You See, This Is Why We Lose

So there I was, doing nothing special, drinking strawberry juice, when a friend (who knows I’m teaching Discipline & Punish this quarter) sent me an article from the Canada Globe and Mail about the current political debates in France.

Conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy apparently said this:

“See how the belief in ‘money is king,’ the belief in short-term profit and speculation, how the values of financial capitalism grew out of May ‘68, because there are no more rules, no more norms, no morality, no more respect, no authority,” he said. “Everything has a price, so everything is allowed.”

It had the effect of putting the issue, as distant to most French voters as Vietnam is to Americans, right back on the agenda: For the past two days, the French media and the people around a great many café tables have been consumed with a bewildered debate over the merits and faults of the soixante-huitistes, as those ’60s protesters are today known.

Yes, you heard that correctly, Ivan Karamazov is now running for office in France as a conservative. The first response, by Ségolène Royal, was the right one:

“Two days ago, he blamed everything on May ‘68,” she told a noisy crowd. “I wonder what fly bit him. May ‘68 was 40 years ago!”

Which makes Sarkozy look like an idiot, and clears space for a return to the issues. But then, to my horror, I read:

But, instead of dissociating herself from the charge, [Royal] took an equally surprising tack, devoting her speech to defending the legacy of May ‘68.

“I don’t want to get back to the situation of social immobility we had in 1968, just because the people in power didn’t want to redistribute the wealth of the postwar economic boom,” she said.

“When I hear Nicolas Sarkozy say that he wants to ‘liquidate’ May ‘68,” she told an interviewer yesterday, “I think he’s using very violent vocabulary. … I think he should remember that May ‘68 was also 11 million strikers, who obtained the right to organize and earn higher wages.”

Now, Royal doesn’t sound flawless to me. According to the article, she’s running on a “law-and-order” platform, and earned a reputation for endorsing censorship earlier in her career. But she’s obviously in a different league from Sarkozy, which is why her decision to argue May ’68 with him is such a mistake.

The sixties already happened. Whatever hope they might have inspired, and whatever accomplishments from that time marked and still mark the West, you can’t find yourself arguing for a piece of history while trying to represent the interests of constituents right now.

It’s impossible to keep up with liars. Sarkozy created a meaningless, moralistic whirlpool, and Royal jumped right in, trying her best to separate fiction from fact. Now all he has to do is give a speech where he says, “Look at her! She’s still thinking about 1968! I’m thinking about right now!” The same thing happened in the Bush/Kerry debates. Bush would set the agenda by making some ridiculous claim, Kerry would mulishly try to get the facts “straight” for us, and then Bush would hopscotch somewhere else.

I can’t understand the rhetorical coma of the modern progressive movement. This isn’t setting the facts straight. It’s being led around by the nose, and allowing lies to count more than truth.