The Tuesday: Is Our Future French? . . . . .

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, and culture, proper nouns and improper thoughts. Also dachshunds, from time to time, but not every week. To get access to the ...

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BY KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON April 26, 2022
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WITH KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON April 26, 2022
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Is Our Future French?

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Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, and culture, proper nouns and improper thoughts. Also dachshunds, from time to time, but not every week. To get access to the Tuesday as part of a National Review membership — which soon will be the only way to read the Tuesday — please go here. Thanks to all of you who already have signed up since last week's invitation — your support means a great deal to me and to all of us here at National Review.

A Country without a Left

A country without a Left may sound like a paradise to American conservatives, but it isn't the paradise they had in mind.

Vive la France!

France's 2017 presidential election was a preview of the one that took place over the weekend: Emmanuel Macron won, and Marine Le Pen claimed a moral victory owing to the fact that she didn't lose as badly as she did the time before. The 2017 French election season was notable for another development: the collapse of the Socialist Party, which in France is the center-left party. In fact, the Socialists' showing in the parliamentary elections that season was so poor — it went from having 280 out of 577 seats to just 29 — that it lost its state subsidies, meaning that the party would not be refunded for the cost of running its election, as is the French practice. The party was financially ruined: It warmed many a capitalist heart to see the strapped Socialists forced to sell their party headquarters, a splendid Left Bank mansion — these are French socialists we are talking about. In 2022, the Socialist candidate was knocked out in the first round, winning less than 2 percent of the vote. Which is to say, in this election what once was France's main center-left party has underperformed the showing the Libertarian Party in the United States enjoyed in 2016.

(N.B.: 2016 was an unusually good year for the Libertarian Party, another reminder that Trump vs. Herself should have been a New York City mayoral election, not a presidential race.)

Of course, it isn't entirely true that France has no Left left: The third-place finisher in the first round was the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. And it isn't only the center-left party that is in trouble: The Republican (center-right) candidate also was knocked out in the first round, winning less than 5 percent of the vote.

And so, as things stand, there appear to be two major blocs in French politics: The technocratic-progressive Macron bloc and the nationalist-populist Le Pen bloc.

Put another way, France just had its 2016: The far-left candidate was a significant but in the end minor factor (So long, Bernie!), the center-left element coalesced around a technocratic progressive-centrist (which is the position that the Clinton and Obama factions always have aspired to), the old center-right tendency was effectively absent, and the nationalist-populist element grew in stature by fusing a species of reconstituted social conservatism with big-spending welfare populism. Donald Trump won and Marine Le Pen lost, but the political vectors in play are remarkably similar in the two cases.

So, who is Emmanuel Macron? He is the most popular French political figure . . . in Germany, which should tell you most of what you need to know about him. Macron began his career in the Socialist Party, became an independent, and then ran for president on the ticket of a party he founded as his own personal vehicle: La République En Marche! (As in the case of 1990s rock bands Therapy? and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the punctuation is part of the name.) Macron has a great deal in common with Barack Obama: He began as a left-winger and moved toward the center when he desired to become a national figure; he has genuinely technocratic tendencies, together with a tendency to take political and ideological pet projects and dress them up in technocratic drag; his party is organized (reorganized, in Obama's case) around his personal political interests and does not fare nearly as well as he does in its legislative and local races; he is often arrogant and at times insufferable; he is very, very lucky in his opponents.

But he is unlike Obama in important ways, too: Obama left office with a 59 percent approval rating, while Macron faced reelection with the precise inverse approval rating: 41 percent. (Obama was at a solid 53 percent in his 2012 reelection.) Americans are generally pretty well disposed toward Barack Obama (if this comes as a surprise to you, you need to broaden your media diet), while the French — including many of those who voted for him — generally detest Macron, denouncing the former Socialist as président des riches.

In many ways like Obama, Macron also is in many ways the French version of a 1990s Democrat, beginning with the fact that he is made rapt by Silicon Valley–style business rhetoric, describing his vision for France as building a "start-up nation." He is very much a Europeanist (he marched to his victory celebration to the tune of Beethoven's Ninth, the European Union's version of a national anthem) and a globalist, a progressive and a Davos man. (And surely a Monocle man.) He is a business-friendly corporate progressive in the Clintonian New Democrat mode.

Marine Le Pen is something that once would have seemed strange if not anathematic to the American Right: a right-winger who lands a bit to the left of Elizabeth Warren on most economic issues. Le Pen, like Donald Trump and many of the figures who wish to claim his gold-lamé mantle, is what is sometimes called a "welfare chauvinist," a term that is useful in that the most obvious alternative — national socialistcomes with a great deal of baggage. She is as perfect a modern example as you will find of Jonah Goldberg's observation that as a practical matter almost all socialist regimes end up being nationalist regimes and most nationalist regimes end up being socialist regimes. A socialized industry is a nationalized industry and vice versa, but there is more than economics at play: Goldberg is correct in identifying this as a matter of sentimentality in that rationalist theories of government fail to inspire the kind of emotional commitment necessary to sustain the regime and thereby require the psychological oomph of nationalism, ethno-nationalism, or some other political tendency that implicates issues of identity. Stalin always elbows out Trotsky, and the dream of worldwide revolution always ends up being the Great Patriot War to Save the Motherland.

The reference point of social conservatism is, ironically, easily shifted. French social conservatism once meant Catholicism and monarchy, whereas Le Pen and her element position themselves as champions of French secularism, particularly vis-à-vis Muslim immigrants. Thirty years ago, Donald Trump would have been held up as Mr. Bad Example by the same American social conservatives who rallied to his cause in 2016 and 2020. The Golden Age is wherever you find it: There are Americans Left and Right who wish to fix the nation forever in 1957, though for very different reasons.

Whatever the point of reference, social conservatism and welfare-statism meet and conjoin on the common ground of Hobbit-hole sentimentality, which is predicated on the false belief that if modern capitalism were a little less dynamic and a lot less global then there would be a renaissance of civic and community life, of life lived at the family, village, and parish level rather than the transnational scale or, as in the cases of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the extraterrestrial scale. In reality, everybody chooses modern capitalism, because nobody really wants a 1957 standard of living — I'll confidently wager that J. D. Vance does not live in an 800-square-foot house without air-conditioning — but the welfare-chauvinists believe (again, wrongly) that atavistic economic policies would put them on more defensible ground when it comes to social status, which is, of course, what right-wing populism is all about: It always begins with Tucker Carlson of the La Jolla He-Man Woman-Haters' Country Club sounding the klaxons of alarum about the death of masculinity and ends with Madison Cawthorn in a lace bustier. Somewhere along the way, Republicans give up the idea of balancing the budget or reforming entitlements.

Anti-capitalist conservatism and anti-capitalist reaction are familiar elements of Continental politics. There is a tradition of anti-capitalism in Anglo-American conservatism, too, and it is very closely allied with anti-modernism. T. S. Eliot, the great Modernist American poet, was such a social reactionary that he ended up an Englishman (accent and all!) whose Tory politics were quite at home with his skepticism of business and industry, his prescient environmentalism, his neo-medieval model of community life, and — unhappily, this is not incidental — his antisemitism. J. R. R. Tolkien — the original Hobbit-hole sentimentalist — had a deep dread of technology and industrialization, which he wrote about in terms that were more mystical than political. There is a good deal of wisdom in Shire conservatism — "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" — but in politics as in literature, that life is mainly fantasy: The world does not go away when you cover your eyes.

A capitalism-skeptical Right may seem alien to those of us who remember OK Soda, but you'll find similar sentiments everywhere from Albert Jay Nock to Dwight Eisenhower's misunderstood "military-industrial complex" speech. (Eisenhower was in many ways a High Modernist, as much a midcentury icon as an Eames lounge chair, but there was a strain of 19th-century prairie populism in him, too.) The tendency is more pronounced in Catholic Europe than it is in the English-speaking countries, where private wealth has long provided a welcome counterbalance to the power of the state. England may be a "nation of shopkeepers," in Napoleon's (supposed) estimate, but, as it turns out, all that shopkeeping makes a nation rich, free, and powerful — a lesson not lost on England's overseas descendants.

Not lost until recently, anyway.

In the United States as in France, we are seeing politics settling into two main blocs: a technocratic-progressive bloc with its roots in the Left and allied with the commanding heights of business, and a reactionary-populist bloc that has swallowed up most of the Right while attracting enough support from the center and the Left (those Sanders-to-Trump voters are a real thing, though the rank-and-file union vote shifting rightward is a bigger deal) to leave the Left proper as a weak third-place contender in a political contest that recognizes only first and second place.

Figures such as Elizabeth Warren are seeking to straddle the technocratic and left-wing camps in the belief that this is the surest route to power against a thoroughly Trumpist Republican Party, but Sanders-style socialism remains a distinctly minority taste among critical voting blocs within the Democratic Party, which is why Joe Biden won the 2020 nomination and is president today. Of course, personalities will shape coming events: Le Pen has lost enough presidential races that she probably will be obliged to pass the baton, and I doubt that Trump will run again on the Republican side, though I do not regard that as an impossibility. As it stands, both camps are limited mainly by their respective cultural radicalisms: There are moderate conservatives who could find some common ground with pro-market technocrats but find it impossible to share political space with people who can't say what a woman is and support legal abortion up until the moment of delivery. (And, in more cases than you'd think, a ways beyond.) There are moderate Democrats who might be attracted to a political party that wants to protect or even enhance their social-welfare benefits while also taking seriously issues such as crime and illegal immigration but who cannot work themselves around to joining a party that goes to such extraordinary lengths to accommodate anti-vaccine kooks, the Jewish-space-laser element, and (WFB forgive the term!) crypto-Nazis.

And like France's Republicans, the sort of people who used to be Republicans in the United States — social conservatives who also support free enterprise and an assertive foreign policy backed by a strong national defense — are reduced to the point of near irrelevance as far as elections are concerned, though they maintain some institutional power.

We may end up being a country that is effectively without a Left, but that doesn't mean that conservatives are going to get what they want.

Words About Words

A reader asks: Why is it that the past tense of wreak havoc isn’t wrought havoc?

The answer is because wrought is not the past tense of wreak — it is an old and almost forgotten past tense of work.

Wreak means cause, but it has the destruction baked into it: Its original sense is avenge. So you wreak havoc, wreak your revenge, etc. All negative and destructive uses.

But when Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message, it was "What hath God wrought!" That isn't a question, by the way, though you often see it that way: "What hath God wrought?"

The phrase comes from the Book of Numbers:

He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.

God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!

Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.

Drinking the blood of the slain — that's some great Old Testament stuff, right there.

Rampant Prescriptivism

We have authoritative sources for how words are spelled: The general practice for any given stylebook or publication is to choose a specific dictionary and to follow its guidance in situations where there are multiple spellings for a given word — usually, the preferred spelling is the one that has the full definition, while the variants are simply noted as that. So if you're an American Heritage Dictionary shop, it's adviser, not advisor.

But what about how proper nouns are styled?

As noted above, some names feature quirky insertions of punctuation marks (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Therapy?, will.i.am, etc.) or play games with capitalization: bell hooks, FOX News, MGMT, eBay, USA TODAY. Capitalization comes up frequently with initialisms and acronyms. (Those aren't the same thing: An acronym is pronounced as though it were a word, like FISA or NASA, as opposed to USDA or FBI.) The Associated Press approach is to capitalize letters only in initialisms where they are individually pronounced (CIA, not Cia; Ikea, not IKEA) and to handle acronyms by more or less arbitrary convention: UNESCO, but Patriot Act, scuba, laser, etc.

(The PATRIOT Act is — I hate these cutesy legislative acronyms — “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." LASER is "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." SCUBA is "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus." Laser and scuba have become common nouns and so do not get capitalized, but PATRIOT Act is a proper noun, so I'd keep PATRIOT uppercase, against AP's guidance.)

But convention gets us only so far.

I don't see any way around just including the funny punctuation however it is received. Capitalization I take on a case-by-case basis. Part of me says the best thing to do is to just write a name the way its owner does, but part of me doesn't want to reward a company for relying on cheap attention-grabbing all-caps. Love you, USA Today, but, USA TODAY? Not gonna do it.

There is an old convention, honored here, in which a publication small-caps its own name in its own pages, and so we are National Review here but National Review elsewhere.

In any case, you still capitalize the first word of a sentence, so it's "Bell hooks was born in . . ." "EBay was founded in . . ." Etc.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

I am not the world's biggest Twitter fan, as you may know if you have read The Smallest Minority. And while I don't have a particular dog in the fight, it is fun watching Elon Musk scare the pants off of that gang of miscreants. More in the New York Post.

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the "Real America," here.

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In Other News . . .

Write a column about how Twitter makes people nasty and imbecilic, get nasty and imbecilic Twitter responses. Kind of meta!

Well-known MAGA guy, indeed.

The thing about stupid people is, they're stupid.

In Closing

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist. He is invoked against (among many things) both impenitence and insect bites. With the weather warming up and summer just around the corner, both are likely to be needed. He is also a patron saint of both lawyers and prisoners — I suppose that you may petition him in the former capacity to avoid the need to petition him in the latter one.

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