Clash of the Titans

Philosophy greats Bernard-Henri Levy and Slavoj Zizek met last month in New York to discuss the legacy of the 1968 revolutions in Europe, morality, charity and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

New York, late September. Two days after AIG is bailed out, one week before the first presidential debate. Gusts from Texas blow showers from Hurricane Ike all the way to 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue where, at the New York Public Library, the real showdown takes place. This clash of titans, between superstar philosophers Bernard-Henri Levy and Slavoj Zizek, will determine the moral future of the world.

Armageddon never seemed closer at hand. Over the Swiss border, people are fearful that the "Big Bang" experiment will create a black hole. In the United States, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama declares himself a soldier in God's war on evil, and Sarah Palin appears on the front pages, grinning over bloody carcasses.

Here in Manhattan, the philosopher/contenders make their way onstage, accompanied by the James Bond theme. To the right: the Vanity Fair-dubbed superman and prophet - the filmmaker, and human-rights activist Frenchman Bernard-Henri Levy. He has his signature unbuttoned Egyptian-cotton shirt on, a designer suit and curls that seem to have been coiffed individually by 100 virgins. To the left: scruffy and tousle-haired, in jeans and T-shirt, the man who was denounced in Israel as an anti-Semite and in Egypt as a Zionist - the feverish Elvis of cultural criticism, the charming, sputtering Slovenian radical Slavoj Zizek. Both are rock stars as well as movie stars: Zizek stars in his own film "The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema" (directed by Sophie Fiennes); Levy played a U.S. presidential candidate opposite Sharon Stone in a film by Francesco Vezzoli, screened at last year's Venice Biennale.

Today both are here to peddle new books: Levy's "Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism" and Zizek's "Violence." Both tackle the student uprising of May 1968 and its effects on political power relations between Western capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism. In the audience, the ever-prevalent former fatwa victim and current Playboy mansion guest: Sir Salman Rushdie.

Levy's first shot pertains to May 1968. "The revolution will not happen tomorrow, we were told before: The revolution will happen, but not here, not today, not to you. Not here, but in Cuba, in China, in [the] Soviet Union, not today but some other time. Not to you, to somebody else. For the first time, it was: 'Here, now, us.' Here, in France. Now, at this very moment, without waiting [for] anything ... Not the party. All of us."

He speaks slowly, with an occasional new-wave cinema frown that lends him the elegance and severity he wishes to infuse into the morality under discussion as well. For him, May 1968 was the moment in which philosophy's dream, from Aristotle to Hegel, of reversing the power-relations between the governing and the governed, was about to come true.

The hippie mask

But Levy's portrayal of the noble falls short of Zizek's savage and frenzied act. Zizek wishes to address "the problem of what happened a couple of months later, in August '68 in Prague. The commonplace [thought] is [that] a brutal Soviet invasion, the tanks, crushed the hope of the Prague Spring. I claim the opposite: They saved the dream ... I don't think there was a serious possibility of a new, truly democratic Socialist country [there]."

He flaps his arms in the empty air and strokes his beard, his eyes shooting forth crazy sea-god sparks: Had the Soviets not invaded, he says, "either Czechoslovakia would have become part of the West, or they would have to stop. I think that paradoxically, the very Soviet intervention kept the dream alive. And I have the same problem with May '68. Yes, I agree with what you say - this pure revolution, intensity, no party state to take over. But what was the ultimate possibility? ... Do you really think there was a chance of a new society?"

"Of course not," Levy replies. "There was the possibility of what happened after, which was a huge intellectual, moral, and political reform of France. The world changed in France because of this attempt of '68. The women were more free, the gays were more affirmative, the power had less power, the people had more rights - Western Europe believed stupidly [at the time] that the resources were infinite, that scarcity did not exist. And there was a feeling of youth and of immortality, and immortal youth was the main whiff, the main smell of all those people demonstrating."

"Now you appear more leftist than me," Zizek says, gently scraping the hypocrisy beneath Levy's celebrated liberalism. "I am the first to agree with you that these are real achievements, we shouldn't make fun of them." Nevertheless, he adds, he is fascinated by the way in which the May 1968 events helped, as he puts it, to "give a new push to capitalism."

"How do we consume today [in the United States] when you have a commodity to buy?" Zizek continues. "It's no longer [at] the primitive level, 'Buy this car because it's the best, uses less gasoline.' Isn't it that today we are more and more addressed, even by publicity, as 'Buy this car, because, for example, it's a Land Rover, you can drive into nature, you can realize your authentic self, it's part of self-realization,' and so on? "

"Or take the organic food. Do you really believe that if you buy the so-called organic apples, which are usually more rotten and cost half more, do you really believe that they are more healthy? No: It makes you feel well, like, 'My God, I participate in something great, I'm not just a stupid consumer' ... They practically make you feel that with each Starbucks coffee, you save some Guatemalan kid from starvation or whatever.

