CD: It’s very good to see you. The American Interest is always happy to have you in its orbit. Congratulations on the new book. In it, you take us from pessimism to optimism. I was getting very depressed, and then the tide turned, and I felt very good by the end of things.
You start out very upset about what has happened to the Kurds and the way in which the United States has abandoned them. And you take us through America’s foreign policy retrenchment from its previous involvement with the world. But you also have some reflections about America from within. So could you take us through these ideas, which I suppose are in the realm of pessimism. We’ll spend some time on that, and then leave more time, I hope, for the optimism.
BHL: The pessimism comes from the evidence of American abdication. It appeared very clear to me when I was in Kurdistan, and when I saw how these people, who were our most valiant allies, who would fight for our values, who were our boots on the ground, were abandoned. And that for me was a sign of a broader abdication. It was a sign of a new trend in American policy: Leaving the ground to rogue governments or rogue countries who don’t share at all our concerns and values and who are even our enemies.
So the book starts with that—with this mystery of America accepting to leave the battlefield, to let Putin, Erdogan, the Five Kings in general, occupy all the space they want, and this against not only the most elementary sense of honor, but also against your and our best interests.
CD: How did we allow this to happen? What is it about Americans and what has happened in the last say 10-20 years that has encouraged this change in American attitudes?
BHL: I think that we lost—you, we friends of America—lost the most important thing, which is the sense of what founds America. America is not any country, it’s a country that was built upon the belief in a mission, in a duty. And this is part of its DNA. This duty could be fulfilled more or less well, of course. There can be mistakes. But there is no America without this feeling and this conviction. That America has a special duty. And the key point is not abdication of this or that president—this is a phase, this is an episode. The key point is that the country is losing its sense of, or getting far away from, what it has that is special.
The question is, is this just a phase of isolationism, which America knew very often? Or is it something else? Is it a deeper moment? I believe that it is, that this is not only one oscillation between isolationism and engagement. I believe it is something else, which I try to grasp and describe in this book.
CD: One of the most interesting parts of the book is your analysis of technology and the role it may be playing in enabling this disquiet of the mind, and some of the political apathy that we have. Do you want to talk some more about that? You refer to GAFA—Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon—and how in some ways this is a resurgence of American power, but how it also poses all sorts of political problems.
BHL: This is not merely a resurgence. It is in a sense the climax of American power. America has never been so powerful than with this GAFA. But two questions: Number one: Is it still America, these GAFAs? Are they America or are they something else? Are they world companies? And number two: If they are powerful, are they powerful for what? For what aim, for what targets? And my fear is that they are powerful, these GAFA, they are—they could be, or they could remain—powerful for nothing. Powerful for promoting the nothing—le rien.
CD: So what’s the interaction between GAFA and politics?
BHL: There are many. They are remolding the society, the relationship we have with others. They are remolding the relationship between the self itself—us and us—our memory, for example. They are remolding the system of domination by generalizing a model which classical philosophy knows well—the model of the panopticon—Bentham. And they interfere with politics by changing also the sense we have of what has historically been called the truth—la vérité. We are facing a collapse of the very idea of truth, of the existence of truth, of the essence of truth, the undermining of which the GAFAs bear responsibility.
CD: And as you mentioned they are governed by no law.
BHL: They are governed by no law, right. But more important than that, the digital revolution achieved a goal that for a liberal (like me) can only be really good news. Which is to give everyone the freedom and the power to speak, to express themselves. This is very good news for me, that the power of speech that was held in a few hands since forever is now for everyone. This is miraculous.
But then came the second moment—the second revolution—when those who did have for the first time the right, not only to speak, but to have their words inscribed in the universal archive of the internet, demanded something else. They demanded that their speech should be considered—should be respected!—as one expression among others, without any privilege or disdain for the truth.
This was the second part of the revolution. The first one was undoubtedly great. The second one becomes undoubtedly problematic. The demand and the way in which it has been implied, by saying yes, that there should be no difference regarding the distance toward the truth between two statements—this demand is really a weapon of destruction of what had been called since the time of Greek philosophy “the truth”. This is the real attack against what makes societies possible.
I don’t mean that this is irreversible. I’m sure that this can be reversed—if the best women and men of these GAFAs decide.
CD: You talk about this as a system invented by a handful of companies, under which most of humanity now lives. And you refer to that as a scopocracy. Can you tell us what is meant by that?
BHL: The right for everyone to go and look in the intimacy of everyone. The possibility of a universal bridge into the fortress of secrecy. Now there is virtually no secrecy.
CD: So where does that leave us in terms of democracy?
BHL: Democracy supposes a part of secrecy. Democracy supposes of course control of the bad guys, control of criminal activities, capacity of punishment. It supposes a pocket of opacity, of secrecy, for each one of us. A have or a have-not, powerful or powerless, we all have the right to a private life, to a part of night, to a part of shadow. To a sanctuary, where the eye of the other, the big other or of the little other who is my neighbor, cannot look. Orwell imagined a world where Big Brother will be watching each of us. Well, there is worse that Big Brother, which is Little Brother, which is just the company nearby. My supposed follower on Facebook, my stalker, or your stalker on Instagram—this is Little Brother, who is always watching us. And millions of Little Brothers are watching us. It becomes a rather hellish society.
