes: they are simply there to do my dirty work.

Apart from being completely deluded on the who/whom question - Levy actually thinks that it's him doing the deciding, rather than being a variously useful idiot - the rampant moral snobbery of the whole thing seems calculated to offend.

Inter-alia, this is why I don't think Nick's going to get a lucrative career on the respectable right: he's a useful shitty stick fopr beating their opponents with, but not one you want to pick up too often.

rioja kid

9/17/2008 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Levy wrote an "update" of Tocqueville's book - "American Vertigo,Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville". Garrison Keillor was unimpressed. Reading the review I suspect that most Decent's have a similarly bizarre understanding of the US.

9/18/2008 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does Decent understanding of the US tend towards the freakish? Surely they are far more likely to see it as a series of earnest town meetings in New Hampshirem, and a national scene defined entirely by multi-racial civics classes beeng shown the Lincoln Memorial, rather than the adult video awards.

A Levy-style freakshow understanding of the US is more likely to be found in yr liberal snob stoppers (NB - such a category is a subset of all three, not a set) who have a reflex antipathy to MacDonald's and are one of the Decents' few deserving targets. Through Keillor's review, Levy's idiocies don't appear especially Decent, although they are vacuous in the extreme.

I wonder what Nick C would think of such freakshow analysis if it were written by someone who Paul Berman had told him it was OK to hate?

Chris Williams

9/18/2008 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Nick on art, as reliably awful as ever. His only source appears to be the Stuckists, who while quite entertaining are as myopic as the YBAs. a few choice moments:

The kitsch piece looked like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie

only inasmuch as it's a skull. Did Nick see either the hirst piece or the recent film? i doubt it.

I don't mean to insult Hirst

followed by a derogatory list of Hirst's works. Hardly Orwellian plain style is it?

his more decorative work looks like the patterns on cheap wrapping paper

I wonder if Nick sees the irony in this apparently clever observation...

The Turner Prize always goes to conceptual artists.

No it doesn't. Tomma Abts, a painter, won in 2006. Grayson Perry, a decorative potter, won in 2003. And can Nick genuinely say that Jeremy Deller didn't deserve the prize? oh, and hirst has never won it.

Nick seems to think that when Serota dies, Hirst will immediately drop in value, but Hirst is primarily popular in America now - it's the american art market keeping his prices high.

9/19/2008 08:38:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Did Cohen ever write on art before the Iraq War?

9/19/2008 09:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Hirst is a bright bloke - it struck me at the time of the diamond skull that these days he's essentially working in the medium of money, and I think everything he's done since bears that out. But I'd respect him a lot more if he said that was what he was doing, instead of burbling about Sotheby's being more 'democratic' than a gallery sale.

9/19/2008 09:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Hirst did win the prize in 1995. However, it certainly doesn't always go to conceptual artists. Chris Offili (1998) isn't. Is suppose Antony Gormley (1994) could be viewed as a bit conceptual, but he also does a pretty sculptural thing. Rachel Whiteread is definitely conceptual, but does Nick think eg her holocaust memorial is bad ?

9/19/2008 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

I think Nick is still fuming at last year's Turner prize going to Mark Wallinger.

I certainly don't recall him writing about art before the Iraq war.

9/19/2008 11:22:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I'm not sure how much Nick ever wrote on art pre-Iraq. He doesn't seem to ever go to galleries, or read the art press, jkudging from his routine bluster over it.

Hirst on 'democratic sothebys' is just headline-grabbing, something he's always been good at. The skull piece was brilliant - both part of the current move towards artworks as status symbols and international currency, and a comment on it.

Nick's equation of Serota and Hirst doesn't really work. Serota hasn't been able to buy very much of Hirst's work, because of its price, and it's not like Serota is really the prime cause of the dominance of conceptual art in the international market. Hirst might drop in value over time but that won't be directly linked to Serota leaving the Tate.

Nick really doesn't know much about art. But he knows what he doesn't like - and that's anyone involved in British arts adminstration. andrew i think you're right about him still fuming over Wallinger winning. But Wallinger is an excellent artist. As usual for Nick, if something doesn't have a simplistic message which fits in with his prejudices, it's BAD ART.

9/19/2008 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

my mistake - hirst did indeed win it in 1995. 13 years ago. And wallinger was nominated in the same year...

9/19/2008 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

Just a thought, but I wonder whether Nick's been reading Julian Stallabrass's books on BritArt (e.g. High Art Lite)? JS argued (if memory serves) that the combination of economic recession in the early 90s plus the fact that Saatchi was throwing money around at auction shaped the emergence of YBA, as artists tried to anticipate the taste of just one very rich collector. Nick's deploying these themes in a less plausible version, with Serota substituting for Saatchi -- but the basic trouble is (bluntly) that JS is worth reading on contemporary art and artists and NC just isn't.

