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9/11 + 20

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Ilhan Omar’s thoughts are mine, of course, and certainly those of all AWAV readers, regular or occasional. As I don’t have anything in particular to say on this 20th anniversary that hasn’t been said by many others, I will merely offer a few recommendations of pertinent films to watch and noteworthy articles to read, beginning with the first-rate, five-part Netflix docuseries, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, which was completed after the August 15th fall of Kabul, so covers that calamitous event. In her review of the series, the Washington Post’s TV critic, Inkoo Kang, deems it

The most honest and exhaustive retrospective [on 9/11]… If you have the time or energy for only one TV commemoration, make it this one. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the five-part docuseries foregrounds an unfortunate facet of 9/11 remembrance: For the country at large, that date can’t be extricated from the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the justifications of torture by the George W. Bush administration, and the subsequent increase in surveillance and Islamophobia within the United States.

Without partisan or ideological bias, “Turning Point” provides an opportunity to look back at the blunders in the “war on terror” (especially the lead-up to the Iraq War), the atrocities at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and the delusions of the Rumsfeld and Bush doctrines to make strange and outrageous once again what we’ve come to accept as normal — all while paying respect to the dead and the first responders who sacrificed their lives and their health. That de-normalizing lens, fortified by perspectives from Afghans, provides an invaluable service, recalling many of the Bush White House’s human rights scandals while reminding us that none of them were preordained. Though occasionally dry, the docuseries’ sober tone also makes for a welcome refuge from the sea of maudlin or faux-suspenseful 9/11 content elsewhere.

A good half of the series focuses on Afghanistan and the fiasco of America’s twenty-year intervention (Iraq is covered too, of course). On the incredible tragedy in Afghanistan, do read, if you haven’t already, the extraordinary report by Anand Gopal in The New Yorker (Sep. 13th issue), “The other Afghan women: In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them,” which has been praised by all and sundry, including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who thus tweeted, “I think this is one of the best pieces of journalism I have ever read.” I agree. One quote:

What’s clear is that the U.S. did not attempt to settle such divides [in Afghan society] and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistans: one [in the countryside] mired in endless conflict, the other [in the cities] prosperous and hopeful.

Gopal’s bottom line: of all the forces that have inflicted misery on Afghanistan’s rural population, men and women alike, over the past four decades—the Soviets, the Americans and their allies, the Afghan army, the Mujahideen and their warlords, and the Taliban—the least bad were the Taliban. It was otherwise for the urban population, which naturally wanted the Americans to stay—if I were a middle-class Kabuli, I would be pro-American too, believe me—but for villagers, the Americans—with their drones and B52s (which killed upwards of 50,000 civilians), predatory warlord allies, the soldiers themselves—were a disaster. The lives of rural Afghans, and particularly men, were permanently at risk from an American drone or bomb. For those who wished for a prolonged US military engagement, there is no dancing around this reality.

And as we learn in this Sep. 10th New York Times report on the last Afghans killed by an American drone, it wasn’t just rural civilians who were at risk.

Also worth the watch is the 45-minute Sep. 6th report on the Australian ABC network, “The fall of Kabul: The last days of the war in Afghanistan.” President Biden is spared no quarter for the manner in which the withdrawal was executed but it is clear that the real culprit is Trump and the February 2020 Doha agreement he concluded with the Taliban. As Afghanistan IR specialist William Maley asserted, the Doha deal was the “worst single exercise in diplomacy since the Munich agreement of 1938…a catastrophic error of diplomacy” that “gave the Taliban everything they really wanted.” This was the agreement Biden inherited and it is hard to see what he could have done to change it—without committing the US to a veritable forever war.

One can hardly discuss the legacy of 9/11 without mentioning the massive corruption the trillion $$$ wars engendered, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but, above all, in the United States itself. For recent sources on this, see Sarah Chayes’ Sep. 3rd article in Foreign Affairs, “Afghanistan’s corruption was made in America: How self-dealing elites failed in both countries,” and Isaac Stanley-Becker’s report in The Washington Post (Sep. 4th) on how US military generals, notably Stanley McChrystal (incarnated by Brad Pitt in the Netflix movie ‘War Machine’), cashed in big time after their service in Afghanistan.

And then there’s Guantánamo. And torture. On this sinister legacy of 9/11, I will simply recommend the salutary Hollywood movie The Mauritanian (in France: Désigné coupable), on the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, which is reviewed in The Conversation by UC-Santa Barbara sociology professor Lisa Hajjar, “‘The Mauritanian’ rekindles debate over Gitmo detainees’ torture – with 40 still held there,” who will soon be publishing a savant book on the general topic.

Closer to the homeland is a lengthy article by Jennifer Senior in the September issue of The Atlantic, “What Bobby McIlvaine left behind: Grief, conspiracy theories, and one family’s search for meaning in the two decades since 9/11.” I was prompted to read it while in the US last month, after seeing Anne Applebaum’s tweet, which enjoined her followers to “Drop what you are doing and read this.” So I picked up the issue off the coffee table and executed Ms. Applebaum’s directive. My 90-year-old mother likewise found the piece sufficiently compelling to read to the end.

UPDATE: On Jennifer Senior’s article in The Atlantic, film director Ava DuVernay tweeted

This long-read by @JenSeniorNY stayed with me. It’s about the ripples that each of our lives makes on other lives. In this case, the focus is a bright young man lost on 9/11 and the waves of pain and misunderstanding, but also purpose for those left behind.

To which Oprah Winfrey replied

Yes I read this. Found it striking. And haunting. What happens in just one family.

2nd UPDATE: Michelle Goldberg’s terrific Sep. 9th NYT column, “How 9/11 turned America into a half-crazed, fading power,” is a must-read.

3rd UPDATE: Fintan O’Toole’s review essay in the NYRB (Oct. 7th issue), “The lie of nation building,” is a tour de force. The lede: “From the very beginning, the problem with the US involvement in Afghanistan lay essentially in the deficits in American democracy.”

The debacle in Afghanistan

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I can hardly differ from my friend Stathis, whose sentiments here are mine. Along with countless millions—including at least half of those I follow on Twitter and Facebook—I have been riveted to the breaking news from Afghanistan over the past ten days, and particularly this past weekend, not to mention stunned and so deeply saddened by the spectacle. One thing I am not going to do, however, is play the Washington/media pundit blame game as to Who Lost Afghanistan. Biden is going to take the hit, as he should, for the calamitous manner in which the US withdrawal was executed—with the prospect of tens of thousands of Afghans who collaborated with the Americans over the years being stranded and at the mercy of the Taliban—but the larger calamity of Afghanistan and the US role there is not on him, and while Afghanistan may be, for part of elite opinion, an indelible stain on his record, it is doubtful that it will affect his job approval rating—not after his forceful statement on Monday—or the Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2022, for the simple reason that the larger American public just doesn’t care about Afghanistan.

The editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone gets it right:

As for the impact of Afghanistan on US “credibility,” the smart political scientist Marc Lynch thus tweets:

The fall of Kabul and ignominious end to the US presence is naturally being compared to Saigon 1975. On this, the brilliant young historian (notably of modern Algeria), Andrew Bellisari, who teaches at Fulbright University Vietnam, posted a commentary on his Facebook page on Sunday, which I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting: 

A lot of comparisons to Vietnam will be made today. They’ve been made since the beginning of our involvement in Afghanistan. They’ll continue for a long time after. Vietnam comparisons are inevitable. They’re everyone’s favorite because “Vietnam” still remains the most evocative shorthand for tragedy and misadventure we have in our journalistic lexicon.

As we see images of Chinooks taking off from the roof of the US embassy in Kabul it’s hard not to make the direct link to Saigon. But the real tragedy is that our handling of Afghanistan is far worse than what occurred in April 1975. In Vietnam, we negotiated a ceasefire and troop withdrawal with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1973 that held for two years. When the DRV began its Spring Offensive in March 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam mobilized 270,000 troops and more than 300 tanks against the 1 million man Army of the Republic of Vietnam. As stunning at the RVN’s disintegration was, at least it occurred between the military forces of two well-equipped sovereign nations.

When North Vietnamese tanks carrying the flags of the southern revolutionary National Liberation Front rolled through the gates of the Dinh Độc Lập , Communist forces were barely two hours behind the last Marine helicopter out of the city. The fear and uncertainty that many South Vietnamese felt in the face of their city’s “liberation” was real. Acts of revenge did take place. Government employees and those who had worked with Americans were rounded up, certain families were blacklisted and relocated to “special economic zones” in undesirable parts of the countryside. “Re-education” (an imperfect translation of “học tập cải tạo“) took place at varying degrees of intensity as Communist forces struggled to win over “reactionary” elements and cement their authority, often in the face of small acts of protest and sabotage. Some were in camps for a few weeks of pro-forma political lessons. Others were held for years.

But the DRV and the Provisional Revolutionary Government had come to integrate the RVN into a unified nation under Communist rule. Proving they could rule competently and winning over the people was their most important goal. No massive violent retribution took place. There was no bloodbath. 20 years after the capture of Saigon, the US and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations. I am a professor of history at a liberal arts college in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Taliban is not the Vietnamese Communist Party. With pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs they steamrolled the Afghan National Army and entered Kabul as US forces were caught off guard, scrambling to leave and get their Afghan allies out. Unlike in Vietnam, no serious effort to negotiate anything with the Taliban was ever attempted. Nor did we attempt to enforce whatever terms were agreed to. What we were hoping for was that the Taliban would hold off until we were out and then move in, precisely so we could avoid the Vietnamese comparison and save face. Meanwhile, we’d watch Afghanistan crumble at a distance. Now we get to watch in real time as 20 years of desultory interventionist liberalism implodes. Unlike in Vietnam, there may very well be a violent coda to Kabul’s capture. Perhaps not right away. Perhaps out of sight just a bit. But the Taliban will try to recreate the state it established in the 1990s. And those Afghans who we convinced to believe in the promises we made will suffer the most. In Afghanistan, the liberal arts college that the US constructed will be shuttered.

So make all the Vietnam comparisons you want. Post the side-by-side pictures of helicopters leaving. We get it: “history is repeating itself.” Wink, wink. But it’s not. It is a new tragedy rooted in lessons forgotten and ignored. But Kabul 2021 is not Saigon 1975. It’s worse. And it’s worse all the more for the brief interlude during which we convinced ourselves it wouldn’t be. Remember that next time.

Could America’s Afghanistan fiasco have been avoided? In a rather hyperbolically titled post in The Cosmopolitan Globalist substack site—edited by my good friend Claire Berlinski—”Biden betrays Afghanistan—and the world,” former airborne sergeant Michael Fumento, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, insists that the US could have thwarted a Taliban conquest with an open-ended force presence of several thousand troops—necessitating a formal denunciation of Trump’s 2020 Doha agreement, which Fumento asserts would have been justified—and with the US backing up the Afghan National Army with air power. The stalemate would have presumably lasted indefinitely, with US forces sustaining losses that Fumento deems acceptable (he suggests that the US should have done likewise in Vietnam after 1973).

WADR, in view of how quickly the Afghan army and state collapsed—simply vanished—it is delusional to think that a residual US military presence—for which there was no political support outside the Beltway—could have changed a thing apart from delaying the inevitable. The futility of the US/Western military engagement in Afghanistan was manifest to anyone who read nothing on the subject but merely watched the feature-length films on the Afghan war that came out over the past decade, which I wrote about in April.

But if one is to read just one article on the subject, let it be Anatol Lieven’s in Politico (Aug. 16), “Why Afghan forces so quickly laid down their arms: Opposing Afghan factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting—something the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore.”

If one wishes to read more articles, see, e.g., “How the good war went bad: America’s slow-motion failure in Afghanistan,” by Carter Malkasian in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020); and “Afghan security forces’ wholesale collapse was years in the making,” by Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post (Aug. 16).

N.B. Whitlock is the author of WaPo’s “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” published in Dec. 2019. The lede: “At war with the truth: U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found.” It begins:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

Going back a decade and some is a piece in Armed Forces Journal (Oct. 1, 2010) by Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, “War on the brink of failure: 7 obstacles stand in the way of success in Afghanistan.” The lede: “Absent a major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military effort there will fail to accomplish the president’s objectives and, despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.”

There was, needless to say, no major change in the status quo. On this, Davis, now a civilian, posted a commentary four days ago on a website called 19FortyFive, “Why Afghanistan is falling to the Taliban so fast.”

And then there’s this:

Peter Galbraith posted the following on Facebook four days ago:

I watch the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan with disbelief and horror. I first visited the country with the mujahideen on February 14, 1989—the day the Soviets withdrew—and served there as Deputy Head of the UN mission in 2009. So much went wrong but here is my very partial list of those most responsible for the fiasco.

1. The Afghan political and military leaders who were more interested in staying in power than doing anything while in office except for stealing as much as they could.

2. The US government which pumped so much money into Afghanistan that there was a lot to steal and it was easily stolen.

3. Hamid Karzai—Afghanistan’s first president was corrupt, ineffective, weird, and—after the massive fraud that accompanied his reelection, illegitimate. In 2009, he organized the fraud that got him a second term. That enabled him and his cronies to steal everything else.

4. Ban ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General who tolerated the massive fraud in the UN sponsored (and paid for) Afghanistan 2009 presidential elections. This undermined Obama’s surge which may have been the last chance to get it right.

5. David Petraeus, the other US military commanders and the so called strategic thinkers who all declared the Afghanistan War to be a counter-insurgency and also stated that successful counter-insurgencies require a local partner. They then pretended the corrupt Afghan government was a real partner when they knew it wasn’t.

6. USAID which built roads intended to raise rural incomes by getting farm products to market but actually enabled corrupt police to shakedown farmers. This won the Taliban new supporters and the new roads gave the Taliban speedy access to previously defensible areas like the Panjshir Valley (which neither the Soviets or the pre 2001 Taliban ever took).

7. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan second president, who was a victim of Karzai’s fraud in the 2009 presidential elections and willingly took office—twice—thanks to massive electoral fraud. Ashraf is personally honest but when you come into office thanks to a stolen election, it is hard to crack down on the corrupt power brokers who got you there.

8. The US and UN architects of Afghanistan’s highly centralized constitution that was utterly inappropriate for a country that is as ethnically and geographically diverse as Afghanistan. Not only did the Constitution concentrate all power in Kabul at the expense of the provinces and districts but it also gave all power within Kabul to a Pashtun president as opposed to sharing power with an ethnically diverse parliament.

The rapid collapse follows a surrender agreement negotiated by Donald Trump and implemented by the Biden Administration. There is no reason to think the outcome would be any different if the US took another ten years to withdraw.

A comment by a former French ambassador to Washington (2014-19):

For more on the failed state in Afghanistan, see two remarkable, lengthy articles in The New Yorker—long form journalism at its best—from which I learned a lot: In the July 4, 2016 issue, by George Packer, “Afghanistan’s Theorist-in-Chief: President Ashraf Ghani is an expert on failed states. Can he save his country from collapse?” (response five years later: no); and in the March 8, 2021 issue, by Dexter Filkins, “Last Exit from Afghanistan: Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?” (response: a collapse; also see/listen to the interview with Filkins on NPR’s Fresh Air).

Also this:

As for what happens now, of how the Taliban are going to rule, there is every reason to fear the worst. E.g. two Afghanistan specialists I esteem, Ahmed Rashid and Gilles Dorronsoro, assert that the Taliban has not fundamentally changed over the past two decades, and is, moreover, still in cahoots with Al-Qaida. But other esteemed specialists differ, e.g. Olivier Roy, who, in an interview (Aug. 16) in Ouest France, “‘On a sous-estimé la stratégie des talibans’,” argues that Taliban 2.0 has indeed evolved since it was ousted in 2001.

And then there’s the NYT guest essay (Aug. 17) by Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, “How will the Taliban rule? Here’s the early evidence.”

Finally, do take four minutes of your time to read this:

Inshallah.

UPDATE: Roane Carey, former managing editor of The Nation and friend, tells me that if one is looking to read just one book on post-2001 Afghanistan, to figure out what has happened there and why, it should be Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

2nd UPDATE: This is useful.

3rd UPDATE: Sarah Chayes, who knows her subject better than just about any non-Afghan, has one of the best pieces one will read on Afghanistan, “The Ides of August,” on her website. I particularly like this passage:

And what did we [America] stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?

Well…?

4th UPDATE: An article by CPW Gammell in Prospect magazine: “Herat is the cultural heart of Afghanistan. Can it survive the Taliban? A city of poets and artists, Herat once challenged Florence for splendour. In defiance of the Taliban, Heratis have tried to keep that spirit alive.”

5th UPDATE: Pakistani/American lawyer/author Rafia Zakaria has a provocative piece (Aug. 19) in Literary Hub, “How the War on Terror became America’s first ‘feminist’ war,” which is excerpted from her new, provocatively-titled book, Against White Feminism.

6th UPDATE: Ryan C. Crocker, former US ambassador to Pakistan (2004-07) and Afghanistan (2011-12), has a guest essay in the NYT (Aug. 21), “Why Biden’s lack of strategic patience led to disaster,” in which he argues—as does Michael Fumento above, though in a more measured tone—that the US could have maintained an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan.

One sympathizes with Crocker’s sentiments but political scientist Rajan Menon lays waste to such illusions in an excellent analysis (Aug. 20) posted on the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog, “Why it’s wrong to blame Biden for the Afghanistan debacle: Washington elites are rightly horrified by the Taliban’s swift takeover, but more troops and more time wouldn’t have made a difference.”

7th UPDATE: Two Afghanistan-themed films seen on Netflix since posting. One is David Michôd’s 2017 War Machine, based on the late journalist Michael Hastings’ 2011 best-seller The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, and with the impeccably cast Brad Pitt’s character rather obviously inspired by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It’s a mordant satire/black comedy, set in 2009-10, on the delusions and general absurdity of the US military, and, pace Ryan Crocker, of the utter futility of the US’ “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan. Reviews were mixed, which I find puzzling—and totally disagree with—as it’s a very good film, with a sophisticated screenplay and well-drawn characters, and is spot-on in its critique (and which is particularly pertinent today). It was also notably shot in the United Arab Emirates, which I believe is a first for such a sizable-budget film. The Moviefone website justly says that ‘War Machine’ “might be the most wicked, funniest, and wackiest wartime satire since Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ (Yes, it’s really that good).” [UPDATE Aug. 27: Matt Stoller has a great discussion/review of ‘War Machine’ on his Substack site, “The war in Afghanistan is what happens when McKinsey types run everything.”]

The other film is Rod Lurie’s 2020 The Outpost, based on Jake Tapper’s 2012 best-seller (of course) The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (reviewed here in Small Wars Journal), of a US army base camp in Nuristan province that was incomprehensibly located in a valley surrounded by steep mountains and swarming with Taliban fighters, and who launched an all-out assault on the camp in October 2009 (the film was shot in Bulgaria, where one apparently finds the appropriately rugged terrain). It’s a more classic war movie and which was generally well-reviewed. The ultimate battle scene is very well-done, as is the depiction of the soldiers’ band-of-brothers camaraderie. And the interactions of the latter with the local villagers—in which there is a manifest failure to communicate—underscores, perhaps unwittingly, the futility of the American enterprise in Afghanistan.

8th UPDATE: The NYT’s Alissa J. Rubin has a devastating, mind-boggling, must-read report (Aug. 23), “Did the war in Afghanistan have to happen? In 2001, when the Taliban were weak and ready to surrender, the U.S. passed on a deal. Nearly 20 years later, the Taliban hold all the cards.” Money quote:

It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal.

“The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time.

Messengers shuttled back and forth between Mr. Karzai and the headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai envisioned a Taliban surrender that would keep the militants from playing any significant role in the country’s future.

But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal.

“The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time, adding that the Americans had no interest in leaving Mullah Omar to live out his days anywhere in Afghanistan. The United States wanted him captured or dead.

Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate a deal to end the Afghan war, but the balance of power was entirely different by then — it favored the Taliban.

On the Doha negotiations:

“When I heard the U.S. were going to meet in Doha with the Taliban and without the Afghan government, I said, ‘That’s not a peace negotiation, those are surrender talks,’” said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan.

“So, now the talks were all about us retreating without the Taliban shooting at us as we went,” Mr. Crocker added, “and we got nothing in return.”

The deal the Trump administration struck did not enshrine rights for women, nor guarantee that any of the gains the United States had spent so many years, and lives, trying to instill would be preserved. Nor did it keep the Taliban from an all-out military push to take over the country.

It was not even a peace deal. Instead, it extracted a somewhat vague promise by the Taliban to prevent future attacks against the United States and its allies. And even that language was contested: In the agreement, the Taliban refused to accept the word “terrorist” to describe Al Qaeda.

N.B. Obama and Biden bear their share of responsibility for the Afghanistan fiasco but the Bush-Cheney administration and Trump bear far more.

Jeet Heer has an on-target post (Aug. 23) on his Substack site skewering the POVs of people like Ryan Crocker, “Lies about Afghanistan: Joe Biden’s critics in the national security establishment are pretending that the status quo is easily sustainable. That’s absurd.”

9th UPDATE: In the interests of fairness and balance, see the hard-hitting indictment (Aug. 16) of the US action by Pakistani/American columnist Mohammed Taqi in the Indian webzine The Wire, “Biden’s Afghanistan blunder will come back to haunt the US and its allies: Whatever else might be the consequences of the US debacle, Biden has virtually thrown Afghans to the wolves.”

Also take 7-minutes to listen to the anguished testimony of Pulitzer Prize-winning Afghan photo journalist Massoud Hossaini in Mediapart (Aug. 20, in English), who made it out of Kabul—to Turkey, then the Netherlands—in the nick of time.

NPR’s 1A program had a segment this morning (Aug. 24), “Afghan women on what’s at stake for women in Afghanistan,” that is worth the 47-minute listen time.

10th UPDATE: Linking to an NYT guest essay by Afghan national army commander General Sami Sadat—in which he asserts that the withdrawal of US military contractors was one of the factors causing the collapse of the ANA—Anne Applebaum poses this pertinent question:

A particularly delusional argument that the Taliban could have been indefinitely held at bay with 2,500 US troops remaining and US air power and contractors backing up the ANA’s elite units is advanced with insistence by retired US army Lt. Col. Brad Taylor in the National Review (Aug. 25), “The day Afghanistan died,” and where he makes the ridiculous analogy with the US in South Korea.

Ivo Daalder puts paid to this notion in a brief Twitter thread.

Shadi Hamid’s latest piece (Aug. 23) in The Atlantic, “Americans never understood Afghanistan like the Taliban did: In the end, few Afghans believed in a central government that they never felt was theirs,” is worth the read.

11th UPDATE: Ezra Klein settles the matter in an excellent column in the NYT (Aug. 26), “Let’s not pretend that the way we withdrew from Afghanistan was the problem.”

12th UPDATE: Onetime “neocon” Robert Kagan, who’s always interesting to read, has an essay in The Washington Post (Aug. 26), “It wasn’t hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear.” He manages not to mention the Iraq war once, but we’ll give him a pass on that.

Thomas Meaney, presently a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen—and who writes excellently on a whole range of subjects—has a piece on the war in Afghanistan (Aug. 27) in the London Review of Books, which begins with a series of remarkable quotes and ends with this:

And, just as before, the women and girls of Afghanistan are foremost among the war lobby’s playing chips. They face violence from every quarter and their weaponisation by the West – as a post-hoc justification for invasion and now as an argument for continued occupation – only exposes how irrelevant the long-term future of Afghan women has been to the US project. The improvements in their health and education under the US occupation – as under the Soviet one – are incontrovertible. But to cheer on such progress in a Potemkin state is to lead people to the slaughter. There is talk of an effort on a par with that performed after the collapse of Saigon in 1975 to shelter refugees in coalition countries. But an exodus has been going on for years, and today taking in refugees isn’t the symbol of Western largesse that it was in the 1970s. ‘A simple way to take measure of a country,’ Tony Blair once said, ‘is to look at how many want in … and how many want out.’ That verdict came some time ago in Afghanistan.

13th UPDATE: Ashley Jackson, who is linked to above, enumerates “Five myths about the Taliban” in The Washington Post (Aug. 27). The myths are:

1. Pakistan controls the Taliban.
2. The Taliban fragments easily.
3. The Taliban has a plan for running Afghanistan.
4. The Taliban will bring back al-Qaeda.
5. The Taliban doesn’t reflect Afghanistan’s diversity.

In regard to myths 3 and 4, France’s two top specialists of Afghanistan, Gilles Dorronsoro and Adam Baczko, have a noteworthy tribune in Le Monde (Aug. 25), “‘Le mouvement taliban est paradoxalement dans une situation de faiblesse, le moment est propice pour négocier avec lui’: Dans une mesure limitée mais réelle, l’évolution du nouveau régime en Afghanistan dépendra de notre attitude à son égard.”

14th UPDATE: An exceptional report in The Washington Post (Aug. 28) on the fall of Kabul: “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war.”

And do not miss the essay by Kevin Baker in Politico Magazine (Aug. 28): “The old cliché about Afghanistan that won’t die: ‘Graveyard of Empires’ is an old epitaph that doesn’t reflect historical reality — or the real victims of foreign invasions over the centuries.”

15th UPDATE: Another terrific article by Anatol Lieven, this in Prospect magazine (Aug. 27): “Nemesis: Why the west was doomed to lose in Afghanistan: And why it could be doomed for good—unless we learn from this catastrophic occupation unmoored from reality.”

America: not one nation

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The New York Times has an article today reminding us that America’s 250th birthday is coming up in five years, and that the battles over the narratives of America’s founding are certain to be fierce. On this 245th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, there’s not a lot to feel good about in regard to the state of the American nation IMO. If one has not yet seen it, please take 40 minutes to watch the NYT’s exceptional, gut-punching video investigation, “Inside the Capitol riot,” in which “The Times analyzed thousands of videos from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building to understand how it happened—and why.” We’ve all seen videos of the event but this one is on another level. To watch the enraged, fanaticized, and very determined lynch mob—and yes, it was a lynch mob—of regular, ordinary middle-aged American men—white of course, and with the vast majority indeed men—storming the Capitol is quite terrifying, reminding us once again that we came thisclose to catastrophe on that Wednesday in January, but also as the mob did not issue from a small minority of American society. This was the Republican Party base, constituting a good third of the American electorate. And the January 6th mob was not an American equivalent of the French Gilets Jaunes, of hard-working middle aged persons barely getting by, and whose rage was economically driven. As we know, the Republican/Trump base is, income-wise, solidly middle class—they are not les damnés de la terre—and the wellsprings of their rage are cultural insecurity and status anxiety, and whose target is not the political/economic ruling class (as it was for the Gilets Jaunes) but a good half of American society—of those Americans who form the base of the Democratic Party.

À propos, see the article in the American Political Science Review, “Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support,” by Lilliana Mason (Johns Hopkins University), Julie Wronski (University of Mississippi), and John V. Kane (NYU), published online on June 30, 2021.

The January 6th mob is the face of American fascism—and which may well come to power in 2022/24, in view of the anti-majoritarianism of the American electoral system, anti-democratic flaws—possibly fatal—in the institutional architecture of the US government as elaborated in the constitution, voter suppression laws being enacted at the state level, and the simple fact that the Republican Party itself—its elected officials and representatives—is increasingly resembling that January 6th mob. It is not totally out of the question that Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar could rise to leadership positions in the House of Representatives in the coming years. If such were to come to pass, I’m not sure what could be done about it.

Watching the NYT’s January 6th video and observing the reaction of the Congressional Republicans to it after the fact confirms, pour moi au moins, that the United States of America is not one nation and, for most of its history, has never been. To the Civil War it was two nations, the North and the South, which I wrote on in my post on the 1619 Project two years ago. There was an attempt to forge one nation after 1865 but with the failure of Reconstruction—and the effective posthumous victory of the South—that myth could only be sustained by the exclusion of the former slaves and their descendants, along with other persons of color, from the rights of citizenship, and thus the American nation. With the civil rights movement and consequent legislation of the 1960s, there was a serious effort to make America one nation but with the rise of the right wing of the Republican Party—of the party’s Southernization—and which culminated in Trump and January 6th, it has clearly not worked out. Defining a nation in the Renanian sense—of a generally shared national narrative and the will to live together—this simply does not obtain in the United States of America today. Personally speaking—and I know I speak for so many others on this—I feel no national affinity whatever with that part of America that stormed the Capitol on January 6th. And vice-versa. Not only do I find them alien but see them as the enemy. And vice-versa. But whereas I deeply fear the consequences—for the country, the world, and even myself—if they return to power, and with a vengeance, they have nothing to fear from the likes of me and the party I vote for. Nuance.

The always interesting Rick Perlstein has a cover story in the July 5th issue of New York magazine, “The Long Authoritarian History of the Capitol Riot,” in which he discusses the right-wing MAGA world cult of outsized motor vehicles, which are not merely means of transportation but expressions of virility and vehicular domination—and are transformed into weapons to intimidate (e.g. the practice of “rolling coal”) and even kill people. Money quote:

What Democrats have been slow to understand is that this is an insurgency against democracy with parliamentary and paramilitary wings. The parliamentary wing is represented by [Kevin] McCarthy and others who have voted to overturn a free and fair election as well as lawmakers who have passed or proposed laws in nine state legislatures since the 2020 election shielding drivers from liability if they plow vehicles into protesters. These abet the work of the paramilitary wing’s latest tactical innovation: vehicular assault. Everyone knows about the 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer who killed Heather Heyer by driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters at the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 — the incident was a national outrage. A near-identical event this past month — a white man accelerated his Jeep into a crowd protesting a police shooting in Minneapolis, killing a mother of two — received far less attention. A University of Chicago researcher tracked 72 such attacks, in 52 separate cities, in a six-week period in 2020 alone.

The violent menace displayed at the Capitol riot, in Trump’s anti-immigrant fantasies, and in these vehicular attacks has been coded into conservative politics for a long time. In 2003, right-wingers won a demagogic campaign to recall California governor Gray Davis less than a year after his reelection. The campaign was driven by frantic claims on talk radio that Davis wanted to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses. The candidate who won the election to replace him was best known for starring in films in which he clocked body counts in the dozens. He was also the first prominent civilian to bring the military-grade SUV known as the Hummer to American streets and, in 1992, had even persuaded its manufacturer to sell them on the mass market so anxious Americans could purchase vehicles that looked just like the ones the military used to patrol riot zones in Los Angeles that year. Arnold Schwarzenegger helped inaugurate the phenomenon of cars as bodily threats.

Rush Limbaugh was another conservative who loved big cars. He was downright reverential toward giant SUVs and their power to dominate the “little cracker boxes” liberals allegedly wanted all of us to drive in order to “make everybody equally at risk for injury on the road because it’s simply unfair.” He added, “There’s a bias against SUVs. They’re killers by virtue of their very existence.”

Pickup trucks, which used to have gently rounded corners and were advertised with communitarian images worthy of an Amish barn-raising, are now bulldozers with cliff faces at the front end that guarantee a child on a bicycle or a snowflake in a Prius can’t even be seen, let alone avoided; painted black with tinted windows and a “Punisher” decal on the back, it’s Trumpism with a ten-cylinder engine.

On the right-wing MAGA world cult of virility—common to all fascist movements, though which extends well beyond this in America—Jeet Heer, writing on the occasion of Donald Rumsfeld’s death, has a must-read post (July 3rd) on his Substack site, “The forgotten history of ‘Rumsfeld the Stud’: The consequences of the media, both mainstream and rightwing, praising Donald Rumsfeld as a sex god.”

An equally must-read piece is the well-known UC-Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong’s spot-on commentary in Project Syndicate (June 30th) on “MAGA Maoism.” The lede: “What could possess one of America’s two main political parties to transform itself into a cult of personality in which obsequiousness trumps merit? An examination of the Communist Party of China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution suggests some striking parallels.”

For those wondering how a fascistic phenomenon can be compared to a communist one, this is one of those instances when the political extremes do indeed meet.

In the meantime, for those stateside, do enjoy your 4th of July.

UPDATE: On Paul Gosar, whose name I mentioned above, see the NYT article (July 5th), “Far-right extremist finds an ally in an Arizona congressman: Representative Paul Gosar’s association with the white nationalist Nick Fuentes is the most vivid example of the Republican Party’s growing acceptance of extremism.”

See likewise Thomas B. Edsall’s important guest essay (July 7th), “Trump’s cult of animosity shows no sign of letting up,” the subject of which is the “‘schadenfreude’ electorate — voters who take pleasure in making the opposition suffer — that continues to dominate the Republican Party, even in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.”

2nd UPDATE: A Washington Post op-ed to read (July 9th), by New School professor of history Federico Finchelstein: “Donald Trump has blurred the line between populism and fascism in a dangerous way.” The lede: “Populists traditionally abided by electoral results, while fascists scorned the will of the majority. Trump has changed that.”

3rd UPDATE: And this important piece in The Atlantic (July 9th), by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both of the government department at Harvard: “The biggest threat to democracy is the GOP stealing the next election: Unless and until the Republican Party recommits itself to playing by democratic rules of the game, American democracy will remain at risk.”

[update below]

Second rounds of French elections often bring surprises, or results that were not predicted by otherwise alert observers. Such was not the case on Sunday, excepting perhaps the landslide margin of Renaud Muselier’s victory over Thierry Mariani in the PACA. And with the turnout rate increasing by a mere one point, to 34.3%, there was no sursaut of 1st round abstentionists deciding to exercise their civic duty and flock to the polls (as happened, e.g., in 2015). Pundits and politicos have continued to wring their hands over this crisis of democracy and propose various gimmicks to boost turnout—or which they think will achieve this—notably voting by Internet and allowing for absentee ballots, though French election rules and procedures work perfectly well as they are and, apart from simplifying the demarche for proxy voting (vote par procuration) and modifying the deadline for changing one’s registration address, require no changes. Having been an assesseur in a bureau de vote in some 25 election rounds over the past fourteen years, including these last two, I know of what I speak on this.

A good analysis of the mass indifference toward the election was offered by sociologist Albert Ogien in a tribune in yesterday’s Libération, “Régionales: le crépuscule des partis,” in which he underscored the thorough domination of political life in France by an omnipresent and omnipotent head of state—Emmanuel Macron—a state bureaucracy that is incapable of ceding any of its power or decision-making authority, and partisan political apparatuses whose singular obsession is preparing for and waging the campaign for the next presidential election. In such a climate, why, Ogien rhetorically asks, would most voters care a whit about an election to relatively powerless bodies composed of representatives little known to even those who follow politics closely, not to mention the larger public? As mentioned in last week’s post and by Ogien here, regional and departmental councils in France are dwarfs compared to their equivalents in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the UK, among other European countries, in terms of their powers, budgets, and impact their decisions have on the voters they represent. Talking to an educated, professional under-30 member of my family yesterday, she said she had no idea what the Conseil Régional is or does. I am quite sure that it is likewise for the quasi totality of those she knows. And given the decline in partisan political activism—which has never been high in France to begin with; seriously, how people here personally know a card-carrying party militant?—the changing, technology-driven ways in which people inform themselves about public affairs (if/when they do), and the disappearance of electoral posters that used to plaster the walls of French cities and towns (which are now only seen on dedicated signposts in front of polling stations), it is hardly surprising that millions of citizens may only be dimly aware that a low stakes election is even happening.

And then there are the 13 new mega regions created from the previous 22, thanks to François Hollande’s cockamamie 2015 territorial reform, that only a committee of Parisian haut fonctionnaire énarques could concoct. The failings of the mega regions are well-expressed in a tribune (h/t Guillaume Duval) by Fabien Granier, a writer based in deepest rural France, in the online Reporterre: le quotidien de l’écologie, the thrust of which is summed up in the lede: “L’abstention record du premier tour des régionales révèle une catastrophe institutionnelle, selon l’auteur de cette tribune. Pourquoi voter pour des institutions auxquelles les citoyens n’ont plus accès depuis la nouvelle organisation du territoire en pôles régionaux?” Money quote:

Vers 2005, quand je suis arrivé dans le Bocage bourbonnais, au nord-ouest de l’Allier, il y avait une gare à sept minutes de chez moi, des médecins, des écoles… En plus de ses compétences obligatoires, notre département finançait des permis de conduire aux jeunes, soutenait les installations et pouvait se targuer d’une vraie politique culturelle. Notre capitale de Région, c’était Clermont-Ferrand, à une heure de chez nous. On avait un problème du ressort d’une de ces collectivités: on prenait rendez-vous et on y allait. On connaissait nos conseillers, on pouvait même les voir et les contacter. C’était pas dingue, le pays tournait déjà plutôt carré autour de ses archaïsmes jacobins, mais, au moins, on n’était pas abandonnés.

Quinze ans plus tard: plus d’interlocuteurs, plus de médecins, plus de trains, des écoles qui ferment, des mairies et un département à peine en mesure de couvrir leurs frais obligatoires (salaires, frais de gestion courante, etc.). Ajoutez à ça la disparition quasi complète des services anciennement dévolus aux sous-préfectures (cartes grises, associations, etc.), et peut-être alors commencerez-vous à comprendre pourquoi plus personne ne se rend aux urnes. Pourquoi voter pour des institutions auxquelles nous n’avons plus accès?

On Sunday’s results, see the spot-on instant analyses (in English) by John Lichfield in The Local and Arthur Goldhammer in Tocqueville 21. As for my take, here are a few brief comments on the four political blocs, moving from right to left.

Rassemblement National: That Marine Le Pen and the ex-Front National were big losers—winning not a single region and outright losing departmental council seats, netting a mere 28 (of 4,108)—is one of the big stories of the election. The RN’s calamitous scores do indeed cloud the picture for Marine LP next year, though one recalls the FN’s biting the dust in the 1999 European elections, which looked to be the end of the FN as a factor in French politics, only to be followed in the presidential three years later by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s stunning second place finish. And then there was JMLP’s distant fourth place finish in the 2007 presidential, with Nicolas Sarkozy siphoning off a significant number of his voters, and which I thought at the time signaled the end of the road for JMLP and his party. So much for that prediction. And the fact is, a disproportionate number of abstentionists in this present election were MLP/RN voters, most of whom are likely to cast a ballot next April. This said, one wonders how MLP can possibly hope to win a presidential election—in which all of France votes—when her party can not only not win the regional council in the PACA—the part of France where it is the strongest—but gets buried in a landslide to boot. And likewise in the RN’s next strongest region, the Hauts-de-France, where it was crushed by an even bigger landslide. MLP does indeed appear to have hit a glass ceiling, with a sizable number of conservative voters otherwise sympathetic to her message and rhetoric refusing to vote for her or her party (which is the subject of a reportage by Luc Bronner in Le Monde today).

The election also laid bare the limits of MLP’s strategy of poaching high-profile politicians from the parliamentary right to head the RN’s lists, notably Thierry Mariani in the PACA and Sébastien Chenu in the Hauts-de-France. Mariani, who issues from the RPR/UMP/LR’s FN-compatible hard right flank, is a well-known advocate for Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, among other charming leaders of like-minded regimes (he’s also a fan of Narendra Modi, one learns in a lengthy portrait in Le Monde last week of Mariani and his liaisons dangereuses across the globe; among other things, he speaks Russian and has traveled there countless times). As he is a sure-fire pick for the Quai d’Orsay if Marine LP, par malheur, ends up in the Élysée, any setback he suffers is to be welcomed. As for Chenu, formerly of the PR/DL/UMP, qui a mangé à tous les râteliers—among the mainstream things he has done was to serve on Christine Lagarde’s staff when she was Minister of Foreign Trade in the government of Dominique de Villepin—he manifestly did not have the proper populist profile for RN voters in France’s industrial north. Tant mieux.

Les Républicains: They were the big winners, or presented as such, by merely keeping the seven regions they won in 2015 and vanquishing the challenges from the RN—and with the principal interest in this being the brilliant victories of putative presidential candidates Xavier Bertrand of the Hauts-de-France, Valérie Pécresse of the Île-de-France, and Laurent Wauquiez of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, the first two having formally quit LR, in which they were longtime pillars, over the past four years. On the presidential ambition front, one may safely dismiss that of Wauquiez, who is too right-wing (and too nasty of an SOB to boot). If there are any significant policy differences between him and Marine Le Pen, I have not perceived them. I simply cannot imagine a scenario in which he emerges as the non-RN right’s standard-bearer.

Bertrand is manifestly the favorite, as not only do the polls have him as the best placed to break the Macron-Le Pen duopoly but he is also the right-wing candidate who is the most acceptable to centrist voters and least unacceptable to the left, while—for the moment at least—maintaining his credibility with the LR base. Bertrand has cultivated his moderate image as president of the Hauts-de-France regional council over the past six years, even flattering lefty sensibilities in certain domains, notably cultural policy. Inevitably though, he has engaged in the usual right-wing demagoguery on law-and-order issues and immigration, e.g. calling for minimum mandatory sentencing, minimum 50-year sentences for persons convicted of terrorism, lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 15, expelling undocumented foreigners manu militari, and the like—and knowing full well that some of what he proposes is unconstitutional or violates the European Charter on Human Rights. Such is the French right.

À propos, one notes that Bertrand and other LR personalities, such as Christian Jacob, continue to refer to Marine Le Pen’s party as the “Front National,” as if to make clear that they do not believe it has changed in any way, that they still consider it beyond the pale and will not deal with it. Except that on immigration, national identity, insécurité, and other such hot button issues, there is no longer any appreciable difference between LR and the FN/RN—Exhibit A being the tract below by the first-tier LR deputy from Nice, Éric Ciotti.

Whatever procedure LR ultimately adopts for selecting its candidate, Bertrand has made it clear that he won’t be bound by it, that his candidacy is all but definitive. Unless he somehow plunges in the polls, it is hard to see how LR can not se rendre à l’évidence and rally behind him, particularly if he continues to have the best chance of making it to the 2nd round. But if he somehow does plunge, Pécresse would be LR’s best alternative IMHO, as she’s conservative but not hard right (I had not bad things to say about her in an early AWAV post ten years ago). As for other LR presidential possibilities—e.g. Bruno Retailleau, Michel Barnier—I doubt it.

La République en Marche: What else to say about Emmanuel Macron’s party—the other big loser on Sunday—except to repeat myself and what everyone knows, which is that it is all but non-existent. President Macron, in effect, does not have a political party worthy of the name, which, after four years in office, is a complicated situation for an incumbent president to find himself in as he contemplates his reelection campaign. Macron’s poll numbers are acceptable for the moment (+40/-57 in the last IPSOS baromètre) but he still has to come up with a positive argument for his reelection, which is not readily apparent. And he has to initiate some kind of legislative action this fall and that will not cause his fragile approval rating to plummet. But even if he can pull that off, if the inevitable 4th wave of the coronavirus leads to yet another confinement or other sanitary restrictions, all bets will be off regarding Monsieur Macron. In short, it is not a totally sure thing that he will make it to next April.

If it looks like Macron may throw in the towel on running for reelection, we’re sure to start hearing a lot about Édouard Philippe.

La Gauche: Not a party but, for this election, we can consider the Parti Socialiste, Europe Écologie-Les Verts, La France Insoumise, and Parti Communiste as a bloc. The PS is satisfied with its showing, as it maintained its control of the five regions won in 2015 and held its own in the departmental councils, notably in the southwest. But one should not be deceived, as the overall performance of the left was rather less-than-impressive. E.g. in the Île-de-France, which the PS ran from 1999 to 2015, the united left list for the 2nd round—led by well-known personalities (Julien Bayou, Audrey Pulvar, Clémentine Autain)—managed to obtain only 33.7% of the vote. And in the Hauts-de-France, another erstwhile PS/PCF stronghold, the united left list, led by the écolo Karima Delli, netted a mere 22%. Pas fameux.

As for the presidential race, the election clarified nothing, and with the PS and EELV having yet to figure out how (or even if) they’re going to select a single candidate—not that anyone they could possibly propose to the French electorate has any credibility as Président de la République. Seriously, can one imagine Anne Hidalgo, Arnaud Montebourg, Yannick Jadot, or Éric Piolle in the Élysée palace? As for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he will be lucky to even reach the double digits.

More on the crisis of the left another time.

