The smartest man in France, or, How Emmanuel Macron set out to rescue Patriotism from the Nationalists

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

Contrary to what you might imagine, the species of the public intellectual in France is a fragile ectoplasm of what s/he once was in the time of Sartre and Camus, and, before them, Hugo and Sand. Unless I’ve misunderstood the French meaning of the word, what often passes for “philosophers” on the public air-waves here, notably on Radio France’s putatively high-brow France Culture chain, would be considered a commentator anywhere else. In recent weeks alone, one radio host, a member of the august Academy Française, has floated the possibility that the country’s credo, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” might have been intended to apply only to French citizens, thus neatly dispatching one of Colonialism’s saving and admirable graces (I’m being sincere), that it was meant to promulgate universal French values. (The same might be said for British and American colonialism.) Once the commentary turns to the United States — a domain I know something about — the bêtise quotient shoots up exponentially, with one observer lapping up the Trump Kool-Aid in claiming recently that both CNN and NBC are determinedly anti-Trump, as opposed to just journalistic organs doing their jobs. Finally — because I don’t have enough ice-bags left in my small freezer to continue banging my head against the wall without it swelling more than it already has (I heard that) — a star interviewer of the middle-brow Radio France channel recently suggested to Benoit Hamon, Macron’s idealistic Socialist opponent in the 2017 presidential election, that the U.S. wasn’t doing so badly under Trump, citing low unemployment figures. When Hamon pointed out that money shouldn’t be the only gage of a society’s well-being, citing the massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers allegedly committed by a right-wing racist zealot as evidence that Trump’s America isn’t doing as well as all that, the interviewer responded that Trump couldn’t be blamed for the anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant act. Never mind his incendiary diatribes against migrants, and this apology delivered after a neo-Nazi killed a civil rights activist in Charlottesville: “There are good people on both sides.” If that’s not social pyromania, I don’t know what is.

But just when I was beginning to lose hope because this French public intellectual landscape — at least as manifest on the radio, on which as a single person living alone I unreasonably depend (my live French neighbors and friends, on the other hand, assure me, for which I am grateful) — is not the one I was weaned on in my San Francisco high school, into the breach and this void where the bêtise has been all but beatified steps Emmanuel Macron, who may be the smartest president France has had since Popular Front leader Leon Blum ushered in labor reforms in 1936, and the most far-seeing since De Gaulle stepped down in 1969.

Yes, De Gaulle wrote a lot of words, and Francois Mitterrand read a lot of them, but what seems to differentiate their young successor is his precise perception of their importance and exact understanding — and rendering — of their meaning.

Thus it was that this past Sunday, after 73 years in which the concept has been abused, appropriated, sullied, perverted, corrupted, kidnapped, hijacked, subverted, diverted, and manipulated, notably by right-wing and often racist *nationalists* around the world, Emmanuel Macron chose the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the end of the most wasteful war in history, a war fueled by decrepit nationalisms and subverted patriotism, to recuperate, for the most noble of reasons, the word PATRIOTISM.

Here’s what he said (as recorded and reported on Democracy Now on its Monday emission), addressing more than 70 world leaders convened in Paris for Sunday’s peace forum (boycotted by Trump):

“This vision of France as a generous nation with a vision which carries universal values has been in these dark times exactly the opposite of the selfishness of a people which only looks at its own interests. Because patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is its betrayal. By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great: Its moral values.”

To understand the rectitude of Macron’s taking back of this word, concept, and ideal, one only has to look at the roots of the word “constitution,” which real and self-proclaimed patriots all over the world profess to defend: A constitution is what constitutes a country, the transformation of its values into rules or, understood in the inverse sense, the assurance that its rules are neither arbitrary or mercenary and pecuniary but based on and declining from a system of values. (The nation’s first Palestinian-American congresswoman, elected last week, initially burst into the public light at a 2016 campaign appearance at which she asked then candidate Trump if he’d actually read the U.S. Constitution.)

