Orange Méchanique

What twentieth-century novel was the leading indicator of the French riots?


Here's a good rule of thumb: If you come across the phrase "Islamo-fascist" unironically deployed in an article, there's a 99-percent chance the author doesn't know what he or she is talking about. The rule has been in full effect over the past few weeks, as rioting in France's banlieus has allowed the usual gang of idiots to do what they do best: take a kernel of truth (in this case, that the rioters are Muslims and either immigrants or first-generation French citizens) and build it into an apocalyptic, hysterical tirade (in this case, predictions of a Euro-jihad and none-dare-call-it-Islamo-treason castigations of the politically correct mainstream media). That's easy to do in America, where the national media have never ignored a riot, but the true international template of the French riots has been missed by both the assimilationists and the clash-of-civilizationists. Instead, the model was described more than 40 years ago, in a popular book that has never been fully appreciated as a political prophecy. What are the distinguishing features of these riots? They are, as Olivier Roy notes in his recent New York Times argument for assimilation, overwhelmingly the work of young, male layabouts who are poor but not particularly uncomfortable. The rioters may be attracted to an extreme version of their parents' religion (although there's been precious little evidence of that), but the central characteristic so far has been a marked disintegration of parental influence. Most intriguingly, the rioters and their online supporters are employing something more than merely the hip slang of those crazy kids. A fairly new combination of bad French, borrowed English and Arabic words, verlan, (hiphop slang in which syllables in existing French words are reversed to produce a completely new word), and (in written language) nearly phonetic spelling, the argot is a key to understanding the society of the riots. Some examples: Cops are referred to as Schmits (supposedly a reference to the Nazi occupation of France), and a brouhaha in the Ile de France is called a hagra party, with "hagra" meaning "contempt" or "humiliation." So you've got underemployed but well fed kids with plenty of time on their hands, the depraved indifference of a welfare state that usurps the role of parents but provides no useful structure for the youth, a housing-project culture that sees itself (not without reason) as a defenseless ward of the state, politicians who veer between mealy-mouthed coddling of sociopaths and vicious denunciation of people with legitimate grievances, and kids who react to it all with theatrical violence. Clearly, the last century's great prophetic novel was not George Orwell's 1984 but Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. The two books have plenty in common. Both enjoy an enduring popularity even while they're only partially understood (A Clockwork Orange is known primarily through Stanley Kubrick's remarkably faithful film adaptation, 1984 primarily through the many buzzwords and catchphrases it has contributed to the language). Both are generally classed as speculative science fiction, though hardly any of their "predictions" have come true and their real value is as cultural and political analysis. Both are by far the most popular works their authors produced, overshadowing much broader literary careers: Orwell's nonfiction offers an almost complete socialist history of the first half of the twentieth century, while Burgess continued the modernist language experiment through an astounding number of works in various media. Specifically, A Clockwork Orange was born of Burgess' lifelong efforts to popularize the works of James Joyce, and specifically to demonstrate that there was any point to Joyce's catastrophically polyglot last novel Finnegans Wake. A Clockwork Orange is probably the most fully realized (and certainly the most successful) attempt to put Finnegans Wake-type language into a more or less conventional tale. This doesn't tell the full story: The book's harrowing rape and beating scene, for example, was drawn from an experience in Burgess' own life—the rape of his first wife by American deserters during World War II. But the key element is that the book's invented language precedes the book itself. The language is called "nadsat," a mix of English, Russian, and invented words. It's the argot of Alex, the book's juvenile-delinquent hero and his gang of murderous hoodlums. Nobody who has read the book will forget the bravura performance in which Burgess tells the whole story, with notable clarity, from Alex's point of view, with virtually every fifth or sixth word being a Russian borrowing, a piece of street slang, or a whole-cloth invention. (The Kubrick film retains large, entertaining chunks of Alex's narration, but the book is worth reading for the unsettling experience of being locked into nadsat for nearly 200 pages.) While Burgess' Soviet-era model didn't prove out, his insight that