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The litany of almost daily horrors outre-Atlantique has moved to a whole new level these past two weeks—and worse is yet to come, that is a certainty—with the family separations at the Mexican border and the latest SCOTUS rulings—on purging votersgerrymandering, the Muslim travel ban, unions… And now there’s Anthony Kennedy’s announced resignation. Now Kennedy is no great shakes—he’s hardly been the moderate centrist he’s often made out to be—but the nightmarish prospect of Trump naming another Gorsuch-like reactionary to the Court will now happen, and the Democrats can’t do a thing to stop it. Pundits and other analysts are reasonably predicting that conservatives will now have a lock on the Court—and, increasingly, the entire federal judiciary—for at least a generation, and with the inevitable, unthinkable—but very real—consequences, e.g. gutting the Voting Rights Act, repealing Roe v. Wade, returning to Lochner v. New York, and you name it.

But this is not a fatality. The Democrats can fight back once they retake Congress—this November, inshallah—and then the White House in ’20—which will happen if Trump’s poll numbers do not significantly rise from where they’ve been for the past eighteen months—by adding SCOTUS justices, i.e. packing the Court. The constitution says nothing about the number of SCOTUS justices being limited to nine. Constitutionally speaking, there is nothing to prevent the president from nominating new justices and Congress approving them. The proposal—which, in view of the national emergency unfolding before our eyes, is eminently sensible—is spelled out in a new book by political scientist David Faris, who teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago, It’s time to fight dirty: How Democrats can build a lasting majority in American politics. The arresting title was no doubt cooked up by the publisher to sell copies, as Faris doesn’t talk about ‘fighting dirty’ so much as playing the game the Republicans have for years now, which is constitutional hardball, or procedural warfare: to maximize their advantage when they have the majority to advance their agenda. Do what the constitution permits and to hell with norms, comity, bipartisanship, reaching across the aisle, and all that hooey. Democrats need to act like Republicans, so Faris argues. They have to fight fire with fire. And try to reverse the damage inflicted on the body politic and the nation.

In regard to the Court, I would argue that the Dems should add two or three justices and then propose to the Republicans that, in return for adding no more, there should be a constitutional amendment imposing renewable 12-year terms for SCOTUS and all federal judges, and with a mandatory retirement age (between 75 and 80), and applying to all those currently serving (for current SCOTUS justices who’ve been around longer than the twelve years, they would come up every two years, beginning with the longest serving; I had a couple of posts on this some six-seven years ago). Seriously, why not? Should the Democrats—and the tens of millions of Americans who vote for them—simply accept the consequences of a rigged process and which could last for decades?

In addition to packing the Court, Faris proposes breaking up California into seven states—which can happen by a simple vote of the California state legislature—and with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico declaring statehood, all to increase the number of Democratic senators, as the US Senate, with its two senators per state rule and regardless of population, skews representation like no other parliamentary body in any advanced democracy. Faris also proposes nuking the filibuster, which will obviously be necessary for any of this to happen. I’m dubious about breaking up California—I just don’t see that happening under any circumstance—but the imperative of statehood for D.C. and especially Puerto Rico—neither of which I have favored in the past—are now clear. For an elaboration of Faris’s arguments, see Sean Illing’s interview with him in Vox and Zachary Roth’s review of his book in the NYT.

As the congressional Democrats are well known p*ssies, one may doubt that they will consider anything Faris proposes. But the Dem winds are shifting, as we saw with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the NY 14th CD on Tuesday, so the party’s composition—and disposition—may well evolve in the coming election cycles..

À propos of all this, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center has a terrific op-ed in the NYT dated June 27th, “Why do we value country folk more than city people?,” in which he focuses on the heavy skew in representation in favor of GOP-voting rural areas and to the detriment of Dem-voting cities, and the deleterious consequences of this across the board. If one needs an argument in support of David Faris’s position, this is a big one.

