It is 75 years since Julien Benda first published La trahison des clercs. The clercs may have changed with the passage of time, but their trahison springs eternal. The intelligentsia is always on the lookout for people and principles to betray. The July 6 front page of Le Monde—a newspaper that is to France more or less what the New York Times is to America—offers a good example. Two headlines caught my eye.
The first concerned Germany. The headline captured perfectly the heavily sarcastic and sneering tone of the article that followed: MEIN GOTT, A SINGLE MOTHER MINISTER OF FAMILY AFFAIRS IN GERMANY! The article described the statement of the conservative opposition in Germany that, if it won the forthcoming elections, it would appoint Katherina Reiche, a single woman, 28, now pregnant with her second child, as Minister of Family Affairs. Germany, the article reminded us, was not only the country of militant feminism, but of a “retro” conception of the family: that is to say, the idea that children should preferably be brought up by their mother and father, in a stable and predictable environment.
According to Le Monde, the announcement of Miss Reiche’s candidacy for the position—the very existence of which is a testimony to modern chaos—deprived the Greens and the Social Democrats of the argument that the opposition was backward looking, or passéiste. Of course, it wasn’t really an argument that Miss Reiche’s candidacy was intended to block. More precisely, her candidacy aimed to deprive the Greens and the Social Democrats of an opportunity to sneer, to exercise that automatic, knowing superiority of which most middle-class people are now so terrified.
Le Monde’s lead headline that same day was TEMPORARY DETENTION FROM THE AGE OF 13. The government, the paper reported, was considering whether to imprison large numbers of adolescent criminals from the age of 13 to 16 and to subject them to swift, if not quite summary, justice. Furthermore, delinquent children from the age of ten were to face “educational penalties”—reform schools, in other words.
Le Monde reported a lot of opposition to these proposals, but no one denied that they were a response to a real problem: the vast and sudden increase in crime in France. What Le Monde signally failed to do, however, was ask whether there could possibly be any connection between the abandonment of “retro” conceptions of the family and the crime wave that necessitates “sanctions educatives” against ten-year-olds. Of course, the question would more or less answer itself, and in so doing would destroy Le Monde’s entire world-view, with its associated sense of moral superiority. Better that ten-year-old children should require state repression than that intellectuals should have to reconsider their ideas.