French Africa

This is a meandering essay; although it’s about history, it’s a bit personalized, for effect. In other words, it’s far from straightforwardly scholarly history but I think it’s all or mostly true. Be patient, at one point it will become about the former French African colonial empire and socio-cultural strata it deposited in France, and there to this day.

Acting Uncool

Often, in my dotage, I sneak a look at TV5, the French language cable channel. Often too, I fall asleep on the couch while watching its usually – but not always – insipid programs. One day, a short documentary catches my attention. It’s about sexual harassment of French women on the public way. It catches my attention because it’s not obvious to me what would pass for sexual harassment in France, I mean, this side of grabbing and such. So, it turns out that the makers of the documentary had placed a man with a hidden camera near a cafe on a street with a bad reputation. The street is near to one of the main railroad stations in Paris, guaranteeing a two-way flow of commuters, including women, of course.

In the course of twenty minutes, the documentary displays about thirty episodes of “sexual harassment.” I am only a man, of course, and thus limited, and a skeptic, but the worst harassment I witness takes the form of annoying mouth noises that I am not talented enough to reproduce with words. Mostly, there are gauche invitations to have a cup of coffee. The documentary ends with the expected boring, trite lamentations, blah, blah. There is zero mention of a striking fact: All the harassers without exception sport a thick North African accent.

I say a “thick” accent to signify recent arrival in France. The accent normally erodes in a few years or months. I imagine the harassers were young immigrants from small villages in Algeria and Morocco trying artlessly to deal with the knowledge that they were now in a society where sex could theoretically be had outside of marriage and outside of prostitution. Some may have been merely lonely and naively hoping to make a French friend. Political correctness clashes with political correctness: Harassing women, even if only verbally, is terrible but mentioning that the harassers all proceed from Muslim countries is terrible too. So, make the documentary and shut up about the obvious!

This is not a very interesting story, of course; I know this. Would anyone expect probably poorly educated rural young men from sex-segregated societies to learn to be cool with women as they are stepping off the boat? It will take quite a while, at best. For some, it will never happen; they will remain uncool forever. Then, they will marry an immigrant woman from their area of origin. Again, it would be absurd to expect anything else. In the same vein, would it be reasonable to imagine that all those immigrants would quickly come to appreciate the importance of the separation of religion from governance (of “church and state”) when it’s anathema in Islam?

Is it possible that a few will never appreciate at all the beauty of such separation? Is it possible that their ignorance, or their hostility, will be passively transmitted to their offspring, together with pork avoidance, for example? Will (would) that transmission have a cumulative effect on French society? France contributed more than its share of apprentice terrorists to ISIS, even would-be war brides, even young women ready for the sexual jihad. The one thing may have little to do with the other. And, it’s true that a startling number of the above are converts from Christianity or, more likely, from atheism.

French people who are not racist, or even “Islamophobic” in any mechanistic sense, carry this sort of question on their minds all the time. Some French people who have been in France for a long time but have Muslim names become themselves attached to secularism (la laïcité). They also discreetly worry about the very same issue. Those who will actually talk about it appear more worried than their fellow citizens with names like mine, or like “Pierre Dupont.” This is all impressionistic, of course. There is no survey. For one thing, it’s illegal in France to gather data about ethnicity.

How did it come to this, you might wonder. Why are these guys in France at all, the ones acting uncool in every conceivable meaning of the word?

Quitting Algeria

In 1962, the French Republic and the Algerian nationalists of the Front de Libération Nationale (“FLN”) came to an agreement about Algerian independence. That was after 130 years of French colonization and eight years of brutal war, including war against civilians, from both sides. The colonization had been in depth, with hundreds of thousands of French settlers convincing themselves that Algeria was a kind of second France, resembling the original in every way. Except, that is, for the inconvenient prior presence of numerous exotically dressed people who were neither Christians nor free-thinkers. Except for the fact that many of the French settlers were newly minted poor immigrants from Spain and Italy.

At Independence, I participated in the evacuation of large number of French civilians from the country as a little sailor. I mean “French French.” By that time and belatedly, the presumably Muslim population had been granted citizenship. Too little, too late. Probably in an an effort to divide to conquer, the numerous (Arabic speaking) Algerian Jews had all been granted citizenship in the 1880s. In the days of evacuation, the number of (old) French who wanted to leave was much greater than French authorities had planned for. An aircraft carrier – emptied of its planes – had to be used. It was a pathetic show, complete with broken, uncomprehending old grandmothers who had probably never set foot in France. There were no deluxe suitcases in sight but there were used mattresses. Some factions within the FLN were threatening the French with death if they did not go immediately; others would have liked to keep them, or some of them. The death threats prevailed.

It was too bad that the French left in such large numbers. It made the transition to independence technically more difficult than it could have been. It gave the upper hand in Algeria to those who had the best guns rather than to those who could govern, or to the people. It was a pity for all concerned. The French refugees faced an uncertain and harsh future in France, for the most part. For the Algerians, many positions were left for a while without competent personnel, including a budding oil industry in the Sahara. There was a shortage of medical doctors for many years.

