Excerpt: 'The Imposter: BHL in Wonderland' by Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte
From Preface: Who’s Afraid of BHL?
Any British or American reader who picks up this book is more than likely to have come across a sort of joke French intellectual called Bernard-Henri Lévy, usually known as BHL in France, where the acronym has become his signature. They may have come across his name during the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) affair; or perhaps seen him photographed among rebel combatants in Libya or arm-in-arm with a glamorous blonde in the hall of a five-star hotel. Perhaps some have seen his articles in the Huffington Post, or read his book on the death of the Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl or the diary of his journey across the US in the footsteps of Tocqueville.
Naturally, foreign newspapers and journals sometimes poke fun at him for being so very French, so Parisian. But he knows a lot, cites three philosophers in a sentence, and is said to be highly respected in France. And the man looks good. His expensively dishevelled hair frames a handsome aquiline face, which is usually suntanned and set off by an impeccably white unbuttoned shirt. He is always keen to denounce injustice and new ‘barbarisms’: the stoning of women for adultery, the repression of Iranian demonstrators in 2009, genocide in Darfur, the rise of nationalisms. To all appearances, he is a militant democrat, a moral authority; a committed left intellectual, like Jean-Paul Sartre.
So non-French readers may well perceive him as a courageous European philosopher, vigilant in seeking to awaken sleeping con- sciences and oppose the abuse of power. A sort of new dissident, a Parisian Vaclav Havel, an Old World Chomsky, a Sean Penn of journalism, a French-style Norman Mailer.
But BHL is not really like that. Not exactly.
Let’s start with a spot of history. This is not the first time that we have written about Bernard-Henri Lévy. In 2004, we published the first investigative book on Bernard-Henri Lévy, Le B.A. BA du BHL, in which we exposed the underside of his work and his little compromises with the truth: the cracks in his so-called investigation of the murder of Daniel Pearl, the falsehood of his meeting with Major Massoud in the Afghan mountains in the early 1980s, the constant back-scratching between him and the circle of those in his debt. We tracked the unsuccessful attempts made by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Cornelius Castoriadis, as well as the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, to denounce the intellectual fraud they saw in BHL. And we collected many testimonies from close and remote observers on his dexterity in using his adopted causes to serve his own ends.
When we started our research, there were two main reactions. Intellectuals, academics and researchers tended to say things like: ‘Why get so worked up over that fellow? Everyone knows he’s awful. He’s a clown. He’s been talking rubbish for the last thirty years.’ As this broadly updated edition appears in France and the English-speaking world, our answer is still the same: BHL may well leave no mark on the history of thought, but his role is not negligible. He is read; he speaks up everywhere, about everything, all the time. Some people, through ignorance or self-interest, take him seriously. Why should the critique of Bernard- Henri Lévy be reserved for the knowledgeable? How come a newspaper editor, who speaks freely in private of the limitations he sees in BHL, nevertheless gives him space in the paper? What personal, political and ideological interests does Bernard-Henri Lévy serve? These questions lead back to French intellectual history since the 1970s.
The other reaction, often but not always from journalists, was one of alarm: ‘Are you crazy? You’ll never work again after that, anywhere. He’ll crush you.’ Strange as it may seem, Bernard-Henri Lévy inspires fear in France – not through the power of his thought, but through that of his network. He is close to most of the bosses and editors in publishing and the press, and has a propensity for making threatening phone calls when he feels ill-treated; he launches reprisals in response to articles hostile to him. We found repeated evidence of this fear during our first investigation in 2003–2004, and we noted it again during the months working on this edition. How many informants told us of overbearing, fatuous or reprehensible acts, while refusing to be quoted … Why risk getting his management or friends on your back just to denounce what is after all a minor fraud, a limited menace? ‘BHL is hardly Bin Laden,’ we were told. Well, no. But in some circles, to criticize him is to risk being ‘asked to leave’; it shows that one rejects the way a certain world functions. That world is our world.
Are we crazy? Did he crush us? No, not any more than he crushed others who have since repeated the exercise. But when the first edition of this book came out, we observed a distinct rattling of his networking machinery. We had been working discreetly and had opted not to ask Bernard-Henri Lévy for an interview (we did request one when preparing this new edition, but received no response), exploiting the fact that other investigations were under way to operate unnoticed. When our book was announced, a few days before it appeared, there were some slight signs of anxiety. Phone calls to the printer attempting to get hold of our manuscript, something the printer said had never happened to him before. A letter from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s lawyer to our publisher. Then a call from the editor one of us worked for, urging us to contact Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had told her he was afraid for the safety of people who had worked with him in Pakistan. We reassured her, but did nothing further. Three days later, another phone call from the same editor warned that our publisher was going to receive another letter from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s lawyer, which through some telecommunications sorcery she already had in front of her. But when the book appeared, Bernard-Henri Lévy did not sue. Because what we were saying was true; because our book was based in large part on his own texts and public utterances, and because, contrary to what he declared everywhere, we had not pried into his private life. And also because polemic serves his purposes. A constant of his career is that he has always managed to take advantage of criticisms against him: they enable him to appear as one who shakes things up, who upsets people; they keep him in the public eye.
When the book came out, we were able to ascertain that most journalists had freedom to deal with it as they pleased. Nevertheless, some of them reported phone calls from highly placed friends of Bernard- Henri Lévy, urging them not to write about it – phone calls followed by another to the editor, if the journalist remained obdurate. With television it was tougher: we were invited to appear, then disinvited a few hours later. One TV journalist put it like this: ‘We called BHL to organize a debate. He refused and said he would start a nuclear war if you were in the studio.’ Well of course, if it’s a matter of avoiding nuclear war …
All this is rather pathetic and would even have amused us, had we not subsequently learned that some highly estimable people had suffered directly because of accusations of betrayal made by Bernard- Henri Lévy, that great defender of freedom.
If we are back on the case seven years later, it’s not out of undying spite but because, what with his role in the launch of the war in Libya, his defence of an Israeli State under increasing criticism for its block- ade of Gaza and its colonization policy, his championing of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Roman Polanski, and his new US career, he has become omnipresent. A new debugging operation is called for. It has already begun in America, to expose (in the words of Katha Pollitt writing in the Nation) a man ‘whose pretentious drivel has to be the worst thing you’ve exported to us since pizza-flavored La Vache Qui Rit.’
Excerpt republished with permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2012 Verso Books and Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte