SANDY HOOK, N.J.—I need some French gendarmes in riot gear out here at Gunnison Beach.
Can we borrow some?
It’s hard to find any American police officers who will walk up to sunbathing women and make aggressive comments about their body—and for good reason. They’re gonna get a verbal smackdown, not just from the lady in question, but from any female within earshot.
Oh, sure, we’ve got the Thong Police in Myrtle Beach, where the delicate souls on the city council have outlawed any garment that makes more than 51 percent of the bewtock visible. But those cops are fresh-faced Boy Scouts in Bermuda shorts on three-wheelers who mostly just have to carry plenty of plastic wrist restraints, since the thong-wearing beach babes of South Carolina, some of them outweighing the cop by a hundred pounds, are almost always guaranteed to put up a fight.
“You need to cover that up!” the cops yell from their all-terrain vehicles.
“What are you, the Bikini Police?” comes the retort.
“Why, yes,” they have to say. “Yes, we are.”
“That’s ridiculous!”—“ridiculous” being a word police officers don’t like to hear when they’re surrounded by agitated crowds going, “Hey, this is cool, get out your cell phone camera, let’s see what he does next.”
And he usually gives one more warning.
“You have to cover up or go to jail.”
And they refuse. The idea is just too bizarre for any Southern gal to make the correct decision in the brief amount of time they have to understand that (a) a cop has accosted them, (b) he’s looking at their thong bikini, (c) there’s a law here about thong bikinis, (d) he’s actually going to enforce the law, (e) he has no sense of humor, and (f) he used the word “jail.”
“There are at least thirty municipalities in France that have outlawed the burkini—those things have to be piling up in evidence lockers.”
I mean, the brain of a woman who spent 45 minutes finding that thong at Target can’t process the complexity of the situation.
So they say “Screw you”—and actually end up in jail.
That’s why I think we need some officers from the Côte d’Azur to strap on their duty pistols and get over here and do some on-site training—because I’m enormously impressed by what I’ve seen this past week. I was especially dazzled by the photo of the four officers in bulletproof tactical vests who surrounded the woman on a Nice beach and stood there, transfixed, while forcing her to remove her burkini. They had riot batons. They had radios. They had sidearms. And most impressive, there were four of them. Overwhelming force combined with the element of surprise—there would be no backtalk from this woman.
But the place I want the French burkini SWAT officers to start is here at Gunnison, the only nude beach in New Jersey, where as many as 5,000 buck-nekkid citizens can be seen on a weekend, where there are no fences, where it’s not always clear where the regular beach ends and the nekkid beach begins, and so…holy whangdoodle, I just saw that and now I can’t unsee it!
Let’s go totalitarian on this place and make people go down to wherever Hillary Clinton shops and buy some soccer-mom muumuus. Better yet, there are at least thirty municipalities in France that have outlawed the burkini—those things have to be piling up in evidence lockers. Send ’em over here so we can cage some cellulite because, as much as I like the idea of a nude beach, the reality makes you wonder how it’s possible for human beings to procreate in the first place. The only reason Jersey has this one nude beach is that it’s on federal land, part of the old Fort Hancock, which is best known as an abandoned gunnery range—“Is that a particularly large seashell or World War I shrapnel?”—and for being one of the last breeding grounds of the piping plover. The piping plover is a sparrow-size shorebird with orange legs and a black band across its forehead, like a midget ninja dungeon master. They can’t really figure out why it’s so hard for the piping plover to breed, but I think it’s because the males take one look at Gunnison Beach and go, “Okay, sorry, babe, no sex this week. We’ll do eggs next year.”
The burkini, which was invented in 2004 by a Lebanese-Australian woman named Aheda Zanetti so that women could go into the water without violating Muslim laws, retails for anywhere from $45 to $110, depending on what features you want on it, and has to be purchased at a specialty store or, more likely, ordered by mail, so the women who show up in full, flowing burkini regalia have gone to quite a bit of trouble to annoy the Provençaux. The idea of swimming in a dress is actually nothing new—up until 1880 that’s what all women wore at the beach, and those old ones were made of wool or flannel, which had to be absolutely no fun for synchronized swimmers.
