Monday, November 28, 2005

Chesterton on France: Further Reflections on Burning Cars in Europe’s Most Civilized Country

In a recent blog on this site that dealt ostensibly with French car burnings and also with other things, I suggested that the current unrests in France are not particularly current or particularly French. Unfortunately, I chanced across the following quotation in an essay by G.K. Chesterton (1878-1936) only after I posted that blog and it would have made a lovely conclusion to that piece. I offer it here as a kind of addendum.

Like so many things in Chesterton, it was found in the course of first looking for something else. In this case, the comment on France was found in an essay entitled, appropriately enough “On Thoughts in Canada”. With Chesterton, you can virtually be sure that his thoughts on birds will be found in an essay on banking or his thoughts on banking found in an essay on the virtues of village bakeries.

Here is what Chesterton wrote about France, a country the Earl of Mayo (who lives here now) once declared “the most civilized country in Europe”. I wonder what the Earl thinks of the current contribution by French youths to global warming. I digress. Here is GKC:

…France is still what she always was, the intellectual focus and creative crater
of Christendom; the place where the ideas are hammered out which are to build or
destroy a world. Those who do not understand what is happening in Paris
are dangerously ignorant of what will soon be happening everywhere; for all
Frenchmen are radical in the sense of going to the root of things.

All is Grist (London, Methuen, 1931) at 184.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 105
Iain T. Benson ©

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Year Later and another Weather Report from France: Car Burnings this Evening, Smouldering towards Dawn.

Almost exactly a year before the wide-spread arson began on French streets I wrote a piece on this site about the headscarf issue in French schools that ended as follows:

Unrest has begun. Like the storm we are expecting later today, things still seem quiet. Serious storms, however, can begin with small beginnings and the unrest over “the veil” and the French claim that stripping all religious symbolism from schools is neutral might ignite what ends up being a veritable firestorm.

It is still a little early to tell how big will be the blow but here, and in French schools, the winds have started. (Centreblog, Vol. 45, October 22, 2004)

In today’s BBC World Service website (Nov. 16, 2005) we read that an aspect of the unrest of many young Muslims appears to be the banning of the headscarves in schools.
Interestingly, this was not and is not a part of the French coverage of the issue.

They have, largely, and at the beginning, entirely avoided any direct suggestion of a link between their policies regarding the autumn 2004 banning of “ostensible religious symbols” (headscarves, yarmulkes, crosses and medallions etc) and what has blown up on French streets with massive youth frustration (MYF). That issue is not, as many of them would like to think, over.

MYF is not new. Neither is it Muslim, black, poor or French. It has surfaced in one form or another in virtually every country in Europe and, as a matter of fact, in most developed countries around the world including North America. Cast your minds back to the 1960’s? We once lived for a brief spell in Windsor, Ontario and we used to look across the river to Detroit which we were told by older locals used to glow red in the riot fires of an earlier time. They were called race riots but when cars burn baby, cars burn. And they burn every night somewhere on the evening news.

I remember Zurich a decade later where block after block of the centre of town was decimated by MYF and they were mostly white affluent kids on a tear, deeply frustrated with the “social conditions” of their lives in that affluent and unusual country. My Swiss cousin told me of the kinds of frustrations many young people felt and many of them believed they were living in a police and corporatist state against which they wanted to rebel. Those frustrations burst out into ugly violence and mayhem and, again, cars burned.

What is going on in France has occurred elsewhere, will occur elsewhere again and must be carefully parsed if we are to get at the real root causes. Here are a few suggestions.

1) Poverty, in the monetary sense, isn’t the major issue – the really poor
seldom riot, certainly in most of the world today the really poor are too sick
and weak to riot and are in countries where, if they did, they would die. In any
case, given the massive social assistance in France and the kind of kids burning
cars on the streets, this isn’t about that. If it is about poverty, it is of
another kind than money;

2) Racism isn’t the main issue – many of those rioting in France at the
moment, judging by news reports, are third generation youths of parents who
integrated into these Western countries some time ago though there were riots
about “the Algerian situation” in the 1950’s so perhaps there is an element
there to examine;

3) Frustration with life opportunities and “the way of life” does seem to be
the most common expressed element and when we put it together with the
experience of other countries, a central one.

Consider the places where the riots are occurring in France. Dreadful cités surround all the major cities and most of the lesser ones. Ugly apartment buildings in which, as is usual for the poor in the contemporary world, they have no land of their own. We in North America call them “social housing projects” and they are, frankly, nasty. “Le Corbusier’s revenge” one might wish to call them, after the dark and sometimes inhuman vision of that most destructive of French architects. As Sigfried Giedion, himself a great admirer of Le Corbusier, put it in his monumental Space, Time and Architecture (1941, p. 160) “…there is one branch of architecture where deceit is impossible, and that is town planning.” He failed, however, to treat of “self-deceit” in that formulation.