"Let's just be aware, that's one dimension of '68," he continues. "Ethical awareness did grow [out] of it, and I'm the first to admit it. All I'm saying is, as an old-fashioned half-Marxist pessimist, let's look what baggage comes with it. What's the message we get? If you read between the lines, it's pretty cynical: 'Pay a little bit, and it will make you feel better, and you don't have to worry about it, and you don't have to politicize it, and so on.'"

That wins him his first round of applause and it's one : nought to Zizek. He goes on, remembering the "rhetoric that, 20 years ago when we were young, was the rhetoric of the left, saying to us, 'Are we aware that we live in an ivory tower, and out there people are starving?' Today the mainstream is saying this all the time. It's one way to depoliticize us: How are we today addressed by society? [It's] a kind of spiritualized Orientalism, like, 'Be true to yourself, realize your potential,' and so on ... This legacy of '68 I find problematic."

Black holes

Joyously, Zizek spreads arms out and declares to Levy: "I hope we share another point, which is - to be brutal - hatred of [director] Emir Kusturica. 'Underground' is one of the most horrible films that I've seen. What kind of Yugoslav society do you see in Kusturica's 'Underground'? A society where people fornicate, drink, fight - a kind of eternal orgy."

Linking this to Levy's description of the May revolution as "immortal youth," Zizek makes another wee turn of the screw to unhinge the hippie mask: "The moral duty today is precisely to problematize this carnivalesque, transgressive model. 'Order is bad, let's suspend the rules, let's have free excess' and so on. Do you know a detail which maybe will interest you: Mikhail Bakhtin, the great author of the theory of carnival, you know that a Russian friend told me that now they discovered some private papers from the 1930s, when he was writing his book on Francois Rabelais, and you know what was his model of carnival? Stalinist purges: We have to see '68 in all its ambiguity."

The applause, again, is vigorous.

Levy, trying to keep up with the sarcasm, comments only that Kusturica is a case in which a man is so much less intelligent than his work that it cancels out the opposite possibility. When he turns to address charity, he is on a roll. Responding to Zizek's take that charity and humanitarianism masquerade as forces that obscure the need for real political action, Levy responds: "There is good use [for] shame in politics - to terrorize people a little, even if it is at dinnertime, even if it is between the soup and the cheese, even five minutes, it's not so bad. When you go in the black holes of the planet, in Africa, in Burundi, sometimes the only people who maintain a little spark of the charity of humanity are these charity guys or women who are trying to help, it is a sort of little spark of universal values in a world that ignores them."

The moderator, Paul Holdengraeber, agrees and comments that "this library wouldn't be here if it weren't for Carnegie and charity," but then he proceeds to quote a line from Zizek's new book: "Charity is a humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation." Levy, who has traveled to all those black holes himself, continues, talking about Bosnia: "The great powers said, 'We deliver to you blankets in which to put your corpses, and for the price of that, leave us in peace and don't ask us for anything else' - [this] was really disgusting. The humanitarians themselves ... knew that they were manipulated by the powers, by the states, which washed their hands of the flesh and blood of the Bosnians, and just asked, as an illusion, as a cloud of ink, the humanitarians to do the job. Just one real perverse effect of humanitarianism and charity." Applause.

'Playing charity'

"Thank you for defending me," Zizek says, "because you see, that's my point. Let me take a step further. Two years ago, in the summer, there was a cover story in Time magazine about Congo, claiming that in the last 10 years four million people died there of unnatural causes. Of course, you can approach it in this patronizing way as a problem of charity. Poor Africans are good as victims, in the sense of objects of charity. The moment they take things into their own hands, they become warlords and so on. All these local warlords are, of course, connected with another foreign company, doing mining, diamonds, zinc, and so on. And so you have what is probably at this moment the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world. An average Congolese would probably have sold his mother into slavery to be able to move to the West Bank."

So instead of "playing charity," Zizek says, "let's just do something at the level of how we control companies, relations of capital, and maybe we can do something."

Then, he adds, "I propose, if we all agree - like Comrade Stalin says, I put this to the central committee - to [address] more difficult topics, since I mentioned the West Bank? Where is the misunderstanding about Israel, Palestine, anti-Semitism and so on? Do you want to start with your statement?"

"I've had the same opinion, unfortunately, for 40 years," Levy answers. "I believe in the solution of two states, a Palestinian state and an Israeli state recognizing each other and living in peace. I think that you have some enemies of this solution in Israeli society, but I think that you also have enemies, and more enemies, in the Arab world and in the Palestinian world."

