[update below] [2nd update below]
That’s the title of Roger Cohen’s column in today’s NY Times, which has put me in a bad mood. One of the unfortunate fallouts of the DSK affair is that it has given the umpteenth life to a number of stupid clichés and stereotypes that the French and Americans have about one another (like the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, where Jason just won’t die). All sorts of rubbish is being recounted in France these days about America and vice-versa. Definitely vice-versa. Cohen was the NYT’s Paris correspondent in the mid-late ’90s, so presumably knows this country well enough—though I was so unimpressed with his reporting and commentary at the time that I would pronounce his name à la française minus the h and e. But then he got better—after leaving France—notably on the Middle East (even though I don’t always share his take). We’ve even had a few friendly email exchanges (and I can proudly say that at my instigation Cohen did a number on Dominque de Villepin in the NYT in late ’05).
But now he’s back to his bad old ways. In today’s column he focuses on the supposed French penchant for conspiracy theorizing and that has come to the fore in the DSK affair. To demonstrate this penchant Cohen kicks off the column with the anecdote of the French radio interviewer asking him for “proof” of Osama Bin Laden’s death and then offers this one
I was put in mind of an unpleasant Paris dinner when a France Télécom manager with international experience began to expound on the theory — more than plausible to his mind — that Jews had not turned up to work at the twin towers on 9/11 because Israel and the Mossad were behind the planes-turned-missiles that turned lower Manhattan into an inferno.
The apparent French fondness for complotisme, we learn, has something to do with the “French deference to power” (which is indeed the case, as is the French defiance of power). In this vein, Cohen opines that “[t]he freer a society the less inclined it is to conspiracy theories, while the greater its culture of dependency the more it will tend to see hidden hands at work everywhere.” As the French tend to see hidden hands at work—that’s the point of his column—we are therefore to understand that France may not in fact be such a free society, or is in any case less free than America (and presumably the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world).
Okay, let’s try to unpack this. First, the suggestion that French society might be less free than American: unless one defines freedom in a libertarian sense, of freedom and centralized welfare states (“big government” in American parlance) being inversely correlated—a notion I categorically reject—, no serious person and/or one who knows both countries would make this assertion. When it comes to civil liberties, the rule of law, and the general functioning of democracy, I am quite sure that not even Cohen would argue that France is less free than America. In some respects, it might even be more so. American First Amendment liberties are defended with equal vigor in France (France admittedly does not have a Second Amendment, but that’s not a liberty in my book; voilà une triste exception américaine).
On his radio interviewer, there are many fools in the French media and who ask inane, ill-informed questions of interviewees. Just as there are many in the American media (I have my favorite anecdotes on this, si vous voulez). As for his France Télécom manager friend, I wonder if the latter wasn’t speaking in the second degré—ironically, tongue-in-cheek—and Cohen just didn’t pick up on it. If not, the manager was definitely an outlier in his socio-economic class. Crackpot 9/11 conspiracy theories had currency only on the extremes of the political spectrum and in certain ethno-confessional groups. À propos, Thierry Meyssan’s infamous best-seller was universally ridiculed in the media and polite society. The mainstream indignation against Meyssan’s screed was such that two well-known journalists wrote a book refuting it point by point (and which was put out by a major left-leaning publishing house to boot) (the effort was laudable but they were wasting their time in my mind, as persons given over to such conspiracy theorizing are not going be swayed by rational argumentation and/or won’t ever come across or bother reading such “mainstream” books).
As for the reasons Meyssan’s book was a best-seller in France, I had a theory on this: in addition to the usual conspiracy theory aficionados, I am quite sure that the book sold like hotcakes in France’s sizable North African/Muslim communities. I have no data to back this up and saw not a single article suggesting a link, but I know these communities very well—intimately well: as I have been studying them since the 1980s and they include many of my friends, in-laws, and associates here—, so I know of what I speak. They’re France’s Arabs (and Berbers): and as we know—sorry for being un-PC here but I am absolutely serious—Arabs (and Berbers) are given over to conspiracy theorizing in huge numbers—in their large majority—and which includes otherwise brilliant holders of Ph.D.s (I’ve heard the craziest conspiracy theories from Maghrebi academic friends and for decades, that one would never get from their European or North American counterparts; voilà the subject of a future blog post).
On the conspiracy theorizing in regard to the DSK affair, this was the initial reflex of many Frenchmen who were in a state of shock—or in a state of cognitive dissonance—over his arrest and alleged crime. The phenomenon—of the conspiracy theories—has been analyzed and debated over the past two weeks. And now two weeks later, a lot of it has abated. On France 2’s ‘Mots croisés‘ last night, which was entirely given over to DSK—what else?—, there was no talk of conspiracies or plots. The focus was on sexual harassment, the proper role of the media in covering the private lives of politicians, when the private becomes public, and other such questions de société. When the dust settles on this, the percentage of Frenchmen who will cling to DSK conspiracy theories will no doubt be roughly equal to those Americans who believe in similar crazy theories (e.g. Obama “birthers”).
On DSK and his champions in the French media—which has put certain American commentators in a state—if one were conspiracy theory-minded there is in fact an interesting pattern. Take a close look at the Gang of Six champions of Mr. Strauss-Kahn (most of whom have been laying low of late, BTW, or apologizing profusely for conneries they uttered during the first days of the affair): Bernard-Henri Lévy, Robert Badinter, Jack Lang, Jean-François Kahn, Jean Daniel (né Bensaïd), and Ivan Levaï (one may also add Alain Finkielkraut, though he’s been better on DSK than he was on Roman Polanski). Notice the pattern, Mr. Cohen? Something they all have in common? Hint: all “members of a tribe” defending one of their own? (wink, wink) ;-)
I’m being facetious here, bien entendu. If there were emoticons for irony or eye-rolling, I’d put them in. But what is noteworthy is that absolutely no one in France—no one mainstream, in any case—has gone down this road. And I have heard or overheard nothing on it. If one is into conspiracy theories, this is the oldest in the book. And with a miserable recent history in France. There have no doubt been DSK conspiracy theories in the darker precincts of the Internet—places I don’t go, except by accident—that take up this theme, but no one else has. To conclude: the French are not into conspiracy theories any more than are Americans or any other people of an advanced, mature democracy. I repeat: they are not. Period.
UPDATE: Art Goldhammer at French Politics is also peeved at Cohen and his column.
2nd UPDATE: Maureen Dowd, in Paris, sums up the current climate.
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