Friday, March 11, 2011

It Isn't Just Academic

For the French, deciding which history to study isn't just an academic question anymore. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has announced his plan to make a national history museum, and that plan is upsetting some elements of the French society. The New York Times writes:

Mr. Sarkozy...has cooked up the Maison de l’Histoire de France, the country’s first national museum of French history, to open in 2015, in a wing of the rambling palace in the Marais district of Paris currently occupied by the National Archives. The idea is to distill centuries of Gallic gloire into a chronological display, supplemented by lectures, seminars and temporary shows borrowing materials from the country’s already plentiful local and regional history museums.
 This simple idea of founding a museum has provoked outrage in France (not necessarily a difficult thing to provoke in such a volatile nation). Citizens have lined the streets, waving signs behind barricades to protest Sarkosy's museum.
The problem? It boils down to a few issues: What does it mean to be French in the 21st century? And whose “history” should be celebrated? In an increasingly fractious and multicultural nation, the questions have no simple answers. 
For Sarkozy and his Minister of Cultural, the museum is meant to be a solution to France's identity crisis. With the increasing immigration changing the fabric of French society, people are forgetting what it means to be French. Sarkozy wants to remind them of their national identity.

But the national identity that Sarkozy sees for France isn't the same identity that others want to embrace. One critic says:
“To know about French Algeria you need to know about Algeria before France arrived there.... If we need any history museum, it would be a world history museum, not a French history museum, to give us a real perspective on who we are, and what is France today."
Many people, it seems, have the notion that to celebrate France would be to denigrate the rest of the world. Amazingly, it's not just the recent immigrants to France who have this notion but many of the ethnic French themselves.

G. K. Chesterton, in an article entitled "The Patriotic Idea," addressed and denounced this cosmopolitan sentiment. And since Chesterton's prose is richer and more delightful than any paraphrase I could write, I'm going to break a writer's taboo and bless you with several block quotes from his article.
This important and growing sect [i. e. cultural cosmopolitans], together with many modern intellectuals of various schools, directly impugn the idea of patriotism as interfering with the larger sentiment of the love of humanity. To them the particular is always the enemy of the general. To them every nation is the rival of mankind. To them, in not a few instances, every man is the rival of mankind....

Because the modern intellectuals who disapprove of patriotism do not do this [i.e. celebrate their country], a strange coldness and unreality hangs about their love for men. If you ask them whether they love humanity, they will say, doubtless sincerely, that they do. But if you ask them touching any of the classes that go to make up humanity, you will find that they hate them all. They hate kings, they hate priests, they hate soldiers, they hate sailors. They distrust men of science, they denounce the middle classes, they despair of working men, but they adore humanity. Only they always speak of humanity as if it were a curious foreign nation. They are dividing themselves more and more from men to exalt the strange race of mankind. They are ceasing to be human in the effort to be humane.

The truth is, of course, that real universality is to be reached rather by convincing ourselves that we are in the best possible relation with our immediate surroundings. The man who loves his own children is much more universal, is much more fully in the general order, than the man who dandles the infant hippopotamus or puts the young crocodile in a perambulator. For in loving his own children he is doing something which is (if I may use the phrase) far more essentially hippopotamic than dandling hippopotami ; he is doing as they do. It is the same with patriotism. A man who loves humanity and ignores patriotism is ignoring humanity. The man who loves his country may not happen to pay extravagant verbal compliments to humanity, but he is paying to it the greatest of compliments — imitation.

The fundamental spiritual advantage of patriotism and such sentiments is this : that by means of it all things are loved adequately, because all things are loved individually. Cosmopolitanism gives us one country, and it is good ; nationalism gives us a hundred countries, and every one of them is the best. Cosmopolitanism offers a positive, patriotism a chorus of superlatives. Patriotism begins the praise of the world at the nearest thing, instead of beginning it at the most distant, and thus it insures what is, perhaps, the most essential of all earthly considerations, that nothing upon earth shall go without its due appreciation. Wherever there is a strangely-shaped mountain upon some lonely island, wherever there is a nameless kind of fruit growing in some obscure forest, patriotism insures that this shall not go into darkness without being remembered in a song.
"...without being remembered in a song." I like that sentiment. Although I'm sure that there are many unmentioned political motivations behind Sarkozy's museum, I still hope that the project goes through. I hope that the French can "begin the praise of the world at the nearest thing," and stop dandling a young hippopotamus when they have their own children to hold.


  1. I think a museum dedicated to French history and culture would be a great thing. There's nothing wrong with celebrating and informing people about their history and culture. And it is very possible to acknowledge past injustices without wallowing in self-hatred.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I agree! It would be very sad for France to disown her past because of the recent demographic shift there or out of embarrassment.


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