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Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th (photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th
(photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

It is now mid September and the burkini brouhaha, which had France in a state of hysteria the entire month of August, has yet to abate. The story doesn’t end, in large part because it’s about much more than the burkini. The brouhaha over this banal article of clothing is merely the latest installment in the never-ending obsession in France over the visibility of Islam and public display of religious identity by a minority of French Muslims—and with the very real threat of terrorism by Muslims fueling public fear and anxiety, and offering irresistible temptations for demagogic politicians to capitalize on this.

The reaction outside of France as to what’s happening here is also attracting attention, notably the New York Times article of September 2nd that gave voice to hijab-wearing Muslim women in France and Belgium, and that the Times had the excellent idea to translate into French, guaranteeing that it would be widely read in France. And it was, getting under a lot of peoples’ skins in the process, including that of PM Manuel Valls—a warrior for laïcité de combat who wants the burkini banned—who felt compelled to respond to the NYT, penning a piece in Le Huffington Post (September 5th)—translated into English under the title “In France, women are free“—which, in turn, provoked a rejoinder from the NYT but also from Le Monde, which referred to Valls’s “charge bancale” (shaky accusation) against the Times.

Then, last Tuesday, Libération’s Brussels correspondant Jean Quatremer unleashed a diatribe on his Libé blog against the reaction of the “Anglo-Saxons” to the burkini affair, “Burkini, voile: les racines religieuses des leçons de ‘tolérance’ anglo-saxonne,” which was followed on Wednesday morning by France Inter’s political analyst Thomas Legrand, whose daily political editorial was consecrated to the apparent “Anglo-Saxon” incomprehension of French-style laïcité: “Laïcité, la France et les Etats-Unis ne se comprennent pas.” (Oh, how nice it would be if the French could cease talking about “les Anglo-Saxons,” of reflexively throwing the United States and Great Britain—two countries that differ on a myriad of domains—into the same sack, and then seeing them as a repoussoir…).

Now Messrs. Quatremer and Legrand so happen to be among my favorite French journalists and for many years now: Quatremer for his excellent reporting on the European Union, plus other things (e.g. he was one of the first journalists to call out DSK for his unacceptable behavior toward women and denounce the omertà of his colleagues in the media on the matter); Legrand for his brilliant analyses of French politics, with which I am in full agreement 98.5% of the time. I listen to his three-minute “édito politique” every weekday morning at 7:45, and if I’m still in my beauty sleep at that moment, I catch up with it on the France Inter web site. When it comes to analyzing French politics, Legrand is the best. Point barre. These two gentlemen are my heros in French journalism. So understand my dismay in reading/listening to their above mentioned back-to-back commentaries, which were quite simply awful. Legrand’s was the worst I’ve ever heard by him and Quatremer’s was ten times worse than that. It was a disaster. As we are Facebook friends, I informed him on his comments thread last Wednesday that he was “à côté de la plaque,” “[qu’il s’est trompé] de A à Z,” and that I would take apart his piece point by point. We had a good exchange—he didn’t seem ruffled by my bad humor (though some of his FB friends were)—with me promising to respond to him at length on my blog, and him saying he looked forward to that (je lui ai dit que j’allais le faire en français, même si ça me prendrais plus de temps, mais il m’a dit qu’il n’y avait pas de problème si j’écrivais en anglais, donc j’ai mélangé les deux).

So here it is, followed by my critique of Legrand’s editorial. N.B. I write here in a fraternal spirit, as my admiration for these two gentlemen and their journalism is in no way diminished by their commentaries on this one question.

M. Quatremer writes: 

Ne nous y trompons pas : le débat va bien au-delà de la place de la religion musulmane (dans sa version islamiste) en France, les critiques étant tout aussi virulentes à l’égard de la politique française à l’égard des sectes, aucun Anglo-saxon ne comprenant pourquoi l’Église de scientologie, pour ne citer qu’elle, n’est pas reconnue comme une Église comme une autre.

M. Quatremer, you are laboring under some misconceptions here. En effet, ce que vous dites est sans fondement. First, on the Church of Scientology, with which I have been personally familiar since precisely 1973 (as Scientologists used to proselytize in public in my Chicago suburb and, in my adolescent naïveté, I would engage them in conversation): I have never—not once, ever, not a single time in my now long life—heard about an American—let alone met one—who considered the Scientologists to be anything other than a bizarre cult (en français, une secte bizarre). I guarantee you that no American who is not him or herself a Scientologist—or maybe a friend of Tom Cruise or John Travolta—considers this “church” to be a legitimate religion comme les autres. Everyone views it as a cult (une secte). When I tell my American students in Paris—niveau bac+2, en France pour un semestre d’études—about the French campaign against the Scientologists—which I have occasion to do when teaching the subject of laïcité à la française—not one expresses disapproval of the French attitude. And they all think the Scientologists are a weird cult.

So why are the Scientologists considered a religion in the US and with the US government scolding the French and Germans for their anti-Scientology campaigns? There’s a story to this. First, the one organ of the American state that may formally accord the status of a religion to a group claiming this what it is is the Internal Revenue Service (le fisc fédéral). Organized religions (les cultes) in the US have tax-exempt status, which only the IRS can accord. From the founding of the Church of Scientology until 1993, the IRS rejected the Scientologists’ repeated requests for tax-exempt status, insisting—correctly—that this so-called church was in reality a profit-making enterprise. So what the Scientologists—who are not nice people—did was to initiate an underhanded campaign of intimidation against the agents of the IRS who were handling the Scientology dossier. Ils ont lancé une guerre d’usure contre le fisc. And as the Scientologists had a lot of money—with all the Hollywood stars and other rich people they had succeeded in indoctrinating—they could and did intimidate the press and anyone else who stood in their way, via lawsuits and outright personal harassment (and engaging highly-paid lawyers when hit with lawsuits themselves). Pour avoir la paix, the IRS, in 1993, threw in the towel—il a jeté l’éponge—and gave the Scientologists the tax-exemption they had sought (it is also possible—and this is pure speculation on my part—that there may have been some quiet lobbying of the Clinton administration by personalities in the motion picture industry toward this end, with Hollywood having had close ties to both Clinton’s entourage and the Scientologists; for more on all this, see the lengthy 1997 enquête in The New York Times).