I was talking yesterday with an American friend who’s in Paris for the summer, who was in a state of deep despair over what’s happening back home. I reminded him that there are more of “us” than there are of “them.” We are the majority. And at some point—sooner rather than later, inshallah—the majority will rule.

UPDATE: On the possible consequences of the Kennedy retirement, Josh Marshall of TPM received an email from “a former federal public corruption prosecutor.” Read it and worry.

2nd UPDATE: Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has a post, “A new Lochner era,” that underscores the pertinence, indeed urgency, of David Faris’s proposals. The lede: “In the early 20th century, the Supreme Court systematically gutted regulations to favor business and attack organized labor. Those dark days have returned.”

3rd UPDATE: Also pertinent is Dana Milbank’s column (June 29th) in The Washington Post, “An explosion is coming,” on the inevitable, furious backlash from the Democratic Party electorate if the Republicans steamroll ahead in implementing their agenda, as they certainly will. On this, one must not forget that there are more Democrats than Republicans. We are more numerous than them.

4th UPDATE: Todd Gitlin has a worthwhile tribune (June 29th) in The Washington Post, “This was the most gutting month for liberals in half a century: Does the arc of the moral universe still bend toward justice?”

5th UPDATE: The NYT’s Michelle Goldberg has a must-read column (June 30th), “The millennial socialists are coming.” She could have added Generation Z as well. A friend in Washington DC has posted this comment on her Facebook page in regard to her high school-age son, whom she says

has been engaging us in heated discussions about the pros and cons of socialism for months. We couldn’t understand why this was so important and present for him – to us socialism seems a thing of the past and primarily a theoretical proposition. According to him, it’s at school and everywhere – a new wave of young people who see socialism as a remedy to inequality and, especially, the inaccessibility of education and health care.

Ça chauffe le cœur.

6th UPDATE: Another must-read column, this (June 26th) by The Irish Times’s very smart Fintan O’Toole: “Trial runs for fascism are in full flow.” The lede: “Babies in cages were no ‘mistake’ by Trump but test-marketing for barbarism.” Okay, the F-word may be a stretch but the point is well taken.

7th UPDATE: For those who think that the Dem party is about to lurch way to the left, read this piece in Politico Magazine (June 27th) by Bill Scher, “No, Ocasio-Cortez is not launching a socialist revolution.” The lede: “The Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is here to stay. But so are all the other wings.”

8th UPDATE: Adam Shatz has a typically excellent commentary—based in part on discussions he and I have had in the past week, so he tells me—in the LRB blog (July 2nd), “American carnage.”

9th UPDATE: Journalists Zaid Jilani and Ryan Grim have an interesting article (July 2nd) in The Intercept, “Data suggest that gentrifying neighborhoods powered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.” Longtime black and Latino residents in the district stayed with the incumbent Joe Crowley. That makes sense.

10th UPDATE: It turns out that enlarging the Supreme Court is being widely debated on the left these days. E.g. see the primer (July 2nd) by Dylan Matthews in Vox, “Court-packing, Democrats’ nuclear option for the Supreme Court, explained: Why an FDR plan from the 1930s is suddenly popular again,” in which he discusses the pros and cons, and links to other pieces, such as one in TNR, dated May 10th, by the invariably first-rate Scott Lemieux.

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If one didn’t see it, uber-pundit Fareed Zakaria, who epitomizes a centrist inside-the-Beltway sensibility, had a column last week in The Washington Post in which he argued that “The GOP tax bill may be the worst piece of legislation in modern history.” No less. Now headlines often exaggerate or misstate the content of the article or column—such as the click bait one on this post—but not here. Zakaria is serious. And he’s right, of course, as, entre autres, the Republican Party no longer even pretends to be acting in the interests of even its own electorate—don’t even think about that of the opposition party, let alone the broader interest of America—but is simply doing the bidding of its plutocratic billionaire donor class. There can be no dispute over this at this point. Democracy in America is off the rails.

