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Archive for May, 2011

Wasting one’s time


The excellent Aaron David Miller tells us, not for the first time, why Obama is wasting his time trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s insoluble. Even I could have told him that.

Though the conflict is insoluble I will soon lay out my own detailed peace plan. Not that it will make a whit of difference to anyone. But if Obama can’t or won’t give us a plan, then I’ll do it for him. Stay tuned.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

That’s the title of Roger Cohen’s column in today’s NY Times, which has put me in a bad mood. One of the unfortunate fallouts of the DSK affair is that it has given the umpteenth life to a number of stupid clichés and stereotypes that the French and Americans have about one another (like the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, where Jason just won’t die). All sorts of rubbish is being recounted in France these days about America and vice-versa. Definitely vice-versa. Cohen was the NYT’s Paris correspondent in the mid-late ’90s, so presumably knows this country well enough—though I was so unimpressed with his reporting and commentary at the time that I would pronounce his name à la française minus the h and e. But then he got better—after leaving France—notably on the Middle East (even though I don’t always share his take). We’ve even had a few friendly email exchanges (and I can proudly say that at my instigation Cohen did a number on Dominque de Villepin in the NYT in late ’05).

But now he’s back to his bad old ways. In today’s column he focuses on the supposed French penchant for conspiracy theorizing and that has come to the fore in the DSK affair. To demonstrate this penchant Cohen kicks off the column with the anecdote of the French radio interviewer asking him for “proof” of Osama Bin Laden’s death and then offers this one

I was put in mind of an unpleasant Paris dinner when a France Télécom manager with international experience began to expound on the theory — more than plausible to his mind — that Jews had not turned up to work at the twin towers on 9/11 because Israel and the Mossad were behind the planes-turned-missiles that turned lower Manhattan into an inferno.

The apparent French fondness for complotisme, we learn, has something to do with the “French deference to power” (which is indeed the case, as is the French defiance of power). In this vein, Cohen opines that “[t]he freer a society the less inclined it is to conspiracy theories, while the greater its culture of dependency the more it will tend to see hidden hands at work everywhere.” As the French tend to see hidden hands at work—that’s the point of his column—we are therefore to understand that France may not in fact be such a free society, or is in any case less free than America (and presumably the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world).

Okay, let’s try to unpack this. First, the suggestion that French society might be less free than American: unless one defines freedom in a libertarian sense, of freedom and centralized welfare states (“big government” in American parlance) being inversely correlated—a notion I categorically reject—, no serious person and/or one who knows both countries would make this assertion. When it comes to civil liberties, the rule of law, and the general functioning of democracy, I am quite sure that not even Cohen would argue that France is less free than America. In some respects, it might even be more so. American First Amendment liberties are defended with equal vigor in France (France admittedly does not have a Second Amendment, but that’s not a liberty in my book; voilà une triste exception américaine).

On his radio interviewer, there are many fools in the French media and who ask inane, ill-informed questions of interviewees. Just as there are many in the American media (I have my favorite anecdotes on this, si vous voulez). As for his France Télécom manager friend, I wonder if the latter wasn’t speaking in the second degré—ironically, tongue-in-cheek—and Cohen just didn’t pick up on it. If not, the manager was definitely an outlier in his socio-economic class. Crackpot 9/11 conspiracy theories had currency only on the extremes of the political spectrum and in certain ethno-confessional groups. À propos, Thierry Meyssan’s infamous best-seller was universally ridiculed in the media and polite society. The mainstream indignation against Meyssan’s screed was such that two well-known journalists wrote a book refuting it point by point (and which was put out by a major left-leaning publishing house to boot) (the effort was laudable but they were wasting their time in my mind, as persons given over to such conspiracy theorizing are not going be swayed by rational argumentation and/or won’t ever come across or bother reading such “mainstream” books).

As for the reasons Meyssan’s book was a best-seller in France, I had a theory on this: in addition to the usual conspiracy theory aficionados, I am quite sure that the book sold like hotcakes in France’s sizable North African/Muslim communities. I have no data to back this up and saw not a single article suggesting a link, but I know these communities very well—intimately well: as I have been studying them since the 1980s and they include many of my friends, in-laws, and associates here—, so I know of what I speak. They’re France’s Arabs (and Berbers): and as we know—sorry for being un-PC here but I am absolutely serious—Arabs (and Berbers) are given over to conspiracy theorizing in huge numbers—in their large majority—and which includes otherwise brilliant holders of Ph.D.s (I’ve heard the craziest conspiracy theories from Maghrebi academic friends and for decades, that one would never get from their European or North American counterparts; voilà the subject of a future blog post).

On the conspiracy theorizing in regard to the DSK affair, this was the initial reflex of many Frenchmen who were in a state of shock—or in a state of cognitive dissonance—over his arrest and alleged crime. The phenomenon—of the conspiracy theories—has been analyzed and debated over the past two weeks. And now two weeks later, a lot of it has abated. On France 2’s ‘Mots croisés‘ last night, which was entirely given over to DSK—what else?—, there was no talk of conspiracies or plots. The focus was on sexual harassment, the proper role of the media in covering the private lives of politicians, when the private becomes public, and other such questions de société. When the dust settles on this, the percentage of Frenchmen who will cling to DSK conspiracy theories will no doubt be roughly equal to those Americans who believe in similar crazy theories (e.g. Obama “birthers”).

