The habit of regret has never made much sense to me. It runs counter to my personal cosmology, in which all of my poor choices, and the bad as well as the good things that happen to me, brought me to exactly where I am now. Because the past and the future are only projections, it is in fact impossible to know in the present whether today’s big accomplishment is in fact meaningless trivia, or today’s impossible difficulty is the foundation of one’s future happiness. If I write something that feels amazing, or turns out to be meaningful, or have fun playing with my children, or am struck by a leaf turning color, then everything that happened to me in the past is present in that moment. Only God knows the future, and therefore the actual meaning of anything, which is how I make sense of the idea of “God.” What matters to me is what I can see from here.
Regrets are for people with too much time on their hands. Worse, they often smack of insincerity. I remember whining once to my psychiatrist back in the days when that habit was still affordable about a girl I loved who was living in a distant city, which meant that our relationship, which had been the center of my life for the better part of the year, and was a source of true heartbreak, was now over. “Why is that?” he asked me. “Because she lives 3,000 miles away, and we broke up,” I answered. “Well, why don’t you move back there tomorrow, and rent an apartment?” His question made me pause for maybe 10 seconds, as I ran through all the meaningful permutations . “Because I don’t want to,” I answered. “Because she’s nuts.” And that was that.
I have only a few actual regrets. I regret missing a few concerts to which I had tickets. I regret kissing a girl I liked and then laughing, because she was taller than me and in heels. I regret not attending a friend’s monthlong wedding in Rajasthan, though I remain hopeful that someday I will visit there.
My biggest regret of the past six months is that the coronavirus robbed me of a chance to see my friend Bernard-Henri Lévy and visit his house in Tangier. I love Bernard, whose ability to balance an incredibly rich inner life with an incredibly busy outer life is a true phenomenon of nature. He is an optimist where I believe in tragedy and the absurd. He is handsome and rich and kind, and has beautiful houses, not only in Tangier but also in Marrakech and Paris and the south of France. As a result, he is the most egotistical person I know who doesn’t have an ego. Anyone who portrays Bernard as an egomaniac is a person who is consumed by spite and deceived by surfaces. He listens just as intently, if not more intently, to the thoughts of people he has just met as to the proclamations of statesmen and philosophers. He is a humanist, who is deeply interested in human qualities and predicaments, and not terribly interested in himself. His only large fault, which is also a virtue, is that he hates sitting still.
Absent Bernard, I was forced to make do with his latest book, The Virus in the Age of Madness, published by Yale UP. Virus is an important reflection from an outstanding writer and thinker who fully understands the perils of the moment but refuses to be afraid. When I was done reading it, we talked on Zoom.
David Samuels: Bernard, I miss you. Have you ever been to the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: In Cooperstown? Yes, of course. This might be one of the first chapters of American Vertigo. Are you living there now?
I’m an hour south of there. It’s sunnier, more mountains, more cows.
I know it. I feel as though I were there with you. I like America, you know?
America is a love affair you choose. It’s a shared idea. I am the first American in my family, and I love America, but each generation of my family for the past two centuries has been born somewhere else. I no longer imagine that my America will be shared by others, or that my children’s children will necessarily be born here.
When you say that we need Foucault at the beginning of your book, it immediately interested me—and not just because of his biopolitics. I think Foucault also speaks to this moment in his understanding of the longstanding liberal/Protestant dream of total surveillance.
Now, the virus is helping to establish this dream, which was the dream of John Calvin’s Geneva, the dream of Jeremy Bentham, the dream of the Panopticon, in Western countries, as a normal, acceptable function of government. It brings out some of the most disgusting aspects of human nature, by encouraging people to spy on their neighbors and imagine them as secret carriers of disease.
Yes, this is one of my points. It is one of the most disgusting aspects of human nature and one that induces the greatest despair in me. I always knew that there was a human will to slavery, a will for being relieved of the burdens of liberty. It is as if this pandemic has provided the missing reason for that, so that we are not embarrassed any longer by this will to slavery, the “servitude volontaire” as Étienne de La Boétie puts it.
