Empty streets of New York City during coronavirus lockdown
Artillery Row Books

Harrumphing and hot air

Bernard-Henri Lévy’s polemic against coronavirus lockdowns is “a stale little bonbon”

After six months of Covid chaos, governments scrambling to retain control post-lockdown and with economic catastrophe looming, we face the question: have we destroyed the village in order to save it?

Oddly for a philosopher, Lévy doesn’t appear to have heard of a straw man argument

To make sense of it all, perhaps, we need relief from our manic news cycle in the form of a cool philosophical perspective bringing the balm of reason to our fevered brows. With this in mind, we turn to The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy with high hopes. He rails against the “epidemic of fear” that has seen our cities transformed into ghost towns and made “hardy souls” become “suddenly paralysed”. But after his diagnosis, Lévy fetches a massive drum of gasoline and throws it on society’s embers.

Oddly for a philosopher, Lévy doesn’t appear to have heard of a straw man argument. In each of the book’s five chapters, he takes an unremarkable feature, blows it up to monstrous size — big enough to rouse his furious indignation — and proceeds to huff and puff a tornado of rhetorical questions to blow it down. That’s a lot of hot air.

The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy, Yale University Press, £10.99

The fact that governments are being advised during the pandemic by epidemiologists such as Dr Anthony Fauci becomes a reason to ask: “Is it too far-fetched, then, to imagine a return, God forbid, to the worst of hygienics?” Lévy seems to suggest that listening to experts today regarding our hygiene runs the risk of society falling victim to a “doctrine of hygienics” tomorrow — one that includes Social Darwinism and “the most shameful eugenics”. I thought Lévy held himself above such vulgar catastrophising. Is he saying therefore that America shouldn’t be advised by Fauci? Of course not. So he isn’t saying anything at all.

What Lévy appears to regret most is the end to his jet-setting lifestyle of coiffured humanitarianism

The harrumphing pattern of apocalyptic prophesy that collapses with the tiniest jolt of reality is repeated throughout. Lévy likens people’s naive celebration of our empty cities, the sight of a “deer crossing the Champs-Élysées” or the beauty of a less congested New York, to Henry de Montherlant’s celebration of occupied Paris. This is a desperate and hyperventilating comparison — by caricaturing a few trite observations in 2020 he ends up trivialising the fascist horror of 1940. Is it that Lévy doesn’t see any beauty in our empty cities? In fact, he confides, “I, too, noticed myself experiencing moments of grace at the sight of the city slumbering under the sun, crystalline, abstract.” It’s always one rule for the intellectuals, another for the masses.

He asserts, “It is an iron law for any progressive that there is never a ‘good side’ to a calamity, never anything positive or useful to be taken from it.” Blimey, you wouldn’t want to be shipwrecked with him, would you?

He takes the way that people tried to find a silver lining in lockdown, from taking up crochet to gardening, as proof that we have all retreated into narcissism. Is he suggesting we should have disobeyed the government? Nothing so radical. I suspect he just wanted us to be more miserable.

The thrust of his argument is that humanity is a political animal and that to stop trying to shape society is to spiritually die. But people didn’t agree to go into lockdown to save themselves: they did it to save others; it was an act of altruism. Lévy utters dire warnings about the abuse of test and trace by Big Tech, but then admits “we had no other choice” but to go into lockdown, governments were right to ban big gatherings and a “heavy dose of caution” is advisable at this time. Panic over.

He attempts to sustain his flagging fury by arguing that our lives involve risk and shouldn’t be sacrificed to the mania for safety. This is a good point, but one buried beneath overstatement and mixed metaphor: “Could it be that the secular messianism sought in so much lazy thinking might finally come to roost in an animal farm?” He answers his own question: “I do not know.”

What he appears to regret most is the end to his jet-setting lifestyle of coiffured humanitarianism. (He does sport a fantastic mane.) He rages that the Paris press didn’t shower his charitable missions to Bangladesh and Lesbos with sufficient praise, which suggests perhaps that selfless concern with the dispossessed wasn’t the only reason for his international jaunts.

He concludes by claiming he “went back over a week’s worth of news” when “nothing happened except the virus”. If journalists had been this Covid-fixated, however, they would never have reported the killing of George Floyd. If people had been as apathetic in lockdown as Lévy sneers, we would never have seen the global protests that followed. Events have made his generalisations look asinine.

Lévy ends on his vision of utmost horror: not the inferno of the hospital ward, or the incompetence of our leaders, but a nightmare of “sanitising gels”, “balconies from which to compliment each other”, and “dogs to walk twice a day”. Rather than speak truth to power, he’d rather pour scorn on us, the great washed.

Ultimately, what repulses him is not any “epidemic of fear” whipped up by our governments and mass media but people’s rather heroic efforts to roll up their sleeves and get on with their lives, despite the crisis. Are we not to clean our hands? Should we not walk the dog? Should we refrain from being nice to our neighbours? What a stale little bonbon this is.

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