Sunday, February 17, 2008

Republican Ideology

Commenter Christine sums up one line of objection to my remarks on "The Two Sarkozys" as follows:

The history of the Republic is a history of fights between the communautarist/religious/regionalist idea and the republican one, and that has not changed a bit. But what defines the Republic is that it, until now, won the debate.

Sarkozy is aiming to change that for reasons nobody really understands (personal belief? electoral strategy? Pure "effet d'annonce" in order to stay in the center of the political debate?).

True, it changes nothing regarding french economy. It could change a lot regarding republican identity. This is far from insignificant for generations of people raised within the "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" slogan.

I have a question for you, Art. Liberty defines, it seems to me, a good deal of what the "american spirit" is about. This is in total contradiction with the fact that the United States have one of highest, if not the highest ratio of imprisoned people in the world. Does that mean Americans should throw away their ideal of liberty? Again, "mythology" can be as important as facts!

I certainly would not deny that mythology can be as important as facts. Indeed, it's often more important. What I am trying to argue is that what at one time served as a progressive mythology in the kinds of political struggle that Christine evokes has in recent years been transformed into an instrument to resist change. Christine writes as if "republicanism" were a single unchanging creed, first raised by the Jacobins against their enemies, then invoked by the Third Republic against the Church, and most recently mobilized to preserve "public space" free of "communitarist" influence.

I submit that this is an ahistorical reading of the myriad ways in which the concept of republicanism has actually been mobilized in French political struggles. An excellent recent essay on this subject is John Bowen's Why the French Don't Like Headscarves. Bowen describes "three features of French ways of talking about issues of contemporary social life: the penchant for explaining an institution by giving its genealogy, the idea that one finds both liberty and order only through the intervention of the state, and the strong distinction between ... public practice ... and private activities ..." (p. 19). He goes on to show that the "genealogy" offered to explain public institutions is quite often ad hoc, tailored to fit the needs of current political debate rather than carefully situated in shifting historical contexts that frequently alter the very definitions of the words deployed for the purpose of explanation.

In the present discussion, Christine asserts, for example, that in the past "the Republic" has "always won the debate." Now, however, she implies that with Sarkozy at the head of the Republic, the enemy is within the gates, hence "the Republic" is in danger of losing the debate.

Let's try to concentrate on one issue, one "republican" value, at a time. Take equality. Some who deploy republican ideology today say that equality can be maintained only if all communitarist expression is banished from "public" space. Yet as Bowen recounts in splendid detail, the definition of "public" space has historically been quite fluid. Public cemeteries, for instance, distinguish between the "public" burial ground as a whole and the "private" tombstones. Although religious symbols are banished from the public area, the stones within that area may display them freely. Furthermore, in some cemeteries, the public space is divided up into parcels reserved for members of particular "communities": Catholics are buried in one corner, Jews in another, Muslims in still another. All of these distinctions have been accommodated without fuss in the day-to-day practice of republican government.

Thus, abstract equality and concrete difference can and do coexist. It is not a question of one "winning the debate" and the other "losing." The issue is what compromises must be struck to achieve a modus vivendi in society as it actually exists. Paradoxes abound. Surely the champions of republican equality would not deny that life chances in France today are unequal: if one is born a Muslim in Vaulx-en-Velin, one's chances of attending a Grande Ecole, entering a high-status profession, or achieving political office are certainly not the same as if one is born in Neuilly or is the child of a directeur de recherche at EHESS. Now, one can react to this finding in (at least) two ways: one can exhort the French to live up to their professed values, or one can try to measure the magnitude of the problem and take concrete steps to remedy it. Paradoxically, however, champions of "republican values" have opposed the latter approach, because they regard the collection of ethnic statistics as impermissible under the republican value system. Sarkozy's proposal to collect such statistics is one of the counts in the indictment against him on the charge of "antirepublicanism." To my mind, this paradox illustrates the elasticity of the term "republican" and its tendency to confuse rather than clarify the terms of debate.

Christine mentions the high US incarceration rate. She doesn't mention the fact that because we do collect racial and ethnic statistics in the US, we know precisely how closely related this incarceration rate is to our racial problems. We know that young black males are disproportionately incarcerated; we know that sentences meted out for comparable crimes vary sharply according to the race of the defendant; we know that our unemployment statistics are seriously distorted by the omission of incarcerated people of working age. Knowing these things doesn't mean that we are anywhere near solving the problem, but it does mean that we have a somewhat more adequate notion of what the problem is. And that knowledge does not vitiate our belief in liberty, but it does tell us a great deal about the shortcomings of our "liberal" practice. I prefer this concreteness, however dispiriting, to ringing affirmations of uplifting principle coupled with silent compromises and equivocations of the sort Bowen has detailed in connection with French cemeteries.

Let us put the facts on the table and deal with them as facts. Sarkozy is right to put certain facts on the table. As I argue in my previous message, he is in some cases wrong in his proposed remedies. These errors do not make him an enemy of the Republic. Neither does defense of the Republic guarantee its defenders against equally serious errors of judgment and practice. Political debate is of course the essence of democracy, but arguing about what is or is not "truly republican" is a waste of time. What I want is not an end to debate but a beginning of more productive debate.

This Could Get Ugly

Emmanuelle Mignon, Sarkozy's chief of staff, said yesterday that the decision to assign the memory of a Holocaust victim to every fourth-grader in France is firm: "The president of the Republic is very clearly determined not to give in on this form of instruction." "To teach the Shoah," she said, "is to combat all forms of racism. The discrimination of which descendants of immigrants are victims today has the same origin as the crimes of which Jews were victims: the filthy beast of racism."

I said previously that "I am wary of all approaches to history that encourage suspension of the critical faculties and identification with victims." Mignon's statement amply justifies my wariness. The collapse of necessary distinctions, the contempt for historical context, the substitution of righteous indignation for sober judgment--all of these things are alarming. When asked to respond to Simone Veil's objections to the proposal--Veil, who was in the audience when Sarkozy announced his proposal to the Jewish organization CRIF, said that "the instant I heard it, my blood ran cold"--Mignon said: "We are going to work with the educational community and all who are invested in the memory of these subjects to determine the best way to proceed." This is a startling statement on two counts: first, it suggests that there was no consultation with these groups before the decision was announced, and second, the idea that groups with a vested interest in a particular interpretation of the past should become the arbiters of the nation's curriculum represents an abdication of the responsibility of the state.

But worst of all is that the amalgame of the Holocaust and present-day discrimination in France sets up a direct confrontation between two vulnerable minorities, a contest over whose memory enjoys the backing of the no-longer neutral state. The Muslim child who is asked to cherish the memory of a dead Jewish child will be enlisted into a conflict that his or her elders have been unable to resolve and obliged to choose. The "filthy beast" that Mignon hopes to combat will feed on the raw emotions thus brought to the surface. The consequences will be unpredictable and impossible to control. I can only hope that the president backs off this proposal before his dircab digs in her heels and his too deeply by reiterating the statement about une volonté très nette de ne pas céder. Intransigence is also a filthy beast, especially when dealing with matters as delicate as the memory of injustice, discrimination, and genocide.