I have posted this essay in installments at the blog. For those who would like to comment on any part, the link to the post is in the subtitles.
When the Ostrich Lifts up Its Head
“Nous sommes tétanisés,” said my French friend. [We are paralyzed.]
The French are beginning to wake up, beginning to lift up their Ostrich head from the sand. As opposed to the frequent dismissals I ran across in the past – when it wasn’t accusations of racism – I now met an increasing number of people willing to say, “we don’t disagree” (the French really don’t like to say “you’re right”). But, as my friend put it, we don’t know what to do. “We’re paralyzed.”
I have been visiting France fairly regularly all my life, but particularly since 2000, the nature of those visits has changed, and I’ve watched a radical split occur between the Jewish community in France (which has grown increasingly alarmed at the violence against them) and your typical Frenchman and woman, who consider Jewish alarm – if they even notice it – as, well, alarmist. (For earlier posts on what I noticed, see here.)
I haven’t been in France since last Spring, so a number of factors played in the mixture. Obviously the Fall (Ramadan) 2005 riots that started in the Parisian suburbs and spread through France sobered people considerably, despite the official position of the media, political, and academic elites that this was not a religious or cultural issue, but one of socio-economic inequities that could be solved by addressing those inequities. But more recently, there had occurred two things that sobered them considerably.
First, the Danish cartoons. Most every Frenchman I spoke with (especially the non-Jews, who are in most denial about the religious dimension) mentioned them. Even the French, who do not have much of a sense of humor about other people making fun of them, understood that the Muslim reaction revealed a level of immaturity beyond anything they had, in their cognitively egocentric slumber, ever imagined. It was for them a sobering look at a religious mafia, intimidating anyone who dare criticize it. The cultural gap between the French and an Islam which, they had begun to acknowledge, played an increasingly powerful role among its immigrant population, lay bare before their eyes.
Second, the slow torture of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish youth, kidnapped and tortured to death over a three-week period in one of the “territoires perdus” of the Republic, awoke the French to the depth of barbarity that had grown up under their noses. That Islamic hatred played a role came across unmistakably with the calls to the Jewish parents and the reading of Quranic verses over the sound of their son tortured in the background. But the gang was really more a mostly Muslim collection of immigrant sons from the hood, from the “territoires perdus.”
Indeed the most terrifying part of the tale came when the leader of the gang got arrested in the Ivory Coast (whence his parents had emigrated before his birth). His picture smiling and making the V sign with his fingers shocked people with its utter lack of any sign of conscience, and his subsequent interview confirmed the impression. Indeed the photo was so shocking, that after consulting with three lawyers, AFP took the photo down because it was “a blow at the private life” of the suspect, but “above all, there was no imperious necessity to diffuse this highly provocative photo.”
Ah, if only they had felt that way about Muhammad al Durah, they might have spared themselves much pain. But that would have meant sparing the Jews and the Israelis.
But those with eyes, like Nidra Poller, could see. Youssouf Fofana was not a religious fanatic poisoned by paranoid underground hatreds. Here was Nietzsche’s blond beast in blackface, without conscience, a predator who feels no need to apologize to his prey. Robust sadism. The barbarians at the gates… in the suburbs. And their neighbors, who remained silent for weeks as they heard the cries of the tortured youth – not even an anonymous call – illustrated how powerful the dominion of the killers in these territoires perdus.
Americanophilia or Americanophobia?
So this time, when I got to France, I found that many of my old friends, people who had disagreed with me and disapproved of my morbid imagination for the future, more readily agreed with me. “Nous ne sommes pas en désaccord!” [we don’t disagree] – which is about the best one can hope for – insisted one with passion. The people I spoke to, even the most indifferent earlier, even the ostriches, seemed sobered. And the Jews reported more success trying to tell their non-Jewish neighbors about their fears. The French have even come up with a new term – les Gaulois – to designate culturally French (as in “nos ancêtres les Gaulois…” like Asterix)), as opposed to native-born French, which necessarily includes the growing population of un-assimilated, maybe anti-assimilationist children of Arab and African immigrants.
One might even say, some of the Gaulois were finding some clarity on who were the good guys. At the first café we went to, late Saturday night, the waiters, who began the evening making snide remarks about us behind our backs (including the way I wore by beret), upon realizing that were Americans who spoke French, grew quite warm. It turned out that at least two of them wanted to move to America.
“What about anti-Americanism?” I ask the waiter who was marrying an American girl and hoping to go to the States to start a restaurant.
“Oh, that was bad back at the time of the Iraq war, but no longer,” he said, with a reassuring confidence.
A wave of anti-Americanism that poisoned the Western alliance and has contributed so much to making Sadaam Hussein’s removal a nightmare in the winter of 2003, was in his eyes a passing squall. Not a problem.
It reminded me of the remark that an FBI guy said to some scholars about the Waco catastrophe: “We didn’t do anything wrong, and we won’t do it again.” Except that this Gaulois who wanted to jump ship to America wasn’t even saying “We won’t do it again.” There was not even the admission that the wave of pro-Chirac anti-Americanism was a stupidity that hurt France. Just a promise that, right now, we don’t feel any anti-Americanism.
There’s plenty of unconscious evidence that even Chirac regretted pissing the USA off, that your average Gaulois was beginning to realize that they were not in as good shape as America. No sign of an awareness that this spasm of anti-Americanism that they presented to me as a thing of the past, was actually embedded in certain profoundly self-destructive French traits, and that France needs to prepare to resist it on the next occasion of its appeal. Indeed an AOL poll of the French (i.e., those most attuned to the international community), finds 69% think that Chirac’s confrontation with the US was his single greatest accomplishment in his 10 years in power. (Interesting that it never occurred to those setting up the poll to include the same item among the options for Chirac’s failures.)
The next day, in an internet place crowded to the gills, I sit down on a cushion near a single man at a table for two. He eyes me suspiciously. “Vous permettez?” I say, eyeing the chair on the other side of the table.
