Mark Hyman’s recent commentary on the recent rioting in France in which he quotes British columnist Theodore Dalrymple invites us to make comparisons between the two men, and I think there are two important ones to draw.
First is one of contrast. Theodore Dalrymple (which is actually a pen name for Anthony Daniels, a retired doctort and a conservative columnist) might share some of Hyman’s underlying political philosophy, but there is little in their quality of thought or expression that merits any comparison beyond this. Dalrymple, regardless of how you might feel about his conclusions or the premises he begins from, is at least a careful thinker who articulates informed, nuanced positions clearly.
If you read the commentary from which Hyman quotes, you’ll see what I mean. Not that there’s a lack of things that are objectionable and, well, just plain wrong about Dalrymple’s take on the events in France or his broader philosophy, but at least he shows signs of having systematically thought through problems in a way that does justice to their complexity. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of our man, Monsieur Hyman, who, on his best day, doesn’t come within a Molotov cocktail’s throw of Dalrymple at his most reactionary.
To give just one example, Hyman erroneously labels the rioters and those living in the housing projects from which they emerged as “immigrants,” despite the fact that the youth involved are not immigrants, but rather the children or grandchildren of immigrants who became naturalized citizens long ago. You can argue with Dalrymple; with Hyman, you can only throw your hands up and wonder how anyone, even those who agree with him, can find him tolerable as a public voice.
But there are some similarities that are worth noting as well. It’s difficult to say if Hyman cares a whit about the events in France other than that it gives him an excuse to criticize the shortcomings of the French government—criticism that is merited in this case. But the criticism is merited not for the reasons Hyman (and Dalrymple) would claim. And that’s where we see an underlying similarity.
Dalrymple’s take on the rioting in France is one Hyman likely agrees with: it’s the fault of the “barbarians” (Dalrymple’s term) of those living in the dilapidated housing projects outside of major French cities. Hyman cites Dalrymple’s claim that French police look the other way when crimes are committed by these largely immigrant youths. The suggestion is that what’s wrong with these people is that they’ve been coddled and appeased for far too long.
It’s difficult to take such a theory seriously. After all, the incident that sparked the riots across France was a police sweep through one of these immigrant neighborhoods. Two boys were electrocuted when they hopped a fence outside a power plant in an effort to escape spending hours in a police station being questioned about why they were in the street (apparently playing soccer).
In fact, such sweeps (along with lengthy detentions of anyone and everyone who could be remotely considered suspicious or a witness to suspicious activity) is apparently part of daily life in the projects outside Paris. The idea that the anti-authoritarian sentiment Dalrymple and Hyman suggest is behind the riots is the result of a too lenient police force fails the giggle test.
No doubt Hyman also approves of Dalrymple’s take on the racial aspect of the riots. The unrest has been committed almost entirely by youths who are the children of immigrant parents, most of whom came to France from Africa, and most of whom are Moslems. These immigrants (who were encouraged to come to post-war France during the economic boom of the thirty years following the liberation) and their children now live in broken down, ugly, housing projects, conveniently segregated from “proper” French society (out of sight, out of mind). Poverty is omnipresent, and unemployment is rampant.
Yet, to hear Dalrymple tell it, race and poverty are merely distractions from the true problem: the degenerate characters of those participating in the riots. Not that this stops him from defending the use of the word “scum” by Interior Minster Nicolas Sarkozy to describe those involved in the unrest (as well as his use of barely concealed images of ethnic cleansing in discussing how the problem must be solved). In fact, Dalrymple suggests (apparently in all seriousness) that part of the anger of the rioters is based on the fact that they actually believe the “scum” label is an accurate description of them. (See Doug Ireland’s insightful piece about the riots in which he explains the nuances of the rhetoric involved—nuances that are literally lost in translation).
One wonders if such language would have been used by a government official (and whether Dalrymple would defend it) if the unrest had come from middle class, white university students rather than poverty stricken immigrants. Well, actually, one doesn’t wonder—the query answers itself.
Dalrymple (and, presumably, Hyman) believe that there are two main causes of the riots: the degenerate characters of those doing the rioting and progressive policies that don’t force the people living in the projects to stand on their own two feet.
As for the second of these claims, the evidence suggests otherwise. France is hardly a haven of affirmative action and active integration. In fact, in a rather misguided deification of egalitarianism, the French government doesn’t even keep track of minority groups. The idea is that all French citizens are equal, and to take note of issues like race and ethnicity is to suggest otherwise.
Of course, the reality is that not all French citizens are equal, and that it’s exactly the fallacy that anyone can simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps that keeps those on the political and economic margins where they are at. Much like the more strident and reactionary of our home grown, domestic, American conservatives (Conservatus Vulgaris?), the French government substitutes platitudes about equal opportunity for actions that would actually provide it. Denial is the only acceptable solution to the problem for such folks.
As for the claim that the real cause of the riots is the decrepit morals of those participating, it is valid, but in a way that is trivial because it obscures the larger truth involved. Certainly those individuals who commit acts of violence or vandalism should be held accountable for their actions. But the suggestion that this should be the end of the discussion and that any claims about larger causes are excusing criminality is childish.
What this take on social issues (“it’s the individual, stupid!”) assumes is that there is an entity, the independent and self-contained individual, that exists entirely separate of his or her circumstances. Such a fable is a comforting myth—we’d all like to believe we are completely our own person and that all the things about us (at least the good stuff) is the result of our own self-crafted indentity. But this is a myth that went by the boards a long time ago (or at least should have).
Pointing this out does not mean that we are simply the sum of outside influences and thus not responsible for our actions. That’s what folks like Dalrymple and Hyman would suggest, but that’s simply an argumentative ploy meant to obscure the more complex reality: that we are all individuals with free will, but that we are subject to the conditioning of the social world when it comes to practicing the use of that free will. Dalrymple as much as admits this when he blames social programs for the lack of character among the disenfranchised youth doing the rioting.
So the question then becomes, which seems more plausible: that the children of immigrants in France feel alienated toward the larger society because that society has coddled and insulated them from the world in a way that has led to moral decay, or that these young people feel frustrated and abandoned by a society that has systematically and literally put them on the margins of life, ignored them, insulted them, yet doesn’t acknowledge that this de facto segregation exists and blames them when they don’t succeed in the same way as their wealthier, white, countrymen (whose economic advantages are seen as irrelevant)?
Again, the question answers itself.
And that’s The Counterpoint.
Hyman Index: 4.03