Apologies for the light and erratic posting today. As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a piece for the magazine. As I didn’t mention earlier, I’m also on day five of a pretty nasty bronchial infection. Something’s going around town. A friend who works in a doctor’s office locally says people are dragging in thinking they have the flu, but it turns out to be this harsh other thing. Well, yes, that’s what I’ve got. It requires lots of intermittent sleeping and huddling under the electric blanket. Your patience is appreciated.
I wanted to throw a couple of things out there from a NYT essay by philosopher Justin E.H. Smith, a North American who is teaching for a time in Paris. His essay concerns France’s extreme discomfort with immigration and the cultural shifts it portends. Smith says something quite revealing here:
I became a philosopher, like many others, in large part because I imagined that doing so would enable me 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.
Interesting. He thought philosophy would make him more universal and less particular, and indeed wanted to be so. I minored in philosophy, and might have majored in it had I an academic temperament. I have never been interested in philosophy because I thought it would improve me, and make me “a true cosmopolitan.” I was, and am, interested in it as a tool to discover the Truth. It seems from this paragraph that Smith thinks that living in Truth — as all philosophers must wish to do — requires deracination. But what if this isn’t true, or isn’t wholly true? What if achieving total detachment/deracination makes it possible to see certain truths, but hides others — truths that are only visible to those who make subjective commitments? What if perceiving Truth is like the famous double-slit experiment demonstrating that light is both particle and wave, matter and energy? That is, what if the nature of Truth is both objective and subjective, but you can only measure one at a time?
All I’m saying is that it seems to me an unwarranted assumption that detaching oneself from particular commitments is necessary to live in Truth. The main point of his essay depends on this assumption, however.
Smith goes on:
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 are 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.
His essay stands against what he sees as French nativism — their excessive (in his view) worry that French culture is being overwhelmed and displaced by alien immigrant culture, in particular from Arab and African immigrants. Smith concedes that Americans’ relatively tolerant attitudes toward immigration come from our very different historical experience. What he doesn’t concede is that the French have any right to act to preserve their own culture if that act of preservation requires exclusion.
This I don’t get. I mean, it seems to me that if the French are going to admit immigrants, then they should, as a matter of common decency and common sense, do what they can to integrate those immigrants into the life of the nation. Plus, racism is morally wrong. That aside, why are the French (or any other distinct people — the Japanese, the Mexicans, the Jews, the Kurds) wrong in principle to want to hold on to what makes them particular and culturally distinct?
It hardly needs saying that it is very difficult to decide when one is acting in a positive way to protect an endangered culture, and when one is acting in a negative way to discriminate against a minority, or the Other. Taking it out of the realm of race and immigration, consider historical architectural preservation. Is it always right to preserve every old building as a vestige of a distinct cultural expression? Almost nobody believes that. Is it always right to tear down an old building, if the owner of the property wishes to redevelop it? Almost nobody believes that either. How do we decide where to draw those lines?
It’s a difficult and painful question, one with no easy answers. Every society negotiates it all the time, if only with regard to changing values within the society, across the generations. With regard to France’s dilemma, to declare that a universalist mindset — Justin Smith’s — is the obviously correct one, and that those who hold to a more subjective, localist stance are guilty of immoral discrimination, makes answering the question much easier than it should be. The solution to the problems that come with tribalism must not require denying the virtues manifest in particularity. Russell Kirk:
[C]onservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.
We all know that the French can be extraordinarily arrogant about their culture. But then, they have a lot to be arrogant about. French parochialism — anybody’s parochialism — can be an ugly thing, but I instinctively react against an American, the product of the most deracinated culture on earth, arriving in Paris and lecturing the French about how they need to be more like us. It is amusing to observe the French twisted up in knots over the limits of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but the question of when a majority has the right to act to keep things in their culture the way they are, and when doing so must be deemed immoral (and perhaps illegal), is one we face as well. It is a mark of our American universalism that we expect the rest of the world to operate by universalist principles as well.