What Foucault did not imagine is the new form of the Panopticon mediated by digital technology. For Foucault, the Panopticon could only be a place where the masters surveil the slaves. But even before the pandemic, 10 years ago, we already had what Foucault could not and did not predict, which was the people below watching the people on top. The Panopticon is also functioning in a third way, from left to right and right to left. So we’ve all become agents of a universal watching, which is permitted by the systems of high tech. Everybody is spying on everybody.
Health provides the ultimate excuse for the generalization of the Panopticon. This Panopticon-ization of society might be one of the consequences of the new habits we are adopting as the result of this pandemic.
I share your fear. The virus gives the authority of science to a new social regime and new moral habits which are being turbocharged by new technologies. The virus privileges the metaphorics of infection and safety and demands that public spaces become sanitized, not just of germs but also of ideas and opinions that are figured as dangerous. It is hard to miss the fact that the word “virus” is a perfect bridge between the biopolitics of safety and the way that memes, which are the dominant form that thought now takes, spread on the internet.
The flip side of this new and increasingly oppressive social space is that people who resist or refuse its moral dictates are figured as a mortal threat to every other person on earth. The infection they carry can kill everybody. The rightness of silencing and punishing dissenters and nonconformists to the maximum possible extent, becomes self-evident. The virus of disagreement, of criticism, of nonconforming thought, must be eradicated immediately.
With this virus, and the way we are responding to it in our societies, we are inventing a very strange concept which is rather frightening. Which is, that the most dangerously ill person is the person who is ill without symptoms. You are really dangerous if you refuse the idea that you could be ill, while the illness is sleeping inside yourself like some sort of hidden and enraged God. Moliere wrote about la maladie imaginaire, OK? This is the malade sans le savoir. You are the unconscious carrier.
The solution of course is that we must all be under constant scrutiny, even if we present no symptoms, to ensure that we don’t shelter the hidden plague. We are entering in a world where at every moment we can be checked for a disease for which we present no symptoms.
There’s an obvious analogy between the metaphors of the coronavirus and the language of the new anti-racist movement in America. The anti-racist idea implies the same need for constant vigilance and inspection against the thought-viruses that are unconsciously harbored by light-skinned people by virtue of their so-called “race.” The fact that you may outwardly manifest no symptoms of the racist disease in turn justifies the need for endless rounds of inspection, testing, reinspection, and, of course, snitching. It’s a revolutionary cult.
Thanks to these anti-racist doctrines, which are enforced by the militant internet proletariat, America has now entered a Maoist comic opera phase. Every day, you have these spectacles that Tom Wolfe would have loved, in which poor professors in Illinois and public employees in Seattle announce themselves to be apostles of white supremacy before their fellow middle-class revolutionaries on Zoom, while expensive private schools in New York hold struggle sessions about whether or not their wallpaper is racist.
Our Puritan forefathers would also be delighted by our rediscovery of our sinful inner natures—along with endless inspections, confessions, witchcraft trials, and the burning of witches, of course.
You know, David, that I am among the fathers in France of SOS Racisme, an organization that was founded a quarter of a century ago. For me, the fight against racism is one of the main concerns of my life, and I will never make any compromise on that. For me, racism is like anti-Semitism—they are neighboring concepts, but not exactly the same—in that both must be fought without mercy, and without compromise.
I always knew that there was a human will to slavery, a will for being relieved of the burdens of liberty. It is as if this pandemic has provided the missing reason for that, so that we are not embarrassed any longer by this will to slavery.
But the true fighters against racism, the true anti-racists, were never concerned with uncovering hidden racists or asymptomatic racism. Racism is a brute fact of our societies. It’s not something mysterious or hidden.
There is a sort of madness now, in some parts of the anti-racist movement, where you have meetings forbidden to white-skinned people, or some groups of people who are given different sets of rules. The idea of “white privilege” as a structural or inherent part of Western societies is a completely inoperative and counterproductive way of conducting the fight against racism. And I am pretty frightened by that.
