Atypical America

Americans are quarreling right now for reasons incomprehensible to Europeans. Take the law just adopted in North Carolina. It requires people moved by natural needs to use a bathroom that corresponds to their sex as shown on their birth certificates. Is this not bizarre? The real, unavowed goal is to prohibit “transgender” persons from choosing the public restroom appropriate to the sex they have chosen rather than the one they inherited. One cannot imagine a national or local assembly in France taking up such a matter. But in the United States, North Carolina’s decision has ignited a controversy that has spread throughout the nation. This is because, behind the anecdotal quality of a decision that in fact concerns very few people, there is hidden something unspoken that everyone is aware of: North Carolina is here reacting indirectly against the confusion of “genders” and particularly against homosexual marriage. The refusal to accept that there is such a thing as transsexuality, that one can freely choose his or her sex and, and finally that one can thus go against God’s judgment – this is what explains the virulence of the debate.

It must be remembered that half of Americans do not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution and hold that the Biblical account of Creation must be understood literally. Most schools teach the two hypotheses side by side, without taking sides. Then there are the equally vehement supporters of transgender rights, who participate in a tradition that is no less American: the defense of minorities, however small they may be. Now that homosexual marriage is a matter settled by the Supreme Court and not be the people’s elected representatives, transgenderism constitutes a new battle for liberation. Bathrooms for the transgendered, homosexual marriage, and obviously the endless fight surrounding abortion must be understood in terms of this profound fissure between religious conservatism, for the most part Republican, to a degree not seen in France, and the progressives, almost all “liberal” Democrats, who see every social debate as a domestic war for civil rights. The transgendered, following the homosexuals, are today’s African-Americans. In the end, the transgendered will be accepted, since all minorities triumph in the end, once their able attorneys identify their claims with those of Civil Rights. But once they have been accepted, along with the right to their bathrooms, a new minority will certainly rise up in order to mobilize the two camps. Why this obsession with minority rights? It is surely because America is haunted by the memory of segregation.  Especially on the left, one lives in terror of some new segregation, however infinitesimal it may be, that is then quickly turned into a great cause. These liberal Progressives can be so excessive that they provoke the opposite excess: for example, Donald Trump’s declared racism against Mexicans and Muslims, which no one in Europe, not even in the parties of the extreme right, would dare proclaim with such good conscience.

“The right to say anything, without either reserve or censorship”

Here is a paradox: These verbal and legal battles have little real influence on American society, which is always becoming more diverse, multi-colored, and blended. This can be seen in census data and in all the questionnaires that American citizens are constantly asked to fill out for all kinds of official procedures. You are asked, though not required, to check a box corresponding to your ethnicity: White, Black, Indian, Asian, Polynesian… there are now about thirty options, and more are added each year; those of mixed origin can check more than one box. This would be unthinkable in Europe! On that side of the Atlantic, political language is on the whole respectful of differences, but even beyond this, it ignores them as if they didn’t exist. In reality, however, in actual society, social and racial segregation is severe, as can be seen everywhere in the high unemployment rates of young people of Arab origin.

The segregationist past explains this American difference, but another factor is the American Founding. Europeans find it hard to understand the sacred and inalterable character of the Constitution, as well as the power of the States and the rule of judges: none of these three bases of the American nation can be found in Europe. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments, is as important as the Constitution itself), affords the right to say anything, without either reserve or censorship; since it is forbidden to forbid, opposites live side by side and neutralize each other. At the other extreme, in Europe we have French and Belgian secularism, a true national religion that is beyond discussion and even repressive (as in the prohibition of the Islamic veil, for example), which recognizes only equal citizens who are not in fact equal. This is why American society has democratic ways and manners, while Europe is Republican but not always tolerant.


Op-ed published in the May 206 issue of France-Amérique.