Manufacturing Dissent

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After returning from Paris, where I spent the weekend of November 4-6, I was frequently asked about the suburban “riots” there. In truth, I knew nothing more than Americans saw on CNN and Sky (a British television channel). Both tended to show the same intense, burning footage again and again, claiming that the vivid sample illustrated a larger problem. From my own travels that weekend around Paris proper I could see that life went on undisturbed. This time, unlike in 1968, students did not create sympathy protests – not even around the Sorbonne, where I was on Saturday night. An American friend, a filmmaking student resident in Paris for several years, told me that he went to film the suburban riots on Saturday night. However, taking public transportation and then walking only on foot, he couldn’t find them. His conclusion was that he needed a car to find violence that occurred, not in whole neighborhoods, but on individual streets, while neighboring blocks were undisturbed.

By the end of the weekend the CNN and Sky television reporters discovered that similar riots, epitomized by the burning of cars, had broken out elsewhere, not only in France but in other parts of Europe, all of them supposedly reflecting similar social discontent among immigrants and their children. What the eager commentators apparently missed was a truth learned in America in 1967 – that whenever protests in distant places take the same form (this time car-burnings), the protesters are learning their strategies not from some central revolutionary agency but simply by watching television.

My hunch, which seems not to have occurred to the press, is that the Paris suburban riots were negligible until they were discovered by the media, which magnified events as they always do, creating out of their own need to entice an audi-

The Paris riots were negligible until they were discovered by the media, which magnified events by showing the same intense, burning footage again and again.

 

ence a greater story than there was, and thus the preconditions for greater problems that might in turn generate yet more vivid footage. Reporters with images on portable screens could then ask politicians to address a problem they had previously ignored.

When I was young, skeptics advised against believing “everything you read in the newspapers.” To update the advice, consider that no one should believe every interpretation of televised images.

We hear the familiar litany about the alienation of immigrants’ children and widespread unemployment among teenagers, reporters lamenting the “lack of jobs.” The economic truth in modern societies, no less true in France than in the United States, is that a principal cause of unemployment among minority teenagers is a high minimum wage. Thomas. Sowell has documented this for American blacks. Limited by minimum-wage laws, most employers will hire familiar people over unfamiliar and thus whites over blacks, locals over immigrants, and native French over Muslim teens, to no one’s surprise. Small proprietors who can’t afford to pay minimum wages will do low-level work themselves.

Nor it is surprising that teenagers unable to find work often get involved in underworld activities, which I heard French politicians (speaking English before the cameras) blame for the riots. A further exacerbating factor in teenage unemployment, more important in Europe than here, is laws making it difficult to terminate someone who is securely employed. These laws make most employers reluctant to hire anyone whom they might later feel was a mistake. The laws create anxieties comparable to those experienced in selecting a wife, rather than a lover. While the state can respond to the demand to “do something,” the best path is not that commonly advocated.

The familiar complaint against a lower wage is that “no one can live on it,” which is true. What is also true is that most teenagers are still living with their families, so that what a high minimum wage denies them is not just the advantages of job experience but their contributions to family finances.

I offered these observations to the op-ed department of the New York Times, which has published me in several Sunday sections for over four decades. Perhaps because my remarks implicated the press in social mischief, in the wake of its dissembling over Judith Miller’s misreporting, there was no reply.

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