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Archive for May, 2015

Posters pushing for a no vote for the French referendum on the EU constitution in Marseille

I am reminded that today is the 10th anniversary of the French referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which resulted in the treaty’s decisive defeat—thereby scuttling it (and with Dutch voters delivering the coup de grâce four days later in the referendum there)—and formally inaugurating the era in which the French electorate became Eurosceptic in its majority. N.B. Euroscepticism here does not signify a rejection of the construction of Europe tout court; just not “this” Europe. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Personally speaking, I was a 100% partisan of a oui vote in the 2005 referendum. The Constitutional Treaty was a good, solid, well-conceived text, put together via a democratic, transparent process, and was quite simply the best treaty the European Union could have possibly come up with in view of the absolute necessity to adapt the institutional architecture to an EU going from 15 to 25 members—with the enlargement of 2004, and an additional two in 2007—and to institutionally tackle the EU’s famous “democratic deficit.” IMO, there were no good arguments against the treaty. None whatever. Those who opposed the treaty either didn’t know what they were talking about—which was the case for leftists who voted non—or were fighting the last war—and one already lost—which was the case for right-wing non voters.

During the referendum campaign in the spring of 2005—to which I was riveted—I attended public events of all four camps:

  • Oui de gauche: A town hall meeting at the Sèvres mairie, with Jack Lang (very good) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (totally excellent), which was intermittently disrupted by two loud-mouthed noniste de gauche hecklers, who, after the longest time, were escorted out.
  • Oui de droite: A packed town hall meeting at a large auditorium in my right-wing banlieue, with the then local UMP deputy (and member of the Raffarin II government) Henri Plagnol (excellent) pedagogically explaining the treaty to the audience of mostly UMP voters.
  • Non de droite: A packed rally of several thousand at the Palais des Sports (Porte de Versailles), with souverainistes Philippe de Villiers and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan the têtes d’affiche, and with speakers from several, mostly northern European Eurosceptic parties, including UKIP’s Nigel Farage (speaking in fluent, albeit heavily accented, French).
  •  Non de gauche: A rally in a meeting hall in Créteil of a couple of hundred people, presided by the commune’s longtime fabusien mayor, Laurent Cathala, and with a panoply of speakers from hard leftist (PCF), extreme leftist (LCR etc), and gauchiste civil society associations.

The arguments of the oui de gauche and oui de droite were similar, with each camp emphasizing different things to address concerns of its voters, e.g. the oui de gauche assuring that the Constitutional Treaty would absolutely not undermine the welfare state, the oui de droite that the treaty in no way paved the way for the entry of Turkey in the EU.

Noteworthy were the arguments of the non camp. In the case of the right-wing souverainistes, they argued for a Gaullist vision of a Europe of Nations, of a return to the Europe of the Treaty of Rome. And on this, they presented their case well (on the level of oratory, de Villiers and Dupont-Aignan, plus the youthful Guillaume Peltier, were excellent, BTW). Their world-view was coherent, with one either buying it or not, but voting oui or non wouldn’t have changed a thing, as, with the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty, the horse had already bolted from the stable, as it were. There was (and is) simply no turning the clock back to the 1960s (and returning to the franc). The hard right-wing, as is its wont, was engaging in the politics of nostalgia.

A note: The non de droite rally of Philippe de Villiers et al revealed, for me at least, an undercurrent of Germanophobia on the French right (and which is present on the left as well, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon has reminded us with his latest pamphlet). All the flags of EU member states were hung from the rafters except for the German. And in the literature tables there were anti-Germany books (by small right-wing publishers) that I had never heard of. And this Germanophobia has become more pronounced in the ensuing decade.

What most struck me was the rally of the non de gauche. It was a horror show. A tissue of lies from beginning to end. In attendance at the Créteil rally was the petit peuple de gauche in all its splendor: working-class public employees, CGT and FO activists, Communist and Trotskyist militants, and other sundry hard leftists, and with each speaker seemingly trying to outdo the other in demagoguery and mendacity. E.g. the insistence that the Constitutional Treaty would threaten abortion rights (bullshit) or laïcité (bullshit times ten), or undermine the sacrosanct French social model (unfounded nonsense). Etc, etc. The hysteria and lies went on and on. But none of the gauchistes’ objections were valid in the least. Not a single one.

As for blogger Etienne Chouard’s arguments, which were a huge hit on the noniste left, I refuted all of them at the time, as did others.

At the end of the day, the failure of the referendum was the fault of Jacques Chirac, who organized it in the first place. He wasn’t obliged to. He could have simply had parliament ratify it with a three-fifths votes and that would have been that. But with the referendum called, Chirac then failed to defend the treaty, unlike François Mitterrand during the Maastricht referendum campaign 13 years prior. And UMP president Nicolas Sarkozy, obsessed with 2007, didn’t lift a finger to do so.

One positive effect of the referendum was that it got the French electorate engaged with Europe in a way it had never been before, save the 1992 campaign. Malheureusement les Français ont mal votés…

655536_7_3039_la-carte-du-vote-en-france-du-referendum-du

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movies-233913-2

That’s the literal translation of director Stéphane Brizé’s La Loi du Marché, the market here being the neoliberal market economy (the film’s actual English title is ‘The Measure of a Man’). It was in competition at the Cannes film festival, which ended yesterday and with Vincent Lindon—the only professional actor in the film—winning the best actor award. The film opened in France last week and, as it happens, I saw it yesterday evening, learning about Lindon’s prize in a newsflash some ten minutes after leaving the theater. I can’t say if it was well-deserved, as this is the only one of the nineteen films in competition at the festival I’ve seen—which is logical, as none of the others have opened yet—though he did put in a very good performance, as he always does. Lindon is a fine actor, though his persona, for me at least, tends to overwhelm whatever role he’s playing. He does have range, though is always Vincent Lindon, if that makes sense.

In this, he plays a 51-year-old member of the skilled working class named Thierry, who has been laid off from an enterprise that, as the viewer is informed, was making a profit but with the company home office, for reasons not having to do with its bottom line, deciding to close the plant and send the personnel to Pôle Emploi. Collecting unemployment compensation for close to two years, Thierry is taking a mandatory retraining course but which is a waste of time—and he and everyone he has to deal with know it—as, at his age and given the way the system works—and with the unemployment rate in France being what it is—there is almost no chance it will yield anything for him. With a wife in a low salary job, a handicapped teenage son, and unemployment checks down to €500/month—and refusing to consider selling their modest condo, which would compromise their (barely) middle-class status and all that they had worked for—he takes a job as a security guard in a hypermarket in a shopping center (which looks to be in the Paris banlieue, though it could be anywhere), though which mainly involves monitoring the video surveillance cameras, to spot not only shoplifters but also employees—principally cashiers—who may be cutting corners or doing things they shouldn’t. And it is made clear to him that the company is looking to shed staff, so his fellow employees are particular targets of the surveillance and nabbed for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, not a big deal but nonetheless a pretext for getting fired. And in France these days, one knows what it means to suddenly lose one’s job, particularly under such circumstances and if one does not have in-demand skills to begin with. So Thierry, who lost his previous job in a company that was looking to increase its profits—and no doubt executive compensation too—at the expense of its personnel, now finds himself as a peon on the side of le patron, not only getting colleagues fired but nailing shoplifters who, in fact, don’t have the means to pay for the food they’re concealing in their coats or purses, i.e. who are in much the same financial situation he was facing before, out of desperation, he took his minimum wage job.

