The Spirit of the Age: Three Vignettes

"Hijab Day" at Sciences Po

I realize that this is a minor event that has no more importance than we are willing, here and elsewhere, to give it. And yet I cannot quite get over the "Hijab Day" staged last Wednesday by a group of students at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris.

That things have reached this sorry pass at one of France's best schools, one where future government officials are supposed to be trained and where what is left of the spirit of republican democracy should be preserved and cultivated, that its students should descend to such an absurd and obscene provocation, that by putting on display (and thus, whether intentionally or not) celebrating a symbol so deeply inconsistent with the founding principles of democracy -- all this is nothing short of staggering.

It does not matter which way you look at the issue -- whether the veil is required or desired; a symbol of the law of one's fathers, brothers, and masters or the expression of a choice; a mark of the violence done to the one wearing it or of a submission recognized as such and willingly borne. In either case, it signifies the effacement of women, their defeat, their formal inequality. In both cases, and, come to think about it, in the second perhaps more than in the first -- that is, in situations where the abasement is premeditated and self-aware more than when it is the product of alienation but dimly perceived -- it is the visible face of an ideology and, in certain countries, of a political order being battled by women and men who reject the new form of fascism that is radical Islam.

After Hijab Day, what next? Sharia Day? Jihad parties? Must we look forward now to Stoning 101, complete with hands-on workshops that enable us to "open up the discussion," to "better understand" the phenomenon, and to do away with the "stigmatization" attached to this fine form of punishment?

Much Ado About Nothing on French TV

Turmoil, too, though of a different sort and, this time, in the vein of pure farce, over the "affair" of the televised slap that rapper Joey Starr administered to TV personality Gilles Verdez behind the scenes of the French talent show "Nouvelle Star."

The problem is not whose side to take. That the hosts of the most idiotic shows in the French media, that those of the nation's mediacrats who thrive by commercializing unbounded vulgarity should whip up a frenzy and then put on a display either of outraged virtue or of resistance to the tyranny of the Bolloré Group -- well, that is their role and in the order of things.

But that all of France should become transfixed by this manufactured nonevent to the extent of pushing everything else off the web for 24 hours; that for those 24 hours nothing should matter more than a war of hashtags and likes between those who believe that you should never violate the personal space of a resting rapper and those who respond that you should never strike a TV personality, especially when wearing rings; that debate should rage as far as the eye can see over whether said wounded TV personality has suffered "headaches" since the rapper rebuked him--this speaks volumes about the climate of the time and, sad to say, its decline.

Watching the protesters of the Nuit Debout movement and their smug ideologists, it was tempting to think back to the comparative style and flair of the great voices of the far left of a generation ago. In the face of today's chronic hyper-excitement, where the prank of a bewigged TV personality and the somewhat exaggerated response of a show-business loudmouth can be portrayed as the apex of provocativeness and daring, it is hard not to be nostalgic for Maurice Clavel. "Messieurs les Censeurs, bonsoir," said Clavel as he stormed off the set of a 1971 television screening of one of his filmed reports in 1971 that turned out to have been censored. Other days, other ways.

The Brexit and Europe's Power to Inspire

The truly serious matter of the past week is the mounting debate over the possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Unlike many, I am not at all persuaded that such an exit would be fatal or even necessarily harmful to the EU. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which the City of London takes advantage of the new situation to break free from EU rules, gather up its financial marbles, and profit (why not?) from the windfall effect created by its former partners' rallying around the ideal (?) of universal transparency and the hunt for hidden money by becoming a gigantic pump sucking up Balzac's "soaring arch of gold" and, thanks to its incomparable technical acumen and formidable accumulated power, converting the UK into a tax haven on an unprecedented scale, a huge, unbeatable Jersey, an uninhibited and unchained Luxembourg with an unparalleled mechanical advantage.

And if this scenario were to become a reality? One hopes it will not. But one thing is sure. The result of the referendum on the Brexit will depend, first and obviously, on the voters. But the attitude of Europe, its vitality and continued ability to inspire, will not be irrelevant. Either Europe speaks up, affirming itself and demonstrating that the European project still has a future, in which case the British partisans of union will see their position strengthened; or it falls silent, allowing doubt and discouragement to creep in and, by its inertia, sending the signal that it's now every man for himself. And the chances are that it will not be the weakest but the strongest -- that is, those who have the most to lose from a slow, choreographed shipwreck -- who will be the first to jump.

More than ever, Europe is at the crossroads of its destiny.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy