Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Jack Lang Breaks 'Wind'

Hak Mao referred yesterday to a column by the indefatigable Nick Cohen in the Observer on the legacy of Enoch Powell's race-baiting in British politics. He has some pretty stern words for the Lib Dems:
They pose as saints while fighting campaigns which are as dirty as anything Labour or the Tories can manage — often dirtier. They shift their shape depending on which constituency they're contesting. Are they right or left? Pro-privatisation or anti? For the overthrow of Saddam Hussein if the weapons inspectors had been given more time, or against?

Answers to these questions have more to do with geography than ideology. For the duration of a campaign, the Liberal Democrats are whatever a contested constituency wants them to be.
I have long scoured the French press for an equally consistent critic of parliamentary politics. There isn't a French Nick Cohen, let alone a French Daniel Ellsberg or French Woodward and Bernstein. So there will be no one to write about it when what Cohen describes occurs in France.

For so long as the media publicizes attacks on synagogues, the Socialist Party, seeking to profit from the government's perceived weaknesses, will be whatever they think the electorate want them to be. Following the attack on the Jewish soup kitchen of rue Popincourt, the Socialist party's former education minister Jack Lang, who once said the Bush admin was "possessed of totalitarianism" (and Saddam?), is now seeking to humiliate the government. To-day, he told France-Inter that "enough is enough" and "enough pretty speeches, enough crocodile tears, enough wordy declarations. Time to act!"

This is the party of Pascal Boniface, the PS advisor who was fired for announcing that "France's Jewish community could end up the loser in the medium term" if it refused to damn Israel and that the PS should criticize Israel to court the Muslim vote. Though denouncing Boniface's words, this same party bounced euro MP François Zimeray, an outspoken partisan of Israel, from their list for the European elections last June.

Salt of the earth.

Now they want action, it seems. Though Mr. Lang doesn't do us the favor of telling us what specifically he finds unsatisfactory about the government's response. This reversal of opinion is all the more apparent given that the conventional wisdom in much of what has for some time passed for left-wing thinking in France holds that anti-Semitism in France is an annoyance or an embarrassment while anti-Arab racism is the only real problem. In his 2002 pamphlet, La Nouvelle judéphobie, political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff wrote:
It is simply false to maintain that historically "anti-Arab" or "anti-immigrant racism" has replaced anti-Semitism, the latter having largely faded away.

It is no less false to hold likewise that there has been a displacement from anti-Semitism's modes of denigration, segregation and discrimination onto "anti-Arab racism." That this false vision should be so widely held does not make it true.

The sociological and historical truth is quite other: there has been no succession but rather a coexistence between anti-Maghreban xenophobia — targeting certain categories of immigrants and their children, grand-children, etc. — and judeophobia as an attitude (negative prejudices and stereotypes), ideology (conspiracy theories, etc.) and behavior (violent acts, etc.). Neither of these two forms of heterophobia can be made to come before the other (according to a scale of "seriousness") without bias. From a universalist perspective, which I share and which is indistinguishable from the republican aim in politics, what has to be done is to combat the one and the other, the one as much as the other.
But such a clear declaration of political ideals is not to be found among any of contemporary France's political parties. If any were to commit to such plain language then betraying it later would be considerably more difficult.

This is not simply because the PS currently finds itself in flux or is unable to agree on social policy matters. Gone are the days of missions, manifestoes and party-lines that had to be toed. Political language now seeks to be suitably vague so as to paper over contradictions and permit hypocrisy. The Socialist parties of Britain and France aren't really socialist anymore and, as Cohen says, those parties further to the "left" have suffered a "manic skid to the far right [that] makes the slipperiness of the Liberal Democrats and the willingness of Labour to betray its principles appear modest changes of position in comparison."

Three of the greatest sentences George Orwell ever wrote contain a lesson for polymorphous parties like the PS: "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. "

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