The coronavirus has also been a revealing mirror for the disgusting narcissism of Western elites, who have severed themselves from the concerns of the ordinary working people who they are happy to demonize as disease-carrying racists while advertising themselves as exemplars of virtue. When I pick up The New York Times I notice that it’s full of recipes with ingredients—
Full of what?
Recipes. Here’s something to cook at home, where you are stuck with your annoying family during the latest lockdown. The ingredients include exotic mushrooms, a special kind of Vietnamese fish sauce, and other ingredients that no regular citizen can find in a store. So what is the point of these lists? It is to remind the elite of how special they are, because they are the ones who know how to find these ingredients, which unite them with the suffering but virtuous peoples of the world, while sinful Americans eat McDonald’s.
I think of Nancy Pelosi saying, “Well, shutting down the country isn’t so bad,” and showing two $20,000 ice cream freezers in her home in San Francisco. “Let them eat ice cream,” you know?
Yes, but we in the West, all of us, are Marie Antoinette. Because just try for one minute to see this way of speaking from the point of view of a woman that’s in Bangladesh, or from the point of view of a refugee on Lesbos, or from the point of view of the poorest in an American minority community. It’s obscene.
When I was a young man, to be liberal meant to fight against egoism. The French pupils of Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser, at the beginning of the ’70s, said that the main political goal that had to be targeted by a liberal was the fight against egoism, selfishness, the idea that your identity is an object of some particular fascination which has to be endlessly defined and manicured. Instead, the goal of being a liberal person was to try to get out of yourself as much as you can. The real ethics was not in self-focusing, but in expatriation out of the self, exploration and understanding of the other.
We knew, 50 years ago, that this Western egotism was really a farewell to the rest of the world. It was a farewell to internationalism. In this New York Times dining section, which you are telling me about, I see the religion of the self as defined through individual choices. It is the triumph of egotism.
Isolation was necessary for a moment to fight against this pandemic. But presenting that as a way of life, as a way of being—a way of being that was forgotten and which, thank God, we are now reconnecting with, which is the gist of what we hear in France—is a crime against liberal ideas.
You had a striking observation in the book about the large news stories that structure and represent our notions of the good, whether the plight of migrants to Europe, or the dangers of climate change and global warming, or war crimes tribunals for places like Syria. Your observation was that all these stories had suddenly disappeared from our newspapers and been replaced by this flood of pandemic-driven self-obsession. I saw it in the response in France to your recent trip to Libya, “Well, why was he there? Why wasn’t he sitting in his apartment in Paris with a mask on?”
I was a disciplined and obedient citizen. I did exactly what the regulations demanded, no more, but also no less. I put on a mask when I was obliged to. I observed physical distancing protocols whenever I had to.
But, the first thing I did when the confinement was over in France was to take one of the first planes departing from Charles de Gaulle, and to go to the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, and I published a story about that as soon as I came back. And the reactions even of some of my friends was like the story of the moon and the finger. They were not seeing what I was showing, the hell in which the refugees and migrants were living. But instead, how many kilometers did I do? Why did I take a plane? What was my carbon footprint? Did I follow every recommended health protocol? And so on and so on. It was completely crazy.
When the lockdown started, I was in Bangladesh, and it was the same story. I came back to Paris the day that the confinement started, and my story was published two or three weeks after. And I was harassed on all the social networks by people saying, “What the hell is he doing, taking care of the Bangladeshi, instead of being at home, making some nice dishes in the kitchen, looking at the clouds in the new blue sky.” And so on. But this is my personal story.
I did an exercise in my book, where I took one week in April and traced the decline of the big stories in our world, in favor of the repetition of the loop of the same big COVID event without any added value of knowledge. Just repeating on and on that there was a pandemic. It’s a form of negative conditioning, whose goal is to make people more self-obsessed and panicked.
