What’s so troubling about the crisis in France is not that Paris is burning. We know that France will continue to exist in one form or another. Its persistence, if only in capitulation to anarchic currents, is as reliable as man’s fallibility. In that spirit, the French are very much Western civilization’s Achilles’ heel; it’s easy to jest at their shortcomings, but we worry that what befalls them will come around to the rest of us. At the moment, France is a frontier nation in our poorly understood (perhaps even poorly conceived) War on Terror, a denomination typically reserved for (at the very least) eastern European nations. The trouble is that it’s been that way for longer than most think.
During a November more than two centuries ago in England, Dr. Richard Price spoke before the Revolution Society (a group of Protestant dissenters and Anglican Whigs), and praised the then-ongoing French Revolution as a parallel to the bloodless Revolution of 1688, which forced the abdication of King James II. Dr. Price was inspired by France’s rejection of the central Church, and so urged his congregation to embrace their differing opinions, their “multiple cultures,” if you will, and each pursue their own way. Unity, he felt, was available in disunity.
It wasn’t long before the great parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, cleared his throat. Burke had been keeping to himself his disdain for the French Revolution, that is, until he saw its troubling undercurrents in Price’s speech. Appalled, he responded in one of his most famous essays, his Reflections on the Revolution in France. In it he argues that the “very extraordinary miscellaneous” sermon was a “sort of porridge of various political opinions and reflections,” with the French Revolution as the “grand ingredient in the cauldron”:
This pulpit style had to me the air of novelty, and of a novelty not wholly without danger….If the noble Seekers should find nothing to satisfy their pious fancies in the old staple of the national Church, or in all the rich variety in the well-assorted warehouses of the Dissenting congregations, Dr. Price advises them to improve upon Non-Conformity, and to set up, each of them, a separate meeting-house upon his own particular principles.
Such high-minded rhetoric was “of a curious character,” particularly as Price spoke not “for the propagation of his own opinions, but of any opinions.” Pitching such a big tent was untenable; supporting let alone nurturing radicalism was a cornerstone of chaos. The French masses were already demanding popular rule without regard for a moderated consensus. Feeling that the Church had brokered their poverty (crooked churchmen had, though not the Church), they championed secularism as the middle ground. By demonizing theology, France would be open to all positions, effecting the great French cultural openness that required only that you be French first, and whatever else later.
That was the 18th century; it is now the 21st, and France still provides us with excellent cuisine particularly for thought. The culture now cleansed of its ministerial proclivities is wondering what to do with the failed effort to Frankify Islam. The Muslims in Ile-de-France were doing just as Burke accused Price of suggesting they do, setting up, “each of them, a separate meeting-house upon his own particular principles.” Who was Jacques Chirac, or the rest of society, to object when France was hoping to avoid the clash of civilizations by way of appeasement? Was not Ile-de-France sufficientialy French?
NOW THEIR PROBLEM is our problem. As James Fitzjames Stephen wrote, the best possible outcome doesn’t always win out when faced with a worse one, no matter how truthful or morally superior. Despite the starry-eyed Enlightenment claim that when two beliefs battle, the correct one ultimately prevails, it is now apparent it is the most vociferous, bloody, and active faith that commands the greatest obedience. If that faith happens to support hateful divisiveness, then France has some explaining to do on why it could not offer a stronger case for peaceful all-inclusiveness. Of course, we already know. It’s hard to be rabidly in favor of vacuity, even if couched in a Frenchman’s identity. French universalism, it seems, has its limits.
Though not nearly as violent, early Christians enjoyed their success in rapidly converting Europe on account of European indifference to the status quo. (Other forces, it can be argued, were at work as well.) Henry VIII didn’t find his resistance in the clergy when converting England’s Catholic Church into an Anglican one, but rather in the fastidiousness of St. Thomas More and the zeal he stood for. Though Islam may convey mixed messages, there’s a clarity it can offer Northern Africans that French culture cannot, particularly when the latter urges the removal of headscarves for the sake of keeping the peace. Muslims wonder: How does that bring Heaven to Earth?
There’s no choice left but to cultivate resentment in a community, say, a part of town inhabited exclusively by one group. Make it difficult, or even unattractive, for the central authority to meddle. And when they’ve noticed that they no longer run their own city, declare the community leaders legitimate authorities. Under what banner could Chirac proffer criticism? Isn’t he supposed to be all-inclusive?
Given these basic incongruities, the press is doing their best to pinpoint the problem as something that can be solved. A Reuter’s story quotes Villepin’s promise to promote “measures to help young people in poor suburbs find jobs and to improve educational opportunities but opposition parties have said the government has not done enough…” Judging by how the French government is dealing with it, this uprising is because youths are bored in unemployment and confused about the proper use of a Renault. Oh, and they’re Muslim or something. Anyway, poverty must be alleviated!
Perhaps it’s not a question of the War on Terror. Conservatives might be overreacting to put it in such terms, to arrive at the conclusion that any altercation between a Western power and Islam is the occasion for war songs. It just suggests that what may be necessary is perhaps a stricter definition of what it means to be French:
There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-informed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.
So must the rioters learn to be more French. Of course, given the obstinacy of the rioters, their implacability, their unwillingness to examine logic, maybe they actually do have the right idea.
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