Everyone everywhere wants to tell women what to wear

The move against religious attire in France- in practice meaning various types of coverings used by some Muslim women- is not new. Recently, however, the brand of secularism touted by French authorities has increasingly come to mirror the restrictions imposed in countries with fundamentalist governments. The horseshoe theory of ideology, ironically created by a Frenchman, posits that the two far ends of the spectrum are more alike than each end is to the political center. Laws banning the ‘burkini’ and other types of clothing definitely give credence to the horseshoe concept.

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Having armed police order a woman in loose-fitting clothes and headscarf to strip on a beach bears far too much resemblance to the ‘morality police’ in Iran. It’s an example of the limits of Western liberalism- which has always been rooted in European cultural superiority. Freedom of religion is sacrosanct, but only within very particular boundaries. Islam is not a protected group- as was seen when Switzerland banned minarets, yet kept Christian bell towers alone, despite being functionally identical.

The idea of French law as a savior, keeping Muslim women from subjugation, is a contemporary repackaging of the white man’s burden. And as a version of the white man’s burden, it is dangerously misguided.

In society, there are institutions and processes. Institutions are concrete, and processes are are created and/or influenced by institutions. The hijab is concrete, the processes that lead women to wear it are really, really complicated. France is banning clothing and justifying it by saying it addresses the underlying process. Namely that women who cover to some degree are oppressed, and they are liberated through having certain types of clothing banned.

This rarely works. Clothing, being concrete, is much easier to regulate. Thus it is often chosen not because it is effective, but visible. Increasing airport security does nothing to combat the forces behind terrorism, but it signals that those in power are doing something. However, the core issue was never the hijab, burqa, or burkini. The issue is coercion and male supremacy, which may lead some (but certainly not all) women to don clothing they would prefer not to. And clothing is one of many manifestations of this coercion. It’s just a particularly visible one.

What we get with the French approach is a blanket ban that doesn’t actually solve anything, and fosters a clear cultural bias. Is modesty in public, no matter who you are, now unlawful? Anyone can choose to dress conservatively in public- many of these people are not Muslim, not female, or both. Europe for centuries sanctioned and punished women for showing too much skin, only for the pendulum to swing such that not showing skin is now somehow suspicious.

Women need a lot of things. Access to education and healthcare. Protection from discrimination in the workplace. A safe environment to live. And the ability to decide how they wish to dress, and whose opinion they listen to on the subject. Women do not need to be told how to dress- and those who came from countries with morality police now find in the enlightened West the same, damn restrictions.

The young, the old: society trying to keep itself together

Two crucial processes exist in modern life. One is society trying to get the younger generation ready for present reality. The other is society is trying to help (or sometimes make) older generations adapt to present reality. Tension between these age cohorts could be considered a more complicated version of the generation gap.

All groups are insulated, as everyone self-selects their friends and company. The young and old are special. Children have yet to shoulder the full weight of the social system. Their experiences are rarely independent of their elders. Even at 24, this split for me is clear.

For instance, I was just old enough to understand what 9/11 was without relying on someone. I understood that terrible people do exist, that the places targeted had great value, and that nothing was going to be the same from then on. Those entering college this fall do not have the same base of knowledge, something that the author of Gin and Tacos explains well as a professor having to deal with 18 year olds. As he states, we are failing in some regard because the present reality depends on both the distant and recent past. We teach the Civil War from elementary school onwards. History classes rarely give the same scrutiny to the post-Vietnam era.

I have a problem with how the tension between older generations and the middle strata of American society gets portrayed in the media. Clearly this line is blurry. People of typical working age are creating the technology and ideas that move things forward, but not exclusively. Also the political ruling class trends older, with many elite players being past retirement age.

However, stories about the gap tend to focus on narrow difficulties, like how inventions like the Internet have been difficult to diffuse among those who grew up with typewriters and rotary dial telephones.

If we are honest, it goes far beyond that. The civil rights movement marches on. Even I needed some help with discussing gender identity and sexual orientation. To spread new expectations requires going into communities that have their own standards. Children are far easier to teach than 60+ individuals, and that is a clear point of conflict in “the generation gap” or something similar. There is an expectation of change, but it will never fully translate.

This bit of sociology fascinates me. Popular media tends to ascribe special qualities to a generation; The Wire collected over a century’s worth of ‘the youth are so dang selfish, the worst ever!’ A better way to view it is in the rate of social change. When culture changes rapidly, the disparity between one group of individuals and another rises. In a time like now, when change is rapid and spread across all aspects of life, the stress of holding it all together is great and it shows. What is society but many different groups, held together by a few fragile chains?

The many lies of national mythology

Presently I’m reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman. Originally I bought it as a present for my dad, chosen from Barnes & Noble because our symbolic ethnicity is Scottish, and it seemed like an interesting read. He finished it, so I stole it to read on my second trip north towards Canada.

Elaborate traditional opening of the Scottish Parliament.

