Mark Danner

Bernard-Henri Lévy Faces off With Mark Danner on the Forces of Good and Evil

Author: LaNew York-aise


Do we inhabit a post-ideological world? That was the question moderator Caroline Weber posed to the French intellectual known simply as “BHL” and his American pairing for the conference, Mark Danner (who humbly requested to be referred to as “M-D” in a French accent for the remainder of the panel.)

 In true BHL fashion, Lévy arrived in perfectly cut French suit, unbuttoned white shirt, and a sky-blue scarf, which he wore on stage only to remove before speaking (scarf is to French intellectual what Flag pin is to American politician.)

Weber: Are the biggest ideological dangers on the horizon?

“In 1989, an old and enormous narrative died,” said Danner. “This narrative gave the US Purpose: to protect freedom wherever it was threatened, and to face-off against the Soviet Union.” He cited US involvement in Vietnam and South America as examples of struggles towards nationalization read as ideological battles and the advance of communization.

Donner defined a brief moment of post-ideology during the Clinton years, an era that ended with éclat: September 11, 2001. Within days, he says, the U.S. and Bush had a new and potent ideology. Donner quoted Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001: “We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions— by abandoning every value except the will to power—they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

 Danner stressed that 9/11 was a single attack, a televised event, and therefore one that was highly “imagistic.” The very direct, visual way that Americans experienced 9/11 led to a close embrace of this ideological mission.

 This embrace was positive in one sense, says Danner: in placing 9/11 in a clear context for the American people, “there is an obvious enemy, it is clear who is good, who is bad, good vs. evil.”

 The disadvantage? “It is not true.”Â

“The 9/11 attackers are not heirs to “˜murderous ideals of 20th century,'” argued Danner, “this representation is responsible for the Iraq War, for the allegiance of the intellectual class— on both the left and right— to the Bush administration, and to the election of Barack Obama after the bankruptcy of this ideology.”

 He called Barack Obama’s new budget a “revolutionary document,” alluding to the foreign policy message it contains as heralding “more pragmatic problem solving, not crusading.”

 “The US has always wavered between crusades and problem solving,” Danner argued, “but it was only in the last half of the century that we have had the power to carry out this philosophy.”

 Yet Danner does not let the right take all the blame for this century’s misfortunes: he argues that communism’s strong ideologies prohibit individuals from forming a clear vision of the world: “Ideological visions are comforting, but dangerous,” he warned.

Any ideology taken to the extreme is a danger. That is why term “fanatical” can be added to the phrases “left-wing” or “right-wing” and everyone knows to steer clear. But a world without ideology? That is like saying America is a country without racism now that Barack Obama is President, the memory of segregation a scant half-a-century before forgotten.

 In history, there are rarely exact “watershed” dates (9/11 and the attitude change of the American people is one of them). With the Internet and film making the remote immediate, this type of watershed effect will only increase. Yet while the fall of the Berlin Wall brought about many changes to the physical structures of governments, it did not undo the ideological damage of decades of totalitarian regimes in the minds of millions. To refuse to believe that a Middle-Eastern man can pick up the shattered bricks of the totalitarian dream in Europe and bring it to his own country is pure vanity, a fact that BHL played upon in his rebuttal.

BHL began simply enough, emphasizing what he had in common with his American colleague: they had crossed paths during the Bosnian War, and both were adversaries of the War in Iraq at an early stage. But where Donner argues that the individuals behind the 9/11 attacks are not part of the heritage of fascist ideology, BHL argued that they could be qualified as fascists because they qualified themselves this way.

 BHL held up the diary of Mohammed Atta as an example. He argued that in his own writings, Ata inscribed himself in the tradition of European fascism: this ideological heritage was not the invention of George Bush, Mr. Karl Rove, or Mr. Dick Cheney. “Atta was a real admirer of Hitler and fascist totalitarianism, and should be taken seriously.”

 BHL stressed that Atta was a “learned man, a well educated man — he has read as many books as you and me, Mark.”

 BHL argued that today [the “age of Barack”] is “not the transfer of one time to another. After the Berlin Wall fell, the world was not de-ideologized.” He cited the example of Hezbollah and the divisiveness in the Middle East, issues that continued despite the ideological dearth that Danner identified in his own country.

 “I don’t believe in a world without ideology,” said BHL. He argued that the panelists should take the debate out of American and Euro-centrist examples, and view the world through the eyes of “an Algerian woman eviscerated by her beliefs; they eyes of a Pakistani young girl, buried alive for her refusal to go through with a planned wedding…intellectuals are hunted in killed in countries that are more moderate,” he said.

 “We cannot and must not pour old schemes and patterns on realities of today. But to say there is no pattern at all, to not try to identify patterns today is to justify, to multiply crimes. It seems to be a defeat of intelligence or at least a lack of will to understand and to fight,” argued BHL.

 Danner, ignoring Levy’s proposal to take the argument “out of the West,”  retorted: “We have different recent political experiences.”

 “I’m not saying there are no ideals in the world, it is the idea of making an ideology of Malik Sheihk Mohammed into an ideal homologue or equal to Soviet Communism, that requires a crusade from the US, and that has been very damaging to this country, and to the Middle East,” he said.

Danner continued: “The idea that Saddam is fascist, that Bin Laden is fascist, that everyone is fascist and the US is bound to fight them is dangerous.” In Iraq, he argues, we forgot the practical concerns of the reality of a divided country with a sectarian make-up that led to Saddam’s ascension to power in the first past, and made these pragmatic concerns secondary to an intellectual ideology of pure good and evil. We were not, Danner argues, prepared to fight, wage, or win a war.

 The upside in all this, Danner says, is that Americans recognized the large-scale suffering occurring in Iraq. The downside, however, was that that Americans “conflate one thing with another and lead a crusade without realizing what is possible and what damage will be done if the crusade fails…we fought for our ideals with the bodies of Iraqis.”

 “America is a spotlight,” Danner said, “when it moves, the ruins and bodies are left and we forget all about it.”

 In this final evaluation, Danner is spot-on.