CD: Well that’s where we end up in the first half of the book: we have the retrenchment of America, we have the GAFA-induced scopocracy, and at that point one sort of feels like jumping off a bridge. Then we get to part two. And part two starts with an examination of the Five Kingdoms that are on the offensive. So why don’t we go quickly through the five of them and the particular threats that each of one represents to the fate of the world.
BHL: The threat is two-fold. Number one, there is a threat against their own people and, and among their own people, those who fight for democracy, human rights, and open society. First of all. But second, they are our enemies. They are my enemy, they are your enemies, they are the enemies of most of your readers, because they hate all that we are. They hate the best we are. The Five—they don’t hate our possible tendency to tyranny. They don’t hate our possible tendency to corruption. They hate our love for freedom. They hate our practice of equality for men and women. They hate our free spirit. They hate all that. And they are now on the breach of the barricade, taking advantage of some parties, some groups, sometimes some presidents, whom they infantilize, over whom they have leverage, to whom they give money…
CD: I can’t imagine who you’re thinking of, but …
BHL: Well, until I see the report of Robert Mueller, I’m like every decent American asking questions about the sort of leverage, which one of the Five Kings—maybe the most dangerous one, Vladimir Putin—has on the president of America.
CD: So then you talk about these Five Kings. All five of these Kingdoms used to be empires, and you go into how there are very few examples in history of empires being resuscitated. And so, this is where things get quite optimistic, because then you go through the weaknesses of these Five Kings. Can you very briefly just summarize what you think the weaknesses of each one is.
BHL: There are two weaknesses. First is that there is, except the West, no serious example of an empire that died and revived. Is it a law of history? I don’t know, but at least it’s a regularity. And number two, an empire, in order to impose its law to the rest of the world, needs more than violence, coercion—even trade. It needs a vision of the world, it needs a spirit. It needs a body of values that address, not a part of humanity, but humanity in its entirety. There is a mission in a real empire. There is a mission. When I look at what I call the Five Kings, none of them today has needed a mission. Or if they have it, they obviously don’t have for the moment the means to achieve it.
I saw on a recent cover of your magazine, Russia being a “zombie state”. As you know it is a phrase I use throughout my book. For me they are a zombie empire. Zombie meaning dead and alive at the same time. The body is alive, the soul is dead. Can you make a real, threatening empire with a living body and a dead soul? No. If it continues in this way, we should be optimistic—under the condition of course that we are not zombies, too…
CD: I think we could jump to the surprise that you deliver in the last few pages. We see America in retreat, and then you have a comment about how Western civilization in general may not be as weak as some think, and may be able to have a comeback. The big surprise in the last few pages is when you talk about Europe as being perhaps the savior of Western civilization. It’s wonderfully hidden, this conclusion. Because one doesn’t suspect it until it hits, just in these last few pages…
BHL: Europe was saved by America. Two times. And now, America seems to have decided, at least under this administration, that Europe should mind her own business. Even NATO, under Donald Trump, seems to be something that is no longer engraved in marble. So, what to do? America is in the process of breaking with Europe, turning its back to the part of European values that made America.
Then what happens? These values, which were European, which then migrated to America and bloomed in America, if the root of them begins to die—to come into necrosis… That’s how I finished my book. Maybe that should be the way back. It came from Europe to America, taken like treasury by these Aeneases. Maybe we will find some new Aeneases, taking these values back, making them bloom in Europe again.
CD: So this time it will be Europe to the rescue.
BHL: Then it might be Europe, at least to act as a conservatory—a living conservatory of these values—without which there is neither Europe nor America.
CD: This could bring us to your recent action, this extraordinary letter that you composed, which was signed I guess by thirty leading European intellectuals, where you’re really trying to pick up the flag and lead things forward. Do you want to just tell us a word or two about that? And also I would be very interested if you could tell us a little bit about your view of the intellectual in society, and what you think of that in terms of America and American intellectuals.
BHL: This text is a manifesto—a wake-up manifesto—which was signed by thirty of the best European writers. When the text was published with these thirty signatures, I came to the thought, to the dream, the dreamy thought, that the thirty composed a strange, beautiful, and even amazing patchwork. But more than patchwork, a puzzle. And more than a puzzle, maybe the elements of this unfindable object, which I spent all my life to seek, which is the European culture. This idea struck me: these thirty together compose together, they form, they embody European culture. All European identity, all the soul of Europe. This soul of Europe, which is hidden somewhere. Maybe kidnapped, as the first European princess was by Zeus. Maybe she is hidden somewhere. But findable in the books of these artists. I strongly believe—and this is for me is the sense of this manifesto—that any Chinese, any Russian, any Venezuelan could read pieces of this, and would have a very clear idea of what it means to be a European.
CD: Could something like this emanate from American intellectuals? What would be an American version of something like this, if it were to occur?
BHL: I would love an American manifesto of true American patriotism, written and signed by writers who have all their identity, coming from the particularity of the state in which they are working, the community out of which they stem. You have writers in this country whose voice owes to a community from where they come, but in which they still have roots, from the state of America where they were bred, and to which they are still in debt. All of them could reaffirm something which is not lost but in the process of being lost, also in America, which is American patriotism.
CD:Well, Bernard-Henri, thank you very much and I hope that the community, the intellectual community around The American Interest, will be inspired by these words and by your actions. Thank you very much.
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