One day, I remember being struck by that day’s French Twitter trends of people being flabbergasted by the return of a special bird to the skies of Paris. The same day there was a small report in Le Monde, a few lines nobody read. It was about the fires in the Amazon forest. The criminal fires made by the parties of Bolsonaro who were burning the rainforest so their sheep have more to eat. They had never been so strong and so criminal as on this very day.
So, on that one day, you have people marveling at the new birds in the skies of Paris, and in Amazonia, which is, as you know, the real lungs of the planet, the fires were raging as never before. Yet, the silence.
So, this is really craziness. It is imbecility. Any wise man should have commented about what was happening in Amazonia. But the only story was this bird in Paris.
Do you ever worry that the slogans of the 1990s that people adopted in good faith, which were the slogans of the EU, of multiculturalism, open borders, freedom of immigration, the abolition of the idea of nationalism and even of nations, have in fact turned out to be the slogans of a new kind of capitalism, powered by new machines, which like their masters care nothing for the welfare of people in any country, whether France, or America, or China?
The new class of techno-oligarchs here in America is wealthier than any group of people in human history. They live in the clouds, surrounded by hedgerows of nondisclosure agreements, which ensure their invisibility. They control the large media platforms, which allows them to mute even mild criticism of themselves, except when they quarrel with each other. It’s like Putin’s Russia, but without Putin.
What’s worse is that they have formed working alliances not only with the NSA and CIA inside the United States but also with Communist Party in China. As a result of these alliances, the American-Chinese system is functionally one system now, with American technopolists and Chinese slave-masters united together into one big global operation that makes goods for Apple and Nike and sells its products through Amazon while spying on everyone.
Yes, I think like you. This is something which I have seen growing over the past few years. It was already one of my fears, three years ago, and I put it in my previous book, The Empire and the Five Kings. What you are describing is exactly what I see now.
One of the manifestations of this new order is the contrast of the markets, which are rather as healthy as could be, and have recovered very quickly from the crisis in March. And on the other side, there is a continuing pandemic of poverty. A pandemic of homelessness. A pandemic of hunger. A pandemic of misery. So you do have these two parallel universes now.
It grows, the world of the people who try to survive, who try to live, who try not to die in misery, to not be disconnected from the world of wealth. This is a danger in itself. But it is also a danger because the reply to this disconnection could be more and more populism.
One of the things that liberals like me should be careful of is that the reply to what you are designing should not be populism. It can be rightist populism, or leftist populism, but it is still populism. It’s like cholesterol.
There is good and bad cholesterol, according to some doctors. But there is no good and bad populism. So the danger I see is that we are now entering into a world where you have on one side, this condominium of immense and consolidated wealth, and populist protesters on the other.
But, by the way, all the ideas of the ’90s you are quoting, they are still very much mine.
I still believe that we have to prevail on borders. I still believe that we have to be much more open to migrants. I still believe in all of that. What I see on the left, as on the right, is the opposite.
What do you call that space on American campuses without aggression, “safe spaces,” where you are not aggressed by adverse opinions? This is just a reversal of the old rightist ideology which sought to sanitize and control public discourse so that everyone praised the same things and no one gave offense to the Church and ruling virtues. Between those who say “America First” and “let me be alone with my white pride” and those who say, “Let me run to my safe space” and “identity politics,” they are no different. It is the same pattern.
We started the conversation with Michel Foucault. What the tenets of identity politics don’t know in America is that Michel Foucault was never a partisan of identity. Michel Foucault has spent his life, and especially the last years of his life, during his last course of lectures, fighting against the idea of identity. Identity was the enemy.
Michel Foucault was a partisan of alteriority, complexity, and broken identities. He thought that identity was really the least interesting part of the self.
Bernard, you know me. I find most populists to be idiotic and most political partisans annoying. I am a writer who loves going out into the world and seeing how things work and meeting people.
