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Archive for August, 2017

Le Monde, 15-16 August 2017

It’s been two weeks since the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, which, with its aftermath, continues to occupy a sizable part of my social media news feeds. Last week was, to quote the NYT’s Frank Bruni, the worst in a cursed—or, rather, accursed—presidency and, echoing Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce, the bleakest moment for America in my lifetime. But, as Pierce reminds us, it’s not as if what has happened is a surprise to anyone who’s been following Trump over the past two years. As everyone with any personal connection to America has been riveted to Charlottesville and the fallout, I’m not going not to drone on with an extended commentary. Just a few random thoughts I’ve had since the thing began.

First, on the neo-Nazis. Many on this side of the pond, but also stateside, were stunned by the spectacle of the march, that such could even happen—and with one expat American friend expressing shock that Nazis were actually “a thing” back home. On the march being allowed to take place, this would clearly not happen in France, where Nazism is illegal, the law proscribing hate speech is regularly invoked sans état d’âme, and the state can ban a street demonstration if the Ministry of Interior (the tutelary authority of the national police) determines that it will disturb public order (i.e. cause a riot). Freedom of opinion and expression are inscribed in articles 10 and 11 of the hallowed 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen—which figures in the preamble of the constitution—but there are the bits about disturbing public order and abusing such freedoms—the parameters being set by administrative courts (and eventually the Constitutional Council)—that allow for the enactment of hate speech laws and outlawing extremist groups, which would be impossible in the US on account of the First Amendment. Personally speaking, I can understand and sympathize with the French attitude toward Nazis—the historical context requires no explanation and Nazi bans hardly make France a less free country than America—but remain a First Amendment purist nonetheless—though not an unqualified one. Defending the right of fascists to spew their venom does not obligate a city, university, or other public or private establishment to give them a venue to do so. If there is good cause to believe that a public procession of neo-Nazi goons will result in violence—and overstretch the ability of the police to deal with it—then a city (or university) should have the right to deny the Nazis or other extremist groups a permit to march or hold an event in a given space—and particularly at night and by torchlight, in view of what that symbolizes and obvious dangers involved (fire causing fires).

I’ve seen American Nazis on occasion over the years (the most memorable in Washington in 1975, when I perceived from a bus window two men in full Nazi uniform—with swastikas and all—tranquilly handing out leaflets on the corner of Connecticut & K, at 5:00 PM on a weekday; it is most unlikely they would dare do so today) and have come across its literature more often. However jarring this may be, the fact is, neo-Nazis in America are, in the larger scheme of things, irrelevant; they’re pathetic losers, angry white men who may be dangerous as individuals—in which case they become an affair for law enforcement—but, on their own, pose no political threat.

If Charlottesville were akin to Skokie 1977, I would say let the wankers have their march and ignore them. What made Charlottesville different from Skokie, however, was the Second Amendment (post-Heller). It was the weapons, of legally parading with (presumably loaded) semi-automatic rifles. This is insane. Paraphrasing the conservative Canadian-American David Frum writing in The Atlantic, in no other advanced democracy could a private militia armed with weapons of war even be legally constituted, let alone allowed to hold a public march and with those weapons, and, moreover, chant slogans that are manifest calls to violence and concretely threaten the physical integrity of persons observing the parade and chanting counter slogans back. As for the constitutionality of this, Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern argued in Slate that there was a clear clash in Charlottesville between the First and (post-Heller) Second Amendments, and with the latter winning out. The First Amendment is necessarily undermined when those exercising it are confronted by a hostile paramilitary force of persons carrying machine guns and backed by open-carry and “stand-your-ground” laws. Those who argue that armed extremists enjoy a First Amendment right to hold a parade even in these circumstances—and wherever and whenever they feel like doing so—are dodging a fundamental issue here.

