In Defense of Paris: Vive la Résistance!

belkm06pic1.jpg So last Tuesday, the most productive day of the week, at 3 am, I departed for the republic of France… my first Tuesday in Paris. I had nerves about my lack of the language, how to travel, how to get around. Just before I left, I got more nerves over a newspaper headline entitled ‘We’re Going to Have to Bail out the Frenchies Again.’

The headline for me was reminiscent of an American press, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch, after France opposed what have proven to be the biggest foreign policy disasters and murderous criminal actions since Vietnam: you guessed it, Iraq. Back then, I watched uneducated Americans belligerently attempt to slander France, its culture, its people – all for not supporting Bush’s little grudge match with Saddam Hussein. The interesting thing is, the mud just won’t stick. Thank God. Why? Culturally they’re better. Not perfect, just better at the moment. And we know it. The nerve…

Since I began my own personal journey toward enlightenment (whatever that means) I’ve learned a few basic rules for living. My friend Jim Haynes, Parisian and former Louisianan, regularly gets asked the question, ‘Do you ever go back…’ – …back to the States? …back to Edinburgh? …back to the old bookstore? His reply: ‘I can never go back, only forward.’ Catchy. Tastes like crisp celery. I have a newer one, adapted from twelve step philosophy: ‘I don’t compare, so I won’t despair.’ Works for me, but not for those whose business it is to convince Americans and Brits that they live in a veritable Shangri-La. Apparently, we have it so much better… Okay, I’ll bite: better how?

The context for the latest anti-French slander is the car-burning riots in the poor suburbs of Paris and other cities. I don’t claim to be a scholar on the subject, but apparently the unemployment in the people-of-color communities is as high as 40%. In addition, I heard the comment over and over that: ‘The French are traditionally very racist.’ Now, these factoids may or may not be true, but my concern lies with those who would have us throw stones at the Arc de Triomphe. Just back in October this year, Birmingham (UK) went ablaze after a kid was stabbed to death – a fracas between Asians and Blacks. Reminds me of the Crown Heights riots in New York, 1991, when a Jewish man ran over a Black child. Or, on a larger scale, LA after Rodney King. Now, let’s break the rules and compare: Just where are the differences? Who is better?

This is the business of ‘us and them’, and can be turned around on the troubled people as well. I saw it all too often in New York: groups from this place or that country coming to America (or France or the UK) for a better life. Ok, good on ya. However, the reality is that many don’t have any real intentions of assimilating into their new cultures. What appears to happen is an attempt to live as if ‘back home’ – taking complete advantage of better conditions without making any attempt to change or fit in with the new geographic location. However, many times, when confronted, the race card is pulled. This is where the French get accused of arrogance, in insisting on protecting their language and customs like, let’s say, obligatory politeness. I would like to suggest that fortifying your culture isn’t arrogant or racist, it’s a basic assertion of collective identity – something we’ve lost in the lands of white trash. What’s wrong with maintaining a sense of identity and aesthetic integrity? Let’s compare and face facts: New York is now a shopping mall for yuppies – complete with dormitories for rich kids where landmark theatres once stood; London is a smoggy, expensive, stress pit; Los Angeles is a smoggy traffic jam; Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. And we’re darn jealous.

A prime example of us-them, compare and despair can be found in the phenomenon I call ‘Hyphenated America’. The idea with this tidy little trend is that some Americans have been granted the ability to choose and retain multiple identities. There are African-Americans, Latin-Americans, Chinese-Americans. No one is just American anymore. And notice how the appendages of identity always come first. I guess in my case, I would be a Scottish-Dutch-Cherokee-American. hyphenatus americanus. (bullshitus).

Another type of compare and despair, on both sides of the pond, is the notion of ‘tolerance’. What a joke this one is. All ‘tolerance’ does is get politicians out of the act of thinking, and society out of the act of evolving. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner!’ ‘Support our troops, bring them home!’ With the tolerance movement, we basically agree to not have the conversations and arguments necessary for a healthy culture. In turn, we fuel resentment and rage, which boils and explodes in Birmingham, Crown Heights NYC, London, Belfast, and yes, the suburbs of Paris. You see how well tolerance worked in Northern Ireland. People don’t need to be tolerated, they need to be understood. (bigus surprisus).