What I want you to admit is that the opening for the populism you fear was created by the refusal on the part of Western elites to recognize and criticize the negative aspects of globalization. The liberal technocratic order was too busy adoring itself to look at the real-world effects of the slogans they championed. They failed to understand the impact of digital technologies on the institutions that preserved and advertised their own prestige. The result has been a massive social transformation that has failed in many respects to conform to the world they advertised.
What they built, in part, in America at least, was the space for vulgarians like Donald Trump and others like him to rise to power by saying obvious things about the lives of ordinary people. As the problems became more obvious, it became necessary to condemn these ordinary people as fascists or racists, to justify ignoring them or shutting them up.
This kind of discourse is a great danger to the liberal ideas and humanistic values that we share. It’s a danger because if you can’t recognize and clearly identify the negative aspects of a reality that you may rightly favor, you are creating the conditions for its destruction.
But who refused to see the negative perspective of globalization?
Not you personally, of course. But I saw it happen in America with Trump, and well before Trump. I don’t buy the explanation that Trump was elected because the same people in the same states and countries who sent Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 and 2012 were suddenly transformed into Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s nonsense.
Sure, there were plenty of bad people who voted for Donald Trump for bad reasons. But that’s not why he was elected. Trump was elected because the Bush-Obama corporate bailouts were corrupt, the Middle East wars were failures, Obamacare was a failure, and the Obama-Clinton technocrats were generally making people uneasy. Trump was the first national politician in America since Richard Gephardt in the 1990s who came out and said, “The exporting of American jobs to China is bad. It’s having a negative impact on American workers and on American society. Why should America help China get rich?”
Trump was treated like a naïve buffoon for saying such things. And he said them in a vulgar way. But the effects of global trade arrangements on American economic and social life, which are mixed with the hollowing-out effects of digital technologies, are very real. It is something that anyone who lives nearly anywhere in America can see happening in front of their eyes. The combination of global trade pacts and digital technology, which come together in the form of companies like Amazon, is a poison. Denying that is a form of elite blindness or gaslighting. The elite hated Trump not only because he is a vulgar buffoon, but because he was threatening their pocketbooks.
The same thing was true of Trump’s stance against illegal immigration. Of course, America should be welcoming to people of all races and religions. And Trump himself gives every suggestion of being some kind of street-level racist. But you can’t simply license mass immigration, legal or not, without paying careful attention to its effects on the lives of American workers. Just as it is crazy to stigmatize or discourage Mexican families in Southern California who educate their children and obey the law, it is crazy to suggest that American citizenship is a right for anyone who wants to come here.
One result of stigmatizing even mild dissent from these elements of the liberal creed was that a real racist was elected to the White House.
No, I don’t agree, David. I don’t agree with you.
I’m not American. And I know America far less than you do, of course. But my feeling is that American presidents, American leadership, American intellectuals, have not stopped reflecting on citizenship. Some better than others, but I would not say that this question of open migration, with no consideration of the responsibilities of citizenship, has been the dominant idea in America. I have always admired America because of the good balance between the two.
Opening one’s arms and hearts to immigration, and at the same time constantly reflecting on what is citizenship, what is the American creed, what is patriotism, what is a flag and so on—that’s the best of America.
Americans did not wait for Trump to put the American flag in their windows on Sept. 11, and for years after that sometimes. So what I think is that Donald Trump is naïve and an idiot.
And he’s a dangerous idiot—because he probably destroyed this healthy American balance between the two. You are one of the rare countries in the world which has more or less always been open to the others and at the same time attached to defining who you were.
I don’t think that Donald Trump is anyone’s model of a great American patriot or thinker. He’s a crude entertainer who also owns casinos. His gift is that he knows how his customers think. The customer is always wrong is the slogan of the technocrats. And people rightly got sick of it.
And let me get into the space of globalization. The reply is certainly not to decide to stop conversing with China. On the contrary. You have in America, and we have in Europe, these great economies which have taken many decades to build and are so complex. Of course, the relationship needs to be reshaped, and it has to be corrected. But I really believe that the solutions which were proposed by Donald Trump are naïve, and therefore counterproductive—and will therefore turn to the advantage, wait and see, of the Chinese.