UPDATE: See the analysis in Le Monde (July 2nd) by Florent Gougou of Sciences Po Grenoble, “‘La percée historique du RN en 2015 a été en partie effacée aux régionales et départementales 2021, mais seulement en partie’.” The lede: “Si la dynamique de recul est la plus forte de l’histoire du parti d’extrême droite entre deux scrutins de même type, elle mérite d’être nuancée, estime le chercheur en science politique, qui constate une ‘disparition de la surmobilisation’.” Noting that a fine-grained analysis of the vote at the cantonal level does not support the hypothesis that the high abstention rate was disproportionately prejudicial to the RN, Gougou concludes:

Finalement, le bilan de ces élections régionales et départementales est très mauvais pour le RN. Son réseau d’élus locaux a été fortement affaibli, avec une centaine de conseillers régionaux en moins (252 contre 356 en 2015). Mais surtout, il a perdu plus de la moitié de ses conseillers départementaux (26 contre 62 en 2015) dans un scrutin qui a très fortement favorisé les sortants. C’est un coup d’arrêt dans la dynamique d’implantation locale de la droite radicale en France.

The same issue of Le Monde has a lengthy enquête by Franck Johannès on the RN’s chaotic campaign in the Hauts-de-France, which laid bare a number of problems of the party at the national level: “Amateurisme et ombres identitaires, la drôle de campagne de Sébastien Chenu.”

[update below]

A couple of comments on yesterday’s vote for the regional and departmental councils, about which I will have more to say after next Sunday’s 2nd round. First, the historically high abstention rate for a nationwide election—topped only by that of the 2000 constitutional referendum—which is leading all commentaries and analyses. Polls and analysts were predicting this but none had it as high as two-thirds of the electorate. By way of contrast, the participation rate for the previous elections to these two bodies—in March and December 2015—was 50%, seen then as disappointing.

The endless pandemic and long second confinement—which we’re thankfully coming out of—certainly had some effect, as partisan politics are not on everyone’s mind these days, and particularly younger voters—the abstention rate for the 18-24 cohort reaching 87%, according to one poll—and those from the couches populaires. I can personally affirm, via private conversations, that more than a few under-30 voters were barely aware that the elections—originally scheduled for March but postponed due to the pandemic and confinement—were even happening. The limited responsibilities and prerogatives of the regional and departmental councils—to which the great majority of voters pay little attention—also contributed to the relative disinterest. French administrative regions are not akin to Germany’s Länder, Italy’s provinces, or Spain’s autonomous communities in their powers, size of budgets, or as the wellspring of identity for their denizens—and the latter all the less so since President Hollande’s half-baked law that created 13 mega regions of the previous 22—which, six years after the fact, hasn’t worked out extremely well.

But the overriding factor explaining the unprecedented abstention rate is, as friend Guillaume Duval of Alternatives Économiques put it in an instant analysis on Facebook, the magnitude and severity of the crisis afflicting French democracy. The political climate in France, to put it tersely, has become insufferable, with a hysterization of political debate—if one can call the demagoguery, invective, and trolling one gets on the all-“news” stations and social media a debate—that is as bad as anything I’ve witnessed in three decades of living in this country—and which is being driven by the extreme right, with the heretofore mainstream right—followed by Emmanuel Macron and his allies—jumping on the bandwagon. A rematch between a right-lurching Macron and Marine Le Pen, which hardly anyone wishes for, has been presented as an inevitability by pundits and politicos alike. As Le Monde editorialized earlier this month, “un vent mauvais souffle sur la démocratie [française].”

This aspect of France’s current political state merits a lengthier treatment than I can give it right now—but which I will come back to—so in the meantime let me recommend three first-rate commentaries that have appeared in English over the past month, by the excellent Rokhaya Diallo in The Washington Post, “How France’s far right is now dictating the terms of public debate;” Cole Stangler in The New York Times, “France is becoming more like America: It’s terrible;” and Harrison Stetler in The New Republic, “The year that broke Emmanuel Macron’s republican front: The French president is facing a far right that has gained the upper hand in the country’s insidious culture wars. And he has only himself to blame.”

The second comment on yesterday’s vote is on the counter-performance of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), the debacle of Macron’s La République en Marche (REM), the good showing of the Republicans (LR), and the relatively not too bad one of the Socialists. It was taken almost for granted that the RN would finish in first place in five or six of the regions, and with the prospect of winning at least three in the 2nd round, if not more. But with the RN plunging almost 9 points compared to the FN’s 2015 result (from 28% to 19% nationally), which was a genuine surprise, it now only has a chance to win one region, the PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur)—where the 2nd round square-off with LR will be hard-fought now that the list of the left has thrown in the towel (regrettably IMO). As three-quarters of Marine LP’s 2017 voters abstained yesterday, we’ll see if the RN benefits from the kind of 2nd round sursaut as did the non-FN parties in 2015. But whatever happens to the RN next Sunday, it will likely not alter the dynamics for 2022 in regard to MLP and her prospects of making it to the 2nd round in that one.

As for Macron’s REM, the abject failure of its lists across the board confirmed what was revealed in last year’s municipal elections, which is that the REM is, as I wrote then, an empty vessel of political non-entities, existing solely to anchor Macron’s personal ambitions (now his reelection in 2022) and with the Great Helmsman making the REM’s every last decision. If Macron should win reelection next May—which, if his opponent is MLP, we will ardently hope he does—it is highly possible that he will not win a majority in the legislative elections that follow in June.

On Macron’s reelection prospects, these could be complicated by the strong performance of Xavier Bertrand in the Hauts-de-France, which all but guarantees him victory next Sunday—and with that, the formal launching of his presidential campaign. Whatever the scores of Laurent Wauquiez or Valérie Pécresse, it is hard to see how LR can seriously come up with a candidate of its own in the face of Bertrand’s fait accompli—unless they want to see a Macron-Le Pen rematch. And particularly if polls show Bertrand within striking distance of those two.

The left: regardless of how the PS and écolos do on Sunday, the left is out of the national picture for the foreseeable future. Sad but true.

À suivre la semaine prochaine.

UPDATE: Le Monde editorialist Françoise Fressoz has a noteworthy analysis, in the June 23rd issue, of the high abstention, “Quand la politique tourne à vide.”

Arun at polling station 38

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The Israel-Hamas ceasefire has now been in effect for four days. It will be broken sooner or later, that’s for sure, though before that happens there will surely be another explosion in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and/or inside Israel itself. On the 11 days of fighting, death, and destruction preceding the ceasefire, Avi Issacharoff has a typically incisive analysis (May 21st) in The Times of Israel, the gist of which is in the title: “Why Hamas (most of all) and Netanyahu (for now) are the winners of this mini-war: The losers, needless to say, are the citizens of Gaza and Israel, as the Islamist terror group makes strategic gains beyond even its own expectations.”

On Gazawis being losers, see the analysis (May 20th) by Haaretz’s Amira Hass (whose knowledge of Gaza is unmatched among Israelis): “Gaza’s destruction: An unbearable humanitarian and financial toll.” The lede: “Hamas figures estimate that damage to the Gaza Strip has already cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars, while damage to power and water infrastructure has obstructed access to water for around 800,000 people.” The destruction visited upon Gaza’s infrastructure—conforming to the IDF’s Dahiya doctrine—is staggering. As Le Monde’s Benjamin Barthe reports:

Selon les décomptes des Nations unies, 24 centres de santé ont été touchés par les bombardements, ainsi que 50 établissements éducatifs. Trois usines de désalinisation d’eau, servant 400 000 habitants, ont été mises hors service. Le seul laboratoire de dépistage du Covid-19, la clinique Rimal, dans le centre de Gaza, a volé en éclats lorsqu’un missile a frappé une rue adjacente. Les bureaux du Croissant-Rouge qatari ont été dévastés.

Selon le ministère de l’habitat de Gaza, 162 bâtiments résidentiels ont été anéantis par les tirs israéliens. Si l’armée a fréquemment prévenu leurs occupants avant de passer à l’action, leur laissant quelques dizaines de minutes pour évacuer les lieux en catastrophe, cela n’a pas toujours été le cas. Une dizaine de familles de Gaza ont été décimées par les frappes, à l’instar des Al-Kolak et Al-Aouf.

The Al-Kolak and Al-Aouf families, on Gaza’s Wehda Street, lost 44 members, the reports on which I linked to in the post of May 16th. Barthe continues:

« Ces onze jours de guerre ont été aussi éprouvants que les cinquante jours de la guerre précédente, en 2014 », affirme Leïla Barhoum [de l’ONG humanitaire Oxfam]. « Nous avons réchappé aux bombardements, mais je ne sais pas comment nous allons survivre au milieu de toutes ces destructions », ajoute Abier Al-Masri, de l’ONG de défense des droits de l’homme Human Rights Watch.

L’armée israélienne rejette toute responsabilité pour ces pertes et ces dégâts matériels, au motif que les « terroristes du Hamas se cachent parmi les civils ». Mais cet argument, répété à chaque offensive, ne suffit pas à expliquer l’étendue des frappes, notamment le bombardement de quatre immeubles d’une dizaine d’étages qui faisaient la fierté de Gaza : Shorouk, Al-Jawhara, Hanadi et Al-Jalaa. Contrairement à ce que M. Nétanyahou avait promis, le département d’Etat américain n’a reçu aucune preuve attestant de la présence du Hamas au sein de la tour Al-Jalaa, dont l’effondrement a entraîné la destruction des bureaux de l’agence de l’agence de presse AP et de la chaîne panarabe Al-Jazira.

« Cette opération a bafoué une nouvelle fois tous les principes du droit humanitaire international, comme la proportionnalité et la distinction entre cibles civiles et militaires, accuse Essam Younes, le directeur de l’ONG de défense des droits de l’homme Mezan.

A dispassionate examination of the toppling of the Al-Jalaa tower from the perspective of international law is offered by journalist Dania Akkad (May 24th) in Middle East Eye, “Israel’s war on Gaza: Was Hamas really operating out of the Al-Jalaa building? Experts say Israel’s attack on the tower block, used by international media organisations probably wasn’t legal—here’s why.”

Concluding Barthe’s report:

De nombreux lieux de culture ont aussi fait les frais des bombardements israéliens, comme la librairie Samir Mansour, la plus renommée de la bande de Gaza. Cette boutique, qui vendait aussi bien de la littérature arabe que des classiques occidentaux, a été réduite à l’état de gravats. Selon son propriétaire, plusieurs dizaines de milliers de livres sont partis en fumée dans l’explosion, qui a aussi détruit une imprimerie, une bibliothèque et un centre de formation. « L’une de mes plus grosses ventes après le Coran, c’était la traduction des Misérables, de Victor Hugo », raconte Samir Mansour, avant d’ajouter d’une voix exténuée : « Les misérables d’aujourd’hui, c’est nous. »

A report from Gaza on France Inter this morning (listen at 7h30) describes the catastrophic situation at the Al-Shifa hospital, and whose top doctor, Ayman Abou al-Awf—who had created the hospital’s coronavirus unit—was killed, along with his entire family, in an Israeli attack (see also the report in Libération).

For a Gazawi POV that is no doubt representative of sentiment there, do read the NYT guest essay (May 24th) by translator-editor Basma Ghalayini, “A Gazan’s view on Hamas: It’s not complicated.”

In my last post, which was mainly on Jerusalem, the Palestinian resistance there, and of the anger driving it, there was a word I neglected to mention, which is humiliation. The Israelis humiliate the Palestinians in countless ways, personally and symbolically, which is so well known to non-Palestinians that one hardly needs to give examples (if one wants a couple of recent ones, see, e.g., Nathan Thrall’s lengthy March 19th essay in the NYRB, “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” and the 2021 Oscar-nominated short film The Present; in France: Le Cadeau). Focusing on Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCIs), the humiliation—and mounting ras-le-bol—ensues from the panoply of discriminatory laws to which they are subject, notably land policies. The latest indignity to PCIs is the 2018 “nation-state” law, which validated the apartheid label for some who had previously resisted it. To comprehend the explosion of PCI anger in Israel’s “mixed cities,” one need look no further. As Tel Aviv-based political scientist and pollster Dahlia Scheindlin headlined a May 13th opinion piece in Newsweek, “For years, Israel’s leaders have cultivated ethnic hatred. This is on them.”

The communal riot in Lod (Lydd) has been extensively reported, e.g. by Ruth Margalit (May 20th) in The New Yorker. Le Monde’s Jerusalem correspondent Louis Imbert had an exceptional reportage from the city in the May 15th issue. It begins:

Une tumeur cancéreuse, un abcès de haine explose en Israël, dans une éruption de tentatives de lynchages, d’incendies antisémites, de ratonnades. Un Arabe battu en direct à la télévision à Bat Yam. Un juif bastonné à Saint-Jean-d’Acre. Depuis lundi 10 mai, les Israéliens assistent, impuissants, à des scènes de chaos inconnues ces vingt dernières années, alors que le Hamas poursuit ses tirs sur le pays, depuis l’enclave de Gaza. L’épicentre de ces émeutes est à Lod. A un jet de pierre de l’aéroport David-Ben-Gourion. Dans un coin de plaine industrielle glauque du centre du pays, où un mort est tombé, Moussa Hassouneh, lundi.

Tard dans la nuit de mercredi à jeudi, des groupes armés juifs errent dans les quartiers nord, au bord de la route 40 fermée par la police. Ils traînent des barres de fer et des battes sur le bitume jonché des débris des émeutes de la veille. Certains portent en bandoulière des fusils automatiques. Ils se penchent sur les pare-brise des voitures, sous la lumière biaisée des réverbères. Juif ou Arabe ? Ils traquent l’ennemi. De petits groupes s’aventurent sur des routes défoncées, dans le noir d’encre, à travers un lacis d’usines et d’entrepôts qui mène à la ville arabe.

Lod’s Likud mayor has fueled the toxic climate:

Ce maire d’une ville moyenne de 77 000 habitants, Yair Revivo, homme sanguin, aisément incohérent, fervent membre du Likoud au pouvoir, en lutte constante avec le tiers arabe de sa majorité municipale, se révèle en incendiaire dans la crise actuelle. Dans la nuit de mardi à mercredi, il a appelé le gouvernement, en direct à la télévision, à déployer l’armée à Lod, dénonçant « une Intifada ». Les funérailles du jeune homme arabe tué la veille dégénéraient en attaques contre des Juifs – et aussi de groupes de défense juive contre des Arabes. Le premier ministre, Benyamin Nétanyahou, pâle et essoufflé à 2 heures du matin, est venu ici pour dénoncer « l’anarchie » et décréter l’état d’urgence dans la ville.

Mais déjà, depuis des mois, le maire M. Revivo exigeait des soldats. Il n’en fait pas mystère : il est le maire de la part juive de la ville. Dès le début de son second mandat, en 2018, il a mis fin à un programme de constructions immobilières dans les quartiers arabes. Il refuse de fournir des services sociaux « aux familles criminelles. » Dans son vocabulaire, ce mot, « criminel », précède ou suit usuellement celui d’« Arabe ».

M. Revivo souhaite traiter à la sud-américaine la criminalité qui gangrène Lod. Des affiches marquées d’étoile de David proclament sa détermination à lutter contre les gangs arabes, qui font lit sur la mixité de la ville, en bonne intelligence avec la mafia juive. Ceux-ci prospèrent sur le commerce de drogue et d’armes dans des quartiers arabes où la police est aux abonnés absents.

Quoting Malek Hassouneh, the father of Moussa, who was shot and killed:

« Vois comme ils nous traitent : à l’hôpital, un flic m’a dit qu’il faudrait encore deux morts arabes pour que nous nous calmions. Ils ne veulent pas d’Arabes à Lod », estime le père. Les Hassouneh sont une famille de notables ici, rassemblée dans une belle maison du sud. Ils possédaient avant 1948 quelque 7 000 dounam (700 hectares) de terrain. Les parents de Malek, qui ont fui ou ont été chassés durant la guerre, se sont vus confisquer leurs biens par l’Etat. Il reste 2 000 dounam à cet entrepreneur du bâtiment.

Son histoire familiale, M. Hassouneh la reconsidère à cette heure. Alors que des manifestants brandissant le drapeau israélien réclament devant le tribunal de Lod la libération du « héros » qui a abattu son fils. En ce jour où le ministre de la sécurité intérieure, Amir Ohana, affirme que si cela ne tenait qu’à lui, le tireur serait déjà libre (il a été libéré jeudi). « J’étais un bon citoyen ! Je respectais l’Etat. J’étais satisfait de mon sort ici : j’allais passer dignement le flambeau. Je n’aurais jamais cru dire cela mais aujourd’hui, je ne suis plus israélien », dit M. Hassouneh.

The article goes on to discuss the phenomenon of extremist, gun-slinging Jewish settlers on the West Bank moving to Lod and other mixed cities—and with their attitudes toward Arabs—to further Judaize them. Establishing a parallel with France, the actual situation in Lod would be akin to the city of Saint-Denis in the Paris banlieue with a Front National mayor and who received security reinforcements from Génération Identitaire bullyboys constituted as an armed militia—and who was backed by a President Le Pen…

As the Republican Party has become the US equivalent of the French FN/RN (it’s even further to the right, in fact), it is likewise with the Likud, which is now the Israeli equivalent—in overall Weltanschauung—of the party headed by Marine Le Pen. This may not have been the case in the past but it is now.

But whereas the FN/RN is as far right as one gets on the French political spectrum (among parties that contest elections), there are formations to the right of the Likud—Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit being the most talked about at present—which not only elect deputies but are potential coalition partners for the Likud.

In an essay (May 19th) in the highbrow webzine AOC, “Israël-Palestine: la guerre silencieuse,” sociologist Eva Illouz, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and EHESS in Paris, has this to say:

Le lecteur européen ignore que l’extrême droite israélienne à laquelle Netanyahu s’est allié est d’une nature différente des partis habituellement ainsi qualifiés en Europe. Itamar Ben Gvir, qui dirige le parti d’extrême droite Otzma Yehudit (Force juive), avait jusqu’à récemment dans sa maison un portrait de Baruch Goldstein. Baruch Goldstein était un médecin américain qui, alors qu’il vivait dans la colonie de Kiriat Arba (Hébron), a tué 29 musulmans pendant qu’ils priaient dans la grotte des patriarches. Ben-Gvir, quant à lui, est un avocat qui défend les terroristes juifs et les auteurs de crimes haineux. L’organisation Lehava, étroitement associé à ce parti, a pour mission d’empêcher les mariages interconfessionnels et le mélange des « races ».

Le président d’Israël, Reuven Rivlin, un homme dont on ne peut pourtant pas dire qu’il porte la gauche dans son cœur, a, par le passé, décrit les attaques de Lehava contre les mariages interconfessionnels en des termes non équivoques : les membres de ce mouvement sont, a-t-il dit, comme « des rongeurs qui minent de l’intérieur le fondement démocratique et juif commun d’Israël ». Lehava publie aussi les noms des Juifs (dans le but de leur faire honte) qui louent des appartements à des Arabes. Seule la culture du Sud profond américain du début du XXe siècle peut soutenir la comparaison avec une telle idéologie.

Netanyahu est devenu leur allié politique naturel, virant ainsi vers les formes les plus extrémistes du radicalisme de droite. Ces groupes attisent les flammes de la guerre civile en répandant le racisme au sein de la société israélienne au chant du slogan « mort aux Arabes ».

The American counterpart of the Israeli extreme right is the groups that participated in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville VA in August 2017. If Itamar Ben Gvir and his followers weren’t Jews, we’d be calling them neo-Nazis. And they may possibly end up in the next Israeli government…

The peace march in Tel Aviv on Saturday was nice and let’s hope there are more of them, but the political domination of a radicalized right-wing is the reality in Israel. Which is why more explosions are a certainty.

To be continued.

UPDATE: Amjad Iraqi of the indispensable +972 Magazine has a must-read interview (May 21st) with ICG senior analyst Tareq Baconi, “Hamas breaks out of its Gaza cage.” Baconi, who’s Jordanian-Palestinian and based in Ramallah, is presently the sharpest Palestinian analyst of the conflict IMHO.

In the interview are numerous links to good articles, including “The UN predicted Gaza would be unlivable by 2020. They were right. Israel is trying to keep Gaza ‘quiet’ by applying new calculations to make life survivable — without allowing the people to truly live,” by Tania Hary in +972 (Dec. 31, 2019); and Tareq Baconi’s “Gaza and the One-State Reality,” in the Autumn 2021 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

2nd UPDATE: PCI lawyer Diana Buttu has a guest essay (May 25th) in the NYT that merits reading, “The myth of coexistence in Israel.”

3rd UPDATE: The Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem has published (May 20th) an invaluable report on the legal side of the property disputes in East Jerusalem, “Large-scale Displacement: from Sheikh Jarrah to Silwan.” (h/t Eric Goldstein)

4th UPDATE: In Haaretz (May 22nd): “Israelis tell him to go to Gaza, Palestinians call him a collaborator: The life of a stateless Jerusalem reporter.” The lede: “Born in East Jerusalem, he’s stateless and didn’t know a word of Hebrew until five years ago. But then Suleiman Maswadeh, who spoke to Haaretz before the flare-up in Gaza, decided he wanted to succeed. Today he’s the Israeli public broadcaster’s correspondent in Jerusalem.” The interview is lengthy but is worth the read, for what it tells about the chasm—which looks unbridgeable—in the city of Jerusalem, not to mention among Israelis and Palestinians more generally.

5th UPDATE: The gauchiste webzine Jacobin has a hard-hitting interview (May 26th) with Jerusalem-based ICG senior analyst Nathan Thrall, “We can’t expect Joe Biden to stop supporting Apartheid.” The lede: “The Western media discourse gets it all wrong. Israel is not at risk of becoming an apartheid state — it already is one.” It would be useful to see a response by liberal/left Zionists (Meretz, J Street et al) to Thrall’s arguments, in this interview as well as in his lengthy article in the 21 January 2021 issue of the LRB on “The separate regimes delusion.”

6th UPDATE: Samy Cohen, who has long been one of France’s leading political science specialists of Israel, has a tribune in the May 27th Le Monde, “Les Israéliens se sont laissé bercer par l’illusion qu’Israël était un ‘Etat juif et démocratique’.”

A very good article in Le Monde dated March 19th, by Christophe Ayad and Louis Imbert: “Du rêve d’un ‘Etat juif et démocratique’ à la colonisation de la Cisjordanie, que reste-t-il du sionisme?”

7th UPDATE: Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, has an unfortunately spot-on article (May 19th) in Foreign Affairs, “Fighting in Gaza marks the start of a more violent era: The search for a two-state solution is over.”

8th UPDATE: Le Monde’s Louis Imbert has a portrait in the May 28th issue of Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahia Sinouar, in which he is presented as a relative moderate. One reads, e.g.

Longtemps, les généraux israéliens n’ont pas caché leur intérêt, voire leur admiration pour cet enfant d’une famille de réfugiés implantée à Khan Younès, à Gaza. M. Sinouar y a fait respecter les « bonnes mœurs » pour le Hamas naissant.

