Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

France-Switzerland, Salvador, June 20th

France-Switzerland, Salvador, June 20th

France-Switzerland: What an amazing game! Five f—ing goals scored by Les Bleus—and by five different players—and against a good team to boot! Haven’t seen that kind of performance by Les Bleus in a long time (okay, there was that little victory against Ukraine last November…). The French national team is definitely back—and will definitely have regained the esteem of the French public—, even after/if it is eliminated in the knockout phase of the tournament.

On the subject of l’équipe de France, historian Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, who works in the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian, had a post on June 17th on TNR’s Goal Posts blog, “French revival? Five story lines to watch during Les Bleus’ next matches.” As it happens, Dr. Krasnoff published a book in 2012 on the formation of players for the French national teams in soccer and basketball, The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. I haven’t seen it yet but am sure it’s a good, informative read.

Another recent, English-language scholarly type book on Les Bleus is Duke University history and French prof Laurent Dubois’s Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, published in 2011 by the University of California Press. I haven’t seen this one either but in view of Dr. Dubois’s fine Soccer Politics/The Politics of Football blog, am sure it’s tops.

On the Swiss team and its multiethnic character—which I mentioned in my previous World Cup post—, journalist Jérôme Houard has an interesting piece in Slate.fr, “La «Nati» suisse, une équipe unie par sa diversité” (June 20th).

Some Tweet-length comments on games of the past few days that I’ve seen in part or whole:

Brazil-Mexico: What an intense, tension-filled game! Whoever said scoreless ties couldn’t be exciting?!

Colombia-Ivory Coast: Too bad for Les Éléphants. Hope they whack the Greeks to advance.

England-Uruguay: Tough for the English, what to say? I would have liked to see them advance. Hélas.

Costa Rica-Italy: Wow, Costa Rica is for real! Whoda thunk it?

Ecuador-Honduras: Bof.

I unfortunately missed Chile-Spain and Australia-Netherlands. On Spain’s crashing out, I know how the Spaniards feel. We in France were there in 2002 and 2010 (though Les Bleus were eliminated in the third group games in those, not the second…).



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Yet one more massacre

The six Isla Vista massacre victims, from top left: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng-Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang.  (Credit: abc7.com)

The six Isla Vista massacre victims, from top left: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng-Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang.
(Credit: abc7.com)

[update below]

Joe Nocera of the NYT has a must read column today on the Second Amendment, “What did the Framers really mean?” For those who are maxed out on their free NYT access or are too lazy to click on the link, here’s the whole thing

Three days after the publication of Michael Waldman’s new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a killing spree, stabbing three people and then shooting another eight, killing four of them, including himself. This was only the latest mass shooting in recent memory, going back to Columbine.

In his rigorous, scholarly, but accessible book, Waldman notes such horrific events but doesn’t dwell on them. He is after something else. He wants to understand how it came to be that the Second Amendment, long assumed to mean one thing, has come to mean something else entirely. To put it another way: Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?

The Second Amendment begins, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that’s where Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, begins, too. He has gone back into the framers’ original arguments and made two essential discoveries, one surprising and the other not surprising at all.

The surprising discovery is that of all the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, the Second was probably the least debated. What we know is that the founders were deeply opposed to a standing army, which they viewed as the first step toward tyranny. Instead, their assumption was that the male citizenry would all belong to local militias. As Waldman writes, “They were not allowed to have a musket; they were required to. More than a right, being armed was a duty.”

Thus the unsurprising discovery: Virtually every reference to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — the second part of the Second Amendment — was in reference to military defense. Waldman notes the House debate over the Second Amendment in the summer of 1789: “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In time, of course, the militia idea died out, replaced by a professionalized armed service. Most gun regulation took place at the state and city level. The judiciary mostly stayed out of the way. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the nation’s first national gun law, the National Firearms Act, which put onerous limits on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns — precisely because the guns had no “reasonable relation” to “a well-regulated militia.”

But then, in 1977, there was a coup at the National Rifle Association, which was taken over by Second Amendment fundamentalists. Over the course of the next 30 years, they set out to do nothing less than change the meaning of the Second Amendment, so that it’s final phrase — “shall not be infringed” — referred to an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a collective right for the common defense.

Waldman is scornful of much of this effort. Time and again, he finds the proponents of this new view taking the founders’ words completely out of context, sometimes laughably so. They embrace Thomas Jefferson because he once wrote to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms.” In fact, says Waldman, Jefferson was referring to some old letter he needed “so he could issue a rebuttal in case he got attacked for a decision he made as secretary of state.

Still, as Waldman notes, the effort was wildly successful. In 1972, the Republican platform favored gun control. By 1980, the Republican platform opposed gun registration. That year, the N.R.A. gave its first-ever presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan.

The critical modern event, however, was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which tossed aside two centuries of settled law, and ruled that a gun-control law in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The author of the majority opinion was Antonin Scalia, who fancies himself the leading “originalist” on the court — meaning he believes, as Waldman puts it, “that the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution is to ask what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.”

Waldman is persuasive that a truly originalist decision would have tied the right to keep and bear arms to a well-regulated militia. But the right to own guns had by then become conservative dogma, and it was inevitable that the five conservative members of the Supreme Court would vote that way.

“When the militias evaporated,” concludes Waldman, “so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.” But, he adds, “What we did not have was a regime of judicially enforced individual rights, able to trump the public good.”

Sadly, that is what we have now, as we saw over the weekend. Elliot Rodger’s individual right to bear arms trumped the public good. Eight people were shot as a result.

Also worth reading is Michael Moore’s reaction to the Isla Vista massacre, posted on his Facebook page (h/t Lisa H.)

With due respect to those who are asking me to comment on last night’s tragic mass shooting at UCSB in Isla Vista, CA — I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life. Everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago: We are a people easily manipulated by fear which causes us to arm ourselves with a quarter BILLION guns in our homes that are often easily accessible to young people, burglars, the mentally ill and anyone who momentarily snaps. We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) “interests.” The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol. While other countries have more violent pasts (Germany, Japan), more guns per capita in their homes (Canada [mostly hunting guns]), and the kids in most other countries watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games that our kids play, no one even comes close to killing as many of its own citizens on a daily basis as we do — and yet we don’t seem to want to ask ourselves this simple question: “Why us? What is it about US?” Nearly all of our mass shootings are by angry or disturbed white males. None of them are committed by the majority gender, women. Hmmm, why is that? Even when 90% of the American public calls for stronger gun laws, Congress refuses — and then we the people refuse to remove them from office. So the onus is on us, all of us. We won’t pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won’t consider why this happens here all the time. When the NRA says, “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people,” they’ve got it half-right. Except I would amend it to this: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon.

Yes, as this is America, it will indeed happen again. Very soon.

UPDATE: Americans get killed by guns every day, by people who are not criminals or “bad guys.” Every last day of the week. If one does not believe me, read the “Holiday Weekend Gun Report: May 23-26, 2014” on Joe Nocera’s NYT blog.


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[updates below]

That’s what political scientists Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson call him in a TAP forum, “Piketty’s Triumph,” on the publication this month of his Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), which has been taking the US by storm. It’s really something the gushing attention that’s being showered by the American chattering class on a 700-page book by a left-wing French economist—who could write his own ticket in American academia but prefers life in Paris—and the English version of which is a translation from French. I’ve been familiar with Thomas Piketty’s work and perspectives for a while, as he has been writing for and speaking to the larger public on economic issues since early in the last decade—he had a regular economics column in Libération for several years, entre autres—, and was an economic adviser to successive Socialist party presidential candidates. I haven’t yet read his latest book; I’d normally get a copy here in V.O.—it was published last September by Editions du Seuil—but as the English one was translated by my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer—and who no doubt improved on the original French version—, that’s what I’ll read.