Decades ago I wrote a story for the New York Times on the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention’s convening in Princeton. Even if its evacuation to New Jersey was necessitated by Revolutionary War exigencies — the convention had been chased from Philadelphia — the milieu was fitting: a university, where, my Princeton professors never lost an occasion to remind me 200 years later, words, and the precise understanding of their meaning, matter.

Of course Trump, narcissus that he is, decided to take Macron’s comment as a personal insult, and launched the tweet tirade you’ve probably already heard about. (In the process demonstrating that when it comes to the not-so-delicate art of the bêtise, contemporary French philosophers and commentators have nothing on the American president; while it’s doubtful that the French had already started learning German when the Allies, including Free France Forces, embarked at Normandy, as Trump suggested, it’s certain that if it hadn’t been for Lafayette, that Princeton meeting might never have taken place and we might all be speaking with English accents.)

Et c’est dommage. Not only because the comment wasn’t directed at Trump, or Trump alone; extreme right wing leader Marine Le Pen regularly describes her party as that of the “patriots,” while in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe leaders are using their pretended defense of patriotism to vehicle bigotry, anti-Semitism, suppression of journalism and other vectors of free speech, and authoritarian regression in general. (In the U.S., meanwhile, Trump is throwing historically loaded imprecations like “Enemy of the People” at journalists *even after* they have been sent bombs by rabid right-wingers, while his hate-filled supporters screaming “Build the wall” seem to have forgotten that the values on which American patriotism was built are marked by these words, heralded by a monument that was a gift of France: “Bring me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.”) But also because of the missed opportunity. C’etait une aubaine raté An occasion was lost to transcend current events, for the American president to join his French colleague in taking a first step towards evading the slippery slope which has already revived the ambiance of the 1930s (also decried recently by Macron) which preceded the second World War and most of all to rise above self-interest and aspire to something greater. (Macron may also have been addressing a rising movement which is organizing a national protest Saturday against recent increases in the gasoline and diesel taxes meant to discourage car use and decrease pollution — which, while fueled, so to speak, by real concerns, the loss of purchase power by the middle and lower classes, also reflects a too frequent tendency in French society to put one’s own concerns above the greater good which might make even Ayn Rand blush.)

What if, instead of whining about French wine and waiting until he had the safe gap of the Atlantic between them to launch infantile salvos at Macron and *our most loyal ally*, Trump had gone to that peace forum, seized the opportunity — and platform — of the other 70 world leaders convened in Paris, and actually decided to debate with Macron? (Given what happened the last time they clutched hands, an arm-wrestling match was probably out.) He could even have roped in Steve Bannon, reportedly haunting Europe these days and trying to set up his own pan-European nationalist (these people are not known for their intellectual rigor) party ahead of next Spring’s European Union elections.

For all his admirable earnestness and genuine optimism, I’m not here to lionize Emmanuel Macron. Just to give you an idea of the vantage point from which I’m evaluating the qualities of the French president, usually described as a Centrist, were I able to pick, I’d make retired European Green party vice-president and May ’68 leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit my president and “Unbowed” party legislator Clementine Autan my prime minister.

But circumstances sometimes alter cases, with the best of leaders rising to the occasion. Good leaders aren’t always born; they are sometimes made. Posed next to a New York City fireman atop the rubble of the Twin Towers, George Bush Junior at least made us want to believe for an instant that the moment had made him bigger than his limits (in the name of a patriotism that was inclusive and not exclusive). At present, where Donald Trump sees California burning right before his eyes and, in an act of petty vengeance, threatens to withhold federal funds from the Golden State, Emmanuel Macron sees demagogues across Europe fanning the tinder of economic fears (as Yogi Berra might say, it’s déjà vu all over again) into flames of nationalistic hatred under the guise of patriotism and, with the shadow of what the French president called Sunday the incredible waste of life wraught by World War I looming over his Paris podium, makes another parry to remind us of what patriotism really implicates before it is too late.

Noblesse oblige.

It’s Cooler by the Lake

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(Art from the exhibition Architecture and Design in Chicago, coming up this fall at The Art Institute of Chicago. Artists should not be implicated in the opinions expressed below.)

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In my ongoing quest to understand why Chicago persists in pulling me despite the insupportable levels of car pollution and ingrained segregation, I recently received an unexpected assist from the book exchange box of my Southwestern France village, in the form of “The New American Poetry,” a compendium published by Grove Press in 1960. Edited by Donald M. Allen, the Evergreen Original offers more than 200 poems from 44 poets, including most of the Beats and several notable precursors, with the regrettable omission of Diane DiPrima. I’ve thus been able to read, for the first time not counting a San Francisco public access t.v. spoof in which I interpreted Tiny Tim interpreting several verses, Part One of “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s panoramic tour of the flip side of Eisenhower’s America as seen from the underbelly of the California Zephyr as it races from Oakland to Chicago. Not surprisingly — given the way the bread-crumbs seem to be turning up these days — this particular copy bears the ex-libris of “Robert Eberle, Communication, Redwood Hall, Stanford University,” the man to whom I indirectly owe my first job in journalism. It was Eberle who transformed the mission of the traditional campus PR office from that of shill to legitimate news service. His model was quickly adopted by other universities, so that by the time I got to Princeton, my work study gig at the university’s Communications Office entailed real reporting. I don’t know how Eberle’s copy of “The New American Poetry” made its way across two continents and one ocean to the plastic glass-enclosed shelves outside my local post office, but it was as if, having got me started down this dubious path, he was now pitching in 40 years later to help keep me from hanging up my plume for good by reminding me that, having been spawned by the San Francisco of the Beat Generation, I was standing on some noble shoulders, and had no right to let a little thing like occupational obsolesce make me give up the ghost. Even the (auto)biographical notes at the end of the book evoked this heritage:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Probably was born in New York about 1919 or thereafter. He seems to have been transported into France in swaddling clothes, saw the white mountains of Alsace from a balcony, and returned to the States sometime, years later, to distinguish himself in the upper grades by outstanding achievement in the art of flatulence. After that the record is none too clear. It seems he returned to France during World War II and had some underhand connection with the Free French and the Norwegian Underground. After the War he may have written two unpublishable novels and a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne which should have been titled Histoire du pissoir dans la poésie moderne. It also seems fairly certain that he reached San Francisco overland about 1951, built a bookstore, and began to publish the Pocket Poet Series.” (When last seen, bookstore, publisher, and Ferlinghetti were still promoting alternative literary approaches, the latter having celebrated his 99th birthday by coming out with a new, presumably longer, memoir.)

The book ends with “Prayerwheel / 2,” by David Meltzer, a man my mom dated after she broke up with my dad, and which terminates:

Gone is the giant Bond sign.
Is anything ever gone
to the poet who works up everything
eventually? Somewhere, without mind,
Love begins. The poet begins
to examine the dissolution of Love.
The sea continues. We continue
talking, growing nervous, drinking
too much coffee.

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From the exhibition Architecture and Design in Chicago, coming up this fall at The Art Institute of Chicago: Peter J. Weber. Prairie School Skyscraper, Chicago, Illinois, Perspective, 1910. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Bertram A. Weber.

And to take us back (by virtual California Zephyr, the fabled Amtrak train) to the Wind-blown City, and the epiphany with which “The New American Poetry” furnished me, here’s how Lew Welch brings his “Chicago Poem” home:

Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gasses and I knew again that never will the
Man be made to stand against this pitiless, unparalleled monstrosity. It
Snuffles on the beach of the Great Lake like a blind, red rhinoceros.
It’s already running us down.

You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away.
I don’t know what you’re going to do about it,
But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I’m not around
feeding it anymore.

What I love about this poem is that it’s an assemblage of pinhole views, with the reader invited to fill out the rest of the universe, based on his own experience and how the author’s references resonate with him. And then there’s the vernacular — “I don’t know what you’re going to do about it, But I know what I’m going to do about it” — which smacks of the epoch without being confined to it.

chicago architecture threeAmong the positive additions humans have contributed to the Chicago landscape is its architecture. Above: Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City, Chicago, Illinois, Perspective Looking West, 1985. The Art Institute of Chicago. The Archive of Bertrand Goldberg, a gift from his children through his estate.

Concretely, this poem made me realize that what draws me to Chicago (besides the richness of its literary and artistic legacy) is what the terrain came with — Lake Michigan and the Chicago River — while what subsequent generations of Chicagoans added to the landscape (or what they retained; many of the former architectural marvels have been destroyed or simply left to rot, supplanted by soulless Trump behemoths) is more doubtful.

But given that the Black people whose ancestors helped build Chicago are now being chased out (250,000 of them in recent years, according to data cited by the Chicago Reporter) by the relentless privatization policies of mayor Rahm Emmanuel — echoing the gentrification practices being produced in New Orleans and anticipating those planned for Puerto Rico by what Naomi Klein has called the “disaster capitalists” — do any of us, especially white people who pretend to have a liberal conscience, really have the right to “walk away from it”?

What are you going to do about it? And I?

Let them eat Paper Towels, or, Puerto Rico: Cry the Beloved Country

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

“We were waist dig in the big muddy.
The big fool says to push on.” — Pete Seeger

“How fragile we are.” — Willie Colon, covering Sting

For Anyta Soto-Canino

In his Puerto Rico fly-by Wednesday, to a people 93 percent of whom were still without electricity more than two weeks after the storm hit, and 50 percent of whom were without water, and where the mayor of whose capital city had just pleaded, “We’re dying,” Donald Trump threw paper towels.

To neighboring countries who might have offered more appropriate solace, Trump has essentially said Fuck you, and Fuck Puerto Rico, by refusing to lift the Jones Act, a hundred-year old law which gives American corporations an exception to the RICO Act, in other words exclusive access to the Puerto Rican market, which translates as more expensive groceries, prohibiting foreign ships, even from neighboring countries and even during natural catastrophes, access to the island.

The alleged president of the United States is treating Puerto Rico — whose people are American citizens — like he’d treat (which is not to say this is right) a Third World Banana Republic which exists solely for the benefit and profits of Chiquita Banana.

If you’ve spent any time in New York, you know that Gotham denizens of Puerto Rican origin, much as they, rightly, prize their Island identity — and notwithstanding their embarrassing portrayal by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins in “West-Side Story,” which forced Nathalie Wood to pass by darkening her skin — are as integral to its fabric as Crown Heights African-Americans, Bensonhurst Italians, Greenpoint Polish, and Williamsburg Jews. (Puerto Ricans actually have as much claim to the Brooklyn shtetl as Hasidics.)

Whenever I’ve lived in New York, I’ve spent as much time searching for and savoring the Puerto Rican delicacy of Mofongo (Plaintains and Pork principally) as the Jewish savory Kischka (chicken fat and… chicken fat).

During one of the first times I visited New York, as a high school junior participating in a national State Department-sponsored delegation to Israel, one of my best friends was a young man of Puerto Rican origin from Coney Island named Julio… whose accent was above all that of a quintessential New Yorker. (Me and Julio, down by the schoolyard.)

In other words, these aren’t just Americans, these are Donald Trump’s people.

When I DJ’d the marriage of a choreographer friend of Jewish extraction, it was at the Clemente Soto Velez Center, a former synagogue in the Lower East Side (where my people first settled in America) named after, as it happens, the grandfather of a classmate from Princeton, Anyta Soto-Canino, who was a famous Puerto Rican rebel poet.

Anyta has dubbed the cactus-infused deck of her flat in the putatively Jewish town of Highland Park, New Jersey, outside of New Brunswick, the beach, la Playa, so that a reminder of her native state, of where she came from, is always accessible.

And now these American citizens are being treated like dirt, like residents of a plantation. A plantation where we military tested an area, Viacas, to the point where we had to make it a Superfund toxic clean-up site (a nomination normally reserved for New Jersey territories that I thought went out with Brendan Byrne), and now are ready to toss into the sea.

We thought it hit bottom with Katrina.

We were wrong.

If this isn’t grounds for impeachment, I don’t know what is.

