Hot Take Culture in the Age of Social Media: Emmanuel Macron, Racism, and Civilization

Emmanuel Macron has just become one of the most powerful individuals in the world, at the age of 39 and more or less out of nowhere, and has five or more years of this power ahead of him. He doesn’t need me to defend him, and wouldn’t know if I did. If some folks on the internet call him a racist, so what? He is still one of the most powerful individuals in the world, orders of magnitude more than his critics by any measure. The recent attacks on Macron are bad not because they are bad for Macron but because they are bad for society. They are bad for discourse, they are bad for thought, and they are bad for human progress. I offer these attacks as an exemplar of a genre that will ultimately have more effect on my life, in the aggregate, than most of anything Emmanuel Macron will ever do.

The term “hot take” is inherently dismissive, but there is good reason to be dismissive. Instant reactions, and instant viral reactions, are necessarily missing the careful research, contemplation, and analysis that lead to sound conclusions. They are an inevitable outcome of the democratization of communications wrought by the internet, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle wrought by cable television. And they have highlighted what was surely always a human failing — we make judgements based on quick emotional reactions and then dig in. I am not excluding myself; but it is possible to persuade yourself of the error in your spontaneous emotional reaction with a careful application of reason after the fact. And to be very clear: the democratization of communications is not the problem. The twenty-four-hour news cycle is not the problem. We are the problem, humans as we have always been. And Macron’s critics are no worse than their ideological opposites, but they illustrate the problem exceptionally well.

The Post-Colonial, Anti-Racist faction in Western politics, situated mostly on the far-left, is always looking to call something “racist” if race is even remotely involved; and they generally feel it is. At the moment, Emmanuel Macron is a target. Of course, as a centrist who once worked in banking, he was always a target for the far-left. In my own observation, the pose of the far-left as primarily an opponent of the right is just a pose; the far-left is much more opposed to the center and the center-left, based on their distribution of energy. A good Marxist revels in the sharpening of the contradictions. First eliminate the center, and then it will be just us and them. But if the center is never eliminated, then you end up only fighting the center.

Philippe Kouhoun, an Ivorian reporter at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, asked Macron about the possibility of something like the Marshall Plan for Africa. Note that the Ivorian reporter said “Africa”; it wasn’t Macron’s framing, so the Africa is not a country! set cannot add “essentializing” to Macron’s crimes. Macron gave a rather-long response, unprepared of course, and of that two brief excerpts — one of them a single word — have circulated among the primed-for-outrage crowd on social media.

The Ur-source of the outrage appears to be a short, edited video clip from Politis, which, in French, describes Macron’s remarks thus:

“At the G20, asked about Africa, Emmanuel Macron goes off on the Africans’ “7 to 8 children.” A ‘civilizational’ problem.”

Joe Prince then provides a Twitter-friendly summary in English:

It should be remembered, though, that this was not a speech. This was Macron speaking extemporaneously. Alternet contributor Ben Norton, citing Prince and using his two facts nearly verbatim, calls Macron’s remarks “an extremely racist speech,” while also calling Macron a “neoliberal centrist” and “former investment banker” — two descriptions at least as central to the condemnation he feels Macron deserves. 

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Political scientist and Africanist Laura Seay cites Prince as well, and then, in a series of comments, discusses not what Macron said but what he didn’t say and should have said instead. She seems to believe that “civilizational” (French civilisationnel) is a word that can no longer be used without implication of France’s colonial “mission civilisatrice,” or “civilizing mission.” (Personally I feel that if “nationalism” and “socialism” both survived the National Socialists, then “civilizational” should be safe forever.) Eliza Anyangwe in the Guardian focuses on the same two remarks and cites Seay heavily, but adds nothing of her own to the present case, returning rather to supposed signs in the past, as when Macron notably condemned colonialism as a crime against humanity but then issued a non-apology in which he said he was sorry for hurting certain people’s feelings, as politicians do. Anyangwe apparently sees this as evidence of outright love of colonialism. Christian Krug in Politico Europe rounds up a few more reactions, including journalist Shafik Mandhai summarizing Macron’s views as “Africa is dumb & pops out too many babies.” There were other responses, of course, too many to count; a few defended Macron, but most of those I saw were negative.

