Archive for November, 2019

The tyke with a toque

Various people today have been wishing me a happy Thanksgiving, though here in France it’s just another day. Thanksgiving is every American’s favorite holiday, though if one is not in America—with family and/or friends, the turkey dinner in the afternoon, and football game (Dallas Cowboys vs. whoever) on in the background—it loses context, so no point in celebrating.

As Thanksgiving is principally about food, I will use the occasion to post a wonderful article in the current issue (November 25th) of The New Yorker by my dear friend Adam Shatz, “The tyke with a toque,” on his life as a child chef, from middle school years through high school, in western Massachusetts—and which took him to France. I’ve known Adam for almost twenty years but he only started to tell me in the last couple about this episode of his early life. He was on track to become a great chef but decided to take the intellectual route instead. I’ve had occasion to taste his cooking and it is indeed that of a gourmet fine gueule. If you read just one article today—or want a break from politics, climate change, and other malheurs—make it this one.

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Today is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, which is receiving a fair amount of media attention here in France. As I told my American students this week—born a decade after the event—it was, geopolitically speaking, one of the most important events in my lifetime, not to mention exhilarating (I further specified that states that put up walls on their border normally do so to keep people from entering, but the Berlin wall was to prevent people from leaving). I followed the unraveling in East Germany from Algiers, where I was living at the time, via the BBC World Service (on my shortwave radio), International Herald-Tribune, and Le Monde (when I could find it): the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border to fleeing East Germans, the demonstrations in Leipzig, and the sudden opening of the wall on the night of the 9th-10th. Unlike the Tienanmen Square movement in Peking five/six months earlier—which I was also riveted to via the BBC—this one did not end tragically.

For the anecdote, I went through the Berlin wall once, in August 1974, with my friend and traveling companion, along with a couple of Swedish girls we met at the youth hostel in West Berlin. One could visit East Berlin for the day without a visa (and that included US military personnel). So we went through Checkpoint Charlie in the morning and headed by foot to the center of the eastern side of the city, through a couple of blocks of buildings that were abandoned or hadn’t been rebuilt since the war. On the Unter den Linden we crossed a guy around my age (late teens) standing at a table, maybe selling or distributing something. He asked me in a hushed voice, and in English, if I had a map of West Berlin (the city stopped at the wall on maps available in the east). I said no or shook my head. Who knows, it could have been a set-up. Crossing back to the west at Checkpoint Charlie, around 6 PM, we watched the East German border guards slide a big mirror on wheels under the cars, to see if anyone was clinging underneath. What a system.

As it happens, there have been several very good films over the past two years on East Germany, of the nature of its system—of “actually existing socialism,” as the Hungarian philosophers Agnes Heller and Ferenc Féher tagged Eastern Bloc communism—and people trying to flee it. One is Balloon (the title in both German and English; the French title, Le Vent de la Liberté—the wind of freedom—is better), directed by Michael Bully Herbig and which opened here in April. It’s set in 1979 and based on a true story (there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page on it), of two families (of eight people) in a town in the hilly, forested southwestern GDR (in Thuringia), who concoct a plan to flee to the West in a hot air balloon, which the two men—who work together in a factory, one an electrician, the other who knows how to sew—have the skills to make. The attempt fails, however, as the balloon hits the ground just short of the border (with its electrified barbed-wire fences and minefields). They manage to make it back to their homes in the dead of night undetected but when the balloon is discovered, the Stasi launches a massive manhunt to find out who it was who tried to flee. The importance accorded to it at the summit of the East German state and mobilization of manpower and resources to tracking down the culprits—simple, otherwise non-political law-abiding people—takes one’s breath away. Knowing that they are in danger of being discovered, the families decide to confection another balloon and try again, with acquiring the materials without arousing suspicion riskier than ever. So it’s a race against the clock as the Stasi closes in on them, and which is hot on their heels as they take off from the forest in the second attempt (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending). It’s a terrific movie; a riveting, edge-of-the-seat thriller (the high-octane final scene recalls that of the movie ‘Argo’). A slam-dunk for AWAV’s Top 10 of the year. It seems not to have been released in the US or UK yet, though no doubt will be at some point. Trailer is here.

Another first-rate film, which opened in France in May 2018, is The Silent Revolution (In France, La Révolution silencieuse; the German title translates as ‘the silent classroom’), directed by Lars Kraume and also based on a true story (of course), this one set in autumn 1956 In Eisenhüttenstadt (then called Stalinstadt), at an elite high school, where the students are all members of the Communist party’s youth league, being tracked for elite careers and presumably with party membership. Two students, learning via RIAS—which listening to in the GDR could get one into trouble—about the reality of the Hungarian revolution underway—of the mass nature of the uprising and the bloodiness of the Warsaw Pact intervention—inform their classmates (equivalent of 12th grade), who decide to hold a minute of silence before class begins for the Hungarian victims. When the school authorities demand to know what the minute of silence was all about, the students make up a story that it was for the Hungarian soccer star Ferenc Puskás, who had reportedly been killed. But the reports of Puskás’ death were false, as it turned out, and could have only been heard via Western radio, so the school authorities demand to know who the ringleaders of the minute of silence are, informing the class that they will all be expelled—with their entrance to university thus compromised, future career plans scuttled, and parents punished for good measure—if they don’t cough up the names. It becomes an affaire d’État, taken with the utmost seriousness in East Berlin. But the students stick together and, one after the other, plot their escape to West Berlin (the wall hadn’t yet been built but there were checkpoints leaving the Soviet sector, making the crossing risky for East Germans and other citizens of Warsaw Pact countries). Crazy system. Trailer is here.

Another very good film—which was a nominee for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language picture—is Never Look Away (in France: L’Œuvre sans auteur, which, like the German title, translates as ‘work without auteur’), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who directed the 2006 masterpiece The Lives of Others, which remains the best film to date on the GDR and its system. The pic, which is over three hours long—split into two parts for some reason; I had to leave the theater and buy another ticket for the second part—is loosely based on the early life of Gerhard Richter—from his childhood in the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s—who has been one of Germany’s leading contemporary artists for the past few decades. The A-list cast, of actors/actresses one has seen in other German films, includes Tom Schilling, who plays the adult Richter character, Kurt Barnert; Sebastian Koch, a gynecologist and Nazi-turned-communist collaborator named Carl Seeband; Paula Beer, Seeband’s daughter and Barnert’s wife; and Saskia Rosendahl, the young Barnert’s beautiful, beloved, free-spirited aunt, who is committed to an asylum, and then sent to an early death, by the Nazi Seeband. I’m not going to recap the complex story—for that, one may consult the Wikipedia page—which takes us from Barnert’s childhood in Dresden during the Nazi era, coming of age as an artist in the communist GDR, suffocating under the reign of socialist realism, defecting with his wife via West Berlin (before the wall), coming into his own as a cutting-edge artist in Dusseldorf, and settling scores with his father-in-law Seeband, who was, as Barnert learns, responsible for the death of his aunt twenty-five years earlier. I was totally engrossed in the film from beginning to end. It is sure to make AWAV’s Top 10. Trailer is here.

And then there’s Cold War by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, which is set mainly in Poland in the late 1940s—the Stalinist deep freeze—to the 1960s (also in Paris and Italy), and has nothing to do with East Germany except for a scene in East Berlin (pre-wall), when the protag gets past a checkpoint to defect to the West. It’s short film (barely an hour-and-a-half), a mood piece (with the jazz soundtrack adding to the moodiness), shot in a haunting black-and-white—it’s aesthetically beautiful—of a torrid love affair between a prominent pianist and a young singer. And it gives an idea as to how “actually existing socialism” persecuted artists who fell afoul of the system, as did the protag musician. I was engaged with the film and, like most people I know who saw it, thought it quite good, though didn’t have a tremendous amount to say about it afterward. Trailer is here.

