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Editorial

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’air du temps

by Maurice Ulrich

Something is in the Wind

Translated Saturday 18 July 2009, by Edward Lamb, Henry Crapo, Hervé Fuyet, Isabelle Métral, Karen Grimwade, Peggy Cantave Fuyet

In the 16th century, Étienne de la Boétie was only 18 when he wrote his Discours de la servitude volontaire [1], in which he drew upon his knowledge of history and his readings in the Greek and Latin authors. It is a bold work: "Be resolute never to serve, and you will be free," he wrote. A bit further down he evokes those who, "when liberty will be entirely lost and banned from this world, will still imagine it, feel it in their spirit, and take delight." [2]

In 1793, Article 35 of the Constitution of the French Republic went so far as to guarantee the right to insurrection: "When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each section of the people the most sacred of its rights and the most indispensable of its duties."

What today we call civil disobedience is not a new idea. It was the American David Thoreau who invented the term in 1849, in an essay entitled Civil Disobedience, written in order to justify his refusal to pay a tax earmarked to finance the war against Mexico.

But we are in a democracy! Yes, but there are disturbing ghosts in the air, and insidious drifting. What on earth is happening in France when an 8 year old child is arrested for speeding on his bike? When two others, even younger, are taken to the police station on suspicion of theft? When, in Paris, a militant street vendor is taken to court for selling l’Humanité Dimanche (he has now fortunately been found innocent of the charges laid), when a high school student is required to promise in writing that he will not participate in any collective action if he wants to be allowed to come back to school for the following term? When "Sarkozy, je te vois?" [3] and "Casse toi pauv’ con" [4] can get you arrested? What’s happening when a magistrate in Bordeaux, nine years after the fact, and after the case had been dismissed, decides to drag before the bench the organizers of an well-known art exposition? What’s happening when an employee denounces his colleague, as in the bank incident here recounted in the accompanying article [5]? When a psychiatrist is charged [6]? When a social aid worker decides, on her own initiative, to inform the police that a person without residence papers has come to her office? La Boétie also said that the weakening of liberties in a man’s heart arises also from a habit of acceptance or resignation.

All these facts have in common that they are not openly brutal attacks on liberties. It is not a case of state violence, nor of blatant repression. But they have this disquieting element, that these are daily occurrences, and that those responsible are not acting on direct instructions or under order, but they have internalized a certain form of, let us use the word, servitude. And this servitude doesn’t arise out of thin air. This "air du temps" comes from the witches cauldrons of security demagogy, the hunting down of undocumented persons, police attacks against demonstrators, a certain version of law and order that is nothing but the maintenance of an existing disorder. Violently unfair, tough on the poor and destitute, on immigrants, those with no rights, and on wage earners.

Disobedience affirms that Liberty resides in the quintessential heart of man. That she is the very spirit of humanity, of reason. She has had her moments of flowering and also her tragic hours. In the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, in the battles against the colonial wars. Today she has diverse forms, of which the most evident concern national education, in networks such as Education sans Frontières [7]. She doesn’t come into contradiction with the broader social and political combats for real change, for the majorities opening up real alternatives to present politics. Democracy is not a wax figurine. She lives only in action to change the course of events.

[1Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

[2Our translation from the original French text cited in l’Humanité.

[3"Sarkozy, I see you." During a street identity check a young man pointed at the police agents and said this in a theatrical way. See our translation of an earlier article on the incident.

[4"Get lost, poor idiot." This phrase was uttered by the president, Mr. Sarkozy, when a man refused his proffered handshake in public when Sarkozy was touring an agricultural exhibition. It has become a slogan for T-shirts. See our translation of an earlier article on that incident.

[5Denis Mendras. For this article in French.

[6Doctor Paresys. For this article in French.

[7Education without Borders


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