Gee, Officer Krupke, You're Really a Square! West Side Story in Paris

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
In West Side Story, one of the two rival gangs, the Jets, sings a hilarious parody of social-work-think, as it applies to their possible motivations for having — in their own self-characterization — turned into "punks." (Oddly, I can't remember anyone having been offended, at the time the musical was a hit, by the use this insensitive term.) At one point in the number a gang member, Diesel, impersonating a judge in juvenile court, sings:

Officer Krupke, you're really a square;
This boy don't need a judge, he needs an analyst's care!

Further on in the number another gang member, Riff, addressing the "psychiatrist," has a few thoughts as to why these "youths" have become gang members:

My father beats my mommy,
My mommy clobbers me.
My grandpa's always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea,
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress,
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!

(In the paleolithic era, "tea" was slang for marijuana.)

But then the gang adopts the position that juvenile delinquency is "a social disease." The cure in that case? Take the patient to a social worker!

Dear kindly social worker.
They say go earn a buck,
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schmuck.
It's not I'm anti-social,
I'm only anti-work,
Glory Osky, that's why I'm a jerk!

This last "root cause" may be the one that is closest to the mark in trying to understand what happened, and continues to happen, in France, at least if the analysis of Anthony Daniels in NRO (November 22, 2005, subscription required), The Suburbs Are Burning, is correct. Mr. Daniels begins with a brilliant, funny paragraph about a very serious situation:

For the last two weeks, the French have been watching the numbers of cars burnt the night before in the suburbs the way New Yorkers watch the Dow Jones index. Does 463 mean that the riots are now in recession, or is the reduction compared with the previous night merely what stockbrokers call a technical correction? Could the senior policeman be right who said that the downward trend was "the beginning of a classic mobilization at the weekend"? In other words, could les jeunes be conserving their energy for a further assault on French complacency?

The writer quickly proceeds to get to the heart of the issue:

The French banlieues are in effect prisons, but prisons that are ruled by the prisoners who live in them — generally the worst and most brutalizing kind of prisons there are. These prisons have metaphysical walls rather than real ones, though they are geographically isolated from the towns and cities to which they are attached. The metaphysical walls are patrolled by a combination of rigid French labor laws, which make it so difficult for the young to find employment in France, and the subculture of les jeunes themselves, which is conducive to nothing except idleness punctuated by insensate rage.

Daniels does not believe that Islam or Islamism had a great deal to do with the rioting:

The part played by Islam in the riots is bound in an age of Islamist terrorism to preoccupy us, but in my opinion it played at most a peripheral or enabling role. Young men of Islamic background are perhaps more sensitive to humiliation, and more likely to react violently, than others, since they are habituated to thinking of themselves as superior beings to women, the elect of creation. They are also determined to preserve their domination of women. This is the principal interest that Islam has for the young Muslim men of both Britain and France, and probably Holland as well, who are in all other respects almost as highly secularized as their non-Muslim counterparts. Islam also helps to keep their resentment warm, to give it shape; and resentment is, of all human emotions, by far the most dependable — but also the most counterproductive. But les jeunes are not religious fanatics: They are not religious at all. When French Islamic clerics issued a fatwa condemning the riots, it had absolutely no effect. Only a fatwa calling for riots might have had some effect, but only because there existed an inclination to riot in the first place.

But he recognizes that Islamists are, in all likelihood, waiting in the wings:

It would be surprising indeed if fundamentalists did not try to take advantage of the discontents to further their designs — if an impossible and primitive utopian daydream can be called a design.

So perhaps we should conclude that the behavior we saw (and will see again) in Paris was, to use the Jets' terminology, "a social disease." Having made the diagnosis, we are still far from having any clue about a possible cure. Daniels is pessimistic, and sees the French people, and the French state, as unlikely to change the social structure and laws that shore up the walls of the "metaphysical prison:" is] the state that ... enclose[s] les jeunes in an existential prison. Unfortunately, most of the French population benefits — or believes that it benefits — from the regulations that maintain that prison. Riots in les banlieues or marches down the Boulevard Saint-Germain: That is the choice facing the French government, and my guess is that they will prefer the former to the latter, even if in the end it means sending in the CRS [the feared Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité], no holds barred.


Erik said...

I like the West Side Story analogy.
It could be argued though that you ended it too soon, before the "social worker":
Officer Krupke, you've done it again.
This boy don't need a job, he needs a year in the pen.
It ain't just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he's no good!

I guess this is where the CRS comes in...
Nothing's new under the sun...

Syl said...


Can you edit the piece? There's one long line that needs a carriage return or two. It seems to be playing games with the formatting of the page.

It begins with 'The last root cause"