The Pitfalls of Moral Schadenfreude: What the French Media Choose to Tell Their Public
Lance Armstrong, victor of the Tour de Ftance for an unprecedented 6th time, arrived at the Champs Elysees (Elysian Fields) in Paris to a cheering French crowd waving American flags. It was a moment of generosity of feeling seemingly rare for the French, and seemingly still rarer when it comes to the USA. It was a moment to cherish as a reminder that the French are more than they seem, greater souled, capable of magnanimity even when they are not winners. And this happened soon after D-Day when, for a brief moment, the French, seized with sanity at contemplating the American sacrifice for their freedom some 60 years ago, turned down the volume of their anti-Americanism. The two combined might have even begun to bring Americans and Frenchmen closer together – building good feeling upon good feeling.
The French media, however, once the event over, did not show images of the crowds. For anyone not there on the scene or at the time, the media that evening carried long prepared presentations on Lance and his astonishing accomplishment, replete with interviews with people who denigrated him in comparison with other cyclists, and accusations of drug use. Le dopage – the French put three people full time for two years to catch Lance using banned substances. Nothing. But that did not stop them for coming back again and again to the accusations. After all, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Three days later, Le Monde carried a front page analysis about “Lance’s America,” a nation whose athletes parallel its imperialist politics, dominating the world, a culture filled with anabolic steroids and people who cheat to be on top. The author had done his homework. He knew all about baseball – the home run: “sacramental gesture and symbol of power” – and le dopage of McGwire and Bonds.
Perhaps I might not have noticed this not-so-subtle anti-Americanism on the part of the French chattering classes had I not just spent three weeks talking with French Jews about the extent of anti-Semitic violence (verbal and physical) in France starting in October 2000, and the media’s deeply ambivalent attitude towards this new phenomenon of the new century. Since October 2000, France has seen an astonishing rise in Muslim violence against Jews. These communities had previously gotten on well. Indeed many Muslims had moved to neighborhoods where the North African Jews had settled after fleeing their native lands in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Arab world became increasingly Judenrein. Same language, same culture, different religion. But now gangs of thugs began to roam, not only in the suburbs (the French ghettos), and the schools, but even onto the Champs Elysées, where the attacked Jewish youth groups, beat up solitary Jews, and, since 2002, real, even deadly violence.
But the French know little of this. Their news media does not tell them. And their politicians deny it. How dare anyone suggest that la belle France, which was the first modern nation to formally emancipate her Jews, might have anything like serious anti-Semitism? So incident after incident occurs, and the press either does not mention it, or gives it a spin that permits anyone who does not want to know, a way out. In November, an Arab youth who grown up in the same building with a Jewish one, lured the Jew, a successful disk jockey, down into the parking area and slit his throat, poked out his eyes and mutilated his face. He came up stairs, hands dripping in blood and said to his mother, “I’ve killed my Jew, I can go to heaven.” No major paper carried any mention of the attack despite a funeral that over a thousand people attended. Only the local paper, Le Parisien, carried the tale, and in their version, the Arab youth said, “Maman, j’ai fait une bêtise. [Mother, I’ve done something stupid.]” Most French, even French Jews to this day don’t know about this. Those who do, will dismiss the Mulim murderer as mad – a crackpot. He is today in a mental institution. No trial has been set.
In one of the most terrifying comments I heard during my stay, one Jewish intellectual said: “The Jews are not permitted to bear witness.” If you defend Israel, Frenchmen assume you are a Jew even when you might not be (as in the case of Pierre André Taguieff); and they dismiss your comments as “communautariste” (partisan). As for the matter of anti-Jewish violence in France, it is a taboo subject. The leftist icon of France, José Bové came back from visiting Arafat and announced that the attacks on the synagogues were done by Mossad (Israeli Secret Services). His logic? “Our” Arabs would not be so foolish as to do such a thing because if they did, they would lose our moral support. The Arabs are logically, hence necessarily innocent. Hermeneutically sealed. With the Jews on the outside. Today Jews are sending out distress signals, and the French – including people who either actively participated in the Nazi genocide or quietly sat by – respond, some 60 years later, by closing their ears. The testimony of Jews? Surtout pas!