One interesting aspect of the book is on the dirty, depressing method by which England and Scotland became united in 1707. Scotland, which was mostly out of the colonial game and among the poorest European countries, scraped together a bunch of money for what was called the Darien Scheme. In retrospect it was a terrible idea- it was already well-established that Europeans couldn’t survive in the tropics, the land was unpopulated but claimed by the Spanish, even though it was decades after Jamestown it still had the issues with colonists and cargo not being particularly useful. Scotland tapped out and joined the English rather than attempt to create their own international commerce system.

That’s interesting, particularly in light of the (not terribly likely to pass) independence referendum in six weeks. The origins of modern states are often messy and unpleasant; it’s why the modern concept of the nation was created. Leaders could rewrite history and craft a new, artificial culture. It helps to distract from how many countries, European and former colonies alike, exist due to treaty negotiations. The glorious struggle is often more like the tedious administrative wrangling.

What fascinates me about nationalism is how the recent can become the arcane and sacred in the minds of millions. Almost everyone probably thinks that French has been the dominant language in France for a very long time. After all, it’s called France. But until the last 150 years or so, a vast majority of citizens spoke little to no French.

At the time, French, although an official language, was still little used, even in France. It was the language of the court, the aristocracy and middle class, literature, and academia, but was spoken by fewer than one million out of the 20 million inhabitants of France, or 5% of the population. Given that nobles numbered only about 4,000 at the court, it was the middle class and merchants who, in absolute numbers, spoke French the most. (source)

 

The various languages in France and their extent, 1550 CE.

European history, as taught to me in the main high school textbook, was about how Latin was a language of the church and elite, and the big shift was to vernacular languages. This did happen, but the truth of the matter is that the big modern tongues we think of were far less influential than they are today. In fact, the rise of unified, centralized education was needed to demote languages like Occitan to secondary importance.

Just like how you could say that man made god, man made the nation. Traditionally both religion and nationhood have a sort of holy feeling, and a sense of destiny. In America, there is often a blurring between the Founding Fathers and the Framers as men, or as deities.

If the independence referendum fails, the reasons will go beyond pragmatic economic and political concerns. Part of it will be how a British identity has been fashioned. The marvel of the modern world is not how violent and destructive it is, but how countries that spent most of the last millennium trying to kill each other don’t anymore. For every Yugoslavia, where one identity became many, there are others were a disunited region became one.

What I’m trying to say in the end is that there are many histories. We tend to believe the dominant explanation of the past. That doesn’t mean it’s a good picture. For all its flaws, A People’s History of the United States was an attempt to disrupt the American mythology. Such work may be a sort of inconvenient truth- what ends up in textbooks and classroom lectures usually works, for some group of people.

Political tea leaves

In 2008, one of the best posts in the time around the November election was by Ed from Gin and Tacos, a whip smart blog that I link here from time to time. It’s about the idea of constructed explanations, or what is created by the public and the media from events where there is inadequate data for a more objective explanation.

In the context of elections it’s very apt. Think about it this way. Modern society is feedback-driven, whether it’s a form asking you how your hotel experience was, or a text box that opens up when you ask to unsubscribe from an email list. It’s easier than ever to tell a business what you thought about whatever it is that they do. Far beyond the era of hotlines, it’s something you have to avoid these days.

So it seems odd that a ballot, despite being part of an immensely important process, has nothing to provide context to what is marked. Why did this person vote for Proposition 23 but not 25? Wouldn’t they want both? Don’t know. They might as well be cryptic runes from a thousand years ago.

What emerges then, is a guessing game about a huge, complex event. There is a ton of potential data to collect, but very little is; it remains in the mind of each individual voter. Exit polls are notoriously inaccurate and don’t take a representative sample. In any recent United States presidential election, you would have a pretty decent idea of what Ohio or Florida voters did – including important data like their key issues and what influenced their vote.

The hundred million plus who live in safe states? Not likely to meet a data collector. If you’re trying to create a large-scale political narrative, the map looks like a crappy cellular network. Key places are covered, but most is a black hole. When it comes to voters in states like California or Oklahoma, media explanations fall on stereotypes more than anything.

In the 21st century the only other major post-vote data source are online polls, which measure the most politically engaged slice of the electorate. Voters who keep to themselves are a question mark. When the numbers come in, the contours of the results may lie with them and the subtle, small reasons many of them showed up to vote, and what they ultimately voted for.

With the EU elections going on, and the US midterms approaching in a few months, narratives will be constructed well in advance, then paired with polling. If they line up well with the results, they are accepted as gospel. This is problematic, because there are many reasons a party wins or doesn’t win. Is the narrative that X Party won, or is it that they only won by that amount? In a context like the EU elections, where are supporters moving among the various parties? Did turnout bolster certain parties, and should it be considered high, low, or normal given the circumstances?

2012. Mitt Romney wasn’t a good communicator. It was a bad year to be a Republican. The Tea Party dragged the ticket down. Obama’s campaign was run very well. Or maybe just better than Romney’s. Or maybe they cocked things up and got lucky with a weak candidate. These are all estimations because you’re looking at numbers and assigning agency and motives to them. But just like the Man in the Moon isn’t a real face, just something that resembles a face, sometimes numbers resemble a narrative.

The advantage for the media is that it’s hard to call bullshit. And as any detour into cable news can show you, the narrative factory – the myth-making, if you will, goes beyond being a part of the business.

It is the business, now.