“Puisque vous avez demandé, bien sûr,” [since you asked, of course], he tells me kindly. The French are interesting. If you are polite and show them respect, they can be very generous. If not, they can be extremely difficult.
We talk. He begins to carry on about “Baboush” [W] and how, if he could, he would wring his neck. This man was the opposite of the waiters we talked to the night before. Here was the anti-Americanism of March 2003, preserved, distilled, well over 80 proof. As I tried to suggest that maybe the French attitude, however right or wrong it might be, was self-destructive, he consistently cut me off, telling me how he was ex-military and knew the inside track, and passionately repeating his violent hatred of Baboush.
I moved away from him as quickly as possible, and later heard him on the phone to a friend talking about a woman: “Il faut lui flaquer une gifle, la salope. C’est une pute… je lui torderai le cou.” [You have to slap the bitch around… she’s a whore… I’ll wring her neck.]
I don’t remember this kind of verbal violence in public. Is it me? Or the new atmosphere of wireless Starbucks look-alikes? Or has Paris taken on a greater coarseness in public.
We go to Normandy. At the hotel, the woman confides to us: “My two sons are planning on leaving. While I pay for their education they’ll stay, but as soon as they’re done, they’re planning to leave and they want to go to America.”
Because the country’s going to hell. Because the bureaucracy favors the Arabs.
She tells the tale of her son-in-law getting refused family aid, but, since he’s dark-skinned, when he wears a keffiya, he gets it right away. Urban legend? Symbolic? Of what?
Because even though the riots didn’t strike their neighborhood [Bayeux centre ville], they weren’t far away. And because they believe that the riots were only a dress rehearsal.
We visit old friends from way back (the wife is a childhood friend). They are from the upper classes – educated, Catholic, intellectually lively, international in outlook, with smart kids who travel the globe studying and doing internships. In the past, the husband has taken the principled position of the ostrich in response to my warnings.
Not this time. This time he’s eager to talk, and quite open in his concerns. A description of what I have been trying to say for three years now.
“So what do you think the French will do?”
“Mais nous sommes tétanisés,” he says. [We’re paralyzed.]
What can you do when you pick your head up and see you’re between the tracks and the train is bearing down on you?
Jews Leaving; Muslims Rising
For the earlier segments of this essay, see Paris Notes, Spring 2006.
The Jews I meet with show heavy signs of wear. One of the sweetest and smartest of the French Jewish intellectuals I know, a woman of Tunisian origin, one of the single-generation acculturaters, comes towards me without knowing I see her. Her face is so drawn with care that I have difficulty identifying her. I go by her haircut, until, upon seeing me, her smile comes back and wipes away the lines of worry.
The Halimi Affair, whose Jewish and Muslim dimension the French Jews know about in much greater detail than their Christian and post-Christian fellow-citizens, has that community in a panic.
People are affolés, like the thirties. People are leaving. Especially the Jews. But if you try and make the parallel to the thirties, you get cut off. Your colleagues won’t talk to you, stop having you speak at colloquia.
In 2002, the cry was “Synagogue brulé, République en danger.” In 2006, it was “Ilan Halimi brulé, République en danger.”
It’s gotten worse. Before we had hope. We told ourselves, they’re unaware. If we can get them to look at this clearly, we can persuade them. Now we’ve persuaded them, and they do nothing.
The level of appeasement is depressing: every time the Muslims get angry, the French trip over themselves to calm their passions. It’s far worse now. I am losing hope for France.
Even the French communities in good neighborhoods, with fancy Kosher restaurants nearby, are feeling the cold wind blow.
Now, in market places, in schools, even when it doesn’t involve immigrants, Jew is used as an epithet. You can even call a Chinese “dirty Jew” if you want to insult him.
In other words, in the world of honor-shame in French culture today, the Jews are the dhimmis, the ones publicly singled out for humiliation.
“But what about the huge demonstrations? Didn’t they represent a serious change of public opinion?”
“Maybe. Aside from the politicians, it was mostly Jews…. and all along the way, reports Alex Feigenbaum hostile Arabs who refuse to condemn the march [translated by Nidra Poller here], feeling fully justified given the crimes of the Jews/Israelis.
“In Morocco, the Jews were preserved, and you know what? They harmed us. yes, yes, they harmed us a lot. They can do whatever they want, they control the media. They have money. The Arabs have nothing.”
“And petrodollars? Oil at $70 a barrel?”
“It’s still cheap for the Americans. And the Arabs are left with nothing. Here they’re demonstrating for a Jew. In Israel, if a Jew is killed, Sharon kills a million Palestinians…. It’s a genocide.”
“There were 500,000 Palestinians in 1948. Today there are 2 million. You call that a genocide? When my family was exterminated, the numbers dropped dramatically.”
“That’s ancient history,” he grumbles. And adds, to clinch the argument, “Ilan ran after girls.“
The voice of a man who’s been listening to his own community of grievance and watching French TV news, a man who will not be persuaded by evidence.
“Since 9-11, there’s been a notable change in the Muslim community. Before you rarely heard Arabic spoken. Now they speak it loudly, the mothers aggressively take over areas in parks and gardens. They started to pick up their heads and feel pride.”
“Yes, it gave them a sense of power.”
At the fac, the political tensions are high, the attitude towards Jews violent. Zionists are the enemy. A few Jewish students went to a meeting on Palestine at one of the more radical campuses in Paris, Jussieu. The feral hatred, the wild enthusiasm for Hamas, the overwhelming consensus that Israel should not exist… one has a sense that the revolting behavior that Oriana Fallaci denounced in September 2001 is alive and well. Indeed, some of the students attending were spotted and denounced as Jews, and beaten on the spot by the supporters of Palestinian freedom.
At the end of the conference, although they had remained discreet and quiet, my friends were spotted by the service d’ordre, “as a Jew” and are literally physically attacked and knocked down. My friends, girls as well as boys, getting punched, insulted, will leave injured and bloody from the building. Busted lips, punches, kicks. Lynching of Jews in the heart of my own university. And no intervened.
I ask a Jewish colleague, brilliant man with profound articles on questions like ressentiment, the emotional dimensions of thinking, and conspiracism, whether he plans to stay. “I have a one year old daughter named Yaël; I don’t know if I want her going through the French public school system with a name like that. And his calculation, now just based on the prevailing attitude, is prophetic. Within a decade over a third of the school cohort will be Muslim in France.
As another Jewish family confirmed to me, the youth are planning to leave. French Jews are in Israel, Montreal, the US, raising the housing market by buying not pied-à-terre, but escape hatches, places to go to… in case. The FBIs [French-born Israelis], noting the one-foot-in-Israel-one-in-France style of the new arrivals, call it the “Aliyah du Boeing.”
In the meantime, the statistics about the Muslims should be alarming, if only people knew about them. 20% of the Gaulois are over 65(!), 20% of the youth are born into immigrant families with increasingly tenuous ties to the culture of the republic. In a decade or so, the schools will have cohorts in which a majority of Muslims will not be unusual, even outside the “lost territories” (or rather, in the ever-larger lost territories). When one considers the tenor of the classrooms in the lost territories that comes from a contempt for learning, one has to wonder what kind of learning will go on in such schools.
But the French have imposed a silence on official figures — it’s inappropriate for a lay nation to count its citizens by religion — and so estimates swing wildly. The answer to the question, “How many Muslims in France?” tells you a great deal about a person. Estimates — all confidently given — range from 4-8 million (6.6%-13.3%) of the total population. How can you lose track of 4 million people?
The more I hear, the more I begin to have a sense that the French have skidded imperceptibly into a set of policies in which they encourage the one percent of their population which produces approximately 20% of its elite [figure taken from the Saint-Cyr estimate] to leave, while the same policies empower the 10% of their population which actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously, works to destroy the République.
And most Frenchmen have no idea. They don’t listen on their own, and when they’re told about it, they deny. The French seem to believe they forged their civil society entirely on their own merit, and that this home-forged product can handle any challenge, including absorbing millions of Muslim immigrants. That seems like a pretty self-destructive procedure to me. But what do I know. I’m an outsider looking in.
Gratitude, Entitlement and Resentment: D-Day Beaches and First Employment
On the trip to Normandy, at the entrance to Bayeux, there’s a Place Dwight D. Eisenhower, with a statue of Ike along the circumference and some potted plants. Nothing suggests that it serves as anything but the slightly ornate middle of a traffic circle. No visitors, no special cross walks, no cut flowers.
We visit Omaha Beach. It’s a cold day. No one is there. A couple of signs one in both English and French, one only in English, inform the visitor briefly of what happened. Very matter of fact. This is not a major site for visiting, and to the extent that it is, it seems to be an American place. I walk along the shore, imagining the invasion, the 2500 dead in the first hours… American, English, Canadian soldiers on this Longest Day. And my mind scurries back to how the French dealt with the Nazis in the 1930s, how they folded in days in 1940 and the vast majority either collaborated or stood by for most of the war, how in the aftermath of that war, after having their ass saved by the Anglophone world, they proceeded to insist on holding on to their colonial empire in Indochina and Algeria, having “force de frappe,” conducting a visibly and often abrasively independent foreign policy, all for the sake of la gloire française.
There’s a military cemetery nearby where over 7000 American soldiers are buried. It is a barren place. One other couple shares the area with us in a light morning rain. The memorial was established in July 1956 – 12 years after their deaths, by Americans. (A French association does exist, but one does not get a sense of vitality.) The inscription above the memorial reads:
THIS EMBATTLED SHORE, PORTAL OF FREEDOM, IS FOREVER HALLOWED BY THE IDEALS, THE VALOR AND THE SACRIFICES OF OUR FELLOW COUNTRYMEN.
Written by Americans, for Americans. The French President, René Coty apparently could not attend the opening ceremony, but wrote a brief letter to those who did. “We do not forget, we shall never forget, the infinite debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have given all for our freedom.” As we leave, three busloads of school kids arrive. If I had the time, I’d have toured with them, just to hear what their guides told them.
I couldn’t, however, shake the sense of desolation, of a pervasive absence of French recognition and gratitude at this site. And while gratitude is not an easy emotion to cherish, the French, imnsho, desperately need to recognize a) how badly they behaved before and during WW II, b) how much their current prosperity depended on American sacrifice and generosity, and c) how they may just be making the same mistakes all over again. Instead, I was haunted by the remark of an French friend, “The French cannot forgive America for saving them twice.” It is in the world of lost honor and bitter shame, of envy and wounded pride that no good turn goes unpunished.
And if karma operates anywhere in the universe with relative rapidity and efficiency, it’s in the negative consequences of indulging this level of ressentiment. All envy exists at the cost of he who indulges it.
Not that the French are nice to each other, as opposed to “the other.” While we are in Paris, the issue of the CPE (Contrat de Première Embauche [First Employment Contract]), a law recommended by the Prime Minister Dominique Villepin to alleviate the unemployment scene. At first glance it seems alright: in order to encourage bosses to hire people and allow people who have never had a job to have an easier time of getting one, the government will wave the constraints on firing. So anyone getting their first job gets a guaranteed two years, but at the end of that time, can be pink-slipped without cause.
At first glance, it seems like a good idea. French law makes it so hard to fire people that many small business owners prefer not to hire anyone lest they get saddled with someone they can’t get rid of. Given how high unemployment among youth (20% for the Gaulois; 40% for the immigrant youth), the idea of encouraging bosses to hire them for their first job, giving them job experience, possibly earning their long-term higher with their performance, seems like a way to break an unfortunate deadlock. Much as De Villepin strikes me personally as an odious Chauvinist who’s done irreparable damage to us all (including France), this particular idea of his seemed pretty good to me.
But it has French youth in an uproar. I ask a taxi-driver what he thinks. “It’s a terrible law.”
“Because the bosses will just exploit you for two years and then throw you out like so much garbage. I had a job for a couple of years, worked incredibly hard, and then got thrown out. It took me a long time to recover any sense of self-worth.”