And anyway, the French will say, the attacks on Jews do not come from Frenchmen. They do not come from Le Pen and his fascist right-wingers, who are actually backing off their anti-Jewish rhetoric. They come from the unhappy French Arabs, who may constitute over 10% of the population and a noticeable underclass, unabsorbed into the Republic, poor, badly educated, going nowhere. Again, what can the French people know about this sizable majority? The French census is not permitted to tabulate for religion. None of their papers publish estimates of what the birth rate of Muslim and Christian babies is in France, even though, at the present anemic rate of French Christian and post-Christian birth rates, it may be that one in three babies born now are of Arab Muslim parents. But this is, understandably if regrettably, a taboo subject.
Disoriented, poor, and envious of those richer and more successful than they, these folk are fed a hate diet from two major sources. First, in their mosques they increasingly learn the messages of Islamic Jihadism from both home-grown radicals and imported Wahabis from Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, Jihad teaches hatred of the West with its democracies and human rights (especially women’s rights!), paranoia about the Jews, who, they are told in lurid detail, plan to take over the world and in the meantime ritually murder Muslims. On the other hand, Jihad offers exhilarating promises of Islamic world conquest and spreading global Sharia. Secondly French Muslims get hatred from an “objective” “independent” source: the French media feed them a steady diet of horrifying images of the Palestinians, humiliated and murdered by the imperialist Israelis whose occupation is the cause of their despair and rage. This second image, brought to them not by their own preachers of hatred, but by French TV, corroborates everything they have learned from their Imams. As one Tunisian cab driver told me: “I wasn’t anti-Semitic in Tunisia. It wasn’t until I came to France and saw what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians.” And when I asked him if these were images on Arabic satellite news, he responded, “No, French TV. French news.”
The non-Jewish non-Muslim French whom I have spoken to know virtually nothing of the danger they are in. Few have heard, and still fewer have read the book The Lost Territories of the Republic which chronicles the ways in which schools and neighborhoods have been taken over by aggressive and hostile Arab youths. These refuse to learn about the Holocaust or the Dreyfus affair, regularly fail and regularly get promoted from class to class, threaten and assault teachers and regularly escape any punishment. Few French know that in French mosques, “their” Arabs are learning the same teachings of hatred that produce the suicide mass murders in Israel and Iraq. For some reason they feel that they are not like the Israelis who deserve it (and perhaps the French Jews who deserve it for being Zionist). They seem unconsciously to feel that they will (certainly should) be spared such assaults. And their press doesn’t seem to tell them that even Arab Muslims are not spared.
And yet, quietly, they show how much they know. When Chirac announced his pre-emptive veto in the UN of any incursion into Iraq in the winter of 2003, the French Arabs participated enthusiastically in “peace demonstrations” where they waved Palestinian flags, carried pictures of Saddam Hussein, and attacked Jewish peace groups, in one case beating them up with lead pipes. (The footage of the incident did not run on French TV news.) And their chant was: “The veto is us!” Meantime, when confronted with the evidence of France’s reckless diplomatic behavior – attacking an old and reliable friend, one that has twice given the lives of her sons for France’s defense, to defend Saddam Hussein! – people will drop their voices and explain that France acts as she does to avoid a civil war.
In other words, France already fears that she has an “Arab street” which she must appease. And the “anti-war” demonstrations of last year were the first legitimate expression of it. Then Arab youths carrying Palestinian banners attacked with metal bars a group of Zionist peace demonstrators while the rest looked away and the media, despite having footage, refused to show it. As one of my friends put it: The Arabs in France behave as if they had a knife to the throat of the French and the French behave as if they had a knife to their throat.
So who is it who points this out? Where are the voices of self-preservation? Who stand for the Republican tradition of human rights and decent behavior? Who sounds the alarm? Precious few. And either they drown their warnings in elaborate denunciations of prejudice against Arabs, or they are immediately dismissed by the intellectual and political elite, who ignore them, dismiss them as paranoid alarmists, stigmatize them as racist, fascist war mongers. The parallels to the way the British treated Churchill’s objections to the Nazis at Munich are terrifying. La trahison des clercs –betrayal by the intellectuals.
