Bernard-Henri Lévy, self-styled bearer of the torch of Enlightenment and engagée intellectualism, was making the rounds in New York City this week. Last night, he got center stage at a panel discussion at Columbia cosponsored by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), which is essentially the French Anti-Defamation League. Topic: “Freedom of Expression: The Controversy.” According to the panel’s moderator, New Yorker editor David Remnick, Lévy was the distinguished guest because of his tireless work as a champion of free speech. In his remarks, though, Lévy—wearing dark shades and his trademark way-open-at-the-neck white dress shirt—demonstrated that his commitment to free speech might more accurately be described as “selective.”
On the one hand, he maintained his staunch defense of the Danish newspaper that published Islam-satirizing cartoons in 2005 (he even criticized Remnick for failing to republish the cartoons). On the other, he advocated for laws banning Holocaust denial, and spoke out against French women wearing burqas, which, he said, constitute “a political message” rather than a religious choice.
The other French panelist, Philippe Schmidt—a lawyer who, like Lévy, is affiliated with LICRA—took these arguments even further, proposing that Internet speech be regulated by some kind of supranational body. When a Columbia law professor on the panel pointed out that U.S. participation in such a body would breach the First Amendment, Schmidt replied (in earnest, it seemed), “You can change the First Amendment.” This strange moment only underscored what had already become clear: of the five panelists, including Remnick, the Americans argued for limited restrictions on speech, while the Frenchmen argued for limited restrictions on speech unless the speaker was a Holocaust denier or a religious Muslim.
Lévy, who personifies grandiosity, is easy to make fun of (“my friend Salman Rushdie” came up repeatedly). But the chauvinism of his ideas is no joke. No one asked directly whether he and Schmidt advocated different free speech standards for Muslims than for others, though Remnick cleverly wondered whether Schmidt thought Israel should have prosecuted Jewish extremists who had directed hate speech toward Yitzhak Rabin before the Israeli prime minister’s assassination (cornered, Schmidt said yes). But in his closing remarks, Lévy asserted that, at least at this point in history, Islam is unique among the monotheistic religions in its susceptibility to extremism. “Mainstream” Judaism, he argued, is fundamentally anti-fundamentalist. Lévy’s refusal to acknowledge the significance of Jewish (and Christian) fundamentalism is shared by many on both sides of the Atlantic. But his insistence on couching his biases in a grandiloquent commitment to Enlightenment values is—to engage in a bit of chauvinism—very French.