BHL’s wager

Hitchens reads Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new book.

He can take a long time to show how agonized he is by leftist compromises with every disgraced regime and ideology from Slobodan Milosevic to Islamic jihadism, but the effort expended is worthwhile and shows some of the scars of political warfare from Bangladesh to Bosnia. He is much readier to defend Israel as a democratic cause than are most leftists and many Jews, but he was early in saying that a Palestinian state was a good idea, not because it would appease Arab and Muslim grievances but for its own sake. (This distinction strikes me as both morally and politically important.)

Well yes – very important indeed. Grievances (as I have pointed out more than once) are only as good as they are, and no one should appease them if they stink. It is a grievance to many people that women should be able to go outside without permission; it is a grievance to many people that gays should no longer be ostracized or persecuted; it is a grievance to many people that the pope has limited powers; it is a grievance to many (other) people that sharia is not the law of the world. Grievances, like so many things, have to be judged on their merits.

One could actually have gone further and argued that the totalitarian temptation now extends to an endorsement of Islam­ism as the last, best hope of humanity against the American empire. I could without difficulty name some prominent leftists, from George Galloway to Michael Moore, who have used the same glowing terms to describe “resistance” in, say, Iraq as they would once have employed for the Red Army or the Vietcong. Trawling the intellectual history of Europe, as he is able to do with some skill, Lévy comes across an ancestor of this sinister convergence in a yearning remark confided to his journal by the fascist writer Paul Claudel on May 21, 1935: “Hitler’s speech; a kind of Islamism is being created at the center of Europe.”

That’s the totalitarian temptation all right – no part of life left to the discretion of the owner; everything supervised and controlled and specified (left foot first on entering the toilet); no idling, wandering, dreaming, inventing. Totalism in all directions, as far as the eye can see.

In conclusion, Lévy repudiates radical sympathy with theocracy, and indeed theology, by inverting Pascal and saying that “we have to make an antiwager that we can win not by betting on the existence but on the nonexistence of God. That’s the price of democracy. And the alternative, the only one, is the devil and his legions of murderous angels.”

The die is cast.

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