Even if I had read the book, though, I wouldn’t offer a review of it, as there are countless others more competent to do that than I. Here are links to good stuff I’ve read (or watched) of late on Piketty’s magnum opus:

One of the best is Emily Eakin’s April 17th article in The Chronicle Review, “Capital Man.” The lede: Thomas Piketty is economics’ biggest sensation. He’s also the field’s fiercest critic.

Paul Krugman—who’s been singing Piketty’s praises on his NYT blog—has a review essay on the book in the NYRB (issue dated May 8th), “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age.”

Bill Moyers, on his TV show Moyers & Company, had a great 20-minute interview last night with Krugman on Piketty’s book, “What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know.” Make sure to watch this one.

On Tuesday the Tax Policy Center—of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution—had an hour-and-a-half forum, at the Urban Institute in Washington, on Piketty’s book, with Piketty presenting his argument and then commentary by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (liberal-left) and Kevin Hassett (co-author of the 1999 best-seller Dow 36,000) of the American Enterprise Institute (conservative). A good, highbrow debate. Watch it here.

On Wednesday the CUNY Graduate Center hosted an event on the book, with Piketty, Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Steven Durlauf, and moderated by Janet Gornick and Branko Milanović. I wish I could have attended that one. It may be seen on the Graduate Center’s YouTube channel.

For those who can follow French, here’s Piketty debating Emmanuel Todd last September 6th on France 2′s Ce soir ou jamais, on the occasion of the book’s V.O. publication.

The New Republic’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 17th), “The Economist Was a Rock Star.” The lede: Thomas Piketty isn’t just a brilliant economist; he’s a fantastic storyteller.

À propos, see the dispatch in yesterday’s NYT, “Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment.”

In The Observer (April 13th) is a commentary by Andrew Hussey entitled “Occupy was right: capitalism has failed the world.” The lede: One of the slogans of the 2011 Occupy protests was ‘capitalism isn’t working’. Now, in an epic, groundbreaking new book, French economist Thomas Piketty explains why they’re right.

For a critique of Piketty’s book from the left, see economist James K. Galbraith’s “Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?” in the Spring issue of Dissent. Entre autres, Galbraith sniffs that Piketty’s policy views “reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal.”

See also Dean Baker’s critique, “Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th,” on the Huff Post Business blog (March 9th).

For a slew of other reviews of Piketty’s book (by e.g. Brad DeLong, Doug Henwood, John Cassidy…), go to this post on the CEPR website.

I had a blog post three years ago in which I made reference to a book Piketty co-authored (with Camille Landais and Emmanuel Saez) that detailed a progressive proposal on how to reform the (impossibly complex and perverse) French tax code. Among the intended recipients of the plan were PS presidential candidates, who would be in a position to take it up in the event one of them were elected in 2012. So has François Hollande adopted the Piketty et al plan as his own? Yeah, sure.

UPDATE: Columbia University Ph.D. student Timothy Shenk has a lengthy essay in The Nation (May 5th issue), “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.” The lede: Capitalism’s new critics take on an economics run amok.

2nd UPDATE: Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (conservative)—who asked the final question in the Tax Policy Center forum linked to above—has a critique of Piketty in Forbes (April 17th), “Whither The Bottom 90 Percent, Thomas Piketty?” He thus begins: “While not quite inducing Beatlemania, French economist Thomas Piketty’s visit this week to America has inspired the Washington analog of teenage frenzy.” This looks to be the first in a series of pieces Winship will be publishing in Forbes on Piketty’s book.

3rd UPDATE: Robert Solow, 1987 Nobel Prize in economics laureate, has a review essay on the book in TNR (April 22nd), in which he says that “Thomas Piketty Is Right.”

4th UPDATE: Piketty’s book is presently Amazon.com’s nº1 best-seller. Amazing. À propos, Rana Foroohar, a Time magazine editor of economics and business, explains why “this best-selling book is freaking out the super-wealthy.” (April 23rd)

5th UPDATE: Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, who teaches at George Mason University—a well-known repaire of public choice theorists—, has a review of Piketty’s book in Foreign Affairs (May-June issue), “Capital Punishment: Why a Global Tax on Wealth Won’t End Inequality.”

6th UPDATE: TNR’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 24th) on “Piketty’s ‘Capital’: A Hit That Was, Wasn’t, Then Was Again.” The lede: How the French tome has rocked the tiny Harvard University Press.

7th UPDATE: U.Va. political scientist Deborah Boucoyannis has a post on The Monkey Cage blog (April 22nd) arguing that “Adam Smith is not the antidote to Thomas Piketty.”

8th UPDATE: UC-Berkeley’s Brad DeLong, writing on The Equitablog (April 23rd), offers his take on Piketty’s book. His conclusion: “To sum up: a very good book, a very, as Solow says, serious book. It has certainly moved me from thinking that the odds that two generations hence we will have a much more unequal and plutocratic society were 2-1 against to thinking that they are 3-1 for…”

9th UPDATE: Here’s Martin Wolf’s review of the book in the FT (April 15th), which I missed. Voilà Wolf’s conclusion: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realisation, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it. In a society dominated by wealth, money will buy power. Inequality cannot be eliminated. It is inevitable and to a degree even desirable. But, as the Greeks argued, there needs to be moderation in all things. We are not seeing moderate rises in inequality. We should take notice.” Amen.

10th UPDATE: Duke University law and political theory prof Jedediah Purdy has a review essay of Piketty’s book in the Los Angeles Review of Books (April 24th), “To Have and Have Not.”

11th UPDATE: Paul Krugman’s column in the April 25th NYT focuses on “The Piketty Panic” on the American right.

12th UPDATE: Ross Douthat, a columnist I normally don’t bother reading, has a post (April 25th) on his NYT blog that attracted my attention on account of the title, “Piketty and the petits rentiers,” and in which he makes some valid points.

13th UPDATE: Tim Fernholz, who writes on politics and economics for Quartz—”a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy”—, has a piece (March 30th) on “Everything wrong with capitalism, as explained by Balzac, ‘House’ and ‘The Aristocats’,” in which he meditates on the dilemma of Rastignac as spelled out in Piketty’s book.

14th UPDATE: Martin Wolf’s latest FT column (April 25th), taking up “the rising tide of anxiety” in reaction to Piketty’s book, argues that “A more equal society will not hinder growth.” The lede: Inequality damages the economy and efforts to remedy it are, on the whole, not harmful. Wolf informs the reader that, two months ago, “the staff of the International Monetary Fund…in a note entitled Redistribution, Inequality and Growth…came to clear conclusions: societies that start off more unequal tend to redistribute more; lower net inequality (post-interventions) drives faster and more durable growth; and redistribution is generally benign in its impact on growth, with negative effects only when taken to extremes.” Further down Wolf writes that “It is not only possible, but valuable, to marry open and dynamic market economies to the sense of shared purpose and achievement brought by tolerable degrees of inequality. Moreover, less inequality is likely to make economies work better by increasing the ability of the entire population to participate, on more equal terms. An important condition for this, in turn, is that politics not be unduly beholden to wealth.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

15th UPDATE: Financial journalist and blogger Felix Salmon has a post on the Reuters blog (April 25th), “The Piketty pessimist,” in which, entre autres, he links to Chrystia Freeland’s April 20th review in Politico, “The book every plutocrat should read: Thomas Piketty’s new tome just might save the super-rich from themselves,” and former World Bank economist Branko Milanović’s 20-page “The return of ‘patrimonial capitalism’: review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century,” from last October.

16th UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer, writing in The Daily Beast (April 26th), incisively explains how right-wing columnist James Poulos “gets Piketty–and Tocqueville–wrong.”

17th UPDATE: Garett Jones, who teaches econ at George Mason U., has a critique of Piketty (April 26th), “Living with Inequality,” on the Über-libertarian website Reason.com. The lede: Has Thomas Piketty really found “the central contradiction of capitalism”?

18th UPDATE: Here’s yet another argument for Piketty’s global wealth tax.

