Letter from Paris (to Ishmael Reed)

by Robert Mailer Anderson, February 25, 2015

All is well here at our house. Religious fanatics were on other side of town. But religious fanaticism is a threat all the way around the globe. Not just the Islamic stripe either. And freedom of press under siege everywhere as well. One could write a novel about all the connections from Bible times to US failed foreign policy, the surveillance state and where are you Mr. Snowden? I’m just hoping not to become a character like the main one in DeLillo’s “Mao II” — swapped out as a hostage to regain the power novelists used to have.

I’m remembering the day during the Redwood Summer (logging protests) in Mendocino County when my father’s Cadillac’s front windshield was smashed in by a baseball bat in Willits while my Uncle’s Bruce’s truck had metal shavings put into the engine in Boonville. Bruce, of course, has been run off the road several times and done time in jail defending his version of freedom of the press, and satire as well, being the publisher and editor of the infamous Anderson Valley Advertiser. One time I answered the door at Fort Despair (his home where he also ran a grouphome for juvenile delinquents, along with the offices of the AVA and had many buildings and structures and a big fort like fence around the perimeter) and whoever had knocked was also carrying a shotgun. I quickly turned to the living room and shouted, “Bruce! It’s for you.” And backed away…

So, no, not staying indoors. In fact, we were over in Le Marais (neighborhood near Charlie Hebdo office) eating pizza the other day with a friend. He lives in that neighborhood and was walking his son to daycare, an alternate route or would have been directly in the chaos. As it stood, he heard the shots, thinking they were post New Year’s fireworks shot off by kids because, “You never hear gunshots in Paris.” I checked and there are an average of about 130 gun homicides every year in all of France. NY City alone averaged about 2,000 annually when I lived there back in my misspent youth. Closer to home, and present day, I read for the 10 years to 2013, 787 black boys and men in Oakland were victims of homicide. During that same time, just 802 graduated prepared to attend either a California State University or University of California school. I told our kids that it was probably way more dangerous grabbing al pastor tacos after a Warriors game than walking any cobblestoned “arrondissement” of Paris. But their school, The American School of Paris, was on high alert and they cancelled after school activities and their independent soccer leagues were cancelled up through the peace march. I think the photos dominating the US news cycle were pretty alarmist though. And the news is suffering from not having long lasting relationships with true foreign correspondents that understand the nuances of Paris and French culture and focusing in Super Bowl style on the drama of the murders and the capture of the terrorists (OJ is in a white Bronco!). Even when the correspondents are good, the newscasters don’t seem to know what questions to ask, completely lacking a true context.

But there is definitely a problem here that isn’t going away any time soon. The French don’t really believe in anything other than “being French" if you want to live here. It’s pretty clear. And that’s one way of going about things. This isn’t a theocracy and they don’t want one. If you can’t take a joke or think certain insults are sins (punishable by vigilante murder), then you shouldn’t live here. They have a point. They weren’t built on multiculturalism like the US. (Yes yes, tell that to the First Nation and indigenous tribes, African slaves, Chinese, old Mexico, etc.). They do, however, serve halal meals to ALL public school children if they request them. But other than diet, you have to get with “their culture” (as we are personally finding out from how they run their businesses to strange women’s rights issues, such as assumptions that you take your husband’s last name and no box for your own for insurance purposes or certain purchases, along with non-favorable divorce and inheritance laws…) and although they have adopted a bit of lip service it seems lately about multiculturalism (because they have 5 million Muslims, many ghettoized not just because of their religion but seemingly because of their color), they believe if you want the benefits of living in France, you need to live by their rules. At present, it seems they are largely an atheistic country with a “Christian culture” that has diluted from the Catholic Church. There is definitely a xenophobia lurking in France’s core and those Hebdo cartoons (hooked-nosed Arabs, African leaders as monkeys…) and with it much economic and cultural racism attached, not to mention long history of imperialism…but that wasn’t the stated objection of these terrorists.

But to me, these particular recent abominable actions also speak to a “grouphome mentality,” like that of the residents at my father’s state sponsored grouphome where I was raised; young, disenfranchised men, angry, confused, not that bright, economically impoverished, insulted, not getting laid, brains not fully formed or barely formed (they all seem to be in their 20’s, though the two shooters were in early 30’s…), they can’t find their way in society and harken back to an overly idealized version of their former home and perverted religious beliefs, and lash out violently… the economic disenfranchisement being dominant in their alienation and ultimately in their search for a “different order” or “moral code,” much like that of joining gangs (“Blood in, blood out!”) and prison culture, which also plays to their insecurities, economic and educational shortcomings, issues of masculinity, etc.

There are definitely many lessons to be learned here, one of them translates to a warning about the American religious right, believing they can assert their religious beliefs upon the whole of our country.

Nicola and I took a rare trip away from the kids to Morocco because her mother and mother’s friend came to Paris and took care of our brood. I guess that was our response to Hebdo terrorism, go straight to a Muslim country and ask, “What the fuck?”

But I don’t speak Arabic, French, Berber, etc. Although it is clear to me that the mandate to not tolerate “Muslim extremism” should have been more inclusive and less inflammatory by wording of “religious extremism.” But maybe that’s exactly what they meant in their version of liberté since they uphold Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of speech but not comedian Dieudonné. As much as Hebdo was speaking out against all religion, a small press against large power structure, it seemed to me to also be a group of privileged white men alienating a group of minorities in the underclass with brutal and hateful stereotypes. They can say that is part of a French tradition, and I would answer yes, and so was slavery in America – until we stopped because it was wrong. “Tradition” is a strange excuse for bad behavior. Very difficult to split hairs in non-native tongue though, or ideology, or even get the man-in-the-street response without losing something in translation. Still, hypocrisy is hypocrisy. As a product of the west (and left), I believe freedom of expression is worth fighting for universally, as an inalienable right. Even The Klan gets to march. And we can (and should) protest that march. But in order to “all get along” it seems like you might refrain from hurling racial or religious epitaphs verbally or visually as “hellos,” and certainly not respond with gunfire.

Any which way, another gray day in Paris and trying to get my own writing done, only slightly worried Boonville and the Michoacán mafia will exact revenge on me for my fiction.

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