9th UPDATE: Tel Aviv-based journalist Neri Zilber has a must-read opinion piece (May 28th) in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “Israel’s Palestinian policy is in tatters.” Money quote:

As Israeli journalist (and co-creator of the hit TV show Fauda) Avi Issacharoff recently wrote, Israel’s policy aimed “to weaken Fatah and the PA so that it would not have a partner to negotiate with, and to strengthen Hamas through funds and [by easing measures] to claim that there is no partner to negotiate with.”

10th UPDATE: See the Statement on Israel/Palestine by Scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies (May 22nd). If I were eligible to sign it, I would.

11th UPDATE: FWIW Vox’s Zack Beauchamp argues “In defense of the two-state solution.” The lede: “Some are declaring the two-state paradigm for Israel and Palestine totally doomed. But it’s not — and it’s still worth fighting for.” (May 26th)

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

“This is Israel’s most failed and pointless Gaza operation ever. It must end now.” Voilà the headline of an analysis (May 18th) by Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn. It begins:

As of its ninth day, Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza has turned into Israel’s most failed and pointless border war ever, even when measured against the tough competition from the champion league of the Second Lebanon War, and Operations Pillar of Defense, Cast Lead and Protective Edge in Gaza. We have been witness to a serious military and diplomatic failure that has exposed major deficiencies in the army’s preparations and performance and in the leadership of a confused and helpless government.

Instead of wasting time in a useless effort to create an “image of victory” while causing death and destruction in Gaza and upending lives to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must stop now and agree to a cease-fire – and hope that the failure will be forgotten by public opinion as quickly as the Mount Meron disaster. In a more perfect world, it would be proper to add here “and order a thorough house cleaning of the Israel Defense Forces.” But criminal defendant Netanyahu, who is fighting to keep his official residence on Balfour Street, has neither the authority nor the political power to lead such a needed change.

Benn proceeds to discuss the five biggest problems revealed so far in Israel’s preparations for and conduct of the war. It would be helpful if such analyses were read by pro-Israel US commentators, some of whom have been figuratively screaming over the past week, not to mention ‘Les Grandes Gueules Moyen-Orient‘ I happened to come across two nights ago on i24NEWS Français, the one with la plus grande gueule being Meyer Habib, the deputy in the French National Assembly representing the 8th constituency of French citizens abroad, the majority of whose voters reside in Israel (and are, like Habib, dual-national Israelis). Habib, who is close to Netanyahu and the Likud (he was a Betar militant in his youth), may have been elected under the center-right UDI label but is way out there on the right. A prediction: between now and next April, Habib will endorse Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National, and will be followed by a not insignificant number of his co-religionists (N.B. French Jews are more conservative and attached to Israel than their American counterparts, and with a greater visceral animosity toward Arabs and Muslims).

N.B. Denouncing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza must not obscure the role of Hamas in initiating the conflict with its unprovoked rocket attacks, first on Jerusalem than everywhere else in Israel in the rockets’ range, and with the intention of hitting the civilian population at random (Hamas rockets, as one reads here, are not equipped with guidance systems that would enable them to strike specific targets). If Israel is committing war crimes that could be investigated by the ICC, so is Hamas.

Then there’s the politically pernicious side of Hamas’ action, which is explained by historian Vincent Lemire, the director of the French research center in Jerusalem, in a full-page, must-read interview in Le Monde dated May 18th, “‘Le fossé n’a jamais été aussi profond entre Jérusalem-Est et Jérusalem-Ouest’.” The two weeks that preceded the Hamas rockets had witnessed an exceptional mobilization of young Jerusalem Palestinians: against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, the attempt by the Israeli police to set up a checkpoint on the steps of the Damascus Gate of the Old City—a “small agora” where Palestinian families gather in the evening during Ramadan—and the actions of that police at the Al-Aqsa mosque and on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The tactical intelligence, as Lemire put it, of the Palestinian activists resulted in the Israelis not only beating a retreat at the Damascus Gate but also preventing Jewish extremists from marching through the Old City on their May 10th “Jerusalem Day.” It was a humiliating setback for Netanyahu and whose political future appeared compromised—until Hamas rescued him with its rockets. It was, as Lemire put it

une grossière tentative de récupération de la part du Hamas, qui, lundi soir, a choisi de déclencher une nouvelle guerre pour revenir dans le jeu, plutôt que de célébrer dignement la victoire des Palestiniens de Jérusalem.

On Jerusalem Day:

[Le] lundi 10 mai, [il y a eu] l’échec retentissant du « Jour de Jérusalem », organisé chaque année pour commémorer la « réunification » de la ville en 1967. Le jour où Israël devait célébrer sa pleine souveraineté sur sa capitale « éternelle et indivisible », les juifs israéliens ont été interdits par la police israélienne de pénétrer sur l’esplanade des Mosquées, puis empêchés de passer par la porte de Damas, avant que toute la Vieille Ville ne leur soit finalement rendue inaccessible.

Ce soir-là, jusqu’aux tirs de roquettes du Hamas, le premier ministre israélien, Benyamin Nétanyahou, était mortifié, humilié, et sa carrière politique semblait définitivement compromise.

Israeli journalist and activist Haggai Matar described the situation in Jerusalem well in +972 Magazine (May 10th), “Israel chooses violence: From the repression in Sheikh Jarrah to the bombing of Gaza, the Israeli government has opted to escalate its brutality toward Palestinians.” He begins:

The escalation in violence across Israel-Palestine over the past days is primarily the result of a number of choices made by the Israeli government. While such violence is far from unprecedented in our region, and has been inherent to Israel’s oppressive policies for decades, these are choices that ultimately serve the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is desperately fighting to save his political career and avoid potential time behind bars.

The dangerous choices started in earnest with the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the Israeli authorities made the unfathomable decision to place new makeshift checkpoints at the entrance to Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. They then attacked Palestinians who gathered there to enjoy breaking the daily fast with friends and family. It took two weeks of police violence and a steadfast response by Palestinian protesters for the police to back down.

On Sheikh Jarrah, for those who need a primer, see the one (May 6th) by Mustafa Abu Sneineh in Middle East Eye, “Sheikh Jarrah explained: The past and present of East Jerusalem neighbourhood.”

See likewise the report (May 19th) by FT Jerusalem correspondent Mehul Srivastava, “How Arab evictions fuelled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

One aspect of what’s happening in Sheikh Jarrah has not been mentioned so far as I’ve seen. The Jewish extremist organization that is claiming property there is basing the claim on the contention that the property in question was owned by Jews before 1948, i.e. by persons in their ethno-religious group, not by particular individuals in the organization in question. The Jewish organization wants to evict the Palestinian families who have lived there for seventy years and then occupy it for themselves, for the simple reason that a Jewish family, whose identity is immaterial and whose descendants are not part of the organization, owned it generations ago.

Rhetorical question: Is there any legal system in the world—and particularly in a state claiming to be a democracy and governed by rule of law—where such a claim would have any legal validity? Where invoking mere membership in an ethno-religious group would give someone the legal right to appropriate a piece of property and evict its longtime inhabitants?

I have long resisted applying the apartheid label to Israel, though in a 2014 post, ‘Rage in Jerusalem,’ made an exception for East Jerusalem, where I determined that the ignominious label did indeed apply. If such was the case seven years ago, it is every bit as much so today.

AWAV readers, who are by definition well-informed, will be aware that the apartheid analogy in regard to Israel has gone mainstream, notably with the April 27th release of Human Rights Watch’s report, A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. As the editor of the report, Eric Goldstein, who is Acting Executive Director of HRW’s MENA Division, is a very good and dear friend—and who happens to be responsible for this blog’s name: yes, Arun with a View was his brainchild—I owe him my assessment of the report, and particularly as we’ve had numerous discussions on the subject over the years. I will have a separate post on it soon (after I’ve had a chance to actually read through the thing; in the meantime, here’s an opinion piece of his in The Forward, on how attaching the apartheid label to Israel was not a decision HRW reached lightly).

Rereading my 2014 post, so much of what I wrote then could be repeated almost verbatim today. Quoting myself:

[O]n the Israeli response to the rage in East Jerusalem—of draconian police and army repression, mass arrests and prosecutions of minors, sealing off Arab neighborhoods with concrete blocks, demolishing the homes of the families of terrorists (or anyone the Israelis deem as such; a.k.a. collective punishment), randomly spraying “skunk water” in the eastern part of the city, restricting Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif, colonizing densely populated Arab quarters with extremist settlers, proposing new “anti-terrorism” laws that will further abuse Palestinians under Israeli rule (including Palestinian citizens of Israel, PCIs), etc, etc—, WTF are Netanyahu & Co.—indeed the entire Israeli right—thinking? How do they imagine this is going to play out? What’s the end game? We’re not talking about Gaza, Jenin, or some place around which the Israelis can build a wall and try to forget about. This is their “eternal” unified capital city, but where close to 40% of the population does not enjoy the rights of citizenship and is hostile to them. And the Palestinians of Jerusalem are devoid of political leadership, with not a single person who can speak in the name of even some of them or serve as an interlocutor with the Israelis. Moreover—and I find this incredible—, the Israelis don’t want Palestinian interlocutors in Jerusalem. They don’t want to negotiate or bargain with the Palestinian residents of the city, to collectively dialogue with or treat them as anything other than barely tolerated interlopers in a city that they, the Israelis, consider to be theirs and theirs only. And the Israelis have absolutely nothing to propose to the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem (except to subtly—or not so subtly—encourage them to emigrate, or just go away). The people who run the state of Israel have become unhinged, point barre (the new state president, Reuven Rivlin, being a notable exception). Again, WTF do they expect to happen? Indian-style communal riots, with rampaging mobs in both communities chauffé à blanc murdering dozens, if not hundreds? And if this comes to pass—an eventuality that one must not exclude—, what then? If anyone who identifies with the Israeli right can give a response to this—to what appears to objective observers to be an irrational fuite en avant on the part of Netanyahu & Co.—, I’m all ears.

Needless to say, I have yet to see any kind of response to this from anyone who considers a unified Jerusalem to be Israel’s eternal capital.

N.B. The Palestinians will never cede on the question of Jerusalem. They will never acquiesce in the Israeli annexation of the eastern part of the city or it being severed from the rest of the West Bank. If there is ever, inshallah, going to be a peace agreement—which we’re not likely to see in our lifetimes—Israel will simply have to yield on East Jerusalem, as not only does it have no legal right to be there (if UNSC resolutions mean anything) but also, as I wrote in 2012, no moral right.

Vincent Lemire, in the interview cited above, makes an observation that Israelis and Israel partisans may not be aware of, which is that Israel is losing the demographic battle in Jerusalem.

[Les Palestiniens] résistent aussi parce que la démographie leur donne raison : il y a aujourd’hui 350 000 Palestiniens à Jérusalem, soit cinq fois plus qu’en 1967 (70 000), alors que la population israélienne n’a pas progressé dans les mêmes proportions (190 000 en 1967, 560 000 aujourd’hui, soit une multiplication par trois).

Et si on se focalise sur la Vieille Ville, cœur historique et religieux de la ville sainte, la résistance démographique palestinienne est encore plus nette : la population juive israélienne représente moins de 10 % de la population totale de la Vieille Ville aujourd’hui.

La colonisation progresse à grands pas en Cisjordanie, mais elle est en échec à Jérusalem, ce qui est insupportable pour l’extrême droite israélienne, qui se cogne à cette réalité à chaque fois que ses Proud Boys tentent de manifester dans les ruelles étroites de la ville historique.

Cette bataille démographique est essentielle parce qu’elle engage toute la société civile, toutes les familles, avec évidemment les femmes en toute première ligne, et parce que la supériorité militaire israélienne n’y peut rien changer.

The Israeli supreme court will hand down its ruling in the coming weeks on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. If it goes against the Palestinian families, which is likely, there will be an explosion of rage among Palestinians, and not only in Jerusalem. If the ruling is in their favor, the Jewish extreme right will go ballistic. And they’re armed and dangerous. Either way, the consequences will be bad. This thing is only beginning.

Some worthwhile articles by A-list analysts:

Shlomo Ben-Ami in Project Syndicate (May 13th): “The end of Israel’s illusion.”

Mouin Rabbani in Time magazine (May 13th): “Israel-Palestine is a state of permanent conflict punctuated by periodic carnage. Only the watching world can stop it.”

Tareq Baconi in the LRB blog (May 14th): “Sheikh Jarrah and after.”

Natan Sachs in the Brookings Institution blog (May 15th): “The perfect storm for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Dahlia Scheindlin in The Guardian (May 16th): “How did it happen that Israel’s Jews and Arabs rose up against each other?”

To be continued.

UPDATE: Journalist Neri Zilber has a useful ‘7 min read’ (May 13th) in Newlines Magazine, “The war that shouldn’t have been: Israel and Hamas had reached a pragmatic arrangement for years. How it was upended.”

The never uninteresting and invariably incisive Peter Beinart correctly asserts in his Substack newsletter (May 20th) that “If Israel eliminated Hamas, nothing fundamental would change.” Entre autres, he writes:

Today, it’s common to associate Hamas’s militancy with its Islamist ideology. The implication is that if only Islamists were eliminated from the Palestinian political scene, Palestinian politics would grow more moderate and quiescent. But Israeli leaders didn’t always see it that way. Just as US officials once saw Islamists like the Afghan Mujahedeen as less threatening than communists backed by the USSR, Israeli officials once saw Hamas as more pliable than Yasser Arafat’s more secular Fatah. In a recent letter to the editor of The New York Times, former Times’ Jerusalem correspondent David K. Shipler noted that in 1981, Israel’s military governor of Gaza told him that, in Shipler’s words, “he was giving money to the Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of Hamas, on the instruction of the Israeli authorities. The funding was intended to tilt power away from both Communist and Palestinian nationalist movements in Gaza, which Israel considered more threatening than the fundamentalists.” Oops.

And don’t miss Gershon Baskin’s opinion piece (May 19th) in The Jerusalem Post, “Israel must talk to Hamas to improve the situation in Gaza.”

2nd UPDATE: The Times of Israel’s senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur has an analysis (May 22nd) that merits reading: “Hamas’s forever war against Israel has a glitch, and it isn’t Iron Dome: Why Hamas promises another war soon, and another and another. And why it won’t work.” The story of the two retired IDF major-generals meeting with Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi is interesting. Also the bit about Musa Abu Marzouk’s May 17th interview with RT.

3rd UPDATE: Adam Shatz’s analysis of this latest phase in the Israel-Palestine conflict, “Ghosts in the land,” is up on the LRB website (June 3rd issue). At the end of the piece is a link to Adam’s 45-minute May 21st podcast discussion with Tareq Baconi and Henriette Chacar.

The inevitable explosion

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Gaza edition. I watched the destruction of the Al Jalaa tower in Gaza live on Al Jazeera yesterday. In an email sent out shortly afterward—admittedly sous le coup de l’émotion—I wrote that if the Israelis are looking to be hated, they’re doing a helluva job. As reported, the building housed the offices of Al Jazeera, the Associated Press, and other media outlets, plus offices of businesses, lawyers, and doctors, and private residences. The IDF says that Hamas had “military intelligence assets” in the building—with the journalists and other civilians there thus serving, unbeknownst to them, as “human shields”—so was thus a legitimate military target, and with an IDF spokesman on CNN today reminding us that the inhabitants of the building were given an hour’s notice to evacuate before the missiles hit, so that no one would get hurt. How thoughtful of the IDF. As for the evidence of Hamas’s “military intelligence assets,” the Israelis naturally cannot reveal their “intelligence sources and methods…”

Even if Hamas had some kind of military asset in the building—which the media organizations and others would have presumably been aware of—that was no reason to target it. The fact of the matter is, Israel committed an act of state terrorism in destroying the Al Jalaa tower, even if happily no one was killed or injured, as the manifest intent of taking it down was to terrorize and collectively punish the Gaza population for the actions of its rulers, and to shock and awe Hamas in a way the IDF did not succeed in doing in 2014. In a p. 2 article in Le Monde dated May 16-17 and signed by Madjid Zerrouky and Piotr Smolar, “A Gaza, sous les bombardements, la peur et la dévastation,” one reads that other high-rise buildings in Gaza housing media organizations have been destroyed by the Israelis over the past week. Here is a lengthy passage that merits quoting:

Les Gazaouis ont une hantise des immeubles les plus hauts depuis que les forces israéliennes s’emploient à réduire méthodiquement à l’état de gravats ce que les locaux appellent les « tours ». Soit une demi-douzaine d’édifices de plus de dix étages qui se sont effondrés en quelques secondes, endommageant les habitations alentours. Cette fois, les forces israéliennes ont surpris les habitants en ciblant, dès les premières heures du conflit, les infrastructures civiles et commerciales du territoire.

Une quasi-inversion par rapport à leur « calendrier » d’attaques en 2014. Et une nouvelle punition collective pour le poète Omar Salah, 19 ans. Membre de We Are Not Numbers (« Nous ne sommes pas des numéros »), un collectif de jeunes Gazaouis qui ont saisi la plume pour informer le monde et échapper à l’enfermement, il décrivait avec amertume le sort réservé à l’artère commerçante du quartier de Rimal, attaquée le 13 mai. « Rimal est associé à de beaux souvenirs chez tout le monde dans la bande de Gaza. En ces jours d’avant l’Aïd, cet endroit est censé être décoré pour célébrer la fête. Il s’est transformé en cendres grises. »

« C’est un sacrifice pour Jérusalem, Cheikh Jarrah et nos frères palestiniens de l’intérieur. » Malgré sa mauvaise fortune, Ahmed Al-Zaim tentait, lui, de faire bonne figure en posant aux pieds de la carcasse d’« Al-Jawhara », la tour dont il était le propriétaire. Un immeuble de dix étages qui est parti en fumée mercredi 12 mai. Le bâtiment abritait 14 médias, dont le quotidien Palestine Daily News, la chaîne de télévision panarabe Al-Araby ou l’agence photo APA. La veille, la tour « Al-Shourouk » avait subi le même sort. Sept médias, dont ceux du Hamas, y avaient leurs bureaux. L’armée israélienne a affirmé avoir ciblé des stocks d’armes du mouvement islamiste « cachés dans des bâtiments civils ».

« En moins de vingt-quatre heures, Israël a bombardé plus de trois tours qui abritent la plupart des médias locaux et internationaux travaillant à Gaza. C’est alarmant. Israël impose un black-out aux médias pour masquer des crimes de guerre », accuse de son côté Ramy Abdu, président de l’Observatoire euroméditerranéen des droits de l’homme.

Concierge, groupes électrogènes et vue sur la mer… La tour Hanadi, une résidence de 14 étages – le plus haut immeuble de la ville – était, elle, décrite comme un havre de paix et de confort par ses occupants. Quelque 80 familles issues de la classe moyenne et de la bourgeoisie locale ont tout perdu « en un clin d’œil » dans la soirée du 11 mai, selon les dires de l’un de ses habitants, qui, hébétés, s’affairaient le lendemain à récupérer ce qui pouvait l’être au milieu d’un gigantesque amoncellement de décombres : papiers administratifs, jouets des enfants, rideaux ou affaires scolaires…

« J’ai fait aussi l’expérience directe de la première frappe, sur ce qu’on appelle la tour Hanadi. Je la voyais de mon appartement. C’était un peu surréaliste. Effectivement, les habitants avaient été avertis. Sur les réseaux sociaux, l’information a donc circulé que la tour allait être visée », décrit Matthias Schmale, de l’UNWRA. Le gardien de l’immeuble a ainsi été averti au téléphone par un officier israélien. C’est notamment cet échange, filmé, qui a donné l’alerte : « De combien de temps as-tu besoin ? Deux heures, trois heures ? Je vais à l’immeuble pour dire aux gens de ne pas venir et de partir ? (…) Allô. Oui, je suis là. J’écoute. Deux coups avec un drone, puis vous frappez la tour… »

A Beit Lahya, dans le nord de l’enclave, la famille Al-Tanani n’a pas eu la chance d’être contactée. « Elle a complètement été effacée des registres de l’état civil palestinien », note l’universitaire Shadi Fakhri Jabr. Il a fallu plusieurs heures, jeudi, aux membres de la sécurité civile, armés de simples pioches, pour dégager des décombres de leur maison les corps de Rawiya, 37 ans, son époux Mohamed, 39 ans, et de leurs quatre enfants âgés de 4 à 7 ans.

« Les Israéliens préviennent parfois les habitants, mais ils frappent aussi sans avertissement. C’est la loterie. Et les barrages d’artillerie peuvent être si intenses que nos ambulances, qui n’hésitent pourtant pas à aller au feu, atteignent parfois difficilement les blessés. Dans le nord, ce sont des quartiers entiers qui sont touchés, dénonce le docteur Ahmad Mohana, directeur de l’hôpital Al-Awda, qui a la douloureuse impression que le sort s’acharne sur son établissement. Le secteur médical était déjà dans une situation critique : le résultat de quatorze années de siège imposé à la bande de Gaza. Nous venons de subir de plein fouet l’épidémie de Covid-19. Et maintenant, cette guerre… »

All the lives and livelihoods shattered, in addition to those lost. This is an outrage and for which Israel, as the perpetrator, is rather manifestly responsible. Hamas may have initiated hostilities with its unprovoked rocket attacks beginning a week ago but Israel was not obliged to respond militarily, particularly with 90% of the rockets being intercepted by the Iron Dome—which both sides knew would happen—and most of the rest falling harmlessly. Hamas may be playing a cynical game—and committing war crimes while it’s at it—but Israel is not obliged to fall into its trap. And as for Hamas’s cynical game, it may be summed up in the title of a must-read analysis by Le Monde’s Benjamin Barthe and Louis Imbert: “Le Hamas veut imposer à Israël un nouveau rapport de force: Le mouvement islamiste réalise pour l’instant une opération politique payante. Dans l’opinion publique palestinienne, son initiative est saluée comme un sursaut d’orgueil salutaire, un réveil de la résistance à l’occupation israélienne.”

So that’s it: Hamas is seeking to sweep aside a deliquescent Palestinian Authority and impose itself as the dominant Palestinian actor, vis-à-vis Israel and everyone else, and which would most certainly win an election in the West Bank-Gaza (which will have to happen sooner or later). And thanks to Israel, and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular, Hamas will likely succeed.

