When One Person Matters . . .

by wjw on January 13, 2012

In our bustling world of seven billion people, it’s all to easy to lose track of what one individual might be able to accomplish.  How likely is it that a single private individual, spurred by conscience and moral conviction, can put into action the forces that could overthrow the established tyranny of, say, Moammar Qaddafi.

Especially if that private individual is publicity-seeking French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

But, as Lévy told me recently, “sometimes you are inhabited by intuitions that are not clear to you.” On February 23, the philosopher was in Cairo watching television images of Muammar Qaddafi’s retribution against the rebel towns around Benghazi, which the dictator and his sons had threatened to drown in “rivers of blood.” Lévy is most fully himself in stark humanitarian crises, when defending what he calls “the memory of the worst.” He is also the heir to a vast timber fortune, wealth that allows him a license to act on his instincts, and so he promptly found the name of rebel leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, arranged for a cameraman and for a private plane to fly him near the front, and within a few hours was in a hired car, driving off to war . . . [You gotta like the fact that he brought his own cameraman to document his intervention for the benefit of history.]

In Benghazi, Lévy spent the hour before their meeting frantically Googling Abdel-Jalil and leaping up to greet anyone walking past who might be the Libyan. When Abdel-Jalil did arrive (“short with a modest smile and the look of a stunned falcon”), Lévy had prepared his speech. “The world is watching,” he began. It was pompous, he realized, but “you have to say something.” He compared Benghazi to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Sarajevo. “Benghazi is the capital not only of Libya but of free men and women all over the world,” Lévy told the rebel leader.

“In the back of his mind, I’m sure, was the idea that I might be a fly-by-night,” Lévy wrote in his diary, “or delusional.” Indeed. Lévy told Abdel-Jalil that he could fly a rebel delegation to Paris on his plane and get them an audience with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The rebels were badly outgunned, and Abdel-Jalil did not at this moment have a ton of other suitors. He agreed.

The philosopher had barely spoken with Sarkozy in three years and had rather loudly opposed the president’s election. Lévy got so stressed thinking about the call that he developed a migraine, but he phoned the presidential palace anyway and was promptly put through. The call dropped three times; it wasn’t a great connection. But the president agreed to meet with the Libyans, and the next Thursday they were all in his office in Paris, ringed by Sarkozy’s advisers.

Within four days— and while the French foreign minister was out of town—  Lévy managed to prod the notoriously supine European political and military machine into action and had flown a Libyan general into Paris for military discussions.  The Security Council was in agreement, and a couple weeks later the bombing began. 

What happens when moral outrage, narcissism, and the public interest all join forces?  Amazing things.

Of course if you’re a single individual trying to change the course of history, it helps to be extremely wealthy, a public figure, and to have the President on speed dial.  But I think the principle still obtains.

DensityDuck January 13, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Reminds me of “Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, where revolution was a matter of believing in freedom, veneration of individual rights, faith in the ability of intelligent persons to succeed, oh yeah and an omnipotent supercomputer that controlled all the orbital mass-drivers.

Ralf The Dog. January 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm

We live in one of two possible realities. One is a N dimensional universe where we live on a speck of dust occupied by a bunch of (effectively) three dimensional people with minds that strain to function in two.

The other reality is an N dimensional universe where we live on a speck of dust occupied by a bunch of (effectively) three dimensional people with minds that have been conditioned to only function in two.

I like to believe that most people are not truly moronic shadows unable to grasp any concept beyond their limited pathetic lives; They have just been conditioned to act as such from birth. The greatest limitations we have are those we allow to be placed on our selves.

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