À propos of this general topic, Robert Kuttner has a must-read review essay, “The Man from Red Vienna,” in the Dec. 21st issue of the NYRB, on a newly published biography of Karl Polanyi. Money quote

The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.

As Polanyi demonstrated in his masterwork The Great Transformation (1944), when markets become “dis-embedded” from their societies and create severe social dislocations, people eventually revolt. Polanyi saw the catastrophe of World War I, the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of market forces overwhelming society—“the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” that began in nineteenth-century England. This was a deliberate choice, he insisted, not a reversion to a natural economic state. Market society, Polanyi persuasively demonstrated, could only exist because of deliberate government action defining property rights, terms of labor, trade, and finance. “Laissez faire,” he impishly wrote, “was planned.”

Polanyi believed that the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology was with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements. He concluded this not from Marxist economic theory but from close observation of interwar Europe’s most successful experiment in municipal socialism: Red Vienna, where he worked as an economic journalist in the 1920s. And for a time in the post–World War II era, the entire West had an egalitarian form of capitalism built on the strength of the democratic state and underpinned by strong labor movements. But since the era of Thatcher and Reagan that countervailing power has been crushed, with predictable results.

I read The Great Transformation in graduate school, in the early ’80s. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read—an important book being one that changes the way I think about something. In view of what’s happening these days, I think I should read it again.

Back to Orwell-land, one has no doubt read about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the list of forbidden words: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

I try to remain optimistic and tell myself that the nightmare will end, that the Democrats will retake Congress next year and then the White House in 2020, and will painstakingly reverse or repair the damage that has been done. Inshallah. But even if this perhaps Pollyannaish scenario comes to pass, America’s shattered reputation in the world will not be restored. Maybe somewhat but not entirely. America will never live down Donald Trump and the Trumpized Republican Party.

UPDATE: Politico’s Susan B. Glasser has a podcast interview (Dec. 18th) with two charter leaders of the #NeverTrump movement, Max Boot and Eliot Cohen, who assess Year One of the Trump regime. They say that if Trump were operating in a country without America’s constitutional checks and balances, “He would probably be a dictator by now.”

2nd UPDATE: Last week, after the exhilarating victory in Alabama—which had liberals, progressives, and Never Trumpers rapturous, thinking that, yes, maybe the Trump regime’s days are indeed numbered after all—Vox’s Ezra Klein had a sobering commentary on “Why Doug Jones’s narrow win is not enough to make me confident about American democracy.” In it, he writes

The most important concept for understanding what has gone wrong in American politics is political scientist Julia Azari’s observation that this is an age of weak parties and strong partisanship. I have come to think of this as a flaw in the software of American democracy, a vulnerability that can be exploited to send malware ricocheting through the system.

Unfortunately no institutional anti-virus program exists that could remove that political malware from the system.

3rd UPDATE: Will Wilkinson of the smart libertarian Niskanen Center gets it exactly right in a NYT op-ed (Dec. 20th), “The tax bill shows the G.O.P.’s contempt for democracy.”

In the op-ed, Wilkinson links to a lengthy piece by writer John Ganz on the website of the interesting lefty publication The Baffler (Dec. 15th), “The forgotten man: On Murray Rothbard, philosophical harbinger of Trump and the alt-right.”

4th UPDATE: Dissent magazine published an online article (May 23rd 2016) entitled “Karl Polanyi for President,” by Patrick Iber (historian) and Mike Konczal (specialist in finance). It begins

Should health care and education be rights, or products that those with enough money can purchase in markets? About seventy-five years ago, in response to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered, through the programs of the New Deal, an expanded definition of freedom founded on economic security—immortalized as “freedom from want” in his famous speech of 1941. In our own time, severe inequality and the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression have once again brought the issue of what should count as a right to the surface of political debate.

