Archive for April, 2013

Imad Mughniyeh in the cockpit of TWA flight 847, June 1985

Imad Mughniyah in the cockpit of TWA flight 847, June 1985

[updates below]

Continuing from my previous post, Mark Perry has a fascinating investigative report on the Foreign Policy website on Hizbullah Über-terrorist Imad Mughniyah, who got his just desserts in a quiet Damascus neighborhood on 12 Feb. ’08. I normally find Perry’s writings dodgy but this one is good. Among other things, he says that we don’t know who was responsible for Mughniyah’s killing, though rather strongly suggests that it may have been the Syrian regime itself. I suspected this myself from the outset—I didn’t believe the Israelis were responsible, as I doubted they were capable of pulling off such an operation in the heart of the Syrian capital—and said so to my (pro-Bashar) Palestinian-Syrian friend as we drove by the spot where Mughniyah met his end (see pics below). She concurred, saying that it smelled like an inside job.

Whatever the case, the world is not poorer with the eradication of Imad Mughniyah.

UPDATE: The Washington Post reports (January 30, 2015) that the CIA and Mossad together carried out the Mughniyah assassination. Well, how about that!

2nd UPDATE: The CIA-Mossad hit on Mughniyah is also detailed in Newsweek (January 31, 2015), though this account makes it out to be a mainly CIA operation, with the Mossad playing a support role. Whatever the case, if the WaPo and Newsweek accounts are more or less accurate—and I have no a priori reason to believe that they are not—then I will return to my original circumspection as to Mark Perry’s reporting.

3rd UPDATE: Matthew Levitt of WINEP has an article in Politico Magazine (February 9, 2015) on “Why the CIA killed Imad Mughniyeh.” The answer: “It was paying back a generation-old blood debt,” i.e. the CIA was exacting vengeance for Hizbullah’s April 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut—which wiped out the CIA station there—and the kidnapping/murder of CIA station chief William Buckley the following year, both of which were planned by Mughniyah.

Imad Mughniyeh was blown up in this spot (photo: Arun Kapil)

Imad Mughniyah was blown up in this spot (photo: Arun Kapil)

Iranian Cultural Center, Damascus.  Imad Mughniyeh was blown up to the right of the building (photo: Arun Kapil)

Iranian Cultural Center, Damascus.
Imad Mughniyah was blown up to the right of the building (photo: Arun Kapil)

Entrance to Baalbek, Lebanon.  Effigy of Imad Mugniyeh on a tank (photo: Arun Kapil)

Entrance to Baalbek, Lebanon.
Effigy of Imad Mughniyah on a tank (photo: Arun Kapil)

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aqmi mali

Journalist Kremena Krumova of Epoch Times—a publication that is new to me—has a useful “guide to understanding terrorism” and with good quotes by specialists (two of whom I know personally).

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The Boston bombers – V

bruce beattie

John Cassidy of The New Yorker has a must read counterfactual reflection on what the fallout from the Boston bombing would have been had

the Tsarnaev brothers, instead of packing a couple of pressure cookers loaded with nails and explosives into their backpacks a week ago Monday, had stuffed inside their coats two assault rifles—Bushmaster AR-15s, say, of the type that Adam Lanza used in Newtown. What would have been different?

For starters, a lot more people would have been killed. But would the Tsarnaevs have been labeled “terrorists” (as Adam Lanza and Aurora shooter James Eagan Holmes were not)? Would their AR-15s have been designated as “weapons of mass destruction” (as the Tsarnaevs’ IED has been)? And what would have happened to the gun control bill in Congress? Read Cassidy’s examination here. And marvel once again at what a crazy country America is when it comes to guns.

Nate Silver had a post the other day on his FiveThirtyEight blog with poll data showing that Americans have a growing resolve to live with the threat of terrorism. In other words, Americans are, in fact, less hysterical over incidents of terrorism than the media makes them out to be. And they are certainly less so than politicians.

John Avlon of TDB has a column that is not really related to Boston—but is to the subject of my previous post, of politicians being idiots—, in which he expresses concern over adherence to conspiracy theories by growing numbers of GOP elected officials. “GOP lawmakers embrace the crazy.” I think we’ve known that for a while now.

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Boston Bombing Idiot Watch


I’ve been stocking links over the past week of particularly idiotic, asinine statements made by American commentators and politicians about the April 15th Boston bombing and the identification of the Tsarnaev brothers as the perpetrators. The bombing was certainly horrible but in terms of casualties was not quite on the same level as what happens on an ordinary day in Syria or Iraq. And it was not comparable to the wave of terrorist bombings in France in 1986 or 1995—or even of Mohamed Merah last year—, though which did not provoke in France anything approaching the unhinged reactions of high-profile US pundits and pols in the wake of Boston.

Of all the idiocies mouthed over the past week, the one whose author most deserves to be punched in the face for—figuratively if not literally—is Bill Maher. Maher—whom I will admit to having found amusing and on target on occasion over the years—is apparently considered a liberal, but what he says here about the “dangerous doctrines” of Islam—as if “Islam” is some organic being that thinks for itself and above and beyond its 1.5 billion or whatever believers—is proof in the pudding that liberals can be as idiotic as conservatives. Anyone who can mouth such essentialist bullshit—and on national television no less—is not only an idiot but a raving idiot, and who is forever discredited in my intellectual book.

Another liberal idiot is Bob Beckel, Fox News talking head and onetime Dem politico, who says that the US should suspend the granting of visas for a period of time to foreign Muslim students wishing to study at US universities. So US visa forms will henceforth ask applicants to state their religion—as do a handful of countries in the world, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran—and with consular officials no doubt posing the question orally… Sure. I’m sorry but anyone who can seriously advance this proposition—and again, on national television no less—is an idiot. And a bigot too. End of discussion.

Despite these two nominally liberal nitwits—and I’m sure there are more—the great majority of idiotic statements have, of course, come from the right. E.g. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is considered a hot prospect for ’16, also evoked a visa suspension. If Rubio is indeed elected POTUS down the road, how much would one like to bet that he implements this? My personal assets are not considerable but I will lay them all on the line that he will have no memory of having made such a statement back in ’13. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for his part, was the first off the bat last week, with his batty statement about 19 year-old American citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s “ties to radical Islamic thought” justifying him being tried as an “enemy combatant.” Likewise with Sen. Dan Coates (R-IN), which prompted IR prof and blogger Daniel Drezner to ask “Will the Senator from the state of half-assed thinking please go sit in a corner?

Um, whatever happened to the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights? I thought these people considered it to be a quasi sacred document.

And then there were the digs at Boston liberals, notably by Arkansas state rep. Nate Bell, who tweeted that they were probably cowering at home wishing they had AR-15s with high-capacity magazines. When I read stuff like this my visceral view that the wrong side won the Civil War—that America would be a much better country without the South and Southerners—is reinforced.

But there are plenty of boneheaded idiots in the North as well, e.g. NY state senator Greg Ball—a GOPer, of course—, who asserted that not only should torture be applied to Dzhokhar T. but that he (Ball) would administer it personally. I would submit that Sen. Ball should be strapped up to the gégène himself. Pourquoi pas?

Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have also said crazy ass stuff but that’s normal for them and requires no mention, let alone links.

On the overall Weltanschauung of the right on the Boston bombing, Jon Stewart summed it up here. Touché!

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Le Repenti


I just saw this terrific film by Merzak Allouache (English title: ‘The Repentant’; in Arabic: التائب). It is Allouache’s best film ever IMO and one of the best ever to come out of Algeria (and is certainly the best ever Algerian-directed film with a political theme). The “repentant” is a young Islamist fighter who, benefiting from the 1999 law conferring amnesty on members of armed Islamist groups (and updated in 2005), flees the maquis, turns himself in to the authorities—who press him into being an informer—, and tries to reintegrate into civilian life, while seeking to settle an affair from his years as a guerrilla/terrorist, the details of which are only revealed toward the end. It’s a riveting film and with an excellent screenplay that bears out the complexity of the Algerian sale guerre—of armed Islamists vs. the Algerian state—of the past two decades. There are no caricatures, either with the characters or the politics. And the acting is first-rate, as is the cinematography (it’s set in the western High Plateau, mainly in El Bayadh).

I normally pay no attention to reviews of Algerian films, as the critics (French, American, etc) lack the requisite knowledge of Algeria to properly assess what they’ve seen. And this one presents additional challenges, as any description of the plot will almost inevitably contain spoilers (as did, e.g., Le Monde’s review, which basically gave the whole thing away). The pic has been reviewed by two American critics, who saw it at Cannes last year; one, from The Hollywood Reporter, was off-the-wall; the other review, by Jay Weissberg in Variety, absolutely, totally nailed it. It’s an excellent review and tells the reader precisely what s/he needs to know about the film, and without spoilers. I couldn’t have written it better myself. Here it is

A beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale.

After several misfires, Merzak Allouache delivers not just his best film of the past decade, but arguably his best in 36 years in the helmer’s seat. Tracking a former jihadist and a separated couple whose lives were destroyed five years earlier, “The Repentant” is a beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale. Though cinema is awash in Islamic fundamentalist themes, Allouache goes beyond mere issues with his intimate approach and narrowed focus. This is one Algerian movie that could finally see worldwide exposure, including Stateside.

Allouache not only strips the story down to basics but reduces the exposition: Background details are spare, and what’s not said is more powerful than what is. This suppression is tied to the helmer’s message of a country paralyzed by a self-imposed gag order, in which the past remains an unbearable weight that cannot be discussed. But as “The Repentant” demonstrates, the past is very much alive, and a refusal to confront it head-on allows fear, corruption, and fanaticism to thrive.

In the late 1990s, the Algerian government attempted to end years of terrorism by offering jihadists amnesty. Islamic fighters came down from their hideouts, registered with the authorities as “repentants,” and were integrated into society. Rachid (Nabil Asli) runs away from his fundamentalist compatriots in the mountain and reports to the cops; the police chief, Redouane (Mohamed Takiret), gets him a job with embittered cafe owner Salah (Hacene Benzerari), and Rachid appears to be fitting into normal life.

Then, he meets pharmacist Lakhdar (Khaled Benaissa). What actually transpires between these two isn’t seen or heard: first a one-sided phone call that visibly upsets Lakhdar, then a meeting that isn’t shown. What’s clear is Lakhdar’s intense isolation: He lives in a bare apartment, drinking copious amounts of wine and watching Chinese television at night, though presumably he doesn’t understand the language. Like everything else in his life, the boob tube merely fills the hours, since Lakhdar’s only engagement is with his inner demons.

After meeting Rachid, he calls his ex-wife, Djamila (Adila Bendimerad), who angrily makes the long drive to see him. They exude tension when together, uncertain how to behave and unsure if the chasm between them can be bridged. When she snaps that she can’t go back to the same hell as five years earlier, he replies, “Go back? I’m still in it.” They tensely wait for Rachid to call again, yet Allouache withholds explanation of how these three fit together until late in the film. Before the wrenching finale (bring hankies), all that’s clear is that Djamila and Lakhdar had a daughter who died five years earlier.

Many of Allouache’s films express disheartened concern over the rise of fundamentalism (“Bab el Oued City,” “The Other World”), but in “The Repentant,” possibly for the first time, he’s fully engaged with a jihadist’s psyche. Rachid’s escape from his Islamist life is real, and his desire for re-entry into society feels genuine. He has a childlike appreciation of the world around him, yet there’s something else that prevents him from fully assimilating; his denial of past atrocities isn’t convincing, and a skirmish with a revenge-seeker reveals an animal-like violence that’s never far from the surface. On one level, Rachid really may be sorry for what he did, but his personality shift following inculcation into the cult of terrorism can’t be completely buried.

All three leads deliver perfs of stunning emotional depth and complexity, quietly embodying the conflicts raging within. Only Djamila explodes, and when she does, Bendimerad’s expression of rage and grief is devastating. Young d.p. Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune displays a firm control of his handheld camera, appropriately responding to emotions onscreen. Visuals reflect the story’s intimacy while capturing the region’s empty landscape, whose vastness can feel crushing.

The film has unfortunately—though not unexpectedly—not been a box office hit in France. It opened in Paris 2½ weeks ago and is fading fast. The French highbrow movie-going public—the kind that goes to see non-French and non-Hollywood films—is not interested in Algeria (pre- or post-1962), no matter how well-reviewed the film may be. But Algerian-origin audiences in France aren’t interested either. With the exception of Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Indigènes‘—which was as much about France as it was Algeria—every last movie with an Algerian theme has either been a box office failure in France or simply not found its public, including in the immigrant population. E.g. one not too bad Algerian film I saw back in 2006, ‘Barakat!’, I was the only person in the theater (and which was in the Latin Quarter no less). Algerians are just not a cinema-going people, and certainly not serious cinema (I know I’ll get into trouble with some for saying this but I don’t care, because it’s true). There are hardly any cinemas in Algeria and most that exist are for young males only—adults and women do not set foot in them—and show trash. And that culture carries over into the immigrant community in France. And when Algerians do go to the movies, they show little to no interest in movies by Algerian directors. C’est dommage.

But if French and Algerians are not going to see ‘Le Repenti’, Americans and others should. So if you have a chance to see it, do so. You won’t regret it. Et si vous êtes à Paris, voici les séances actuellement.

the repentant

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Donetsk 15 juin 2012

Conservative commentator Rod Dreher explains (via The Dish) why so many American conservatives have a problem with France. In short: France has a great culture and which makes some Americans insecure. The French also know how to live the good life and Americans are suspicious of that. Watch here.

The Dish post also links to a piece Dreher wrote for NRO in 2003, “I like France: A defense of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” in which, while denouncing France’s Iraq policy, he defends the country’s culture. I will wager that Dreher would probably want to take back his criticism of the French on Iraq (which France was of course right about), as well as his line about them “find[ing] it difficult to stand up to Islamic terrorism,” a domain in which the French have won kudos even from American conservatives.

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The Boston bombers – IV


A couple of links. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Carola Suárez-Orozco, dean and professor respectively at UCLA, have an op-ed in the NYT on “Immigrant kids, adrift,” in which they discuss a study of theirs that finds

that the second generation — American-born kids of immigrant parents — assimilate, and even excel, to a greater extent than the “1.5 generation” (children who immigrate in or before their early teens).

This seems true from my own observations over the decades. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were members of the 1½ generation.

And the WSJ has a most interesting reportage on how Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s “Turn to religion split [his] home.” After converting to radical jihadism Tamerlan succeeding in convincing his mother to don the hijab but his father sharply opposed his new posture, and which, it seems, led to the parents’ divorce. This dynamic is not infrequent in Muslim immigrant families in North America and Europe.

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Khomeini rises

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


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The Boston bombers – III


Just links today, no commentary. Except for one little bit on this FBI wanted poster, where one notes the DOB of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: July 22 1993. My daughter was born in 1993, as were most of her childhood friends. My daughter is a kid—for me at least—, as are her childhood friends. Now I can accept that someone born in 1993 could possibly be a terrorist. But a sufficiently dangerous terrorist to lock down a major US metropolitan area? This I cannot accept. It is thoroughly nonsensical.

On the lockdown, Harvard prof and Über-IR specialist Stephen Walt has an understated blog post on “America the skittish.”

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading commentators, has a column on Ynet in which he says that Americans act “As if they caught another bin Laden.” The lede: “Americans’ reaction to capture of teenage Boston terrorist [is] exaggerated, sends dangerous message.”

In TNR John Judis interviews the always interesting French Islamologue Olivier Roy on the Boston bombings.

The NYT has a reportage datelined Dagestan on how “Search for home led suspect to land marred by strife.”

The suspect, of course, is Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The Boston Globe reports on how he disrupted services at the Cambridge mosque. He was a bit of a hothead. An outlier.

In a somewhat of a correction to what I wrote yesterday about America possibly being a nation of p**sies, WaPo has an article on how “Americans [are] react[ing] to Boston bombings with confidence and resilience.” C’est bien.

And finally, Richard Falk, Princeton emeritus professor and current UNHRC Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, has “A commentary on the marathon murders” in Foreign Policy Journal, in which just about everything he has to say is irrelevant and has nothing to do with anything. Richard Falk is a broken record who has been droning on about the same goddamned thing for decades. He is also a nutbag and a whack job whose UNHRC position only further discredits the already discredited UNHRC. Ban Ki-moon would do well to terminate his UN employment. Immediately.

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The Boston bombers – II

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Having been tweaked all day by a critic on FB for yesterday’s post on the Boston bombers, I am going to refrain from offering my own commentary for the next 48 hours, until the dust has settled a bit. So in lieu of my pertinent observations here are a few good articles I’ve read today.

The most ‘must read’ one is John Cassidy’s commentary in The New Yorker on the Boston lockdown, on how the “Terrorist hunt [sent] America over the edge.” Money quote

From one perspective, I suppose, [the lockdown] was just a sensible precaution. During the overnight shootout, many details of which remain unclear, one police officer had been killed and another one had been injured. The police believed Dzhokhar to be armed and dangerous. But does that justify locking down an entire city? America is a violent place. Practically every day, somewhere in the country, cops are looking for armed and dangerous men who have just killed one or more innocent members of the public. But when a gunman runs amok in East L.A., say, they don’t close down Brentwood or Santa Monica. The very thought is absurd.

Ah, you may say, Tsarnaev wasn’t just an ordinary criminal or lunatic; he was a terrorist, and, according to some reports, he had one or more explosive devices, possibly including a bomb vest. Now we are getting to the crux of things. Whenever the word “terrorist” is mentioned in this country, reason tends to go out the window, and many other things go with it, too, such as intellectual consistency, a respect for civil liberties, and a sense of proportion.

The Boston lockdown was insane. Totally unhinged. Even America’s Israeli friends are shaking their heads in dismay, wondering if the great hyperpower is a nation of p**sies. Whether Americans are this or not, terrorists the world over have now been informed: if you want to bring the United States of America to its heels, to sow mass hysteria and chaos and inflict tens of billions of dollars of economic losses subsequent to mass lockdowns, just plant a few simultaneously exploding homemade bombs across the country (in shopping malls, high school sporting events, wherever) that can be labeled “terrorist” (and better yet, Islamic jihadist terrorist). Could this possibly happen in the coming years? What do you think?

If such a scenario does come to pass—and particularly if there are a few of them in rapid succession—America could indeed witness a suspension of constitutionally guaranteed liberties, or at least intense pressure in this direction. And on this, I have no confidence whatever in the American political class, and particularly on the right side of the political spectrum.

In the wake of the Boston bombing and attendant hysteria, Emily Bazelon in Slate asks “How much civil liberty should we give up?” The lede: “Not much. The truth is it doesn’t appear that greater powers would have helped the authorities stop the Boston bombing.”

On the lockdown, Sandy Tolan has a post on his blog asking some questions about martial law in Boston. And a former student of mine, who will be graduating from Harvard next month, posted this FB status update today in regard to the Saudi marathon man who was briefly detained last week

It was startling to see how few people (on campus) raised objections to the treatment of this man. When the stakes of catching the “bad guy” were so painfully evident and when violence touched close to home, people seemed to care a LOT less about racial profiling…


David Cay Johnston has a timely article in The National Memo on “How the NRA impeded the Boston bomber investigation.” And retired FBI agent Coleen Rowley has a not uninteresting piece in Consortiumnews.com on “Chechen terrorists and the neocons.”

And as a useful reminder, an Atlantic piece from last June has been circulating on how “Americans are as likely to be killed by their own furniture as by terrorism.”

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The Boston bombers

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev  (Photos: Julia Malakie/The Lowell Sun via AP; FBI via AFP/Getty Images)

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
(Photos: Julia Malakie/The Lowell Sun via AP; FBI via AFP/Getty Images)

So they turned out to be Chechens. Or, more specifically, ethnic Chechens from Kyrgyzstan. Of all the ridiculous speculation since Monday as to the identity of the bomber(s)—if he/they were Arabs, Muslims, homegrown American extremists (à la Timothy McVeigh), whatever—I doubt anyone thought they’d be this (the only thing that was clear from the outset was that the perpetrators had to be from the Boston area). Okay, so they’re Muslims—which will warm the hearts of Pamela Geller, Steven Emerson, Daniel Pipes, and certain persons I know personally—but so what? If the alienated, angry Tamerlan hadn’t been a radicalized Muslim with access to jihadist websites, he would have likely committed his massacre the all-American way, by acquiring assault rifles and mowing people down à la Sandy Hook or Columbine.

In respect to the Columbine killers (today is the anniversary of that massacre, BTW), they were such outliers—so statistically insignificant in terms of what they did—that no lessons could be drawn from it (except in regard to the ease with which Americans can acquire an arsenal of weapons). Their motivations were psychological (and with one of the killers being the psychopath who hatched the plan). It looks to be likewise with the Boston bombers. One does learn that Tamerlan didn’t have American friends and that he felt alienated from America. This sometimes happens with immigrants who arrive in their mid teens. It’s a delicate age and fitting into the American teen life is not easy if one comes from a different culture, particularly one from Asia. But Tamerlan was doubly deracinated, as even back “home”—in Kyrgyzstan and Daghestan—he was, as an ethnic Chechen, an outsider. So he had some psychological issues and, unlike the Columbine killers—whose massacre was rendered possible by America’s gun culture—, not much could have been done to prevent him from making and planting his homemade bomb once he decided to do so.

I’ve read a few worthy articles on the subject today, one being the NYT’s reportage on the “Boy [Dzhokhar] at home in the U.S. [being] swayed by the one who wasn’t [Tamerlan].” And on the NYT opinion page is an op-ed by journalist Oliver Bullough, who has covered the Chechen conflict, “Beslan meets Columbine.”

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a comment, “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, lost and found,” in which he makes this observation

And it was an American story, too, in what could only be called a hysterical and insular overreaction that allowed it to become the sole national narrative. I happened to be in London on 7/7—a far more deadly and frightening terrorist attack—and by 7 P.M. on that horrible day, with the terrorists still at large (they were dead already, but no one knew that) the red double-decker buses were rolling and the traffic was turning and life, though hardly normal, was determinedly going on. The decision to shut down Boston, though doubtless made in good faith and from honest anxiety, seemed like an undue surrender to the power of the terrorist act—as did, indeed, the readiness to turn over the entire attention of the nation to a violent, scary, tragic, lurid but, in the larger scheme of things, ultimately small threat to the public peace.

Yes, America’s wild, hysterical overreaction to terrorist attacks, however few people end up being killed. The lockdown in Boston was insane. No such lockdown is conceivable in any other country in the world—or even in the US if it were just an ordinary killer on the loose. Or even a serial killer.

À propos, I am reminded today by DC friend Dan Brumberg of the October 2002 sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area. Quoting Dan on FB

The Boston story and the fate of the 19 year old arrested last night reminds me of Lee Boyd Malvo, 17 years old when he teamed up with his murderous “father figure” [John Allen Muhammad] to terrorize DC for weeks. I remember sitting at an outdoor cafe wondering if we would be shot…the entire thing was surreal more than scary…Places we normally passed through or shot at were scenes of death.

Yet there was no lockdown in DC at the time. Nor, needless to say, was there a stigmatizing of blacks or Caribbean immigrants on account of the killer’s race and racial motives in committing his crimes.

Also in The New Yorker are comments by Jeffrey Toobin, “Could we have foreseen the Boston attack?” (answer: no) and David Remnick, “The Brothers Tsarnaev,” in which he focuses on the Chechen angle.

Focusing on the Chechen angle as well is TNR’s Julia Ioffe, who was born and raised in Russia, “The Boston bombing suspects were reared by both Chechnya and America.”

Writer Alyssa Lindley Kilzer, who knew the Tsarnaev family, has an account on her blog, “I’ve met the Boston bombers,” and which has some interesting information.

And if anyone hasn’t seen it by now, here’s the must watch interview with Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar.

More to follow.

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From The New York Times op-ed page


SENATORS say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets. The fear that those children who survived the massacre must feel every time they remember their teachers stacking them into closets and bathrooms, whispering that they loved them, so that love would be the last thing the students heard if the gunman found them.

On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms — a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.

Some of the senators who voted against the background-check amendments have met with grieving parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook, in Newtown. Some of the senators who voted no have also looked into my eyes as I talked about my experience being shot in the head at point-blank range in suburban Tucson two years ago, and expressed sympathy for the 18 other people shot besides me, 6 of whom died. These senators have heard from their constituents — who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks. And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them.

I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.

Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious. I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done, and until we have changed our laws so we can look parents in the face and say: We are trying to keep your children safe. We cannot allow the status quo — desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation — to go on.

I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences.

People have told me that I’m courageous, but I have seen greater courage. Gabe Zimmerman, my friend and staff member in whose honor we dedicated a room in the United States Capitol this week, saw me shot in the head and saw the shooter turn his gunfire on others. Gabe ran toward me as I lay bleeding. Toward gunfire. And then the gunman shot him, and then Gabe died. His body lay on the pavement in front of the Safeway for hours.

I have thought a lot about why Gabe ran toward me when he could have run away. Service was part of his life, but it was also his job. The senators who voted against background checks for online and gun-show sales, and those who voted against checks to screen out would-be gun buyers with mental illness, failed to do their job.

They looked at these most benign and practical of solutions, offered by moderates from each party, and then they looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby — and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing.

They will try to hide their decision behind grand talk, behind willfully false accounts of what the bill might have done — trust me, I know how politicians talk when they want to distract you — but their decision was based on a misplaced sense of self-interest. I say misplaced, because to preserve their dignity and their legacy, they should have heeded the voices of their constituents. They should have honored the legacy of the thousands of victims of gun violence and their families, who have begged for action, not because it would bring their loved ones back, but so that others might be spared their agony.

This defeat is only the latest chapter of what I’ve always known would be a long, hard haul. Our democracy’s history is littered with names we neither remember nor celebrate — people who stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful. On Wednesday, a number of senators voted to join that list.

Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s. To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.

Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic representative from Arizona from 2007 to 2012, is a founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, which focuses on gun violence.

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It is with sadness that I learned of the death yesterday of Aristide Zolberg, emeritus professor of political science at the New School. He was my professor and mentor during my first two years of graduate school at the University of Chicago, until he took up his appointment at the New School in 1983. He was a brilliant social scientist and whose presence at Chicago was one of the reasons I chose to pursue my graduate studies there. I was greatly influenced by his macrohistorical approach to comparative politics and shared his main academic interests, in European—and particularly French—politics and history, in ethnicity and ethnic conflict, and in the field of immigration (history, sociology, politics, and policy) and international migration, of which he was one of the leading social science authorities from the 1970s on. We stayed in touch over the years and saw one another off and on, in New York and during his many visits to Paris. We were very much on the same wavelength intellectually and politically. And I liked him personally. Here’s the announcement of his passing on the New School’s website

New School professor Aristide R. Zolberg, one of the world’s leading voices on the politics, history, and ethics of immigration, has died at the age of 81. Zolberg served as Walter A. Eberstadt Professor of Politics and University in Exile Professor Emeritus at The New School for Social Research. A distinguished political scientist and a preeminent scholar of comparative politics, the history of international migration, nationalism and ethnicity, and immigration policy in North America and Western Europe, he served for many years as the founding director of the International Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship at The New School.

Early in life, Zolberg experienced first-hand the perils of war, ethnic hatred, displacement, and exile. A Polish Jew, Ary was born shortly before the Nazis rose to power, and survived World War II under an assumed Catholic identity in Belgium. After the war he became a refugee in the United States, and earned his doctorate in political science at the University of Chicago.

Zolberg mentored and inspired several generations of colleagues and students at The New School, where he was first appointed as Distinguished Professor of Political Science in 1983, as well as at the University of Chicago and many other institutions where he held academic appointments. Zolberg’s book, A Nation by Design, remains one of the most authoritative accounts of immigration history in the United States and a compelling story of how immigration shaped this country. His humanity and erudition will be missed by countless colleagues, students, and readers.

Yes, he will be missed. There are few political scientists like Ari Zolberg left (in America at least), who have his erudition and intellectual and academic interests and range. Nowadays if one is not a mathematician, or prepared to become one, there’s no point pursing a doctorate in political science.

UPDATE: The website Deliberately Considered has tributes to Ari Zolberg by Jeffrey Goldfarb, Kenneth Prewitt, Michael Cohen, and Riva Kastoryano. (April 26)

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The JTA reports that the effort by the US Congress to have Israel added to the Visa Waiver Program—which would allow Israeli passport holders visa-free entry into the US for up to 90 days—has run into problems over the issue of reciprocity, i.e. of the requirement that countries in the VWP also allow Americans visa-free entry. Israel has long done this, of course, except that Americans—and particularly those of Palestinian/Arab origin and/or with Muslim surnames—are often arbitrarily denied entry by Israeli security at Ben Gurion airport or the Allenby bridge—invariably after a lengthy and humiliating interrogation process—and with no explanation. The Israelis do not seek to justify such refusals of entry—pour mémoire, to citizens of a state with which it has exceptionally close relations—and have never, not once, demonstrated that the American deportee constituted a manifest security threat (on a recent instance, see this Haaretz piece on the denial of entry to American citizen Nour Joudah, an English teacher in Ramallah). I’ve written on this several times (e.g. see this post from a year ago, and which spawned a lively debate in the comments thread). So unless the Israelis clean up their act and stop behaving arbitrarily at their ports of entry—and cease discriminating against Americans on account of their ethnicity or putative political views—they should clearly not be admitted into the VWP.

But now AIPAC is pushing Congress to exempt Israel from the reciprocity requirements of the VWP and Barbara Boxer is leading the effort in the Senate. If the Senate bill is enacted Israel would be uniquely excused from the rule applied to the 37 other VWP countries and with Congress formally acquiescing in its discrimination against categories of Americans. Boxer’s Senate bill, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now explains, “takes the extraordinary step of seeking to change the current U.S. law to create a special and unique exception for Israel in U.S. immigration law.” What chutzpah on the part of AIPAC and Boxer et al to try to do this. A number of Congresspersons, otherwise pro-Israel, are indeed balking at the Boxer bill. AIPAC normally gets what it wants on Capitol Hill but not always. I don’t think it will this time—American politicians usually don’t like it when American citizens are discriminated against abroad—but Arab-American and civil liberties groups need to lobby hard to make sure the Boxer bill doesn’t pass.

Even if Israel doesn’t enter the VWP, the US could and should request that the Israelis explicitly explain the reason for each and every arbitrary refusal of entry of an American citizen. And demand that the Israelis stop discriminating against Palestinian-Americans. The European Schengen area, which does allow Israelis visa-free entry, should also start making an issue of discrimination against EU passport holders at Israeli ports of entry.

UPDATE: California law professor George Bisharat, who is Palestinian-American, has an LAT op-ed (April 28) on “Israel’s free pass from Boxer,” in which he describes his experiences with the Ben Gurion Airport security gauntlet. How can anyone possibly justify this?

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gods neighbors

My previous post being on a recently seen film on Islamist extremist fanatics in Morocco, I should mention this film seen even more recently on Jewish religious extremist fanatics in Israel (titre en français: ‘Les Voisins de Dieu’; in Hebrew: ‘The Supervisors’). Meni Yaesh’s directorial debut is set in Bat Yam, a southern banlieue populaire of Tel Aviv on the sea—just below Jaffa—, and with a focus on three twentysomething, cannabis smoking layabout tough guys who like to brawl—only one of whom, the protag Avi (actor Roy Assaf), is clearly gainfully employed, albeit in a petit boulot—and who follow Breslov Hasidism, but take its teachings much more literally and fundamentally than does their rabbi. So they become self-appointed enforcers of a Jewish fundamentalist order in their housing project—Jewish salafists, as it were—and with particular attention to women who, in their estimation, are too immodestly dressed. They also take action against local men who don’t respect the Sabbath—e.g. who close their shops a half hour after sundown on Friday—and get particularly worked up over Arabs from Jaffa who cruise through their ‘hood with Arab music blaring from their cars. But Avi gets a crush on the young woman, Miri (actress Rotem Ziesman-Cohen, who is rather attractive IMHO), whom he and his buddies have been harassing to dress more modestly, i.e. not to wear shorts, which causes him to waver in his religiously extremist convictions and undermines the cohesion of his small group solidarity.

I thought it was an engaging film, nuanced, and well done. The Hollywood Reporter and Variety liked it, as did the website Israel 21c. French reviews are also good.


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Horses of God

les chevaux de dieu

I’ve been intending to write about this very good Moroccan film I saw last month, which has as its subject jihadist terrorism and the socio-political terrain that spawns it. It’s set in the sprawling Sidi Moumen shantytown on the periphery of Casablanca—the pic wasn’t shot there but sure looks like it was—and follows a gang of boys from mid childhood to their early 20s, in particular two brothers, Yacine and Hamid, who are the film’s protags. The early scenes, set precisely in 1994, are straight out of ‘Los Olvidados’ or ‘Pixote’, of the world of slum boys and its destitution and violence, and with Hamid the exceptionally wild, violent one. Jump to 1999 and Hamid, now in his teens, has become a drugged-out, alcohol-drinking voyou, who turns over the proceeds of his thievery and thuggishness to his mother, who doesn’t ask questions as to where the money comes from (the father is a catatonic invalid, sitting in front of the television all day). Morocco’s bas-fonds. This is not Anfa (Casa’s Beverly Hills) or the social stratum of ‘Marock‘. Hamid eventually gets arrested and is sentenced to two years in prison, during which time Yacine, who is more sage, gets an honest job in a shantytown repair shop. When Hamid returns to Sidi Moumen he is inevitably sporting a beard and has become calm and soft-spoken, as he found religion in prison, i.e. became a salafist. Of course. He then sets about converting older brother Yacine—initially reluctant—and boyhood friends into takfirist salafism, of which there is a cell in Sidi Moumen.

What happens in the film is fairly predictable and I’d pretty much seen it all before, notably in Philippe Faucon’s first-rate ‘La Désintégration‘, which is set in a cité in France and among the offspring of mainly Moroccan immigrants. ‘Les Chevaux de Dieu’ is essentially ‘La Désintégration’ set in the bidonvilles of Morocco’s cities (though the mother in the former pic is a rather less sympathetic character than in the latter). But this is not to diminish or denigrate the film. Director Nabil Ayouch did a very good job across the board, in the casting (all amateurs) and depicting the world of Morocco’s shantytowns, whose inhabitants are entirely excluded from society—the boys had never ventured into the center of Casablanca until their recruitment into the jihadist cell—and where the state is almost entirely absent, save for the occasional police raid (and carried out with the usual brutality). There are no public services, no schools in sight, no anything that comes from the state except for repression. Above all, Ayouch nailed it in portraying the mechanisms by which young men from the slums are indoctrinated into radical Islamism, through material incentives, peer pressure, offers one can’t refuse, and doses of brainwashing, and where the jihadist cell ringleaders are violent criminals for whom the young recruits are nothing more than cannon fodder for their suicide terror attacks and other acts of iniquity. Once inside a jihadist cell—which is a religious cult cum criminal enterprise—there is no exit, and one does not decline invitations to participate in a “martyrdom” operation. The film climaxes with the May 16 2003 terrorist bombings in Casablanca (and with the Sidi Moumen boys sent to the Casa de España restaurant in the city center). Hamid has états d’âme and tries to find a way out (and to persuade brother Yacine) but there’s no way. One way or the other, it’s near certain death.

This is one of those films with which I was increasingly impressed as it moved along, and particularly in thinking about it afterward. French reviews are good (with spectators on Allociné rating it even higher than the critics). Variety’s Jay Weissberg and The Hollywood Reporter also gave it the thumbs up. It is recommended to anyone interested in the question of jihadist terrorism and particularly for courses taught on the general subject. Pedagogically it’s very good, indeed one of the best on the subject. And on the subject—on reading to accompany the film—, I recommend academic specialist Selma Belaala’s pertinent 2004 article “Morocco: slums breed jihad.”

For the record, I will briefly mention another film, ‘Goodbye Morocco’, that I saw just after ‘Les Chevaux de Dieu’. As the title suggests it’s set in Morocco (Tangier), though the director, Nadir Moknèche, is Algerian. I’ll let Hollywood Reporter‘s critic introduce it

Writer-director Nadir Moknèche’s superior multicultural drama weaves together a dark tangle of subplots about art theft, infidelity, kidnapping, murder and immigration. Inspired by real events, this multi-layered suspense thriller is part murder mystery, part film noir and part dysfunctional love triangle.

Screen Daily‘s critic is on the same page

An impressively steamy and complex mystery thriller, apparently inspired by real events, writer/director Nadir Moknèche’s nicely shot film, which had its world premiere at the Doha Tribeca International Film Festival is a classily made film…

Variety’s critic, who also gave it thumbs up, aptly called it “[a]n eminently watchable curiosity.” Yes, definitely watchable. French reviews, though a notch below the aforediscussed pic, are good. It may not be worth venturing across town to see but one may definitely do so chez soi on DVD or streaming.


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Margaret Thatcher, R.I.P.

margaret thatcher 1983

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I was initially not going to write anything about her passing but seeing that my FB timeline is inundated with posts on her—90% of it vitriol and hate from my numerous gauchiste FB friends—I suppose I should add my 2¢ as well (and no more than that). I was not a Thatcherite, loin s’en faut, disliking her out of gauchiste ideological reflex. But I couldn’t get too worked up over her, as I’m not a Brit, spent all of two weeks in England during her years in power, and was too consumed by my detestation of the Reagan administration to get overly emotional on what was happening across the pond. And I did support her sending the Royal Navy to the Falklands in ’82 (and made no secret of it). Rising to the top of a male-dominated political world when she did and imposing her authority also aroused a certain admiration. I liked Shirley Williams but don’t know if she would have had a chance at the time, even if the UK had had a different electoral system. In this respect, Thatcher was blessed by the first-past-the-post system—the Tories did not receive more than 43% of the vote in any of the elections she won—, the divided opposition, and lack of checks-and-balances in the British system, meaning she had free rein to impose her legislation. And she was especially blessed by the calamitous state of the Trotskyist-infiltrated Labour party and the trade unions, and notably Arthur Scargill’s mine workers. Between Thatcher and Scargill, one had little choice but to tilt toward the former. À propos, Libération has an interview with left-wing French economist Denis Clerc, who, in an otherwise negative assessment of Thatcher’s record, said that Thatcher’s victory in the miners conflict was necessary, as British unions had become a conservative force clinging to an economic model that Britain could no longer sustain.

Mrs. Thatcher may have been hated by British (and US) leftists but French Socialists—who were in power during most of the time she was—had a certain admiration for her (as a leader and interlocutor, if not politically). And François Mitterrand definitely did (saying that she had the eyes of Stalin and the smile of Marilyn Monroe). As for Thatcher’s economic policies, the main thing she did was privatize. So did the French right during the first cohabitation (1986-88). And the Socialists did even more from 1997 onward. But she didn’t privatize the NHS, and the disastrous privatization of British Rail was the doing of John Major. Thatcher also kept the Bank of England under political control. As for her Euroscepticism and opposition to EMU, she had good company in France (Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Charles Pasqua, Philippe Séguin…). On Thatcher’s privatizations, here’s a 1994 academic article by political scientist (and personal friend) Stathis Kalyvas, “Hegemony Breakdown: The Collapse of Nationalization in Britain and France.” And here’s a piece by historian Harold James on “Margaret Thatcher’s Lessons for Europe.” I’ll link to more good stuff I come across.

One thing. All sorts of lefties on FB are asserting that Thatcher called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” in the 1980s. I’ve been trying to find a precise quote and but haven’t been able to, which leads me to think that maybe she never said such a thing about Mandela (as opposed to the ANC, which she did label “terrorist” in the ’80s). She did oppose imposing sanctions on South Africa, which is known, but it seems that she lobbied the apartheid regime to release Mandela. If anyone has specific information on this, do let me know.

ADDENDUM: On the Thatcher biopic ‘The Iron Lady‘, the US reviews of which were mixed, I wrote the following on this blog last June 17th

It’s hard to make a really good biopic. Some succeed, more don’t. This one did not, and despite Meryl Streep’s stellar performance (her Oscar was well-deserved). Too much on Mrs. Thatcher’s descent into Alzheimer’s, not enough on her years in power. The latter was given short shrift in the pic, which I could not understand. Whatever one thinks of Thatcher—and few are neutral on her, politically or on her persona—she was one of the major political figures in the Western world of the past half century. She deserved a better cinematic treatment than this.

French reviews weren’t too positive either. Don’t know how the pic was received in Britain, though leftists—critics and audiences alike—no doubt trashed it.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan, who was a teenage Thatcherite, assesses her legacy here (he calls her a “liberator”).

2nd UPDATE: Paul Krugman asks—with graphs and data—”Did Thatcher turn Britain around?” Answer: insofar as she did, it didn’t happen while she was in office. Bruce Bartlett, in discussing “The legend of Margaret Thatcher,” reminds us that taxes as a share of GDP sharply increased under Thatcher, spending was not reduced, and she left office with the welfare state intact. And like all Brits, she strongly supported the National Health Service. US Republicans take note. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy reminisces on “Maggie and me: how Thatcher changed Britain.” Martin Wolf has a column in the FT on “Thatcher: the great reformer,” in which he observes, entre autres, that Thatcher was a pragmatic politician who showed little interest in embarking on politically suicidal attempts to dismantle the welfare state, and certainly not the NHS, and that public spending never fell below 39% of GDP under her watch. Again, US Republicans take note.

3rd UPDATE: The Guardian has published an epitaph for Mrs. Thatcher written by Hugo Young, a Thatcher biographer (not sympathetic) and longtime Guardian political columnist, days before he died in 2003, “Margaret Thatcher left a dark legacy that has still not disappeared.” Among other things, he had this to say

Thatcherism failed to destroy the welfare state. The lady was too shrewd to try that, and barely succeeded in reducing the share of the national income taken by the public sector. But the sense of community evaporated. There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with. This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn’t care if it happened or not. But it did, and the consequences seem impossible to reverse.

And this

on the subject of Europe, Thatcher became a contradictory figure. She led Britain further into Europe, while talking us further out. Endeavouring to persuade the British into an attitude of hostility to the group with which she spent 11 years deepening their connection must take a high place in any catalogue of anti-statesmanship. This, too, we still live with.

The Washington Post has republished on its website a piece dated December 22 2011 by Thatcher biographer Claire Berlinski (sympathetic), “Five myths about Margaret Thatcher,” in which she says this about Mrs. Thatcher’s European convictions

Yes, she is known as the great Euroskeptic. But the peculiar truth is that for most of her career, she was a passionate advocate of European unification. In 1975, she led the Tory faction of the “Vote Yes” campaign in referendum to determine whether Britain should stay in the Common Market, the precursor to the modern European Union. The Single European Act of 1986, which revised the Treaty of Rome to expand the power of the European Economic Community, as the Common Market was then known, was her initiative.

On the subject of Thatcher and Europe, a friend who worked with the EC/EU for much of his career wrote to me in an email today (April 9) that

One aspect that seems to be missed is the great irony of her career. She was a main driver of the expansion if the EU and turned it into a thoroughly “British” affair (by which I mean driven by free market ideology. She pushed the Single European Act which has done for Europe what the Interstate commerce act did for the US. The SEA created the internal market and caused the number of regulations (loose use of the word) to increase by orders of magnitude.

My friend also added this Anglo-French pun, that apparently never caught on: Thatch = chaume. Thatcher = chaumeur = chômeur. 😀

Re Hugo Young above, the LRB has a lengthy 1989 review by R.W. Johnson of Young’s biography of Thatcher. Also on the LRB website is this 1994 piece by Christopher Hitchens in which he describes being spanked (literally) by Mrs. T.

4th UPDATE: Political scientist Stephen Benedict Dyson has interesting essay, “Margaret Thatcher, her personality and politics,” on the academic website The Monkey Cage. And Anthony Barnett of OpenDemocracy has a piece on “Thatcher and the words no one mentions: North Sea Oil.”

5th UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a blog post on Thatcher’s penchant for regressive taxation, in which he informs us who is “Margaret Thatcher’s true heir“: Bobby Jindal. John Palmer, think tank wonk and former Guardian editor, informs us in the fine website Social Europe Journal that “Margaret Thatcher’s social and economic ‘revolution’ has proved a failure.” Nicolas Gros-Verheyde on the Bruxelles2 blog has a good post on Thatcher’s European convictions. And on NRO, a website I look at as little as possible, Claire Berlinski (supra) is interviewed on why “Thatcher matters.” Claire may be a Thatcherite but is no hack. Her views are nuanced and complex, even if I’m not on the same political page as she. At some point I’ll read her biography of Mrs. T.

6th UPDATE: The leftist Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has a very good, balanced assessment, “Farewell Mrs Thatcher: In spite of everything, you are being missed already.” In TNR, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes on “The importance of being prickly: How Margaret Thatcher ruled,” in which he discusses, entre autres, the dim view Mrs. T had of much of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy. And Stylist magazine, in assessing the legacy of the Iron Lady, asks “Was Thatcher a feminist?

7th UPDATE: Theodore Dalrymple of the conservative Manhattan Institute has an interesting assessment of Mrs. T’s legacy on the Liberty Law Blog, in which he asks “What hath Thatcher wrought?” For his part, Ali Gharib on the Open Zion blog asks “What kind of friend to Israel was Thatcher?” (Answer: she was a friend but not uncritically). Historian David Cannadine, writing in the NYT, poses his question, “How should we rank Margaret Thatcher?” And IFRI’s Politique Étrangère blog reprints a 1989 portrait (en français) of la Dame de fer—which is not too tender—by the late defense analyst and Tory party member, Hugh Hanning.

8th UPDATE: Economist John Van Reenen has analysis at VoxEU on “Mrs Thatcher’s economic legacy.” And the trendy Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in “a leftist tribute to Thatcher,” says that

What we need today, in this situation, is a Thatcher of the left: a leader who would repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction, transforming the entire field of presuppositions shared by today’s political elite of all main orientations.

To which a lefty friend—who may or may not have been joking—responded: yes, Chairman Mao! Well, if that’s the leftist answer to Mrs. T, I’ll take Mrs. T any old day…

9th UPDATE: I had a lively exchange on FB over this post with a leftist FB friend named Joel, who expressed indignation at what he saw as my limp-wristed critique—if not backhanded defense—of Margaret Thatcher. Here is my portion of the exchange (Joel has deleted his, though one may divine its tenor from my remarks)

Joel, thanks for your comments. I was not focused on ridiculing knee-jerk leftists – I think you’re overly sensitive here – even though knee-jerk leftists do sometimes merit ridicule. On what happened to the British economy under Thatcher, I am familiar with the story and data, but given the calamitous state of that economy when she came to power, I wonder how different it would have been (in terms of unemployment and inflation) had Labour or the Tory wets been at the helm in the 1980s. As for the privatization of enterprises in the competitive, productive sector of the economy, this was going to happen sooner or later anyway, as it did in France (and on this specific issue, I’m a neoliberal). On trade unions, I’m totally for them, except when they become rent-seeking, conservative, and retrograde, which was indeed the case for at least some in the TUC. In very specific cases, unions sometimes do deserve to be smashed (as I’ve argued on my blog in re to a couple of cases in France). And in the conflict between Thatcher and the Stalin-praising Scargill, I will reiterate here my tilt toward the former, no apologies. Thatcher’s economic legacy is the only question that interests me – I couldn’t care less if she embraced Pinochet or Zia ul-Haq – and on this, I follow the lead of economists like Krugman. The verdict: mixed, with a lot of negative points but not totally so.

I’m struck by the torrent of hatred toward Mrs. T. on FB, and almost all from non-Brits at that. It’s as virulent as the Sarkozy hatred on the left in France. Now, I finally couldn’t stand Sarko myself and desperately wanted him to lose the last election, but found the hatred toward him – including in my immediate entourage – unhinged and bordering on the irrational. It seems to be likewise with Thatcher, and with much of it fueled by her public persona more than her policies (and over twenty years after she left the scene; personally speaking, I just can’t continue to despise politicians once they’re gone from power for good, particularly if they left in defeat; though I may make an exception here for Silvio Berlusconi). She personally got under the skin of a lot of people. But insofar as the hatred is due to her policies, it would be useful for lefties to look in the mirror and do a little auto-critiquing themselves, as the Labour party was in pretty bad shape in the late 70s-80s (and by lurching left in the 1983 elections, enabled Thatcher to win easy reelection). The fact is, the Labour party – and particularly its Tony Benn wing – was not credible in the early 80s and had no chance of rallying anything approaching an electoral majority (if the UK had had PR and necessitating coalition govts, the Alliance would have no doubt joined with the Tories rather than Labour in ’83)…

Following Joel’s rejoinder (deleted), I riposted

Joel, the last thing I’m going to do is go to bat for Thatcher’s policies. Seriously. But your rage against the course of history over the past few decades – to which I am not unsympathetic – strikes me as manichean and devoid of any autocritique of the left (Labour party and the unions) and its role in facilitating Thatcher’s rise to power. In point of fact, many features of the postwar UK (and US) economic model had become unsustainable by the late 1970s – politically speaking at least – and had to be reinvented. Listen, those coal mines were not going to be kept open and industry in the competitive sector of the economy was not going to remain under state control. The only alternative I can glean from your denunciation is a Soviet-style command economy behind high protectionist barriers. But this model failed miserably everywhere it was implemented. And there was no electoral majority for it, and certainly not in the 1970s and ’80s (let alone today). There is no getting around this fact.

Joel may have had a response here but I left it at that.

10th UPDATE: Martin Sieff, who belongs to an outfit called the Globalist Research Center, says that “Thatcher lives! In Moscow.” Interesting take. (April 19)

11th UPDATE: The New York Times has an article on newly declassified British “[d]ocuments show[ing] Thatcher-Reagan rift over U.S. decision to invade Grenada.” (August 1)

12th UPDATE: LSE emeritus prof John Gray has an essay in TNR on “Margaret Thatcher’s unintended legacies.” The lede: “She wanted a conservative, middle-class England. She delivered anything but.” (August 23)

13th UPDATE: The Economist has a review of a new book by Robin Renwick, a former British diplomat and ambassador to South Africa (1987-91), The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution, in which he reveals the behind-the-scenes role played by Margaret Thatcher in coaxing the South African government to free Nelson Mandela and nudging the two sides into the negotiations that led to the end of the Apartheid regime. Quoting the review

After meeting Thatcher in Downing Street months after his release, Mandela declared, “She is an enemy of apartheid.” He later freely admitted that his country had “much to be thankful to her for”.

Interesting. Read the review here. (March 14, 2015)


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Dealing with bad reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Roger Ebert, R.I.P.


He was a great film critic, one of America’s best ever, and the one I followed the most closely over the decades. This was only normal coming from Chicago, where he was followed by just about everyone who paid attention to movie reviews. During my years in Chicago I looked forward to his reviews every Friday in the Sun-Times, not to mention his TV show with Gene Siskel (who died in 1999, also of cancer). And after settling in Paris and getting the Internet (in 1995, to be exact), I subscribed to his email list. I didn’t always agree with his reviews—which was only normal (do people ever agree 100% of the time on movies?)—but was on the same page with him more than any other film critic I can think of. And when it came to foreign films, including French, anything he gave the thumbs up to I would put on my list to see (his reports from the Cannes Film Festival were great). As for his liberal political views—which he expressed on occasion—I can’t think of a time when I didn’t give the thumbs way up to whatever he had to say. He will be missed.

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Al-Qossour, Homs (Photo credit: Lens Yong Homsi/AP)

Al-Qossour, Homs (Photo credit: Lens Yong Homsi/AP)

I have no idea. Except that—and as I’ve insisted more than once—the US should stay out of the conflict, as its direct implication can only make the situation there worse. But I’m not even sure about that now. Syria is on the way to Somalia-ization and I don’t know what can stop that process at this point—though I am open to being persuaded that US and European aid to the rebels would be preferable to doing nothing. But now we have Arabist Daniel Pipes arguing (h/t Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi) that the US should overtly support the Ba’athist regime, not because the Ba’athists are the less bad guys in the civil war but as a way of prolonging the stalemate in Syria, as the US “is best off with [the regime and rebels] continuing to fight each other.” In other words, for the slaughter in and destruction of that country to continue indefinitely, as such is in the US strategic interest. Pipes does takes pains to assure that he has “great sympathy and [his] heart bleeds for those who are suffering in Syria…” Yes, I am quite sure his heart goes out to the Syrian people in their hour of need…

It would be one thing if this came from some right-wing blowhard yahoo on Fox News or talk radio but Pipes is a bona fide, Arabic-speaking Middle East specialist. Now, his reactionary politics are well known, not to mention his numerous wacky positions and obsessions, e.g. flirting with Obama birtherism, trying to “prove” that Obama was a Muslim as a child, supporting a permanent Israeli occupation of the entire West Bank (Uzi Landau’s position in the 2006 Israeli elections, which was to the right of Netanyahu’s), promoting the Dutch Muslimophobe Geert Wilders (whom Pipes has called potentially a “world-historical figure”), et j’en passe. But this one is on another level altogether. To advocate a policy that would result in the destruction of countless lives and livelihoods, not to mention of an entire society—a policy that not even a Romney administration would have considered for even one minute—, is so morally reprehensible that I should probably not be wasting my time writing about it and giving it publicity. How even conservatives can accord Pipes’s views any consideration at this point is beyond me.

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