Author Puts The Left On Trial

French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy challenges American notions of the left in his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Bernard-Henri Levy says he's always considered his political roots to be on the left, nurtured by a quest for liberty, justice and equality. But in his new book, "Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism," the man known in France as simply BHL, probably his country's best-known public intellectual, says that the left has too often become apologists for tyrants and bigotry - anti-Semitism, to be blunt about it.

His new book is stirring up controversy among old allies. BHL's best-selling books in the U.S. include "American Vertigo" and "Who Killed Daniel Pearl." Back in France, he's also co-founder of the anti-racist group, SOS Racism. He joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Monsieur Henri Levy, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BERNARD-HENRI LEVY (Author, "Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism"; Co-founder, SOS Racism): No, very glad to be with you back.

SIMON: You say in this book that you think designations like right and left aren't - don't hold the sense that they used to.

Mr. LEVY: They hold the sense, yes, it is still really consist on families, and as for myself, I feel as a leftist or you will say in America, a liberal. I am a liberal except that there is an illness. There is something going really wrong inside the family of the left. And this book, "Left in Dark Times," the purpose of it is to say what is going wrong. It is a trial of the liberal camp by a liberal.

SIMON: Well, tell us what you - what you think is wrong.

Mr. LEVY: To be a leftist, to be a liberal, is to believe in human rights. You have more and more liberals who say, come on, wait a minute, human rights in America, OK. Human rights in Europe, OK. But if you pretend to apply human rights, for example, to Arab countries, then wait a minute. It is a colonial attitude. It is a neo-imperialist way of imposing our way of thinking. And to end with, to be a liberal is, should be, has always been to take the party of the victims wherever, under any sort of circumstance.

Alas, you have a lot of liberals today who, before taking the party of the victims, first ask, who is the executioner? And more precisely, would by any chance America been involved in this execution, in this blood bath? If America is involved then they take the party of the victims. If America is not involved, if it is not the guiltiness, the fault of America, they care less. And if it happens, like in Darfur, that public opinion of America takes the party of the victims, of the genocide of Darfur, then they say, wait a minute. The genocide of people who finds an ally in America should not be some victims of which we should take care of. So with the left today, it is a party who too often tries to see his own ideas confirmed before looking at the reality of the victims.

SIMON: Let me ask you about anti-Semitism because that's obviously a serious charge to make. And I take it from reading your book, you mean anti-Semitism in the textbook sense, as you see it, some people on the left who have problems with both Jews and Arabs.

Mr. LEVY: For me, racism and anti-Semitism are equal crimes. And I would say, for example, in the Middle East, that I am in favor of a Palestinian state. As well as I am in favor unconditionally of the existence and the state of Israel. So this must be put very clearly. The only way to make anti-Semitism sayable and hearable, the only way to give evil salt(ph) or fake legitimacy is to mold it in the argumentation, in the obsessions, in the phrases of the liberal left. For example, anti-Zionism.

SIMON: What do you say to people who may be critics of Israeli policy who say, look, I am criticizing Israel. It's a nation state, not Jews.

Mr. LEVY: Of course. It says on the - they might be right. I criticize myself Israel more than anybody, and when Israel deserved to be criticized, you have to criticize. But anti-Zionism is something else. To be anti-Zionist, it is like to be anti-Francist(ph) or to be anti-Germanist(ph). It is as if you had the right to conclude from the faults which France or Germany commit, to jump to the conclusion that France and Germany should not exist at all. Come on! France committed some terrible crimes at the time of Algerian war. Nobody said that France should not exist. Germany invented Nazism, which was the biggest crime ever seen in modern history. Nobody jumped to the conclusion that Germany should be erased from the surface of the globe.

SIMON: President Sarkozy calls you up, doesn't he?

Mr. LEVY: Yes. France is a very strange country where a man running for office can pick up the phone and call a writer to ask the writer to endorse him. This is France. So President - future President Sarkozy did that. Picked up the phone and demanded me with a very harsh way what I was waiting to endorse him. I told him, wait a minute. I am a free man. I'm a free spirit. Free spirit, what do you mean? France is in the front of the real stakes. OK, so I am leftist. A leftist, how dare you said that! The left, they hate you. So how can you be in favor of these people? I hang up, and this is the beginning of the book.

Number one, why am I faithful, nevertheless, in spite of everything, to the left? And number two, maybe President Sarkozy is not quite wrong. Maybe he is even right when he tells me that there is something rotten in the kingdom of the left. President Sarkozy unwillingly gave me the occasion of this new book, "Left in Dark Times." Thanks to him, if he listens to me. Maybe he doesn't listen, I don't know. Maybe yes.

SIMON: Well, I am told Carla Bruni listens.

Mr. LEVY: OK. So she will transmit to her husband.

SIMON: She'll mention it.

Mr. LEVY: Her beloved husband.

SIMON: Monsieur Henri Levy, always nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. LEVY: Thanks to you.

SIMON: Bernard-Henri Levy, his new book is "Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism."

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