Archive for September, 2012

After the Battle

I’ve seen two good Egyptian films over the past couple of weeks. One was Yousry Nasrallah’s ‘After the Battle’, which is the first feature-length film to come out of that country on the revolutionary upheaval of 2011 and its immediate aftermath. Though the film is fiction it necessarily mixes in some documentary in view of its topicality. Nasrallah directed the excellent 2009 ‘Scheherazade Tell Me a Story’ (‘Femmes du Caire’), which was a devastating portrayal and critique of the status of women in contemporary Egypt, and in all social classes. Nasrallah, who co-wrote the screenplay for this one, really pulled it off, which was no sure thing for a mass appeal film on a contemporary and ongoing event. The film is engaging, absorbing, nuanced in its politics and depiction of gender and social class dynamics, and with great acting, notably by Bassem Samra—who plays the Mahmoud character; I’ve seen him in several films in recent years—and Nahed El Sebaï, who plays Mahmoud’s wife, Fatma. Mahmoud lives in Nazlet, the quarter next to the Giza pyramids, earns his living taking tourists around on his horse, and was one of the cavaliers who charged into Tahrir Square on February 2nd—nine days before Hosni Mubarak’s fall—, beating and whipping demonstrators. He’s a simple guy and claims he was put up to it, though that’s not totally clear. The movie is about his and wife’s relationship with an idealistic, headstrong do-gooder from the upper class named Reem—played by Meena Chalaby—, who is a reporter and member of the association for the protection of animals—and an activist in the Tahrir Square movement—, who takes in interest in Mahmoud while distributing feed to the horses as part of her animal protection work (the cavaliers now dependent on handouts with the drying up of tourism). Mahmoud—with whom Reem commits a minor transgression, but that seriously transgresses the social class chasm—has become an outcast: for those outside his neighborhood, because he participated in the notorious Tahrir Square assault; for his fellow horse riders, because he was caught on YouTube being pulled off his horse and beaten by demonstrators. So Reem tries to help him and his family. I won’t call the pic a chef d’œuvre, as one may detect an implausibility here, a contrivance there, and a few small doses of bons sentiments, but none of these are major or detract from the film’s quality. The film works. And the sleazy political kingpin in Nazlet, Haj Abdallah (or Hag, as Egyptians pronounce it), is brilliantly depicted by comic actor Salah Abdallah. Critics in Variety and Hollywood Reporter gave the pic the thumbs way up (here and here; also here). French reviews range from tops to middling (the latter may be ignored). If one is at all interested in Egypt, don’t miss it.

The other film is a documentary, ‘The Virgin, the Copts and Me’, by filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh, raised in France to Egyptian parents. Jay Weissberg’s review of the film in Variety last November describes well what it’s about. As it’s behind the wall, here’s the whole thing

Despite having gone through various incarnations, or perhaps because of it, “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” is a disarmingly honest, thoroughly winning personal portrait of family and heritage, grounded in religion but not dependent on belief. Tyro helmer Namir Abdel Messeh struggled long and hard to get this personal project made after being dumped by his French producers for not adhering to their vision; the last laugh’s on them, since the docu bagged $100,000 at Doha Tribeca and should easily find auds at fests and in Gallic theaters, as well as on TV.

It’s fair to say Abdel Messeh was unfocused when he went into the project with the partial support of French TV. The initial idea was to look into various apparitions of the Virgin Mary claimed by Coptic communities in Egypt over the last few decades. Though completely Frenchified, the helmer comes from Egypt, and his mother Siham’s family from Asyut, in Upper Egypt, where devotees claim the Virgin appeared in 2000.

In Egypt, his skepticism rubs the faithful the wrong way, and following the New Year’s Day attack on Copts in Alexandria this year, the producers pressure him to focus on Egypt’s religious tensions. Instead, Abdel Messeh heads south to his maternal family, despite Mom’s implacable opposition to her son filming her nearest and dearest. The reason is clear: The family members are dirt-poor peasants, and despite her love for them, Siham also feels some shame in her roots.

Reconnecting with his family inspires Abdel Messeh, but his producers aren’t pleased, and when he fails to incorporate the Egyptian Revolution into the mix, they ankle the project; the phone conversations, heard onscreen, straddle the line between painful and hilarious. Mom, an accountant, saves the day by flying to Egypt and agreeing to be the docu’s treasurer. She’s dropped her threats to sue her son, and quickly gets into the swing of things, despite not understanding how this is going to come together as a movie.

At the beginning, she’s not wrong, yet somewhere along the way, Abdel Messeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people who can’t be reduced to a stereotype. He decides to re-enact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and while this reps the culmination of the docu, the real meat lies in the process.

For Siham, too, there’s a transformation as she reconnects with her family and realizes her son’s interest is respectful rather than exploitative. Viewers are left to contemplate parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and being an Egyptian in France; he’s an outsider in his two worlds, yet very much a part of them both.

Visuals are strong in the off-the-cuff way auds expect from this kind of personal docu. Given constant changes during the production, the excellent editing warrants special commendation, finding a rhythm and keeping pace with it all.

The film is engaging, funny in parts—many parts, in fact—, and whose depiction of Coptic village life in Upper Egypt will be of interest to anthropologically minded spectators who don’t know much about the country. The Muslim-Coptic divide in the country is manifest in the film. No dancing around it. I saw the film a month after it opened and the theater—in the center of Paris—was packed, and with applause at the end. Word-of-mouth on the pic has been strong (and now I’m spreading the word too). For another review, go here. French reviews are here.

Egypt is such a contradictory place. On the one hand it’s a disaster and on so many levels; on the other, people are so nice and friendly in one’s personal dealings. A friend who travels there periodically—and who knows the Arab world—sent me this email not too long ago. The way he describes Egyptians is precisely reflected in the above films.

Heading out to hike around Cairo all day. While this place is so broken-down and dysfunctional, and its intellectual life so poisonous, I love Egyptians. Watching them…reminds me of those old black sit-coms like “Sanford and Son.” Egyptians are always hyperventilating, sweating, wheezing, gesticulating, belly-laughing, working themselves up into a lather over nothin, all overweight and unhealthy looking, you can always get a rise out of them, get them to kid around. Love it.

And then this follow-up a few days later, somewhat more equivocal

Wherever I travel, my days are filled with small encounters with strangers. Some are disagreeable, most are neutral, some are pleasant because the person en face exhibits an unexpected dollop of kindness, humor, or just positive liveliness.

France is the country where the largest proportion of such encounters are neutral. Once you play by their rules of civility they are almost never rude; but then again almost never fun or warm. The US is the country with the wildest variation. One guy is warm and familiar, the next is rude and vulgar. Egypt is the MENA country where these small encounters most often leave you with a smile or a glow.

But that good humor is about all Egypt has going for it. Otherwise it’s just a giant kitty litter box. Cairo is filthy, broken-down, dirt poor traffic-choked. Most expats who say they love living here wall themselves off from the other 99 percent. As I would too if I ever had to live here. Which is why I would never want to live here.

I lived in Cairo for part of a year in the mid ’80s. I loved the place and could have stayed longer. Don’t know if I would feel that way now.

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Monsieur Lazhar

As this seems to be Canada weekend on my blog (see previous two posts) I should mention this Canadian film I saw last night. It was a nominee for best foreign film at the last Oscars and opened in the US in April, several months before arriving in France. The pic is about a 50-ish Algerian asylum-seeker, named Bachir Lazhar, who becomes a substitute teacher en catastrophe in a 6th grade class in a Montreal public school—whose beloved teacher committed suicide—, and of his experience in the classroom, with the students, and his colleagues. It’s a touching film and with several themes: mourning and coping with loss—as Lazhar is also mourning his own, which one learns in the course of the film—, of deracination, navigating cultural differences… The acting is first-rate, particularly the children. US reviews of the film are tops. In France they’re good (and with spectators particularly enthusiastic). Trailer is here.

The big draw of the film for us was the Algeria angle and, above all, the casting of Fellag in the role of Lazhar. Fellag is a hugely popular comedian and actor in Algeria and France (particularly among Algerian immigrants), best known for his one-man comic acts. They’re wonderful. We love them in my family. Fellag is very funny and his social satire is dead on target. And his accent and schtick are almost stereotypically Kabyle Berber (just as those of Lenny Bruce and Jackie Mason were Jewish-American). In order to follow him, it helps not only to have perfect French comprehension but also some knowledge of Algeria (though one of my work colleagues, who does not know Algeria or the Maghreb, went to one of his shows last year and loved it). For two of his most popular acts, see here and here.

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In my previous post I linked to a Marxist-sounding op-ed by the dean of the University of Toronto’s business school. Hard to imagine any of his American b-school counterparts writing such words. In thinking about Canada, I am reminded of a piece from Bloomberg.com last July on how Canada’s “hardheaded socialism” has made it richer than the US, that the net worth of Canadian households was now greater than those south of the border. The author, Stephen Marche, described the approach of conservative Canadian governments, including the present one. Money quote [emphasis added in bold]

Both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. have tried to use the Canadian example to promote their arguments: The left says Canada shows the rewards of financial regulation and socialism, while the right likes to vaunt the brutal cuts made to Canadian social programs in the 1990s, which set the stage for economic recovery.

The truth is that both sides are right. Since the 1990s, Canada has pursued a hardheaded (even ruthless), fiscally conservative form of socialism. Its originator was Paul Martin, who was finance minister for most of the ’90s, and served a stint as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. Alone among finance ministers in the Group of Eight nations, he “resisted the siren call of deregulation,” in his words, and insisted that the banks tighten their loan-loss and reserve requirements. He also made a courageous decision not to allow Canadian banks to merge, even though their chief executives claimed they would never be globally competitive unless they did. The stability of Canadian banks and the concomitant stability in the housing market provide the clearest explanation for why Canadians are richer than Americans today.

Martin also slashed funding to social programs. He foresaw that crippling deficits imperiled Canada’s education and health-care systems, which even his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, described as a “sacred trust.” He cut corporate taxes, too. Growth is required to pay for social programs, and social programs that increase opportunity and social integration are the best way to ensure growth over the long term. Social programs and robust capitalism are not, as so many would have you believe, inherently opposed propositions. Both are required for meaningful national prosperity.

Social programs were cut not to gut them—and certainly not for ideological reasons à la the American right—but to perennialize them. And no one on the Canadian right is talking about replacing the country’s single-payer health care system with something akin to what presently exists in the US.

On Canadian banks and regulation—of Canada not going off the deregulatory cliff—, business reporter Theresa Tedesco and Paul Krugman had analyses in ’09 and ’10, respectively (here and here). Should the US Congress be so inspired.

On current right-wing praise for “socialist” Canada, conservative onetime press baron Conrad Black had an op-ed last weekend in the conservative New York Sun, misleadingly entitled “How Canada Has Eclipsed America In the Obama Years” (misleading because Black dates the beginning of the eclipse well before Obama took office). Money quote  [emphasis added in bold]

the United States has fumbled away its gentle overlordship of the world these last 15 years. [i.e. through the entire Bush-Cheney period] Huge current account deficits and colossal federal budget deficits arose, and while the United Sates is generally successful [sic] in real wars, its habit of calling policy attacks on sociological problems “wars” has led to the conspicuous failures of the wars on crime, poverty and drugs.

The Canadian dollar has risen from 65¢ American to par, and Canada’s comparative standard of living has inched upwards, and its wealth is much more evenly distributed. The jagged nature of American democracy left 40 million African Americans unsegregated but still the subject of institutionalized discrimination, and 70% of people with magnificent (free) medical care and 30% with access to care but on a pretty stingy and erratic basis.

American education has become very uneven, American justice has degenerated into a turkey shoot for the benefit of a prosecutorial class that terrorizes the country and has given America 10 times the average number of incarcerated people per capita of other advanced prosperous democracies. Sixty million basic manufacturing and service jobs have been out-sourced while 20 million unskilled peasants were admitted illegally to the country, and trillions of dollars of worthless real estate-backed securities inundated the world, pumped out by Wall Street and certified as investment grade, almost asphyxiating the American financial industry while trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives were squandered in the sanguinary Quixotry of nation-building in the Middle and Near East.

Okay, an American conservative may retort to this that Black is Canadian—or he used to be, until he became a Brit—so whaddaya expect?! But still…

Black then offers this

Prudent, hesitant Canada, ran 14 federal government surpluses in a row. We are the pigs in the brick house — it isn’t a heroic position, neither daring nor stylish, but Canadians are peering through the portals of their stout solid home, transfixed and astonished.

Astonished at America. My, even libertarian Cato Institute types (e.g. here; h/t for the above image) are praising the Canadian way of running the economy. Now they do deplore the government-run health care system and government spending that amounts to 42% of national output, but the fact remains that Canada is prospering—and in the estimation of the libertarians—despite the government-run health care system and high levels of government spending. Which, ergo, means that economies and countries can indeed prosper with government-run health care and high levels of government spending. Or under what American conservatives call “socialism”…

One is reminded of American right-wing dissing of Canada in the last decade, most famously expressed by Patrick Buchanan, who referred to the country as “Soviet Canuckistan” back in ’02. This was at least humorous. Less humorous was a cover story on Canada in the National Review, also in ’02, entitled “Bomb Canada: The case for war.” In the screed, author Jonah Goldberg opined that what Canada needed was “a little invasion” by the US

It’s quite possible that the greatest favor the United States could do for Canada is to declare war on it. No, this isn’t a tribute to South Park, the TV cartoon that popularized a song — Blame Canada — calling for an outright invasion of America’s northern neighbor. A full-scale conquest is unnecessary; all Canada needs is to be slapped around a little bit, to be treated like a whining kid who’s got to start acting like a man. Why would such a war be necessary? The short answer is: to keep the Canadians from being conquered by the United States. In effect, it would be a war to keep Canada free.

Other tidbits from the screed

Canada is barely a functioning democracy at all: Its governmental structure, if described objectively, is far more similar to what we would expect in a corrupt African state with decades of one-party rule.

And this

Despite Canada’s self-delusions, it is, quite simply, not a serious country anymore. It is a northern Puerto Rico with an EU sensibility.

And this

If the U.S. were to launch a quick raid into Canada, blow up some symbolic but unoccupied structure — Toronto’s CN Tower, or perhaps an empty hockey stadium — Canada would rearm overnight. Indeed, Canada might even be forced to rethink many of its absurd socialist policies in order to pay for the costs involved in protecting itself from the Yankee peril. Canada’s neurotic anti-Americanism would be transformed into manly resolve. The U.S. could quickly pretend to be frightened that it had messed with the wrong country, and negotiate a fragile peace with the newly ornery Canadians. In a sense, the U.S. owes it to Canada to slap it out of its shame-spiral. That’s what big brothers do.

Goldberg naturally did not spare “Canada’s disastrous health-care system.” Other US right-wingers also jumped on the Canada-bashing bandwagon, such as Ann Coulter, who informed Canadians that they were “lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent,” and Tucker Carlson, who snickered that “without the U.S., Canada is essentially Honduras” (see here).

Voilà a slice of the American right’s Weltanschauung. To Goldberg, Coulter et al, the only thing I have to say to them is this.

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Capital vs. talent

Interesting op-ed in today’s NY Times on the NFL referees’ strike as a metaphor for the battle in American business. The author, Roger L. Martin, argues that the NFL team owners fought the referee union so hard not because the latter’s demands were costly—which they weren’t—but

Because the league was fighting a bigger fight, one that is representative of a war beneath the surface of the modern economy — the war between capital and talent.

Martin’s Marxist-ish analysis is refreshing in this age of neoliberal hegemony, particularly as he is not some tenured radical prof at U.Mass-Amherst or UC-Santa Cruz but the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Conservatives will likely retort that he’s Canadian so whaddaya expect? Martin’s recent book, Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL, looks most interesting. It’s published by Harvard Business Press Books. The publishing arm of Mitt Romney’s alma mater. I would doubt he’s read it.

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

How low can Jean-François Copé go? In his knock-down-drag-out fight with François Fillon for the presidency of the UMP—on which the 260K party members will vote on November 18th—Copé has scraped the bottom of the extreme right toilet in his denunciation of the supposed existence of “anti-white racism” (racisme anti-blanc) in France, which figures in his just published campaign book, Manifeste pour une droite décomplexée (here and here). The title is more than apt, as the mainstream right has indeed lost its complexes. For the president of the major party of the parliamentary right—grouping neo-Gaullists, the droite libérale, and even centrists—to speak about racial categories in this way and adopt the most abject demagogic rhetoric of the Front National is something one would not have seen a decade ago—and the mainstream right has been lifting FN rhetoric on immigration since the 1980s, though with limits. Not even Sarkozy went quite this far. The UMP, like the US Republicans, is lurching hard right—and it’s the base of the party that’s pulling the leadership along, not the other way around. Marine Le Pen, who is exulting, is accusing Copé of copyright infringement, of stealing the Front’s discourse, though implicitly dividing French society into racial categories is, in fact, relatively recent for the FN. Racialist rhetoric has normally been associated with the Bloc Identitaire and other sulfurous groupuscules on the outer fringes of the extreme right. Until the past decade the FN would rail on against “le racisme anti-Français” among immigrants from the African continent, a formulation that accented the national, not the racial (though implying that the French were a race that one could be racist against).

Whatever the category, the notion that there is such a phenomenon in France—of “anti-white” or “anti-French” racism—is so laughably absurd that the UMP leadership—which has by-and-large been echoing Copé’s words today—cannot possibly take it seriously. It is a phantasm of the extreme right, existing only in its delirous imagination. In explaining what he means by “anti-white racism” Le Parisien thus quotes Copé

le «racisme anti-blanc» se manifeste «dans certains quartiers par un regard, une agression, une insulte, qui donne envie à un certain nombre de nos compatriotes de fuir le quartier où ils habitent parce qu’on leur fait comprendre qu’ils ne sont pas chez eux. C’est insupportable.» [Copé] ajoute : «Je me réfère au terrain, à ce que j’entends comme député-maire de Meaux. Je me dois de dire la vérité, de dire les choses comme elles sont.»

In other words, Copé is uncritically relating anecdotes of a few Français de souche in Meaux (his electoral fief), of how some immigrant-origin kids once said something rude to them. Ce n’est vraiment pas très sérieux. But, again, what is particularly disturbing about this is not just the inanity of the notion of an “anti-white racism” but the readiness of mainstream politicians to speak about French society in such racialized terms (and where Copé et al would presumably identify themselves as “blanc“). This is new in France. That the UMP would so shamelessly raid the extreme right’s ideological tiroir-caisse and break a taboo in the process is not only reprehensible but alarming as well. La France est sur une bien mauvaise pente.

UPDATE: A Master’s student named Yann Solle has a good tribune in Slate.fr, “«Racisme anti-blanc»: Jean-François Copé vide les mots de leur sens.”

2nd UPDATE: On the Nouvel Obs website Mohamed du Val d’Oise says “‘Racisme anti-Blanc’ : M. Copé, je suis Arabe, laissez-moi vous expliquer le racisme.”

3rd UPDATE: Academic specialist of Great Britain Olivier Esteves has a tribune in Le Monde on “L’énorme ficelle du ‘racisme anti-Blanc’.” (October 1)

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Savage ads

I’ve been reading today about the controversy over the anti-Islam ads (above and below) that have been posted on New York City buses and in subway stations by a group led by the Muslimophobic crackpot Pamela Geller.

I find it appalling that a federal judge ruled that New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority could not refuse the ads. These ads are manifestly hateful toward the believers of a religion. They constitute hate speech, stigmatizing a religion and its believers—implying that they are “savages”—, and are rightly seen this way by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While the ads should not be banned (and cannot be), public authorities should not be legally obligated to post them on billboards. They should have the right to make a well-considered and argued decision to reject them. There is a huge difference between these ads, on the one hand, and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and the trailer of a film no one has seen, on the other. The multitudes who were outraged by CH’s cartoons and/or the trailer had either never seen them or actively went looking. Billboard-size ads are in-your-face and in public. And it should stand to legal reason that one has a right not to have racist images and/or speech shoved in one’s face. If this is legal, then why not subway station ads of, say, naked women? One can find plenty of magazines with this in the newsstand on the subway platform, so what’s the problem with having it up on the wall for all to see? Rhetorical question, of course. Parisians will be reminded of the billboard ads a decade ago for a brand of thong underwear and that were quite explicit. When I first saw one of the ads, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I was taken aback and felt that it went too far. Many others felt the same way, including my wife and Ségolène Royal, who called the ads degrading to women (see here). A public controversy ensued, leading the association of advertisers that oversees ethical standards in the profession to ask the company to take down the ads (here). I have long been bothered by the blown-up covers of XXX magazines on the sides of newsstands in France and elsewhere in Europe. Children should not have to see this, nor anyone else who doesn’t wish to. In the case of magazines bordering on pornography, there should be a legal regulation on how they’re advertised. If one wants it, go into the kiosk and buy the magazine.

Back to the NYC ads, I cannot approve of the response of Mona Eltahawy, who publicly spray painted them in one subway station, attracting the attention of everyone—certainly her intention—and which got her arrested (here and here). I am an admirer of Ms. Eltahawy but this is not the right approach. It achieves nothing and is grist for the Muslimophobes’ mill. And spray painting a subway station—or any public place—can never be condoned.

A much better response is to surreptitiously “rebrand” the ads, as someone or some group has been doing (below; for more, see here). Excellent initiative!

This happened in the Bay Area last summer in a similar controversy, though in a more explicitly political manner. I would love to see the reaction of Pamela Geller’s kindred spirits to a mass ad campaign in New York City calling for the elimination of the state of Israel and its replacement by a Palestinian state governed by Islamic law…

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I finally got hold of the issue of Charlie Hebdo (see previous post), three days after it came out. The first run was sold out almost as soon as the newsstands opened on Wednesday, the second run yesterday (Friday) by mid-morning. Of the twenty cartoons, four are in particularly poor taste and that will be offensive to practicing Muslims (though one needs to buy the issue to see them, or see scanned images on a website, suggesting that one is looking for them—and with Islam-oriented websites deliberately reproducing the blasphemous images in order to stoke indignation). If it weren’t for these four cartoons there would be little for anyone to get upset about. Charlie Hebdo really didn’t need to print them in order to make sport of Islamic extremism. Close to half of Frenchmen in a poll just out deem that Charlie Hebdo should not have printed the cartoons, given the risk of increasing tensions in the Muslim world. A sharp French journalist whom I know, and who has been reporting from Tunisia since early 2011, is furious at CH for its publicity stunt, asserting that the cartoons will render much more difficult the task of secular-minded Tunisians who oppose a proposed, Islamist-inspired amendment to the new constitution that would criminalize profaning “the sacred.” If I had had a seat at CH’s editorial meeting I would have argued for taking out the four tasteless cartoons. But CH, being what it is, was not going to be dissuaded by the hypothetical impact of its cartoons among those who could take offense to them—and certainly not among elements (religious zealots) it holds in contempt. Ridicule—and puerile cartoons—are CH’s stock-in-trade (of religion, politicians, everyone and everything). It’s what it does. Normally few take notice—its weekly press run is 75,000—except when others scream about it. As a result of all the free publicity this week—of the masses of people outside France who have never seen an issue of CH in their lives (including this one)—CH is laughing all the way to the bank.

And this won’t be the last time, as the fundamental reality here is that the new technologies—of Internet, Google, YouTube—make it so that this kind of thing can propagate like wildfire. It goes without saying that no one would have ever heard of the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’—which may in fact not even exist—if it hadn’t been for the Internet. And, of course, the extremist Salafis who spread word of it (they’re the real guilty party here; it is they, and they alone, who have been fanning the flames). But if it hadn’t been the trailer of this film or Charlie Hebdo’s latest coup, it would have been something else, as North America, Europe, and the world is now awash in Islamophobic and Muslimophobic literature and images. I wonder if Muslims have any idea of the sheer quantity of blasphemous stuff that’s out there. If one looks for it, one will find it in a few clicks of the mouse. And it’s not going to go away or be eradicated. This is simply not possible. Likewise, BTW, for the toxic anti-Semitic—and anti-Christian and even anti-other Muslim—rhetoric that the Muslim world is drenched in, and that is expressed not just by extremist or marginal elements but by mainstream personalities and media outlets in those countries (e.g. Thomas Friedman, whom I normally avoid, had a useful column on this the other day). We just have to deal with it.

I’ve had exchanges with a couple of smart, normally liberal-minded friends over the past couple of days who have argued that there should be restrictions on the kind of speech CH was engaged in. This view has been echoed by certain commentators as well, with one arguing that films like ‘Innocence of Muslims’ already do not meet the free speech test in the US. In the case of the latter, I rather doubt it. I can’t imagine that a lawsuit testing this proposition wouldn’t be quickly rejected by any US district court where it was filed. As for legislation restricting blasphemous or hurtful speech, this is not on the table, certainly not in the US or France. Don’t even think about it. So when confronted with future Charlie Hebdos or grade-Z movies impugning the Prophet, Muslims will just have to turn the other cheek, to ignore it and move on.

BTW, one liberty-undermining act related to this affair was the immediate decision by the French government to ban a planned demonstration in Paris today by Muslim groups (none major) protesting Charlie Hebdo and the American film that no one has seen. This was unjustified and indefensible. Street demonstrations are a hallowed right in France and cannot be banned unless there is a manifest threat to public order, but which was not demonstrated in this case. The demo should have been allowed, with a designated parade route—logically République to Nation—and firm commitment by the organizers to maintain order. In February 2006 there was a march against the Danish cartoons by a few Muslim groups. Several thousand participated—almost all immigrants from the Maghreb (born and raised there and not in France, which was obvious)—and it passed without incident.

Two tribunes related to this affair that are well worth reading: Oliver Roy in Le Monde on not incriminating the “Arab spring,” and Hussein Ibish in The Daily Beast arguing that free speech is not a cloistered value (and taking issue with Stanley Fish).

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[update below]

I was taken aback late last night when I saw that yesterday was the biggest day in the history of my blog for hits. Today is already bigger and by several magnitudes. At the rate the hits are going I’ll surely pass 10,000 well before midnight. But it’s not because of anything I’ve put up lately. It’s all Google searches for Charlie Hebdo, on which I posted a year ago here and here. Google’s algorithm is doing its work. The majority are coming from Turkey, followed by Germany, the US, France, Switzerland, Lebanon, Russia, the UK, and Canada. People are obviously looking for Charlie Hebdo’s latest provocation. As the website is presently inaccessible—and will likely be so all day—here’s the cover. I’ll have more to say about it when I buy the issue (if it isn’t already sold out on the newsstands).

UPDATE: The total number of hits on my blog on Wednesday was 22,678, which is one hundred times more than what I get on a normal day. The no. 1 country of origin ended up being the US. There were a dozen or so comments—from outraged Muslims and Muslimophobes alike—, most insulting or cretinous and which I sent to the trash.

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Romney: unfit and unworthy

to be President of the United States. Everyone has seen by now the video of Mitt Romney’s closed fund-raiser in Boca Raton, where he talks about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, how they’re dependent on government, will vote for Obama no matter what, and that he, Mitt Romney—candidate for President of the United States—was not going “to worry about those people.” When I saw the video last night my jaw dropped. I posted it on Facebook with this comment

This is breathtaking. It shows Romney not only to be a despicable SOB but a dangerous one too. He and his party are utterly unfit and unworthy to govern America. Lefties who have been beating up on Obama on FB lately need to watch this video, contemplate the choice on November 6th, and STFU with their Obama critiques. If he wins, they can resume them on Nov. 7th.

The part about lefties was directed at certain leftist Facebook friends of mine, who never lose an opportunity to bash President Obama (I wonder if people on the right realize how disliked, even detested, Obama is on the left). But this is neither here nor there. The American left is irrelevant in national elections. What left me slack-jawed at Romney’s comments was not the falsehoods or gross distortions of reality, e.g. the notion that 47% of Americans don’t pay income taxes and are “dependent” on government—rubbished here by Ezra Klein, among others—, or the laughable implication that all hardworking taxpayers vote Republican and don’t “depend” on government, when Republican voters and electoral clienteles have benefited from transfer payments and slopped at the government trough every bit as much as those of the Democratic party. Conservative pundits and intellectuals who still posses a critical spirit and who have not descended into hackery have pointed this out over the past 24 hours, e.g. David Frum and David Brooks (here and here), as well as in relevant analyses predating the current campaign, such as this by Ramesh Ponnuru.

No, what I found appalling about Romney’s words was his Ayn Randian stigmatizing of almost half the American population as a moocher-taker class, of his denigrating and dismissing those Americans who will end up not voting for him. The President of the United States is the president of all Americans. He is supposed to represent all of them—the people in its entirety—, to seek some semblance of national unity, to reach to those who didn’t vote for him. This is manifestly not Romney’s perspective. For this reason alone, he is unfit and unworthy to be President. As Jonathan Chait tersely put it in a commentary that precisely echoed my reaction, Romney’s comments

reveal something vital about [him], and they disqualify his claim to the presidency.

Chait, who specifies that he has never been a Romney hater, sees a major revelation in Romney’s comments

the video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit. Far from seeing his own privileged upbringing as the private-school educated son of an auto executive-turned-governor as an obvious refutation of that belief, Romney cites his own life, preposterously, as a confirmation of it. (“I have inherited nothing. Everything I earned I earned the old fashioned way.”)

It is possible to cling to some version of this dogma and still believe, or to convince yourself, that cutting taxes for the rich or reducing benefits for the poor will eventually help the latter, by teaching them personal responsibility or freeing up Job Creators to favor them with opportunity. Instead Romney regards them as something akin to a permanent enemy class — “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

An enemy class. This is the way the present-day GOP views Americans on the other side of the partisan divide. Republicans see themselves—the “real Americans”—as being at war with the “moochers” and the “takers” in their society, and Mitt Romney fully shares their views. Michael Tomasky, who has already had several pieces on this story—and who felt personally offended by Romney’s comments—, has indeed pointed the finger at the entire GOP Weltanschauung. He nails it here

I know a lot of [Republicans] will defend [what Romney said] for political reasons, but honestly, if you really truly think that, if you really think that half the country, everyone who votes for Obama, sits around waiting for the government to do everything for them, that the great majority of these people, indeed almost all of them, aren’t out there working hard, raising kids, teaching them good values, saving what they can, being decent people and good Americans and trying their best, you are warped with hatred and selfishness.

Yes, absolutely. At this point I cannot see how Romney can possibly win on November 6th failing a monumental Obama gaffe or big time game changer beyond anyone’s control. If Romney does miraculously manage to pull it off, I will not only be dejected and depressed but downright alarmed, indeed terrified for the future of America. À suivre.

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I went to the Fête de l’Humanité on Saturday, my first time in 15 years. The Fête de l’Huma is the annual bash of the French Communist party (PCF)—formally to raise money for the party’s daily newspaper L’Humanité (which has been on life support for years now)—, organized over three days the second weekend of September at the Parc Départmental in La Courneuve, a nearby Paris banlieue that has been run by the PCF continuously since the 1920s (the war years excepted). The Fête de l’Huma, which was founded in 1930, was mainly an event for PCF members and sympathizers in the early decades but beginning in the 1960s it opened up to the rest of society, as part of the party’s effort to break out of its ghetto—into which it was consigned, and consigned itself, in the early years of the Cold War—and show that communists were regular people like everyone else and knew how to have a good time. Everyone was and is welcome, so attending in no way suggests that one is a party sympathizer (and I am decidedly not). Young people have been a particular target, through concerts of high-profile musicians and bands, which, over the years, have included The Who, Pink Floyd, Genesis, The Kinks, and Deep Purple, among others (for a mostly complete list, see here). The tête d’affiche this year was New Order and Patti Smith. The Fête de l’Huma has long been an important political event in France as well, well-covered in the news and where the PCF secretary-general’s speech at the park’s Grande scène lays out the party’s positions for the upcoming year. As the PCF received 19 to 29% of the vote in national elections from 1945 through the 1970s, had a sizable parliamentary delegation, ran over 200 municipalities with a population of over 9,000 (at its peak after the 1977 municipal elections; today it’s on the order of 90), and had several hundred thousand dues-paying members, its views and positions were necessarily newsworthy. During the 1970s and ’80s the Fête de l’Huma attracted around a million people over the three days. The numbers declined after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union—not to mention the decline of the PCF itself, which is now electorally in the low single digits nationally—, and the Fête shrunk in size, but it has rebounded over the past several years. I made it a point to go to the Fête de l’Huma whenever I was in Paris that weekend in September. From 1974 to 1997 I thus attended nine times, but then decided I had had enough of the cocos, couldn’t stand them politically, and no longer found them interesting enough to justify schlepping out to La Courneuve for the day, so I stopped going. But I decided I wanted to attend this weekend, so went out with couple of friends. It was a lot of fun. Here are the photos I took and with commentary (below the photo). As there are some 160 of them, they continue beneath the fold.

It’s almost 4 PM. We came in through a secondary entrance. Finding parking took forever, as the lots were full. Entrance price is €26 at the gate for the three days, €20 if one buys a ticket from a party member beforehand (they hawk them outside).

Young people come from all over France for the event, sleeping in tents at the edge of the grounds.

I know nothing about this Parti Communiste des Ouvriers de France. It’s got nothing to do with the PCF, that’s for sure.

The Front de Gauche is the coalition of several parties and groupings of the hard left, the PCF and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche—much smaller than than the PCF—being the main constituents. Mélenchon was, of course, the Front de Gauche’s presidential candidate last spring. I spelled out my dim views of him here during the presidential campaign. He was naturally present at the Fête, though we didn’t cross paths.

There’s lots of food and drink at the Fête de l’Huma.

Lots of Che too. How could it be otherwise?

Also lots of music at the Fête and at the stands, not just the main concerts at the Grande scène.

Ethnic cuisine and not just in the Village du monde (see below).

Stand of a tiny offshoot of Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Mouvement Républicain et Citoyen.

Discussion-debates at the stands are a big Fête happening.

Didn’t take note of which group this was.

Stand of the neo-Trotskyist Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, ex-LCR). The participation of Trots in the Fête de l’Huma was inconceivable in the old days. But the bad blood between the Trots and PCF “Stalinists” is now all in the past. The NPA declined to make a deal with the Front de Gauche in last spring’s elections, BTW. Trots are as sectarian as ever. Some things don’t change.

Wacky Trot sect Union Communiste (Trotskyiste) (a.k.a. Lutte Ouvrière). These people are really crazy, e.g. members need party authorization to get married and have children, which is usually not granted, as this may detract from one’s political activism. Normally this would characterize an organization not as a political party but as a cult, which is in fact what LO is.

The party’s departmental federations—there are 96 in metropolitan France—all have stands, most with local cuisine on offer. This from the Savoie (in the Alps).

Department above the Savoie: Annecy, Chamonix, Evian… There have never been too many Reds in those parts.

Jean-Marc & Gisèle, this one’s for you. Beautiful area the Ardèche.

No to the EU Fiscal Stability Treaty, yes to a referendum on it. I’m not for a referendum but the Front de Gauche does have a valid argument in opposing the treaty.


It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, sunny and in the low-mid 70s F/low-mid 20s C. What better way to spend it than coming to the Fête de l’Huma?

The Paris Commune: mega event in the historical iconography of the French left.

Be realistic, demand the impossible!

American hero.

PCF cell at Charles de Gaulle airport. Yes, there are Commies working at that airport you all fly into when you come to town.

Lefty heroes from the past (and these two are heroes for me too).

Notable front pages of the PCF’s rag daily newspaper.

Contemporary PCF hero (but definitely not mine).

A debate on something having to do with capitalists and working people. I find these debates devoid of interest. It’s all rhetoric. Haven’t people heard this stuff hundreds of thousands of times already? An interesting comment from one of my friends, who has a doctorate in political science but, having failed to even qualify for the right to apply for a position in a French public university—a scandalous feature of the French system that afflicts many otherwise qualified foreigners (my friend is from Algeria)—, went to work in the private sector. He is presently a (more…)

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So says The Onion

WASHINGTON—Following the publication of the image above, in which the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity, no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened, sources reported Thursday. The image of the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fiving Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist, reportedly went online at 6:45 p.m. EDT, after which not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way. Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.

Charlie Hebdo couldn’t have said it better. As it’s from The Onion it’s a joke of course. Except that it’s not really. The last sentence sums up what looks to be an ever widening chasm between the Muslim world and Western democracies on free speech and its limits. In view of the riots, demos, and fanaticized mobs run amok, from Casablanca to Jakarta, it looks like what we’ve got here is failure to communicate, to borrow from the warden in ‘Cool Hand Luke‘. I have a lot more to say about all this but will refrain for the moment. In the meantime, here are some heartwarming images from Benghazi taken on Wednesday, reminding one that there are many people in those parts who do not identify with the fanatics. The sign of the boy in the middle reads ‘No.. no.. no to Al-Qaida’.

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Human agency (cont.)

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

Leave it up to several thousand murderous, fanaticized idiots in Benghazi and Cairo to inform me of the existence of a film that neither I nor just about anyone else had heard of. One learns in the WSJ that

The movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” was directed and produced by an Israeli-American real-estate developer who characterized it as a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam. It has been promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose burning of Qurans previously sparked deadly riots around the world… The film’s 52-year-old writer, director and producer, Sam Bacile, said that he wanted to showcase his view of Islam as a hateful religion. “Islam is a cancer,” he said in a telephone interview from his home. “The movie is a political movie. It’s not a religious movie.”

Here is a 13-minute trailer for the movie. It looks so bad, almost comically so, that there is not a chance I’ll see it. Hell, I couldn’t even get through the trailer! But now with all the publicity, not to mention the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the other diplomatic personnel, I am quite sure that others will rush to see it and that it will be promoted in the usual quarters. And that there will no doubt be more riots in the usual places and with the inevitable deaths. I will, of course, uncompromisingly defend the right of the Sam Baciles of this world to peddle their rubbish and for people to see it if they so wish—just as I defended the Jyllands Posten six years ago in the Danish cartoons absurdity—, and scoff at those who criticize them for “hurt[ing] the religious feelings of Muslims,” as the US Embassy in Cairo put it in the pathetic statement it released yesterday. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the religious feelings of Muslims and if they get hurt or not. Or of Christians, Jews, Hindus, or anyone else. Where is Christopher Hitchens when we need him!

On the day I launched this blog I had a post on the riots in Afghanistan over the Florida preacher who burned the Qur’an, and where several people were killed. In rejecting the notion that the fanaticized rioters were somehow provoked, I insisted that they were responsible for their actions, that they had agency. Here’s the post. It is likewise for those in Benghazi and Cairo. They have agency, dammit. I repeat: they have agency!

In expressing solidarity with the masses of Muslims who do not identify with the murderous fanatics, I offer Charlie Hebdo’s brilliant cover cartoon from its issue of February 8, 2006, at the height of the Danish cartoons psychodrama. Yes, it is tough to be worshipped by idiots.

UPDATE: Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Sam Bacile is apparently not the filmmaker’s real name, that he is not, as initially reported, Israeli or probably even a Jew. His veritable identity is, at present, unknown, as is just about everything else as to who is behind the film.

2nd UPDATE: David Frum slammed “[t]he Romney campaign’s attempt to score political points on the killing of American diplomats,” calling it a “dismal business in every respect…graceless and stupid as a matter of politics.” In this vein, Daily Beast reporter David Sessions rubbished the conservatives’ “Obama ‘apology tour’ lie.”

3rd UPDATE: Facebook friend Bill Lawrence of the Internatonal Crisis Group wrote the following on FB earlier today (Sep. 12th)

I just attended the Prime Minister’s press conference here in Tripoli on the death of my good friend Chris Stevens. So sad. Many Libyans are devastated too.

There are other reports of the dismay and anger among Libyans over the Benghazi attack, e.g. here.

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Chicago teachers strike

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

I would normally not pay much attention to a teachers strike in an American city—or in any city (not even my own in the Paris banlieues, now that my daughter has graduated from high school)—except, in the particular case of the one underway in Chicago, for (a) the obvious national political context, (b) the identity of Chicago’s mayor (of whom I am not a fan), and (c) the fact that Chicago is my city in the US, to which I am affectively attached, and where I have been a registered voter for the past 30 years (though as I don’t pay Illinois taxes, may not vote for local or statewide offices). When it comes to strikes, I normally support them—in the US and in the private sector—, out of a reflexive support of trade unions (and simply because I am on the left side of the political spectrum and have working class roots on more than one side of my family). And I remember the Chicago teachers strike of 1987, which was so obviously justified in view of the miserable salaries teachers earned ($14,000/year was the beginning salary at the time). But I’m not sure about this one. Living in France for 20+ years has soured me on public sector unions—I specify public sector—, and particularly teacher unions (les syndicats des enseignants). And despite the fact that I had a college internship at AFSCME HQ in Washington way back when. Now the situation of public sector unions in France and the US is not the same—in France public employee unions can call strikes at the drop of a hat, for any goddamned reason, and at any time, and the public be damned—, but still…

So I’m trying to figure this one out. NYT columnist Joe Nocera had a convincing commentary against the teachers strike but Rick Perlstein in Salon and Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker had equally compelling commentaries supporting the teachers. I also think of Diane Ravitch, the (moderate) Republican education policy analyst and historian—and who served in the Bush 41 administration—, who has substantially revised her views on education reform (and specifically charter schools) in recent years (see her highly informative and insightful essays in the NYRB here). And earlier today I asked David Kusnet, whose views on such matters I hold in high consideration, for a quick take of the Chicago strike. His response: “From a distance, seems like a cry of pain from people who do a thankless job and feel disrespected. Education reform should stress collaboration, not conflict.”

So like I said, I’m figuring this one out. Views of Chicagoans who have (or have had) kids in the public school system are welcome.

UPDATE: I’ve received feedback from a few old Chicago friends. This from Tim

Hey Arun. Screw the out of town columnists who are trying to fit this into some national political narrative. I’m with the teachers 100% and I have two kids missing school (which I can’t say for Rahm and most of his big contributors). Carol Marin does a good job summing up how we got here.

Carol Marin is a sharp, longtime Chicago political reporter.

Here are the views of Madeleine, who worked professionally for a number of years on school reform in the city

I don’t fault the teachers for striking. There was no contract by deadline, what would you have them do? I don’t think they were being particularly unreasonable in demands or negotiations, or were looking for a strike. My impressions of Rahm in this – first, overall, that he sees his job as being about money, money, money – raising revenue, cutting costs (understandably b/c were headed for fiscal cliff, hence timing of Daley’s retirement). However, his job is actually to look out for the welfare of the city as a whole, which is not exactly the same thing. And Rahm & teachers -Rahm came out swinging (oddly, unprovoked). One of the first things he said after election was that he wanted a longer school day, no salary increases as if he were ‘taking on’ the teachers. Really? Huh?…At this point it’s feeling like an existential struggle over what teaching/learning will be like in Chicago schools. But it may go back to being about an employment contract before it’s all resolved – and no reason that couldnta happened before now. ps I’m pro-charter -but not anti-union. Union is not what keeps us from successful schooling.

And this from Marcia, who was a longtime city employee (at the public library)

Hi Arun, As for public sector unions, AFSCME was the only protection we had as city employees from patronage and corruption. How many strikes have there been? This is it in the last 25 years. Now that UIC faculty have voted for a union, I’m in a public sector union again. I don’t see us going on strike, but the union is a offering us a voice of sanity and reason in an insane State system.

Well, I’m convinced. Also, the fact that Rahm Emanuel is the union’s adversary here almost reflexively causes me to side with the teachers.

2nd UPDATE: Diane Ravitch has a short post on her blog asking “What does Mayor Rahm want?” She links to a useful analysis by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post on “The real problem with Rahm’s school reforms in Chicago.”

3rd UPDATE: I like the image below. (h/t Roane Carey)

4th UPDATE: Harold Meyerson has a hard-hitting column in WaPo on the Chicago strike and its implications for the Democratic party. He is not tender toward Rahm Emanuel.

5th UPDATE: Jordan Weissmann, associate editor of The Atlantic, has a column defending teacher strikes, in which he asserts that “some issues can only be resolved fairly in a public fight.” This passage is particularly important

But public sector unions also have redeeming qualities that arguably make them essential. For one, they’ve historically helped make government compensation more equal with the private sector, which is crucial if you believe in attracting talented people to public service. They create transparency by forcing state and local governments to negotiate contracts, which set concrete standards that allow the public to understand why specific workers are paid what they’re paid. And, sometimes best of all, they get in the way of reforms. Politicians come up with awful ideas for how to make government run better, and it’s important to have a conservative, countervailing force. Unions help make sure that local and state government’s aren’t run via management fad.

This echoes what Marcia said in the 1st update above, about public employee unions offering protection—for public employees and taxpayers alike—from patronage and corruption (which is particularly important in a city like Chicago).

6th UPDATE: Kevin Drum in Mother Jones asks “Why do people hate teacher unions?” Political scientist Corey Robin asks the same question on his blog and provides the answer: “Because they hate teachers.”

7th UPDATE: Diane Ravitch, to whom I defer on education issues—and whom Corey Robin in the link above correctly calls “indispensible”—, settles the matter of the Chicago strike in a post on the NYRB blog, “Two visions for Chicago schools.”

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The other 9/11

the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, of course, an event that marked all those on the left of my generation and older. A colleague of mine, El Yamine Soum, marked the anniversary on Facebook not with the normally obligatory mention of the American role in the coup but a comment on the action of French military officers in its wake

Un tortionnaire de l’Algérie Aussaresses, ainsi que des militaires français vont transposer les méthodes de torture et de guerre dans cette région du monde pour soutenir la mise en place des régimes militaires, c’est que l’on appellera “l’école française”

The torturer, Paul Aussaresses—who attained the rank of General in the French army—, was a veteran of the Battle of Algiers, where he learned the tricks of the trade, as it were. During the 1960s he led teams of Algeria war veterans to the US, to train Vietnam-destined American military personnel in interrogation techniques. In the 1970s the training courses were extended to dictatorships in Latin America, Chile among them. The investigative journalist Marie-Monique Robin has written a book on this and produced a documentary. To watch it, go here.

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On the anniversary of 9/11 I offer the above, which was posted yesterday on the Facebook page of C. Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at Georgetown University. Yes, anyone who gives the slightest credence to the so-called “truthers” is indeed a f***ing idiot. And then some.

BTW, Professor Fair—who is a fluent Urdu speaker and a regular on Pakistani TV (here)—has an article in Foreign Policy arguing that President Obama should “blacklist Pakistan,” not just the Haqqani group.

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In my previous post I mentioned two recently seen Israel-Palestinian films that I didn’t like too much. For the record, I’ve seen four other Israeli or Israel-themed films over the past few months, one of which wasn’t bad, the others so-so. The not bad one was ‘Policeman’, which is like no Israeli film I’ve seen, as the socio-political cleavage depicted is not Jews vs. Arabs or secular vs. religious but extreme leftist Jews vs. the Israeli state and its ruling capitalist class. No less. Here’s Alissa Simon’s review in Variety

Two different types of tribalism come into deadly conflict in the provocative Israeli drama “Policeman.” Divided loosely into thirds, with an occasional loopy visual reminiscent of Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” this fascinating but uneven pic has a conceptual rigor that doesn’t always translate into compelling viewing or even a smooth narrative whole. Nevertheless, it reps a strong debut from tyro helmer-writer Nadav Lapid, and will leave audiences debating the current social and philosophical issues it reflects. Further fest travel and niche arthouse play are in the cards for this Locarno fest competition entry.

Thirtysomething Yaron (Yiftach Klein) is part of an elite anti-terrorism police unit of the Israeli government, tacitly allowed to perform undercover assassinations of Arab enemies. Firmly believing he lives in the finest country in the world, Yaron is proud of his job, his strong, muscular physique and his status as an expectant father. Although the policeman’s family unit is depicted as tight, his bond with his squadron is tighter still. Yaron has been with most of his comrades since army service, and they thrive in each other’s company at work and play.

Lapid depicts the milieu of the policemen with an exaggerated machismo that borders on the erotic. Every time they meet, these buff hunks clasp hands or pound each other’s backs, the noise of their ultra-physical greeting dominating the soundtrack. Their attachment to their weaponry is also rendered sexual. Admiring the shape of a teen waitress, Yaron displays his gun, and asks if she wants to touch it.

About 50 minutes in, just as viewers wonder where all this is going and how far Lapid will take this imagery, the story shifts without explanation to follow another gun-worshipping tribe, a band of Jewish radicals who plot class warfare through violent means. Led by handsome blond Natanel (Michael Aloni) and pouty poetess Shira (Yaara Pelzig), these fanatical youngsters infiltrate the Jerusalem wedding of a billionaire’s daughter and take hostages of the rich and powerful in order to bring their manifesto to the national media. When Yaron’s unit is called to restore order, the policeman, who cannot comprehend a Jewish terrorist, is forced to confront a new reality.

Pic’s first (and longest) third is the most interesting, and not without humor as Yaron admires himself in the mirror while holding another man’s infant, or dances naked in front of his heavily pregnant wife. The second section plays more problematically, with less likable characters whose beliefs are as unshakable as those held by the policemen, but depicted as less rational given their privileged backgrounds and puerile reasoning.

Along the way, Lapid’s ambitious screenplay intros other types of tribes, including the aggressive punks who destroy Shira’s car, the lesbians and artists at the club Shira visits the night before their operation, and the captains of industry whose lives the government orders the police to preserve at all costs.

Thesping is highly stylized, particularly in the second section, in which the young revolutionaries share a blank-eyed stare. Evocative lensing by Shai Goldman (“The Band’s Visit”) is at its best in sun-drenched outdoor scenes, where it effortlessly captures tribal bonds and hierarchies.

Other reviews in the Hollywood and specialized press likewise gave it the thumbs up, e.g. here, here, and here. French reviews were also good. The image of Israeli Jewish Baader-Meinhof wannabes is admittedly a stretch but the film does give light to one of the many cleavages in that complex society—that there are major inequalities within Jewish society—, and that one got an inkling of during the social protest movement in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011.

À propos of nothing, Gershom Gorenberg had a recent column on “Romneyland on the Mediterranean,” on what “having a Bain-style CEO [does] to a country… [that] Israel has run the experiment and the results are ugly.” The “CEO” is, of course, Bibi Netanyahu.

As for the other films, these so-so: One was ‘Le Fils de l’Autre’ (English title: ‘The Other Son’) by French director Lorraine Lévy. This is not an Israeli film stricto sensu, as not only is the director and most of the cast French—with Emmanuelle Devos the top bill—but the film is mainly in French as well. But it’s entirely set in Israel and framed by the conflict. The story is about an Israeli family (French aliya Jews) who are informed that their 18-year old son, who’s taken a blood test before joining the army, cannot possibly be their biological child and, upon investigation, learn that there had been a mix-up at the hospital in Haifa 18 years earlier, where their real son was accidentally switched with the newly born baby of a Palestinian family from the West Bank. So their son is, in fact, an Arab and, according to their rabbi, cannot be considered a Jew; likewise for the Palestinian family but the other way, who learn that their boy is not only not biologically theirs but is a Jew to boot. So the movie is about how the families deal with the revelation and, after hesitation and intra-family arguments, the contact they make. The film is eminently watchable and one does get caught up in it. Reviews in France were mostly good (here), as were those of Hollywood critics who saw it (e.g. here and here), and Paris audiences seemed to like it (there was scattered applause at the end at my local theater; and one of Le Monde’s former Jerusalem correspondents, whom I know personally, liked the pic). But I finally cannot give it the unreserved thumbs up, as it just had too many contrivances, and without which there would not have been a movie. E.g. it just so happened that the father/husband in the Israeli family was an IDF commander with the power to issue laissez-passers to the Palestinian family to get through the checkpoints, and it just so happened that the Palestinian family’s son (biologically of the Israeli parents) had gone to school in Paris and could therefore speak French, facilitating communication between the families. There were other such coincidences necessary for everything to fall in place. This clearly bothered me more than it did others who saw the film. It is due out in the US in late October, so film goers there will be able to decide for themselves.

Another so-so film: ‘Playoff” by Eran Riklis, who directed ‘The Syrian Bride’ and ‘Lemon Tree’, both of which made my ‘Top 20 Best Movies‘ list of the last decade. Based on these two, I’ll see anything by him. This was not his best, loin s’en faut. Entirely set in Germany (Frankfurt) and almost entirely in English, the pic is inspired by the story of an actual person, Ralph Klein, a famous Israeli basketball coach of the time who shocked the Israeli nation in 1982 by taking up an offer to coach West Germany’s lowly national basketball team, so it could have a chance at qualifying for the 1984 Olympics. Memories of WWII were still raw. Klein, called Max Stoller in the film, is played by Danny Huston—whose Israeli accent is impeccable—, who arrives in Frankfurt to skepticism on all sides, not least from some of the players, who don’t immediately take to his coaching style but also have their family histories from the Nazi era. Stoller, as it happens, has his history: born in Frankfurt in the 1930s and where he grew up into the war years—he lost his family in the Holocaust but was saved himself—, he is on a personal quest to uncover some mysteries from his past (he tells everyone in the film that he doesn’t speak German, but in fact he does). He visits his old neighborhood, now inhabited by Turkish immigrants, and befriends a Turkish woman, named Deniz, who lives in his childhood flat (and who is on her own quest, searching for her husband who vanished on her). Deniz is played by the bellissime Franco-Kurdish-Irish-Russian actress, Amira Casar, who was unknown to me (and is one of the principal points of interest in the film). There are several subplots in the film—Stoller’s personal quest, his relationship with Deniz, his coaching the team and relationship with one of its players, being an Israeli in Germany—which don’t really come together. And the basketball part of it doesn’t work at all. Reviews in France were mediocre (here), as were US and Israeli (e.g. here and here). The pic may open in the US at some point, maybe for a week after going to DVD.

The final so-so Israeli film: ‘La Femme qui aimait les hommes’, elegantly rendered in English as ‘The Slut’. It premiered at Cannes and received a few good reviews in the Paris press, so voilà, I wasn’t not going to see it. The pic is set in a moshav somewhere in Israel, where the protagonist, if one can call her that, sexually services the men in the community. Just about all of them, it seems. Here’s Alissa Simon’s review in Variety

A single mother of two young girls gives free rein to her sexual appetite in the ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying Israeli drama “The Slut,” from multihypenate Hagar Ben Asher. Strong on style and atmosphere, short on dialogue and totally lacking in character psychology, the pic seems destined to divide critical opinion between those who find it affected and schematic and those excited by its non-judgmental feminism and deliberate formal aspects. Further fest action seems assured, with Euro territories the best sales bet.

The elliptical tale unfolds in a dusty village where the eponymous Tamar (Ben Asher) seems to be the only adult woman. She dispenses sexual favors to several local men, often copulating outdoors under the hidden gaze of her giggling offspring.

When veterinarian Shay (Ishai Golan) returns to the village to settle his deceased mother’s affairs, he tries to tame Tamar into conventional domesticity, improving her house and caring for her daughters. As their affair blossoms, her former lovers glower in the background, apparently stirring within her a resistance to monogamy. Although Tamar begins to stray from their bed, Shay remains strangely content to stay in the relationship and receive the affections of her children.

Despite its title, the pic is not particularly lurid. Apart from one prolonged bedroom scene between Tamar and Shay, most of the other joyless sexual encounters are implied rather than explicitly shown.

Much like Cannes competition entry “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Slut” (whose script was developed under European mentorship) refrains from supplying audiences with an emotional hook; lissome cipher Tamar is all id. We have no idea what she thinks or why she behaves the way she does, except, perhaps, at the pic’s not unexpected but still not well-prepared conclusion.

The story’s abstraction is echoed on a visual level with Tamar likened to the wounded animals Shay so tenderly treats, and his attempts to contain her are made literal with the fence he constructs around their house. Lensing by d.p. Amit Yasour is both arty and artful as he elaborates the motif of open and closed doors and people spying primal scenes through windows.

In essaying the title character, as well as performing scripting and helming duties, Ben Asher (who starred in the Israeli skein “The Ran Quartet”) might have overextended herself. She looks fine with and without clothes, but evinces no discernible emotions. In the equally difficult role of Shay, the warm Golan comes across as a real, caring human being, so much so that he fails to convince as someone who stays in his fraught relationship for more nefarious purposes.

Along with the cinematography, the heightened naturalism of the sound design reps the standout aspect of the well-rendered craft package.

The director, Hagar Ben Asher, does indeed play “the slut” in the film and acts out in its single really explicit scene. The film is not erotic, though, and there is little dialogue, not to mention little character development or any hint of an explanation of why she is the way she is. Is she a bona fide nymphomaniac or what? And if so—or if not—, so what? Frankly, I didn’t get it. And I can’t say I was entertained. Reviews and trailers are here, here, and here. As Ben Asher has explained in interviews (e.g. here), the film has a feminist subtext. If she says so, I guess. When I told my wife about it she said that she would maybe go see it with a copine and see for herself. She didn’t.

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English title: ‘Our Children’. The reviews of this film, a Belgian-Luxembourger-Franco-Swiss production that premiered at Cannes, have been almost all positive in France (here), as well as by US critics who saw it at film fests, e.g. here, here, and here. French movie goers have also given it the thumbs up (here). As sometimes happens, I am in the minority on this, as I didn’t like it too much. It certainly holds one’s attention and the cast is tops, but the story—for details, see here—wasn’t believable to me, and particularly the ending. The whole thing made no sense: the relationship between the Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup characters, the young couple living chez the latter and with four kids one after the other… But in reading about the pic afterward (I rarely read reviews before seeing a film), I learned that it was based on an actual fait divers in Belgium—where the film is set—from five years ago. The story really did happen. Trop bizarre. I must have heard about it at the time but given the number of crime stories coming out of Belgium and involving children, it’s hard to keep track. I won’t not recommend the film. One may see it and judge for oneself.

A few films I saw this summer I do not recommend. One is Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Trishna’, based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles, a novel I will admit to having never read, though I did see Roman Polanski’s screen adaptation—31 years ago almost to the day, in a cinema in London’s West End—, which I found engrossing. This one, set in contemporary India (Rajasthan and Bombay), received mixed reviews in both the US and France, but I decided to see it anyway, what the hell. The cinematography is great—one long tourism promo to visit India—and Freida Pinto, who plays Trishna, the simple girl of humble origins, is as beautiful as ever—her beauty partially distracting from the fact that she doesn’t have much depth as an actress. The first half of the film was absorbing enough but it went off the rails in the second, when the Riz Ahmed character—Trishna’s rich boy lover—is transformed from Mr. Wonderful into a jerk, and then a downright ogre. So why did Trishna stay with the SOB and follow him back to Rajasthan, instead of dumping him and pursuing her promising career prospects in Bombay? I didn’t get it. And I hated the ending, causing me to leave the theater in disgust. I had invited my 18-year old daughter and her best friend to see the movie with me but fortunately they had other plans that evening. Having to apologize for dragging people to lousy films is something I really don’t like doing.

Another film one may pass up: Israel-Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi’s clumsily entitled ‘Man Without a Cell Phone’ (the French title, ‘Téléphone arabe’, is better). It’s a light comedy, set in the director’s home village near Nazareth, about a relay tower a mobile phone company plans to install next to the village and the mobilization of the village elders against it, less out of fear of radiation from the tower than the improved cell phone reception it will provide, enabling village guys and girls to more easily communicate with one another and away from parental supervision. The film is a lighthearted treatment of inter-generational and gender relations among the Palestinians of Israel, but also of relations between the latter and the Jews. Again, the operative word here is light. If one is looking for a hard-hitting social or political critique, one will have to look elsewhere. It’s an inoffensive film but amateurish, both the acting and execution. French reviews were mildly positive overall and the film was apparently well-received at film fests. Chacun son goût. It seems that it has not yet opened in Israel. Trailers here and here.

One film that should definitely be passed up is ‘Last Days in Jerusalem’ (in Arabic: تناثر), by Tawfik Abu Wael, also Israeli-Palestinian (from Umm al-Fahm and who, like Sameh Zoabi, studied filmmaking at Tel Aviv University). This one is set in East Jerusalem and among the well-to-do class there, of a thirtysomething stage actress (played by Lana Haj Yahia) married to a medical doctor considerably older than she, with a playwright lover, and her états d’âme about staying with the former or going to the latter. Apart from the obligatory checkpoint and wall scene, there are no politics. Just as well. The film is just so pointless and insignificant. Though a mere 1 hour 20 minutes in length I was impatient for it to end, as it became obvious in short order that the film was going nowhere interesting. French reviews weren’t too good. Trailer (s/t in French) here. It’s nice to see young Israeli-Pal directors out there. Let’s hope they raise their directorial game in the future.

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A Tale of Two Conventions

David Corn has an on target comparison of the RNC and DNC in Mother Jones, on how “the nation is deeply divided, but the gatherings in Charlotte and Tampa show how starkly dissimilar the Democratic and Republican visions of the American experience are.” He also points out that Charlotte is a superior city to Tampa (I haven’t been to either but am quite sure he’s right). As it happens, GOPer David Frum entirely agrees with Corn’s take.

Reviews of Obama’s speech have been mixed on the liberal blogosphere. As I didn’t see it—and have not bothered to look for it on YouTube—I can’t say myself, so I’ll go with this instant commentary by Noam Scheiber in TNR.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

My Facebook news feed has been burning up today over the absurd flap at the DNC over including mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the party platform, with maybe 97.5% of those weighing in on the matter expressing disgust and/or indignation at the Democrats capitulating to the Lobby yet again, genuflecting before AIPAC, etc etc. It is true that the Dem leadership didn’t look too good yesterday, particularly the spectacle of Antonio Villaraigosa’s voice vote and declaring the resolution passed when it clearly didn’t. But finally, who cares? This is such a stupid, ridiculous issue, le degré zéro of symbolic politics. Of all the commentaries and analyses I’ve read today—most of which of are irrelevant or à côté de la plaque—two got it right. One is by Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect, who thus begins

When I first read that the Democratic platform said nothing about Jerusalem, I was quite impressed. Quietly, by omission, the party had brought a moment of honesty to the fantasy-ridden American political discussion about Israel.

Alas, honesty is ephemeral. Republican attacks, news editors eager for a daily controversy, and Democratic wimpishness have defeated it. In Wednesday night’s voice vote, the Democrats added some words to the platform: “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel … It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.” The first part is an implied promise that after re-election, Barack Obama will officially recognize Jerusalem’s status as capital and move the U.S. embassy there. The second piece pretends that Jerusalem is presently united and accessible to all.

This is hallucinatory for at least three reasons: First, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, independent of what is or isn’t written in American party platforms. Second, no American administration will formally recognize it as the capital before an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Third, virtually no one in America will decide how to vote based on this issue.

Évidemment. The other commentary is by Aaron David Miller on the CNN website, who asserts that the status of Jerusalem is, during American presidential election campaigns, a silly issue that “defies logic and rationality,” but is also irrelevant, as not only do party convention platform declarations change nothing on the ground but also have no incidence for US policy, which has been consistent on the question of Jerusalem for the past 64 years and where there have been no differences whatever between Democratic and Republican administrations. And that this policy status quo is certain to continue and regardless of who wins on November 6th. Miller also points out—as does Alan Dershowitz—that the past several Democratic party platforms all mentioned Jerusalem, including Obama’s in 2008, and that the initial omission this year was an exception. When the White House realized the omission—and that this was gratuitously, needlessly handing an issue to the Republicans on a silver platter—, it decided to restore the boilerplate mention of Jerusalem-as-Israel’s-capital illico, and regardless of the nays and boos. If some Dems are unhappy over the change and the botched vote, they’ll get over it. What are they gonna do? Sit out the election? Sure.

Back to Gershom Gorenberg, he makes an obvious statement of fact that tends to be lost sight of in some of the polemics on this issue, which is that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, no matter what anyone says

Believe me: [Jerusalem is] Israel’s capital. Nearly all of Israel’s government ministries are here, which is good, because they are the main source of paychecks. The parliament is here, and the prime minister’s residence, and the demonstrations in front of the parliament and prime minister’s residence. Foreign embassies are in and around Tel Aviv, but when prime ministers and presidents visit, they come here, and their motorcades clog our streets and make our cabbies curse. Using “Tel Aviv” as a synonym for the Israeli government, as still happens in foreign media, is like using “New York” to refer to the American government.

The near universal reference to Israel’s capital as Tel Aviv has been irritating me for years (e.g. in news reports of “Washington” declaring this and “Tel Aviv” saying that). Tel Aviv is not Israel’s capital and is recognized by no foreign state or international organization as such. The UN may have resolutions on the indeterminate status of Jerusalem—which is why foreign states located their embassies in Tel Aviv (but also Ramat Gan and Herzliya) from the outset—but this does not mean that it recognizes Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital. It makes no more sense to refer to Israel’s capital as Tel Aviv than, say, Haifa, Sderot, Rehovot, or wherever. And the media and others are not bound by UN resolutions or the policies of their foreign ministries. So henceforth on this blog, I will refer to Israel’s capital as W.Jerusalem, period. As for E.Jerusalem, that’s another matter.

UPDATE: Stephen Colbert makes sport of the Dems’ God & Israel gaffe 😀

2nd UPDATE: Here’s a YouTube on “Searching for Israel’s capital.”

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Maher skewers D’Souza

[updates below]

I have not seen Dinesh D’Souza’s agitprop documentary, ‘2016: Obama’s America‘, though will do so when/if it opens in France (no release date yet) or on my next trip to the US (whichever comes first). It looks to be the right’s answer to Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’, though with less humor and entertainment value. I won’t say anything about D’Souza’s film until I’ve seen it, but have already read enough about it to know that it’s a doozy, with a central argument that is completely unhinged, reflecting—and I’m being charitable here—the alternate reality in which a large part of the American right inhabits. And I did read D’Souza’s wacky Forbes article on Obama that inspired the documentary—not to mention numerous other screeds he’s written over the years—, so know where the wanker is coming from. Last Friday D’Souza was a guest on Bill Maher’s show, where Maher took him to the cleaners. Watch here and enjoy.

UPDATE: Another video to watch: Tea Party Express leader Amy Kremer being interviewed on CNN. Mind you, this is not some backwoods Tea Party foot soldier cornered by gotcha journalists, or a foul-mouthed Bill Maher, but a national personality fielding gentle questions politely posed. Affligeant. God save America if these people win the election.

2nd UPDATE: I’m not going to waste time seeing D’Souza’s documentary after all. Life is too short and who gives a Scheiße what D’Souza has to say anyway?

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