The counter-demonstrators could, of course, bring weapons themselves. Constitute their own militia. Great. If Americans want Lebanon or Somalia, then Lebanon or Somalia they will get. This, however, poses the question as to the equity, as it were, of the Second Amendment. Quoting David Frum from the aforelinked article

As David Graham has observed here at The Atlantic, the right to carry arms is America’s most unequally upheld right. Ohio is an open-carry state. Yet Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old, was shot dead in Cleveland within seconds of being observed carrying what proved to be a pellet gun. John Crawford was shot dead for moving around an Ohio Walmart with an air rifle he had picked up from a display shelf. Minnesota allows concealed-carry permit-holders to open carry if they wish—yet Minnesotan Philando Castile was killed after merely telling a police officer he had a legal gun in his car.

On the other hand, every white man who played vigilante in Charlottesville this weekend went home unharmed to his family, having successfully overawed the police—and having sent a chilling message of warning to lawful protesters.

One shudders to imagine what would happen if the neo-Nazis were to cross paths with, say, Black Lives Matter organized as a paramilitary force.

I mentioned Lebanon and Somalia. À propos, Robin Wright had a piece in The New Yorker last week that provoked much comment on social media, asking “Is America headed for a new kind of civil war?” Certain preconditions for civil war in the USA do indeed exist: the American political system is deeply polarized in a way it hasn’t been since, well, the Civil War, with one of the two parties of government extreme right-wing, populist, illiberal, and inimical to democracy—and is likely to remain so—and rejecting the legitimacy of the other party and its voters (the “moocher class,” Mitt Romney’s 47%…). If a Democratic Party candidate is elected president in 2020, does anyone honestly believe that the Republican Party base voters and media (Fox, Breitbart, AM talk radio, etc) will accept the election outcome and legitimacy of his or her presidency? Americans of the right and liberal/left do not see the world in the same way and, when it comes to politics—a subject hard to avoid—have nothing to say to one another. And N.B.: there is no symmetry here between the two sides of the political spectrum. The problem is exclusively on one. And that’s not going to change for the foreseeable future.

But there is not going to be a civil war in the US and for at least two reasons. First, only one of the sides is armed (and we know which side that is). If there is an armed conflict between Democratic and Republican Party base voters, it will be over quickly (and with many of my friends, associates, and relatives seeking political asylum in France, Canada and other civilized countries). Second, and more importantly, civil wars are waged over one of two things—control of the state or secession—and with the state and its armed force invariably actors in the conflict (though there are particular cases and exceptions, e.g. Lebanon 1975-90). If the American state is a party to a civil war, it will be to put down an insurrection, in which case the war will be over as soon as it starts. No militia is going to try to seize the American state (quelle idée!) and an eventual secession of some part of the country (Texas? California?) seems far-fetched, to put it mildly.

On Trump—on whom I have not had a post in almost six months—and his reaction to Charlottesville, New York-based writer Eyal Press had a good comment on his Facebook page

On second thought, Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, his refusal to condemn the bigotry and violence of a neo-Nazi mob, much less to utter the phrase “white supremacist terrorism,” is welcome. Just imagine if Trump had listened to some of his advisors and issued an insincere statement denouncing the violence and calling for unity. The pundits would have swooned, telling us, yet again, that he was now “Presidential,” that the dignity of the office he holds had been restored, even as his Justice Department continued to roll back minority rights and the likes of Bannon and Gorka walked the halls of the White House. For once, Trump did not dissemble. He showed the nation his true colors, revealing to his critics and supporters exactly who he is and where his sympathies lie.

Trump was Trump. I am not going to go on about him here or say anything I haven’t already said countless times, as his utter abjectness—politically and as a human being—and unfitness to be president of the United States is known—his lizard-brained fans excepted—to all. The American Prospect’s Adele M. Stan, in her latest column, thus expressed the sentiment of countless millions

There comes a point during the unfolding of a relentless, long-form catastrophe that one fears running out of adjectives to describe it. Watching President Donald J. Trump’s disgusting Tuesday night rally [in Phoenix], this writer finds the majesty of the English language failing her with means adequate to convey the depths of her disgust and dismay.