the future would bring a new mongrel tongue to the streets hit the bull's eye. What makes Alex an engaging narrator, though, is not just his linguistic invention or the mordant wit of his observations, but that he harbors no illusions about the world he lives in—an overwhelmed, politically calcified welfare state where teenagers menace the streets when they're not being shuffled between public schools and juvenile detention centers. From page one, Alex recognizes a central fact about the state that provides his food, shelter, schooling, and jail time: The people in charge don't give a crap whether he lives or dies. They don't even care, really, whether he commits crimes. They just want to make sure he doesn't cause them trouble. Of course, the state has to be seen taking care of business, and Alex regularly bumps up against authority figures whom he views with wry bemusement. He is officially in the charge of a probation officer (or, in one of the book's brilliantly anodyne euphemisms, "Post-Corrective Adviser") named Mr. P.R. Deltoid—"an overworked veck with hundreds on his books." In an unnecessary gloss, the film makes it clear that Mr. Deltoid is sexually interested in Alex, but the character functions better as merely a self-interested, self-pitying public servant. As he puts it: "Just watch it, that's all, yes. We know more than you think, little Alex." Then he said, in a goloss of great suffering, but still rocking away: "What gets into you all? We study the problem and we've been studying it for damn well near a century, yes, but we get no farther with our studies. You've got a good home here, good loving parents, you've got not too bad a brain. Is it some devil that crawls into you?" You could hear echoes of that despair in recent weeks, as liberals expressed surprise at the burning of public schools and civic centers. After all, why would these crazy kids destroy the very bounty that the state has provided for them? Burgess' supreme insight was that, despite the popularity of the phrase "grinding poverty," poverty in a modern state is almost never grinding. One of my first reactions, when watching the Kubrick movie in high school, was to envy Alex the vast amount of leisure time his truant lifestyle seemed to afford him. What drives the rioters in France may be Islam, it may be a lack of opportunity, or the disrespect of the wider culture, or alienation from the keepers of "Gallic pride" (whatever that is). It's probably some combination of all those things, and a few others. The one thing that definitely isn't driving any of the rioters is an empty stomach. The clash-of-civilizationists have one important point: The London bombers, the murderers of Theo van Gogh, and the banlieu rioters are all Muslims, and it's vain to deny this connection. (Then again, it's not clear that anybody is denying it: After about the fiftieth media story berating the media for ignoring the story, I'm starting to smell a rat.) But there is an even clearer pattern of a welfare structure that sings the praises of the nation while discouraging recipients from feeling any connection to the nation—a one-size-fits-all style of governance that cultivates, if it doesn't actually breed, anti-social behavior. The French government makes a particularly choice target for schadenfreude: With one hand it fails to make cité residents to feel like full citizens (by, for example, ensuring an Arabic-sounding name is not a barrier to a good job), and on the other it enforces fake national unity on pointless matters (by banning headscarves in public schools). But the pattern repeats itself everywhere the state provides for the basic needs of its outsider groups while standing in the way of their pursuit of happiness. Proposals to change direction in France have so far not been promising: claims that France needs "a common dream;" calls for "collective responsibility" by "political and economic decision-makers;" an idea to translate the Marseillaise into Arabic. Denunciations of Europe's "unassimilable" hordes are suspiciously similar to the language of 19th-century anti-Catholicism in the United States. The difference may not be the presence of the stick but the lack of a carrot. American Catholics, though picked on, were left to fend for themselves. Is Europe ready for such a radical shift in attitudes toward individual rights and responsibilities? One hopeful story turned up in Grigny, where local residents took the defense of their neighborhood into their own hands. That approach is unlikely to get much of a national hearing. In A Clockwork Orange, the same politician who subjected Alex to "Ludovico" behavior modification—a slick minister of "interior or inferior"—ends up publicly embarrassed by the treatment's results, and has to buy Alex off with a cushy patronage job and friendly photo opps. Don't be surprised to see Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, after a few months of stewing in opprobrium over his promises to "clean out" the "scum," shaking hands with a celebrity rioter. What's it going to be Nic, eh?