Friday, January 15, 2010

Linguistic Anomalies

The unimaginable Haitian tragedy continues to unfold. I urge you to contribute to relief efforts. But the pretext for my post is a linguistic question: I've noticed that news people say Port-au-Prince without pronouncing the "t," yet we make the liaison when we say tout au moins. Why the difference?

And is it à Haïti or en Haïti? Apparently both, according to Le Monde's proofreaders.

The Swine Flu

I listen from time to time to Nicolas Canteloup's Revue de la Presque on Europe1, and although I admire his talent for mimickry, I find myself frequently irritated by the mindless repetitiveness of many of his barbs: Marseille is a city of crooks and corruption, Jean-Louis Borloo has dirty hair, Martine Aubry isn't as easy on the eyes as Ségolène Royal, Bernard Kouchner makes false liaisons, etc.

Lately he has been merciless toward Roselyne Bachelot for ordering too many doses of vaccine. This is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that will be raised for years hence by those out to prove that governments can't do anything right. Such people already know the truth, of course, and don't wish to be bothered by the facts. Nor do they ever ask themselves what might have happened in a worst-case scenario or when it is better to err on the side of caution. Bernard Girard offers a nice corrective by noting that other countries also took the WHO's predictions of a pandemic as sufficient reason to act decisively.

The problem with populist derision is of course that it undermines confidence in government generally, as if error were an exclusive province of the state. This breeds a "pox on all their houses" attitude: all politicians are the same, it makes no difference who one votes for, party platforms are meaningless because they never keep their promises anyway, etc. Dismissing the possibility of honest error makes every action blameworthy. Yet people who hold such beliefs are often the first to cry "Shame!" when the government they have persistently mocked fails to prevent some calamity.

Know-nothingism disguised as political humor is one of the pathologies of democracy, and it is particularly virulent--a pandemic--among French political humorists. Canteloup is not alone. And yet--curious thing!--one finds a strange complicity between these humorists and the French political class. Politicians, always eager to show what good sports they are, what regular guys, frequently appear with the very comedians who mock their every tic and mannerism. And so it was that Bachelot, the butt of Canteloup's humor, sat with him and Michel Drucker and Anne Roumanoff in a France2 special the other night. It's all one big happy family in le pays des pipoles. Nothing means anything, no barb is out of bounds, and anyone who can't take the heat should get out of the kitchen. Which only reinforces the belief of les beaufs that they're all in it together, that the world is run by a conspiracy of people with the right connections, and the only authentic attitude is to kiss them all off with a hearty on s'en fout.

It's an unhealthy climate. Humor is a fine thing, but it shouldn't be allowed to destroy the capacity for gravitas. There are times when a state needs to be able to command awe.

Update on The Burqa Question

Charles Bremner fait le point on the burqa question. It seems that France is headed for a resolution similar to the resolution of the veil question: a limited ban on the burqa in "public spaces," still to be defined. Anything more would risk running foul of EU human rights protections and raising domestic opposition among moderate Muslims. Sarkozy, says Bremner, does not want to run these risks and will therefore head off Copé's bill, which would impose a broader ban and require more muscular enforcement procedures. The clip at the end of the post gives you Thierry Ardisson coaching a veiled young woman through an account of her reasons for dressing as she does while Jean-François Copé looks on.