Friday, July 2, 2010

Tick, tick, tick, boom

Another rare political comment (Ed. "How many of these do you get before they aren't rare anymore?" Hey, at least they aren't partisan.)

The French government is finally about to release the names of those who collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation. Well, they are going to release them in 2015. Well, they have committed to release them and we're all hoping they finally come clean

It's odd because the vast majority of the people on that list are already dead. They could start releasing the names of the dead tomorrow but they're dragging it out. Why? Not for the reasons you might guess.

Let me tell you something funny. Quite a few French journalists are firmly convinced that Americans are in denial about slavery and segregation. Seriously. You could write an editorial for a major French paper or magazine tomorrow claiming that Americans have not faced up to their past and it would get passed even though the history of slavery and segregation is taught in every school in the land.

Okay, but before you laugh too hard, the claim that you occasionally see in the American, Canadian and British press that the French are denial about what happened during the occupation is just as ludicrous. Walk into any French bookstore and you can find a whole bookshelf about it. There have been television series, movies and countless thumbsuckers in the French press on the subject. To the contrary, the French are obsessed with dirty secrets of the occupation.

But, and this is a very telling but, they are only interested in certain narratives about the occupation (and you could justly say the same about American attitudes towards slavery and segregation). Certain narratives about that time have been told and retold to make certain moral and political ends. It has been used to make an entirely fictional division between sheep and goats; to make it look like certain people and certain movements were always on the side of the angels and others always on the wrong side.

I don't want to give you a partisan political example, so let me give you a Catholic one. It's often repeated, and rightly so, that some Catholics of a traditionalist bent wrote things before and during the occupation that are very troubling to read now. That is absolutely true.

But, you know, Emmanuel Mounier, the father of Personalism,  also wrote things before and during the occupation that make very troubling reading now. You can do a lot of things with history but it's very rare that history provides clearcut cases that prove one party morally superior to another.

And one of the things this list will almost certainly do when it comes out is to undermine those morally reassuring narratives people have been telling one another for so long now. People from all sides of the big debates within the Catholic church will almost show up on that list. Likewise, pick any political party, any belief system, any philosophy or any literary movement you care to name, you can be sure there will be embarrassing names from that group on the list when it comes out.

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