Archive for November, 2011

Walter Russell Mead has a fine essay on his Via Meadia blog, comparing current events in Egypt to the French Revolution. As Mead is not a specialist of Egypt or the Arab world, he relies on his knowledge of European history to make sense of what’s happening in Cairo

Those of us old enough to have attended college back when even liberal arts and humanities professors routinely taught subjects that actually matter can dredge up our studies of the French Revolution and the subsequent 200 years of European and global reflection on the meaning and politics of that revolution to help us get to grips with what is happening in Egypt.

No study of history can tell you what will happen (despite technocratic “political scientists” wielding regression analyses and expounding the “laws” of political life), but the study of what happened in the past generally yields valuable insights and often helps you sort out the real issues and identify key turning points.

That is particularly true in Egypt today where the struggle between the protesters in Tahrir Square and the armed forces echoes political patterns that turned up over and over in the rich history of French revolutions and revolts from 1789 right up through 1968.

A knowledge of history—and particularly European history—is not only a good thing in itself but is also practical and useful. Mead thus concludes his essay

We shall see where this goes, but in the meantime the Via Meadia advice to investment banks, hedge funds, government officials and others trying to read the tea leaves of world unrest is simple: make sure that among your prognosticators and analysts you include a few strong liberal arts generalists with a strong background in European history from the Renaissance forward.  The modernization process got its start in Europe and the nascent Anglosphere, and the history of those societies provides valuable clues to the forces now unleashed on a wider world.

I don’t necessarily agree with Mead across the board—late 18th century France is not 21st century Egypt (duh)—but he has many valid insights. He could have mentioned Tocqueville’s book on the French Revolution—one of the greatest interpretive works of history ever written—, which reinforces his argument. Read the whole essay. It’s worth it.

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Saw this yesterday. It’s directed by Über-auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey’s answer to Abbas Kiarostami (Ceylan is far more interesting), and won the Grand Prix award at Cannes this year. It’s Ceylan’s sixth film. I’ve seen the previous four, Clouds of May, Distant, Climates, and Three Monkeys. Didn’t care for the first but the others were quite good (and I particularly liked ‘Distant’). These are not films for the masses, and definitely not this one. It is, to quote one critic,

a long, slow, hypnotic film that explores the human condition through side glances and offhand remarks, caring very little about time, especially the viewer’s time, in eventless sequences without conventional action.

Though it’s over 2½ hours long—and with the first hour-and-a-half taking place at night—, it held my attention throughout. Quoting another critic, the film proceeds

at a slow, measured pace, telling a story that in anyone else’s hands would have barely been enough for a short, this is however a visually mesmerising piece of work whose quiet, apparently placid, uneventful surface, covers a myriad of themes which the attentive spectator should be only too happy to explore… For, in Anton Chekhov’s spirit, which is hovering all over this picture, it is not to the plot itself one should pay attention, but to the countless, presumably irrelevant details strewn along the way… It takes time – and indeed time is of essence all through this film… Patience is amply repaid by the end, when all those details come together, and one realises there is much they have learned in the course of the film about all these predictable, unspectacular individuals who end up by being both touching and affecting. The outcome is fascinating, not only on a personal level, but also as a profoundly perceptive portrait of the Turkish multi-leveled culture and society… This is not just consummate cinematography, though of course it is, but the kind of creative, painterly talent echoed in all of Ceylan work as a still photographer.

I agree. For more reviews, see here, here, and here. Et pour les critiques françaises, voir ici. Trailer is here.

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Modernizing conservatism

I posted below on David Frum’s article taking to task his fellow Republicans. Here’s another such commentary, by conservative-libertarian think tank intellectual Steven F. Hayward, who argues that “US conservatives must reform their internal ideology in order to create a coherent effort to revitalise the party.” Money quote

…Which brings us to the third major political fact of our age: the welfare state, or entitlement state, is here to stay. It is a central feature of modernity itself. We are simply not going back to a system of “rugged individualism” in a minimalist “night watchman” state; there is not even a plurality in favor of this position. A spectrum of conservative and libertarian thinkers acknowledge this, though this perception has not penetrated the activist ranks. Back in 1993, Irving Kristol called for a “conservative welfare state” on the pragmatic grounds that “the welfare state is with us, for better or worse, and that conservatives should try to make it better rather than worse.” National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru noted in 2006, “there is no imaginable political coalition in America capable of sustaining a majority that takes a reduction of the scope of the federal government as one of its central tasks.” William Voegeli, author of the most trenchant critique of the welfare state (Never Enough) since at least Charles Murray, concludes, “No conservative, either in the trenches or the commentariat, has yet devised a strategy for politicians to kick deep dents in the side of the middle-class entitlement programmes without forfeiting a presidency or a congressional majority.” And libertarian economist Tyler Cowen faces the reality squarely: “The welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not.”

Thank you, Mr. Hayward, for telling it like it is. Not that your alternate reality-based fellow conservatives will be paying attention…

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GOP: off the deep end

We know this—it’s old news—but some erstwhile Republican propagandists now think so too. David Frum, Bush era scribe and publicist, has a lengthy piece in New York magazine on how the GOP—still his party—has “[lost] touch with reality.” Here it is, via Paul Krugman’s blog, which is where I saw it. Krugman quotes his favorite passage from the piece. Here’s mine

The Bush years cannot be repudiated, but the memory of them can be discarded to make way for a new and more radical ideology, assembled from bits of the old GOP platform that were once sublimated by the party elites but now roam the land freely: ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers.Yet it’s telling that that movement has failed time and again to produce even a remotely credible candidate for president. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich: The list of tea-party candidates reads like the early history of the U.S. space program, a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff. A political movement that never took governing seriously was exploited by a succession of political entrepreneurs uninterested in governing—but all too interested in merchandising. Much as viewers tune in to American Idol to laugh at the inept, borderline dysfunctional early auditions, these tea-party champions provide a ghoulish type of news entertainment each time they reveal that they know nothing about public affairs and have never attempted to learn. But Cain’s gaffe on Libya or Perry’s brain freeze on the Department of Energy are not only indicators of bad leadership. They are indicators of a crisis of followership. The tea party never demanded knowledge or concern for governance, and so of course it never got them.

Yes, a crisis of followership. On how modern-day Republicans view dissent and dissenters, Frum offers this anecdote

Back in 2009, I wrote a piece for Newsweek arguing that Republicans would regret conceding so much power to Rush Limbaugh. Until that point, I’d been a frequent guest on Fox News, but thenceforward some kind of fatwa was laid down upon me. Over the next few months, I’d occasionally receive morning calls from young TV bookers asking if I was available to appear that day. For sport, I’d always answer, “I’m available—but does your senior producer know you’ve called me?” An hour later, I’d receive an embarrassed second call: “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.” Earlier this year, I did some volunteer speechwriting for a Republican contemplating a presidential run. My involvement was treated as a dangerous secret, involving discreet visits to hotel suites at odd hours. Thus are political movements held together. But thus is not how movements grow and govern.

And that’s how they treat their own. I wouldn’t even want to contemplate what would happen if these people gained control of all three branches of government.

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The Artist

A black-and-white silent movie. The first I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. Silent movies don’t interest me. This one is wonderful. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Jean Dujardin is excellent, as is the rest of the cast. It opens in the US this week. See it. French critics loved it. American reviews are here, here, and here.

UPDATE: US critics continue to gush over the pic, e.g. here and here.

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It’s the management, stupid

The Economist magazine—which is not known for francophilic gauchisme—has a salutary column on “the French way of work,” that rebuts the widespread stereotype—in the “Anglo-Saxon” world but also in France itself—that French workers are lazy, slackers, or would just rather be on holiday. The real problem with the French workplace, so The Economist says, is with management. Money quote

In fact studies suggest that the problem with French employees is less that they are work-shy, than that they are poorly managed. According to a report on national competitiveness by the World Economic Forum, the French rank and file has a much stronger work ethic than American, British or Dutch employees. They find great satisfaction in their work, but register profound discontent with the way their firms are run.

Two-fifths of employees, according to a 2010 study by BVA, a polling firm, actively dislike their firm’s top managers. France ranks last out of ten countries for workers’ opinion of company management, according to a report from 2007. Whereas two-thirds of American, British and German employees say they have friendly relations with their line manager, fewer than a third of French workers say the same. (…)

If French work attitudes are out of the ordinary, French management methods are also unusual. The vast majority of chief executives of big firms hail from one of a handful of grandes écoles, such as École Polytechnique, an elite science school. Through what is known as parachutage, they can arrive suddenly from the top ranks of the civil service. (…)

Although the grandes écoles are superbly meritocratic—candidates compete against each other in a series of gruelling exams—their dominance of corporate hierarchies makes workplaces much less so. At a big French bank recently, a manager promoted an executive, only to be reproached by a furious rival who said he should have been given the job because he had done better in the final exams at the same grande école.

As Thomas Philippon, a French economist, pointed out in “Le Capitalisme d’Héritiers”, a 2007 book, too many big French companies rely on educational and governmental elites rather than promoting internally according to performance on the job. In the country’s many family firms, too, opportunity for promotion is limited for non-family members. This overall lack of upward mobility, argues Mr Philippon, contributes largely to ordinary French cadres’ dissatisfaction with corporate life. (…)

For those farther down the ladder, French companies are hierarchical, holding no truck with Anglo-Saxon notions of “empowerment”. And bosses are more distant than ever. A big change in French management, says Jean-Pierre Basilien of Entreprise & Personnel, a Paris research centre, is that industrial managers now seldom rise through the ranks. Fifteen years ago a leading graduate would have worked in factories before moving to headquarters. Now many come up via finance or strategy.

Hierarchy, stratification, lack of trust, absence of a culture of negotiation, a meritocratic educational system that reproduces the social order… Old French scourges. And which are posing an increasing problem for French capitalism in a globalized economy. But it’s not a fatality. Some French companies are indeed modernizing their managerial cultures, as the article points out. As it so happens, I received just today an e-mail from a former student—of recent immigrant origin and not a graduate of a grande école—, informing me of her great new management-level job in a large French multinational. As training before moving up the corporate ladder—and a possible future transfer to the company’s operations in the US or the Middle East—, she is presently spending two weeks working on the assembly line in one of its factories, with the rest of the proletarians. C’est bien.

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Once upon a time in Mogadishu

The Foreign Policy web site has a photo essay on Mogadishu, Somalia, from the early 20th century to the 1960s, a “peek into the ‘pleasant’ colonial past of the world’s most dangerous city.” I lived in Mogadishu as a boy in the 1960s, on two separate occasions for a total of a year-and-a-half (the first time my father was doing academic research there—he was a political science specialist of the horn of Africa—, the second time he was director of the US Peace Corps in Somalia). Mogadishu was a pleasant city indeed—I have many memories of it—and more interesting architecturally than any African capital nowadays, at least of the ten or so I have visited in recent years. And the beach was great. My family enjoyed living there and we were quite affected by the destruction of the city and country over the past two decades. My mother, now 81, has written a book of her memories of Mogadishu and with photos, which will be published soon. I’ll put up a link for it when it’s out.

The above photo is a post card my father sent to my sister and me in 1963, and which I’ve had up in my study for years. We were with my mother in India while my father had gone ahead to Mogadishu to find a place to live. Here’s what he wrote

This is a picture of downtown Mogadishu. It is a very small city. Only 90,000 people. Yesterday I went out of the city and saw wild baboons and camels. You can also see wild giraffe and elephants if you go 100 miles to the south. Today I saw a United Arab Airlines Comet jet fly over the city. Everybody here speaks Somali and Italian. Very few speak English, and you will have to learn to speak Somali or Italian. There is a very nice beach here on the Indian Ocean and we will go swimming. There are no sharks near the beach but far away. The school over here is closed in December and will open in January, when you two can go. It is right now 90°F and the sun is shining very brightly. Come soon and bring your swimming trunks!

I did learn a few words of Somali (mostly swear words) and phrases in Italian. Nice American/international community school and with some Somalis (my best friend in the 5th grade’s father later became prime minister). Apart from United Arab Airlines (the future Egypt Air), the only flights to and from the city in the mid-1960s were by Alitalia (DC-8s, three times a week to Rome), Aden Airways (Viscounts, to Aden and Nairobi), and Somali Airlines domestically (DC-3s and Cessnas). In the early 1970s the Soviets built a slaughterhouse on the ocean, so we learned in later years, and from which animal carcasses were dumped in, causing sharks to find a way around the coral reef that protected the beach. Soviet foreign aid. No more swimming in Mogadishu. For Somalia, it was all downhill from there…

UPDATE: My mother’s book is out. It may be purchased via Amazon here.

Iris Kapil_Tales of Mogadiscio

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