I make zero arguments for Donald Trump. He’s an incoherent buffoon who delights in humiliating and polarizing people, especially those whom he perceives as weak. But who created the conditions where half the country saw such a person as their savior? My answer is that it wasn’t Donald Trump. And it wasn’t some shadowy association of white supremacists. It wasn’t Russia, either.
Trump is a symptom. He is a creation of the Democratic and Republican party elites who represent the interests of a single class and have been running this country since the end of the Cold War. He is the mirror image of their repulsive moralizing arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-dealing. They are both equally ugly.
The only other politician who has dared to say the unsayable, as Trump did, was Bernie Sanders. Of all the candidates in the American political sphere for the last five years, he’s the one that I come closest to identifying with. He had some of the problems of Trump, especially in his embrace of naïve populism, but I support Bernie. His heart was in the right place, even if his slogans are from a different century. He isn’t personally corrupt, like Trump, even if surrounds himself with some of the worst grifters in the Democratic Party.
Sanders and Trump combined now represent a majority of the American people. That’s maybe 70% of America that rejects the neoliberalism of the elite. I may dismiss the solutions they find, or the people who present themselves as their leaders, but as an American citizen, I don’t dismiss the profound unease of 70% of my fellow citizens with the country they are living in. I’m not that arrogant.
As you know, Americans are a very patient people. They know how fortunate they are, and they try to make the best of the arrangements they have. And when you see that 70%-80% of them don’t believe that their leaders are honest, or that the information that they receive from the press is real, that’s a symptom of a much larger problem.
I understood your point. You say that if we have Trump, it is because the American elites failed to reply to some questions, to the objections to globalization.
But I’m not sure you are right. Because Trump is not just an American problem. We all have Trump. Trump is everywhere. It is because the liberals have provisionally failed.
So, there is a failure. But it is not a failure of the elites to reply to some questions. It is an abandonment by the liberals of true liberal values. This has something to do with our relationship to radical Islam. It has something to do with our indulgence of anti-Semitism. It has something to do with anti-Americanism among the liberals. It has something to do with all of that. And also forgetting the virtues of universal values.
The failure of the liberals that made the Trumps possible is 20 years old now. And I would add something, which is part of the same story. Twenty years ago, a little less, you had a Republican Party that committed a very bad political mistake, which was the intervention in Iraq.
It was a big mistake. We all know that. But the transformation of that political mistake into a moral mistake, and then transforming the people who made that mistake into fascists, as was done in America and in the West, also opened the door to the possibility of Trump. I was one of the liberals who was against the Iraq War.
Me too. I wrote that the war would be a decadelong disaster before it even started, which is when that discussion mattered.
But the truth is that very few American liberals were against the war. They were all for it, right up until things went obviously wrong. Then they all scrambled to the other side and made big speeches and lots of snide comments against the thing they were for. Their idea was they would leave George Bush holding the body bag.
Yes, but transforming those who actually made this war into fascists, into embodiment of evil, into enemies of the principle of democracy, this was stupid. It beheaded the American right. It disqualified all the decent members of the GOP. And, thus it opened the road to populism. Because these people made a bad mistake, but they were not bad people. They were not in the majority animated by bad intentions. They were not fascists. They were democrats and anti-fascists who were misled into making a bad decision.
Transforming them, as we did, a lot of us, a lot of the liberals, into fascists, helped to erase and eradicate a whole population within the Republican party and on the American right.
That’s a very smart point. It radicalized the Republicans and discredited the party elite. Trump then reaped the fruits of that. Then again, they deserved to be discredited, because their decisions were failures.
You are a person with a strong affinity for America. You have chosen America as a primary object of your intellectual focus and affection for 50 years. Now you see that same America being routinely described as a white supremacist project, that slavery defines it, that statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are monuments to the white supremacist project and must be pulled down.
