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The Tragedy of Paris

November 10, 2005
By Jonathan Muggleston

...the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin, we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

- Dr Martin Luther King, Beyond Vietnam, 4 April 1967

The revolution that is sweeping across one of the oldest democracies in the world has everything to do with Dr King's observations. These riots are not a bolt from the blue. They developed out of very obvious historical trends, trends which were apparent to King in the U.S. in 1967, and which are easily extrapolatable to other postcolonial multicultural societies. This revolution was predictable and was predicted. It is the opening of another front in the worldwide insurrection to which King refers. And this is most certainly not going to be the last front to open. Several other prominent European countries exist in the same historical reality.

What historical trends do I mean? Let's begin with France in 1945. The entire country's infrastructure was in tatters, and her young men decimated by the Germans. France needed to rebuild, but they lacked the manpower. So what does France do? She turns to the tattered remnants of her Empire for cheap willing labor.

An interesting aside about the French Empire in Africa: the French practiced Direct Rule colonialism, which means that they considered their colonial possesions to be part of France, and the people who lived there to be French. In their desire to bring "civilization" to the dark natives, the French set up an impressive school system, teaching generations of Africans the French language, French culture, and (of all things) French geography. So, understandably, these colonial subjects considered themselves to be French.

Jump cut from the golden era of the French Empire back to the end of World War Two. France invites her colonial subjects, subjects who considered themselves to be loyal and patriotic French citizens, to come to Paris and help rebuild. To deal with the housing requirements of this influx of Black and Muslim "Frenchmen," the government constructed hundreds of high rise buildings in the suburbs of their major cities. High rise, government-built, housing. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the French in their wisdom built themselves some projects.

Of course, at the time it made sense. And if the historical record provides any indication, these patriotic colonial subjects were reasonably content with their projects. They were living in better conditions than the villages they left, with access to better healthcare, technology, and a steady paycheck cleaning up Hitler's mess.

Fast forward two generations or so into the future; the reconstruction jobs have long since dried up, and these ethnically segregated communities are running unemployment rates of around 40%, in the middle of a country who wants nothing to do with them. While this has made France the only other country besides America to produce decent hip hop, it makes for an incredibly volatile situation.

The Situation at Hand

As of today (8 November, 2005), the riots have spread to every major city in the French Republic. Cars are being torched, buildings burned, cops shot, and people killed. French authorities are attempting to quarantine the violence with mass arrests, curfews, and riot police. These measures have proven remarkably ineffective against an insurgency armed with cell phones, molotov cocktails and Vespas. The head of France's far right political party Jean-Marie Le Pen has said that the situation is approaching "the brink of civil war." Members of the insurrection are quoted as saying "This is just the beginning, it's not going to end until there are two policemen dead." This is in reference to the deaths of two teenagers who were being chased by the police which started the insurrection.

The rhetoric from the French establishment includes approximately equal parts hand-wringing at the obvious social ills suffered by the disenfranchised ethnic youths who are the main force of the revolt, and racist condemnation of the rioters as "scum."

The Tragedy

I am not here to bemoan the loss of life caused by this situation, or to discuss the property damage, or the undermining of a democratic state. I find the real tragedy of Paris, of Marseille and Tolousse and Nice and Sevran is that this violence is (so far) wasted energy.

When a society undergoes massive strains, it fractures along fault lines that usually simmer underneath the niceties of day to day existence. But there is a brief historical moment where those fractures can be guided. Instead of perpetrating a cycle of racism and classism, of in-group/out-group, the energy of the fracture can be coaxed into new patterns, patterns that can do positive good. Dr King, writing from a jail cell in Birmingham Alabama, called the subtle art of guiding these social fissures "creative tension," and hailed them as an essential aspect of his campaign.

How does one help channel these "creative tensions"? With ideas. What have I seen a lack of coming from the French insurrection? Ideas. This primal creative chaos will all be for naught if there does not emerge some kind of coherent set of ideas to ride this crest of energy.

And this goes out to my fellow intellectual lefties: we should have seen this coming, and we should have been prepared with new ideas. The worldwide revolution may have taken a backburner to the Cold War for a few decades, but it simmered away nonetheless. While American progressives may have the excuse that the leaders who should be wise, honored statesmen guiding us were all cut down in their prime, we cannot hide behind that fact. We have witnessed a bloodless coup by the neoconservative oligarchy on our own shores with nothing but a deafening silence punctuated by an occaisonal fart from Michael Moore.

If we had been organizing, resisting, planning and speaking like we should, we would be prepared to help mediate this situation in France, and similar ones brewing in Spain, England and other European nations. Perhaps our Civil Rights movement did not succeed 100%, but it has allowed us to live together as Americans. If we had any Progressive leadership in this country we would be in a position to extend our energy and expertise to the French. It would be our honor and duty help them to build a society that lives up to the cherished ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I conclude this essay with an excerpt from Jose Marti's seminal work, Our America:

These are not the times for sleeping in a nightcap, but with weapons for a pillow, like the warriors of Juan de Castellanos: weapons of the mind, which conquer all others. Barricades of ideas are worth more than barricades of stones.

There is no prow that can cut through a cloudbank of ideas. A powerful idea, waved before the world at the proper time, can stop a squadron of iron-clad ships, like the mystical flag of the Last judgement.

Jonathan Muggleston (Johnny_Red on DU) is a freelance writer operating out of America's cultural capital, Harlem, New York.

 

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