Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Compare and Contrast

In 1914, Henry Ford fired 900 workers for observing Eastern Orthodox Christmas. "If these men are to make their home in America," a Ford official said, "they should observe American holidays." (T. Jackson Lears, The Rebirth of a Nation, p. 263).

"Je veux le dire solennellement, elle [la burqa] ne sera pas la bienvenue sur le territoire de la République française. Nous ne pouvons pas accepter dans notre pays des femmes prisonnières derrière un grillage, coupées de toute vie sociale, privées de toute identité. Ce n’est pas l’idée que la République française se fait de la dignité de la femme."
(Nicolas Sarkozy, address to le Congrès, 22 June 2009)

Discuss amongst yourselves.

UPDATE: A lawyer defends the burqa. A Muslim woman opposes it.

34 comments:

bert said...

In 1849, red was banned in France. Wearing a red hat would get you arrested. http://books.google.com/books?id=EYab--tkqr4C&pg=PA172

There were red scares in the US too, of course, and similarly foolish laws periodically enacted.

Is there a difference in principle? I'm not sure I see one. Perhaps a hijab-banner can explain.

kirkmc said...

While I am against the current headscarf ban - it bans one "religious" display while allowing others - I think the burqa should indeed be banned. The problem with the burqa is that you cannot be identified. In a society where certain actions depend on your identity, you need to be able to prove it. This is probably less of an issue in, say, Saudi Arabia, where women's rights are so limited.

The argument that banning it is a violation of freedom is specious. Should one allow men to walk with their wives as they wear dog-collars and are attached to their masters' hands by leashes? The burqa is similar, just without the leash.

I think it's interesting to note that many women's groups in France are strongly against the burqa...

Kirk

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Kirk,
Is it unfreedom that matters or the visual symbol of unfreedom? After all, we know that many women who do not wear burqas or leashes are not treated as equals by their husbands, to whom they are subservient. Should such subservience, if not materialized by a visible symbol, make them unwelcome on French soil? Should we conduct inquiries to determine whether women (or, for that matter, men) are free or unfree in their marriages?

Please note that, for the sake of argument, I am granting your implicit premise that women who wear burqas or leashes do so only involuntarily. I leave open, however, the possibility that some do so voluntarily. Would it make a difference to your views if the number of women in voluntary as opposed to involuntary servitude were large or small?

Consider, as well, the wearing of male garb to denote voluntary servitude: a cassock, say, or a military uniform. Why do these choices not violate our sense of republican equality?

I pose these as philosophical questions, because I am genuinely puzzled by the strong intuition evinced by many recent commenters that Sarkozy is obviously right to object to the burqa on republican grounds. I don't deny that a democracy might want to legislate about much matters, but I don't find the "right" and "wrong" of the issue as self-evident as many seem to. So I am trying to elicit a fuller articulation of the basis of your beliefs--not just Kirk's but others' as well.

kirkmc said...

Should we allow people to wear, say, motorcycle helmets all day long, the kind with reflecting visors? So that they can never be identified, even when, say, they want to pay for something with a check, or get an official paper that requires identification?

I see this less as a religious issue - as I said, I'm in favor of letting people wear headscarves, turbans, fezes, or pasta hats, if they want to believe in their favorite gods - than a civil issue. For example, how do you know, when you see someone in a burqa, that it's even a woman? Do you let people whose faces are hidden enter women's bathrooms unhindered? Do you let them enter women's locker rooms (ok, it's unliklely that women wearing burqas will be going into locker rooms, but still...)?

No, we are in a free, open society, where one of your responsibilities is to prove that you are who you pretend to be. Wearing a burqa - aside from the image that presents about women - prevents this.

Also, I do understand that some women who wear burqas - or leashes - do it by choice. But many do not. In any case, I see it as a hindrance to the smooth workings of western society.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

I take your point about the need for identification in specific circumstances. But Sarkozy's statement is far more sweeping: it's that a woman who covers her face is not welcome on French soil. Let's suppose that religion and ethnicity have nothing to do with that assertion, only the notion that a covered face is a symbol of female subservience. Would that be a more reasonable basis for exclusion on grounds of irreconcilable difference than celebrating the Eastern Orthodox Christmas?

Anonymous said...

So you’re against banning the burqa because that measure alone would insufficiently remedy the plight French women? You realize that’s not an argument against the proposed law.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

I'm against banning the burqa because I think it's an unwarranted intrusion into private life. Nevertheless, that's not the point of this post. I'm trying to understand why those who favor the banning of the burqa do so in the name of "republican values," and which republican values they have in mind. Kirk has cited pragmatic considerations of identification, which I think might justify asking women to remove the headgear in particular circumstances but not banning them from French soil. In your case, Anonymous, I'm not sure what justification of the proposed law you're advancing. Perhaps you'd like to elaborate.