As for the other side of the equation, two pertinent articles from 2019 have been reposted on social media of late, one in Foreign Affairs by Aaron David Miller, “Israel and Hamas need each other;” the other in the Forward by Gaza writer and columnist Muhammad Shehada, “You know who wants Netanyahu to win? Hamas.” If the latter was the case in 2019, it is equally so in 2021. Hamas wants Netanyahu to remain in power and for his government to lurch even further to the extreme right—and with the inevitable consequences on the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and among Palestinian citizens of Israel. And it will likely succeed. Helluva job, Bibi.

To be continued.

UPDATE: Voilà the page 2 article in Le Monde dated May 18th: “Dimanche à Gaza, le massacre de la rue Wehda.” In The Washington Post’s dispatch (May 17th) on the Wehda Street massacre, and the 17 members of the extended family killed by Israeli missiles, is this:

The [IDF’s] operation is the first test of a new “victory concept” espoused by Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s chief of staff. It aims to turn the Israeli military into what one Israeli Defense Forces document describes as a “significantly more lethal, networked war machine that can destroy enemy capabilities in record time and with the lowest possible casualties” and to shift away from the old methods known as “mowing the lawn” — military campaigns that buy a little respite — to more decisive victories. Part of it is adapting to more quickly identify targets in dense urban areas such as Gaza. “This,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said in a recent briefing, “is the doctrine and concept being applied.”

For those in the city, it has felt as if there is no escape.

Also in Le Monde is an interview with Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem, in which he submits: “Il faut se demander si la véritable intention de tels assauts [par Israël] n’est pas de brutaliser la population civile.”

2nd UPDATE: The well-known Israeli journalist and specialist of Palestinian affairs (and co-creator of the series ‘Fauda’), Avi Isaacharoff, seeks to set the record straight in a Twitter thread (May 17th) “For the ones who forgot some facts about the war in Gaza.”

3rd UPDATE: Historian Martin Kramer has seen fit to repost on Twitter a 2006 blog post of his, “Hamas of the intellectuals,” the subject of which is the dim views of Edward Said of the Palestinian Islamist organization and the secular intellectuals who apologize for it.

4th UPDATE: Gerson Baskin, the well-known peace activist and founder of the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information—and who has dialogued with Hamas officials—has this comment (May 12th) on his Facebook page:

I don’t know about you, but I am quite amazed by the military capabilities of Hamas. Gaza has been under siege since 2005. From around 2014 the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza were destroyed by the Egyptians. Israel controls almost everything that enters Gaza, there are strong limitations on materials which are called “dual usage” meaning that they have a civilian use and a potential military use which are not allowed into Gaza. With all those limitations, let’s admit it – Hamas has developed an enormous quantity of short- and long-range rockets which are of a much higher quality than ever before. They have demonstrated the ability to launch up to 100 rockets in a very short period of time. The Engineering faculty of the Islamic University in Gaza must have really focused the studies and military applications of the students in the past years. By the way, if I remember correctly, the building of the Engineering faculty was built with money from USAID. I visited there once back in 2007. With that, it is important to consider what could have been done for the people of Gaza if Hamas had employed all of that enterprising genius in the development of housing, schools, hospitals, high-tech startups and more. I imagine that many Palestinians feel some sense of pride in the military abilities demonstrated by Hamas against mighty Israel. I can understand that, but please take a minute and consider what could have been developed instead of those rockets.

A question I’ve been asking (rhetorically) for years: if Hamas wants to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza, why doesn’t it simply announce that it accepts the three principles of the Middle East Quartet? Seriously.

[update below]

Le 10 mai 1981. It is, as Thomas Legrand reminded us on France Inter this morning, the only election that everyone in France remembers by its full date: day, month, and year. For on that day—today being the 40th anniversary—François Mitterrand won the 2nd round of the presidential election, bringing the left to power for the first time in 23 years—and following the legislative elections the following month, enabling the left to govern without non-left coalition partners for pretty much the first time ever (even the Popular Front in 1936 included centrist Radicals). Every Frenchman and woman with the slightest political consciousness who was around on that day remembers where s/he was and how s/he felt. And for those on the left, the feeling was exhilaration.

As for moi, I wrote about the 10 mai 1981 on the 30th anniversary—in AWAV’s early days—and offered my bilan of Mitterrand’s fourteen years in the Élysée, which one may consult here. I wouldn’t modify anything I wrote then, except maybe on the Maastricht treaty (which I would now not put in the negative column). But my overall assessment of Mitterrand is now darker, with the publication in March of the report of the commission headed by Vincent Duclert and submitted to President Macron, on France, Rwanda, and the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994, and what French archives reveal on this. It’s a damning indictment of Mitterrand’s role, of continuing to support the Hutu regime even as the genocide was underway, refusing to recognize that what was happening was indeed a genocide, and of his atavistic obsession—shared by part of the French military hierarchy—with an imagined “Anglo-Saxon” (i.e. American and British) threat to the French position in Africa, and which Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front was seen as the spearhead. Mitterrand’s attitude toward Rwanda in 1994 is not news but that he was afflicted with the Fashoda complex to this extent—of viewing the USA and UK, otherwise French allies, as adversaries, if not enemies—is striking, not to mention disappointing (for more on this, watch the interview with Vincent Duclert here).

The 10 mai 1981 is of course being marked today, with the usual reportages, documentaries, talk shows, and the like. The reaction of Boomer generation lefties is bittersweet, as in 1981 the left was a political and social force—constituting half the electorate, or close to it—with an ideology, a political program, and hopes for the future and a better life for all. Today the French left is a champs de ruine: a pile of rubble, speaking for at best a third of the electorate, structurally fractured, with no credible program or leaders, and with no hope of qualifying for the 2nd round of next year’s presidential election—or winning any national election in the foreseeable future. And in the PS at least, no one has any illusions about this. The French left is hardly alone here (cf. England, Spain, Italy). I have some things to say on this general subject—of the structural decline of the left in Europe (the USA is a different matter)—and will do so at the opportune moment. In the meantime, here are the thoughts on the anniversary by my friend Guillaume Duval, director of Alternatives Économiques, posted on his Facebook page, and who has not lost hope.

Le 10 mai 1981, il y a 40 ans et j’en avais 24. J’étais déjà cependant un “vieux” militant socialiste puisque j’avais rejoint ce parti en 1973, 2 ans après le congrès d’Epinay qui avait vu sa refondation.

On aurait tort de croire toutefois que les dix années qui séparent Epinay et le 10 mai 1981 ont été une marche triomphale vers la victoire. En 1981 la gauche a gagné bien qu’elle soit profondément divisée. Depuis 1978 c’était la guerre totale entre le Parti communiste (encore très puissant à l’époque) et le Parti socialiste. Et au sein même du Parti socialiste c’était la guerre civile pratiquement aussi totale entre mitterrandistes et rocardiens.

Mais après 16 années de gaullisme conservateur, autoritaire et affairiste (l’image généralement positive qu’a désormais acquis le gaullisme à gauche a de quoi faire sourire celles et ceux qui ont vécu cette période), après 7 ans d’un giscardisme très proche idéologiquement de ce qu’Emmanuel Macron nous inflige actuellement (même si Giscard était plus progressiste qu’Emmanuel Macron sur les sujets de société) la volonté de changement du peuple français a quand même été plus forte que les profondes divisions de la gauche.

Pour ma part, bien que n’ayant jamais été mitterrandiste et connaissant déjà toutes les ambiguïtés du personnage, je m’étais engagé à fond, comme jamais depuis, dans cette campagne. Et je ne le regrette pas. Il fallait aérer le pays, rompre avec ce carcan, bourgeois, conservateur, bien pensant et policier qui nous étouffait.

Même si très vite, dès 1983, appuyé sur l’énarchie qui avait déjà phagocyté les cercles dirigeants du Parti Socialiste, ce qu’on n’appelait pas encore à l’époque le social-libéralisme (que j’ai combattu dès le départ) a triomphé. Faisant ainsi qu’au final les 2 septennats de François Mitterrand ont eu surtout comme fonction historique de rétablir les profits des entreprises qui avaient fondu dans les années 1970 sous Giscard et Chirac…

40 ans plus tard le cycle ouvert avec la rénovation du Parti socialiste (que j’ai pour ma part quitté depuis bientôt trente ans à la fin d’un second septennat de Francois Mitterrand marqué par tant d’affaires sordides) est manifestement terminé.

C’est grâce en particulier à Emmanuel Macron qu’il s’est clos : avec lui la chenille du social-liberalisme énarchique qui avait progressivement dévoré le Parti socialiste s’est muée en papillon d’une nouvelle droite aussi autoritaire que les Pasqua, Poniatowski ou Sarkozy, plus favorable encore que toutes les droites classiques aux plus riches et nettement plus antisociale encore que tous les Chirac, Sarkozy, Giscard et Barre réunis…

Est-ce que la gauche, enfin débarrassée de ces parasites qui la rongeaient de l’intérieur, régénérée par le logiciel écologiste, peut revivre, et cela dès 2022 ? Le pari est évidemment très loin d’être gagné d’avance. Mais toutes celles et tous ceux qui ont vécu la période profondément démoralisante de 1978-1981 (ou celle tout aussi déprimante de 1993-1997) savent aussi qu’il n’est pas non plus nécessairement perdu d’avance. D’autant qu’ils savent également ce qu’une victoire de l’extrême droite impliquerait. Pas une minute à perdre.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary, France 5 aired a one-hour documentary yesterday, “Henri Weber, le rouge et la rose.” Henri Weber, who died of Covid last year, was a major figure on the French left of the past five decades: in May ’68, then the Trotskyist LCR, before joining the PS in the 1980s, converting to social-democracy, and becoming a personality in the party leadership and one of its intellectuals. For the anecdote, I had the opportunity to speak with him on the phone in 2017—a mutual friend put me in touch—to seek his help in organizing a visit for one of my classes (American students) to PS HQ on Rue de Solférino. He was warm and friendly and made the visit happen. A good man (and with good politics). The documentary may be watched for the next month here.

UPDATE: From INA: Revivez en direct la soirée électorale du 10 mai 1981 (h/t Guillaume Duval). N.B. Jean-Pierre Elkabbach and Alain Duhamel are still around and on TV regularly (I’ve seen both in the past two weeks).

Places of Mind

[update below]

For any left-leaning, intellectually-inclined American of my generation and with an interest in the Middle East, Edward Said was a reference. Eighteen years after his death, he finally has a biography—more-or-less authorized—authored (naturally) by a protégé, Timothy Brennan, a professor of cultural studies, comparative literature, and English at the University of Minnesota. The book has received the expected attention, with four excellent reviews—that I’ve read so far, at least—the most excellent of them the 9,000-word essay by my dear friend Adam Shatz—who knew Said personally—in the May 6th issue of the London Review of Books. If you read just one review of Brennan’s book, let it be Adam’s.

The other reviews are the smart and always interesting Pankaj Mishra’s in the April 26th-May 3rd issue of The New Yorker, Thomas Meaney (smart historian) in the New Statesman, and Sameer Rahim in Prospect magazine (of which he is managing editor; titled “the confusions of Edward Said,” this one isn’t too sympathetic).

I never personally met Said, though saw him speak three or four times in the early-mid ’80s (in New York and Chicago) and was a fan of his through that decade, after which I became critical of some of his public positions, e.g. over the 1991 Gulf War, with him opposing the US-led international coalition but me supporting. And I was not in agreement with his harsh critique of the Oslo Accords, which I strongly favored at the time—how could one be against peace between the Israelis and Palestinians?—but had to acknowledge later that Said was not totally wrong on this one. But despite my political disenchantment with Said, I enjoyed reading his columns in Al-Ahram Weekly in the latter part of the ’90s and to his death in 2003. Agree with him or not, he was a brilliant writer and so erudite.

À propos, watching Said debate Fouad Ajami on the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1985 during the War of the Camps in Lebanon (Shias vs. Palestinians), a fellow U of Chicago MENA-focused graduate student friend and I marveled afterward at how these two Middle Eastern Arab academic intellectuals possessed a greater command of the English language than just about any of their educated American counterparts. Both were very impressive.

As for Said’s 20-25 books, I will admit to having only read five. Two of the early ones, The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam, I read around the time they came out and liked both, though my assessment would likely be different today (particularly in regard to the latter). My favorite book by Said was his memoir Out of Place, of his childhood and adolescence, which, in addition to being an engaging read, gave deep insights into the man, his family and milieu, and of life in Cairo and Lebanon (and a bit in Jerusalem) in the 1940s and early ’50s. It’s absolutely worth the read.

As for Orientalism, I first read it early on but not in a serious way. I was generally uncritical of its theses, though felt that Bernard Lewis got the better of the exchange with Said over the book (in the pages of the NYRB in 1982), and this when I was far more politically sympathetic to Said than to Lewis (not that I ever gained sympathy for the latter). In the early ’00s (after 9/11), I decided that I really needed to read it again and seriously, so proposed it to my U of Chicago alumni reading group here in Paris. I will simply say that I strongly disliked the book and downright hated its chapter 3, and particularly the latter part, of Said’s broadside against contemporary (to the 1970s) American social science—and political science above all—on the Middle East (these pages of my copy are covered with marginal comments—e.g. Rubbish! Bullshit!—and exclamation/question marks signifying incredulity). I proclaimed to my reading group friends that Said was way outside his domain of specialization in chapter 3 and simply did not know WTF he was talking about. The critiques of Orientalism by its many detractors were correct. Case closed.

In his essay, Adam mentions the negative reception of Orientalism by intellectuals in the Arab world, citing the case of Sadiq Jalal al-Azm. The article to read on this is Emmanuel Sivan, “Edward Said and His Arab Reviewers,” Jerusalem Quarterly 35 (Spring 1985).

UPDATE: Adam Shatz discusses “Edward Said and Palestine” (May 13th) with historian and journalist Jon Wiener in a 20-minute podcast hosted by The Nation magazine.

Verso’s blog has an unsigned post (May 11th), “A tale of two books: A biographical controversy concerning a new life of Edward Said,” the controversy being over Said’s longtime extra-marital relationship with Dominique Eddé and how Timothy Brennan dealt with that in his book.

[update below]

I’ve been following the media reports and seeing the images as has everyone—plus the announcements on social media by persons I follow or see of loved ones or friends in India who have died of Covid. If one hasn’t already, do take the time to read Arundhati Roy’s ‘long read’ article in The Guardian, “We are witnessing a crime against humanity.” The lede: “It’s hard to convey the full depth and range of the trauma, the chaos and the indignity that people are being subjected to. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi and his allies are telling us not to complain.” I can do without Roy’s commentaries on geopolitics but she is very good when writing about her own country. E.g., this:

As this epic catastrophe plays out on our Modi-aligned Indian television channels, you’ll notice how they all speak in one tutored voice. The “system” has collapsed, they say, again and again. The virus has overwhelmed India’s health care “system”.

The system has not collapsed. The “system” barely existed. The government – this one, as well as the Congress government that preceded it – deliberately dismantled what little medical infrastructure there was. This is what happens when a pandemic hits a country with an almost nonexistent public healthcare system. India spends about 1.25% of its gross domestic product on health, far lower than most countries in the world, even the poorest ones. Even that figure is thought to be inflated, because things that are important but do not strictly qualify as healthcare have been slipped into it. So the real figure is estimated to be more like 0.34%. The tragedy is that in this devastatingly poor country, as a 2016 Lancet study shows, 78% of the healthcare in urban areas and 71% in rural areas is now handled by the private sector. The resources that remain in the public sector are systematically siphoned into the private sector by a nexus of corrupt administrators and medical practitioners, corrupt referrals and insurance rackets.

Healthcare is a fundamental right. The private sector will not cater to starving, sick, dying people who don’t have money. This massive privatisation of India’s healthcare is a crime.

On the sidebar at the end of Roy’s essay is a link to a report by The Guardian’s Delhi correspondent Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “‘The system has collapsed’: India’s descent into Covid hell.”

On the state of India’s social safety net, journalist and writer Vidya Krishnan—who has covered health and science there for some twenty years, including as the health editor for the daily newspaper The Hindu—explains in The Atlantic that “India is what happens when rich people do nothing: The chamber of horrors the country now finds itself in was not caused by any one man, or any single government.” Money quote:

What is evident, however, is that we suffer from moral malnutrition—none of us more so than the rich, the upper class, the upper caste of India. And nowhere is this more evident than in the health-care sector.

India’s economic liberalization in the ’90s brought with it a rapid expansion of the private health-care industry, a shift that ultimately created a system of medical apartheid: World-class private hospitals catered to wealthy Indians and medical tourists from abroad; state-run facilities were for the poor. Those with money were able to purchase the best available care (or, in the case of the absolute richest, flee to safety in private jets), while elsewhere the country’s health-care infrastructure was held together with duct tape. The Indians who bought their way to a healthier life did not, or chose not to, see the widening gulf. Today, they are clutching their pearls as their loved ones fail to get ambulances, doctors, medicine, and oxygen.

At the top of the NYT webpage today is an article titled “Deaths mount at an Indian hospital after oxygen runs out,” which reminds me that a great uncle of mine died at a hospital in Bombay in the 1990s because, needing oxygen, the tank he was provided was empty. My grandmother also died of malpractice in an Indian hospital in the early 1960s. If medical care in that country is such for the middle class, one can imagine what it is for the poor,

Mumbai-based researcher, writer, journalist, and strategy consultant Vivek Y. Kelkar has a report in the Substack newsletter The Cosmopolitan Globalist—that he is co-editor of and with which I am informally associated—”Covid19 brings chaos and horror to the Subcontinent: India thought it had escaped the worst. It was wrong.”

Don’t miss the Financial Times’ ‘free to read’ article by writer and columnist Ramachandra Guha, “The unmaking of India: The country’s catastrophic Covid response has exposed a creeping erosion of democratic values and traditions under Modi.”

À suivre.

UPDATE: Writing in Project Syndicate (May 4th), Brahma Chellaney, who is a professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, critiques “The lurid Orientalism of Western media.” The lede: “By trafficking in images of death, suffering, and private acts of mourning, Western media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in India has broken one of the first rules of journalism. And while a Western double standard is nothing new, applying it repeatedly does not make it more acceptable.” Among other things. Chellaney takes issue with the circulation of images such as the one above of the funeral pyre.

Biden’s 100 days

[update below] [2nd update below]

It’s become banal to say how pleasantly surprised we are by him—by his rhetoric and actions—since he took the oath of office on January 20th. By “we” I refer to those of us who supported Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders and were dismissive of Biden and his candidacy before he suddenly, contre toute attente, surged in March 2020 and then clinched the nomination in April. And while we warmed to him over the subsequent months, not too many had high hopes of what he would or could set out to achieve once elected. Being rid of Trump was almost enough.

Progressives’ pleasant surprise of the past three months has literally transformed into gushing enthusiasm since Biden’s address to Congress on Wednesday, with even the most Biden-skeptic gauchistes giving the speech the thumbs way up on social media. In my social media world, there is now a near total consensus that, in economic and social policy, Sleepy Joe is indeed the Real Deal.

The title of an article by Anand Giridharadas in The Atlantic (April 14th) summed up the matter: “Welcome to the new progressive era: Progressives thought they knew what a Biden presidency would look like. How did they get him so wrong?” It begins:

Washington in the first days of the Biden administration is a place for double takes: A president associated with the politics of austerity is spending money with focused gusto, a crisis isn’t going to waste, and Senator Bernie Sanders is happy.

People like to tell you they saw things coming. But as I talked to many of the campers in Joe Biden’s big tent, particularly those who, like me, were skeptical of Biden, I found that the overwhelming sentiment was surprise. Few of us expected that this president—given his record, a knife’s-edge Congress, and a crisis that makes it hard to look an inch beyond one’s nose—would begin to be talked about as, potentially, transformational.

If there are any doubts as to the Biden administration’s progressive cred, see the piece (April 28th) in the People’s World—the more or less official organ of the CPUSA, in Popular Front mode these days—by its editor-in-chief, “Biden to unveil proposals for radical reform of the economy.” John Bachtell, former CPUSA chairman (2014-19) and a contemporary of mine in college (we were dorm neighbors, took a seminar together on the thought of Antonio Gramsci, and talked/debated/sparred over politics), thus introduced it on Facebook:

When you take all of the Biden Administration accomplishments and initiatives so far – the American Rescue Plan and tackling the coronavirus, the hundred or so executive orders affecting policy across the board, the American Jobs Plan, and commitment to radically transform energy production, transport, and other sectors to reduce GGH by 50%, shifting the tax burden to the wealthy, the diverse cabinet and its connections to mass democratic movements, and now the American Families Plan – we are talking about a potentially transformative era in U.S. history perhaps not seen since the Civil Rights era, Great Depression, and Reconstruction. Not to speak of the democratic reforms contemplated by Biden and the Democratic-led Congress, i.e., the ProAct, For the People Act, Citizenship Act, LGBTQ Equality Act, and DC Statehood. It’s an agenda that’s desperately needed and can unite a majority of the country, and the broad political left and center. But unless it passes, all may be for naught and this illustrates the urgency of the mass democratic movements to unite behind the agenda. Winning it will also open new space for wider and more radical economic and political reforms. My colleague John Wojcik lays it out here.

The CPUSA’s French counterpart, the PCF, is on the same page:

Fox News will have a field day with this if they find out about it but that’s okay. C’est la bonne guerre.

One observer who foresaw Biden’s progressive shift over a year ago is Peter Suderman, an editor at the right-leaning libertarian Reason, who had a commentary dated March 4, 2020, “Joe Biden is no moderate: [He] is a classic big-government liberal,” which I linked to in a post at the time. It’s a premonitory analysis and worth (re)reading.

Also worth reading is John F. Harris’ post-speech commentary in Politico, “Biden just gave the most ideologically ambitious speech of any Democratic president in generations: With his vow to spend money on blue-cotllar jobs and tax the rich, Biden’s program aims to splinter the Trump Coalition.”

As for what President Biden’s predecessor—whom Twitter so thankfully cancelled—is up to these days, this has been making the rounds on social media:

Biden may deserve a grade of A so far on economic and social policy but on foreign policy he gets but a B (I’ll raise it when he reverses Trump’s actions on Iran and Cuba). And while I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude on immigration, so far I give him a B–/C+. More on that soon.

UPDATE: Robert Reich has a typically spot-on commentary (May 2nd) in The Guardian, “The first 100 days of Biden were also the first 100 without Trump – that’s telling: The new president is benefiting not just from bold proposals and actions but from his predecessor’s catastrophic record.”

2nd UPDATE: James Traub writes in Foreign Policy (May 7th) that “America is becoming a social democracy: The Biden administration is accomplishing what was once thought historically impossible.”

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war.” Just about everyone outside the far left—in the US and France, at least—supported the US intervention after 9/11, to smash Al Qaida and eject the Taliban; and, personally speaking, I didn’t waver on this over the years. When it comes to Afghanistan, I have long deferred to the views of two specialists. One is NYU political scientist Barnett Rubin, who quite simply knows Afghanistan better than anyone in the academic world anywhere—and who, in addition, had an Af-Pak policy position in the Obama administration. Whatever Barney Rubin says about Afghanistan, I’ll go with that. The other specialist is the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whom I started to follow when the Taliban was in power, as he was reporting from Kabul at the time. In his book Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Penguin Books, 2008), Rashid emphatically argued that a fully-funded US/Western/United Nations et al-led “nation building” project could have worked—that the Afghan people in their majority were willing to accept a foreign military presence during the time necessary to rebuild the country—but that the Bush-Cheney administration quickly turned its attention to Iraq and away from Afghanistan. There was a short window of opportunity to make positive things happen in Afghanistan but the US, as is its wont, blew it.

N.B. Barnett Rubin’s latest book: Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2020),

On President Biden’s announcement that the US will entirely withdraw its troops in September, I naturally follow Rubin on this (see, e.g., his United States Institute for Peace Afghan Peace Process Issues Paper of March 2021), as well as Fareed Zakaria—whose analyses are as level-headed and well-considered as they come—in his April 16th Washington Post column, “Biden is right. It’s time to end the forever war in Afghanistan.” (N.B. Zakaria, to his credit, does not speak of “forever wars” in the text of his column, an expression that the sharp MENA specialist Steven A. Cook calls a “cliché” in his latest piece in Foreign Policy). But the smart, erudite, never boring Adam Garfinkle is not so approving of Biden’s announcement, as he spells out in a commentary in The Bulwark (April 16th) on “Leaving Afghanistan: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq.” The lede: “Spoiler alert: This never ends well.” Pessimism over the outcome in Afghanistan after the US departure may indeed be warranted, though it’s hard to see how a prolonged US military presence—and an indefinite Taliban insurgency—could somehow yield a more positive outcome. And particularly as a majority of Afghans, including secular women, are willing to give peace with the Taliban a chance.

And let’s face it: the United States simply lacks the competence and intelligence (in the opposite-of-stupidity sense) to successfully stabilize a country like Afghanistan, as Jason Dempsey—Afghan war veteran and adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security—makes clear in a must-read essay (April 25th) in Politico, “We got Afghanistan wrong [and] what our military misread over the past 20 years.”

On this broad subject, I watched on ARTE last month an excellent multinational/mainly German produced four-part documentary series (which first aired in April 2020) on the past sixty years of Afghan history, Afghanistan: Pays meurtri par la guerre (English title: ‘Afghanistan: The Wounded Land’), with exceptional film footage and interviews. Despite some gaps in the historical narrative it is, from a pedagogical standpoint, the best documentary treatment of that country one will find. Here is a description from a French website (fed through Google Translate and edited à ma guise), with links to the episodes from YouTube (a number of the interviews are in English but the narration is in French):

In four 53-minute episodes, the documentary deciphers Afghanistan’s relentless downward spiral into war and ruin. By way of numerous archives and exceptional testimonies (including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the rival of Commander Massoud; Sima Samar, Afghan Minister for the Status of Women from 2001 to 2003; but also a Taliban, a former CIA officer, and major of the ex-Red Army), it shows how the population found itself entrapped, with hopes and disillusion, by the conflict between the two superpowers of the Cold War and the subsequent civil war involving the Mujahideen and Taliban fundamentalism.

On February 29, 2020, the Americans and the Taliban reached a historic agreement. Can hope for peace finally emerge? What if it came from the oppressed half of the country: women. At the end of the documentary, two speak about this:

Nilofar Ibrahimi, re-elected to parliament in 2018: “I sat at the negotiating table with the Taliban, the Afghan woman is not the same as 20 years ago, they know they can no longer reduce us to silence, this country needs me and hundreds of women like me.”

Shukria Barazkai, also remained in Kabul: “We will solve this problem through discussion and negotiation. Through tolerance and mutual respect. We have the right to disagree but not to kill each other. I learned enormously from this war. We can hit rock bottom, be totally broken, but get up to rebuild our country and ourselves. That’s the beauty of Afghanistan.”

Episode 1 [“The Kingdom”] takes us back to the 1960s, under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose reign began in 1933 and during which Afghanistan witnessed its longest period of stability. But there is a big gap between Kabul, where the Westernized elite lives, and the countryside, which has 80% of the population. A severe drought destabilizes the king, who is overthrown in 1973. There is a Communist coup in 1978 and instability begins. On December 27, 1979, the USSR sends its troops to Afghanistan to rescue the Communist regime.

Episode 2 [“The Soviet army”] traces the ten years of war between the Soviet army and the Afghan rebellion, ten years which bled the country dry. Over a million civilians were killed and up to five million crossed the border to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran.

Episode 3 [“Mujahideen and Taliban”] sees the commanders Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Islamic moderate, and Hekmatyar the fundamentalist engage in internecine warfare, which causes the arrival of a new force in 1996: the Taliban. Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, develops its murderous ideology there. On September 11, 2001, despite Commander Massoud’s warning to the Americans, Al-Qaeda succeeded in carrying out its plan: to strike at the heart of the United States.

Episode 4 [“The NATO troops”] tells about the American and NATO reaction, the collapse in November 2001 of the fundamentalist regime, the hunt for Bin Laden… Democracy emerges, wearing the burqa is no longer compulsory but the extreme poverty and widespread corruption are slowly undermining the country. The Taliban, who had managed to blend into society after their debacle, are regaining ground. And we arrive at today’s deal filled with uncertainties with a thin thread of hope.

A few random comments. First, the images of Kabul in the 1960s and ’70s—of unveiled women pursuing higher education and in the workforce—are a striking reminder of how Afghanistan was modernizing during those decades, without the heavy hand of dictatorship (cf. Iran and Arab states of the era), and what could have been had the country not gone off the rails from 1978 on. Second, it is manifest that the responsible party in triggering the country’s descente aux enfers was Afghanistan’s Communists and the coup d’État they staged in April 1978—their first act being the physical liquidation of President Daoud Khan (who had not been a nasty dictator) and his entire family, including the children. Not an auspicious beginning for a new political order. The Communists were Jacobins on steroids, who, armed with bayonets, were determined to bring modernity to the very conservative rural population whether the latter liked it or not, thus provoking the inevitable, religiously-inspired reaction. As the Communists’ social base was too narrow, the Soviet Union thus made the fateful decision to rescue its client regime from inevitable collapse. Third, the Soviet intervention accelerated Afghanistan’s downward spiral. The US military has killed its share of civilians in its many wars but the Soviet army—which has never paid even lip service to winning hearts and minds—was on another level altogether in Afghanistan. Fourth, the open-ended NATO counter-insurgency was destined to be an unwinnable quagmire—when the short window of opportunity mentioned above passed—in the same way as it was for the Soviets—and for every foreign intervention in Afghanistan’s history. Fifth, the Afghan interviewees in the documentary love their country and profess optimism for its future, however incongruous such sentiments may seem to outsiders. And the women, insisting that Afghanistan has changed over the past two decades, seem not to fear peace with the Taliban, who, they contend, will not try to lock them up as during the 1996-2001 period. Inshallah.

The Soviet army in Afghanistan—specifically, the experience of a Soviet soldier who was captured by the mujahideen—was the theme of a good French film that came out in 2006, L’Étoile du soldat, directed by the prolific filmmaker-journalist Christophe de Ponfilly, who had made a number of reporting trips to Afghanistan (Ahmed Shah Massoud was the subject of at least three of his documentaries). The film, which was shot in Afghanistan and Russia and adapted from the late de Ponfilly’s eponymous novel—itself based on an actual experience of his—is worth seeing (if one can find it).

There have been a dozen or so feature-length films on Afghanistan under the Taliban or post-2001 that have come out over the past two decades (that I’ve seen at least; there are no doubt more but that didn’t make it to France or I somehow missed). The one Hollywood production is German director Marc Forster’s 2007 The Kite Runner, adapted from the best-selling novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. (As for Mike Nichols’ 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War, which is entertaining and fun, this doesn’t count).

Four films focus on women and their status in that hyper-patriarchal society: Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2001 Kandahar, which was shot in Iran and clandestinely in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; the 2003 Osama, directed by Siddiq Barmak, based on a real life story during the Taliban era about an 11-year-old girl in Kabul who passes for a boy in order to go to school but, with the onset of puberty, has her true gender revealed and with not nice things then happening to her; Atiq Rahimi’s 2013 Syngue Sabour: The Patience Stone, which I reviewed here; and the 2013 Wajma, an Afghan Love Story, by Barmak Akram, set among the post-Taliban Kabul middle class and which presents such a bleak picture of the female condition that I tweeted this after seeing it.

These films are all worthwhile, particularly ‘Syngue Sabour’ and ‘Osama’. When the latter came out, we saw it en famille, which provided a pedagogical moment for our then 10-year-old daughter. As it happens, the protagonist—the girl who disguises as a boy—named Nadia Ghulam in real life, is one of the interviewees in the documentary series discussed above, now in her mid-30s and speaking in Spanish, as one learns that, sponsored by a Spanish NGO, she relocated in 2006 to Spain, where she pursued higher education and is now settled.

As for war-related films on the NATO intervention, there have been six by my count over the past decade, with, interestingly enough, only one being American, the very good 2010 Restrepo, but which was a documentary. The others have been European, on the participation of soldiers from other contingents of the NATO coalition, which Americans have only been dimly aware of (if at all). When Trump would go on about the NATO allies not pulling their weight or for freeloading off the US—and whose casualties sustained in this US-initiated war he was certainly ignorant of—I wanted to spit in his face (among the countless times I dreamt of doing such).

Probably the best of these war films is the 2014 German Inbetween Worlds (French title: Entre deux mondes), by Austrian director Feo Aladag—whose excellent 2011 When We Leave, on the subject of honor killings among Turks in Germany, I reviewed here—and that was shot on location in northern Afghanistan, which was kind of a daring thing to do. The reviews in Variety, IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter describe the plot better than I can (as it’s been 6½ years since I saw the pic). The beginning of the latter review merits quoting:

Anyone who believes Western military intervention in Afghanistan is a huge waste of time and lives will probably have their opinion confirmed by Inbetween Worlds, a beautifully shot art house film that takes the audience behind the scenes of a German Army unit defending a village from Taliban attacks. Another viewer could argue that director Feo Aladag shows precisely the opposite: the urgent need for Western and Afghani cooperation to win the conflict, at a time when German troops are preparing to withdraw from the country after more than a decade.

The depiction of the interaction between the Western soldiers and the Afghan villagers, who are supposed to be collaborating with the foreigners against the Taliban but who knows?—there is a manifest failure to communicate, and with the Afghan translator endangering his and family’s lives by the mere fact of having his job—led me, at least, to the first sentiment, of sensing the futility of the NATO engagement

Here are brief descriptions of the other films.

Kajaki (a.k.a. Kilo Two Bravo; in France: En terrain miné), directed by Paul Katis. This one, which came out in 2015, tells the true story of British paratroopers, in 2006, who found themselves trapped in a Soviet-era minefield and with the Taliban lurking in the vicinity. It’s a tense film, well-analyzed in this review in The Guardian by historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, “Kajaki – an impressive war movie with questions and ballistic grit.”

A War (same title in France), by the well-known Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, who has directed and/or written the screenplays for a number of first-rate Danish films and series (including the excellent ‘Borgen’) over the past decade. This one, which was an Academy Award nominee in 2016 for best foreign language film, is similar to ‘Inbetween Worlds’ (though was shot in Turkey and Spain) in depicting the Western soldiers (here, Danes—though it doesn’t matter where they’re from—in Helmand province) fighting an impossible war in a country they don’t understand and whose rural population could not be more culturally alien. And with the inevitable killing of civilians—accidental or deliberate—which happens here. A very good film.

This is actually the second Danish film with an Afghan war theme, the first being Susanne Bier’s 2004 Brothers (Brødre), which I saw when it opened in France and remember thinking good.

Two French films, one Ni le ciel ni la terre (English title: The Wakhan Front), directed by Clément Cogitore, which premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Here, French soldiers patrol a sector in the Wakhan Corridor, near Pakistan, which is relatively peaceful (the pic is shot in Morocco), but one night weird things start to happen and with soldiers vanishing, though not from engagement with the Taliban. The film, which was engaging enough up to this point, albeit somewhat low octane, descends into the supernatural, which, not being a fan of the fantasy genre, I didn’t care for too much. But others may think differently. The cast is good (Jérémie Renier, Kévin Azaïs, Swann Arlaud), as are US reviews, e.g., in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Screen Daily.

The other film is Voir du pays (English title: The Stopover), directed by the sister tandem Delphine and Muriel Coulin, and which premiered at Cannes in 2016. This one I liked more. It’s entirely set in Cyprus, where French soldiers freshly arrived from Afghanistan are “decompressing” at an upscale seaside resort hotel, while attending sessions organized by their superior officers to deal with PTSD and review their recent action in Afghanistan, in which one of their comrades was killed. The protags are two female soldiers—the fine actress Ariane Labed and singer-actress Soko—with one of the film’s themes the uneasy role of women in the army, with its macho, hyper-masculine culture. The thumbs up reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter get it right.

For the record, an Afghanistan war veteran’s PTSD figured in the 2015 Franco-Belgian film Maryland (English title: Disorder), directed by Alice Winocour and which also premiered at Cannes. It’s a slick thriller starring Matthias Schoenaerts (who suffers from the PTSD) and Diane Kruger, though is set entirely on the French Riviera (and mainly in a villa called Maryland), not at all in Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Gilles Dorronsoro of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, who is France’s leading political science specialist of Afghanistan, has an informative, not-too-optimistic article (April 29th) in the high-quality webzine AOC, “Qui sont les Taliban?” While the Taliban has evolved in certain respects over the past two decades, he observes, notably in attitudes toward technology, it remains rigidly fundamentalist, particularly when it comes to women. And the relationship with Al-Qaida remains largely intact.

2nd UPDATE: Journalist and lawyer Jill Filipovic, who specializes in women’s issues, has a post (April 22nd) on her Substack site, “In the country of men: What does the US owe the Afghan women we’re leaving behind?” In it, she links to what she says is “a really excellent report from the Crisis Group” dated April 6, 2020, “What will peace talks bode for Afghan women?”

3rd UPDATE: Excellent tribune in Le Monde dated May 2-3, by Adam Baczko (CNRS, CERI-Sciences Po) and Gilles Dorronsoro, “La guerre en Afghanistan, première défaite historique pour l’OTAN.”

4th UPDATE: Newlines Magazine—which is new to me and looks to be good quality—has an interesting, knowledgeable article (April 26th) by Austro-Afghan journalist Emran Feroz, “What the CIA did (and didn’t do) in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan: Western leftists think the CIA created al Qaeda by helping the mujahideen shoot down Russian helicopters. They’re wrong.” (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld)

5th UPDATE: Le Monde dated May 30-31 has an enquête by Jacques Follorou datelined Kabul, “Vingt ans après leur intervention en Afghanistan, les Américains s’en vont sur un sentiment d’échec.” The lede: “Privilégiant la lutte contre le terrorisme à la reconstruction du pays, les Etats-Unis ont multiplié les changements de stratégies depuis 2001. Ils quitteront le sol afghan début juillet sans avoir remporté la guerre la plus longue de leur histoire, laissant les talibans en position de force.”

Follorou’s article is followed by a full page interview with Ahmed Rashid, “‘Les talibans n’ont jamais montré la volonté d’aboutir à la paix’.” The lede: “En actant un retrait inconditionnel des troupes américaines d’Afghanistan, le président Joe Biden prend un risque énorme, analyse cet expert pakistanais. Les liens entre les insurgés et Al-Qaida constituent une menace à long terme”…

Babylon Berlin

This pandemic is becoming boring. Today is like yesterday and each week resembles the last. My agenda has never been so empty, not since I started keeping one in my early 30s. As the American programs in Paris have shut down, I have no classes on that end, and don’t teach at the Catho in the spring. Forays to the supermarket and health-related appointments are noteworthy events, as are webinars and WhatsApp/Zoom/Skype/Viber calls with friends. With restaurants and cafés closed since last October plus the 7 PM curfew, meeting with people or receiving guests chez nous is complicated. And eventual RDVs in a park, weather permitting, have their own challenges, notably if one has to go to the loo (I know people who have left demonstrations and other events in Paris early for this reason alone). So I hardly see anyone in person. But I can’t complain too much, as I have a nice apartment in a nice banlieue, plus a family (at home and nearby) and cat, and know well that countless other persons are in the same boat. Nous sommes tous logés à la même enseigne.

One thing I obviously haven’t done over the past six months is go to the cinema (so there will thus be no Oscars post this week, as I have seen almost none of the films that have been nominated). One consequence is that I’ve watched a number of TV series since the first confinement, including some that have been out for years (e.g. I finally made my way through all seven seasons of ‘The Sopranos’). One that I just finished (three seasons so far, with a fourth to come) is the excellent German series Babylon Berlin—a neo-noir police-political thriller set in Berlin in 1929—which I had bookmarked a couple of years ago following stellar recommendations from highbrow persons I see on social media (it’s on Canal+ in France and Netflix in the US), though what prompted me to start watching was Ross Douthat’s March 30th NYT column “‘Babylon Berlin,’ Babylon America?: How watching a TV show about Weimar Germany can help us interpret our own era.” Not that the conservative Douthat is a reference for me—and here he overstates an eventual parallel with the USA of today—but if he’s going to give the thumbs up to a series on a period of history of interest to me—and which I teach to students—then I do need to check it out.

As I tend not to read reviews before seeing a film or series, I learned afterward, from a post on the Deutsche Welle website, that this one is “the most expensive non-English drama series ever produced,” and certainly the most expensive-ever German one, involving, as Le Monde’s Berlin correspondent Thomas Wieder reported in a dispatch on this “folle série allemande,” 180 days of shooting, 300 sets, 5,000 extras, and a budget of €40 million—not to mention three creators-writers-directors (Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten)—and for the first two seasons alone (“Jamais une série télévisée allemande n’avait donné lieu à une telle débauche de moyens.”). It also yielded no less than two reviews in the NYRB (which I entirely missed at the time), one by Noah Isenberg in the NYR Daily dated April 28, 2018, the other by Alessandra Stanley in the May 24, 2018 issue.

It’s a spectacular production indeed. Quoting Isenberg:

The result is a show with lavish production values, a talented cast and crew, and a meticulously reconstructed setting. At its center is Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a handsome young shell-shocked war veteran with a heroin habit, who moves from Cologne to join the Berlin vice squad in its effort to crack a pornography ring. His partner, the hardboiled Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), has an imposing build, a diabolical laugh, and an intimate acquaintance with the city’s criminal world. But the show’s most street-savvy, and engaging, character is Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a determined young woman in a brilliant emerald-green hat who manages to go “everywhere,” as she announces the first time she appears onscreen, climbing up the ranks from temporary typist to detective, despite her lower-class origins.        

Babylon Berlin is based on Volker Kutscher’s enormously successful Gereon Rath mystery series, which was a bestseller first in Germany and now around the world (a graphic novel rendition, by Arne Jysch, appeared in English last month). The show’s first two seasons are drawn largely from Book One, Der nasse Fisch—literally “the wet fish,” a term used by German detectives to refer to an unsolved crime. Kutscher opens with an aptly chosen epigraph from Walter Rathenau, Weimar Germany’s foreign minister, who was brutally assassinated by a proto-Nazi underground terrorist group in 1922: “Athens on the Spree is dead, Chicago on the Spree is rising.” The mix of internationalism, mob violence, and corruption in the world that Kutscher depicts, and the universal language in which it communicates, couldn’t be clearer. “We don’t have it so bad,” insists Bruno Wolter early on in the novel. “We get to gad about the night spots of the most exciting city of the world, which is also the most disreputable.” It’s precisely that combination of the exciting and the disreputable that makes both the novel and the television series so irresistible.

And this introduction to the story by Stanley:

Babylon Berlin is set in the spring of 1929, near the end of the period known as Weimar’s Golden Years—after the worst of the post–World War I hyperinflation and before the Wall Street crash that brought back mass unemployment. Yet the series is exultantly dark. Powerful gangsters rule the streets. Communists and ultranationalists are at war with one another and with the Republic’s fragile democracy. The Nazis are still dismissed as a fringe group. The most imminent threat comes from the Black Reichswehr: military and ex-military revanchists, nationalists, and business tycoons who think the politicians who signed the Versailles Treaty stabbed them in the back. Nightclubs and cafés are full, but sidewalks are lined with crippled World War I veterans begging for handouts; homeless women and children sleep on the street.

Further down:

The heroes and villains of Babylon Berlin of course don’t know that they are dancing on the edge of the abyss. Nazis don’t appear in full until the fifteenth episode, when a mob of brownshirts wearing swastikas harass a Jewish politician. Most of the characters’ movements are viewed in the moment, without the portentous hindsight that hovers over so many films about the period, such as Cabaret. But the warning signs are all there, including the misplaced good faith of German Jews who underestimated the danger lurking ahead. August Benda, the head of the political police, is a Social Democrat and a Jew intent on protecting the Reich from right-wing conspirators, only to discover that the fix is in and goes all the way to the top. A general Benda had hoped to arrest for building up a private army, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, isn’t worried because he knows he has the support of President Paul von Hindenburg. When the general says with a sneer, “Please leave national matters to the people whose soil you are on,” Benda looks startled. He hasn’t yet heard this kind of anti-Semitism expressed so directly to his face.

Isenberg concludes:

Part of what makes Babylon Berlin so engrossing is that it captures the era with such flair, efficiency, and seeming authenticity—from the scenes of nightlife to those of pitched political battle. Some of the colorful characters that populate the series, such as the crooked military officials and the members of the Schwarze Reichswehr, intent on overthrowing the republic, may be familiar to us from the 1920s canvases of Otto Dix or the political satires of Kurt Tucholsky. The queasy allure of the Weimar period, with its decadence, underlying threat of violence, and palpable sense of gathering doom, has never fallen out of fashion. But Babylon Berlin brings a fresh perspective to images and material that might otherwise seem shopworn, and its frenetic rhythms are particularly apt for a moment when we appear to be dancing our own convulsive tango on the edge of a fiery volcano.

The reenactment of the era is indeed impeccable—there are apparently a few anachronisms, though which only those with highly specialized knowledge, e.g. of gun models, will detect—and a number of the scenes did indeed happen, e.g. the 1929 May Day massacre of KPD militants by the police (though I’m not sure if Soviet agents carried out a massacre of Trotskyists in the heart of Berlin; also, no airplane at that time could have made a roundtrip flight from Berlin to Lipetsk in Russia without a refueling stop; admittedly a detail). The casting and characters are likewise pitch perfect (I personally developed a soft spot for Charlotte Ritter, the aspiring policewoman and flapper-by-night). The cabaret scene of the period is not my tasse de thé but the music and choreography—at the Moka Efti club and on the film set in season 3—are tops (and with Bryan Ferry making a cameo appearance). Keeping up with all the characters in the multi-layered plot is a challenge but one stays riveted. And each of the 45-minute episodes ends on a note that makes one want to see the next.

Peter Tregear of the University of Melbourne has a post in The Conversation on “Babylon Berlin and why our fascination with 1920s Germany reveals the anxieties of our times.”

Istanbul cats

Continuing from my previous post, this one on cats that are mostly cute. Everyone knows or has heard about the famous street cats, or community cats, of Istanbul, who are part of that pulsating city’s ecosystem. See, e.g., the WSJ video, In Istanbul the cats are king, and, of course, the wonderful documentary Kedi (US trailer here), which my mother devoted a lengthy post to (and on Istanbul more generally) on her blog. And Claire Berlinski, the Parisian/former Istanbulite journalist-writer and friend, who is well-known to AWAV readers, co-authored a graphic book Catstantinople: The Mostly-True Tale of the Seven Kittens of Istanbul (when Claire moved to Paris, she brought her seven Istanbul cats with her).

On my last visit to Istanbul, in June 2018, I took photos of the community cats, mainly in Beyoğlu-Cihangir. Here are some of them.

This one is a little less cute
Cihangir during Ramadan: wining and dining an hour before the breaking of the fast
The community takes care of its cats
S/he knocked over the bottle
On my lap
Another lap cat
No cats or cuteness here. Sorry.

Yasmine

Today is AWAV’s 10th anniversary (inaugural post here). To mark the occasion I offer a cute cat post, of our two-year old kitty, Yasmine. It’s the second cute cat post in AWAV’s history, the first one on the blog’s 2nd anniversary, of our beloved Mimi, whose life was cut short the following year. I didn’t think we’d have another cat after Mimi but then three years ago, my daughter, who was back home with us, announced that she was going to get a kitten, from a family in a nearby banlieue whose cat had had a litter, which she would take with her when she eventually moved to her own place (in Paris, which happened). So her cat, Kiara, who was an absolute delight, was with us for several months. When we learned that the family’s mother cat had had another litter, my wife declared that she wanted a kitten. I was hesitant, thinking that at our age, the cat might outlive us, but agreed. And I can’t say I regret it. Not to downgrade the other cats I’ve had in my life but Yasmine is simply the friendliest, most affectionate, and all-around most adorable I’ve known, and not just with us but anyone who comes into the house (except for our cleaning lady, who, as it happens, has a dog, and a German Shepherd at that; cats sense these things).

One thing Yasmine likes to do is jump on my shoulders and perch herself there, as I sit or walk around the apartment.

This one taken today
When she was a kitten
Today

Yasmine’s “big sister” Kiara—one year older, same mother cat and sire—has been back with us a couple of times, when our daughter and her companion have gone on vacation or have housesat for us when we’ve been away. The two cats get along fine after a few days of adjusting. Their personalities and physical gestures are very similar (and both are great lap cats); interesting to see that in cats with the same genetic patrimony.

Bertrand Tavernier, R.I.P.

He was a reference for all self-respecting cinephiles, and certainly for those who at all follow French cinema (is it possible to be a cinephile if one doesn’t?). Looking over his filmography, of the thirty-odd films he directed since 1974, I realized that there were many I haven’t seen, including some of his most highly regarded (gaps I intend to fill over the coming week, via Netflix and VOD). But those I did see made a strong impression and for the power and sophistication with which they treated social-political-historical themes, e.g. ‘L’Horloger de Saint-Paul’ (1974), a story of a murder, with a subtext of workplace sexual harassment and the left-right political cleavage of the era; ‘Coup de torchon’ (1981) and its depiction of French petits blancs in a village in 1930s colonial Senegal: of lowlife Frenchmen and women who, because they were French and white, were at the top of the colonial social hierarchy; ‘L.627’ (1992), a quasi-ethnographic behind-the-scenes look at the functioning of the drug squad of the Paris police; ‘L’Appât’ (1995), a chilling tale inspired by an actual fait divers, of three youthful Parisians from well-to-do families who, utterly devoid of a moral compass, engage in a crime spree and commit murder. The last Tavernier film I saw, ‘Quai d’Orsay’ (2013), a comedy about a real-life French foreign minister, I loved (and which I reviewed here).

Tavernier was well-known for his progressive political engagements, and on issues important to me, notably the defense of sans-papiers (undocumented migrants, principally from the African continent). He had a high-profile role in the mobilization against the iniquitous 1997 Loi Debré (the big demonstration against I participated in en famille). His 1997 TV documentary ‘De l’autre côté du périph’ (made with his son Nils and which aired on France 2; not to be confused with a 2012 film of the same title) was one of the best of the time on the conditions in the Paris region’s immigrant-populated banlieues. And his 1991 four-hour documentary, ‘La Guerre sans nom’, was the first that gave a voice to French conscripts in the Algerian war, which had ended three decades earlier and for which they were not accorded the status of war veterans, the Algerian war having been officially designated by the French state as a mere “operation for the maintenance of order,” and not a war, despite some 16,000 French soldiers having been killed in combat over its seven-and-a-half year duration. Tavernier’s film—and the book that accompanied it—triggered the process that led to the French state changing that.

Jordan Mintzer, who’s one of the best American critics of contemporary French cinema, has an obituary of Tavernier in The Hollywood Reporter. See also the obits in Variety and The New York Times.

UPDATE: Volker Schlöndorff has a nice remembrance of “My friend Bertrand” on The Criterion Collection website. (Apr. 8th)

College campus follies

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American college campus follies, to be precise. Hardly two weeks go by, or so it seems of late, without some crazy story from a US college or university about an identity-related incident or protest by performative woke student activists. The latest we’ve learned about, which actually happened in 2018, is described in detail in a front page article in The New York Times, dated Feb. 25th, by national reporter Michael Powell—whose beat includes “issues around free speech and expression, and stories capturing intellectual and campus debate”—that carried the click-bait title “Inside a battle over race, class and power at Smith College: A student said she was racially profiled while eating in a college dorm. An investigation found no evidence of bias. But the incident will not fade away.” A great elite liberal arts college in a wonderful town (if I had had a proper academic career, I would have loved to have taught there). The student in question was a woman of Malian immigrant origin—who is clearly 100% assimilated into the American Gen-Z woke culture—and with the persons who were “cancelled,” as it were, being (white) members of the custodial and food services staff. Right-wing media, e.g. Fox News (and of course Tucker Carlson), NY Post, National Review, and Commentary, naturally had a field-day with the story (which they were on to well before NYT readers learned about it). One may also add the conservative Bret Stephens’ NYT column (Mar. 1st), “Smith College and the failing liberal bargain,” which is actually not bad (and likewise, one may add, with Stephens’ Mar. 9th column, “California’s ethnic studies follies“).

Last month, before the NYT’s Smith College report, I was reminded of a similar-type story, from 2017, at Evergreen State College in Olympia WA (background here), by a stateside Francophile friend, who forwarded a 52-minute YouTube documentary that had been sent to him, titled “Evergreen et les dérives du progressisme,” with my friend saying that it looked to be the “film choc à alimenter la polémique actuelle en France” (my friend likes to mix up English and French with me), further adding that what one sees in the documentary is an “American freak show” and “fodder for a forthcoming AWAV.” Effectivement. And as a progressive US intello friend—who had not heard about the 2017 affair and to whom I thus sent the video—emailed me after watching: “MADNESS!!!!!!! This Evergreen stuff.” The film consists of footage from YouTube documentaries on the Evergreen affair culled and spliced—but not in an inaccurate or distorted manner—by a French social media personality who goes by the sobriquet “Sanglier Sympa” (Amiable Wild Boar)—and who’s pretty clearly on the right—and with his own narration, concluding with a warning that what one saw at Evergreen in 2017 risks coming to France (it being a leitmotif in France that whatever starts in America will eventually make its way here). In view of the current hysteria over “islamo-gauchisme” and denunciations (from Emmanuel Macron on down) of pernicious theories (post-colonialism, intersectionality, etc) and other identitarian threats from American and other “Anglo-Saxon” universities that are infecting French academia, le message tombe à pic.

The film is well worth the watch and with the narration, while excessive at points, not wide-of-the-mark. If one can’t follow French, then there are the English originals, notably the three-part series (1½ hours total) by filmmaker Mike Nanya, with the experience of professors Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying—the couple (evolutionary biologists both) that was constrained to resign from their tenured posts and leave the college—at the center; the 43-minute video “Evergreen madness: Why Bret Weinstein left;” and Bret Weinstein’s Congressional testimony in 2018. For those who are appalled by the spectacle of what happened at Evergreen—which I cannot imagine would not include anyone over a certain age, regardless of political views—Weinstein is the hero of the affair.

Watching the Evergreen videos I had a sense of déjà vu, as it recalled the student activism and protests of my undergraduate years at Antioch College in the mid to late 1970s, Antioch being a small liberal arts college in a bucolic village and which was, at the time, certainly the most “woke” in the country (along with Hampshire, Goddard, Evergreen, Reed, UC-Santa Cruz)—and which ultimately led to the college’s demise (well-described in a 2007 lead article in The Weekly Standard, linked to here). But the 2017 Evergreen protest was on another level altogether compared to 1970s Antioch. First, the shocking disrespect the Evergreen protesters displayed toward administrators and faculty—whom they all knew (there’s no anonymity in these small colleges)—and their copious use of obscenities; my memory may be faulty but I do not recall Antioch students addressing their elders (assembled) in such an insolent manner or using foul language during heated politicized confrontations. Second, the greater implication of the Evergreen faculty and (above all) the university administration on the side of the protesting students, some out of sympathy but more because they were cowed. The Evergreen spectacle gives an idea of what China must have been like during the Cultural Revolution—though with a slight difference: in China, teachers and other adults who ran afoul of teenaged Red Guards were in danger of physical mutilation or worse, whereas any Evergreen adult who stood up to the student mob risked little more than a screaming torrent of verbal abuse. From the student mob, at least. And if one needs reminding, the Chinese Red Guards were unleashed by adults, who then put an end to them when they decided to.

In this respect, the Evergreen protest and its outcome—as at Smith and countless other such incidents—points to the main culprit in what’s going off the rails in American higher education, which are the university administrations, which systematically cave in to the students and do not defend their professors or staff (in almost any dispute involving students). US universities are also pris au piège—entrapped—by their business model, of tuition-paying students and America’s customer-is-king ethos; they have become businesses and run by administrators from the business world—or, if they were initially academics, have assimilated the ethos and values of that world—and with the commensurate private sector salaries (whereas teaching is increasingly carried out by adjuncts who are more poorly paid than three decades ago). More on this below.

The Evergreen affair reinforced a thought I had after reading the long 2016 article on Oberlin College in The New Yorker—a sort of case study of the woke culture in liberal arts colleges—”The new activism of campus life: On trigger warnings, allyship, intersectionality, and what’s really eating Oberlin.” It seemed to me that the complicating factor in the toxic political climate on these campuses—and I say this at the risk of being “cancelled”—is the central role of students of color, women, and LGBTQs in the protest movements. If the woke student vanguard were made up of straight white dudes, the colleges could deal with them, and probably would forthrightly. But when women and/or persons of color are in the forefront, matters become more delicate, for administrators and professors alike, and which cause a more measured reaction on their part.

Another “cancel culture” brouhaha last month—this involving woke high school students—was the Donald McNeil/New York Times affair, which happened in 2019 but only came to public light in the last six weeks, following the exposés by reporters Maxwell Tani and Lachlan Cartwright in The Daily Beast, the titles and ledes telling you what you need to know. The first, on Jan. 28th: “Star NY Times reporter accused of using ‘N-Word,’ making other racist comments: The paper’s top COVID reporter joined a group of students on a trip to Peru in 2019. Participants alleged he repeatedly made racist comments;” and the second on Feb. 3rd: “NY Times staffers send ‘outraged’ letter to bosses demanding reporter apologize for racial slur: More than 150 employees excoriated paper brass for what they said was an insufficient response to allegations that a top reporter made racist comments on a 2019 trip with students.” The journalist, Donald McNeil, who was/is 67-years-old, had been at the NYT since 1976, and was the paper’s top science and health reporter—and with the Covid-19/pandemic beat over the past year—suffered the same fate as Bret Weinstein at Evergreen: forced to resign, here by the NYT “brass.”

As this latest instance in “cancel culture” involved The New York Times, it became a big media story last month, with reporting and/or commentary—for those not riveted to Twitter and who thus may have missed it—by, among others, Nancy Rommelmann in Newsweek, Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, Aaron Sibarium in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, and Erik Wemple and Sarah Ellison & Jeremy Barr in The Washington Post. As for the NYT itself, Bret Stephens wrote a column on the McNeil ouster that the paper’s higher-ups spiked, which was subsequently obtained and published by the NY Post as “the column the New York Times didn’t want you to see.” NYT staff reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones—who created the 1619 Project—was interviewed in Slate “on Donald McNeil’s resignation, what the reporting got wrong, and how she was involved.” And the NYT’s smart media columnist, Ben Smith, explained “Why the morality plays inside the Times won’t stop.”

On “cancel culture,” which is not a phenomenon I think actually exists—as people have been “cancelling” or been “cancelled,” and across the political spectrum, since forever; there’s nothing new in it—Peter Beinart had an excellent post dated Mar. 1st on his Substack site.

Last month, I participated in an extended exchange on the NYT/McNeil affair with an informal email discussion group I’m a part of, of mainly US (and New York)-based intellos (writers, journalists, NGO executives, academics), almost all Gen-Xers and Boomers, and all politically progressive (Sanders and Warren supporters during the Democratic Party nomination campaign). Trying to figure out what had happened inside the NYT (and with some having inside sources), a general consensus formed that while McNeil may be a curmudgeon and with a style—personal and as a reporter—that’s a throwback to a now bygone era in journalism (and in American culture), he had hardly committed a fireable offense. Losing his job over what reportedly transpired with the students on the 2019 Peru trip was unjust.

One thing that cannot be emphasized enough is that woke-related and “cancel culture” episodes do not cleave along left vs. right or liberal/progressive vs. conservative lines. The conflict is not ideological but rather generational. Solidly left-wing Boomer and Gen-X professors—and I know quite a few—have little patience for the performative wokeness one sees on college campuses (which Marxists of my day would label ‘ultra-leftism’, seen as an infantile disorder). The conservative anti-Trumper Charlie Sykes picked up on this recently in recounting, in The Bulwark, a story from Madison WI, which he said

exposes an under-appreciated aspect of the woke wars: the targets are not always retrograde conservatives. In woke precincts, it is actually far more likely that the targets will instead be other progressives who are insufficiently woke.

On Mar. 1st—after our discussion group exchange on the McNeil/NYT affair had wound up (and some 80 emails later)—McNeil offered his version of what had happened, in a very long and detailed four-part post published on Medium (Medium calculates that all four posts are an 81-minute read). Reading/skimming through his (convincing) explanation, with his detailed description of the interactions with the students on the Peru trip—almost all white and from exclusive prep schools—it’s hard not to side with him. A right-leaning friend was indeed so indignant and irate after reading it that she tweeted:

The NYT is in the hands of people who are both stupid and vicious. The idea that they would even for a moment take seriously the complaints of these pampered, self-righteous little shits is depressing.

And adding for good measure:

Pampered, ignorant, spoiled children, callow and ignorant of life, are now running the cultural show. The adults—who are supposed to teach them and set limits on behavior like this—are instead cowed by them, turning them into petty tyrants.

My friend’s ire was misdirected IMO, not to mention excessive in its censoriousness toward the behavior of a handful of 16-17-year-olds (who are not running a cultural show or anything else; and something I insist on: high school students are not “children;” post-pubescent juridical minors are adolescents, or teenagers, and should be referred to as such; they are not children). Among other things, McNeil in no way suggested that he held the students responsible for his termination at the NYT. Neither they nor the organism that sponsored the trip demanded his firing or had anything to do with what happened to him a year-and-a-half after the fact. As his account makes clear, the exclusive responsibility for his termination lay with the adults who run The New York Times—just as it was the Evergreen administration, not the screaming students, who forced Bret Weinstein’s resignation.

Returning to the Evergreen psychodrama and the warning by “Sanglier Sympa” that what one saw there presaged the future in universities in France: this is most unlikely given the centralization of the French educational system—and with the ministry of higher education at the pinnacle—and the fact that university professors (the ones with stable posts) are fonctionnaires (civil servants) and with full union rights. A Bret Weinstein-like story is not possible here. This said, the Red Guard-like mob dynamics of the woke Evergreen vanguard have long been present in French student movements, as they have everywhere.

I discussed my thoughts on this a week ago with a brilliant sociologist friend, who’s taught for some twenty years at the Université Paris-8 (Saint-Denis)—which is the most “woke” university in France (and the polar opposite of the institution I teach at)—was a Trotskyist (LCR) militant in his youth (wasn’t everyone?), and is a specialist of social movements and collective action. Prior to the discussion, I asked him to watch the Evergreen video (he has no personal experience with American universities, so found the Evergreen spectacle jarring; he joked that I had him watch the video to give him a “nightmare”). While appalled by the Evergreen students and their antics, he found them almost gentillet (nice, sweet) compared to student movements in France, which involve hardened militants, with barricades, occupation of university buildings (and the vandalism that ensues), and the real threat of violence—and with the engagement of non-student elements: of anarchists and other currents of the ultra-left, who infiltrate the movements and with the aim of clashing with the police (French universities—which are not residential—being fully a part of their urban environments; e.g. Paris-8 is at the terminus of a metro line and a stop on the tramway that plies the Seine-Saint-Denis). For this reason, university presidents confronted with occupations—and with the identity of the occupiers uncertain—will nonetheless not request police intervention, lest all hell break loose. And as my friend pointed out, university presidents also have to take care not to alienate the students or enter into a frontal conflict with them, as students (and the highly politicized national student federations: UNEF etc) are a component of the electoral college that elects those presidents to their posts—so thus a constituency to be courted. But my friend did agree that the outcome of the Evergreen protest is not possible in France, as there are too many institutional guard rails (note, e.g., the recent incident at Sciences Po Grenoble, of the two professors accused of “Islamophobia,” which was quickly nipped in the bud). And students themselves (not the anarchists, black blocs, and other outside agitators), unlike their woke American cousins, are not so ill-behaved and foul-mouthed in dialogue with administrators and professors.

There is also, at present, the prevailing political climate in France, which is hostile to eventual identity-type revindications expressed by the woke Evergreen student counterparts here. And the intellectuals fueling that hostility are highly organized and with a supportive audience in the centers of power that count.

I mentioned above that I would have more to say about US university administrations. On this, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent essay (May 19, 2020) by François Furstenberg, who teaches in the history department at Johns Hopkins University, titled “University leaders are failing: The pandemic reveals ineptitude at the top. Change is needed.” The essay may be read for free following registration. It’s well worth it.

UPDATE: My French sociologist friend wishes to add two points to what I roughly quoted him saying above. One is that while the Evergreen students may be “gentillet” compared to their French counterparts in their action (which in France invariably includes non-students of the ultra-left), there is, as he put it, a psychological violence in their behavior and words that can be traumatizing to those on the receiving end, and which may be experienced as a threat of actual physical violence. The second is that the situation in France in regard to the issues discussed here can change very quickly. Social media mobs, as with real mobs, are dynamic and unpredictable.

N.B. I have edited and modified parts of this post since initial publication, notably the sixth paragraph, so as to avoid misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

A further thought, on the intemperate, foul-mouthed Evergreen media arts professor one sees in the videos, who has manifest anger management issues (and eventually resigned from her tenured position): I find it inconceivable that such behavior would be tolerated from a colleague in a French university.

2nd UPDATE: On “cancel culture,” which certain progressive friends assure me does indeed exist, Tim Miller of The Bulwark has a take (Mar. 21st) worth reading, “Let’s talk about ‘cancelling’: People are conflating one real problem with two fake ones.” And Michelle Goldberg, reminding us that “cancel culture” is more a thing on the right than the left (and which is definitely the case in France, BTW), had a must-read column in the NYT dated Feb. 26th, “The campaign to cancel wokeness: How the right is trying to censor critical race theory.”

Also note Thomas B. Edsall’s NYT column dated Mar. 17th, “Biden wants no part of the culture war the G.O.P. loves.” Another salutary position by President Biden, as I have been uncompromising in my insistence that politicians should stay out of culture wars and identity-related issues (beyond defending 1st and 14th amendment rights). Let these play themselves out in the cultural and societal realms (and eventually in the courts).

3rd UPDATE: On “cancel culture” primarily being a phenomenon of the right—as a weapon in the American right’s assault on higher education, among other domains of American life—what is happening in the state of Idaho is a case study (Idaho, along with other states in the mountain west, having experienced an important in-migration of conservatives from California since the 1990s). See the disquieting report (Mar. 15th) by The Chronicle of Higher Education’s senior reporter Emma Pettit, “A county turns against its college: In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as in places across America, disdain for higher education is thriving.” The college that is being turned against is not a big university with lots of leftists but the local community college. A quote:

What’s happening at North Idaho [College], while it reflects an increasingly common antipathy toward higher education, is also unusual. Even harsh critics of the sector, research has shown, tend to feel positive about their local campuses. But in Kootenai County, once dubbed the most Republican county in the most Republican state, many on the right have focused their ire not on the state flagship hours away but on the community college down the street.

And on the subject, see also Michelle Goldberg’s March 26th column, “The social justice purge at Idaho colleges: Republican lawmakers try to cancel diversity programs.”

4th UPDATE: From The Chronicle of Higher Education (Mar. 25th), a table with data on “Executive compensation at public and private colleges.” Obscene. What we also need is data on compensation for adjunct professors.

5th UPDATE: Blake Smith, a Harper Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, has a provocative article in Tablet (Apr. 5th), “The Woke Meritocracy: How telling the right stories about overcoming oppression in the right way became a requirement for entering the elite credentialing system.” (h/t David A. Bell)

6th UPDATE: Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, has a lengthy piece (Apr. 5th) in the libertarian webzine Reason, “A professor pushed back against ‘white fragility’ training. The college investigated her for 9 months.” The lede: “The chaos at Lake Washington Institute of Technology is by no means an isolated occurrence.” The professor in question has some issues—notably her dodgy political views—but what happened to her was unacceptable. (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld)

Robin DiAngelo, the author of the NYT bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) and who appeared in the Evergreen story, also figures in this one. Her “diversity training” workshops sound like political reeducation camps in Maoist China or post-1975 Vietnam.

7th UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Emma Pettit has another report (Apr. 5th) from Idaho, “‘Anti-American,’ pushing ‘Marxism,’ and more: Do you recognize your college here? A free-market group escalates its war against higher ed, one robocall at a time.” It begins:

If you live in Idaho and you’ve recently flipped on the radio or picked up a landline phone when it rang, you may have heard a confident male voice on the other end, painting an ugly portrait of higher education in the Gem State. Public colleges are teaching students “to hate America,” the voice says, in at least one version of the recorded message. These institutions are promoting Marxism and socialism. They’re “attacking law enforcement, the Second Amendment,” and “pushing the cancel culture that threatens all of us.”

It’s time, the voice insists, to take a stand, and for Idaho to become the first state to stop “leftist indoctrination” on college campuses. “Will it work?” the voice asks before it answers in the affirmative: “We say, Yes.”

The “we” saying yes is Idaho Freedom Action. It’s the advocacy arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which describes itself as a free-market think tank. Idaho Freedom Action’s campaign says it is an effort to “Fix Idaho Colleges” by pressuring state lawmakers to end “anti-American programs” on campuses, and says Idaho students are being conditioned to “apologize for being white” and “shut up because of their gender or race.” (The campaign lists more grievances, but you get the idea.) So far, Freedom Action has spent thousands of dollars on radio ads to reach “freedom-loving Idahoans” and placed tens of thousands of phone calls to inform citizens about “social justice on campus,” it says in a recent campaign email.

This culture war we’re in is not going to end anytime soon. And particularly with elected officials such as this.

8th UPDATE: More on the right’s assault on higher education—and free speech—this from the Miami Herald (Apr. 6th), “Florida GOP targets ‘intellectual diversity’ on campus with survey about beliefs.” It begins:

In a push against so-called cancel culture, the Republican majority in the Florida Legislature is ready to pass legislation that would require public colleges and universities to survey students, faculty and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints.

The survey is part of a broader measure that would also bar university and college officials from limiting speech that “may be uncomfortable, disagreeable or offensive,” and would allow students to record lectures without consent to support a civil or criminal case against a higher-education institution.

The objective, according to the bill sponsors, is to protect the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses. But university faculty members worry the proposal, House Bill 233, is likely to send a chilling effect on their freedom of speech.

N.B. The assault is only beginning.

9th UPDATE: I received this comment in an email (Apr. 7th), from a professor at an elite university:

[S]ome quick reactions. Basically, I think that the campus “follies” are mostly just that. The college kids – or faculty – get riled up about something and have a big protest. Usually, although not always, this happens when someone deliberately provokes them. And it usually passes. The kids forget about it, graduate, and there is no suite. A reign of terror it isn’t.

To give one example from my own university. This past summer, in the middle of the BLM protests, a group of several hundred faculty got together and signed a provocative letter to the administration. It called for all sorts of “woke” measures, including, most provocatively, the formation of a new disciplinary body to police faculty scholarship for signs of racism, sexism, etc. There was huge pushback from other faculty, including me. The letter was immediately cited throughout the media as a sign of the new cancel culture on campus. But what happened? Nada. There was never any danger of this new disciplinary body being created. And in fact, absolutely none of the measures proposed were ever enacted. It was performance art, not a reign of terror.

I don’t want to minimize the effects. The fear of being targeted does have a chilling effect. For people who are called out by the “woke mob,” the consequences can occasionally be very bad, although nearly all of the people targeted at places like Yale and Princeton (e.g. [a conservative colleague of mine]) are still fully ensconced in their protected, tenured positions. And there are a few places, like Evergreen, where the effects are worse. But even at Oberlin, the protests tend to have little suite. A few years ago, at Oberlin (where my daughter was studying music), a black student group called for the immediate firing of a dozen faculty and staff members they said were racist. They called for the immediate tenuring of all non-tenured black faculty. They demanded that all classical music students be required to study jazz, since the jazz students had to study classical music. What came of all this? Absolutely nothing. On the other hand, a (black) non-tenured faculty member who was found to have been posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media was fired.

The other point is that none of this stuff really compares with the much more traditional, conservative form of cancel culture which really does threaten far more American academics. A friend of mine, a non-tenured faculty member at a Texas public college, tweeted about Mike Pence’s “demon eyes” during the VP debate last fall – and she was fired. Various state legislatures are moving ahead with bills banning the teaching of “critical race theory.” There’s lots more of this sort of thing on. Conservative members of congress and state legislatures targeting academics have real power, unlike student groups or faculty.

10th UPDATE: Another excellent piece (Apr. 8th) by François Furstenberg of Johns Hopkins University in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The era of artificial scarcity: Administrators have rushed to embrace austerity measures. The faculty should call their bluff.” In detailing the recent actions of the administration of his university, he describes “how fully a Wall Street mind-set had captured the nation’s university leadership,” and how their behavior is akin to that of “private-equity titans after a hostile acquisition.”

11th UPDATE: The typically smart and thoughtful Ezra Klein, in his NYT column (Apr. 18th), puts forth “A different way of thinking about cancel culture.”

12th UPDATE: Bret Weinstein, who now lives in Portland OR, reports in the UnHerd websize (Apr. 19th) on how ultra-leftists—the kind of people who tormented and verbally abused him at Evergreen State College—are wreaking havoc in that city.

2021 César awards

[update below]

Voilà my annual César awards post, offering an occasion to write about French films of the past year considered to have been the best (not necessarily by me) and to make recommendations. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday) at the Olympia hall, in what will be a scaled-back affair in view of the pandemic-related restrictions. The list of nominees is here. Leading with thirteen nominations is ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’ (Love Affair(s)), ‘Adieu les cons’ (Bye Bye Morons) and ‘Été 85’ (Summer of 85) with twelve each, ‘Antoinette dans les Cévennes’ (My Donkey, My Lover & I) with eight, ‘Adolescentes’ with six, and ‘La Bonne Épouse’ (How to Be a Good Wife) with five. With cinemas closed last year from March 17th to June 22nd, and then again from October 30th to the present (the virus situation permitting, they will hopefully reopen sometime next month), there were obviously fewer French films in 2020 than usual—and even fewer worth going out of one’s way for (unlike 2019, a great year for French cinema). I’ve seen most of those in the categories below that I weigh in on—in the theater or via streaming—though wasn’t able to catch a few that opened just before the second confinement, or lockdown, and which are not yet available on VOD.

So without further ado, here’s my verdict.

BEST FILM: Antoinette dans les Cévennes (My Donkey, My Lover & I).
This heartwarming comedy, directed by Caroline Vignal, was the best French film of the year in my book, a one-woman show by the excellent, radiant Laure Calamy, who plays a primary school teacher in Paris having an affair with the father (Benjamin Lavernhe) of one of her pupils; the two have plans to slip away for a romantic holiday but he bails out at the last minute, informing her that he is instead going on a hiking trip with wife and daughter in the Cévennes (rugged region in the southern Massif Central, if one doesn’t know it). Upset and on a coup de tête, she decides to go the Cévennes herself and join a hiking group—something she’s never done—in the hope of finding her amoureux, despite him being there with his family. So she rents a donkey—who does not take to her at first, though they ultimately bond—and walks the Stevenson Trail—the story is inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes—meeting friendly people along way and (of course) eventually stumbling across her lover—and his suspicious wife. Une géniale comédie française.

My nº 2 French film of the year—and the runner-up here—is Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait (Love Affair(s)), by Emmanuel Mouret. If you’re a fan of Eric Rohmer’s films (which I am), then you will like this one; if you’re not, then you surely won’t. It’s a Rohmeresque “fresque sentimentale” (there’s no plot to speak of), of materially comfortable Frenchmen and women in their 30s (between Paris and the Vaucluse) exploring the meaning of life and love (and their adulterous affairs or desires, of course), and just talking and talking and talking. The sublime, beautiful Camélia Jordana leads a fine ensemble cast. A highbrow romantic comedy; not one for the masses.

One that is decidedly for the masses is Adieu les cons (Bye Bye Morons), directed by Albert Dupontel, who also has a lead role. This one was a veritable smash box-office hit before the second confinement cut short its run after nine days, and was mystifyingly well-reviewed to boot—and even more mystifyingly nominated for César best film. I won’t bother recounting the ridiculous story or anything else about it, except to say that it’s a slapstick comedy très française and—borrowing from the title—très con aussi. It’s supposed to be LMAO funny—a belly-laugher—but is not, at least not for moi. Question of taste, sans doute. A remark on the English title: “moron” is an unsatisfactory translation of con, which is an essential word (noun and adjective) in the French language (and one of my favorite, along with its derivatives, e.g. connard, connasse, connerie). There is, in fact, not a precise English translation of con, which lies at the intersection of nitwit, idiot, and fool (as an adjective, “fucking stupid” will do).

Été 85 (Summer of 85), by François Ozon, is not con. I’ll see anything by Ozon, though he can be uneven. This one, which opened to good reviews and the usual buzz accompanying an Ozon film, tells the story of a torrid summer romance, in the year 1985, between two teenage boys (16 and 18, the younger one working out his sexuality) in a coastal town on upper Normandy’s Côte d’Albâtre, and which ends in tragedy. The pic was inspired by a young adult novel (Dance on My Grave) Ozon read as a teenager, and which clearly marked him. The acting is good, as is the soundtrack (hit songs of the period), but the film, while perfectly watchable, didn’t do it for me. I thought it overrated. But that’s moi. Others will no doubt think differently.

On the subject of teenagers, there’s the documentary Adolescentes (also nominated in that category), which, so I read, follows the ups and downs of a friendship of two teenage girls over a five-year period. I’ll see it at some point.

BEST DIRECTOR: Emmanuel Mouret for ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’.
Maïwenn is a nominee for ADN (DNA), which has an Algeria theme (so of particular interest to me), but as it opened just two days before the second confinement, I have yet to see it. So I’ll go with Mouret for impeccably executing a Rohmer-like film.

BEST ACTRESS: Laure Calamy in ‘Antoinette dans les Cévennes’.
A no-brainer. Obviously. Camélia Jordana in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’ is second. Martine Chevallier and (especially) Barbara Sukowa are both very good in Deux (Two of Us), playing two elderly women (in an unspecified city, that looks to be Montpellier), who are neighbors on the same floor of a building but, unbeknownst to others, have had a long-standing relationship and whose passionate love for one another has never waned; so when one (Chevallier) suffers a debilitating stroke, the other (Sukowa) is determined to nurse and take care of her, and despite the vehement refusal of the former’s adult children and the hospital director (Léa Drucker). As for Virginie Efira—an otherwise fine actress—in ‘Adieu les cons’, as I couldn’t stand this movie, forget it.

BEST ACTOR: Sami Bouajila in Un fils (A Son).
The Franco-Tunisian Bouajila is excellent in this equally excellent Tunisian film (French co-production) by first-time director Mehdi M. Barsaoui. It’s tough to watch, even painful at moments, but is powerful, and which takes up numerous themes: paternal love, infidelity, patriarchy and archaic laws that ensue, corruption, terrorism, criminal traffickers (of contraband, persons, human body parts…). One of the best films of 2020 (and which made AWAV’s Top 10, needless to say). Lambert Wilson is first-rate as a wartime General de Gaulle in De Gaulle (which I had a post on last June). Niels Schneider is meritorious in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’. As for Albert Dupontel in ‘Adieu les cons’, no. I can’t speak to Jonathan Cohen in ‘Énorme’, as this looked to be one of those grand public comedies that was not worth AWAV’s time.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Émilie Dequenne in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait.’
Dequenne is a fine actress but this one is kind of by default. Noémie Lvovsky and Yolande Moreau are both nominated for their (clichéd) roles in La Bonne épouse (How to Be a Good Wife), a comedy (what else?) set in a rural Catholic girls boarding school in the mid 1960s, that pokes fun at the already old-fashioned gender roles the school (Juliette Binoche as director) strives to indoctrinate the girls into, but which they all cast off—head mistresses and nuns too—in a moment of enthusiasm, as they march toward Paris on rural roads, in a final, groan-inducing scene, to join the May ’68 manifs. I didn’t care for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s character in ‘Éte 85’. Don’t know about Fanny Ardant in ‘ADN’.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Vincent Macaigne in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’.
Pourquoi pas? Don’t have much to say about this category.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Fathia Youssouf in Mignonnes (Cuties).
A Star Is Born. Youssouf plays an 11-year-old Franco-Senegalese girl in Paris’s 19th arrondissement caught between two cultures, in this coming-of-age film that caused some controversy in the US (though not at all in France) when it opened on Netflix last September; I’ll have more to say about it in a forthcoming post on recent films from France on immigration. Mélissa Guers is deserving in La fille au bracelet (The Girl with a Bracelet), as a teenage girl accused of murdering her best friend; a courtroom drama à la française (set in the Loire-Atlantique), with an original approach; there are a few minor implausibilities but it’s otherwise a gripping, well-done film, and with a top-flight cast (Roschdy Zem, Chiara Mastroianni). Camille Rutherford in Felicità is the devoted but not terribly responsible mother of an 11-year-old girl on the northern coast of Brittany, who is somewhat more mature than her parents. Julie Platon is good as one of the 30-somethings with états d’âme in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’. India Hair (that’s a real name) in ‘Poissonsexe’: I didn’t see this one.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Guang Huo in La Nuit venue.
Why? Because I think this is the best movie in the category. Guang Huo—a recent Chinese immigrant in France—plays a sans papiers who works nights as a taxi driver in Paris, in the employ of the Chinese underworld to which he is in a state of permanent indentured servitude; falling in love with an elusive French strip-teaseuse (Camélia Jordana) he ferries around, he decides to extricate himself from his situation, but which is easier said than done; an engaging film, though with a jarring ending that leaves one perplexed. Félix Lefebvre or Benjamin Voisin will likely win for their roles in ‘Été 85’. On Jean-Pascal Zadi in ‘Tout simplement noir’, see below. Alexandre Wetter in ‘Miss’: didn’t see it.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Mignonnes’ (Cuties), by Maïmouna Doucouré.
On this one, see above. Filippo Meneghetti’s ‘Deux’ would be a worthy winner. Un divan à Tunis (Arab Blues), by Franco-Tunisian director Manele Labidi, is an enjoyable comedy about a Franco-Tunisian-bobo-Parisian psychoanalyst, played by (the Iranian) Golshifteh Farahani (sublime, as usual; and who speaks French with a native French accent), who decides to quit Paris and set up her practice in a banlieue populaire of Tunis, where she meets offbeat people and amusing things happen. Tout simplement noir, a mockumentary by rapper and television/radio personality Jean-Pascal Zadi, who is well-known in certain demographics, received media buzz when it opened last July, with its all-black cast—consisting of cameo appearances of an array of well-known French persons of African and Antillian origin in popular culture and other walks of life—and billing as a parody of a certain identitarian discourse prevalent among black people in France. An edgy comedy and on a hot topic. As the reviews were good to very good, I went to see it with expectations but left the cinoche disappointed. Pas trop drôle, en effet. Barely a chuckle, let alone a belly laugh. Maybe I’ll give it a second chance, but maybe I won’t. I didn’t see Nicolas Maury’s ‘Garçon chiffon’, which opened just before the second confinement.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Un pays qui se tient sage (The Monopoly of Violence), by David Dufresne.
A powerful documentary about police violence in France, with a focus on the Gilets Jaunes protests. It merits a longer post. Cyrille, agriculteur, 30 ans, 20 vaches, du lait, du beurre, des dettes, by Rodolphe Marconi, is a touching documentary on the hard life of a small dairy farmer; it’s hardly surprising that small farms in France are inexorably disappearing. In La Cravate (The Tie), Mathias Théry and Etienne Chaillou follow the parcours of a youthful Front National militant in the Somme, during the 2016-17 campaign. A film atypical in its structure that may be seen by those with a strong interest in French politics or far right-wing movements.

At least two worthwhile French films from 2020 received no César nominations. One is the Rashomon-like Police (Night Shift), by Anne Fontaine, about three Paris cops—Virginie Efira, Omar Sy (the two are having an affair), and Grégory Gadebois—who are tasked with taking a Tadjik sans papiers (Payman Maadi)—whose political asylum request has been rejected—to CDG airport for deportation. The three develop different feelings as to what they’re doing, which play out as they head to CDG. The sequence with the Tadjik is not entirely credible—particularly the airport scene—but the film is otherwise compelling. An aside: there was clearly a concerted effort via social media by the extreme right—perhaps including cops—to trash the film, reflected in the artificially low notes spectateurs on Allociné (the great majority of trashers certainly not having seen it).

The other film is Les Apparences (Appearances), by Marc Fitoussi, a Hitchcockian-like thriller of a bourgeois French expat couple in Vienna—Karin Viard (tops, as always) and Benjamin Biolay, who’s the chef d’orchestre of the Vienna opera (prestigious position)—with the wife coming to suspect (not without reason) that her otherwise beloved husband has taken a mistress (and within their small community of French expats). And so she tries to get back at him. A slick pic and with a moral of the story: be very careful if you’re going to commit adultery, and be even more careful in having flings with strangers.

UPDATE: ‘Adieu les cons’ won seven awards, including Best Film and Best Director (Albert Dupontel). It looks like I’m in a small minority on this one (also judging from the reactions on Twitter). I was pleased that Laure Calamy and Sami Bouajila won their awards. The Most Promising awards for Fathia Youssouf and Jean-Pascal Zadi were received with bad humor tweets by right-wing racists. Full list is here.

Algeria’s Hirak

Credit here

Algeria’s popular movement, which marked its second anniversary last Monday, and with the resumption of the weekly Friday demonstrations in Algiers and other cities and towns across the country, which had been suspended over the past year on account of the pandemic—plus the increasingly repressive hand of the government via arrests and detention (though without a single person suffering violent death or even serious physical mistreatment, and since the movement began). Though I’ve been generally following developments in Algeria I have refrained from commenting on them, as I haven’t been there since 2016 and with numerous on-the-ball friends and associates having been riveted to the Hirak, who are thus more competent to weigh in on the subject than I. So in lieu of offering my own thoughts—of which I have a couple, but whatever—here are a few worthy articles and commentaries that have appeared of late.

The best journalistic analysis I’ve seen this week is by the veteran Algiers reporter Abed Charef—one of Algeria’s best since the 1980s—writing in Middle East Eye, “Deux ans après, le bilan controversé du hirak.” The lede: “Le hirak a remis en cause l’ordre ancien, un peu à la manière de mai 1968. Mais ni les leaders, ni l’élite politique, ni l’armée n’ont su capitaliser sur le mouvement pour jeter les bases d’un nouveau projet national.”

Political scientist and friend Thomas Serres, who teaches at UC-Santa Cruz, has an interview in MERIP with activist Hakim Addad, “The Algerian Hirak between mobilization and imprisonment.

Serres, whose doctoral thesis on the Bouteflika years will hopefully be published in English in the near future, had a piece earlier this month in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, “The Algerian counter-revolution or the obsolescence of authoritarian upgrading.”

Acting Executive Director of the Human Rights Watch MENA Division and good friend Eric Goldstein has a dispatch on the HRW website, “Algeria’s Hirak protest movement marks second anniversary: President frees prisoners but more remain.”

An Algerian friend today emailed me a piece from a website called The North Africa Post—heretofore unfamiliar to me—”CIA depicts gloomy picture of situation in Algeria, warns of risk of ‘general popular conflagration’,” and asked for my opinion on it. My response was that the CIA report discussed in the piece is, I regretted to say, largely accurate IMHO.

Speaking of the CIA and Algeria, the NYT ran an op-ed on January 27th entitled “How to defeat America’s homegrown insurgency,” by Robert Grenier, identified as “a former C.I.A. station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq mission manager and director of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.” Bon, d’accord. The op-ed begins

As a former overseas operative who has struggled both on the side of insurgents and against them, the past few days have brought a jarring realization: We may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, perpetrated by our own countrymen. Three weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But that is where we are.

Further down

As the Senate prepares to sit in judgment on Mr. Trump, we should be wary of the excuses put forward by his defenders — that his conviction will only divide the country further, that we should simply move on. No: It is far too late for appeasement. Those of us versed in counterinsurgency know that in violent extremism nothing succeeds like success, and that the opposite is also true.

I watched as enraged crowds in the streets of Algiers, as in most Arab capitals, melted away when Saddam Hussein was ignominiously defeated in the Persian Gulf war.

So Grenier was in Algiers in 1990-91, during my time there. This rang an immediate bell. I was pretty sure I knew him and which a Google Image search indeed confirmed. We met socially at US embassy events on a couple of occasions. I knew at the time that he was CIA—according to his Wikipedia page, he was the Algiers station chief—though forgot his name and had no idea about his subsequent postings.

One evening I went to the Hotel Saint-Georges for dinner and spotted him in the lobby with some louche-looking Algerians. We made eye contact and he abruptly looked away, indicating that he did not wish for me to come over and say hi.

BTW, what Grenier says about enraged Algerians ceasing to be after Saddam Hussein’s ignominious defeat is absolutely true. Everyone in Algeria was screaming bloody rage against the United States in the lead up to and during the Gulf war, but a week after it was over Révolution Africaine (the official FLN weekly) had an article in which one read “now that the Gulf war is over and forgotten…” (I saved the clipping, which I have filed away somewhere). And the July 4th reception at the US embassy that year was packed with the usual hundreds of Algerian invitees.

If Grenier’s views expressed in the op-ed are at all representative of CIA people these days, then that’s cause for some comfort.

À suivre, inshallah.

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