“But why would the bosses act this way. Isn’t it in their interest to keep people whom they’ve trained and who work well.”
“Because they can. And with an endless supply of CPEs, they can continue to use and discard people.”
“But that’s counter-productive.”
“They do it because they can.”
Later, talking with a family whose son was in the USA – more Jewish youth getting out – on an internship (what the French call a “stage”), they reinforced the comments of the taxi-driver. Their son gets a salary for his work. Not great, but he can live on it, and when he does well, he gets rewarded. Their daughter’s friend at the table, tells us that she’s doing a stage at an architectural firm – no money, no future. She’s supposed to be happy to get the experience.
It reminds me vaguely of the famous remark of the Athenians to the Melians reported by Thucydides: “Those who can do what they will and those who can’t suffer what they must.” Classic zero-sum thinking from the patronat [bosses].
Like the internet minutes at cafés, the praise of Americans at museum exhibits, the willingness to denounce anti-Semitism… everything in tiny dollops. Generosity is for suckers. Adam Smith, master thinker of positive-sum rationality pointed out that slavery was a very inefficient system, but people preferred it even though it was against their self-interest because they liked the feeling of dominion. It helps explain why the French system would work so hard to protect the employees from arbitrary manhandling by their bosses.
So the culture is in a deadlock. Increasing unemployment, even good solutions unworkable because so much bad faith pervades the system… and now, riots that revive those of ’68 (without the utopian vision) and replicate those of Ramadan 2005. Increasing unemployment, even good solutions unworkable because so much bad faith pervades the system… and now, riots that revive those of ’68 (without the utopian vision) and mimic those of Ramadan 2005. “Down with the state, the cops, the bosses.” As some of the rioters expressed themselves:
C’est debile de bruler les voitures… de casser un magasin, mais finalement inconsciemment quand tout brûle, et bien maintenant les gens vont vraiment s’enerver maintenant… c’est un truc, c’est un symbole c’est même pas…
Il faut s’exprimer, si personne ne fait rien, y’aura rien du tout… nous on s’exprime…
C’est ca qui est paradoxale, il faut faire des actions totalement débiles, detruire des trucs…
La democratie elle est morte, quoi, c’est fini… voilà.
[It’s idiotic to burn cars and smash a store, but in the end, unconsciously, when everuthing is burning then people will really get aroused…
It’s a gimmick, a symbol, not even…
Got to express yourself, if no one does anything, there won’t be anything… we are expressing ourselves…
That’s what’s paradoxical: you have to do totally idiotic things, destroy stuff…
Democracy is dead, finished, that’s it…]
The pensée débile expressed by these youth, the notion that acting out represents serious political action, especially when attacking a well-intentioned law, the readiness to announce the death of democracy like it was an old shoe that didn’t fit anymore… apparently the quality of French education has fallen off in more than just the “lost territories.” To protest Ilan Halimi’s torture, one can barely get the students to show up; to break stuff and reject a law intended to help them, hundreds of thousands, day after day. Maybe it’s not dead, but democracy and civil society, with all the discipline and restraint it demands, may well be dying here.
Sightings of Spine
So are the French waking up? And if so, are they like someone who’s fallen asleep at the wheel and wake up after they’ve smacked into the central median strip only to watch the car careening across the highway into a boulder on the other side?
The analogy is poor, since the social process is happening too slowly for sustained paralysis without something inhibiting a sane response. Unquestionably, the events of the last several months have sobered the French. Traditionally left-wing papers print things that they never would have said before, much as the murder of Theo van Gogh untied the tongues of Dutch observers in an otherwise PC-smothered discourse. Daniel Leconte, a notably courageous journalist where the al Durah affair is concerned, wrote a very strong denunciation of Islamism in Libération congratulating Charlie Hebdo on its courage in printing the cartoons.
Is it enough? Will it last? Or, as in the past, when the MSM briefly caught on, will they sink back into the old patterns of denial and silence?
Having affirmed that the victory over terrorism would come through more democracy, in the name of what twisted logic should we now say that we should renounce here what many democrats and intellectuals would supposedly like to see flourish over there? What desertion of our post this must seem in the eyes of those, Lebanese, who have payed with their lives for having said “The Arab tragedy” (Le Malheur Arab) was above all the responsability of their own elites?
In other words, how will self-criticism ever “take” over there, where the honor hungry alpha male elites control the media, if we won’t even hold the line here, where supposedly the battle for freedom of the press has already been won?
On my last day in Paris, I went to an extraordinary conference in the Mairie du 3e arrondissement [the Town Hall of the 3rd District] entitled “Democracies confronted with Islamism.” An unusual collection of speakers and commentators addressing the real problems of France, the demographic and ideological time bombs that have already been set, and now begin to go off periodically. French intellectuals, including “lay” Muslims, Americans, even an Israeli specialist. Nelly Sayagh wecolmed the audience with a speech one is only beginning to hear in France. Among others she quoted Thérèse Delpech from her book L’ensauvagement : Le retour de la barbarie au XXIe siècle :
In such circumstances, it’s not astonishing that the battle that most reveals the weaknesses of western societies against its enemy occurs neither in the arena of military or police or judicial actions, but intellectual and moral. The specific force that comes with conviction is entirely in the other camp. Nor is it by chance that the ability to die for one’s ideas comes back in the monstruous form of suicide terrorism the world over. They raise crucial questions for the societies that are their victim: what ideas are still worthy enough that our post-heroic societies risk their lives to defend them?
Granted the room wasn’t as full as the pro-Palestinian auditorium at Jussieu, but hopefully the crowd was made up of opinion leaders, people who could change the direction the wind blows so when the Gaulois pick up their fingers to judge its direction, they won’t join the raging lemmings that cheer Hamas to victory in the insane belief that these global Jihadis fight for the same revolutionary cause as European “radicals.”
But it’s too early to tell.
People still get ostracized for speaking out. “Those who ‘wake up’ are discredited at an incredible speed,” commented one friend, who explained that the French have difficulty getting clear on what’s important and what’s not. He noted that one of France’s great and radical intellectuals, Pierre Bourdieu had argued that the French intellectual elite elaborately reproduced itself (shades of Milner’s observations, and my own experience with medievalists), but that now, they were just sterile, unable to even reproduce themselves.