Anonymous said...

Wearing the burqa in public is not a private matter. It influences social norms. It affects how all women are treated.

I’m not sure why you’re so hung up on the issue of consent. Consent is irrelevant. A Jew can’t wear a Nazi armband in Germany even if he consents to wearing a symbol of his oppression. The burqa is a symbol of hatred of women. That some women would participate in that self-hatred is irrelevant to a discussion of the merits of this law.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Anonymous writes: "The burqa is a symbol of hatred of women. ... It affects how all women are treated." One might substitute "pornography" for "the burqa" in the above. Do you believe pornography should be banned? Should viewing a pornographic film make you unwelcome on French soil?

kirkmc said...

"Let's suppose that religion and ethnicity have nothing to do with that assertion, only the notion that a covered face is a symbol of female subservience. Would that be a more reasonable basis for exclusion on grounds of irreconcilable difference than celebrating the Eastern Orthodox Christmas?"

Well, let's face it, Henry Ford was a bit of a wacko...I'm not sure he's the best example.

This said, when I grew up in NYC, plenty of kids got the Jewish holidays off from school, and they weren't excluded. Let's not look a century in the past; let's look at today's society. People in the US, for example, can celebrate any holidays they want, and are allowed to switch days off - in most cases, I assume - to do so. They may not, however, be allowed to slaughter lambs in their bathtubs, and not for any reasons involving religion.

I'm not sure your comparison is really a good comparison. Better to say, "If you want to live in America, you need to speak English," even though that argument - which has been heard often - has never really been listened to.

No matter what, the biggest issue for me is the double standards. In a so-called secular country, religious holidays are celebrated, kids don't go to school on Wednesday afternoons so they can be free for catechism, yet other religions are targeted with laws like the headscarf law. (Christians can still wear crosses in school; the law only tries to limit their size; I mean, seriously...) I see the burqa issue as going beyond religion, though, because of the issues I mentioned above. Whether it be the need for identification or the exploitation of women, it is not compatible (IMHO) with our society. (Granted, the Brits allow them, and I don't know how they deal with the problem...)

kirkmc said...

Hmm, "pornography" - hard to define as it is - is not a good example. There are plenty of women who like pornography, and plenty who manage to justify it.

No matter what, this is a very pricly debate...

Arthur Goldhammer said...

So, for you, Kirk, the number of women who "like" pornography is enough to preclude legislating against it, even if the intensity of dislike by some women (and men) might argue in favor of legislation. But anonymous tells me that "consent" should not be counted in the matter. The two of you illustrate my point: that there is really no principled consensus about these kinds of issues. I become very uneasy when a majority proposes to exclude a minority on grounds of some "self-evident" violation of community norms when it is very difficult, if one tries, to identify what those norms are.

Anonymous said...

I think certain types of pornography are banned in France for exactly that reason.

The question is: where we draw the line? How do we balance competing rights? You seem to want to avoid these questions altogether in the name of individual rights. That's not how most legal systems approach this type of question.

Anonymous said...

Art, you pose some good questions. But it seems to me the burqa does go a step further than, say, a red scarf, or a hijab, and crosses a line into behavior that goes against broadly accepted norms in a modern, tolerant, enlightened society. Like, say, at the risk of being a little inflamatory, polygamy or genital mutilation. These practices are banned, and rightly so, because they infringe on the rights of citizens -- women subjected to these practices -- and have no place in a modern republic. I do not exclude the consideration that Sarkozy is making a big deal out of this because it is a way to polarize the debate in his favor, a coded way of stoking people's animosity towards immigrants. This was also true I feel of the hijab ban, a ban I do not support. Its not like there are burqa wearers all over the place in France as far as I can see. However I don't see anything intrinsically wrong with a ban on the grounds that burqas fundamentally violate women's rights. I think Kirk's issue of ID is valid but at the end of the day it is a normative question, not a practical one.
--Nick

Anonymous said...

I should have read your latest comment before posting because this is exactly what I'm talking about:

"The two of you illustrate my point: that there is really no principled consensus about these kinds of issues."

Just because some issues are difficult to resolve doesn't mean you don't have to draw a line somewhere.

Even in the US some pornography is banned because it is considered obscene.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Nick,
I would certainly accept a ban on the burqa if it were the democratic choice of the society after a reasonable and open debate. In other words, I wouldn't take such a ban to be a violation of some truly fundamental value (as, say, the Nürmberg laws were). What I dislike is the executive fiat, prejudicing free discussion, that the burqa is prima facie a violation of women's rights unacceptable in France. Very likely I would lose if the question were put to a vote, but I think that everyone would gain if the issues were openly aired and that the answers to difficult questions of the sort I've been trying to raise weren't simply assumed to be obvious to all bien-pensant individuals. Because they aren't obvious to me.

Anonymous said...

"What I dislike is the executive fiat, prejudicing free discussion, that the burqa is prima facie a violation of women's rights unacceptable in France. Very likely I would lose if the question were put to a vote"

Now you're moving the goal posts. Obviously a referendum would be the best way to deal with these sort of laws. But I thought the discussion was going to be about whether this kind of regulation is legitimate. I guess we all now agree that it can be legitimate.

kirkmc said...

"So, for you, Kirk, the number of women who "like" pornography is enough to preclude legislating against it, even if the intensity of dislike by some women (and men) might argue in favor of legislation. But anonymous tells me that "consent" should not be counted in the matter. The two of you illustrate my point: that there is really no principled consensus about these kinds of issues. I become very uneasy when a majority proposes to exclude a minority on grounds of some "self-evident" violation of community norms when it is very difficult, if one tries, to identify what those norms are."

Well, if I had my way, I'd legislate against cigarettes, soccer and talk radio, but fortunately, I don't have my way. :-) (Let's bear in mind that child pornagraphy is illegal just about everywhere, so there are some kinds of porn that are subject to legislation.)

I agree: there is no consensus, because of the many variables that such issues involve.


"I would certainly accept a ban on the burqa if it were the democratic choice of the society after a reasonable and open debate."

Hmm, they tried that with gay marriage in California, and many people are dissatisfied with the outcome. Democratic choices are basically ruled by the side that gets the most people to vote.

bert said...

Can we agree three things?

1. There are occasions when people's decisions about how they wish to live become unacceptable, and the state is entitled to impose its own view of acceptable behaviour.

2. We should want to set as high a threshold as we can for that kind of intervention.

3. The French republican tradition has a long-established tendency to set this threshold lower than other democratic traditions.

-----

I also think we can't assume that a woman in a burqa is by definition being oppressed. Some in this debate are assuming this, and I don't believe they've made their case. It is of course rhetorically useful, just as "false consciousness" was to a certain type of marxist.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Bert,
Thanks for attempting this closure. I agree with you completely. I'm not sure that the other participants in the debate will, but I'll leave it to them to respond. Thanks again.

bert said...

Very nice response, Arthur.
In support of my point 3, above: Jacques-Louis David.

bert said...

Oops.
This is probably a better link, with some wikiArtHistory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_the_Horatii

Just in case anyone got the sense that I was making a crass point about fascist salutes.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with #3.

Let's be frank, bert. When you say "other democratic traditions" you actually mean “the American tradition.” In fact, it is America's approach to defeasible rights that is exceptional, not that of French Republicanism (and America's approach - let's be honest - is of relatively recent provenance).

Next you position the "French Republican tradition" as the polar opposite of your ideal (I could go into the cultural biases at work here but I simply don't have the time - suffice it to say that highbrow American identity is heavily invested in a certain idea of France - as Jacobin, totalitarian, etc.). The truth is that the French Republican tradition is closer to the American model than you’d like to acknowledge. In fact, our approach to individual rights is closer to the French tradition than to that of Canada or Germany (but please don’t let facts get into the way of outdated stereotypes).

#2 turns entirely on your definition of “can.” Clearly there’s a calculus involved that you’re trying to avoid. France, Canada, and Germany “can” follow America’s absolutist approach. But they don't.

Finally, the burden is not on us to prove that every woman wearing a burqa is oppressed but that the wearing of a burqa in public has deleterious effects on women. You might think the burqa is a symbol of female empowerment – but as long as society considers it a symbol of oppression it should be treated as such.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Anonymous, I think it's you who are polarizing. I began by citing an instance of American discrimination that I consider as problematic as the French. Furthermore, your statement "society considers [the burqa] a symbol of oppression" is at this stage a supposition; neither you nor Sarkozy speaks for "society." If you insist nevertheless that this is the view of "French society," then you are contributing to the polarization you deplore.

Anonymous said...

I'm talking about political traditions and you're talking about Henry Ford. How is that at all a response to my point? Bert pulled the old Jacobin trope out of the bag and I called him out on it.

Your second point also fails to answer my point. Obviously a referendum is preferable. I don't claim to speak for "society" but I assume - as you do ("Very likely I would lose if the question were put to a vote") - that most French citizens are in favor of banning the burqa. We is acknowledging this fact is polarizing?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

I thought, in bringing up Henry Ford, that I was acknowledging your point that the American tradition has not been stable or consistently different from the French with regard to the defense of national identity. I think your denunciation of "the American highbrow identity" and its supposed caricature of Frenchness (Jacobinism=totalitarianism, etc.)is frankly absurd. But I don't think we're likely to make much progress here, so let a thousand flowers bloom.

