“In Praise of Moderation,” an original op-ed by Aurelian Craiutu

 In Praise of Moderation

By Aurelian Craiutu

Moderates have not fared well lately in American politics. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has recently announced that she will not seek a fourth term because of the growing political partisanship in the Senate. An iconic figure of moderation in American politics, she will be remembered for having played a key role in the passing of the $787bn stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration in 2009 that was opposed by the majority of her republican colleagues on ideological grounds. In the current republican primaries, Mitt Romney has been working very hard to defend himself against accusations of being a “moderate.” This label has made him unappealing in the eyes of many Republican voters whom he has tried to sway by calling himself “a severely conservative governor.” Politicians who are running for office in the upcoming elections are strongly advised to distinguish themselves from those who practice moderation and pursue their agendas while looking to—and even drawing from—both the left and the right.

For all the strategic considerations surrounding all political campaigns, this should surprise us since political moderation is the touchstone of democracy which cannot function without compromise and bargaining. Yet moderation remains a concept that challenges our imagination and appears as a fuzzy virtue which defies universal claims and moral absolutes. Not surprisingly, we often tend to misrepresent or distort the true meanings of moderation. The latter has often been regarded as the virtue of tepid, middling, shy, timorous, indecisive, and lukewarm individuals, incapable of generating heroic acts or great stories. A few decades ago, Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed (before losing in the presidential elections of 1964): “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Our current political culture seems to have embraced again his skepticism toward moderation and, perhaps, has taken it a notch further. Among other things, the impending retirement from the Senate of six moderates (two Republicans, four Democrats) underscores the little stock many voters seem to place in this virtue. Not surprisingly, many of us find it difficult to be enthusiastic about something that seemingly lacks charisma and carries the connotation of small-mindedness, opportunism, or dullness. Instead, they are often fascinated by firm and stubborn politicians who stand uncompromisingly on principle and whose universe is a one-dimensional, black-and-white one.

As I argued in a recent book on this topic*, moderation is a difficult virtue for courageous minds, and one that cannot be studied in abstract, but only as instantiated in various historical and political contexts and discourses. In other words, there is no objective theory of moderation outside of particular situations. There is something about the nature of moderation that can only be captured through embodiment in the specific political and historical context and actors. The principles chosen by moderates have been—and will always be— inseparable from their concrete choices and decisions regarding certain actions performed in specific political, social, and historical contexts. What is moderate in one context and period may significantly differ from another. More importantly, moderation has many faces connected to each other. It is much more than a simple trait of character, a certain state of mind, or a disposition. In addition to its ethical meaning, moderation also has a distinctively political and institutional dimension, being linked to balance (and separation) of powers, social and political pluralism, and mixed government. As Montesquieu and the authors of The Federalist Papers demonstrated, political moderation rests on a bold constitutional vision based on a complex institutional architecture. As such, moderation requires great skills, strong determination, a great deal of courage, and (often) a good dose of non-conformism. That is why the majority of moderate politicians are not moral chameleons who seek personal advancement. They are “trimmers” who try to adjust the cargo and sails of the ship of state to keep it on an even keel. These adjustments may be small and unheroic, and they may not always fit the “party” line (as in the case of Senator Snowe, for example), but they often save the state from anarchy or ruin.

Although radical or extreme gestures create bold and colorful narratives which are often much more attractive than moderation, searching for the middle and the mean (as attributes of moderation) is always more difficult than making one’s journey along the margins. Moderate political action requires balancing and weighing various principles in each situation rather than merely resorting to a single set of universal principles or values. Moderation presupposes reasoning and deliberation, but it also demands intuition, foresight, and flexibility for which there is no single or simple formula. That is why moderation is a difficult and eclectic virtue which is not for all seasons and all people. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would not have been successful in challenging the Soviet communist system had he adopted a more moderate approach. Sometimes, only immoderate voices like his can successfully oppose tyranny.

The recent growing partisanship in the Congress has silenced moderates on both aisles and weakened their appeal and base. Moderates’ willingness to compromise and work with the other side has put them out of step with their own parties and decreased their chances of being (re)elected in the upcoming elections. The moderate middle has become a very lonely place in American politics—and a very insecure one. Therefore, we must take a new look at this elusive and difficult virtue, one that, in Montesquieu’s words, represents the supreme virtue of the legislator. Moderation is neither a fixed ideology (party platform), nor a merely positional virtue depending on the vitality and agenda of the extremes. Defined as the antonym of fanaticism and single-mindedness, moderation is particularly relevant today. Through their actions, moderates remind us that in politics we do not have to choose between good and evil, but between what is preferable and what is detestable.

Moderates perform a vital balancing role in our society. Without moderation, John Adams once wrote, “every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Defined as that virtue which allows us to see things in the right proportions and prevents us from resorting to hyperbole and violence, moderation blends measure, spirit, and reasonableness and makes one’s mind at once firm and flexible, full of common sense and vivacity. Moderation can be a fighting and combative virtue, and it should not be equated with indecision, shyness, and submissiveness. Moderates may sometimes benefit from partisanship and polarization insofar as the exposure to the crossfire of radicals can stimulate their imagination by encouraging them to develop original political and institutional responses to their problems. Paradoxically, like poisons taken in small dosages, various forms of extremism that act in the framework of legality can have healing effects if they trigger much-needed course corrections. By adopting the soundest attitudes and principles of all parties, moderates seek to facilitate agreements for the common good, and prevent the country from slipping into atomism, anarchy, or civil war. As members of a “party without banners,” they help preserve the fragile balance between various social forces and political interests on which pluralism, order, and freedom depend in our society.

*Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His most recent book is A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 (Princeton University Press, 2012) on which this short essay is based.

UT-Austin economist Daniel Hamermesh on Beauty and the Presidency

BEAUTY AND THE PRESIDENCY
By Daniel S. Hamermesh

The physical characteristics of this season’s presidential candidates have received many comments. Texas Governor Perry had a full head of thick dark hair, as does Santorum; Romney’s jawline suggests strength; Obama looks presidential; and even Gingrich and Paul look fairly decent for men in their late 60s or mid-70s. None of the male candidates is follicly challenged. Among recent female candidates Palin and Bachmann would probably be viewed by most observers as good-looking. Indeed, one Republican advisor noted during the 2008 campaign, “If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about her today?”

Looks might not matter in intra-party leadership contests in parliamentary democracies, where small groups of insiders choose the leader—as the Golda Meir example suggests. Nor might they matter in a one-party state, as the rise of Gustavo Dias Ordaz, Mexican president during the PRI era, from 1964-1970, suggests: When his enemies accused him of being two-faced, he remarked, “If I had another face, do you think I’d go around with this one?”

But do the candidates’ looks matter in elections in a democratic two- or multi-party state? Will their good looks, or their bad looks, affect the outcome of the election? A lot of research has shown that candidates’ looks do affect their electoral chances. In German, Finnish and Australian parliamentary elections better-looking candidates have been shown to be advantaged; and the advantage can be quite large, easily enough in many cases to overcome a large disadvantage resulting from voters’ party preferences. In U.S. gubernatorial elections citizens are able to predict who the winners would be based on very brief looks at the candidates speaking—they know that better-looking candidates are more likely to win.

Why does this happen? One reason is that in these lower-level elections the better-looking candidates get more press coverage. Like you and me, journalists, especially television journalists, prefer to look at better-looking candidates; and they know that you and I do too. We are more likely to watch their broadcast, or buy their magazine or newspaper, if they show us better-looking candidates. With additional press coverage comes more familiarity and a greater likelihood that voters will pick the candidate on Election Day.

In presidential primary elections the same factors are at play. In the early stages of the quadrennial presidential process looks may matter in determining who survives the winnowing process, although there is no research demonstrating this. Even before the first primary or caucus, though, some candidates who might think of running know that their bad looks will be a hurdle that will be difficult to jump early in the process. Knowing this, and thinking that they don’t have enough other advantages to overcome their deficient or perhaps only average looks, they will choose not to run. Even before the primary process is far along, otherwise desirable candidates who are looks-challenged will have excluded themselves from consideration, just as few bad-looking people choose to become movie actors.

Things change as the primary season progresses. People’s views about the (good-looking) candidates who have survived the early rounds become more sharply delineated. The candidates’ faux pas have become impressed on the public mind; their general political inclinations and their stances on specific issues have become widely known. Having heard more about and from the candidates, we feel that we know more about them than we infer merely from looking at their pictures. As with any interpersonal relation, the more familiar we are with people’s other qualities and characteristics, the less their looks matter.

It is not surprising that the major presidential candidates are typically quite good-looking. Their looks have already had an effect on our choices; they have already achieved some prominence, and their looks have been a factor in their initial success. Early on candidates self-selected into the process based partly on looks; and their survival in its early stages depended partly on their looks. By March or April of a presidential year, though, looks are much less important. And by the November election we will not be voting because we think President Obama is better- or worse-looking than Romney (or Santorum, or anyone else); we will be voting based on economic and political considerations.

The old comment is that, with his saturnine looks, Lincoln could not be elected President today. The mass media have greatly increased our familiarity with presidential candidates, initially with their looks, eventually with their beliefs and even their character. Lincoln might well not have survived the early stages of a primary season; but if he did, his character and beliefs might have become more widely apparent to the public than was possible in 1860. Exposure through the mass media might have helped him in a “fantasy-league” general election.

Daniel S. Hamermesh is the Sue Killam Professor in the Foundations of Economics at the University of Texas, Austin and author of BEAUTY PAYS: Why Attractive People are More Successful (Princeton University Press).

Ancient Roman campaign wisdom in Los Angeles Times op-ed by Philip Freeman

Philip Feeman, the translator of our timely new book HOW TO WIN AN ELECTION: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicans, had his recent op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times yesterday.  Take a look to see which Republican candidate(s) would have done right by Quintus Cicero’s (Marcus’s lesser-known brother) advice.  The “advice” was originally from a letter sent to Marcus when he was in the running for the biggest job in Rome.

What is the future of a new generation of European Muslims?

In Europe, the increasing presence of Islam has often provoked concerns about a threat to security and liberal democracy. Jonathan Laurence’s The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims challenges these ideas and shows how the transformation of a new generation into European Muslims has consisted of a complex mix of achievements and tensions. The book recently received a terrific review in The Economist. Jonathan was kind enough to answer a few questions about his unique look at European Islam, the debates surrounding it, and the connection to the Arab awakening:

Q: Anders Breivik was recently declared insane by the court. His act of violence is widely condemned, but aren’t his anti-multiculturalist views fairly widespread?

For Breivik, the year is 1683 and an Islamic empire is storming the Gates of Vienna. Some of the views in his Internet-age manifesto are popular, although what he did in Oslo and Utoya is of course condemned. An Italian politician from a party in government spoke approvingly of the Norwegian’s belief that Europe had “given up on its cultural identity without a fight.” In December, a poll showed 76% of the French public thinks Islam is “progressing too much.” So the vocal concern over Islam’s growth and Muslims’ integration is no longer the exclusive domain of the far right. It has become ritual for heads of government to declare the failure of multiculturalism, a catchall description increasingly taken to mean the arrival of Muslims in Europe. Breivik may be legally insane, but he is not alone in thinking that Europe is at a turning point vis-à-vis its growing Islamic minorities.

Q: What does this mean for integration policy in European countries, and how have Muslim groups reacted? Is this what the Minaret and Burka bans were about?

On the one hand, the focus on religious fundamentalism led to several well known bans on Islamic symbols in public spaces, from headwear to architectural design. It also provoked acrimonious debate about whether Islam “belongs” and if its associated practices –in all their diversity—can be reconciled with national identity. On the other hand, history tells us this is fairly standard treatment for a new minority entering the crucible of the nation state and joining the general citizenry. Increasingly, however, Muslim communities perceive the sum total of public debate as something akin to religious persecution or a kulturkampf against Islam. It’s not just the religious conservatives or the pious, but Muslims as a “group” who increasingly feel stigmatized. Last month, community eminences in France, Germany (and the US) independently cited the Nazi era and the gradual marginalization of German Jews to describe the political environment. It is not the most encouraging sign, obviously, if the main icebreaker between Muslims and non-Muslims is whether it’s 1683 or the mid-1930s outside.

Q: How did it come to this point, and is this a dead end? Or are there trends in other directions?

The competing narratives of victimization –and self-affirmation—are not new. But Muslims and non-Muslims do seem to be talking past one another at a moment when they need to be in constructive conversation. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize the degree of cooperation that already exists between community leaders and European governments. A recent stunt to name Europe’s “tallest minaret” (35 meters) after Nicolas Sarkozy is not as ironic as it first appears. In many ways, European Islam has flourished in the past decade. When Sarkozy was interior minister in 2002–4, he helped forge the still-running French Council for the Muslim Religion and started a trend among his European colleagues to guarantee equal religious rights to Muslims. “State-mosque” relations have advanced by leaps and bounds. A thousand Islamic prayer spaces have opened in France in the last ten years. One hundred and thirty schools in Germany’s most populous state (North Rhine Westphalia) now offer Islamic instruction alongside existing religious classes, and the first class of German Muslim theologians began their doctoral program this fall. The list goes on. European governments and Muslim organizations have gotten to know one another better, and community leaders have been brought into a context that encourages their continued adaptation to life as a minority in Europe.

Q: You argue in the book that it’s not 1683 or 1938, but that European countries are at a crucial “nation-building” moment in between. What does your book have to say about the Arab awakening?

The book shows how Europeans responded to the same questions now confronting North African governments: how to balance religious freedom and the democratic rule of law? Can Islamist movements behave “moderately and democratically”? The first generation of European Islamists fled political persecution at home, and some of the religious tension in European countries is rooted in their old political battles. Perhaps the “settling” of Islam’s status in their countries of origin will engender a new dynamic and allow integration to proceed in Europe. On the other hand, European Muslims have made their home in Europe and are not as personally involved in 2011’s events as could be assumed. Nonetheless, the image of Muslim masses protesting peacefully and organizing themselves democratically could contribute in the long run to a continuing “normalization” of how Islamic populations and societies are perceived in Western democracies.

Jonathan Laurence is associate professor of political science at Boston College.

Economist Carmen Reinhart, coauthor of THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT, shares a prestigious NY Times Opinion panel with Paul Krugman, Tom Friedman, and Joseph Nocera, and

Wow, what a lineup! We are so proud to see Carmen Reinhart, the co-author of our New York Times bestselling classic THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, discuss economic issues on a recent New York Times Opinion talk with Times journalists Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, and Joe Nocera. This brilliant and entertaining program streamed live on the internet and covered today’s economic issues such as the Eurozone crisis, deleveraging, inequality, Occupy Wall Street, and space aliens. Check out the video if you want to see what great minds have to say about our economic situation and what’s coming next.

Watch live streaming video from nytimesopinion at livestream.com

Criminologist Federico Varese on “Is Burma the Next Mexico?”

Princeton University Press author and University of Oxford criminologist Federico Varese has published an op-ed on Reuters.com’s The Great Debate blog describing his recent research trip to Myanmar and the surrounding area. He wanted to see the opium trade and its effects on the local population. His work has led to the question “Is Burma the next Mexico?”  For a good read, check out Varese’s MAFIAS ON THE MOVE: How Organized Crime Conquers New Territories

From Reuters.com
Hillary Clinton had many “hard issues” to tackle during her recent visit to Myanmar. Yet there was no mention of one of the most, if not the most, difficult issue Burma faces: their lucrative drug trade.

Northern Burma is the home of the “Golden Triangle,” a hub for opium production and the location of hundreds of heroin and amphetamine refineries. So how do political leaders and the international community plan to tackle this problem in the event that Burma truly becomes a democratic country?

To read more, continue to Reuters.com.

WHEN it comes to changing the toxic partisan gridlock in Washington, the Beatles got it just about right: “You tell me it’s the institution/Well, you know/You’d better free your mind instead.”

This op-ed in the New York Times from Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson is must-read material for anyone concerned with the apparent inability of Congress to overcome bipartisan splits and forge compromises on important issues about the U.S. Economy.

The authors write about the failure of the budget supercommittee and caution that this “is only the latest breakdown in an attempt at compromise in Washington. Politicians keep trying to fashion failsafe solutions to the capital’s uncompromising mind-set, without understanding that there is no external escape from an environment that rewards those who stand tenaciously on their principles and demonize their opponents.”

With the public growing increasingly frustrated by the failures of Congress to effectively negotiate and compromise in recent months, Gutmann and Thompson sound a warning bell, writing, “Members of Congress need to change their minds about compromise, or voters will need to change the members of Congress.”


Read the complete article today: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/30/opinion/compromise-and-the-supercommittee.html

We will publish their book on political compromise in the United States from the revolutionary period to today in May of 2012. Click through to learn more about The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. The book is now available for pre-orders through many internet retailers.

PGS Exclusive: A Parasitologist’s Weight-Loss Clinic by Eugene Kaplan

Want to lose weight? Are parasites the solution? Parasitologist and expert Eugene Kaplan looks at recent reported trends of using parasites to lose weight and discovers that all is not as it seems.

Recently it has been reported that the government of Hong Kong has had to resort to an edict against a recently popular mechanism for weight loss: swallow the parasitic roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides, to eat some of the food you ingest and deprive you of the calories. In other words, you eat the Whopper, fries and coke and seek absolution for your sins, not in the confession box from your priest, but in the similarly dark inner recesses of your gut from a worm.

First, I am puzzled by the technique. Do you eat the eight to twelve inch adult worms in a bowl of slowly writhing noodles or do you eat the eggs in feces-contaminated bok choy? Either way, this is a serious gastronomical challenge. Not to mention, that if you opt for the eggs, they will hatch and the juveniles will migrate through your lungs before ending up in your gut.

And to further complicate things, here’s a tip. Make sure these are the human-infecting version of the worm, else the alien larva, let’s say from a similar species in a dog or cat, will get confused in its wanderings and could end up in your eye or brain.

And as if these potential complications weren’t enough, here’s the real rub: unless you swallow enough of these living noodles to clog up your intestine, they will not eat enough to deprive you of the calories that make you overweight. I can attest to this. I had an eight inch female in my intestines and didn’t feel a thing nor lose an ounce of weight. Ascaris has a relatively slow metabolism. It’s not like you have a being like the one in Alien inside you. This is just a pencil thick, eight inch weight-loss device, hardly enough to transform your body on its own.

While the use of Ascaris to lose weight may sound like the stuff of science fiction, it actually is part of a long history of parasitic weight loss. At the 1938 World’s Fair, one could buy a weight-loss pill that brazenly stated it contained “tapeworms”. This was legitimate. The pill contained the scolices (anterior end) of the human beef tapeworm which would produce a bevy of foot long ribbon-like tapeworms hanging in your upper intestine, bathed in your intestinal juices. No eating a bowl of living noodles – users just had to take a pill like any other weight-loss pill – and it was touted as a safe method of weight loss.

The catch – there is no evidence that such an infection can cause you to lose weight – common superstition notwithstanding. Unless you are in terrible physical shape – in which case you would probably be emaciated and not in need of this weight-loss program –a heavy tapeworm infection would not cause you to lose weight, but it might cause death.
A more logical idea is to purchase leeches from a leech farm (there is one in my neighborhood; I can get you the phone number). Leeches are used to suck fluids from lymph-swollen sites where an appendage was just reattached surgically and swelling threatens to burst the sutures. If you use enough leeches, say you arrange them so that they sprout from your arm like branches from a tree, they could remove enough blood to shift your weight scale to the left..

I can go on, like swallowing the cysts of the one-celled animals, Giardia or Entamoeba histolytica. The severe diarrhea would deprive you of excess water and food and leave you emaciated in a week – ads for this method could promise “rapid weight loss.” But the aforementioned techniques seem to be adequate.

And so we arrive at the end of this weight-loss clinic. While parasites might seem like a sure-fire, quick solution, perhaps it might be better to simply forego the Whopper next time.


Eugene H. Kaplan is the Donald E. Axinn Endowed Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Conservation (emeritus) at Hofstra University. His many books include What’s Eating You: People and Parasites and Sensuous Seas: Tales of a Marine Biologist. He is about to embark on a trip to Israel, perhaps stuffed pigeon will be on the menu again.

Like this article? Read Gene’s other blog posts here: Go Ahead, Try the Guinea Pig and here Climate Change is Bringing an Invasion of Parasites.

Do you agree with Andrei Codrescu? Should authors become less accessible and abandon Facebook?

Writing in the Soapbox column of Publishers Weekly this week, Andrei Codrescu makes a new case for the elusive and exclusive author. He argues that Facebook and other social networking sites are ” giving away stupid prose for free!” and that familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed book sales.

He writes, “not only do you not sell books by being friendly, you won’t sell any because everyone in your ‘social network’ thinks they know you. Why buy your books, since you’ll tell them everything they want to know for free.”

So, what do you think? Is Facebook the marketing mecca we have been promised? Or are publishers and authors actually cannibalizing their sales by providing too much access to what we are selling?

The responses on Twitter are worth perusing for their range of support to disbelief.

We have now published two books with Andrei and have a third on the way. If you are a fan, check out his books The Poetry Lesson and The Posthuman Dada Guide. His next book Whatever Gets You through the Night will publish this June.

Jill Lepore writes “A Personal Tea Party History” at the Daily Beast

You have to love an article that begins

One freaky day last spring, I came across two old documents, which isn’t what was freaky: I read a lot of old documents, every day; that’s what historians do. But these two, together, gave me the creeps, like when the phone rings and there’s no one there.

So, what were the two documents that freaked out Jill Lepore, author of The Whites of Their Eyes?

The first is a letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush:

On April 4, 1790, John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, complaining that when the history of the American Revolution was written, it would be a travesty. I was writing a book about the Tea Party’s version of American history and hearing people on the far right argue that the Revolution was fought for the sake of free enterprise or to establish a Christian Nation and that the Constitution was divinely inspired, made me think about Adams’s grim prediction: “The history of our revolution will be one continued lye from one end to the other.”

The second is a snapshot of Jill dressed in a hand-made (her own hands it turns out) costume:

I grew up in Massachusetts, where the Bicentennial was a spectacularly big deal. In elementary school, we went on field trips to Boston. We walked the Freedom Trail. We dumped fake tea into the harbor. I couldn’t find pictures of any of that. But I did find a photograph of my brother, dressed as a minuteman, and one of me in costume, too. It is 1976. I am 9 years old. I’m wearing a dress of lemon yellow, calico. I sewed it myself. I cut a pattern out of tissue paper that rustled and crinkled like an autumn leaf. I gathered the skirt with a basting stitch and pinned it to the dress’ snug bodice, but then I botched the buttonholes, down the back. Buttonholes are too hard for 9 year olds. I’m wearing a mob cab, white and lacy, threaded with a yellow satin ribbon and, around my neck, a linen choker with a cameo I found in my mother’s dresser. I’m staring straight at the camera. I always did.

Click through to read more.

Wall Street Journal’s New Book Review

This weekend marks the beginning of the first new weekly book review in years. The Wall Street Journal will premiere a new book review section in its weekend edition, opening with a 2000-word essay by James Grant on the Library of America’s new edition of writings by John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society and Other Writings, 1952-1967 (Princeton University Press published one of Galbraith’s books in 2007, entitled The New Industrial State.)

This new section, which is to be called “Books,” will run across six broadsheet pages and will feature several long articles of about 900 to 1,600 words every week.  It will also reserve space for shorter reviews. Robert Messenger, the new editor of Books, said that the section would likely focus on nonfiction more than fiction, but would also group together reviews of recent or recommended books.  Bestseller lists for fiction, nonfiction, e-books, and business, along with lists tracking popularity and sales records, will also appear in the Books section.

Mostly, Messenger said, he wants to “bring novels to readers’ attention.” We are all for that! Read more about the new section here, and be sure to look out for Books in your weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal.

PUP Exclusive: “Can the French legally ban the burqa?” by John R. Bowen

Can the French legally ban the burqa?

John R Bowen

author of Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves and Can Islam Be French?

France has just passed a law that its prestigious State Council said has no clear legal basis, that may soon be declared unconstitutional, and that would in any case be challenged before the European Court of Human Rights. The general ban on covering the face in public space will lead to fines and ‘education’ for Muslim women wearing what is called the burqa, the niqab or the ‘full veil.’ The measure easily passed the lower house on July 13th, and now goes to the Senate for the expected approval.

It is easy to ridicule the French law: why set the police out to track down the miniscule number of women wearing burqas, who tend to be French-born, not Afghan imports? Why not allow them their religious freedom? Does the law reflect anything more than general Islamophobia and calculated electioneering?

Well, certainly French politicians listened to polls showing strong support for the law, and voting for it may undercut support for the far-right National Front, so simple electoral politics might explain the vote. But politicians could have opted for a more narrowly-tailored ban, one limited to government offices and shops and that would have likely been judged constitutional. They argue that a broad law sends the right message, and that it is constitutional. They make three arguments for its legality, only one of these claims has a chance of being accepted—and it might seem the oddest of the three to those outside France.

The first argument is that the burqa stands for the oppression or the inequality of women. This claim is too abstract to be of legal use—what is it for an item of clothing to have an objective meaning? Moreover, no women are coming forward to complain about having to wear the garment in question. In the absence of a clear harm, the law must tread very lightly.

Others argue that wearing the burqa violates the dignity of the individual. Although the idea of individual dignity is held high in France, it is difficult to translate into law, particularly when it conflicts with individual rights. After a debate in the 1990s over whether “dwarf tossing” violated individual dignity—the State Council ruled that it did but was roundly criticized—France’s courts have given this notion a wide berth, except in the sphere of bioethics and human reproduction.

This leaves a third claim, that covering the face in public violates basic ideas of how French people should live together, and thus offends public moral order, or ordre public. Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie based her argument for the law on this principle, saying that the law would protect French rules of living together, with people able to speak with each other “faces uncovered”.

Such a claim might make little sense in America, but French political ideas give the state a large role in creating a ‘community of citizens’. The state school system is supposed to create a sense of shared citizenship; marriage is supposed to take place only at city hall; the state retains a strong role in everyday life.

But what about individual rights? Does not the French Constitution, itself drawing on the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, protect religious beliefs? Indeed it does, but France considers religious practices to be protected only when they are part of religious requirements, as in the case of worship or eating appropriate foods. France routinely limits behavior that in the United States would enjoy First Amendment protections, such as distributing religious materials on the street or dressing in a religious way. And thus the government thinks that it might be able to successfully argue that because burqa-wearing is not required in Islam, and because it violates French ‘public moral order’, the ban does not unduly infringe on the liberty of its citizens.

The next months will see whether France’s Constitutional Council (and perhaps the European Court of Human Rights) sees things in the same way.