Friday, July 20, 2007

Baker on Bloggers

Russell Baker (New York Review of Books, Aug. 16, p. 10) writes:

What is indisputable is that practically every blogger can now be a columnist. With vast armies of columnists now blogging away, it seems inevitable that a few may eventually produce something original, arresting, and refreshing and so breathe new life into this worn-out journalistic form.

Sort of like an army of chimpanzees some day producing Hamlet, I guess. I'm not sure that Baker intends his remark as a compliment, but I do think there may be some value in the circulation of a wider range of opinion, formed by a wider variety of experience and expertise, than any newspaper can accommodate.

Hall of Mirrors

Straying a bit from the straight and narrow of politics, I can't pass up the opportunity to comment on another subject of predilection, intellectuals. This is a minor thing, but it comes up with some frequency, so I thought I'd mention it to see if anyone else finds this particular bit of Franco-American convergence as amusing as I do.

It was pure coincidence, of course, that a commentator on a guest post here about Alain Badiou remarked that Badiou is "now more studied and revered in the US than he is in France" on the same day that Le Nouvel Obs ran a piece intended to mark "the immense renown" allegedly enjoyed by Jean Baudrillard "across the Atlantic"--"far greater even the attention he attracted in France." The supposed American consecration of the French intellectual can thus be used either to raise up or to knock down. "Woe unto my benighted countrymen," says the French acolyte, "who failed to recognize the prophet in his own land." Or, conversely, the French critic dispatches the false hero to Valhalla-in-Vegas, that gimcrack simulacrum: only the gullible Amerloques could fall for such a charlatan, but here in the homeland we have his number, we've seen his type before (and, by the way, we speak his language).

The trope is a bit tired whether employed in a positive or negative sense, having been tried now on a long series of would-be culture heroes going back several decades. News flash to the offices of Le Nouvel Obs: "immense renown" in the United States requires more than mention in the pages of Sémiotext(e). (Half the testimonials to Baudrillard seem to come from people affiliated with that journal.) I know how these things work, because I'm in the Rolodexes of the journalists who write these pieces. The phone rings. "Would you agree that Derrida [Foucault, Bourdieu, ...) is more (less) revered (reviled, read, regurgitated ...) in the United States (France) than he is in France (the United States)?" Depending on which of your friends you want to make angry that day, you choose a couple of answers from column A and a couple from column B, and, presto, you've made (broken) a reputation.

It's sort of like the question of whether Rousseau caused the French Revolution. For some, the answer would require a lifetime's work and reflection. For others, it's just a matter of taking samples from the brains of dead revolutionaries and toting up the mass of Rousseauoid particles in micrograms. Basta!


As if to illustrate the point in my previous post about factional blockage, Noël Mamère appears on cue, calling upon environmental NGOs to pull out of the talks with the government known as the "environmental Grenelle." They should withdraw from this "farce" (pantalonnade), Mamère says, because "additional moral persons" have been included in the discussions. This is his coy way of saying that Borloo plans to hear the views of nuclear power advocates, agrobusiness, manufacturers and users of genetically modified seeds, etc. The idea seems to be that on environmental issues there are only two schools, one of virtue, the other of vice; government, of course, should always be on the side of virtue, should eschew the counsel of the vicious, and should act only by imposition of its undefiled will, never in concert with the evil-doers. Perhaps Mamère should apply for a job with the Bush administration. He has the requisite Manichaean world-view.

Realignment à la française

In the United States, there is a large literature on what is called "party realignment," a concept associated most prominently with the name of Walter Dean Burnham. The central idea is that not all presidential elections are alike. Some, like the elections of 1896 and 1932 in the United States, represent a seismic shift, a slippage of the tectonic plates of the society that undergird the political system.

I know of no similar literature for France. Nevertheless, it is often argued that not all French presidencies are alike. A good example of this sort of argument appears in this morning's Libération. But before I get to that argument, which is provided by Jean d'Ormesson, I have to explain why a columnist of the right like d'Ormesson is appearing in a paper of the left, Libé.

's editor, Laurent Joffrin, has had an idea. Mimicking Sarkozy's ouverture to the left, he has decided to invite writers of the right to air their views in the normally left-leaning columns of his newspaper. His intention seems partly ironic: to expose l'ouverture as un gadget, a feint: "In short, Libération's ouverture shows the limitations of Sarkozy's." The left remains the left, he says, and the right the right. In other words, there has been no party realignment, no movement in the depths of society, no rethinking of old positions--and, moreover, Joffrin would seem to imply, that is as it should be. Political integrity depends on firmness of principle, Joffrin insists. And the Socialist Manuel Valls, who refused an overture from Sarkozy, puts the point even more emphatically: "To cover your tracks [as Sarkozy is doing] is to endanger democracy."

D'Ormesson takes a very different tack. Like the realignment theorists, he distinguishes between major presidencies and minor presidencies. Major presidencies effect significant and durable changes in the political landscape. But for d'Ormesson, these changes are not the manifestation of underlying changes in the electorate; rather, they are tributes to the skill, nay, the cunning, of the great presidents--read de Gaulle and Mitterrand--who in a sense betrayed their electorates--de Gaulle by cutting Algeria loose, Mitterrand by embracing social democracy--out of a shrewd and realistic appreciation of the need for profound realignment, which, d'Ormesson would argue if he knew the vocabulary of realignment theory, followed rather than preceded their election.

Sarkozy, d'Ormesson implies, aspires to be a great president and is in the process, in order to become one, of betraying the forces that elected him. His ouverture is not only popular but also deeply republican in spirit. Even Joffrin concedes that point: ""In a republic it is natural to listen to those who don't think as you do." One is reminded of the "republican" animus against parties--against factionalism--which followed the revolutions in both France and the United States (for France, see Pierre Rosanvallon's Le modèle politique français; for the United States, see Richard Hofstadter's The Idea of a Party System). Yet "the idea of a party system" now seems to have such a firm grip that the older idea that parties ought to be viewed with suspicion, that there was something illegitimate about organized factionalism, that the partisan spirit was a distortion of the general will, has itself become disreputable in the eyes of even as shrewd a political observer as Laurent Joffrin, who can see Sarkozy's move only as a tactic for partisan advantage and not, perhaps, just possibly, a tactic in the service of the general interest.

D'Ormesson may have the better of this argument. There are times when factional blockage must be overcome, and the hope of drawing on the best talent regardless of prior allegiances makes sense. I think d'Ormesson overestimates, however, the degree to which such moments are created by sheer political cunning. I think that realignment begins, as Burnham would have it, deeper down in the society, though the wit to take advantage of the altered constellation of forces must come from above. That the French political parties have been en décalage, out of alignment, with the underlying political geology has been apparent for some time. The double discourse of the Socialists--pretending to resist changes that in fact they were actively abetting--was one (for them) debilitating and, I think, ultimately fatal consequence of this. If Sarkozy can capitalize on that change, he will have performed a great service not only for himself and those who think as he does but also for those who don't, who will at last be able to construct an opposition that stands on something more solid than a crumbling ideology.

P.S. Sarko may be causing greater consternation in the ranks of the UMP than among the Socialists.