"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 6, 2014

Immigration And The Preservation Of French Culture

The French are up in arms about the African and Arab invasion diluting, degrading, and destroying their culture.  France is no longer what it always has been, they say – Catholic, proudly democratic, and a leader in the arts, music, and literature.  Moreover tradition has it that France has always been a champion of Western civilization ever since Charlemagne and Roland who beat back the Moors and kept Europe Christian. France has a special place in European history. 

Now the inclusive, secular, democratic society enshrined in all French Republics after the Revolution is coming apart. Muslims seek to carve out a special, religious place where observance is public and defiant and in so doing challenge the foundational notion of laïcité. The French language, always a symbol of universal culture, the language of diplomacy in the 19th century and the mother tongue of Moliere, Balzac, and Sartre is becoming mongrelized and unrecognizable – a polyglot language stripped of its historical roots by invasive bits of Arab, Berber, and Bambara.

America has evolved in a very different way.  We are a young country, one founded on immigration, and one in which culture developed as an amalgamation of those many diverse voices. We are as Puritan as the Pilgrims, as Jewish as New York, as Irish as Boston, and as Latino as Houston, Los Angeles, or Miami. Our culture is one of individual enterprise, the free market, and personal liberty.  American culture is all about these procedural values, not about absolutes. There is no such thing as received American cuisine.  It has developed, matured, and excelled over time because there was no touchstone, no reverential bowing and scraping. American language has always been freewheeling and accommodating to new immigrants, trends, and influences. American art, music, literature, and dance are equally as responsive.

                           Manifest Destiny

In other words, traditional French culture is very much of a real, palpable, distinguished, and revered phenomenon. There is nothing for immigrants to ‘destroy’ in America because our entire history is one of perpetual ‘out-with-the-old’ dynamism; but the French very much have a consistent, uniform culture which is being threatened.  It is easy for us to dismiss French concerns as racist, ignorant, and retrograde reactions to modern realities, but it is wrong to do so.

Secondly, France was a colonial power and ruled Africa for two hundred years.  Not only that it did so at a time when Africa was considered The Dark Continent, a place of savagery and backwardness.  Even the most educated Europeans in the early 18th century considered Africans lesser human beings, and the slave trade was made possible in part by this concept of racial inferiority.  The French had a longstanding policy of la mission civilisatrice – a mission to bring Western religion and culture to the natives, thus civilizing them.  France selected certain Africans of particular sensitivity and promise from Senegal as honorary Frenchmen who could reside in France and attend French schools.  These Africans would never be real Frenchmen, of course, and they were selected more to show how well la mission civilisatrice worked than to help individual Africans; but most Frenchmen thought it an enlightened policy.

This is all to say that the French have a long residual memory of colonialism. It is one thing to have your culture assaulted by foreigners, but by foreigners you once ruled and thought inferior? American racism is bad enough, but French convictions of white superiority go even deeper because of their colonial experience.  They lived and worked in Africa and saw the stone-age primitivism of the tribes they ruled.

Justin Smith, writing in the New York Times (1.6.14) writes:

Equality is of course one of the virtues on which the French Republic was founded, yet critics of the Enlightenment philosophy behind the Revolution have long noticed a double standard: when equality is invoked, these critics note, it is understood that this is equality among equals. Political and social inequality is allowed to go on as before, as long as it is presumed that this is rooted in a natural inequality.

There is a lot of truth in this.  The French let the northern Parisian suburbs fester for decades because of this twisted double-standard.  They felt that the Arabs and Africans living there were racially and socially inferior, but that laïcité prohibited special treatment for any racial, ethnic, or religious minority. It is no surprise that spurned by the majority as inferior and never given any leg up because of Revolutionary ideas of equality, the suburbs exploded.

The French, like a number of other Europeans, have dug in their heels. The official French stand against the head scarf is emblematic if not iconic.  A cultural line has been drawn in the sand.  We are all French, the officials at the Elysees insist, so lose all traces of your native culture and act like it.  Of course the prohibition of the hijab only serves to enrage Muslims, harden their opposition to the French oppressor, and continue their fight for cultural separatism.  As I have mentioned above, it is easy for Americans to ignore the hijab, turban, yarmulke, or dreadlocks because we are all a little weird.  The melting pot has a lot of lumps and strange bits of meat floating in it.  The French cannot ignore anything.

The French are fighting a losing battle, and it is even more galling because they have to admit the success of the American model.  Since we have no real culture except moneymaking, success is open to everyone.  We instinctively understand that when a black man, Muslim, or native American becomes a lawyer and buys a house in Potomac, we will accept him.  Inclusiveness plus American free enterprise equals a solution to the immigration ‘problem’.

France has always had a problem with America because of our lack of ‘culture’.  We are a nation of McDonald’s, Hollywood, and Wall Street – all greed, glitz, bottom-feeding, and show.  Nothing of substance. There are no ‘public intellectuals’ in America – men like Camus, Voltaire,and Rousseau who were influential social figures, not just scholars squirreled away in musty stacks.  We are pushy, arrogant, and predictably crass. In its fight against immigration France is not only fighting Arabs and Africans, but Americans.  Our model of potpourri, foundation-less democracy must be countered if not repulsed. The French way, despite everything, is still the best way.

So, I am in solidarity with the Northern suburbs, and feel that their residents would have had a much fairer shake if they had landed in America or Britain; but yet I feel a degree of sympathy for the older French who for so long have believed in white, Christian, European, and French supremacy.  Their generation and many before have given the world some of its greatest art, literature, science, and thought.  It must be particularly hard for the French to see the assault on their culture coming from conservative Islam which is passing through another dark age of intellectual repression.  At least our foreigners for the most part are Christian and can be much more assimilated than increasingly radicalized North Africans.

I once had a French Canadian friend who once told me that Anglos were threatening her culture. “What culture exactly is that?”, I asked.  She had no real answer. It had something to do with language, but the sentiment went far deeper. As much as Quebec had become Anglicized and part of larger Anglo North America, it was still somehow unique. Quebec has as short a history as the United States does, but perhaps because of its cultural isolation has become militantly independence-minded.  All ethnic groups seem to share this militancy – Croats, Shiites, Kosovars, Tutsis, Irish Protestants all want to preserve their culture and historical traditions.

We Americans can never really understand such cultural allegiances, and for that reason are dangerously naïve in our foreign policy; but that’s who we are.  As much as the French are deeply rooted in their cultural past, we are as deeply suspicious of tradition and the confines of history.  The twain, apparently, shall never meet.

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