Chiraq-Iraq: Sailing Full Speed in Iceberg-Laden Waters
Paris, March 5-16, 2003
I came to Paris with two things on my agenda. First, as a medievalist, I wanted to see what was going on among my colleagues over the last several years concerning my period of expertise – the turn of the 10th-11th century – and second to find out if there were an opposition to what strikes me as the incredibly destructive diplomacy of Jacques Chirac. For my colleagues, I had a question about the status of a very bad book by Sylvain Gouguenheim about the year 1000 (in which I was cited more than any other author including Georges Duby, in every case negatively), and its impact on the thinking of medievalists working on the period. For any Frenchman – cab driver, students singing drinking songs in the street at 2 AM, people sitting in the metro and the café, colleagues and friends – I wanted to know why Chirac had pursued an obstructionist policy that humiliated Bush and protected Saddam, rather than playing nice cop to the USA’s tough cop and telling the Arab league, “Look, our good friend the Americans are pissed, and rightfully so. Saddam has got to go. We don’t want a war, so you see to his removal, and if you do, we can guarantee you that we can hold back the USA. If not, we can’t promise anything.”
These two issues may seem unconnected – what could the year 1000 have to do with the year 2000? – but I soon found them linked together by an essay entitled Does an intellectual life exist in France? by Jean-Claude Milner. In a short, typically learned and self-indulgent way (few footnotes, fewer examples, kaleidoscopic allusions), Milner makes the case that French intellectuals were historically far more shaped by a culture of “republican” bureaucracy than free thought; that the Jesuit tradition of rhetoric and political appeasement of those in power dominated over intellectual integrity.
When confronted, for example, with discomforting feedback (like the children of Eastern European Jews doing better on meritocratic exams about French and Latin authors than native born Frenchmen), they respond with a self-destructive self-protection that at once devalues the results of the exams and even the topics of study. French education, he argues, seeks primarily to “make children well-behaved like their parents, and make parents sufficiently puerile that they’re happy to bavarder” (make small talk). Such attitudes, he concludes, limit the ability to argue issues on their merits, rather than with an eye to unspoken “political” concerns.
Certainly I had seen that in my own field. Already as a graduate student I had noticed with some astonishment that an earnest graduate student’s entire thesis – years of hard work and sustained historical argumentation – could be dismissed in an instant by a mou (a facial grimace) and a “bof” made by the right alpha male. At the time, I did not pay it much attention because I was dazzled by the historical imaginations of such great medievalists as Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff and Alphonse Dupront. But over time I have come to see how often and widely such grimaces play in shaping a culture where historians have their fingers to the “political” wind, and where consensus drives out dispute. Thus my concern with what had been a lively debate in the 1990s concerning the “mutation of the year 1000,” a much contested turning point identified by several social and cultural historians as critical in shaping both French and more broadly European culture for centuries to come, has simply ceased.
For me the turn of the 10th-11th century marks the dawn of the “modern” dynamic, the world of constant economic growth linked at once to social creativity (often fueled by freedoms granted to commoners), technological ingenuity, and legal and intellectual ferment that vivifies both elite and commoner circles. And since I had set out as a medievalist to discover the sources of Western economic growth (a familial inheritance), the issues have particular importance. My own work highlighted an exceptional (unprecedented?) peace movement known as the Pax Dei (“Peace of God”) which, in my reading represented an extraordinary surge of the kinds of demotic religiosity that, in a larger context, I felt contributed vital elements to the emergence of civil society in the West. In particular, I had noted the significant presence of apocalyptic and millennial imagery in this movement, and want to argue that these extraordinary assemblies had an immense impact not only on those who attended them, but well beyond that sphere. I was just ready to offer it as an explanation for why the remarkable mutation of the turn of the millennium had happened, when a “new” school of French scholars, led by Barthelemy, claimed not a mutation, but a slow imperceptible adjustment… so, thank you, Professor Landes, there’s really nothing to explain.