One candidate, Bernie Sanders, has argued explicitly that health care and education—two things that the New Deal mostly left alone—should be rights and therefore accessible to all. While public policy pundits fight over the specifics, they miss that Sanders, by discussing these things as rights instead of just policies, has changed the nature of the debate. This key distinction helps explain why tens of thousands have turned out to Sanders rallies across the country—not to mention the millions who have supported him online and at the polls—demonstrating enthusiasm for a politics that he explicitly identifies as “democratic socialism.” But what kind of socialism?

The vast majority of Sanders’s supporters are not Marxists clamoring for a dictatorship of the proletariat or the nationalization of industry. Most are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi. Polanyi’s classic, The Great Transformation, was published in 1944—the same year that FDR promised a “Second Bill of Rights” guaranteeing employment, housing, social security, medical care, and education to all Americans. Today, Polanyian arguments are once again in the air. Since his ideas seem to be everywhere but he is rarely mentioned, a (re-)introduction to his thinking, and its relevance to politics in 2016, is in order.

Continue reading here.

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Adam Shatz—contributing editor at the London Review of Books and dear personal friend—did a two-hour podcast interview with Olivier Roy, the well-known political Islam specialist, earlier this month, the first part of which is up on the LRB website. The podcast coincides with the publication of the English translation of Roy’s 2014 En quête de l’Orient perdu: entretiens avec Jean-Louis Schlegel, which is an interview-memoir about his life and career. In the first part of the podcast, Roy talks about his soixante-huitard youth, 1970s engagement with the Parisian extreme left, and his years of field work, as it were, in the 1980s with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Très intéressant. I’ll post the second part of the interview in an update when it goes up this week.

UPDATE: The second part of the podcast is up on the LRB website. I find it even more interesting than the first. Roy talks, entre autres, about his knock-down-drag-out Parisian academic brawl with the Islamologist Gilles Kepel (for the uninitiated, see here, here, and here). The two really don’t like one another. For the anecdote, I received an invitation from a high-profile US-based foreign policy-oriented journal/webzine to write an article about the brawl when it was in full swing last year but politely declined. I didn’t want to touch this one with a ten-foot pole (as, entre autres, I had already published an essay some two decades prior rubbishing Kepel, which he neither forgot nor forgave). Though I lean toward Roy in the brawl, I don’t think their respective arguments—Islamization of radicalism vs. radicalization of Islam—are mutually exclusive. Both their approaches—and what they bring to the table generally—are interesting and can be synthesized. As an American political science MENA specialist friend—who is friends with Kepel but stayed clear of his conflict with Roy—wrote on social media last year: “The level of analysis and debate [on Islam, radicalization, and terrorism] is so far ahead [in France] of what we have in the US it’s almost embarrassing.”

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elena-ferrante-neapolitan-novels

Everyone has been talking about the apparent revelation of her veritable identity, published simultaneously, as one knows, in five different countries (in the US, in the NY Review of Books; in France, in Mediapart). Ça défraye la chronique. As for the reaction to the revelation, it’s been heavily negative, as reported in the press and that I have also noted on social media (though some argue that the revelation was both inevitable and not a bad thing). Now when I say “everyone” knows about this, it’s because everyone—i.e. everyone in my socio-educational stratum—has either read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, is presently doing so, or intends to. And, BTW, this includes Hillary Clinton, who recently revealed that she loves reading Ferrante and finds the Neapolitan novels “hypnotic” (kind of like Barack Obama telling a journalist during the 2008 campaign that his favorite TV series was ‘The Wire’: a reminder to part of his base that “I’m one of you; I share your highbrow cultural tastes”).

If, by chance, one does not yet know about the Neapolitan novels—which is actually a single novel in four parts—go here. I recently finished the second one, so still have two to go (the third, so I have been told by several friends, is the chef d’œuvre of the four). I am not a big literature person, as those who know me know, but love reading Ferrante—as do 98.5% of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who have read her. The last series of novels I so enjoyed was David Lodge’s campus trilogy, and that was some time ago. My Brilliant Friend is a page turner from page 1, so one gets into it right away (and my wife, who is a literature person, wholly agrees; she just started the first one en français and is already half way through; and the French translation is excellent, so she says, as I find the English). It is not only a vividly recounted story of the relationship between two women, from childhood onward, and with all the supporting characters, but also brilliantly depicts a society and culture at a particular moment in history, here—through the first two books—the (southern) Italian working class in the 1950s and ’60s. As social science, I find it fascinating. And it’s all very Italian, like so many epic Italian films—if I were to draw up a list, it would go into the double digits—that follow a person or group of friends over a lifetime, or a family over generations, and with repères of modern Italian history. It’s an Italian genre.

So if one has not yet read Ferrante, take this as a recommendation to do so.

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Riad Sattouf, 2014 (image credit: Laurence Houot/Culturebox)

Riad Sattouf, 2014 (image credit: Laurence Houot/Culturebox)

Adam Shatz—London Review of Books contributing editor and dear personal friend—has a “letter from Paris” in the October 19th issue of The New Yorker on the Franco-Syrian graphic novelist—and Charlie Hebdo contributor from 2004 to 2014—Riad Sattouf, whose two-volume graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, has been a best seller in France (Vol. 1, which came out in 2014, sold over 200,000 copies, which was exceptional for a book of this type; it will be out in English translation next week). I have yet to read it myself—I plan to this weekend—but have heard from several persons who have that it’s absolutely worth it. Adam’s article definitely is.

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My People, Black & White

(Illustration by Michael Hogue)

(Illustration by Michael Hogue)

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in New Orleans, I’m linking to the cover article of the September-October issue of The American Conservative, “My People, Black & White: How I came to see my country through African-American eyes,” by TAC senior editor Rod Dreher. The subject of Dreher’s article is his collaboration with actor Wendell Pierce—best known for his role as Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire—in the writing of Pierce’s memoir, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, which will be published on September 8th by Penguin. Pierce, who was born and raised in middle class black New Orleans, sought out Dreher’s collaboration after having read the latter’s 2013 memoir of growing up in a small town north of Baton Rouge. The collaboration seemed unlikely but as they were both native Louisianans—with cultural commonalities spanning the racial divide—and of the same generation—both born in the mid 1960s—it worked.

I thought this was a very interesting article. Dreher thus writes

The centerpiece of [Pierce’s] book would be the unparalleled devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon the city in 2005 and how that catastrophe galvanized him to help rebuild his hometown. Wendell starred in a nationally celebrated production of “Waiting for Godot,” staged in the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhood. In his book, he wanted to write about the power of art to move and to heal a people.

All of that sounded great to me and was something I confidently thought I could help with. There was a part of it that made me feel extremely uncomfortable, however: racism.

I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.

My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.

It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence. (…)

And further down

With the digital recorder running, Wendell reminisced at length about growing up in Pontchartrain Park in the 1960s. He talked about the sports leagues, the church fairs, the adventures he and his pals had on the golf course. “Every home had a mother and a father in it, and you knew that everybody’s mother and father was like your own,” he said.

It was a close-knit community that inculcated a culture of hard work and perseverance. Pontchartrain Park became an incubator of the rising black middle class in New Orleans. Ernest Morial, who in 1978 would become the city’s first black mayor, lived in the neighborhood and raised his kids there—including son Marc, who would also be a New Orleans mayor. Lisa Jackson, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, grew up in Pontchartrain Park, as did jazz legend Terence Blanchard.

Pontchartrain Park may have been founded as a way for the white power structure to bleed off black restlessness, said Wendell, but it became a haven for African-Americans in a heartless Jim Crow world. Inside the neighborhood, black children found peace, order, and love, which fortified them to meet racial hostility and other obstacles with resilient determination. Wendell cited the judgment of Herman Plunkett, a longtime resident of Pontchartrain Park: “It came out of something ugly, but it turned out to be something beautiful.” And it was this beautiful community—the one that had nurtured him but had been wiped out by Katrina—that the actor was determined to restore.

