Freedom Guy

Andrew Hultkrans on Bernard-Henri Lévy and Tina Brown

New York

Left: Bernard-Henri Lévy chats it up. Right: Lauren Bacall, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Arielle Dombasle.

During her tenure at Vanity Fair, legend has it, Tina Brown read a draft of a commissioned piece from Isaac Bashevis Singer, and, either not realizing who the Nobel laureate was or simply not caring, scrawled “Beef it up, Singer!” across the manuscript. I expected a similarly muscular stance from Brown in her face-off last week with fêted French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy at the New York Public Library. After all, the promotional materials promised a hardball exchange, and Lévy hadn’t even won a Nobel. Quel dommage, then, that this transatlantic logroll left unanswered my nagging question regarding BHL: Òu est le boeuf?

I can forgive him the presence of Lauren Bacall and Diane Von Furstenberg in the front row—they’re most likely Tina’s guests. Probably unfair, too, to blame him for the complimentary champagne and cheese twists, the throngs of elderly ladies in fur coats, the cornpone flourish of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” as entrance music. Certainly below-the-belt to hold BHL accountable for the unmitigated bling of Tina’s lapel pin—a tasteless Internet-bubble artifact resembling, from my seat, a diamond-studded police badge. Nevertheless, if you are a Frenchman who purports to be updating Tocqueville’s magisterial two-volume throwdown on American culture and politics, you’d better have something more substantial to say than “Americans are no more obese than Europeans.” And no matter what you have to say, you’d be wise to button your shirt somewhere above Studio 54 levels—waxed or not, Americans aren’t used to chest-baring intellectuals.

BHL is here as part of the promotional push for his new book American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (which, he says, aims to “clear the fog of clichés” that separate America and France), and to be “grilled” by Brown on the same. Early on, Tina barks down BHL’s rather gracious attempt to thank his editors and translator, but otherwise BHL remains as lightly seared as your average Ahi. While her jewelry suggests she is the law west of Park Avenue, Brown quickly abandons her take-no-prisoners style to escort BHL down the footpaths of his book—the policies of George W. Boosh, our shameful penal system, the dismal Clinton Library ceremony, BHL’s arguments with William Kristol and other neocons, his favorable impressions of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—like an expert flak.

Along the way we learn that BHL likes America—“like a good mistress,” no less. That Obama is the first African-American politician to project “a promise, not a reproach.” That “Empire is not a good paradigma” [sic] for thinking about America. That BHL “is not France.” Call me snooty-pants, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at this soufflé rhetoric. The po-mo jive of Baudrillard’s aphorisms, at the very least, asked your mind to work in a different way. BHL isn’t telling me anything that I don’t already know or that I wouldn’t expect to hear from any reasonably educated European. To use an old American maxim, he neither dazzles with brilliance nor baffles with (pardon my freedom) bullshit, and I expect one or both from visiting French theorists. Middlebrow commentary grows on trees amid our gold-paved streets. No need for the imported variety, merci beaucoups.

To be fair, the questions from the audience are similarly uninspired. With few exceptions, they amount to permutations of “Which is better, America or France?” Indeed, the entire event feels like a reassuring press conference at the French Embassy: “I am a prominent French intellectual, and I’ve written a book about your country. But don’t worry! I like America a whole lot, and hey, us French have our failings too!” I’m all for strong Franco-American relations, but this isn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some precise rhetorical salvos from both sides could benefit us all.

But few others seem to be immune to BHL’s calming charm. The pair of ladies who complain that I was pushing my seat back too far (“But he’s got long legs.” “So what, I don’t care!”) pronounces him “cute” with a titter minutes later. He receives hearty, welcoming applause. He says “sacrificize.” Everyone feels good. Pourquoi pas?