Finally, as anyone who has read my essays can attest, there’s my pet peeve – the culture industry. The industry which takes the worst of the stereotypes, and serves them back to us on a platter for our Saturday night pleasure. We’ve given up our evolutionary collective identity in favor of the black rapper with gold teeth and backwards trousers, the blonde bimbo with big tits, the sissy-queer with bitchy one-liners, the macho cowboys, the God-squad, the Nascar rednecks, the trackie-suit clones, the binge drinkers, and the football drones. Nice. If you bring the ratings, the culture industry will serve you up. And again, I ask, as we compare: ‘BETTER’??

George Bush, in my humble opinion, is one of the biggest criminals the western world has ever produced. He uses the language of compare and despair perfectly. Us, them, us, them, us, them. ‘Axis of evil’. ‘Evil doers’. ‘Enemies of freedom’. I think the only greater rhetorical orator of late was, in fact, Hitler. And at least Hitler admitted his aims: ‘Our press laws are such that differences of opinion among members of the Government are no longer open to the public; they are none of the press’s business…’ Georgey still wants us to believe he’s not a power monger.

belkm06pic2.jpg Bush and his cronies take good notes from Adolf, and blackout the real thems – the thirty-thousand wounded troops from Iraq. Thousands (and counting) dead. Blair was in on it too. Now, we are turning the provinces of Iraq over to extremist Iranian Muslim clerics who beat women for not wearing hoods, execute queers or anyone deemed to be an ‘infidel’, and impose strict Muslim fundamentalism. Time to compare again: Just how is this different from Saddam Hussein’s regime, except for the fact that the current regimes don’t have a grudge with the Bush family?

Now, inevitably, if I compare Hitler and Bush, the theories of World War II will get stirred up as well. GOOD. Keep those emails comin’! I think it has become apparent, to those with an IQ over 25, that we tend to be at least partly the cause of our own worries. Plenty of Americans and Brits, including the British monarchy, did business with the Nazis. We know what happened next.

My grandfather, who fought his way across France in the infantry, and sank ships in Le Havre harbor, used to tell me that, ‘We sold our scrap metal to the Japanese, and they shot it back at us.’ I thought of this the other day when I saw Her Majesty the Queen and Tony Blair (His Majesty the Spineless) throwing a gala ball and reception for Hu, the president of China. There was lots of blabbering on about economic development and ‘pledges’ for human rights. Let’s compare: First, China has one of the worst records on human rights – Mr Hu is the largest executioner in the world, over 3,000 per year, that we know of. China’s environment is corroding. China’s government is notoriously corrupt. China routinely slaughters masses of people (see: Tibet, Tiananmen Square).

My bones caught a chill when I saw the images of Queen Windsor and Queen Blair toasting Herr Hu. I felt my grandfather raging from his grave as they turned the skyline of London communist red in honor of the event (every major building and monument in London was drowned in red commie light – from Big Ben, to the Houses of Parliament, to the Eye). belkm06pic3.jpg Red seems to be a common theme these days – from innocent blood flowing through the streets of Baghdad to capitalism crowning Beijing as its new capital. Now, we have a bird-flu to contend with, courtesy of the Asian poultry industry. A friend of mine was in the NHS the other day and discovered a pamphlet entitled: Bird Flu, the facts. In it was an outline that estimated 250f the population of Britain will be lost when the epidemic hits. Keywords: will, when.

A couple of things the critics of France might do well is actually learn from a few of France’s true major mistakes. They lost their arses in Algeria – a situation not unlike Iraq, where the armies were eventually run out by farmers with pitchforks and wheel barrows full of dynamite. Or, how about the Franco-Prussian war? Prime example of nationalism run amuck. What they learned is what we are learning, as stated in a recent Channel 4 interview with Paul Hackett, candidate for US Senate: ‘you cannot kill an idea by killing people.’ When will we learn? Not anytime soon, especially in the US – they just cut funding for students in half. At this point, Islamic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, Judaic fundamentalism and many other ‘fundies’ are alive and well, while the rest of us are eating cake. Tastes like bile.