Make a mental note of this fact: The French French were not the only ones fleeing. They were accompanied by tens of thousands of families with Muslim names and whose native language was other than French. They were Algerians who had chosen the wrong side in the war of independence and who feared to be massacred in the new Algeria (correctly so, it turned out). Those joined the other hundreds of thousands who had been living in France for economic reasons beginning with WWI.

I think of those events as a double tragedy or a tragedy leading to a tragedy. The Algerian independence fighters who had prevailed by shedding quantities of their blood were definitely not (not) Islamists. In most respects, intellectually and otherwise, they were a lot like me at the time, moderate, democratic leftists. In fact, I once spent a moving three hours drinking coffee with a convalescing FLN soldier my age, in a third country. He and I had most things in common, including the French language. (More needs to be said about communities of language.)

The true Algerian revolutionaries were soon replaced in power in Algiers however by the professional soldiers of an army that had never really fought because it had been formed outside Algeria while partisan-style forces battled the French army. The military is still in power, fifty-five years later. I think of their regime as a classical but fairly moderate kind of fascism. It has bloodily fought Islamism to a standstill on Algerian soil so, everyone pretends to like them.

The Poor Politics of Colonialism

I went back to Algeria – as a tourist, a spear fisherman, believe it or not- six years after independence. I was warmly received and I liked the people there. They felt like cousins, the sort of cousins you played with in childhood but have not seen in adulthood. I think now, as I thought in 1962, that the nationalists were on the right side of the argument but I miss Algeria nevertheless. It’s like a divorce that should not have happened if someone had been more reasonable. Even such a short time after the events, events I had lived through as an adult, it was difficult to comprehend what had gone wrong. It was difficult to find any trace of hatred for the French. A young man I wanted to thank for a favor done asked me to take him to a restaurant where he could eat Brie, made expensive by a tariff. (Do I have the talent to make up this anecdote?)

I blame the astonishing incompetence of a French political class that failed in the course of 130 years to invent a form of citizenship that would have accommodated a large and fast growing Muslim population. At the time, it was widely argued that the Muslims insisted on being ruled by a mild form of Sharia insofar as their personal affairs, such as marriage and divorce, were concerned. Such an arrangement was incompatible with the strictly secular laws of the French Republic, of course, they were told. The Muslim numerical majority thus had to remain subjects, with only individual access to citizenship, more or less like any Finn or any Bulgarian. I don’t know if this was a genuine obstacle or an excuse for a simple case of yielding to the local French population who did not wish to live under Muslim rule, even if only for local affairs. In spite of their well publicized humanitarian and liberal values, French parties of the left played a prominent part in colonization and in the attendant repression of native populations. The late Socialist Pres. Mitterand, for example, was vigorously policing Algeria when he was a young politician (who had had one foot in the Resistance and one foot in Vichy, earlier, another story, of course).

A brief history of imperialism

After completing the military conquest of Algeria in 1847, which had been arduous, France soon developed a vague appetite for easy territorial gains overseas. The age-old British rival’s imperialism probably inspired the French. By WWI, France had placed under its control, Algeria’s neighbors Tunisia and Morocco (the latter, split with Spain), and the present countries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Congo (the small one, next to the Belgian Congo). During World War I, France also took Togo, and the southern half of Cameroon from Germany. We must add Djibouti on the Red Sea and the large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Most – but not all – of the population in the colonies was Muslim. Possibly close to half were native speakers of Arabic dialects. However in North Africa, large minorities knew no Arabic but were speakers of several varieties of Tamazigh (“Berber”). French colonial power did not fail to utilize this linguistic dichotomy, as you might expect. Be it as it may, at the close of WWII, you could travel straight south from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Pointe Noire, (across the river Congo from Kinshasa in the larger and better known Belgian Congo) without ever leaving French control.

The possession of a colonial empire seems to have generated monopolistic profits for a few French people, the extraction of which were accompanied by routine atrocities in some parts. The horrors of French rule in the equatorial colonies where hevea -rubber trees – grew, was documented by the great writer André Gide in his travel narrative Un Voyage au Congo. National possession of the empire gave the average French person much psychic income, I think. At least, it facilitated fantasizing – under the gray French skies – about palm trees and warm seas. And adventurous but skill-less young Frenchmen could always find jobs easily in the southern colonies, overseeing native (black) labor just for being white, French, and knowing the common language (French) well.

All the sub-Saharan African countries achieved independence peacefully in the late fifties or early sixties. Morocco and Tunisia had preceded them in 1956. Before that, in Sétif, Algeria, a peaceful demonstration against the French government was put down in 1945 in a massacre where thousands perished. In 1947, an attempted insurrection against French colonial power in faraway Madagascar was ended with another bloodbath. One concrete objection to colonialism is that it regularly places mediocre men in charge of the destinies of many others, some of whom are not mediocre. Those who gave the order to shoot in both Sétif and Madagascar where low level public servants.


There is an intuitive tendency to view colonialism largely or completely in terms of the culture of the colonial power. This is probably wrong. What matters is the circumstances of the colonial acquisition and the use to which it was put. The contrasting cases of Algeria and Senegal are instructive in this respect.