He speaks of a split within Palestinian society and its leadership, between "democrats, who really want a compromise, who really want a good divorce, a good solution, a sharing of the earth, and some people who were inheritors of a very well-known Arab leader called [Haj Amin al-] Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who was a Nazi, who was in Berlin during World War II, who was very proud to have met Hitler, went to Auschwitz and said that he had never seen anything greater, and who was the mentor of some of the leaders of the Palestinian movement, including Yasser Arafat.

"This part of the Palestinian leadership, of course, cannot believe in this political, reasonable, acceptable solution of a good divorce and a good sharing of the earth; because they do believe, before the existence of Israel, they already believed that Jewish people, here and elsewhere, should be erased and exterminated."

Rejecting 'the lefties'

"I agree with you unconditionally that there should be no compromise with anti-Semitism," says Zizek, "in the sense that I totally reject those so-called lefties who claim, 'You know, Arabs are ...' - they don't say it, but they mean it - 'Arabs are primitive so we should excuse them if they are sometimes anti-Semitic, they suffered so much under the Israeli occupation.' Yes, ruthlessly, no compromise here."

But, he continues, "some of the Israeli establishment criticizes those groups who have doubts about the politics of the State of Israel. I couldn't not have noticed how they construct those Jews who are not fully Zionists." Here Zizek alludes directly to his friend Udi Aloni, whose radical film "Forgiveness" Zizek is promoting in New York. "I'm sorry, but there is only one historical analogy: They categorize them in exactly the same way as, 100 years ago - European states dismissed the Jews. 'You appear to be one of us, but you are not really one of us, you are rootless.'"

Zizek is clearly flabbergasted by the existence of a website like masada2000.com, which "has a list of 4,000 Jews designed ... as 'shit,' which is 'self-hating, Israel-terrorizing' Jews ... And my first idea was, 'My God, did these guys hire an old Nazi to do this?'

"If ever there is a group which should be by its nature anti-Semitic, it's American Christian fundamentalists. It's in their nature to be anti-Semitic. So how is it, my God, that all of a sudden now they fanatically support the Zionist project? I think, because they sympathize with what runs against a certain aspect of being Jewish. "

"On the American neo-Christians, the nature of their support of Israel, I am, like you, suspicious," Levy responds. "As a very devoted friend of Israel, I know that Israel has not so much support, so okay, I often say to my friends in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem: Take the support, but keep the gun under the pillow, because they are probably not the most sincere friends that you can have ... The neo-Christian Americans just want an Israel [that is] clean, ready, and in peace for the landing of the messiah."

The world, Levy explains, demanded that European countries be accountable for their fascist past: Germany, France and Italy - "all except the Arabs. They are, to some so-called liberals - the only ones who should not be accountable." As though "they are not really responsible, they are not really political subjects, and we do not have to have the same demands toward them as toward civilized people. This is disgusting, for them. And I know a lot of people in Third World countries who say that. Who say: 'Why should we be the only ones treated as children, who should not be bothered too much about their past fascism, because it is going to make us mad?' It's unacceptable.

"About Israel and the birth of Zionist anti-Semitism," Levy continues, "I think maybe, on this point, you don't know [Israel] enough. You have stupid people everywhere, you have an extreme right everywhere, and also in Israel. You have also a great rabbi who said a few years ago that the Holocaust was a punishment for crimes committed by the most innocent people in all of history, the poor Jews of Eastern Europe.

"You have also - you are right - the real movement, which is called the Canaanite movement, people who really do believe that there is no other destiny for a Jew than to be down, rooted solidly in the earth, and in the race and the blood of the ancestors, and who are against any solution. It is a tiny, tiny minority, and the proof of that is that Israel is the only country in the world where you have, not only in society but in the political debate, and not only in the debate but in the parliament, some people whose program is anti-Zionist [on both the left and the right] ... So I make you a proposal, seriously: Let's go together to Israel, and I will show you another face of the country."

The audience applauds.

"But do you agree to go with me to the West Bank, then?" Zizek asks. "First, let me make it clear. I don't buy these stupid stories that Israelis are the new Nazis, 'Yeah, yeah, maybe they suffered a little bit, the Jews, during World War II, but what the Nazis were doing to them, they are now doing to the Arabs' - I don't buy that. But nonetheless, it's very instructive to visit the West Bank. My source here is not some crazy left-winger, it's Tony Blair, I read an interview with him. Maybe in the terms of Michel Foucault, we can call this the micro-physics of bureaucratic power."

