Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Revolutions and insurrections

Belmont Club is, as usual, on point and insightful concerning the riots in France, which enter their thirteenth night tonight. I commend to your attention this post particularly, especially Wretchard's "Commentary" section where he discusses the difficulty in quelling riots and the dangers of trying to do so via blind and memoryless profiling. Also note the comments from readers, where my musings began.

All right, that's not entirely accurate; I've been thinking for a few days, since about Day 7 or 8 of rioting, about the tendency among some Americans to call karma on the French and to puff out our collective chest about how such things could never happen here. Seems to me that if a group ethnically representative of twenty percent of your population decides to rise up, take up arms, and attack the infrastructure (thankfully, not the innocent citizenry so far), even a country like the United States would be hard-pressed to retake control. Of course, the French government hasn't done itself any favors by not doing anything substantive for twelve days.

Josh Trevino's blog entry "Twelfth Night," which I just found, has a terrific roundup of recent events. (Apologies to Josh for not taking the time at this moment to find the tilde sign that ought to appear over his "n.") One point on which I think I differ with Josh is that the "French assimilation model" may have failed. He points out, correctly I think, that if this soundbyte of a statement takes hold, the ideal of French assimilation may be discarded, in France and elsewhere. The ideal of which he speaks is twofold: "equality of citizens as citizens, and the primacy of French culture and Western values." The problem I have with the idea is that the French assimilation model, like Communism according to the Left, hasn't really been tried. I'm not as well informed as I'd like to be on this subject, but I understand that the French have not exactly encouraged full assimilation (any more than this generation's Muslim immigrants have sought it), instead making it clear that new immigrants are not quite up to par and can't become so. I haven't heard that there's a by-your-bootstraps mythos in France as there is in the U.S.; this lack of a story to inspire the children of immigrants would certainly add to the alienation of Muslims living in not only sanctioned but informally required ghettoes (in the term's original sense).

In any event, my thoughts turn to various possible parallels suggested by Wretchard's erudite readers: that the American revolution began as a tax protest, the Civil War as a states'-rights debate, and so on. Many commenters wondered whether this French disaster might finally awaken Europe, one calling it "France's Pearl Harbor." And then, one commenter stated as certainty that success in Iraq would cause all the Muslim dominoes to fall, bringing hope and prosperity to people whose only prior alternatives were surrender or religious fanaticism. Here's where I jump off the bandwagon.

We may - I think we will - succeed in Iraq. Iraq will stand proudly as the Islamic world's flagship representative government, and will prosper. But it does not follow that the Bush Doctrine is a sure bet. The American revolution succeeded, against dreadful odds, and the American experiment in liberty and equality has succeeded as well, brilliantly. But its French counterpart, only a few years behind, with the American example to guide it and inspired by the same ideas, thinkers, and emotions, has been limping along for two hundred-plus years with only occasional intimations of success, by comparison. The U.S. shed blood and bitter tears in our Civil War, but recovered and surpassed its previous strength, conviction, and achievements. France's history since its Revolution sounds terrifying to me: the Terror, Robespierre, the weirdness that was Napoleon's empire, the Dreyfus affair and its overtones of anti-Semitism, the trenches of WWI, the Vichy and the Resistance, some members of which were Marxists hoping to win France for their own. The U.S. had the advantage of physical isolation and a second, tremendous advantage in natural resources (there's a reason we've never been a big colonial power) - but that's my whole point: because a radical idea works in one place does not mean it will work in another.

It's a time for nail-biting, not hubristic chortles or triumphalism. We could experience our own spreading urban riots, and if we do we'll discover whether we've actually paid attention these last two weeks. The Middle East may not view Iraq as a beacon of hope, but a Q'ran on fire, and we'll see whether the Iraqis have the stomach to face their coreligionists without conceding. We're experiencing the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." I thank my lucky stars that, up to now anyway, I'm not living in the literal midst of them.

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