Algeria was conquered militarily between 1830 and 1847 in a thoroughly ravaging war. Note that 1830 was only 18 years after the Waterloo defeat. The Napoleonic era’s stupendous French military victories (excepting Waterloo) were fresh in the collective consciousness. Plus, the political entity centered in Algiers had been far from a bucolic and peaceful place before the French conquest. Its economy relied heavily on piracy and various forms of slaving. It made a likely prey. No one or almost no one was going to miss it. (It’s a mystery why Thomas Jefferson ran out of breath before he got to that Barbary state.) Algeria always mattered because it seemed a likely colony of settlement. It became one, a good one, in spite of the existence of a large native population.

The balance of France’s African colonies – with the exception of Tunisia that was wrested from nominal Ottoman rule by a brief military invasion – was acquired without much purposefulness and with little fighting. A large swath of land near the Equator was taken without a fight by an Italian adventurer, a naturalized Navy officer, a contemporary of Stanley. Brazza was usually accompanied only by a handful of native troops. Wherever he went, he cheekily raised the French flag and abolished slavery. The capital of the Congo bears his name to this day (indicating that he left a pretty good memory).

The smallish country of Senegal in western Africa is a special case of French colonization. French political presence there dates back to the 17th century, first in the form of slave trading posts. Later, the four main cities of Senegal were re-formed as French political municipalities. This, in the absence of a significant local French population. The inhabitants of those cities obtained French citizenship in 1792, that is, earlier than many inhabitants of France. They were eligible to vote and to be elected. French power over the countryside extended slowly from those four towns meeting little resistance.

This special case matters because the assimilationist current in Senegal was strong before independence in 1960 and it continued after independence. Today, it’s difficult to find a Senegalese who does not speak good to excellent French. The unknown percentage who can write do it in French. Interestingly, the casual racism guiding the interaction with the natives of the few French administrators and military personnel, plus a handful of businessmen, was largely suspended when they dealt with the Senegalese. (Personally, I think labels matter, “citizen,” for example. Obviously, that’s another story.)

The narrative of the colonization of Senegal is fairly important because it shows one case where a Muslim country (95%) is explicitly friendly toward the West and well informed about it (via the French language). It is also politically stable and democratic although it is poor (GDP/capita of only about $2,600 around 2015). It’s a case of successful intellectual colonization. I have even personally heard English-speaking Africans accuse Senegalese intellectuals of the same sins of arrogance and obstinacy that usually stick to Paris Left Bank intellectuals. Something went right in Senegal.

By the time of WWII, much of public opinion – including the still-large officer class – was enamored with the notion of France as a great Muslim power.

Colonial strata within France

Every new acquisition of territory in Africa generated a new wave of emigrants to France: students, low-level civil servants climbing the bureaucratic ladder, and some laborers. Public school teachers of native extraction – a large number – would go to France for training through what was intended as a revolving door. There, some would find true love, marry and stay. Every loss of a colony did the same as every acquisition because – as I have mentioned – not everyone knows how to choose the right side in a conflict. Every war also brought Africans to France, as soldiers and as laborers both. Many won French citizenship and remained too. Over the twentieth century that African-originated population grew inside France because immigrants, mostly from rural areas, usually multiply faster than the more urban host population. All immigrants and all their children and all their grandchildren attended the Republic’s schools, or, more rarely, the few Catholic schools.

There was comparatively little true racism, racism by color. (Read the subtle observations of the black American writer Richard Wright, for example.) The existence on the soil of Metropolitan France of a long assimilated black West Indian population may have contributed to deny conventional racism much traction. Despised cultural traits and a condition of economic inferiority on the one hand, and skin color on the other, just did not coincide well enough.

The relative rarity of color sentiment and its shallowness, does not mean that the French were or are free of prejudice, of course. For more than one century, the worst jobs in the country were occupied by immigrants from North Africa, mostly Algeria. Those were people from deeply rural, primitive regions, literate in no language. For most of that period, they lived in ghettos, while their wives and children remained behind in a Maghreb that was always fairly near.

Those people were subject to systematically poor treatment. It was made much worse by the Algerian war of independence that was fought partly in France, with numerous acts of terrorism. French French people never knew enough about Islam until recently and they were too religiously indifferent to call that prejudice “Islamophobic,” I think. What is now the largest political party in France, the Front National, used to be overtly anti-Muslim. Under new leadership, it has cleaned up its act in this respect, avowedly because that stance was doing it more electoral harm than good. It’s now against all immigration. In the current (2017) presidential campaign, some people with Muslims names have said publicly that they would vote for the Front. (They remain a curiosity, I am guessing.)

I am trying to be fair and descriptive here. Two relevant stories. When I was a teenager, I worked part time in an expensive hotel in Paris. Luxury hotels are like theaters; they have a public stage and a backstage. There was a middle aged guy who was the fix-everything man. He was knowledgeable and he had all the tools of most trades. His name was “Ahmed” backstage but it became magically “Jean” when he was in the public area. The great and luminous French movie star Isabelle Adjani (b. 1955) kept her half Algerian origins in the closet for half of her career. To be fair, when she disclosed that she was the daughter of an Algerian Amazigh (a Muslim) a consensus quickly formed that her secrecy had been silly. It’s also possible that she feared the nude scenes in her movies would meet with dangerous disapproval from her father’s group of origin.

