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Archive for January, 2012

John Stoehr, editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale, has a tribune on how Mitt Romney may possibly lead the GOP out of its loony right wilderness and back to something approaching “moderation.” He thus begins

Much has been said about the Southernisation of the Republican Party, but little about the way Mitt Romney, if he secured the Grand Old Party’s presidential nomination, has a chance to wrest control from the party’s fringe and restore it to political moderation. Sure, the GOP is justly viewed as the party of big business, and one of the richest men ever to run for the White House won’t change that. But of all the primary candidates, none is more likely to put the brakes on the troubling trend of Southernisation.

Shoehr, who’s a liberal, is perfectly happy to see the GOP crack up. He’s just calling it the way he sees it. I don’t know if he’s right but I hope he is, not that I would want to see Romney win—God forbid—but because America needs a party of the right that is moderate and normal, not crazy and out on the fringe. If the center of gravity in the GOP could once again be people in the mold of Bush Sr, Reagan, Ford, and (gasp) Nixon, I would breathe a sigh of relief (I never thought I’d say such a thing…).

On this subject, TNR has a piece by William Galston, a Clintonite centrist, warning Democrats that Romney will be a stronger general election candidate than they may think. He’s probably right. And another piece in TNR, by Alec MacGillis, one of its senior editors, examines what voters really think about Romney’s wealth. Answer: the majority don’t begrudge him for it. No doubt right as well.

So if Romney is the GOP nominee—which is more than likely—it will be a close race in the fall. Anyone else Obama will blow away. As for what the Romney-hating Tea Partiers will do: they’ll vote for Mitt as one. Of course they will. And they know they will.

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Louise Wimmer

This is one of the better French films I’ve seen lately. The main character, Louise Wimmer—who’s in just about every frame of the pic—, is a woman in her late 40s who works part-time as a chambermaid in a hotel—her boss won’t put her on full—and, not earning enough to make ends meet, lives in her car and scrounges for leftover food at chain restaurants. It’s one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of contemporary précarité économique—economic precariousness—in an advanced industrialized society, not only of the objective reality of life for someone who is leading a hand-to-mouth existence but also what it does to him or her psychologically—of living in a permanent state of fear for the future—and to relationships with others.

We learn in the course of the film that Louise is divorced and that prior to that had had a materially comfortable middle-class life. The one US critic who has reviewed the film so far had some criticisms of the way it developed Louise’s character on this score

Yet while the director…does a fine job at mapping Louise’s daily struggle to eat and sleep, he fails to reveal much about who she really is: Why doesn’t she trust anyone? Why did she never have a real career? How did she turn out this way?

I differ with the critic, as I don’t think the director needed to give any more information about Louise than he did. She was mistrustful of people because she was in a fragile state in every respect, was deeply ashamed of her situation—so didn’t want to talk about it, even with her occasional lover—, and had little protection against those who could exploit her. As for not having a career and how she ended up where she was, one can easily come up with plausible hypotheses. E.g. her ex-husband earned a sufficiently high salary—which is pretty clear in the one scene where we see him—so that she didn’t have to work, or that she did work but not in a job necessitating advanced or specialized training—as an office employee or something of the sort—, lost it and couldn’t find anything comparable. The film is set in Belfort in the Franche-Comté, which is a part of France with particularly high unemployment. And Frenchmen and women who lose their jobs after age 40 and are not highly skilled—and even then—have a poor chance of finding any kind of employment, let alone at their previous salary. The phenomenon of déclassement social, the great fear of the French middle and working classes, does happen. In the case of Louise, we gather that her divorce was messy—as she was not on good terms with her ex-husband, who was remarried—and led to her being turned out of her social milieu.

One noteworthy issue implicitly raised in the film is that of logement social, i.e. public housing. Louise is desperate to get an HLM, as the private housing market is inaccessible to her. There are several scenes of her increasingly acrimonious dealings with the functionaries in the public housing authority, where her application has been stalled for months (she’s not a priority case and demand is greater than supply). I can’t remember the last film I saw that depicted the tours et barres of the cités in such a light, as the salvation for so many (as it’s either that or being sans-abri). It certainly underscores the importance of public housing in France. Again, I was very impressed with this film. And I’m not alone, as French reviews are tops. And for all its moroseness and dreariness, it has a happy ending!

I’ve seen a few other movies of late with people living on the margins as the main theme. One was ‘Une vie meilleure’ (English title: ‘A Better Life’), which came out earlier this month. I had high hopes for it, as it was well-reviewed and with the sublime Leïla Bekhti—for whom I have a soft spot—in the lead. And the director, Cédric Kahn, is well-respected, though I hadn’t seen anything by him before. But the pic was a disappointment. Big problems with the screenplay and from the very beginning. The young couple meet par hasard—for him it’s a coup de foudre—, go on a date right away, make out on the street illico, cut to them in bed, instant love, he moves in, they’re a couple, and making plans for the future. All in four minutes. C’était un peu rapide. The guy—played by the well-known actor Guillaume Canet—is a cook by training and gets a brilliant idea to open a restaurant in an abandoned house in one of the big parks near Paris (precise location not specified), that they happened to stumble across. He has the entrepreneurial spirit and she goes along with his scheme. This part stretched credulity, as to how they got the bank loan and with no collateral—the guy was unemployed and with no family to back him up—, and were then able to hire the contractor and have the work done. And the Leïla Bekhti character, who had a nine-year old son from an unhappy marriage she had fled, was made to be from Lebanon. What an odd choice. Mlle Bekhti is clearly of Maghrebi origin—her parents are from western Algeria—and does not at all look Lebanese. And Lebanese Muslims don’t speak French the way she does (when they speak it at all), and generally do not flee their families and end up in France (at least not those from her social class in the film). This made no sense. She should have been a beurette in the film, which is what Leïla B. is in real life. The couple’s restaurant dreams inevitably came crashing down and they ended up in a situation of grave economic précarité. The depiction of this—of their vie de galère in the neuf-trois—is not bad but the way the story developed, with the Bekhti character suddenly taking off for Montreal to pursue an apparently great opportunity—but which was not—and leaving her son with b.f., with whom she was increasingly estranged, was a stretch, not to mention the way the thing ended (with all reunited in the dead of the Canadian winter). In short, thumbs down to this one.

I’ve seen a couple of other pics in the last couple of months with a living-on-the-margins motif. One was a self-proclaimed “guerrilla film” called ‘Donoma’, by the youthful Haitian-born Paris-based director Djinn Carrenard, and which was apparently made on a budget of €150 (meaning that the non-professional cast worked for free). I hesitated over seeing it, mainly on account of its 2 hour 20 minute length, but was swayed by the praise of two (non-French) cinephile friends, who pronounced it “brilliant” and “very good, maybe great,” respectively. And Paris critics gave it the thumbs up (see in particular the reviews in Les Inrocks and L’Express). Hollywood Reporter, which liked the pic on the whole, thus described it

Set almost exclusively in a series of bedrooms, stairwells, subway cars and side streets [in Paris and the inner banlieue], Donoma tracks the conflict-ridden relations of a handful of teens and 20-somethings [of various ethnic origins], jumping back and forth between plot strands, and using structural leaps to show how each character is ultimately connected… As the stories progress, the many conversations, têtes-à-têtes and shouting matches reveal how relationships must forever stand the test of each lover’s personal baggage – which, in today’s multicultural Paris, is one highly marked by both ethnic origin and the social divide.

And this from Variety, which gave it a qualified positive review

Electrifying drama and patience-testing talkfest are housed under the same roof of “Donoma,” [that demands] attention on the strength of its riveting examination of love, faith and identity among a loosely connected group of Parisians…

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the film. Some of the situations did not strike me as entirely believable—which doesn’t mean that they weren’t; I may not be au fait as to what happens in the particular milieux depicted in the film—and it was overly long—but it held my attention throughout. For a film of over two hours, that’s not bad.

Another film seen with a sort of living-on-the-margins theme was ‘Americano’, produced and directed by Mathieu Demy—son of Jacques Demy and Angès Varda—, and who played the lead role. I went to see it strictly on account of the trailer, which showed it to be mainly set in Los Angeles and Tijuana. For a French film, that’s a good enough hook for me. Selma Hayek was also in it—as a stripper in Tijuana—and as I’d never seen her in a movie before, this was the occasion. It was attention-holding enough, not too bad, but not essential either. It’s fine for DVD. Not worth the trip to the cinema. US reviews here and here.

Finally, I’ll mention a film, ‘Les Adoptés’, that has nothing to do with précarité économique and wasn’t even that good, but is noteworthy as it was directed by Mélanie Laurent, normally an actress and who is only 28-years old. I love Mélanie Laurent and am impressed that she had the self-confidence and ambition to make the film—not to mention the time, given all her other commitments—, and even though she no doubt knew she would be snickered at and the pic would receive (deservedly) mixed reviews (e.g. here, here, and here). I admire her culot. Good for her.

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Adam Gopnik has a must read article in The New Yorker on the American prison system and the criminal justice system that underpins it. So much has been written on the subject, of course—on “the scale and the brutality of our prisons [that] are the moral scandal of American life”—, and Gopnik doesn’t necessarily say anything new, but he says it well. Gopnik is a very good writer and with a sens de la formule. E.g.

[America] is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.

Conrad Black’s words reminded me of Christine Boutin in France, a solid conservative and family values person, who was so appalled by what she saw during her first visit to a prison while conducting a parliamentary inquiry a decade or so back—the French carceral system is a closed world and normally inaccessible to outsiders—that she became one of the most outspoken prison reformers in the French political class. When it comes to physical infrastructure, French prisons are no doubt worse than those in America, though, it needs to be said, the French prison population is proportionally one-seventh the size. And it’s not because the crime rate is lower in France. With the sole exception of homicide, the incidence of crime in France—and in Europe more generally—is roughly the same as in the US (and such has always been the case, BTW). And the great majority of American prisoners are not convicted murderers. The punitive mentality in America and its consequences are a serious problem. And a scandal. Read Gopnik’s article.

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The day before yesterday I had a post on Roger Cohen’s inane column in the NYT, that lauded Nicolas Sarkozy and predicted he would win the upcoming presidential election (this on the same day as Le Monde’s headline story on the defeatist climate in Sarkozy’s camp and which was echoed in a report on the France 2 evening news). Other cognoscenti of French politics, e.g. Art Goldhammer, shared my view of Cohen’s absurd column. Now there’s a piece that makes Cohen’s look brilliant by comparison. L’auteur du crime: Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic. The subject: the DSK affair. I will admit that I am not a fan of Mr. Peretz and normally avoid his writings like the plague. I am an anti-fan of his and have been so for three decades—and I have a lot of company on this (e.g. see here)—, ever since his cheerleading of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon led me not to renew my subscription to TNR for ten years. Even when I started up the sub again I tried my best to avoid Peretz (not always easy) and his manic obsession with Israel, which borders on pathology. I am quite sure that Peretz has never written an article or anything that did not have as its focus Israel or something related to his ethno-confessional group. For someone who has shown little sympathy for the identity politics of others, e.g. Afro-Americans, he is certainly preoccupied with his own identity. Then there was Peretz’s polluting the pages of TNR—a once venerable voice of American liberalism—with certain odious right-wing journalists he hired over the years (e.g. Fred Barnes, Michael Kelly) but I won’t get into that.

In any case, Peretz’s commentary on the DSK affair—a has-been subject by now—, entitled “Edward J. Epstein Makes History…Again,” was quite simply the most breathtakingly idiotic piece of bullcrap that I have read in weeks. It left me agape. I’m used to eye-rolling nonsense from MP but this was on another level altogether and from the get go. Voilà the opening phrase

I was reminded of this devastating analysis of the sloppy case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn when I read that his wife, Anne Sinclair, is taking over the French version of The Huffington Post.

The “devastating analysis” MP is referring to is Edward J. Epstein’s widely read investigative report on the DSK affair in The New York Review of Books. This is now my 44th post on the DSK affair but I didn’t have one on Epstein’s report—though maybe should have—, which I thought was an irresponsible piece of pseudo-investigative journalism that the NYRB should have never published. And the whole thing was quickly revealed to be bulldust, as almost every mystery or question mark put forth by Epstein has been answered or put to rest. And Epstein’s conspiracy insinuating—hinting at a possible UMP/Sarkozy plot—was laughably preposterous. For Martin Peretz to call EJE’s report “devastating” in late January 2012 shows him to be not only behind the curve but also completely à côté de la plaque.

Continuing on Anne Sinclair, MP informs the reader that

Sinclair is now being dissed by her colleagues at Le Monde for sticking by and up for her husband in New York’s great spring celebrity scandal after he was charged with raping a maid at an overrated Manhattan hotel.

MP is referring here to a quote from an editor at Le Monde—a partner of the French HuffPo—in an item he linked to, who simply observed that “When [Sinclair] publicly compared the DSK affair to the Dreyfus affair, she lost her objectivity.” This is “dissing”? It’s one thing to stand by one’s man but to compare his legal problems in a sordid sexual affair to those of Captain Dreyfus and the French army? I think it was Mme Sinclair who was doing the dissing here, not only to Dreyfus’ memory but to the French Republic.

MP does let us know that

The truth is, however, that at the beginning I tended to believe the accusations, having heard from friends in Paris that Strauss-Kahn had the reputation of being a lecher. One lady-friend actually told me that he had followed her out of Yom Kippur services a few years back at the grand synagogue—the Rothschild synagogue!—on the rue des Victoires.

I am quite sure of the veracity of MP’s lady-friend’s story. Everyone has similar DSK stories second and third hand. And first. E.g. a lady-friend of mine has told me of the time DSK came on to her and in an unsubtle way, and in front of a few hundred people plus her husband to boot (not at a synagogue but the Institut du Monde Arabe…). But then MP continues with this

the D.A.’s tactics gnawed at me. And, then, Bernard Henri-Levy defended the accused, and Levy has a lot of ethical credit with me.

Oh please, spare me. My views on BHL are sufficiently well known (e.g. here, here, and here) that I do not need to state them here. Two things, though. 1. Anyone who gives ethical credit to BHL cannot have such credit with me (see the links to my posts) and 2. Such ethical credit can certainly not be accorded to BHL in view of his défense à outrance of DSK after his arrest, which was so uncompromising and arrogant in tone—even as the accounts of DSK’s satyriasis were being detailed in the public square—that BHL’s American publisher had to tell him—and I have this on good authority—that he risked losing all credit in the US as a consequence and should therefore STFU (and which BHL dutifully did).

MP gets in a few digs at D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. and then offers this

Who really knows? Dominique and Anne are on the left, and he was just about slated to be the Socialist candidate against Sarkozy’s re-election bid. Still, the left had nothing but venom for S-K.

“S-K”? Excuse me, Mr. Peretz, but Mr. Strauss-Kahn is universally known as DSK. Absolutely everyone outside France knows this by now. So where does this S-K come from? Vous êtes vraiment à côté de la plaque. But also, what is this about the left and venom, particularly as DSK was/is himself a man of the left (albeit close to the center)? And as the Socialist party—the dominant party of the French left—was getting ready to crown DSK as its candidate until the fateful encounter with Nafissatou Diallo? If one has in mind the hard and extreme left—PG, PCF, NPA et al—and intellos on that end of the spectrum, then one needs to be clear about this. But who cares about those people anyway?

Following from this MP gives the clincher. The money quote, which the whole piece has been building up to

I have my own suspicions about the sources of this hatred. OK, laugh at me: but it is because he and his wife are passionate Zionists, public Zionists, a sin among the progressives of Paris.

There you have it. DSK—who was the most popular political personality in France until last May 15th and the left’s champion to beat Sarkozy—was in fact hated—who knew?—and because he was…a Zionist. Honestly, this one takes the cake. The only thing one can say here is that MP made this up. He invented it in his turbulent head. He read this nowhere and it is not possible that he heard it from any person knowledgeable about French politics or society. Not even BHL would have told him such an inept connerie. MP has not a shred of evidence to back up his assertion. None whatever. He could not credibly defend this if his life depended on it. In point of fact, DSK and his wife, whose Jewishness has hardly been a secret, never spoke publicly about Zionism and such was not the subject of articles or reports in the mainstream media. DSK did express his warm sentiments toward Israel in a Jewish magazine back in 1991 but outside the Jewish community his words here were known only to those who consulted or stumbled across Arab-oriented or anti-Semitic web sites in the obscure precincts of the Internet. DSK and Mme Sinclair’s Jewishness and putative Zionism were a political non-issue, including “among the progressives of Paris,” whoever they may be. À propos, it would be helpful if MP named a few of these “progressives.” In fact, I defy him to do so. Just three names, please, of known “progressives”—a term that is not commonly used in the French political lexicon, BTW—who had it out for DSK on account of his “Zionism.” It is true that DSK did have detractors on the hard left—e.g. Jean-Luc Mélenchon was particularly outspoken—but it was because he was a libéral in their eyes—a neoliberal—and whose big sin was heading the IMF (and despite the fact that under DSK’s stewardship the IMF shifted away from its neoliberal Washington Consensus orientation). In the eyes of the gauche de la gauche, DSK was insufficiently gauche. They talked about him the way US lefties whine on about Obama. It’s politics, Mr. Peretz. It is not about Jews. Really, not everyone who is disliked and so happens to be Jewish is disliked because he or she is a Jew.

MP further drives the nail into his coffin with this

Anyway, it isn’t as if the French political class is pure. Sarkozy, for example. Or Mitterand [sic], for that matter.

What on earth is this supposed to mean?! Pure about what? Affairs with women not their wives? On this, Sarko is a well-known hound dog and Mitterrand was a grand séducteur. So what? Neither is or was known to serially hit on women who did not wish to be hit upon, to be a regular patron at clubs échangistes, or to frequently receive sexual services in return for monetary remuneration (and on the eve of a presidential campaign no less). Or is it something about Jews? Here, Sarkozy is considered by many French Jews—who viscerally like him—to almost be France’s first Jewish president (in the same way as Bill Clinton was seen by his many black American fans as having been America’s first black president). As for Mitterrand, he was a longtime friend of the Jewish community and Israel (and despite the zones d’ombre in his past and some sulfurous friendships). And BTW, Mitterrand is spelled with two Rs (not one).

MP, after reiterating his admiration of E.J. Epstein’s discredited report, concludes with this

Also try mentioning Edward Jay Epstein’s proven thesis, James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right?, available at Amazon and on Kindle, at a dinner party. The guests will think you a nut case.

Mr. Peretz: the nut case c’est vous.

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Franco-Turkish follies – II

So the French Senate passed the loi scélérate criminalizing negation of the Armenian genocide (or “genocide,” depending on one’s perspective). I didn’t think it would do so, as a number of senators had expressed doubts in recent days about the bill’s constitutionality. Moreover, the Senate’s commission des lois—presided by the Socialist Jean-Pierre Sueur—had voted last Wednesday to reject the bill and by a wide majority, though which did not prevent it from going to the floor for a vote by the full Senate. As the Senate in France is indirectly elected and in thirds, it is thereby not susceptible to base electoralist considerations—presumably not, at least—or to pressures from the Elysée or Matignon, and is moreover controlled by the Socialists, the current opposition. Now it is true that the PS has largely supported the bill but insofar as the current legislative initiative was remote-controlled by Sarkozy the Socialist senators were not obliged to indulge him. And many PS senators did oppose the bill, not only for constitutional reasons or political opportunity but as a matter of principle (see this report in Mediapart). As it was, 26 of the 130 PS senators voted against and 48 abstained or did not participate in the vote (for the record, only 57 of the 132 UMP senators voted for, with 19 against). And the two previous presidents of the Senate, Gérard Larcher and Christian Poncelet, announced in advance that they would be voting against the bill.

I already expressed my dim view of this proposed law after the National Assembly approved it last month (here). I just find it unbelievable that the French government is going through with this, in view of the crisis—needless and totally avoidable—that the law has provoked in France’s relations with Turkey. The Turks are hopping mad, of course, and threatening all sorts of retaliatory measures, mainly in contracts with French companies. And they will follow through on it. If the law ends up on the books, it will poison relations between the two countries for a long time to come. One can only imagine the reaction in Turkey when the inevitable judicial prosecutions take place in France of Turks and others espousing the official Turkish position. The law will certainly be put to the test, and likely sooner rather than later. In its January 4th issue Le Canard Enchaîné had an article by Claude Angeli, the paper’s longtime editor-in-chief—and who has excellent sources in the foreign policy and defense establishment—, on the fury of foreign minister Alain Juppé and the Quai d’Orsay over the law. Juppé, who has seen his painstaking efforts to work with the Turks over the Syrian issue go up in smoke, had not calmed down in the two weeks after the National Assembly vote. Before the vote he told his staff that the bill was a “connerie sans nom” (i.e. a complete idiocy) and let his sentiments be known to the rest of the government. But Sarkozy paid no attention. Amazing.

Another thing about the law that is so perverse: the way it is worded—and it does not specifically mention the Armenians or Turkey—, it criminalizes only genocides recognized by French law, i.e. that have been voted by the French parliament in one of its “memorial laws.” This means the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, but not what happened in Rwanda in 1994, which is recognized as a genocide by the United Nations, as well as by just about everyone else, but which has been a delicate and problematic matter in France, given French support of the Rwandan Hutus at the time. À propos, President Mitterrand’s attitude—that massacres were committed by both sides in Rwanda—sounded very much like the official Turkish position on what happened with the Armenians in eastern Anatolia in 1915. And this “negationist” position toward the Rwandan genocide has been advanced in two books published in the past decade by the best-selling author Pierre Péan.

The only way the law can be stopped now is if it is referred to the Constitutional Council, which will likely strike it down. Robert Badinter, a former president of the Council and one of the most respected jurists in the country, had a tribune in Le Monde ten days ago arguing the bill’s unconstitutionality (and Badinter, it should be noted, is one of the few Socialists who is publicly opposed to Turkish membership in the EU). The only parties that can petition the Constitutional Council are the President of the Republic, Prime Minister, President of the Senate, President of the National Assembly, or a group of 60 senators or 60 deputies. In this case it could be the latter two and just possibly the President of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, who is, of course, in the UMP and an ally of Sarkozy but is opposed to “memorial laws” and has called for an end to such legislative initiatives. He could maybe save the day. Whatever the case, this whole crazy affair is the doing of Sarkozy. As such, it definitively discredits him as President of the Republic, in my book at least. He is unworthy to hold the highest office of this land. And he must absolutely not be reelected. Get him out of there!

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Roger Cohen has a particularly stupid, asinine column in today’s NYT, “The Sarkozy Effect,” vaunting the French president’s “courage,” “leadership” qualities, and whatever, and predicting that he will be “the more likely winner” in the upcoming presidential election. The piece is so ridiculous that I won’t even bother taking apart its numerous inanities. What’s the point? and besides, I already rubbished a pro-Sarko column of Cohen’s from last April (here) and where I ran the numbers. And three months ago (here) I asserted that if there were no dramatic improvement in Sarko’s poll ratings by the end of the year—and there hasn’t been—that he would likely be toast in ’12.

As it happens, just as Cohen’s column went up two pertinent pieces were published, one in Mediapart asking if “Sarkozy has already lost?”, the other in Le Monde on Sarkozy evoking “the hypothesis of his defeat.” Here are the texts in full.

Mediapart.fr

Sarkozy a-t-il déjà perdu?

23 janvier 2012 | Par Marine Turchi

Dans l’état actuel du pays, Sarkozy n’a-t-il pas déjà perdu ? A droite, certains avaient déjà posé la question de sa candidature à l’automne, ponctuant, comme Alain Juppé ou Jean-Pierre Raffarin, leur propos de «s’il est candidat». Désormais, d’autres font part de leur inquiétude, jusqu’ici exprimée en privé. Le collaborateur d’un ministre, dans Le Figaro : «On commence à se dire qu’on peut vraiment perdre.» Un (more…)

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The Obama Memos

Ryan Lizza has an article in The New Yorker, “The Obama Memos: The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency.” It’s one of the more interesting accounts I’ve read of the Obama White House, internal debates over policy, and Obama’s evolving conception of the presidency. As with all new presidents, the presidency has been a learning process for Obama

Obama promised to transcend forty years of demographic and ideological trends and reshape Washington politics. In the past three years, though, he has learned that the Presidency is an office uniquely ill-suited for enacting sweeping change. Presidents are buffeted and constrained by the currents of political change. They don’t control them.

Lizza’s piece is long—over 11,000 words—but well worth the read. Here are some of the key passages

George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A. & M., who has sparked a quiet revolution in the ways that academics look at Presidential leadership, argues in “The Strategic President” that there are two ways to think about great leaders. The common view is of a leader whom Edwards calls “the director of change,” someone who reshapes public opinion and the political landscape with his charisma and his powers of persuasion. Obama’s many admirers expected him to be just this.

Instead, Obama has turned out to be what Edwards calls “a facilitator of change.” The facilitator is acutely aware of the constraints of public opinion and Congress. He is not foolish enough to believe that one man, even one invested with the powers of the Presidency, can alter the fundamentals of politics. Instead, “facilitators understand the opportunities for change in their environments and fashion strategies and tactics to exploit them.” Directors are more like revolutionaries. Facilitators are more like tacticians. Directors change the system. Facilitators work the system. Obama’s first three years as President are the story of his realization of the limits of his office, his frustration with those constraints, and, ultimately, his education in how to successfully operate within them. A close look at the choices Obama made on domestic policy, based on a review of hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, reveals someone who is canny and tough—but who is not the President his most idealistic supporters thought they had elected.

Yes, the limits of office. Something that Obama’s lefty critics tend to lose sight of

Obama was learning the same lesson of many previous occupants of the Oval Office: he didn’t have the power that one might think he had. Harry Truman, one in a long line of Commanders-in-Chief frustrated by the limits of the office, once complained that the President “has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues. . . . The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make ’em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.”

And then there’s the system

…our political system was designed to be infuriating. As George Edwards notes in his study of Presidents as facilitators, the American system “is too complicated, power too decentralized, and interests too diverse for one person, no matter how extraordinary, to dominate.” Obama, like many Presidents, came to office talking like a director. But he ended up governing like a facilitator, which is what the most successful Presidents have always done. Even Lincoln famously admitted, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events controlled me.”

And the conclusion

The private Obama is close to what many people suspect: a President trying to pass his agenda while remaining popular enough to win reëlection.

Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all.