But, of course, the French feel like they know what they’re talking about because they invented the bikini shortly after World War II and then were mostly responsible for its gradual miniaturization to the point that it outrages the denizens of coastal Carolina while becoming cheaper and lighter as the top half disappears entirely. Hence you end up with the Riviera tradition of unloosed bazoomas, which is a good idea if your chaise longue happens to be positioned next to a Romanian prostitute recently purchased by a Russian oligarch, because when she gets back from using his American Express platinum card at the Balenciaga boutique, she’s likely to oil herself up for an hour and then slither around on a Versace towel like a languid cheetah. Unfortunately, very few of us frequent the roped-off complimentary–hors d’oeuvres promenade of the Hotel Negresco, so we end up on Plage Peasant, accessible by bus twice a day from the famous Hôtel de Victime d’un Crime, which we found on Expedia. And let me just say: Gazonga quality declines in direct proportion to the distance of the beach from the Monte Carlo casino. Topless sunbathing is, in general, not a good idea for anyone who hasn’t worked as a fit model in the Garment District or danced at the Cheetah Lounge in Atlanta.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me make it clear that I’m in favor of all forms of beach attire, including the absence of beach attire, even in the instances when full frontal can cause permanent brain damage. Which brings me to the topic at hand:
Why are the French so pissed off about the burkini?
I mean, the French are sort of permanently pissed off about a lot of things, but this particular issue has been festering at least since 2004, when they banned “religious apparel and displays” from public schools. That law was directed at the hijab, but in order to be fair, they had to discriminate against every religion, and so it also includes the Sikh turban, Christian crosses (all those schoolgirls who shop at Pandora must have been crushed), Stars of David, and the kippah, or skullcap, that some Jews pretty much have to wear all the time in order to be observant.
I don’t know what the French police would end up doing if they had to deal with high schools in the Deep South where kids routinely dress up in T-shirts with slogans like “Jesus Loves Y’all,” “Ask Me About Jesus,” and “JESUS” with the middle “S” formed into the Superman logo. I guess they would have to fill up the juvenile detention halls with children who just refuse to secularize.
Because that’s the key word here: secular.
The secular, in France, is the sacred. It’s been that way since 1905, when they passed their law separating church and state. As Article 1 of the French constitution states, La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.
France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social republic. Laïque being the word for secular.
No big deal, right?
Same thing we have, right?
Not really. The first thing that happened after passage of the law was that all religious buildings in France became the property of city councils. I don’t know what would happen here if the Wildwood Free Will Pentecostal Church became the property of the Tuscaloosa City Council, but I don’t wanna find out. Not to mention the place in Houston where Joel Osteen preaches about how God wants you to be rich—that thing used to be a basketball arena!
For the past century the French have been building up their concept of laïcité, refining it, developing this idea that what the 1905 law really means is that religious people—priests, mullahs, rabbis—can’t participate in public life at all. Religion is for private matters. And if you try to bring that stuff into the public square, we’re gonna kick you out.
The First Amendment in America is the polar opposite of that. Everybody can use the public square, including priests, mullahs, rabbis, and even Hazel Motes, the crazy, wild-eyed preacher in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.
In other words, France developed a concept of “too religious.” You’re being too religious. You’re not secular. This is why they passed the 2011 law banning any Muslim garment that hides the face. This is why they’re now banning the burkini. I was surprised that so many Frenchmen got so outraged when a Muslim fanatic slit the throat of a French Catholic priest—because the nation historically has equal contempt for both religions. In fact, the original anti-Catholic crusaders didn’t stop at the throat.
At any rate, I think most Americans know that a burkini ban in America would be impossible, not because there wouldn’t be catty women making fun of the burkini-clad sunbathers—like the ones on the French beach who told the second-generation French Muslim woman to “go back where you came from”—but that it just strikes people as wrong. It strikes fundamentalist Christians as wrong, and it strikes atheists as wrong.
There are people in the United States who want us to be more like France—they want us to start banning any religious influence from anything remotely related to government—and they always cite Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, which first used the words “wall of separation between Church & State.” What they forget is that Jefferson was saying this in order to reassure the Baptists that they would have a place in the public arena just like everyone else, and that the state would never interfere with their traditions. He said something similar two years later after he bought the Louisiana territories from Napoleon and the Ursuline nuns in New Orleans became panicked that all their property would be taken away by a mostly Protestant country, or that they would be forced to alter their forms of worship.
“Your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules,” Jefferson wrote to them, “without interference from the civil authority…. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.”
In 1804 Catholic traditions in America were very alien. There were no Catholics in America in any numbers until the 1840s, when the Irish and Germans started arriving. Convents were thought of as a bizarre tradition held over from ancient times. The pope was extremely unpopular. The dress of Catholic women was considered odd as well—and that included the head coverings. It’s the same kind of weirdness we feel today when we see the hijab, or the burka, or the burkini. The French can’t deal with that. It’s not secular.
But I have an American message for the burkini-clad sunbathers, who must be feeling pretty lonely right now.
We salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.