The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Why Thuram is Right about the Situation in France

It's been two weeks since more cars than normal began burning each night in the suburbs of Paris and elsewhere in France. 'More cars than normal,' that stings like the harsh truth it is. That no one should have been surprised by what's been taking place. The banlieues (suburbs) just outside of Paris have long been grim, depressing places to while away in, they are intimidating and segregated, no-go for outsiders and no-hope for insiders. Extremely isolated, they really are some of the worst places to live in all of Europe. But for millions they are simply home.

Juventus Turin fullback Lilian Thuram grew up in this environment on the southern outskirts of Paris, and no mere French footballing icon. His two goals vs. Croatia in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, and all-around stellar defense, lifted the host country during their march to destiny. In fact, allow me to quote the great Zinedine Zidane himself (who together with Thuram and Claude Makalele recently - just in the nick of time for France - came out of international retirement:)

You write and write about me and Ronaldo, but you don't even see that the greatest footballer of all is right in front of you: Lilian Thuram.

Lilian Thuram strikes his famous impression of Rodin's "The Thinker" statue after scoring his first goal vs. Croatia during 1998 World Cup semi-final.

While Jean-Marie Le Pen and his ilk fumed about how these players were not 'really' French; the world, and much more importantly France itself, celebrated. The scenes when Zidane, Thuram and the others had their images projected onto the Arc de Triomphe during the mad-cap celebrations along the Champs Elysee are pure poetry.

The other day, Thuram made major waves in the French and international media when he directly criticized French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy who said that he ''...would clean the scum (racaille) off the streets with high pressure hoses." Thuram is an intelligent man and went much further than his initially sanguine retort of "I am not scum." This is not the case of a celebrity using their platform of fame to wax inane about war and peace. Not one to ignore idiocy, Thuram knows the world of the banlieues and is a member of the French Government's "Haut Conseil a l'Integration," an advisory body that suggests ways to help integrate minorities. He spoke of alienation and a yearning for respect, fueled by unemployment and discrimination:

I grew up in an estate, too, but I am not scum. People used to say the same thing to me. What I wanted was to find work...The situation makes me sick. It's always the same, it's always the fault of the youngsters in the suburbs...Nobody is asking the right questions. Nobody is trying to look at the real problems. People are talking about insecurity rather than unemployment. They are trying to convince the public that these people are nothing but rioters, which is not the truth. You need to ask why, stop putting people in boxes in nasty suburbs. The most dangerous people are not those who are messing up the suburbs. You really need to think deeply about the root causes. The real political debate is how to live together, how to provide jobs. That's fundamental.

Go, Lilian, go! This is not about condoning the violence and destruction. Please. We all prefer living in a society based on the rule of law, and know that criminals must be apprehended, prosecuted and sentenced, period. That includes the rioters and the butcher who murdered Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec. So anyone reading some kind of approval into his, or my words, is simply putting up a smoke-screen behind which they will cower until (temporary) calm returns. In these pieces, Denis Boyles and Bernard-Henri Levy unfortunately demonstrate all too well how French President Jacques Chirac seems inclined to do just that. Fortunately, at least Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has actually posed some serious questions.

There is REAL alienation in France and at its roots lies the issue of identity. Who are we? Trust me, this alienation exists in most West European countries - including here in my own neighborhood, copycat thugs burned cars elsewhere in Berlin during the last fortnight - and there are two main reasons why people experience this.

First, and most importantly, the labor markets of Western Europe lack any shred of dynamism in the form of job creation. Joel Kotkin offers a learned summary of the situation here. The powers that be reside in the early 20th Century, embracing statism while the unions play sad zero-sum games in their attempts to protect redundant jobs and prevent viable ones. Without even the possibility of gaining a foothold in the labor market, any hope of mobility is naturally in vein. If you think a super-market job is 'dead-end,' ask those bogged down, dehumanized and stigmatized in the welfare swamp. Ask Eric Abidal, now also a French national team defender, about what happened when his friends tried to get a job at the local supermarket in their banlieu of La Duchere, outside of Lyon. It didn't go very well.

It's a vicious downward spiral: Unemployment soars, poverty rises, consumption shrinks and no one buys what is produced...anywhere. Well, besides the U.S. that is. If Americans weren't buying German, or French, products (forget the silliness you might have bought into about Red State Bratwurst and Freedom Fries) then where would these folks be? If you dislike this world...well, there ain't no world but this one.

Secondly, when so few jobs are created, guess who DEFINITELY won't be getting one? That's right, the poorest segments of society. The working class, and it so happens that many belong to one minority or another. The children and grand-children of immigrants who had jobs now cannot find ones in the countries they grew up in. And next thing you know, hucksters start blaming it all on the 'immigrants.' Either they're accused of stealing the (few) jobs out there or living the high-life on welfare, take your pick. Leaving aside the non sequitur that people who are born and raised somewhere cannot be immigrants, you still have to wonder where these quacksalvers garner the gall to peddle this elixir. The simple reality is that none of these countries have what can justifiably be called an immigration policy. This, in and of itself, makes assimilation less likely. Add to that the nature of their assimilation philosophies - ranging from the unrealistic, oppressive requiring of people to forget about their origins (France) to pigeonholing them according to the very same (Germany, Sweden, Holland et. al.) - and you've got yourself places and people who have no clue how to deal with immigration. Well, aside from using 'immigrants' as scapegoats that is.

