Monday, November 24, 2003

France Falling – André Glucksmann, Part One of Three

Ouest contre ouest, Civilization contre Nihilism

Last week I commented on the current French government’s problem: the pen of Nicolas Baverez. That Baverez is himself a more or less centre-right commentator in the political realm, ostensibly the exact point of the political spectrum occupied by the Chirac-Raffarin government, makes his criticism all the more stunning as it comes from one of those who should most support the current administration. However, the heart of Baverez’ critique was precisely that Chirac’s government is failing as a centre-right government committed to prudent progress. Rather, it appears as a reactionary force that merges nationalist pedantry with revolutionary rhetoric betraying the cause of western liberal democracy. Central to this rhetoric is Chirac’s rather incessant reference to American globalization, a globalization countered by his own vision of a more fair and equitable liberalization of the world based on that key French concept, solidarity. Chirac, it appears, is taking up the standard of social democracy and justice, a humanitarian if there ever was one.

The problem once more is that another French author, André Glucksmann, is having none of it. In contrast to Baverez, an Aronian liberal, Glucksmann sits to the left of the political spectrum, a moderate with socialist sympathies and an ardent opponent of ideological movements, left or right. As far as Glucksmann is concerned, Chirac’s rhetoric is anything but humanitarian. In this, he shares Baverez’ view that what lies at the heart of humane democracy is not the tired rhetoric of extremist democratic movements and appeasement of third world dictators acting under the guise of liberation and economic emancipation. The heart of a humane and human democracy for Glucksmann, as for Baverez, is reasoned and public debate carried out through national institutions. And the work of western civilization, in its entirety, is nothing less than the common defense of this ideal. On this point, Glucksmann is unequivocal, “The question of questions is not multipolarity or hegemony, but nihilism or civilization.”

Glucksmann does have a slightly different emphasis than Baverez however. As someone in the Aronian tradition of moderate political liberalism, Baverez tends to place his emphasis on the health of the French regime, looking especially at its domestic situation in order to locate its immoderate excesses and imprudent machinations. Glucksmann, with his more leftist leanings and socialist background tends to focus on France’s international maneuverings, especially in comparison to the comportment of the United States. If Baverez comes down on the side of liberal prudence, Glucksmann tilts toward liberal humanitarianism. In each case however, their differences highlight both the failure of the Chirac government on both standards, while underlining the common bond that still must serve to unite the various political parties dedicated to liberal democracy.

At the same time, we must note that the very title of Glucksmann’s book highlights the cleavage within the western civilization: Ouest contre ouest (West Against West). In this regard, Glucksmann sees the current divisions within the western world as a species of domestic dispute, one that is not limited to only territory and national boundaries, but to the realm of intellectual and moral debates on both sides of the Atlantic. On this point, Glucksmann turns to Thucydides’ classic recounting of the Peloponnesian War for inspiration. Remarking that Thucydides judged this war in the heart of Greek civilization, rather than the earlier conflict with the Persians, as the lynchpin of history, Glucksmann argues that the current crisis places the West and western civilization in peril. What’s at stake is the definition of western civilization.

According to Glucksmann, the debate over the self-understanding of the West is a natural occurrence. It’s not surprising that France may understand the definition of the West in a manner divergent from the United States. It’s also not surprising that France might look at the dominance of the US as a threat to its own vision and seek to carve out its own independent role within the western world. This is something any American administration must understand and accept. However, the policy of the French government under Chirac has been one of challenging the very idea of western civilization through inflammatory accusations and active coddling of anti-western elements, especially in the Middle East and Africa. While George Bush speaks of the defense of civilization against Islamism, Jacques Chirac criticizes the United States and fetes the anti-globalization movement as a profound social movement.

A key element in Glucksmann’s understanding of civilization concerns what is opposed – a civilization stands for something and against something else. This may sound rather general or basic, but he seems to use it as a minimum criterion for identifying a civilization. Western civilization, which in some respect is the source of the very idea of civilization, stands for a certain moral and political view of the world, for the significance of the citizen, for reason and the possibility of human decision within a certain natural framework. Nihilism, whether it be the active nihilism of the terrorist or the suicidal nihilism of the western fellow-traveler, has turned against western civilization. Glucksmann’s intent is to unmask the ideology of this suicidal nihilism in its current manifestations. Over the remainder of this week, I will look at two examples of how he understands the misconceptions that arise from this nihilism and how they affect the international scene. The first, appearing Wednesday, will be a contrast between two political views, or perhaps better yet, between a political view and a religious political consciousness – a contrast Glucksmann dresses as one between Shakespeare and Sartre. The second, to be posted Friday, will consider contrasting views of the value of western civilization, a contrast between “the cowboy and the tsar.”

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