Saturday, November 05, 2005

Paris burning

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Disabled woman set on fire as Paris riots spread

I remember the long hot summers when the cities burned in the US and, after Rodney King got beaten up, I was in Whittier reading a paper at Whittier College, up the hill from LA and we could smell the smoke.

It's easy enough to understand why most people set fires, loot shops and trash the streets: it's fun and profitable. When I was at music camp, at the end of the season, I bought a 10¢ ticket for a chance to bash an old upright piano with a sledge hammer. Who doesn't want to do damage and run amok--all the better if you can get a DVD player into the bargain.

But crowds are wise. Even if individuals are just out for rape and pillage, the crowd operates according to ideological commitment and a delicate sensitivity to time, place and circumstance. Why then and there?

In the US, I think, it was impatience and thwarted idealism. We had the idea that if Jim Crow laws could be pulled down everything would immediately be fixed. Then, after the inspiring speeches, sit-ins and martyrdoms, it was business as usual. The first generation of the civil rights movements compared themselves to their grandparents and thought they'd entered into the Promised Land; the next generation compared themselves to whites and were, legitimately, outraged. And so the first generation of immigrants compare their circumstances to their lives in very poor countries and are pleased; their children and children's children look around them and expect something better.

I've always been sympathetic to the French scheme of secularism and assimilation. But it's an empirical question of how best to achieve it. Denying the reality of racism doesn't make it go away. They should certainly stop schoolgirls from wearing Muslim headscarves--not because they're religious symbols but because they're an overt display of ethnic identity. If you live in a country, you have an obligation to assimilate. But the other side of the coin is that the state has an obligation to make it feasible--and that doesn't seem to have been happening in France.

Ought implies can and if the state, whether in France or anywhere else, is seriously interested in getting minorities to assimilate it has to see that they can--by dismantling racism, and by affirmative action and other policies geared to ending discrimination.

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