So, before despair gets the best of me, what of this crackpot notion of ‘us’ having to bail ‘them’ (the French) out again, and all the anti-French and anti-patriot propaganda that has been generated since Bushie sent Colin Powell to the United Nations with his briefcase full of lies?


‘Saddam Hussein has stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.’ Wrong.

‘Saddam Hussein has links to al-Qaeda.’ Wrong.

‘Iraq was behind the attacks of September 11th.’ Wrong.

Bush: ‘Major combat operations in Iraq have ceased.’ Wrong.

Blair: ‘The Iraqi people will celebrate the removal of Saddam.’ Oh Tony, you poor little spineless man. Wrong.

I ended up spending a week in Paris, and spent some more time traveling up toward the Belgium border. I went through the troubled neighborhoods. No one troubled me. When time came for me to depart, I thought about the contrasts between our cultures, especially after Ryanair, quite possibly the most unprofessionally run airline in the industry, left three hundred of us stranded, without explanation, in a west Paris parking lot. It made me miss the ringing voices of conservatives in the UK and US who spend most of their energy prattling on about how the free markets will create more competition and better service. As a result, I was forced to buy another ticket on another airline. When I finally arrived in Newcastle, I was greeted at immigration by a woman who had not the first clue what an entry visa looks like, who proceeded to interrogate me and threaten to cancel my clearances – which is the way we treat people who follow the rules. Then, the ticket agent at Scotrail tried to charge me 36 pounds extra to take an earlier train – and forced me to sit for an hour and contemplate the hundreds of empty seats whisking past me as I did my time on the freezing platform. Finally, the next day, I got hang-ups, rude behavior and a nasty attitude from the travel insurance people and Ryanair, who, although they had promised reimbursement for accommodation, decided they were no longer liable. But I’ve decided not to let any of this phase me, because my trip taught me a few things:

belkm06pic4.jpg – Freshly baked croissants and fresh squeezed jus d’orange taste fantastic at 5 am while waiting for a train at Gare de l’Est.

- There are places, namely Paris, where the metro is clean, runs frequently and generally has seats for people.

- There are societies where young people try to see how good they can look, act, present themselves.

- There are communities where marauding gangs of drunken thugs don’t rule the streets and the roadways.

- There are places of beauty so incredible, I can be moved to tears – and the possibility of such beauty is everywhere, if people allow it to occur.

For these places, whether in Paris or Prague, I beg you to never dilute your persistence. Never water down your culture, your collective identity. Don’t let the corporate raiders get you by the tail. The world needs something besides emptiness. If this is arrogance, so be it. Remember this one: if the Americans and Brits do not abandon the practices of us and them, compare and despair and rhetoric which includes the word ‘greatest’, our societies, as we know them, will not last another generation.

Vive la Résistance!

Martin’s new word watch:

autochronicle 31/7/2005

arrotainment 17/8/2005

Hyphenated American 23/11/2005

…increasing his rhetoric for your reading pleasure.

© Martin Belk 2005


belkm06pic5.jpg Martin Belk is a writer, performer and producer. He recently completed his Master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, and is currently online editor for The Edinburgh Review.

His credits include producer for Squeezebox!, the New York rock venue where Blondie reunited, Hedwig and the Angry Inch debuted and the first-ever live, global, video webcast – Live and InConcert starring Deborah Harry – took place. In addition, Belk is a Multimedia Application of the Year award winner from the ITCA for Will Europe Work? – the first live, global conference of the European Union.

Recent credits include a guest appearance on BBC Radio, The Lesley Riddoch Show and his first bi-weekly, online column on He has just completed his first novel – a work he is currently adapting for stage, with a planned debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2006.


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