The earlier segments of this essay can be found at Paris Notes, Spring 2006.
Falling Asleep in the Skid: The Spell of Language.
So for all the movement, the wheels still skid, the resistance to waking up is still strong, the paralysis in action still powerful.
On my last night in Paris, I go out with a couple of my friends from when I went to Ecole Normale Supérieure back in the early 70′s. One is Jewish, the other not. The Gaulois is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and good-hearted people I know… himself from an immigrant (father from Italy), and a sterling example of what the French “melting pot” is capable of producing, including honest patriotism. He is neither anti-American, nor as far as I know, hostile to Israel (although that’s not a topic we’ve discussed at length).
He is also open to thinking about Judaism without a zero-sum agenda, and hence, strongly aware of what Jews have contributed to French (and more broadly modern) culture, especially over the last two generations, since the Holocaust. He talks enthusiastically about “believing without belief,” a kind of zen, or post-modern religiosity which he thought might offer a way to re-infuse disenchanted moderns with religious nourishment, a phenomenon he finds particularly strong among Jews. He has no problem eating dinner in a kosher restaurant, and doesn’t make nervous jokes about being taken for a Mossad agent.
I try to talk to him about the danger I see the French in (as I have at some point in every other conversation we’ve had since 2003). He’s not interested. Our Jewish normalien friend, knows the people at the table next to us, two couples in their sixties. He introduces us to them and we exchange pleasantries. Without rehearsal, I ask them what their impression of the current situation (no need to specify). One works in a public school, and responds as if on cue:
The Jews are leaving, especially the young. In the suburbs it’s become intolerable; even in the cities, in comfortable neighborhoods it’s very difficult. The expression “sale juif” [dirty Jew] is common in public, in the market places. People even call Chinese “sale juif” to insult them. The non-Jews don’t know what’s going on and don’t seem to care.
My friend’s response to this news:
There is no anti-Semitism in France. Look at the demonstrations for Ilan Halimi. [My Jewish friends tell me that aside from the politicians, the crowd was almost entirely Jewish.] The problem with the banlieu [suburbs] is a matter of socio-economic disparities, not a culture-clash. The Danes never should have published the cartoons: No good can come from gratuitously offending another religious sensibility. We need to open ourselves up, not shut down communication.
I try to respond and he cuts me off.
I can’t take the discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The situation is too complicated, too difficult. And both sides grind you up in their handmills — moulinette bleu, moulinette rouge — it’s exhausting.
I don’t have the heart to disagree with so many statements. He looks tired. I let it slide. We speak of meeting other people at our next encounter. We shall see.
Later he writes me on the cartoons:
On n’apporte jamais rien de bon en heurtant la sensibilité de gens qui croient et sont de bonne foi, sinon renforcer la haine, l’incompréhensoin réciproques, alors qu’il faudrait au contraire aider l’autre à s’ouvrir à l’autre (belle formule ! je la ressortirai) – ce qui commence par témoigner du respect à l’égard de ses propres croyances. (email March 12, 2006)
[One gains nothing from offending the sensibilities of people who believe, people of good faith, except to reinforce hatred, mutual incomprehension, when one should sooner help the other open to the other – which begins to bear witness to a respect for the other, in terms of his own beliefs.]
Admirable, no doubt. But counter-indicated. What on earth makes him think that these Muslims are “of good faith” other than a too-generous liberal cognitive egocentrism? And if they are of good faith, why can one not explore the other side of the coin, Muslim cartoons of Jews and the West, with such people?
If you want to help the Muslims “open themselves to respect for others,” then denouncing the Danish cartoons without touching on the poisonous state of Muslim media, without using it as a critical teaching moment, does not strike me as wise. If the French want to teach their Muslim immigrants about Republican values, they should use their Jews as the key: learning to tolerate and respect the Jews could be the key to successful adaption to modern social conditions. After all some of the Muslim immigrants from North Africa share neighborhoods in the banlieu with the Jews precisely because when they first came to France, they moved into neighborhoods with their fellow countrymen. And there are still Arab Muslims in these neighborhoods who see the loss of the Jews as a tragedy… act I in the takeover by Islamist mafias and their punk wiseguys.
Instead, by retreating hastily before the aggressive demands of Islamic “sensibilities,” and passing over in silence the problem with the Jews, the French merely speed the process of brutalization that they so fear. Throwing a child-sacrifice (Israel) and an ancestor-sacrifice (the Jews) into the voracious maw of hatred does not seem the wisest move.
Once again, liberal cognitive egocentrism makes one a perfect dupe for demopaths.
Sur les actes antisémites en France : les statistiques montrent qu’ils émanent dans leur quasi-totalité de Maghrébins. Ils n’ont donc aucun rapport avec le vieil antisémitisme d’extrème droite (Maurras, Affaire Dreyfus, Vichy etc), qui a en France presque totalement disparu. Il n’y a pas de continuité entre les deux, ce qui interdit de parler de je ne sais quelle tradition antisémite française, qui se perpétuerait. Ce qu’on sent toujours, en tous cas chez les élites et les intellectuels, c’est plutôt un fort anticatholicisme, voire antichristanisme (le terme “catho” étant pratiquement injurieux).
[On anti-Semitic acts in France: the statistics indicate that they are almost entirely from North Africans. The have, therefore, no connection to the old, extreme right-wing anti-Semitism (Maurras, Dreyfus Affair, Vichy, etc.), which, in France has virtually disappeard. There is no continuity between the two, which forbids speaking about some kind of French anti-Semitic tradition that continues. What one senses still (or all the time), at any rate among the elites and the intellectuals, is rather a strong anti-Catholicism, even anti-Christianism (the term “catho” being virtually an insult).
The language here is reminiscent of my medieval colleagues dismissing things they don’t want to think about. Very French in its sweeping assertions– “there is no continuity” — and its logic of silence — “it is therefore forbidden to speak.”
I don’t know, but somehow I don’t think anyone’s calling Asians in the marchés “catho” to insult them. (Note the shift from the streets, where the violence is, to the salons, where the atheists express their contempt for everyone.) More to the point, I never spoke about right-wing anti-Semitism which, while it’s almost surely still there (after all, it has a 1000-year pedigree), has now been eclipsed by a horrifying revival of left-wing anti-Semitism, which, either through “benign” (really, narcissistic) neglect, or through active encouragement, especially from the media, has come together with a new Arab anti-Semitism
3) Insister maladroitement sur ce prétendu antisémitisme, et le relier à Vichy ne sert qu’à aggraver les malentendus entre nos deux pays, encourager l’antiaméricanisme ici et le “french bashing” aux USA. Pour les gens qui comme moi (et d’autres) font tout pour réduire le fossé et tenter de rétablir un dialogue confiant et amical, c’est assez décourageant.
[To insist clumsily on some supposed anti-Semitism and link it to Vichy only aggravates the misunderstanding between our two countriess, encourages anti-Americanism here and French-bashing in the USA. For people like me (and others) who do our all to reduce the chasm and try and re-establish a trusting and friendly dialogue, it's very discouraging.]
More language of dismissal, familiar from my medievalist colleagues (ce prétendu millénarisme), here linked to warning. To insist on that which has been dismissed is to risk making things worse, inflaming the situation. Those who do not heed the warning are boors and bores, and to keep the conversation amicable, will get marginalized along with their topic.
I see a category error at work here between polite and civil. Polite conversation avoids certain topics lest there be violence; civil conversation tackles the hard topics without violence. And in my mind, the Jewish problem in France is a worthy — one might even say critical — topic for discussion.
The author of the lines above is not remotely anti-Semitic, even anti-Judaic. If he misreads the situation, he does so not because he himself needs to view the Jews as a moral failure in order to feel good about himself. But he is surrounded by people who do. Like UN Secretary General Kofi Anan’s completely unself-conscious remark after the Jenin “massacre” – is it possible that the whole world is wrong and Israel is right? – he lives in a world where such a question is not an April Fool’s joke.
And so, the spell of language continues to protect the French ego, to block the painful discussions, to satisfactorily resolve the issues by forbidding certain topics at the risk of inflaming the conflict. As one of the “talking heads” rebuked Alain Finkielkraut when he had the nerve to identify the Muslim dimension of the “November (Ramadan) 2005 riots”, “When a society is in crisis, an intellectual like you, Alain Finkielkraut, is supposed to be above the fray and exert a calming influence.” The public intellos demand valium, how dare you prescribe reality testing!
I guess, if you wake up at the wheel while in a skid, you can’t find the breaks, you are forbidden to look for them, your easiest way out (Muslims! learn to live with and respect the Jews) drives your passengers into paroxysms of derision, it makes sense to go back asleep.
There’s an old joke about two partners destroyed by the Wall Street crash of 1929. One of them commits suicide by jumping out the 70th floor building. On his way down, he sees into their rival’s office and shouts back to his partner, “Cut velveeeeeeet.” If the French don’t wake up in time, and their car, Thelma and Louise-like, plunges off the cliff of democratic culture, will they be kind enough to tell us what they see on their way down? Or will we be too close behind to do anything about it?
Next: Diagnosis and Prescription: Anti-Zionism as Cultural AIDS and its Cures: Reflections on France Part VII