What I found this time was an intellectual wasteland dominated by two books of less than mediocre value. Barthélemy’s book, La Paix de Dieu et L’an mil basically announced two topics whose importance he systematically minimized. I have argued that apocalyptic beliefs in the imminent return of Jesus and Judgment Day, for which only scattered references appear in the documentation, represent an iceberg of sentiments far more powerful in the world of oral discourse than in the particularly hostile medium of ecclesiastical writings. On the contrary, Barthélemy argues, they merely represent the flotsam and jetsam of an ecclesiastical doctrine Augustine had sunk centuries earlier. Thus he sails his ship of historical reconstruction through the waters, systematically raising the topics to which my (and Duby’s) work had called attention – the Peace of God, the apostolic movements and their persecution as “heretics”, the wave of mass popular pilgrimage to relics, peace assemblies, and sacred cities, most prominently Jerusalem – and then setting them back down, firmly marginalized in the vast and insensible “ajustement” that slowly and imperceptibly transformed France in these years.
Water-skiing in Barthélemy’s wake, Gouguenheim took on my thesis (shared by others like Fried and Brandes) about apocalyptic expectations. Les faux terreurs de l’an Mille (The False terrors of the Year 1000), in which he systematically argued against the “iceberg” thesis, put the chappe de plomb (capstone) on any discussion of the possible role of apocalyptic expectations around 1000, isolated and marginal phenomena, incapable of having any significant impact on the historical forces at work. Everyone I speak to admits it’s a bad book, but, as one put it, “ca tient le terrain” (it holds the field). References in anything written since its publication in 1999, whether studies of the field, dictionaries of the Middle Ages, studies of medieval mentalities, cite it and not any literature to the counter-arguments (I am not alone). Case closed.
And yet, the very subtitle reveals how little the author knows about the subject he treats: Fear of the End of the World or Deepening of the Faith? Anyone familiar with apocalyptic expectation knows that the belief that imminently one will stand before the supreme judge of the universe who knows our innermost thoughts knows how much that can deepen one’s faith. The question then stands high on the scale of “questions mal posées” (badly framed questions). Moreover, the book is little more than a very extensive and sterile “No.” Don’t look here for insight; don’t pay attention to these issues; don’t read the historians who appear in the index. A graduate student from Latin America asked a group of French graduate students about my work. “Nous ne faisons pas l’histoire comme l’américain Landes.” (We don’t do history like the American Landes), they replied.
What has this to do with the current problems that France faces? For one thing, the reasoning that the French engage in as they try to understand the world around them shares all the confident fallacies of their medievalists’ logic. Arguments are dismissed with poor if not radically faulty logic; consensus is reached by isolating and ignoring opposition; shrugs substitute for substance. Everywhere I go, I ask, “where’s the opposition?” “Il n’y en a pas [there is none].” Some cite opposition in Chirac’s party. “And the left?” “No, certainly not.” Actually, there was one Socialist Party member who spoke up, insisting that the removal of Saddam should be our first priority. The response from the deputy from Paris: “M. Kouchner should be listened to when he is “le French doctor” [he started Medecins sans Frontières] not when he is Dr. Folamour [Strangelove].” In addition to the ironic use of English to designate his approved title, and the frankicized reference to Peter Sellers’ American cult classic, this is a pitifully inadequate response. But “ça tient le terrain [it holds the field].”
Similarly, when a member of Chirac’s party accused the French Left of leaving the door wide open to anti-Semitic discourse of the most vile sort, the PS (Socialist Party) responded by demanding an apology and refusing to appear on panel discussions with him. While American and British papers regularly run opinions on both sides, the French papers are all one-note Johnny’s. And the note, echoed from the halls of Academia to the taxi-cab drivers to drunk kids in the streets at 2AM? “Nous sommes pas les toutous des Americains” (we are not the American’s lapdogs).
While here, I have been in touch with the Jewish community, still reeling from the wave of anti-Semitism that broke out all over France right after the Camp David War of September 2000. The French press, all the while that it insists that this is not “French anti-Semitism.” Instead it comes from an Arab minority, not yet socialized to the post-Holocaust consensus that disapproves of screaming “kill the Jews”, of defacing their synagogues, and beating up Jews in the street, of denying that the Holocaust happened. And yet as they distance themselves from such viciousness, they justify it as an understandable reaction to Israeli injustices towards the Palestinians, a perception they regularly reinforce by their quite homogenous and anti-Israel press coverage.