On DSK and his champions in the French media—which has put certain American commentators in a state—if one were conspiracy theory-minded there is in fact an interesting pattern. Take a close look at the Gang of Six champions of Mr. Strauss-Kahn (most of whom have been laying low of late, BTW, or apologizing profusely for conneries they uttered during the first days of the affair): Bernard-Henri Lévy, Robert Badinter, Jack Lang, Jean-François Kahn, Jean Daniel ( Bensaïd), and Ivan Levaï (one may also add Alain Finkielkraut, though he’s been better on DSK than he was on Roman Polanski). Notice the pattern, Mr. Cohen? Something they all have in common? Hint: all “members of a tribe” defending one of their own? (wink, wink) ;-)

I’m being facetious here, bien entendu. If there were emoticons for irony or eye-rolling, I’d put them in. But what is noteworthy is that absolutely no one in France—no one mainstream, in any case—has gone down this road. And I have heard or overheard nothing on it. If one is into conspiracy theories, this is the oldest in the book. And with a miserable recent history in France. There have no doubt been DSK conspiracy theories in the darker precincts of the Internet—places I don’t go, except by accident—that take up this theme, but no one else has. To conclude: the French are not into conspiracy theories any more than are Americans or any other people of an advanced, mature democracy. I repeat: they are not. Period.

UPDATE: Art Goldhammer at French Politics is also peeved at Cohen and his column.

2nd UPDATE: Maureen Dowd, in Paris, sums up the current climate.

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L’excellent site d’infos Rue89 a un débat sur la vie privée des puissants et si la presse doit en parler, entre Patrick Jarreau (Le Monde) et Elaine Sciolino (New York Times). Je suis d’accord avec Sciolino sur les Mitterrand (François et Frédéric), et avec Jarreau sur Clinton-Lewinsky. Sur DSK, les deux sont bons.

MISE À JOUR: “Un avant et un après DSK” : entretien avec Valérie Toranian, directrice de la rédaction du magazine Elle.

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Here’s an excellent piece from last December by the military historian Martin van Creveld, on “why Israel doesn’t need the West Bank to be secure.”

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J’ai trouvé intéressante cette tribune dans Le Monde, “Un capitalisme du XIXe siècle pour aider les révoltes arabes”, par Edmund Phelps (Prix Nobel d’économie 2006). Cela mérite débat.

Here’s the article in English: “For a Successful Arab Revolution.”

 


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Voici une belle réflexion par l’historien Abdelhamid Larguèche, sur Fadia Hamdi, l’agent municipal à Sidi Bouzid qui n’a jamais giflé Mohamed Bouazizi…

(h/t Raja Bouziri)

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On Paul Berman

Ça y est, we have the first political casualty of l’aprés DSK. No big loss for the French political class. I viewed Georges Tron with a jaundiced eye since I first heard about him, as I do with anyone in Dominique de Villepin’s inner circle (even formerly in that circle, like Tron; I am not a fan of Villepin, to put it mildly).  It looks like France is indeed witnessing its “Anita Hill moment.” Tant mieux. Not a moment too soon.

In case anyone didn’t see it, the NY Times had a good discussion on Friday on the DSK affair, with six defense lawyers and legal analysts weighing in. All the contributions are worth reading.

One article not worth reading is Paul Berman’s in TNR the other day, entitled “DSK and the Coming Collapse of U.S.-French Relations” on TNR’s web site. A total crock of bulldust. In the article we learn, among other things, that “skeptical [French] populations will cock an ear to Strauss-Kahn’s champions in the French press. The champions will turn out to be some of the most talented writers alive”… What on earth is Berman talking about?! Apart from maybe BHL, who in the French press is “championing” DSK right now? And “some of the most talented writers alive”? Oh Jesus, GMAB! Berman then gives us a quick tour of the roots of French anti-Americanism—which has become some kind of immutable “cultural tradition”—, taking us back to the 1830s and the Andrew Jackson administration… WTF does this have to do with anything?! What essentialist drivel. He concludes with this doozy: “The ocean-liner of American justice and the ice floes of French conspiracy theories are already bobbing in one another’s direction, and nothing is to be done about it, and, oh dear, has anyone figured out what to do next, post-collision?”

Oh dear is right. Has anyone told Mr. Berman that he is a complete idiot has a faulty understanding of France and contemporary French politics? I sort of liked Berman in the ’90s, after reading his book on the 1968 generation and essay on Joschka Fischer (though my friend Adam Shatz, for whom I have the utmost esteem—intellectually and otherwise—, gave the ’68 book a less-than-stellar review). Since then, it’s been all downhill for Berman. There was, of course, the Iraq war and his liberal hawkism—to which I was not totally hostile, I should say; I could have gone along with a campaign of regime change in Iraq if I’d been sure it wouldn’t involve dropping bombs, killing lots of people, generating millions of refugees, costing a trillion dollars, wreaking general havoc and destruction, shattering lives, etc, etc. But I was quite certain in early ’03 that all this was going to happen. Berman: nah. Then there’s his obsessive campaign against the innocuous, overrated Tariq Ramadan—overrated both as an intellect and in terms of his putative influence—and which he extended to Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who had the temerity to critique, ever so mildly, the equally overrated—intellectually and in most other respects—Aayan Hirsi Ali, provoking a silly guéguerre that only intellectuals who take themselves way too seriously can engage in. The fact is, Berman lacks the competence to be discoursing on Islam, Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, Ba’athism, and the like (likewise with Timothy Garton Ash, BTW, who has otherwise been so brilliant when writing about eastern and central Europe, but rather less brilliant when punditizing on Muslims and Islam). Intellectuals and other talking heads should stick to subjects they know well, and avoid pontificating on those they know less well. In Berman’s case, this clearly includes France.

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