Is that the America you fell in love with, and that you thought was worth writing books about and understanding and championing?
I fell in love with a place that fought so strongly against its own demons. And for me, to fight against your own demons, to fight against yourself, and against the part of yourself which is bad, is one of the best things which can happen to a human being or to a human community. To face the dark parts of ourselves, to confront it, and to try to defeat it, this is greatness. Not to deny, not to celebrate it of course, but not to deny it either. To confront and fight.
I have spent all my life trying to support particular liberation movements—sometimes by war, and if possible without war, of course. But how can I forget that one of the best and most influential wars of liberation was America’s?
The America I fell in love with is an America that knew that slavery is the ugliest crime. And knowing that, exceedingly, constantly, with all means by law, fights against that. This is one of the most noble things that a country can do and America does that—and still does it, by the way.
I don’t see any fatigue in this process of fighting against your own demons. It continues and that’s great.
But to fight against American demons, or European demons certainly doesn’t consist of breaking statues. That is denying, erasing the past. Which is blinding ourselves.
What positive lessons might Americans have to learn from their own past and from their own founding?
First of all, anti-fascism. The victory over fascism. This is America.
Second, the founding generation of Americans, who became the repository throughout the 19th century of the best of the European Enlightenments.
The project of America was a safety net. The creed of Europe is falling apart in Europe, and we are going to replant, refresh and rebuild this creed. This is what America has to be proud of. This is what the Pilgrims and then the founding fathers of America had in mind.
Define for Americans some of the aspects of that Enlightenment creed that they nurtured and refreshed during the 19th century.
Freedom of speech. Respect for the other as a democratic equal. The fight against the racist part of your own society. The fight against fascism when it came also to American society. You had fascist parties, but they never flourished, really. In America, fascism was quickly combated and defeated. All of these are values and accomplishments to be proud of.
And the thing America should be more proud of than anything is the fact that it is one of the very few, maybe two, maybe three countries in the world that are in fact based on an idea. The most noble part of humanity, that which makes us humans different from anything else in creation, is the fact that we are animals producing ideas. You have one country in the world which is based on the production of an idea, and from the development of an idea, which is America.
What you American citizens have in common is not really a memory, it is a false memory. You have Irish earth, German earth, French earth and so on. What you really have in common is the belief in an idea. It is a souvenir of a pure Rousseau moment, when some people crazily coming from all parts of the world, of Europe assembled and said, “Let’s make a nation.” Completely unprecedented in history. Honestly, it was something that was imagined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social contract. People assemble—think of a reason, and say “Why not make a nation?”
Everybody mocked Jean-Jacques Rousseau for that, “this is completely stupid, it never happens like this. Nations are built patiently.”
Like a tree growing in the earth, and so on. Which is true, except for America, and except for Israel by the way. They are the two cases of a social contract.
America is the history of people, poor people, miserable people, coming from the most devastated places in Europe, survivors of the wars of religions who came in poor vessels, gathering and saying, “Why not try to build a nation?” A nation based on true fidelity, true faithfulness, to the true values which are burning in Europe.
These values are burning. We are going to refresh them and revise them. This is what the founders of America said. And this is admirable. And this is America. This is what I admire, and what I fell in love with, when I realized that it existed.
I remember rather well, by the way, when I read Rousseau. It was the same time when I made my first trip in America in the ’60s. I came to America because of rock ’n’ roll.
I came for Elvis Presley. But what I found was Rousseau. And I fell in love with that crazy book that I was taught about in my philosophy class in France, and which had appeared to me, at the beginning, to be completely idiotic. It was in 1966, ’67. It was real. It was America. Fighting America, struggling America, struggling against its demons, but fighting. And I loved it.
That was my discovery of America.
Americans these days seem to be in shock. They have lost the thread of their own history and culture, and this sense of what the American accomplishment was. I think that the current disconnect between Americans and their own history, which is being replaced in part by ignorant, one-dimensional and sometimes actively malicious retellings of that history, is a terrible thing, both for Americans and for the world.
