Thierry Chervel, Bernard-Henri Levy: “Europe is possible” – signandsight

Thierry Chervel talks to Bernard-Henri Levy, who just wrote an amusing book called American Vertigo based on a one-year sojourn in the United States, about his view of relations between Europe and the U.S.:

Yet [America is] in a crisis with the debacle in Iraq.

No more and no less than during the Vietnam War, or in the decades before, leading up to the civil rights movement. People seem to be completely taken aback by Bush. Why? Before Bush there was Nixon. And before that there was segregation, the Ku Klux Klan. And all that didn’t stop American democracy from thriving, progressing and developing. And where are we today? People act as if America was going through a huge, irreversible shift to the right. But if you look at the last fifty years, you’ll see that today America has progressed a lot. Bush’s two victories, the triumph of the creationists and the religious fundamentalists is nothing compared with the – victorious! – battle for civil equality, for the equality between men and women, and the right to abortion. We’ve seen a democratic revolution the likes of which has happened nowhere else on earth. Compared with all that, the current shift to the right seems much more like the last shudder of a beast that knows it’s doomed.

What did you learn about Europe in America?

I learned that it’s possible. When I came to the USA I was in a melancholy mood over the question of Europe. It was the time of the French debate over the European constitution, the time when even the "yes" partisans didn’t dare say you had to vote "yes" because Europe was a good thing in itself, but because it was good for France. I was close to thinking that the Europe was possible just an illusion of our generation. I said to myself: "I’ve spent my life thinking Europe was one with history, that it will come together no matter what happens, you just have to let it be. We could all go to bed and it would form, behind our backs. But perhaps it won’t form itself at all, perhaps it’s undoing itself before our eyes…"

And America made you see things differently?

Yes. I saw this federation of states, this national community made up of people who speak even less the same language than the Europeans and who are faced with problems of ethnicity far more weighty than those in Europe. And I think that miracles are possible, that the inorganic nation, the inorganic social body, can be constituted. I discover that constitutional patriotism, to speak with Habermas, is not just a philosophical reverie, that it’s something that works. One can create an army, maintain schools, raise taxes, etc. When you cross the country as I did, when you see how a landowner in Alabama has nothing in common with a Mexican from San Diego or a European from Savannah or Charleston, and that despite all that America has been able to constitute itself, that rekindles your hope in Europe.

7 thoughts on “Thierry Chervel, Bernard-Henri Levy: “Europe is possible” – signandsight

  1. Bernard-Henri Levy gets at something which I think is fairly profound: Europe is possible. I think that is quite true, but sometimes the sheer bloody close-mindedness I so frequently witness in Europe (particularly ‘Old’ Europe) is discouraging. There seem to be so many limits on what is acceptable for people to think – and that simply won’t work.

    Another topic Levy doesn’t quite touch on (but seems to imply) is his belief in the resiliency of the US. I agree with that although I don’t agree with much that he says in that interview.

    Is Europe equally resilient? I think it may depend upon which part of Europe we refer to. There isn’t much doubt that Eastern Europe is pretty resilient, but I have my doubts about Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium because they seem to find change so hard. Other places (the UK, Spain, and the Nordic countries) seem to fall somewhere in between.

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  2. Don, you forget that without “Old Europe” (particularly Germany and France) the European Union wouldn’t exist, no Euro, no Schengen, no pseudo-intellectual Europeans who are in “melancholy mood over the question of Europe”.

    “who are faced with problems of ethnicity far more weighty than those in Europe”, yeah sure, 27 different countries with 27 different law books and 500 million people, who are not talking the same language (or the same two languages, as spanish is getting more and more important, in the US) and they all have different cultural points of view.

    “but I have my doubts about Germany,…”, you do? Maybe we aren’t as resilient as some other countries, but Germany has changed quite a bit over the last 150 years, I think we have earned a little stubbornness when things are overthrown that we have fought for, like our salary or holidays or our social net. And don’t forget that new Europe had to change, give them 20 years with growing wealth and they won’t be as resilient as they are today.

    Sorry for my english, I hope you can bear it. 😉

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  3. From Levy’s article:

    battle for civil equality, for the equality between men and women, and the right to abortion

    Abortion has no place in that little collection of achievements. Even if one is in favor of legalizing abortion, one would hopefully not claim that a ban on abortion is in the same league as racial and gender discrimination. As I have at best rather mixed feelings about legal abortion, I’m a bit offended when things are grouped like this.

