15 May 2019 – It’s always nice when you find someone who agrees with you. When it’s somebody with the intellectual chops of Bernard-Henri Levy, it’s especially gratifying.
I’m very glad I did.
Beside having a writing style that’s easy to follow and pleasant to read, Levy’s book provides a look at world events from an unusual perspective and lots and lots of details that I could never have known otherwise. Whenever I can learn something new, I count the time well spent. Learning so much in 250 pages (I didn’t read the Index that takes up the last 11 pages) counts as time very well spent!
I do have to say, however, that Levy trots out words even I have to look up! His delight in his massive vocabulary I have to forgive, though. After all, I long ago decided not to coddle my readers with restricted word choices. If they have trouble puzzling out words that I use, they can just bloody well go look ‘em up!
Levy does not make the mistake Henry Miller was so notorious for: delighting so much in his facility with various European languages that he left his readers puzzling over long passages in French or German. If you haven’t traveled extensively in mid-twentieth-century Europe and lived there long enough to be steeped in the languages, you’re left wondering what he’s on about, and whether you’re missing something important to the story.
Levy no doubt is equally fluent in a long list of languages, but mercifully avoids tormenting us with them. The book is very definitely presented in more-or-less standard English.
To quote Levy’s bio on the back flap inside his book’s the dust cover: “Bernard-Henri Levy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than thirty books …. His writing has appeared extensively in publications throughout Europe and the United States. … Levy is cofounder of the antiracist group SOS Racisme and has served on diplomatic missions for the French government.”
“What is an ‘action-driven intellectual,’” you ask?
That is an important – arguably dominant – part of Levy’s character. Action-driven intellectuals are, as Levy admiringly describes in his preface, the “type of writer that a great French resistance fighter, Roger Stephane, called ‘the adventurer’ …” Levy lists among his admired adventurers, T.E. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Andre Malraux and writer-mercenaries like Xenophon. He seems proud to count himself among their fellows.
From someone with fewer war stories to tell, that would sound like hubris. From Levy, however, it seems (in the immortal words of Walter Brennan in the first episode of the TV series The Guns of Will Sonnett) “No brag. Just fact.”
So, what does this action-driven intellectual have to say? Especially, what is he indicating by his title, The Empire and the Five Kings?
It is a little difficult to be sure whether his volume is a salutation to the embattled resistance warriors of the world fighting against the rise of autocratic dictators (especially the Kurdish Peshmerga resisting threatened genocide by Turkish President and would-be dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), or a cry of warning about the chaos threatening Western democracy from all sides, or even a shout of hope for democracy’s future. Perhaps it’s best seen as all of the above.
The Empire, of course, is how Levy sees the United States. He sees it, however, as the best kind of empire: a reluctant one dragged to the center of the World’s stage by universal acclaim.
The United States never wanted to be an empire, he opines. Instead, after the double World War of the early twentieth century, the victorious allied western democracies desperately needed a leader; a standard bearer to head their parade into the glorious – and hopefully peaceful – future they were yearning for. And, there was nobody else around that was up to the job. So, the United States put on a sheepish grin and, channeling their inner Fess Parker, said: “Well, shucks, folks. If ya really want me to, I guess I could give it a lash.”
That’s how Levy sees America in the latter half of the twentieth and the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Then something happened.
Levy offers no blame or even critical analysis. I, however, am willing to venture an opinion.
Imagine Fess Parker standing up there with his folksy grin, pushed unwillingly into standing up to do his level best – only to be pelted by tomatoes.
It was bad enough to see angry crowds shouting “Yankee Go Home!” in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They’d all been through Hell, and were, in the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie: “Hung down, brung down, hung up, and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things.”
They’d been just havin’ a tough time.
It was reasonable that the world’s people would be feeling pretty awful and might take it out on the one who’d come through the whole experience looking like the Champion of the World.
That was the United States, so we could overlook a few over-ripe tomatoes and shouts for us to go home.
But, when a bunch of towel-headed Saudi Arabian expats from Afghanistan flew airliners into a few of our most iconic buildings, killing thousands of our friends and neighbors (not to mention relatives), that proved a bit too much.
Fess Parker decided to do what those ingrates told him to do: “Go Home!”
“You don’t like the way I’m policing the World?” he said. “Well, then, you can just go do it yourselves. I’ll just go home and mow my own grass. You can clean up your own darn messes.”
That, Levy sees in horror, leaves the field open for the Five Kings – the autocrats jostling to beat up everyone else in the schoolyard – to do their worst.
Putin wants to be crime boss in Russia and reconstitute the failed U.S.S.R. as a secular kleptocracy. Ali Khameni and his Revolutionary Guards want to bring back the theocracy that kept the Sultan’s subjects abjectly subjugated in twelfth-century Iran. Erdogan yearns for the glories of the Byzantine Empire. Mohammad Bin Salman wants the wealth and power he sees as his birthright “owning” a Saudi Arabia that dominates the oil wealth of the Middle East. Xi Jinping wants to rule China as a commercial empire dominating the Far East (at least).
They all want autocratic power sans censure, sans limit, and sans end.
Levy rightly surmises that the other seven-and-a-half billion of us living on this planet might object to being told what to do by those five.
At least, he suggests, we should!
I happen to agree.
Where Levy and I disagree is in his diagnosis of what’s going on in America.
Levy gets into minor difficulty when he tries to follow the footsteps of De Toqueville by explaining America to Americans. Like many of today’s observers (and especially rehabilitated Marxists like Levy) he fails to recognize how close rabid love of democracy is to rabid populism, and how short the fall is from there to that most virulent form of authoritarianism – fascism.
Levy is not the first cultural transplant who’s made critical misapprehensions about American character. Alistair Cook, embarrassingly blurted out an opinion to the effect that “Americans yearn for an aristocracy” on national television. He’d mistaken Americans’ yearning for material success (especially among ‘50s-era suburbanites) for an unmet desire to fawn over wealthy aristocrats.
America is not England. We remember suffering the birth pangs of the Revolutionary War to, as Tom Selleck’s “Mathew Quigley” character intoned: “… Run the misfits out of our country. We sent ‘em back to England.”
I especially censured rehabilitated Marxists above because the journey from Marxist to Stalinist is so short that it generally happens in the blink of an eye. It happens so fast that hardly anyone recognizes the change. It’s like a jump cut mid-sentence in a movie to catch a reaction shot. Above all, Marxists never seem to see it coming. But, that’s a rant for another day.
Lacking a view of that slippery slope from democracy to fascism, Levy seems at a loss to understand the Trump phenomenon. While Levy laments America seeming to lose its way on the world stage, what’s actually happened is that we’re in the middle of making the transition from democracy to fascism. While most of us are scratching our heads, trying to figure out why our democracy seems to have stopped working, large swaths of our leadership – led from behind by Donald Trump – are busy reconstructing our democratic government into the Fourth Reich!
I say “led from behind by Donald Trump” because, unlike Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, it seems that Trump does not have a clear idea of what he is doing. Old-time (twentieth-century) fascists were quite sure of what they wanted and how to get it.
Trump does not seem to know that. It is unclear whether he has any coherent ideas at all. It’s like he’s suffering Wernicke’s aphasia: unable to understand or compose coherent language. He seems more like a cat reacting to movement of a laser pointer – all reaction and no thought. Others on the Far Right, however, do have a clear idea what they want and what they’re doing, and they are attempting to herd Trump’s scattered thoughts into their preferred direction.
Of course, when they stop needing him (specifically, his Reality-TV “charm”) as a front man, he’ll be gone in a heartbeat! See what what happened to Leon Trotsky.