Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Uncivilizing Process

In Le Monde today, Jean-Michel Dumay (who was recently forced out of his position as head of the paper's journalists' association, the SRM) reflects on self-control as an index of civilization. He cites authorities from Erasmus to Tocqueville to Norbert Elias, the author of The Civilizing Process, to make the point that self-restraint is fundamental to fruitful political discourse. Yet Tocqueville, whom he quotes on this point, recognized a certain tension between democracy and formality of manners: democrats feel an "instinctive disdain" for what Tocqueville called "forms."

Dumay reports Tocqueville's view correctly but doesn't pursue the analysis. What is the source of this "instinctive disdain?" It is of course the passion for equality and the notion that refined manners may mask another type of instinctive disdain, that of the powerful for the weak. As long as there has been a "civilizing process," there have been two distinct views of its significance: on the one hand increasing self-restraint and progressive refinement of social intercourse might signal a transition in the means of government from force to reason, or at any rate palaver, while on the other hand it might conceal a continuation of violence by other means, a substitution of tentacular, invisible means of domination for direct and visible ones, l'arme occulte for l'arme blanche.

Now, Dumay seems to want to draw a conclusion about the nature of "contemporary democratic societies" from the way in which vulgarity has infiltrated high places: he starts his essay with an allusion to Sarkozy's remark at the Salon de l'Agriculture and a characterization, not strikingly original, of the president as "le président de la République française, monarque dans la cinquième du nom," which may be more polite in form yet as dismissive in intent as "casse-toi pauv' con."

This seems to me a rather hasty analysis. A more subtle question might be to ask whether vulgarity itself hasn't become a sort of mask. The disdain for forms that Tocqueville observed is no longer instinctive but calculated. It is a way of concealing hierarchy behind an affectation of commonness, of membership of the vulgum pecus that recoils from refinement as a disguise rather than a reality, no doubt on the basis of long experience.

Of course the coarseness may be genuine. It's hard to tell when what was originally donned as an effective mask hardens into an authentic persona: George Bush may have adopted the Texas accent and swagger as a protective coloration when he left the bosom of his patrician family and struck out on his own, but it has now become one with the man. Sarkozy had less of a burden to shed. Both gained the favor of voters who despise "phoniness" in politicians more than anything else by exhibiting an aggressive contempt for forms and rejecting pressure to exhibit reserve and decorum. But vulgarity is a rather fluid signifier. It can easily turn into its opposite: far from indicating that the speaker is "one of us," it can come to seem a mark of desperation, of trying too hard to pretend to be what one no longer can be after being elevated to the highest office. Because as much as people long to rule themselves, they know in their heart of hearts that the job always ends up being delegated to a real person, who by holding it ceases to be like them. So the personality that gets a man to the top of the heap may drag him down once he has arrived.

Golden Parachute or Hush Money?

The Denis Gautier-Sauvagnac affair has become an even greater embarrassment for that organization, which represents manufacturers in the metals industries, and for the peak organization of employers, the MEDEF. DGS was obliged to resign some months ago when an investigation by financial police revealed that he had made unauthorized cash withdrawals of UIMM funds for still undisclosed purposes. Now it has emerged that upon resigning he was granted a severance package of 1.5 million euros. The UIMM maintains that this is money due him under his contract for retirement and other reasons. Laurence Parisot, the head of the MEDEF, who originally denounced DGS's occult dealings, has cut short her vacation to deal with this new crisis. But the MEDEF's own finances are not especially transparent, nor are the finances of the trade unions, for which some of the UIMM cash was allegedly destined. A government interested in liberalizing the labor market would surely want to look into all these relationships, one would have thought.

EADS, the USAF, and John McCain

So EADS has landed a contract to supply the US Air Force with tanker aircraft. Some American senators are openly questioning why the United States would hand such a boon to an allegedly unreliable ally. But not all. In the states of Mississippi and Alabama, where Northrop, EADS's American partner, has its plants, the senators are very happy indeed.

Pat Roberts of Kansas is one of the unhappy senators. Of course, Boeing, which lost out on the deal, has a plant in Wichita, where 767s were to have been modified into tankers if Boeing had won the contract. Indeed, Boeing had been selected for the job previously, but it was discovered that there were kickbacks from the company to the procurement officer. John McCain was instrumental in the investigation that uncovered the fraud.

Winning in Style

Is there a winning style in political discourse? Readers of this blog will already be familiar with the analyses of Jean Véronis, a linguist who has now teamed up with Louis-Jean Calvet to analyze the speaking styles of all the candidates and especially of Nicolas Sarkozy in a new book, which is summarized here. The graphic above, taken from the article, suggests a troubling trend: not only has the purchasing power of the French declined, so has the average length of their leaders' sentences, which has dropped steadily from Pompidou to Sarkozy. What can this portend? Why, nothing good. "If the present trend continues," as political pundits like to say, it is clear that the political class will soon be communicating in grunts and gestures. Chateaubriand saw it coming:

Les langues ne suivent le mouvement de la civilisation qu'avant l'époque de leur perfectionnement; parvenues à leur apogée, elles restent un moment stationnaires, puis elles descendent sans pouvoir remonter.

(31 words for Chateaubriand, by the way, right up there with Pompidou, though one might plausibly argue that the above specimen is in fact two sentences spliced together with a semicolon--a frequent vice in the political speech of old and perhaps a hidden source of bias in the Calvet-Véronis analysis.) Note, however, that Ségolène Royal, at 27 words per sentence, stands close to Pompidolien levels of linguistic prowess. Polls now show her winning against Sarkozy if an election were held today (albeit by only 51 to 49, an oddly anemic peformance given Sarko's current approval ratings in the mid to low thirties). Could this hint at a restoration of the lost art of the long sentence? Tu penses, pauv' con?

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