A sustained critique of this coverage has recently appeared in the form of a full-length movie entitled Decryptage, produced by Israeli and French Jewish leftists, enthusiasts of Oslo, crushed both by the perfidy of Arafat and the inability of the French press (their press is of course not alone in this) to handle the anomalies of evidence that did not suit their conception of things. The film offers extensive and explicit evidence of how both Arab journalists and “eyewitness sources” systematically abuse any standards of honesty in their own reporting, and systematically intimidate the foreign press lest they film and release anything that puts “the resistance” in a bad light, and the ways that French journalists and press agencies regularly, and in some cases deliberately, echo the dishonest and inciting claims of these sources.
One of its more striking claims argues that the French press “sees” this conflict through the lens of their own colonial experience, something that, especially among the Left, provokes enormous guilt and regret. How do they expiate such guilt? By presenting the Israelis as the vicious colonialist and racist aggressors (ie the French), and the Palestinians as the innocent, indigenous victims (ie the Algerians).
Upon reflection, there is something startlingly stupid about this way of dealing with guilt. Atoning for their sins by accusing others hardly qualifies as news (dog bites man). But to do so while inciting their own Arab population to hate the Israelis with a passion and to legitimate suicide bombing as an understandable response to frustration and rage, is nothing short of suicidal. They may fool themselves into thinking that by pointing the accusing finger at Israel they have escaped indictment, but do they really think that the “Arab street” they encourage in France will accept their self-serving hypocrisy? Do they think that the Arab Muslims look at the situation and say to themselves, “Oh, the French have changed, they’re really our friends, we don’t have any reason to attack them…”
Europeans are like people in a cauldron with a fire lit beneath them, busy throwing gasoline on the Israelis and laughing with glee, even as the gasoline heats up their own condition.
After the movie I talk with some people about what they thought. A group of young college students express astonishment at the possibility that they have been systematically deceived by the French press. None of them are Jewish, although one came as a result of the urging of a Jewish friend. “Why do you think that there is this deeply engrained hostility to Israel?” I ask, echoing the opening question of the movie? “C’est sûrement religieux [surely religious].” One responds. “But I thought modern France, and certainly the French intelligentsia was secular?” “True,” they respond, “a question worth answering.” They, at least, are still open to possibilities.
Not so the three French journalists I spoke with at the café opposite the cinema until 1 AM. Their response to the movie. “Exagerated. Nothing new. Nothing proved. Ils n’ont rien prouvé” (exactly what my medievalist colleagues say).
“What about the claim that (at least some key person in) AFP (Agence France Presse) knowingly falsified reports about where the tunnels under the Temple Mount went in order to accord with Palestinian claims (which were inciting murderous rioting), that they ran under the mosques?” “I was there. They do run right near the mosques.” [They run in the opposite direction; the map was specifically shown in the movie.]
“What about the point that Arab journalists systematically use the press as a propaganda weapon?” “Perhaps that’s true of the Arab press, but those who work for AFP are completely trustworthy (fiables).”
What about the obsession of the foreign press with Israel?” [The movie had produced, alongside pictures of dozens of photographer filming an Israeli police unit arresting a Palestinian, figures indicating that there were more foreign reporters in Israel than in the entire African continent, and that while as many people were killed in Algeria in one month as in the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the French press devoted only a small fraction of its print space reporting the Algerian violence.]
“It’s because there are so many Jews in the press.”
“Then why is the press so anti-Israel if the Jews are so numerous?”
“Because it’s the truth.”
“So Jewish reporters, unlike Arab ones, are honest?”
“Yes, they are more distanciés (dispassionate).”
“Then maybe this movie, in which Jewish journalists and commentators insist that the media have systematically misread the situation should be given more weight than the propaganda claims of the Arabs?”
“Il faut pas exagérer, quand même [Come on, let’s not exaggerate].”
Did you learn anything new from the movie? “Yes, how much the Palestinians teach their little children to hate and to embrace violence.” [The film showed extensive use of falsified images of Israeli brutality to inculcate a genocidal hatred in their youngest children, along with interviews with Arafat triumphantly promising his people the destruction of Israel, approving child shahid (suicide martyrs) and dismissing a woman who complained about this as an abuse of the children with the remark: “you have no proofs.”] Okay, I thought, something sank in. I change tacks.