The second part of the story is the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which was cooked up by the Republican-controlled Congress of the time, enacted with a veto-proof majority, and signed into law by President Clinton. The Act made the promotion of religious freedom an objective of US foreign policy and, entre autres, obligated the State Department to submit an annual report to Congress on the state of religious freedom in every country in the world. So in conformity with the law, the US embassy in Paris has reported annually to its hierarchical superiors in Washington on the state of religious freedom in France—and noting the status in France of the Church of Scientology, recognized as a religion in the US—which the State Department has dutifully noted in turn in its obligatory report, and with the US government—conforming to the law—expressing its pro forma concerns on the matter to the French government. And with the French government taking the American letter of concern and throwing it in the poubelle—and with no one saying anything more about it.

I guarantee you, M. Quatremer, that no one in Washington or at the embassy in Paris could have cared less about the anti-Scientology lawsuits in France or the French state considering the Scientologists to be a profit-making enterprise and not a religion.

As for “virulent” critiques of France’s policy toward sectes (i.e. cults), from whom? Who has been “virulent” about this? Do you have any examples?

Again, M. Quatremer, I guarantee you that no one in Washington, London, or anywhere else in the “Anglo-Saxon” world, who is not him or herself a member of a secte, cares what happens in France on this score.

En France, les défenseurs du droit des femmes musulmanes intégristes à couvrir leur corps à la plage ou ailleurs

M. Quatremer, serait-il possible d’éviter le mot “intégriste” quand vous parlez de l’islam? Ce terme est polémique et péjoratif, et qui ne veut rien dire en ce qui concerne l’islam. Aucun spécialiste—universitaire ou journalistique—de l’islam ou des musulmans ne le utilise. Et il ne se traduit même pas en anglais (par ex., “intégrisme catholique”—which is the only legitimate use of the term—is called “Catholic traditionalism” in English).

As for Muslim (and other) women having the right to cover their bodies on the beach and elsewhere, well, that is their right, is it not? I mean, France is not only a free country but also a civilized one, which is not going to tell women what clothes they may or may or not wear when they venture out of their homes. Et on ne va certainement pas les obliger à exposer des parties de leur corps sur la plage qu’elles n’ont pas envie d’exposer. N’est-ce pas? One certainly hopes not.

Seriously, this burkini hysteria in France is completely ridiculous. It is an only-in-France affair.

C’est moins le débat sur le burkini ou le voile qui m’intéresse ici que les raisons sous-jacentes aux critiques de la presse anglo-américaine… elle a manifesté là une gigantesque incompréhension de ce qu’est le modèle français

Question: what precisely is this famous “modèle français”? The law of 1905? If this is the model you have in mind, there no “incompréhension” whatever. The 1905 has its specificities but is entirely comprehensible to any “Anglo-Saxon.”

Let us continue:

et les Français qui se sont réjouis de ces critiques n’ont pas mesuré à quel point le modèle britannique et américain est différent du nôtre, un système dont ils ne voudraient par ailleurs à aucun prix : place de la religion, liberté d’expression, relativisme culturel, autant d’éléments qu’il faut prendre en compte si l’on veut comprendre la nature profondément différente du débat en France, en Grande-Bretagne ou aux Etats-Unis.

In point of fact, the American and British “models” of church-state relations differ more from one another than the American does from the French. The United Kingdom has an official church—the Church of England—whereas in the United States of America church and state are separated. As France also separates church and state, the USA and France are on the same side and against the Brits. Les Amérloques sont plus proches aux Frenchies qu’ils ne sont aux Rosbifs… Sérieux!

D’abord, la place qu’occupe la religion dans le monde anglo-saxon est particulière : la laïcité à la française n’y existe tout simplement pas.

Ça c’est vrai. La laïcité à la française ne peut pas exister aux USA ou ailleurs, pour la simple raison qu’elle est française. La laïcité à la française ne peut exister qu’en France, de même que, par ex., la laïcité à la turque (laiklik) ne peut exister qu’en Turquie, et la laïcité à l’américaine (secularism) ne peut exister qu’aux États Unis d’Amérique. Et ainsi de suite. Les relations entre l’État et les cultes sont spécifiques à chaque pays. They are a product of each country’s history and culture.

Certes, l’État est séparé de l’Église, mais en ce sens qu’il est neutre à l’égard des religions, qu’il n’en favorise aucune en particulier. Mais, la religion est partout. Toutes les religions sont autorisées en vertu du premier amendement de 1791 : «le Congrès ne fera aucune loi qui touche l’établissement ou interdise le libre exercice d’une religion».

Religion is indeed more present in the USA, as is the overall level of religiosity in American society. But this is cultural. It has nothing to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the constitution—which you cite—which defines the relationship between religion and the state. Just as Article 1 of the 1905 law—”La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l’intérêt de l’ordre public.”—defines the relationship between the French state and religion, though does not speak to society. That French society may be non-practicing or atheist in its majority or, rather, deeply religious—as was the case for a sizable portion of Frenchmen in 1905—is immaterial in regard to the 1905 law. The 1905 law, as with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US constitution, speaks to law, not to culture. And the Establishment Clause and Article 1 of the 1905 law—the bit about “ordre public” aside—are really very similar.

Depuis 1956, la devise officielle est «in god we trust» et elle figure même sur la monnaie américaine.

This has been deemed constitutional, as it refers to god, who is common to all and not to a specific religion. Those who don’t believe in god may, for good reason, object to this. Quant à moi, en tant qu’athée—et depuis ma petite enfance, n’ayant eu aucune instruction religieuse de mes parents (athée et agnostique)—je m’en fous. La devise “In God we trust” est purement symbolique, sans conséquence aucune. Son inscription sur la monnaie me laisse totalement indifférent, comme pour le plus grand nombre d’athées outre-Atlantique. C’est du folklore américain.

Mieux, le président américain prête dans la quasi-totalité des cas serment sur la Bible (mais c’est une pratique non obligatoire).

This is a French classic, à soulever le fait que les présidents américains prêtent serment sur le Bible (quoique cette pratique, comme vous dites, n’est pas obligatoire). À propos, in 2005 I attended a colloquium in Paris, at the Palais de la Justice, on French and American conceptions of laïcité/secularism, with prominent specialists of church-state relations in the USA present, among them the well-known constitutional law professors Sanford Levinson and Marci Hamilton. During the intermission I had the opportunity to ask these two august scholars about the constitutionality of the president swearing the oath of office on the Bible. They both told me that, in their well-considered view, this did indeed violate the letter of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and certainly did its spirit. Voilà. But so long as a citizen did not file a formal lawsuit against a newly elected president doing this, there would be no jurisprudence on the question.

Résultat, même les sectes les plus extrémistes y ont droit de cité (des Mormons de l’Utah aux Amishs, en passant par les Témoins de Jéhovah, les Scientologues, etc).

What precisely is a “secte” (in English, a cult)? Juridically speaking, the term is not defined, either in France or the US. But whatever the definition of a cult—here’s one: a group calling itself a religion (a) that is small in number, (b) that is led by a guru figure with an all-powerful hold over his faithful, (c) that espouses beliefs that are far removed from the mainstream and are considered bizarre or weird by just about everyone outside the group, (d) in which members disconnect from, or outright sever relations with, persons outside the group, including their families, and (e) where there are severe costs, including threats, against members who wish to leave the group—the Mormon church—a religion with some 15 million mostly prosperous adherents worldwide—is not this (as for the Amish, this is an Anabaptist community dating from the 16th century, so please don’t call it a secte; and likewise for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who’ve been around since the 19th century). And none of these three can be qualified as “extremist,” whatever one means by this.

Vous avez certainement entendu la vieille boutade, qu’une religion est une secte qui a réussi…

On compte aux États-Unis plus de 450.000 églises et ce n’est pas demain la veille qu’un président officiellement athée pourra se faire élire.

450,000 churches in the US, a country of 320 million inhabitants? Is that a lot? In France—whose population is one-fifth of the US’s—the number of religious edifices is around 100,000. On an atheist being elected president of the United States, who knows? Ten years ago who could have imagined that a métis—seen in the USA as black—and with a middle name of Hussein could have possibly been elected president? Pas moi. Things don’t happen until they happen.

De toute façon, je parierai qu’il y aura un président athée ou areligieux aux USA avant que la France laïque n’élise un président de la République d’identité musulmane…

À cela s’ajoute le respect absolu de la liberté d’expression, pendant de la liberté religieuse totale : on peut proférer toutes les opinions même les plus extrémistes, qu’elles soient racistes, antisémites, négationnistes, etc. L’existence officielle du KKK et d’autres groupes suprématistes blancs sont là pour le montrer.

On frise la basse polémique ici. Je ne vois pas le rapport entre le KKK, groupes antisémites etc, et la question de la laïcité. M. Quatremer, vous savez pertinemment que la liberté d’expression aux USA est dans le premier amendment de la constitution et que ses paramètres sont définis par les arrêts de la Cour suprême, pas par le législateur. C’est une particularité du système américain. Ça on le sait.

En outre, la société britannique reste une société de classe strictement hiérarchisée où chacun fait ce qui lui plait dans sa classe sociale tant que l’ordre social n’est pas perturbé.

Voilà une caricature d’une autre époque de la société britannique. Ce cliché était exagéré même il y a deux générations—en fait, il a toujours été exagéré—mais en 2016?… Allons.

By the way, do you believe that class consciousness has been less important in France than in Great Britain? Or that the hierarchies in British society are steeper? Academic studies of the question (e.g. this) have, in fact, shown the opposite, that France is a more hierarchically ordered society than Great Britain. Just saying.

Enfin, outre-Manche, tout comme outre-Atlantique, la liberté d’expression y est quasi absolue, héritage de la rupture avec Rome et ses dogmes. Cette liberté a néanmoins ses limites, des limites marquées au coin de la religion : pendant longtemps, l’homosexualité a été durement réprimée (alors que la polygamie des sectes était admise)

Until very recently homosexuality was repressed everywhere, not just outre-Manche et Atlantique. As for polygamy, this has always been illegal in the United States. In this respect, the state of Utah, which was founded by the Mormons, could not be admitted into the union (which it was in 1896) until the Mormon church formally abolished polygamy.

et, comme dans une banale théocratie, les États américains n’hésitent pas à s’inviter dans le lit de leurs citoyens. Ainsi l’Alabama a interdit, jusqu’en 2014, la fellation et la sodomie, même au sein des couples hétérosexuels, la Virginie interdit de faire l’amour en pleine lumière ou encore le Dakota du Sud impose que les hôtels aient des chambres à lits jumeaux séparés de 60 centimètres si le couple réserve pour une seule nuit. Il est même précisé qu’il est formellement interdit de faire l’amour au sol, entre les deux lits… Les lois et pratiques de la plupart des États américains sur les atteintes à la pudeur n’ont rien à envier aux pays musulmans.

M. Quatremer, the United States of America is a big country—the size of a continent—with a large population and a federal system of government. And there are countless jurisdictions, each of which enacts local ordinances (arrêtés municipaux) on all sorts of things. America is a country and society where one finds everything and its opposite. Aux USA, on a tout et son contraire. In America, if you look for it, you will find it. The laws and ordinances you mention were enacted a long time ago—many in the 19th century—and most have been long forgotten. In any case, none of these silly laws in any way affects the lives of the near totality of the American population.

rappelons le scandale du Nipplegate

Ouf. I’d forgotten about that one. So what’s the point?

Allons un peu plus loin et rappelons à nos amis américains que la ségrégation à l’égard des Noirs, peuple fondateur des États-Unis d’Amérique, n’est pas si lointaine – en considérant même qu’elle ait vraiment cessé — et que les États-Unis n’ont pas hésité, il y a 70 ans à enfermer dans des camps tous les Américano-japonais parce que soupçonnés d’être génétiquement des ennemis…

Vous frisez encore la basse polémique. Je ne vois absolument pas le rapport entre la ségrégation raciale du passé, ou le traitement des Japonais-américains pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, et le sujet de départ de votre article. Où voulez-vous en venir?

Par ailleurs, si on veut parler des méfaits des USA du passé, parlons de ceux de la France aussi, par ex., de son histoire coloniale et les massacres qu’elle a commises—particulièrement en Algérie, le pays d’origine de la majorité des musulmans en France—et, tant qu’on y est, l’implication de l’État français dans la déportation des juifs pendant la guerre… Si on veut parler de l’Histoire, parlons de l’Histoire.

Better yet, let’s just stick to the subject at hand.

Si une femme musulmane française voilée affirme sans rire qu’elle est moins bien traitée qu’un chien alors qu’une autre se demande si on ne va l’obliger à «porter une lune pour être reconnue» (heu, ça n’est justement pas le but du voile ?), que pourraient dire les Afro-américains, eux, qui peuplent les geôles américaines et qui n’ont pas intérêt à avoir affaire à la police blanche s’ils ne veulent pas être abattus…

Encore la basse polémique. What do imprisoned Afro-Americans have to do with the personal opinion of one Muslim woman on the way she feels treated in France? Personally speaking, I do not see the connection.

Enfin, rappelons que ce sont les Anglo-américains qui se sont jetés à corps perdu dans des guerres contre des pays musulmans avec les résultats que l’on voit, ce qui accroît le sentiment d’une guerre entre le monde occidental et le monde musulman. Les leçons de tolérance des Américains sont assez étonnantes à l’heure où le candidat républicain, Donald Trump, veut interdire l’accès du territoire aux Musulmans, ce qui est autrement plus grave que quelques interdictions municipales du burkini. Faut-il aussi rappeler que la ville de New York s’est opposée à la construction d’une mosquée à proximité du mémorial du 11 septembre ? Et on n’a guère entendu les Anglo-saxons lorsque tous les pays d’Europe de l’Est ont refusé d’accueillir des réfugiés parce que musulmans. Mais le burkini, voilà une atteinte intolérable aux droits des femmes musulmanes…

M. Quatremer, l’article du New York Times vous a manifestement mis de mauvaise humeur, as you’re throwing everything at it but the kitchen sink (expression américaine): the Iraq war, the Ground Zero mosque, Donald Trump… Ouf!

Allez, none of these have anything to do with the subject of the NYT article.

And by the way, you are mistaken that the ville de New York opposed the Ground Zero mosque. The mayor of the time, Michael Bloomberg, strongly supported the project, as did the Manhattan borough president and many other local elected officials, plus the current mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Il ne s’agit pas de dire que le modèle français est parfait, ce qui n’est manifestement pas le cas, mais qu’il est différent : la liberté d’expression n’est pas totale (diffamation, lois mémorielles, répression du racisme et de l’antisémitisme)

Freedom of expression—a value that I think we are all deeply attached to—is not total anywhere. E.g. the Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom is far more severe than its equivalent in the US, as are British libel laws. And commercial speech in the US is not protected by the First Amendment. As for lois mémorielles in France, I think these are terrible, as I have written on more than one occasion (if one is interested, see here, here, here, and here).

l’espace public est étroitement réglementé

Qu’est-ce que vous voulez dire par “l’espace public”? La rue? Si oui, vous avez tort, car celle-ci n’est pas étroitement réglementé en France. La France est un pays libre—et heureusement—où les gens peuvent s’habiller en public comme bon leur semble (pourvu qu’ils ne dissimulent pas le visage, bien entendu).

la séparation de l’Église et de l’État est absolue (sauf en Alsace-Moselle)

The Alsace-Moselle exception. Guyane aussi. Ce n’est pas rien. In America, there are no exceptions to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And in France, there are several domains where the church-state separation is not total, e.g. the state subsidizing confessional schools (Loi Debré)—which is impossible in the United States—and paying for the upkeep of places of worship built before 1905 (provided for in the 1905 law). Some ten years ago, when my daughter was in collège (public) we received a letter informing us of the school’s service d’aumônerie (chaplain services). I was astonished to learn this existed in public schools in laïque France, as such is impossible in public schools in the US, laïcité à l’américaine oblige (and with, par ailleurs, public schools in the US educating a higher percentage of school children [90%] than the public system in France).

And then there’s the Bureau Central des Cultes in the Ministry of Interior. There is no such official interlocutor with organized religion at any level of the American state.

Conclusion: les États-Unis d’Amérique sont, à maints égards, plus laïque que la France. Je ne rigole pas.

l’Église catholique ayant été renvoyée dans ses églises avec une violence dont on n’a pas idée aujourd’hui

Vous exagérez. Le conflit entre les deux France autour de la loi de 1905 était âpre mais le sang n’a pas coulé dans les rues. Je ne crois pas qu’il y ait eu mort d’homme.

Même la langue française a un statut incompréhensible pour le reste du monde (c’est la seule langue admise par la Constitution et une Académie veille à sa pureté)

Many countries in the world have an official language and which is inscribed in its constitution. This is incomprehensible to no one.

Bref, invoquer l’exemple de «tolérance» anglo-américain est donc un non-sens puisqu’il ne se découpe pas en tranche et qu’elle est religieuse. Est-ce de ce modèle dont nous voulons ?

I have no idea what you’re talking about here. And believe me, no one is proposing that France exchange its precious “model” for another.

N.B.: Il y a 7,5 % de musulmans en France, le pays occidental qui en compte le plus, 4,6 % en Grande-Bretagne et 0,8 % aux Etats-Unis. Même s’ils sont à prendre avec d’infinies précautions, ces chiffres de 2011 restent intéressants, car ils montrent aussi la spécificité de la France qui accueille forte communauté non chrétienne.

France has the largest Muslim population in the Western world—in both percentage and absolute number—on account of its colonial past. Some 85-90% of Muslims in France have roots in former French colonies. And France’s complex history with its largest Muslim colony—Algeria—explains at least in part its neurotic relationship with Islam and its present Muslim population. But that’s for another discussion.

Moving on to Thomas Legrand’s editorial (if one is still with me…). It begins with a question by Patrick Cohen, followed by M. Legrand’s response:

Vous revenez sur la polémique entre le New York Times et Manuel Valls à propos de la condition réservée en France aux femmes voilées..

Oui, le quotidien new yorkais a donné la parole à des musulmanes, françaises ou vivant en France. Précisons que ce n’est pas une enquête journalistique mais un appel à témoignage. Ces femmes ont des mots très durs, parlent de ségrégation et dépeignent une société française largement hostile. Manuel Valls a réagi à cet énième portrait d’une France raciste. Il estime que ne pas avoir donné la parole à des Françaises musulmanes qui ne portent pas le voile (l’immense majorité) produit une image déformée de notre pays. Il l’a écrit au journal, qui lui a d’ailleurs répondu. Cet échange entre le 1er Ministre et le NYT montre, encore une fois, le mal que nous avons à faire comprendre à l’étranger notre rapport collectif à la religion. L’idée que l’Etat, ou même la société politique, puisse contester à la religion le droit de vouloir édicter des règles de vie sociale est une idée totalement incomprise, singulièrement dans le monde anglo-saxon.

A couple of remarks. First, if Manuel Valls and other Frenchmen who adhere to his conception of laïcité have a hard time being understood by non-French people, maybe it’s because their arguments are not good. Maybe Valls & Co are trying to defend something—the right of the state to interfere in the decisions of women as to what clothes they may or may not wear—that is, in fact, almost impossible to defend before non-Frenchmen.

What M. Legrand says here reminds me of something I read two or three years ago by the conservative American intellectual Walter Russell Mead, who, writing on his visit to Europe (including France), sighed about the difficulty he had in trying to explain to uncomprehending Europeans the attachment of Americans to the Second Amendment of the US constitution (sur les armes à feu) and, as he put it, the preference of the American people for “small government.” My reaction in reading Mead on this was that if his European interlocutors couldn’t comprehend him, maybe it was because what he was arguing was, objectively speaking, incomprehensible to European sensibilities—and, one may add, to those of a very large number of Americans too. No European who is not slightly batty can comprend the unrestricted, over-the-counter sale of semi-automatic rifles and other weapons of war such as exists in large parts of the United States, and of the legal right of people to parade around in public with these, including in schools and stores. Yes, the world-view of the National Rifle Association is indeed a difficult one to explain in Europe (and including in Anglo-Saxon Great Britain, where the consensus view is that Americans are crazy when it comes to firearms).

As for “small government,” if Mead means by this that Americans prefer that the government not organize social insurance schemes such as health insurance and old-age pensions—that this be left up to the private sector and not be obligatory—then, yes, Europeans will not understand this, and rightly so (what Mead suggested about the preferences of Americans also happens not to be true, but that’s another matter).

So back to Manuel Valls and those who support his laïcité de combat, yes, they will indeed have a difficult time explaining to non-Frenchmen that the state should have the right to tell women what clothes they may or may not wear. If you’re trying to sell an objectively shitty product—here, a conception of laïcité that is liberticide and that, in effect, discriminates against believers of one religion in particular—people are not going to buy it.

Second remark. No religion in France is “dictating the rules of social life” to anyone. M. Legrand implicitly essentializes Islam and then implies that it is telling women what to do and wear. But no one has any evidence that Muslim women in France who wear a headscarf or burkini are being ordered to do this, that anyone is telling them to do anything.

The editorial continues:

Manuel Valls est-il le mieux placé pour mener ce débat ?

En France, pourquoi pas, même si l’on peut considérer qu’il est parfois un peu raide sur le sujet, le 1er Ministre, chef de la majorité, est tout indiqué es-qualité pour donner sa définition de la laïcité, en débattre et, le cas échéant, proposer au parlement de préciser, adapter la loi dans l’esprit, du moins, du consensus patiemment établi depuis 1905. Mais ça, les Américains ne le comprennent pas. Ils sont organisés en communautés agrégées (ont la même prétention universaliste que nous) et n’admettent pas que l’Etat se mêle des préceptes d’une religion. Et pour eux, quand le chef du gouvernement se préoccupe des droits (et devoirs) des femmes musulmanes, il empiète forcément sur les libertés d’une communauté et donc sur les droits de l’Homme.

Americans organized in “communautés agrégées”… Voilà, le fameux communautarisme anglo-saxon… This is one of the most hackneyed clichés (clichés éculés) in the French ideological repertoire. It is a French fantasy. A figment of the French imagination. And a tremendous French conceit, as Frenchmen who speak about “communautarisme anglo-saxon”—which is never defined or explained—are implicitly asserting the superiority of the supposedly universal French model over that of the imagined “Anglo-Saxon.”

In fairness to the French, it should be pointed out that French academic specialists of the United States never employ the term “communautarisme”—a neologism devoid of social scientific value—in their work on the US.

Non, M. Legrand, les Américains ne sont pas organisés en “communautés agrégées.” Ils sont tous des citoyens avec les mêmes droits et devoirs. Comme en France.

Continuing

Il est très difficile d’expliquer aux Américains l’individualisme positif des Lumières, le fait que la République française ne reconnaisse qu’une seule communauté, la communauté nationale composée d’individus émancipés. C’est d’autant plus difficile qu’objectivement, tous les Français ne sont pas égaux et que la consonance des noms des citoyens discriminés n’y est pas pour rien. Qu’une religion impose, par une forme d’aliénation qui écrase le libre arbitre, un accoutrement qui cache et soumette la femme, nous choque autant que les Américains sont choqués de voir un 1er Ministre s’occuper de ces questions. Vu d’une grande partie du reste du monde, Manuel Valls est un blanc, chrétien qui veut soumettre des minorités. Je me souviens d’une discussion avec des confrères américains quand Lionel Jospin était 1er ministre. Aucun de mes interlocuteurs ne me croyait quand je leur disais que personne en France n’accordait aucune importance au fait que Lionel Jospin soit protestant et que d’ailleurs quasiment personne ne le savait. En réalité, nous n’en avons pas conscience, mais notre modèle laïc, auquel nous tenons, est une spécificité dans le monde. Il faudra trouver les moyens de le préserver, sans qu’il puisse être perçu, à l’étranger, pour ce qu’il n’est pas : un repli identitaire…

I have much to say about this passage, which has a number of problems, but will limit myself to two comments: First, if, as suggested above, a Frenchman is having difficulty in making an argument about France to educated foreigners—and particularly to those from the Western world—then maybe his argument is flawed. Maybe he needs to rethink his argument. Second, Americans are as open-minded as anyone else, and certainly as much so as Frenchmen. And intellectually speaking, they are also products of l’Âge des Lumières. Educated Americans are not so different from educated Frenchmen or other Europeans. If you explain something to them and do it well—including the story about Lionel Jospin (which I have also done many times to Americans)—they will understand you. Believe me.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire (pour le moment au moins).

UPDATE: In case one missed it, the best analysis that has appeared on the bigger picture of what the burkini hysteria is all about is the tribune by Farhad Khosrokhavar in Le Monde, dated September 9th, “‘Le fondamentalisme laïc fragilise la France des droits de l’homme et de la femme’.”

2nd UPDATE: Financial Times Paris bureau chief Anne-Sylvaine Chassany has a good article, dated September 15th, “France: Islam and the secular state.” The lede: “The burkini bans have exposed historic tensions that are dividing Muslims and threatening French unity.”

3rd UPDATE: France Culture’s Sylvain Bourmeau had an absolutely excellent, must-listen half-hour discussion, September 24th, with sociologist Fabrice Dhume-Sonzogni, entitled “Le communautarisme, cette chimère toxique,” on France Culture’s ‘La suite dans les idées’ program he produces. The lede: “Au terme d’une longue enquête, le sociologue Fabrice Dhume montre comment le mot épouvantail ‘communautarisme’ n’est précisément que cela: un épouvantail planté au milieu de notre espace public.” This is the first time I have ever heard such an argument in France on the bogus notion of “communautarisme” and with Dhume-Sonzogni saying almost exactly what I have since the neologism took off in French public discourse in the 1990s. Listen to it here.

The occasion of the France Culture interview was the publication of Dhume-Sonzogni’s latest book, Communautarisme: Enquête sur une chimère du nationalisme français, prefaced by Eric Fassin. It is certainly a must-read.

See also Dhume-Sonzogni’s article, “L’émergence d’une figure obsessionnelle: comment le «communautarisme» a envahi les discours médiatico-politiques français,” on the academic TERRA-HN website (July 2013) and blogger Ossman Zamime’s post, “Vous avez dit ‘communautarisme’?,” in Mediapart (March 6, 2016).

An update to this update (October 31st): Philippe Blanchet, who teaches sociolinguistics at Université Rennes 2 and is a member of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, has an excellent review, on his Mediapart blog, of Dhume-Sonzogni’s book, “‘Communautarisme’: attention aux retours de manivelle!”

4th UPDATE: Journalist Aude Lorriaux has a first-rate enquête (September 30th) in Slate.fr, entitled “Les femmes musulmanes sont-elles forcées à porter le voile, comme on l’entend dire?” The lede: “De nombreux hommes politiques affirment ou suggèrent que la plupart des femmes voilées subissent des pressions et sont contraintes de porter le foulard, comme Manuel Valls, dans un tribune intitulée «En France, les femmes sont libres». Notre enquête démontre que ces faits sont très minoritaires.” The article is long but well worth the read.

5th UPDATE: Another enquête, this one in L’Obs (October 6th), by David Le Bailly et Caroline Michel, “Burkini, histoire d’une manipulation.” The lede: “Au cœur du mois d’août, l’interdiction sur certaines plages du maillot de bain intégral islamique a provoqué une controverse qui a frôlé l’hystérie. Qui a sciemment alimenté la polémique? Quel rôle a joué l’entourage de Nicolas Sarkozy? Révélations.”

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

The SIG MCX, a.k.a. the “Black Mamba.” That’s the assault weapon Omar Mateen used to commit his massacre. And which he, of course, purchased legally. Over the counter. As just about any person may in the state of Florida, as in much of the United States, even if he is a hate-spewing psychopath—as Mateen manifestly was—and/or has expressed an affinity with radical Islamist groups. To see what this rifle is about, watch the videos here. Anyone who can defend the freedom to acquire such weapons over the counter is not one with whom I can have any sort of dialogue. Repeating for the umpteenth time, what happened in Orlando is a uniquely American tragedy. Israeli journalist Anshei Pfeffer argued as much in the JDF, observing that though there are similarities between Islamic State-inspired or organized terrorist attacks in the US and those in Europe, these similarities end when it comes to the availability of weapons of war to civilians, which, he asserted

is inconceivable to outsiders. Not just the ease with which a “civilian version” of a military assault rifle can be bought over the counter, but the possibility of loading it with customized magazines holding 100 bullets, more than three times the number even armies use. The potential for bloodshed by one isolated and individual attacker is so much greater.

This availability of weapons enables isolated American Muslims with anger management problems—the Muslim population in America otherwise being well-to-do and thoroughly integrated—to express their rage in freelance bloodbaths such as the one yesterday in Orlando, whereas such is much more difficult in Europe, where Muslim populations contain larger numbers of extremists but who necessitate mobilization into cells of transnational terrorist organizations in order to commit mayhem, as in Paris and Brussels. If the US had stricter gun legislation, it would face no domestic jihadist terrorist threat.

On “lone wolf” terrorists, see Isaac Chotiner’s must-read interview in Slate with political scientist Jeffrey D. Simon, author of the 2013 book Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat.

Academic blogger Juan Cole has an instant analysis, “Omar Mateen and rightwing homophobia: Hate crime or domestic terrorism?” See also sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer’s blog post, “Orlando massacre: ISIS inspired or homophobic attack?”

France 24 reporter-blogger and friend Leela Jacinto, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan over the years, has been looking into the curious case of the Orlando shooter’s father, Seddique Mateen, “Sins of the father do not apply to the Orlando nightclub attacker.” Money quote

By all accounts Mateen Senior is bombastic, delusional, prolix and probably dyslexic. In some crazy phase of his prolific, self-made media career, he proclaimed himself president of Afghanistan. That’s how batty he is.

But like many parents of kids who have jumped on the Daesh/Islamic State (IS) group killing train, he has never advocated killing people who disagree with him.

This is consistent with the generational break we are witnessing between immigrant parents who have left their native lands and their children who have a limited, at best, grasp of their parents’ countries of birth.

Leela quotes Barnett Rubin of Columbia University, the world’s leading political science authority on Afghanistan, who has also been on the Omar Mateen père story

As Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan, tweeted, “Orlando shooter’s dad Seddique Mateen doesn’t support Taliban or anything but himself. No wonder his son was unstable. Look at his FB page.”

After examining what he deliciously called Mateen’s “logorrhean FB page,” Rubin not surprisingly concludes, “He is a nut”.

Not nearly as much as his son, alas.

As for the fallout on the US presidential campaign, there will be none, except perhaps to reinforce Hillary and make the specter of Trump in the White House that much more alarming. If terrorism becomes an issue in the fall campaign, Hillary can only benefit. More on this another time.

UPDATE: See the powerful “Reflections on Orlando” by New York LGBT blogger Michael Bouldin.

2nd UPDATE: On the matter of guns, Huff Post foreign affairs reporter Jessica Schulberg has a piece explaining “what happened when a terrorist attacked LGBT people in a country with strict gun laws.” The country in question is Israel. The lede: “There’s no right to bear arms in Israel, and the death count in recent terror attacks is much lower than in terror-inspired U.S. mass murders.” Right-wing Americans who adhere the NRA (and AIPAC) viewpoint are invited to read this and, if they care to do so, respond to it.

3rd UPDATE: Watch Vox’s extraordinary seven-minute video, “America’s gun problem, explained.”

4th UPDATE: WaPo reporters Kevin Sullivan and William Wan have a must-read portrait (June 17th) of Omar Mateen, “Troubled. Quiet. Macho. Angry. The volatile life of the Orlando shooter.” It wasn’t sympathy for the Islamic State which drove him to commit mass murder, that’s for sure.

Also see the report (June 18th) by TDB’s Shane Harris, Brandy Zadrozny, and Katie Zavadski, “The unhinged home that raised Orlando killer Omar Mateen.” Talk about a dysfunctional family, and for whom religion was clearly not central.

5th UPDATE: Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, in an Orlando-related piece (June 22nd), “The Islamization of radicalism,” interviews Olivier Roy “on the misunderstood connection between terror and religion.”

New York Daily News_June 13 2016

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Muhammad Ali, R.I.P.

When We Were Kings

My social media timeline was covered with tributes when he died a week ago. I didn’t put up anything myself, as I was off the blog for two weeks and with limited Internet access—on a voyage that I will write about soon—but also as I didn’t have anything of interest to say about him. But as today is his funeral, and with a part of America honoring his memory, I will add my 1¢ here, namely to say that he was one of those public personalities whom I knew, as it were, for most of my life, notwithstanding my zero interest in boxing. Muhammad Ali was a character whom one found amusing and interesting, not least for his political views, such as expressed here and here in regard to the Vietnam war. And his Chicago mansion—on the 4900 block of S.Woodlawn—being in my neighborhood in the 1980s, I would make a point to show it to visiting out-of-town friends (though Muhammad Ali didn’t actually spend much time there; pour l’info, Barack & Michelle Obama’s Chicago home—where they no longer spend much time either—is nearby, on the 5000 block of S.Greenwood). And he was certainly one of the better known Americans abroad, at least in Muslim countries in the 1960s and ’70s; I have memories of his name coming up with people when I lived in Turkey back then. And then there was the Rumble in the Jungle, which was the subject of the excellent documentary, When We Were Kings (see here and here). I think I’ll watch it again.

Slate has passages of “The best stories ever written about Muhammad Ali.” The full text of Murray Kempton’s is here.

UPDATE: President Obama has an exceptional tribute to Muhammad Ali, posted on the White House website. Watch Valerie Jarrett read it at the funeral here.

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Yale, Mizzou, and free speech

safe-space-campus-protest-r

[update below] [2nd update below]

I’ve been following the brouhahas at Yale and the U. of Missouri like most others who have some link to US academia and, like other right-thinking people, was appalled by the behavior of the students—and, at Mizzou, members of the faculty—who sought to thwart the free speech rights of others and/or acted in an unacceptable manner. As I had lengthy exchanges on the subject yesterday on social media—with most of the participating (left-of-center) friends agreeing with me—I will not repeat them here. But I do want to link to some of the better analyses and commentaries I’ve come across, which have (naturally) buttressed my position.

On the Yale incident, this was the video—of the student screaming at the professor about ‘safe spaces’—that teed me off. Whatever the grievance, it is totally, utterly unacceptable for a student to address a professor or campus administrator in this manner. Period.

These are good, informative commentaries:

Yale’s big fight over sensitivity and free speech, explained,” in Vox.

James Kirchick in Tablet, “Growing up at Yale: A recent controversy over potentially offensive Halloween costumes at the Ivy League campus makes me ask: Where are the adults?”

Mark Oppenheimer in Tablet, “Person up, Yale students: The problem with the protests isn’t that they’re radical, but that they’re not radical enough.”

Daniel Drezner in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog, “A clash between administrators and students at Yale went viral. Why that is unfortunate for all concerned.”

On the University of Missouri business, the first piece I saw—and which got me all worked up (watch the video)—was by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, “Campus activists weaponize ‘safe space’: A journalist at the University of Missouri is mobbed by a crowd insisting he is the aggressor.” And then there’s this one in the NYT.

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait had a spot on riposte, “Can we start taking political correctness seriously now?”

More than one friend posted on social media a response to Chait by Salon’s Amanda Marcotte, “Quit with the ‘PC’ hysteria: College kids are not trying to steal your freedom of speech.” Marcotte is a good analyst of US partisan politics—I tweet her often—but she’s way off base on this one.

Todd Gitlin, writing in Quartz, explained why “Mizzou protesters are safer with a free press than without one.”

If one didn’t see it, the communications “professor at [the] center of [the] Missouri university protest video“—who actively tried to block student photographer/journalist Tim Tai from doing his job—has offered her “sincere apologies” for her behavior. Of course she did. As an assistant professor who likely does not have tenure, profusely apologizing was sort of the obvious thing for her to do.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an important commentary by Bruce Joshua Miller and Ned Stuckey-French, which provides critical context for understanding what happened at Mizzou: “In Missouri, the downfall of a business-minded president.” In short, private sector operators—who know nothing about higher education—took control of a public university, and were backed by a political party whose name need not be mentioned. And Mizzou is hardly alone here. Whatever the transgressions of college students and a few professors, the takeover of universities by MBAs and their world-view is the real problem in American higher education today.

UPDATE: TDB reporter Emily Shire has a must-read piece, “Inside Yale’s ‘whites-only’ panic.” The lede: “A professor is screamed at by a student, while claim and counterclaim surround an alleged ‘white girls only’ party—what has led the Ivy League university to the race precipice?” I have, in fact, been skeptical of the veracity of the accounts—all unsubstantiated so far—of black students being turned away from supposedly “whites only” fraternity/sorority parties, and other alleged incidents of racism on campus. Not that overt racism doesn’t exist among college students—e.g. the University of Oklahoma incident earlier this year—but its frequency is no doubt overblown. This reminds me of the racial/identity politics at my liberal arts college in the 1970s, where black students could and did make accusations of racism toward the institution—which were bullshit—and never be frontally challenged (no one dared). Honestly, there was a lot of crap uttered by militant black students back then—who were coddled and indulged by the college in all sorts of ways (and given an uncritical free pass by bleeding heart leftist whites). And there was social pressure from black students on fellow black students who had white friends not to continue with those friendships (I knew this for a fact). There was pressure for conformity and to fall into line (Emily Shire in her article mentions one such incident at Yale). It was likewise with the radical feminists and gays (some of them). My detestation of identity politics—which I’ve never considered to be a marker of leftism—dates from this period.

2nd UPDATE: Vox’s Max Fisher has an equally must-read post, based on his personal experience from a decade ago, “When the campus PC police are conservative: why media ignored the free speech meltdown at William & Mary.” Comment: If the general climate on university campuses suddenly became as right-wing as it is left today—with, e.g., College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom the center of ideological gravity, and with the faculty correspondingly conservative—there would no doubt be even greater intolerance toward deviating (here, leftist) political views.

U. of Missouri Communications prof Melissa Click, November 9th

U. of Missouri Communications prof Melissa Click, November 9th

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America’s immigrants

Algerian man, Ellis Island, circa 1907 (photo: Augustus Sherman)

Algerian man, Ellis Island, circa 1907 (photo: Augustus Sherman)

WaPo’s Wonkblog has a great post, dated October 24th, on “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island,” with amazing photos taken between 1892 and 1907 by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman, who worked as the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island. Check it out. I’d be curious to know what happened to the immigrants one sees in Sherman’s photos and their successive generations (and particularly the Algerian, who was possibly the first immigrant from that land to set foot in America). A great country America is, to have absorbed, and then integrated/assimilated, so many people from so many cultures—and which, pace Donald Trump and others in his party, continues apace today.

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Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana (photo credit: Lori Waselchuk & TMN)

Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana (photo credit: Lori Waselchuk & TMN)

This is the title of the excellent, first-rate, must-read lead article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the October 2015 issue of The Atlantic. The lede: “American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they’ve failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report ‘The Negro Family’ tragically helped create this system, it’s time to reclaim his original intent.” Coates emphasizes that “this system”—of mass incarceration of Afro-Americans—has been a bipartisan endeavor, with liberal Democratic politicians every bit as culpable as their Republican counterparts (entre autres, in the unlikely event that Martin O’Malley is the Democratic party presidential nominee next year, I will have a tough time supporting him; and if Joe Biden enters the race—and one hopes he will—he will have some explaining to do and profuse mea culpas to issue).

Coates’s article is the most important I’ve read on the general subject in a long time. It’s lengthy—some 19,000 words—but should be read off the screen and not printed out, in view of the embedded footnotes and videos. It is thankfully divided into chapters (nine), to facilitate the task for those who won’t get through it in one shot.

Coates ends his piece with a link to his lengthy 2014 essay on reparations, which I have yet to read. I will in the coming days sans faute.

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My People, Black & White

(Illustration by Michael Hogue)

(Illustration by Michael Hogue)

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in New Orleans, I’m linking to the cover article of the September-October issue of The American Conservative, “My People, Black & White: How I came to see my country through African-American eyes,” by TAC senior editor Rod Dreher. The subject of Dreher’s article is his collaboration with actor Wendell Pierce—best known for his role as Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire—in the writing of Pierce’s memoir, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, which will be published on September 8th by Penguin. Pierce, who was born and raised in middle class black New Orleans, sought out Dreher’s collaboration after having read the latter’s 2013 memoir of growing up in a small town north of Baton Rouge. The collaboration seemed unlikely but as they were both native Louisianans—with cultural commonalities spanning the racial divide—and of the same generation—both born in the mid 1960s—it worked.

I thought this was a very interesting article. Dreher thus writes

The centerpiece of [Pierce’s] book would be the unparalleled devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon the city in 2005 and how that catastrophe galvanized him to help rebuild his hometown. Wendell starred in a nationally celebrated production of “Waiting for Godot,” staged in the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhood. In his book, he wanted to write about the power of art to move and to heal a people.

All of that sounded great to me and was something I confidently thought I could help with. There was a part of it that made me feel extremely uncomfortable, however: racism.

I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.

My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.

It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence. (…)

And further down

With the digital recorder running, Wendell reminisced at length about growing up in Pontchartrain Park in the 1960s. He talked about the sports leagues, the church fairs, the adventures he and his pals had on the golf course. “Every home had a mother and a father in it, and you knew that everybody’s mother and father was like your own,” he said.

It was a close-knit community that inculcated a culture of hard work and perseverance. Pontchartrain Park became an incubator of the rising black middle class in New Orleans. Ernest Morial, who in 1978 would become the city’s first black mayor, lived in the neighborhood and raised his kids there—including son Marc, who would also be a New Orleans mayor. Lisa Jackson, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, grew up in Pontchartrain Park, as did jazz legend Terence Blanchard.

Pontchartrain Park may have been founded as a way for the white power structure to bleed off black restlessness, said Wendell, but it became a haven for African-Americans in a heartless Jim Crow world. Inside the neighborhood, black children found peace, order, and love, which fortified them to meet racial hostility and other obstacles with resilient determination. Wendell cited the judgment of Herman Plunkett, a longtime resident of Pontchartrain Park: “It came out of something ugly, but it turned out to be something beautiful.” And it was this beautiful community—the one that had nurtured him but had been wiped out by Katrina—that the actor was determined to restore.

On the long drive back to the hills, I thought about how I had never heard of Pontchartrain Park, indeed how none of us outside the city ever heard about its black middle class. When race is in the news, it’s almost always about poor black people and their problems. African-Americans who live middle-class lives are all but invisible to many in white America.

Just as many of us who came up outside of New Orleans had our opinions formed largely by media reports of its violence, the history of the city’s black middle class was hidden by its simple success. People who go to work day in and day out, coach softball in their neighborhoods, and raise their kids without drama never make the news. (…)

Dreher’s writing about having known nothing of New Orleans’ black middle class neighborhoods brought back a memory of mine. In 1987, when I was living in Chicago, four friends from the east coast came to town—precisely over Memorial Day weekend—for the wedding of a couple with whom we were all friends. As it was the first time in Chicago for all four, I took them on a driving tour of the city. Showing them the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, I then headed south, to the black neighborhoods of South Shore and Avalon Park, just to show my friends black middle class Chicago, where people live in single family homes (that they own), mow their lawns, maintain their property, etc. (pour l’info, this is the part of town Michelle Obama is from). My friends—all well-educated liberals—were surprised by what they saw. One called it an “eye-opener”: like Rod Dreher, she had no idea. Like almost all white people—and across the political spectrum—my friends’ image of black neighborhoods was the ghetto, of slums and housing projects where one risked physical aggression, if not violent death, if ventured into. As white people never see black neighborhoods unless they make a wrong turn in the car, their stereotypical images are not surprising. (It’s likewise in France with the cités in the banlieues, BTW).

Reassuring his ideological kindred spirits, Dreher offers this

I did not become a liberal Democrat from this experience. In fact, conservatives who read the book—The Wind in the Reeds—may be astonished by how culturally conservative the Pierce and Edwards family ethic is. The well-ordered Pontchartrain Park world Wendell grew up in, and is trying today to re-create, is one that nearly every social conservative longs for. Few will read of the religious devotion and the fierce patriotism of the actor’s clan without shedding tears. (…)

I’d be curious to know if TAC founder Patrick Buchanan’s views on race have evolved, as he was an ardent defender of apartheid South Africa and whose attitudes toward blacks were comparable to his well-known ones toward Jews. People’s world-views can change, even late in life.

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