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

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Race, Gender, Ethnicity, And Great Wines In Paris–The Undoing Of An Innocent Abroad

A black American journalist was invited by a well-known European paper to be their Paris correspondent.  The paper, once known for its wide-ranging serious articles on law, religion, art, literature, and philosophy, had in recent years veered to the progressive left, had turned its back on the intellectual leadership it once enjoyed, and had become almost exclusively focused on race, gender, and ethnicity.  ‘Diversity’ was its thematic byword, and a new editorial staff was chosen to reflect aggressive feminism, uncompromising racial preference, and the rise and uncompromised moral purpose of the LGBTQ community.

The American journalist was given free rein.  He, a man from an inner city neighborhood, would offer a particular, unique, and essential perspective on French culture.   His ‘Letters Of A Black Man In Paris’ would be welcomed by the paper’s reconfigured readership, most of whom already advocated blackness, queerness, and ethnic pride as ways of countering and reversing white male privilege.   The paper urged the journalist to simply write what he saw, and to share it with his readers.  Given the systemic racism of both America and Europe, the views of an oppressed black man would, ipso facto, be valid.  His editors were less concerned about what he wrote than the fact that he wrote it.

His first articles were filled with wonder over the City of Lights.  He, who had never been outside St. Louis, who traveled only to Alabama to spend Christmas with his grandmother who had raised him, then moved back to Mobile when he and his brothers and sisters had become young adults, and who knew of Paris from Paris Match, National Geographic and from dispatches from the foreign correspondents of major US newspapers, was understandably impressed with the city.  So impressed was he, that he had no idea where to start. The Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, the Opera? Or the fine restaurants, grands magasins, chic cafes, and salons of haute couture? Or perhaps something closer to home and his American readership – the byways, shops, and clatter of middle-class neighborhoods far from the glittering showcases of the Right Bank?

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Yet after a few months of random impressions, on-the-fly vignettes about Parisian street life, oysters, and Versailles, he began to flounder.  Where was all this going?  What and where was his voice? His particular, unique vision?  Returning to familiar territory, he began to write about race and racial matters, singling out the French elite for their ignorance and dismissal of the northern suburbs, and their absolute refusal to reject the ‘We are all French’ arriere-garde elitism.  He was at least on familiar ground.  While he could not be expected to weigh in on French Impressionism or the politics of Robespierre and The Terror – and even if he had, his readers would not be in the least interested – he could write about race. 

Yet this too was problematic for a journalist who had not been picked for his scholarship on French colonial history, but for his background and fresh approach to the European city.  Once he got past ‘systemic racism’, a universal, international white, elitist phenomenon, years of study about African tribal slavery, the nature, extent, and character of European colonialism, Négritude and Senghor, France’s mission civilisatrice in Africa, and the profound Christianity behind French history would be ahead of him.

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Yet he thought he should at least try to make something more intellectually lasting of his séjour in Paris; but the more ideas he submitted to his editors about historical antecedents and philosophical zeitgeist and the roots of French social unrest, the more they were turned down.  The editors wanted something more ‘valid’, more representative of his black, American, poor roots and more subjective.  Any man jack could write about Voltaire and Descartes, few could write about the world seen through oppressed eyes.

The journalist, as smart as he might have been, was too ambitious and too jealous of his plum assignment to think anything amiss; but still could not get over the creeping, niggling thought that he was being patronized.  He of course was on to something.  Within his editors' progressive, reformist outlook, an analysis of history was of no value whatsoever.  His observations on the excesses of Parisian life – expensive wines, faux elegance, a retrograde assumption of the permanence of aristocratic values, an overweening belief in the superiority of French cuisine, couture, and thought – would certainly be more accurate than any social history of kings, courtesans, and beheadings.  The journalist was indeed to be An Innocent Abroad.

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Equally unsurprising was the journalist’s seduction by the very influences his editors hoped to discredit.  With his generous expense account, and on the pretense of ‘observing’, he not only dined at Paris’ finest restaurants but became a well-known patron.  Over the course of time, he could – or at least said he could – distinguish between a 2014 Chateaux Margaux and a 2011 Echezeaux, the delicacies of and distinctions between Belon and Fines de Claires oysters, truffles from the Perigord and Lascaux, and the ins and outs of the Spring collections of Hebert and Rocher.  He wrote about these experiences without an even casual reference to down home cooking, his grandmother, or life in Hamilton Heights, St Louis.  He had quickly dispelled any disruptive thoughts of purpose and meaning, and became quite at ease in his new surroundings.

He had been shamelessly patronized by his European editors and because he accepted their faulty notion of race per se as value, he had become the worst kind of reverse-patronizing expatriate.  He had become so seduced by Parisian high living that he not only did he forget his roots, he lorded over those he left behind.  Without looking back, he had become an aficionado of good wine, cuisine, couture, and culture and let everyone know it.   

Where was the blackness, his editors wanted to know?  The racism? The anger?  The exposure of the vanity and superficiality of the French aristocracy and all they stood for?  He, a black man of the earth and the cotton fields; a man of dignity, struggle, and righteous indignation was the real thing, while the faux nobility of the 7th and 16th were supernumerary and irrelevant.

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In short order, the editors cancelled the journalist’s contract.  If they wanted a food critic, they would hire a French one, with experience, training, and a culinary background, not some Johnny-come-lately American.  If he was not going to filter Paris through the lens of race, gender, and ethnicity, he was of no value whatsoever.

So the journalist went back to the States, easily found another job in New York.  Unfortunately the New York progressive, Upper West Side Establishment and the black radical intelligentsia saw him as the worst kind of Uncle Tom.  They had no patience for his disquisitions on vintage and terroir, French this and French that.  He was damaged goods, unsaleable in New York where doctrinal racial purity and absolute obedience to the progressive canon was obligatory.  The journalist found himself neither here nor there, and hit a serious writer’s block.  He had been compromised – no fault of his own – and then had compromised himself.  He was no longer a racial firebrand, lighting the community in righteous anger; and no longer a neophyte of growing sophistication in matters of European culture.  He had been outed on both fronts.

Identity politics is never a good thing.  It is pernicious, corrupting, and destructive.  It was the undoing of a good man who despite his ambitious naivete deserved better.  He was wrong to have bought the fiction that not only does race matter but it is the only thing that matters; wrong to assume that the European newspaper’s overture was honest and forthright; wrong to be so complaisant and seducible; and wrong to assume that he could return without consequences to a life which had been based on false premises.

The newspaper was just as ignorant about the corrosive nature of identity as the journalist was; and the editors’ naïve belief in The Theory of One Perspective was their undoing.  The paper became one of many rhetorical media sites, and lost its following because of competition from MSNBC, The Nation, CNN, and a hundred other lesser-known exponents of ultra-liberal, angry progressivism.  It died a slow but in their minds principled death.  They went down to the last printing fighting for justice, equality, and the rights of racial, ethnic, and gender minorities. 

Theirs was not the only demise of a progressive journal.  Majority, conservative populations throughout Europe had clearly had enough of neo-socialist rhetoric and insistent hammering on issues of social ‘justice’; and those in America were finally waking up to the fact that ‘wokeness’ was not the be-all and end-all of political philosophy.

The paper folded but the journalist shook off his delusions and the cruel retribution of his own American community, and changed careers entirely, unknown at this moment, but likely to be far from blackness or Parisian sophistication.

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