Friday, August 24, 2007

Another Renovation on the Left

For a succinct statement of the current state of play on the anti-liberal left, one can turn to an interview with ATTAC's co-presidents Jean-Marie Harribey and Aurélie Trouvé. Harribey: "In the past we may have been mistaken in our characterization of neoliberal policies. These involve not a dismantling of the state but, much more clever, a takeover of the state by the ownership classes, whom it is made to serve directly. Much more than in the old days, when there were compromises among social groups and their representatives. Neoliberalism is nothing other than the quasi-exclusive use of the instruments of the state to serve the ownership classes. That is Sarkozy's policy."

If I close my eyes very tight, I can almost transport myself back to the late 1960s, when vulgar Marxism of this sort was shouted down with cries of "relative autonomy of the state" and the young Marx was enlisted as David against the Goliath of his elder Doppelgänger. "Get back to where you once belonged," as the Beatles had it in a contemporaneous melody. It's no wonder that Olivier Besancenot is planning to dissolve the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in favor of a rejectionist front. ATTAC seems to have been noyauté.

Rue89 on Les Gracques

If you haven't discovered Rue89 yet, you should. This Web-only news outlet, run by ex-staffers of Libération, combines well-written articles with innovative video and audio reportage. Today's piece on Les Gracques, a group of technocrats and former ministerial staff members who lean left of center and hope to influence the shape of whatever new force emerges on the left, is well worth a look. Bernard Spitz, the current leader of the group, compares the situation of the PS to that of British Labour under Thatcher, with a "supply" of ideas unsuited to society's "demand."

Jean-Pierre Jouÿet, who is now secretary of state for European affairs in the Fillon government, used to head this group. Le Nouvel Obs seems to be backing it as a source of ideas for PS renovation.

Lift Not the Painted Veil

The excellent blog "Hémicycle" reports today that there has been a discussion of the eminent American political philosopher, the late John Rawls, in the National Assembly. His name was first evoked by the perennial Pierre Méhaignerie, only to be answered by Christine Lagarde, who delivered herself of this observation:

M. Méhaignerie, you've cited the name of John Rawls. I for my part would call your attention to his theory of justice and his principle of the veil of ignorance, in order to lift it ...

(italics added)
As any reader of Rawls will know, the "veil of ignorance" in A Theory of Justice is there to ensure equity; lifting it confronts you straightaway with the warts and blemishes of the real beneath the gossamer ideal. I am reminded of Shelley's poem:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread, --- behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.

I knew one who had lifted it --- he sought,

For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

But found them not, alas ! nor was there aught

The world contains, the which he could approve.

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows, a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Images d'Épinal

A president is, among other things, a teacher, and among his subjects of predilection is civic morality. One can't fault Nicolas Sarkozy for attempting to inculcate the lesson that racist speech is not to be tolerated in the Republic. In case you haven't been following the story, here it is in a nutshell. Dominique Berger, a teacher of mathematics in a lycée in Épinal, referred in class to one of his students, Chouaib Lusikama, of Angolan descent, as bamboula. Now, bamboula is the French equivalent of "Sambo," and Lusikama's classmates took it as a racist slur and filed a complaint, in which other alleged racist remarks of Berger's were also cited. Berger, described by his attorney as a "gruff" man, denied the other remarks but admitted to bamboula, although he claims that he used the word not with racist intent but in allusion to his student's happy-go-lucky personality (faire la bamboula means "to live it up," "have a wild time"). The teacher was tried and convicted of racist speech and sentenced to six months in jail (suspended). Lusikama and his father were invited to the Elysée to hear the president say that racist language was "unacceptable" in a republic of laws. The father said he was "honored" by the invitation; the son declined to speak to journalists.

Now, it's no doubt a good thing that the nation receive a lesson in the evils of racist speech from the president. Of course if the president had been a teacher of mathematics in an Épinal lycée and had made the remarks about slaughtering sheep in bathtubs that he made when he was an elbow-throwing politician and not "the president of all the French," he might have given offense to the students and found himself hauled up on charges of his own. Still, atonement is to be encouraged, and the ascent to the presidency seems to have enlarged the president's views. One might still be troubled by the criminal penalty meted out to the teacher when administrative sanction would have sufficed, but we know that the French, and more generally Europeans, take a more aggressive view of certain speech acts than do Americans.

One might also be troubled by the fact that this exercise of the presidential bully pulpit culminated a series of lessons predicated on the headlines of the moment: the condemnation of pedophiles in connection with the case of le petit Énis, the presidential mourning of the drowned sailors in the Sokélique affair, etc. Sarkozy as teacher of the nation seems convinced that the best classroom method is to seize the teachable moment. Throughout his career he has made effective use of the media by hitching his star to the headlines. As president, however, he makes his own headlines, and the practice that served him so well in the past may well become wearisome if he continues to make daily use of it. He needs to pace himself, decide which lessons really need to be taught, and aim for depth rather than breadth. But it remains to be seen what depths he has within him. Does the educator himself need educating, and, if so, who will do it?