Saturday, November 12, 2005

Translating Burning Cars and the French Riots

Sadly some people will agree with Village Voice writer, David Ng, in his article "CNN Got It Wrong: The Paris riots weren't that bad--and the French Government handled it well," but to do so would be to undermine the real race and class issues at hand in the French riots.

Ng writes,

But now, with the riots finally winding down, the café culture's reluctance to engage the riots—its choice of distance (or what the French call recul) seems the right response to the events of the past two weeks. As the cars stop burning and some semblance of order returns to the most troubled areas (albeit with the help of draconian curfew measures), now is as good a time as any to ask: Just what the hell happened? (And how did the American media paint such a distorted picture?)

To answer these questions, we have to first figure out what didn't happen. Contrary to the breathless dispatches from the American press, Paris was most certainly not burning. Those of us ensconced in the central part of the city could hardly tell anything was going on. ("This is not exactly the second French Revolution," another journalist colleague told me.) American media hyperbole served to heighten the distancing effect. Expounding on French social inequalities from their suites at the George V, the dashing reporters of CNN et al., their infographics a-blazin', created a sensationalized image of an entire country under siege.

Choice of distance is the right response to the events of the past two weeks? Read David Ng as saying, "Ignore them. Just ignore the riffraff lest they disturb the many little coffees I must get back to sipping and ma vie en rose." It's one thing to be unaware of a privileged position one holds in society, but Ng is as embarrassing and arrogant as Paris Hilton's new boyfriend paying a homeless man to dump a soda over his head. And to turn the focus on the media in this case is to undermine just how huge this problem most certainly *is.* I agree that an interesting report might contrast the burning cars with the sunbathing cafe culture because the rest of Paris' ignorance *is* integral to the history of colonialism, "emancipation," immigration, and integration, but to say that there wasn't enough of us in the clips is a shameful exhibition of privileged vanity.

The story of the French riots *is* in the burning cars because for the first time, the invisible (sub)urban culture has found a voice--and yes, their voice is through a burning car. We won't see any of the rioters interviewed, because the government and society has never equipped them with an articulate voice in the first place. Many people will say, They have schools just like anyone else, but refuse to apply themselves. The gross misunderstanding with the education system is that while there are a blessed minority of truly qualified, intelligent teachers that choose to "step down" and work at struggling schools in struggling neighborhoods, most teachers will apply for jobs in schools they know or "step up" for their own self-advancement. Children educated at a private school might be more inclined to teach at a private school just like a child educated in a lower class school might be more inclined to teach in their same lower class neighborhood. People stick to environments they're comfortable in, with the unwritten societal rules they know; hence the neverending cycle of keeping classes in their place. Why do we just expect that an African American should feel comfortable stepping into Whitey & Co.? Why do we expect that a son or daughter of an Algerian immigant should feel as though he/she can seamlessly blend into a middle-class business when the chances are that his/her legit application and resume is rejected 7 out of 10 times? I have Cincinnati, which has had its own share of very similar riots and racial tensions, as a ruler in terms of education training and it's absurd to think that the very affluent "new money" neighborhood of Indian Hill provides the same opportunity to students as the poor, crime-ridden area of North Fairmont. So while I suppose Ng wants us to take cushy comfort in knowing that the French government has "minimized casualties and bloodshed," we should be *very uncomfortable* with governments' and societies' inability even beyond the borders of France to provide a fundamental base of education, jobs and money, and acceptance.

Ng attempts to bolster the government, praising,
It has also restored state subsidies to impoverished neighborhoods and has lowered the apprenticeship age to 14 to help combat unemployment (which stands at almost 30 percent in certain cites).

"Subsidies." How...specific. I suppose that when the lower class logs on to their Apple G5s and reads that the government has restored "subsidies," they'll log right off, hop in their shiny car, fill up on the sweet nectar of gasoline (after they've looked up directions on Mapquest, of course), and drive on over to the..."subsidy office (?)," which, I'm sure, will provide a straightforward pamphlet in lay-man's terms with no fine print on how to get some "subsidy." And thank god! Jobs are being provided to the educationally-incomplete 14 year-olds! Now they'll be pumping Super gas by the time they're 18 instead of Regular Unleaded! Oh how the government comes to the rescue!! And surely the combination of this shift job and top-notch 8th grade education will afford them excellent health care and the time and knowledge to invest their minimum wage into the French equivalent of Roth IRAs, 401Ks, and interest earning bank accounts!! What a certain and secure future ahead of them!

Oh wait. It's not at all. See, you and I get the luxury of even getting to think about the future, whereas providing for today is the concern for the lower class. And we need to remember that needs aren't limited to the food, the jobs, the shelter...what happens when love takes a second seat? Can you blame a kid or even an adult that seeks "love" and comfort in the other world of television, video games (assuming these are available), the drug feel-good culture, or rampant sex. There are a limited amount of areas left to these people that provide something to feel good about. And no one should understand this better than the American middle-class society obsessed with rearing their kids with an endless string of affirmatives. We understand that a person needs to be loved. We understand that a person needs affirmation. So when we see this being sought through a vice like drugs, why are there so many of us privileged people like David Ng, ready to critique and beat down the lower class just a little bit more--or add fuel to the fire, so to speak?

Yes their voice is through the burning cars and looting. They may not be as articulate as the fortunate in the Sorbonne, who subsequently step into the government, but make no mistake that a stripped down human being still has his emotions, and like it or not you can't argue with what another person feels. A burning car says I'm angry. And as Mathieu Kassovitz (see his News section) points out, a burning car says, "'Zero tolerance' works both ways."

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