At the new Bibliothèque Nationale de France at Tolbiac, there’s a major new exhibition, The Enlightenment. It’s a courageous effort to reclaim the tradition of individualism, tolerance, dissent, reason, universalism, humanism, love… all the good things that made Europe the cradle of modern democracies. And unlike most French exhibits about the past, this one does not have the musk of antiquarianism to it: it directly tackles the shortcomings of the Enlightenment and its relevance today. Its subtitle, An Inheritance for Tomorrow.
We cannot “return” to the Enlightenment. Their world is not ours. But we should not renounce them either, as some of the revolutionaries and anti-humanists of the last century [a subtle way to say Communists and Nazis]. It’s rather a reformulation of the Enlightenment that we need, which preserves the heritage of the past, but testing it, as the Enlightenment taught us to do, in confronting them lucidly to their desirable and undesirable consequences. In criticizing the Enlightenment we stay loyal to it and do the very work they began. We need this thought in action because, let us repeat, contrary to what some of their representatives hoped for, humanity has not, since, reached maturity. Worse, we now know that she [humanity] will never do so, but only aspire to do so. Even that’s not a revelation. When someone asked Kant if we lived already in a truly enlightened era, he answered, “No, but an era on the path to enlightenment.” This seems to be our species’ vocation: begin every day this labor, knowing it’s interminable.
The exhibit is clear, as was the Enlightenment, on who are the enemies: “obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism.”
The French, confronted with a population of immigrants who show no sign of adjusting to the demands of Republican values, begin to reclaim the cultural features that made their civic achievement possible. But they don’t dot the i’s. The exhibit never addresses the problems of today except by indirection. In their big volume accompanying the exhibition they have an article provocatively titled: “The Unfinished Business of Modernity,” by no less a cultural giant than Jurgen Habermas. Alas, it was not written for the occasion (despite Habermas’s current opinion of himself as someone who, with Derrida, could solve the world’s problems), but a piece from 1984 which does not foresee any of Europe’s current dilemmas.
And rather than end with a grand call to forging a new cultural direction based on reality-testing and honest discourse, the exhibit ends with a curious note on the role of America in the Enlightenment. The final paragraph of the final panel that visitors read, begins by conceding that many Americans participated enthusiastically in the Enlightenment project and wrote important works, especially scientific ones.
These [American] texts, innovative, struck the French who made haste to translate them and disseminate them in their gazettes and encyclopedias.
What? An openly, unalloyed positive comment about the Americans that suggests that the French “avaient des leçons à recevoir” [had lessons to learn] from them? Surely there’s a “but…” coming.
But these inventions were not purely American. They are part of a much larger public space, that of the European Enlightenment whose most famous authors were Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot et d’Alembert, John Locke, David Hume, Beccaria…
D’Alembert? Rather than Kant? Or Vico?
And so, we leave the exhibit with one final testimony to the French’s inability
to give the Americans a compliment without taking it back, without re-asserting their primacy in all that really matters. Sa gloire. Like other areas of French scholarship, littered with paths not taken, and insights blunted by their own inability to let go of a glorious past and an enduring claim to prominence. Like the Arabs, the French were once the leaders of European and global culture (from the 11th to the mid-19th centuries); and like the Arabs, they have a deep sense of grievance at “history gone wrong.”
Is that what’s going on here? Is the obtuseness of the French the product of some deep resentment at America because they sit where the French should sit? Is this their secret bond with the Arabs — the brotherhood of envy?
French academics make a clear distinction between globalisation — a hegemonic, imperialist process that would homogenize the world, and mondialisation a peaceful multi-cultural endeavor that would allow a thousand cultures to bloom. When I first heard the distinction, I asked the daughter of friends, a student at Science po[litique], whether French intellectuals objected to globalisation in principle, or because not they, but the Americans were not the drivers of that process? If France could lead, would they argue for globalisation? She gave me the French equivalent of a “No duh.”
The exchange was brief and remained on the level of repartee — witty honesty. But on another level the painful truth one arrives at, if one can discipline oneself to stay on topic long enough, was an admission that the stand of French intellectuals on the process of culture-formation that now takes place on a global scale reflects a politics of ressentiment. As Charles de Gaulle notably commented:
France cannot be herself if she is not in the front rank… France cannot be France without her grandeur (Memoires de Guerre : L’Appel, 1940-1942, p. 1).
The real question before the court of history is: can the French regain their place in the front rank by renouncing this borderline megalomania and tap into some reality-based relationships? The world may have survived this peccadillo during the Cold War, but it now threatens the very survival of French and European modern culture. Can France be a leader by innovating in modesty and learning? Or will they pull everyone down as they demand a glory they have neither earned nor deserve?
["And," retorts the Gaulois upon reading this, "I suppose you Americans have earned your position on top of the world?"]
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 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 banlieux 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?
Anti-Zionism as Cultural AIDS and its Cure: Reflections on France VII (Conclusion)
Anti-Zionism as Cultural AIDS and its Cure: Reflections on France VII (Conclusion)
How do you tell very smart people some (what to you seem) obvious things that they cannot seem to see? If it were just an intellectual argument – like the year 1000 – I can deplore the results, but it’s not life-threatening. The ship of historiographical consensus may have sunk long ago, but ultimately… does it really matter? Isn’t what medievalists do pretty irrelevant to what’s going on today?
But here, if what I think I perceive is 70% accurate, the French, the Europeans really are picking up their heads from the sand, and looking out like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming train.
How does one explain a dangerous situation to someone in denial. How do you wake up the driver who’s fallen asleep at the wheel on icy mountain roads is such as way as to wake her quickly enough, but without panicking him. How does France wake up before she careens off the mountainside, last overheard repeating in his sleep the received wisdom that the Roman Empire never really fell.
