Archive for October, 2013

Lou Reed, R.I.P.

Lou Reed

He was one of my favorites in my mid-late teens—in the 1972-75 years. I loved ‘Transformer’, his chef d’œuvre. ‘Berlin’ wasn’t bad, so far as I remember, and I liked his earlier albums with the Velvet Underground. And I saw him twice in concert: at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in fall 1973 and in Dayton Ohio in fall 1974 (my freshman year of college). Voilà his best songs: Walk on the Wild Side, Vicious, Perfect Day, Satellite of Love, Sweet Jane, Heroin

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I heard on the news this afternoon that the Indian Grand Prix in New Delhi was today. I had no idea there was Formula 1 racing in India. Could I care less? Poser la question c’est y répondre. As it happens, though, I did see this film a couple of weeks ago, which has F1 racing as its subject. Now I have—or had—zero interest in F1 (or NASCAR, or any kind of auto racing), failed to see the appeal of it as a spectator sport, and absolutely did not have this movie on my ‘to see’ list when it came out last month. But then I noted the top reviews—American and particularly the French—and, above all, the gushing reaction of Allociné spectateurs, a certain number of whom seemed to have come across the film almost by accident. Intrigued—and as it was playing at a cinema around the corner from one of my places of work—, I decided to check it out, what the hell.

The verdict: it’s a terrific movie. Absolutely excellent. Top notch entertainment at its best. The pic is about the real life story of the bitter rivalry between two racing car drivers, the Englishman James Hunt (McLaren) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Ferrari), in the early-mid 1970s and that reached its climax during the 1976 F1 season, as they vied for the F1 World Championship. Lauda’s name rang a bell but not Hunt’s and, needless to say, I had no memory of that F1 season (or of any such season prior or subsequent). Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry and detestation of one another was fueled by their diametrically opposed personalities: Hunt the wild-and-crazy Playboy party animal; Lauda serious and straight-laced, faithful to his companion, and entirely focused on his work and winning. But they developed a respect for one another—grudging but that became genuine—in the course of the 1976 season, a respect that was facilitated by their similar class backgrounds and personal circumstances—sons of bourgeois families repudiated by their fathers, who could not abide their career choices—, and the terrible accident sustained by Lauda on the race track that year. Actors Chris Hemsworth (Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (Lauda) are perfectly cast—so it is said by those who know—and the film is faithful to the story of the rivalry (so I understand). And the depictions of the actual races on the track are riveting. I can now see the appeal of auto racing, and particularly F1. This is director Ron Howard’s best film—of the few I’ve seen, at least—since ‘Apollo 13’. When it comes out on DVD I’ll surely see it again. And it’s almost certain to make my ‘Top 10 best of’ list this year. Sans blague.

For the record, I’ve seen two other (sort of) biopics in the past month. One was Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ (en France: ‘Le Majordome’). Everyone knows what this one is about so I don’t need to recount it here. Reviews of the film by Paris critics weren’t bad and it’s been a big hit among the French cinema-going public, but my reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic. The acting is fine and all—particularly the casting choices for the US presidents—but too much of the film is fictionalized (though French movie goers likely think they’re seeing a true story faithfully reenacted; there is also an important translation error in the French subtitles, but I won’t get into that here). E.g. the real life White House butler, who inspired Forest Whitaker’s character, only had one son and who was not a black power activist. Cuba Gooding Jr’s character here not only never existed but his parcours has chronological problems and with one contrivance after another. Contrivance is a general problem in the film. It’s feel-good Hollywood but the point, insofar as the film has one—WSJ critic Joe Morgenstern aptly calls it an Afro-American ‘Forrest Gump’ (a film that had no point, though which was better than this one)—, is not clear to me. The movie may be seen (at home, via Netflix)—for the ensemble cast and a certain entertainment value—but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor.

The other film seen of late was Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Behind the Candelabra’, about Liberace (played by Michael Douglas, perfectly cast) and the love affair he had, in the latter years of his life, with the young hunk Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon). In the US the film was only shown on HBO—Soderbergh couldn’t get Hollywood financing for it, the big studios deeming it a sure box office failure on account of its gay theme—but it had a regular commercial release in France last month (under the title ‘Ma vie avec Liberace’), with lots of publicity (Michael Douglas came to Paris to promote it), and good reviews, both critical and Allociné spectator. It’s okay but left me (and the friend with whom I saw it) unsatisfied. Liberace was an interesting personality and an exceptional showman—plus a great pianist—, but the film focuses too much on his homosexuality, his kitschy tastes, and the specific story with Thorson. One gets the idea early on in the film.  At a full two hours, it’s a little long for what it is. In other words, it drags. It may be seen (again, chez soi on DVD or streaming) but is not essential IMO.



