by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2022 Paul Ben-Itzak
“L’idéal, c’est quand on peut mourir pour ses idées, la politique, c’est quand on peut en vivre.” (The ideal is when one can die for one’s ideas. Politics is when one can live on them.)
— Charles Péguy, cited on the frontispiece of Michel Ragon’s “La mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished)
SAINT-CYPRIEN (Dordogne), France — Launched into this cruel, crazy, beautiful world four months after the inauguration of President Kennedy, I inherited the belief that politics exists to help us aspire to the best in ourselves, society, the immediate world around us and the larger planet and spiritual universe. My parents Eva Wise, Edward Winer, and Linda Ramey raised me and my younger brothers Aaron and Jordan with the kind of righteous values that inspired Aaron and I to decide to mouth the words of the daily Pledge of Allegiance we had to recite in school when it came to ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ because in the mid-’60s, we were not there yet and, thanks to our parents, Aaron and I knew this. My second-grade principal John Cash reinforced this when his idea to teach the upper-grade students in our little red school-house in rural Northern California in 1968 about racism by keeping all the students with brown eyes after school one day and all the students with blue eyes the next provoked a midnight visit from the hunter-fathers of some of the kids who told him, at gunpoint, to get out of town; he got. Back in San Francisco, Ruth Asawa, a survivor of the Japanese-American concentration camps, had transformed her own direct experience with racial intolerance into a conviction in the importance of art education, directing us in creating a school-yard mosaic for Alvarado Elementary School (the Alvarado Arts Project would eventually evolve into the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts) which is still there (I made the school-bus).
By sixth grade, the Pledge of Allegiance had been supplanted by Woody Guthrie’s people’s national anthem “This Land is Your Land,” with which Ernie Baumgarten, Louise Stovall, and the five other teachers who founded Rooftop School in 1972 (on top of a public school in San Francisco’s richest district; we took the bus through one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods) had us open our day. In eighth grade — 1974-75 — it was Gertrude Mays who, to teach us both about racism and our troubled justice system, took us on a field trip to the Marin County Courthouse to witness the trial of the San-Quentin Six (of whose defense committee Gertrude, as she insisted we address her, was the secretary), Black men charged with committing various crimes during the prison escape attempt in which George “Soledad Brother” Jackson was killed. I remember the metal detectors, Willie Spain’s corn-rowed hair, and Spain and his five co-defendants shuffling into the courtroom in hand and ankle shackles. (One of the convictions would later be overturned because of the prejudice this instilled in the jurors.)
In high school, Chuck Stewart and Connie Flannery taught us history through Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man” (and by taking us to see the Dustin Hoffman vehicle made after the book in a seedy downtown San Francisco theater), economics through Vance Packard’s books on planned obsolescence, and ecology through E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful.” In senior year, the most important lesson civics teacher John Franklin imbued us with had nothing to do with the books he had us read but came from his outlook — John always seemed amused, the twinkle in his eyes reflecting back to us what he saw in ours — and his attitude, that of a Holocaust survivor who believed in the statute of limitations, even for his persecutors. Finally there was our conservatory director Lewis Campbell, who also, through the plays he had us perform — “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Trojan Women,” “Waiting for Lefty,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Brecht on Brecht,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “The Zoo Story,” “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” “Spreading the News,” even “Godspell” taught us both about the toxins of racism, intolerance, injustice, and war, and the redemptive power of literature to act as a salve and maybe — maybe — an exit door leading us back to the Elysian Fields.
It was also in high school where, as the first student delegate to the San Francisco Board of Education to serve a year term, I had my virgin confrontation with the political cynics, being Red-baited when an assistant school superintendant characterized the response of the students of San Francisco to massive proposed program cuts which I’d just delivered as sounding like a ‘Socialist document.’
In France, a needed refresher course in these values — as well as a reminder that the true believer needs to persist in spite of (because of?) the Red-baiting — was delivered by the late Michel Ragon, who reminded me that no fight for social justice is fought in vain if it is waged valiantly and for principles, and who also believed in the mitigating power of art, putting the non-conformist abstract artists of the post-war period on the same moral plane and investing them with the same heroic magnitude as the anarcho-syndicalists whose stories he champions in “La mémoire des vaincus.” (And while we’re talking about the mitigating power of art — and its potential to be socially relevent without sacrificing artistic merit — ’nuff respect to Doug Wendt, who taught me the virtues of DJ ((Political)) Science.)
For five years, then, I have believed in French president Emmanuel Macron because I thought he reflected all these values, finding in him an exemplary leader in the hope-based tradition and societal aspirations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in the lineage of the ‘best and the brightest” JFK had called to serve their country, and create a better world. I have also found in our young president a teacher my teachers would have been proud of, carrying on their work (as I have tried to do) for a new generation, and despite the resistance of the Luddites. Seeing the gross unfairness and injustice with which many who claim to be on the Left have dismissively treated and dismissed him, I have even commented recently that many in France — particularly on the Left — don’t realize how lucky they are to have a president as intelligent and gifted as Emmanuel Macron. Much of that brilliance has been applied to boldly confronting — and proposing exit routes out of — problems of racism and colonialism and related injustices that have troubled France’s past (as they have troubled the American past) and, some would say, still resonate in France’s present as a problematic legacy. (Ditto.) In this respect, Emmanuel Macron was a president who would have made all my teachers proud to call their own, as he did me.
Most of all, my teachers — particularly John and oh, I almost left out, my surrogate parents Annette and Bill Clark and Eileen Darby, who taught me to express my outrage when it was called for, and my journalism teacher Katharine Swan, who gave me my first hint that this could be a metier and provide an outlet for my militance (and who also tried to teach me not to put myself at the center of the story; raté!) as well as Bill Wedemeyer, who also taught me about the mitigating power of art — most of all my teachers, as my parents, made me the relentless idealist for the world, and for the potential of politics as an engine of change, that I still try to be today, despite so much evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps this is why I am so disappointed in, so crushed by, the cynical response of Mr. Macron’s acolytes, starting with his prime minister, since Sunday’s strong showing in the first round of French parliamentary elections by the Nouvelle Union Populaire, Ecologique, et Social (NUPES), the freshly-minted alliance of French Leftist parties which finished neck and neck with Ensemble, Macron’s Centrist (some would call it Right or Center Right, but I am an inveterate optimist) alliance, with 390 of the NUPES candidates (out of a total of 577 circumscriptions) advancing to next Sunday’s final round (against about 500 for Ensemble and about 200 for the extreme-right “National Alliance”).
I am partly talking about his ministers’ fruitless and senselessly destructive calumnies of NUPES and its leader, the mercurial but brilliant Jean-Luc Melenchon, with Mr. Macron’s newly named prime minister responding to NUPES’s challenging of the Ensemble interior minister’s not including successful Leftist candidates from France’s ‘outre-mer’ territories in the NUPES column by saying Mr. Melenchon may well want to be prime minister, he’s just the “prime liar,” language and tactics not worthy of the prime minister of a great country like France, other Ensemble ministers saying the NUPES will take its marching orders from the Russians, in an unfortunate resurrection of American McCarthyism, and Mr. Macron’s last education minister reacting to a decisive defeat in the Parliamentary district into which he was ‘parachuted’ by putting the progressive NUPES alliance on the same level as the racist “National Alliance” party, saying that they pose an equal menace to the country, an electoral stratagem unfortunately set by Mr. Macron when he warned against ‘both extremes.’
But I am also talking about — and here we get back, in explaining my disappointment, to the legacy of hope and aspiration for myself and for society that Kennedy and all my teachers ‘learned me’ (as we put it in Texas) — the incredible lack of promise and aspiration in the closest thing to a positive argument that Mr. Macron’s prime minister has been able to come up with to convince French voters to choose Mr. Macron’s party in Sunday’s final round of the parliamentary elections:
What France needs most, she argues, is the “stability” promised by Mr. Macron’s alliance and his party, whose new name seems, in the face of this expressed Gestalt, almost ironic: Renaissance.
I don’t see such a transformation in an electoral offer that goes no further than ‘stability.’
I see this in the NUPES program which, in its particulars and in its ensemble, was best encapsulated, in an appearance on the Radio France middle-brow chain France Inter yesterday, by the NUPES deputy (and journalist) Clementine Autan, in one word:
Emancipation from fear of the Other.
Emancipation from medical deserts, as is more and more the case in rural and semi-rural France these days (which is not to say that M. Macron is to blame). (I’ve been walking around with a gap in my front teeth for two years because the sole local dentist doesn’t accept new clients.)
Emancipation from racism (a goal, I still believe, that Mr. Macron shares with the NUPES).
Emancipation from hunger. (In the face of inflation; with some grocery prices shooting up as much as 20 percent in recent weeks, increasing numbers of families are having to choose between rent and food. Again, this is not Mr. Macron’s fault, but his government’s solution — the promise to deposit some money in the bank accounts of the most needy — does not seem as effective as the NUPES pledge to impose price restrictions on certain products of necessity.)
Emancipation from the cage imposed by the infirmities that accompany old age, and solutions — assisted living facilities that generally cost $2000/month — that are often too expensive (as is the case in the U.S., where they’re even more costly) for modest families.
Emancipation from poverty, for workers (whose minimum wage NUPES promises to increase to 1500 Euros monthly), for students (many of whom had to join the bread lines during the Covid confinement; NUPES promises a minimum survival allocation to students and young people in general) and for those of the elderly getting by on ‘petite’ pensions (which NUPES promises to augment to the poverty level, or 1063 monthly. My elderly neighbor Claudette reports that with most of her 650 Euro monthly pension going towards her husband Marcel’s retirement home bill and sunflower seeds shooting up five times to 6 euros per kilo, the ‘mesange’ birds in her garden who she likes to feed “will have to get by on larvae for a while.”).
Emancipation from a working life that leaves one too spent to enjoy retirement. (While he certainly makes a rational economic argument — and has promised this will happen in phases — Mr. Macron would like to increase the retirement age to 65; the NUPES would like to keep it at 60.)
And most of all — most of all — emancipation from cynicism, from the fatalism that is often the Frenchman’s heritage (as is optimism — some would say Candide-ism or naivité — the American’s), and the re-naissance of the holy essence of a term too often maligned here as naive: