When liberalism isn’t working, liberals look for a scapegoat. It doesn’t have to be plausible.
Students of the Bonald-Le Play–Zimmerman school of the importance of family structure will be interested in this review of Emmanuel Todd’s Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class.
Todd identifies two tranches of post-Christian France: one that moved away from religion – a move made by entire parishes, not individuals – in the 18th century, and another that only began to desert the faith in the 1960s. The first is located in an area he calls ‘the Paris Basin’, the geological term for a large part of north and central France, running from the Ardennes down to the northern edge of the Massif Central. It’s clear from the maps in the book that these early defectors were also plentiful in the Aquitaine Basin. Together they show up on the maps as a continuous north-south swathe of unbelievers running down the middle of the country with a southwesterly bulge towards the Atlantic coast. In addition a corridor from the Paris Basin connects this central body of non-churchgoers to a large annexe of like-minded people in the south-east – a stretch of Mediterranean coast and its hinterland corresponding roughly to the administrative region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. In terms of size, the centre and the annexe account for about half the country. Everywhere else people remain devout for very much longer. Todd refers to the first group – the precocious unbelievers in the Paris Basin and the southeastern annexe – as ‘the centre’ and the dawdling faithful as ‘the periphery’.
Another of the maps assigns ‘equality in family structures’ by area (‘equality’ here refers to old rules of inheritance). It shows that property was likely to be evenly distributed in the centre, where families ‘were obsessed with the division of inheritances into equal parts’, while in the religious periphery it was likely to pass by primogeniture to the first male child. These two different traditions, like their irreligious and religious equivalents, persisted side by side without much difficulty, and Todd believes that ‘without the counterweight of peripheral France’, the egalitarianism at the centre ‘would have produced disorder rather than a doctrine of liberty and equality’…
Apparently whatever changed between 2005 and 2015 – a change for the very worst in Todd’s view – was driven neither by the founding generations of unbeliever-egalitarians, nor by North African migrants, but by the generations of French on the periphery who forsook religion late in the day, from the 1960s onwards. In an earlier book Todd and Hervé Le Bras, an INED colleague, came up with the name ‘zombie Catholics’ for this large segment of the French population that still carries the moral and sociological baggage of devout Christianity even though it is no longer practising. Zombie Catholics prefer authoritarian values to egalitarian ones, and they are in search of a universalising, transcendent faith to replace the one they have abandoned. They are the new reactionary force shaping the cultural politics of France in the 21st century.
But how is this force on the periphery – its territory more or less the same as it always was – redefining the temperament of the nation without eating into the home turf (also more or less the same) of the old egalitarian centre? Todd’s answer is that there are two crises of faith in France: one in the recently godless periphery, the other in the old heartland of godlessness, where militant unbelief no longer makes sense now the clerical monster that gave meaning to atheism has ceased to exist. (In the centre, the egalitarian temperament began to founder in the mid-1970s: we see this in the collapse of Communist Party membership, which came not with the fall of the Soviet Union, but almost a decade earlier when the decline of peripheral Catholicism had already begun.) And so, as the periphery casts about for certainties, the centre is also looking this way and that for a new vitality. Both are confronted with ‘the boundless void of a godless and atheist world’ and both have found a born-again affirmation of secular values in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders. ‘The demonisation of Islam’ anchors this new ecstatic consciousness in the real world and fulfils ‘the intrinsic need of a completely dechristianised society’.
Catholics are evil even after they apostasize. When they embrace Republicanism, they just get their cooties on it. Fortunately, Islam offers the religious partner Leftism has always dreamed of.
Islam – or rather Muslims – can bring about a new infusion of egalitarianism: the Arab cultures from which Muslims are descended have egalitarian family traditions, with property distributed evenly among brothers: sooner or later, Todd argues, the sisters are sure to be included. There is no cultural chasm, therefore, between French Arabs and the scions of that early, central swathe of egalitarian French. All will be well once ‘Islam has dissolved the anti-feminist component of Arab culture.’ Quranic stipulations on inheritance, Todd tells us, are hardly ever taken at their word: the most devout Muslim ethnic groups in Indonesia are matrilineal cultures with inheritance rules that tend to favour women…
But where zombie Catholics are driven by inegalitarian attitudes, post-religious Muslims of North African descent will reproduce the egalitarian values nurtured in the Arab family – the very values France needs in order to re-supply the demoralised forces of the ‘centre’ and restore égalité to its rightful place. In this sense the two big crises pointed up in Who is Charlie? – racism and inequality – would be solved mechanically by a slow, inexorable sociological change; but this, too, is a long way off, and attitudes will have to change now. Islam, Todd writes, must be ‘legitimated as a component of the nation, just as the Church was … We need to grant to Islam what was granted to Catholicism, in the era of triumphant secularism.’
The claimed correlation between primogeniture and religiousness and authoritarianism deserves further study. We don’t know what causes what, but if primogeniture really does promote “inegalitarian attitudes” this would be a good reason for us to favor it.
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