The pic is an obvious sociopolitical commentary from the opening scene, on the nature of capitalism in our era and the precarious state in which an ever larger portion of the workforce finds itself. Lindon and Brizé—the two collaborating closely in the film’s making—have made this clear in interviews, with Lindon—who does not conceal his gauchiste views—telling the JDD, in regard to film’s story, that “delation makes me want to vomit” and “I am a man angry [at finance capitalism] and, above all, furious at injustice,” and Brizé denouncing to Le Monde the fact that, these days, “people are eliminated for the most minor of infractions.” I thought the film handled its subject with sufficient subtlety—more so than Ken Loach or Robert Guédiguian would—notably the way Lindon’s character dealt with each situation he was confronted with. The film depicts the reality of the working lives for the lower half of French (and American, British, etc.) society more accurately than any other I’ve seen in a while. On this, it’s almost documentary-like. But some—e.g. those whose views on economic questions are akin to the line of The Economist magazine and Wall Street Journal editorial page—may find the pic’s engagé side to be heavy-handed, if not downright agitprop. On this score, there are indeed a couple of sequences, including the ending—no spoilers—, that are borderline. Mais peu importe. It’s a good film. If you are, however, the kind who sees hedge fund managers as wealth creators and “makers”—and who considers the Thierrys of this world to be “moochers” and “takers”—then the movie is definitely not for you. But if your world-view is the opposite of this, then you’ll likely appreciate it. Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes gave it the unreserved thumbs up—here, here, and here—as did those in France, whose reviews are particularly gushing. And people in the media here were positively thrilled at Vincent Lindon winning his prize. He is clearly well-liked by those who’ve met him (I’ve seen him a couple of times in public in the 6th arrondissement; he seems like a cool guy). Trailer is here.

French cinema was a big winner at Cannes, with the Palme d’Or going to Jacques Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’ (which opens in August) and Emmanuelle Bercot winning the best actress award ex-æquo for her role in Maïwenn’s ‘Mon roi’ (opens in October). Bercot, it so happens, was also the director of the film ‘La Tête haute’ (Standing Tall), that opened the festival (out of competition) two weeks ago, and which immediately hit the salles here. I’ve seen it. It’s good. Will have a post on it soon. Many good films coming out in France these days. Whoever said French cinema was in decline?

One French film that came out recently, and with a very similar theme to the above discussed one, is director Pierre Jolivet’s Jamais de la vie (English title: The Night Watchman). This one is also about a man in his early 50s, here named Franck and played by the Belgian actor—and Dardenne brothers’ favorite—Olivier Gourmet—the similarities with Vincent Lindon are striking—, who, one understands, had a decent working class job—and was a union delegate—but lost it ten years prior, now works the graveyard shift as a security guard at a hypermarket in a shopping center in a soulless Paris banlieue (sound familiar?), and spends his off hours drinking en suisse in his flat in his cité high rise—he lives in la zone—where he knows and gets along with everyone, including les jeunes. He was clearly a leader during his factory/union days but has had a tough time since, and is looking at a bleak future financially, with the necessity of working till he’s 70—all but impossible in France—to collect a livable pension. The social commentary is pretty obvious, though Franck’s attention is directed not at his employer or finance capitalists but rather criminal elements among his watchmen colleagues. It’s not a bad film—it certainly held my attention—and is carried by Gourmet, who’s in almost every frame. It’s quite a performance on his part. He’s a real screen presence. THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.

jamais de la vie

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palmyra isis

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

My social media news feeds have been covered the past two days with comments and links from people in extreme distress—and that includes me—over the Islamic State’s capture of Palmyra and the likely consequences for the archaeological treasures there. The fall of Palmyra to IS—or, rather, its abandonment by Bashar al-Assad’s army—has been grist for the mill for those in France—numerous on the right—who have been advocating a rapprochement with the Syrian Ba’athist regime. A high-profile tribune in Le Figaro yesterday, by Hadrien Desuin, an analyst previously unknown to me—he has a military background and is clearly on the souverainiste right—thus asked rhetorically “why such inaction from the [US-led anti-IS] coalition?” in the face of the IS offensive on Palmyra. Answering his own question, he asserted that the coalition preferred to watch Palmyra fall rather than support the Ba’athist army’s effort to fend off IS and save humanity’s historical patrimony. How abject of the coalition—and, ergo, France (i.e. François Hollande) and the US.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, the well-known Middle East specialist and islamologue—and who has been engagé on the Syrian issue—will have none of this. In an interview in Politis (May 20th), he asserted that Bashar al-Assad allowed the jihadists to approach Palmyra, so as to show the world that his regime was on the front line against IS—when, in fact, it has never been before and still wasn’t—, and then quit the city without putting up much of a fight, thereby getting the belles âmes in the West worked up into an even greater tizzy over the IS fanatics, deflecting attention away from Bashar’s crimes, and thereby hoping to neutralize Western opposition to the Ba’athist regime. In other words, the fall of Palmyra was cynically engendered by Bashar al-Assad himself, as it’s only Palmyra after all—and whose loss does not, in fact, increase the threat to Damascus or Homs—and what does Bashar care about archaeological treasures anyway, as his regime, as Filiu reminds us, has also been pillaging and degrading those treasures for years? On all this, Filiu is rather more convincing than is Monsieur Desuin.

As for the IS capture of Ramadi, this has provided the usual suspects (neocons, etc.) another occasion with which to bash President Obama for the apparent failure of his Iraq policy (e.g. the Kagan couple and IDC Herzliya Rubin Center director Jonathan Spyer). Journalist Ann Marlowe, who’s done some good reporting from the Middle East—and has a smart piece in Tablet, dated May 18th, on Libya and why the post-Qadhafi order was not a preordained failure—went so far as to call Obama “the worst president ever” on account of Ramadi’s fall. Ouf, GMAB! Pour mémoire, defending Ramadi was the responsibility of the Iraqi government, not the United States, and the city’s fall reflected a failure in Iraq’s strategy against IS, not that of the Obama administration.

In a column in Slate (May 19th), Fred Kaplan, offering his own not very palatable options to Obama’s policy dilemma, rubbished the armchair warriors in Washington and its punditocracy. Money quote

Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.

For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect—the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?

In other words, neocons, other right-wingers, and their ilk who are beating up on Obama for losing Ramadi don’t know WTF they’re talking about. They just want to beat up on Obama, that’s all.

I just read journalist Graeme Wood’s article in the March issue of The Atlantic, “What ISIS really wants.” It’s a great piece, long—34 pages printed out—but absolutely worth the read. Two big points: (a) IS is a serious, millenarian Islamic force such as we’ve never seen before and whose ideology and world-view is in no way un-Islamic, and (b) there is, for the US and the West, no military response except for containment and aiding local Muslim actors who oppose IS.

À suivre, certainement.

UPDATE: Nicolas Pelham has a most interesting, must-read report, datelined Baghdad May 6th, in the June 4th issue of the NYRB, “ISIS & the Shia revival in Iraq.”

2nd UPDATE: Journalist Patrick Symmes, who “cover[s] insurgencies, global environmental problems, travel, and the geopolitical fault lines that underlie them all,” has a compelling op-ed in the NYT (May 23rd) on Palmyra’s “ancient ruins [that] terror can’t destroy.”

3rd UPDATE: Paleocon Patrick Buchanan has a commentary (May 22nd) in TAC on “What the fall of Ramadi means.” Personally speaking, I can find no flaw in what he says. If someone can, please let me know.

4th UPDATE: Journalist Erika Solomon, writing for the FT from Beirut (May 22nd), says that the taking of Palmyra puts “Isis in [a] position to advance on Damascus.” Perhaps. On verra.

5th UPDATE: In an analysis (May 22nd) that would tend to confirm the one above, The Guardian’s Martin Chulov says “First Ramadi, then Palmyra: Isis shows it can storm bastions of Syria and Iraq.” The lede: “Terror group faced little resistance from local forces, prompting re-evaluations across a region that had sensed it might be in retreat.”

6th UPDATE: Hassan Hassan, the sharp analyst at Abu Dhabi’s Delma Institute and co-author of a new book on the Islamic State, has a column in The Guardian (May 24th) on the “Religious teaching that drives Isis to threaten the ancient ruins of Palmyra.” The lede: “Most historical sites under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria remain intact. Palmyra might be different precisely because of western warnings.”