Interestingly, Macron’s remarks seem to have become a flap first in English; those who heard the response in the original as part of Macron’s press answer and not as a translation of Politis’ tweet of a spliced video excerpt didn’t leap to charges of racism. But maybe all Francophones are racist.

And for most of those complaining, you will look in vain for any mention of something in Macron’s comments beyond Politis’ two soundbites. A textual historian, such as a scholar analyzing the Bible, would conclude, in the absence of other information, that these authors are working from a common source. It would be disappointing that they had not looked for Macron’s full remarks, but that is perhaps a more generous assumption than believing they read his full remarks and didn’t understand them. Anyangwe does mention his full remarks but can’t produce anything else offensive.

One of the two repeated elements should be easily dispensed with. Macron says in full:

“It’s by an approach of a rigorous governance, of the struggle against corruption, of a struggle for good governance, of a successful demographic transition (when countries today still have seven to eight children per woman); you can decide to spend billions of euros, you won’t stabilize anything.”

The “seven to eight children” was simply an accurate reference to the fertility rate; he is citing the higher end of the very high rate throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, which does indeed have the highest fertility rates in the world. Fertility rate is the number of children born per woman, averaged over a given population or spatial unit (country, most often); it is expressed as a ratio per woman for simplicity, accuracy, and measurability. Any social scientist (Seay) should have seen the number and immediately recognized what it was. And Macron explicitly refers to demographic transition, which is a regular historical process where society, over many millennia, transitions from high birth rate and high death rate to low birth rate and low death rate. Fertility rates fall when a society becomes more prosperous, health improves, and people become more economically confident and secure, and better educated, particularly women. A society with a high fertility rate is thus one in which none of these connected changes has fully occurred. Macron is using fertility rate as an indicator of the problem. He most certainly does not say that having babies causes the problem.

I don’t know for certain what Macron meant by “civilisationnel” — and I’ll wager most people upset about this don’t know, either. But clearly context is entirely missing from this “quote.” What he said was:

“There have been several (aid) packages that have been given. Well, you know, we have, either us or in our teams, world champions in putting together billions. On top of that, for decades Marshall Plans for Africa have been promised to you, and even agreed on and enacted. So, if it was that simple, you’d have seen it already. The Marshall Plan, it was a plan for material reconstruction in countries which had their equilibriums, their borders, and their stability. The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, complex democratic transitions, the demographic transition which is, I recalled this morning, one of the main challenges of Africa …”

Macron was saying that the original Marshall Plan was different because it was just about rebuilding infrastructure and other superficial things, not requiring a significant social transformation. It’s hard to argue, in context, that he’s saying Africa can’t be helped because it is “uncivilized,” or has a defective civilization, or whatever racist thing he’s being charged with. In context, one possibility is that he is just saying the challenge is massive or profound, since he immediately begins to list the things that need improvement, that a mere Marshall Plan might not be adequate for. “Civilisationnel” is then arguably a reference to the scale of the problem. And “civilisationnel” has uses for culture and even development that are not common with the English “civilizational.” Context provides the key: Macron makes numerous references to the process of civilizational development. He brings up demographic transition prominently, twice, and he mentions political instability and a lack of democracy. 

The far-left knows about some recent history; it’s very good on the negative aspects of colonialism, for example. But Macron himself called colonialism a crime against humanity. And the far-left seems unaware of deeper history. “Civilization” is a word not just for the era of “mission civilisatrice.” The exclusionary use of “civilization” for “high culture” is a later and less important development. In world history, “civilization” has meant the process, or an instance, of living in cities (Latin civ-). Hunter-gatherers discovered the domestication of plants, settled permanently to practice agriculture, and the complexity of their settlements increased gradually until they became what we recognize as cities. The complexity of their societies grew as well, with ever-increasing division of labor. This process isn’t necessarily smooth or inexorable, but it tends in one direction. Historians may debate the causes, but the general pattern is fairly clear. Demographic transition is part of that. Hunter-gatherers have high birth rates and high death rates. Upon developing agriculture and then civilization, the death rate falls, the birth rate remains high, and there is a period of natural increase, when the population grows. Eventually the birth rate will fall, too, but only very late in development.

Economically, the most developed societies tend to have high economic activity per capita, of course; but that measure alone is not sufficient, since it includes resource-rich societies like Qatar. The most developed economies are diversified, not dependent on one or a few major sources of income. The United States is resource-rich as well, but as the US has a diversified economy, these resources are comparatively insignificant in its economic output. Politically, the most economically-developed societies tend to be stable, democratic, and liberal. This is presumably not an accident. When a society diversifies, a recognizably-modern middle class grows, and as that middle class becomes more comfortable and confident in its economic status, it becomes willing to demand political change — and it has the economic influence over the state to secure that change. South Korea and Taiwan are recent examples of this. And of course, as mentioned, the fertility rate falls in late development.

Emmanuel Macron’s complete response is filled with facts drawn from this narrative of civilizational development. The connections are unmistakable. His understanding of history is far from perfect; it is frankly ludicrous, for example, to speak of World War II-era Europe as a place of equilibriums, fixed borders, and stability. So he can certainly be critiqued fairly on the details behind his remarks. As for the sentiment, I’d entertain arguments that “civilisationnel” is racist in Macron’s remarks if I hadn’t also seen the same number of arguments that an accurate reference to the fertility rate is racist. For the most part, this juggernaut of internet condemnation was powered by people who didn’t hear his remarks, don’t speak French, and didn’t get an obvious reference to the facts of development in a statement about developmentSiddhartha Mitter, who at points does comment on French usage, uses a translation in which the French “enveloppe” (used by both Kouhoun and Macron) is rendered “envelope,” as though Kouhoun were asking about paper envelopes filled with cash. In context, it is clearly short for “enveloppe d’aide” — “aid package.” My idiomatic French is not good enough to know that; but I did have enough sense to ask if “envelope” could possibly be the right meaning, and to look around on the internet until I found something that made more sense.

The new culture of viral outrage has taken aim at more sympathetic victims than the president of France. That is not the point. This outrage event was triggered by a high-profile speaker in a high-profile setting where plenty of information was available to those who cared to find it. Imagine how much worse it is, how much less justified our outrage, when information is scarcer, and when there are fewer paid reporters on hand to dig it up.

Anglophone internet users can condemn Macron as a racist every day for a year, and he will still be the president of France. But racism as a charge will be less powerful and less useful when real racism is at hand. And this is just an example. The noise of all of our viral outrage will make it harder to hear the temperate responses that should be guiding our actions. There is an inflationary pressure on our discourse, to make it harsher and louder and hotter.

If that sounds like a certain other president, it is not a coincidence. In contrast to some others in the rationalist center-left, I do not believe that the ugliness of Trump is a reaction to the excesses of political correctness and social justice culture. If anything, they both come from the same place. Democratizing our discourse, freeing us from our media masters — editors and producers and anchors who narrowed our information for easy consumption — has been a good thing overall. But as with its political analogue, when we are all given a vote, we must learn to use it responsibly. We cannot be guided by our rashest reactions if we want to live in a reasonable, intelligible world. We must pause, reflect, doubt, gather more information, consider it carefully, come to a rational conclusion, and offer that conclusion only when we have reason to believe it will be helpful. No society has been where we are, and we do not know how the normal course of development proceeds from here. But we’ll have to do better than this.

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Ford is a generalist and an analyst of world affairs. He has a PhD in geography (world culture and politics) from UCLA. On Twitter: @ot_ford. Elsewhere: Essays and commentaries

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