Zizek shakes his head wildly, throwing off beads of sweat. "This incredible network of small measures [taken] to annoy the Arabs, to humiliate and so on - that was breathtaking to me. For example - and the example is from Tony Blair, not from my sources in Al Qaeda or whatever - if you are a Palestinian or Jewish farmer in the West Bank. Do you know how much more water per capita you get if you are a Jewish farmer? Do you know that if you want to dig for water - Blair is my source - as a Palestinian farmer, you can dig three feet deep? I don't know what they are afraid of, that you will dig a tunnel for terrorists or what. You know, this is what is making life so unbearable for them. Systematic politics.

"My second thing, where I am a little bit more pessimistic than you: I don't think, as some of my ex-friends think, that Hamas is the new Leninist party. But you don't have on the one hand Hamas, and on the other hand some more secular, democratic [party] ... First, I claim that there is a long-standing catastrophe of Western politics there. Do you know - and again, my source here is The New York Times - up until seven-eight years ago, the State of Israel was financially supporting Hamas, because they wanted to weaken Arafat. Divide and rule. The catastrophe to me is that, some time ago, it started in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the West made a fatefully wrong decision, claiming that religious fundamentalists are better than the secular left. And we are all paying a terrible, terrible price for that."

Wild applause.

The debate moves to Levy's concept of "Islamo-fascism." "My God," Zizek blurts out. "We are not talking about a spiritual movement, we are taking of a violent political movement, so let's at least use some political terms. I find two things problematic ... First, then let's call it simply fascism. Would you agree to call Mussolini or Hitler fascism? But, a more fundamental problem. There is for me one big difference that strikes the eye. For the Nazis and European fascism, the dangerous Jew was not the Jew with the state; it was the stateless Jew, who is like a microbe spreading. The question is, don't you find this big difference that, for the old Nazis, the enemy is the stateless Jew who penetrates everywhere? Which is why the Nazis, before they decided on the Holocaust, even supported the idea of the State of Israel, while whatever you say, except for some madmen, for the majority of Arabs the problem is - on the contrary - the Jewish state. They don't mind if the Jews are wandering around."

Levy now picks up the thread, his words accompanied by gestures. He wiggles his sculpted eyebrows, leans gracefully on his elbow, as though he were himself one of the French Revolution values enshrined in marble by the best of sculptors: love, equality, mercy.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he says, has claimed in interviews that his "enemies are not only the Jews living in Israel, but the Jews living outside Israel. Before the creation of Israel, you had an Arab Nazism, an Arab fascism, who said exactly what Hitler said, I hate the Jews as a virus, a microbe, infiltrating everywhere. When Husseini was in Berlin, when the Muslim Brothers were founded in Egypt, there was no Israel, there was a little Yishuv [settlement of Jews]; there was the Balfour declaration and a little group of 200,000-300,000 people in the place of Palestine. There was no state" - and yet, Levy adds, anti-Semitism was spreading through the Arab world.

"So," he continues, "I think that an anti-Semite really hates Jews. In any form. When they have a state, he hates the state. When they don't have a state, he hates them stateless, and when they both have a state and are dispersed, he hates the two, and he tries to fight the two. This is really the peculiarity of this strange and weird hatred. It hates Jews in all forms.

"Should I call Mussolini and Hitler Christiano-fascism? Why not? But then let's be precise: I could call Mussolini's a Latin fascism, I could call Hitler's a pagan-fascism - yes, why not, Hitler's was not a Christian fascism, Nazism was also an anti-Christian project, as you know. The project of Hitler was to build a sort of new national church of the Third Reich."

Here Zizek is quick to interject: "Hitler was the New Ager of his time."

The debate wraps up with a note on liberalism today. "Maybe liberal democracy works" Zizek says and marvels, that indeed there is no historical precedent to the relative comfort of living that white-westerners saw over the past sixty years. People never had it so good. But for how long and at what price? He proceeds to advocate a new kind communism. Not a party communism, but one of mutual responsibility. A creative means, to avoid what he likes to call the "soft revolution." Levy claims that if this is what is meant by communism, then by all means count him in. He adds, however, that he is all too aware of the monsters that liberalism can breed, but that when confronted with a system in which women - half of the population - are considered to be less than human, there is no comparison. This morally corrupt world, he says, cannot be compared with the mistake of liberalism. To this, Zizek replies: "I don't want a compromise. Not a Hegelian solution: one hand fundamentalism has too much communality; on the other capitalism has too much individualism, let's find a common ground. No. I say that Liberalism is simply not enough to fight fundamentalism."

"Liberalism is Lacroix." Levy salvages what degree of noble stateliness he can out of liberalism, "It's La Commune de Paris, it's the liberalism of the press, this is the freedom and tradition of the left. To leave this tradition is the tendency in Europe and in America today. And it is the worst symptomatic sign of our times."