French Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Libyan Crusade Shows the Need for Robust Public Intellectuals

Bernard-Henri Lévy, or “B.H.L,” as the French press monikered him, represents a figure presumed extinct in the 21st century, a public intellectual crusading for moral cause and inspiring action of a higher calling than national interest or political expediency. He harnesses the legacy of Sartre blended with his unique sage bravado, sartorial suave, and spright spontaneity bordering on the dangerous. In some circles, he is considered a plaisanterie, a characterization of himself, the blowhard “philosopher,” a man who claims his two greatest passions are “writing and women.”

Say what they will, B.H.L. dared to challenge his homeland of France to take up the cause of a citizen revolution, a role France had not undertaken since they backed a band of colonists in the American Revolution. His robust humanitarianism lit the fire for the Libyan uprising, breathed voice into its people, leading President Sarkozy to recognize the National Transition Council as the legitimate Libyan government, launch air strikes on Ghaddafi’s regime, and induce subsequent U.S., U.N., and NATO support. Our times demand the rise of robust public intellectuals to challenge our institutions to betterment not merely in words but in action.

Lévy’s foray into Libya exhibits public intellectuals’ responsibility to articulate the virtuous path, to cogently browbeat the oft-stale infrastructure of governments to discharge their heralded principles in practice, and to personify their, hence our, most idealistic selves. He talks of the intellectuals of past who “were brave and daring.” Libya serves as an exemplification of defending human rights and arming those rights with ample ammunition to fight tyranny. This intellectualist crusader succeeded as he explains,“Because here they did not just write letters, sign petitions. They did.” 

That is the crux of B.H.L.’s maverick legacy in Libya; a victory for public intellectualism, for essential ethos, and the defense of threatened humanity at all costs. Those who often speak of it boldly, yet never venture into the uprising sadly necessary to ensure its fulfillment, must follow Lévy’s example and transform their salons into crusades of impact at the human level. The cynics will be swift to belittle B.H.L. as a narcissistic pied piper, but what he made possible by his own vision last year was an historic occasion of revolution in the right, driven by an unapologetic dearth of conformity. 

In our imperfect pursuit of a more perfect world, it easy to shrink from the responsibility to protect and preserve. Those free from the constraints of a weary electorate or the hunger of a rabid press, possessing of the capacity to think boldly and demand us not to shrink when presented with atrocity, can be the heroes, however unlikely, of a brave new world. That B.H.L. may have an ego the size of the sun does not matter. What matters is what he made possible in Libya. Here was a heroic, pragmatic public intellectual exerting influence amid the chaos, not in the comfy confines of his office. Our times require more of his genus to rise up and shine light on our 21st century tribulations. “To whom much is granted, much is required.”

Photo Credit: tomgui

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Daniel "Sully" Sullivan

Citizen Diplomat. Former staff, Massachusetts House of Representatives. Gabr Fellow. Regional Representative, UNA-USA Steering Committee. Chair, Young Professionals of United Nations Association-Greater Boston. Truman National Security Project Partner. Fellow, New Leaders Council. Delegate, Young Turkey/Young America Program. Representative, UN-HABITAT Youth Advisory Board. Senior Fellow, Environmental Leadership Program. Fellow, Educational Policy Fellowship Program. Delegate, Youth General Assembly, United Nations. Agent of Change Delegate, United Nations Commission on Social Development. Ordained Minister.

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