An american university professor posts a comment suggesting that France is a really misogynist country. She has recently spent two weeks visiting Paris, where she has met an actual French woman who tells her that she has experienced sexism at work. She offers this woman as proof of France’s extensive misogyny problem. She posts a link to a blog where French women vent about sexism in the workplace as further evidence that France is way way worse than the US. I consider posting a link to “Fat, Ugly or Slutty,” but I refrain in order to keep the peace.
As part of a discussion about health insurance and partner coverage, I post a comment expressing my opinion that health care should not be tied either to employment or to marital/partner status (an opinion that I held well before moving to France). I do not use the words “France” or “Europe.” I do not mention single payer healthcare or the sécuité sociale anywhere in my post. An american university professor, whom I have never met, a friend of a friend who seems to be under the impression that I am one of her undergraduates submitting a piece of work for comment and critique, informs me that France is not perfect, that GPA (surrogacy) is illegal in my country, and that François Hollande has betrayed gay people everywhere and is horribly homophobic, as is all of France. I respond that the French view GPA as part of the larger question of selling and renting body parts, and have outlawed it because of the significant risk of exploitation and abuse. I explain that they connect it with issues like organ donation rather than with gay civil rights specifically. I post a moving video of Christiane Taubira speaking passionately on behalf of the mariage pour tous in the hémicycle, ripping her UMP opponents a new one in beautiful French. No one watches it, though professor chick goes on to explain that her current book project proves that France is baby-obsessed (she uses the phrase “crazy natalist state” several times, as does my “friend”) and that she has documentation from the post-war period’s French law code that proves it. She acknowledges that France was, during the post-war period, trying to repopulate a country largely depleted of citizens by large-scale slaughter, flight, and the occupation of their territory by nazis, but dismisses this as a clever ruse, hiding the real agenda, which is secretly to forward a project of homophobic state-building. I could myself lucky not to be told I am undertheorized. She offers to send me some “materials” that I can read to educate myself about the country where I have chosen to make my home. I lose it and tell her to fuck off, throwing an online temper tantrum in front of all the other fancy university professors, receiving an “F” for my work, and feeling the kind of deep humiliation that usually only comes from crying at a junior high school slumber party. Despite this, I refrain from mentioning the fact that in my country you can still get an abortion or birth control, and questioning who is really the crazy natalist state. I do not point out that complaining in the same breath about France supporting the having of children and also not enabling them to do it is somewhat muddled. I do not ask all an sundry which it is: do you fucking want to have children or don’t you? I do not know, because she has not chosen to share it with me, that my “friend” is currently pregnant. I forever alienate myself from her and her partner. I feel ashamed and outraged at the same time.
The same american university professor who has visited Paris one time posts an image of a French florist on valentine’s day. They have a marquee suggesting that their patrons buy two bouquets rather than one, “n’oubliez pas votre maîtresse!” She says, ironically, of the sign “sans blague.” I laugh hard at the marquee. I refrain from telling her that it is, in fact, a blague, and that she has misinterpreted it in order to keep the peace.
An american lawyer explains to me that France’s position on free speech has more limits than the US’s. She claims that prohibiting the denial of the holocaust is a slippery slope, and will certainly lead to fascism. She explains that the american system of allowing neo-nazis to march in the streets is the only possible construction of freedom. I suggest that possibility of limits to free speech which stop short of totalitarian suppression of all ideas. I state that most western democracies currently exist in this middle ground, and have done so without significant incident for years. She responds that she’d rather live in the US than in Stalinist Russia. I say that this rhetoric is unhelpful and inaccurate, as we have more choices than these two. I say that americans often do this: default to their way or the gulag. She says, who does that? I don’t do that! Do you think I do that? I lie to keep the peace. This same american lawyer, a few months later, without so much as batting an eye, posts a comment stating that anyone who criticizes islam is a bigot, and that we should all refrain from saying or thinking things that criticize islam. I respond that there is a difference between respecting people’s rights and respecting their beliefs, and that, additionally, there is a difference between criticizing a set of ideas and dismissing a group of people. She calls me a bigot. I unfriend her.
Another american university professor sends me a link to coverage of the manif pour tous. She seems concerned that I may have missed it, despite my attendance at a demonstration against it and in favor of the mariage pour tous law. She asks me, “are you sure it’s better there?”
A group of americans, including yet more university professors, get together to explain to me that the magazine Charlie Hebdo is racist. One posts a link to an article about how the staff had it coming, and several friends suggest that they deserved to die because if you sow hatred, you will reap hatred. I burst into tears upon seeing it. I realize that my so-called friends and I are a gaping chasm apart. I realize that they are with the masked men toting AK47s, and they do not see what is wrong with that. I object. A man I have never met explains the content of the article to me: it’s just saying that our responses should go deeper than “je suis charlie”, and that we should turn to intellectuals for this deeper analysis. I post a detailed response to the article, its content, and its arguments. He responds with a single line saying I have failed to make the case that just saying “je suis charlie” is enough. Several people like his comment. No one responds to the content of my post. Once again I receive an “F”.
All of this happened within 24 hours of the attacks. Any French person who was stricken, shocked, upset, or in mourning was labeled a racist and an idiot. Americans establish their public stance as intellectuals who go beyond the surface of problem. None speak French. All speak with the voice of authority.
Little by little a sort of consensus emerges among some americans that charlie hebdo might not be racist after all, and that missing all of the context and language skills necessary to decode the image might actually be a significant impediment to understanding some of the images published therein. A well-meaning but extremely confused blog post explaining some of the context begins to circulate among my friends. The author does not appear to know what a quenelle is, an thinks that Diendonné is being sodomized by a banana. She appears unfamiliar with the extent of the quenelling fad when the piece was published; she spends a good deal of time running down possible alternative explanations that make no sense. The post becomes the go-to source among my small community. No one asks me for help decoding the images. No one asks me what I know about Charlie. No one asks me what I think. No one asks me how I feel. No one asks me if I am upset. No one asks me if I am okay. No one expresses sympathy that my country has suffered a brutal terrorist attack. No one who previously lectured me about charlie’s “racism” apologizes or retracts (to me or to anyone else). I post a link to a long piece that I wrote several years ago about charlie hebdo and terrorism. Two people read it. None of them are the intellectuals who think we should go deeper into the issues. I feel lonely.