Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Culture panic and the modern consumer

I’m doing my best to stay current on France’s Jihad-Panic, but really, who can keep up?

Now it’s pre-teens who are making the news. Last week, the authorities arrested an 8-year old near Nice for “glorifying terrorism,” the all-purpose speech crime that’s already generated dozens of fast-track convictions. Apparently the kid expressed doubts about a classroom “je suis Charlie” exercise; his teacher sent him to the principal, the principal called in the cops. Then there’s the 9-year-old north of Paris accused of interrupting his school’s minute of silence honoring the Charlie victims. He too was hauled into the local police station, where he was eventually cleared; the accuser turned out to be a classmate with a grudge– who could have seen that coming?.

It’s not just happening out in the boondocks, either. In Paris, France’s Minister of Education vigorously supported the teachers’ actions, and the Minister of the Interior has set up a fancy Stop-Jihadism website. It includes this tip-sheet to help you identify kids going bad, complete with pictograms for the nine big danger signs — if your kids stop wearing their Dr Dre’s, for instance, it’s probably time to call someone, also if they stop watching TV and start dressing more modestly.

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Wasn’t it just recently that headphones, nonstop TV, and slutty clothes meant your kid was doing drugs?

So these days the signifying symbols are floating around pretty freely, showing just how little they’re controlled by specific realities. Yesterday’s warning signs of youth disaffection have become today’s reassurance that your child is a healthy, well-adjusted participant in western consumer society. You picture parents saying to one another, “thank goodness the kids are off at the hip hop concert with their slacker friends.”

Now, historians come up against this kind of symbol-reshuffle in lots of fascinating contexts, and they’ve developed a long list of interpretations to explain how it happens. There’s the example of totalitarian societies, in which dictators decide that yesterday’s party line is today’s deviation (of course that’s a big theme in George Orwell’s 1984). There are the panics caused by war and social crises, which have so often produced cultural crack-downs (as in the French Revolution of 1789 or 1950s America). And there are the more mysterious cases, where hard-to-pin-down social changes create sudden new fears. In medieval Europe, nobody worried much about witchcraft, but around 1600 educated people began to think that demon-worshippers were everywhere and that harsh measures had to be taken against them. Over the next century there were thousands of executions, mostly of old women and poor men.  Then it all stopped, and by 1750 believing in witches meant you were a weirdo.

Eventually, historians are going to write brilliant books about our current moment of culture panic. For now, though, just one thought about it: namely, that it’s a strange world in which consumer culture has become a centerpiece in how we Euro-Americans define ourselves– and our baseline normality, whose rejection constitutes existential danger. It’s a strange world, but also a logical one. After all, even as they alert us to Jihadism warning signs, governments in France and elsewhere are fighting hard to extend the sway of market forces and ensure that consumer culture takes up as much of the public sphere as possible.

Maybe those pre-teens really do seem a danger to the Republic….


“The French copy nobody, and nobody copies the French.”

That’s a line (as quoted by my girlfriend) from the legendary radio show “Car Talk,” and of course the topic was cars. The “Car Talk” guys were saying it’s ill-advised to take your Peugeot or Citroën on long drives through the American heartland– not because they’re bad cars, but because French automotive engineering has always gone its own way, producing its own weird designs. If you break down, your car will bewilder all but specialized technicians.

As anyone who spends time in France can tell you, that’s not just an automotive attitude. France is different all the way through, in culture, institutions, and social relations, and the French work hard to keep it that way– how many other countries have state-sponsored agencies charged with ensuring that foreign words don’t sneak into their language?

Which makes it both funny and sad that French culture these days so often pushes exactly the opposite idea.

More and more, the talk is about universalism, the idea that there’s only one set of ethical values, one form of human reason, one human community. Of course there are other voices in France, but this is the language you hear from opinion-makers and power-players– the mainstream media, government officials, many university professors. In France the term of art for this line is “Republicanism”– meaning (as far as I can tell) that you get to believe any crazy shit you like in the quiet privacy of your home, but once you’re out in the public sphere, the Republic, there’s a check-list of basic principles you have to buy into, or you’re not really one of us.

And the principles aren’t limited to things like “drive on the right,” “don’t kill,” “don’t steal,” “use the subjunctive properly”– the practical agreements that make any society livable. “Republicanism” makes much bigger demands than that.

Of course Exhibit A here is the famous clamor about kids wearing headscarves and other religious symbols to school; that effort has occasionally included girls getting sent home because their skirts were TOO LONG and thereby carried a stealth religious message.

But beneath these zany, easy-to-laugh-at particulars, there’s a larger worldview that’s not so funny.

Here for instance are some lines from a recent editorial in Libération, a center-left Paris daily that speaks for the governing Socialist Party and its voters– teachers and professors, many categories of government workers, thoughtful technocrats, the kind of people who’ve successfully navigated the French educational system. The writer is Libé editor Laurent Joffrin, about as establishment a journalist as you’ll find, and he’s writing in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo march of January 11:

“It’s now clear … that many of the French, especially in the impoverished suburbs around the big cities, are moral and social dissidents within their own country. Some of these young people… refuse to join in the general sorrow, and they question our common references. They heed identitarian and religious commitments alien to democratic values…. We have to fight an intellectual battle. The prophets of decline, the anti-modernity Jeremiahs, the identity fanatics have had their own way for too long, all the while presenting themselves as victims of conventional thinking. Conventional thinking, according to them, consists in the ideas of liberty and progress. We’ve put up with this for too long. Values are not relative, varying by cultures or religions; cultural identities … can’t replace the patrimony of reason. Values are universal, as are the rights of man. Those who preach in favor of closed-off communities or religious fundamentalism, like those who prefer religious revelation to rational deliberation, like those who want to break with Europe and internationalism in favor of an outmoded idea of France, don’t just commit a crime against intelligence. They’re attacking the country’s interests and its future.”

The abridged version runs: Dissidence, not joining in, pessimism, certain flavors of religious belief, and over-strong communal attachments are off limits. Relativism is bad and moral absolutism good, but it’s got to be the right moral absolutism– there are a lot of wrong ones out there, so be careful. No complaining about “internationalism” (not clearly defined, so we have to guess what’s included– the IMF? NATO? TTIP?) or the euro. You’re expected to believe in progress and the primacy of reason. Anything less constitutes an attack on the country.

“Republicanism,” I’m saying, is becoming its own creepy form of authoritarianism.

As a leftish progressive, Joffrin thinks he understands the forces that produce dissidence and disaffection — poverty, an under-funded school system, economic policies that crush young people’s hopes. It’s the old line, embodying the classic ambiguities of compassion; if you don’t buy into mainstream opinion, you’re probably a victim of social pathologies. You’re depraved because you’re deprived. You need help; your dissidence has nothing to teach the rest of us.

Of course, all this has a long history in France, going back at least to the Revolution’s campaigns to stamp out peasant dialects and superstitions, and continuing through the “civilizing mission” of French colonialism.

But that’s the point. The collapse of imperialism is supposed to have discredited the idea that there’s one reason, one value system, and that “we” know what it is and can teach it to others.  We’re supposed to have learned that the Africans, Asians, and Native Americans had a point when they resisted Europe, that they were defending something important when they hung on to old belief systems. We’re not supposed to want the homogenization of the world’s cultures.

In the globally-dark days of the 1950s and early 1960s, France pioneered that kind of anti-homogeneity thinking.  It was where you found anti-imperial protesting, just as it produced the bad-boy songs of Georges Brassens, the hard questioning from Michel Foucault, and, yes, the crazy auto technology of the Citroën DS; for a time it even dumped NATO.

Whatever happened to those guys?

Giving new meaning to freedom of expression…

Like others (notably Glenn Greenwald), I’ve pointed out the uneven ways “free expression” gets defined these days– apparently it’s fine to express some views, as harshly as you please, others not so much.  In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, France has become a kind of test track for this kind of free-speech hypocrisy– marching in favor one day, the next arresting those who express themselves a little too freely.

Now its president has taken things a step farther:

“Asked by journalists about the burning of French flags in several countries, in particular in Africa, François Hollande answered: ‘we’re not finished with such behavior, and it must be punished, because when that happens in France it’s intolerable, but also in foreign countries. I think especially of those countries which sometimes cannot understand what freedom of expression is, because they’ve been denied it.'”

Really, this is the level of discussion?  Burning the French national symbol is a shocking violation, which somehow shows that various Africans and Asians “cannot understand what freedom of expression is,” but mocking other people’s religion shows a vigorous democracy in action?