In Berlin, the equivalent of the Banlieues are the Plattenbau Settlements. Unemployment is rampant and extremism strives. But the difference - and this is the key point - is that in these former East German housing developments the population is white German. They are far more alienated - also lacking in identity after the disappearance of their DDR - than the minorities in my neighborhood. Here in Kreuzberg, we live centrally, people here have their little communities and the atmosphere is generally pretty friendly. On the rare occasion that I have reason to head into the Plattenbau world, I feel a million times more uncomfortable than here in my own supposedly dangerous hood. And if I feel uncomfortable there, you can rest assured that anyone not white, feels more so.

Yet, the media chooses to focus on the German Turks in Kreuzberg because they are minorities, rather than on the situation in Marzahn or Hohenschonhausen in East Berlin. And naturally more so because they are Muslim. Yes, there are problems - especially within the antiquated school system and the stagnant, rigid labor market - but to mention them in the same breath as the situation in France is pure and simple trivialization.

Isn't it obvious that the problem lies in the alienation and not in the ethnic origin of people? I guess not. By focusing exclusively on 'immigration' and 'Islam,' not only do you pose the wrong questions, but you risk turning it all into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tomorrow, France welcome next year's World Cup host Germany in a friendly match at the Stade de France in St. Denis north of Paris. Since St. Denis is known to be one of the infamous banlieues, the German media has been worrying themselves sick about safety and conjuring up doomsday scenarios. It's had this rather ridiculous result. And anyway, a little research would shown that the beautiful stadium - I was blessed enough to see two games there in 1998 - is 'safely' isolated between train tracks and a highway.

German coach Juergen Klinsmann is also a thinking man's (former) footballer and is more likely pondering other things. First of all, that his team might get steam-rolled by a reinvigorated French team that just qualified for the Big Party next summer. Thuram and Zidane were recently coaxed out of retirement and add some backbone to a great squad already featuring Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera.

But Klinsmann, now based in Los Angeles, has played and lived in many countries and knows exactly where German football is left lacking. Namely, in integrating young German born and bred players whose parents have non-German origins into the national team. When his team takes the field against Les Bleus, the contrast will be oh so obvious. Where are the Zidanes and Vieras of Germany? Well, among others they play for Turkey and Croatia.

Last month, when Turkey played Germany in Istanbul, half of the Turkish team was composed of players born and raised in places like Berlin and Gelsenkirchen. They were never asked to play for Germany. Recently, attitudes have begun to show signs of change, but when German born Nuri Sahin - a player Arsenal's coach Arsene Wenger ('discoverer' of Henry) has called the best young player around - was approached by the German Federation, he turned them down. Turkey had already asked and all his life he had been told that this was the country he was from. During the game in Istanbul, Sahin made his debut for the Turkish team (3rd in the 2002 World Cup) and scored the winning goal. German television interviewed him afterwards. Speaking in Ruhr-Gebiet German, the 17-year old sounded just like any other quietly confident German schoolboy, but emblazoned on his face was a big ol' grin. In his first game for Turkey, he had just scored his first goal, and to boot against Germany.

Alienation drives people into situations that are unnatural, leads to random violence and planned vandalism, and eventually into the hands of extremists. Nationalists in Turkey - for they certainly applied pressure to Sahin's family to make 'the right choice' - inadvertently colluded with those who discriminated him in Germany. For the individual an odd outcome and a loss for German football.

But while football is important for its hope and symbolism, the far more serious results of alienation were visible in France during the past few weeks. In search of something, the youth take anything. Still, riots are harmless nuisances compared to the logical conclusion that is reached when the Pied Pipers of Hate begin to play their tunes. It happened in Germany during the Weimar Republic and more recently, the tunes were played for Mohamed Atta in Hamburg and Mohammad Sidique Khan in Leeds.

French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy recently painted a dark scenario in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed:

Nothing will stop the movement. I'm not saying that it won't come to a stop, obviously. But I am saying that no gesture, no idea, no long- or short-term policy, will have, by itself, by magic, the prodigious power to break this spiral that will surely have to follow its logic to the end...It will necessarily come to an end, at some point. But for that to happen, this Telethon of rage, this suicidal, unprecedented tarantella, this meltdown of despair and barbarism, will first have to travel to the end of its own drunkenness... (then we need the kind of talk) those young people are waiting for, the ones who don't want to hear themselves treated like children of immigrants anymore, because they're simply French. Talk that will express, not rancor and mistrust, but equality, citizenship, consideration, and, as they say, respect...if there is to be renewed (belief,) in the lost lands of the Republic, something that will one day resemble a social bond. The other alternative is clear. We have had, in these past few days, a foretaste of it, and, for a secular country, it would be an avowal of ultimate failure: transferring the task of maintaining order and preaching peace to the authorities of the mosques.

Le Pen appeals to the unemployed and alienated white Frenchman while various other charlatans cater to minorities. Yes, when pushed and shove one time to many, some people will believe that salvation lies in deporting millions of 'immigrants.' And some will interpret the Holy Books in hateful and murderous ways. But this can only happen on a large scale when minds have been turned fertile in these kind of alienated environments.

Tomorrow, Lilian Thuram will be playing for himself, for his people, for the 'scum' and for his country. If you have the chance, watch him when he sings the Marseillaise - he always sings the proudest and loudest - watch him when he represents France in all its glory. Let's hope the Sarkozys are listening. The 'scum' will be doing just that, and they know that Thuram is one of them.


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