The Contested Role of Public Intellectuals
The French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut was booed and chased away by participants in the Nuit debout (roughly translated as "Up All Night", "Standing Night", or "Rise up at night") movement Saturday in Paris. Finkielkraut was insulted and called a dirty fascist. He defended himself: “I was thrown out from a place where democracy and pluralism should reign…. They wanted to purify the Place de la République of my presence.” The extreme right in France wasted no time in lambasting the scenario as an example of the “hate and intolerance” of the protesters.
On the other hand, and without getting involved in the particular personality of Finkielkraut and his shift from progressive to neo-reactionary positions, the people in the French streets have avoided any form of institutionalization. They are for direct democracy and oppose any hierarchical power relations. Much like Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s invectives against the traditional two-party political system in the United States, the protesters saw the French Academician and media-savvy Finkielkraut as representing the establishment. And for them, there was no place for him with them in the streets of Paris.
Was this an example of political intolerance or direct democracy? The protesters are evidently fed up with politics as usual. The pitiful recent television performance of President Hollande in a question and answer session with ordinary citizens once again illustrated the schism between the French political class and the lives of simple citizens. Sanders and Trump also show how “politics as usual” has failed to resonant with the public.
Another excellent example of the failure of elitist politics happened five years ago at the University of Geneva. In a discussion celebrating the Geneva Initiative to create a roadmap to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Yossi Beilin from Israel and Abed Rabbo from the Palestinian Liberation Organization spoke about what might be acceptable to both sides. They empathized with the difficulties of finding solutions at the grass roots level. Both praised the efforts of Micheline Calmy-Rey and the Swiss to create a civil society backing for some solution.
And then Bernard Henry-Levy spoke, or rather pontificated. Opposed to his empathetic predecessors, the arrogant Frenchman presented himself as the potential leader in finding solutions in the Middle East. Recalling his important role in convincing President Sarkozy to intervene in Libya, he offered himself as a one-man diplomatic force to help the Swiss (or anyone else) establish peace. No grass roots or civil society needed. Just call – he didn’t give his number – and he will be there to serve. “I came, I saw, I prevailed,” he seemed to say. According to him, he alone would succeed where seasoned diplomats had failed for decades.
The audience booed. Even at the University in sober Geneva, the well behaved audience reacted to his hubris, which was, in Alan Dershowitz’s phrase, “beyond chutzpah.” When BHL had finished his self-promotion, he walked off the stage to a cascade of catcalls.
Finkielkraut and Bernard Henry-Levy are two very public French intellectuals. Young protesters in Paris rejected Finkielkraut’s presence at their demonstration. A respectable Geneva audience booed BHL as he left the stage. Both instances show a growing discernment about politely accepting intellectual authority. Both incidents show greater critical awareness about the role of the public intellectual. Yes tolerance is important, but tolerance of what?
The followers of Trump and Sanders are angry. They will not accept traditional political speeches or traditional political figures. Sanders drew 27,000 in Greenwich Village, a very long way from Greenwich, Connecticut. The protesters in Paris have heard enough from graduates of elite schools; they have heard enough from Academicians and media stars.
There are rumblings going on. The students and unemployed in Paris are growing more and more assertive. The political parties’ conventions are coming up in the United States in three months. The weather is heating up; frustrations are mounting. Traditional public intellectuals will have difficulties finding their traditional places in the ferment.