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That was the code name for the US invasion of Grenada, which happened 30 years ago this past Friday, an anniversary I was reminded of by engagé political scientist Stephen Zunes, who has a retrospective on the event. The episode was so pathetic, less on account of the invasion itself—though rightly criticized as a violation of international law by even America’s closest allies (including Margaret Thatcher’s UK), it could have perhaps been defended as a low cost R2P-type operation against a bunch of thugs who had just seized power in a bloody coup (and the Grenadian people did seem grateful for the US action)—than the reaction of the American public. I remember well the upsurge of patriotic chest-thumping and flag-waving—of America kicking butt in a tiny speck of a country that practically no one had heard of—, commentaries by pundits on how the “Vietnam syndrome” had been vanquished, etc, etc. The best reaction to all this came from Clark Clifford, who sniffed that the invasion was akin to the Washington Redskins playing Little Sisters of the Holy Cross, beating them 451-0, and then chanting after the game “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” Clifford, who had been Defense Secretary at the height of the Vietnam War, was not impressed. The pride Americans take in the US military kicking butt in small countries requires explanation, but which I don’t have. Cf. France, which has militarily intervened in small countries on numerous occasions (Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, etc) but that has never aroused any kind of patriotic or nationalist sentiment among the French public. So why are Americans different on this score? Ideas, anyone?

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This is a 3½+ hour, four-part documentary on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations—from the 7th century to the present—by French filmmaker Karim Miské. Parts 1 and 2 aired on ARTE last night and may be watched here (for one week at least). The documentary is quite good and with an impressive number of francophone and anglophone academic and other specialists interviewed. I noted in the credits that the film received the support of the cultural services of the US embassy in Paris. Parts 3 and 4 will air next Tuesday (and which will be on ARTE’s website linked to above).

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GOP Wanker Watch

The Strip Brian McFadden 10132013

[update below]

Wankers. That’s what Bruce Bartlett calls right-wing Republicans (on his Twitter account, at least). An apt expression. (Pour mémoire, Barlett is a one-time conservative Republican and who served the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, so knows the beast intimately). I’ve read a fair amount on the Republican/Tea Party right over the years and particularly of late, with the shutdown psychodrama and all. Of the many analyses and commentaries I’ve come across since my last post on the matter, let me recommend just one, a short piece on the Foreign Affairs website by Michael Kazin, “American unexceptionalism: the Tea Party is special – just not in the way it thinks.” Kazin compares the Tea Party GOP to right-wing populist movements in Europe, including the French Front National—on which he is particularly well-informed for a non-specialist of France—, and sees similarities. In this, he seconds my long-standing equation of the GOP right-wing and the French FN. Some conservatives may not like the parallel but it’s the truth.

Another article, this in Rolling Stone: “Inside the Republican suicide machine,” by Tim Dickinson. The lede: “It’s open warfare within the GOP – and all of America is caught in the crossfire.” The piece is long but worth the read.

UPDATE: The always interesting Michael Lind—who, like Bruce Bartlett, is a one-time conservative—has a pertinent article in Salon (October 22) on how the “Tea Party is an anti-populist elite tool [a]nd…has progressives fooled.” The lede: “This is not some spontaneous uprising. It’s the newest incarnation of a rich, elite, right-wing tradition.”

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Wealth inequality in America


I just came across this YouTube, which was published a year ago. It’s 6½ minutes long. Please watch it.

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The Obamacare rollout


[update below] [2nd update below]

It hasn’t been a success, that’s for sure. I’ve read a few articles here and there that analyze what’s gone wrong. Kimberly J. Morgan’s “Doomed from the start: Why Obamacare’s disastrous rollout is no surprise” is the best. Morgan, who teaches political science at George Washington University, is a specialist of welfare states and social policy—notably American and French (I’ve assigned her publications on France in courses)—, so situates her analysis in a comparative context. As the piece is short, no money quotes. Just read the whole thing (as it’s published on the Foreign Affairs website, it may eventually disappear behind the paywall; if so, let me know and I’ll make the text available).

Ross Douthat, the conservative NYT columnist, has an analysis today on the Obamacare rollout failure. I normally don’t bother with Douthat—who has, of course, opposed Obamacare—but decided to look at this one. It’s not uninteresting. He concludes his column with this

…the wreck of the exchanges may actually be worse for conservative policy objectives than a more successful rollout would have been.

That’s because while conservatives think the Obamacare exchanges are overregulated and oversubsidized, they are actually closer to the right-of-center vision for health care reform than the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which is happening no matter what transpires with Healthcare.gov. So if the exchanges fail and the Medicaid expansion takes effect (and, inevitably, becomes difficult to roll back), we’ll be left with an individual market that’s completely dysfunctional and a more socialized system over all.

In that scenario, the Democratic Party would probably end up pushing, not for the pipe dream of true single payer, but for a further bottom-up/top-down socialization, in which Medicare is offered to 55- to 65-year-olds and Medicaid is eventually expanded even more.

Meanwhile, the task for serious conservative reformers — already not the most politically effective bunch — might actually become harder, because they would have to explain how their plan to build an effective, exchange-based marketplace differed from the Obama White House’s exchange fiasco.

So while Republican politicians may be salivating over a potential Obamacare crisis, the conservative policy thinkers I know are not. They’re hoping, as I’m hoping, that this isn’t as bad as it looks. The chance to say “I told you so” is always nice, but not if the price is a potentially irrecoverable disaster.

FWIW, the right’s leading policy wonk critic of Obamacare, Yuval Levin, has an analysis in NRO “assessing the exchanges.” Not being an habitué of NRO or of Levin’s writings—life is too short—I would not have seen this were it not for The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who linked to it on Twitter and called it a “must-read.” So I read it. Like I said, FWIW.

UPDATE: Tech journalist Gregory Ferenstein, writing in TDB, says that “Obamacare’s rollout is a disaster that didn’t have to happen.” The lede: “How cronyism, secrecy, and authoritarianism doomed Obamacare, and why it was all so unnecessary.”

2nd UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a typically on target column today (October 21), on Obamacare, its botched rollout, and the right’s efforts to undermine the law.

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EU Profiler


Last year I linked to the Politest: le test pour se positionner politiquement, i.e. the test to see where one is situated politically in France (here, with questions translated into English). There’s a similar test—which I just learned about—, EU Profiler, that was devised for the 2009 elections to the European parliament, that tells which parties one is closest to in all European countries. To take the test, go here (on peut le prendre en français et d’autres langues européennes aussi).

Here are the parties in selected European countries that the EU Profiler informs me I am closet to:

France: PRG followed by PS (my Politest result was the other way around)
UK (England): Liberal Democrats
Germany: SPD
Italy: Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (don’t know a thing about them)
Spain: Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (huh?) followed by PSOE
Greece: PASOK (ugh)
Poland: SLD-UP
Turkey: Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi (don’t know them but they sound sympathique)

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For those interested in the EU, today’s New York Times has a must read article on the “Lobbying bonanza as firms try to influence European Union.” American public relations and law firms are heavily involved, and importing Washington/K Street practices to Brussels—and with all that that implies in terms of $$$ and legalized corruption.

On this precise subject, there is an excellent, must see 1½ hour documentary, The Brussels Business, that has aired on television in Europe over the past year. It may be watched in its entirety via this website or on YouTube here or here. La version française—qui est 30 minutes plus courte que la version anglaise—peut être regardée sur la site web d’ARTE ici ou sur YouTube ici.

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Inside the GOP


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

On the political psychodrama on Capitol Hill, Paul Krugman had a blog post yesterday telling you exactly what you need to know about the Republicans and why they are behaving the way they are:

The War On The Poor Is A War On You-Know-Who

Lots of people have been referencing this Democracy Corps report on focus-group meetings with Republicans, and with good reason: Greenberg has basically provided a unified theory of the craziness that has enveloped American politics in the last few years. What the report makes clear is that the current Republican obsession with attacking programs that benefit Americans in need, ranging from food stamps to Obamacare, isn’t about some philosophical commitment to small government, still less worries about incentive effects and implicit marginal tax rates. It’s about anxiety over a changing America — the multiracial, multicultural society we’re becoming — and anger that Democrats are taking Their Money and giving it to Those People. In other words, it’s still race after all these years. One irony here is that at this point it’s the liberals who believe in America, while the conservatives don’t. I believe in our ability to change while retaining our essential nature; I believe that today’s immigrants will be incorporated into the fabric of our society, just as Italian and Jewish immigrants — once regarded as fundamentally incompatible with American ways — became “white” by the middle of the 20th century. Another irony is that the great right-wing fear — that social insurance programs will in effect buy minority votes for Democrats, leading to further change — is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The GOP could have tried to reach out to immigrants, moderate its stances on Obamacare, and stake out a position as the restrained, sensible party. Instead, it’s alienating all the people it needs to win over, and quite possibly setting the stage for the very liberal dominance it fears. Meanwhile, a key takeaway for us wonks is that none of the ostensible debates we’re having — say, the debate over rising disability rolls — can be taken at face value. Yes, we need to crunch the numbers, but in the end the other side doesn’t care about the evidence.

The Democracy Corps memo, “Inside the GOP: Report on focus groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and moderate Republicans,” is here. What the report recounts is not exactly news to anyone who has been following the American right over the years. One thing needs to be made crystal clear: the Republican party base is not opposed to social insurance schemes such as Social Security or Medicare. Right-wing Republicans have no problem with transfer payments that they benefit from. Right-wingers only oppose social insurance when this goes to categories of the population the right doesn’t like, e.g. the “undeserving poor,” or the “47%,” or just them (and the disproportionately white Southern Republican base knows who “them” is). Social insurance schemes—referred to in the US as “entitlements” (an unfortunate neologism that is banned on my blog)—have a conservative pedigree, as I’ve written more than once, and are not opposed by conservative citizens who have paid into them in the course of their working lives. Only an extremist ideological fringe—but which is loud and dominates right-wing media—advocates a mythical libertarian vision of an unregulated free market and minimalist state. Sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, among others, documented this in their essential 2012 book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, which was the fruit of a near full year of field research inside the Tea Party movement in different parts of the country.

On the Tea Party’s antecedents, Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, has a post on “Your grandfather’s Republicans.” The lede: “It’s startling how absolutely unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over fifty years…” Gopnik’s piece begins

My colleague John Cassidy wrote not long ago about his difficulties, shared by the fine historian Jerrold Seigel, in finding an apt historical analogue for the Tea Party caucus as it exists today. Nothing quite like it anywhere else, he mused—and then Cassidy won this Francophile heart, at least, by citing as a possible model the Poujadists and Poujadisme, the small shopkeepers’ revolt in France in the nineteen-fifties—a movement that seemed to wither away when de Gaulle came to power, though it’s still alive today in many of the doctrines and practices of the French National Front.

On the parallel between the Tea Party and French Front National, I wrote on this at length two years ago in my post on “Le Pen and America.” As for the Tea Party resembling the Poujadists: sort of but not really. Poujadism was short-lived—lasting barely two years (it had fizzled by 1957)—and had little ideological content. There was a sharp right-wing populist tone to Pierre Poujade‘s discourse but his world-view—and which was that of his petit bourgeois supporters—was centrist at its core (adhering much more to the republican radicalism of the Third Republic than to the reactionary authoritarianism of the Vichy regime or the prewar ligues).

Continuing his tour of recent history, Gopnik sees a strong resemblance between the Tea Partiers today and the John Birch Society of the 1960s

In their new book, “Dallas 1963,” Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis demonstrate in luxuriant detail just how clotted Dallas was with right-wing types in the period before Kennedy’s fatal visit. The John Birch Society, the paranoid, well-heeled, anti-Communist group, was the engine of the movement then, as the Tea Party is now—and though, to their great credit, the saner conservatives worked hard to keep it out of the official center, the society remained hyper-present. Powerful men, like Ted Dealey, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, sympathized with the Birchers’ ideology, and engaged with General Edwin A. Walker, an extreme right-wing military man (and racist) who had left the Army in protest at Kennedy’s civil-rights and foreign policies—and who had the ear of Senators Strom Thurmond and John Tower. It was Walker who said of the President, “He is worse than a traitor. Kennedy has essentially exiled Americans to doom.” … Medicare then, as Obamacare now, was the key evil. An editorial in the Morning News announced that “JFK’s support of Medicare sounds suspiciously similar to a pro-Medicare editorial that appeared in the Worker—the official publication of the U.S. Communist Party.” At the same time, Minutaglio and Davis write, “on the radio, H.L. Hunt (the Dallas millionaire) filled the airwaves with dozens of attacks on Medicare, claiming that it would create government death panels: The plan provides a near little package of sweeping dictatorial power over medicine and the healing arts—a package which would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life or death power over every man woman and child in the country.” Stanley Marcus, the owner of the department store Neiman Marcus, heard from angry customers who were cancelling their Neiman Marcus charge cards because of his public support for the United Nations.

I remember the John Birch Society well from the early-mid 1970s, during my last two years of high school, when I developed an ongoing interest in right-wing movements. The Birchers’ monthly magazine, American Opinion, was sold at my local drug store in Evanston IL (a once conservative city—which voted Goldwater in 1964—but that had lurched liberal by the ’70s) and I would discreetly read it there (in the first of only two times in my life that I shoplifted, I stole a copy—I didn’t want to give the Birchers a cent of my allowance—so I could read it at my leisure). Wild stuff, about how America was being taken over by Communists. Even Republicans were infected with the communist virus (the term RINO hadn’t been coined yet, though that’s clearly how the Birchers saw many Republican politicians). It was fascinating to read a perspective and world-view that were so antithetical to mine and that of my family and social milieu (liberal/left). And that was so utterly ignorant of the world beyond America (I had lived in Turkey for four years in my early adolescence and two years in Somalia as a child—and had seen much of Europe and the Middle East, plus India—, so knew something about that world). The Birchers were naturally opposed to the civil rights movement—and had labeled Martin Luther King 100% communist—and there was an undercurrent of racism in their magazine—I remember clearly one article extolling apartheid South Africa—, though one of American Opinion’s regular contributors was black: the now mostly forgotten journalist and author George Schuyler. A black intellectual Bircher, only slightly to the right of Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, or Herman Cain (or maybe not; these three may well be as conservative as Schuyler was in his day). All goes to show that just as some of the best friends of an anti-Semite may be Jews, one may be racist and admire a like-minded person or two of color.

Gopnik makes this observation about the Birchers of the ’60s

The whole thing came to a climax with the famous black-bordered flyer that appeared on the day of J.F.K.’s visit to Dallas, which showed him in front face and profile, as in a “Wanted” poster, with the headline “WANTED FOR TREASON.” The style of that treason is familiar mix of deliberate subversion and personal depravity. “He has been wrong on innumerable issues affecting the security of the United States”; “He has been caught in fantastic lies to the American people, including personal ones like his previous marriage and divorce.” Birth certificate, please?

The really weird thing—the American exception in it all—then as much as now, is how tiny all the offenses are. French right-wingers really did have a powerful, Soviet-affiliated Communist Party to deal with, as their British counterparts really had honest-to-god Socialists around, socializing stuff. But the Bircher-centered loonies and the Tea Partiers created a world of fantasy, willing mild-mannered, conflict-adverse centrists like J.F.K. and Obama into socialist Supermen.

Absolutely. The American right sees socialists, communists, Marxists etc in their midst—Obama being one of these or all three—but have no idea what any of these species look like in real life. Continuing with Gopnik’s observation, even the French FN knows the difference between a socialist and a communist; frontistes can identify the real thing. The most reactionary French rightist understands that there is no confusing François Hollande with Olivier Besancenot or Arlette Laguiller. And no French right-winger with the slightest knowledge of American politics would call Obama a socialist, let alone a Red (for the anecdote, when I spoke to an audience of several dozen UMP activists and local politicians in a Paris banlieue last year, the local deputy-mayor, who presided over the event, assured me that in France Obama would be in the UMP; I respectfully begged to differ).

It has been said by many that one of the reasons the right hates Obamacare owes not to fears that the latter may sink the economy but rather that it may well prove a popular success. In this vein, The NYer’s James Surowiecki has a piece on “The business end of Obamacare,” in which one “learn[s] that Obamacare may well be the best thing Washington has done for American small business in decades.” And The Nation is recirculating a blog post from a year ago on how “Paul Ryan quietly requested Obamacare cash,” which may at least partly explain why the GOP’s faux policy wonk didn’t mention defunding Obamacare in his debt ceiling proposal the other day.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Josh Barro, political editor of Business Insider—and who calls himself a Republican—, tells readers to take “One look at these emails [that he’s received], and you’ll see why Republicans let Ted Cruz lead them off a cliff.” The GOP base in all its splendor. And they don’t like the RINO Marxist socialist Barro. He concludes: “These people are idiots. But if you’re a Republican elected official, they’re your idiots.”

2nd UPDATE: Garry Wills has a must read post on the NYR Blog, “Back door secession,” which concludes with this

So we have one condition that resembles the pre-Civil War virtual secessionism—the holding of a whole party hostage to its most extreme members. We also have the other antebellum condition—the disproportionate representation of the extreme faction. In state after state in the 2012 election, there was a large vote for President Obama, but a majority of House seats went to Republicans. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Obama won 52 percent of the votes cast, but Republicans got over twice as many seats (13 to 5), thanks to carefully planned gerrymandering of districts by Republican state legislatures. This advantage will be set in stone if all the voter restriction laws now being advanced block voters who might upset the disproportion.

The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule. We see this in the Senate, where a Democratic majority is resisted at every turn by automatic recourses to the filibuster. We see it in the attempt to repeal the seventeenth amendment, which allows a majority of voters to choose a state’s senators. The repealers want that choice to go back to the state legislatures, where they rule thanks to anti-majority gerrymandering.

The Old South went from virtual to actual secession only when the addition of non-slave Western states threatened their disproportionate hold on the Congress and the Court (which had been Southern in makeup when ruling on Dred Scott). It is difficult to conjecture what will happen if the modern virtual seceders do not get their way. Their anti-government rhetoric is reaching new intensity. Some would clearly rather ruin than be ruled by a “foreign-born Muslim.” What will the Republicans who are not fanatics, only cowards, do in that case?

We’ll see soon enough, when they lose the 2016 election.

3rd UPDATE: Josh Barro has an amusing commentary on how “Republicans aren’t the ‘daddy party’ anymore.” They’re now “the abusive ex-husband with a substance abuse problem party,” which “is drunk and beating the children”… (October 13)

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Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest NYRB has a must read essay by Malise Ruthven on anthropologist and Islam specialist Akbar Ahmed‘s latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings. Money quote:

As an anthropologist with deep knowledge and direct experience of tribal systems, Akbar Ahmed demonstrates in The Thistle and the Drone how richly Tolstoy’s thistle metaphor [of 19th century Russia’s wars with the tribal peoples of the Caucuses] applies to contemporary conditions in regions, distant from urban centers, where clans resist the writ of government while also engaging with it. He points to their “love of freedom” to act without external constraints, as well as “egalitarianism, [and] a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies…. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”

Ahmed is especially troubled by the use of drones against Muslim tribal groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but his analysis of the nature of the state and its relation with tribal peoples has application far beyond the condition of Muslim tribal societies. As he sees it, the use of unmanned aircraft as a leading counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples generally, with the US president disposing of “Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity… Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”

There’s this fascinating passage on the Saudi Arabia-Yemen borderlands, and notably the Asir region

Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes… Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.

The Asiri background is highly significant because of the region’s history. For centuries the terrain, which is divided between rugged highlands with peaks rising to nine thousand feet and the coastal plain, or Tihama, was riven by tribal conflicts, as in the Caucasus and Waziristan. Like the Pukhtun clans of Waziristan, the Yemeni tribes of Asir are organized in “segmentary lineages” (i.e., prone to splitting) without formal leaders. The clans tended to quarrel among themselves when not coalescing in the face of outsiders. In 1906 the charismatic scholar-king Sayyed Muhammad al-Idrisi, connected to the Sufi or mystically oriented Sanusiyya order in North Africa, was invited to settle disputes between these warring tribes. His rule was in many ways similar to that of Shamil in the Caucasus, as described by those Russian observers, better informed than Tolstoy, who recognized that his diplomatic skills were as impressive as his military ones.

Al-Idrisi’s domain grew rapidly as tribes, attracted by his reputation for piety and justice, rallied to his cause against the Ottomans. After backing the Allies in World War I, he hoped that the victors would reward him by preserving Asir’s independence. All such hopes were dashed, however, following his death in 1922, when the region came under the sway of the reinvigorated tribal empire created by the emir of Nejd, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In his aggressive drive for territorial expansion (which included expelling the Hashemite rulers of Mecca), ibn Saud swallowed up most of the region, leaving the southern part to al-Idrisi’s inveterate enemy, the imam of Yemen. Some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the course of this conflict.

The Saudi annexation was followed by an invasion of religious clerics who imposed their narrow Salafist practices on Asiri society. Asiri males were known as the “flower men” from the flowers they wore in their hair (an indication perhaps of their status as cultivators rather than nomads). Even their turbans were adorned with flowers, grasses, and stones. Asiri women were clothed in spectacular explosions of color, their headdresses glittering with coins and jewelry. The Saudi clerics forced young males to remove their “un-Islamic” locks and headgear as well as the traditional daggers that symbolized their masculinity. The women were obliged to adopt the niqab (full facial veil) in place of the traditional headscarf.

In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and “reactionary” royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.

Saudi Arabia: the Evil Kingdom. I’ve said it before and will say it again.

Ruthven’s essay may be read in its entirety here.

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

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I received an email today from a good friend outre-Atlantique, in which, among other things, he recounted the latest episode in his ongoing dispute with his ex-wife from hell over visitation and custody rights with their now seven-year-old daughter. His horrendous ex-wife is refusing to cooperate with his lawyer, is sending him hostile emails, trying to brainwash their daughter in regards to the situation, and generally making my friend miserable (in addition to costing him a tidy sum in lawyer and other fees). I’m 100% with my friend, of course; he’s a great guy and a wonderful father to his daughter. He absolutely does not merit what his ex is putting him through. Now it is normal that mothers receive primary custody of children when there’s a divorce, and particularly if the children are young. But fathers often get shafted in the process, suffer considerably when their ex-wife is less than cooperative, and do not receive the sympathy from judges or society that they merit. In France, this has led of late to fathers creating associations (e.g. SOS Papa) and staging dramatic publicity stunts (here and here) to attract attention to their plight.

As it happens, I just saw—on Friday night and this very Sunday afternoon—two new movies precisely on this subject: in this case, a divorced father trying to exercise his legal right to visit his child chez his ex-wife and with whom his relationship is conflict-riven—and she has a new companion but he doesn’t—, she tries to thwart the visit, the psychodramatic scène de ménage ensues, and with the father blowing his fuses. The first film, ‘Everybody in the Family’ (en France: ‘Papa vient dimanche’), is from Romania, by director Radu Jude. In this one, mid 30-ish Marius, a dentist by profession, can’t wait to see his five-year-old daughter—who’s quite adorable—and take her to the sea for the weekend, but his ex, Sofia, who lives with her b.f. and mother, makes up a reason as why he can’t do this, and he has a meltdown. The domestic dispute, which descends into vaudeville, is alternately humorous and over-the-top. Even though Marius loses it, one identifies with him (I did, at least) more than with Sofia. It’s a generally serious film, not too bad on the whole, though the director didn’t know how to end it. US reviews are alternately good (here and here) or so-so (here and here). French reviews are good (here). Trailer is here.

The second film is ‘La Bataille de Solférino’ (English title: ‘Act of Panic’), by director Justine Triet. This one is set on precisely May 6, 2012, the day of the second round of the French presidential election. Laetitia (actress Laetitia Dosch) is a reporter with the cable news network i>Télé and has to cover the crowds gathered in front of the Socialist party’s HQ on Rue de Solférino in anticipation of François Hollande’s victory (the title of the film obviously refers to the street and PS HQ but also the 1859 Battle of Solferino, where Napoleon III won a costly victory against Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I). Before leaving her 13th arrondissement apartment (my onetime quartier, which I recognized) and two children—baby and toddler—with the sitter, Laetitia’s ex-husband, Vincent (actor Vincent Macaigne), shows up and with presents for the children, whom he so wants to see. But his visitation day was yesterday, not today, Laetitia, who has to get to work, tells the sitter not to let him in but he gets in anyway, has his meltdown, and the vaudeville begins, with the children and everyone ending up amidst the celebrating Socialists on the Rue de Solférino (this part of the film really was shot there and then, giving it a documentary quality), and finally back at the 13th arr. flat after midnight. Vincent loves his children but he’s a slob and one sympathizes with him somewhat less than with Marius in the Romanian film. French critics gave it the thumbs up but the collective sentiment of Allociné spectateurs has been more tepid. I tilt toward the latter, as I thought a lot of it was a stretch. This US critic quite liked it, however. Trailer is here.

In any case, my aforementioned friend is not a slob and I really can’t see him melting down or blowing his fuses. Not all disrespected fathers have nervous breakdowns.

La Bataille de Solférino Affiche

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Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

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

The TPP. Any idea of what that is? Most likely not. I hardly knew myself until today, and I like to think that I’m well-informed on international affairs. It’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement the Obama administration is presently negotiating below the radar screen with several Asian and Latin American countries (map below). And it is very important. So important for the business interests that are driving it—and of the governments doing their bidding—that, from their standpoint, it best be kept way below that public radar screen. The redoubtable Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, who has been organizing around trade and globalization issues since the ’90s, explains what’s at stake with the TPP in this Democracy Now! interview. It will take 14-minutes of your time to watch it (it starts at the 13th minute) but is well worth it if you’re a citizen of any of the countries involved. So please watch it now.

Re Lori Wallach: Talk about being well-spoken and having your facts and arguments down cold. I would dread being on the opposing side of a debate with her. For more by Wallach on the TPP, see the article she wrote last year in The Nation, “NAFTA on steroids.” The lede: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would grant enormous new powers to corporations, is a massive assault on democracy.” If Wallach’s characterization of the TPP is at all accurate—and I have no reason to believe that it’s not—, it represents, at the very least, a significant, European Union-like transfer of national sovereignty to a supranational entity. Except that, unlike the EU—until the enlargements of the past decade plus Greece—, the TPP involves countries with vastly different standards of living, political institutions, systems of governance, and economic legislation (labor, consumer, etc), to name a few, but without any EU-type supranational institution (commission, parliament, council, court) and absent any pretense of democratic accountability. Moreover, one has a hard time imagining what benefits could accrue to significant numbers of citizens in the countries involved, and particularly the United States. This thing needs to be stopped, and beginning with Congress refusing fast-track authority to President Obama. NAFTA, which I was all for twenty years ago, turned out to be a mistake. The TPP will definitely be a mistake and a much bigger one.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (December 12th) on his blog on why he doesn’t think the TPP is a big deal. Dean Baker explains on his blog why his friend Paul is in error on this, that the TPP is indeed a big—and bad—deal.

2nd UPDATE: Joseph Stiglitz has a must read article on the TPP, “On the wrong side of globalization,” on the NYT op-ed page. (March 15, 2014)

3rd UPDATE: Robert Reich, in a pedagogical video just shy of 2½ minutes in length, explains “The worst trade deal you’ve never heard of: The story of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” (January 29, 2015)

newTPP map cropped

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Alabama Monroe

a.k.a. ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’, which is the film’s original title, though the French one, ‘Alabama Monroe’, is so much better. Despite the title(s), it’s a Belgian (Flemish) film and entirely set in that country. It opened in Paris a few weeks ago and to good reviews, though I didn’t give it priority until noting the stellar spectateur reactions on Allociné. So I decided to check it out and am glad I did, as it’s quite simply one of the best films I’ve seen this year. As we say en français, I was boulversé-d by it. In brief, it’s about a 40-something baba-cool type named Didier (actor Johan Heldenbergh) who lives on a farm in the bucolic Flanders countryside and has an American-style bluegrass band, meets 35-something Elise (actress Veerle Baetens), who works in a tattoo parlor in nearby Ghent, it’s a coup de foudre—they are different in one important respect but she adopts his love of bluegrass—, have a child, and then the worst possible tragedy strikes (no spoilers; if I had had an inkling of it beforehand, I would have likely not gone to see the movie). Only those with hearts of stone will not shed tears (but N.B., jerking tears was not the intention of director/screenwriter Felix van Groeningen; it’s just the inevitable reaction one has to what happens). The film is mesmerizing. The performances are tops—including the six-year-old daughter—and the love affair is electric. One feels the passion between Didier and Elise, as well as what they go through when tragedy befalls. This is one of those films where one cares about the characters. The film is not linear, constantly shifting back and forth over a seven-year period, “settling into a time-shuffling, elliptical pattern maintained with impressive fluidity and clarity,” as The Hollywood Reporter’s review aptly put it. I was very impressed with the film on this score, with its editing and pacing. And the music is wonderful and beautifully woven into the film. I am not a fan of bluegrass but this band—Heldenbergh and Baetens are real bluegrass musicians and singers—is great. Maybe it’s the Belgian touch, who knows. The soundtrack apparently sold like hotcakes after the film premiered at the Berlinale last year. I could even buy the CD myself.

The film is not flawless, it should be said, as I didn’t like an important scene in the final ten minutes—which was way overdone—, was uneasy about the dénouement—and a few of the reviewers shared my sentiment—, and it’s just a tad melodramatic—which will not be to the taste of some moviegoers—, meaning that I cannot label it a chef d’œuvre. The film is merely excellent. Variety’s review—which contains spoilers—is here, IndieWire’s is here, the film’s website is here, and the pitch perfect trailer here. It’s due out in the US and UK in the coming weeks.


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(Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

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

That’s what TAP’s Paul Waldman calls the extremist Republican dead-enders in the House of Representatives, who are 30 to 80 in number, depending on how they’re counted, and are holding America hostage to their insane demands. Waldman despairs that “[t]his madness will never end” so long as there’s a Democrat in the White House and he’s likely right.

Andrew Sullivan, who calls the GOP “The Nullification Party,” has the best commentary I’ve seen so far on the insanity on Capitol Hill. Here’s the whole thing for those too lazy to click on the link

I’ve been trying to think of something original to say about the absurdity now transpiring in Washington, DC. I’ve said roughly what I think in short; and I defer to Fallows for an important dose of reality against the predictably moronic coverage of the Washington Post.

But there is something more here. How does one party that has lost two presidential elections and a Supreme Court case – as well as two Senate elections  –   think it has the right to shut down the entire government and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury to get its way on universal healthcare now? I see no quid pro quo even. Just pure blackmail, resting on understandable and predictable public concern whenever a major reform is enacted. But what has to be resisted is any idea that this is government or politics as usual. It is an attack on the governance and the constitutional order of the United States.

When ideologies become as calcified, as cocooned and as extremist as those galvanizing the GOP, the American system of government cannot work. But I fear this nullification of the last two elections is a deliberate attempt to ensure that the American system of government as we have known it cannot work. It cannot, must not work, in the mindset of these radicals, because they simply do not accept the legitimacy of a President and Congress of the opposing party. The GOP does not regard the president as merely wrong – but as illegitimate. Not misguided – illegitimate. This is not about ending Obamacare as such (although that is a preliminary scalp); it is about nullifying this presidency, the way the GOP attempted to nullify the last Democratic presidency by impeachment.

Except this time, of course, we cannot deny that race too is an added factor to the fathomless sense of entitlement felt among the GOP far right. You saw it in birtherism; in the Southern GOP’s constant outrageous claims of Obama’s alleged treason and alliance with Islamist enemies; in providing zero votes for a stimulus that was the only thing that prevented a global depression of far worse proportions; in the endless race-baiting from Fox News and the talk radio right. And in this racially-charged atmosphere, providing access to private healthcare insurance to the working poor is obviously the point of no return.

Even though the law is almost identical to that of their last presidential nominee’s in Massachusetts, the GOP is prepared to destroy both the American government and the global economy to stop it. They see it, it seems to me, as both some kind of profound attack on the Constitution (something even Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts viewed as a step too far) and, in some inchoate way, as a racial hand-out, however preposterous that is. And that is at the core of the recklessness behind this attack on the US – or at least my best attempt to understand something that has long since gone beyond reason. This is the point of no return – a black president doing something for black citizens (even though the vast majority of beneficiaries of Obamacare will be non-black).I regard this development as one of the more insidious and anti-constitutional acts of racist vandalism against the American republic in my adult lifetime. Those who keep talking as if there are two sides to this, when there are not, are as much a part of the vandalism as Ted Cruz. Obama has played punctiliously by the constitutional rules – two elections, one court case – while the GOP has decided that the rules are for dummies and suckers, and throws over the board game as soon as it looks as if it is going to lose by the rules as they have always applied.

The president must therefore hold absolutely firm. This time, there can be no compromise because the GOP isn’t offering any. They’re offering the kind of constitutional surrender that would effectively end any routine operation of the American government. If we cave to their madness, we may unravel our system of government, something one might have thought conservatives would have opposed. Except these people are not conservatives. They’re vandals.

This time, the elephant must go down. And if possible, it must be so wounded it does not get up for a long time to come.

Sullivan’s commentary finally persuaded me to fork over the $19.99 for unlimited yearly access to his blog. I don’t look at it too often—question of time—and have had issues with him in the past, but I’ll pay a nickel a day for commentary of this quality.

Two pieces from The New Yorker: Ryan Lizza on “Where the GOP’s suicide caucus lives“—the sobriquet “suicide caucus” was coined by Charles Krauthammer—and surgeon and public health specialist Atul Gawande on Obamacare and obstructionism.

À suivre (malheureusement).

UPDATE: NYT economics columnist Eduardo Porter explains “Why the health care law scares the GOP.” A must read.

2nd UPDATE: TPM links to a hilarious, absolute must watch 4-minute video from “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” in which citizens on the street in L.A. are asked what they think of Obamacare vs. the Affordable Care Act. It rather confirms—if confirmation were neeeded—the irrelevance of opinion polls showing majorities of Americans opposed to Obamacare, as many people have no idea what it is.

3rd UPDATE: Nice commentary by Michael Tomasky on “What history will say about Obamacare and the government shutdown.”


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