Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Another Cultural Revolution

Not content with attacking May '68, Nicolas Sarkozy has opened another front in the French culture wars: against Madame de La Fayette, the author of La Princesse de Clèves. My late friend Roger Shattuck, the wry and sprightly cultural critic, who might have found Sarko's energetic conservatism politically appealing in certain respects, would have been appalled by such frank philistinism. He admired La Princesse de Clèves as one of the greatest works of the French language.


Laurent Bouvet is as disappointed with the Socialist Party's new statement of principles as I was. Can no one in the Party recognize how far "the renovation effort" is from meeting even minimal expectations? Apparently not: even Pierre Moscovici, who should know better, seems preoccupied with jockeying for position (here against Manuel Valls) rather than propounding a program.


Now that I'm getting to be a certain age, a certain ageism that would once have passed me by looms increasingly large. Recently I've heard from two American colleagues that after being offered visiting professorships in France, they were obliged to turn down the offers when it emerged that they could not be paid. Apparently French university regulations prohibit paying anyone over the age of 65 to teach (barring a special dérogation). Now, doesn't this strike you as absurd? Not only are the French depriving themselves of the enlightenment to be had from mature scholars with a lifetime of thinking and research behind them. They are also discouraging productive labor by "seniors" at a time when the government is trying to persuade people that they need to prolong their working lives, that productivity does not end at 55 or 60, and that many people can usefully contribute to society well into later life. Why does this foolish regulation survive? Even if one argues that older professors should retire to make room for younger ones, that logic does not apply to foreign visitors, who are only temporary and do not take up any permanent post. Both of the cases I know about did not even involve filling in for absent professors. These were people who were to lecture for a few weeks during the summer so as to make their special expertise available to French students. It makes no sense to prohibit such potentially fruitful exchanges. I hope someone at the Ministry of Education will read this post and do something about it.


What do we know about the societies in which we live, and how do we know it? Some prefer numerical measures such as can be derived from opinion surveys, while others favor introspection. It is easy to ridicule polls for their lack of subtlety. Leading questions elicit biased answers, ambiguous questions yield murky results and flabby interpretations. But introspection also has its flaws. What we know with most tenacious certainty may be our own prejudices. As Cartesian as we may pride ourselves on being, we take more on faith than we care to admit, if for nothing other than purely pragmatic reasons: life, as Tocqueville pointed out long ago, is simply too short to allow us to question all authority and work everything out for ourselves. There are many things we believe because other people believe them, people who are supposed to know.

A problem arises, however, when rival authorities contend and still we don't know enough to make up our own minds. It is in this light that I interpret the conflicting survey results that Gérard Grunberg analyzes in La Tribune. It seems that despite Nicolas Sarkozy's confidence that to attack May '68 would be an electorally profitable move, most French people look upon the legacy of '68 as a positive thing: 74 percent say that it had a "positive impact on French society." Yet when asked about the future, 57 percent preferred "a society with more order and authority" to "a society with more individual liberty."

Although these findings may seem contradictory on their face, I submit that they are not. If '68 "questioned authority," as the slogan went, it does not follow that the children of '68 reject all authority always and everywhere. It was a particular form of authority that was challenged, a particular set of assumptions about hierarchy, morality, justice, and "duties beyond borders." If some now deplore an absence of authority, it does not follow that they wish to restore the assumptions that were rejected 40 years ago. It may rather be that the useful dogmas, the pragmatic rules of thumb that guide daily behavior and political decisions and that Tocqueville thought to be particularly necessary in democracies, which systematically undermine--and happily so--the authority of tradition, have lately fragmented. Take just the economic realm. Whom are people to believe? The authorities who say that a rigorous monetary policy is the surest road to prosperity, or those who argue that a certain accommodation is essential? The authorities who believe that unregulated markets are most efficient, or those who maintain that regulation is essential if disaster is to be avoided? Those who argue that free trade is always and everywhere beneficial, or those who call for more nuanced argument?

Or is this too ethereal an interpretation of the polling results, one that reflects my own preoccupations? No doubt many people are more worried about everyday disorder--lack of discipline in the schools, crime in the streets, uncivil public discourse. But are such concerns really at odds with the massive approval of May '68? We veterans of the era are parents now, concerned with issues of authority vis-à-vis our own children but hardly calling for a restoration of parietal hours in dormitories. The contradiction elicited by the pollsters is an artifact, not a reality.