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Lifting the veil on Enlightenment values

The French ban is dumb - but you've got to admire it.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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  • Lifting the veil on Enlightenment values

It is not surprising that the debate about the veil in France has got people so exercised. Much like a good thriller or riveting murder mystery, this political ding-dong has all the required juicy ingredients: religion, human rights, feminism, racism and nationalism.

It is also rich in paradoxes: that the nation that first enforced the notion of equality appears to be discriminating against a minority; that many French Muslim women are ostensibly marching for the right to be treated as second-class citizens; that other Muslim women are demanding that France enforce its ethos of secularism to protect their human rights. Then there is the question: are the French defending Enlightenment values, or merely their own particular culture and customs?

On the one hand, there is something disagreeable and blinkered about this proposed law. People should be allowed to wear what they want, and if others find this ‘offensive’ or ‘intimidating’, that’s tough luck on them. The wearing of the hajib does not contradict the philosophy of separating Church and State. It is a private matter. Then again, uniforms are good for school children. They are truly egalitarian, fostering a sense of togetherness – and if you are to have a uniform then one cannot permit pupils to indulge in their own sartorial idiosyncrasies.

There is a part of me that admires the stance taken by the French government. It demonstrates a refreshing, bloody-minded adherence to the values of Enlightenment, a way of saying that sexual discrimination and organised religion have no place in the public sphere. In short, France appears still to believe in itself.

There is nothing appealing about tolerance borne of self-doubt – something we find all too common in the UK, a place that has become a proverbial Radiohead of a country, what with its climate of self-flagellating self-hatred. One should stand up for one’s values, whether one believes them to be informed by an indigenous ethnocentric cultural heritage, or the values of 1789.

And here lies the difficulty. Enlightenment and ‘French values’ are intimately connected. On an objective level, there is nothing culturally neutral about the belief in equal opportunity, the rights of men and women, the rejection of religion and the embrace of Reason. The Enlightenment was formulated in Western Europe, and so it was to an extent Eurocentric.

But just because something brilliant was invented one part of the world, it does not mean that the rest should shun it on the spurious grounds of cultural purity. The Chinese invented paper. Does this mean that paper is essentially sinocentric? The English invented parliamentary democracy, which has been exported worldwide, to the immense betterment of our species. Likewise, the French philosophes formulated egalitarianism, a way of thinking that has thankfully spread throughout the globe.

While the ban on the hajib in schools is dumb in practice, one has to admire the French for standing by their values – values that we should all learn to embrace.

  • Curse of God

Mel Gibson’s forthcoming film The Passion of Christ has so far made the headlines for its alleged anti-semitism. There will undoubtedly be a terrific hullabaloo when it is released later this year, with various organisations complaining about the Jews being portrayed (once again) as Christ-killers.

Anyone involved in this movie should fear less accusations of slurring ethnic minorities, than Divine punishment from the man Himself. Jim Caviezel, the actor who plays Jesus in the movie, recently escaped injury after being struck by lightning during filming the epic. Smoke was seen coming out of his ears, while the bolt also hit the umbrella of assistant director Jan Michelini – Michelini had already suffered burns on the tips of his fingers when struck by a previous bolt during film on a hilltop months earlier.

The faithful would have us believe that this is proof that God deplores hubris. Consider those who have played, or been involved in the making of, Superman. Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play the Man of Steel on the silver screen in 1948, complained that he could not subsequently find any work as an actor. He fell into obscurity and died recently after developing Alzheimer’s disease. George Reeves, who succeeded Alyn, killed himself in 1959. Christopher Reeve has been paralysed from the neck down following a riding accident in 1995, while Margo Kidder, who played Lois Lane, was admitted to a mental hospital in 1996 after suffering paranoid delusions.

It would appear evident that anyone who aspires to (semi-) divine status in popular fiction, who seeks to imitate God or usurp Him in any manner, is doomed. One only has to think of the career of Robert Powell, who after appearing in the principal role in the 1977 television mini-series Jesus of Nazareth, subsequently disappeared from public life, only to reappear as a side-kick to Jasper Carrot in the BBC ‘comedy’ The Detectives.

  • Television Discovery

After a seven-year absence, cable television has returned to my household. It is interesting to see how things have changed. While back in 1997 there were about 40 channels available, there now seems to be about 400. As then, it’s mostly comedy repeats, straight-to-video movies, shopping, sport and porn. Yet the selection of documentary and history channels is very impressive. Admittedly, it’s mostly about the Nazis, but there are also fascinating programmes about, say, the Spanish Armada, the moons of our solar system, the inventor of the Spitfire, the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD, and so on.

It is always said that publicly funded television can only provide serious, educational television and that independent, ratings-chasing television equals merely soaps and game shows. When one considers the lamentable dearth of erudite television programmes on the dumbed-down BBC these days – you might be treated to some on a Sunday night – and the availability of absorbing, instructive fare on cable, one is tempted to think the opposite.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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