During the Tour de France a shocking development occurred that stirred the French momentarily out of their moral torpor where the Jews are concerned. A Christian girl from a well-off Parisian family needed an excuse for not showing up to a meeting with 3000 Euros to buy a car. She told the police that she’d been aggressed in the RER by six Arab youths who snatched her purse, found from her ID that she lived in the posh 16th arrondissement, and identified her as a Jew. They then tormented her for six stops, cutting some of her hair, writing swastikas on her stomach, and knocking her 11 month old baby out of the carriage, while no one intervened or called the police. She actually had made this story up. Not that it was entirely false. On the contrary, it was woven from a number of other stories she had heard about real aggressions against Jews, some more severe (swastika carved into one Jewish girl’s face), several in which a crowd on the subway or in the university did not intervene, or in one academic case, did not even interrupt the class.
Now, she may well have invented this realistic story to have the police report as an excuse, presuming that, as with all the previous cases, some of which were far worse, the story would never reach the light of day. In any case, she certainly did not expect the response that did occur. The story became an instant scandal, moving politicians from every side of the aisle to disclaim on how shocking. Chirac gave a rousing speech about how unacceptable such behavior was. The French Jews I knew were pleased by such grand rhetoric in their defense, but puzzled. Why all of a sudden such passion?
The answer may be that it was a non-Jew who was struck, and this broke the comfortable mental barrier that the French non-Jews had erected between what happens to Jews and to them. How else can one describe the passion with which suddenly everyone denounced the terrible event… when worse, much worse had already happened, and to a chorus of silence. As the headline in La Libération read: Antisémistisme: Une Affaire Française!
In any case, once the incident proved a fake, the airways were filled with voices denouncing the readiness to accuse the Arab Muslim community of things they had not (but not would not, nor did not) do; and with nice twist of the knife, suggested that perhaps a number of earlier Jewish complaints had been falsified. Thus, alongside José Bové’s blanket absolution of the Muslim community for their aggressions, we find a retrospective hermeneutic of suspicion that called into question all previous Jewish claims to victimization. A non-Jew had lied by piecing together silenced tales from real Jewish experiences, and the Jews are suspected of lying about everything else. And so, French public discourse can put one more nail in the coffin of Jewish testimony. As another friend pointed out: This is the first step in turning France into a nation of dhimmi: Under Sharia’s apartheid legal precepts, Jews (and Christians) cannot bear witness in court. Already and without obvious coercion, the French comply.
And the silence, and the blindness, grow. The French apparently have no idea, that they are next. How can they be so blind?
Partly it has to do with a profound sense of moral superiority. The French – really the European – intellectual elites seem to believe that they have risen above violence. From their Olympian heights, they pride themselves on no longer having the death penalty and look down with contempt on the US with its cowboy president and its primitive and cruel criminal code. Similarly they believe that they no longer need to go to war, that negotiations can resolve every conflict. So they systematically ignore any information that might lead them to conclude that they are at war. “If only we are nice enough with them…” they seem to say, as they deny any indicator that contradicts such generous emotions. And certainly, they cannot entertain the notion that this generosity might register among their opponents as weakness and an invitation to even more violence.
Not that these folk are generous souls. On the contrary, some of their most eloquent spokesfolk, express some astonishingly frank Schadenfreude at the US, and when it comes to Israel, it is difficult to imagine a less generous, more brutal contempt that European elites – academic and media in particular – feel for the only state in the Middle East without a death penalty and a free and productive university life. When one considers the values that Europeans claim to embody, and considers Israel’s passionate adherence to so many of them, and then considers the Palestinian elite’s contempt for virtually every one of them, one has to wonder whence this moral confusion. And in time of such danger…
This may offer one path into the puzzle of a great civilization surrendering without a shot fired to a tribal society that organizes life around the warrior’s honor. The French – and by extension I’d venture to say most of the European – press, has fundamentally misread the Israeli-Arab conflict and identified with the wrong side. As the documentary Decryptage argued, they force the Arab-Israeli conflict into a morality play about the aggressive Western imperialists (Israelis) and the innocent indigenous population (Palestinians). Much as the French treated the Algerians, the Belgians the Congo tribes, the English the Indians, the Americans the native tribes, so the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Israelis are what these peoples are no longer, and they can expiate their past sins by condemning them vigorously today in their current avatar, the Jewish (imperialist, racist, apartheid, ethnic cleansing) state.
But rather than viewing the Israelis as a beleaguered civil society fighting the same war against a far more brutal and oppressive political culture, they view them as the enemy. Rather than sympathize with people fighting a battle they may well face in a matter of years (and with the veil issue at la rentrée in September, maybe months), they heap abuse on them for defending themselves and encourage the Palestinians in their hatreds. The French support the Palestinians because they tell themselves that these poor Palestinians have reason to hate the Israelis (especially given what their TV news tells them). What they don’t consider is the possibility that the same hate factories that produce mass murder suicides in Israel are now at work in France, England, the rest of Europe.
But Europeans seem driven by an almost insatiable appetite for the moral Schadenfreude of lamenting the moral failure of Israel after all those millennia of Jewish oppression, the antinomian frisson that comes with comparing – or allowing others to compare – Israel to the Nazis. This appetite keeps them in thrall to the Palestinian demonizing narrative about the evil Israelis with its welcome images of Israeli aggression, and blind to the malevolence that would produce a media in the service of a genocidally vicious Jihad. With that blindness, they seal their doom. Can they awaken in time? Ironically, to see their situation, they have to let go of their scapegoating narrative about the Jews.
For the moment, that seems unlikely. A young Jewish-American girl who had just spent 10th grade in a lycée told me that she met the older sister of one of her friends who was at the fac (university). The girl started talking about how the Jews control the media. Asked where she knew this from, she cited a book “that the Jews have managed to have banned in France.” You guessed it – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nor was this girl either a right-wing fascist or a Muslim who’s been watching Hizbullah cable station on TV. She was a mainstream French student, repeating what she had heard and now believed. The Nazi “warrant for genocide” re-entering the European bloodstream.
Just before I left, stories emerged from Middle-Eastern sources that in anticipation of the political vacuum created by Israeli withdrawal a certain jockeying for position had begun, providing foreign journalists with strikingly unattractive scenes of Palestinian life among Palestinians. The muzzle was on the press, and in particular, any Palestinian reporter objecting to the stepped-up violence, with the chutzpah to criticize the political culture (religious and “secular”) or even show it in an harsh light, faced severe reprisals. Since I am working on the impact that Palestinian mafia tactics have on the news that comes to us from the “territories”, I had noted these stories as part of an argument that the Palestinian leadership contributes constantly and heavily to the suffering of its own people. Then came the story to prove the point: Al Aqsa brigade (i.e., PLO) troops had gunned down in cold blood a 16 year old from a family that objected to them setting up a rocket launcher in their yard and therefore inviting Israeli reprisal. What better example of the victimization of the Palestinian people by their political/military elites?
The pressure was on not to allow such a tale to reach Western ears and eyes. So the PA made up a story about how the Israelis had come through on tanks with guns blazing and killed the boy. Even the New York Times and the Boston Globe ran the real story. But not the French. They ran the Palestinian version. And then for the next two days, the TV news would intersperse among their items about vacations and wine sales and forest fires, the occasional statement, unsupported by any evidence, and in some cases without even Palestinian allegations, that the Israelis had killed a child of 12 here, and another of 14, there. And the French Jewish community, knowing the futility of objecting, just hunches its shoulders and hopes things will pass. And at the fac, whether in class or in the couloirs, people are learning that the Jews control the media.
The French get their shot of moral Schadenfreude – the Jews as villains – and everyone passes up yet one more opportunity to identify one of the main forces victimizing the Palestinians – their own leaders. And at the same time, they give one more injection of public approval to those who hate the French just as much as they hate the Israelis.
So what are we looking at? As a historian my only point of reference is the fall of Roman society to an aggressive Germanic tribal culture, an increasingly quiescent surrender to a new (and far cruder) authoritarian aristocracy, enabled by a religious elite that preferred to cooperate with the barbarians than compete with educated “pagan” intellectuals. “How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris?” runs the joke. “We don’t know yet.” And it’s no joke.
Postscript: I showed an earlier draft of this piece to a French friend. The response, “you’re a racist and you hate the French.” Untrue. This is not genes but culture. I think Arabs are capable of not only living in but creating a civil society when they find the will to do so. And I grieve for the French, whom I love.