Tough times– some more thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

These are tough times for those of us who love France. The Charlie Hebdo shootings would have destabilized any society, but they carry an extra punch in one that’s usually as peaceful and orderly as France. An extra punch also because of the historical context: ethnic and cultural tensions have been rising there for years, and authoritarian voices have been getting louder. The Charlie events are sure to speed up those trends.

But in some ways it’s the response of France’s governing elites that’s been the most depressing part of the story, and that raises the biggest questions.

You probably already know about the craziest example. Three days after France’s president led millions of marchers honoring free speech, his government arrested the comedian Dieudonné for “glorifying terrorism” in a Facebook post. The post? “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly”– not exactly a call to holy war or ethnic hatred. I don’t know what Dieudonné himself had in mind, but I read his post mainly as an expression of empathy for the dead.

Dieudonné’s only the highest-profile arrest over the past week. As of Tuesday the police had already hauled in thirty-six others for “glorifying terrorism” and seventeen for “threatening” it; by Wednesday noon, the total had reached sixty-nine, and it was expected to keep rising. The perps include a drunk driver who shouted about the Charlie gunmen while being arrested, a twenty-one year old who expressed his endorsement of the killings while riding the streetcar (for that, he’s already been sentenced to ten months in jail), and two teenage girls who threatened a streetcar conductor.

The French government is also going heavy on the military option, sending a nuclear powered aircraft carrier toward Iraq, where it will help the US bomb ISIS. As it happens, it’s the Charles de Gaulle, named in honor of the French president that Charlie Hebdo’s title also commemorates– de Gaulle had closed down the magazine’s previous incarnation, and the editors used his name for their new venture just to piss him off.

So to sum up: France has arrested a comedian, some drunks, and two teenagers, and it’s started bombing another Muslim country. Does anyone believe these efforts will make the country safer or heal its internal divisions? Could the ISIS PR department imagine a response that would better validate its claims about the West?

Of course we Americans expect these kinds of moves from our own leadership. Since 2001, we’ve bombed a long list of Muslim countries. We don’t normally arrest people for statements like Dieudonné’s, but we do fire them, as in the Stephen Salaita case.

I expected better of France. Not a better level of political ethics– French states-persons have always prided themselves on their toughness and readiness to ignore political pieties– but more serious thought about what’s going on in the world and how to respond to it.

My faith rested on the defining qualities of those French elites I mentioned at the start. For the last century or so, France has made a sincere attempt to create a meritocratic society, in which the smartest and the hardest-working run things. Pretty much from day 1, French kids take a long series of competitive examinations. Those who do well move through a series of high-intensity schools, and eventually end up in top positions all through society. There are no legacy admissions or athletics scholarships in French higher education, no extra points for volunteer work.

The state plays a big role in the process. It sets the standards and provides the schooling, more or less for free, right through the French equivalents of Harvard Business School and MIT. Among top students, government service is an expected, widely admired career path, and so also is a certain breadth of humanistic culture. A few years ago, the famously abrasive, business-friendly Nicolas (“President Bling Bling”) Sarkozy created a minor scandal by describing his school-boy dislike of the seventeenth-century novelist Madame de Lafayette.

It goes without saying that there’s always been plenty of corruption mixed in with the meritocracy– cheesy deal-making, self-interested definitions of merit, big privileges, revolving doors.

But both ideals and practical arrangements in France encourage something better. French leaders aren’t expected to be lowest-common-denominator, NASCAR-watching regular guys basking in their ignorance. They’re supposed to have been tops in their classes at the best institutions; they read real books and travel, and they know foreign languages. Many hold lifetime civil service positions, so they’re not thinking about next year’s reelection campaign or about careers as lobbyists.

So what does it mean that when the going gets tough, these smart, cultivated, cosmopolitan leaders act pretty much the same as their yahoo American analogues?

There’s a range of possible answers, some of which eerily track the standard explanations of Islamic radicalism. There’s the possibility of outside influences: maybe Americanism really has taken over the western world, to the point that France has now adopted our political reflexes, just as in the 1950s it adopted our Coca-Cola. Or there’s the “it’s-baked-into-the-culture” explanation: maybe the universalistic, Enlightenment beliefs that are so central to Frenchness bring with them intolerance of alternatives, just as critics have charged for years.

Or it may be that intelligence, study, and cultivation just doesn’t count for as much as we professors like to think. When the big social and political forces hit, maybe the best and brightest are just as lost as the rest of us. Maybe the guidance has to come from other sources, from fundamental ethical and political commitments.  When those weaken, maybe intelligence, study, and cultivation don’t help.

Like I say, tough times.

Charlie and Carl

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about last week’s shootings at the Paris satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. They raise a whole series of issues that I care about, a lot– general issues about free speech in a pluralistic world, and more specific ones about Frenchness. France has been a huge part of my life since I first ventured there at age nineteen, and the Charlie Hebdo story brings forward elements of French life that I want eventually to discuss.

But there’s another angle that I want to start with, namely, the warfare context.

Because like it or not, that is the setting in which these events took place. The killers themselves (we’ve been told) wanted to fight in Iraq; one of them left a posthumous video statement linking his actions to ISIS and its war efforts; in turn, France’s prime minister responded to the shootings by promising “a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” Anyway the French have been at war elsewhere for the last few years.  They didn’t sign up for our original Iraq venture, but they’ve been enthusiastically fighting in Libya and Mali, and they’ve pushed for more direct war in Syria.

If two opposing sides tell us they’re fighting a war, we should take them seriously.

And talk of war brings us back to Carl von Clausewitz, the world’s foremost philosopher of war. As I tried to explain in my last post, what makes Clausewitz the top guy in the war-philosophy business is the combination of qualities he brings to it: real life experience in world-transforming battles, faith in the value of war itself, absolute intellectual seriousness, sensitivity to moral complexities.

That last post centered on one of Clausewitz’s fundamental insights about war: he tells us that it’s an infinitely complex social reality, which will always generate unpredictable results and which is never subject to full human understanding or control; it’s the realm of chance and limited information. Another Clausewitz point, which I didn’t say much about last time: there’s also, always, an opponent, who’s trying as hard as we are to win and who wouldn’t be on the battlefield if he didn’t think he had a reasonable chance.

Our responses to the Charlie events suggests how deeply we in the prosperous and protected west have blocked out these realities. We’re stunned to learn that war can actually touch us directly, disrupt the course of our own lives– that the other guy will fight back in ways that hurt. We understand (at least some us– for a counter-example, check out the New Yorker‘s sweetheart profile of America’s UN ambassador Samantha Power) that our military interventions may not go as planned, and that our troops may suffer losses. But the worst we can envision is the failure of our policy objectives– ok, maybe we won’t get the democratic and stable Iraq/Libya/Syria that our leaders promised, maybe there’ll be cost over-runs. The idea of an actual fight that would hit us where we live, in which we mind-our-own-business citizens would actually suffer or die– that’s apparently beyond our comprehension.

Now, at some point in pretty much every discussion of the Charlie events, there’s a moment of obligatory moral declamation. Commentators note that the shootings were horrific, that violence of this kind does not reflect the real nature of Islam, that European and American crimes in Asia don’t justify gunfire in Paris. The Charlie victims were satirists not soldiers, and targeting civilians is a war crime, now matter how just the war. The perpetrators were anti-social misfits, thugs, moved by confused resentments, not the high moral purposes that would justify their claims to warrior status.

Much of that rhetoric is reasonable, but it’s also irrelevant– and self-serving. Irrelevant, because injustice and unmerited suffering are built into the nature of all wars, the good ones and the bad, and we should never go to war without understanding that reality. Self-serving, because we understand injustice and suffering well enough when they befall others. We know that there will be errors and collateral damage in drone bombings and midnight raids. We know that wartime experiences erode everyone’s morals, and that there’s thuggish behavior on every battlefield. We punish some extreme forms of our own wartime criminality, but mostly we forgive and forget. It’s Chelsea Manning who’s in jail because of the Collateral Murder video, not the American soldiers that it shows machine-gunning rescuers. What we can’t seem to make sense of is the idea that collateral damage like that might befall us, as we go about our own basically decent, basically peaceful lives.

Until we can widen our moral focus enough to take in that truth, we’re not going to understand what’s going on around us. Strangely, it’s the amoral Prussian tough guy Clausewitz who’s there to teach us that fundamental moral lesson.