Now that I am posting my Memoirs three times a week, I can use this space on off days to comment on the passing scene. Today, in the NEW YORK TIMES, The Majority Leader in the French National Assembly, Jean-Francois Cope, has an op ed defending his proposal to ban the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public. He offers an argument I had not heard before, and since I think it is deeply flawed, I thought I would comment. So we are clear, the law concerns the full body garment worn by some Muslim women that leaves only a gauze covered eye slit.
First things first. If a young woman wishes to cut and dye her hair a spiked purple and orange, attach body piercings to her ears, nose, tongue, eye lids, nipples, and clitoris, and wear an abbreviated tank top with short shorts, that is in France an acceptable expression of individuality. But if she wishes to wear a burqa, that is an unacceptable attack on the foundations of French liberty.
Pretty clearly, modesty is not the issue.
Cope offers two arguments. The first is that the wearing of the burqa,like the wearing of a mask, poses a security threat, because it makes it impossible for police using security cameras to identify felons in the act of breaking the law. This is no doubt true, but inasmuch as it is also an argument for requiring everyone to wear large print name tags, with penalties for wearing a tag with the wrong name on it, I think we can safely pass over this argument.
Cope's real argument is rather more subtle, and at least to me, surprising. By wearing the burqa, a Muslim woman is refusing to make eye contact with her fellow citizens. The burqa represents "a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others. The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility."
There are two things wrong with this argument, which is the sum and substance of Cope's case. First, it imposes on everyone in a society [not just Muslim women] the demand that they constantly engage in interactions with others, whether or not they want to. It refuses to permit someone to withdraw into him or herself, to cultivate anonymity or privacy, to decline to put on a party face and be one of the group. In effect, it says that you cannot be a J. D. Salinger, even if you pay your taxes and leave others alone. That is a terrifying image of a society, and I can tell you, as someone who owns a Paris apartment and spends a good deal of time there, it does not in the slightest describe the character of social interactions on Paris streets.
Second, Cope's argument is hopelessly ignorant of the realities of human interactions. I would strongly recommed that he read Erving Goffman's little book, THE PRESENTATION OF SELF IN EVERYDAY LIFE. Does Cope really believe that the public persona presented by Nicholas Sarkozy to the world is any more open, accessible, or authentic than that presented by a woman wearing a burqa?
Despite the superficial sophistication of Cope's argument, it and others like it are simply twenty-first century version of "Coloreds around back" and "no Irish need apply."