Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Climate Change

Marcos Ancelovici comments on the WWF report on climate change, comparing the performance of various countries. Meanwhile, NGOs received by Sarkozy say they are satisfied with his pledge to seek quantified goals rather than accept Bush's recently proposed substitute formula of "aspirational goals."

Authenticity and Democracy

Over at The New Republic’s Open University, there’s an interesting discussion going on about the concept of “authenticity” in politics. There you can read contributions by Michael Kazin, the initiator of the thread, David Greenberg, and David Bell. Each has a somewhat different notion of authenticity, and each makes some good points. I was especially struck by David Bell’s closing comment “that perhaps, in the end, ‘authenticity’ doesn't actually count for as much as we think in politics, and performance counts for more.” I think that David is on the right track and that if we pursue his insight, we can sharpen our understanding of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Another way of putting the point might be to say that “authenticity” and “performance” really shouldn’t be opposed in the assessment of a political personage. Michael Kazin’s worry seems to stem from a conflation of the categories “private” and “public” with “reality” and “appearance.” He is most comfortable when a leader’s apparent public professions of faith coincide with his private beliefs. A straightforward fraud on the public is what he fears most. The assumption appears to be that there is an authentic inward self, which stands as “a fixed star to every wandering bark.” This discounts—too much to my mind—the possibility of self-deception, of multiple selves, of shifting perspectives. Montaigne, whose statue presides over this blog in the picture to the left, knew better: the self is a thing in motion, and the search for a fixed point, a stable measure, is often a quest for an alibi or justification. What did Lyndon Johnson really believe about African-Americans or the war in Vietnam? To various private interlocutors he painted wildly varying portraits of his private thoughts, often at variance with his public statements. Indeed, the discrepancy may have been the point in each case, intended precisely to persuade the person to whom he was speaking at the moment that this indeed was the real LBJ and that while his public position might not command the other’s support, surely this more authentic version would. Yet the authentic versions varied. Authenticity was itself but another ruse of the master trickster.

The Greeks had a word for this kind of cunning: metis. It was Ulysses’ wiliness that got him home, not his authenticity. Tocqueville, I think, felt that there were moments in the life of a nation when reason alone could not suffice:

In the life of a nation … there may come a time when ancient customs are transformed, mores decay, faiths are shaken, memories lose their prestige … Lacking both the instinctive patriotism of monarchy and the considered patriotism of a republic, they find themselves stuck somewhere between the two, surrounded by confusion and misery.
France finds itself in such an in-between moment, caught not between monarchy and republic but between two ideas of itself, unable to reason its way from the “instinctive patriotism” of the past to the “considered patriotism” of which it hopes to construct a new national identity. In this state of “confusion and misery,” which is something of a puzzle when in fact (as Peter Hall admirably shows) it has endured the shock of globalization relatively well, the French turned out in record numbers in this past presidential election. One candidate, Ségolène Royal, told them that the problem was a divorce between them and their ruling class. An overweeningly self-confident cadre of experts told them what they ought to want; she would listen to them instead, encourage participative debates, gather suggestions via Internet, rely on the oversight of “citizen juries.” But Tocqueville knew that in times of “confusion and misery,” the citizens of a democracy were unlikely to trust themselves:

As for the possibility of one intelligence influencing another, it is necessarily quite limited in a country whose citizens, having become more or less identical, can observe each other at close range. Seeing that no one possesses any incontestable mark of greatness or superiority, each person is forced back on the most obvious and accessible source of truth, his own reason.
As confidence in the collective wisdom wanes, as individuals turn inward, they are inclined to seek a leader who they believe reflects not necessarily their ideas but their instincts. They know, without training in political science, that the quest for the median voter in a democracy requires the apparent embrace of what passes for conventional wisdom in a myriad of constituencies with conflicting interests, so they are not unduly disturbed by the inauthenticity that such a quest enforces. What they are looking for, however, is the mark of cunning, the metis, the cleverness to carry off a ruse convincingly when what is wanted is not a Hotspur but a Ulysses.

More French voters in their confusion and misery found that quality in Sarkozy than in Royal. Indeed, the protean character of the trickster is what makes people so uneasy about him and leads, I think, to some of the rhetorical excess that he both commits and provokes. Is he really a second Le Pen, or Le Pen’s clever arch-nemesis, the scourge of the Front National, the good shepherd who has lured the lost sheep back into the republican pen? Does he really intend to obliterate the memory of French collaboration and restore the myth of a universally resistant France, or does he merely wish to bolster a nation’s sagging confidence? Does he really intend to gather all power into his own hands, or is he, like de Gaulle, authoritarian by instinct and impatience but ultimately aware that he is but the emanation of a democratic wish?

We cannot answer these questions by searching for the “authentic Sarkozy,” for there is no authentic Sarkozy, or, rather, his authenticity is bound up with his projet, as Sartre would have it, and will reveal itself only in the situations that history creates for him. Metis relies on instinct and improvisation, not calculation and planning. That is the danger of authenticity, as Trilling knew, and David is right to invoke his name in this context. So we wait, like Angela Merkel (see previous post), made “curious” about Sarkozy’s authentic self by the powerful “intimacy effect” of television and modern image engineering (David Greenberg is right about that). But such curiosity is misplaced, and we should learn to set it aside as a matter of political hygiene. “What can be said at all can be said clearly; the rest should be passed over in silence.”


Yesterday Angela Merkel said that she and other G8 leaders would be "curious" (neugierig) to learn more about the new kid in the class, Nicolas Sarkozy. It seemed an odd choice of word, not least because Merkel has already had a chance to assuage her curiosity in a lengthy meeting with Sarkozy on the day of his inauguration. No doubt she meant to allude to the fact that Sarkozy makes his debut on the international stage with no sharply defined profile or agenda. He has gone to some lengths to demonstrate lack of hostility to the United States: he had himself photographed with George Bush, jogged with firemen in Central Park, and, emulating the Marlboro Man, mounted a horse to herd cattle in the Camargues. But a non-aggression pact is not quite the same thing as an alliance, and in his election-night speech he declared independence even as he reiterated a friendship de principe.

Now he comes to the G8 as the inheritor of the Gaullist mantle in a moment reminiscent of the Cold War. Putin, rankled by the impending projection of American force into the symbolic portals to the Russian heartland, threatens to target European cities as in days of yore. Since the Russians presumably still have the coordinates of the Place de la Concorde in their computers (or can get them from Google Earth if they've been erased), one has to presume that this rattling of virtual sabers is intended to send a message, which might be translated as, "If you insist on standing with THEM, then we're obliged to remind you of US."

In the circumstances, what will Sarkozy do? Unburdened by any "special relationship," he is not likely to seek to replace Blair in Bush's lap. Although he appeared in shirtsleeves--a touch of "American" informality like so many others in Sarko's repertoire--for an interview with correspondents representing the G8 countries, he avoided echoing Bush's characterization of Putin's attitude as "not helpful." Indeed, he seemed rather to want to hark back to the halcyon days of the Bush-Putin relationship, when the two leaders gazed into each other's "souls":

In dealing with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Sarkozy called for a “strategic partnership and very friendly relations,” rather than confrontation.

Citing the importance of personal contact to resolve diplomatic problems, he said he wanted to know “what worries” Mr. Putin, “what mobilizes him” and “what are his red lines.”

So Sarkozy is curious too. What does Putin really want? seems to be the question of the hour. It will be interesting to see how Sarkozy answers it. My guess is that the word "soul" will not be uttered.