Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Superiority of Civilizations

Yesterday's extraordinary ruckus in the Assembly was a good deal less "civilized," to choose a word out of the air, than this exchange between Ferry and Clemenceau, in which I think Clemenceau makes a point that should have given Guéant, his successor as le premier flic de France, pause:
Races supérieures ! Races inférieures ! C’est bientôt dit. Pour ma part, j’en rabats singulièrement depuis que j’ai vu des savants allemands démontrer scientifiquement que la France devait être vaincue dans la guerre franco-allemande, parce que le Français est d’une race inférieure à l’Allemand. Depuis ce temps, je l’avoue, j’y regarde à deux fois avant de me retourner vers un homme et vers une civilisation et de prononcer : homme ou civilisation inférieure ! [...]

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

How depressing it is to see that nowadays politicians are far from 3rd republic great men: Gambetta, Clemenceau, Ferry, Poincarré, ...

Kirk said...

I find this whole thing very interesting. The French - right and left - are constantly saying how much better their country is than others. If France is better, then others are, well, less good, right? Yet such a statement causes a huge kerfuffle.

I think the choice of the word "civilization" was a mistake, and I haven't seen the full context of the speech, but it's true that what Baroin said, about non-democratic countries, is not wrong. Who would argue that, say, Syria today is not as good a civilization/government/country than certain western democracies? Or North Korea?

Anonymous said...

Kirk, all countries think they're the best. I think it's Sedaris who said "no nation has for slogan yay we're #2" (except he worded it to make it funny).
The fundamental problem is that Claude Guéant didn't say some systems of government are superior to others. It's not the same at all: 'system of government' would be perfectly reasonable. No, Guéant said that some civilizations are higher and others are lower on a hierrachy. You know, civilized v. barbarians? The wink wink here is that he doesn't need to specify the "higher" civilization is that of Christian, White, European people, and more specifically that French civilization is higher than the others. (Although Nicolas Sarkozy had said, a while back, that France ranked higher than Germany since they hadn't invited concentration camps.) No journalist to ask him which ones he'd rank high and which one he'd rank low, and with which criteria, by the way. Or to look up "civilization".
Civilization means a people, their history, their customs. In that context, it means 'natural order' - there is a form of human nature that is intrinsically superior or inferior.
It's precisely the system of thought that justified the burden Europeans had -- to civilize others.
Not a journalist to point out: It all depends on the criteria you choose -you could argue that Western civilization having invented a bomb that can destroy all of humanity and currently causing the planet to destroy itself, is a monstrous one. Countries that do not have a military, countries that have never exploited or invaded other nations, can all argue they have some kind of superiority. You can argue anything. A humorist this morning said "we've got one civilization that gave us Gandhi, and one civilization that gave us Pétain, frankly where are we if we can't say the former is superior to the latter?"
Finally, the representative made a good point in my opinion: that ranking civilizations is what justified slavery, colonialism, and concentration camps. I don't think you can fault him for this, as it's obvious to anyone who studied these subjects, even slightly.

Anonymous said...

What the député said:

« Nous savions que pour M. Guéant la distance entre immigration et invasion est totalement inexistante et qu'il peut savamment entretenir la confusion entre civilisation et régime politique.* Ça n'est pas un dérapage, c'est une constante parfaitement volontaire. En clair, c'est un état d'esprit et c'est presque une croisade.* M. Guéant vous déclarez du fond de votre abîme, sans remords ni regret, que toutes les civilisations ne se valent pas.* Que certaines seraient plus avancées voire supérieures.

« Non, M. Guéant, ce n'est pas "du bon sens", c'est simplement une injure qui est faite à l'Homme. C'est une négation de la richesse des aventures humaines. C'est un attentat contre le concert des peuples, des cultures et des civilisations. Aucune civilisation ne détient l'apanage des ténèbres ou de l'auguste éclat. Aucun peuple n'a le monopole de la beauté, de la science du progrès ou de l'intelligence. Montaigne disait "chaque homme porte la forme entière d'une humaine condition". J'y souscris. Mais vous, monsieur Guéant, vous privilégiez l'ombre.**

Vous nous ramenez jour après jour à ces idéologies européennes qui ont donné naissance aux camps de concentration,*** au bout du long chapelet esclavagiste et colonial.

M. Guéant, le régime nazi si soucieux de hiérarchisation, était-ce une civilisation ? La barbarie de l'esclavage et de la colonisation, était-ce une mission civilisatrice ?
Il existe, M. le premier ministre, une France obscure qui cultive la nostalgie de cette époque, que vous tentez de récupérer sur les terres du FN ***. C'est un jeu dangereux et démagogique qui est inacceptable. Il existe une autre France, celle de Montaigne, de Condorcet, de Voltaire, de Césaire ou d'autres encore. Une France qui nous invite à la reconnaissance, que chaque homme****... »

* Claude Guéant looks positively giddy
** lots of noise on the UMP benches; some UMP backbenchers start getting up
*** François Fillon gets up and everybody leaves
**** Serge Letchimy is interrupted and ordered to keep silent

brent said...

Thank you, Anon #4, for sharing that extraordinary moment, so unbearable to the governing party, in which the question of 'civilization' was so thoroughly examined, to the credit of a great French tradition ...

Robert said...

Well, if you speak about Ferry, you have to keep things in perspective. As it turns out, Clemenceau was criticizing and responding directly to, le Grand Jules:

http://www.ldh-toulon.net/spip.php?article177


"Messieurs, il faut parler plus haut et plus vrai! Il faut dire ouvertement qu'en effet les races supérieures ont un droit vis à vis des races inférieures [...][Remous sur plusieurs bancs à l'extrême gauche] parce qu'il y a un devoir pour elles. Elles ont un devoir de civiliser les races inférieures.[...]"

QED: Greatness is not synonymous with a commitment to racial and ethnic equality.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Robert, I cited the whole exchange. Check the link.

Robert said...

You're right: I should have read more closely.

Anonymous said...

http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/01012388940-incident-a-l-assemblee-le-tabou-leve-par-serge-letchimy

Sarah said...

It is impossible in 2012, especially for a politician to speak of a civilisation in terms of its "value". Even more when he is teaching a class full of students!!! Such a statement does lead to further questions "which 'civilisation' is better then?", "what criteria does one base their judgement on?". However, I do believe (and hope!) that what he meant was just badly worded. Some civilisations' practices do go against some fundamental universal rights that cannot be denied.
I offer my own interpretation of the matter on my blog : http://theartofconflict.blogspot.com/
And as a French citizen myself, I am appalled by such a statement from a intelligent man, supposedly "civilised".