Earlier this week I wrote a Stone column for the New York Times on immigration and national identity in France. It caused a huge stir, far beyond what I'm accustomed to for my contributions to that modest philosophy forum. I can't quite figure out why. This has, plainly, something to do with American phantasms about France, both positive and negative, and with the conventions of American writing about France, which I have elsewhere described as 'Gopnikism', and which I myself tried to avoid in my piece, though not with complete success.
To my surprise and relief, my piece was well received in the French media, and was even explicitly contrasted in the French edition of Slate with a recent article in Newseek that appears, from what I've bothered to read, to be a supreme instance of the Gopnikian malady. The author of the Slate piece, Cécile Dehesdin, explains that Janine di Giovani's Newsweek article "était bourré d'erreurs factuelles et caricatural –présentant la France vue par le petit bout de la lorgnette des habitants aisés du VIe arrondissement parisien–, au point qu'on en a tiré un bingo."
There is also a category that deserves to be called sub-Gopnikism, which is not just frivolous but also politically noxious, and to which the Times sunk recently when it published Pamela Druckerman's offensive and disgraceful article, "An American Neurotic in Paris" this past November.
My theory is that this ignorant childish stuff, the vapor trail of the New York-to-Paris circuit, exists as a sort of flipside to the equally deplorable Francophobe tendency in American culture, the invention of an effete and cowardly race. Curiously, though, the American conservatives are always happy to welcome France back into a single occidental civilization when it comes to the question of immigration. I recall Glenn Beck once chiding the French, as weakling cousins, for allowing Muslims to encircle their cities with housing projects in the banlieues-- a straightforwardly military operation, he opined and whimpered. (I miss that guy.) Idiots like Druckerman --presumably a Democrat, presumably a conventional, self-styled 'liberal'-- have a lot more trouble than idiots like Beck dealing with serious political and economic issues in France.
Druckerman says that being an American in Paris is at least not as bad as being 'a Congolese in the Democratic Republic of Congo' (the most offensive line in a consistently offensive article, and a textbook case of the return of the repressed), but she dare not mention the obvious tertium quid: the Congolese right next door to her. This would make a mess of her frivolous fantasy, and yet the presence of the Congolese, and immigrants from elsewhere in the world, if you are to judge from the near constant reporting in the French media and talk in the French streets, is the single most serious existential threat to the future of this country. Why? Beck and his ilk have theories, but these are paranoid theories, false and stupid. In turn, Druckerman, Gopnik and their kind would really just like to inform you that they live in Paris, or that they vacation here, and have preferred spots to stock up on tea, or macarons, or whatever it is these people do.
Anyhow it's heartening, I suppose, that an attempt to discuss French culture, politics and history in the American mass media, without allowing these dreary conventions to define the terms or the tenor, could be met with such lively response, even if much of it is negative. What now did the critics have trouble with? Not surprisingly, many felt that I was a 'liberal' (they did not discern that I am a Christian anarchist, and if they had been told as much one suspects the cognitive jolt induced by such an unfamiliar pairing, like a nice Bordeaux with halibut, could have killed them). Many felt that I was missing the true elephant in the room, which is religion, that Islam is the new fascism (one wonders how something that has been around since the 7th century can be the new anything), etc. Whatever. I need to learn to stay out of the comments basement. A visit there is really more than enough to make a person give up on the prospect of communicative action.
Anyhow, as I mentioned the final version of the piece was more Gopnikian than I might have preferred. Elements of memoir crept in, whereas I would have preferred to stay focused on analysis. I think rather than provide a portion of the piece here, what I will do is post the first draft of the essay (originally in two parts) in its entirety (modified on 11 January in light of comments from one of my best critics). I like the version that appeared in the Times, but in the end this one better reflects my developing thoughts on the topic.
Immigration and Identity, Part I
One good reason to become a philosopher is that doing so can help you to rise above the murky swamp of local attachment, of ethnic and provincial loyalty, and to embrace the world as a whole, to be a true cosmopolitan. Yet history shows that many philosophers only grow more attached to their national or ethnic identity as a result of their philosophical education.
This second tendency seems particularly widespread in Europe today, and most of all in France. Many Americans imagine that French philosophy is dominated by mysterians like the late Jacques Derrida, who famously beguiled innocent followers with his koan-like proclamations. But a far more dangerous sub-species of French philosopher is the 'public intellectual', whose proclamations, via the French mass media, are perfectly comprehensible, indeed not just simple but downright simplistic, and often completely irresponsible.
