French philosopher and Holocaust expert Alain Finkielkraut has been in a bit of hot water because of an interview he gave to Ha’aretz last month. He said that the riots in France were “an ethno-religious revolt,” which is to say identity-driven and anti-semitic. Moreover, he has been very critical of how race has been read into the rioting. In spite of the existence of discrimination and racism in France, the acts themselves must not be tolerated. Ever since, he has been hounded by the French press, and he has given one or two apologies that have been poorly received.

I was struck, however, by one of his statements:

When an Arab torches a school, it’s rebellion. When a white guy does it, it’s fascism. I’m `color blind.’ Evil is evil, no matter what color it is. And this evil, for the Jew that I am, is completely intolerable.

To some degree he is right: we should be cautious in interpreting how race plays into acts of political violence, and the obvious equation of whiteness and fascism (read racist, reactionary, or anti-democratic) need not always apply.

But for the life of me, I can’t think of an instance in which ‘torching a school’ was not ‘fascist’ in one way or other, regardless of race. Violence against political actors and institutions can have various meanings. Peasants can burn down the lord’s manor to destroy the documents that enserf them. The bureaucrat sent from the capital can be as much an authoritarian as a representative of progress and state-building. The tax collector can represent debt and obligation.

The schoolmaster, however, is a classic archetype of progress and empowerment — the perfect local target of the monarchists, authoritarians and isolationists who want hierarchy and order, not liberation. Sometimes the schools are part of an overall rebellion as an institution of colonial rule, but they are not singled out among those institutions.

Am I missing something? Can one ‘torch a school’ and not be a fascist?

BTW, Le Point recently did a big write up on Finkielkraut.