That was the code name for the US invasion of Grenada, which happened 30 years ago this past Friday, an anniversary I was reminded of by engagé political scientist Stephen Zunes, who has a retrospective on the event. The episode was so pathetic, less on account of the invasion itself—though rightly criticized as a violation of international law by even America’s closest allies (including Margaret Thatcher’s UK), it could have perhaps been defended as a low cost R2P-type operation against a bunch of thugs who had just seized power in a bloody coup (and the Grenadian people did seem grateful for the US action)—than the reaction of the American public. I remember well the upsurge of patriotic chest-thumping and flag-waving—of America kicking butt in a tiny speck of a country that practically no one had heard of—, commentaries by pundits on how the “Vietnam syndrome” had been vanquished, etc, etc. The best reaction to all this came from Clark Clifford, who sniffed that the invasion was akin to the Washington Redskins playing Little Sisters of the Holy Cross, beating them 451-0, and then chanting after the game “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” Clifford, who had been Defense Secretary at the height of the Vietnam War, was not impressed. The pride Americans take in the US military kicking butt in small countries requires explanation, but which I don’t have. Cf. France, which has militarily intervened in small countries on numerous occasions (Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, etc) but that has never aroused any kind of patriotic or nationalist sentiment among the French public. So why are Americans different on this score? Ideas, anyone?
Archive for the ‘Americas’ Category
I want to give some publicity to this fine new blog on the public square, the tagline of which is ‘Working site on citizenship and multiculturalism issues’. The blog’s animateur is Andrew Griffith, who, in addition to being a personal friend, is a former Canadian civil servant and diplomat, and, most recently in his career, the Director General of the Citizenship and Multiculturalism Branch, Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Andrew has worked on these issues for many years and has a book coming out this fall on the subject, and that I will certainly write about.
This is the title of an interesting 25 minute documentary—posted by my blogging consœur Victoria Ferauge on her very fine blog—, on the Anglophone exodus from Quebec (some 100,000) after the victory of the separatist Parti Québécois in the 1976 provincial elections. Anglophones constituted 20% of the Quebec population at the time but ran the place economically and, in their large majority, didn’t bother to learn French. English was the language of the economy and if educated French Canadians wanted to advance they had to function in English on the job, though Montreal was the world’s second largest French-speaking city at the time. This factor, among others, gave rise to the PQ and the Loi 101 that was enacted shortly after its victory, that imposed French as the official language of public life.
Totally normal. I have a visceral lack of sympathy for the linguistic plight of once-dominant national minorities who showed no interest in learning the language of the majority population in their midst, e.g. Walloons in Belgium, Europeans in pre-1962 Algeria, and Russians in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) during the Soviet era, in addition to the Anglophones in Quebec. There can be and are excesses on the part of the linguistic majority once it gains power and juridically imposes the majority language in draconian fashion—as has been the case in Quebec, by the Flemish in Flanders, and in the Baltic states—but one comprehends the reasons for its gripe. E.g. Flemings in Belgium have expressed exasperation at the refusal of Francophones in suburbs of Brussels over the linguistic line in Flanders to make an effort to learn Dutch. One of the persons interviewed in the documentary recounts her shock of going into downtown Montreal after the 1976 PQ victory and of people refusing to speak English to her. She must have lived in an Anglophone bubble, as when I visited Montreal in 1973 as a teenager I experienced people turning away from me when I addressed them in English (asking for directions, that sort of thing, and which I had read and been told to expect).
In the documentary one of the erstwhile Montreal Anglophones who emigrated to Alberta says
What mattered to a lot of people who went [to western Canada] was that they didn’t have to bother learn to speak a language that they really didn’t see any point in speaking.
See any point in speaking? But what better point is there to learn to speak a language if it’s the native language of the majority population in your midst, and if speaking it will clearly help you get ahead in life? Or, moreover, if it is essential in order to get ahead? One’s ability to learn a foreign language does not diminish with age; the notion that languages, for cognitive reasons, need to be learned when one is young is a groundless myth. It’s all a matter of how much time and effort one is willing to put into it. Multilingualism is, in fact, the norm for much of the world’s population, with people moving with ease between two or more languages (throughout Africa, in South Asia, among Arabs with fusha and darija, Chinese with Mandarin and regional vernaculars, etc etc). And then there are the hundreds of millions of people in the world who have learned English, or mastered some other language that they had an incentive to learn.