Haaretz’s US editor and correspondent Chemi Shalev, in writing about the sentiments of American Jews, also expressed those of tens of millions of non-Jewish Americans

Trump is different. His tenure could be a quantum leap, from strife to schism. Jewish liberals and doves may have detested George Bush and conservatives and right-wingers may have despised Barack Obama, but no U.S. president in the modern era has sparked such widespread fear and loathing in the American Jewish community as Trump. For many Jews, Trump is the worst thing that has happened to America in their lifetimes. Their fear, hostility and revulsion are so strong that they encompass not only Trump but anyone who seems to comfort and support him, to give him aid and succor, to be blind to his awfulness, which seems so obvious to his detractors. That includes Trump’s Jewish friends and supporters in the U.S. as well as the State of Israel, which has embraced him.

That’s right: “anyone who seems to comfort and support him, to give him aid and succor, to be blind to his awfulness”…

Just one thought. Since Charlottesville we have witnessed the already minimal acquiescence the Trump regime enjoyed among sectors of the American elite—notably corporate CEOs and the military—evaporate. A few hedge fund managers and media barons aside, Trump has been abandoned, if not outright repudiated, by the forces vives of American society. And this now includes the GOP congressional leadership. Even pro-Trump intellos—minuscule in number to begin with—and commentators on high-profile rightist websites are jumping ship. It is, needless to say, unprecedented for a president to be so thoroughly isolated—and only seven months into his term—for the elites of every sector of the economy, state, and society to consider unfit to hold office. It’s a dangerous situation, évidemment. Quoting Matt Taibbi’s latest in Rolling Stone

Because of [Trump’s] total inability to concentrate or lead, he will likely never do anything meaningful with the real governmental power he possesses – if he had a tenth of the managerial skills of Hitler, we’d be in impossibly deep shit right now. But as an enabler of behavior, as a stoker of arguments and hardener of resentments, he has no equal. Under Trump, racists become more racist, the woke necessarily become more woke, and areas of compromise among all quickly dwindle and disappear. He has us arguing about things that weren’t even questions a few minutes ago, like, are Nazis bad?

Trump has shown, once again, that his power to bring out the worst in people is limitless. And we should know by now that he’s never finished, never beaten. Historically, he’s most dangerous when he’s at his lowest. And he’s never been lower than now.

Which raises the question that we’ve been rhetorically posing almost since January 20th, which is “how long can this go on?” That it could until January 20th 2021 is quite simply inconceivable.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction, which is that, sooner rather later, maybe before the end of the year, something will happen, Trump will say or do something, that will prompt the GOP congressional leadership—McConnell, Ryan et al—to decide to quickly impeach and convict him. Swiftly, inside a week. Get rid of the SOB and swear Pence into office. Boom, comme ça. The Republicans will bite the bullet and just do it. Their base will go ballistic but the leadership will deal with it and hope the storm passes—and in time for the 2018 midterms. Voilà.

Over the past two weeks people have been hearing and reading about the “antifa” movement—and which has become the right’s latest leftist bogeyman. The term “antifa” seemed to come out of nowhere. I first saw Americans (on the left) use it on Facebook threads last winter, when the Milo Yiannopoulos event at Berkeley was cancelled following the Black Bloc riot, though when I asked people where it came from, no one had a response. In fact, the first time I heard the word “antifa” was here in France some two years ago, on the hard right radio station Radio Courtoisie (which I occasionally listen to in my car; it’s not an uninteresting station and, in tone, bears no resemblance to AM talk radio in the US), and then from a couple of my right-wing French students, who uttered it in class. I have never seen or heard it used on the French left (or the mainstream media). So as far as I’m concerned—and until proof to the contrary—the term “antifa” is a French right-wing invention—so rightists don’t have to pronounce the full word “fascist” in a context in which the finger is pointed at them—and that has made its way outre-Atlantique (and been unwittingly adopted by the left).

David Remnick has a good commentary in the current issue of The New Yorker on “Donald Trump’s true allegiances,” in which he writes

“We’ve seen this coming,” [Barack Obama] said [last November]. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails.”

For half a century, in fact, the leaders of the G.O.P. have fanned the lingering embers of racial resentment in the United States. Through shrewd political calculation and rhetoric, from Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to the latest charges of voter fraud in majority-African-American districts, doing so has paid off at the ballot box. “There were no governing principles,” Obama said. “There was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ ”

On the GOP and race, the NYT’s Charles M. Blow had a must-read column last week, “The other inconvenient truth: The Republican Party should acknowledge how it has fueled white supremacy.” Money quote

It is possible to trace this devil’s dance back to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the emergence of Richard Nixon. After the passage of the act, the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln to which black people felt considerable fealty, turned on those people and stabbed them in the back.

In 1994 John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser and a Watergate co-conspirator, confessed this to the author Dan Baum:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Charles Blow’s latest column, “Donald Trump, ‘King of Alabama’?,” is an absolute must-read, if one hasn’t already.

Novelist and radio host Kurt Andersen has a most interesting article in the September issue of The Atlantic, “How America lost its mind.” Entre autres, he offers an analysis of the evolution the Republican Party over the past five decades—leading in an almost straight line to Trump—that is similar to my own.

ICYMI, my dear friend Adam Shatz had an à chaud commentary on Charlottesville, “Trump set them free,” on the LRB blog.

On the Confederate statues issue, Columbia University history professor Eric Foner’s NYT op-ed, “Confederate statues and ‘our’ memory,” is excellent.

Likewise University of Chicago history professor Jane Dailey’s piece in Huffpost, “The Confederate general who was erased.”

Swarthmore College political science professor Richard Valelly, writing in The American Prospect, asks the excellent question, “How about erecting monuments to the heroes of Reconstruction?”

Roger Berkowitz—who is Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and Associate Professor of Politics, Human Rights, and Philosophy at Bard College—was interviewed last week by Deutsche Welle on “What philosopher Hannah Arendt would say about Donald Trump.”

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

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Jerry Lewis, R.I.P.

Receiving the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur,
from Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, Paris, 16 March 2006

I had no intention of marking his passing, as I never cared about him and don’t recall having ever seen any of his comedies from beginning to end. There is, as one knows, a tenacious myth among Americans that the French love (present tense) Jerry Lewis—which I’ve pushed back against here (third paragraph down) and here (in comments thread)—and that won’t die. The well-known journalist Pascal Riché has a piece up in L’Obs, “Pourquoi les Américains pensent que Jerry Lewis est idolâtré en France,” that pretty much settles the matter. The lede: “Aux Etats-Unis, Jerry Lewis est bizarrement considéré comme l’idole absolue des Français. Une légende née d’un engouement populaire et intellectuel dans les années 1960…”

Maybe now I’ll get around to seeing ‘The Nutty Professor’ (in France: Docteur Jerry et Mister Love), which is said to be hilarious.

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The Venezuelan implosion

[update below] [2nd update below]

I am not an expert on Venezuela, loin s’en faut. I have written but one post on the country in the life of AWAV, when Hugo Chávez died some 4½ years back. That’s it. I have, however, been reading daily about the dramatic present situation there, as have lots of people who otherwise don’t pay a lot of attention to what happens down that way. My social media news feeds have been full of commentary and links to articles and analyses of the Venezuelan implosion, and with people trying to figure out what’s going on. E.g. the other day a friend—with left-wing political views—said that he was trying to understand what was happening in Venezuela, that his reflex was to sympathize more with the government than the opposition, but that he wasn’t sure, as Nicolás Maduro is not an inherently sympathetic person and that the situation all seems very complicated. So I offered my borderline café de commerce explanation, striving to synthesize some of what I’ve read of late.

As for what I’ve read—and as a service to AWAV readers—here are some of the more interesting pieces. Beginning with academic specialists, which is where I look first, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner had the excellent idea to interview Stanford University emeritus professor Terry Lynn Karl, who is a leading political science specialist of petro-states—and Venezuela in particular—and whose work I have profited from over the years. The interview (August 2nd), “Venezuela is collapsing: could a civil war be next?,” is definitely worth the read.

Political scientists Dorothy Kronick (University of Pennsylvania) and Jennifer McCoy (Georgia State), both Venezuela specialists, have a podcast discussion (August 3rd), “How Venezuela could find a way out of chaos,” on Penn’s Wharton school website and that is worth 25 minutes of one’s time.

If one has 25 more minutes to spare, the podcast discussion (May 11th) with Kronick and Penn law professor William Burke-White, “Has Venezuela’s crisis reached a tipping point?,” may also be profitably listened to.

Francisco Toro, who runs the excellent Caracas Chronicles website, has a must-read op-ed (July 29th) in The Washington Post, “Translating Venezuela’s political crisis into American terms.”

Also see Toro’s piece in the New Republic (August 1st), “The last hope for Venezuela is also a frightening one.” The lede: “As the country descends into dictatorship, who will stop Nicolás Maduro?”

En français, CNRS directrice de recherche Frédérique Langue has a tribune in Le Monde (July 27th), “Les raisons de l’impasse au Venezuela.”

Également en français, see the analysis (May 11th) by Le Monde’s excellent Latin America reporter, Paulo A. Paranagua, “Imposture populiste au Venezuela.”

See as well the analysis (August 2nd) by Tamara Taraciuk Broner—a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch—in The Washington Post, “Venezuela is imploding: these citizens were desperate to escape.” The lede: “A new diaspora is spreading around South America, propelled by hunger and persecution.”

The très gauchiste Mike Gonzalez—formerly a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow—has an interesting outside-the-box analysis in the cent pour cent gauchiste Jacobin magazine, “Being honest about Venezuela.” The lede: “As Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly antidemocratic government battles violent right-wing forces, ordinary Venezuelans are watching the gains of Chavismo slip away.”

Nice that Jacobin published this piece, as it has largely been defending the Venezuelan pouvoir. On the matter of leftist/tiersmondiste reaction to the Venezuela crisis, the very smart University of Washington political science professor Jamie Mayerfeld—with whom I am in political agreement 99% of the time—let loose on his Facebook page last week:

This will be one of those posts in which I feel like I am shouting into the wind. Among my politically engaged Facebook friends, there is virtually no discussion of President Maduro’s consolidation of dictatorship in Venezuela over the weekend. The larger problem is that a significant portion of the left is lodged in a disinformation bubble carefully tended by TeleSur, Venezuela Analysis, The Nation, Jacobin, CounterPunch, RT en Español, and writers such as Greg Grandin and George Ciccariello-Maher. These sources have gone to great lengths to obscure the truth, namely that Maduro has worked systematically and tirelessly to destroy his country’s democratic institutions. To review: He has thrown political opponents in jail, stacked the supreme court, blocked opposition figures from taking seats in the national assembly, stripped the national assembly of legislative powers, blocked a presidential recall vote, postponed gubernatorial elections, and now in the coup de grace created a rubber-stamp constituent assembly with unlimited lawmaking powers. All this because his regime, responsible for an economic collapse causing widespread hunger and the collapse of health care, is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelan citizens. The left-wing disinformation machine uses various distortions, omissions, and Marxist dogmas to cover up what is happening. I am particularly upset by political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher’s piece in the Jacobin last Friday – a veritable torrent of lies that brings shame on my field of political science and subfield of political theory.

Tell it like it is, Jamie!

In this general vein, Asa Cusack—managing editor of the LSE Latin America and Caribbean blog—has a salutary opinion piece (August 2nd) in The Guardian, “What the left must learn from Maduro’s failures in Venezuela.” The lede: “I, like other progressives, was so inspired by the Bolivarian revolution that I overlooked Chavismo’s abuses. But willful blindness is no longer an option.”

Also in this vein, journalist James Kirchick, who is definitely not a gauchiste, has a fun op-ed (August 2nd) in the L.A. Times, “Remember all those left-wing pundits who drooled over Venezuela?” Hello, Naomi Klein…

Eric Emptaz has a really fun page one commentary in the current issue of Le Canard Enchaîné, “Caracas de conscience,” dans lequel il se fout de la gueule du PCF et d’autres gauchistes français (pour le lire, ouvrez l’image dans un nouvel onglet et l’agrandir).

And last but not least, don’t miss the must-read column (August 2nd) by Slate.fr’s Eric Le Boucher, “Le Venezuela, la vitrine de l’échec du mélenchonisme.” The lede: “Après les élections, la vérité sur le Venezuela éclate aujourd’hui. Elle est révélatrice…des failles de Jean-Luc Mélenchon.” Aïe!

Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: Jamie Mayerfeld has another commentary on his Facebook page (August 9th) taking to task the reaction of a part of the left to Venezuela

In The Nation, Gabriel Hetland asks how the international left can help Venezuela. Here’s a suggestion: start telling the truth. I had thought the left agreed with the general consensus that free and fair elections are necessary for the peaceful channeling of political conflict. Like several of his left-wing colleagues, Hetland does double back-flips to avoid mentioning that the Maduro government has blocked free and fair elections and that it is this fact more than any other that has motivated the street protests.

Hetland arrogantly writes, “It is far from clear that Venezuela’s popular sectors would fare any better under an opposition-led government.” I say “arrogantly,” because it is not the role of the international left to choose Venezuela’s government; that presumably is a task for the Venezuelan people themselves. Hetland closes the paragraph by saying that the danger represented by the opposition “is why millions continue to support the Maduro government, despite significant misgivings.” He chooses not to mention that popular support for Maduro reaches no higher than 22%. As The Economist writes, Venezuela “is a textbook example of why democracy matters: people with bad governments should be able to throw the bums out.” It’s not clear that the international left agrees with this principle.

I’m glad that in his final paragraph Hetland writes that the solution to the Venezuelan crisis must include “a credible electoral calendar that provides the opposition with a peaceful path to office.” It would have helped if Hetland acknowledged that the government’s assault on the democratic electoral process is the cause of the current crisis.

I give Hetland credit for acknowledging evidence of fraud in the constituent assembly election held on July 30. But he fails to mention that the constituent assembly is itself a strategy for bypassing the will of the Venezuelan people. It was designed to over-represent Maduro supporters, and polls show that 85% of the public opposed it. As it turned out, Maduro supporters were the only candidates voters could choose from. The constituent assembly is empowered to overrule the national assembly, whose members were chosen in a free election, although the opposition was prevented from obtaining a two-thirds super-majority when the supreme court (stacked with Maduro supporters) prevented three opposition legislators from taking their seats. (And then the supreme court proceeded, on clearly partisan grounds, to block several laws passed by the national assembly.)

One leftist who has been issuing mealy-mouthed statements on Venezuela is Jeremy Corbyn. As Lib Dem member Chris Key put it in politics.co.uk (August 8th), “Corbyn is too cowardly to condemn Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship.”

2nd UPDATE: Frédérique Langue of the CNRS has another analysis (August 8th), this in the French HuffPost, “Voici pourquoi on ne peut pas encore parler de guerre civile au Venezuela.” The lede: “Les mésusages du concept de ‘guerre civile’ ne reposent que sur une instrumentalisation idéologique de l’histoire et un discours anti-impérialiste.”

Thomas Posado, a research scholar at the Centre de Recherches Sociologiques et Politiques de Paris – Cultures et sociétés urbaines, at the Université Paris 8, has a piece (August 8th) in Contretemps: Revue de Critique Communiste, “Les classes populaires vénézuéliennes prises au piège.” The lede: “Depuis plus de quatre mois, une crise politique aigüe agite le Venezuela. Celle-ci s’inscrit dans le contexte d’un effondrement économique qui frappe le pays depuis 2014 et dont les classes populaires vénézuéliennes paient un lourd tribut, sans compter les violences qu’elles subissent sous toutes les formes.”

See also the analysis in Mediapart (August 8th) by Pablo Stefanoni, former director of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, “La tentation du ‘national-stalinisme’ au Venezuela.” The lede: “La gauche latino-américaine et européenne devrait préférer le débat sur le sens de la démocratie plutôt que de se barricader dans une défense aveugle du chavisme qui ouvre la porte à la droite.”

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Saw it last week. The verdict: it is the most overhyped, overrated movie of the year. Period. It’s not that I didn’t like it. On account of the hype and gushing reviews, I was, however, expecting a chef d’œuvre, to be blown away. But I wasn’t. It’s a perfectly acceptable war movie and with some positive facets, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. I will rank any number of WWII movies— those in which combat scenes are central—above it: e.g. Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, Hacksaw Ridge, Come and See (the greatest WWII movie of all time). I was not on the edge of my seat or personally moved at any point (except maybe by the 17-year-old on the private boat). I didn’t find it a “white-knuckle thriller.” And I didn’t have the feeling that what it’s been praised for—the technical feats (aerial dogfights, etc) or depictions of heroism and cowardice—I hadn’t seen before in other such films.

As one surely knows, the film has been praised to the heavens by critics outre-Atlantique et Manche—and considered by more than one to possibly be the greatest war film ever—not to mention in the Hexagon itself, so I will simply offer a few contradictory comments. First, on the technical side. One reads about the 70 mm hand-held IMAX cameras and is informed by critics that the film should optimally be seen on IMAX. Well, there are only three IMAX theaters in the Paris area, none of which are convenient for me and all showing only films in their dubbed version (and I’ll be damned if I’m going to see a Hollywood movie—indeed any non-French movie—in V.F.). If a particular format is recommended for a movie but which is not accessible to most people, that’s a shortcoming of the movie IMO.

One little thing that bugged me—that I have seen no mention of in any review—is that one sees the sprawl of modern Dunkerque in the background. The buildings and infrastructure are post-WWII (and by a few decades). It’s flagrant. This is a flaw in the film IMO. And while the city looks intact in the film, it was, in fact, heavily bombed by the Germans during the evacuation. Most of the city was indeed destroyed during those two weeks in May-June. But in the movie one sees but several Luftwaffe Stukas dive-bombing British ships but nary a plume of smoke over the city.

The discordant breaches of continuity: this is an interesting feature of the film but I was a little confused by it and did not pick up on this being the film’s structure —The Mole: 1 week/The Sea: 1 day/The Air: 1 hour—nor did the sharp cinephile friend with whom I saw it. And if normally sophisticated, highbrow folks like us didn’t get this—and how was one supposed to know what “The Mole” was? (I only learned in reading reviews afterward)—then I wonder how many in the great unwashed masses did…

And then there’s the depiction—or relative lack of—of the French role. They’re seen fighting in the opening scene—which is good, as they did indeed fight there and to protect the British while they evacuated—but the only French soldier in the movie afterward is a cheese-eating surrender monkey. Christopher Nolan could have profited by studying a little more history before making the film. Nolan’s perspective is decidedly Anglo-centric, giving comfort to, as French air force lieutenant-colonel and military historian Jérôme de Lespinois put it in a Le Monde tribune, the nombriliste attitude outre-Manche that the English are better off when they go it alone.

London-based writer Salil Tripathi seconds this view, asserting that “‘Dunkirk’ reinforces Britain’s self-image, that it was fighting for freedom all alone in World War II.” Oxford history professor Yasmin Khan thirds it, writing in the NYT about “Dunkirk, the war and the amnesia of the Empire” and how “two and a half million Indians [who] fought alongside the British in World War…are left out of accounts like Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Dunkirk’.” In this vein, New Republic film critic Christian Lorentzen informs us that

The Dunkirk episode was trotted out by the Leave campaign in the runup to last year’s EU referendum, and it’s easy to mistake Dunkirk for a piece of pro-Brexit propaganda. Plucky nationalist myths and box office populism have a way of aligning, and Nolan has a track record of flirting with reactionary politics.

For the record, I am not a fan of Nolan’s films, at least those I’ve seen. I wasn’t taken with ‘Memento’ and turned off the DVD of ‘Inception’ after fifteen minutes. I had no interest in seeing his other blockbusters.

The review in the wonderfully-named “War is Boring” blog makes the spot-on observation that the soldiers in the movie are too “squeaky clean with no dirt and no grit… [that t]his is one of the most sanitary war films…ever [made].”

Salon critic Matthew Rozsa writes that ‘Dunkirk’ is “a good film, but a far better history lesson,” that “its ability to place viewers in history is what truly impresses.” I wish to differ. The fact of the matter is, the film provides no historical context whatever. This is no big deal for historically-knowledgeable persons, e.g. AWAV’s readers, but I will promise that 98%—probably 99.5% in fact—of Americans who see the movie know nothing whatever of the historical episode in question. They know zero about the Fall of France—except for mendacious clichés of cheese eaters and surrender monkeys—or when it happened. And the movie won’t enlighten them. (The historical ignorance of Operation Dynamo is widespread in France too, BTW, but at least people here can plug it into a history they do know). And then there’s the rest of the world, where ignorance of France in May-June 1940 is on the order of 99.9%.

But please don’t get me wrong. ‘Dunkirk’ is serviceable war movie that I won’t discourage anyone from seeing. And if people disagree with my assessment, I respect that.

I mentioned Hacksaw Ridge (French title: Tu ne tueras point) as a WWII film that is superior to ‘Dunkirk’ IMHO. I initially overlooked the pic when it opened in Paris last November but noting the stellar Allociné spectateur rating (4.5: excellent), decided to check it out. It was still playing to packed salles seven weeks after its release, and for good reason, as it’s a first-rate film. It’s a great, true story and sure-fire crowd-pleaser, of Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector Desmond Doss (actor Andrew Garfield) who was determined to serve as a medic in combat. And it is one of the most powerful Hollywood movies ever made depicting the horrors of war. The reënactment of the Battle of Okinawa was a directorial feat on Mel Gibson’s part. He may be a reactionary catho intégriste but is one fine film director.

Another WWII movie seen late last year was Robert Zemeckis’ Allied (French title: Alliés). I found it generally engaging and love Marion Cotillard but had mixed feelings about it overall, mainly as the premise of the story was so wildly implausible. I also had issues as to the historical accuracy of two sequences. The first was on the presence of uniformed Nazis in French Morocco, which was under the authority of the Vichy regime (until November 1942). But under the terms of the armistice—which the Germans respected until Operation Torch—the Germans did not enter the unoccupied zone. In the movie, the target of the Brad Pitt-Cotillard operation is the German ambassador (who would have, in fact, been the consul-general, and in Rabat, not Casablanca, but we’ll pass on that detail) and who heads a sizable German presence, and which is armed and carries out police-style operations, e.g. the hot pursuit of Pitt-Cotillard after their operation. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, this struck me as way off base.

The second sequence concerned the German bombing raid on London, which, in the movie, would have been in 1943. But I was quite sure that no such raids happened at that stage of the war (after spring 1941). And, as it happens, my qualm on this was addressed in the first comment here.

These two particular criticisms were not the main reasons as why I had mixed feelings about the movie (e.g. the whole Pitt-Cotillard relationship was ridiculous). Many such films have anachronisms, e.g. Bridge of Spies had a few, though I thought that one was quite good. And the friend with whom I saw ‘Allied’—who is an academic and with highbrow tastes—liked it a lot, particularly how it treated the themes of spying and intelligence gathering. Likewise the chairman of the history department at a flagship US state university, with whom I exchanged views on the film via social media, who also appreciated it for the spying and treason themes. Voilà, I can respect that.

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Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

He was a cinematic reference for me when I was in my 20s (mid ’70s to mid ’80s). Or, I should say, to us: to me and my cinephile friends of the time. And I would occasionally hear about him personally from his younger sister, Roxanne, who was a friend in college (and remains one today).

Patti Smith has a beautiful remembrance in The New Yorker, “My Buddy.” Great photo, too.

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