Saturday, November 19, 2005

The France Riots, as they die down

A few observations about the riots in France:

First, pretty much since I started interviewing global economists as part of my living, people who know have warned me that the European Union's inability to bring immigrants into the fold was going to cause trouble. Nobody I spoke with predicted riots like this. Rather, they've pointed out that the native EU population is aging and that immigration is the key to them having an economy that can handle the retirements of the EU's current population. So, this was an old issue.

Second, I've noticed a lot of criticism of France, from the US lately. Riots there has led people here to say, basically, "See how messed up they are?" Uh... no. The US has had major urban riots, in recent history, that have had issues of economics and race at their roots. Crown Heights. Watts. L.A. Also, in our country, the Detroit Pistons winning an NBA title is cause to get on the phone with your insurance company. We keep criticising France, but our system hasn't, over the last 50 years, immunized us to what just happened there.

Finally, there's the ever-present notion that, hey, these are just a bunch of crazy Arabs, doing crazy Arab things. But it is, of course, that very notion about Middle Eastern culture and Islam that makes such problems worse. Truth is, much as I love Europe, the US is light years ahead of our allies over there in terms of being tolerant of race and religion. Honestly, and I've now experienced this on and off since I graduated college, smart and thoughtful people in Europe will sometimes say things about, say, "the Jews," that would make the average American very uncomfortable, to say the least. I'm not branding all European natives as racist, but... tolerance of ethnic and religious difference is an area where America, despite out own rather notable flaws on this front, surged way ahead during the 20th century.

Europe's inabality to, in a broad social way, welcome new people, is killing it. But our reaction to what happened in France shouldn't be smug of sanctimonious. It has happened here. Unless we make changes, it will happen here again. The lesson, trite as this is, is that hate and feart breed urban riots and chaos, in any country. I think there's been too much schadenfreude about the riots in France. Instead, we should be talking about increasing tolerance here, making more openings for new people to join our economy, and bolstering what's always been our greatest strength, the ability to turn outsiders into members of our community. We've done that better than any country in the EU, by any measure, but we've also faltered so badly that if any other world leaders had the things that we did between our founding and now, we'd be demanding international trials for crimes against humanity. This is just one of those areas where we've done better than Europe, but nowhere near good enough.


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