Were France to careen off the edge, I for one cannot contemplate that with equanimity. That would constitute a tragedy too great too great to contemplate no matter how unpleasantly self-destructive the French behave. France is part of our heritage and part of our inspiration. Granted, that which so inspired from France is now in short supply. But even at the most “rational” dimensions of positive-sum thinking, France’s health is the interest of cultures of freedom. It’s fall – which would almost certainly bring about the fall of other, many European countries with similar problems?
To borrow a metaphor from the Muslims, France is in the heart of “realm of freedom”, and her loss would be a catastrophe for the culture of freedom we have fought so hard over the last millennium to establish. I personally have deep personal ties to France (the French, especially the Parisians, are an aquired taste), but any sane person cannot contemplate France’s fall with pleasure. To think otherwise is to indulge the desire to take vengeance on France, to get French Derangement Syndrome, to wish ill on them even at our own costs.
Doubts: Can I be Right and all these People Wrong?
So maybe I am exaggerating all this. Maybe I’ve gone too far, projecting my millennial “readings” on France, as I did on Y2K. Pretty soon, I’ll be predicting that by 2010, as a century earlier, France will have it’s first execution of Jews on charges of plotting against the one true religion. Ridiculous. Shake it out of your head. As someone noted on the Medieval List:
You know, it is probably a good idea not to get to caught up in the phenomena one is supposed to be studying. I shall now be unable to sleep for trying to retrieve a half-forgotten quotation about scholars getting infected by the madness they were describing.
And yet… and yet… the dynamics sure look familiar.
A French friend, a medievalist, writes back from cheery Provence…
Next time you come, you must come here and don’t spend all your time with those northern intellectuals. We had a good laugh as we read you.
Didn’t Sidonius Apollinarus write from somewhere near there in the late 5th century, enjoying the good life?
The Jews, Europe’s First Dhimmis
Maybe if my amused friend’s note had at least addressed the “Jewish question” a bit, I’d have been more reassured.
But no. French gentiles are, with few exceptions, extraordinarily uninterested in what Jews have to say. Since 2000, an extraordinary turn has increasingly imposed itself in French public discourse. The Jew cannot testify. His evidence, as Jewish, is systematically discounted, consistently denied on charges of “communautarisme” [partisanship]. The 21st-century Jew is France’s (Europe’s?) first Dhimmi. And that is not because he is the least and most miserable of the minorities in France, but because he is at once the most vulnerable and, in civil society, the most dangerous. In a society that prizes freedom, tolerance and self-criticism, Jews will rise to prominence. And for those, like the demopaths and the hate-mongerers who despise and fear freedom, the Jews are the ones whose discourse one must silence. Historically speaking, war mongers first knock off the Jews, and societies that let them do this end up either at war with their neighbors (Nazis) or with themselves (medieval and Spanish inquisition).
Ask anyone who defends Israel to the slightest degree, and they will report, as did RM in an email of March 21:
En effet la diabolisation d’Israel a atteint un tel degré que le simple fait de défendre ce pays suscite presque immédiatement un soupcon : êtes-vous juif ? non je ne suis pas juif … ah mais alors pourquoi vouloir défendre l’indéfendable.
[In fact, the demonization of Israel has reached such a degree that the simple fact that you defend that country almost immediately raises the suspicion, “are you a Jew.” “Uh, no.” “So why do you want to defend the undefendable.”]
This experience has happened to many. When I first met one of the French consuls in Boston, I told him about this problem. He responded, “well, given the evidence, it’s not hard to understand why someone would oppose Israel. Why are you surprised?”
Okay, it’s a “reasonable” argument. But unanimity? No one independent enough to look with reasonable dispassion and come up with a reading that says, “the Palestinians exaggerate at best, and given the circumstances, the Israelis are behaving more decently than most nations — certainly than Arab nations would given the nature of the attack and the disparity in power? No one?
“When the fishes all swim in the same direction, it’s because they’re dead,” noted Pierre-André Taguieff, one of those righteous gentiles who denounces the Judeophobia of the French (and gets accused by Tariq Ramadan of being Jewish as a result).
Or, “when all the intellos face the same direction it’s because a culture of honor and shame has invaded academic life, and no one dares stand opposed to the public consensus.” Of course, in the long run that gives you naked kings. And the real question now is, can we afford that?
In the coming showdown, it’s going to be a question of freedom vs. dominion. Can we have sufficient respect for the other that freedom is possible? Or will we allow a thugocracy to take-over, alpha males and their ideologues imposing a new reign of dominion of one man on another, of intimidation, of mutual suspicion, a new dark age every bit as bitter as the early medieval, and late Carolingian, whatever we hear about thriving markets and flourishing towns.
Selling out the Jews at a time like this seems crazy. They are masters in positive-sum. They adopt rapidly to the rules of civil society, become professionals, give passionate commitment to the ideals that democracies cherish, even to the point of endangering fellow Jews. Here are agents of tolerant modernity, people with a very high threshhold to violence (Warsaw ghetto uprising only came in April 1943) who can help spread a culture of civility, where otherness, even opposition, is easier to acknowledge, and things turn rapidly from violence to discourse. No wonder, when a typical Frenchmen looks at public figures — professionals, media folk, talking heads — he thinks France is 20% Jewish.
And when these people tell you that your growing Arab minority is making life intolerant for you, when they appeal to your judges, policemen, journalists and intellectuals to come to their aid, you tell them, “I don’t believe your testimony… and anyway, you can’t blame them, look at what your doing to their brethren in the “Occupied Territories.” Does that make sense? Either practically or morally? Is any intellectual culture that can look at the Arab-Israeli conflict and come out so decisively and pervasively anti-Zionist fair? Everyone swims in the same direction?
Israeli Derangement Syndrome
I’m not sure what the whole story is – that, no one can tell – but part of it seems to be Israel Derangement Syndrome. There appears to be a real emotional pay-off to seeing this as a morality tale in which the Israelis are the “bad guy” and the Palestinians the “good guy.” And any suggestion that Europeans think about the Palestinians, and more broadly the larger culture of Jihad, as a threat to the civil society seems destined to crash on a hard rocky shore. The French won’t hear of it, no matter how much evidence there is, no matter how threatened they may be.
