Why is Bernard-Henri Lévy a public intellectual?


Bernard-Henri Lévy at the Carlyle Hotel in New York.

Before I picked up Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest book, The Empire and the Five Kings, all I knew of him is that he’s a “public intellectual.” This phrase is used in nearly every description of Lévy (or BHL as he’s often called) and, along with Slavoj Žižek and Alain de Botton, he’s one of a handful of especially prominent public intellectuals in Europe. BHL’s that rare breed of thinker who is au fait with academic concepts, read by a popular audience, and can shape media conversations with just a few sentences of commentary.

Public intellectuals are often subject to derision from academic philosophers, who tend to view public engagement as a sign of lack of rigor, and so I wasn’t necessarily expecting traditional philosophy from Lévy’s book. But I didn’t expect to find such thoughtlessly pretentious writing.

The Empire and the Five Kings chronicles the decline of US influence abroad, and argues that five powers—China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Sunni radical Islamism—are poised to rise in its place. Lévy spends most of the book outlining the threat to global order and vulnerable populations, such as the Kurds and the Uighurs, posed by these five powers, only to conclude by admitting that, in reality, the five kings have “major handicaps” in achieving global influence. In a few brief paragraphs, he explains that they’re economically and politically weak, and ill-suited to global rule. “I am reassured by the idea that these dashers of hopes, these sowers of death, have less chance than they think to generate a narrative capable of competing with that of the heirs of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem,” he writes. The conclusion entirely undermines the 250 or so pages that came before it.

For evidence of Lévy’s shallow thinking, look no further than his brief discussion of the United States’ ills as an empire. In one short paragraph, he acknowledges the “extermination of the American Indian” but says this has “been duly mourned.” And he devotes just a single sentence to slavery: “Likewise, there is the bloody shadow cast for so long by the smug practice of slavery—but then came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama.” That’s it: The horrors of slavery answered with one legal act and three prominent African Americans.

Over the course of the book, any insight or analysis is obscured by florid jargon or lazy attempts to pack a poetic punch. A segue into the ills of social media, for example, includes the claim that “The banquet has become a farce, a motley bazaar where it is forbidden, under penalty of being hauled before the international court of anti-discriminatory struggle, to defame the Harlequin’s coat of one’s neighbor.” The “banquet,” in BHL’s analysis, is the banquet of “truth” served up by social media; the “Harlequin’s coat” refers to the idea that each of us stitched together a “patchwork of beliefs and certitudes from bloody shards that soon began to rot and stink.” BHL seems to be presenting the unoriginal analysis that social media has led people to develop very fixed opinions that fall in line with their social circle, and that critiquing these views can quickly lead to charges of being offensive. Not only is this interpretation simple, but in this case, it’s obscured by empty, elaborate language.

Quartz for more

Comments are closed.