Travel, unlike tourism, is a philosophical activity. For people who are not utopians, who do not compare what exists with some abstract scheme of perfection conjured up solipsistically in their minds that they then seek to impose upon the world, travel is one of the means by which they can make the comparisons that are necessary for, and the main basis of, sound judgment. For how am I to assess the reality in which I live—in both its good and its bad aspects—except by comparison with some reality different in time or place from my own? How else am I to achieve that sense of proportion which is essential alike to proper political judgment and to personal psychological equilibrium?
Even quite short journeys can be instructive. Recently, my wife and I went from our flat near the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris—itself an inexhaustible stimulant to reflection—to Montmartre, about five miles as the taxi rides.
The unthinking mystique of revolution is very strong in France
The driver was, unusually, not very welcoming: neither a smile on his face nor a word to pass the time of day with us. Of Maghrebin origin, he had beside him a fat young black woman with dreadlocks piled so high and so wide that we could not see out of the front window on her side. She chatted with the driver, in between mouthfuls of smelly fast food. Should we object or say something? In mildly unpleasant situations like this, one is prey to a swirl of thoughts, questions, and scruples. Did this really matter, and what is it in any case for something really to matter? Would the driver turn nasty if we said anything? Would he accuse us of racism?
In the end, I applied the only sanction available to me: I withheld my customary tip. But what was the point even of that? The driver would probably think merely that I was a mean bastard, not knowing that normally I was quite generous, at least with tips. The only lesson, then, that he might learn from my non-payments of a tip was a wrong one.
Not being able to look forwards, I looked sideways. This happened to be the centenary year of the Paris Commune, so there were communist, or communistic, posters stuck on many walls. My favourite was a militant demand (in English, it being chic now for French intellectuals to use English): “More orgasms, less exploitation.”
As everyone knows, the main demand of communism was always for more, and better, orgasms: as an inalienable human right, in fact. You have only to see pictures of Lenin, or read his Materialism and Empirio-criticism, or his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, to realise that this was his fundamental concern. (Apparently, there have been ‘serious’ sociological papers that argued that sex was better under communism. Lack of anything else, I suppose.)
We passed the Lycéé Voltaire, which was draped with enormous sheets on which were painted crude pictures of the women who took part in the Commune. “No revolution,” they said, “without women.”
I need hardly point out that this appeal to the mystique of revolution combined with contemporary feminist monomania must have been made with the permission, if not at the actual instigation, of the staff of the lycée. It is likely that the pupils of the lycée—or, as we must now call children from the age of three, the students of the lycée—were being assiduously indoctrinated into an attitude of oppositional insolence, known to the lumpenintelligentsia as the spirit of criticism, which never gets quite as far, of course, as wondering whether revolution is always and everywhere an unequivocally good thing.
The unthinking mystique of revolution is very strong in France, which is rather odd because it is in many ways a rather conservative country. This mystique is, if not omnipresent, very prevalent: by chance, I opened a copy of L’Obs, the leftish news magazine, and the first article I came across was about Éric Hazan: “Former surgeon, son of a publisher and now a publisher himself, Éric Hazan asserts once again his lover for the City of Light and, at 84, still has not renounced his hope for a revolution.” This is accompanied by a photograph of M. Hazan peering upwards into the far distance, beyond all merely earthly objects, into the utiopiasphere, with something like a look of moral complacency on his face. Of course, this look might all be the fault of the photographer and the picture editor rather than of M. Hazan himself. Still, sincerely to feel at the age of 84 that neither you nor any of the people you know have anything to lose in a revolution—how terrible a life you must have led!
I should, perhaps, point out that the day before my little journey, not far from my flat, a small procession of about 300 Catholics, commemorating the murder of Catholic priests during the Commune, was first insulted and then physically attacked, including by twenty balaclava-helmeted young men, a sixty year-old man being quite seriously injured.
On to the Place de la République, where, as usual, a couple of demonstrations were taking place—against a backdrop of two of the largest branches of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken that I have ever seen. One of the demonstrations was addressed in Arabic by a man who was very clearly angry, and who seemed to mistake emphasis for rhetorical effect. He spoke climactically without there having first been a crescendo. Of course, through linguistic ignorance I could not tell what he was angry about—there is, after all, so much in the world to be angry about—but the fact is that the sound of anger is always the same and not very attractive. Anger is often its own reward.
