Universalism under Attack: Thanksgiving Reflections inspired by the French

Coq d'indeIt is breath-taking to realize just how different philosophical and political debate is in France as compared to the USA. The contrast rarely emerges with such clarity as in the debate over universalism that is currently shaking the French intelligentsia.

As explained in an admirable article by CNRS historian Sophie Wahnich*, France is currently polarized by two rival views on universalism. On the one hand, there are the proponents of post-colonial studies, often the same people who are held guilty of foisting identity politics in the Hexagon, who charge the nation with hypocrisy. They hold up the 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen as proof, since its writers promoted universalism without eradicating the injustices and crimes that they were party to, as participants (more or less direct) in an economy built on the slave trade.

On the other hand, there are the die-hard républicains who argue that such anathema is misplaced, because the Revolution’s Declaration of Rights was the watershed moment when the hierarchical, class-bound order of court society was finally revealed for what it was: morally untenable. Universal equality, the Declaration states implicitly, applies to people of color as well as to people born in all socio-economic classes.

Although the French attitude towards the “others” amongst them is complex (and potentially at its nadir at present), the Declaration should not be held up as the enemy, because it has had concrete, positive effects on the creation of national solidarity. Consider the debates inflamed by the persecution of Lt. Colonel Alfred Dreyfus in 1892, and the way statesman Jean Jaurès used the Declaration to defend French Jews such as Dreyfus. Wahnich explains: “Souvenons-nous que Jaurès lorsqu’il doit faire face à l’antisémitisme, rappelle que la Révolution française avait déracialisé l’humanité. Ainsi dans La dépêche du midi du 2 juin 1892 : «Je n’ai aucun préjugé contre les Juifs. […] Je n’aime pas les querelles de race, et je me tiens à l’idée de la Révolution Française, si démodée et si prudhommesque qu’elle semble aujourd’hui : c’est qu’au fond, il n’y a qu’une race, l’humanité.»
True, this solidarity is daily put to test in a country more diverse than ever. But the founding principles are not the enemy.

Wahnich is scheduled to join a public debate about these issues today; we will watch the results with interest.

This debate seems a prime example of how the French maintain a high level of public discussion on important issues of principle. Such abstract, historical discourse strikes most Americans as high-falutin’ talk, less for public consumption than for ivory tower intellectualism. But we eschew such debate at our own risk. Perhaps a bit more talk of principles could curb the alarming rise of hate-speech and hate-crimes amongst us…

Although our nation was also founded on universal principles of equality, special interests have significantly altered the original spirit of the USA.
Consider that most ordinary gesture, repeated by every schoolchild coast to coast, the pledge of allegiance. In July 1942, when the pledge was first approved by the American Congress as a means to bolster national spirit, it went like this: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

That version remained true to the universalistic spirit of the French Declaration of Rights and the US Bill of Rights.

But a mere 12 years later, our pledge departed from its original purpose and became a tool of special interest. Under pressure from groups such as the Knights of Columbus and the Presbyterian Church, and in the hands of a president recently converted to Presbyterianism, the words “Under God” were added. Moreover, they were inserted before “with liberty and justice for all,” thereby suggesting that there exists an order—a moral order, sanctioned by monotheism—superior to universal, legal rights of the American citizen.

As we reflect upon our national identity this week on Thanksgiving, we Americans would do well to look to the French for a bracing reminder of what “for all” is supposed to mean.

* Sophie Wahnich, “Un soupçon sur l’universel,” Libération [section Société] (22 novembre 2013).
Thanks to Olivier Morel from bringing this article to my attention.

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