Archive for the ‘France’ Category
Another Dreyfus Affair Moment for France? Musings on American and French Antisemitism, and the Jewish Diaspora
I was about to write a post about conservative blogger Brooks Bayne’s antisemitic rant directed towards Sandra Fluke’s boyfriend Adam Mutterperl, when I read the news about the horrific shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, that left four dead, including three children. We don’t know for certain that this attacks was motivated by antisemitism, but it seems likely, and kind of makes the Brooks Bayne nutjob variety seem less threatening, even if a Bayne is an admitted gun enthusiast.
What to make of these incidents? Is the recent shooting a Dreyfus moment, a wakeup call to French Jews, and Diaspora Jews in general? Contrary to popular myth, the Dreyfus Affair in France, did not launch Theodor Herzl’s Zionist beliefs, though it certainly helped reaffirm them. For those who don’t know, in 1894, French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, convicted, and imprisoned in solitary confinement on an island in French Guiana. Eventually, new evidence came to late proving Dreyfus innocence. The “Affair” really began in 1898, when author Emile Zola wrote “J’accuse“ and blamed French antisemitism for the mistaken conviction. Riots rocked France, dividing the population between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards, generally liberal and secular), and those who condemned him as guilty (the anti-Dreyfusards, generally conservative and often religious). Eventually, in 1899, Dreyfus was retried, convicted for a second time, but then pardoned by the French government, though he was only fully exonerated in 1906.
Theodor Herzl, a journalist, covered the story for a Viennese newspaper. He went on to lead the modern political Zionist movement. And so, we must ask, does this recent shooting in France offer any Zionist lessons? After all, A.B. Yehoshua, left-wing Zionist author and activist, has just told us again (and again) that Diaspora Jews live only a partial Jewish existence, unlike the full Jewish existence that he and other Israeli Jews live. Perhaps the most interesting (and most new and original) thing Yehoshua said this time around was “I have never heard the Jews analyze the Holocaust as a Jewish failure, which was not anticipated.”
Of course, the Holocaust was sort of anticipated, by Herzl in the 1890s, by Leo Pinsker in the 1880s, even Karl Marx’s friend Moses Hess in his 1862 book Rome and Jerusalem, where he wrote ”Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism. The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race – they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews, less than their peculiar noses.” (I like to chide my Marxist friends by saying that Hess was much more prescient than his friend Karl, though that prescience was tragic).
So I ask again, are these recent French shooting a similar warning sign? Or are they an aberration, the work of a lone lunatic? Neocon John Podhoretz has already jumped to red alert, declaring that “Jews are being hunted.” J-Pod brings up 9/11 in his article, which made me think of the 2002 essay in The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier (certainly his best work), “Hitler is Dead.” Jews in the Diaspora should not panic.
The irony, it seems, as Yehoshua well knows, is that for the most part, antisemitism does not threaten Jews in the Diaspora, at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrates. We all know this well.
So I’m horrified by the shootings in France. But I’m not going to go alarmist yet. Let’s focus on this incident, on who is responsible, and on honouring the victims and providing sympathy for their families. It seems like Jews are not the only target of this attacker. Let’s learn more before making sweeping judgments.
And I’m much less worried about the ravings of one antisemitic moron in the United States who thinks that “Brandeis University is one of the nation’s leading petri dishes for anti-American and neo-Marxist thought.” Has Brooks Bayne ever been to Brandeis? I think it’s more of a hot-bed for capitalist consumerism, like most educational institutions, Jewish or not (and Brandeis is not Jewish in the way Yeshiva University is, for example).
Brandeis is a great school, and indeed, one of our tentacles at PhD Octopus, Julian, actually goes there. Hey Julian, would you say that Bayne has pegged Brandeis pretty well? Do the undergrads you’ve taught ooze anti-American Marxism? Or is Brandeis one of those places where you find actual conservatives studying and teaching the humanities, at the undergraduate and graduate level? I think it’s more of the latter. I don’t want to give Bayne too much attention, and my friends Sarah and Liora have already trashed his post very effectively.
So I’ll conclude by writing that antisemitism in the US remains a minor phenomenon, in the words of scholar Stephen Whitfield, a “dog” that “did not bark,” or perhaps more accurately, barked but did not bite. Yes, there is American antisemitism, on the right and left (and yes, it can be different than anti-Zionism). It is a phenomenon that needs to be denounced, punished (in the court of public opinion, if nowhere else), and understood. But the real problem for the Jewish Diaspora’s future is assimilation, and that has been true for the past several decades.
For a while the alleged rape of a New York hotel maid by the now ex-managing director of the IMF dissolved not into the expected narrative of “he said, she said,” but instead into a question of what France versus the US do with their women. Such a story line reduced an act of sexual violence to a question of gender relations, flirtation, or privacy by comparing the US’s ostensibly stellar record of bringing its politicians to task (Spitzer and Clinton) versus France’s bad habit of turning a blind eye. In an Al Jazeera piece, Mayanthi Fernando and Gil Anidjar seem to have been the first to question the application of a narrative of sexual scandal to a case of sexual violence:
By continuing to cast DSK’s case as one of sex… we obscure the fact that the case at hand is not about sex (discreet or otherwise) but about power and violence. Like a number of similar cases (for there are comparisons to be made), it has to do with the behaviour of powerful men in powerful positions. It has to do, in other words, with politics as full spectral dominance.
Four months ago, the NYTimes ran this headline: “Thousands of Rape Kits Sit Untested for Decades, but Change Would Be Costly.” Soon after they dealt with this controversy, “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance.” And this was still going on when DSK happened: “Jury to begin deliberating in New York police rape case.” Nonetheless, the NYTimes saw fit to ask a panel of experts this question: Are French Women More Tolerant?
It’s as difficult to know where to begin telling the narrative of the narrative as it’s obviously been to narrate the case itself. But I think we could begin by asking why DSK was more readily compared with Schwarzenegger and his love child than to the contemporaneous trial of two New York cops accused of rape (one for having actually raped and the other for having assisted). After all, both story lines involved men who wielded their power to commit sexual violence against women in vulnerable positions (one inebriated after a long night celebrating a job promotion, the other reportedly an African immigrant who was working as a maid in an NYC hotel). Again, Fernando and Anidjar’s article was the first I read to draw the comparison.
Rather than focus on DSK as a sex scandal or media trial, we should perhaps instead ask what questions the acquittal of the NY cops raises for DSK’s case. Because the French media [not to mention BHL -- were he American he'd be a shock jock] has indeed gotten one thing wrong: trial by media is not the same as trial by jury. The public’s shocked reaction to the cops’ acquittal (including organized protests by various feminist groups) is testament to how divergent the media’s narrative was from that of the courtroom.
A few days ago the NYTimes finally did catch on that rape and sexual assault trials are notoriously difficult for the prosecution to win. Already DSK’s lawyers have indicated that they will argue that any sexual acts between him and the maid were consensual. So let’s take a quick look back to why the jury decided not to convict in the NY cops case. Here’s what one juror said:
“I did think that they might have had sex, but that doesn’t mean that they did have sex,” he said. “There is nothing to substantiate this. There’s no DNA, there’s no proof in any way that they had sex.”
Even more revealing was a great interview with Women’s eNews given by Melinda Hernandez, another juror who had initially voted to convict:
It all came down to the forensic evidence. There was none at all. No hair, no semen, no pubic hairs in the evidence collected from the apartment or in the rape kit collected at the hospital. There was a small red patch found on her cervix, but that could have been caused by several things. There was no solid proof from the evidence collected or the rape kit. Not even fingerprints. Not even fibers from police uniforms. Many pieces of material were taken from the apartment. But there were no fingerprints. There was nothing there.
All the evidence was collected by the NYPD internal affairs investigator and was taken to police crime lab. After it was examined there, then it was sent to the medical examiners lab.
Was there ever any question of police tampering of the evidence?
You can’t raise that kind of speculation. That’s why I think the system failed her big-time.
But why can’t you raise that kind of speculation at a trial? It’s the given duty of the jurors to judge the credibility of the plaintiff’s versus the defendant’s testimony. Why should the testimony of expert witnesses be exempt from similar considerations?
But more importantly, how does the assumption that corroborating medical evidence is necessary to convict (though–correct me if I’m wrong–I don’t think this is actually required by law) impact the prism through which other evidence is viewed and the way in which the narrative of sexual violence is itself constructed?
First it seems necessary to point out the obvious: DNA evidence does not an act of sexual violence make. Semen found on the maid’s shirt has been matched to DSK’s DNA, but “the defense is expected to pursue the issue of whether it is even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex,” reports the NYTimes. Which reminded me of something from Stephen Robertson’s historical article on the emergence of a medico-legal discourse in rape trials during the 19th century:
In 1823, in the first American treatise on medical jurisprudence, Theodoric Beck articulated what he identified as the general medical opinion on that issue: “I am strongly inclined to doubt the probability [that] a rape can be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength.”
In the 18th century, before doctors had established their competence to judge whether a woman had been raped, the body of the female victim was examined not by doctors but by a group of respectable, married women. As the medical profession began to develop and professionalize in the 19th century, doctors asserted their medical expertise in legal cases including rape trials. While judges throughout the 19th and 20th centuries frequently challenged the conclusions doctors drew from their medical evidence, juries — largely made up of middle-class men — increasingly placed their trust in doctors’ sworn testimony.
In Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, Giorgio Agamben writes, “experience is incompatible with certainty, and once an experience has become measurable and certain, it immediately loses its authority.” Scientific verification displaces experience away from the individual onto instruments and numbers.
In her 1997 article evaluating the role that medical evidence has come to play in rape trials in Canada (which have many parallels to the United States), Georgina Feldberg wrote, “One clear force within the history of medico-legal reform was the goal of creating expert physicians who had the experience and skill to administer and interpret medical tests that would define the scientific fact of rape.”
The problem of course, is that while evidence might prove intimate contact or intercourse, there is no medical way to definitively prove consent or lack thereof. Historically, physical signs of violence have played better to juries (note the emphasis placed on the bruising of the victim’s cervix in the NY cops trial). But of course our definitions of both consensual sex and sexual violence have expanded: consensual sex can result in bruising, while the battering of a victim is not conditional for rape.
While lack of medical evidence casts doubt on the accuser’s claims and its presence may do little to lift the fog, Feldberg points out that the use of medical evidence opens up the pandora’s box of the victim’s sexual history, despite rape shield laws intended to place a victim’s sexual past off limits. Thus in the NY cops case, forensics didn’t find any traces of the accused cop’s DNA (despite the fact that he admitted to getting into bed with the woman, cuddling with her and kissing her shoulder). But forensics findings did open up questions about the DNA of three other men found on the woman’s sheets, while questions about the mechanics of penetration revealed the woman’s familiarity with various sexual positions. Of course ideally none of this would matter and courtroom reactions would not include “cringing, laughing or blushing like a fifth grader in reproductive health class.”
At the end, we’re left with a series of paradoxes. Testimony undermined by the absence of relevant medical evidence. Medical evidence that reveals decontextualized details from the accuser’s past. Medical evidence undermined by the question of experience itself: Was it consensual, was it not?
And so we come back to the question that DSK’s lawyers will want us to focus on: Is it physically possible for an older man of middling strength to force a woman to perform oral sex? At face value this seems to be a question of experience rather than medical evidence. Did the woman experience force?
Yet see how quickly a question of experience turns into a question of mechanics, of science, of experimentation and verification. Is it “even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex?” Can a rape “be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength?” Questions that expect experience to be generalizable rather than individual, and thus obfuscate issues of power, coercion, confusion, and fear.
I think the posts in this blog are enough to justify the historian’s use of the past to look with fresh and more critical eyes at the present, but it is perhaps a question why the historian should waste precious time (which could be spent in archives, crushed under toppled stacks of manuscripts!) thinking so much about the present. Sanity is one answer, but I’ve been spending a really lovely afternoon with Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, and he has been reminding me of certain things about what I do and why I do it. On why historians shouldn’t forever navel-gaze into the past:
For here, in the present, is immediately perceptible that vibrance of human life which only a great effort of the imagination can restore to the old texts… The very names we use to describe ancient ideas or vanished forms of social organization would be quite meaningless if we had not known living men… But the scholar who has no inclination to observe the men, the things, or the events around him will perhaps deserve the title, as Pirenne put it, of a useful antiquarian. He would be wise to renounce all claims to that of a historian.
Students of American history are probably familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville‘s famous Democracy in America, where the French political scientist (before there were political scientists) analyzed the democratic spirit of the antebellum United States. But we’re all much less familiar with William Crary Brownell, who in 1888-1889 wrote French Traits: An Essay in Comparative Criticism, which looked at French society from a more sociological perspective, and contrasted American individualism with the French “social instinct.”
Some of this he attributed to the influence of Catholicism. He compared Catholic and Protestant countries, noting:
The absence of the individual spirit, the absence of the sense of personal responsibility, the social interdependence of people, the respect for public opinion, the consequent consideration for others, the free play of mind compatible with only a certain carelessness as to deductions, and a confidence that society in general will see to it that the world roll on even if one’s own logic be imperfect.
But most of this was about France in particular, where “patriotism, in fact, takes the place of religion.” And so observed:
The preponderance thus of unifying over controversial and separatist forces has rendered [the people of France] the most homogenous in the world, and, accordingly, if it be ever excusable to speak of a people in the mass, it is excusable in the case of the French. What one notes in the individual is more than anywhere else apt to be national trait.
And thus, paradoxically, you have the classic French universalist particularism (or particularist universalism):
The French provincial spirit, like other French traits, is thoroughly impersonal. The individual, everywhere subordinated to the state and the community, appears himself curiously unrelated to the very object of his characteristic adoration. Personally speaking, his provincialism is impartial. He does not admire France because she is his country. His competence with himself proceeds from the circumstance that he is a Frenchman; which is distinctly what he is first, being a man afterward. And his pride in France by no means proceeds from her production of such men as he and his fellows, but from what France, composed of his fellows and himself, accomplishes and represents. One never hears the Frenchman boast of the character and quality of his compatriots, as Englishmen and ourselves do. He is thinking about France, about her different gloires, about her position at the head of civilization. His country is to him an entity, a concrete and organic force, with whose work in the world he is extremely proud to be natively associated, without at the same time being very acutely conscious of contributing thereto or sharing the responsibility therefor.
What shocked me reading this book is how much this analysis rings true today, 120 years later. Reading Brownell, I was reminded of Tony Judt’s social democratic call to arms:
It is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of mistrust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely. A willingness to pay for other people’s services and benefits rests upon the understanding that they in turn will do likewise for you and your children: because they are like you and see the world as you do.
French, and more broadly European homogeneity, xenophobia and racism have led to a greater sense of solidarity than that in America. This European solidarity is constantly being challenged by immigration. But I wonder if the roots run deeper, to Catholicism vs Protestantism, or to some other historical and structural reasons for American individualism (think Frederick Jackson Turner) vs European solidarity or communitarianism.
Brownell’s observations also found an echo in Judt’s commentary on France’s intellectual tradition:
What happened to French intellectuals? Once we had Camus, “the contemporary heir to that long line of moralists whose work perhaps constitutes whatever is most distinctive in French letters” (Sartre). We had Sartre himself. We had François Mauriac, Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the ” inénarrable Mme De Beauvoir” (Aron). Then came Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and—more controversially—Pierre Bourdieu. All could claim significant standing in their own right as novelists, philosophers, or simply “men of letters.” But they were also, and above all, French intellectuals.
Back in 1889, Brownell noted:
The great Frenchmen…. are not found isolated but in groups, whose members are mutually dependent and supporting. But for this… the eminence of many of them would be more conspicuous than it is; many merely eminent names in French history would shine heroic and grandiose on the roll of almost any other nation…. But the great accomplishments of France have, in general, been the work rather of the nation than of those heroes who “look at the stars with an answering ray.” Wherever the task of progress has demanded intellectual inspiration or moral energy, it is the Spaniard, the Italian, the Englishman who excels, but it is the French people entire.
Thus French people identified not just with specific intellectuals, but with an intellectual tradition, in a way that other countries did not, and do not. I think again that the contrast with the United States is most stark. Americans might identify with the inventiveness of Thomas Edison, but not with a particular philosophy or intellectual tradition.
Of course, Brownell’s books is filled with massive generalizations, unsupported by any sort of quantitative data. But the fact that these observations resemble the same sort of talking points we often here today when comparing America to France in particular or Europe in general seems rather telling. Either these talking points have become so ingrained in the American psyche simply through repetition, or perhaps there is something to them.