Anti-Semite, Nazi sympathiser, great novelist?

Louis-Ferdinand Céline's bitter legacy.

It's nearly fifty years since the death of one of France's greatest 20th century novelists: Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, more commonly known under his nom de plume, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. And yet there will be no officially sanctioned celebration for the author of Journey to the End of the Night and North. It has been decided by the Culture Minister, after strong protests from France's Jewish community, that Céline will not be commemorated in the official French cultural celebrations for 2011.

On Friday evening, the French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand stated:

After a period of sustained reflection ... I have decided not to include Céline in this year's national celebrations. This is in no sense to be taken as a disavowal of the Senior Committee's choices (who decide upon the list) but as an adjustment that I have made myself.

This was the end to a week of literary and political controversy. When it became clear last Wednesday that the committee were set to include Céline amongst the list of cultural luminaries to be honoured, the President of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Deported French Jews (FFDJF) , Serge Klarsfeld reacted immediately: "It would be an honourable act, if the Culture Minister were to remove Céline from the list immediately, as we have been requesting." He went on to comment that: "His (Céline's) authorial talent should not make us forget that this was a man who called for the murder of Jews under the occupation. If the Republic celebrates him, it will bring shame upon itself."

Henri Godard, one of France's leading Céline scholars, greeted Mitterand's announcement on Friday with dismay, saying that he felt "completely trapped by this about turn" and added sardonically "I thought that we had changed, that the ghosts had been laid to rest. The term of celebration is mistaken. This is not a question of a hagiography, or arranging a memorial, but about using this anniversary in order to look at Céline's writing, which is more and more widely read, afresh."

The central point of contention in this controversy is the existence of a number of violently anti-Semitic tracts that Céline wrote in the late 1930s, amongst which his notorious 1938 pamphlet School of Corpses is most well known. Serge Klarsfeld has claimed that it is impossible to square this explicit anti-Semitism with the words in the preface to the list of cultural figures to be celebrated, which state that this is "a list of individuals worthy of celebration: that is to say, those whose life, work, moral conduct and the values which they have represented are recognised today as having been remarkable."

The controversy demonstrates that France still struggles to reconcile itself with its legacy of prevalent cultural and political anti-Semitism prior to 1945. It remains haunted by events such as the appalling round up of some 13,000 French Jews at the Vélodrome d'Hiver in Paris in July 1942, as was demonstrated by the success of Roselyne Bosch's mediocre commerative film La Rafle (The Round Up) in France last year. Yet is the failure to recognise the work of one of France's greatest authors of the last century really going to help to heal these enduring historical wounds? Céline's reaction to the controversy would no doubt have been typically taciturn. He might have responded in those world-weary tones of Ferdinand, the protagonist of Journey to the End of the Night, and distainfully defered to his prefered retort of "chacun son genre" ("to each their own way".)

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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