9/19/2008 01:32:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Yes - that does seem pretty plausible. It does seem like Nick is projecting Saatchi's mid-90s tastes onto the Tate man. But the problem is that Serota's never been as keen on the conceptual wing of the YBAs as Saatchi was (in his early 90s frenzy of enthusiasm).

I don't think that Nick's read High Art Lite, mind you. Nobody who had would make such a basic error, substituting Serota for Saatchi. Nor would they make the mistake of thinking that because he sells for a lot, the general public really like Damien Hirst, but Nick seems to think this (he's at his dodgiest when trying to gauge the public perception of an artist or celebrity).

Stallabrass is always aware of the other side of the argument and actually understands art, and Nick never, ever seems to - Stallabrass would never make such a facile comment as Nick's 'cheap wrapping paper', and anyone who'd read his entire book probably wouldn't either. More likely someone summed the gist of it up to Nick at one of those accursed liberal dinner parties. From what I can remember, Stallabrass is not particularly keen on Wallinger, mind you, and neither is Nick...

9/19/2008 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

One consequence of this is that both the art market and the art world are dominated by an extraordinarily small number of rich and powerful individuals-a few immensely wealthy collectors and patrons, of whom Charles Saatchi is currently the most important in Britain, and the managers of a few key institutions, such as the Tate Gallery in London or the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York. .......In painting and sculpture mass popularity is almost irrelevant; both financial and critical success depend on appealing to the tiny elite of art world makers and shakers.

From this interesting piece.

9/19/2008 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

(When the "Ant Noises" exhibition was held, and it was explained that "Ant Noises" was an anagram of "Sensation", someone pointed out, I think in Private Eye that a more appropriate anagram might have been "Inane Toss".)

9/19/2008 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I wonder - has Nick discovered this chap yet?

9/19/2008 02:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Janosch said...

Oh surely he has. He was all the rage a while back, but it's prime Andrew Anthony territory in any case.

And Lo and Behold:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2004/aug/01/society

9/19/2008 04:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wandering further off topic, and back to the debate between Martin Shaw and David Hirsh in Decentiya. Norman Geras catches up with this today:
http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2008/09/the-practice-of-discrimination.html

Geras, as always, seems weighty and considered. But here (if he means what his words say) his whole carefully constructed, bit-by-bit argument smashes to the ground:
The academic boycott, in sum, targets Jews, though not all Jews, and for no good reason that anyone, including (by his own admission) Martin, has yet come up with.

In other words: the academic boycott does not target all Jews, and so it isn’t anti-semitic.

K

9/19/2008 10:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

"Yes, I understand that the targets of the boycott are Israelis rather than Jews, but that doesn't make any difference because most Israelis affected by the boycott are Jews."

Please tell me there's more to it than that. I can never get to the end of Norm's long pieces - about halfway through I always start thinking to myself, "let us imagine a left-wing British academic with much better things to do with his time than read blogs, and let us further suppose that this academic doesn't agree with Norm, isn't likely to be persuaded by Norm and doesn't even like thought-experiments".

9/19/2008 11:10:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

and for no good reason

This derives from the Great Decent Rhetorical Question, which is "why are you singling out Israel?". I call it rhetorical because there's no point in trying to answer it, nor is any answer going to be accepted, nor is it even required. The point is to say "they concentrate on Israel because they're anti-Semitic": it's deemed to be a truth, a statement providing its own self-evident answer. (It is, by the way, yet another example of Decency operating through inference, and dubious inference at that.)

Of course the Professor knows very well that there are all sorts of reasons someone might give for being particularly opposed to Israel, but he allowes himself the luxury of deciding that these are cove stories, designed to mask what is actually anti-Semitism. Intellectually if not ethically, he should know better.

I would surmise - nothing stronger - that the argument that "in practice, it will affect Jews" is designed to echo the argument that certain actions, laws and so on, for instance in the US, affect African-Americans in effect, and may be intended to so do, even though they do not say so specifically. (There was a small example of this recently with the brouhaha over jailing people whose trousers failed to cover their underpants.)

Well, all right, Professor - and if you can explain to me that Israel just happens to be overwhelmingly composed of Jewish people, that that is just an accident of geography and history rather than the result of a deliberate and violent process of exclusion, then maybe I'll think it's a fair point. If not, it's a specious and smeary argument and one which is consciously intended to not only obscure, but evaporate, the difference between the beneficiaries of discrimination and its victims.

9/20/2008 08:07:00 AM  
Blogger BenSix said...

Hitchens has reviewed Levy's latest as well. Literary reviewing is desperately incestuous.

9/20/2008 03:18:00 PM  

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