One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: Sure, if the other man is an idiot. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist? Was Bin Laden a freedom fighter?
Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés (2012)
Immigration is the issue of the moment in the United States following Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary defeat this week. But the U.S. is not alone in playing host to illegal immigrants and struggling with sharply divided views over what to do about them.
Yet the coverage of the substance of these issues has been rather thin. The press here and abroad has been resorting to stock phrases and cliches to describe the controversies.
But where would newspapers be without cliches? In trouble most likely — for cliches enable authors to communicate ideological assumptions to their readers thus avoiding having to take the time or space to make an argument. European-style advocacy journalism relies on cliches to set the ideological tone of a story. Stock language lets the initiated know how they should approach an issue before they are presented with the facts.
For the party faithful cliches are a virtue. For the rest of us their use in political and social discourse destroys debate, limiting our autonomy of choice.
The language used by some French papers in their coverage of the trial of Father Gérard Riffard illustrates the methodology of cliche newspaper reporting. The language used at the top of the story sets the moral and ideological tone for the newspapers readers. It saves us the trouble and time of thinking through the issues and coming to our own conclusions.
So who is Riffard and what has he done to merit coverage in all the French dailies? The septuagenarian parish priest is on trial for harboring illegal immigrants (the view from the right) or for sheltering asylum seekers (the view from the left) in his rectory.
The classical liberal school of Anglo-American journalism would lay out his story along these schematic lines.
The opening paragraphs would report the who, what, when, where, why and how — Riffard stood trial last week before a court in Saint-Etienne in the Loire facing charges that he refused to obey the orders of the government ministry charged with overseeing refugees and stateless persons (Ofpra) that he desist from providing accommodation in his rectory and parish hall at the Church of Sainte-Claire in Montreynaud to migrants who had entered France unlawfully or who had overstayed their visas.
The article would have a lede sentence that would give the author’s editorial view of the matter, but then lead into the facts. Quotes from the trial would follow — the prosecutor’s denunciation of Riffard followed by the priest’s statement that he would not comply with the law. The potential penalties should he be found guilty would be presented — fines of almost $2000 a day for each day he is in contempt — followed by third-party commentary. Context would be provided that would ask whether the priest’s actions were representative of the views of the Catholic Church and his reasons and motivation would be spelled out. If space was available, the article would close with statements about immigration issues in France.
How have the French papers responded?
Working from left to right: the Communist daily L’Humanite, a newspaper not known for its subtlety, covered the story in a leader or news/analysis piece. It called for members of the French Communist Party (PCF) to stand in solidarity with Riffard. While he had rebuffed their earlier attempts at forming a common front with him in providing housing assistance for immigrants, the PCF now urged its members to come out in support of the priest.
Today we join the wave of protests denouncing judicial tyranny. We call for mass mobilization against the restriction by the courts of rights, freedoms and solidarity. We reject any criminalization of collective citizen action.
Aujourd’hui nous nous joignons au large mouvement de protestation devant cette insupportable convocation judiciaire quel que soit son prétexte. Nous en appelons à la mobilisation, dans un contexte de plus en plus restrictif pour les droits, les libertés et la solidarité. Nous refusons toute criminalisation de l’action collective et citoyenne.
The liberal daily Libération, which Theodore Dalrymple has characterized as a “leftist” newspaper “which generally approves of any government expenditure except on government’s two indisputable functions, the keeping of the peace and protection of a country from external enemies,” also backed Riffard.
It’s lede describes (Google translation here) him as a tiny hunchback who looks older than his 70 years, but who answered the prosecutor’s questions with calm and impressive ease.
Gérard Riffard est petit, menu, un peu bossu et paraît plus que ses presque 70 ans. Ce prêtre retraité a répondu, mercredi à Saint-Etienne (Loire), aux questions du juge et du procureur avec un calme et une assurance impressionnants.
It notes with approval his actions giving central prominence to an exchange between the President Judge of the court and Riffard.
[By providing housing] “you have created a vacuum sucking people into the bottomless pit that is illegal immigration,” the President said. “I do not see how my offering people a mattress to sleep on the floor in a common room can create a vacuum,” retorted Gerard Riffard, noting the number of asylum seekers in France remained stable at 45,000 per year.
« Vous créez un appel d’air en faveur du puits sans fond qu’est l’immigration clandestine », lance le président.« Je ne vois pas en quoi le fait de proposer à des gens de dormir par terre sur un matelas qu’ils doivent partager avec d’autres peut créer un appel d’air », rétorque Gérard Riffard, assurant que le nombre des demandeurs d’asile en France est stable à 45 000 par an.
But offered no comments in support of the prosecution or an explanation as to Riffard’s motivation.
Moving towards the political center, Le Figaro provided a wire service report from AFP that led with the news of the sentence, a fine of €12,000. It bridged the gap between illegal immigrants and asylum seekers by saying the priest was fined for placing the rectory at the disposal of people awaiting accommodation. « à la disposition de personnes en attente d’un hébergement » How’s that for being smooth!
Le Monde‘s viewpoint was summed up by its headline: Un prêtre retraité face à la justice pour avoir hébergé des clandestins. (A retired priest faces justice for harboring illegals).
The best story I’ve seen comes from the Catholic newspaper Le Croix. It reported the facts of the case, but led with the news that Fr. Riffard’s actions had the full support of his bishop.
And, from a journalistic point of view, it provided the necessary context that allowed this story to rise above the cliches of illegal alien and asylum seeker. Le Croix reported that the parish began providing shelter to minors and families with small children who had been referred to them by social workers. In 2012 the town changed its zoning laws to forbid sleeping rough inside churches and other public buildings. The parish continued to provide support to immigrants, leading to the police summons of Riffard.
Le Croix also provides the answer to the motivation question through a quote from Riffard’s superior, Archbishop Dominique Lebrun.
“What should a priest, a Christian do? Leave people to the insecurities of the streets or open his modest door to them? The Town Council says it cannot address all the misery in the world. Does that prohibit doing good? “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself … and I tell you, love your enemies”: these two sayings of Jesus are our supreme law that we offer to society, and by which we try to live.“
« Que doit faire un prêtre, un chrétien?: laisser des personnes à l’insécurité de la rue ou bien leur ouvrir sa modeste porte?? (…) Notre société dit qu’elle ne peut pas prendre en charge toute la misère du monde. Doit-elle, pour autant, interdire de faire du bien??”Tu aimeras ton prochain comme toi-même… et moi, je vous le dis, aimez vos ennemis’’?: ce sont deux paroles de JÉSUS qui constituent la loi suprême que nous proposons à la société, et que nous voulons essayer de vivre »
So what is my main point here? In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt wrote that Adolf Eichmann’s moral and intellectual world was built upon a foundation of cliches.
When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence
Does not the use of cliches as ideological shorthand involve the same modes of thinking? A banal acceptance of what others tell us to think rather than thinking for ourselves?