Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications, including the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and Grand Street.
The second round of France's presidential elections was billed as
"l'escroc" (the crook) versus "le facho" (the fascist). In
the event, incumbent President Jacques Chirac got the kind of majority
usually associated with the heads of one-party states. "As always in
times of difficulty, France rallied around what is essential," said the
man even many of his supporters dubbed "the Superliar" as he claimed his
It was precisely the history of France's response in "times of
difficulty" that led Europe to hold its collective breath on May 5. Like
his reference to the Holocaust as "une détaille" and his
proposal that illegal immigrants be held in "transit camps," Jean-Marie
Le Pen's claim to be "socially left, economically right, and nationally
French" was a deliberate echo of the fascist past--in this case the
pre-war fascist slogan "Neither left nor right--French!" The evident
relief in the faces of the African and North African immigrants on the
streets of Paris as the scale of Le Pen's defeat became apparent was a
reminder of just how high the stakes had been. But Le Pen polled nearly
6 million votes--300,000 more than the total for both far-right parties
in the first round--despite being condemned by a pantheon of national
heroes, from Charles Aznavour to Zinedine Zidane.
Not exactly cause for celebration. Instead, some sobering reflections.
First, that history matters. A great deal of attention has been paid to
Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-European Union rhetoric. Other far-right
parties, singing from the same hymnal, have made recent gains all across
Europe. But Le Pen also can claim the mantle of a tradition with very
deep roots in French soil, embracing the clerical absolutism of
Action française, the anti-Semitism of Vichy collaborators
like Robert Brasillach and the provincial bitterness of Pierre Poujade.
(Perhaps the oddest moment in the whole campaign was when Le Pen, who
got his start in politics in Poujade's 1956 shopkeepers' revolt, found
himself disowned by his former mentor.) France is not the only country
where nostalgia for fascism has crawled out from under its stone. The
right wing of Silvio Berlusconi's government in Italy carries a torch
for Mussolini; the leader of the British National Party, which won three
seats in local elections recently, decorates his office with German
flags. Pim Fortuyn's assassination on May 6 has left the Dutch far right
leaderless--but may also have furnished the movement's first martyr.
Second, that it isn't just "the economy, stupid." Prosperity didn't save
Lionel Jospin any more than it did Al Gore. To a labor force
increasingly threatened by globalization, Jospin's approach may have
seemed less dirigiste than laissez-faire, but his positions on
workers' rights were still rooted in social democracy. Yet working-class
voters preferred Le Pen to Jospin. The true balance of forces won't be
known until the parliamentary elections in June. Mainstream
conservatives have already agreed to run as a coalition, the Union for a
Presidential Majority. A chastened left has also promised to unite, but
the Socialists have been decapitated, the Communists polled just over 3
percent in April and the Trotskyists are, as usual, split. If the
National Front vote holds at May 5 levels, the far right could become
the main opposition party in the next French Parliament.
For the left outside France, the lasting aftershock of these elections
is the re-emergence of identity as a political problem. For more
than two decades periodicals on the left (including this one) have been
deriding "identity politics" as a suicidal strategy blamed both for the
left's demise after the1960s and for its failure to capture blue-collar
workers supposedly alienated by excessive attention to the concerns of
women and minorities. Instead, we have been urged to limit ourselves to
the language of economic self- (or class) interest. As the pundits who
dismissed Le Pen never tired of pointing out, he barely had an economic
program worthy of the name. Challenged on television to explain his plan
to abolish income tax, he answered that he had other people to do the
figures for him. What he did offer voters was a sense of
identity--crude, nationalistic and defensive, but for many the only
apparent alternative to a mainstream politics offering little more than
the local management of global capitalism. The left may have progressed
beyond such appeals, but if Le Pen is any indication, a right-wing
politics of identity is still very much alive and dangerous.
Resentment against immigrants, even those seeking asylum, is at the boil.
Europe and the United States have begun to follow diverging scripts on the war.
The events of September 11, viewed from abroad.
Maria Margaronis reviews Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
'YO MAMA' IS A BIGOT
New York City
Arthur C. Danto contends that Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper is not anti-Catholic and deserves First Amendment protection ["In the Bosom of Jesus," May 28]. He should listen to the artist's own words and then reread the First Amendment. Renee Cox, debating me on CNN and other media outlets, made it clear that her art is designed to attack the Catholic Church. Her claims ranged from "the Catholic Church is all about money...about big business" to "40 percent of the slaveowners in the South were Catholic." As far as the First Amendment is concerned, she has a constitutional right to show her bigoted work. What she doesn't have is a right to the public purse. If taxpayers' money can't be used to further one's religion, how can it logically be permitted to be used to denigrate it?
Director of Communications
New York City
My article on Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper concerned a photograph, rendered controversial by some ill-considered remarks by Mayor Giuliani to the effect that it was indecent and anti-Catholic. The burden of my analysis was that it is neither. Scully's letter is not about that picture, but about some ill-considered remarks the artist is alleged to have made on CNN. They have no bearing on the work or on First Amendment policies.
Scully's letter reminds me of nothing so much as the transcript of the trial in which the painter Paolo Veronese was brought up before the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Venice in 1573 for having depicted Mary Magdalene in what is described there as "The Last Supper, which Jesus Christ took with his disciples in the house of Simon." The inquisitors wished to know whether Veronese felt that it was "fitting at the Last Supper of the Lord to paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities." Veronese said, "I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits"--and he cited the precedent of Michelangelo, who painted "Our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the Heavenly Host. They are all represented in the nude--even the Virgin Mary--and with little reverence."
The Holy Tribunal was an anticipatory version of the Decency Panel under Giuliani's counterreformation in New York. There was, of course, no First Amendment at the time. My own view is that a fair amount of tax money in Veronese's Venice went into the suppression of images; it instead goes into supporting their exhibition in New York today, for the larger intellectual benefit of our society, whatever the collateral opinions of the artists who make them.
One incidental issue puzzles me. In view of profound biblical paintings by such Protestant artists as Rembrandt, by what right do critics like Giuliani or Scully infer that images treating biblical incidents in ways they find displeasing are anti-Catholic rather than simply anti-Christian? It was the strategy of the Counter-Reformation to use images to strengthen faith. It was one strategy of early Protestantism to destroy images, based perhaps on the same psychology. By Rembrandt's time it was recognized that the church ought not to exercise a monopoly on religious representations. The taxpayers' money supports institutions that house painting after painting intended in their time to further the artists' religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. Where did Scully get the idea that this is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment?
ARTHUR C. DANTO
Art Winslow is absolutely correct in his analysis of today's art environment ["The Wind She Blows," June 11]. If we continue losing independent art spaces we'll end up with mediocre art, and artists and intellectuals will be outcasts. But all is not gloomy! Here in San Antonio last May 15 the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center won an important legal battle. Federal Judge Orlando Garcia courageously ruled that our mayor and city council violated the US Constitution and Texas's Open Meeting Act when they conspired to defund the center's art projects. Read the ruling at www.nysd.uscourts.gov/courtweb/pdf/D05TXWC/01-05845.PDF.
ANTONIO C. CABRAL
THE MISSING LINK
New York City
Thanks to everyone who wrote in to recommend more "sites for sore eyes" ["Full-Court Press," June 4], as well as those of you who added to the count of obscene and abusive letters in support of Ralph Nader. Of the many recommendations I received, I am happy to add those below to the list of intelligent and occasionally funny places to go on the web for political good sense and, in the case of Consortium News, investigative reporting. Happy surfing.
SINS OF THE FATHER
Dusko Doder is right to correct the Greek Press Office's extremely partial account of Greece's relations with Macedonia ["Letters," June 4]. But he is wrong to blame Foreign Minister George Papandreou for the sins of his father, Andreas. Papandreou the younger has made serious efforts to move Greek foreign policy beyond the paranoid nationalism fostered by Papandreou senior. With Prime Minister Costas Simitis, he helped to broker the peaceful removal of Slobodan Milosevic despite the Serbian dictator's considerable popular support in Greece. Simitis and Papandreou have also been constructively involved in efforts to resolve the current crisis in Macedonia--it is, after all, in their interest to do so. The cause of peace in the Balkans is best served by giving credit where credit is due.
For the record, the Greek government never quite claimed, as Doder says, that "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years." At the peak of nationalist hysteria in the 1990s, posters of archeological artifacts from Greek Macedonia with the legend "Macedonia: Three thousand years of Greek history" were displayed for the benefit of foreign visitors. There were also posters proclaiming "Macedonia was Greece ever," obviously Englished by some subversive mole.
THE CRIMSON & THE BLACK
Why are people surprised that Harvard is not acting in a socially just fashion [Benjamin L. McKean, "Harvard's Shame," May 21]? After all, the Harvard Corporation (which just inducted its first minority member and until a few years ago was an all-men's club) to its lasting shame never divested from South Africa (although it later gave Nelson Mandela an honorary degree). And when we alumni/ae successfully elected four petition candidates to the Board of Overseers on a prodivestment platform, the big U responded by changing the rules to make it far more difficult to elect someone not on the official slate.
It took a student strike back in 1969-70 to get the university to establish an African-American studies program. And, as the recent New York Times story on NYU's belated award to those protesting the collegiate sports world's "gentlemen's agreement" pointed out, Harvard, too, in the 1940s honored an opposing team's request not to field a black player. There's much more.
We can hope that Harvard will do the decent thing by way of a living wage for its employees, but I wouldn't count on it.
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
CAN WE AFFORD DAYCARE?
It seems I'm a rare bird indeed: a feminist who doesn't think that daycare is necessarily a fabulous thing, particularly for kids under 2 ["Subject to Debate," May 14]. Katha Pollitt is correct, as usual, that the National Institute for Child Health and Development's recent study purporting to link immersion in daycare with aggressive behavior probably can't infer causality but will be used to hurt moms who want to work outside the home. But political agendas aside, let's face it: It's widely considered better, developmentally speaking, for children up to 2 (the age when they really have something to gain from socializing with their peers) to interact one on one with their caregiver.
In my house, the care of my infant daughter is split; my husband and I both have part-time jobs (mine offers benefits). For children's sake, I'd like the childcare debate to include a discussion of how to give more part-time workers access to health insurance and how to convince conservatives and progressives alike that except for breastfeeding, dads can do everything for children that moms can.
Thanks to Katha Pollitt for succinctly pointing out why research into the effects of daycare is misdirected. The investigations should rather focus on the pay rates for daycare workers and the difficulty all but the very rich have in finding daycare or preschools that come close to the care provided in France and other enlightened countries. I have been a teacher's aide in a school where a high percentage of the kids qualified for free lunch, and I've also worked in a suburban school. You can guess which kids showed the most hyperactivity and aggression. (It wasn't the ones who had been going to the best preschools.) Searching for preschools for my own two children, I realized that my whole salary wouldn't cover the cost of the schools that met my standards. The bottom line is money--for parents, for state-run daycare with well-paid, qualified teachers, for family leave.
WHY, IT'S A SILVER BULLET...
Way out here in the Arizona desert, this cowgirl had been waiting for someone to ride to her rescue. Wasn't too long ago the guys in the white hats looked to win the shootout at the OK Corral. Then they were ambushed. Ever since, daily scans of the horizon turned up nothing but coyotes.
Then out of nowhere, in a cloud of dust, rides the Lone Ranger: Senator Jim Jeffords! God bless you, sir. May you ride tall in the saddle and turn the right-wing stampede before it carries all of us over the cliff.
As the election nears, the weather is rotten and the glow is off "New Labour."
London's new mayor is Thatcher's old nemesis. Is he also a leading indicator?
Contrary to the impression fostered by the government's supporters, not all the fuel protesters are selfish, gas-guzzling throwbacks greedy for a bigger TV.
Case sawed shakily at his steak, reducing it to uneaten bite-sized fragments, which he pushed around in the rich sauce.... "Jesus," Molly said, her own plate empty, "gimme that.