Book excerpt: "The Virus In the Age of Madness"

With the pandemic, French author and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy writes, America has experienced its "viral Pearl Harbor." 

His latest book, "The Virus In the Age of Madness" (Yale University Press), explores how COVID-19 has laid bare cracks in the alliances of Western nations. If there is a silver lining to the deadly plague, Lévy writes, it is that these weaknesses have been outed, making plain the inadequacies or duplicities of such figures as America's President Trump, Venezuela's Maduro and Brazil's Bolsonaro, as well as the opportunism of the Kremlin.

In a recent interview with "Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel, Lévy mourned the isolationism that the Trump administration had been practicing, which only served to hinder the federal response to the coronavirus: "America was a force on the world. Today? No. The shining city up on a hill is barricaded inside its borders, looking inside of itself, and turning its back to the rest of the world."

Read an excerpt from Bernard-Henri Lévy's "The Virus In the Age of Madness" below:

Yale University Press

In the United States, thirty million jobs vanished in a panic not seen since the 1929 crisis and the films of Frank Capra. Trump was trampling the Constitution. In typical fashion, he desecrated democracy by firing Christi A. Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, for having sounded the alarm on critical shortages of medical supplies. Pulling dirty tricks out of his MAGA hat, he halted immigration, called on the heavily armed "good people" who had stormed Michigan's state capitol to "Liberate Michigan," spouted his usual conspiracy theories, and sank to new lows, attacking the mental health of his political rival Joe Biden. Biden was slowly but steadily gaining ground. Though his campaign was short of funds, and though social distancing led him to be compared to an "astronaut beaming back to earth from the International Space Station," he was waging war with courage and a level head. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, ruined by the drop in oil prices, was trying to make up for lost ground by trafficking cocaine. In Brazil, Bolsonaro was cutting entitlements and salaries and throwing the country into chaos. India was reducing its Muslims to the level of second-class citizens, while in Nigeria, Islamists continued to massacre Christians. In France, unemployment was exploding. Homeless shelters were closing. Local officials feared revolts fueled by hunger. Reaction? A whole lot of nothing. Nothing was still happening. The media had space only for theological debates on the mysteries of tocilizumab and nicotine substitutes.

The coronavirus had this virtue: that of sparing us from uninteresting, unimportant information, and relieving us of the burdens of following the vicissitudes of history, which had mercifully gone into hibernation.

Bernard-Henri Lévy.  Courtesy Yale University Press

And when, under the harsh light of Covid-19, we occasionally returned to the world of before (the one where we were at least a little concerned for our neighbors, for our fellow humans near and far, for Bangladesh and Lesbos), it was in that arena that we found each other most unreasonable and unaware.

April 2020? May? Like Louis XVI in his journal entry for July 14, 1789, we were all tempted to say: "Nothing."

Now, this nothingness was obviously a delusion.

The planet had continued, and continues, to spin as before.

Except that if, from one's perch on the merry-go-round, one took a view at once more elevated (vis-à-vis the world of geopolitics and the clash of views on the world) and less ironic (by conceding that it is better to live in a republic than under tyranny), one could see that the planet was spinning in the other direction.

Europe was doing the best it could. It flooded the market with liquidity. And its leaders (Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde) proved worthy, standing firm against the storm and putting together a comprehensive plan for the north to support the south, for those countries best able to resist the pandemic to aid those most distressed. But we were having a great deal of difficulty resisting the advocates of retreating behind our borders. The populist wave was being held back only to gather force, it seemed, to later break the dikes and surge forth. And, when Russian aircraft loaded with masks landed in Lombardy, when the Czech Republic intercepted Chinese respirators destined for Italy, when Cuba sent urgent care specialists to a French overseas department, and when the plan to issue pooled eurobonds broke through the wall of egoism of the nations of northern Europe, you could hear the petty told-you-so crowd loudly decrying the "bankruptcy" of the "Maastricht model."

The United States sank into isolation, crippled by its viral Pearl Harbor and led by a president who had long since lost his mind but who, now, at a moment when so many lives depended on the lucidity and grip of a true commander in chief, was sorely outmatched and out of place.

From "The Virus In the Age of Madness" by Bernard-Henri Lévy, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2020 by Bernard-Henri Lévy. All rights reserved.

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