Friday, May 27

On Intellectual Death

Upon the death of the French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur one week ago, the French press gave space to a number of reactions by members of the French government and prominent journalists. Le Nouvel Observateur, for instance, listed remarks made by everyone from the Head of State, Jacques Chirac, to the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, to Jean-Marie Colombani, chief editor of Le Monde.
Ricoeur is someone whose public speaking I have had the fortune to witness in person, and his work figures in my own "professional" writing. However, rather than sum up my own thoughts on this significant philosopher, I wish here only to mark a note of appreciation for a society whose political figures speak knowingly about the works of accomplished intellectual figures. (The responses to Ricoeur's work and life were in no way exceptional.) Can such a situation be imagined in today's United States?

When the current US president was asked who his favorite philosopher was, he replied, "Jesus." And when asked to explain his response, he was at a loss for words. (That should not surprise anyone who has ever read the words of Jesus and considered them in light of Mr. Bush's foreign and domestic policies.) In addition to the cheapened and popular spin on the word "philosopher" that the current president employed in this case, his reply betrayed total ignorance of his country's own rich heritage of philosophizing. More than that, when we compare it to the case of French politicians and members of the press, who regularly demonstrate that they are familiar with intellectuals' basic ideas, if not with their most accomplished publications, it seems clear that Bush's reply gave further currency in the United States to an already well-established disdain for the mind. In the United States, the president is applauded if it is suspected that he has read a book or newspaper, or possibly had his wife do the latter for his benefit.

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To return to the figure of Paul Ricoeur, I would like to cite a few lines from an article that he penned in 1947 to address the question of colonialism in general, and French colonialism in particular. These remarks are not without resonance for the task of responsible blogging today. I will first inscribe my translation before copying the original text, which can also be read in its first extracted form.

This article's sole aim is to assess, in tandem with its readers, the breadth of responsibilities of the very person who is not a specialist of colonial questions and to determine a climate for the specialized examination that would be within our range of competence. This is precisely the responsibility of the non-specialist, of the man beyond the technocratic pale, that I wish to awaken within myself every day when confronted with the colonial question, despite all the voices within me that whisper such things as: "You don't know anything about the matter: if you had lived in Indochina, in Morocco, in Algeria, in Madagascar, you would no longer give any credit to the sentimental declarations of the utopians from the Metropolis." But I know well that my incompetence does not undo my total responsibility as a French citizen: I am one who sends the expeditionary corps to Indochina: and I don't have the right to abdicate my judgment for the sake of the colonists: thus it is that the Muslims and Annamese (Vietnamese) live, too, and as one might say, out of a sense of priority, overseas. Yet their righteous stance troubles me, when it turns against us the pathetic themes of national liberation that were raised in our own fight against the Nazis. I fear becoming a Nazi without knowing it. I listen to the Germans protest lamentably when one speaks to them of Auschwitz: "We didn't know." Upon which we pummel them triumphantly, "Your fault is not to have known." I don't know much about the French oppression in the colonies and I fear that my fault may be mostly one of not having enough information.
These are courageous words, especially given that they were written in 1947; in other words, in a mere moment's breath after France's triumph over the Nazis, and when most minds were still caught up in poses of vengeance or blindingly simple-minded opposition to "Communists everywhere." They also resonate with the current situation in which at times I find myself feeling helpless to keep abreast and oppose the Bush Administration-led, corporate feasting in Iraq, which is only another chapter in attempts by foreign powers to colonialize that oil-rich region and subjugate its people to the terror of indiscriminate violence and the humiliation of puppet rule.

Ricoeur's original words:

Cet article n'a pas d'autres prétentions que de mesurer avec nos amis lecteurs, l'ampleur des responsabilités de celui-là même qui n'est pas spécialiste des questions coloniales et de trouver le climat pour un examen technique qui soit de notre compétence. C'est précisément la responsabilité d'un non-spécialiste, de l'homme par delà le technicien, que je veux réveiller chaque jour en moi devant. la question coloniale, malgré les voix intéressées qui me soufflent : " Vous ne connaissez rien à la question : si vous aviez vécu en Indochine, au Maroc, en Algérie, à Madagascar, vous n'accorderiez plus aucun crédit aux prédications sentimentales des utopistes de la Métropole". Mais je sais bien que mon incompétence ne me délie pas de ma responsabilité totale de citoyen français ; c'est moi qui envoie le corps expéditionnaire en Indochine ; et je n'ai pas le droit d'abdiquer mon jugement au profit des colons : aussi bien les Musulmans et 1es Annamites vivent aussi, et si l'on peut dire par priorité, outre-mer. Or leur revendication me bouleverse, quand elle retourne contre nous, les thèmes pathétiques de la libération nationale qu'a amenés notre lutte contre le nazisme. Je crains d'être nazi sans le savoir. J'entends ces Allemands protester lamentablement quand on leur parle d'Auschwitz : "Nous ne savions pas ". Et nous les accablons victorieusement : "Votre faute est de n'avoir pas su". Je ne sais pas beaucoup de choses sur l'oppression française aux colonies et je redoute que ma faute ne soit principalement d'omission dans mon information.