“I’ll tell you what cancel culture is,” says Bernard-Henri Lévy. “It’s a school of imbecility churning out ever more imbeciles. And it’s profoundly dangerous.” I hadn’t imagined the French “rock star” philosopher would be a fan, but this is gold. In a climate where interviewees are all too often fearful of saying the wrong thing and opinions are watered down to nothing, a conversation with the man known only as BHL in France is as robust and satisfying as a Sunday roast. And he’s only just getting started. “Every relationship we have with another human being should be both welcoming and worrying,” Lévy goes on, warming to his theme. “It’s essential to have both, and for your convictions to be challenged and imperiled by another’s. So in that way cancel culture goes against the very contract of life; it’s the opposite of life – and living.”
It’s also the opposite of philosophy. Which is another reason for BHL’s wrath. Even if throughout our interview that wrath is mostly expressed in low, measured, slightly weary tones. “Of course this was all predicted by the [20th century philosopher] Alexandre Kojève,” the Algerian-born 72-year-old goes on. “He wrote that humanity would regress to an animalistic, vegetative state – everyone in their own little burrow. And he was right.”
With his trademark black Charvet suit, crisp white shirt (still unbuttoned, if not quite to the navel these days), and of course the baroque hairstyle that inspired one satirist’s line “God is dead, but my hair is beautiful”, the wealthy son of a timber magnate looks perfectly at home in the softly-lit Knightsbridge hotel bar in which we meet. Yet this is a man who has spent the past 50 years travelling to war-torn countries across the world, a man who somehow even managed to get to Bangladesh (catching the last plane out when the first lockdown was announced), the Greek island of Lesbos and Afghanistan over the course of the pandemic. And his forthcoming book, The Will To See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, charts the terrifying and inspiring scenes and people he came across on those travels.
Before we get to the big battles, however – the ones that really matter – I’m curious to know how he feels about another little clash: the one going on right now between our two countries, after a recent series of diplomatic spats. “You know Brexit really wounded us,” he tells me. “It’s not that I feel there’s any real resentment for Brits out in France… It’s more of a disappointed love.” But that wound can heal? “Oh, France and England will always find a way to meet in the middle. And Brexit might not be forever. Johnson won’t necessarily be there for much longer, will he? So maybe then our friendship can be reborn.” Ask Lévy what he thinks of our Prime Minister, and a small smile plays on his lips. “We crossed paths when he was a journalist and in Brussels…” And? “There’s a word you Brits use: ‘jolly’.” It’s said with a moue of distaste. “Well, he’s ‘a jolly guy’.” But do you want a jolly guy in charge of the country? “I don’t. But hey, maybe British people do.”
When you’ve witnessed the kinds of things BHL has in Eritrea, Bosnia or Afghanistan – which he has visited seven times over the years – one can see why “jolly” might be given short shrift. Yet in The Will To See he writes that he never experiences “any real fear, nor any special pride in not fearing”.
The last time he was in Panjshir, however, visiting Ahmad Massoud in September 2020, the 32-year-old leader of the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front, what Lévy felt sounds a lot like fear. “It was my last day there and I had made an impromptu speech [of support] to Massoud’s people,” he tells me. “A speech that it only occurred to me mid-flow would be filmed on peoples’ mobile phones. So in the hours that followed it was posted on social media, and when it was time to leave I realised that the route between Panjshir and Kabul was peppered with Taliban checkpoints.” He falls silent, winces. “That was not a good moment. Let’s just say that I had to find a different way out of there.”
Over the course of previous trips Lévy had got to know the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by the Taliban in 2001. But until last year he hadn’t seen the former resistance leader’s eldest son since he was a boy. “I spent hours with him last year and he talked a lot about his heritage. I was struck by the physical and moral resemblance: the strength of his desire to carry on his father’s work, as well as by his sense of duty. It’s always surprising to see someone who is not made for war deciding to enter into one. Because this is a man who likes gardening and astrology – a man who is not made for war.”
Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan in August was “infuriating” for two reasons, he tells me. “Firstly, because Biden didn’t actually have to follow through with Trump’s plan. He reversed a lot of Trump’s decisions, so why not that one? That was the first catastrophic error. And secondly because of the way in which he did it.”
The oft-touted concept of a “forever war” “is absurd”, Lévy scoffs. “It wasn’t a ‘forever war’ but a military and diplomatic presence there to dissuade Islamists from coming back and setting up their Al-Qaeda training camps again – to stop them preparing new attacks against Afghan women and the West.” In which case that presence should have remained there forever? “Why wouldn’t you? America has been in Germany for 75 years and in South Korea for the past 50. How many American military bases are there all over the world? Leaving 2500 men in Afghanistan was not absurd. My theory on interventionalism has always been this: it will inevitably cost more not to intervene – and in every sense. In lives, in money, in honour.”
On his first visit to the country in 1981, Lévy helped set up Radio Free Kabul. Then in 2002, when sent by former president Jacques Chirac on an official mission to find ways of building a nation out of the chaos left by the Taliban and American bombs, the philosopher created and financed one of the first free papers in Afghanistan, the now-defunct News of Kabul. So he’s deeply saddened by the way the media have chosen to concentrate on the “evil” West rather the heinous acts perpetrated by the Taliban.
“People have lost all sense – all intelligence! No society is perfect, but the Taliban are the absolute worst,” he says with a shake of the head. “And there had been so much improvement. I had seen first-hand a civil society affirming itself, a democratic revolution that was starting to spread. There was a flourishing of the press and a very large number of women had started to liberate themselves. So I’m absolutely shocked by the idea that ‘we failed in Afghanistan’. We did not fail. There were errors and failures of course: there was money lost to corruption and a bad president. But having that presence there had meant an extraordinary eclosion, which I had personally witnessed.”
In his book, Lévy makes the point that “even the most archaic cultures” can evolve and reform themselves, alongside religions. “Think about it. Christianity reformed itself, Judaism reformed itself, and Islam is absolutely compatible with French or British cultures. It too can reform itself. But we need to stop seeing cultures as blocks,” he insists. “Back in Voltaire’s time drawing and quartering was still practised in France, but thankfully there were Frenchmen who believed that particular practice should be removed from our culture. Similarly, the death penalty existed in our country until 1981. England was once a chauvinist country, imbued with racism, but look at you now! Then there’s the American way of life, which is absolutely respectable, but the possession of weapons of war is not consubstantial with their culture. So why the moment we start to talk about poor countries do certain cultural aspects become sacred things that one cannot touch? It’s madness.”
I’m aware that time is pressing and that Lévy’s publicist is ready to whisk him off to an event before he heads back to Paris, but before she does I want to know about the second part of the equation in his book title. The “misery” is all too clear to see, after all. But where does he see “hope”? “Oh I’ve found hope in the least humane places: in the refugee camps of Lesbos, for example, where I saw people who had lost everything able to stand up straight and keep their dignity. When you see the incredible resistance human beings can have to everything that has tried to destroy them? That is the incarnation of hope.” And with that, BHL vanishes into the night.
The Will To See by Bernard-Henri Lévy is published by Yale University Press on 26th October. £16.99.