Anonymous said...

See you're comparing Henry Ford to Replublicanism. On the one hand you have a rabid xenophobe and on the other hand a political tradition (one among many) that doesn't take an absolutist approach to certain rights. This comparison is on its face offensive.

I think the image of the French (and Europeans more generally) as decadent, illiberal, and morally inferior, is pervasive (high) in American culture. But I'm not going to convince you via internet posts. So let a thousand flowers bloom.

bert said...

Actually, I'm from the British tradition, as you might have guessed from the way I spell 'behaviour' correctly.

In the last few years, whenever I'd come across the "freedom fries" type of American you describe, I'd patiently explain how enlightenment universalism and patriotic self-congratulation combined, in both American and France, in very similar ways. Enjoyable to watch their heads pop.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

The "freedom fries" American = "highbrow"? I don't think so. I'm not sure who Anonymous has in mind, unless it's me, and I don't recognize myself in his/her description. Highbrow, perhaps, but thinking of the French as "morally inferior"? Compared to what?

bert said...

Quite right.
Nothing to do with highbrow America.
Just, for eight years, elite America.
Perhaps that's what he/she meant.

MCG said...

If battered wives enjoy being beaten, if Mormon wives enjoyed having lots of female company in the house, these are not arguments in favor of wife-beating or polygamy. The question is whether imposing the burqa on women is inhuman and repulsive, not whether some women tolerate this or any other form of maltreatment.

Leo said...

What a lively (and lofty) debate!
And unfortunately with the usual transatlantic jibes.

I'm not sure any of you has seen a French woman wearing the niqab (rather than burqa) in the streets of Paris. Ten years ago (it's not a new phenomenon) as I was shopping at the Marché Saint Pierre I saw a couple where the woman was covered in black from head to toe with hardly visible eyes. I thought they were a couple of tourists from the Arabic peninsula and thought it was quite interesting until walking past them I overheard their conversation in French pronounced with a strong traditional Paris accent of the kind you, like me, get when you have lived there all your life.
I view myself as a fairly liberal guy and as a matter of fact was against the headscarf ban, I think Sikh turbans add to the color of Paris streets and even reluctantly don't care about tatoo wearing youngsters, ugly as they may look, but after an instant of amusement, followed by dismay I was quickly seize by a sense of disgust.
Art to me this was not welcome. I use that word on purpose.

This has to do with the kind of society in which I want to live. A society where we accept our differences, but where we can see each other in the public space. it's just unfair that she can see who I am and I can't see who she is. This is not a lofty concept but a simple idea that has helped us live together relatively in peace. Here carnival is the place for masks, it's the time for transgression of an age old custom whereby we show our features.

I will refrain from any women's'rights arguments which are just a cover for religious intolerance. If we go down that route we should then start prodding the attitude of the Catholic church.

It's just about civility. In this case the individual freedom argument just does not cut the mustard. While I would agree that too often in France the Freedom vs. Equality debate errs on the site of equality, this is a case for simple down to earth reasons there should be no debate.

Now I would agree that this was blown out of proportion by politicians...and commentators. Including you Art. For once I would agree with Sarkozy that he could but mention it en passant in his speech. He the moved on to more important matters...with the usual Sarkozian rhetoric. By the way, this has somewhat toned down the debate, except among some Kremlin watchers. (By the way, the Goldberg piece you pointed to in a previous post exaggerated the impact of Obama's Cairo remarks on the veil).

Finally the ban. Writing another law is bound to have as much success as the legislative diarrhoea child offenders have been subjected to. Not only is it a marginal phenomenon, but short of creating a Saudi like women's right police I don't see how such laws could be enforced.

Education, point and shame are the solution. That is if some sort of FCLU (French Civil Liberties Union) doesn't take us to court for discrimination.

There are lots of idiots in the street, we need no law to fight this kind of idiocy. That's what I call a liberal attitude.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Leo,
Thanks for your comment, which fairly well captures the sentiments of most of my French friends. I have seen one woman in Paris wearing a burqa, and several wearing the niqab. Although I don't share your revulsion, I can understand it, and understand your desire to shape your social environment. Indeed, I would hope to persuade those women (if any) who choose the burqa in France to abandon and those husbands (if any) who force their wives to wear it to change their minds. I simply question whether a legal ban is the best way to persuade.

By the way, I agree with you that I've made too much of this issue, in just the way that I've criticized others for making too much of it in the past. So I'm going to drop it. It is a distraction, and, worse, I think it has been deliberately raised as a distraction. I'm sorry to have taken the bait, though I still think my position is worth defending, despite the clearly strong feelings of those who take a different view.

Anonymous said...

I think its nice to have a little debate around here. Thanks Art!
--Nick