    @Don:

    but sometimes the sheer bloody close-mindedness I so frequently witness in Europe (particularly ‘Old’ Europe) is discouraging

    Uh, what does Rummy’s stupid metaphor have to do with anything? Funny how that works though – if you think about it, a country’s Rumsfeld score and European integration score seem to be sort of a null-sum thing. For example:

    Great Britain
    American view: Most important military ally.
    European view: Apparently doesn’t really consider itself a part of Europe at all.

    Poland
    American view: Smaller but important ally.
    European view: Ruled by anti-EU hicks who sucked away each other’s vital oxygen in the womb, but will probably play along in the end.

    Denmark
    American view: Insignificant, but at least on the right side.
    European view: Mostly inconspicuous, but did reject the euro currency.

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  4. “Don, you forget that without “Old Europe” (particularly Germany and France) the European Union wouldn’t exist, no Euro, no Schengen, no pseudo-intellectual Europeans who are in “melancholy mood over the question of Europe”.”

    Volker, I suspect that most of you ‘Old’ Europeans forget something else – that the EU had two parents. On the one side there are the great statesmen of postwar Europe – Adenaeur, DeGaulle, De Gasperi, Monnet, Schumann.

    Then there is the other part which is much less mentioned – the security guarantee provided by the US. I’ve been reading the Tony Judt book about post-war Europewhich Andrew mentions in a later blog entry.

    One thing which comes through very clearly is that the US had no plans to protect Europe after WWII. Roosevelt’s policies during and after the war make far more sense when viewed in that light. The US largely withdrew from Europe and US military expenditures fell from more than 50% to 4.7% of GDP between 1945 and 1950.

    NATO was largely an Pometkin village of an alliance when first it was created because Europe did not have the resources to make it real – and it was not in the US national interest to spend the money.

    The catalyst which changed everything was the Korean War. The USSR stood revealed as an ambitious imperialistic power in the eyes of both Americans and Europeans – and they reacted. Never mind that in Judt’s view this was actually a misreading of the situation – and he makes a good case. Judt writes that the driving force behind the Greek Civil War was not Stalin but rather Tito, for example.

    Over the space of two years the US re-militarised, as the proportion of GDP devoted to the armed forces skyrocketd from 4.7% of GDP to 17.6%. Military spending of every European country rose also – except Germany, which was still demilitarised. Thus NATO acquired muscle.

    There was one last issue – the millitarisation of Germany. France was unalterably opposed & for good reason of course. But the US (and Italy, UK, etc needed – so a grand compromise was drafted. The US stayed in NATO with a large army on the ground. Germany was thus wrapped in an alliance in which it could not do much harm – but at great cost to the US.

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  5. “Uh, what does Rummy’s stupid metaphor have to do with anything? ”

    Umm, Sebastien, in light of what I wrote in my second post I will venture to say that Europe owes an enormous debt to the US taxpayer – who expended more than $5 trillion on the defense of Europe over 55 years. I KNOW that Europe’s committment to NATO is highly questionable – the events of the past decade have confirmed that. Europe was called at last on 50 year, $5 trillion debt – and did not come.

    In that light I don’t believe that the US committment to NATO can be relied upon – it’s either all or nothing. for good reason. Spending a ton of money for other country’s defense is not a rational decision. Particularly rich countries which are rapidly converting themselves from friends to adversaries. NATO is not a fact of nature – it is a voluntary relationship. It was not there in 1920 and may not exist in 2020 the way things are going.

    I think a tsunami of change is hitting Europe – but have seen little will on the part of European leaders to change in response to changing conditions. Some countries adjust better than others, notably the UK, Nederlands, Ireland, and Eastern Europe. Germany seems to be making a small effort to handle the changes – more so than France, Italy, Austria, or Belgium at least. Enough? Not yet…..

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  6. Umm, Sebastien, in light of what I wrote in my second post I will venture to say that Europe owes an enormous debt to the US taxpayer

    I won’t try to guess what that’s got to do with anything. The fact of the matter is that some of the states of “Old Europe” have been eminent motors behind European unification, despite some unspecified “close-mindedness” that a certain Don witnesses “so frequently” in them.

    I KNOW that Europe’s committment to NATO is highly questionable

    Yeah, and who’ll come to Europe’s rescue when the MUSLIMS come marching through the Fulda gap? Not Uncle Sam, my friends, not this time!

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  7. Andrew: I´ve emailed you an interesting interview with Bernard-Henry Lévy to Folha de S. Paulo: unfourtunately in Portuguese. But, if you have the patience and interest, check it out: he talks about fundamentalism and the dangers of the growing anti-americanism.

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