In the end, there is a large sub-population in France today that traces its ancestry to various parts of Africa, north, west, and central. By American standards, some are black, some are white. Many or most are citizens. Many are not but have a legal right to live in France by virtue of some international post-colonial agreement or other. Some almost have that right. Many – and still coming – don’t have any such right at all but their cousin lives there. Their children all attend school. They all arrive knowing some French from the schooling in their countries of origin. Given the comparatively effective (comparatively) French school system, and given the unsmiling, generalized French contempt for multilingualism, they all end up “French” in some sense, knowing the French language well, familiar with the fundamentals of civics, well versed in basic French history.

Muslim identity

The only trait that consistently differentiates some, or probably most people of African origin from the rest of the French population, is their presumed Muslim identity. (Notably, you almost never hear of people of African descent who are Christian, or even nothing at all.) Islam matters as a cultural fact, even irrespective of genuine religious sentiment, because it prevents mixing to a large extent, and especially, intermarriage. Previous immigrants, from Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and more recently, Portugal all tended to marry French. Even more so did their daughters. Muslims from Africa mostly don’t except that a few men marry non-Muslim women.

I say “presumed” Muslim identity because there is no rigorous way to estimate the current Muslim population in France. That too, is forbidden. Going by names – which is often done – is sure to give bad results. It’s likely that most French people with a Muslim name are like the bulk of other French people, religiously indifferent.  Hence name counting inflates the number of Muslims in any meaningful sense. Still, there are many mosques in France and many recriminations about their being in insufficient number. There is a large, monumental, highly visible mosque near central Paris. It shelters the headquarters of the official national organization that represents the interests of French Muslims with the government. I don’t know how representative that representative organization currently is, of course.

People with Muslim first names and last names are everywhere in France, over the latitude and longitude of the territory but also from the bottom – sweeping the streets of Paris – to the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. (A while ago, I was half in love with a French woman named Rachida Dati. She was a minister in Pres. Sarkozy’s cabinet. It did not work out!) The first French soldier to die in the NATO expedition in Bosnia was named El Hadji. The Paris cop terrorists killed outside of Charlie Hebdo also had a Muslim name.

There are many other markers of long-term African presence in France. Here are some, pell-mell: Best couscous in the world. The North African Arabic word for “fast” is commonly used in French, including by people with 32 ancestors born in France. One of the many vocables for the male appendage in French, also one of the most commonly used, is straight from Arabic. (Don’t count on me to satisfy you salacious curiosity; do your own research.) Paris is the world center for the promotion and recording of rich West African music. Same for most fiction and poetry in French, including a significant production from Africa. The strange, often baffling intellectual movement “la négritude“(“negroeness,” I think) developed in France. The largest or second largest collection (after that of the British Museum, maybe) of black African art in the world is in a Paris museum, etc.


Those who know me, in person or through Notes On Liberty, or Liberty Unbound, those who spend even a little time on my blog (, or on my FB page will have heard me lamenting loudly the sterility of contemporary French culture. I cry torrents, especially over the impoverishment and the muddiness of the current French public French language, I mean, as spoken in France, specifically.* For the past fifty years, the French have had precious little to show by way of visual arts, or music and much of their contemporary literature projects the very cold of the grave. Aided by endless government subsidies, the French make many mediocre movies whose slowness and technical imperfection passes for intellectual depth, especially among a certain category of Americans.  (On this topic of government help to the French movie industry, you might read Delacroix and Bornon: Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic’s Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies.” [pdf])

French public figures talk like teenagers and they generally don’t know how to finish a sentence. If a member of the French intelligentsia speaks to you about Iraq, for example, say a journalist at prestigious Le Monde, you know no more about Iraq when he is finished than you did when he begun; you may know less. It was not always like this. (And, I will not insist that the decline of French culture and language are due to my emigration to the US at age 21 but the dates coincide pretty well.) Incidentally, the museums are still good; actually, the whole country of France is like an attractive museum that would have a superlative cafeteria attached. But I digress. This is all to let you know of a certain critical pessimistic state of mind of mine.

Still, there are French cultural phenomena that continue to interest me. One is a “culture” TV show with a strong political component that’s tougher on politicians than anything we do in the US. (It’s called, “On nest pas couchés.“) Another is a pure political show, also hard on the politicians interviewed there. (It’s called simply, “L’ Emission politique.“)

So, another time, I am watching French TV intently because there is a retrospective show on the anarchizing singer/composer George Brassens who died in 1981. Brassens is the closest thing France has – except for Edith Piaf –  to a secular modern saint. He wrote elegant poems addressed to ordinary people that the intellectual elite also admired. He also put to music Victor Hugo and even the medieval poet François Villon. He sang all with a distinctive stage presence.

That night several current stars of French popular song have been gathered in one setting to each sing one or more of Brassens’s songs. A man named “Slimane” takes one of the three or four most popular, most familiar of Brassens’ pieces and sings it in a deliberately Arabized manner. When he is finished, the eyes of several women singers sparkle. I am strongly moved myself. Slimane has given new life to a classic. No one will ever forget his hybrid rendition of the song.

This is yet another time, I am dozing on the couch (again) after a good French political show I mentioned elsewhere. The TV is still on, of course. Something stops me from falling right asleep; something drags me back to consciousness. This has never happened to me before. What’s waking me is the clarity of the language used by a youngish man being interviewed for one of those culture/literature shows that abound on French television.** The man to whom the voice belongs enunciates precisely; his words are well chosen without being precious; his grammar is impeccable; he finishes every one of the sentences he begins; he does not stutter. He speaks like a man who has thought of what he is speaking about.

Soon, I am alert enough to realize that the fine speaker of French is on the show to flog his newly published book. The book is about conversations he has had in his mind with the writer/philosopher Albert Camus. Now, Camus died in 1960, by the look of it, before the current writer on Camus was born. Camus has a special place in the minds and hearts of several generations of a certain category of French men that used to include me. He is one of the fathers of popular “existentialism.” (I have to use the qualifier and the quote marks to avoid the predictable correction by pedants who will push quotes in German into my email to prove that Camus is in no way a real existentialist. WTF!) Camus received the Nobel in literature in 1957 but that’s not why we care about him. I cannot describe here in detail the particular category of French men who revere him but here is a pointer: Early on in his fame Camus broke up very publicly with his good buddy, the better known Jean-Paul Sartre because Sartre would not denounce Stalinism.

The young writer on TV is black. I am told he is a well-known rapper in France. His name is Abd el Malik. Anecdotal evidence about nothing, some will say. Will it influence me in the future in spite of my good social science training? You bet. How can I avoid it? How can millions of French people ignore this kind of episode irrespective of their views on immigration? That man’s short presentation was like a ray of sunshine in a uniformly dark forest. Why should they not let it impress them?

The story does not end here, Camus himself was a Frenchman from Algeria, obviously not a Muslim. He was born to a widowed, half-deaf and illiterate Spanish immigrant woman who cleaned houses to support herself and Albert. The French are not so much confused about the legacies of their former colonial Empire as they are faced with a confounding reality.

* French is well spoken in various places, in Senegal, first, in much of urban Morocco and Tunisia, and among the Haitian elite, of all places. Romanians and Lebanese also tend to speak a very classical French as a second language.

**I say this with a little bitterness because, as someone who is still practicing being a commercially unsuccessful American writer, I regret strongly that we don’t have a plethora of such shows in the US of A.

French Expatriates and Foreign Francophiles

First, a definition: an expatriate is someone who lives outside the country of his birth on a more or less permanent basis. I am dealing here with French expatriates specifically, a fairly rare breed in relation to the size of the French population, rarer than English and American expatriates, for example.

The French expatriates often land in a particular town of a particular country at a particular time for no particular reason. They may have been heading somewhere else and gotten stuck along the way. They always include wives and former wives of natives who may have divorced them, or died. Coming from different epochs (such as before and after the establishment of French social democracy in the 1980s), they form historical strata. Each stratum remembers a different France, and the strata may entertain disparate and often incompatible visions of the fatherland.

They have developed new habits in the country where they live and, without knowing it, they have drifted far from their culture of origin. Many disseminate patently false notions about the country where they were raised; they do it more or less innocently because myth-making and absence go well together. Their French self is forever a young person, or even a child. Their own children are simply natives of their land of residence with a smattering of the French language and no real curiosity, forever strangers to their parents.

The Francophiles are yet another story. They are people who don’t have the luck to have been born French but who love what they imagine is French culture with a degree of repressed hysteria. No part of the world is free of them. I have bumped into them everywhere I have been; they have victimized me everywhere with their undeserved love. Many but by no means all are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture.

They are usually very parochial, doubly so because they are fixated on France and on their own country, to the exclusion of knowledge of any other part of the world. Others are teachers of French who feel professionally obligated to revere that which they teach and, by extension, everything French. Often, they don’t even know the language very well, limited as they are by the cramped discourse of textbooks, without awareness of the vigor, of the colorfulness, and, especially, of the frequent crudeness of the real French language of both literature and everyday life. (“Cul-de-sac,” for example, means “ass of a bag.”)

Once, a long time ago, in Bolivia of all places, I observed that the two groups mixed well. It was at a Bastille Day celebration at the French consulate. The French expats and the Francophiles shared the rudimentary popular imagery of the 1789 French revolution, that beheaded a king for the sake of “public salvation,” and his pretty, frivolous young queen, just in case. (That was after storming a prison-fortress, the Bastille, that was largely undefended.)

Think of reading my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. It’s available from Amazon, under my name. I need the bucks. Please!

La Bêtise et la langue française.

J’ai eu des ennuis de santé occasionant une absence de ce blog. J’aimerais bien pouvoir dire qu’il s’est agit seulement d’un accès de priapisme, mais ce serait exagérer.

En tous cas. il est temps que j’y repique. Ce sera pour maugréer, bien sur.

Je viens de regarder pour la seconde fois le beau, l’étonnant documentaire de l’émissions TV française Thalassa sur Saint-Malo, une ville et une région qui me sont chères.

A un moment, le narrateur mentionne que le grand corsaire malouin Surcouf s’était livré à la traite des Noirs, donc, au commerce des esclaves africains. Le sous-titre en Anglais rend cette simple affirmation par ces mots époustouflants:

“Surcouf respected the Black Treaty,” “Surcouf respectait le Traité Noir.” !

Comment peut-on être aussi ignare; et surtout, comment peut-on être aussi con?

En effet, ne pas connaitre un mot ou une expression specialisé n’est peut-être pas un crime (mais encore, pour un traducteur également spécialisé?) mais laisser en place un expression qui ne possède aucun sens, en aucune langue c’est contribuer à l’abêtissement des foules, téléspectateurs, autant que lecteurs.

Pourquoi cette carence de contrôle de la qualité dans un émission de télévision bien considerée depuis déjà trente ans? La réponse probable est une profonde indifference aux faits. La photo est splendide; le narratif captiv vant si on n’y fait pas trop attention. Pourquoi s’en faire?

J’ai remarqué ailleurs que cette indifférence me semble être liée à l’usage de la langue francaiss. (Voir mon recueil d’histoires: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration.” sur Amazon.) J’ai du mal à imaginer ce genre de bêtise en Anglais, sauf dans des journaux de très bas niveaux, genre l’ancienne “France Dimanche.” Le Francophones disent n’importe quoi; ils possèdent une grande tolérance vis-à-vis de la bêtise qui sonne bien, et meme envers la connerie tout court.

Moi, il me semble que lorsqu’il y a trop de poubelle débordantes dans l’espace intérieur intellectuel, on ne peut plus penser clairement. La fameuse rigueur francaise, “cartésienne” dont les Francais, en particulier, se targuent toujours a simplement disparu, je crois. Les autre francophones ont été éclaboussés simplement parceque la production culturelle française domine de beaucoup la francophonie de par son poids.

Dites-moi que j’ai tort!

Words and Brain Damage

I am starting my own war against empty, silly slogans and presumptuous words. I think they are the brick and mortar of political correctness which is smothering our brains. Living in Santa Cruz, California and dutifully listening to National Public Radio every day sure raise my awareness of brain cell destruction. (See endnote.)

Somebody had to do it, to start this war, I mean. And it’s in the best of human traditions that old men admonish the rest of the tribe to behave itself. (It’s “itself,” not “themselves;” tribe is singular. There are uses for a plural singular. This is not one. Pay attention. Learn English. I did.)

First thing first: If you call yourself an “educator,” you are not fit to educate anyone, especially children; I mean that you are not cultured enough. Learn to read, please!

If you believe that “educator” gives you gravitas (look it up) because the word rhymes with “doctor,” think again. Medical science exists, incurable warts and all. There is no science behind education. The mistaken belief that there is has led this country to waves after waves of destructive fads. These have left whole generations unable to write simple declarative sentences or to divide 144 by 12.

In twenty-five years of teaching in an expensive university, I met several graduating seniors, Spanish majors, who were illiterate in two languages including their own. (Reality surpasses fiction!) Education science indeed!

The proper word is not the pretentious “educator,” it’s “teacher.” If that does not sound noble enough for you, you should not be teaching. Good teaching requires a degree of humility. I refer to the humility to be ready to get another job if you can qualify for one.

Everyone in the world remembers his best teacher: He or she was enthusiastic yet calm, humane yet rigorous, encouraging yet demanding. There is no science in any of this. These qualities never add up to anything anyone would pompously call an “educator.”

My brain feels better already.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XI, Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet England

The last post was on Anglo-Saxon England, which came to an end in 1066, soon after the death of Edward the Confessor. Harold Godwinson, King of England, was faced with two major enemies on his accession in 1066: Harold Sigurdsson, usually known as Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy (de facto Norman king under the symbolic sovereignty of the French monarchy).

Both began invasions of England. Sigurdsson landed in the northeast of England with a Viking army and his ally, Tostig, brother of Harold Godwinson (married to a Danish princess), giving a good idea of how political power in England was entangled with European power politics and centres of sovereignty. Harold marched north and defeated the Viking army, marching south again to meet the threat from Normandy which came very soon.

Harold and the Saxon army did not survives this second blow, and England was changed for ever. William earned the name he is now generally known under, Conqueror, and imposed his will in a manner which destroyed the existing Anglo-Saxon elites in one of the great massacres of English history, the Harrowing of the North. It also led to the construction of new kinds of stone castles to create military state dominance and new grandiose church architecture to create religious state domination.

The Norman dominance later became known as the Norman Yoke, a rather emotive phrase but it is true that the Saxons had less rights than the Normans, that Norman French became the language of state and the ruling class, and that institutions were recast to suit the Normans, who continued to give priority to their homeland in northwestern France. There was an evolution from expanded Norman state to Angevin Anglo-French empire, when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (southwestern France). Before that the throne was in dispute between Stephen and Matilda, known as the Empress because she had been married to the German ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor.

The Aquitaine alliance gave the King of England more land in France under his control than the French king had under effective control. The combined control of all England and most of France is often known as the Angevin Empire.  The outcome of the Norman Conquest and the Angevin Empire is a very tangled period of centuries of a variable Anglo-Norman, then English Plantagenet presence in France.

The crusader king Richard I ‘Coeur de Lion’, son of Henry and Eleanor, died in France protecting his lands there. The next king, also a son of Henry and Eleanor, John, lost nearly all the French lands. The end of of John’s reign and the beginning of Henry III’s reign included a period when Louis XIII of France claimed the English crown in alliance with part of the aristocracy, and had effective control of a large part of England.

The endless back and forth of English involvement in France will be ended here except for these brief remarks. The two most famous English battles in medieval history were the loss to Normandy at Hastings in 1066 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 near Calais. The latter battle was part of Henry V establishing a claim to the French monarchy, though this collapsed on his death. Calais remained English until 1588. The English monarchy kept up a symbolic claim to be monarchs of France until 1800.

There is no genuine history of medieval England which is not also a history of medieval France. The overall effect of the English monarchy failing to keep continuous control of France, leaving England as the undoubted core territory, was that over time the monarchy, state and aristocracy became more English. The language had changed considerably, partly under Norman influence, so that what the heirs of William the Conqueror and his Norman barons spoke was Middle English rather than Anglo-Saxon and unlike Anglo-Saxon is at least partly comprehensible to an educated native level speaker of modern English. There was a growth of English literature of a kind that is still read, linked with the growing tendency of the upper class to be primarily English.

The process by which the Anglo-Norman state became England with an English speaking ruling class was gradual and roughly speaking came to an end by the fifteenth century. The re-emergence of an ‘English’ England might suit the advocates of a vision of English history as an island pageant of unique independence, separation and strength, and it is not very long since popular books of history used to be written on those lines. However, the Norman, Angevin and subsequent Plantagenet period just do not fit this unless a supposed endpoint of a pure English England is given priority over what seemed most important to historical actors earlier in their own time. Centuries of English history are Norman French or Anglo-French history.

Advocates of a Sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of British history, if they acknowledge this (and it is difficult for them to do so as the period includes Magna Carta, a topic to which we will return) are inclined to at least see English history after 1400, and particularly after the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, as the glorious path of an England, or Britain, separate from Europe. The next post will test that proposition.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, X. Anglo-Saxon England, the Scandinavian, Frankish and Norman connections

This long series of posts is now going through a survey of British history from the beginning that history to the point where the series started, that is the middle of the eighteenth century. The last post reached the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, which seems to have been more of an elite take over by chieftains and their retinues than a major displacement of population. Nevertheless the Anglo-Saxon conquest was a real cultural transformation in which the evolution of the English language retained almost no trace of the Celtic languages and dialects or even speech rhythms, leaving aside areas where the Celtic languages lingered longer and survived on a minority basis, so influencing English. The Saxon language was not just dominant in England, as it spread in Scotland outside the Gaelic ‘Irish’ speaking areas, displacing non-Celtic languages. So English became the dominant language in what is now the UK and also in what now the Republic or Ireland.

Having emphasised this linguistic transformation,  should emphasise that Irish has some distinctive speech patterns from Gaelic, that there is some modern Irish literature in Gaelic and that some Irish literature in English emphasises Gaelic Irish culture, most significantly the novels of James Joyce. Anglo-Saxon comes from the forms of Old German spoken in the areas the invaders came from in what is now the Netherlands, Denmark and intervening parts of Germany. One consequence is that the first great work of English literature Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, epic poem set in what is now Denmark and southern Sweden. So the literary culture of the English speaking British is rooted in a tale from Scandinavia, though written down in England centuries after the events related, which can be given a rough historical location.

Anglo-Saxon England never established complete predominance in Britain. Viking invasions in the eighth century preceded the formation of an English state at a time when there was still an independent Celtic kingdom in Cornwall, turned into conquests and the establishment of Viking kingdoms. Though the Anglo-Saxons become predominant as far back as the sixth century, the generally accepted narrative of the English state goes back only to the ninth century. In the last decades of that century, King Alfred of Wessex (the west Saxons) in his struggles against the Vikings. Alfred, given the label ‘Great’ in the nineteenth century, a very remarkable figure in various ways, was pushed back into the hinterland of Wessex, but was able to defeat the Vikings in battle and negotiate terms that established a strong kingdom of Wessex, which came to incorporate London.

Wessex was the nucleus of the Medieval English state and Alfred’s grandson Athelston was the first all-England king, also receiving tribute and symbolic recognition of overlordship from Welsh and Scottish rulers, who nevertheless remained completely independent in practice. Athelstan was certainly not isolated from Europe, marrying his family into continental dynasties. The sense of English culture goes back further than Alfred, but not much further.

The northeastern English historian and cleric Bede, is probably the first ‘great’ English figure in Britain, dying in the early eighth century after composing a history in Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon. At roughly the same time Alcuin of York, the cleric and scholar, became an adviser to the Frankish (Franco-German) Emperor Charlemagne who dominated western and central Europe, reviving the title of Roman Emperor, or had it pushed onto him by the Pope. He was referred to as ‘father of Europe’ in his court and was the model of English monarchs including Alfred.

The only Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred who could be said to have lingered in national memory was Offa of Mercia (the centre of England) in the late eighth century, who seems to have made some symbolic claim to kingship of England, but whose kingdom was lost to the Vikings. The rise of the Kingdom of England was not completely straightforward as Vikings remained in England with their own towns, laws, and customs, and with Scandinavian princes still making claims in England. The consequence was a Danish King of England, Cnut (also known as Canute) reigning in England in the early eleventh century, along with varying parts of Scandinavia.

A rather confused period followed his death of English and Danish claims to the English crown, with other Scandinavian dynasties expressing an interest. This ended when the Saxon Edward the Confessor became king in 1042. However, this was not the triumph of isolated English sovereignty. Edward was heavily under the influence, even tutelage of the Duchy of Normandy, territory given to Viking invaders by the French king, which led to the invading Danes becoming completely French in language and other respects.

Edward was the son of Aethelred the Unready and Emma of Normany. Aethelred who was responsible both for gratuitous massacres of English Danes and losing the kingdom to the Danes, had fled to Normandy beginning an important connection. Edward died in 1066 childless, with the Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway both believing they had claims to the English throne that they fully intended to enforce through military might. The throne went in the first place to Edward’s most powerful subject, Harold Godwinson, because of the support of the Witan, the council of the king’s leading subjects, rather than inheritance or the wishes of Edward the Confessor. If there was ever a moment of isolated English sovereignty that might be it, but it was not to last more than a few months.

Next post, how England became part of a Norman and the Angevin French speaking empire

The Best Book I Have Read Recently

I make some notes about almost all the books I read. I am thinking my notes may be useful to others. Here is an instance; it’s about a good book I read recently:

Jared Diamond’s 2012 The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

A confession first: When I die, I want to come back as Jared Diamond. He had the exemplary academic career; he wasted no time; he took advantage of academia’s largess and low standards to change himself several times into a different kind of scholar. He addresses ordinary literate people with much success. He is a great teacher.

What Diamond means by “traditional societies”  (in the title) is an imaginary aggregate of what social scientists call “hunters-gatherers” and “horticulturalists.” The latter are largely hoe cultivators, people who don’t use the plow but who grow food. Horticulturalists live entirely in tropical and equatorial climates.

Diamond’s book makes very good reading and, in addition, he tries to make it practical, useful at every step. His guiding theme is that by observing traditional people more closely, we may be able to improve many of our civilized practices. He visits in turn how his traditional societies define strangers and how they deal with war, child rearing, the treatment of the aged, attitudes toward danger, religion, language and health.

Traditionals, in general (also called “primitives”) live in fairly small units because their technologies (plural) cannot support large concentrations of people. They have no cities; they are not “civilized.” Diamond makes the implicit assumption (implicit, I think) that small scale and the preservation of “traditional beliefs” go hand in hand. He makes the further assumption – a fairly common one – that today’s traditional societies are similar to the societies in our own past. Thus, the part of the title that says, “Until Yesterday.” According to this assumption, the observation of such societies has much to teach us about how we – civilized people – grew up, so to speak, and about what we lost while growing up.

I am skeptical about both assumptions, not rejecting, skeptical. First, I don’t really believe that tradition does not change. I think that traditional people live in environments that change to some extent, sometimes rapidly. They change, in particular, because the powerful civilized societies in which they are embedded tend to grow, thus threatening or reducing the traditionals’ physical space and their resources. The tragedy of the Plains Indians reduction to near nothing must have happened many times before. Thus the thing that defines traditional people, “tradition” itself must change to some extent to accommodate change in their environments. The mere fact that traditional societies are around to be observed at all tells us that they must have adjusted to some extent. Thus, when considering them we don’t know if we are looking at our own past, or at pathetic survivors next to extinction, or on the contrary, at extraordinarily skillful ones. That’ s a problem for the generalizing Diamond invites us to engage in. That’s my second main objection to Diamond’s overall approach.

In point of fact, the traditional societies to which Diamond alludes include none situated in the temperate zone. It’s not his fault, of course, Lapps in Northern Scandinavia and Finland may be the only ones left more or less intact. But this fact aggravates my skepticism about the exemplarity of the primitive groups Diamond describes. I cannot eliminate from my mind the fact that civilization arose only in temperate zones, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in China. And independently, in the temperate elevations of meso-America and of South America. Perhaps, possibly, probably this is not a coincidence. Diamond’s tropical, desert, and far north groups may be in no way similar to our ancestors.

Beyond these general remarks, I have two specific quarrels with Diamond. The first is about health and the second about language acquisition. Diamond contends that the maladies of old age that affect civilized people today, including arthritis, cardiac illness, and diabetes, are practically non-existent among primitive people. He also says that primitive people have low life expectancy, I think he means at all ages. So, I am wondering if the first statement is not simply the result of a major sampling error, of a major optical illusion: If people seldom live beyond age fifty-five there will be few of the illnesses associated with old age in their society. It would seem like a gross error for a man of Diamond’s intellectual distinction to make. He may have in fact taken care of this objection and I missed it. Or, he did not do it loudly enough and then, why?

My second specific objection concerns one of the many statement he makes on language acquisition. At one point, he declares himself in favor of “crib bilingualism.” That’s the practice of speaking to babies in more than one language from birth. Personally, I think it’s a dangerous gamble. I don’t have any systematic data. My judgment relies on anecdotal evidence spread over fifty years. So does his. I believe he has not done enough due diligence of tracking possible downsides of the practice. (I don’t need to track its upsides because they are obvious: Get two languages for the same price, same as heads of cabbage at the flea market.)

I may write Prof. Diamond soon at UCLA where he teaches to ask him to discuss these points. Don’t wait on me to act to read this wonderful book though. Do it, do it critically if you can.

Also, read my book : I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography