Tag Archives: terrorism

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?