The Peruvian demonstration next to Algerian was more relaxed, perhaps because it seemed that the pisco was by now being handed round. The role of alcohol in the provocation of violence is often remarked upon, less often its role in reducing anger and promoting good-fellowship. Pisco, like Falstaff’s sherris-sack, “ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapours which environ it”. What started out as a demonstration had evidently become a party.
On the return journey, about three hours later, most of the demonstrators had gone, but it being near the hour of the COVID curfew, the riot police turned up, dressed in black exoskeletons, with riot shields, marching forwards in formation, evidently on the lookout for people to combat.
The demonstrators had left an astonishing mess behind. To judge by the number of plastic mineral water bottles strewn everywhere, demonstration is thirsty work: the demonstrators had feared dehydration more than they had feared the riot police. As for littering, it was what they obviously thought the environment was for.
This brings me by natural progression to the current mayor of Paris, Ms. Anne Hidalgo, and her effect on the environment, which is incomparably worse than that of the demonstrators whose mess could at least be easily cleared up, albeit that it still signified a complete absence of civic sense or virtue.
This is the way civilisational collapse occurs
Ms. Hidalgo is currently engaged on a campaign to save the planet by making the streets of Paris hideous and increasingly unbearable. There are now miles of wide bicycle lanes, protected by yellow and white striped plastic bollards and long concrete barriers of the kind used to protect public buildings from suicide bombers in periods of high terrorist alert. The barriers are every bit as ugly as concrete always is; they attract graffiti and turn everywhere into a slum. The roads are all defaced by white and orange-yellow markings. Ms. Hidalgo obviously cares nothing for the environment in its visual aspects: her mind is too fixed on lofty abstractions to worry about something as trivial as appearance.
The lanes and the barriers hold up traffic enormously; on the few occasions I use taxis, it now takes twice as long to get anywhere as previously, and most of the additional time is spent in traffic jams. I cannot conceive that these jams are very good for air quality, any more than they are for tempers. I am no particular fan of the private motorcar—in many respects it has been an aesthetic disaster for Europe—and I use public transport whenever I can, but Ms. Hidalgo’s plan (as I assume it to be, unless she is driven by motiveless malignity) seems to be to exasperate car drivers that they all eventually take to the virtuous bicycle. This is unlikely to work for a very long time, however. Until then, billions of hours will be spent in frustrated fury by motorists, passengers in buses and taxis and their drivers: in short, by all those for whom bicycles are not the complete answer to their need for transport.
This will not, of course, worry Ms. Hidalgo much. People in motor vehicles will, after all, have brought their suffering on themselves: in fact, they deserve to be punished for polluting Mother Earth. Besides, there is an ineffable pleasure in making difficulties for others, especially in the name of a good cause.
Like many modern politicians who have been legitimately elected, which is to say according to the rules of the game, Ms. Hidalgo imagines that she has been handed carte blanche by the voters to do more or less as she sees fit, up to and including the thorough aesthetic ruination of her city, by common consent the most beautiful capital in the world. Among other things, she is in favour of the construction of the Tour Triangle, a glass building nearly 600 feet tall, the first such building to be permitted in Paris since the much—and deservedly—hated Tour Montparnasse, which was completed in 1973. Ms. Hidalgo once said that the Tour Triangle was needed to change the image of Paris. Anyone who has a mind that can be crossed even for an instant by such a gimcrack thought as the need to change the image of Paris is not fit to sweep the streets of the city, let alone be mayor of it.
In fact, Ms. Hidalgo was elected with 12% of the votes of the persons entitled to vote. True, she had more votes than anyone else, principally from areas in which subsidy is a way of life, but that is a far cry from a ringing endorsement of her record or of a willing delegation of all powers to her.
This is the way civilisational collapse occurs. Yes indeed, there can be a lot to think about during a five-mile taxi-ride.
Anthony Daniels writes from France.