“What do you think of the problem of the Arabs in France?”
[A recent book, Les territoires perdus de la République, documents from a whole range of sources the loss of entire schools and school systems to a virulently aggressive Islamic and Arab assault on teachers (especially female ones, whose very position of authority offends the honor of the Arab male youth they teach), fellow students (especially females and Jews), and all of the values of French democratic culture.]
“They’re French citizens.”
(I pass on the temptation to ask if that means that the French are anti-Semitic, since the standard answer is “No, that’s the Arabs”).
“That’s it? No problems of socialization? No future demographic problems?”
“What do you want us to do? Kick them out?”
Here, folded into these glib and facetious responses, lay all the abdications and abandonment of the French intellectuals in dealing with the problem chronicled by the book. Denial (again, the language of dismissal, minimization, marginalization I encountered from my medievalist colleagues; even the same expression: Il faut dédramatiser”), followed by reduction to the absurd or unthinkable.
The issue is precisely, can the French — and here the progressive intellectuals committed to the values of civil society should take the lead — find the moral and cultural resources to educate these Arab French “citizens” to the responsibilities as well as the freedoms of democracy? Instead, in the name of a phony tolerance, they look the other way as a hyper-testosteronic adolescent culture uses the language of democracy to assault everyone else’s rights, and thereby create the conditions of cultural war that will eventually lead either to a collapse of French culture or the necessity for some terrible and “unthinkable” ethnic “cleansing.” As the drunk French military school student told me later that evening by the Place St. Michel, “We’re too liberal with the beurs (French Arabs).” “No,” I responded, “you’re not liberal enough. You don’t even try to teach them about liberal values.”
— “What if you’re wrong about dismissing these matters? What if the French Arabs are destroying the school system and threaten the civic consensus in France? What if Chirac is protecting French arms and oil merchants and the real consequences of his behavior is to encourage and reward the irredentism of your minority population? Doesn’t your reasoning fall apart?”
— “Yes. But in any case by the time that becomes clear, I won’t be around.”
— “So it’s après nous le déluge? [After us, the flood.]”
— “Do you have any kids?”
— “Did it ever occur to you that the Jews are the canary in the mineshaft of democracy (as they were at the rise of fascism), and that you should be listening to their cry of distress.”
— “Non mais, vous plaisantez [Surely, you’re joking].”
The problem of the Arabs is embarrassing, deeply politically incorrect. Their behavior is unacceptably contemptuous of every norm of civil society – racist, violent, male chauvinist, menacing, mafia style, openly Jew-hating – and yet no one can quite bring themselves to publicly address the issue. They are a PC-protected group.
On the way home, now 2AM in Place Saint-Michel near the Seine, I pass a bunch of drunk military students from Saint-Cyr. When they find out I’m American, they have a thousand questions to ask. They are friendly. When I ask them why France is siding with Iraq against Israel, they insist that’s not true.
“You know why Chirac’s policy is so pro-Zionist?” he asks.
“No,” I say, realizing that to object would immediately mark me as a Jew. “Why?”
“Because there are so many Jews in France.”
“How many?” I respond.
“20%,” he replied, with no objection from his friends.
“And Arabs?” I asked.
At this point his buddies corrected him. “There are more Arabs in France than Jews,” one affirmed.
“So at least 40% of the French population is either Jewish or Arab?” I asked to an uncomfortable silence.
As I walked away pondering this extraordinary display of demographic ignorance, it occurred to me that the 20% represented his impression of the Jews in the “visible” world of France — media, TV, movies, universities, professions, politics. talking heads. He had the choice of acknowledging that 1% of the population produced 20% of the meritocratic elite, or assuming that if Jews produced 20% of the elite, that must come from a similar pool within the larger population. No wonder it was hard for the French to think clearly about the Jews.
I had a conversation the next day in a crowded café with a French academic in which I reported the discussion the previous night. In addition to asking me to speak English when I raised the subject of French Arabs – even to mention is racist and I was clearly embarrassing her in front of people she didn’t even know – she dismissed my invocation of these three journalists as anecdotal. “Just because three superficial and stupid journalists made those remarks doesn’t make them representative of French intellectuals.” (Again the language of marginalization.)
“But these were not stupid and superficial intellectuals. The very fact that they came to a movie that so systematically criticized the French press puts them in a minority; and they were very smart and witty, their banter filled with learned puns which they took the trouble to explain to me. These fellows were bright and sharp. I’ll agree, however, superficial. But that’s a pervasive problem.”
At the end of the conversation, back in the street, she leans towards me and whispers conspiratorially, “Listen, the reason why Chirac can’t support a war against Iraq is that he’d have a civil war on his hands (meaning the explosion of still more violence from the Arab quarters, violence that has, until now, mostly been directed at Jews and Zionists, and which the anti-war movement has systematically encouraged). This is one of the public secrets (secret de Polichinelle) of the whole affair. The Arabs, of course, know it only too well. When they demonstrated the next day, along with pictures of Saddam Hussein (at a Peace rally!), their triumphant cry was “Le veto, c’est nous!” (We are the veto [promised against the USA no matter what evidence emerged]!).
The press, as far as I heard and saw, didn’t report the pictures of Saddam, preferring interviews with peace-loving students proud of their nation’s stand. Tell it to a Frenchman and he’ll deny that the veto is because of fear of Arab rage. Tell him that the operative issue here is perceptions, and he’ll dismiss it with a wave of the hand.
And yet, the renown “Arab street” is now a fixture in France. In the last demonstration held before I left, they were carrying posters of Saddam Hussein. Brazen. When the peace rallies of the 1930s lionized Chamberlain who aspired to a Nobel Peace Prize, at least they didn’t have fascists participating with pictures of Hitler and Mussolini. And the best the progressive left can do is look the other way.
Unconsciously, however, the French reflect this appeasement. I walk into BHV, a major apartment store where last year an inspector checked every bag that entered the store. This year, to my amazement, the inspector lets me in without a glance (despite my scruffy Middle-Eastern look and bulging bag). On the other hand, when I went to see Decryptage not only did they check all compartments of my bag, they frisked me. They know who’s threatened, and who’s not. And as long as the French do what the Arabs want, they’re safe.
And of course, by appeasing this ferocious passion, the French feed the crocodile, buying themselves time while preparing a still more dismal future. Everything they do teaches their Arab population that they can be intimidated; that the more violent the Arabs get, the more supine the response.
And the French don’t realize what’s going on. A French friend spoke to me with tears in his eyes about how ému (moved) he was by the reception that Chirac had received in Algers. All those cheering crowds after the bad blood that had passed between their two people. “Do you really think that they were cheering Chirac because they liked him or forgave the French, or because they delighted in the way that Chirac’s politics were protecting Saddam Hussein and the other Arabs (like Usama) who assault the West? Maybe this is not so much affection, as delight at how foolishly the French participate in their own demise?” (It turns out the crowds were shouting, “Visa! Visa! Visa!”)
It was, after all, the French fabulist, La Fontaine who, at the end of his parable of the fox and the crow, concluded, “Tout flatteur vît au dépense de celui qui l’écoute.” [All flattery exists at the expense of those who listen to it.]
Flattery is the main problem here. With the politicians and the historians. No one wants to think badly of himself. Some are more resistant to bad news, to self-criticism, than others. Some are more uncontrolled in their efforts to assert, against all sober evaluations of the situation, their grandeur. And the French flatter themselves to death.
“Courage means opposing the strongest, and America is the strongest,” one of the French journalists told me at the café.
“No,” I responded, “courage is attacking those who are wrong even if it means suffering a counterattack – as in Saddam Hussein and Jihadist Islamism – not attacking allies who are stronger and won’t hit you back.”
Water off a duck’s back. In the two sentences he can tell me that France is courageous for attacking America and peace-loving for defending Saddam in order to avoid a rise in terrorism.
“There are no Protestant [French] historians working on the history of the 16th century,” remarked a colleague in early modern history.
“Really? Why not?”
