Why does The New York Times believe they are in a position to tell the winner of a presidential election that he has to “prove” himself, as they did with this headline on Monday, “Sarkozy Wins the Chance to Prove His Critics Wrong”? To them, becoming president is small potatoes compared to the chance to fulfill the task they set before him, i.e., to prove himself to unnamed critics who call him “Arrogant, brutal, an authoritarian demagogue, a ‘perfect Iago,’” according to the lead of the story. This harsh assessment emerges in part from Nicolas Sarkozy’s reference to youths in the Paris suburbs, who are prone to setting cars ablaze, racaille, which has been translated as “scum” by the New York Times (but as “riff-raff,” according to my dictionary).
Oh, the insensitivity!
New York Times approval or not, the French people, especially blue-collar workers and women, elected a man who called rioters something other than the liberal-approved terms, “disadvantaged,” “downtrodden,” “underprivileged”—or, perhaps, pyromania-impulse-control-challenged.
Personally, as someone who grew up with rioters all around me in Rochester, New York, in the 1960s and 1970s, I think even “scum” is much too weak a term to apply to those who joyfully destroy private property and beat up innocent people. I thought this when I was seven, when they beat up Otto, the man who lived in the apartment above his corner store. With saintly patience this middle-aged man picked out the penny candy that I carefully selected for the nickel I had earned for walking the kindergartner to school—my first paid employment. I haven’t changed my mind about those rioters. And I would still call those who ran down the halls of my high school smashing glass and beating up teachers worse than scum. My French lesson that day was interrupted by being locked in the classroom, hearing the principal over the p.a., and then stepping over broken glass and blood, as I rushed home terrified. And I won’t tell you what I think of the rioters who beat up to near death Reginald Denny, the truck driver who happened to drive onto the wrong street after the Rodney King verdict. What’s worse than the rioters are the defenders and jury who let the rioters go virtually unpunished. Or my teachers who used rioting as an opportunity for more “racial dialogue” in the place of the things Ishould have been studying in high school, like Latin or philosophy.
But then again the New York Times editors never have to worry about such things as doing blue-collar work or sending their kids to violent inner-city schools. In fact, they have a long tradition of publishing contemplative pieces on rioting by literary luminaries like Thomas Pynchon, who, in 1966, the year after the Watts riots, observed “white culture,” a “creepy world of precardiac Mustang drivers who scream insults at one another only when the windows are up; of large corporations where Niceguymanship is the standing order.” We white people are so darn repressed…so unlike those authentic black folks who are much closer to nature and their primal, savage selves. Pynchon here does a riff on Norman Mailer’s 1957 The White Negro. Pynchon, descendent of Puritans and scion of a family fortune, then goes on to define the authentic black culture of Watts: “In terms of strict reality, violence may be a means to getting money, for example, no more dishonest than collecting exorbitant carrying charges from a customer on relief, as white merchants here still do.” In fact, “Far from a sickness, violence may be an attempt to communicate, or to be who you really are.” Can’t expect them to use linear language the way white people do. Pynchon sums up his poetic reverie with, “As this summer warms them up, last August’s riot is being remembered less as chaos and more as art. Some talk now of a balletic quality to it, a coordinated and graceful drawing of cops away from the center of the action, a scattering of The Man’s power, either with real incidents or false alarms.” I imagine Buffy up in her mod Manhattan penthouse saying to Chad, “Darling, you must read this! Maybe we can get our chauffeur to drive us through Watts for a performance.”
Pynchon is like the 25-year-old graduate student caught up in Marxist theory while living off the largesse of his parents, whom he indirectly indicts through his razing of all remnants of Western civilization. I remember such a fellow MFA student expounding on Marxism and writing a Whitman-esque ode to herself about shaking the hand of a homeless man and giving him a few dollars.
Those who have had the benefit of parental allowances even to the point of support through college expect the government to continue in this role. Their temper tantrums gather steam and turn into marches and protests. It was with a different feeling that I walked to school on the Mondays after the riots. Ah, but the liberal would call me privileged, for my immigration at a young age left me with no accent, and my country of origin, Slovenia, did not put me in the category of visible “other.” I soon saw that the term “underprivileged” was used by those who had hired my mother to clean their houses to demonstrate their generosity and progressiveness. My white face on one of their Fresh Air Fund posters would not have advanced the estimation they have of themselves, even though my summers were spent taking care of my sisters—and never at summer camp–while my mother worked at the factory.
They are quite generous ultimately with tax money collected from the middle class for social programs. Secure in their own abilities to get Ivy League educations and Daddy’s connections to get jobs, they charitably promote affirmative action programs.
The message I had received at Benjamin Franklin High School, that I was “privileged,” continued when I entered graduate school as a returning student. I was quite miffed when I had to miss a day of classes at Georgia State University in 1993 due to a takeover of the campus to force the hand of the administration to institute an African-American Studies program. Last January, the scholar of the Black Panthers, Charles E. Jones, who in 1994 became the first, and so far only, department head, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party by addressing co-founder Bobby Seale, as “comrade.” In Victorian Prose class the day after the forced deliberations on instituting this new course of study, the popular white professor (especially with secretaries and female graduate students) expounded on how race trumps circumstances, saying, “A black person could never hurt me.” But then again, I am sure that this professor would never have had to work at something as lowly as driving a truck.
It may take the son of an Eastern European immigrant to get these spoiled children of the West on the right track. Sarkozy’s support was strong among blue-collar workers, probably the best hope for the future of the West. I hope he cracks down hard on rioters and keeps children safe from the hoodlums promoting the cause of the spoiled Marxists. I hope he bodes well for the 2008 elections here in the U.S.
So I raise a toast. It will be good to drink French wine again. Monsieur Sarkozy, Na zdravje
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