19th UPDATE: The NYT’s David Leonhardt writes in the NYT Magazine (May 2nd) that “Inequality has been going on forever…but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.” He says that “For all of the clarity of Piketty’s historical analysis, I emerged from the book not quite grasping the mechanics of rising inequality. What is it about market economies that typically cause the assets and incomes of the rich to rise more rapidly than those of everyone else? So I called Piketty at his office in Paris, and he agreed to walk me through it.” And Piketty does.

20th UPDATE: TNR’s Isaac Chotiner has an “Interview with the left’s rock star economist” (May 5th), in which the economist in question, Thomas Piketty, says “I don’t care for Marx.” Dis donc. At the end of the interview is a 42-minute video discussion with Piketty in Huffington Post Politics, led by Ryan Grim and former Wall Street banker Alexis Goldstein.

21st UPDATE: TNR’s John B. Judis follows up from Chotiner’s Piketty interview with a piece (May 6th) informing the reader that “Thomas Piketty Is Pulling Your Leg.” The lede: He clearly read Karl Marx. But don’t call him a Marxist.

22nd UPDATE: Mike Konczal, who blogs at Rortybomb, has a review essay (April 29th) in the Boston Review on “Studying the Rich: Thomas Piketty and his Critics.”

23rd UPDATE: Writing in the NYT’s The Upshot blog (May 9th), Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examines a conservative/libertarian critique of Piketty, concluding that “Piketty’s Arguments Still Hold Up, After Taxes.”

24th UPDATE: Salon.com columnist Thomas Frank—of What’s the Matter with Kansas? fame—has a piece (May 11th) explaining “The problem with Thomas Piketty: ‘Capital’ destroys right-wing lies, but there’s one solution it forgets.” The lede: After “Capital,” we’ll never talk income inequality or meritocratic myths the same way. But we must talk unions.

25th UPDATE: Economists Odran Bonnet, Pierre-Henri Bono, Guillaume Chapelle and Etienne Wasmer—affiliated with Sciences Po-Paris’s Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’évaluation des politiques publiques (LIEPP)—published a working paper on April 17th (in French and with English translation), “Does housing capital contribute to inequality? A comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which they contradict Piketty’s thesis. The paper was mentioned in a post (April 29th) on the NYT’s The Upshot blog by libertarian economists Tyler Cowen and Veronique de Rugy, “Why Piketty’s Book Is a Bigger Deal in America Than in France.”

26th UPDATE: Thomas B. Edsall has a column (May 14th) in the NYT on “Thomas Piketty and His Critics.” Among the critics he mentions—and whose reviews he links to—are Kenneth Rogoff and Clive Crook.

27th UPDATE: The Spring 2014 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas has a review of Piketty’s book by Lawrence Summers, “The Inequality Puzzle.” The lede: Thomas Piketty’s tour de force analysis doesn’t get everything right, but it’s certainly gotten us pondering the right questions.

28th UPDATE: Dani Rodrik, writing in Social Europe Journal (May 16th), weighs in on “Piketty and the Zeitgeist.” Money quote: “Perhaps more than the argument itself, what makes Capital in the Twenty-First Century a great read is the sense of witnessing a superb mind grapple with the big questions of our time. Piketty’s emphasis on the political nature of the distribution of income; his subtle back-and-forth between the general laws of capitalism and the role played by contingency; and his willingness to offer bold (if, to many, impractical) remedies to save capitalism from itself are as refreshing as they are rare for an economist.”

29th UPDATE: Jeff Madrick, writing on the Triple Crisis blog (May 20th), asks “Is the Piketty enthusiasm bubble subsiding?

30th UPDATE: Uh oh, the FT reports (May 23rd) that the “Piketty findings [are] undercut by errors.”

31st UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (May 24th) on his NYT blog on the “[g]reat buzz in the blogosphere over Chris Giles’s [FT] attack on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which he asks “Is Piketty all wrong?” The short answer: a little bit but not really. In the post, Krugman links to two posts on the NYT’s The Upshot blog that also take on Chris Giles’s attack, one by University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, who says that the “new critique of Piketty has its own shortcomings,” the other by Neil Irwin, who asks “Did Thomas Piketty get his math wrong?

32nd UPDATE: The Economist’s Free Exchange blog has a post (May 24th) on the Piketty data error brouhaha, asking is there “A Piketty problem?” The short answer: Insofar as there is one it does not “support many of the allegations made by the FT, or the conclusion that the book’s argument is wrong.” The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim informs us that “The economists FT relied on for its Thomas Piketty takedown don’t buy it” (May 27th). And Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason writes in The Guardian that “Thomas Piketty’s real challenge was to the FT’s Rolex types.” The lede: If the FT’s attack on the radical economist’s ‘rising inequality’ thesis is right, then all the gross designer bling in its How To Spend It section can be morally justified.

33rd UPDATE: More pushback against the Chris Giles FT attack. Mike Konczal at Rortybomb says “The FT Gets Piketty’s Capital Argument Wrong” (May 24th).

thomas piketty_capital in the twenty first century

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On nationalism

I think about nationalism a lot. I hate nationalism. Nationalism—called “patriotism” in America—is a scourge of the modern era. As for nationalists—whatever their nationality—, discussion with them is futile, when not impossible. On the perversity of nationalism, I particularly like this passage by Erich Fromm, from his book The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1955), pp. 57-60.

[W]e find, in the European development, the persistence of…the fixation to blood and soil. Man—freed from the traditional bonds of the medieval community, afraid of the new freedom which transformed him into an isolated atom—escaped into a new idolatry of blood and soil, of which nationalism and racism are the two most evident expressions. (…)

(…) Nationalism, originally a progressive movement, replaced the bonds of feudalism and absolutism. The average man today obtains his sense of identity from his belonging to a nation, rather from his being a “son of man.” His objectivity, that is, his reason is warped by this fixation. He judges the “stranger” with different criteria than the members of his own clan. His feelings toward the stranger are equally warped. Those who are not “familiar” by bonds of blood and soil (expressed by common language, customs, food, songs, etc.) are looked upon with suspicion, and paranoid delusions about them can spring up at the slightest provocation. The incestuous fixation not only poisons the relationship of the individual to the stranger, but to the members of his own clan and to himself. The person who has not freed himself from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being; his capacity for love and reason are crippled; he does not experience himself nor his fellow man in their—and his own—human reality.

Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare—never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of love for one’s humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.

The idolatrous character of national feeling can be seen in the reaction to the violations of clan symbols, a reaction which is very different from that to the violation of religious or moral symbols. Let us picture a man who takes the flag of his country to a street of one of the cities of the Western world, and tramples on it in view of other people. He would be lucky not to be lynched. Almost everybody would feel a sense of furious indignation, which hardly permits of any objective thought. The man who desecrated the flag would have done something unspeakable; he would have committed a crime which is not one crime among others, but the crime, the one unforgivable and unpardonable. Not quite as drastic, but nevertheless qualitatively the same would be the reaction to a man who says, “I do not love my country,” or, in the case of war, “I do not care for my country’s victory.” Such a sentence is a real sacrilege, and a man saying it becomes a monster, an outlaw in the feelings of his fellow men.

(…) Even if a man should speak disparagingly of God, he would hardly arouse the same feeling of indignation as against the crime, against the sacrilege which is the violation of the symbols of the country. (…)

After the great European Revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries failed to transform “freedom from” into “freedom to,” nationalism and state worship became the symptoms of a regression to incestuous fixation. Only when man succeeds in developing his reason further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home.

Brilliant. I have the passage in French translation as well, which I’ll put up at some point.


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1960s activist Steve Wasserman has a most interesting review essay in The Nation on the recently published Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., academic historians both. Wasserman, who knows the subject rather well, is critical of the book, which he says is “about as close to an official history as can be imagined.” Reading the essay brought back memories from my early ’70s gauchiste teen years, when I thought the Black Panthers were cool. I subscribed to the Black Panther Party’s official newspaper for a stretch—and remember well its exalting The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung—and, of course, read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (didn’t everyone?). My main memory from that is Cleaver recounting his pre-revolutionary youth, when he would rape black women as practice for raping white women. Nice.