The kind of high-rise monstrosity beloved of modern utopianists like Le Corbusier soon became the model for housing developments picked up and used everywhere - - and they are a disaster virtually everywhere they were tried. Chesterton, that prescient man, wrote about the beginnings of this movement to so-called “social housing” (better to call them what they are - - “anti-social housing”) in his justly celebrated 1910 book “What’s Wrong with the World?”

Chapter 11 of that book is entitled “The History of Hudge and Gudge” and describes the kind of well-intentioned social hubris that has led to the treatment of generations of human persons like gerbils. It is little wonder that these dwellings do not work, are sinks for crime and frustration and lead to MYF or, for that matter, massive human frustration?

That they provide a turnstile of people dependent upon social workers and a host of bureaucrats suggests one reason why the state is in a sort of strange conflict of interest about looking for solutions that would actually get people out of these horrendous places. At least the French are beginning to knock them down - - as are other countries. It can’t happen fast enough.

One commentator, an economist and the first Professor of Management at Oxford University, John Kay, writing in the Financial Times (January 17, 2004) notes as follows:

Charles Jencks, the architectural commentator, announced that modernism ended at 3.32pm on July 15 1972, when demolition contractors detonated the fuses to blow up the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri. Less than two decades earlier, the scheme had won awards for its pioneering, visionary architecture. Tower blocks were the supreme expression of Le Corbusier's view that "a house is a machine for living in". Corbusier himself designed the first such buildings, the Unite d'Habitation on the edge of Marseille. [Which by the way had, on the 17th floor a daycare for 150 children and a shopping centre on a central floor. ITB]

But a house is not simply a machine for living in. There is a difference between a house and a home. The functions of a home are complex and the utility of a building depends not only on its design but on the reactions of those who live in it. The occupants of the Pruitt-Igoe scheme, like those of similar buildings, were alienated by the isolation of a living environment that saw no need for accidental, unplanned social interactions. They showed no respect for its public spaces. The functionality of the blocks proved, in the end, not to be functional.

But what is built going forward must be based upon a richer philosophy (and, yes, theology) of the human person in community. Clearly, architecture is not the whole problem. In this respect, the work of Christopher Alexander and his group in such influential books as A Pattern Language (O.U.P., 1977) provides a good start in overcoming utopian conceptions not properly grounded in human nature and how we actually can best and most beautifully and productively live together, but other aspects are equally important.

We must ask whether,in the massive numbers of cars and buses burned in France largely (almost entirely) by disgruntled youth, is there any element that is traceable to something particularly French? Is the French Muslim factor at play here? Is this some sort of religious Muslim versus “the secular state’ problem? I think not. John Simpson, BBC World Affairs editor in Paris echoes the concerns of John Kay and Chesterton much earlier when he writes of “the anger and the sense of alienation which have produced these ugly scenes” (

Muslim leaders have been calling for an end to the burnings while they have protested about police being too aggressive. They see this as a kind of civil unrest, not as some kind of valid religious protest even though they reject recent moves against religion in France (see more below).

So it would be facile to attribute this to a “Muslim problem” or “Islamic issue” particularly in view of the history I have set out above showing, I hope, that this sort of violence has occurred everywhere and involving all sorts of cultures if we but pull the lens back a bit.

The fact is that young people of a certain sort tend to run in packs. Packs tend to form within linguistic, religious and social groups. The cités have large numbers of particular ethnic and social groups gathered in one place so it stands to reason that the packs that emerge from them represent these groupings. In Vancouver, we called them “gangs” and they created their own form of havoc wherever they went whether they were Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Aboriginal or your average white gang .

Come to think of it, remember the so-called “Stanley Cup Riot” in Vancouver? What was that? Simple excess of youthful jollity? Hardly. It was a pack mentality of loosely organized hooliganism and, to some degree, MYF, but spoken through the loss of a sporting event. Once formed, the “sport’s pack” went out on a tear – and they often go out on tears whether they win or lose. The old adage made new by the undisciplined groundlings of our time is this: “it is not whether you win or lose but how hard you beat up the other teams supporters that counts.” This violence is not restricted to any one country either though some nations (here one notes Britain) are rather more notorious than others. Sports violence is just the form that MYF takes in some countries. In others it is burning cars, trashing buildings or generally behaving like louts.