Take, for example, the self-styled philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who in his recent bestseller, L'identité malheureuse (The Unhappy Identity), proclaims, in effect, that immigration is destroying French cultural identity. He bemoans the ‘métissage’ of France, a term one often sees in the slogans of the far right, which translates roughly as ‘mongrelization’.The author, whose father was a Polish immigrant and a survivor of Auschwitz, and who has made much throughout his career of what he calls ‘the duty of memory’, claims to be defending the values of the français de souche: of the real French. In this way, he is stoking the rising xenophobia in France, a trend that has been exacerbated here, as elsewhere in Europe, by recent economic uncertainty. In France, and in Europe as a whole, there is more than ever before in the post-war period, a widespread and deep-rooted sentiment that all, or most, of the residents of Europe should be European by ancestry and by culture. But is this expectation just? And is it realistic?
It is difficult to go more than a day in France without hearing someone express the conviction that the greatest problem in this country is the presence of ethnic minorities, that their presence compromises the identity of France itself. This conviction is typically expressed without any acknowledgment of the historical responsibility France has as a colonial power for the presence of former colonial subjects in the metropole, nor with any willingness to recognize that France will be ethnically diverse from here on out, and that it's the responsibility of the French as much as of the immigrants to make this work.
I have witnessed incessant stop-and-frisk of young black men in the Gare du Nord; in contrast with New York, here in Paris this practice is scarcely debated. I've been told by a taxi driver as we passed through a black neighborhood: "I hope you got your shots. You don't need to go to Africa anymore to get a tropical disease." On numerous occasions, French strangers have offered up the observation to me, in reference to ethnic minorities going about their lives in the capital: "This is no longer France. France is over." There is a constant, droning presupposition in virtually all social interactions that a clear and meaningful division can be made between the real France and the impostors.
When I am addressed by these strangers anxious about the fate of their country, I try to reply patiently. They hear my accent, but this in itself does not dissuade them, for I belong to a different category of foreigner. I am not read as an 'immigrant', but rather as an 'expatriate', here for voluntary and probably frivolous reasons, rather than out of economic necessity or fear for my own freedom. This division is not just a street-level prejudice: it is also written into the procedure at French immigration offices, where all foreigners must go to obtain their residence permits, but where the Malians and Congolese are taken into one room, the Americans and Swedes into another. For the former, the procedure has an air of quarantine, and the attitude of the officials is something resembling that of prison guards; for the latter, the visit to the immigration office feels rather more like a welcome ceremony, and everything about our interaction with the officials bespeaks a presumption of equality.
Equality is of course one of the virtues on which the French Republic was founded, yet critics of the Enlightenment philosophy behind the Revolution have long noticed a double standard: when equality is invoked, these critics note, it is understood that this is equality among equals. Political and social inequality is allowed to go on as before, as long as it is presumed that this is rooted in a natural inequality. In the late 18th century, such a presumption informed the reactions of many in the French metropole to the revolution led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, who was himself inspired by the events of 1789 and who took the idea of equality to be one with universal scope.
For most of the history of the French Republic, the boundary between the equal and the unequal was determined by the dynamics of empire: equality within continental France was in principle absolute, while in the colonies it was something that had to be cultivated: only if a colonial subject could demonstrate full embodiment in his manners and tastes of the French identity was he to be considered truly equal.
With the contraction of the empire and the reorientation of French nationalism from an imperial to a cultural focus, the distinction between equal and unequal contracted from a global to a local scale. Francophones from around the world began to move to the metropole in large numbers, yet with the contraction of the empire their status was transformed from that of colonial subjects to that, simply, of foreigners. But of course the fact that these unequal subjects have settled in France has very much to do with the historical legacy of French imperialism; Francophone Africans do not choose to come to France on a whim, but because of a long history of imposed Frenchness at home.
Is there any justification for the two-tiered distinction between expatriates and immigrants, or for the extra impediments members of the latter group face when they try to settle in a new country? Nativist Europeans such as Finkielkraut will often express a concern about being 'overrun' by members of ethnic groups from economically disadvantaged states or regions. Most of us can agree that even if there is not an absolute right to preserve one's culture's purity, it is at least a genuine good to be able to spend one's life surrounded by others who share many of the same values and traditions. Something would be lost if, say, massive immigration led to a sudden shift in the demographics of Iceland, so that native Icelanders were now a minority in that once homogeneous island nation-- and this would be a loss both for the country itself, as well as for those of us on the outside who value something akin to the cultural equivalent of biodiversity.