On one level, one can attribute it to “politically correct thinking” — what some might call moral narcissism — a commitment to acting “right” regardless of the circumstances. But even that carries with it the seeds of this destructiveness. When your identity needs to feel morally righteous at all costs, you cannot self-criticize, and you cannot learn. But that only puts off the problem. All the more reason at some point to wake up. What prevents Europe from listening to some of it’s more perceptive analysts, like Per Ahlmark?
One of the more formidable roadblocks to awakening seems to come from an extraordinarily strong European to a demonizing narrative about the Israelis. And any hint of a different perspective, one in which the Israelis were not the hands-down bad guys, and the Palestinians not the chosen people of the left, immediately triggers suspicion and derision. How can anyone assess the evidence for the two alternative “readings” of the Middle Eastern conflict, if their attachment to one is so dogmatic that they can’t even read one of them, without turning bright red within moments?
How well can we resist? For the French, it’s hard to imagine. The derangement syndrome is so great, it operates like a block on any intelligent discussion. As soon as one moves away from the dominant anti-Zionist discourses, the suspicion arises that one is a Mossad agent. Philippe Karsenty, pursuing justice in the Enderlin-al Durah affair through the Kafkaesque French bureaucracy, got accused of Mossad ties. A young and lively-minded reporter, willing to buck the mainstream, nervously joked, “mais on va nous accuser d’espioner pour Mossad.”
The consensus about Israel is veritably crushing. The French cannot hear, even the really good French.
As a result, they make critical mistakes with their own populations. “This is a purely economic and social issue,” the academics and the MSM say in their secular cognitive egocentrism, in firm denial that global jihad has anything to do with them as infidels, and their immigrant populations awakening to a clarion call to dominion. Any attempt to argue otherwise gets hooted down (se fait crier haro) with accusations of racism and demonizing, and then with the comment, “I didn’t know that you were Jewish.”
And the astonishing part is not the existence of such an attitude. History is the history of the argument between self-destructive and constructive attitudes towards the future. The stunning part is how widespread the consensus against Israel.
Whence this astonishing consensus? And from a people who pride themselves on independence, and on critical distance, even méfiance?
After all, the French blogosphere is vast, and anyone who has spent time with the French cannot doubt their intelligence, their wit, their finesse. From the cities to the countryside. Does it not have the resources for some intellectual diversity and cultural creativity?
Michelet saw them at work on that July night of 1830, and he wept over their love-letters to the revolutionary government in Paris in 1790 when the first “Festivals of the Republic” were celebrated. We both see them at work among the crowds that gathered in the fields of the peace assemblies of the 990s and 1020s. France has this resource, the ability to express a communality that really does include brotherhood. They have its slogan inscribed on all the doors of their republic.
Nor are they unaware or unappreciative of these values. Bu these days they apply them with deadened logic and deadly consequences to their attitude towards Muslims. “No good can come from gratuitously insulting another people.” “Let us help the other to be open to the other.”
Anti-Zionism as Cultural AIDS
In the end, my every trip confirms my sense that anti-Zionism is a form of cultural AIDS. It systematically blocks the society’s ability to recognize hostile forces, and to mobilize against them. By mistaking demopaths for democrats, and denouncing democrats (however fallible) as imperialist/colonialist/racists, anti-Zionism and the larger phenomenon of Judeophobia of which it is a part, destroys the culture’s immune system.
Thus they cannot recognize the attack on the system represented by their growing and increasingly hostile Muslim community. By this, I don’t mean every Muslim in France, not even the majority, but those who set the tone for that community. Unacculturated second generation immigrants from North Africa and other parts of the world increasingly turning to a combination of tribal aggressions on territory (areas of plunder or be plundered, of “non-droit”, where civic rules do not apply, briefly but significantly including places like the Ecole Nationale des Chartes and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociale), and an ideology of Jihad, which views every concession made by the west, as a further advance in the setting up of the battle field. As one analysis puts it, this is not anger, it’s contempt bordering on hatred.
And the French read it as a cry for help and prescribe across the boad concessions. Since it’s not a religious and cultural hostility, but an economic cry for help, they think they will make it better by throwing money and cultural concessions at the problem. Not water, but gasoline on the flames.
And the second one argues that this is a religious and cultural problem, the cultural AIDS kick in: “you’re exaggerating because you’re Jewish (even if you’re not), you’re a war-monger (even if you want to avoid a war by dealing with the problem while it’s still possible), you’re a racist (while this is about culture). Above all, we Gaulois don’t believe you because you are “ communautaristes.” To respond otherwise would mean “abandoning the Palestinians,” and giving up on the malin plaisir of excoriating the Israelis and the Jewish supporters in France.
I can’t shake off the feeling that these people have so long enjoyed the spell of language, that they can continue to hold a position long after it’s not tenable. After all, Enderlin is the master of cognitive dissonance: he may still think he’s innocent. And so, apparently do the French. Indeed, they’d rather plead guilty to neglecting the Arabs, than to misjudging the Israelis.
Peter Walcot in his brief gem, Envy and the Greeks: A Study in Human Behavior, notes that envious people hate rivals and like to condescend to inferiors. Is this why the Palestinians are the “chosen people” of the Left – understood not as Jews understand chosenness, as obligation, but as the most theocratic of Christians and Muslims understand it, as privilege. Is this why no matter how badly they behave, the “bien pensants,” the beautiful souls forgive them, sympathize with them, encourage their rancorsto the exclusion of other, far more catastrophic cases that deserve progressive attention… like, Darfur?
One of the most striking lessons I’ve learned from observing the behavior of the anti-Zionists since 2000, is what one might call the power of wanting to be moral. As far as I can make out, there are people for whom posturing as the moral cutting edge of the planet is so important that they will commit suicide to maintain that posture. Here we see the envy Walcot discussed in sharp relief. Compared with the Palestinian “left,” the European left actually looks pretty good. Compared with the Israelis (the only left wing revolution to take power, get attacked by its neighbors and not melt down into paranoia, terror, and totalitarianism), they don’t look so good. Indeed, the Israeli left has far more influence in Israeli society than the left in any other country… and under conditions of war when the left and its concerns for human rights, normally folds.