If Quebec Anglophones fled to English Canada on account of the imposition of French, it was because they refused to learn it, perhaps because feelings of superiority toward the heretofore subaltern majority were too deeply ingrained in their collective subconscious. After all, French is not a hard language to learn for native English speakers. As far as languages go, it’s pretty easy. It’s not Turkish or Tamil. Moreover, the Anglophones emigrants in documentary loved Montreal. It was their home and, for them, there was no city like it (and, except for the weather, it is a great city). They remained very attached it to it. Too bad for them that they couldn’t make that little linguistic effort to adapt to the new political and social realities.
Saw this terrific film from Chile the other day, about the 1988 plebiscite to allow General Pinochet to serve a second eight-year term—Pinochet’s own constitution, proclaimed eight years earlier, allowing the president only a single term in office. Normally the outcome of a plebiscite in an authoritarian regime is a foregone conclusion but the Chilean junta, succumbing to international pressure—including from the Reagan administration—to conduct the plebiscite freely and fairly, decided to allow the forces for a “No” vote 15 minutes of free, in principle uncensored TV time a night in the month preceding the vote. The opposition to Pinochet—most of which was banned, repressed, and/or in exile—was disorganized and at an obvious disadvantage vis-à-vis the junta in terms of resources (institutional, financial, and otherwise). When the campaign began it looked like the “Sí” would coast to an easy victory, all the more so as the opposition was divided over strategy—over whether to even participate in the plebiscite (which many on the left saw as a farce that could only legitimize the junta)—and didn’t have a good idea as to how to effectively use the free TV time. The latter is the story the film recounts, of a hotshot young executive (René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal), at what looked to be Santiago’s leading advertising agency, who essentially takes over the No’s ad campaign and imposes on the campaign’s skeptical leftist militants modern marketing techniques to win over floating and soft Sí voters to the No—and which of course won a big victory (and laid waste to the Sí’s ad campaign, which was headed by René’s reactionary boss at the agency).
That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which is one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of the role of communications and advertising in political campaigns—and is quite simply one of the best political films I’ve seen in a long time, period. It is also a fascinating depiction of the slow motion collapse of an authoritarian regime once political space was willy nilly opened up for the opposition to organize (and under international pressure, which was of central importance). The film was an Oscar nominee for best foreign pic, won an award at Cannes, plus several others, all well-deserved. Reviews in the US have been tops (Metacritic’s score was pulled down a bit by the nitwit critic from the New York Post), as they’ve been in France (in addition to the reviews one may read the article in Salon “When Don Draper toppled a dictator“). The reaction to the film in Chile has apparently been mixed. I’ll let those more expert on that country than I explain why (I used to be more or less knowledgeable about South America but it’s been a long time since I’ve read extensively about any country on that continent).
The director, Pablo Larraín, did one other film I’ve seen, ‘Tony Manero‘ (2008), which is set in Santiago in the late 1970s, during the junta’s années de plomb. The film was so relentlessly bleak that I didn’t how I felt about it.
Another political film from that corner of the world I’ve seen in the past week is the Argentinean ‘El Estudiante’, by first-time director Santiago Mitre, about a student at the University of Buenos Aires (Roque, played by Esteban Lamothe) who hails from the provinces and is more interested in hanging out and racking up sexual conquests than focusing on his studies. But thanks to a young leftist professor—and one of his conquests, but whom he falls for—he gets involved in student politics at the university and becomes a political operative, and which he is clearly a natural. The pic is all about the world of university politics in Argentina, which is pretty intense—public universities are autonomous and university officials (rectors, etc) are elected—and where the student parties (which go by fictive names in the film) are linked to national political parties and movements (here, left-wing Peronists, the extreme left, and Radicals). Reviews of the pic in the Hollywood press are very good (here, here, and here), as are most in France (though the spectator reviews on Allociné are somewhat less enthusiastic). I found the film interesting enough, though also less interesting at points. As one of the reviews I link to mentioned, “it’s easy to get the feeling of becoming lost in the details,” and which is what happened to me (and I wasn’t helped here by nodding off a couple of times, on account of fatigue, not the film). Though the politicking, infighting, and backstabbing one sees in the film are universal, the political context is specific to Argentina; student politics and the organization of universities in the US are completely different, of course, as they are in France (though there are some similarities in the French case, notably with activism in student politics paving the way to a later career in politics, and which is no doubt the case in Argentina). The theme of ‘No’, on the other hand—of political communication in electoral campaigns—, can be understood everywhere. I’ll see ‘El Estudiante’ again at some point but ‘No’ is definitely the more interesting film for those not expert on Chilean or Argentinean politics.
UPDATE: In a private communication Robert Barros, who knows Chilean politics better than anyone one is likely to meet, informs me that
there are a couple of factual errors [in the post]. The important ones have to do with the 1980 constitution contemplating the possibility of a second presidential term for a candidate selected by the military junta (didn’t have to be Pinochet, though he probably always saw himself in that role) and that the franja (the provision for free air time) had more to do with the internal development and implementation of the constitution than with international pressure. These variables in turn had to do with the internal dynamics within the military junta and with Pinochet.
Bob is probably the leading political science specialist in the world—and certainly in the non-Spanish speaking world—on Chilean constitutionalism. His book on the 1980 constitution is the one to read on that subject.
2nd UPDATE: An AWAV admirer outre-Atlantique informs me that he asked a Chilean-born and educated higher-up of a major international NGO what he thought of ‘No’. The response
He liked it both as an entertainment and as a depiction of history. He was not concerned by critics who complained it was historically inaccurate or that the director comes from a right-wing family. Like Argo, he said, it’s a good movie. As for the history, he said it captured the confusion and contradictions within the anti-Pinochet intelligentsia at the time and their realization that they had to move from a negative message to a positive one in order to win the vote.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]
Just about everyone with strong political convictions is posting tributes to or critiques of Hugo Chávez today, so I will too, even though I have nothing interesting to say about him. I was not a fan of Chávez, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire, as I am not a fan of caudillos or demagogic military tough guys, even if they happen to enjoy mass support among the poor. And I can hardly sympathize with someone who palled around with the likes of Muammar Qadhafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Chávez did do some good things for the lower classes—which is only normal given Venezuela’s hydrocarbon wealth—but he also did many not good things for his country’s economy. When a strongman takes control of a rentier state and makes it even more rentier, that’s not a sign of good governance. It does not merit admiration.
Instead of blathering on, particularly as I have nothing interesting to say, I will link to a few worthy pieces I’ve read on Chávez today. Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll’s NYT op-ed, “In the end, an awful manager,” was quite good. Also Andres Oppenheimer’s analysis in The Miami Herald, “Chávez’s ‘revolution’ will lose steam abroad, but not at home.” Venezuelan political scientist and blogger Francisco Toro’s piece in The Atlantic, “Chavez wasn’t just a zany buffoon, he was an oppressive autocrat,” may also be read. And there’s Human Rights Watch on “Chávez’s authoritarian legacy.” Et en français, on peut lire la tribune par le journalist Michel Faure dans Rue89, “Hugo Chavez : un mirage calamiteux créé par les pétrodollars.” I was reading in the past hour—in The Guardian, I think—a paean to Chávez by Tariq Ali but started to gag halfway through, so no link to that.
UPDATE: Voilà more links to articles on Chávez and his legacy. Alma Guillermoprieto in the NYR Blog writes on “The Last Caudillo.” On the LRB Blog, Geoffrey Hawthorn reports that Venezuelans have been tweeting “Chávez hasta siempre.” In TNR, Stanford Ph.D. candidate Dorothy Kronick discusses “Two well-timed books on Chavez’s legacy.” Also in TNR, Francisco Toro—who also has a book coming out on Chávez—has a piece on “What Fidel taught Hugo: Cuba defined Chávez’s career as much as Venezuela did.”
2nd UPDATE: Amherst political scientist Javier Corrales has an excellent analysis in FP of the political economy of chavismo, “The house that Chávez built.” Entre autres, he describes an economy so badly afflicted with the Dutch Disease that it gave rise to an even more virulent strain of this, which he coins the Venezuelan Disease. Also focusing on the economy, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy explains why “Venezuela’s ‘resource curse’ will outlive Hugo Chávez.” In his article Cassidy refers to a critical assessment of Chávez by the well-known Venezuelan political economy pundit Moisés Naím—a Washington Consensus type—in Business Week, but his link to the piece doesn’t work. It does here.
3rd UPDATE: Danny Postel of the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies, writing on Critical Inquiry’s blog, asks about “Hugo Chávez and the Middle East: Which Side Was He On?” And Mother Jones interviews journalist Rory Carroll (see above) on “Covering Hugo Chávez: ‘If Only He Ruled As Well As He Campaigned’.”
4th UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias has a short but pertinent commentary from last Thursday, in which he points out that “Hugo Chavez is controversial because of American aspirations to global military hegemony. People who vocally oppose those aspirations find themselves subjected to a massive amount of scrutiny of their human rights record that leaders who support it manage to completely avoid.”
As this seems to be Canada weekend on my blog (see previous two posts) I should mention this Canadian film I saw last night. It was a nominee for best foreign film at the last Oscars and opened in the US in April, several months before arriving in France. The pic is about a 50-ish Algerian asylum-seeker, named Bachir Lazhar, who becomes a substitute teacher en catastrophe in a 6th grade class in a Montreal public school—whose beloved teacher committed suicide—, and of his experience in the classroom, with the students, and his colleagues. It’s a touching film and with several themes: mourning and coping with loss—as Lazhar is also mourning his own, which one learns in the course of the film—, of deracination, navigating cultural differences… The acting is first-rate, particularly the children. US reviews of the film are tops. In France they’re good (and with spectators particularly enthusiastic). Trailer is here.
The big draw of the film for us was the Algeria angle and, above all, the casting of Fellag in the role of Lazhar. Fellag is a hugely popular comedian and actor in Algeria and France (particularly among Algerian immigrants), best known for his one-man comic acts. They’re wonderful. We love them in my family. Fellag is very funny and his social satire is dead on target. And his accent and schtick are almost stereotypically Kabyle Berber (just as those of Lenny Bruce and Jackie Mason were Jewish-American). In order to follow him, it helps not only to have perfect French comprehension but also some knowledge of Algeria (though one of my work colleagues, who does not know Algeria or the Maghreb, went to one of his shows last year and loved it). For two of his most popular acts, see here and here.
In my previous post I linked to a Marxist-sounding op-ed by the dean of the University of Toronto’s business school. Hard to imagine any of his American b-school counterparts writing such words. In thinking about Canada, I am reminded of a piece from Bloomberg.com last July on how Canada’s “hardheaded socialism” has made it richer than the US, that the net worth of Canadian households was now greater than those south of the border. The author, Stephen Marche, described the approach of conservative Canadian governments, including the present one. Money quote [emphasis added in bold]
Both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. have tried to use the Canadian example to promote their arguments: The left says Canada shows the rewards of financial regulation and socialism, while the right likes to vaunt the brutal cuts made to Canadian social programs in the 1990s, which set the stage for economic recovery.
The truth is that both sides are right. Since the 1990s, Canada has pursued a hardheaded (even ruthless), fiscally conservative form of socialism. Its originator was Paul Martin, who was finance minister for most of the ’90s, and served a stint as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. Alone among finance ministers in the Group of Eight nations, he “resisted the siren call of deregulation,” in his words, and insisted that the banks tighten their loan-loss and reserve requirements. He also made a courageous decision not to allow Canadian banks to merge, even though their chief executives claimed they would never be globally competitive unless they did. The stability of Canadian banks and the concomitant stability in the housing market provide the clearest explanation for why Canadians are richer than Americans today.
Martin also slashed funding to social programs. He foresaw that crippling deficits imperiled Canada’s education and health-care systems, which even his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, described as a “sacred trust.” He cut corporate taxes, too. Growth is required to pay for social programs, and social programs that increase opportunity and social integration are the best way to ensure growth over the long term. Social programs and robust capitalism are not, as so many would have you believe, inherently opposed propositions. Both are required for meaningful national prosperity.
Social programs were cut not to gut them—and certainly not for ideological reasons à la the American right—but to perennialize them. And no one on the Canadian right is talking about replacing the country’s single-payer health care system with something akin to what presently exists in the US.
On Canadian banks and regulation—of Canada not going off the deregulatory cliff—, business reporter Theresa Tedesco and Paul Krugman had analyses in ’09 and ’10, respectively (here and here). Should the US Congress be so inspired.
On current right-wing praise for “socialist” Canada, conservative onetime press baron Conrad Black had an op-ed last weekend in the conservative New York Sun, misleadingly entitled “How Canada Has Eclipsed America In the Obama Years” (misleading because Black dates the beginning of the eclipse well before Obama took office). Money quote [emphasis added in bold]
the United States has fumbled away its gentle overlordship of the world these last 15 years. [i.e. through the entire Bush-Cheney period] Huge current account deficits and colossal federal budget deficits arose, and while the United Sates is generally successful [sic] in real wars, its habit of calling policy attacks on sociological problems “wars” has led to the conspicuous failures of the wars on crime, poverty and drugs.
The Canadian dollar has risen from 65¢ American to par, and Canada’s comparative standard of living has inched upwards, and its wealth is much more evenly distributed. The jagged nature of American democracy left 40 million African Americans unsegregated but still the subject of institutionalized discrimination, and 70% of people with magnificent (free) medical care and 30% with access to care but on a pretty stingy and erratic basis.
American education has become very uneven, American justice has degenerated into a turkey shoot for the benefit of a prosecutorial class that terrorizes the country and has given America 10 times the average number of incarcerated people per capita of other advanced prosperous democracies. Sixty million basic manufacturing and service jobs have been out-sourced while 20 million unskilled peasants were admitted illegally to the country, and trillions of dollars of worthless real estate-backed securities inundated the world, pumped out by Wall Street and certified as investment grade, almost asphyxiating the American financial industry while trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives were squandered in the sanguinary Quixotry of nation-building in the Middle and Near East.
Okay, an American conservative may retort to this that Black is Canadian—or he used to be, until he became a Brit—so whaddaya expect?! But still…
Black then offers this
Prudent, hesitant Canada, ran 14 federal government surpluses in a row. We are the pigs in the brick house — it isn’t a heroic position, neither daring nor stylish, but Canadians are peering through the portals of their stout solid home, transfixed and astonished.
Astonished at America. My, even libertarian Cato Institute types (e.g. here; h/t for the above image) are praising the Canadian way of running the economy. Now they do deplore the government-run health care system and government spending that amounts to 42% of national output, but the fact remains that Canada is prospering—and in the estimation of the libertarians—despite the government-run health care system and high levels of government spending. Which, ergo, means that economies and countries can indeed prosper with government-run health care and high levels of government spending. Or under what American conservatives call “socialism”…
One is reminded of American right-wing dissing of Canada in the last decade, most famously expressed by Patrick Buchanan, who referred to the country as “Soviet Canuckistan” back in ’02. This was at least humorous. Less humorous was a cover story on Canada in the National Review, also in ’02, entitled “Wimps!” In the screed author Jonah Goldberg opined that what Canada needed was “a little invasion” by the US
It’s quite possible that the greatest favor the United States could do for Canada is to declare war on it. No, this isn’t a tribute to South Park, the TV cartoon that popularized a song — Blame Canada — calling for an outright invasion of America’s northern neighbor. A full-scale conquest is unnecessary; all Canada needs is to be slapped around a little bit, to be treated like a whining kid who’s got to start acting like a man. Why would such a war be necessary? The short answer is: to keep the Canadians from being conquered by the United States. In effect, it would be a war to keep Canada free.
Other tidbits from the screed
Canada is barely a functioning democracy at all: Its governmental structure, if described objectively, is far more similar to what we would expect in a corrupt African state with decades of one-party rule.
Despite Canada’s self-delusions, it is, quite simply, not a serious country anymore. It is a northern Puerto Rico with an EU sensibility.
If the U.S. were to launch a quick raid into Canada, blow up some symbolic but unoccupied structure — Toronto’s CN Tower, or perhaps an empty hockey stadium — Canada would rearm overnight. Indeed, Canada might even be forced to rethink many of its absurd socialist policies in order to pay for the costs involved in protecting itself from the Yankee peril. Canada’s neurotic anti-Americanism would be transformed into manly resolve. The U.S. could quickly pretend to be frightened that it had messed with the wrong country, and negotiate a fragile peace with the newly ornery Canadians. In a sense, the U.S. owes it to Canada to slap it out of its shame-spiral. That’s what big brothers do.
Goldberg naturally did not spare “Canada’s disastrous health-care system.” Other US right-wingers also jumped on the Canada-bashing bandwagon, such as Ann Coulter, who informed Canadians that they were “lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent,” and Tucker Carlson, who snickered that “without the U.S., Canada is essentially Honduras” (see here).
Voilà a slice of the American right’s Weltanschauung. To Goldberg, Coulter et al the only thing I have to say to them is this.
the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, of course, an event that marked all those on the left of my generation and older. A colleague of mine, El Yamine Soum, marked the anniversary on Facebook not with the normally obligatory mention of the American role in the coup but a comment on the action of French military officers in its wake
Un tortionnaire de l’Algérie Aussaresses, ainsi que des militaires français vont transposer les méthodes de torture et de guerre dans cette région du monde pour soutenir la mise en place des régimes militaires, c’est que l’on appellera “l’école française”
The torturer, Paul Aussaresses—who attained the rank of General in the French army—, was a veteran of the Battle of Algiers, where he learned the tricks of the trade, as it were. During the 1960s he led teams of Algeria war veterans to the US, to train Vietnam-destined American military personnel in interrogation techniques. In the 1970s the training courses were extended to dictatorships in Latin America, Chile among them. The investigative journalist Marie-Monique Robin has written a book on this and produced a documentary. To watch it, go here.
I was all ready to post a very good academic article on the Roberts Court v. America but guess that wouldn’t be appropriate today. I sure am happy about the SCOTUS ruling, though wouldn’t have been devastated if the ACA had been struck down, as that would have made single payer/Medicare-for-all the only alternative. As the ACA is an unsatisfying compromise with the insurance companies and logic of the market in what should be a public service, Republicans should be happy the supremos upheld it, ’cause otherwise they’d be faced with real “socialism” down the road. In the meantime, I will fête the SCOTUS ruling by posting these tweets by distraught conservatives, who say that because of Obamacare they’re going to move to Canada. They’ll sure like the health care system up there, no doubt about it!
(h/t Arthur Goldhammer & Laurie Lewis)
Taking a break from French politics, which I’ve been writing about pretty much nonstop for the past few weeks, I want to mention a few movies I’ve seen of late. One is this slick Congolese crime thriller, the first feature-length film shot in that country since the 1980s. The story is about a small time, high-living hustler named Riva, who steals a truckload of gasoline from the Angolan criminal gang he works for to sell on the Kinshasa black market for his own profit, of his run-ins with corrupt soldiers, policemen, priests—everyone is corrupt or corruptible—plus local criminal kingpins, all while trying to evade his Angolan gangster boss and his henchmen, who are hot on his trail. It’s a good, entertaining action film, with the usual dose of violence plus steamy sex scenes. For those who may be not be into this genre—and I’m usually not—, it’s worth seeing for no other reason than it was entirely shot on location in and around Kinshasa, which is a city that has to be seen to be believed. The European producer wanted the director, Djo Tunda wa Munga, to shoot the film elsewhere for security reasons, but he insisted on doing so in Kinshasa, as no other city could possibly substitute (it would be akin to shooting a film in Albuquerque and calling it L.A.).
Kinshasa—where I spent four days four years ago—is a teeming Fourth World urban dystopia of ten million people—many refugees from the war ravaged interior of the country—and the capital of a failed state—of a once kleptocratic state that has collapsed into near non-existence after two decades of war, five decades of catastrophic misrule, and, prior to that, one of the worst colonial systems ever. Before arriving in Kinshasa from sleepy Brazzaville across the river, I was told to get ready for Mad Max à l’africaine. Kinshasa is the one African capital I’ve visited where I was issued with a cell phone to call US embassy security if I was out and about and thought I was going to be robbed—not by criminals but by uniformed soldiers who hadn’t been paid in months, who cruise the streets looking for foreigners to shake down. And if one is not accompanied by a local fixer at the airport, the probability that one will be robbed or extorted in the gauntlet of men in uniform is close to 100% (N’Djili has to be the worst airport in the world, hands down and by far). But despite all this, there is a vibrancy to Kinshasa. It has a great music scene—as one may glean, e.g., in the fine 2007 documentary ‘On the Rumba River‘—and the academics, journalists, and students I met there were great. The Belgians built Kinshasa to be a majestic, European-style city. If the Congo had had a functioning, even halfway rational state these past decades, Kinshasa could have been just that.
But the place is chaotic and sans foi ni loi, which the film captures perfectly. At the end I thought of the final scene of the Coen brothers’ ‘Fargo’: all those people killed and for what? Here, a few lousy barrels of gasoline. Life sucks in a failed state. À propos, the film is recommended for those of a social scientific bent and/or interested in comparative politics or development issues. The acting is also very good, notably the lesbian army captain who masquerades as a nun (actress Marlene Longange) and the femme fatale played by the bellissime Franco-Ivorienne Manie Malone—she learned Lingala for the role—, who, as Variety’s critic correctly observed, is “stunning…a knockout from head to toe” (see here, here, and here). The pic received top reviews in the US (here, here, and here)—where it opened last year—, as well as in France (here).
Another film I’ve seen lately on the same general theme is ‘Miss Bala’, a Mexican crime thriller about a college student and beauty queen contestant in Tijuana—played by the rather beautiful model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman—, who is press-ganged into serving a local drug gang (it’s based on an actual story from a few years ago). The pic is a hyper-realistic portrayal of the unbelievable level of violence in Mexico, of its descente aux enfers into a narco state. Objectively it’s a good film—reviews in both the US and France are tops—but it’s not “fun” like ‘Viva Riva!’ nor an edge of the seat thriller, insofar as the set pieces, while well done, are choreographed and you know the poor young woman, though caught in a hellish engrenage, is not going to get killed. If Mexico has really become like this—and I’m quite sure the film’s depiction is accurate—, well, this is really a disaster. And right on the US border, and with the US in no small part responsible. On y reviendra à l’occasion.
ARTE broadcast an excellent 85-minute documentary last week on torture in the USA, by the journalist and filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin. It is no longer available for viewing on the ARTE web site but may be seen on YouTube (in 9 parts).
It continues to leave me speechless that torture is not only practiced in the US but is justified—by politicians, academicians, intellectuals, and media pundits—and largely accepted by the public, or so it seems. The libertarian policy intellectual Ted Galen Carpenter is also appalled—yes, there are still honorable people on the American right—, as he writes in this essay from last week on The National Interest web site. As Galen concludes
An America in which torture becomes an acceptable, even normal, practice is not the America I know. It is not an America that I would want to know.
Back to Marie-Monique Robin, she authored an exceptional book in 2004, Escadrons de la mort, l’école française—Death Squads, the French School—, on how French military officers—all veterans of the Algerian war—trained Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s—notably Argentina and Chile—in torture techniques. The book has not been translated into English but does exist in Spanish. It was also made into a documentary, which may be seen on YouTube (in 7 parts).