I’ve been dumping on Obama for much of the past three years but have put all that aside for the time being. The only thing I care about now is that he is reelected, as the alternative is just not something I want to think about. C’est tout.

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Mark Perry, an author of numerous books and articles on the Middle East, had a piece on the Foreign Policy website ten days ago, “False Flag,” on supposed CIA memos that described how Israeli Mossad agents posed as CIA to recruit terrorists from Jundallah—a shadowy group of anti-regime Iranian Sunni extremists—to carry out its covert war against Iran. The piece got a lot of play but I didn’t take it too seriously, as Mark Perry, a well-known flack for Hizbullah and Hamas—and a former director of a pro-Syrian Ba’athist, Islamist apologizing outfit called Conflicts Forum (that I wrote about last April)—, does not have much credibility in my book. And the evidence he put forth reminded me of Seymour Hersh (see below), with heavy reliance on anonymous sources from the world of spies and spooks.

As it happens, the lefty Israeli webzine +972, which is not known for indulging the Israeli establishment and its security services, has a post up on its blog today by Rafael Frankel, a former Middle East correspondent for several US news organizations, criticizing Perry’s piece, arguing that it “is not only unverifiable” but also “displays naivety about American foreign policy and bolsters the ludicrous thesis that Israel is the mastermind behind American Middle East belligerence,” and that “without one single on-the-record source for this reporting, Perry should not have written the article and Foreign Policy should not have published it.” Frankel then has this to say

Perry’s false flag story brings to the fore another disturbing trend beginning to emerge. In much the same manner as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer blamed the Israel Lobby for the Iraq War despite all evidence to the contrary, a segment of the anti-war establishment is once again propagating a false construct that paints Israel as the party mostly responsible for a coming war with Iran. In this narrative, Israel is either an all-powerful state that has the global dominance to dictate the foreign and security policy of the United States (and a host of other world powers as well), or it is acting on its own to provoke a war while a hapless and uninformed Obama Administration desperately tries to stop the crazy Jews from dragging the United States into a war it doesn’t want.

Both ideas are ludicrous. While the former paradigm presents a drastically exaggerated view of Israeli power, the latter robs the United States and others of any agency and responsibility for their own actions.

As one who has an extremely low opinion of Mearsheimer & Walt’s thesis, I can’t agree enough.

On a somewhat related subject, Foreign Policy had a report the other day on recent remarks by Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the NSA and then the CIA from 1999 to 2009, who said that the Bush Administration had determined that launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a bad idea and that short of an outright US occupation of the country—an option that was not on the table—, would be counterproductive. Hayden moreover asserted that the Israelis were not going to attack Iran, that “they can’t do it, it’s beyond their capacity. They only have the ability to make this [problem of Iran's nuclear program] worse.” I’ve been saying as much myself and for years, and twice on this blog (here and here).

Reading this FP piece made me think of Seymour Hersh, who practically promised back in ’05 or thereabouts that the US would bomb Iran, that it was an almost foregone conclusion. I was a fan of Hersh’s reporting for the longest time. I trusted him. No longer.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Well, well. A Tea Party Republican I know, who lives in the Midwest, added me to his email list for this commentary on Mitt Romney, published in the right-wing webzine American Thinker, warning that the GOP risks flying apart if MR is its nominee, regardless of the outcome in November. Here’s the last part of the piece

Mitt Romney, by his actions in Massachusetts both campaigning for the U.S. Senate and as Governor, has shown himself to be more than willing to compromise with the Left and the Democrats.   He has proposed and passed the socialist RomneyCare policy, pro-abortion regulations, and gun control, and raised numerous taxes and fees while increasing spending dramatically.   During the current campaign he refuses to call Barack Obama what he is; instead Romney refers to him as just “being over his head.”

If ever a candidate mirrored the mindset and approach of George H.W. Bush, it is Mitt Romney.

This is the last hurrah of the Republican establishment.   The conservatives and libertarians will vote for Romney in November, but only because he is not Barack Obama.  There will be no enthusiasm, which will hurt the down ballot contests for the U.S. Senate, the House and state governorships.   Despite the factors weighing against Obama in this upcoming election, it will be a much closer contest that it should be; perhaps a razor thin victory for Romney.

If Romney were to lose the election, there will be a grass-roots revolt against the Republican Party which will spell its demise.   If he wins and the nation, through the mis-directed policies of Romney and the Republicans in the Congress, continues on its current path of compromising and nibbling around the edges of the nation’s problems, then Romney will be the last Republican president and the specter of the Democrats re-assuming power will be a reality.

This is not only the most important election for the nation in over a century but also one that will determine the fate of a political party founded in 1854 in opposition to slavery and the corruption in the Democratic Party.

Wow! My Tea Party correspondent added this personal note to his mail
I tend to agree with this article.  If Romney is the nominee, whether he wins or loses the election, it will mark the beginning of the end of the Republican Party as we know it today.  There will be a major split because the economic conservatives will bolt and form a third party.  I will join them.
To this, all I can say is: Go Mitt Go!

UPDATE: The right-wing website RedState has a striking commentary by Erick Erickson on Gingrich’s victory in SC and which echoes the sentiments of my Tea Party correspondent above. The famous GOP “base” really does not like Romney. They absolutely do not want him. This is going to be interesting.

2nd UPDATE: Ann Coulter, who supports Mitt, sniffs that “South Carolinians would rather have the emotional satisfaction of a snotty remark toward the president than to beat Obama in the fall.” She also thinks that in view of the vote on Saturday, “South Carolina is going back to its Democratic roots.” Oy vey!

3rd UPDATE: On Newt Gingrich’s asking Marianne for an “open marriage” and how this reflected traditional behavior on his part.

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Rick Perry’s good idea

This is the title of a comment by Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker, on Rick Perry’s proposal to end lifetime terms for Supreme Court justices. I had a post on Perry’s idea last August (an idea that I’ve had for years, maybe even before Perry came up with it). I didn’t know about the articles by Akhil Reed Amar, Steven Calabresi et al that Hertzberg cites. And 18 year terms are too long. Should be 12 years renewable (with a retirement age of 75). Not gonna happen of course, but it’s good the proposal is out there.

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Claire Berlinski has a very useful annotated list here of English-language news sources about Turkey.

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I want to react to a high-profile article from the NYT’s Sunday Review of last weekend, “The Empires Strike Back,” by Soner Çağaptay, a well-known Washington-based Turkish historian and political analyst. Çağaptay argues that

two old imperial powers are competing to exert their political influence over Arab countries in upheaval. And they are not America and Russia. After years of cold-war competition over the Middle East and North Africa, it is now France and Turkey that are vying for lucrative business ties and the chance to mold a new generation of leaders in lands that they once controlled.