One wonders, for example, how the French (or any European country), so proud of their humane laws against capital punishment, would deal with the level of violence against civilians that Israel has experienced. Unfortunately, we’ll probably have a chance to observe that one up close in the coming decades.
How to deal with the embarrassing comparison? Make the Israelis into right wing imperialists, and the imperialist Arabs into struggling freedom fighters. And when anyone suggests otherwise, turn up the moral hysteria.
Hence the AIDS.
If they were to admit that Israel faced a vicious and hateful foe, one whose hatred far exceeded any provocation and spilled out to far more than the Israelis, they might be deprived of the ability to shout, “excessive force! Imperialist aggression, Nazi Zionism!” If they even entertained the notion that this is not about territory but existence, and that they – any other nation – would have moved to defend itself with far more vigor (not to say viciousness) were they under this kind of pressue (especially with immense military superiority over their foe), they would have to recognize how restrained Israel has been. And that, apparently, would be too much to bear. Even at the price of not realizing that they too are the objects of this zealous hatred.
Given the choice between Muhammad al Durah as a fake that Palestinians staged, as a blood libel to be avoided like the plague, or Muhammad al Durah as merciless Israeli soldiers gunning down an innocent child in his father’s arms, they seize upon the latter. No matter what the evidence says.
Given the choice of seeing Jenin as a monument to Israeli restraint that few if any European armies could imitate, and Jenin the massacre that Europeans can decry to the point of boycotting the Zionist entity, the Europeans will unhesitatingly choose the latter. No matter what the evidence says.
So ignore the genocidal hatred of the Palestinians, run their Pallywood Blood Libels on the news, encourage the violence, and continue to occupy the moral high ground by attacking Israel for not being more generous. Israel Derangement Syndrome.
And it’s linked to Bush Derangement Syndrome. Anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism go hand in hand in France (and in Europe). They so badly want the US to fail in Iraq – such satisfaction – that they cannot see what a catastrophe that would be for Europe, what a huge shot in the arm to the most aggressive elements of Jihadi Islam.
If this were pure cynicism, one would expect it to end the moment their ox was gored. But it’s not. It goes deeper, partly because the self-image of the French/Europeans/Progressive “Left” needs to believe in its own righteousness, Europe the “moral continent.” So when the mad hatred hits them, they continue to pursue the destructive attitudes, turning against their own culture. When it hit London last 7/7, the BBC rapidly backed off of calling it terrorism; or when the riots broke out last November, the French rapidly blamed their own racism.
Apparently, Europeans will do anything but acknowledge two terrifying thoughts: 1) Israel may not only be justified in defending itself, it may even be restrained in so doing; and 2) Europe may be in the same boat as Israel, on the same side. Europeans may even have “des leçons à recevoir” from Israel. Horreur! Anything but!
This is deeply irrational behavior. Under the circumstances, it’s a potentially suicidal paradigm.
So what can I say to my French friends and colleagues? How do I tell them that the anti-Zionism they have so enthusiastically embraced is killing them slowly, paralyzing their ability to “read” the events that unfold every day in this rapidly globalizing world, driving them to minimize the nature and scope of global Jihad, to ridicule those who sound the alarm?
How do I tell them that until they can realize that the Israelis too are on the side of civil society, they will continue to misread, continue to make dangerous mistakes?
How do I tell them that the deaf ear they have turned to their Jewish communities, just like the shrill barking they have directed against the US in the last three years, are rapidly contributing to the barbarization of their culture? That unless they vigorously reassert the culture whose values they so loudly invoke in asserting their moral probity, they are headed for another dark age?
For as hard as it may be for the post-modern scholar to conceive, there is a link between dark ages and moral darkness, between the absence of fairness and tolerance among the population on the one hand, and the dominion of honor-shame driven alpha males who dominate both the women and the commoners on the other. Despite what Chomsky and Saïd and their own intellectuals tell them, there is a vast difference between the culture of a civil society, and that of a theocracy. Civil Society may be free, but freedom does not come easily. It demands emotional maturity. It demands that, even though we all fall prey to feelings of envy, and all its emanations: jealousy, resentment, humiliation and the desire for revenge. It demands that, when the chips are on the line, people can rise above their pettiness, their venal vanities, and deal a straight hand.
And now, civil society, if it is to survive in France, demands some of those things that the 60s at first imagined would launch the new age – affection, openness in brotherhood, but also some other virtues, less easy to get enthusiastic about: realistic self-criticism, the ability to express gratitude, to acknowledge debt, both moral and intellectual, to loosen up just a bit on the firm conviction that you’ve got it figured out and you are the moral crown of creation. And it means finding the ability to say a courageous no to Islamism, to honor-killings, to homerta, to torturing victims to death with the participation, approval, silence of the community, to Muslim anti-Semitism and even — dare I say it? — Muslim anti-Zionism.
In the biblical narrative of the Exodus, Pharoah only listens to the bad news about having to let his slaves go when it really hurts. And as soon as the pain abates, like some power-addict, he goes back to his fix. How many plagues before the French release the Israelis from their moral chains? How much does it have to hurt, before the French, the Europeans, the West, even the Israelis, wake up? Will they wait so long that it has to be a war in which millions if not tens of millions die, as happened last century? Or can we wake up now, while it is still time to win this battle for civil society through the power of courageous words.
Attacking the most powerful is not courageous, especially when the most powerful is a friend and ally and will not strike back. Attacking enemies who will punish you violently for any affront, that is civic courage. When will the Europeans realize that?
Historians like to argue about whether things are inevitable, or the product of choice. I prefer the latter. I don’t think France is lost, although I do think that if the Gaulois – and the rest of Europe, and the Anglophone world, for that matter – do not wake up and start dealing with reality, they will founder on the icebergs that litter the waters in which they sail at such high globalizing speeds.