Friday, May 15, 2009

Me and Michele Obama

Luckily my blog in in its infancy and only has four readers. Otherwise Sean Hannity might lump me in with Michele Obama when I say that for the first time, I really feel proud of where I'm from. And no, I'm not talking about her husband. Although yes, I did feel proud when he got elected.

You see, in France a cop can just walk up to you and demand your National ID Card. Hang out in any major train station in France and you are likely to see four cops standing around some terrified or indignant Arab or African guy. Here, you can't just pull out a line like "I don't need to comply with your ID check, I have committed no crime". Interestingly enough, French people try these lines all the time. Why? Because they watch American television series. 

In France, they can lock you up for denying that Holocaust. While I do feel bad for people with such a twisted concept of reality, I don't think the government needs to be blowing taxpayer dollars on locking these quacks up and affording them massive media coverage to fuel the French Extreme Right underground. Not to mention the precendent is absurd. Should they lock people up for denying the Armenian Genocide? (new law on that one too!) Should you be heavily fined for claiming that Pygmies weren't being cannibalized during the Second Congo War? Where do you draw the line? Can you legally say "John Wayne Gacy was innocent" or did he not rape and murder enough teenage boys to merit a national gag order?

For those of you who are willing to let feeble-minded Neo-Nazis compromise your principles of Free Speech, I'll toss out an example that even weak-stomached liberty lovers can handle. (I'm over hyphenating, aren't I) In March of 2007, France passed a law banning ordinary citizens from filming violent crimes. Press only folks! The stated motivation was to clamp down on "happy slapping", a practice where bullies aggress others and film it for online posting and other public forms of embarrassment. 

We can all agree that less bullying is a good thing. Unfortunately, this law prohibits police brutality videos like this, or this, or even this from being taken. How is it that French lawmakers failed to subject this broadly worded law to more intense scrutiny despite calls from civil liberty groups? They don't have the First Amendment to oblige them to consider the Free Speech implications of their legislation. That's how.

Here, you can't legally publish Mein Kampf without an eleven page preface on why Hitler was wrong. Feels a little overboard to me. I'd assume everyone who reads it is already in one kampf or the other. (rimshot please! am I over parenthesizing too?) Here, there are elastic laws to prevent the media from criticizing cops, court rulings, and politicians. Here, a newspaper or magazine must fear legal action for publishing a caricature of Mohammed.

The United States of America, on the other hand, has an extremely developed, Constitutionally based, philosophical framework that enables us to rigorously protect Free Speech. How many countries have such a large body of judicial rulings on topics like prior restraint, for example? I'm not about to do the research on that question, but I have a hunch that the US is the caketaker.

Also, we have baseball.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stake in Society

Q: Where are you from? 

A: I am from Cornwall, Connecticut in the USA.

Q: What are your family's origins?

A: My mother is from a primarily Irish and German background. My dad was adopted at birth, but he came from a Jewish family.

Q: Do you identify more with America than with your Irish or German heritage?

A: Absolutely. I am above all else American.

Those are my answers to a simple series of questions that I have been asking my students. I teach English in a French high school in an area that an American might call "the projects". The vast majority of my students are first, second, or third generation immigrants. The bulk are"Maghrebain", meaning their families hail from Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria. Another large percentage come from African countries like Senegal or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are also a fair amount of Asians, mainly from former French colonies like Cambodia and Vietnam. Few and far between, there are some pure blood (hahaha) Europeans.

All of my students are French by nationality. But when I asked Kacia, a Senior whose family comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, if she felt more Congolese or French, she responded without hesitation that she was Congolese. I followed up by saying, "So you would say Congolese is first place and French in second." She said, "No, just Congolese. No French. I stay black." 

Most of my Maghrebain students did not go so far as to completely denounce their Frenchness. A girl of Moroccan origin, but born in France, told me that she felt "50/50". Her classmate, another female, this time of Algerian origin, was also "50/50". The French/Moroccan girl noted that she could never live in Morroco because of how females are treated there. Her French/Algerian classmate once again agreed with her. After this remark, they both retracted 50/50 in favor of 60/40 French/Maghrebine. I was watching an identity struggle in real time.

Two of their male classmates had objections to the two Maghrebine girls bad-mouthing Algeria and Morocco on women's rights. One of them is of fully Algerian descent. The other was half Algerian and half Tunisian. While they both claimed to feel "50/50", they pleaded with their female classmates not to taint my image of "le bled" with tales of culturally ingrained oppression of women. The values conflict was palpable. The easiest way to deal with French western ideals conflicting with oriental cultural traditions was to simply shoot the dialogue dead.

The French/Moroccan girl went on to say how great it is in Morocco aside from her women's rights qualms. She cited the culture specifically and added that, for her, France has no culture. Interesting, considering France is widely regarded as a cultural powerhouse. 

I take a small group of students once a week composed of three devoutely Muslim Maghrebine girls. While they normally wear headcoverings, they are not permitted to do so in school by French law. They feel as is France is at war with their traditions and values. They each expressed a burning desire to relocate to their families' countries of origin. One of them changed her mind and said she would like to live in Dubai if she had the choice. She called it "a paradise". Her classmates quickly jumped on the UAE boat. When I erroneously stated that the UAE have no women's suffrage (the country didn't have any suffrage until quite recently, this didn't phase them. I realized that I was dealing with a massive values gap, a gap that I didn't know how to begin to discuss. It was the same intellectual silence that France has no idea how to tackle. So I did the easy thing; I, too, shot a dialogue dead.

The whole thing got me thinking about my homeland. I realized that a romanticized America lives in my head. It is an America where the immigrant arrives and declares "I am an American now. This is just as much my country as it is Barack Obama's or George W. Bush's. and I am proud to be a part of this society." I wonder how often immigrants feel like that. How do legal Mexican immigrants feel about their stake in American society? How do second generation Mexican immigrants feel about their stake in American society? How can society help increase their perceived stake?

Towars the end of my little Q and A session with my French high school seniors from the hood I threw a mind-boggler out there. "Isn't the immigrant experience part of the French experience? Doesn't a French Arab Muslim population estimated at well over five million people define a part of what it means to be French?" The ones who understood me looked perplexed for a second and sort of nodded. Their regard said, "I guess it does. Funny I never thought of that."