It’s like watching a giant that had a lobotomy. To see a giant walking through the world is one thing. But to see a giant that can’t remember its own name, or where it’s going and why, or has been told that it is not a giant but actually a rabbit or a snake, is much more frightening, because it will hurt itself and it will hurt others. I fear that.
For example, it is so obvious that the Revolution in America should be an inspiration to the world much more than the French Revolution. But I see more and more Americans who deny that, and who believe that there is much more substance in the concept of the French Revolution and all its other offspring in the 19th and 20th centuries than in the concept of the American Revolution.
Here is another example, the concept of a war of liberation. I have spent all my life trying to support particular liberation movements—sometimes by war, and if possible without war, of course. But how can I forget that one of the best and most influential wars of liberation was America’s? America is a country that came out of a movement for decolonization. And it was incredibly successful.
I’m old enough to have seen so many liberation movements that failed, and which instead produced some new authoritarian if not totalitarian forms of government. The decolonization process that gave birth to America did not produce this. And that’s why America should be analyzed and celebrated much more.
You made a striking remark in a short piece you wrote for Tablet, about the sudden disappearance, the failure to acknowledge and recognize the position of the individual writer and thinker who goes out into the world and wants to see and understand and make human contact and extend human sympathy and observe reality as themselves, rather than as the representative of some party or a tendency.
Or an identity.
I think the failure to recognize that position and that endeavor, the suspicion of it, the denial of it, is everywhere. In its place is the idea that everybody must be a propagandist for some defined identity bloc or political vertical, and anyone who says otherwise is lying—or else the activity itself is seen as strange and impermissible. Everyone must be a political spokesman or operative.
That strikes me as something that’s very dangerous to humanistic values and to the traditional activities and role of the intellectual. And I see this posture as to some extent being produced by the new platforms and the logic of machines.
Yes. It is Facebook politics. Facebook politics can be on the right, or on the left, but it is all the same. The premise is that you address a group that is feeling the same, probably looking the same—or thinking they all look the same. And this loses the best of the liberal spirit, which is precisely to fight for something which is not identical to you.
Liberal politics cannot be identity politics. It cannot be. It is a contradiction in terms. Liberal politics cannot be something else other than the politics where you go out of your supposed identity, where you expatriate yourself, and go to the people who look the least like you as possible.
You try to embrace their cause. And you try to help. And you try to build bridges. Certainly not to build walls at the borders of your identity group. This is Facebook, not liberalism.
This is what we are seeing more and more.
It is true that for me, if my relatives are attacked, I will defend my relatives. When the Jews are attacked, I’m the first one on the barricade. When Israel is demonized, 100% I’m among the first on the barricade. But I know that I would not be who I am if I was not also trying to fight for others when it is possible to embrace a cause that is not evidently mine—and who might even make my so-called identity shiver, crumble. This is the way a human being behaves. You have no liberalism in the American sense without this attempt, to step out of yourself. If you don’t try that, you are just another conservative moron.
Agreed. It’s why I became a reporter instead of a historian. I feel that encounter, that effort, which became a kind of reflex or instinct in people like yourself, and which people like me emulated in our own lives and work, the way you inspired me to first go to Bosnia, is foreign to the generation that grew up on the internet. The price for the messiness of human encounters, and for taking exploratory risks, or of risking who you think you are and what you think you believe, is simply too high, both emotionally and in the real world.
I am grateful every day that I grew up in a moment where this constant fear of surveillance and punishment didn’t exist except in novels and books by Foucault. I think it warps and diminishes the souls of its users, who are trapped in the machine like rats. I know that I wouldn’t have survived it.
I’m the same case.
Yeah. Well, Bernard, it is great to see your face. But I can’t wait to actually see you in person.
Me too. And to hug. I will not be satisfied with this sort of relationship.
(Laughs.) Exactly. This virus sucks. I’ve had enough of Zoom.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.