One can’t read today’s newspapers without first having to wade through spread after spread of riot stories complete with lurid pictures, eyewitness accounts and editorial moaning along the why-oh-why lines.
Some papers take a neutral stance, others are scathing about the rioters, still others are broadly sympathetic to them. But that’s in England. In France, most papers stay, well, not exactly silent, but reticent.
Remarkably little space is devoted to the worst racial upheavals since the 1960s, as if the papers wished to communicate the message that, yes, merde happens, but it’s no big deal and in any case it’s none of France’s concern.
It’s not as if French journalists can’t see the importance of a story that has ousted Covid from front pages. They can. The trouble is, they can see it too well.
They just fear, with good reason, that the rocks thrown at American policeman have the range to fly across the ocean and shatter France’s glass house, already showing a spiderweb of cracks. They don’t want their own potential rioters, whose name is legion, to get any inspiring ideas.
Riots happen throughout the West, and even Britain isn’t exactly immune to them. But no Western country can match US riots in scale, nor French ones in frequency.
One can’t help feeling that the two nations, despite their professed disdain for each other, are somehow umbilically linked. They seem to share some common DNA, specifically those genes that predispose to mob violence.
So they do. America and France are the first commonwealths of rebellious modernity, its revolutionary flag-bearers. Both were born, in their present forms, as revolutionary republics, mob violence their birth cries. To this day words like ‘revolution’ and ‘rebellion’ have more positive connotations in those countries than, say, in Britain or Holland.
The link between the two revolutions isn’t instantly obvious. It certainly wasn’t to Edmund Burke, whose genius betrayed him in this one area. While ripping the French Revolution to shreds in one of history’s seminal texts of political philosophy, he welcomed the American Revolution as “a revolution not made but prevented”.
Burke failed to detect familial kinship between those two children of the Enlightenment, both having equality chiselled into the stone tablets of their founding documents. Some 20 years later the link was blindingly obvious to John Adams, America’s second president.
Writing with the benefit of hindsight, he remarked ruefully in 1811: “Did not the American Revolution produce the French Revolution? And did not the French Revolution produce all the calamities and desolation of the human race and the whole globe ever since?”
Both America and France have since reaped a rich harvest of the culture they sowed. And they continue to reap it, each in its own way. The flag they originally unfurled is still flying high.
This was, or should have been, predictable. For there was one slight problem with their founding promise of equality: it was impossible to keep, not as they defined it.
With the legerdemain larceny so characteristic of modernity, the Enlightenment stole the term ‘equality’ from its rightful owner and turned it upside down. That fooled the masses for a while, partly because they were inured to the term.
As it used to be understood, equality was strictly a Pauline, which is to say metaphysical, concept: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Victorious modernity consigned Christ Jesus, along with the great civilisation he founded, to the status of antiquarian curiosity at best, an object of hatred more typically. Hence equality had to lose its sublime metaphysical meaning, acquiring instead one of social and economic levelling.
Understood that way, equality runs contrary to human nature and therefore can only function as a destructive, divisive force. Striving for it automatically presupposes turning most people into envious, resentful brooders, each feeling hard done by both individually and as a member of some social, economic, racial or ethnic group.
That creates a tinderbox ready to ignite at any moment. All it takes is someone striking a match, and such helpful individuals are never in short supply.
I don’t know who performed that service to set off the present conflagration. Various cabals are mooted as possible culprits, including some extreme political groups, Muslims, Russians, Chinese, anarchists, Trotskyists – the list of eminently possible suspects is long.
Yet who really is at fault ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is the ever-present tinderbox created by that greatest misnomer in history, the Enlightenment.
The modernity it inspired isn’t confined to America and France. Masses everywhere have staged a revolt, so eloquently described by Ortega y Gasset. But few other Western countries have rioting so integrally interwoven into the fabric of society as the two revolutionary republics that got the ball rolling – all the way towards the precipice.
The French cross their fingers, hoping that their own country won’t explode and knowing it very well may – wouldn’t be the first time. Yet few of them cringe, as I do, when seeing the slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité prominently displayed on every public building.
Neither do Americans cringe when reading The Declaration of Independence, the first political document of the Enlightenment. Perhaps now they’ll begin to understand what it really means.