“Because it’s not a pretty story. When one looks closely into Calvin, he’s not the font of tolerance and freedom that they had previously thought.” “Is it the same thing for the left and the French revolution?” “Precisely.”
Interesting. Here are French historians, reluctant to do history when the image they find doesn’t flatter them, while French journalists and intellectuals express deep (even pathological) hostility to the Israelis and the Americans, the most self-critical cultures (both among politicians and historians) on the planet, and an equally deep and equally irrational sympathy towards the least self-critical culture on the planet, the Palestinians. Indeed, they line up to reformulate the Arab demonizing narrative in which the Palestinians are the innocent victims and the Israelis the vicious imperialist/colonialist/racist aggressors.
A deeply disquieting self-satisfaction permeates the French position on the war in Iraq. Demonstrators express pride at the fact that their nation stands tall for peace “finally we can feel good about France!” says a young student to a reporter; the press speaks of the virtually unprecedented rates of approval for “Chirac le pacifique”; intellectuals delight in dismissing Bush’s motives as those of vengeance (for his father, not 9-11), and oil. “Tout le monde le sait, c’est une guerre de petrol [Everyone knows, it’s a war for oil].”
Of course such positions have paper thin substance, dissolving the moment one mentions the possible motives of Chirac that relate to the punitively favorable oil contracts the French have with Iraq, and with the myriad ways that France (and Germany and Russia and China) have armed Saddam over the past decade. Indeed one of the major reasons that Chirac says nothing about removing, but only “disarming” Saddam may have something to do with his fears that another regime, especially one that results from an American invasion, would reveal the depths of French complicity with both the arming of this maniac and the victimization of his people who starved while the French made deals in which 10% automatically went straight into Saddam’s personal bank account.
Do the French know this? I get two answers when I raise the issue. First, denial linked to insistence that there are no proofs and if America knew this why did they not produce them. Second, brazen acceptance. “Mais tout le monde le sait. [Everyone knows that.]” Sometimes it’s the same person at two different points in the conversation, here making the invidious comparison between vile American motives and noble French ones; there giving me a lecture on the “realism” of the French and the naiveté of Americans. As Jean-François Revel, in his devastating bookL’obsession anti-américaine [now translated], it’s the characteristic irrationality of French narcissism that it can hold two mutually contradictory notions in its head at the same time, as long as it makes them feel good about themselves. And to feel good means demonizing the US.
A colleague whom I greatly admire and have always considered the most independent of the medievalists I’ve come to know said to me, in all seriousness:
“The USA is unquestionably the most dangerous country in the world, far more than Saddam Hussein, than North Korea, than anyone.”
“How can you say that?” I asked in astonishment.
“Because it’s the most powerful country in the world and it’s been taken over by the fundamentalists.”
Now my friend was not among those many of his countrymen who snatched up copies of a conspiracist book by a French journalist named Thierry Meyssan about 9-11 L’imposture, [now translated]. claiming that the Pentagon attack of 9-11 did not actually occur, but he partakes of the driving thirst for everything bad he can hear about America.
The spectacle of an entire nation (certainly its intelligentsia) prey to collective delusions of this nature, especially when the results are so destructive for them in the long run, is a sobering experience. It calls into question the idea that you need totalitarian control of the press in order to control information. Here we have a intelligent and educated culture with a high level of esprit critique with access to a wide range of material both in their own press (although it’s an effort to find it), and foreign press (especially on the WWW), and it systematically deludes itself. Sometimes I felt like I was trying to talk someone down off of a bad acid trip: as long as I could maintain eye contact and reason firmly with them, they could follow; but as soon as the connection was broken they’d return to their delirium.
Piece after piece in the press disappoints. Articles that ask whether this break with the USA portends ill, regularly end in self-congratulation. There is a new European consensus emerging they claim with typical self-congratulation, one of a pacific and independent Europe with France and Germany at its head, dedicated to putting an end to war.
To me it looks like a vapid and self-destructive “pacifism” that only encourages the forces determined to destroy the West. And by an invidious identity formation in which the US and Israel serve as negative foils, turns friends into enemies and hallucinates that enemies will love and appreciate Europe for staying the only hand that threatens to slow its destructive goals.
