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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

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below] [9th update below] [10th update below]

American college campus follies, to be precise. Hardly two weeks goes 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 causes a modulated 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.”

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.

Trump’s 2nd impeachment trial

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

And the fascistic Republican Party. Eons ago, before January 6th, I had pledged to focus less on American politics after the inauguration—and a consequent return to a semblance of normalcy in the White House, which we have indeed been happily observing; so far the Biden administration gets a grade of ‘A’ —and direct AWAV’s attentions to other pressing subjects, notably what’s happening in France as she enters a presidential election year. No such luck. I do indeed closely follow politics chez moi but have continued to do so obsessively with unfolding events outre-Atlantique, most recently of the impeachment trial, which I watched in part on CNN. The video footage of the January 6th insurrection exhibited by the House impeachment managers, which everyone has seen by now (if not, here and here), is devastating, confirming how close we were on that day to a bloodbath in the Capitol that would have, among many other things, decapitated the line of succession to the presidency—with the murder of Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi—thereby upending the certification of the Electoral College vote by the Senate, and paving the way for Trump to proclaim martial law. It was really that close.

It continues to defy belief that an insurrectionary mob—and one that was armed to boot—was able to reach the Capitol and then penetrate it. Even on the most violent days of the Gilets Jaunes movement in France, GJs were not allowed to approach the Élysée palace, Palais Bourbon, or regalian ministries. Had any tried, the police would have employed any and all means to prevent them from doing so.

That the Republican Party in its overwhelming majority could continue to support Trump after January 6th, not to mention promote the QAnon adept Marjorie Taylor Greene, shows how far down the road to outright fascism that party has travelled. If one missed it, the conservative Michael Gerson, who was George W. Bush’s speechwriter, matter of factly observed in a Washington Post column dated February 1st that “Trumpism is American fascism.” No less.

On the question of fascism in America, Vox’s Sean Illing interviewed Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, who has recently published a book on the broad topic, on how “American fascism isn’t going away.” In a course I teach to American undergraduates on European history, I devote part of a lecture on the interwar period to fascism and how to understand it, in which I stress, as does Jason Stanley, that it is less an ideology or regime type—though it can of course be this—than a world-view and way of doing politics, of an overriding will to power. Fascism, like populism, is a syndrome. In the lecture I enumerate sixteen features of fascism, adding, as an aside, that all but three or four applied in large part or in whole to the Trump phenomenon.

And then there is fascism’s mass base. The lead article in the February 11th issue of The New York Review of Books, “‘Be Ready to Fight’,” by Mark Danner, is on the January 6th insurrection. The lede: “Trumpism is driven by cruelty and domination even as its rhetoric claims grievance and victimization. The attack on the Capitol showed that Donald Trump’s army of millions will not just melt away when he leaves office.” This passage merits quoting:

Deafening paroxysms of jubilation and rage greeted this doctrinal statement of Trumpism, for who could better summarize the philosophy, such as it was, in fewer words? Trump as Rambo, as tank commander, motorcycle gang leader, and on and on. The imagery of Trumpism is about strength and cruelty and dominance even as the rhetoric is about loss and grievance and victimization: about what was taken and what must be seized back by strength. And we would have to bring that strength, for certain it was that the politicians would turn out to be traitors, just like all the rest. From that fateful ride down the gilt staircase in the pink-marbled lobby of Trump Tower five years before—Trumpism’s March on Rome—it had been about this: “Taking back the country.” Taking it back from the rapists and the killers, the undocumented and the illegitimate, the Black and the brown from “shithole countries” who should go back “where they came from.” Now it had all come down to this.

And this:

Donald Trump is not Caesar, but he has a will to power and a malignancy that our degraded institutions and corrupted politicians have been wholly unable to contain. His army of millions will not melt away. They will remain as a lurking poison in the political bloodstream, politicized and angry, ready to be activated, and their nihilistic rejection of the country’s institutions and laws will only grow more venomous. Millions of them are armed. Those who died in the coup will become the movement’s martyrs. Those arrested will become its heroes.

For more on the Zeitgeist of the January 6th mob, see the report in ProPublica on “what the Parler videos reveal,” plus this Twitter thread from Insider News “decod[ing] the symbols that Trump supporters brought with them, revealing some ongoing threats to US democracy.”

The NYT report on “Trump’s legacy: Voters who reject democracy and any politics but their own,” may also be read with profit.

France 2’s weekly news magazine Envoyé Spécial aired a 25-minute report on January 21st on Trump’s hardcore supporters—”les irréductibles”—with the reporter interviewing several, in Florida, Georgia, and Colorado, and following them around, listening to them vent their anger—an emotion strongly felt by all—resentments and hatreds, not to mention conspiracy theories and a view of the world and reality that is, needless to say, utterly antithetical to mine and no doubt to anyone reading this. It’s one of the best reports I’ve seen on Trump’s base and which may be viewed here.

Objectively speaking, these Trump people have nothing to be angry about or any good reason to hate people like us (i.e. me and AWAV readers). They lead reasonably comfortable middle class lives, with the financial resources to purchase their homes, high end pick-up trucks, arsenals of weapons, and whatever else they may fancy. And many of them live very well indeed, thank you very much. These are not Gilets Jaunes, who live from paycheck to paycheck and barely make it to the end of the month. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer underscored, the Trumpist mob on January 6th was not “low class.”

In terms of Weltanschauung and general intellect, the Trump base is naturally at one with Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose level of culture générale may be grasped in this video here. Not to sound like an intellectual snob or anything but seriously, how can people—particularly those who run for public office—be so f*cking stupid?? And for the House Republicans to put such an abject, thoroughly uneducated ignoramus on the Committee on Education?

The ignorance and stupidity—and penchant for fascism—could not attain the level that it has on the American right without the conservative media ecosystem, a.k.a. the Trumpist/Republican propaganda apparatus fostering an alternate reality, which has no equivalent in other Western democracies save a couple. A recent case in point (watch the video):

Jason Stanley, in the interview linked to above, says he thinks Tucker Carlson is a “likely future president.” No comment.

One big feature of the Trump/Republican base—and which was heavily represented on January 6th—is the evangelicals. We fully understand their weight as voters but I admit to having difficulty grasping their presence as shock troops in a violent insurrectionary movement. But such is indeed the case. See, e.g., this Vice News report on Christian imagery on January 6th, by a team of Columbia University researchers.

Rod Dreher, who is senior editor at The American Conservative—and is culturally and religiously conservative (he’s a Catholic convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church) but not a Trumper—had a most interesting report on “what [he] saw at the Jericho March” in Washington on December 12th (if you don’t know what the Jericho March is, see here).

It’s one thing to have to deal with the reality of a mass fascist mob in your polity, but when they’re religious fanatics brandishing the Bible (or Qur’an, or Torah, etc)—and are heavily armed—that makes them that much more dangerous and frightening.

One more piece, by historian Matthew Avery Sutton of Washington State University, in TNR: “The Capitol riot revealed the darkest nightmares of White evangelical America: How 150 years of apocalyptic agitation culminated in an insurrection.”

Back to the impeachment trial, it was a foregone conclusion that there weren’t going to be 17 Republican votes to convict. The Democrats certainly could have adopted a different approach to impeachment and “that could have made Republicans squirm,” as Stanford Law School professor Michael W. McConnell spelled out in an opinion piece in the NYT. But as David Frum convincingly argued, the efforts of the House impeachment managers “[will] do.” Whatever this or that pundit or Trump sycophant may opine, Trump—now definitively banished from Twitter (ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّٰهِ‎)—is toast. There’s not a chance he’ll make a successful comeback in 2024.

As for those House impeachment managers, there were some real revelations, for me and many others, notably the brilliant Jamie Raskin—who has serious lefty cred—and likewise brilliant Stacey Plaskett, who is an argument in itself for the US Virgin Islands becoming the 53rd state (after the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).

Cf. the whack jobs and crackpottery of Trump’s defense lawyers. When it comes to human capital, we are just so far superior to them.

À suivre.

UPDATE: The NYT has an article (Feb. 15th) on Adam Kinzinger, one of the ten Republican congresspersons who voted to impeach Trump. It begins:

As the Republican Party censures, condemns and seeks to purge leaders who aren’t in lock step with Donald J. Trump, Adam Kinzinger, the six-term Illinois congressman, stands as enemy No. 1 — unwelcome not just in his party but also in his own family, some of whom recently disowned him.

Two days after Mr. Kinzinger called for removing Mr. Trump from office following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, 11 members of his family sent him a handwritten two-page letter, saying he was in cahoots with “the devil’s army” for making a public break with the president.

“Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and to God!” they wrote. “You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name!”

The author of the letter was Karen Otto, Mr. Kinzinger’s cousin, who paid $7 to send it by certified mail to Mr. Kinzinger’s father — to make sure the congressman would see it, which he did. She also sent copies to Republicans across Illinois, including other members of the state’s congressional delegation.

“I wanted Adam to be shunned,” she said in an interview.

The article has the letter in PDF. Do read it. It’s breathtaking.

2nd UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan has a very good post mortem on the impeachment trial, “Convict him: This really shouldn’t be hard,” which I read after posting.

See also New School for Social Research history professor Eli Zaretsky’s LRB blog post, “The big lie.”

3rd UPDATE: The Atlantic’s Emma Green has an interview with Eric Metaxas—who, if one doesn’t know, is an NYC-based radio host, prolific author of savant-sounding books, a devout Christian, and Trump acolyte—who is convinced, entre autres, that the Democrats are pulling America in the direction of Nazi Germany. Sans blague. Metaxas is also a graduate of an Ivy League university (Yale), as are other high-profile Trump acolytes, e.g. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Kris Kobach—which all goes to show that one can be an excellent student and very bright but nonetheless be intellectually unhinged and generally off one’s rocker.

What all of these men have in common is devout religious faith—and which borders on fanaticism in the case of Metaxas and Hawley, and maybe the others too. It is the intense religiosity of close to half of the Republican electorate—and a large number of the party’s elected officials and representatives—that differentiates that party from conservative parties of government in other Western polities. And which—along with the gun culture—makes the Republican Party that much more dangerous.

Trump’s attempted autocoup

Credit here

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

Like hundreds of millions of people—maybe more—I was glued to the TV all Wednesday night and into the early hours of the morning, watching slack-jawed the spectacle at the US Capitol as it unfolded, not quite knowing how to process it. The sparse police presence was stunning, particularly as the action of fanaticized Trump mobs on this day—with Congress meeting to ratify the Electoral College result—was so utterly predictable. Politico’s Tim Alberta—who comes from conservative media and knows the Republican Party comme sa poche—asserted, in a must-read article, that “Jan. 6 was 9 weeks—and 4 years—in the making,” specifying that having “spent the last election cycle immersed in the metastasizing paranoia behind Wednesday’s assault on Congress[, n]obody should be surprised by what just happened.” And indeed on what other day than January 6th?

Talk of Trump trying to stage an autocoup d’État had been intensifying, as one is likely aware, and with prescient warnings from those who have witnessed the phenomenon up close, notably the brilliant sociologist Zeynep Tufekci—whose every published word is essential reading—her compatriot, author Ece Temelkuran, and The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen. There is disagreement as to whether or not the Trumpenproletariat mob assault constituted a bona fide coup attempt. Political scientist and friend Stathis Kalyvas said no, tweeting à chaud that coups require others to take advantage of this type of disruption and to move swiftly, immediately, and decisively, but with nothing indicating that such dynamics were at play as the mob invested the Capitol.

As for that mob, while its assault was shocking and alarming, there was also a farcical side to it, as could be seen in the images of the insurrectionists inside the building, lending credence to the notion that if this were indeed a coup attempt, it wasn’t a very serious one. Mike Davis thus wrote in his email newsletter yesterday morning that the assault

constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy. What was essentially a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war surplus barbarians, including the guy with a painted face posing as horned bison in a fur coat, stormed the ultimate country club, squatted on Pence’s throne, chased Senators into the sewers, casually picked their noses and rifled files and, above all, shot endless selfies to send to the dudes back home in white peoples’ country. Otherwise they didn’t have a clue. The aesthetic was pure Bunuel and Dali…

In this vein, The Atlantic’s Tom McTague wrote that what the world saw “was a bunch of angry people in costume, as if a Village People convention had turned ugly.” Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace these were not. “Redneck Visigoths,” dixit Rick Wilson, who observed that

The invasion and seizure of the Capitol was a perfect extension of the nihilist trolling operation that’s replaced the Republican Party. They weren’t there to hold the territory. They weren’t there to find evidence of fraud, or force reluctant legislators to listen to their catalog of grievances; they were there for the lulz. They were there because Trump sent them.

As to why Trump sent them, we can’t know what was going on in his addled brain when he exhorted his fanaticized cultists to march on the Capitol and “be wild,” though it stands to reason that, at minimum, he hoped they could somehow stop the ceremony in the Senate, or maybe terrorize the Republicans there into rejecting the EC results in enough states to hand Trump the victory. Listening to Trump’s psychotic one-hour telephone conversation/monologue with Georgia Secretary of State Ben Raffensperger four days prior, there can be no doubt that Trump was desperate to reverse the election outcome and stay in power, i.e. to stage an autocoup. The early refusal of the Pentagon to authorize the deployment of the National Guard suggests that the lame duck Pentagon shake-up, and installation of Trump flunkies in key top positions, was done to lay the groundwork for an autocoup.

But even if a coup in the US could be pulled off institutionally, Trump is simply too scatterbrained and stupid to successfully execute one. And as The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood usefully reminds us in a five lesson take away from the coup attempt, Trump is also a coward and has always been. E.g. he instructed his cultists to march on the Capitol and said he would be with them, but then slunk back to the White House to watch the event on television. Trump has never exhibited courage, physical or otherwise. When he famously fires people, he never informs them in person. He trash talks subordinates, weaklings, and toadies but never anyone his equal. When confronted with someone who goes toe-to-toe with him or whom he cannot intimidate, he shrinks. To fully follow through with an autocoup in a country like the United States—in the face of the fury of the majority of its population and its educated elite—requires an intrepidness that Trump simply does not have.

Back to the Capitol mob, it may have had its absurd side but it was a still a mob—and mobs are dangerous, particularly when they’re composed of extreme right-wing fanatics living in an alternate reality of conspiracy theories. And looking to inflict harm on members of society they demonize. À propos, we learn that many of the insurrectionists were wearing body armor and helmets, a few were carrying zip ties, and with an undetermined number armed. And then there were the gallows outside the Capitol, graffiti reading “murder the media,” and you get the idea.

On those fanatics in the Capitol and their Weltanschauung, take a look at this Twitter thread by sociologist Kathleen Belew, who specializes in these movements. One does not want to imagine what would have happened had the insurrectionists penetrated the Capitol en masse before the Congresspersons and Senators had been evacuated; had they come face-to-face with Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar, plus Mitt Romney and all sorts of others, and with no cops around.

For all we know, this lurid scenario may have percolated in Trump’s fevered imagination: a bloodbath on Capitol Hill decapitating a branch of the  US government, thereby enabling him to declare martial law, blame it on Antifa, or even the Democrats, arrest Biden, shut down CNN and MSNBC, et on en passe. Again, for all we know.

FWIW, a report has it that “[s]ome among America’s military allies believe Trump deliberately attempted a coup and may have had help from federal law enforcement officials.”

The very real specter of a catastrophe in the Capitol, and orchestrated by Trump, no doubt scared the daylights out of Mitch McConnell and other now erstwhile Trump sycophants and lickspittles (Lindsey Graham et al), causing their sudden change of tune. As Mike Davis submitted in his newsletter

something unexpectedly profound happened: a deus ex machina that lifted the curse of Trump from the careers of conservative war hawks and rightwing young lions whose ambitions until yesterday had been fettered by the presidential cult. Today was the signal for a long awaited prison break. The word ‘surreal’ has been thrown around a lot, but it accurately characterizes last night’s bipartisan orgy with half of the most hardcore Senate election-denialists channeling Biden’s call for a ‘return to decency’ and vomiting up vast amounts of noxious piety.

And then there was the huge happening that just preceded the MAGA mob’s Capitol assault, which was the double victory in Georgia of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, thereby enabling the Democrats to take back the Senate contre toute attente. This exhilarating outcome—which, until the MAGA mob emerged from its cave, made Wednesday the most gratifying day since Biden’s victory was formally proclaimed on November 7th—was eclipsed by the Capitol rampage, but must have shocked McConnell & Co and figured in their calculations, as they certainly weren’t expecting it. Most Democrats weren’t expecting it either (I was hopeful but not too). It’s a run-off election in frigging Georgia after all! Republicans always win these races down there, and particularly if the Democratic candidates happen to be liberal to progressive (not to mention Black or Jewish). That Warnock and Ossoff won, and outside the recount margin, is a very big game-changer, as not only does it give Biden and the Ds control of the Senate, however narrowly, but starkly demonstrates to the Republican Party establishment that Trump is an electoral loser. Sure, at the top of the ticket he can mobilize the R base, add 11 million votes to the 2016 total, and help down-ballot candidates, but he causes moderate R defections and mobilizes the D base even more, with Biden thus adding 15 million votes to what Hillary Clinton won. But when Trump is not on the ballot, the D base remains mobilized—against him—but the R base less so. Mixing my metaphors, the Georgia run-off was a bright silver lining in what were otherwise dark clouds for the Democrats in the November 3rd down-ballot elections.

One thing is quasi certain, which is that the divide in the Republican Party after January 20th—between well-mannered hard-right conservatives and extreme-right Trumpist populists—will be far deeper than the moderates/liberals vs. progressives cleavage among the Democrats. Mike Davis again:

Let me be clear: the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split. (…)

There should no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump era legislation. Institutionally, Senate Republicans, with a strong roster of young talents, will rule the post-Trump camp and via vicious darwinian competition – above all, the successor to McConnell – bring about a generational succession, probably before the Democrats’ octogenarian oligarchy has left the scene.  (The major internal battle on the post-Trump side in the next few years will probably center on foreign policy and the new cold war with China.)

That’s one side of the split. The other is more dramatic: the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives. As Trump embalms himself in bitter revenge fantasies, reconciliation between the two camps will probably become impossible, although individual defections may occur. Mar-a-Lago will become base camp for the Trump death cult which will continue to mobilize millions of zombified plain folk to terrorize Republican primaries and ensure the preservation of a large die-hard contingent in the House as well as in red state legislatures. (Republicans in the Senate, accessing huge corporation donations, are far less vulnerable to such challenges.)

If Trump runs for president in 2024 (assuming he’s not in prison or otherwise ineligible), it will blow the R party apart. The Senate wing will not only pull out all the stops to block him—harsh critics who become bootlickers and return to being harsh critics will not revert once again to bootlicking—but may be counted on to run a third party candidate if he somehow wins the R nomination. But if Trump is blocked, he will certainly run under the label of his new MAGA party.

Whatever happens—and as countless analysts and observers have asserted—Trumpism is not going to fade and, echoing Mike Davis, a large portion of the Republican electorate will retain its cult-like devotion to him after he leaves office. And it’s not just the rubes and the yahoos in flyover country. E.g. see these recent tweets by the lobbyist spouse of the longest serving justice on the Supreme Court. There are lots of upper crust Republicans like her,

Speaking for all those not in the cult, political scientist and specialist of populism Jan-Werner Mueller, writing in Project Syndicate, argues simply that Trump must be impeached, removed from office, and permanently excluded from political life. To which one may add: prosecuted, convicted, and sent to the slammer, and, while we’re at it, stripped of his assets and his name effaced from every edifice. Inshallah.

À suivre.

UPDATE: The incontournable Adam Shatz has an à chaud take (Jan. 8th) in the LRB, “The four-year assault.”

2nd UPDATE: 48+ hours after the storming of the Capitol, people (so I’ve been seeing on Twitter) are beginning to understand that what happened on Wednesday was far graver than we initially realized. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes remarked on Twitter, it is under appreciated how very close things came on Wednesday to a massacre. Watch his report of last night (Friday) here.

In the report, Hayes plays a clip from a video taken by an insurrectionist inside the Capitol named JAYDENX. To get an idea of the Zeitgeist of the mob, the whole thing (39 minutes) may be viewed here. One notes, entre autres, that 95% of the mob is male (and with >95% of them white, of course) and that the women among them are completely unhinged.

See also the bone-chilling piece in Slate by Dan Kois, “They were out for blood: The men who carried zip ties as they stormed the Capitol weren’t clowning around.”

3rd UPDATE: In an alarming report, The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent informs us that the “The far-right Trump insurgency just scored a huge propaganda coup” with its Wednesday assault.

NBC News, for its part, reports on its website that “Extremists made little secret of ambitions to ‘occupy’ Capitol in weeks before attack.”

4th UPDATE: Matthew Levitt, director of the Reinhard program on counterterrorism and intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has an opinion piece on the NBC News website asserting that “Trump’s aiding Capitol violence as world watches shows U.S. is now exporting extremism.” Money quote:

Over the course of the Trump administration, the United States has increasingly been seen as a kind of a haven for far-right extremism. In much the same way the U.S. and others pressed Saudi Arabia to take tangible action to curb the spread of jihadist ideology from the kingdom to countries around the world in the years after 9/11, the international community today is pressing America to address the growth of far-right fanaticism here and its transfer abroad.

And just as Western countries expressed little sympathy when Riyadh asked for patience as it slowly began to address an issue that presented the kingdom with uncomfortable religious, social and legal challenges, the international community today is impatient when Washington points to the religious, social and legal hurdles it faces in curbing domestic terrorist activities and extremist ideologies.

How do they say “l’arroseur arrosé” in American?

5th UPDATE: The New York Times has a lengthy investigative report (Jan. 31st), “77 days: Trump’s campaign to subvert the election.” The lede: “Hours after the United States voted, the president declared the election a fraud — a lie that unleashed a movement that would shatter democratic norms and upend the peaceful transfer of power.”

Best (and worst) movies of 2020

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, go here). This year’s will be shorter than usual, with the pandemic forcing the closing of cinemas in France for over five months all told, in view of the successive lockdowns/confinements: from March 17th to June 22nd and now since October 30th (they may or may not reopen on January 7th). And few American movies opened from June onward—and with only one big-budget Hollywood movie (Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’, which, needless to say, I did not see). I also did not manage to catch a few well-reviewed French and other movies before the sudden imposition of the second confinement. But I did see enough to constitute a list (and which includes Netflix exclusives).

TOP 10:
A Son (بيك نعيش)
Abou Leila (ابو ليلا)
Adam (آدم)
Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało)
Just Mercy
Love Trilogy: Chained (טרילוגיה על אהבה: עיניים שלי)
My Donkey, My Lover & I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes)
Queen & Slim
Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre)
The Wall Between Us (Zwischen uns die Mauer)

BEST MOVIE FROM ALBANIA:
The Delegation (Delegacioni)

BEST MOVIE FROM ROMANIA:
The Whistlers (La Gomera)

BEST MOVIE FROM SAUDI ARABIA:
The Perfect Candidate (المرشحة المثالية)

BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN:
Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (يلدا)

BEST OFFBEAT MOVIE FROM MONGOLIA:
Öndög

BEST OFFBEAT MOVIE FROM MOROCCO:
The Unknown Saint (سيد المجهول)

BEST MOVIE FROM SPAIN WITH A SPANISH CIVIL WAR THEME:
While at War (Mientras dure la guerra)

BEST MOVIE FROM MEXICO WITH A CLASS STRUGGLE THEME:
Workforce (Mano de obra)

BEST MOVIE FROM GUATEMALA WITH A MEMORY OF THE 1980s MAYAN GENOCIDE THEME:
La Llorona

BEST MOVIE FROM CHILE WITH A RAGGAETON DANCING THEME:
Ema

BEST MOVIE FROM COLOMBIA ABOUT A SINGLE WORKING MOTHER WHO HAS TO DO IT ALL:
Litigante

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT THE SEAMY SIDE OF AN INSIDIOUS RIGHT-WING CABLE NEWS TELEVISION NETWORK:
Bombshell

BEST HOLLYWOOD COMEDY MAKING SPORT OF AMERICAN POLITICAL CONSULTANTS:
Irresistible

BEST REMAKE FROM GERMANY OF AN EVEN BETTER SPANISH POLICE THRILLER:
Lands of Murders (Freies Land)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM GERMANY ABOUT AN IRAQI-KURDISH GERMAN SOLDIER WHO GOES TO IRAQI KURDISTAN TO LOOK FOR HER LONG-LOST COMBATTANT SISTER:
Sisters Apart (Im Feuer)

BEST NETFLIX WAR MOVIE BASED ON ACTUAL EVENTS ABOUT AN INTREPID SWAT TEAM OF IRAQI POLICEMEN WHO STOP AT NOTHING TO TAKE BACK THEIR CITY FROM THE ISLAMIC STATE:
Mosul

BEST NOT BAD ALBEIT OVERLY VIOLENT ALGERIAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE MOVIE FROM FRANCE SET IN EASTERN ALGERIA IN 1960:
The Breitner Commando (Qu’un sang impur…)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM CANADA INSPIRED BY A SOPHOCLES TRAGEDY ABOUT AN ALGERIAN KABYLE FAMILY IN MONTREAL WHICH IS HAVING INTEGRATION PROBLEMS:
Antigone

BEST QUASI-ETHNOGRAPHIC AMERICAN INDIE MOVIE ABOUT A CROSS-CULTURAL MULTI-GENERATIONAL FAMILY IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA:
The Farewell

BEST NOT BAD QUASI-ETHNOGRAPHIC MOVIE FROM BRITAIN ABOUT IMMIGRANT-ORIGIN TEENS IN LONDON:
Rocks

BEST COMING-OF-AGE MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN 11-YEAR-OLD FRANCO-SENEGALESE GIRL IN PARIS NAVIGATING BETWEEN TWO CULTURES:
Cuties (Mignonnes)

BEST COMING-OF-AGE MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN 11-YEAR-OLD FRANCO-RWANDAN BOY IN BURUNDI DURING THE GENOCIDE IN RWANDA:
Small Country (Petit pays)

BEST COURTROOM DRAMA FROM FRANCE SET IN THE LOIRE-ATLANTIQUE:
The Girl with a Bracelet (La Fille au bracelet)

BEST DRAMA FROM FRANCE ABOUT INDENTURED SERVITUDE AMONG ILLEGAL CHINESE MIGRANTS IN PARIS:
La Nuit venue

BEST BIOPIC FROM FRANCE ABOUT A GREAT FRENCH WORLD WAR II HERO:
De Gaulle

BEST BIOPIC FROM BRITAIN ABOUT A GREAT FRANCO-POLISH SCIENTIST:
Radioactive

BEST OKAY HOLLYWOOD BIOPIC ABOUT A ONCE GREAT AMERICAN SINGER NO ONE LISTENS TO ANYMORE:
Judy

MOST PLEASANT LIGHT ITALIAN COMEDY ABOUT THREE RETIREE BUDDIES IN ROME LOOKING FOR A CHANGE OF SCENE:
Citizens of the World (Lontano lontano)

MOST AMUSING LIGHT FRANCO-TUNISIAN COMEDY ABOUT A FRANCO-TUNISIAN PSYCHOANALYST FROM PARIS WHO MOVES HER PRACTICE TO TUNISIA:
Arab Blues (Un divan à Tunis)

MOST FEEL-GOOD FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT A MILLENNIAL WHO RECOUNTS HIS LIFE VIA 25 YEARS OF HOME MOVIES:
Play

MOST NOT-ALL-THAT-FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT A BLACK FRENCH HUMORIST-RAP SINGER POKING FUN AT HOW FRENCH PERSONS-OF-COLOR TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES:
Tout simplement noir

MOST NOT FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT THREE ECCENTRICS IN PARIS WHO EMBARK ON A HELTER-SKELTER QUEST TO FIND A LONG-LOST CHILD:
Bye Bye Morons (Adieu les cons)

MOST UTTERLY NOT FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT THREE WHACK JOBS IN THE HAUTS-DE-FRANCE WHO TAKE ON THE GAFAS:
Delete History (Effacer l’historique)

BEST POLICE DRAMA FROM FRANCE WITH VIRGINIE EFIRA AND OMAR SY IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Police

BEST NOT BAD POLICE COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH ISABELLE HUPPERT IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Mama Weed (La Daronne)

BEST ROHMERESQUE ROMANTIC COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH CAMÉLIA JORDANA IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Love Affair(s) (Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait)

BEST MARRIAGE THRILLER FROM FRANCE SET IN VIENNA WITH KARIN VIARD IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Appearances (Les Apparences)

MOST NOT TOO GOOD DRAMA FROM FRANCE SET IN BOSNIA WITH ADÈLE HAENEL IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Heroes Don’t Die (Les Héros ne meurent jamais)

MOST MILDLY AMUSING FLAWED COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH VINCENT LINDON AND FRANÇOIS DAMIENS IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Mon cousin

MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ON POLICE VIOLENCE IN FRANCE:
The Monopoly of Violence (Un pays qui se tient sage)

MOST OVERLY LONG BUT NOT UNINTERESTING 11-HOUR 4-PART ROAD MOVIE-DOCUMENTARY BY AN EX-COMMUNIST FRANCO-ALGERIAN FILMMAKER THAT WILL LIKELY NEVER BE SHOWN IN ALGERIA:
Israël, le voyage interdit

MOST FRUSTRATING DOCUMENTARY ON CUBA BY A LEFTIST AUSTRIAN DIRECTOR THAT IS DEVOID OF A GUIDING THREAD OR ANALYSIS:
Epicentro

MOST CURIOUS DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE ON THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A YOUTHFUL EXTREME RIGHT-WING ACTIVIST IN THE SOMME:
La Cravate

MOST TOUCHING DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE ON HOW REALLY HARD IT IS TO BE A FARMER NOWADAYS:
Cyrille, agriculteur, 30 ans, 20 vaches, du lait, du beurre, des dettes

MOST PEDAGOGICAL DOCUMENTARY BY THOMAS PIKETTY CRITIQUING FINANCE CAPITALISM:
Capital in the Twenty-First Century

BEST MOVIE BY GRETA GERWIG:
Little Women

BEST MOVIE BY SAM MENDES:
1917

BEST MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
Richard Jewell

BEST MOVIE BY AARON SORKIN:
The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST MOVIE BY TODD HAYNES INDICTING CORPORATE MALFEASANCE:
Dark Waters

BEST MOVIE BY AGNIESZKA HOLLAND ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF THE SOVIET UNION DURING THE STALIN ERA:
Mr Jones

BEST MOVIE BY CHRISTIAN PETZOLD INSPIRED BY A 19th CENTURY GERMAN FAIRYTALE NOVELLA:
Undine

BEST COLD WAR POLITICAL THRILLER BY OLIVIER ASSAYAS:
Wasp Network

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY SPIKE LEE:
Da 5 Bloods

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY FRANÇOIS OZON:
Summer of 85 (Été 85)

MOST FRANKLY UNINTERESTING MOVIE BY DAVID FINCHER:
Mank

WORST MOVIE SEEN THIS YEAR BY AWAV:
Jojo Rabbit

A friend (Franco-Algerian) has asked me for my take on the rapprochement between Morocco and Israel, and the role of the United States, i.e. of Trump and his recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara (neither of these developments have been warmly received by Algerians, needless to say). As for the Israel-Morocco aspect of the matter, the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two states is normal and hardly necessitated US mediation, as they have enjoyed a close, unofficial relationship since the early 1960s—and which became official in 1994 with the opening of liaison offices in their respective capitals (Tel Aviv for the Moroccan one), and while closed by Morocco in 2000, during the second intifada, did not fundamentally change anything. Ronen Bergman has a piece in the NYT on the ongoing 60-year relationship and Yossi Melman writes in Haaretz on how the Mossad, over the same period, built “perhaps the most steadfast clandestine relationship between Israel and any Arab state.”

Morocco’s rich Jewish past and present is obviously the bridge between the two countries—and with Morocco valorizing and promoting that heritage. As one knows, Morocco had, along with Iraq, the largest pre-1948 Jewish population in the Arab world (around 250K), but, unlike Iraq, with Moroccan Jews emigrating pacifically (albeit surreptitiously in the decade after 1956) to Israel over time, with no pressure to leave or flight on account of persecution. And as one equally knows, Israelis with personal or family ties to Morocco (some 10-15% of Israel’s Jewish population) maintain an affectionate relationship with the country and freely travel there—which is unique to Israelis with roots in MENA lands (and despite the fact that the status of Jews in Morocco to the early 20th century was not significantly better than in Eastern Europe). For this reason alone, it makes total sense that the two states would have diplomatic and commercial relations, with tourism, direct flights, and all.

As for the Palestinians, I argued in a social media exchange (with Algerians) that the Israel-Morocco rapprochement won’t change a thing one way or another, though it was observed in a very good 40-minute International Crisis Group podcast conversation—with Rob Malley, Richard Atwood, Dahlia Scheindlin, and Riccardo Fabiani—on “Trump’s Morocco-Israel transaction,” that this will further comfort Netanyahu & Co in their calculation that Israel can normalize with Arab states—as it already has with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan—without conceding a thing to the Palestinians. Good point. It is increasingly evident, however, that no state—even a powerful one like the USA—or coalition of states can compel Israel to make substantial concessions to the Palestinians that it doesn’t want to make—that it believes will compromise its security and/or be rejected by Israeli pubic opinion. E.g. when I visited the Beit El settlement on the West Bank in 2009 and talked to a few people there, it became clear to me that no Israeli government will ever get those settlers out of there were it to try, that there would be refusal and resistance, and that such would be the case with just about every settlement in the occupied territories. Israel is content with the status quo—which I argued over eight years ago—as are most Arab states in regard to the Palestinians, alas.

N.B. The normalization with Israel by Arab states may not only not prejudice the Palestinians but even work to their benefit, with the UAE and other Gulf states financially supporting the Palestinian Authority, investing, and the like (and which may be part of the deal with the Israelis, who will have an interest in that).

The American aspect of the Morocco-Israel deal is another matter. Not only was the US role superfluous—it was thoroughly unnecessary—but the US got nothing whatever out of it. No tangible US interest is advanced in the two states reopening liaison offices and establishing direct flights. Trump was simply doing Netanyahu’s bidding, to reinforce the latter’s election prospects and further solidify Trump’s evangelical base as he tries to stage an autogolpe before January 20th. Not only can this not be considered a foreign policy triumph for Trump—and it’s likewise with the UAE-Bahrain-Sudan deals—but, in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, it’s a big foreign policy blunder and setback for the US. The US thus becomes the first Western state (Albania excepted, if that counts) to recognize Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara.

À propos, one notes with interest the left-right consensus on Trump’s action among the handful of US academic and policy specialists of the Western Sahara question. E.g. on the left, the engagé University of San Francisco political scientist (and friend), Stephen Zunes—who’s co-authored a book on the subject—fired off a Washington Post op-ed arguing that “Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict.” Human Rights Watch—which is not stricto sensu on the left (though I’d be most surprised if a single one of its American staff members did not vote for Biden-Harris)—issued a communiqué (in which acting HRW-MENA director and good friend Eric Goldstein is quoted) stating that “US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty doesn’t change territory’s status.” And FWIW, in the Uber-gauchiste Jacobin, Madrid-based writer Eoghan Gilmartin asserted that “Donald Trump has just traded Western Sahara like a Victorian colonialist.”

The left-leaning Scholars’ Circle Interviews has a worthwhile one-hour podcast conservation on the “Western Sahara conflict towards peaceful resolution,” with academics R. Joey Huddleston, Randi Irwin, Stephen Zunes, and Jacob Mundy.

Particularly interesting are the reactions from Republicans. James A. Baker III, who was the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, penned a Washington Post op-ed bluntly stating that “Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara is a serious blow to diplomacy and international law.” And then there’s John Bolton, who knows the WS dossier comme sa poche, with a strongly worded piece in Foreign Policy, “Biden must reverse course on Western Sahara: Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty dangerously undermines decades of carefully crafted U.S. policy.”

Accompanying Bolton on the GOP right-wing is the ultra-conservative Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has long felt strongly about the Western Sahara and been a strong supporter of Polisario, and who pronounced Trump’s action “shocking and deeply disappointing,” declaring himself “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away.” As one learns in an informative dispatch in Axios by Tel Aviv-based reporter Barak Ravid, it appears that a recent dispute between Trump and Inhofe—who otherwise 100% supports the SOB—paved the way for Trump’s gift to Morocco.

Another Western Sahara/Polisario supporter way out there on the Republican right-wing is the longtime Washington conservative operative David Keene—who also happens to be Algeria’s well-remunerated Washington lobbyist—who ran an op-ed in the Washington Times (which is read exclusively on the right) explaining “Why Trump’s deal with Morocco is immoral and shamefully cynical: The people of the Western Sahara had no say in it’s making, another blow against self-determination.”

I find it intriguing that these right-wing Republicans are so harshly critical of Morocco—which has always been such a faithful ally of the United States and the West—favorable toward Algeria—which has had correct to good relations with the US but, while a leader of the non-aligned movement, tilted toward the Eastern bloc during the Cold War—and supportive of Polisario, which has otherwise been a Third World movement of national liberation and identified with the tiersmondiste camp (and with an always large stand at the French Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité; for pics of the stand, go here and scroll way down). And that these America-firster conservatives should care so much about a sparsely, exclusively Muslim-populated patch of desert in Africa—and as they have not objected to land-grabs elsewhere (e.g. Israel and its neighbors). There is not a single right-wing person in France who would break ranks with Morocco on this question or touch Polisario with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps Polisario has had an effective US lobbying operation (for the anecdote, I was acquainted with Polisario’s Washington representative back in the mid-80s, who was romantically involved with a college friend of mine; he must have been doing a good job).

The most reliable establishment commentary on Trump’s action IMHO is by Christopher Ross, who served as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. Ross was a US Foreign Service officer, spending most of his career in the Arab world (he’s a fluent Arabic-speaker), including as US ambassador to Algeria from 1988 to 1991. Those were my years in Algiers and I saw him a number of times (I was on a Fulbright grant but otherwise had no relationship with the US embassy), at events and dinners, plus a few tête-à-têtes, at the residence and in his office, with him inviting me in to discuss the political situation in Algeria (we were much on the same page, particularly in regard to the rise of the Islamist FIS). Chris Ross represented the best of the US Foreign Service. Voilà his commentary on Trump’s action, posted by Stephen Zunes (Dec. 13th) on his Facebook page:

This foolish and ill-considered decision flies in the face of the US commitment to the principles of the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of peoples to self-determination, both enshrined in the UN Charter. It’s true that we have ignored these principles when it comes to Israel and others, but this does not excuse ignoring them in Western Sahara and incurring significant costs to ourselves in terms of regional stability and security and our relations with Algeria.

The argument that some in Washington have been making for decades to the effect that an independent state in Western Sahara would be another failed mini-state is false. Western Sahara is as large as Great Britain and has ample resources of phosphates, fisheries, precious metals, and tourism based on wind surfing and desert excursions. It is much better off than many mini-states whose establishment the US has supported. The Polisario Liberation Front of Western Sahara has demonstrated in setting up a government-in-exile in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwestern Algeria that it is capable of running a government in an organized and semi-democratic way. The referendum proposal that the Polisario put forward in 2007 foresees very close privileged relations with Morocco in the event of independence. It has answered the claim that it could not possibly defend the vast territory of Western Sahara from terrorist or other threats by stating that it would request the help of others until its own forces were fully in place.

It is true that the US has always expressed support for both for the UN facilitated negotiating process and, since 2007, for Morocco’s autonomy plan as ONE possible basis for negotiation. The word ONE is crucial because it implies that other outcomes might emerge and thus ensures that the Polisario stays in the negotiating process instead of retreating into a resumption of the open warfare that prevailed from 1976 to 1991. It was in that year that Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN settlement plan that promised a referendum in exchange for a ceasefire. Thirteen years were spent trying to reach agreement on a list of eligible voters, the last seven of them under the supervision of James Baker. In the end, these efforts failed because Morocco decided that a referendum was contrary to its (claims of) sovereignty and, in doing so, got no push back from the Security Council. In 2004, this caused Baker to resign.

The Security Council then substituted direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario as an alternative approach. Chaired by three successive UN envoys from the Netherlands (van Walsum), the U.S. (yours truly), and Germany (Kohler), thirteen rounds of face-to-face talks in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania took place from 2007 to 2019. To date, these efforts have also failed because neither party has been prepared to alter its position in the name of compromise. With the resignation of the most recent envoy in 2019 “for health reasons” but more likely out of disgust for Morocco’s lack of respect and efforts to impede his work (as they did with me), the UN Secretary-General is looking for yet another envoy. Those approached to date have demurred, probably because they recognize that Morocco wants someone who will in effect become its advocate instead of remaining neutral and that, as a result, they would be embarking on ‘mission impossible.’

If we are ever to arrive at a settlement, it will be through a drawn-out negotiating process of some kind. President Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty destroys any incentive for the Polisario to remain in that process. It also threatens US relations with Algeria, which supports the right of Western Saharans to decide their own future through a referendum, and undercuts the growth of our existing ties in energy, trade, and security and military cooperation. In sum, President Trump’s decision ensures continued tension, instability, and disunion in North Africa.

Pour l’info, my principal source of knowledge on the Western Sahara is Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, by Tony Hodges (Lawrence Hill Books, 1983). It’s a terrific book (reviewed here in the NYRB), the first one to read on the subject, in which one learns, among many other things, that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the WS—historically or legally—and that the Sahraoui people, historically mostly pastoral nomads, were largely sedentarized by the early 1970s, had developed a national consciousness under Spanish colonialism, and possessed all the attributes of a nation deserving self-determination. Whether or not Morocco will ever surrender the WS—I have my doubts—is another matter, but the conflict remains,

The parallel between the Moroccan occupation of the WS and the Israelis in the West Bank-Gaza is evident (Moroccans naturally go ballistic over the comparison). There are similarities and clear differences (e.g. the cultural proximity of Moroccans and Sahraouis is obviously closer), but on the level of human rights violations, Stephen Zunes, whose left-wing credentials are ironclad, asserted on his Facebook page last week that these are “much worse” in the Western Sahara than in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Returning to the subject of Moroccan Jews and Israel, I want to briefly mention two feature-length films I’ve seen on the subject over the past several years. One is the 2010 ‘Où vas-tu Moshé?’ (Where Are You Going, Moshe?), directed by Hassan Benjelloun, who recounts-reenacts the sudden, literally overnight exodus in 1963 of the Jewish community in his town in the Atlas mountains, which he witnessed as a boy. There was no particular problem between the communities, which co-existed cordially, but the deeply religious Jews dreamed of aliyah to the ‘land of Zion’, of which they concretely knew little, and as emigration to Israel was not authorized at the time, the collective departure was organized clandestinely by the Jewish Agency. So one day the townspeople woke up to find that the local Jews were all gone and with their shops shuttered, having slipped out of town en masse in buses in the middle of the night. It’s an interesting, original film, needless to say.

I read about the film when it opened—it came and went—but heard more about it in 2011 from a former Franco-Moroccan student of mine, who happened to be in Israel-Palestine (working with a Palestinian-oriented NGO), who was so impressed with the film (which she had seen in Canada, where it was co-produced) that she took the initiative to promote it in Israel and organize screenings, particularly in localities with sizable Moroccan communities. It received an enthusiastic reception and showed at the 2011 Maghreb film festival in Ashdod, which saw a good turnout.

The other film is a 2012 documentary, Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah, by Kamal Hachkar, a Franco-Moroccan public school teacher in Paris, whose family hailed from Tinghir, a town in southern Morocco, from which Kamal’s parents emigrated to France shortly after his birth in 1979 but which he regularly visited on family vacations while growing up. On one visit he learned, to his surprise, that Tinghir had had a Jewish community but which suddenly departed in the 1960s, to Israel, and which the younger generation in the town knew almost nothing about. Fascinated by the discovery, Hachkar decided to research his ancestral town’s Jewish past and make a documentary—he talked about it at a screening I attended in 2013 and heavily promoted the film on Facebook—which involved interviewing inhabitants of Tinghir about their memories of the town’s Jews, then tracking down the latter in Israel and traveling there to meet them. This part is quite interesting. The Tinghir Jews imagined they were going to a mythical Jerusalem in the mythical land of Zion but when they arrived in Israel they were settled in apartment blocks in soulless development towns. It wasn’t what they were expecting. When Hachkar met the Tinghir old-timers in Israel, who spoke with him in Tamazight, they welcomed him like a long-lost member of the family (watch the moving segment here of one of them on a Skype conversation with Hachkar’s father). It’s too bad it’s not likewise with other Israeli MENA Jews and their countries of origin.

Hachkar’s film was shown on Moroccan television in 2012 and screened publicly, provoking a firestorm, with Hachkar and the film denounced by Islamists and others in the anti-normalization crowd, and which was perhaps stoked by Hachkar’s rather manifest philo-semitism. Jamal Bahmad, who teaches at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has an informative post on this from February 2013 in Africultures, “Tinghir-Jerusalem-Tangier: The Jew, the imam and the camera in Morocco.” But that’s all in the past, so says Hachkar—who now lives in Morocco—in an interview last week in the Moroccan Le 360 website, with the film and its message of fraternity no longer arousing controversy. C’est bien.

He was buried today, the funeral being a private family affair as he wished (though it would have happened that way in any case given the confinement and pandemic rules). His death late Wednesday evening has naturally been the nº 1 story here the past two days, with the usual retrospectives on TV and dossiers in the press. He was a consequential president of the republic—as all French presidents of the Fifth Republic have been (with some maybe a little less so)—having come to power at the precise end of the trente glorieuses—the “thirty glorious years” (actually more like twenty-five) of postwar economic expansion—and the beginning of the seemingly endless era of slow economic growth and high unemployment, though this was not apparent when he was elected in May 1974, at age 48, following the short campaign after Georges Pompidou’s death—narrowly defeating François Mitterrand, no doubt thanks to his zinger in the first-ever French presidential debate (voilà the whole thing here).

One of the leitmotifs of pundits and the press for Giscard’s presidency is “modern”: he was a président moderne, or at least billed himself as such. And he did indeed set about to modernize France—hitting the ground running—in the early years of his septennat, instituting economic (read: neoliberal) reforms, which the left (then strong) naturally opposed, and societal ones, which the left could only support. The latter are well-known and enumerated like a laundry list: lowering the voting age to 18, legalizing abortion (in the face of the hostility of much of his political camp), no-fault divorce, full reimbursement of oral contraception by the Sécu—though one Giscard-inspired reform has been overlooked in the retrospectives: ending the censorship of films X; so when I came to Paris in 1975, ‘Gorge profonde‘ was playing at the otherwise mainstream theater (Gaumont Alésia) in my quartier. And then there were important political reforms (which, again, the left could hardly oppose): empowering a quorum of parliamentary deputies or senators to refer cases to the Constitutional Council, proposing the direct election of the mayor of Paris (for the first time since 1793; enabling Giscard’s by then enemy, Jacques Chirac, to gain a formidable power base), equally proposing direct election by universal suffrage to the European parliament in Strasbourg (realized in 1979), loosening (though not ending) state control over the broadcast media. To these may be added the creation of the collège unique (a single middle school for all 6th to 9th graders), which considerably democratized access to high schools tracking to higher education.

In the cultural realm, Giscard saved the Gare d’Orsay from being razed, wishing it to be transformed into a museum. For this, it is presently being speculated that the Musée d’Orsay may be renamed after him.

Giscard’s “modern” image didn’t last, with his arrogance, haughtiness, and royalist impulses getting the better of his attempts to connect with regular people (on this score, he couldn’t compete with Chirac), which, along with economic austerity (“rigueur” it was called) at a time of stagflation, made him unpopular in the latter years of the septennat. He was still sure that he would defeat François Mitterrand again in their 1981 rematch, though, and with elite opinion thinking likewise. E.g. the NYT’s Paris-based foreign affairs columnist, Flora Lewis, predicted a Giscard victory prior to the 2nd round, because, as everyone knew, “the Frenchman’s heart is on the left but his pocketbook is on the right, and when in the voting booth, he votes his pocketbook” (the election outcome happily buried that cliché forever). But if Giscard “won” the 1974 debate with Mitterrand, the latter clearly did the one in 1981, and getting in his own zinger while he was at it, though would have likely won anyway, as the score was not close. Giscard’s eight-minute farewell address to the French people—made while still in a state of shock—is probably his most famous (go here and, if impatient, skip to 7:30; I used to reenact the end in front of my American students, which was fun).

My own observations of Giscard are mainly from the years after his presidency—when I started to live here permanently—as he remained a high-profile political personality into the ’00s. I generally disliked him, for some of his positions (on which more below) and his persona, though readily acknowledged his brilliance. When he published a front-page tribune in Le Monde, I read it without fail. His style and the methodical manner in which he constructed his arguments were simply very impressive—though we would hardly expect less of one who graduated at the top of his class at both the École Polytechnique and ENA. I saw him speak twice, the first time in April 2005 before a packed amphitheater at the École Militaire (which seats some 600), six weeks before the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which was the subject of his talk. He was simply excellent, rien à dire. And since he was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he concluded with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, prefacing it by telling the audience that since they were all perfect Anglophones he was going to give the quote in English, with no translation. Only in France could a politician get away with something like that. Imagine the reaction on Fox News et al if Barack Obama, even out of office, were to conclude a speech with a quote by Montesquieu or Rousseau and in the original French (not that he speaks French or any other foreign language).

There was a report on the TV news a decade or so ago of Giscard in China with a delegation of some sort, showing him give a speech in what looked to be fluent Chinese. Now that was impressive.

The second time I saw him speak was in late 2011 at the Institut Catholique de Paris, one of the establishments of higher education at which I teach, where he gave a talk on the crisis in Europe. A smaller auditorium and no quotes  in foreign languages. I regretted that he didn’t speak longer.

In my book, Giscard, in his post-presidential years, had one big strike against him and one big one for. The strike against was his discourse on immigration, crystalized in his September 1991 tribune in Figaro-Magazine, in which he referred to immigration (read: from the African continent) as an “invasion” and called for an end to jus soli in French nationality law. Giscard’s discourse shocked a lot of people, including in his own political family in Europe, as it was one normally associated with the far right (in France at least). Giscard was a moderate conservative—an ‘Orléanist’ in René Remond’s typology of the French right; in the USA he would have been an Eisenhower-Nixon Republican—but his rhetoric pointed to a more conservative side. In this respect, it may be noted that while jeunes giscardiens of the 1970s ended up moderately conservative (Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Dominique Bussereau) or centrist (Marielle de Sarnez), the older members of VGE’s political inner circle were well to the right, e.g. Michel Poniatowski, who appeared publicly with the radioactive pariah Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1990s. And à propos, VGE himself had cordial relations with Le Pen, the two men being elected to the National Assembly in 1958 with the very conservative CNIP, in whose parliamentary group they sat together for four years. And while Giscard supported De Gaulle on Algerian independence, his entourage was replete with nostalgics for Algérie française. As for the party he formed in 1962, the Républicains Indépendants, it and its successors covered the spectrum from moderate to very conservative. Pas ma tasse de thé.

The strike in Giscard’s favor was the central role he played in the construction of Europe, from his presidency of the French Republic—during which he forged a close relationship with West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt (whom I have an R.I.P. post on)—to his presidency of the Convention on the Future of the European Union, which met in Brussels from February 2002 to July 2003 and produced the European Constitutional Treaty mentioned above. Giscard’s appointment to preside the European Convention—essentially imposed by President Chirac and PM Lionel Jospin, who both, for their own reasons, wanted to get VGE out of Paris—was ridiculed by other Europeans (particularly the Brits), who saw the French ex-president as a has-been over-the-hill dinosaur from another era, but he turned out to be the right person for the job. The European Convention was a model of democracy and transparency, VGE’s leadership was dynamic, and the treaty was a good one, and it was a damned shame that it was rejected by the French electorate in the referendum that Chirac stupidly organized (as he was under no obligation to do so). I’ve already written about the ECT and May 2005 referendum here so won’t go over it again, except to assert that the nefarious culprit in the ECT’s unfortunate demise was the French radical and extreme left (toward whom I developed a special loathing during this episode). The ECT’s demise also confirmed that referendums are almost always a bad idea (I’ll grant Switzerland as an exception), as most people have no idea what the hell they’re voting on (there, I said it!). If referendums must be held, they should never offer the voters a simple one-word binary choice (yes/no, remain/leave). Make the question complex.

John Lichfield has a good piece in Politico.eu comparing Emmanuel Macron to VGE and on what the former can learn from the experience of the latter. The two men have much in common, as more than one has observed: from well-to-do families (in VGE’s case, very well-to-do), brilliant parcours scolaire, grandes écoles (ENA, of course) and graduating in la botte, brilliant early career in the grands corps de l’État (Inspection Générale des Finances for both), intellectually brilliant and imbued with high culture, strong supporters of Europe, elected to the Élysée at a young age and with a modernizer schtick that ended up not wearing well, insufferably arrogant and full of themselves…

There are naturally a few differences: VGE was a first-tier politician and with a long record (as Minister of Finance) when he acceded to the presidency, whereas Macron was unknown to the public three years before his election and had never run for public office. VGE had a political party in 1974 and sponsored the creation of a larger structure while he was president—the UDF: a confederation of five distinct centrist and conservative formations—to serve as his power base and a counterweight on the right to Chirac’s neo-Gaullists, and which outlasted his 1981 defeat, whereas Macron’s République en Marche is an empty shell that will most certainly vanish if Macron is defeated in 2022. Like VGE, Macron is expecting/hoping for a rematch with his 2nd round opponent in the previous election, albeit with a different outcome. If it comes to that—which will be really terrible for the political health of France—we can only hope that Macron—however one feels about him—will not suffer VGE’s fate in 1981. Otherwise, le déluge.

Art Goldhammer posted an à chaud remembrance of VGE at Tocqueville 21 and Jim Hoagland, who was based in Paris during VGE’s presidency (and interviewed him more than once), has an obituary in The Washington Post.

March for Freedoms

And against freedom-killing laws. I went into Paris yesterday afternoon, my first time in the city in almost a month, to attend this all-important demo. The Paris Prefecture of Police had initially banned it—ostensibly for sanitary reasons, France being under lockdown (confinement) since October 30th, though which has been “lightened up” (allégé) beginning this weekend—but with an administrative court annulling the interdiction late Friday. Given the explosive political context, though, the demo would have happened anyway, banning or not. The context is the government’s proposed law (Proposition de loi relative à la sécurité globale), currently under debate in the parliament, that would further reinforce the surveillance powers of the police (notably via drones) and, in the bill’s now infamous article 24, criminalize the Internet posting of photos and videos taken—by journalists or ordinary citizens—of the police going about their work—even when that work involves brutalizing people just for the hell of it. This is seemingly the umpteenth initiative by the right-lurching Emmanuel Macron—who we were led to believe was an American-style liberal during his presidential election run—to further constrict civil liberties—and with his Minister of Interior, the unambiguously right-wing Gérald Darmanin, playing the Top Cop with particular zealousness. Darmanin, an early defector from the LR party to Macron’s République en Marche and whom Macron appointed to the Place Beauvau in July, was/is a protégé of Nicolas Sarkozy, in both political orientation and personal ambition, which is as much as one needs to know about his views on the police and law-and-order. The proposed law (and its article 24) is his œuvre (and Macron’s obviously).

On the matter of civil liberties—of their being undermined—this is the law too many. If it passes, it will confirm that France is on a truly alarming political trajectory (for an elaboration on this in English, see James McAuley in The Washington Post, Adam Nossiter in The New York Times, Mira Kamdar in The Atlantic, and Art Goldhammer in Tocqueville 21. [UPDATE: Also see Cole Stangler in Jacobin and Jeremy Harding in the London Review of Books]). In an interview in Le Monde dated Nov. 26th, the prominent Paris lawyer Patrice Spinosi—who pleads before the Conseil d’État and Cour de Cassation—asserted that, with this proposed law on sécurité globale, a future “Trump à la française“—who could possibly be elected President of the Republic in 2022 (and we know who she would be)—would have the legal framework already in place to impose major restrictions on civil liberties and political opposition.

Journalists and media organs across the political spectrum—and that includes the right—have been up in arms over the proposed law, with rallies organized in front of the National Assembly on Nov. 17th and at Trocadéro on Nov. 21st. Then last Monday night there was the brutal police action against the migrant camp that had been set up that day at the Place de la République—of desperate refugees and asylum-seekers (Afghans and Eritreans the largest contingents) who have been wandering the streets without shelter for months, and for whom the authorities are doing nothing—which even minister Darmanin claimed to find “shocking.” If it hadn’t been for the videos of the police action posted on the Internet, of course, there wouldn’t have been a story. And then there was the beating of Michel Zecler—of the gratuitous violence of the police and with racism thrown in, and their brazen lies to their hierarchical superiors about it—that was revealed on Twitter last Thursday, and which was the nº 1 story on the news for two days running. Again, if it hadn’t been for videos posted on social media (if one hasn’t seen them, go here and here) there would not only have been no story but Michel Zecler is the one who would have found himself in trouble—on a trumped-up charge of outrage à agent public—and not the four police functionaries, who will most certainly be severely sanctioned. With Macron, Darmanin, and just about everyone in the political class saying how revulsed and shocked they are—shocked, I tell you!—by the violence visited upon Michel Zecler—as if the French police haven’t been doing this kind of thing often and since forever—they will thus want the four flics to be held out to dry pour l’exemple. And the flics are indeed in very hot water.

I don’t participate in demos much but decided yesterday morning that I would this one. The last one I went to—to observe but finally participate in—was the November 10, 2019, march against Islamophobia, the turnout for which was some 15,000 (deemed a success; I posted pics of it on Facebook at the time, which may be viewed here if one is interested). According to the Ministry of Interior, some 46,000 attended yesterday’s march—which means it was likely more than that—making it a big success, particularly in view of the pandemic and ongoing limitations on movement linked to the confinement. It was the lead story on the evening news, which is not common for demos in Paris (demos being a banal occurrence in this city).

The rendez-vous for the demo was Place de la République at 2:00 PM, with the destination Place de la Bastille. A classic route for marches of the left (I doubt the right has ever, even once in history, had a manif in this part of the city). I went straight to Bastille, arriving around 3:30, to meet the head of the march as it proceeded down Avenue Beaumarchais. Here are pics I took, with commentary.

The people heading toward the march from this direction were clearly not at the République and, so it appeared, had their own motives for wanting to meet up with it.

Something is on fire up ahead, with billows of black smoke and periodic explosions. I couldn’t see what it was but figured it was a car or motorcycle that had been torched. The demonstration up ahead, that was heading down the avenue, was clearly blocked. There was no movement for at least 15 minutes.

The explosions continued but I couldn’t see what they were or where they were coming from.

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Renée Levine, R.I.P.

This is a remembrance of my friend Renée Levine, who passed away on November 2nd, at age 95, in a retirement home in Asheville, North Carolina. I met Renée in 2002 here in Paris, at the first meeting I attended of a newly formed University of Chicago alumni reading group (still going strong), of which she became a pillar, though she was not a U of C graduate herself, that distinction going to her beloved (second) husband, Harold, who survives her. Renée was born in Berlin in 1925, where she lived until her parents sent her and her brother to England following Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, though the parents stayed behind (the photo above is of Renée on her first day of school, in 1931). She visited her parents in Germany for the last time in 1936—part of her family perished in the Holocaust—and was sent from England to the United States in 1941, where she lived until moving to France in the mid 1990s with Harold, after his retirement from a career in the mathematics department at Brandeis University and hers in the administration of the Boston public school system.

Renée self-published her memoir, One-Way Tickets, which she wrote over a number of years and for her American grandchildren, so they would understand their German-Jewish grandmother and her world. Its first print run in 2007 was limited—she wasn’t interested in royalties or glory—but as it sold like hotcakes at the Anglophone bookstores in Paris—notably The Red Wheelbarrow, then in the Marais, where Renée volunteered her time—more copies were printed (The Red Wheelbarrow’s reopening last year, across from the Jardin du Luxembourg, was partly funded by Renée). It’s a marvelous book. The description on the back cover reads:

The author, born in 1925, in Berlin of German-Jewish professional parents, writes the story of three generations who left home never to return, It is the story of a time when loss of family and the transplanting of lives was commonplace. Her own one-way tickets took her from Berlin to Munich to Breslau, the North Sea coast, to London, to Los Angeles, to Boston, to arrive finally in Paris.

The description of each of these displacements is accompanied by photographs taken at the time.

There was a final one-way ticket, when Renée and Harold moved to Asheville in 2010, to be close to her three daughters (from her first marriage), two of whom lived in North Carolina. I saw her once after that, when they came back to Paris for a visit, but otherwise stayed in touch via email and an annual phone call when in the US.

A few things about Renée. She was without doubt the most avid reader—primarily of fiction—I’ve ever known. As I wrote in a post about her in 2011, in AWAV’s first week of existence, she certainly read more books—highbrow, obviously—than anyone I am likely to meet. I was permanently in awe of this. Though I only met her when she was in her mid 70s, I know that she was active in the good causes of the 1960s and ’70s (civil rights, Vietnam, women’s movement). Politically we were on the same page pretty much across the board. She and Harold were also world travelers and into their 80s, seeing more countries than I ever will at this point; e.g. they took a trip to Uzbekistan in the mid ’00s, just the two of them. No package tour or anything. This was par for the course for them (à propos, I am grateful for Renée’s having recommended to me this maison d’hôtes in the Tangiers Kasbah, where my wife and I went for our 20th wedding anniversary). I remember her talking of how she and Harold, in decades past, hopped a freighter in East Asia somewhere, taking it across the Pacific to the United States. I fantasized in my own decades past about doing such a thing, a fantasy that alas will never be realized.

Renée became an American in her teens and, sabbatical years excepted, lived in the United States her entire adult life to age 70, but she didn’t take to the US or American society, so she conveyed to me. She remained profoundly European and attached to German culture, and despite the Nazis and the Holocaust. When she and Harold arrived in France in the mid ’90s—they owned a house in a village on the Loire, near Orléans, and rented an apartment in Paris (11th arr.)—they knew few people, but within a few years had built up a social network (joining reading groups and other such activities). E.g. in 2004 or thereabouts, Renée invited me and my wife to a social gathering at their place, where there were some 15-20 guests, almost all French retirees (of their educational-cultural level), whose acquaintance they had made over the preceding years. I was impressed that they had been able to meet so many people in a city they were relatively new to and not being in the working world.

Renée kept an occasional blog. Here is her final post, titled “Making Choices: Election Day,” which she sent to me and others on October 22nd. It is well worth the read:

Last month I wrote about Labor Day. Today I’m writing about elections and Choice. The big election for the president of the country is ahead of us. The candidate of your choice is waiting for your vote.

Making choices is really what living is about. We try to get our choice in every task of living from that very first yell when we accept the contract to live with a cry that escapes with our first breath. You elect to live. Our lives are made to a large extent, by our own choices. We make choices from the very start when we cry for milk or yell because we do not want it.

I have now arrived at the place where we are making our last choices. I live in an old age home which I chose for valid reasons. My husband suffers from dementia and here we can live under one roof but in separate quarters. When we moved in, we were given a pamphlet called “Last Wishes” which offers the residents end of life choices in case we are not always competent to exercise these choices at the end.

But of course, choosing has been going on since the very beginning. By your choices you write your life, you make yourself, you invent the person you become. You write the story, you color the themes, you choose the cover, you select your role. You live with that image and you are seen as you present yourself.

This resembles planning for a trip. You start designing your life’s journey when you are very small: you plan for the unexpected and you organize the stopping places to be able to take in those sights upon which you wish to linger. You find the company that will help and enhance the experience. You hope the maps are adequate, you hope the intellectual preparations were sufficient so that you were able to appreciate both the company and the sites.

I have arrived at the last stop on my travel/life itinerary. The planning part of the journey is finished. I am looking over those choices, those that were actually my own. I did not choose to be the child of people who chose to separate just when I needed them. I did not vote for fascism just when my country plunged deeply into a vile dictatorship. I did not choose to leave behind my language, my friends or my parents at age 6. However, inside these major changes, I began to form a character, to make habits, smiling and crying, being kind and being critical. I learned to be afraid of the dark. I did not smile easily. I learned to be on my guard, not to trust easily. I began to shape myself into this woman who is now trying to understand her need to be left alone, but who also longs for company, to be clear about what she wants, how she thinks and whom and how she loves.

My choices were not always well informed. I was too inexperienced, I had not done my homework, I had not known enough about how to be a wife and a mother and remain a person I could admire. It is easier to plan a trip, to do the research, pack a well-planned suitcase, speak the necessary languages and carry a good map. Physical travel is voluntary, life choices are not so open. You cannot choose the outer circumstances. But you can choose how you address them unless they are too big for your canvas.

The climate, the virus, the political background, those test your character, they offer you a world with which you need to whet your character and learn to make your choices.

~Renée Levine

An obituary is here.

The deliverance

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

How gratifying Saturday was: when the election was called for Joe Biden (we’ll all remember where we were at the moment we learned; I was in the local Carrefour supermarket when my daughter called with the news), watching the celebrations on television (saturation coverage on the French all-news stations), and then the victory celebration in Wilmington (for which I stayed up past 3 AM). Great speeches by Kamala Harris and Biden. She’s terrific and he does not cease to pleasantly surprise. The reaction on Twitter was quasi unanimous: what a relief to once again have a president of the United States who is normal, well-spoken, and level-headed—and is just a fundamentally good person.

As for the unspeakable orange-haired one, he’s going to poison the well in a big way in the coming days and weeks, and likely years—we are definitely entering a dangerous period (more on that below)—but he will be gone from the White House come January 20th, along with his miserable family and regime of rogues, grifters, lickspittles, whack jobs, and other fascists. Alhamdulillah.

Though it’s been clear since Wednesday that Biden was headed for victory, I decided to wait for the confirmation before offering my post-mortem. And I didn’t want to be a killjoy following the exhilarating confirmation. as I have decidedly mixed feelings about the election result, and despite the overriding imperative of defeating Trump having been achieved. The fact is, this is a bittersweet victory and which puts paid to any dreams, or illusions, we may have had for the coming two/four years. A few brief thoughts.

First, on Biden’s victory itself. The collective feeling on election night was disappointment that it was going to be much closer than the polls suggested, let alone what we were all hoping—and particularly when it appeared early on that Trump was going to win Florida fairly easily (on account of Biden’s unexpected counter-performance in Miami-Dade)—and despite Bernie Sanders, among others, having warned two weeks earlier that the election night results were necessarily going to be misleading (the ‘red mirage’ to the ‘blue shift’). With that in mind, I decided that I wasn’t going to comment on the national numbers until all the ballots are counted and we have the final results, which may not be until December (California takes weeks for this). The way it looks now, Biden’s margin in the national popular vote could reach 5% at the end of the day (compared to Hillary Clinton’s 2.1% in 2016; FWIW, Nate Silver has predicted +4.3). This signifies that the weighted mean of the national polls was off but not hugely so (and with polling errors of such a magnitude a regular, unsurprising occurrence). And while some of the state-level polling misfired—with much closer margins than expected, particularly in the famous three Rust Belt states—there have been no big surprises. With Biden set to win 290 or 306 EVs, there’s little cause at this date to be bellyaching at the pollsters.

On the subject, my virtual friend Dahlia Scheindlin—a political scientist, professional pollster, and writer for the excellent progressive Israeli webzine +972—has an op-ed (Nov. 8th) in Haaretz, “Trump lost. Biden won. Now stop persecuting the pollsters.” See also the never uninteresting Zeynep Tufekci’s Nov. 1st NYT op-ed, which Dahlia links to, “Can we finally agree to ignore election forecasts?”

On Trump’s showing: it is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that his furious campaigning in the home stretch—barnstorming the swing states in the final two weeks, with up to five events a day, boundless energy, and after having apparently recovered from Covid—succeeded in whipping his base into a frenzy, as we saw with the Trump pick-up truck caravans and the miles-long traffic jams to get to his rallies. To this may be added the painstaking, years-long efforts of the Republican Party to register millions of new voters in rural/small town America, who, embedded in MAGA family and friendship networks, went to the polls on election day. In short, Trump and the Republicans achieved maximum base turnout—and which more than compensated for defections of 2016 Trump voters to Biden (whose numbers may not have been as large as we had counted on). To comprehend how it was that Trump narrowed the polling gap and gained a net 8 million votes and counting from his 2016 total, and how the Republicans performed so unexpectedly well in congressional and down-ballot races, one need look no further than this.

As for actually enlarging the base, that’s less apparent. Numerous observers, citing exit polls, have it that Trump significantly increased his black support over that of 2016, with the exit polls—which are dodgy in the best of years and now even more so with the massive early and mail-in voting—showing him to have won 12% of the black vote, compared to 8% in 2016. The more reliable AP VoteCast survey, along with Ruy Teixeira’s “States of Change” study, shows no increase in the black vote for Trump, however. But even if there was indeed a four-point uptick, this would simply restore the black vote to what it was for Republican presidential candidates prior to 2008 and Barack Obama (in the low teens; data here). In this respect, some need reminding that if it weren’t for the Southernization of the Republican Party and its anti-government discourse, a lot of socially conservative and/or entrepreneurially-inclined Afro-Americans, who are many, would vote for the GOP.

As for the Latino vote (or “Latino” vote; that artificial, grab bag category should be expunged from the political and polling lexicon), Trump clearly did outperform his 2016 numbers, and not just among Miami Cubans. I’ll have a separate post on this in the next couple of days.

The Jewish vote: the AP VoteCast survey shows 30% for Trump, which is par for the course for a Republican candidate. Somewhat surprisingly—and to the dismay of Americans with MENA roots I see on social media—the survey reveals that 35% of self-identified Muslims (<1% of the electorate) went for Trump. If accurate, this signifies that Trump’s pro-business social conservatism trumped, as it were, his anti-Muslim outbursts and actions in regard to Israel and the Palestinians,

It was almost an article of faith among liberals/progressives—voters and pundits alike—during the campaign that Trump would take a big hit for his calamitous response to the pandemic and the 200K+ Covid deaths, not to mention its economic consequences. I was dubious about this, as it was not reflected in Trump’s job approval rating, which increased in the early weeks of the pandemic before settling back to where it had been at the beginning of the sanitary crisis, after Trump’s incompetence and mismanagement became manifest. It seemed clear that even his soft supporters were not holding him personally responsible for a pandemic and economic crisis that was afflicting the entire planet. This has been cogently explained by The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrie in a Nov. 6th piece, “Why the election wasn’t a Biden landslide: Despite a pandemic and an abysmal recession, five economic factors spared the incumbent from a more lopsided loss.”

All this said, Trump did underperform among voters over 65 and whites without a college degree, and which contributed to Biden winning back the Rust Belt states lost in 2016. À propos, Peter Beinart has a pertinent Nov. 7th post in the NYRB on “How Trump lost.” The lede: “If he’d governed as he ran in 2016, as an economic populist, he would likely have been reelected. Instead, he reverted to the same old Republican playbook.”

Had there been no SARS-CoV-2 or Covid-19, I am absolutely not convinced that Trump would have coasted to reelection, as many on social media have been asserting. Based on his job approval rating over the course of his term, there is no objective reason to think this. The dynamics of the campaign would have obviously been different—with the Democrats running a normal campaign, with rallies, mass door-knocking GOTV, and all, and which would have worked to their advantage—but we would likely be seeing much the same result.

On the goût amer of the election outcome, it was obviously the Democrats’ failure to retake the Senate, of the easy victories of R incumbents the Ds were supposed to knock off (Susan Collins, Joni Ernst) and even easier R victories in races into which the Ds pumped so much money now down the drain (Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham). With Thom Tillis in North Carolina, who trailed in the polls, likely to win reelection. the Ds now have to pin their hopes on the two January 5th run-offs in Georgia. One would normally be pessimistic, though it’s possible. Never say never. But even if we win both of these, that will leave the Senate at 50-50, with VP Harris the tie-breaker. A razor-thin majority means that so much we were so hoping for—abrogating Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy, reinforcing the ACA and with the public option, beefing up the Voting Rights Act, comprehensive immigration reform (including regularization for the 11 million undocumented), nuking the filibuster, expanding the SCOTUS and federal courts, statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, etc, etc—will be off the table, and for the foreseeable future if the Republicans make gains in the 2022 midterms.

If the Rs maintain their majority and with McConnell in control, then Biden and the Ds won’t be able to do a thing beyond executive orders (e.g., DACA, lifting the “Muslim ban”). Certain pundits are even predicting that McConnell will block cabinet and other nominations, though this is less likely IMHO, as at least a few R senators (e.g. Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney) will (hopefully) not be on board with obstructing Biden to this extent. Whatever the case, it will be bad.

And then there are the setbacks in House—with the Ds set to lose at least 5 seats net, maybe even up to a dozen—plus the down-ballot races, with the Ds unable to flip a single chamber of a single state legislature, thereby heralding another decade of extreme partisan gerrymandering in favor of the Rs. Regarding the outcome in the House, not only was this not supposed to happen but the Ds were supposed to gain seats. The House Ds will now have the narrowest of majorities—the brilliant 2018 victory now squandered—and which will be bigly threatened in 2022.

New York magazine’s invariably excellent Eric Levitz has a pessimistic take on this (Nov. 5th) and to which I adhere, “The 2020 election has brought progressives to the brink of catastrophe.”

One has likely read about the salvos from frustrated moderate House Democrats, notably Amy Spanberger and Conor Lamb, aimed at progressives—read: the “Squad”—whom they want to hold responsible for their near defeats, what with supposed progressive talk of “socialism,” defunding the police, fracking (for Lamb), and whatnot. This is both pathetic and absurd, as not a single Democratic candidate or official even mentioned socialism or defunding police (as for fracking, that’s an issue in Lamb’s specific district, which he should bring up with the President-elect). Talk about straw men! Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was clearly in her moderate colleagues’ sights, settled the matter in a Twitter riposte, followed by a must-read interview in the NYT. The WaPo digital opinions editor, James Downie, submitting that “Democratic leaders [are] play[ing] a ridiculous blame game with progressives.” likewise called Spanberger et al to order. So time for everyone to STFU, stay united, and move forward,

In point of fact, the only people who went on about “socialism” during the campaign were Trump and his propaganda apparatus, who not only accused the Democratic Party—with Kamala Harris as the right’s new épouvantail—of being “socialists” but outright “communists.”

On Trump continuing to poison the well, which I mentioned above, I think we all know that while he will be out of the White House come January 20th, he will not go gentle into that good night. Trump will be the Silvio Berlusconi of American politics: plotting his return in the next election, maintaining intact his adoring cult base and hold over his party, reminding us daily of his existence (via television appearances, rallies, and of course tweeting), fending off judges, staying physically healthy into his 80s, and simply refusing to kick the bucket. And if Melania leaves him, he’ll have bunga-bunga parties, and the base will love it. It will be America’s fate for the next decade, and possibly beyond.

If one hasn’t seen it, the always brilliant Adam Shatz has his à chaud post-election commentary in the LRB, titled simply “Why go high?”

À suivre.

UPDATE: Pollster Dahlia Scheindlin (see above) has emailed me the following on FiveThirtyEight:

[T]he polls in the weeks ahead of Nov 3rd were quite clear about how worried we all should have been…if one knows something about how to read them, which, increasingly I’m convinced Nate Silver does not. Amazing skill he has, predicting the pop vote margin …after election day. But on Nov 1, 538 showed 8.5 for Biden, RCP showed 7.2. The truth will be closer to 4 or 5, it seems.

Let’s be honest: Silver’s forecasts were extremely misleading; & his poll aggregates based on his ranking/weighting system led to errors on state polling significantly larger than simple RCP averages. I know because I tracked RCP state avgs over October, compared them to 538, compared both to actual results, obsessively, so you don’t have to. Silver failed to notice or emphasize obvious tightening of the Biden lead in battlegrounds – he discussed it briefly in PA at the very end, but seemed oblivious to declines elsewhere, as if he doesn’t know the simple fact about campaign dynamics: trajectories matter as much as final-day (or any-day) snapshot avgs.

I think one main problem is that he refuses to admit Trafalgar polls. I hate Trafalgar too b/c I always advocate ignoring polls if the methodology is not transparent. However they display almost as much about methodology as most polling agencies, just with a few undisclosed techniques & surely weighting tactics, which no one reveals. And there’s no denying they were much more accurate (also in 2016) & partly as a result, RCP avgs did much better. Sadly, I also suspect that beyond professional reasons to ignore Trafalgar, the main reason is that Silver & his followers were unable to tolerate information that goes against our wishful thinking.

So it’s really time for people to wean themselves off of Silver – the main things he offers, forecast models & his personally-designed special-sauce polling averages, don’t work. Frankly I wish he would admit this instead of deflecting blame onto polls, which were somewhat off but really not as badly as his analysis.

Dont acte.

2nd UPDATE: Sean Freeder, who is a very smart and insightful political science Ph.D. candidate at UC-Berkeley, has posted this on Facebook (Nov. 11th). It is well worth the read:

General Post-Election Thoughts (LONG):

1) I’m seeing a lot of “I’m happy Biden won, but I was really expecting to see a total repudiation of Trump by the voters, and instead we got a pretty close election.” Why? Why on earth would you think this? I get that the election is closer than the polls had predicted (by about 3-4 points), but in what universe was the country about to overwhelmingly turn against Trump? Through the Mueller Report, kids in cages, impeachment, gassing the public for a photo op, failing to control the pandemic, and literally more than 20,000 lies, his approval rating has been frozen permanently between 40-43%. Does that look like a responsive public to you?

Trump is going to be with us for a long time. For a not insignificant portion of Republicans, the party will effectively cease to matter to them over the next several years. They are now Trumpers. They will follow his every reaction on Twitter. They will support any candidates he names. They will go after any politician who he slanders. They believe anything he says. They will watch his network, presuming that is forthcoming, as if it is a tenet of their religion.

2) I can’t say with any confidence whether this is a good or bad thing for Republicans. On one hand, they are now free in theory to at least attempt to not make everything they do about his whims and wishes. On the other hand, Trump has now stolen their base, and they may feel compelled to continue associating him with their brand. On one hand, they may now have a chance to win the votes of Never Trump Republicans and independents generally. On the other hand, without Trump on the ballot, it isn’t clear that the massive wave of first-and-second-time voters who showed up solely because of Trump will be there to support the Republicans who replace him.

3) What I do expect is that Republicans are going to tear themselves apart over the next four years. Some will try to become the clear leaders of the anti-Trump wing of their party (Romney? Sasse?). Others will move quickly to become the heir apparent to the Trump throne (Jordan? Gaetz? Hawley? Cotton?). The majority will try to remain as silent as possible, and hope that it somehow all blows over without affecting them. But it won’t. For every single Republican running in primary in 2022, the first question they’ll face from the voters will be “do you support Trump?”. Their answer will determine their ability to survive the primary AND the general. I think it’s very likely that an abnormal number of Republicans will be slaughtered in their primaries, and their replacements will go on to be slaughtered in the general.

4) Democrats are about to tear themselves apart too. You’ve probably heard about the Democratic Caucus conference call last week, where moderate and left-wing members were at each other’s throats. That’s what happens in a successful-but-disappointing election – each side can fairly claim that their beliefs are vindicated. Moderates think Congressional losses can be attributed to rhetoric about “socialism” and “defunding the police”. The left thinks that weak performances can be attributed to their unwillingness to activate their base by leading with their base-preferred policies, and not compromising them away. There’s probably truth to both of these claims. The strategic question here is legitimately difficult, and if you go forward thinking about this debate strictly in terms of which type of policies you’d prefer, you’re doing your side a tremendous disservice.

5) I’m begging the left wing of the party, which I consider myself firmly a part of, to genuinely consider strategy over the next several years. There’s a really good chance Democrats won’t control the Senate. Therefore, there’s a really good chance they won’t be able to get virtually anything of value done. Even if they do control the Senate, Manchin has already made it clear that he will not be on board with many of the party’s big ticket initiatives. Biden, whose instincts would always have been to play things cautiously, will likely advance incremental improvements that will disappoint the base but could have a chance of passing.

Again, whether Democrats should be bold in order to win the trust of the left-wing, or cautious in the hopes of generating actual policy accomplishments, is a genuine and extremely difficult question of strategy. If you can’t see why there is no slam-dunk, obvious solution to this, and you are only able to process the other side as “hacks” or “extremists”, you’re honestly not even trying, and it’d be best for all of us if you remove yourself from the rhetoric pool.

6) Nevertheless, the double-runoff Georgia Senate elections on January 5 are only slightly less important than the defeat of Trump. If you really care about politics, it’s all-hands-on-deck time. The Democrats should both be expected to lose, but this race is also going to be completely insane. Expect $400m dumped into Georgia in the next 70 days. Expect record turnout for a special election. The Democratic party needs to live in Georgia for the next two months. The city of Atlanta should have a 150-ft inflatable Mitch McConnell floating over the city until the election ends (I’m only like a quarter joking). Donate, volunteer, blah blah blah. The difference it will make to the Biden agenda is incalculable.

7) The losses Democrats took this year among black and latino voters should be instructive – people of color are firmly in the Democratic coalition, but they are not locks, and should not be treated as such. Latinos, in particular, are not monolithic across nationality or geography. Neither are asians (Vietnamese appear to have almost voted majority Trump). Democrats will have to continue to work hard to keep them in the coalition. Pointing out that the Republican party is racist is NOT working, and it’s incredibly lazy to think that’s all that has to be done. Building coalitions means engaging in coalition maintenance, and that means being highly responsive to policy concerns, and putting boots on the ground in the right places when the time comes. Miami-Dade, I am looking at you.

3rd UPDATE: Adam Shatz has an LRB podcast conversation with Randall Kennedy and Mike Davis on the election (here) which is well worth an hour of one’s time.

4th UPDATE: I wrote above that I would have a separate post on the Latino vote but, in lieu of that, will just link to a few analyses here. Vox’s always interesting Matthew Yglesias had an à chaud take (Nov. 5th), arguing that “Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters should prompt some progressive rethinking: Racial politics doesn’t always work how white liberals think it should.” Yglesias, among other things, raises questions about the use of the term “Latinx.”

In a post dated Nov, 6th on “Rio Grande Valley Republicans,” Mike Davis explains the unexpected gains Trump made among Tejanos in South Texas, which he happened to see coming.

In the same vein, The Washington Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Brittney Martin have a piece (Nov. 10th) on “Why Texas’s overwhelmingly Latino Rio Grande Valley turned toward Trump.”

For background, see the very good in-depth article by journalist-anthropologist Cecilia Ballí in the November 2020 Texas Monthly, “Don’t call Texas’s Latino voters the ‘sleeping giant’: They’re not disengaged—they’re waiting to be heard, and fully understood.”

5th UPDATE: More on the Latino vote. Northwestern University history professor Geraldo L. Cadava, writing in The Atlantic (Nov. 9th), explains “How Trump grew his support among Latinos: He understood what motivated his voters, and he made sure they knew he did.” FYI, Cadava is the author of The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump (HarperCollins/Ecco, 2020). In Cadava’s piece are links to two sobering pre-election articles on Latino voters by Atlantic editor Christian Paz (and who had one in January 2020 warning that “Democrats should be worried about the Latino vote“).

In a dispatch (Nov. 9th) datelined Phoenix, NYT national politics reporter Jennifer Medina writes on “How Democrats missed Trump’s appeal to Latino voters: The election was a referendum on Trump’s America, but plenty of Latino voters liked it just fine.”

Ed Morales, who is a journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, has an op-ed (Nov. 16th) on the CNN website on “What the 2020 election reveals about Latino voters.”

Immigration reporter Jack Herrera writes in Politico (Nov. 17th) that “Trump didn’t win the Latino vote in Texas. He won the Tejano vote.” The lede: “Understanding the difference will be key to Democrats moving past their faltering, one-size-fits-all approach to Hispanics.”

The NYT’s Miami bureau chief Patricia Mazzei weighs in (Nov. 21st) on “How Hispanic voters swung Miami right.” The lede: “Many expected that liberal young Hispanic voters would propel a Democratic wave. But Miami, a city where Hispanics hold the levers of power, confounded expectations.”

FiveThirtyEight (Nov. 23rd) analyzes “What we know about how White and Latino Americans voted in 2020: The urban-rural and education divides are stronger than they were in 2016.”

Biden-Trump: the call

[update below]

Just about every American I know—not to mention many millions I don’t—is totally stressed out on this election eve and will likely have difficulty sleeping tonight. The trauma of 2016 is intact and with the prospect of four more years of that unspeakable person in the White House just too horrible to contemplate. Sure, there are the polls but polls can misfire. Polling failures do happen, and have in modern times. And, in addition to the very real threats to the integrity of the vote count, the Electoral College, even in the (highly unlikely) event of a clean, untainted election in every state, could be even more skewed toward the Republicans than our calculations have it. The sight of the great unwashed and other deplorables in MAGA world whipped into a frenzy these past weeks, with their “Trump trains” and cultish rallies in the midst of a pandemic, has also been deeply unsettling, The tribal phenomenon of Trumpism—of the hatred that MAGA world feels toward Blue America—is truly frightening.

And then there’s the very real threat of violence in the coming days and weeks (and perhaps months and even years). On this, take 8-minutes to watch the video on the NYT website, “‘I am on your side’: How the police gave armed groups a pass in 2020.” It is downright terrifying. And the armed groups—and the support they receive from law enforcement (or, rather, “law enforcement”)—will not slither back under their rocks after the election, regardless of the outcome. To the contrary. One seriously fears the worst for America.

So am I nervous? Yeah, I am, just because. But I have to be lucid and scientific, and focus on the numbers and other objective indicators, notably the polls. Friends and AWAV readers know that I have been dismissive of Trump’s reelection prospects for well over two years now, as it has been clear for his entire term that he has been uninterested in and incapable of expanding his political base—apart perhaps from marginal gains among black men—beyond what it was in November 2016, And his job approval rating has been remarkably, indeed astonishingly, stable over his term, lingering in the 41-42% range for much of it. On this election eve, it is at a relative high of 44.5%, which is nonetheless a near kiss of death for an incumbent president—and particularly one seeking reelection against an opponent whose personal popularity rating is close to 20 points higher than his.

And as I have reiterated on numerous occasions, when examining the breakdown in individual polls of Trump’s job approval rating by intensity of sentiment, the percentage of those who “strongly approve”—i.e. who love the man—tops out at a third of the electorate, whereas those who “strongly disapprove”—i.e. who hate the SOB—are in the mid to high 40s, sometimes over 50%. The spread between the two extreme sentiments is invariably 15% in all the polls.

As for the head-to-head polls, ten days ago Biden was at +9.1 at FiveThirtyEight. At the present moment, he is at +8.4 (and +6.8 at Real Clear Politics). And Biden has notably never dropped below 50% (whereas Hillary Clinton never broke 50%). As for the EC, RCP’s no toss ups map presently has Biden winning with 319 EVs. Quite seriously, for Trump to pull off an untainted EC victory in the face of these numbers would signify a polling failure of historic proportions. Possible but most unlikely.

So based on the hard data plus my pifomètre, here’s how I’m calling it:

PV: Biden 53%, Trump 45.5%
EV: Biden 359, Trump 179 (see map above)
Turnout: 155 million

N.B. Trump, in losing the election, will nonetheless have won more votes (70M) than Obama’s historic high (69M) in 2008, and represent a remarkable gain over his 2016 result (63M). Those new Trump voters will almost entirely come from rural/small town folk who didn’t vote in 2016 (as there is no Clinton-to-Trump phenomenon), but won’t compensate for the significant defections of 2016 Trump voters to Biden.

A few comments on the EC:

  • Pennsylvania: As I wrote on September 20, 2016: “The election all comes down to Pennsylvania. Whoever wins PA wins the nation. If Trump wins PA, it will necessarily mean that he has also won Florida and Ohio, plus held on to North Carolina, putting him over 270 EVs. If Hillary takes PA, she wins, as Trump has no realistic path to victory without it.” No change in 2020. Lots of people are worried about PA, though the great majority of polls have had Biden at +5 or more. Even if he ends up winning it by 2 points, it’s still a win.
  • Florida: The polls give Biden a slight edge but I don’t feel good about the state in view of its demographics (well-to-do retirees, large military population, more Republican-voting Latinos, etc). The Republicans at the state level have also perfected voter suppression to a greater extent than elsewhere.
  • Texas: I’m rolling the dice here in giving it to Biden, in view of its Blue-trending demographics and huge early voter turnout. Texas may be the Blue surprise this year, in the way Virginia was in 2008.
  • Georgia: Likewise. The heavy early voter turnout and two Senate races could give it to Biden.
  • North Carolina: I’m a little biased on this one, as this is the state in which I vote. Demographically it’s moving in the right direction.
  • Ohio and Iowa: Biden’s campaign stop in the latter makes sense in view of the Senate race there but as for the former, he’s wasting his time IMHO. These states are pretty red at this point.

As for the Senate, the Ds look like they’ll gain a net three at minimum, making VP Kamala Harris the tie-breaker. They need more than that.

Voilà.

UPDATE: The conservative policy intellectual Henry Olsen, who writes a column for The Washington Post and is a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Policy Center, has his election predictions that are markedly similar to mine.

2 days

I learned just this weekend about the phenomenon of “Trump trains,” which have become a thing in l’Amérique profonde during this campaign. Everyone has seen by now the footage of the Trump train ambush of the Biden-Harris campaign bus in Texas. There have been numerous such incidents across the country, including in solidly blue parts.

The images of the Trump trains naturally cause one to think of this:

Kindred spirits?

The prospect of violence this week and beyond is very real, as everyone is aware: in a presidential election in the United States of America—the leader of the Free World (which some people still call it). Amazing, The International Crisis Group, which, as its name suggests, issues reports (high quality) on crisis spots around the globe, has one out on the USA: “The U.S. Presidential Election: Managing the Risks of Violence.” The lede: “The 2020 U.S. presidential election presents risks not seen in recent history. It is conceivable that violence could erupt during voting or protracted ballot counts. Officials should take extra precautions; media and foreign leaders should avoid projecting a winner until the outcome is certain.”

America: in the same category as Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. The America of Trump

Many who are reading this are likely losing sleep over the imminent denouement of this unbearable election season. If one has an hour to spare between now and Tuesday night, do listen to Adam Shatz’s podcast conversation, “Catholics and lumpen-billionaires,” with the brilliant, iconoclastic, polymath writer and thinker Mike Davis, on the London Review of Books website, posted October 27th. The intro:

Adam Shatz talks to Mike Davis about some of the underlying and long-term political shifts at play in next week’s US elections. They discuss both traditional and emerging swing voters, the obstacles to majority rule, the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett as the latest move in an ongoing civil war within the Catholic Church in the United States, the critical failure of the left to challenge the philosophy of the Reagan revolution, the death cult at the core of today’s Republican base, the importance of Bernie Sanders’s presidential run and the Black Lives Matter movement, and why, fifteen years ago, Davis predicted an age of pandemics.

It is such an interesting, learned conversation. You won’t regret listening. Trust me.

If one didn’t see it, Never Trumper and erstwhile “neocon” Robert Kagan had a great column, dated October 30th, in The Washington Post, “It’s up to the people to foil Trump’s plot against democracy.” In evoking the prospect that the Trump regime and its henchmen (SCOTUS etc) will pull out all the stops to steal the election—and possibly succeed—Kagan offers this:

A stolen election will bring tens of millions into the streets, possibly for weeks and months. The nation will have descended into an extra-constitutional civil conflict, with each side using the tools available to try to prevail.

There’s something gratifying about this—of this former Republican asserting that we will not accept the legitimacy of a tainted Trump victory—and a Trump victory can only be that—and that we will resist.

After all, what other choice will we have?

I’ll have my election prediction, FWIW, tomorrow.

10 days

[update below] [2nd update below]

Ten days to go. I cannot wait for this national (i.e. Trump) nightmare to be over. I have been less riveted to US politics and the campaign over the past week than I would normally be as we enter the final stretch, partly because the outcome is increasingly apparent but also as there are other stories of late that have been distracting my attention and thoughts, notably here in France (which I’ll soon write about inshallah). I did watch Thursday’s debate en différé; as WaPo columnist Jennifer Rubin tweeted when the thing began: “In about 90 minutes you will never have to sit through a Trump debate again. Hold onto that.” How nice it would be indeed if we never had to see or listen to the idiot ever again, period. Sitting through 90 minutes of Trump’s torrent of lies and bullshit, not to mention his ignorant, incoherent blathering, was a trial. Biden’s body language and facial expressions while Trump was talking—as if he was thinking to himself “what a f*cking idiot” or “you are so full of shit”—told it all. The fact that Trump was deemed by commentators and pundits to have put in a reasonably good performance—at least compared to the first debate—shows how low the bar has been set; and how low the level of political discourse in the USA has sunk. What a goddamned disgrace that this sociopath—who is so utterly devoid of humanity and decency—has been president of the United States of America for four years now, is adored by tens of millions of Americans—who would continue to adore him no matter how many pussies he grabbed or people he shot on 5th Avenue—and actually has an outside chance, however minor, of reelection. But I repeat myself.

The debate, along with the dueling town hall meetings ten days ago, were instructive and useful nonetheless, as they so starkly highlighted the choice on offer in this election, but also allowed voters to take the full measure of Joe Biden, who has pleasantly surprised, indeed impressed. I found his town hall performance on the 15th to be very good: he was well-spoken, didn’t miss a beat, and displayed a detailed knowledge of policy on all the issues he was asked about. And he revealed himself once again, this time in his interaction with the town hall participants, to be a genuinely sensitive, caring, and good person. He aced it on both form and substance. The contrast with Trump at his town hall event was like night and day. Biden’s debate performance was likewise solid, even if he had a slight misstep toward the end on fracking (though which won’t matter a whit). The exchange on immigration caught my attention in particular, less on account of Trump’s unsurprising response to the migrant children separated from their parents—which should have him and the other responsible parties criminally prosecuted, if not in a US court of law, then in The Hague—than Biden’s pledge to offer a pathway to citizenship not only for the DACA/Dreamers but also for the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States, i.e. 1986-type amnesty. Excellent.

So I’m feeling good about Biden right now, not only on his chances for victory but the kind of president he would be (assuming the Democrats take the Senate, of course). For those who still think of him as a faute de mieux, do read Franklin Foer’s article (Oct. 16th) in The Atlantic, “Joe Biden has changed: He’s preparing for a transformative presidency.”  Also the one (Oct. 22nd) by Bill McKibben in The New Yorker, “Joe Biden and the possibility of a remarkable presidency.”

On Biden’s chances, the polls have had him in the +10 range for the past two weeks (he is presently, as I write, at +9.1 at FiveThirtyEight). At this point in 2016, Hillary Clinton was at +3.8—and with the polling presumably better this time, pollsters having rectified some of their shortcomings of 2016 (e.g. weighting more for education). As for the Electoral College, the no toss-ups map at Real Clear Politics (which invariably has slightly better numbers for Trump than does FiveThirtyEight) has Biden at 357 EVs. Which is to say, EC landslide. (As for the Senate, RCP’s no toss-ups map presently has the Dems gaining 4 seats, thus taking control).

On Trump pulling a second surprise of the century, Thomas Edsall had another of his rain-on-your-parade columns (Oct. 14th), informing skittish NYT readers that Biden is not out of the woods, and The New Yorker’s Sue Halpern wondered (Oct. 21st) if we can really trust the polls. A black swan October Surprise is, of course, in the realm of the possible, as is the possibility that the polls are understating the actual level of Trump support, e.g. among the masses of rural/small town voters newly registered by the GOP, who are normally apolitical but may be coaxed to the polls by friends and family in their MAGA world. But for Trump to surge in the final stretch and win the EC, he would, as the Brookings Institution’s centrist policy wonk, William Galston, submits (Oct. 19th), have to cut Biden’s advantage by 8 points, “an accomplishment for which,” he says, “there’s no clear precedent in American history.”

Such a calamitous scenario is, frankly, hard to envisage, particularly in view of the massive, unprecedented levels of early and absentee voting we are presently witnessing—and which has led FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver to project a mind-blowing turnout of 154 million voters. Some of these will come from MAGA world but, given how worked up D voters are against Trump and the prospect of being rid of him, more will not. And new MAGA voters will, it stands to reason, be offset by the substantial defections of disaffected 2016 Trump voters to Biden. On this, there have been countless reports; see, e.g., the piece (Oct. 20th) by Politico’s conservative-leaning national correspondent Tim Alberta, who reports on “Trump fatigue” even among voters who are otherwise favorable to him.

Rather than a miraculous comeback, it is more likely that, as The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last categorically asserts (Oct. 22nd), “Trump is toast,” specifying that “[t]wo new pieces of data are the final nails in the coffin.”

Generally speaking, the number to follow is Trump’s approval rating, which remains stable in the 42-43% range. If it starts to move sharply upward over the next ten days, reaching 45-46%, then one can start to worry, even panic. If not, chill. He’s toast.

On the post-November 3rd nightmare scenarios explicated in lurid detail by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic—e.g. of Trump declaring victory on the night of the 3rd, before all the votes are counted—TNR’s Walter Shapiro issued a corrective (Oct. 20th) on “The overblown alarmism about a Trump coup.”

On Trump and the coronavirus pandemic, Robert Jay Lifton offered these thoughts yesterday on his blog:

Killing to Heal

In my study of Nazi doctors I emphasized their reversal of healing and killing. Trump and Trumpists, though not Nazis, are doing the same.

According to Hitler and his inner circle, the Nordic race had once been powerful but had been “infected” and weakened by Jewish influence, so that getting rid of the Jews was required for “healing” the Nordic race.

In the case of Trump and Trumpists, the way to heal society and return it to full functioning is to expose Americans to illness and death. The weak can be sacrificed; the robust will be fine. And when offering up the elderly in particular, Trumpists render them expendable, reminding us of the Nazi dismissal of “life unworthy of life.”

Trump and Trumpists have not only failed to take steps necessary to mitigate the virus but have colluded with covid-19 — holding large rallies, sometimes indoors, in which thousands of people congregate without masks or distancing. Trump himself was entrapped by this collusion, falling ill along with family members and loyalists who have been in contact with him.

Knowledgeable projections suggest that Trumpist policies have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, making this an age of presidential killing.

Trump also carries out his version of what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung, which meant the reordering or reorganizing of institutions and professions to conform to the required ideology. The Nazis did not destroy the medical profession but rather removed from its leadership those considered unreliable, replacing them with loyalists, so that the profession itself became Nazified.

The Trumpist Gleichschaltung of medicine during the Covid pandemic has installed the leadership of a neuroradiologist named Scott Atlas, a man with no public health or epidemiological experience. His advocacy – now Trumpist policy – is to invoke the deadly principle of “herd immunity” – encouraging the unimpeded virus to infect everyone and causing an extraordinary number of deaths in the service of a vision of ultimate healing.

Trump himself has resorted to a stance of cult-like omniscience, attacking scientists and physicians who tell us truths about Covid-19, and attempting to criminalize and destroy all who question him.

But Trump and those who follow and enable him are the criminals, agents of presidential killing. American presidents are responsible for protecting their people and enhancing their lives. Trumpists instead kill in the name of the president’s solipsistic (completely self-contained) reality. Their dominant mode has become the reversal of healing and killing.

We must keep that in mind as we vote this criminal administration out of power, remove it if it does not go willingly, and begin the long struggle to reassert truths about, make clear distinctions between, healing and killing.

Robert Jay Lifton M.D.

À suivre.

UPDATE: A faithful AWAV reader has sent a private message praising my analysis above, though takes issue with my “failure to mention voter suppression and intimidation in [my] forecast[, which] suggests [I] think that for the presidential election it won’t count for much, that Biden’s lead is comfortable enough to overcome its effects,” adding that, for his part, he is “cautiously optimistic about that but worried that it’ll keep the Dems from capturing the Senate.”

Valid point. I do take voter suppression seriously, have mentioned it in previous posts, and insisted from the outset that it is the only way Trump can possibly eke out a victory in the Electoral College (no one, including in his campaign, has ever believed that he can win the national popular vote). Of the numerous methods of voter suppression concocted by the Republicans in the states they control—Mother Jones journalists Ari Berman and AJ Vicens have enumerated 29—the main one to worry about is invalidation of absentee/mail-in ballots. This could affect the outcome in swing states (notably PA) if the result is very close. But if Biden’s current poll numbers in the key swing states hold up and are reflected in the outcome—and he wins the national PV by 6% or more—voter suppression most certainly won’t matter.

As for the Senate, it could be a problem in NC and GA (where the two races may both go to run-offs in January), though the D candidate in NC (Cunningham) is currently looking good in the polls.

MoJo’s Ari Berman has a heart-warming report dated Oct. 23rd, “Voter suppression efforts could be backfiring on Republicans: GOP efforts to make it harder to vote have motivated Democrats to cast ballots in record numbers.”

2nd UPDATE: Another faithful AWAV reader, who is nervous about the election, has asked me to comment on a piece dated Oct. 21st in The Washington Monthly, by Steven Waldman—who is president and cofounder of Report for America—entitled “Why Trump has a serious chance of winning. Really.” The lede “Here’s the evidence that Joe Biden isn’t doing that much better than Hillary Clinton.” A few comments.

First, it is untrue that Biden isn’t doing that much better than Hillary in 2016. She never had the sustained leads that he has throughout the campaign. Just look at the numbers. Second, I am not going to wade through Waldman’s interpretation of the swing state data, as I’ve already seen quite enough on this and for many months now (notably from Nate Silver and Dave Wasserman). Go back and reread William Galston’s analysis above. That’s as much as one needs on this particular aspect. Third, on Trump being “actually more popular now than on the day he was elected,” this observation is both gratuitous and irrelevant. Sure, Trump is now 10 points less unpopular than he was during the 2016 campaign—as Republican voters who disapproved of him back then (though who nonetheless voted for him) are now fine with him—but he is still way underwater in his approval rating—and has been for his entire presidency. An incumbent president cannot win reelection—fairly and squarely at least—with 43% approval—unless the challenger is also very unpopular. And on this, there is a big difference between Clinton and Biden: on election day in 2016, the former was at a negative 12.6 points, whereas the latter today has a positive rating of 6.2 (source: RCP). The current spread between Biden and Trump is a whopping 17.7. That on its own should clinch it for Biden. Finally, Waldman cites as evidence the Trafalgar Group polling institute, referring specifically to Rich Lowry’s article in the National Review. On the Trafalgar Group and Lowry’s piece, please read Never Trumper conservative Jonathan V. Last’s comment in The Bulwark’s Triad newsletter, “Conservative make-believe,” scrolling to “2. The pretend polls.” Case closed.

Emily in Paris

Taking a break from politics (ouf). This Netflix series has been the talk of the town—ça défraie la chronique—on my Twitter feed over the past ten days among Americans in Paris and other Francophiles, and has received media coverage on both sides of the pond, with reviews and reports in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Financial Times, and New York magazine entre autres, the leitmotif being the torrent of American stereotypes and clichés in the series about the French and France. As for the reaction here in France, it has been, so far as I’ve seen, largely negative (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here)—i.e. the series has been panned across the board—with the prevailing sentiment summed up in a two-minute commentary by France Inter’s Nicolas Demorand last Friday, who, “hate-watching” (his words, in English) ‘Emily in Paris’, slammed it as “un navet, mon dieu quel navet” [navet = a dud, a turkey].

The cleverest, most amusing commentary has come from the University of Cambridge’s Lecturer in the History of France and the Francophone World, Arthur Asseraf, who has been tweet storming on each episode (the first two are here and here).

I personally had no interest in watching ‘Emily’, particularly after reading some of the above-linked articles and following the Twitter reactions, and declared to one friend that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that I was going to waste my time with this manifest dreck. As I’ve never seen even five minutes of ‘Sex in the City’, creator Darren Star’s claim to fame, there’s no logical reason for me to see this one, even if it has a Paris theme (as if I can’t see Paris every day of the week, on the screen and in real life).

But then last Friday I went on to Netflix to see what was new and, coming across the ‘new & popular’ category, noted that ‘Emily’ was in first place and ranked #1 in France. So I clicked on the trailer, what the hell, just to see. Finding it a total LOL, I thus reflexively, spontaneously clicked on episode 1 and started watching. And, lo and behold, I was LMAO from the get-go. It’s hilarious, the most uproarious comedy I’ve seen since the 2014 knee-slapper Le Crocodile de Botswanga. On the laugh-o-meter, ‘Emily’ is up there with Le Dîner de cons and Didier, indeed Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby.

People are missing the point of ‘Emily’. It’s satire, a parody of American clichés of France and the French—and with Emily (Lily Collins, impeccable in the role) the stereotypical twenty-something American woman, full of exuberance and enthusiasm, whom we adore, but ingénue and clueless. I’m amazed that people, and particularly in France, are at all taking it seriously, let alone taking umbrage. It’s total second degree humor. Obviously the series creator knows that one does not light up a cigarette in an office in France, that the workday does not start at 10:30, that concièreges are not always irritable (and where there are still concièreges, as few buildings outside upscale quartiers still have one). And that there would obviously never be a photo shoot of a woman walking butt naked across the Pont Alexandre III in broad daylight. Allez. The clichés are the point. And the joke is on Americans, not the French.

I’ve watched four episodes so far (at 25 minutes or so each, it’s not a huge time commitment). They remain funny, though the laugh-o-meter has dropped a notch. Will see how the series holds up.

25 days to go

[update below] [2nd update below]

Twenty-four, in fact. Three-and-a-half weeks. I can’t wait for this to be over—and obviously for the outcome to be as it should—to be rid of the deranged idiot and with إن شاء الله the Congressional Republicans rendered impotent. As more than one on social media has sighed, how nice it would be to lie in bed at night and read a book, instead of obsessively downscrolling through Twitter on our mobile phones to learn of the latest insanity or outrage from the resident of the White House. Even Republican voters (some of them at least) are worn out by Trump, as one Republican-friendly journalist reports.

On Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate—which is now ancient history, so three days ago—my reaction aligned with the general consensus, which is that Kamala Harris was very good—she didn’t miss a beat—and Mike Pence was a calmer, better-spoken version of Trump, though his constant interruptions, exceeding his allotted time, and ignoring the timid entreaties of the hapless Susan Page to please cede the mic likely didn’t impress anyone outside MAGA world, nor his evading questions (notably over abortion and if he had had a conversation or reached an agreement with Trump about safeguards or procedures regarding an eventual presidential disability, i.e. on invoking the 25th amendment). Harris did dodge one toward the end, though she was under no obligation to respond to the incessant one from Pence on packing the Supreme Court (and with her retort to him—on Abraham Lincoln in 1864—being right on target). The debate, to use that pundit expression, did not move the needle—debates rarely do, and V-P ones never—though it did further confirm that Biden made the right choice in putting Harris on the ticket.

On Trump in the past week, it is, to borrow from Charlie Sykes, easy to get lost in the thicket of his kaleidoscopic awfulness. This tweet sums up the overwhelming sentiment outside MAGA world:

I would say that he belongs in both: in the psychiatric ward of a prison. As everyone has been keeping up with what the polite media is referring to as Trump’s “erratic behavior” since checking out of Walter Reed, i.e. his irrational batshit crazy insanity—aggravated by steroids and other drugs—there is no point in belaboring it here, except to say that we are clearly in 25th amendment territory. On this, I’ve been wondering if we’re not nearing an Army-McCarthy hearings moment, with panicked top Republicans (Pence, Mitch McConnell, Sean Hannity etc), facing debacle on November 3rd, deciding to invoke the 25th as Trump descends into manifest psychosis all while super-spreading Covid, inside the White House and out. The coming week will likely be decisive, particularly if Biden further solidifies his now +10 polling lead (which will necessarily translate into an Electoral College landslide).

In addition to Trump’s delirium—and one knows that things are bad indeed when a pillar of the moderate conservative wing of the Inside-the-Beltway establishment punditocracy, David Gergen, calls the president of the United States a “madman” on live television—there is the alarming, dangerous agitation in the heartland’s MAGA world, e.g. the plot by the 13 whack jobs in Michigan to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Such fine, upstanding citizens they have in MAGA world… And with the support of elected officials and law enforcement (watch the video):

Civil war, anyone?

On the 13 whack jobs, lefty journalist Walker Bragman, who writes for Jacobin, The Intercept, and other gauchiste outlets, committed this tweet on these apparent damnés de la terre:

Bragman’s bleeding heart tweet provoked a must-read tweet storm response (here) by activist Dr Sarah Taber, a crop and food safety scientist who knows something about rural America.

Sorry, but MAGA people in l’Amérique profonde are not les damnés de la terre.

In my last post I linked to a piece on Fox News. On the subject of the right-wing media ecosystem, see the NYT op-ed by historian Paul Matzko, “Talk radio is turning millions of Americans into conservatives: The medium is at the heart of Trumpism.” Matzgo’s conclusion:

Conservative talk radio will march to Mr. Trump’s drum, but no matter what happens in November, it will also outlast him. Talk radio emits much too powerful a signal to fade silently into the ether.

Likewise with Fox, OANN, Newsmax, etc etc.

Also in the must-read category is an article in the July 2nd New York Review of Books, which I read just the other day, by Walter M. Shaub Jr., former director of the US Government Office of Ethics, “Ransacking the Republic,” on the banana republic levels of corruption in the Trump regime.

À suivre.

UPDATE: See the Twitter storm (here) by Josie Ensor of the Daily Telegraph, reporting on Mike Pence’s rally at The Villages, Florida, which is America’s largest retirement community. Up to 3,000 elderly MAGA people—who are decidedly not les damnés de la terre—not wearing masks and practicing no social distancing. Breathtaking.

2nd UPDATE: Ross Douthat argues that “[t]here will be no Trump coup,” making “[a] final pre-election case for understanding the president as a noisy weakling, not a budding autocrat.” His argument is plausible, even likely. The mere fact that Trump inspires no fear in the political opposition or media—no one outside Trump’s own party looks over his or her shoulder or self-censors in the Trump era (au contraire)—is a strong indication that the USA is not about to descend into authoritarian rule, let alone fascism. 

30 days to go

– Coronavirus: Trump contaminated by a person in his entourage.
– Impossible! Everyone is wearing a mask!
(Dilem in the Algiers daily Liberté)

[update below]

What did they expect? I’m hardly the only one to ask the rhetorical question. It’s about time the unspeakable occupant of the White House got the virus, not to mention others in his entourage. It’s amazing it didn’t happen sooner. One is slack-jawed at the images of the ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett at the White House, with the participants close together—including indoors—shaking hands, embracing, and hardly anyone wearing a mask. The cavalier arrogance of these people—of the alternate reality they live in—almost defies belief. Such a spectacle at the summit of the state—and with the number of Covid cases increasing almost everywhere—is inconceivable on this side of the pond.

Many who are otherwise not fans of Trump—politicians, pundits et al—have nonetheless been wishing him a speedy recovery but there will be no hypocrisy from me on this. I entirely share the POV of Indiana University political science professor Jeffrey C. Issac, expressed in an à chaud commentary on Friday, “Whatever removes Donald Trump—a miserable bastard—from public life is good.” It would of course be preferable if he suffers the humiliation of losing the election and, once out of office, is indicted and prosecuted for the countless crimes and misdemeanors he has committed, stripped of his assets and with his name effaced from every edifice, banned from Twitter, and sentenced to at least a few of his remaining years in some kind of detention facility (it can be one of those white collar country club prisons, that would be okay). And, importantly, that we don’t have to hear about him anymore. Inshallah, as Joe Biden would say. But if his condition turns for the worse and he meets his maker, as it were, in the coming month or soon after, then so be it. Just so long as he’s gone.

And BTW, we’d possibly be spared the Proud Boys and others of that ilk going into action on November 3rd and after following incitement from the White House, not to mention a constitutional crisis over a protracted vote count.

I’m not going to speculate on how the coming 30 days—and the 78 after that—will possibly unfold, except that (mixing my metaphors) there are sure to be more coups de théâtre in this montagnes russes we’ve all been forced to ride on. One does note that Biden is, as I write, at +8 at FiveThirtyEight, reflecting a clear post-debate bounce, which is nice. Given the steady stream of  deceptions and lies regarding Trump’s present condition—and the mere fact that the man is seriously ill a month before the election (and with people already voting)—it’s hard to imagine a sympathy backlash from those not already inclined to vote for him. As one pundit pointed out, if Trump can’t even protect himself and his own family, how can he be expected to protect us, the American people?

As to what would happen if one or both of the presidential candidates were to die between now and November 3rd, the answer is here. Quite simply, the relevant national committee(s) would meet and select a replacement candidate (if the death were to happen in the 78 days after Nov. 3rd, then things would get complicated). On who the RNC would choose to take Trump’s place, my smart money is on Ivanka, as Don Jr would likely be deemed too risky (and with the specter of Kimberly Guilfoyle as First Lady following a shotgun marriage, what with the latest revelations, only adding to the risk). 

But given how Republicans—base voters and politicians alike—inform themselves, who knows? On the principal organ of the conservative media ecosystem, a.k.a. Trump state television—the parallel universe which the American right inhabits—see the must-read September 16th article by The Atlantic’s staff writer Megan Garber, “Do you speak Fox? How Donald Trump’s favorite news source became a language.” 

On n’est pas sorti de l’auberge.

UPDATE: Never Trumper and onetime Republican operative Steve Schmidt has an incisive Twitter commentary on Trump’s joyride yesterday (October 4th) to wave at his cult supporters in front of the Walter Reed medical center.

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