But there is nowhere in Europe where anything remotely like a shift on such a scale is taking place. Even in the countries that have seen the most immigration, particularly France and the UK, the numbers are still in the single digits. Alongside the genuine good of a life spent among others who share one's values and traditions, there is also what the philosopher Michael Dummettt describes as the right to live one's life as a first-class citizen. This right, he notes, depends in part on the conduct of a state, and in part on the behavior of its people.* Whether or not the right of immigrants to first-class citizenship is set up in conflict with the right of earlier inhabitants to cultural preservation, has very much to do with both state policy and with popular opinion.
Even if the numbers of immigrants in Europe were much higher, it would be an illusion to suppose that the immigrants are mounting a concerted effort to change the character of the place to which they have come. Talk of 'overrunning' and 'invasion' is analogical, and in fact describes much more accurately the earlier motion of European states into their former colonies, a motion which, again, is a crucial part of the account of patterns of migration toward Europe today. Immigration in Europe, as in, say, the Southwestern United States or within the former Soviet Union, is determined by deep historical links and patterns of circulation between the immigrants' countries of origin --in France's case, particularly North Africa and sub-Saharan Françafrique-- and the places of destination.
Europe has enjoyed constant traffic --human, financial, material, and cultural-- with the extra-European world since the end of the Renaissance, yet within a few centuries of the great global expansion at the end of the 15th century a myth would set in throughout Europe, that European nations are entirely constituted from within, that their cultures grow up from the soil and belong to a fixed parcel of land as if from time immemorial. It is this conception of the constitution of a nation that has led to the fundamental split that still distinguishes European immigration policies from those of the United States.
The American approach to immigration is plainly rooted in historical exigencies connected to the appropriation of a continent, and it is this same history of appropriation that continues to induce shame in most Euro-Americans who might otherwise be tempted to describe themselves as natives. America has to recognize its hybrid and constructed identity, since the only people who can plausibly lay claim to native status are the very ones this new identity was conjured to displace. But in Europe no similar displacement plays a role in historical memory: Europeans can more easily imagine themselves to be their own natives, and so can imagine any demographic impact on the continent from the extra-European world as the harbinger of an eventual total displacement.
There are values that it is not easy to mock or dismiss informing European nativist anxiety. These values are not completely unconnected to the various movements to defend local traditions: the celebration of terroir and of 'slow food', the suspicion of multinational corporations. But like the celebrated tomato and so many other staples of various European cuisines, European cultural identity too is a product of longstanding networks of global exchange. These networks have tended to function for the enrichment of Europe and to the detriment of the rest of the world for the past several centuries, and it is this imbalance that in large part explains current patterns of immigration. Europe has never been self-contained, and its role in the world has both made it rich and left it with a unique legacy of responsibility to the great bulk of the world from which this wealth came.
History assures that Europe will never be able to return to the illusion of isolated monocultures, even if public intellectuals such as Finkielkraut continue to stoke popular anxieties about the loss of well-being they believe accompanies the shift to multiculturalism. The continent will remain diverse from here on, though it remains to be seen whether European states will be able to respond to this new reality responsibly. So far, the record is not promising. Much of the difficulty has to do with the perceived problem of cultural difference: that immigrants wish to come to Europe for a better life, but to settle here only geographically, while remaining attached in spirit to the ways and beliefs of the homeland. In a subsequent piece, I would like to turn to the question of multiculturalism as it currently stands in Europe: to the question, namely, whether it is reasonable or just to expect of immigrants that they abandon their previous cultural attachments in order to begin a truly new life.
*See Michael Dummett, On Immigration and Refugees, Routledge, 2001, p. 10.
Immigration and Identity, Part 2: The Question of Assimilation
It is certainly nothing new for people to live out their lives in a culture different from the one in which they began. What is somewhat unusual about the modern experience of immigration is the expectation that one can move to a region dominated by another culture while remaining entirely rooted in the culture of the region one has left behind.
In certain periods of the 17th century, up to two-thirds of the members of the Iroquois League were absorbed from neighboring groups through capture in war and adoption.* Typically, the new Iroquois were subjected to a period of severe beatings, burning, even amputations and other forms of permanent disfigurement. Those who survived this ordeal were then welcomed into new families and showered with affection, but were punished severely if they continued to show traces of loyalty to their old cultural ways.
The Iroquois practice might be understood as an extreme case of the application of the principle, cujus regio, ejus religio: 'Whose realm, his religion'. We are taking 'religion' here in a maximally broad sense, to include the sum total of practices and beliefs associated with a culture, but it is not clear that for most of human history religion was conceived any differently than this. For much of human history, moreover, in many diverse contexts, the cujus regio principle functioned fairly well: others are welcome to come and join us, it said, and identity at birth is no impediment to this. But in order to join us, newcomers must really join us in heart and soul, and not simply live next-door to us, or down the street.
Most agree that this principle cannot hold in the contemporary world. But why not? What has changed? Interestingly, the principle has characterized both non-state ethnic confederations such as that of the early modern Iroquois, as well as the European absolutist states that emerged out of the 16th-century wars of religion. Empires by contrast have often declined to invoke this principle. The principle tends to hold in pre-state bands, and in modern states organized around shared values, but not in multinational empires. In Europe today, the principle is never explicitly invoked, even if it informs to some extent the views of those who believe that states should be organized around ethnic communities of shared values and traditions. People who are committed to homogeneous nation-states tend to imagine that cultures are, or should be, rooted in territories in a more or less fixed and stable way.
Thus, while in a certain respect reaching back to a 'tribal' conception of political unity that precedes multinational empires, the modern nation-state differs from confederations such as that of the early modern Iroquois in important ways. For one thing, Iroquois cultural continuity was not rigidly anchored to possession of a certain territory, but rather was seen as transmitted across generations (again, not necessarily united by blood) through culture, language, practice.
The perception of a homogeneous shared culture across a wide territory has generally come at a great cost for smaller local or regional cultures. Here, the history of France is no exception: as many authors have noted, a core component of the French revolution, as important as the standardization of weights and measures or the adoption of a new calendar, was the leveling out of regional differences, the erasure of regional dialects and languages, the transformation of Occitan farmers and Breton shepherds into French citizens purely and simply. In this respect, the sense today among many French people, that there is a pre-given French identity which is threatened by African immigration, was only made possible by the prior imposition of a homogeneous national culture upon often unwilling local cultures.
If many of us find coerced assimilation of immigrants to the dominant culture objectionable, this may be because in certain ways we conceive the contemporary world more along the lines of the Ottoman Empire than of, say, the Iroquois League, or of a homogeneous and relatively isolated ethnic nation-state such as Japan. That is, we tend to think of the world as a cosmopolis, where ideally people with vastly different values and traditions are able to move side by side, to trade with one another and perhaps learn from one another without conflict.
This has in truth been the general condition of the greater part of humanity for most of history. As the anthropologist James C. Scott has compellingly argued,** it is a fool's game to attempt to learn about human nature from 'isolated' or 'primitive' tribes, since every human group about which we have any knowledge has existed in some relation to a broader network of other human groups, and usually of states and empires. In this respect the idea of homogeneous national cultures attaching stably to territories is not only an illusion, to the extent that the homogeneity was initially imposed by a concerted campaign, but also to the extent that influence and goods are always flowing in from outside, even if in certain places and times foreign faces and foreign tongues are an unfamiliar occurrence.
And yet, as I've already acknowledged, it would be callous to dismiss all local resistance to the influx of new and foreign goods, ideas, or traditions. It would be impudent to tell a southern French farmer to stop carrying on about terroir, and it is not hard to see at least a partial resemblance between this sort of valorisation of the local, on the one hand, and current European xenophobia on the other. A way must therefore be found to assure respect for the preservation of local, organic lifeways, while also effectively conveying the message to people who value these lifeways that the poor African immigrant constitutes far less of a threat to them than the multinational corporation that cares not at all for local cuisines or festivals. It is possible to be communitarian and cosmopolitan at the same time, if we remember that what we value in our community is more or less what the immigrants next door value in theirs, and if we conceive the cosmopolis not as the global reign of multinationals, but as the harmonious overlapping of communities.
That such a conception is so hard to bring about in certain places, at certain times, has mostly to do with the cynical manipulations of political actors, who know that it is easy to stir up interest in electoral politics by blaming ethnic minorities for sundry social and economic problems. Even moderate invocations of the cujus regio principle --as in the demand in France and, more recently, in Québec, that Muslim women cast off their headscarves and join the dominant 'secular' culture-- in the end have little to do with an interest in assimilation, and everything to do with demonization and scapegoating. Everyone --both the scapegoaters as well as the defenders of minority rights-- understands that the expectation of full assimilation is no longer a reasonable one in a globalized, cosmopolitan world of constant circulation. Cultures never attached rigidly to territories in an exclusive way, and still less can they be expected to do so in the era of jet travel and the Internet.
What is crucial is not the leveling out of cultural differences, but the assurance of access to what Michael Dummett calls 'first-class citizenship' notwithstanding these differences. There is no reason in principle why the proper conduct of states should not be reconceived so as to provide such assurance. In the short term however, particularly in Europe, this is unlikely to happen, thanks to the tried and tested potency of xenophobia as a political tool, hauled out by European leaders to prod a frightened populace into service.
*See Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
**See James C. Scott, "Crops, Towns, Government," London Review of Books, Vol. 35, No. 22, 21 November, 2013, pgs. 13-15.