7th UPDATE: CSIS geostrategic specialist Anthony Cordesman, who knows more about Middle Eastern military matters than anyone inside the Beltway (and most outside of it), has an analysis (May 21st), on the CSIS website, on “The defeat in Ramadi,” which he says, in regard to US policy, signals “a time for transparency, integrity, and change.”

8th UPDATE: Dov S. Zakheim, who was a Pentagon official in the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, has a commentary in The National Interest (May 23rd), in which he argues that “The only ISIS strategy left for America [is] containment.”

9th UPDATE: Amos Harel of Haaretz says (May 26th) that “Hezbollah leader’s speech makes [it] clear: Israel may soon be faced with post-Assad Syria.” The lede: “The bigger picture is gradually becoming clear: After almost a year of a relative stalemate, the Assad regime is retreating on multiple fronts.” So it looks like the fall of Palmyra has increased the threat to Damascus, Homs, etc. after all.

10th UPDATE: Beirut-based reporter Kareem Shaheen, writing in The Guardian (May 27th), informs us that “Isis [has] release[ed] footage of Palmyra ruins intact and ‘will not destroy them’.” The lede: “Ancient ruins are not statues and so will be spared, Isis commander reportedly tells radio station amid new humanitarian crisis in the area.” If true, that’s a relief. As for the humanitarian crisis, any calls from the belles âmes for a Western military intervention to deal with that?

مدينة-تدمر-سوريا

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Titli

titli une chronique indienne

This is a first-rate film from India I saw the other day, about a lowlife crime family in greater Delhi and their lowlife antics. I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—who probably knows non-Western cinema better than any other US film critic—describe the pic

The rising profile of Indian indies on the international scene receives another boost with Kanu Behl’s grittily impressive noir debut, “Titli.” Set within the claustrophobic confines of a criminal family in a downtrodden section of Delhi, the film plunges into this pitiless milieu with headstrong assurance, presenting a paternalistic world where corruption seeps into people’s pores and women need backbones of steel to survive. Behl coaxes standout perfs from the largely non-pro cast and captures the volatility of a society where violence lies uneasily just below the surface…

If the recent horrific rapes reported from India have taken much of the globe by surprise, “Titli” seems to be saying, “Look, let me show you where this comes from.” Behl and co-scripter Sharat Katariya make no apologies; nor do they create one-dimensional monsters: They depict a dog-eat-dog culture where feelings of powerlessness engender acts of terrible cruelty. Part of this stewing anger comes from the increasingly independent power of women, creating a backlash and crushing wives unable to maintain their precarious control.

The name Titli translates as “butterfly,” an apt moniker for a character (Shashank Arora) who undergoes a troubling transformation. He’s the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father (Lalit Behl, the helmer’s dad) in a cramped, dingy home off one of Delhi’s countless unpaved streets. Titli dreams of escaping and buying the concession for a newly constructed parking garage, but he’s about $500 short. Once his family is introduced, it’s apparent why Titli is so anxious to get out: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is a belligerent tyrant who’s driven his wife to file for divorce, and middle brother Baawla (Amit Sial), through his calm demeanor, enables Vikram’s expansive ruthlessness and their father’s silent control. (…)

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here.

The film paints a bleak portrait of contemporary India in this era of globalization—urban India’s globalized logo consumer culture is declaimed in the opening scene—, neoliberalism, and—how else to put it—modernization and the attendant anomie, with the violence that suffuses social relations, not to mention relations within the family, and the general breakdown of social mores. My grandfather (1903-80) would die a second time if he saw what India has become, where money is all that matters, people have extramarital affairs and get divorced, and you name it. Indian culture is famously family centered, which the film depicts well, except that the families are distinctly Mafia-like—no sentiments, just pecuniary interest—but with the women neither passive nor taking shit from their menfolk. At least some things have changed for the better. The Lunchbox—a most heartwarming film—this is not. And this one no doubt nails a certain reality in India these days more than did Gangs of Wasseypur, which was over-the-top and borderline cartoonish toward the end.

In addition to the backhanded social commentary, the pic is gripping—I didn’t check my watch once, which, for a 2+ hour film, is not bad—and very well acted all around, in particular the comely Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), the protag Titli’s wife (or “wife”). As for Titli’s name, I thought it odd, as that’s normally a girl’s name (or nickname), but it’s mentioned halfway through that his mother (deceased) so wanted her third (and last) child to be a girl—as her first two sons were destined to be sleazebags from birth, who could blame her?—that she gave him a girl’s name anyway. The film—which has so far opened only in France (it has yet to in India)—contains a warning that some spectateurs may find certain scenes shocking (for the violence), so be ready to avert your eyes (as I did). Reviewers from THR and Screen Daily who saw the pic at Cannes last year give it the thumbs up, as have French critics. Trailer is here.

Titli

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the onion v51 i19 05-15-2015

A decades-long opponent of the death penalty, I could not feel satisfaction at the sentence meted out to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday. And my sentiment was shared by many Bostonians, indeed the overwhelming majority according to a Boston Globe poll, “that found little support for the death penalty in general [but] even less when it came to Tsarnaev.” My view was precisely expressed by New York magazine editor Jesse Singal, who wrote

When I saw that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been sentenced to death, a cold, queasy feeling settled in my gut, and I got very sad. From a certain perspective, this doesn’t make much sense — Tsarnaev murdered people in cold blood, and if anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s him. And yet I couldn’t — can’t — shake the feeling that the U.S. government is going to commit a barbaric wrong. And I’m far from the only Bostonian who feels this way — most of us don’t want to kill Tsarnaev.

In one of my Boston bomber posts of two years ago, I remarked that the younger Tsarnaev was, at that moment, 19-years-old, the same age as my daughter, and that my daughter was—for me, at least—a kid. 19-year-olds do not hatch terrorist attacks; they are recruited into them, and/or brainwashed into participating. In a trial, this is a manifest attenuating circumstance. Tsarnaev should clearly spend the better part of his life in prison for his participation in the bombing and for the killing and maiming it sowed. But he should not be judicially murdered for it. Nor put in a Super Max prison and/or solitary confinement, both a manifest violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Writing in Slate, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, looking at the jury, pins the responsibility for the verdict on the prosecution, which “framed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, [thus] help[ing] seal his fate.”

Also in Slate, writer Seth Stevenson ponders “[t]he baffling reasoning of the jury that just sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.” In his commentary, Stevenson concludes with a reference to the trial in Harper Lee’s To Kill Mockingbird, of a black man in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. As it so happens, I just finished reading this great American novel (and for the very first time). If any Americans reading this post have not read Harper Lee’s chef d’œuvre, they are strongly encouraged to do so. Not only does the novel offer what is probably the best, most dead-on accurate depiction of life in the Deep South in its era that one will find in a work of fiction, but is also a backhanded argument for abolishing the death penalty, as popular juries should never, ever have a say over the life or death of a man. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

715VLP6M-OL

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idi_i_smotri-1985

Continuing from my last post, on WWII films, this one merits special mention. It’s a Soviet film from 1985 (titre en France: Requiem pour un massacre) and that won the top prize at the Moscow film festival that year, but that I knew nothing about—nor of the director, Elem Klimov—until last fall, when I received an email about it from my friend Adam Shatz, who wrote that “[i]t’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the horror of war.” The film was released in 1987 in France and the US, but if it came to Chicago, which is where I was that year, I completely, totally missed it. But as it’s available via Netflix, I managed to see it on my last US trip.

Adam was right. I won’t summarize the story; for that, one may read the 2010 review by Roger Ebert, who, putting ‘Come and See’ in his “Great Movies” category, called it “one of the most devastating films ever about anything.” In short, the film is set in Byelorussia in 1943 or ’44, when the Germans were retreating under the Red Army onslaught but fighting furiously. In something I read recently—or maybe it was a documentary—a historian said that the June 10th 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, which was the worst German atrocity of the war in France—committed by the Waffen-SS Das Reich Panzer Division—happened every two days in the villages of Byelorussia and the Ukraine in 1943 and ’44. And in ‘Come and See’, such a massacre is reenacted precisely as it must have occurred and down to the last detail: in short, of all the men rounded up and shot, with the women and children herded into the village church, which, the doors sealed shut, was then set on fire. And with the German soldiers laughing and cheering as the crying and screaming hundreds inside burned to death. This is what happened at Oradour and was the almost daily reality of the German occupation of the Soviet Union, which was, as Timothy Snyder put it, “the bloodiest occupation in the history of the world.” To repeat what Adam and Roger Ebert said, if you want to see a movie about the horrors of war—and, in particular, of the eastern front in World War II and the evil of the Nazi Germans—this is it. Trailer is here.

come and see

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SUITE-FRANCAISE

Last Friday was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe—V-E Day—so this seems like a good occasion to mention a few WWII-themed films I’ve seen over the past several months. The most recent one is Suite Française, by English director Saul Dibb, which is, as one may expect, the cinematic adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s best-selling, unfinished novel, whose rediscovery and 2004 publication in France caused a minor literary sensation. The story begins with the German advance on Paris in June 1940 and the flight of its population, here to the fictive town of Bussy, with the rest of the movie about the protags—the mid 20ish Lucile (Michelle Williams), whose husband is in the army, her widow mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the (cultivated) German lieutenant (Belgian actor Mathias Schoenaerts) who is billeted in their bourgeois home—and what happens between them and in Bussy more generally. Reviews of the film in the Paris press were good to terrible—averaging out to mediocre—but Allociné spectateurs overall appreciated it far more, as it’s definitely a movie for the masses. As Variety’s critic put it, the pic is a “handsomely crafted, sincerely performed wartime weeper.” And in this vein, Screen Daily’s critic wrote that it “ticks all the right boxes as a classy literary adaptation, favouring a heightened sense of soap opera romance over gritty drama.” A tad schlocky? Maybe, but I side with the masses, as I found it generally well-done and entertaining—if one doesn’t mind seeing a Wehrmacht officer portrayed sympathetically—and with some positive facets, e.g. the decor of the period and depiction of the behavior of the population under occupation—toward the Germans and among themselves—which ran the gamut, from collaboration, anonymous délation, and egotistical chacun pour soi to resistance, passive and active, though with just about everyone hating the Germans for the mere fact that they were there, occupying their country, and because French people, for comprehensible historical reasons, were hard-wired Germanophobes. The German soldiers in the town are shown behaving more or less civilly toward the population, which was indeed the case in the early phase of the occupation, though was short-lived. As for negative aspects of the film, the main one, for me at least, is that it’s in English. I would have preferred to see it in V.F. I haven’t read the novel but know that the film generally adheres to the story, except for the ending, where director and co-screenwriter Dibb took liberties. Cinesnobs will turn their collective nose up at the pic but for everyone else, it may be seen. Trailer is here.

Briefly, on the other films:

Fury, directed by David Ayer, who normally does cop flicks (among them, the very good End of Watch). A Hollywood grand spectacle set in the furious final month of the war in the European theater—of the US Army’s push into Germany’s heartland, where it met fierce resistance—the pic’s story is of a fireteam led by the intrepid, tough-as-nails Sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), which takes on whole Wehrmacht companies from the top of a Sherman tank. The kill ratio of Sgt Wardaddy and his men looks to be on the order of 80 to 1. It’s a classic war movie and with the whole range of characters: e.g. the Bible-reading nerd (Shia LaBeouf), hillbilly whack-job (Jon Bernthal), and hard-drinking Chicano (Michael Pena). Not totally original but, as far as war movies go, is pretty good, or so I thought. It may definitely be seen. The reviews by the LAT’s Kenneth Turan and THR’s Todd McCarthy get it right, IMO. Trailer is here.

fury-poster

Phoenix, by German director Christian Petzold, whose previous film was the excellent 2012 Barbara. I saw this one at Paris’s Festival du Cinéma Allemand last October, where it won the audience coup de cœur award (I voted for another). It’s set in devastated Berlin just after the end of the war, with the protag, Nelly (played by Petzhold’s fetish actress Nina Hoss), a German Jewish survivor of Auschwitz—the only one in her family—whose face was seriously disfigured at the end of her captivity, so underwent plastic surgery, which did not entirely restore her previous looks. Everyone—including her German Aryan husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld)—thinks she’s dead, except for Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) from the Jewish Agency, who is pressing her to emigrate to Palestine. But Nelly, who was a cabaret singer in Berlin until her arrest and deportation, wants her Johnny—a piano player, whom she finds in the Berlin nightclub, called Phoenix, where they had worked together—not only because she still loves him but needs to find out the truth of what he may have known about her denunciation to the Gestapo, which Lene insists to her (as to what happens: no spoilers). But as her face has been altered, he doesn’t recognize her, so she begins a charade with him. It’s film noir-ish and Hitchcockian, as more than one critic has opined. Reviews in the Hollywood press were dithyrambic (here, here, and here), as they were in France, though a few (e.g. here) found the story overly implausible and could not suspend disbelief. Chacun son appréciation. I’m somewhere in between. Trailer is here.

phoenix-poster

Wolfskinder, by Rick Ostermann. I also saw this at last October’s German film festival. It’s set in summer 1946 in Soviet-occupied East Prussia, with its subject the little-known tragedy there of the “wolf children”: German children, some 25,000 in number, who were orphaned or separated from their parents at the end of the war, left to fend for themselves in the forests, where they foraged for food (and stole from farms) and lived in permanent fear of Red Army soldiers, who shot them on sight. Many of the children died—of hunger, illness, or exposure—or were killed. Some were taken in and clandestinely adopted by Lithuanian farm families, with the rest eventually deported to orphanages in East Germany (the Soviets entirely cleansing East Prussia of its remaining Germans after the war). The film follows the saga of several children, with the principal characters two brothers, Hans and Fritzchen, age 14 and 11. It’s a well-done film but tough to watch. How adults can be so cruel and devoid of humanity toward children is beyond my comprehension. Reviews by Hollywood critics who saw it at the Venice film festival are here and here. Trailer is here.

Wolfskinder-DE-Poster

Run Boy Run, by German director Pepe Danquart (en France: Cours sans te retourner). This is another film about children during the war—specifically one child, aged 8 to 10—and the cruelty, when not sadism, of adults. It reenacts the true story of Yoram Israel Friedman (here, here, here, and here)—Srulik in the film, played by the talented Polish child actor Andrzej Tkacz—who was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, where his family was killed or later exterminated in Treblinka, and spent two years hiding from the Germans in the forests, seeking food and shelter from Polish farm families—concealing his Jewish identity with his life—who alternately treated him with kindness, circumspection, or meanness. Delivered to the Gestapo by venal Polish peasants, he miraculously managed to escape back into the forest, lost his right arm along the way, but survived the war, after which he was taken by the Jewish Agency to Palestine. The story is almost unbelievable but it did indeed happen. Like ‘Wolfskinder’ it’s a tough film to watch but is gripping and well-done, though Variety’s critic, in a lukewarm review, opined that while “[a] natural for Jewish viewers and older arthouse-goers, ‘Run Boy Run’ feels too old-fashioned and by-the-numbers for a wider audience.” I guess I’m one of those older arthouse-goers. Trailer is here.

lauf Junge lauf_polnische Plakat

In Darkness, by Polish director Agnieszka Holland (en France: Sous la ville). This one, which came out in 2011, I saw last year on DVD. It’s another Holocaust true story, of two dozen Jews in the Lvov ghetto who hid from the Nazis for over a year, in 1943-44, in the sewers of the city, protected by a Polish sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (played by Robert Więckiewicz), who was no philosemite and whose initial motivations were purely monetary gain, but ended up bonding with those whose lives depended on his good will, and at great danger to his own life and that of his family. The heroism of Socha and his wife, Magdalena, earned them Yad Vashem’s status of Righteous Among Nations. It’s a good movie but, like those above—and all Holocaust movies—does not make for enjoyable watching. Again, the reviews by Kenneth Turan and Todd McCarthy are on the mark. Trailer is here.

W ciemności

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Charlie Hebdo nº 1189, 6-05-2015

Charlie Hebdo nº 1189, 6-05-2015

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, co-founded by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, that is. The Russian-American libertarian writer Cathy Young has a great piece in TDB (May 10th) on these two whack jobs and their publicity stunt in Garland TX last Sunday, “In Pam Geller’s world, everybody jihads.” The lede: “Pam Geller and Robert Spencer are being viewed as free speech champions for their ‘Draw Muhammad’ contest, which turned tragic in Dallas last week. But once a moderate Muslim begins speaking, they quickly turn into what they hate.” Despite Pamela Geller’s trying to wrap herself in the mantle of Charlie Hebdo, she and her bigoted crackpot associates have nothing whatever to do with the irreverent Paris weekly.

Charlie Hebdo, for its part, has rejected any affinity between it and the Garland event, or the respective shootings at the two. On page 3 of its latest issue, dated May 6th, is a column signed by Sol, “‘Charlie’ n’est pas Texan” (not online, except the cartoon above that heads it). The lede: “Le hashtag #WeAreGarland, qui a surgi après l’attaque du centre culturel de Garland, dans le Texas, est une escroquerie à l’esprit Charlie.”

See the fine comment (May 5th) in Huff Post by Stephen Schwartz, a convert to sufi Islam and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, “Malice in Dallas.” Also the salutary tribune in TDB (May 4th) by comedian Dean Obeidallah, “Muslims Defend Pam Geller’s Right to Hate.” The First Amendment. Of course.

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The UK election

generalelection-575738 Daily Express

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Je suis dégoûté. Really disappointed, mainly as the outcome wasn’t expected. After the US midterms, the Israeli vote, and now this one, I don’t think I can take any more such unanticipated election results. What next? An AKP landslide in Turkey on June 7th, giving the president-sultan there his super-majority to rewrite the constitution as he sees fit? What an unpleasant thought. On the misfiring of the UK pre-election polls, Nate Silver, in his live blogging last night, opined (at 9:54 PM) that “the world may have a polling problem,” with accurate polling posing increasing challenges.

Also having a problem—and a big one—is the Labour party and, more generally, center-left/social democratic parties of government that have moved to the center over the past two decades. As political scientists Johannes Karreth and Jonathan Polk argued on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog two days ago—and with data to back it up—”Moving to the center can be costly for left-wing parties.” The era when embracing neoliberalism looked to be the right electoral strategy is now past.

On Labour’s debacle, journalist John Lanchester, in a post today on the LRB blog—in which he confesses that he did not see the result coming—writes

First-past-the-post is not especially fair, but it is supposed to deliver clear outcomes. In 2010, it didn’t. This time, against all expectations, it did. Lots more detail will come in over the next weeks as the data are analysed and the political scientists do their thing, but for me, a couple of things really stand out. If Labour had retained all of their 41 Scottish seats, the Tories would still be the majority government. So that must mean Labour got creamed in England, yes? Actually, no. Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 per cent. That’s more than the Tories: their share of the English vote only went up by 1.4 per cent. Labour could even claim that they won the English campaign, in the same sense that the British army could claim it won the Charge of the Light Brigade.

So what did happen in England? The Tories smashed it in the marginals. In the battleground constituencies Labour were down on their 2010 performance by 0.7 per cent. Labour’s overall improvement in England was driven by success on their own turf: 3.5 per cent increase in the North East, 6 per cent in the North West. Where there was a genuine contest with the Tories, the Tories did better. People sometimes say that election campaigns don’t matter, but that is manifestly not the case this time. The Tories out-campaigned Labour in the places where they needed to.

Writing in The Telegraph, blogger Tim Stanley, who was apparently a Labour person in the recent past, says “No tears for Ed Miliband, please. He was the reason Labour lost.”

On first-past-the-post vs. proportional representation, LSE political scientists Jack Blumenau and Simon Hix had a pre-election post in Monkey Cage asking “What would Britain look like under Proportional Representation?

That question today is neither here nor there but it nonetheless merits mention that, under straight PR—and with voters voting the way they did—the LD yesterday would have netted 50 seats (instead of 8), SNP 30 seats (and not 56), and UKIP a full 82 (as opposed to its measly one). The likely coalition outcome: the Tories with UKIP and the (very right-wing) Ulster Protestant DUP. Anyone still for PR?…

On the (trashy) British media coverage of the election campaign, which was flagrantly biased in favor of the Tories and against Labour, see journalist Peter Jukes’s piece, “The British press has lost it,” which has been the most read article on Politico.eu’s website today. The British press, as I wrote some four years ago, is terrible (and far worse than the American or French).

The main concern for me personally in this election—and the reason why I so wanted the Tories to lose—was David Cameron’s insane promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, which, if it takes place—and it now will—will likely result in a vote for Brexit, the consequences of which will be calamitous for Europe—and for the UK as well, as a pro-EU Scotland will demand—and necessarily be granted—another referendum on independence, and which, this time, will succeed.

My idée reçue on this, however, may not be warranted. As Politico.eu’s Tunku Varadarajan argues, the decisive Tory victory now means that “Britain’s membership [in] the EU is safe

The Tories have seen off the UKIP threat in the short-to-medium term. Their backers in the City of London and in industry would rather die than endure the calamity of ‘Brexit,’ and Cameron knows this. Cameron’s silence on the subject of the EU during the election campaign made it plain that his promise of a referendum was tactical. A referendum there will be, of course, but it will be one in which only UKIP campaigns for an abrogation of EU membership. Cameron’s pro-EU price in Brussels will be a promise by the European Council to renegotiate some treaty terms. It is unlikely that Brussels will refuse. If the prospect of Brexit is unbearable in the City of London, it is equally unbearable in Brussels.

On Cameron’s demand to renegotiate EU treaty terms, I’ve been assuming that such will be met by the European Council with a fin de non recevoir, but again, maybe I’m mistaken. Bernard Guetta, in a commentary on France Inter this morning, thinks it likely that Brussels will end up making the necessary concessions to keep the UK in the EU (and which will thereby allow for the formal creation of a two-speed Europe, as dreamed for by France; listen here).

As for Scotland, numerous journalists and pundits are certain that independence—a hypothesis I am totally hostile to, as I explained here last September—is only a matter of time, e.g. Ben Judah’s Politico.eu report last weekend from the campaign trail, datelined Edinburgh, in which he asserted “Make no mistake: It’s ‘bye-bye Britain.’” With yesterday’s SNP sweep, the sentiment that Scotland will quit the UK has only been reinforced. I’m not convinced. The SNP may have won a big victory but the impressive 30 point increase in its popular vote score, to 50% north of the border, merely aligns it, more or less, with its score in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections—and its result in last September’s referendum. And while every last voter who favors Scottish independence voted SNP yesterday, a small number of the latter’s voters no doubt remain unionists at heart. So pro-independence sentiment is not (yet) in the majority.

In point of fact, Scotland can only gain independence if the UK prime minister allows the organization of a referendum, and there is no reason for Cameron (or his successor) to do this in the absence of a game changing situation, which can only be a Brexit victory in the UK-wide EU vote. Moreover, if such a referendum for Scotland is eventually held, the rules imposed by London may be different from those last time, e.g. stipulating a super-majority (say, 55%) or allowing all persons born in Scotland, but residing elsewhere in the UK, the right to vote in it. So Scottish independence is not a done deal.

Also, the fact that the SNP will have the third largest group of deputies in the House of Commons also changes the game. The SNP’s participation in Westminster will significantly implicate it in national politics and likely temper its demands for a referendum on independence, particularly if a new federal or confederal arrangement is negotiated with London (if Cameron is going to make demands on Brussels for the UK to stay in the EU, it stands to reason that he will concede to Edinburgh to keep Scotland in the UK). So at the end of the day, the SNP may ultimately transform itself into a regional federalist party, as the PQ has, in effect, become in Quebec, as has the Lega Nord in Italy.

One good analysis I’ve read today on the election is University of Georgia professor Cas Mudde’s “A disunited kingdom,” in OpenDemocracy. The lede: “While the Conservative victory is remarkable, it is a mere incident in the fundamental transformation of British politics that is being played out in at least four important chapters. British politics is dead.”

The most gratifying result from the election was certainly the defeat of the unspeakable George Galloway, in his Bradford West constituency, and to a Pakistani-origin female Labour candidate. That warms the heart.

UPDATE: Author Richard Seymour—who is solidly on the left—has a good post-election analysis on the Jacobin website, “The end of Labour.” The lede: “Yesterday’s British election was about the collapse of the Labour Party — and where we go from here.”

2nd UPDATE: Cambridge University political theorist David Runciman has some interesting “Notes on the election” on the LRB blog.

3rd UPDATE: David Frum, the well-known conservative Canadian-American pundit—who is presently chairman of the UK think tank Policy Exchange—has a post-election commentary in The Atlantic worth linking to, in which he tells US Republicans “What [they] can learn from British Conservatives.” The lede: “Several of the world’s center-right parties have modernized in ways the GOP hasn’t.”

The conservative leaders Frum mentions are mainly in the Anglosphere: in addition to David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper and Australia’s Tony Abbott. Now these latter two I find particularly unpalatable but Frum’s point—that the GOP could learn from them—is well-taken. E.g.

Center-right parties in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have all made peace with government guarantees of healthcare for all. These conservatives do not abjectly defend the healthcare status quo; they attempt to open more space for competition and private initiative within the health sector. But they accept that universal health coverage in some form has joined old-age pensions and unemployment insurance in the armature of an advanced modern economy. In this, their American counterparts are the true outliers.

The difference between the American right and the rest may, I think, be summed up in one name: Ayn Rand. If her ideas have ever found a receptive audience elsewhere in the Anglosphere—or anywhere else in the world—I am not aware of it. As for the receptiveness to Ayn Rand in the US, this has ideological roots—e.g. in late 19th century Social Darwinism—but that’s a whole other discussion.

4th UPDATE: Peter Oborne, associate editor of The Spectator, has an opinion piece in Politico.eu on “The ruins of Labour,” in which he says that a return to Blairism is not the answer to Labour’s woes.

5th UPDATE: Peter Hall, the Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard University—who’s very smart; I’ve read and used his academic writings over the decades—has a piece in WaPo’s Monkey Cage on how “English voters were influenced by the politics of fear.”

In this vein, the post-election commentary by The Nation’s London bureau chief D.D. Gutterplan also asserted that “Fear wins big in Britain.”

And also in Monkey Cage is an instructive piece by Kieran Healy, associate professor of sociology at Duke University, on “What the runners-up tell us about Britain’s election.” Reading this, it seems pretty clear that the UK needs electoral reform, to replace FPTP with STV or some variant of PR.

6th UPDATE: John Prescott—former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, former UK Deputy Prime Minister, and current Sunday Mirror columnist—argues that “Labour lost the election five years ago” and explains why. The reason: Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership failed to defend Labour’s past economic record.

7th UPDATE: Jim Messina, President Obama’s former deputy chief of staff and campaign manager, who was an adviser to the Tories and David Cameron’s campaign, has a piece in Politico Magazine (May 17th) on “Why the GOP can’t get no satisfaction.” The lede: “My British experience—including advice from Mick Jagger—taught me that the Republican Party could end up like Ed Miliband.” N.B. Messina’s piece is about the British election, not the GOP or American politics.

8th UPDATE: Stanley Greenberg, the CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and pollster for the Labour Party (as well as the Zionist Camp in Israel during the last campaign there), explicates, in Politico.eu (May 17th), the reasons for the Tory victory, in which it is asserted that “Right-wing wins come at too high a price.” The lede: “I watched overseas as Britain and Israel’s leaders did long-term harm to their countries.”

9th UPDATE: Simon Wren-Lewis, who teaches economics at Oxford University, has a post on the election reblogged in Social Europe (May 18th), in which he puts Niall Ferguson and his “triumphalist Tory tosh” through the shredder.

10th UPDATE: Ross McKibbin, an emeritus research fellow at St John’s College, Oxford, has a lengthy piece in the June 4th issue of the LRB (posted online on May 21st) on “the Labour Party’s most recent demise.”

11th UPDATE: David Held, who teaches politics at Durham Univesity, has a column (May 22nd) in OpenDemocracy, in which he poses “10 questions for the Labour Party.”

12th UPDATE: Patrick Wintour, political editor of The Guardian, has a lengthy piece (June 3rd) on “The undoing of Ed Miliband – and how Labour lost the election.” The lede: “It was Labour’s most stunning defeat since 1983. This exclusive account, based on unique access to the party leader’s closest aides, tells the inside story of what went wrong.”

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While awaiting the results of the British election, here’s an essay one may read by Paul Krugman, published in The Guardian last week, “The austerity delusion: The case for cuts was a lie. Why does Britain still believe it?” Hopefully the election will show that enough voters have stopped believing the lie, or at least no longer wish to go along with it.

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Charlie Hebdo Editor-in Chief Gérard Biard & film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret

Charlie Hebdo Editor-in Chief Gérard Biard & film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret

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One may have heard about the brouhaha over the PEN American Center’s honoring Charlie Hebdo with its annual Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award—the gala ceremony happening last night—and the open letter protesting this that was signed by six—then 204—PEN members: nitwits, dupes, and/or ignoramuses all of them (on this particular question, at least). On the stupidity of the 204, Charlie Hebdo’s Philippe Lançon—who was seriously wounded in the January 7th attack—got it exactly right in a commentary, in the latest issue (just out today), on the PEN controversy and the protesting writers

Ce n’est donc pas leur abstention qui me choque; c’est la nature de leurs arguments. Que des romanciers d’une tell qualité—Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi—en viennent à dire autant de stupidités mal informées en aussi peu de mots, avec toute la vanité des belles âmes, voilà qui attriste le lecteur que je suis. Même si ce lecteur sait, par expérience, qu’un bon écrivain n’est jamais rien de plus, ni de moins, qu’un bon écrivain: un type qui sait bâtir quelque chose de beau, de surprenant et d’intelligent, mais qui, en dehors de son art, peut hélas penser et écrire à peu près n’importe quoi.

Touché.

I’m so bored arguing about Charlie Hebdo. I’ve said everything I have to say on the matter—in numerous posts on this blog and debates on social media—and don’t feel like repeating myself. So in lieu of doing that, I will link here to a few commentaries on the brouhaha that I found particularly good (and which do not include anything by Glenn Greenwald):

Todd Gitlin, “PC Thought-Bots Embarrass Themselves With PEN Boycott,” in Tablet (May 4th).

Nick Cohen, “Charlie Hebdo: The literary indulgence of murder,” in The Spectator (April 29th).

Adam Gopnik, “PEN Has Every Right to Honor Charlie Hebdo,” in The New Yorker (April 30th).

James Kirchick, “Weaker than the Sword: Charlie Hebdo, PEN, and writerly cowardice in the face of armed aggression against free speech,” in The Walrus (May 4th).

Michael Moynihan, “America’s Literary Elite Takes a Bold Stand Against Dead Journalists,” in The Daily Beast (May 5th).

Robert McLiam Wilson, “If you don’t speak French, how can you judge if Charlie Hebdo is racist?,” in the New Statesman (April 29th).

Arthur Goldhammer—seeking middle ground, overly so IMO—, “PEN America, Charlie Hebdo and the virtue of self-restraint,” in Al Jazeera America (May 4th).

N.B. The PEN debate has been a purely Anglo-American one. It has been noted in France but nothing more. The latest (brewing) Charlie Hebdo debate here, which caught everyone unawares over the past week, is around the incendiary pamphlet—due out tomorrow—by the polymath dilettante, intellectual bomb thrower, and illuminé extraordinaire Emmanuel Todd, Qui est Charlie? Todd’s pamphlet is less about Charlie Hebdo than the January 11th marches and the four-odd million people across France who participated in them. After reading the interview with Todd in last week’s Nouvel Obs, in which he laid out his argument, I was so beside myself with ire that I declared right there and then that I would never read another word by the S.O.B. and, moreover, be sorely tempted to commit an act of aggression against his bodily person if our paths were to cross in public (and, pour mémoire, I have had not bad things to say about Todd’s writings in the past). Listening to (the insufferably arrogant, imperious) Todd on France Inter on Monday morning was the clincher. Perhaps I’ll come back to this subject.

UPDATE: Paris-based Russian-American writer Vladislav Davidzon has an excellent, bull’s-eye commentary in Tablet (May 5th) “In Paris, PEN Boycott Makes Americans Look Like Crude Provincials.” The lede: “Why the political and cultural battles being fought here [in the US] have nothing to do with what happened over there.”

In his commentary Davidzon links to two pieces on Charlie Hebdo by the Paris-based philosopher Justin E. H. Smith: “Charlie Hebdo and literature,” published on Smith’s blog (May 1st); and an essay from the April issue of Harper’s, in which he discussed the CH killings and the response of the Anglo-American left, “The Joke.”

2nd UPDATE: Charlie Rose interviewed Charlie Hebdo’s Gérard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, in New York for the PEN gala, on his show (on May 4th), which may be watched here. Their English is good!

3rd UPDATE: TNR senior editor Jeet Heer has an interesting critique of Charlie Hebdo (May 8th), “The Aesthetic Failure of ‘Charlie Hebdo’.” The lede: “The French satirical magazine refuses to evolve, using a stale artistic strategy from the 1960s.”

4th UPDATE: Following an exchange (July 22nd) with a friend about Emmanuel Todd’s book, I am linking here to all the critiques I’ve seen of it—critiques that, taken together, reduce Todd’s crackpot arguments to smithereens (the one by Mayer & Tiberj is, from a social scientific standpoint, the most important); for the record, I have seen not a single review or op-ed that outright defends Todd; on social media, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” people have linked to Todd but without commentary and refrained from engaging in a full-throttle defense of his theses when confronted with contradictory arguments (e.g. from the likes of me); no one, or so it seems, wants to go out on a limb and take Todd’s side:

Hubert Heurtas, “NON, le 11 janvier ne fut pas une imposture,” in Mediapart (May 1st).

François Héran, “Un esprit de système caricatural,” in Libération (May 3rd).

Daniel Schneidermann, “Charlie: débarrassons le livre de Todd de sa gangue de «portnawak»,” in Rue89 (May 4th).

André Burguière, “Le professeur Todd nous prend pour des charlots,” in L’Obs (May 6th).

Joseph Macé-Scaron, “Emmanuel Todd, intellectuel zombie,” in Marianne (May 7th).

Jean Matouk, “Emmanuel Todd: mieux vaut croire qu’il est malade,” in Rue89 (May 9th).

Henri Tincq, “Non, Emmanuel Todd, je ne vous suis pas dans votre portrait de la France religieuse,” in Slate.fr (May 12th).

Nonna Mayer & Vincent Tiberj, “Le simplisme d’Emmanuel Todd démonté par la sociologie des «Je suis Charlie»,” in Le Monde (May 19th).

5th UPDATE: Hudson Institute research follow Benjamin Haddad has a scathing review in The Daily Beast (October 18th) of the English translation of Emmanuel Todd’s screed, “New Charlie Hebdo book blames victims: An inane essay by a left-wing French writer claims supporters of Charlie Hebdo are essentially Islamophobic fascists.”

Nº 1179, 25-02-2015

Nº 1179, 25-02-2015

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Baltimore & The Wire

Poot, Bodie, D'Angelo, and Wallace

Poot, Bodie, D’Angelo, and Wallace

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Paul Krugman’s column today, “Race, class, and neglect,” is on Baltimore, in which, entre autres, he cites “the great sociologist” William Julius Wilson and expresses dismay at the reaction of “commentators,” i.e. conservative commentators. Krugman here rather obviously has a fellow NYT columnist colleague in mind (whose initials are DB). As usual, Krugman gets it precisely right.

In following Baltimore over the past week, I naturally thought right away of ‘The Wire’, the greatest show in the history of television and Baltimore’s TV claim to fame. I am, of course, only the 750,000th—or maybe the 7,500,000th, or whatever—person to make this assertion. In addition to being brilliant television ‘The Wire’ is brilliant social science, and is consequently taught in numerous college courses, including William Julius Wilson’s at Harvard. Everyone knows by now that, during its 2002-08 run on HBO, it was Barack Obama’s favorite TV show—and that Omar was his favorite character—isn’t he everyone’s?—as Mr. Obama reminded ‘The Wire’ creator David Simon in a conversation between the two this past March, which may be viewed here. Say what one will about Obama, he is without question the most thoughtful president the US has had in a very long time.

As for David Simon, he weighed in last week on “Baltimore’s anguish” in an interview with The Marshall Project’s editor Bill Keller. Also last week, The Guardian reposted an excerpt of a talk Simon gave in 2013 in Sydney, Australia, “‘There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show’.”

Fans of the ‘The Wire’ are, in their great majority, liberals and leftists, though a few conservatives also appreciate it. One of these, Francis Fukuyama—who’s one of America’s smartest and most interesting public intellectuals—wrote a particularly good essay on the series, “Down to The Wire,” in the September-October 2012 issue of The American Interest. Money quotes:

The most impressive achievement of The Wire, however, is the way it humanizes an entire segment of American society that most white Americans would just as soon ignore (and generally do). By humanize, I do not mean sentimentalize or whitewash. Many of the drug dealers, as well as some of the cops, are vicious people, and the viewer gets to watch them inflict unspeakable cruelties on their victims in ugly detail. But we soon come to realize that most of the characters living in the bad parts of Baltimore are trapped there by the simple bad luck of where and when they were born

And this

One of the fundaments of American political culture is the notion that North America started out as a terra nullis, an empty land to which settlers could come and make new lives for themselves. Americans accept instinctively the Lockean notion that the “industrious and rational” will combine their labor with the mere things of nature and create private property and wealth for themselves, while the “quarrelsome and contentious” will not. Democratic political and legal institutions were constructed to protect what James Madison called the “diversity of the faculties of men” and their consequent unequal ability to acquire property. Americans thus distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor in a way that Europeans, schooled in the historical reality of class differences, generally do not. The idea of social mobility is fundamental to both America’s self-image and to its ongoing success: I may be poor today, but through ability and hard work I can ensure that my children or grandchildren will have better lives. Americans therefore care much less than Europeans about actual socioeconomic inequality; what they care about is a level playing field that allows for intergenerational social mobility. As the experience of countless immigrant groups to the United States has demonstrated, this myth has also been the reality for very many Americans.

The one big exception to this happy immigrant story has always been African Americans, who did not come to North America voluntarily and who, up until the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, were subject to overt legal discrimination in many parts of the country. Blacks were the only social group that faced caste-like barriers to mobility. Their social and economic liberation and subsequent advancement required political power to achieve, first in a Civil War that ended slavery and left more than 600,000 Americans dead, and then in a long struggle against legal segregation whose end required strenuous enforcement by Federal authorities.

The Tea Party ideology that glorifies individual self-help and points to the dangers of an overweening national government conveniently forgets this history—or perhaps some of them do remember it, which is why they are so opposed to the Affordable Care Act, many of whose beneficiaries would be black. Even for those not on the libertarian Right, there tends to be a view that the end of legal segregation leveled the playing field, that government efforts like the Great Society’s War on Poverty were a counterproductive failure, and that there is little more that can usefully be done with regard to inner-city social policy.

What The Wire does so effectively is to remind us that while individual ability and talent do matter, and that our character and moral choices matter as well, we are nevertheless very much products of a social environment over which we as individuals have very little influence. (…)

My wife and I watched all five seasons of ‘The Wire’ in fall 2008-winter 2009 (a big thank you to Stathis Kalyvas for informing me of its existence and pressing me to check it out). Since then I’ve lent my DVD set to several people—including a work colleague at the present moment—all of whom have gone through the entire series and given it the thumbs way up. I think we’re due to watch it a second time.

UPDATE: The Nation’s Dave Zirin has a post on his Nation blog (May 4th), in which he describes how he was a fanatical fan of ‘The Wire’ but now says that he is “Reconsidering [the show] amidst the Baltimore uprising.” In a nutshell, he is not sure if the series had a politically progressive message after all. Zirin’s post is followed by a lively—and high-quality—debate in the comments thread, most of whose contributors take strong issue with him. The comment by “Steve” is particularly good, and which I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting into the comments thread here.

2nd UPDATE: Adam Shatz—a ‘Wire’ fan—offers his thoughts on Baltimore in a post (May 7th) on the LRB blog.

3rd UPDATE: Orlando Patterson, the brilliant Harvard University sociologist, has an excellent, must-read op-ed (May 9th) in the NYT on “The real problem with America’s inner cities.”

Bunk & McNulty

Bunk & McNulty

Omar & Brother Mouzone

Omar & Brother Mouzone

Stringer Bell & Prop Joe

Stringer Bell & Prop Joe

Clay Davis

Clay Davis

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Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore, May 1st  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore, May 1st (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Watch here Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announcing the indictments of the six police officers for the homicide of Freddie Gray. Very impressive. Her political future will be brilliant if she wins convictions. POTUS in 2032 maybe?

Max Rodenbeck of The Economist has passed on to me a most interesting article by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, posted April 29th on the EPI’s Working Economics Blog, on how the black ghetto in Baltimore (and everywhere else in America) got to be that way, “From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation.” Money quote

Baltimore, not at all uniquely, has experienced a century of public policy designed, consciously so, to segregate and impoverish its black population. A legacy of these policies is the rioting we have seen in Baltimore. Whether after the 1967 wave of riots that led to the Kerner Commission report, after the 1992 Los Angeles riot that followed the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, or after the recent wave of confrontations and vandalism following police killings of black men, community leaders typically say, properly, that violence isn’t the answer and that after peace is restored, we can deal with the underlying problems. We never do so.

On the 1968 Kerner Commission report, see the piece in Politico Magazine (April 30th) by Bruce Western, of Harvard’s JFK School of Government, “The Man Who Foresaw Baltimore.” The lede: “Nearly 40 years ago, the Kerner Commission warned us of all this. We didn’t listen.”

In his post Richard Rothstein links to an article by Rutgers University-Newark history professor Beryl Satter, “Race and Real Estate,” published in the July-August 2009 issue of Poverty & Race, that is definitely worth the read.

Louis Hyman, who teaches history at Cornell, has an article in Slate (May 1st), which gives food for thought, on “Why the CVS burned.” The lede: “The rioting in Baltimore wasn’t hooliganism. It was a protest against the depredations of the ghetto economy.”

Emily Badger, an urban policy reporter at WaPo’s Wonkblog, has an informative Wonkblog post (April 29th) on “The long, painful and repetitive history of how Baltimore became Baltimore.”

Gracy Olmstead, an associate editor of Patrick Buchanan’s The American Conservative, has a post (April 30th) on Baltimore—in which she sounds like some bleeding heart liberal—rhetorically asking “Have conservatives lost their compassion?” The question presupposes, of course, that they had this to begin with.

And Julia Blount, a Princeton alumna who teaches middle school, has an open letter on her Facebook page and republished in Salon (April 30th), “Dear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now.” Salon’s lede: “To those rushing to judgment about what’s happening in Baltimore: Please stop and listen before you say any more.” (h/t Michelle S.)

À suivre.

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The Baltimore protests

Baltimore, April 22nd (photo: Samuel Corum, Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Baltimore, April 22nd (photo: Samuel Corum, Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

I was initially going to title this post “The Baltimore riots” but then thought that wouldn’t be right, as there has been a protest movement underway in Baltimore since the death of Freddie Gray two weeks ago—who, we now know, was murdered by the police—but there was only one several hour stretch of actual rioting (last Monday) and which wasn’t that big of a deal (the disturbances last Saturday, so far as I’ve read, fell short of a full-blown riot). Sure, it was a big deal for the individuals whose property was looted or vandalized but, with a total of 144 vehicle fires and 15 structural fires, and a few stores looted—and not a single death—the Monday trashing and burning was, compared to the many previous riots in contemporary US history, just not (a big deal). I mean, we’re not talking about Detroit or Newark 1967, Washington or Baltimore 1968, or L.A. 1992 here. And white American punks frequently riot but whose actions are not labeled by the media or larger society as such.

What happened in Baltimore earlier this week—which did not start in the way the broadcast media reported—looked a lot like a typical riot or disturbance in France, which usually begins as a protest by youthful members of visible minorities enraged at the behavior of the police, with the two clashing—hurling projectiles, tear gas, etc—and the looting and arson committed by apolitical opportunists and profiteers joining the melee to steal or just raise hell (I’ve written about French riots here, here, and here; and the 2011 London rioting here). Protesters and looters/arsonists are not the same. And the ultimate responsible party—the culprit—in setting off the events is almost always the police.

On L.A. 1992, Steve Lopez of the L.A. Times had a column the other day on the “Baltimore riots and the long shadow of 1992 Los Angeles,” in which, entre autres, he discussed the “Third World conditions” in the United States. On the rioting, he had this to say

There’s no excusing the looting and torching we’ve seen in Los Angeles and Baltimore, and people understandably want to know how it makes any sense to destroy your own neighborhood.

It doesn’t. Some of it is just plain thuggery.

But some of it is an angry response to a system that appears to be rigged. When you become convinced that justice and opportunity are available to some and not to others, and that nothing changes from one generation to the next, it doesn’t take long before mob mentality takes over.

On protesters vs. rioters, Babson College political scientist Stephen Deets, in a piece in the WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog, “Baltimore is not Ferguson,” wrote

Very quickly the divide between the “protesters” and the “rioters” became apparent. Freddie Gray’s death may have provided the structural opportunity for the riots, but it seems the individuals involved were largely different than the protesters. As a result, Monday afternoon and evening the protester leaders, mayor, and police were cooperating to calm the streets.

For those who didn’t look at the NYT yesterday, check out Johns Hopkins history prof N.D.B. Connolly’s op-ed, “Black culture is not the problem.”

Examining the view from the right, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has a spot on essay on how “Few conservatives take police abuses seriously.” The lede: “There is overwhelming evidence of widespread civil-rights violations and unlawful brutality. Yet the movement’s reflex is still to ignore or deny the problem.”

Indeed. The right has precious little to say about the behavior of the police. On the question of police violence—or thuggery, if you will—journalist Nathalie Baptiste has a piece in TAP in which she says that “In Baltimore, [this] is the real violence problem.” The lede: “An unarmed black person is six times more likely to be killed by police than is a white person who carries a weapon.”

If one missed it, see my post from last month, “Killed by police.” If any conservatives out there wish to comment on this, feel free.

There has, of course, been some boneheadedness and stupidity on the far left, which the well-known lefty political scientist Stephen Zunes called out yesterday in a social media status update:

One thing that bugs me almost as much as the white conservatives who condemn poor black inner city youth for rioting are the white leftists who cheer it on. The empirical evidence has demonstrated that strategic nonviolent action (strikes, blockades, occupations, etc.) is far more effective in advancing social justice than smashing storefront windows and throwing projectiles at cops. Those of us in privileged positions should neither impose moral judgement on nor encourage counter-productive tactics by the oppressed.

Very good, Stephen. I entirely agree.

À suivre.

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