Finally, there’s an animated film, ‘Fritzi – A Revolutionary Tale’, which I saw last month at the annual Festival du Cinéma Allemand in Paris (at the Arlequin cinema on Rue de Rennes). I hesitated on this one, as I don’t normally go to animated films, but as the theme sounded sufficiently interesting, I thought what the hell. Here’s the description from its English website:

East Germany, 1989.

Twelve-year-old Fritzi lovingly takes care of her best friend Sophie’s little dog Sputnik, while Sophie’s family is on summer vacation in Hungary. When Sophie doesn’t come back, Fritzi and Sputnik set out in search of her. That adventure leads her into the Monday´s demonstrations of Leipzig and towards the heavily-guarded border…

Historically accurate, authentic, and with lots of rich period detail and atmosphere, this moving animated movie for the whole family retells the story of the peaceful revolution of 1989 from a child’s perspective. An entertaining and exciting tale of the Fall of the Wall, and of the people who were brave enough to change the world, which will make a lasting impression, not only on young viewers.

The salle at the Arlequin theater was packed with some 150 exuberant 8th and 9th graders on a field trip from middle schools in the Paris banlieue, whom I learned (asking a few afterward) were all taking German as their principal foreign language (LV1). They applauded and cheered at the end. The youngsters liked the film. Nice. Trailer (dubbed in English) is here.


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[update below]

My goodness, people have been flipping out since yesterday with the publication of the New York Times/Siena College poll—headlined on the NYT website and bylined by the redoutable number-cruncher Nate Cohn—showing Trump, with the election a year-to-the-day away, to be in a strong position vis-à-vis the top three Democratic candidats—and particularly Elizabeth Warren—in the six battleground states that are sure to decide the winner. The collective hand-wringing, indeed panic and despair, among liberals and progressives on social media, plus in email exchanges with friends, has been something to behold. To this may be added the finger-wagging “I told you so!” by Biden-supporting pundits and friends who have been warning that the Dems are courting certain disaster next November if they lurch to the left with Warren (and there’s a fixation on Warren over Sanders, who tends to be discounted—I have been guilty of doing so myself—though that may be premature). One such self-satisfied center-hugging pundit—whom I follow and normally like—is New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who entitled a commentary à chaud, “Poll shows Democrats have been living in a fantasy world,” and tweeting “The Democratic field has proceeded in blissful unawareness of the extremely high chance that Trump will win again.”

What poppycock. A few points. First, the NYT/Siena College poll is just one poll—”a new data point, but not a definitive one,” dixit Ruy Teixeira—and which may or may not be an outlier. That it could indeed possibly be this is suggested by Trump’s +6 margin over Warren in Michigan (sample of 501 RVs and MOE of 5.1%), which is hard to believe, as not only has there never been a poll in that state with such strong numbers for Trump but the Emerson poll of Michigan voters released Nov. 3rd (1051 RVs and MOE of 3%) has Warren with a +8 lead over Trump.  One of these polls is clearly way off (pour l’info, FiveThirtyEight gives Emerson a grade of B+). In view of the sample size and MOE, not to mention MI’s polling history, I’ll wager that the way off one is the former—and particularly in view of news like this.

Second, the election is a full year away, which is, to employ that cliché, an eternity in politics. And it’s still three months to the Iowa caucuses. As Nate Cohn writes:

There is a full year before Election Day, and a lot can change. Ms. Warren is an energetic campaigner. She could moderate her image or motivate young and nonwhite voters, including the millions who might not yet even be included in a poll of today’s registered voters. Mr. Biden could lose the relatively conservative voters who currently back him; the president could be dealt irreparable political damage during the impeachment process.

The impeachment process: It’s hard to see how Trump comes out of that—assuming he survives it—without sustaining at least some damage to his standing in public opinion. Cohn, however, adds this:

But on average over the last three cycles, head-to-head polls a year ahead of the election have been as close to the final result as those taken the day before.

If it had been over, say, the past ten cycles, that would be a history giving cause for concern. But three? Just because Real Madrid has won the Champions League title three times in a row doesn’t necessarily mean it will win a fourth. Three is not sufficient to establish a loi des séries.

Third point. Jonathan Chait and others are simply wrong that Democrats have been Pollyannas deluding themselves about Trump’s potential electoral strength. Democrats, who are congenital worrywarts when it comes to national elections, have been more than aware that the 2020 campaign is going to be hard-fought and that despite their incontestable advantage in the national popular vote, the Electoral College now structurally favors the Republicans—and Trump in particular, with his cultural appeal in the Rust Belt. N.B. the analyses last July by Nate Cohn and Dave Wasserman, which were received by Dems like a five-alarm fire, of the growing skew in the EC, that the Democrats could win the national popular vote with an up to 5% spread but still fall short in a tipping state like Wisconsin, which is “balanced on a knife’s edge,” thus losing the election. And it is indeed the case that the demographic evolution of Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, even Minnesota—not to mention Florida, with all the Republican-voting retirees moving in—are not trending the Democrats’ way. To say that Dems don’t fully understand this is absurd.

Anyone who knows or follows me knows that I have been confident for the Dems’ chances in ’20, though do not categorically exclude the appalling possibility that the orange-haired idiot could win. He clearly has a number of factors in his favor, as enumerated in my July 12th post “Can Trump win in ’20?,” among them the power of incumbency, his party united behind him, no serious primary challenger, and a fanaticized base—of a fourth to a third of the electorate—such that the American political system has not witnessed on a national level in memory. And then there’s the money, of which Trump has an almost unlimited amount, and a campaign that will be/is far more professionally-run than in 2016. And his campaign—with its shock army of evangelicals—will invest massively in turning out every last voter inclined to vote for him, including lower class whites who abstained in 2016 and/or may not currently be registered—and discourage/suppress voters inclined to vote against him.

It won’t win Trump the popular vote but could the EC, to which the Democrats will have no choice but to massively invest in their own base strategy, of mobilizing Afro-American and younger millennial voters to the max—including the millions of potential voters who will have turned 18 over the previous four years—and combating Republican efforts at voter suppression. It will be base vs. base—and as I keep reminding everyone, there are more of us than there are of them, including in the states that will get us past 270 EVs.

Yes, Trump could hypothetically win the EC even with a 5-point deficit in the popular vote. But if it’s more that? Utterly unlikely. FYI, the spread in the national vote today at Real Clear Politics is Biden +9.3, Warren +6.1, and Sanders +6.8. Voilà.

On the (hugely exaggerated) progressive vs. moderate dispute, one thing Warren/Sanders detractors get wrong is that this will at all matter in the general election campaign. The fact is, Trump and the Republicans will set out to shred the Democratic nominee regardless of who s/he is. Sleepy Joe will be torn to pieces, Pete Buttigieg will be mauled in countless ways, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet—should either pull off a miracle surge during the primary season—will be tarred as wild-eyed liberals, if not outright socialists. No matter who the Democrat is, s/he will be demonized by the Republicans and Trump state propaganda (Fox, etc). Whether or not the Democrat is viewed by pundits and mainstream media as a “moderate” or “progressive” does not and will not matter to Republican voters. To them, they’re just Democrats, period.

À propos, Sean Freeder—a very smart and insightful political science doctoral candidate at UC-Berkeley—posted this comment on a Facebook thread yesterday:

[I]f being “centrist” is what beats Trump, then we are truly all in trouble, as NO ONE running is centrist by 2016 standards. As cute as it is to keep calling Biden centrist, if a candidate with his policy platform had run in the 2008 primary, he would have been the most liberal candidate in the race by far, perhaps excepting Kucinich. The party has already moved far to the left over the past several years, but no one seems to treat that as true.

The moderate label we give to Biden is a relative one, not an absolute one. Stacks of research demonstrate that most voters dont have stable policy preferences, or know virtually anything about the candidates who run in primaries. “Moderate” voters prefer “moderate” Biden because they think he and they are moderates, but neither of these things are true. They just like the label moderate, and those to whom it is applied, because it sounds “reasonable”. Warren has a year to convince voters that she’s not a wide eyed extremist, and that her plans are in the dead, dull moderate middle of virtually any other left party in the world.

Tout à fait. On voters not having stable policy preferences, one may add that the vast majority have little to no knowledge or interest at all in the details of policy. Paul Waldman, in his WaPo column yesterday, “Democrats have a dangerous misconception about policy and campaigns,” underscored this point. Money quote:

Try to recall a time when a single policy issue not only made a significant difference in the outcome of a presidential election, but it was because one candidate had a more popular position on it than the other. It certainly isn’t what got Donald Trump elected. Or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.

Sure, there were arguments about policy in those elections. But voters don’t keep a scorecard on which they tick off points of agreement and disagreement with both candidates, then total up the results to decide their vote.

Presidential campaigns “are fought on character and broad themes,” not policy, which is one reason why the attacks on Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-for-All plan, while perhaps valid, are, from the campaign standpoint, irrelevant. What Warren needed to do was come up with a plausible-sounding plan that does not raise taxes on the middle class—to deprive her Democratic opponents and, later, the Republicans of a sound bite on that, to be endlessly played in attack ads—and which she has clearly done (if Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein say her plan is serious and passes the test, that settles the matter for me). All Warren has to do now is defend her plan on the stump and in debates, and parry the attacks on it by Buttigieg, Klobuchar et al, which she will do no problem (pour mémoire, Warren is fast on her feet and sharp as a whip). And when the debate gets technical (which is not too likely with Trump), voters’ eyes will glaze over, with debate moderators eventually tiring of the health care issue and moving on to something else.

And if Warren wins the nomination, she will no doubt pivot toward the center in the general election campaign, as Will Wilkinson of the libertarian Niskanen Institute—who is critical of some of Warren’s positions—submitted in a tweet storm 2½ weeks back. One may be confident that she will assure voters nervous about losing their employer-based insurance that there will be no sudden, brutal transition. And once in the White House, inshallah, those with an even minimal knowledge of how American government works know that President Warren will not be able to implement her M4A plan by executive order. Congress will have a say in it—i.e. almost the entire say—and that even if the Dems win a decisive majority in the Senate and abolish the filibuster, there is no chance that M4A will be adopted in anything resembling its present form. Moderate senators (Michael Bennet et al) will take charge and pass a more modest bill (at minimum, reinforced ACA with a public option), and Warren will be fine with that, as she knows how Congress and legislation works. Her M4A plan, which people are dumping on, is all about firing up the base, moving the Overton window, and setting out a long term vision, which will be realized down the line via incremental reforms (and as it’s Elizabeth Warren, she of course needs to have a plan). Pundits know this, which is why the current polemics over the issue are so ridiculous.

Warren presently has Wall Street in a panic, as one reads. Nice. This no doubt makes “moderate” Democrats very nervous but none have, so far as I’ve seen, taken on Warren on this one…

I have a lot more say on the Dems, on Bernie (toward whom I am warming), Biden (who I really wish were not in the race), Buttigieg (if he knocks off Biden for the moderate slot, so much the better), and others. La prochaine fois.

À suivre. In the meantime, check out the current head-to-head numbers in the key swing states.

UPDATE: Yale University political science professor Jacob S. Hacker argues, in a NYT op-ed (Nov. 5th), that “Elizabeth Warren is asking the most important question on health care: How can we move from a broken system to one that covers everyone, restrains prices and improves outcomes?”

For the record, Lawrence Summers says in a WaPo op-ed that “Warren’s plan to finance Medicare-for-all pushes into dangerous and uncharted territory.”

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