Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

French Unity and American Multiculturalism: Contested Grounds of Identity

In defiance of what the founders of the nation feared, factionalism has become an American norm.   But official France still gravitates toward the idea of a defined culture that immigrants must embrace. 

French government leaders and cultural affairs officials frequently express intense interest in preserving their culture, usually noting with alarm the rise of tribal identifications now common in American life. Both sides of the Atlantic now have activists working under the banner of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and new revelations exposing historic figures who condoned slaveholding and colonialism.

Although there are clear exceptions, French advocates asking for more social justice can face stiff winds of resistance from high profile protectors of the nation’s identity. Many, such as President  Emmanuel Macron, are vocal in affirming the core principles of the Republic over the particular claims of identity groups. For example, it was not long ago that the actress Catherine Deneuve and other influential French women signed a letter claiming that #MeToo was a “puritanical overreaction.”

According to reliable news reports, behind some of this wide-ranging discussion of what it means to be French is a fear of American cultural hegemony.  There is a broad concern that the young in “immigrant communities” have taken a page from American politics and are insufficiently grateful for their French citizenship.

Political currents especially on the American left now run in the opposite direction, favoring recognition for the separateness of various identity groups. But official France still aspires to be a single great society. Nationalists often see threats against “unity” in dire terms, feeding off memories of domestic terrorist attacks in and around Paris over the last decade.

In France, official secularism is a national virtue.

Even the broad political center in the Fifth Republic gravitates toward the ideal of a single great culture that all must embrace. For example, the National Assembly just completed debate on legislation that would oblige all organizations, including religious groups, to adhere to key secular values, specifically, the “principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and respect of human dignity.” Though not stated, the primary goal of the legislation is to combat Muslim “separatism,” especially where religious practices veer into the public sector. For example, hijabs (head coverings) for Muslim women are banned in French schools. By contrast, North Americans are more likely to see the denial of the right to wear a head covering as an infringement on a person’s religious freedom.

Defining and embracing national identity is a tricky game of perceptions. Many in the United States now think that the once simple invocation of the “national interest” is now bridge too far, as the hardening of political differences in the last election so clearly demonstrated. In defiance of what the founders feared, factionalism is becoming an American norm. And with it, interest in identity has shifted to communities that want to define their own practices and preferences, including having a say about what others may appropriate as their own. It is now more routine for Americans to ponder whether a straight actor should portray a gay character in a play or film, or whether a special condition such as autism can be suitably represented by non-autistic actors. These samples are representative of groups asserting authority over the use of what they see as their unique community property, whether it is particular experiences, cultural products, names or sensibilities. Who should wear tribal clothing or jewelry?  Can a sports team use an anglicized version of a name for an indigenous group?  In short, who gets to tell a specific community’s story?  These are now frequent American questions, where the pronoun “our” is tribal as much as it is nationalistic. That’s a different emphasis than is common in French thinking, where the pronoun is more or less meant to cover the entire culture: a nation of 67 million souls set apart from the rest of the world.

It is an irony that one of the guiding forces shaping the American experience was France’s commitment to its ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” But to many in Europe, America’s twin embrace of right-wing politics as well as progressive multiculturalism looks like a descent into destructive separatism.  When exported, these impulses seem like unwelcome intrusions imported as newer forms of American cultural imperialism.

Showhorses and Workhorses

The mistaken goal of being seen strays far from what someone elected to public office should want. It says “showhorse” and “phony” at the same time.

The inescapable hothouse of national politics that has consumed many Americans for the last five years may finally be getting more fresh air.  The election brought on a dramatic shift in power that has made it possible to witness the refreshing sight of some “workhorses” replacing “showhorses” who mostly just feigned administrative competence.

The equestrian reference is an old canard about politics repeated by practitioners and observers alike.  A showhorse is an individual who is primarily a self-promoter. Interest in working with deliberative and administrative processes is limited or non-existent. It’s been said about many senators that you could be run over if you accidently came between a specific member and a group of reporters. In contrast, a workhorse is someone who seeks progress on specific policy or oversight goals, not requiring the limelight to be motivated.

This second breed is less common. Fewer people who offer themselves up to be leaders or legislators at the federal level are interested in the hard work required to build coalitions and find routes to compromise. They do exist. But their very anonymity in our media makes it even harder to notice their hard work. For example, there is a group of seven women in the House of Representatives who are trying to put together a package of immigration reforms.  Representative Linda Sanchez describes all of them as “not doing it for the glory or for the credit,” but to repair a broken system. Their names– Lofgren, Roybal-Allard, Velázquez, Chu, Clarke and Bass–are mostly unfamiliar. Members like these are content to broker solutions without using them as springboards to fame.

We are in a prolonged period where more leaders are attracted to federal electoral offices for the performance chances they offer. Cameras and interviews mean celebrity recognition and a puffed-up sense of self-importance. These people who want to be known as “players” see their chances for power mostly in their ability to build their own “brand” and maybe shape public opinion.

 

For Trump, being the President was far more interesting than functioning as a President.

President Donald Trump’s pleasure at playing to the crowd was so obvious that it at times its unintended humor was better than what the comics at SNL could think up.  And remember the crowd that had to be gassed and removed so he could walk across the street from the White House to be photographed in front of a church clutching a bible like an Olympic medal? He craved media coverage. The same distorted priority was revealed on January 6 in his unwillingness to call the National Guard to stop his minions from braking into the Capitol. He was reportedly immobilized and delighted by the spectacle of the rioters with flags bearing his name. Eventually it fell to Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi to summon more protection against the mob.

Consider one more case. Seemingly unaware of how far afield he drifted from the job he sought, North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn (R) was quoted recently in Time Magazine noting he has built his office staff just for communications “rather than legislation.”  That’s a departure from most congressional offices that have people to research issues and help craft bills that members will promote.  But Mr. Cawthorn is apparently using the public’s money to run his own self-marketing agency. Refusing the work of legislating is like going into business to create swimsuits that can’t get wet, or making wedding cakes from plaster. Such an emphasis on appearances strays so far from what someone elected to a deliberative body should want.

Perhaps this is how American leadership will wither and die: at the hands of people more interested in media appearances than in helping constituents desperate for governmental action.