Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sartre - Paris riots

BBC Radio 4 continued with readings from Rowley's "Tete a Tete" and again Sartre doesn't come out of it very well. He seems to have had affairs with the nearest women wherever he went, thus he had an affair with a female guide for his group in the US, and with his Russian and Japanese translators. While De Beauvoir devoured books on the countries, Sartre preferred to get to know the culture through intimate personal contact. His Russian translator objected to being treated like the embodiment of Soviet woman, she wanted to appreciated as herself. She was also dismissive of his refusal of the Nobel prize partly because it had been given to Pasternak for political reasons (he was anti-communist) and not Shokolov. But she regarded Shokolov as a mere government lackey and she said that Sartre was ridiculed in the Soviet Union over this.

However, once again it's not black and white; Sartre did valuable work in pointing out the violence inherent in the capitalist system, some of it not dramatic, but systemic oppression:

Aronson: This leads us to the unresolved dimension of the Sartre-Camus conflict, the aspect of it that is still very much with us today and needs addressing. The other half of the story is Sartre's equally compelling insight into systemic violence. Sartre understood deeply the violences built into capitalism and colonialism, which he found no less appalling than Camus found revolutionary violence. He illuminated, as no one else has, the everyday structured violence of oppressive social relations, the violence that comes to be depersonalized and experienced as "the way things are."

Paris rioters - the danger of assumptions

Hence the revival of interest in him, cf. previous post, and his ideas are clearly of relevance to the recent riots in Paris, and I think Sartre would have been in sympathy with them. He was on the side of the students in May 1968. The recent Paris riots also featured on BBC Radio 4 on thursday:

"Three months on from the riots which tore through the heart of France, Paul Henley hears worrying evidence that anger and resentment remain in the suburbs."

Significantly, Henley himself was a victim of media coverage, which led him to make false assumptions about the young men involved:

'The task of meeting and interviewing young people from the Paris suburbs who had been involved in the infamous riots had struck me as a difficult one.

I had imagined several days of hanging around grim housing estates trying to work my way into the confidence of defensive, jaded and probably monosyllabic youths.

What actually happened proves the importance in this business of not making assumptions.

I contacted a youth worker, Mohamed Mizane, who is based in the housing projects of Montreuil, which saw some of the worst violence.

'... A small crowd of teenagers - all of them from north and west African families - filed in, shook my hand and said they would like to talk about the riots.

I began by apologising for my rather dodgy French, saying I hoped they would understand me nonetheless.

The response was like that of a class of polite English public school boys: "Bah, non... not at all, your French is much better than our English," and so on.

"The riots were just a way of getting ourselves heard," said one 19-year-old, "even if it wasn't the best way.

"We burned cars, litter bins and all that stuff... and suddenly the politicians and everybody else took notice of us."

"This is a difficult place to live," said a black youth who insisted on taking my microphone and holding it end-down against his mouth, like a rapper.

"When you watch your brothers - five or six of them - trying to get a job and getting nowhere, you wonder what the point is.

"Everyone's on the dole here, and nobody sees any way of getting out."'

The role of design

The report also dealt with the role of urban design; one architect had been able to redesign some of the estates to make them less inhuman and in these there had been no riots. Cf.:

'These districts have sporadically gone up in flames before, attracting public and political attention for a brief span, and then reverting to normal life out of most peoples' sight and mind.

Former President Fran├žois Mitterrand once publicly sympathized with the inhabitants of the projects, wondering aloud in 1990, while he was still in office, "What can a young person hope for, born in a soulless neighborhood, living in an ugly building surrounded by ugliness, grey walls in grey surroundings for a grey life, surrounded by a society that prefers to avert its eyes and get involved only when it is time to get angry and to stop people from doing things?"'


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