Monday, July 2, 2012

Better bred than red

Shorter Steven Erlanger:
The fact that the Socialist Party swept the presidential and legislative elections in France just proves that Bernard-Henri Lévy is right and socialism has been dead since 1968.
Or maybe that's overinterpreting. Erlanger, the dean of the diplomatic correspondence, seems to have been laying down this kind of solemnity for so long that he could have been the model for Proust's M. de Norpois,* and like Norpois, he knows how to stop well short of a conclusion, so that his argument can be read as leading to either of two opposed views, whichever one turns out to be the Received Opinion.

The trick of it is in deploying your quotations carefully. Let's have a little look at how Erlanger achieves that in this little essay.

*Here's a classic bit of Norpois, from À l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs:
But forewarned, as we know, is forearmed, and he just kicked the insults aside,” [M. de Norpois] said, with even greater force, and a glare that made us stop eating for a moment. “As a fine old Arabian proverb puts it: ‘The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.’” M. de Norpois paused, watching us to see what effect this quotation would have on us. It had a great effect: his proverb was well known to us. All worthy men had been using it that year instead of “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind,” which was in need of a rest, not being a hardy annual like “To labor and seek for no reward.” (quoted in Shut up, Proust!)
The Marquis de Norpois, portrait by David Richardson.
He begins by noting that socialism in Europe certainly isn't as radical as it used to be—
it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.
And he gets this view certified by the Left, in the form of two grand old soixante-huitards, now veteran Greens, Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who ought to know, since they're not as radical as they used to be either.
Even in the United States, Mr. Fischer says, “you have a sort of welfare state, even if you don’t want to admit it — you don’t allow people to die on the street.”
So why the prospect of “European socialism” is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans, a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.
Then he moves on to the Center, in the person of Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Thomas Friedman of French philosophy:
“There are no more socialists — if they were honest they would change the name of the party,” [BHL] told me. Socialism “evokes the nightmare of the Soviet Union, whose leaders named themselves socialists.” Today, he maintains, European socialists are essentially like American Democrats...
except of course American Democrats haven't gotten us single-payer health care, free day care, six-week paid vacations, worker representation on company boards, pensions a person can live on, and all the rest of it.

"If they were honest" they would abandon the name "socialist", which "evokes the nightmare of the Soviet Union." How's that? Dishonestly evoking the nightmare of the Soviet Union is how they won the election? Uh, no. The voters were probably not thinking too much of the Soviet Union. But BHL is always thinking about the Soviet Union...
Jeunes filles en fleurs (1969), by David Hamilton.

A bit of Erlanger's prose reminds us that France is indeed pretty socialist no matter who's in power; 
delegates at the Socialist Party’s summer meetings address one another as “Comrade,” a gesture to the past for a party largely made up of academics and bureaucrats — in other words, state functionaries, of whom there are many in France. The French state represents 56.6 percent of gross domestic product, one of the highest figures in the Western world.
(Although I realize now that he means to be joshing the party for its elitism, not for its effectiveness in nationalizing the economy.)

This leads him back leftward to an actual socialist of sorts, Marc-Olivier Padis, who fascinatingly divulges that "Socialism here is very statist" (hmm, unlike what other kinds of socialism?) and then a hard-right swerve to Alain-Gérard Slama, who assures us that those who voted socialist were not in the main socialists (presumably meaning they were actually patricians like himself, who felt that it would be better to have the government run by nightmare socialists than by anyone as ill-bred and ungrammatical as Nicolas Sarkozy).

And then it's BHL one more time, mentioning that the real leftist in the presidential elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, didn't even win a seat in the législatives:
He then aptly quoted Marx’s famous line about Louis Bonaparte, that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
( M. d'Erlanger paused, watching us to see what effect this quotation would have on us...)

You see? If you don't read carefully, it corroborates virtually any opinion you might want to have, but on closer study its meaningfulness just evaporates into the aether. That's refined opionionating!

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