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.