On Cleaver, who was the BPP’s “minister of information,” Wasserman writes

Cleaver was regarded by many of the younger recruits within the party as their Malcolm X. A strong advocate of working with progressive whites, Cleaver was a man of large appetites, an anarchic and ribald spirit who relished his outlaw status. After years in prison, he was hellbent on making up for lost time and wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone—neither to Ronald Reagan, whom he mocked mercilessly, nor, as it would turn out, to Huey Newton. He was the joker in the Panther deck and a hard act to follow. Like so many of the Panthers’ leaders, he had killer looks, inhabiting his own skin with enviable ease. (The erotic aura that the Panthers presented was a not inconsiderable part of their appeal, as any of the many photographs that were taken of them show. And in this department, Huey was the Supreme Leader, and he never let you forget it.) Eldridge was the biggest mouth in a party of big mouths. He especially loved invective and adored the sound of his own voice, delivered in a sly baritone drawl. He was a gifted practitioner of the rhetoric of denunciation, favoring such gems as “fascist mafioso” and given to vilifying the United States, at every turn, as “Babylon.” He was a master of misogynist pith, uttering the imperishable “revolutionary power grows out of the lips of a pussy.” He was fond of repeating, as if it were a personal mantra: “He could look his momma in the eye and lie.” He was notorious in elite Bay Area movement circles for his many and persistent infidelities and for his physical abuse of his equally tough-talking and beautiful wife, Kathleen. About these failures, however, a curtain of silence was drawn. He was, all in all, a hustler who exuded charm and menace in equal measure.

I wasn’t too crazy about Cleaver—who, pour mémoire, converted to Mormonism in the 1980s and became a conservative Republican—but thought Huey Newton was pretty good, particularly after watching him on William Buckley’s Firing Line in 1973 (YouTube excerpt here). But Newton was as much a thug as Cleaver and which Wasserman reminds us of in quoting later published accounts of BPP members—but which Bloom and Martin leave out of their book. They leave a lot out, it seems

You won’t learn from Bloom and Martin the hard truth about Flores Forbes, a trusted enforcer for Newton, a stalwart of the party’s Orwellian “Board of Methods and Corrections,” and a member of what Newton called his “Buddha Samurai,” a praetorian guard made up of men willing to follow orders unquestioningly and do the “stern stuff.” Forbes joined the party at 15 and wasted no time becoming a zombie for Huey. Forbes was bright and didn’t have to be told; he knew when to keep his mouth shut. He well understood the “right to initiative,” a term Forbes tells us “was derived from our reading and interpretation of Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.” What Forbes took Fanon to mean was “that it is the oppressed people’s right to believe that they should kill their oppressor in order to obtain their freedom. We just modified it somewhat to mean anyone who’s in our way,” like inconvenient witnesses who might testify against Newton, or Panthers who’d run afoul of Newton and needed to be “mud-holed”—battered and beaten to a bloody pulp. Newton no longer favored Mao’s Little Red Book, preferring Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which he extolled for its protagonists’ Machiavellian cunning and ruthlessness. Nor will you learn from Bloom and Martin how Newton admired Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the tale of a hustler who becomes a revolutionary. Military regalia was out, swagger sticks were in. Newton dropped the rank of minister of defense. Some days he wanted to be called “Supreme Commander,” other days “Servant of the People” or, usually, just “Servant.” But to fully understand Huey’s devolution, you’d have to run Peebles’s picture backward, as the story of a revolutionary who becomes a hustler.

The political consciousness of the BPP cadres was clearly not raised during their period in Algiers, the world capital of tiersmondisme back then. For the anecdote, an Algerian-in-the-know told me stories some two decades ago about the BPP’s Algiers years (1969 to ’71 or thereabouts). The Algerians were initially thrilled to receive Cleaver and other Panthers (Algeria and the US did not have diplomatic relations at the time), who were set up in a villa in a nice neighborhood (probably Hydra) and supplied with resources, including women (i.e. prostitutes on the state payroll). But the Panthers quickly became a problem for the Algerians, with their loud parties—Algiers is a sleepy city after dark—, doing drugs, trying to pick up women in public… Instead of getting bona fide American revolutionaries, the Algerians got American urban voyous. The 1954-62 FLN had its share of voyous but also advanced political leadership. The BPP had a lot of the former but little of the latter. So the Algerian authorities quietly encouraged the Panthers to move on—and which they did (as they must have been bored out of their minds in Algiers; if one doesn’t speak French or Arabic and has little interest in Algeria, it would be a deadly dull place to live in).


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Le Premier Homme


[updates below]

Voilà some publicity for Harvard University Press’s recent publication of Albert Camus’s Algerian Chronicles—a compilation of Camus’s essays and letters on Algeria from the 1930s through the ’50s—, translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer—of French Politics blogging fame (and who has been translating French social science and humanities since my college days)—and edited and introduced by Alice Kaplan (reviews here and here). On the subject of Camus—whose birth centennial is this November 7th—I recently saw the cinematic adaptation of his unfinished autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme (in English, The First Man), by Italian director Gianni Amelio. I liked the novel—and more than any other I’ve read by Camus, including L’Étranger and La Peste—, in particular for its vivid imagery of lower-class pied-noir life in Algiers in the 1910s and ’20s. The film closely follows Camus’s childhood such as depicted in the novel via the character of Jacques Cormery and with flash-forwards to the 1950s—of Cormery’s return to Algiers during the war—, scenes that weren’t in the novel. Technically the film—which was entirely shot in Algeria (mainly in Algiers and Mostaganem) and employed Benjamin Stora as historical adviser—is impeccable. Nice to watch. But it doesn’t work. This is one of those novels that cannot be adapted to the screen. And if one has not read it—and is not aware that Jacques Cormery is Albert Camus (and does not know too much about Camus or Algérie française)—, the film will make no sense at all. So if you haven’t read the book—and are not familiar with France’s history in Algeria—, do not see the movie; you will be wasting your time. Gianni Amelio directed two very good films in the ’90s, ‘Il ladro di bambini‘ and ‘Lamerica‘, so I had somewhat high expectations for this one. Oh well. US reviews are here and here, French reviews here, and the NYT review of the book here. [And see updates on Camus below]

Needless to say, the film was not a box office hit in France. I saw it on the first Saturday night after its opening and in a big Paris multiplex. The salle was well over half empty. Un échec annoncé. As I’ve said before, the French movie-going public is simply not interested in Algeria, post- or pre-1962.

À propos, another movie about Algérie française—and likewise based on a novel by a major author—opened in France last fall: ‘Ce que le jour doit à la nuit’, from Yasmina Khadra’s eponymous 2008 novel (in English: What the Day Owes the Night), which I have not read. This director of this one was the middle to lowbrow Alexandre Arcady, juif d’Algérie who is not precisely known for making films d’auteur. I hesitated on seeing it and despite the compelling subject matter, in view of its 2 hour 40 minute length and the fact that Arcady has never done anything that could remotely be called a chef d’œuvre, but decided to throw caution to the wind (Saturday AM matinee) before it disappeared from the salles. I’ll let Le Monde’s Noémie Luciani—who liked the pic more than did other French criticsdescribe it

Dans l’Algérie des années 1930, Younes, 9 ans, est recueilli par son oncle et sa tante et rebaptisé Jonas. Elevé par ce couple peu ordinaire (Mohamed est musulman, Madeleine chrétienne), Jonas grandit à Oran puis à Rio Salado, véritable jardin d’Eden où la vie est douce et lente, jusqu’à ce qu’Emilie n’amène les premières violences de l’amour, et l’Histoire les premiers feux de la guerre.

Adapté du roman à succès de Yasmina Khadra, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit est une fresque monumentale dans tous les sens du terme. Reconstitution détaillée à l’extrême, musique grandiose, mise en scène toute dans l’ampleur, jusqu’aux orages, qui répondent avec un mimétisme verlainien aux émotions : que Jonas perde un instant le goût de vivre, et “il pleure dans son coeur comme il pleut sur la ville”.

Ce totalitarisme de moyens, s’il est indéniablement l’expression vibrante d’un amour fou du réalisateur pour le livre auquel il offre un monde visible, a ses charmes et ses limites. D’un côté l’élégance du décor, la belle musique d’Armand Amar, une intelligence remarquable du rythme, tenant de bout en bout l’histoire sur presque trois heures de film.

De l’autre, l’explicite imposant, le poids des fatalités trop visibles, la place ténue de l’humour. Surtout, le jeu d’acteurs enivrés de se voir devenus Rhett et Scarlett, Juliette et Roméo : exalté, plus rarement exaltant, tout en grands gestes, grands mots, grands yeux noyés de larmes. Fu’ad Aït Aattou (Younes/Jonas) : la gravité un peu appuyé de la voix, le port de tête. Nora Arnezeder (Emilie) : le sourire lentement construit pour illuminer, un peu trop lent à venir. Anne Parillaud (madame Cazenave, la mère d’Emilie) : la démarche alanguie, la diction lourdement sensuelle, les tics de séductrice aguerrie.

On hésite à leur autoriser tant de fards : peut-être faut-il autant pour que l’histoire ait moins à voir avec le commun amour qu’avec le mythe. Peut-être avons-nous perdu l’habitude. Dans le doute, être un peu plus crédule, glisser sur certains traits. Tout travaillé qu’il soit, tout alourdi d’art qu’il peut être, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit garde au coeur un souffle romantique volé à l’Hollywood des heures anciennes : naïf et flamboyant à son image, emportant furieusement tout ce que l’on consentira à lui laisser prendre – l’amour, le feu, la guerre…

A ‘Gone With the Wind’ in the waning days of Algérie française (for a synopsis of the pic in English—there are as yet no reviews from the US or UK—, go here). One gets the general idea. The film is melodramatic and maudlin, i.e. it’s schlock. But… I was thoroughly entertained (as were others who saw it, to judge by Allociné’s audience ratings; though, as befitting films in France with an Algeria theme, it was a box office failure). It’s a grand spectacle and in which the director pulls out all the stops (trailer here). So for this one I suspended critical judgment and decided to just take it in (it’s also hard for me to give the total thumbs down to a film on Algeria whose historical adviser was the incontournable, inévitable Benjamin Stora). As it will likely not be making it outre-Atlantique or outre-Manche anytime soon, the only way to see it will be via streaming (if one requires English subtitles, that might be a problem).

There was a special projection of the film in Algiers last October, which was the subject of an amusing reportage by El Watan’s Chawki Amari, “Le film d’Arcady n’a pas réconcilié les Algériens.” The lede

«Ce que le jour doit à la nuit», le film d’Alexandre Arcady, tiré du chef-d’œuvre de Yasmina Khadra, a été projeté à Alger sur fond de rivalités entre des ministres et de rumeurs sur la mort du président Bouteflika. Récit cinématographique.

Among other things, one learns that Arcady’s film, despite the sponsorship of the Algerian Ministry of Culture, failed to receive the necessary authorizations in time, so had to be shot in Tunisia. Une histoire algérienne. Amari’s article, which is quite funny—I was cracking up while reading it—, will be appreciated by those who know Algeria well.

UPDATE: Columbia Univ. doctoral student Thomas Meaney has a review essay, entitled “The colonist of good will,” on three books on or by Camus—including Algerian Chronicles—in the September 16 2013 issue of The Nation. And the LDH Toulon website has posted a critical analysis by Christiane Chaulet Achour—delivered as an academic paper in October 2011—on “Albert Camus face à la question algérienne.”

2nd UPDATE: Benjamin Stora is interviewed in La Provence (September 7) on his latest book (co-authored with Jean-Baptiste Péretié), Camus brûlant.

3rd UPDATE: Benjamin Stora is interviewed again (September 19) on his new book, this time in Mediapart (via Jeune Afrique).

ce que le jour doit à la nuit

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Khomeini rises

Adam Shatz has an excellent review essay in the latest LRB of James Buchan’s Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences.


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Dealing with bad reviews

[update below]

Chicago writer Joe Konrath has an amusing post on his blog on how writers should deal with bad reviews of their work. Though tongue-in-cheek and for laughs he concludes on a serious note

Also remember that the pendulum swings both ways. You’re a writer, so you know how difficult it is to write a story. Trashing your peers, or their work, shows a staggering lack of empathy. Be above that.

Good point and well-taken, though which begs the question as to what to do when confronted with a piece of shit seriously flawed book on a subject of which one possesses specialist knowledge—or, in the case of cinema, when a film critic has to review an objectively bad movie. I have had numerous propositions over the years to review books that I thought were crap but passed them up, as I did not want to make eternal enemies with the author—particularly if s/he were someone I risked crossing paths with professionally (and all the more so if the author were someone with whom I was friendly)—, though on one occasion felt professionally duty-bound to rubbish a book that simply needed to be rubbished. In this case the author was/is a very high-profile specialist of his subject—a subject of which I know two or three things as well—and was accustomed to getting a free ride—and particularly in France—when it came to reviews of his work, so it took a fearless, relative outsider like myself to mettre le holà. I knew the august author would never forgive me—and he hasn’t (and no doubt contemplated employing against me one of the tricks Konrath enumerated in his post)—but I figured it would be no great loss—and the hypothetical loss was, in fact, more than compensated by the praise I received from numerous (French) academicians who would have never dared publicly write ill of the author’s work, however much they did so orally in private.

Something else Konrath does not consider: negative reviews are fun, both to write and read. And they are often deliciously fun, when the reviewed author manifestly deserves to be rubbished for his/her calamitous book. My all-time model of the genre is film critic David Denby’s annihilation of Michael Medved’s Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, which Denby called “the stupidest book about popular culture that I have read to the end” (the review, published in the November 2 1992 New Republic, is unfortunately not online). William Dalrymple’s demolition of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl? also comes to mind (as does Garrison Keillor’s drubbing of BHL’s American Vertigo). We’re not talking here about anonymous wankers posting one-star reviews on Amazon but recognized specialists taking apart pieces of shit seriously flawed books in their domains of specialization.

À propos, Konrath dedicates his post to Roger Ebert, as Konrath was no doubt a fan of his fellow Chicagoan. But Ebert was a master of the scathing movie review, a number of which were gems. Among those that come to mind are his massacres of ‘Battlefield Earth‘ (based on Scientologist Ron Hubbard’s novel) and the hit comedy (in France) ‘Un Indien dans la ville‘. And then there was Ebert’s famous panning of the first cut of Vincent Gallo’s ‘The Brown Bunny’ and which led to an equally famous polemic between the two. Ebert’s negative reviews were so noteworthy that the top 50 have been aggregated into a single post on Complex.com. A great read.

The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of idiots people out there who need to be put in their place when they say, write, or make stupid stuff, as, e.g., Ebert did to this petit con (watch and savor).

There have been many tributes to Ebert over the past two days and postings of articles on him. I will link to just one here, a 2011 video (h/t Victoria Ferauge) of Ebert talking movingly of losing and re-finding his voice. R.I.P.

UPDATE: Asawin Suebsaeng at Mother Jones writes on “One more reason to miss Roger Ebert: his love of trash,” where he says that

…what I will remember Ebert for is this: It is rare for a man of his influence and fame to so gleefully and unabashedly embrace (and I write this with the greatest enthusiasm) cinematic trash. No snobbery, no pretentiousness, and absolutely no shame in indulging in guilty pleasure—that’s what impressed me the most about his criticism. His favorite films of all time were critically acclaimed gold mines like Werner Herzog’s beautiful and notorious Aguirre, the Wrath of God or the 2011 Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation. But he had a soft spot for popular garbage: Remember that ridiculous and disposable Vin Diesel action flick from 2002—the one so groggily titled XXX? If you don’t remember, it’s the Vin Diesel movie where Vin Diesel goes snowboarding in an avalanche [and that received from Ebert a] loving, nearly four-star review…

It was indeed the case that Ebert gave the thumbs up to a lot of schlocky-looking movies that I would not consider even seeing on DVD at home, let alone go to the cinema for. But in Ebert’s defense he was the film critic at a daily newspaper of America’s third largest city, so had to see just about everything, and particularly Hollywood movies for the masses (and the Chicagoland masses were indeed the readers of the Sun-Times, which, as it happens, was a great American newspaper—and that I much preferred to its more upmarket competitor, the Tribune—until Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1984). He couldn’t pick and choose, or privilege films d’auteur. He had to sit through so much dreck that when an action pic or mass market comedy with a halfway original screenplay and/or decent acting came along, he would take note and give it the thumbs up it may well have deserved for its genre.


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Django Unchained


[update below]

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I really liked this movie. It is highly entertaining and with great acting, is funny, offbeat, zany, you name it. It made my top 10 list of 2012 and was my pick for Oscar best picture (though having yet to see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’). But I have just now finished reading a biting critique of the film by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, which, while not causing the film to fall out of my top 10, is, I will readily admit, very good, indeed excellent. In addition to skewering Quentin Tarantino’s film Reed also does a number on ‘The Help’—a film I appreciated rather less—and delivers a few body blows to ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’—which I did not unreservedly like—and other race-themed Hollywood pics while he’s it. His dense, learned, wide-ranging essay—title: “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why“—is very long—clocking in at almost 14,000 words, plus substantive endnotes—but is well worth the time and effort.

In a nutshell, Reed argues that

Django Unchained trivializes slavery by reducing it to its most barbaric and lurid excesses…[and that] perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice. The master-slave relationship could, and did, exist without brutality, and certainly without sadism and sexual degradation. In Tarantino’s depiction, however, it is not clear that slavery shorn of its extremes of brutality would be objectionable. It does not diminish the historical injustice and horror of slavery to note that it was not the product of sui generis, transcendent Evil but a terminus on a continuum of bound labor that was more norm than exception in the Anglo-American world until well into the eighteenth century, if not later.

Central to Reed’s argument is the linking of the films in question to the increasing ideological predominance of neoliberalism over the past three decades. His analysis here is very interesting. I liked this passage in particular

Libertarianism is a shuck, more an aesthetics than a politics. Libertarians don’t want the state to do anything other than what they want the state to do. And, as its founding icons understood, it is fundamentally about property rights über alles. Mises and Hayek made clear in theory, and Thatcher and Friedman as Pinochet’s muse in Chile did in practice, that a libertarian society requires an anti-popular, authoritarian government to make sure that property rights are kept sacrosanct. That’s why it’s so common that a few bad days, some sweet nothings, and a couple of snazzy epaulets will turn a libertarian into an open fascist.

Absolutely on target. À propos, I had a post in Sep. ’11 on libertarianism and fascism, in which I (and Michael Lind, to whom I linked) said much the same thing.

Reed is really very smart. I remember well his book The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, which I read during the 1988 Democratic primary campaign. Most of my lefty friends enthusiastically supported Jesse’s candidacy that year but I most decidedly did not (I backed Dukakis after Hart pulled out of the race, though did, as a symbolic gesture, vote for Jesse in the 1984 IL primary), and found Reed’s critical stance toward Jesse a breath of fresh air.

Back to Tarantino’s film, TDB had a piece last week on “Django Unchained’s bloody real history in Mississippi.” The lede

Critics have carped that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is outlandish history, but two new books show that, in fact, Mississippi was even more violent and bizarre in that period. Historian Adam Rothman on a bloody incident of mob justice and slavery.

The new books are Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Belknap Press) and Joshua D. Rothman’s Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press).

The upshot: the South sucked. And it still does. It was—and remains—the most reactionary, retrograde, and all around depraved region of the Western world. The continuum of the slave owners and their petits blancs enforcers—such as depicted in ‘Django Unchained’—and today’s southern GOP base is manifest. Ça ne se discute même pas.

In his essay Reed takes issue with the positive assessments of Tarantino’s film by some of his academic associates, including this one by Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. IMHO, Bobo’s review isn’t bad.

UPDATE: Hussein Ibish, in a rather critical review, asks “Who’s really exploited in ‘Django Unchained’?” Answer: you, the spectator. (March 5)

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Inside the FLN

inside the fln neil macmaster

Full title: Inside the FLN: The Paris Massacre and the French Intelligence Service. This is a new, unpublished monograph by historian Neil MacMaster on the events of October 17, 1961 (which I’ve posted on here and here), and that may be downloaded here. Haven’t read it yet but it looks most interesting. MacMaster is the leading historian in the English-speaking world of this dark episode in modern French history, and one of the top ones of France and colonial Algeria more generally. Among his books are Colonial Migrants and Racism: Algerians in France, 1900-62; Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (co-authored with Jim House); and Burning the Veil: The Algerian War and the ‘Emancipation’ of Muslim Women, 1954–62 (disclosure: I have a long overdue review of this to write). All excellent and must reads for anyone interested in the subject.

macmaster colonial migrants and racism

paris 1961 house macmaster

neil macmaster burning the veil

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My blogging consœur Victoria Ferauge has posted an annotated bibliography of recent scholarly works she has read of late on international migration, immigration, and citizenship. It will be useful for those interested in the general subject.

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In my last post I discussed Tariq Ramadan, the charismatic Egyptian-Swiss philosopher who has authored a slew of books on Islam and being a Muslim in Europe, and with a target audience of youthful European Muslim post-migrants. More interesting-looking—for me at least—is some new social scientific scholarship out on Muslims in Europe, which is reviewed in this fine essay by Timothy Garton Ash in the November 22, 2012, NYRB. The new books are Robert Leiken’s Europe’s Angry Muslims, Jonathan Laurence’s The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims, Martha Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance, and Paul Scheffer’s Immigrant Nations (this one looks particularly interesting), plus the Open Society Foundation’s report on Muslims in 11 EU cities. To these one may add anthropologist John R. Bowen’s Blaming Islam, which is reviewed in this essay in Qantara.de. Bowen has authored two major recent works on Muslims and Islam in France—both first-rate—, so this one will certainly be worth the read.


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Tariq Ramadan (Photo credit: Sia Kambou / AFP)

Photo credit: Sia Kambou / AFP

In my January 27th post on France’s Mali intervention I linked to a tribune by a Senegalese academic, Bakary Sambe, who skewered Tariq Ramadan for his opposition to the said intervention, and where I referred to the celebrated Egyptian-Swiss philosopher as an “overrated bloviator.” I am not a fan of the très médiatique Ramadan, needless to say, though used to have a positive image of him, taking him to be a moderate, modernist Islamic thinker based on numerous op-ed type articles he published over the years in the French press, plus flattering portraits of him that appeared here and there (I never did bother to read his books, which mainly focus on Islamic thought, not a subject of great interest to me and who has the time?). I also did not (and do not) care for some of Ramadan’s high-profile detractors in France and the US (e.g. Caroline Fourest, Paul Berman, Daniel Pipes), who have been engaged in an obsessive vendetta against him for years. And I considered indefensible his temporary banning from France in the mid ’90s—over which I initiated a letter of protest by MESA to then interior minister Jean-Louis Debré—and exclusion from the US during the Bush administration.

But after seeing TR up close—for the first time some five years ago, in a classroom talk—and exchanging a few words with him, I decided that he is a slick, smooth-talking self-promoter, who wows audiences with his affability, eloquence—he can give a one-hour talk in flawless English, with no notes and without skipping a beat—, and dapper good looks but ultimately says little of substance. And his answers to questions on politics and social issues during a Q&A are for the most part langue de bois (e.g. I asked him to give his assessment of the AKP government in Turkey—which had been in power for five years—, to which he responded something to the effect of “What is happening in Turkey is very interesting and we need to follow it closely and see where it’s going”… Not terribly deep or enlightening). He’s a friendly fundamentalist, adapting his discourse to the circumstance. He does not, however, merit the demonization to which he has been subjected by Fourest, Berman et al—he’s not significant enough—, but nor does he merit the celebrity he’s attained beyond his following among youthful pious European Muslim post-migrants (and notably by European policy makers anxiously seeking European Muslim interlocutors). Intellectually and politically speaking, TR does not impress me.

And I do find his apologetics for the Muslim Brotherhood disturbing, not to mention his views and equivocations on a host of other issues.

I bring all this up as I read just the other day a review essay in TNR, dated October 1, 2012, of Ramadan’s latest book, in which he offers analysis and commentary on the so-called Arab spring. Reviewer Samuel Helfont, a Near Eastern Studies Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, was not impressed, taking to task Ramadan’s “problematic views,” “sloppy analysis and inconsistencies,” and “contorted arguments and anti-imperialist platitudes,” all of which are quite simply “not serious.” Very good. Couldn’t have said it better myself, even though I haven’t read the book (and have no intention of).

While I’m at it, here is a tribune I also read recently, by the Franco-Tunisian intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb—a political and philosophical enemy of TR’s (the two have publicly crossed swords)—, “Towards A Global Network of Liberal Muslims,” that was first published three weeks ago in a Bangladeshi newspaper. Excellent initiative.

I mentioned Daniel Pipes as one of TR’s detractors. Pipes is no dummy when it comes to subjects of which he is a specialist but is politically reactionary and a crackpot on a number of issues (e.g. flirting with Obama birtherism, obsessively trying to “prove” that Obama is a Muslim, situating himself well to the right of Netanyahu on the Israeli political spectrum). I generally don’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Which is not to say I don’t read him every so often. The other day I came across an interview with him in the current issue of The American Spectator, on “Islam and Islamism in the Modern World,” and which is surprisingly unobjectionable for the most part. I give it the green light.

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This is what historian Sean Wilentz says Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s revisionist history of the US should be properly entitled. When I first heard about Stone and Kuznick’s book (and documentary) these past couple of months I declined to read about it. Oliver Stone is a fine filmmaker—I’ll see just about anything he does—but when it comes to politics and history, he’s out to lunch. A simple-minded gauchiste given over to conspiracy theories (e.g. his ‘JFK’: good cinema, trash history). But Wilentz has done the dirty work in the latest NYRB and taken Stone and Kuznick’s bullshit to the cleaners. He rubbishes their book. Stone and Kuznick’s interpretation of history was in vogue in the 1970s—when I came of age intellectually and politically—and I adhered to it at the time and into the ’80s, e.g. the argument that the US was responsible for the Cold War (William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Joyce and Gabriel Kolko et al). But I evolved intellectually and politically, and left all that behind. But many lefties out there—aging red diaper babies and others, who were stunned and bewildered by the fall of the Berlin Wall—have not. They should read Wilentz’s review.

NYRB 022113

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renaud dely la droite brune

Je viens de lire cet excellent livre sur l’évolution de la droite parlementaire—précisément, l’UMP—ces dix dernières années, c’est-à-dire, sous l’ère Sarkozy (Sarko étant devenu le chef de file de l’UMP pendant le deuxième mandat de Chirac). L’auteur Renaud Dély, Directeur de la rédaction du Nouvel Observateur—et l’un des meilleurs journalistes de la politique française—, livre un réquisitoire dévastateur contre le sarkozysme et son projet—largement réussi—de “décomplexer” la droite en la rapprochant idéologiquement et politiquement du Front national. Dély, l’auteur de l’une des meilleures enquêtes sur le FN, sait de quoi il parle. Il consacre un chapitre entier sur Patrick Buisson, le Raspoutine maléfique et ultradroitier de Sarkozy (et de Jean-François Copé aujourd-hui), et sur le FN sous Marine Le Pen. Un livre à lire absolument.

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Following from my last post, I just read another (somewhat) Egypt-related article, this one a review essay in the August-September 2012 issue of Policy Review of Ian Johnson‘s A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, a book that purports to reveal an apparent US collusion with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood going back to the 1950s, specifically a covert relationship between the CIA and Said Ramadan, MB founder Hassan al-Banna’s son-in-law and spiritual heir—and father of Tariq Ramadan—, who lived in exile in West Germany, then Switzerland, from the mid 1950s on. The notion that the US has long supported Islamist movements across the Muslim world has been out there since the 1980s and fervently believed by many—and fueled by the misconstrued, misunderstood US support of the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Union—but there has never been anything to it (e.g. it has been widely believed by secular Algerians—and more than a few French observers—that the US supported the FIS and its successors during that country’s tumultuous political conjuncture in the 1990s; the notion is pure fantasy, a complete figment of some collective imagination and which I have argued against for decades, but there is no refuting it for those who believe it dur comme fer). That the US could have actively cultivated the Egyptian MB, and at any point along the way, has never made sense to me. So I was skeptical of Johnson’s thesis—summarized here in the NYRB—, needless to say, but was willing to give it a look, so I got hold of a copy and read it en diagonale. Not convinced.

Reading John Rosenthal’s Policy Review essay confirmed my assessment. Rosenthal, who writes on security issues and is a German-speaker—thereby enabling him to look at Johnson’s original source material plus others—, pronounced Johnson’s supposed revelation of a CIA-Said Ramadan collaboration to be without foundation, that Johnson in no way proves it in his book. In his essay Rosenthal refers extensively to a book published in Germany (as yet untranslated into English) shortly after Johnson’s and on precisely the same subject, A Mosque in Germany: Nazis, Secret Services, and the Rise of Political Islam in the West, by Stefan Meining. This work, which carries more extensive documentation from American and German archives than does Johnson’s, comes up with no evidence pointing to a US-MB collusion. So for me at least, Rosenthal’s essay settles the issue.

What Meining’s book does do, as Rosenthal explicates, is document some of the liaisons dangereuses between German intelligence and Islamist movements over the decades—continuing from the extensive Nazi collaboration with Muslims during WWII (Haj Amin al-Husseini, the recruitment of Bosniaks and anti-Soviet Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia into the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, etc)—, and of a general German complaisance toward Islamists. So if one is looking for covert Western collusion with the MB & Co., look to Bonn and Berlin, not Washington.

Eine Moschee in Deutschland

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Cairo: A Memoir

Gamal Abdel Nasser and Eric Rouleau, 1963

Gamal Abdel Nasser and Eric Rouleau, 1963

As it’s still vacation for moi, I’ve been catching up on some reading, notably in trying to work my way through a mountain of articles I’ve printed out over the past year. One fascinating one I just read is this English translation of an excerpt of Eric Rouleau’s memoirs, published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Cairo Review of Global Affairs (of the American University in Cairo; the memoirs themselves were published in October by Fayard). Rouleau was Le Monde’s grand reporter, mainly in the Middle East, from the 1950s to the mid 1980s, after which he embarked on a second career as a diplomat (as French ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey, entre autres). In this excerpt Rouleau—an Egyptian Jew born and raised in Cairo (his veritable name is Elie Raffoul)—recounts his visit to Cairo in 1963 at the invitation of the Egyptian state—his first back there since his forced departure from the country twelve years earlier, when he was threatened with legal prosecution for “Zionist and communist activities” (though he had never adhered to either creed)—, his interactions with intellectuals such as Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Lotfi El-Kholi, and, above all, his audience with Nasser. Very interesting. Reading Rouleau’s account—and being transported back to that period—makes me want to read the book ASAP.

I regularly followed Rouleau reportages in Le Monde in the late 1970s-1980s and had the opportunity to see him speak, at a public talk he gave at the University of Chicago in 1984. Don’t remember much of what he said except that I was impressed.

On Nasser, this YouTube—of him making sport of the Muslim Brotherhood (in 1966)—has been making the rounds over the past year. Between Nasser—warts and all—and Egypt’s current president, my choice is clear.

Eric Rouleau Dans les coulisses du Proche-Orient

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Life of Pi


Saw this yesterday. It’s an amazing film and of a wonderful, beautifully written novel (and as I am not a big novel reader, if I say it’s beautiful please do take my word for it). No screenplay could do justice to the richness of Yann Martel’s writing but this one did succeed, at least as much as could be expected. Do see the film. And if you haven’t read the novel, do that too.

cover lifeofpi

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James C. Scott

James C Scott Seeing Like a State

Today’s NYT has a very interesting article on Yale political scientist James C. Scott, the “Professor Who Learns From Peasants.” In addition to his originality—as a political scientist and as a person—he has the singularity of writing books that appeal to left-liberals and conservative-libertarians alike. There are not too many people like him around in academia.

He’s…the kind of big thinker (and stylish writer), colleagues say, who has all but disappeared in his field: the last of a breed of wide-angled 20th-century social theorists, going back to Max Weber, to marry the insights of social science to the broad sweep of history, even as he cautions against putting too much faith in theory.

“He marches to his own drum completely,” said Ian Shapiro, a longtime colleague of Mr. Scott’s in the Yale political science department. While most social scientists pick apart problems in previous research, “Jim always starts with problems in the real world,” Mr. Shapiro said. “That’s why his work launches ships.”

On his work:

In the late 1970s Mr. Scott took his family to a Malaysian village for two years of fieldwork, despite colleagues’ warnings that it would be a “career-killing” move for a political scientist. The result was “Weapons of the Weak,” which (along with a follow-up, “Domination and the Arts of Resistance”) explored the ways peasants and other powerless people used evasion and subterfuge, rather than direct confrontation, to thwart efforts at centralized state control.

“Seeing Like a State,” published a decade later, looked at the limitations of state power from the other end, examining — through examples as diverse as 18th-century German scientific forestry and “villagization” in 1970s Tanzania — the way that “high modernist” social engineering doomed itself by ignoring local custom and practical knowledge, which Mr. Scott, borrowing the classical Greek word for wisdom, calls “metis.”

Mr. Scott has also been a longstanding critic of what he sees as the overconfident hyper-rationalism of political science itself, which has sacrificed its own kind of metis in favor of statistical analysis and abstract, immutable laws of political behavior. These days he’s flattered to be so often misidentified as an anthropologist.

“An anthropologist goes in and tries to have as few prejudices as possible and be as open as possible to where the world leads you,” he said, “whereas a political scientist would go in with a questionnaire.”

I am ashamed to admit that I have not read any of Scott’s many books but will absolutely, and soon (and particularly the above). Encore de la lecture…

James C Scott Weapons of the Weak

James C Scott The Art of Not Being Governed

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Is the enemy us?

This is the title of Claire Berlinski’s review in City Journal of Bruce Bawer’s The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind. I have not seen this book and am not likely to, not after having read through Bawer’s 2007 While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within (verdict: thumbs down). I had several quick comments on Claire’s review and that I was about to post on the comments thread of her FB post of it, but have decided to post on AWAV instead. So voilà

Quoting Claire

This inability of many young Americans to express a simple or even grammatically coherent thought, in Bawer’s view, owes to a variety of academic fads that in the early 1980s captured the American university.

The problem does not begin in university, or even in high school. The poor writing skills of American college students—the majority of them—is a source of dismay for anyone who has to grade their papers. And poor writing is often accompanied by inadequate verbal skills and muddled thinking. The problem, I think, lies in the American educational system but also somewhere in American culture, where being well-spoken and able to write well is not culturally valued in the way it is elsewhere. E.g. in France speaking and writing well are taken very seriously—they are primordial—and particularly when seeking employment (for jobs necessitating at least some higher education). In France, persons who cannot express themselves well or write coherently are not taken seriously. A politician in France with the verbal skills of George W. Bush would get nowhere, and certainly nowhere near the summit of the state (whereas on the American right, being an intellectual nitwit tends to be viewed positively, when not celebrated outright). If I have been dismayed by the writing and verbal skills of my American students, I have been impressed by those of my French students when writing in their own language—and who are far more verbally articulate than their American counterparts. Part of it is shaped by culture—of what is culturally valued—but also the educational system, from primary through high school. The French system has its problems and is not superior to the American overall—not to American public schools in well-to-do communities—but it does teach students how to write, as well as how to structure their thoughts. E.g. there are almost no multiple choice or true-and-false tests in French schools. Everything has to be written out and in full, grammatically correct sentences. And even if one gets the right answer, one will be marked down for errors in writing. It’s severe and not always fair, but at least the kids come out of the system knowing how to write their native language properly. And the baccalaureate exam at the end of high school is a week-long marathon of writing. No American high school student—which I was myself way back when—has ever had to go through such a grueling process (as my daughter did last June).

Then arrived the minor idea of hegemony, conceived by the minor Marxist intellect Antonio Gramsci, who argued that modern liberal democracies are no freer than the most ruthless of totalitarianisms. The oppression was merely unseen.

WADR, Antonio Gramsci was a major Marxist intellect, more so than any of his Marxist contemporaries (and far more so than Lenin or anyone who came out of Russia). The Gramscian concept of hegemony is also mischaracterized here (I think there’s a confusion with Marcuse). On this, I will let my friend and former professor Frank Adler—who taught the first-ever college course on Gramsci in an American university, and which I took 35 years ago (one of my best university courses ever)—respond in detail, should he choose to.

The Marxist post-colonialist Frantz Fanon completes the intellectual trio.

I recently read Les Damnés de la terre, of which I had read parts three decades ago but not too seriously. It was a book for its time— and heavily driven by the Algerian experience—and no longer has much relevance, but is quite interesting nonetheless. I was expecting to find much in it to object to, but surprisingly did not.

I don’t know what precisely the problem is, only that there is a problem. But having observed this condition from abroad—as Bawer has—I can think of only one place that would allow me to study the issue at leisure, in peace, and in depth: the universities.

None of this, of course, makes me yearn to spend time among the Fat Studiers. But they remain the outliers; they are a trend; and they are unlikely to produce much of value. Reading the works on the comparative literature syllabus at the California State University, Long Beach, on the other hand, will surely do those students quite a bit of good.

I entirely agree. American universities, for all their problems—the prohibitive costs of tuition being the greatest—, are the best in the world. They’re wonderful places. When it comes to higher education, America rules. And that’s not going to change, not anytime soon. And it is the case that Gender, Queer, Fat, Chicano etc Studies are the exception. They’re in a ghetto and most students don’t pay attention to them. One problem in higher education—and about which there is nothing to be done—is hyper-specialization. Few academics of my generation—not to mention the younger ones—have a broad education or deep knowledge base outside their disciplines—or even within them—and are often uninterested in teaching broad survey courses (e.g. the kind of introductory, interdisciplinary course I teach on modern France to American undergraduates each semester; students from elite or flagship state universities have told me that no such course is offered at their schools; and I am not a recognized academic specialist of France), if they’re even able to. There are no professional rewards in it. One gets an academic job by being specialized, and moves up the promotion ladder and receives tenure by maintaining and refining that specialization. Almost none of my academic contemporaries possesses the English gentleman-type level of intellectual cultivation and worldliness of my professors at Chicago who went to college and graduate school in the 1940s and ’50s (well, there is one exception to this among those I know personally—here—but he’s European…). Just about everyone I know who has had a successful academic career has been hyper-specialized, working and publishing on single subject areas for years, if not decades (something I am incapable of). But then, just about every profession is hyper-specialized nowadays, not just academia.

And when it comes to the discipline I was trained in, political science, there is the hegemony of mathematics—of quantitative methods, formal modeling, game theory, etc—, such that nowadays one almost has to have mastered econometrics to get a Ph.D. in politics, but don’t get me started on that…

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