René Girard, author of widely read works on “scapegoating” has an interview with a major weekly in which he pontificates about the American need to find a scapegoat. And yet, were he to read Revel’s book on anti-Americanism, Girard would discover the degree to which his analysis adds fuel to the scapegoating he so lucidly analyzes in his academic work.
Even the most independent newspaper, the mordant satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, the only one to report the real cause of Michel Foucault’s death in 1984 (the others reported respiratory failure, while le tout Paris was talking about AIDS), steps right in line with puns on Pitt-Bush and pious opinion pieces on going from a state of war (guerre) proposed by the Americans, to a state of grâce proposed by the French – with a straight face! What’s so pathetic is that so many of these people really mean it. What do you do with people who are so smart and so good at self-representation that they even fool themselves?
At the end of his essay, Jean-Claude Milner has a paragraph which is a roman-clé to the current situation. French intellectuals are “Cowardly with the strong [Islamists], hard on the weak [the people of Iraq, the students in their own schools, the French Jews], ambitious without design [Chirac’s desire to stand at the head of Europe], ignorant while hiding behind a veil of pedantry [“there’s absolutely no link between Saddam and Usama, one’s secular, the other a fundamentalist], imprecise in substance but exact in style [Girard’s learned analysis].
The French may not be les toutous of the Americans. But they are Chirac’s sheep, and in this case, they are being herded to their destruction by wolves who do not even bother to disguise themselves. Why bother when the French, especially the French left, imbued with a supreme sense of their intellectual and moral [sic!] superiority, do such a good job dismissing, minimalizing, marginalizing, and ignoring anything that might disturb their comfortable and admirable self-image?
And my medievalists… aside from using the same rhetoric, is there any link between the historians of the year 1000 and those of 2000? Indeed. One of their avowed motivations for “wringing the neck” of this myth in the 1990s was precisely in order to say, “no fears in 1000, no fears in 2000!” (Le Goff in Télérama, Delumeau in Le Nouvel Observateur). And so they remain consistent. As they deny that any apocalyptic sentiment moved the people of 1000 to their deeds, so they deny that the people of 2000 hold any such notions, ignoring the proliferation of the Islamic Jihadist apocalyptic millennialism that spreads through their own Muslim communities.
Indeed, they give this apocalyptic discourse (at least in its demonizing conspiratorial anti-Semitic form) open approval in their Peace rallies. After all, wasn’t all this hatred the natural and understandable expression of resentment at what Israel was doing to the Palestinians? When it gets really ugly, look the other way.
Was there a paralllel that, had the French historians taken their own past seriously, might have helped them inform their political scientists working on current events. After all, imnsho, one of the better explanations for the extraordinary phenomenon of the “Peace movement” of the 990s and 1020s/30s, is that the ecclesiastics who assembled the first peace rallies in European history, the “Peace of God” in the 990s, also gave open approval to apocalyptic millennial sentiments. And that even such pacific apocalyptic notions became eventually so radical that the guarantors of order soon found “necessary” to repress with inquisitorial severity (1022) and the first European anti-Jewish pogroms (1010). Was any Frenchman at this point, prepared to even consider, much less understand the possibility of the Islamic revival they were encouraging was an active cataclysmic apocalyptic movement — the most dangerous of all millennial phenomena.
It is one thing to set sail with your boat of historiographical reconstruction and sink on an iceberg of sentiments that you did not notice lurking below the surface of the texts. As long as your colleagues keep telling you it’s a fine boat, and ostracizing your critics, things go fine. But when you do that in the real world, and your ship sinks, the consequences can be quite painful, and for more than merely your narcissistic pride.
I return to the US to find an article about the problems of French-American relations in the wake of these events. The American journalist walks in the streets of Paris and comes away with a characteristic French conclusion.
“It’ll blow over.”
“It’s merely a diplomatic tiff.”
“It’s not anti-Americanism, it’s just a dissatisfaction with Bush’s policies.”
All through the article, I could hear the strains of the favorite French chorus, “il faut dédramatiser.”
Hélas, that is probably just what the renown if fabled frog who fails to jump from a pot of water that goes gradually from cold to boiling tells himself every step on the way to getting cooked.
Department of History