Çağaptay then goes on to describe this geopolitical bras de fer in the southern and eastern Mediterranean between the two ancient rival powers, France and Turkey, though France is, in point of fact, not so great of a power anymore and Turkey is still in the wannabe stage—and that during their centuries of greatness, France and the Ottoman Empire were in fact allies (against the Hapsburgs, their mutual enemy) more than they were adversaries. Mais peu importe. I found Çağaptay’s perspective odd, and particularly his view of France and its role in the region. Viewed from Paris, a lot of what he said was off base or just didn’t make sense. I’ll work my way though his piece and comment on its odd or problematic assertions. First point. Çağaptay observes that

Even Turkey once looked to France as a model: when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923, he championed the French model of hard secularism, which stipulates freedom from religion in government, politics and education.

Absolutely correct. When teaching Turkey to my French students I inform them that the Turkish term for secularism, laiklik, was rather obviously inspired by laïcité, one of the most hallowed words in the French language. And one sees many words of French origin in Turkey, which was the doing not just of Ataturk but also the Ottomans. But the admiration has not been unidirectional. From the mid-1920s onward Turkey has been highly regarded in France as well, not only for its laiklik—which actually differs in important respects from French laïcité—but also for the whole Kemalist project of state-directed modernization—a sort of Jacobinism on steroids—, which so closely resembled the French model from the Third Republic onward. The French admiration for Turkey was manifest in De Gaulle’s triumphal state visit there in 1968 (e.g. see the videos here). Turkey started to get some bad press in France with the 1974 Cyprus invasion—but then, Turkey didn’t get good press anywhere on Cyprus—and with the repression following the 1980 coup and then against the Kurds. And there was, of course, sympathy with the Armenians on that issue (though which did not stop the Armenian terrorist group ASALA from carrying out a terror bombing at Orly airport in 1983). But the view of Turkey as a (geo)political problem by a part of the political spectrum in France is recent and linked to its candidacy to join the European Union.

While France has dominated much of the region over the past two centuries, that is now changing. And if Turkey plays its cards right, it could match France’s influence or even become the dominant power in the region.

France having dominated “much” of the region? The only parts of MENA where French influence was preeminent were its former colonies and protectorates, i.e. the Maghreb—Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco—and, for a brief period after WWI, Lebanon and Syria. But the French did not gain a lasting foothold in Syria—where there is little trace of the French mandate and even less of the French language—and in Lebanon French influence has mainly been with the Christians—and particularly the Maronites, in a relationship that goes back several centuries. France’s ascendency in Egypt was ephemeral and it never had anything in the Arabian peninsula or Mesopotamia. There was, of course, a certain French cultural influence among elites—in Egypt, Turkey, and among the Jews of the Mediterranean via the Alliance Israélite Universelle—but outside the Maghreb the British and Americans were the big players.

As for Turkey becoming a dominant power in the region, I think Mr. Çağaptay, who has been a biting critic of the AKP up to now, is getting caught up in Ankara’s ambient neo-Ottomanism. A player, yes, but dominant? Dream on.

As…economic meltdown devastates much of Mediterranean Europe, Turkey and France have largely been spared.

France is not one of the PIGS but it’s not Germany either. Or the US. France is in bad economic straits and whose future is not rosy. Even if the French economy does not go the way of Italy’s or Spain’s, France will no longer have the means to pursue whatever ambitions Gaullist nostalgics in Paris may have of being a major player in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. If France can preserve its position in Tunisia, that will be good in itself.

And their growing rivalry is one reason France has objected to Turkey’s bid for European Union membership.

Nonsense. I don’t know where Cagaptay gets this. Something that outside observers of France seem to lose sight of is that the French political class has not been uniformly opposed to eventual Turkish membership in the EU. The French left—and which has an excellent chance of coming to power this spring—has been supportive of Turkey’s EU candidacy, sometimes even vigorously so. And former President Chirac and his neo-Gaullist protégés (Alain Juppé, Dominique de Villepin, Jean-Louis Debré…) have also been pro-Turkey. Opposition to Turkey has come from the right (post-Gaullist, conservative, and extreme) and center (the part of it issuing from a Christian democratic tradition, such as François Bayrou’s MoDem). Islam is of course a factor in this opposition—and particularly on the hard right—but it’s not the only one. There are, in fact, serious arguments against Turkish entry to the EU: e.g. that Turkey is both too big and too poor relative to the rest of Europe, too nationalistic, not sufficiently democratic or respectful of minority rights… And, as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has insisted, that Turkey—96% of it—is not even geographically a part of Europe—that Europe does not border Iran and Iraq—and that if a geographically non-European country is allowed to join the EU then what is to prevent, say, Georgia or Azerbaijan (already members of UEFA, BTW), or even Russia, from legitimately applying for EU membership at some point down the road? I do not necessarily adhere to these arguments but some of them are valid—see, e.g. this book—and cannot be dismissed out of hand by Turks or proponents of it joining the EU. But one argument I have never seen is the necessity of countering Turkish designs on a French-dominated Mediterranean. Soyons sérieux.

one thing has become obvious to the Turks: Paris won’t allow Turkey into the European Union or let it become a powerful player in a French-led Mediterranean region.

Paris will definitely not allow Turkey into the EU so long as Nicolas Sarkozy is president. But if the fateful day ever does come when a decision on Turkey and the EU must be made, Sarko will be long gone. As for a French-led Mediterranean region and which can thwart the ambitions of others, hah! Only in Dominique de Villepin’s dreams…

Turkey threw its support behind the Arab revolts early on, winning fans across the region.

Huh? Turkey managed to jump on the train before it left the station but, like everyone else, was taken by surprise when the revolts began. And there was a period of dithering on Libya before the change in policy. As for winning the hearts and minds of the Arab masses, that was accomplished with Erdoğan trash talking Shimon Peres in Davos in ’09 and then the Mavi Marmara in ’10. Erdoğan was no doubt appreciated in Tahrir Square last February but I doubt the crowds there were paying much attention to communiqués coming out of Ankara.

Until it backed Libya’s rebels last year, France had bet on the enduring nature of dictatorships and never forged ties with the democratic forces opposing them

In regard to France and dictatorships, this is precisely true, and nowhere more than in Tunisia, which was a French foreign policy fiasco of the first order. But without defending the French here—who have been soul searching and doing mea culpas for the past year—it is not totally the case that France ignored democratic forces in the MENA countries. French diplomats en poste had instructions from the Elysée not to meet with Ben Ali opponents—Moncef Marzouki et al—and who were not received at the Quai d’Orsay when visiting Paris, but these opponents—the non-Islamist ones—did regularly visit Paris, participated in public meetings and rallies, and had extensive contacts with civil society groups and the political left. The French networks of Arab world non-Islamist opponents were dense and which French officialdom could readily tap into once the policy changed. And not just with the Maghreb countries. E.g. the chairman of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, has been a longtime professor at the University of Paris.

As France’s business ties with the old secular elite fray, its influence is waning. It remains a military and cultural power, and will continue to attract Arab elites, even Islamist ones, seeking weapons and luxury goods. However, France will find it hard to market its brand of secularism across the region

The bit about weapons and luxury goods is a cliché. France sells a lot more than that to MENA countries. As for secularism (laïcité), it’s been a long time since France tried to market this anywhere, let alone in MENA.

In September, when Mr. Erdogan landed at Cairo’s new airport terminal (built by Turkish companies), he was warmly met by joyous millions

He was indeed. But President Chirac, who earned the eternal gratitude of the Arab masses with his coup de gueule against the Israelis in the Jerusalem Old City in ’96 and in standing up to Bush on Iraq in ’03, was also warmly met by joyous millions—well, maybe not millions but five- and six-figure crowds nonetheless—on visits to the Arab world, notably in Algiers in March 2003. And Sarkozy received a rapturous welcome in Benghazi last September (more than he would ever get at home these days).

but France has more hard power, as the recent war in Libya…make[s] clear.

France’s military engagement in Libya was an impulsive roll of the dice by Sarkozy. The French could have never pulled it off had the Americans not gotten involved. And even then, had the Libya war not ended in September the situation would have become untenable for the French military, which could materially not sustain its already modest commitment for much longer. France’s hard power is not so hard anymore.

The recent discovery of natural gas off the south coast of Cyprus is a major opportunity. Turkey could rise above the fray by proposing unification of the island in exchange for an agreement to share gas revenues.

This would be an excellent initiative on Erdoğan’s part. Settling the Cyprus issue—on which Turkey is totally isolated, with no support even in the Arab world—and on terms acceptable to the Greek population of the island would be huge game changer in Turkey’s relations with Europe, removing the most redhibitory obstacle to eventual EU membership. If Erdoğan were to propose this and succeed, I’d nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Such a deal, coupled with improved Turkish-Israeli ties, could facilitate cooperation in extracting even larger gas deposits off Israel’s coast; Turkey is the most logical destination for a pipeline from there to foreign markets.

Improving relations with Israel would also be a good idea. It would be in Turkey’s interest on several levels, one being that the Turks could once again act as an intermediary between the Israelis and Palestinians (and Syrians, after regime change there).

Turkey will rise as a regional power only if it sets a genuine example as a liberal democracy

I totally agree. 100%.

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Hugo

A wonderful movie. Moving. Enjoyed it from beginning to end. That’s as much as I have to say.

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If anyone hasn’t seen it by now, this op-ed by Jonathan Turley, who teaches law at GWU, has been the most popular article on the Washington Post web site for the past five days. The piece thus begins

Every year, the State Department issues reports on individual rights in other countries, monitoring the passage of restrictive laws and regulations around the world. Iran, for example, has been criticized for denying fair public trials and limiting privacy, while Russia has been taken to task for undermining due process. Other countries have been condemned for the use of secret evidence and torture.

Even as we pass judgment on countries we consider unfree, Americans remain confident that any definition of a free nation must include their own — the land of free. Yet, the laws and practices of the land should shake that confidence. In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, this country has comprehensively reduced civil liberties in the name of an expanded security state. The most recent example of this was the National Defense Authorization Act, signed Dec. 31, which allows for the indefinite detention of citizens. At what point does the reduction of individual rights in our country change how we define ourselves?

While each new national security power Washington has embraced was controversial when enacted, they are often discussed in isolation. But they don’t operate in isolation. They form a mosaic of powers under which our country could be considered, at least in part, authoritarian.

Turley then proceeds to enumerate and discuss the ten powers acquired by the US government since 9/11 that have undermined liberty in America. There is no question nowadays that the US government possesses more instruments of repression to use against its own citizens than the states of western Europe. Politically speaking, France is a freer country than America. If anyone wants to disagree with me on this, I invite him or her to say why.

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Obama’s long game

Andrew Sullivan has the strongest argument I’ve seen lately for Obama’s reelection—not that I personally need any convincing—and where he rubbishes the right—not hard to do—and critiques the left in the process. Read it here.

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Take Shelter

Just saw this. It’s an intense film, the most powerful cinematic depiction I’ve seen in a while of the descent of a man into paranoid schizophrenia, but with the backdrop of the current economic crisis and disaster that looms for countless American families, of unemployment, loss of health insurance, and all the rest (the film is set in Elyira, Ohio, in a lower middle/working class milieu). Great performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. And the portrayal of community and family solidarity is very good. The ending, which is initially puzzling, makes sense when one puts the two parallel themes—mental illness and economic precariousness—together. Reviews have been tops in both the US and France. The film reminds one of Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ but is superior.

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The Future of Cars

Voilà some free publicity for a sharp new web site, The Future of Cars, launched by a friend, Roger Kerson.

TheFutureofCars is a reported blog on the greening of the U.S. auto industry. I’m interested in public sector regulation, private sector innovation, and how the two will intersect in the coming years to create dramatically different – and more sustainable – vehicles for personal and commercial transportation.

Roger was a long time pubic relations director for the United Auto Workers in Detroit, so knows the subject well. He is also a smart and lucid analyst. Some ten years ago he gave me one of the more interesting explanations I had heard of the structural decline of American trade unions. As he described it, the generous fringe benefits—health care, pensions, etc—enjoyed by the unionized American working class in the postwar decades was almost entirely borne by the corporations with which the UAW and other industrial trade unions negotiated the generous labor contracts. This model made it so that in America’s minimalist welfare state unionized workers in heavy industry lived in little Swedens—that was his expression—and that the model continued even as wages were frozen or slashed and industry started delocalizing to the South, Mexico, and further afield. The model, he said, was unsustainable, as American corporations operating in a globalized competitive environment simply could not assume on their own the Swedish-like welfare state benefits enjoyed by their unionized workers. Ultimately something would have to give. Either American industry would be further battered by foreign competition—and with the consequences of that for jobs etc—or the unions would be forced into more give backs. So, in Roger’s view, what was the solution? Not to slash benefits, of course, but to shift the financing of these mini welfare states to government via taxation and generalize it to the entire population. Make all of America like Sweden. Okay, maybe not completely—Swedish levels of taxation are not too realistic in the US—, but something in that direction. Starting with universal health insurance. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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A Dangerous Method

I saw this movie last month and hadn’t planned on posting anything on it, as I didn’t like it too much. I am frankly not interested in the subject matter—psychoanalysis just doesn’t interest me—and while I know something about Freud—who doesn’t?—I know less about Jung and his school of psychology. I could thus not get caught up in the story of the film—of the relationship between the two men—, thought Keira Knightley overacted, and was not overly impressed with Michael Fassbender, who I suppose is a good actor but whom I find unmemorable (the proof: he was in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ and ‘Fish Tank’ but I have no memory of his character in either). He is conventionally good-looking but in a nondescript way. Viggo Mortensen is a great actor but I hardly recognized him here—on account of the beard—and while I like Vincent Cassel, I see him all the time. And while the film was well reviewed in both the US and France, cinephile friends on both sides of the pond agreed with me in giving it the thumbs down.

Also in agreement, though with a far more sophisticated analysis than mine, is Hussein Ibish, the prolific Palestinian-American commentator and blogger on the Israel-Palestine issue (and whose perspectives I am invariably in total agreement with). Taking a break from I-P, Ibish—who holds a doctorate in comparative literature—devoted an entire blog post last week to the film, “A Disappointing Method: Cronenberg’s psychoanalysis film is a missed opportunity,” and to David Cronenberg’s oeuvre in general. If you saw ‘A Dangerous Method’ and/or have any interest in it, read Ibish’s post. It is very good.

In reading it I realized how few films by Cronenberg I’ve seen. Apart from this, the only ones are ‘The Fly’, ‘A History of Violence’, and ‘Eastern Promises’ (the first is a hoot, the other two first-rate). Ibish praises ‘Dead Ringers’, calling it a masterpiece. As it happens, a cinephile friend whose recommendations I always follow—and who also happens to write on I-P—told me recently as well that ‘Dead Ringers’ is a chef d’œuvre. Based on these two recs, I will try to see it ASAP.

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Yesterday I had a post on Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos’ God-loving and praying quarterback who practically everyone in America is talking about these days (but not in France or anywhere else, that I promise you). Almost as soon as my post went up a Tea Party Republican reader—and who seems to be a practicing Christian—commented on it, informing me that “to most Americans, who love both God & football, Tim Tebow has become an American hero and role model.”

“Most” Americans? Like 90%? 80? 51? Got any survey data on this? I am quite sure Tebow is a fine young man on a personal level and if people want to admire him for whatever reason, that’s their affair. But a hero? WTF has he ever done to merit hero status to anyone other than Broncos fans and for anything other than leading come-from-behind 4th quarter victories? As for being a “role model,” for what precisely? À propos, I learned just yesterday that Tebow, who is 24 years of age, is a virgin. This personable, handsome young man has never “done it,” though he has no doubt had countless opportunities to do so over the past, say, eight to ten years. He is apparently “saving himself for marriage.” Why anyone would preserve his or her virginity until marriage is beyond me. It makes no sense whatever. But if Tebow’s peculiar religious convictions—and yes, they are peculiar—mandate this, that’s his business.

So here’s my question: why isn’t Tebow married? WTF is he waiting for?? Particularly as he has no doubt met numerous attractive, personable Christian women who would give anything to lose their virginity with him—and him with them—according to their (peculiar) Christian precepts. The thing is, it is not normal to voluntarily be a virgin at age 24. I repeat: NOT NORMAL. Societies and cultures—from time immemorial to the present-day—that have mandated chastity until marriage have made sure that men and women marry young, in their teens or early 20s at the latest. Even the most conservative cultures have recognized that the raging hormones of young people—and of both sexes—need a licit outlet and should have it, and as early as is reasonably possible. (And, BTW, this includes Arab cultures—and which understand perfectly that women need and want it as much as men.) In America in the old days, couples got married out of high school, or by college graduation at the latest. Educated Americans I have known of the older generation, who were in their early 20s in the late 1940s or 1950s, have talked of the frenetic frenzy to find a husband or wife their senior year of college if they weren’t already engaged. One member of this generation has told me that she got married (at 22) because she was fed up with being a virgin. One of the tragedies in the Arab world of the past three decades—where virginity is still culturally mandated for women—is the inability of men and women into their 20s—and even 30s—to get married, mainly for economic reasons (e.g. the men unemployed, impossibility of finding housing, inability of families to pay the bride price or finance the costly wedding party). The mass sexual frustration I observed in Algeria twenty years ago was so palpable. Algerians talked about it openly. I found the place a dystopia for this reason alone. I was personally convinced—and Algerian friends, including academics, agreed with me—that sexual misery was at least one variable in explaining the rise of Islamist extremism.

But that’s Algeria and the Arab world, where abnormally prolonged virginity is mainly about archaic codes of honor regarding women’s sexuality and the lack of any place for young unmarried couples to intimately meet (privacy—the lack of it—is a serious problem in these societies). These are not issues in America. But one would hardly find Tebow’s attitude in any other society. It’s a weird American exception. Sexuality is not only normal but is a human necessity, regardless of marital status. If Tim Tebow wants to repress his sexual urges, that’s really his private business. But in no way should he be made into a role model for it. In fact, it should make him a negative role model. I’m sorry but the guy is weird.

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[update below]

Tim Tebow, for those who haven’t heard of him—and the majority of people I know have no doubt not—, is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos—that’s American football—, who is mainly known for wearing his religiosity on his sleeve and dropping down in prayer every time he completes a pass. Even in a sport rife with evangelical Christianity—where players and coaches assemble in collective prayer before a game, sometimes with the opposing teams together—, Tebow is considered over the top. Two of my lefty Facebook friends—who I doubt are football fans—posted links on Tebow today—the Broncos have a big game this weekend—, one on “the non sport’s fans guide to Tim Tebow,” the other asking the $64K question: “What if Tim Tebow were Muslim?

How would our society react if during every interview, Tebow said “Insha’Allah” or “Allāhu Akbar” rather than thank his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Or instead of falling to one knee and praying,  Tebow pulled out a prayer rug and faced Mecca?

To ask the question is to answer it. Duh. In reading the piece I thought right away of France and Franck Ribéry, the big time soccer star who plays for Bayern Munich and has had 56 appearances so far with the French national team. Ribéry is a great soccer player—though with a less-than-great intellect (he is challenged between the ears)—, a good ol’ boy from Boulogne-sur-Mer, and a convert to Islam. Before every game he raises his hands in Muslim prayer—stands in salah—and possibly during the game as well. The TV cameras—at least for the national team games—zoom in on him during the act but with no commentary. Everyone sees it, people talk about it, but the media does not mention it, at least not so far as I’ve seen. It’s the unmentionable subject. But if he were an evangelical Christian and kneeled à la Tim Tebow, that would be different. Impossible. Not in France. Il y aurait un tollé, c’est sûr.

UPDATE: The comedian and TV host Jimmy Fallon does a great mash up of Tim Tebow and David Bowie: Tebowie. Hilarious!

Here he’s with Nicolas Anelka, also a Muslim convert.

His wife is from Algeria.

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