On the long drive back to the hills, I thought about how I had never heard of Pontchartrain Park, indeed how none of us outside the city ever heard about its black middle class. When race is in the news, it’s almost always about poor black people and their problems. African-Americans who live middle-class lives are all but invisible to many in white America.

Just as many of us who came up outside of New Orleans had our opinions formed largely by media reports of its violence, the history of the city’s black middle class was hidden by its simple success. People who go to work day in and day out, coach softball in their neighborhoods, and raise their kids without drama never make the news. (…)

Dreher’s writing about having known nothing of New Orleans’ black middle class neighborhoods brought back a memory of mine. In 1987, when I was living in Chicago, four friends from the east coast came to town—precisely over Memorial Day weekend—for the wedding of a couple with whom we were all friends. As it was the first time in Chicago for all four, I took them on a driving tour of the city. Showing them the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, I then headed south, to the black neighborhoods of South Shore and Avalon Park, just to show my friends black middle class Chicago, where people live in single family homes (that they own), mow their lawns, maintain their property, etc. (pour l’info, this is the part of town Michelle Obama is from). My friends—all well-educated liberals—were surprised by what they saw. One called it an “eye-opener”: like Rod Dreher, she had no idea. Like almost all white people—and across the political spectrum—my friends’ image of black neighborhoods was the ghetto, of slums and housing projects where one risked physical aggression, if not violent death, if ventured into. As white people never see black neighborhoods unless they make a wrong turn in the car, their stereotypical images are not surprising. (It’s likewise in France with the cités in the banlieues, BTW).

Reassuring his ideological kindred spirits, Dreher offers this

I did not become a liberal Democrat from this experience. In fact, conservatives who read the book—The Wind in the Reeds—may be astonished by how culturally conservative the Pierce and Edwards family ethic is. The well-ordered Pontchartrain Park world Wendell grew up in, and is trying today to re-create, is one that nearly every social conservative longs for. Few will read of the religious devotion and the fierce patriotism of the actor’s clan without shedding tears. (…)

I’d be curious to know if TAC founder Patrick Buchanan’s views on race have evolved, as he was an ardent defender of apartheid South Africa and whose attitudes toward blacks were comparable to his well-known ones toward Jews. People’s world-views can change, even late in life.

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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.

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Kamel Daoud (photo credit: Denis Allard/REA)

Kamel Daoud (photo credit: Denis Allard/REA)

[update below] [2nd update below]

Adam Shatz’s portrait of Algerian writer Kamel Daoud—on whom I posted last December—is up on The New York Times website (it will appear in hard copy in this Sunday’s NYT Magazine). It’s an excellent piece—as one would expect from Adam—and is as much about contemporary Algeria as about Daoud himself. It’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in that country but also in the Arab world more generally.

On the subject of Algeria, France 3’s weekly documentary television series, Thalassa—a great program and popular; I’ve been watching it off-and-on for decades—will be entirely consecrated to Algeria this Friday (April 3rd). Anyone with the slightest interest in Algeria will want to watch it. It will be on replay on the program’s website for a week following the broadcast.

UPDATE:The English translation of Kamel Daoud’s book, The Meursault Investigation, has been published by Other Press. (June 3rd)

2nd UPDATE: Here are reviews of the English translation of Daoud’s novel in The New York Times, The Observer, NPR, and The Guardian. And here’s an interview with Daoud by Albert Camus specialist Robert Zaretsky in the Los Angeles Review of Books. (June 30th)