Following Trump statements on Charlottesville terrorist attack, de Lavallade declines White House invitation (Corrected)

By Dance Insider Staff
Copyright 2017 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK — Following President Donald Trump’s equating Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists with those who protested their armed presence Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia — where 20-year-old James Alex Fields, Jr. has been charged with second-degree murder after allegedly ramming his car into a crowd protesting the White supremacists, killing 32-year-old paralegal and activist Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others — dance legend Carmen de Lavallade said Thursday she will not be attending the White House reception following her receiving the Kennedy Center Honors Award next December.

“I am truly honored to receive the Kennedy Center Honors Award and look forward to attending the ceremony at the Kennedy Center,” de Lavallade announced. “In light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our existing leadership is choosing to engage in, and in keeping with the principles that I and so many others have fought for, I will be declining the invitation to attend the reception at the White House.”

On Tuesday, the president told reporters outside Trump Tower, revising an earlier  statement about Saturday’s attack in which he condemned  White supremacists including the Ku Klux Klan, “I think there is blame on both sides” who took part in the demonstrations. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.” Yesterday, referring to the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee which was the pretext for the extremists’ descending on the Virginia city, Trump added, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

In addition to Ms. Heyer, two state troopers were also killed when their helicopter crashed while they were en route to the demonstration.

Welcome to America, Mr. Trump

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Maria Kowroski in Balanchine’s “Mozartiana.” Photo copyright Erin Baiano and courtesy Dances Against Cancer.

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Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasa in Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo copyright Erin Baiano and courtesy Dances Against Cancer.

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Alex Wong in Rachael Poirier’s “747.” Photo copyright Erin Baiano and courtesy Dances Against Cancer.

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Juilliard Dance students in Nijinska’s “Les Noces.” Photo copyright Rosalie O’Connor and courtesy Juilliard.

Story Copyright 2011, 2017 Harris Green
New Editor’s Note by & copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Editor’s Note, 1-31-2017: This piece, comprising reviews of performances by and of the Juilliard School, the School of American Ballet, American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Venti Petrov’s “El Cid” — an epic tale which in part concerns Spain’s Christians *and* Muslims banding together to repel foreign *military* invaders — and a star-studded Dancers Against Cancer benefit with performances by Maria Kowroski, Daniel Ulbricht, Matthew Rushing, Alex Wong, Sterling Hytlin, Amar Ramasa, and others in work by Balanchine and others, was first published on June 24, 2011. Serendipitously re-viewing it this morning for inclusion in the DI Archives, I was struck by how both Harris’s text and the accompanying photographs, while neither written nor shot with this intent, formulate an eloquent aesthetic response to Donald Trump’s attempts to exclude from the United States a myriad of immigrants and refugees, beginning with an executive order last Friday. ((Among many other pictorial and textual elements in this story, following Mr. Trump’s logic, neither Stravinsky nor Balanchine, as citizens of a country besieged by Bolshevik terrorism, would ever have been admitted to France, let alone the United States.)) The new headline above, thus, as this note, are my entire responsibility and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either the critic or the photographers. For continuing coverage of the national and international political, legal, and community response to Mr. Trump’s efforts, check out the daily broadcasts of Democracy Now.  — PBI)

NEW YORK — Because off-Broadway theater has long proved essential to this city’s artistic life, “off-Broadway dance” should not be considered a patronizing term for what is offered away from City Center and the gilded confines of Lincoln Center when major companies are between seasons. One reason I would hesitate to apply the term to recent spring offerings of the Juilliard School’s Dance Division, however, is that this institution’s renovated home, the Irene Diamond Building, is not only on Broadway but a stunning steel and glass addition to the neighborhood. Another is that the program “Juilliard Dances Repertory” (March 23-27), by including Bronislava Nijinska’s rarely seen but historically essential 1923 setting of the Stravinsky powerhouse “Les Noces,” made a stunning contribution to our artistic life out of all proportion to its occasionally raw, unflaggingly dedicated performance by 34 students. (For more on this ballet as interpreted by the Paris Opera Ballet, see Paul Ben-Itzak’s Flash, elsewhere in these DI Archives.)

To receive the rest of the article, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase before February 14, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .