Thursday, December 08, 2005

Types of Political Violence

French philosopher and Holocaust expert Alain Finkielkraut has been in a bit of hot water because of an interview he gave to Ha'aretz last month. He said that the riots in France were "an ethno-religious revolt," which is to say identity-driven and anti-semitic. Moreover, he has been very critical of how race has been read into the rioting. In spite of the existence of discrimination and racism in France, the acts themselves must not be tolerated. Ever since, he has been hounded by the French press, and he has given one or two apologies that have been poorly received.

I was struck, however, by one of his statements:
When an Arab torches a school, it's rebellion. When a white guy does it, it's fascism. I'm `color blind.' Evil is evil, no matter what color it is. And this evil, for the Jew that I am, is completely intolerable.
To some degree he is right: we should be cautious in interpreting how race plays into acts of political violence, and the obvious equation of whiteness and fascism (read racist, reactionary, or anti-democratic) need not always apply.

But for the life of me, I can't think of an instance in which 'torching a school' was not 'fascist' in one way or other, regardless of race. Violence against political actors and institutions can have various meanings. Peasants can burn down the lord's manor to destroy the documents that enserf them. The bureaucrat sent from the capital can be as much an authoritarian as a representative of progress and state-building. The tax collector can represent debt and obligation.

The schoolmaster, however, is a classic archetype of progress and empowerment -- the perfect local target of the monarchists, authoritarians and isolationists who want hierarchy and order, not liberation. Sometimes the schools are part of an overall rebellion as an institution of colonial rule, but they are not singled out among those institutions.

Am I missing something? Can one 'torch a school' and not be a fascist?

BTW, Le Point recently did a big write up on Finkielkraut.


At 3:52 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Whether or not Finkielkraut is right (to whatever extent), I think the open discussion of the issues he raises is healthy, far healthier than the till-now prevailing dismissal of all heterodoxy as 'fascist', 'racist', or what have you. Every crack in orthodoxy is healthy.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger bigblue said...

I remember when black youths in South Africa burnt their schools as peaceful protest was met with a violent (over)reaction by the police and spiralled into open rebellion.

By no stretch of the imagination could these youths be termed 'facist'.

I lived through those heady months which lasted for half of 1976 and most of 1977 and then I witnessed violent rebellion again from 1980 to 1982 and from the mid-1980's until about 1989. In the political violence, rebellious youths torched schools as they did cars, shops, local authority offices, liquor stores, and any other symbol of "the state" within the townships, including sometimes those people who were identified (rightly or wrongly) as political collaborators.

By contrast I know very little about the rebellions in France by disaffected youths, but the little that I do know would suggest that a label such as 'facist' is not particularly descriptive nor accurate of the culture and ideology (as much as there is one) of the disaffected youth in France who are responsible for the torchings (of shops, garages, cars, and yes, schools). I think a more useful analysis would look at how these "rebellions" are triggered, and how they spiral (or are contained) depending upon the response of the state. Here more useful comparisons than the South African one I provide may be provided by looking at those that have occurred in advanced Western countries such as the USA and the UK in recent years.

I suspect that one could find that the key factors are not the political ideology of the participants - we have seen riots by racist white youths (in the UK and Australia) and by black left-wing communities (in the UK and USA) etc.


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