But isn’t it drawing a long bow to link sport related violence in Vancouver with burning cars in Pau? It isn’t and this is why. Well behaved young people, of whatever race, social class or religion (including atheists and agnostics) do not take to the streets and destroy the property of other human beings. Consider for a moment the fact that most of the cars destroyed in France were owned by poorer people in the very developments from which the “packs” of WYF lived and moved and had their beings. Some protest against poverty that is.

Certain kinds of protestors are simply randomly destructive, others depend upon more symbolic violence and destruction to make a point (environmentalists of a G8 protest variety come to mind), and other kinds choose ways less destructive of property. They make their actions peaceful and violence comes, if at all, from the other exposing the negative force being resisted. Gandhi’s satyagraha or “truth-force”, dedicated as it is to absolute non-violence, is the model here. It is interesting to note that one of the first western commentaries on Gandhi’s teaching appeared in French and in a Muslim publication (see: Louis Massignon, Revue du Monde Muselman, April-June 1921, cited in Maritain, see below).

So what is the significance of this violence in France? No one seems to know. Is it simply another example of massive youth frustration or something as simple as “copy-cat burnings” following some in Birmingham (against the Jewish community) a few days before the ones in France started?

Is all this simply the quest for something “real” and “exciting” from some members of a generation bored by sensual satiation on the web and television and overfed by State hand-outs? Are these young people simply using the language of the age, “racism” and “poverty”, to give a superficial veneer to their immature bloody-mindedness? Is it carefully organized international Muslim extremism? Theories abound and there is no way of determining for sure whether it is some, all, or none of the above.

Is what is happening of no more long term significance than the smashing of a Starbucks on Robson Street after a hockey loss by the home team? Is this merely the way that French immigrant children do the same sort of thing? Right now it is difficult to say but for many years there has been a malaise and frustration building in our countries that needs only the slightest opportunity to burst out in ugly violence.

I referred to Gandhi above. The “Satyagraha Pledge” he devised and published in 1920 concludes with the following phrase: “…in this struggle we will faithfully follow truth and refrain from violence to life, person or property” (see Jacques Maritain, Freedom in the Modern World, London: Sheed and Ward, 1935 at 223). Isn’t part of what needs to be instilled in the young, at the very least, a moral sense of how to protest properly and what forms civil disobedience or protest might most usefully take?

Can the problems of alienation be understood without examining the wider questions about the buildings outside of which they occur and what these buildings represent about our understanding of man and his place in society? If we want to get at the roots of some of the problems of cultures around the world today we shall have to ask these bigger questions. But that brings us yet again to our national and international “metaphobias” and “theophobias.”

Metaphobic and theophobic people cannot get at the root causes of anything so their “solutions” will never work because their diagnoses are usually wrong. One must be careful here not to offer simplistic solutions to deep problems. Sometimes, alas, religion is offered as a solution to all the world’s ills but too little attention is given to what is meant by religion and what its actual outworking can mean for a society.

Dr. John Patrick, medical doctor and sometime Professor of medicine, friend of mine and of the Centre for Cultural Renewal and well-known lecturer around the globe, worked for many years with his wife Sally as a medical missionary doctor in Rwanda and Zaire. He has often pointed out that, following missionary efforts since the 1930’s and mass revival meetings, over 80% of the Rwandan population claimed to be “born again” Christians.

Yet, despite this, with the religious vision supposedly “around,” the world witnessed that society’s rapid disintegration into the mass murdering of tribe on tribe a few years ago. Evidently, considering oneself “born again” is, by itself, little proof of anything. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding and that goes for all religions and all non-religious belief systems.

Again, to return full circle to the piece at the top of this article, one of the deeper issues in France that will continue to subsist after the current round of frustration burns itself out, relates to its official embrace of the anti-religious ideology of secularism (laïcism) and that is what underlies the banning of religious symbols and the unfair treatment of religious believers.

For it is often in unfair and systemic religious (or anti-religious) prejudice that what begins as car burning and the like can, and so often has in history, turned into the burning of human beings. One thing is sure, outside of a moral critique and solution along the lines discussed by the religious visions of man (such as Gandhi and his “truth-force” or Judeo-Christian moral visions) and followed up in actions, not just empty profession, this problem will not and, in fact, cannot go away.

No matter what our beliefs are, all of us have much work to do in this discussion. We can start by getting beyond a simplistic attribution of the problems of car burnings to “French” “Muslim” youths concerned about “racism” or “poverty” or their engagement with a so-called “secular” state. The problems in France, like in so many cultures, lie much deeper and closer to the nature of contemporary life itself.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 104
Iain T. Benson©