On behalf of all the angry Nation readers who protested Bernard-Henri Levy’s "Letter to the American Left," I wish I had had a pie — or at least Levy antagonist and pie-thrower Noel Godin in tow — at Skidmore College’s conference on "War, Evil, the End of History and America Now." The good folks at Salmagundi usually put on a good show, and this weekend was no exception. Bob Boyers brought historian Jackson Lears, poet Carolyn Forche, Jihad vs. McWorld author Benjamin Barber, "just war" theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain and Nation regulars Jonathan Schell and Michael Massing to reflect on the aforementioned themes. Too bad that the conversation was centered on the French buffoon in an expensive suit.
I’d never seen Levy in person before, though like most of you I found his writing vacuous, masturbatory hot air. I have to admit though that his keynote address was at least an amusing spectacle. His hair artfully askew, his English dramatically broken, Levy’s most frequent words were "I" and "myself" and "my book" — that is when he’s wasn’t referring to himself in the third person ("Bernard-Henri hates two things…"). His talk was mostly a self-hagiography and rehash of his book War, Evil and the End of History, and it was perversely satisfying to see his American interlocutors attempt to maintain civility while also upbraiding this self-styled Tocqueville in their midst. Lears objected to BHL’s facile use of the word "evil" as akin to the neo-conservative expression "Islamo-fascism." Barber criticized BHL’s evacuation of power and history from his classification of certain wars as "nihilistic, black holes of non-meaning." And even Elshtain — whose latest book provides a morally bankrupt rationale for the Iraq War dressed up in ponderous and irrelevant philosophizing — took Levy to task for the voyeuristic impulse of his reportage.
The most amusing, and in some ways most revealing, moment of the evening came, however, when BHL recapitulated his Nation article and excoriated U.S. left intellectuals for their impotence and docility. According to BHL, during the Vietnam War, America had a left intellectual class that mounted fervent, thoughtful and serious opposition to imperialism and war mongering — unlike the present moment. Back then, BHL claimed "America had the kind of intellectual Martin Luther King…the writer Norman Mailer….and Jean Fondue."
"Jean Fondue?" I wondered. Who is this "Jean Fondue," and how come I haven’t read her? About fifteen seconds later, the audience and I realized BHL was talking about Jane Fonda. Now I’m Kinda Fonda Jane myself, but I have to wonder: Does BHL admire and envy Fonda as an anti-war intellectual or as a the star of Barbarella?