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houellebecq soumission

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and writer in residence at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies—and dear personal friend—has a fine review essay in the latest issue of the LRB on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission. As one is no doubt aware by now, the novel is about a Muslim takeover of France following the 2022 presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen squares off in the 2nd round against one Mohammed Ben Abbes—candidate of a new (moderate) Muslim party, La Fraternité Musulmane—who, supported by the Socialists and everyone else seeking to block Marine LP, wins. And then the Islamization of France en douceur begins. The pre-publication hype around the novel—which fatefully hit the bookstores on January 7th, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—made it out to be Islamophobic but Adam says that it’s not, that while “deeply reactionary” it is not only not hostile to Islam but is almost sympathetic. And as Adam emphasizes—as have Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla in their reviews of the novel—the veritable targets for backhanded scorn are the French political class and French people themselves, who willingly, without resistance, slouch towards the new Islamic republic. It is more a commentary on France than on Islam.

Soumission is, not surprisingly, a best-seller, the nº3 ranking novel two months after its release. And one may predict that the English translation, due out this fall, will also sell well. So will I read it? Most unlikely. I’m not a big fiction person to begin with, Houellebecq has a well-known twisted mind, and my fiction-reading wife, among others, says she doesn’t like his style. That’s enough for me. I also find both preposterous and mystifying the lurid fantasy—more in the Anglo-American world than in France—of Muslims/Islam taking over the European continent in the coming decades. It is such a crackpot notion that I will definitively cease listening to or taking seriously anyone—by definition an ignoramus—who adheres to it. For starters, identity Muslims in France—the Western country with the largest Muslim population, in both absolute numbers and percentage—number 4.5 million max (and probably less), representing some 7% of the French population (the higher figures one sees in the media and elsewhere are exaggerations based on not a shred of published data). And the number is unlikely to increase by even 50% in the coming decades, let alone reach 50%. How an ethno-confessional group making up a tenth of the population “takes over” a country is not apparent to me. Moreover, Muslims in France do not constitute a “community,” as Olivier Roy—whom Adam cites—has insisted. It is a disparate population divided by national origin, ethnicity, degree of religious observance, generation, social class, and you name it. French Muslims do not constitute a bloc for anything and there is not the slightest chance in the foreseeable future that even a small number among them will coalesce qua Muslims in the realm of national electoral politics or representative bodies (assertion: there will never be a “Muslim caucus” in the French National Assembly as, e.g., Afro-Americans have in the US Congress; the mere notion is ludicrous). So even if I were a novel-reading person and liked Houellebecq’s style, I am not a science fiction fan, so doubt I would expend time on one based on such a harebrained, science fiction-like premise. The reviews will suffice.

BTW, Adam has a major article coming up in The New York Times Magazine, on the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, has a very good review of Houellebecq’s novel in The American Interest. (October 24th)

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les-heritiers

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, France 2 broadcast, over one week, an eight-part documentary series—totaling seven-and-a-half hours—on the Nazi extermination of the Jews, “‘Jusqu’au dernier’: La Déstruction des Juifs d’Europe,” by the French filmmakers William Karel and Blanche Finger (English title: Annihilation: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews; English trailer is here). I missed it on TV but managed to see all eight episodes streamed on France 2’s website (before they disappeared, as French television regulations unfortunately only allow the viewing of programs on the web for a week after their broadcast). I’ve seen numerous documentaries on the Holocaust over the decades—and read plenty on the subject—but this one is particularly remarkable. The series, which begins with the 1933 Nazi seizure of power and closes with the memory of the Holocaust over the decades following WWII, is almost entirely composed of Nazi film footage and other images, and with the narration interspersed with interviews with some fifty historians and authors from eight countries. The documentary is a tour de force. The impetus for its making was a French public opinion survey in 2010 revealing that a majority of the under-35 age cohort had never heard of the Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv and, ergo, was ignorant of the details as to what happened to the Jews during WWII. For Karel and Finger, one of the goals of the documentary is to explain the Holocaust to the younger generation, now and in the future. It will soon be available in DVD and eventually shown in the US, UK, and elsewhere (it already has been in Germany and Belgium). It is absolutely worth seeing in its entirety by everyone, including those who think they know the subject well.

On teaching the Holocaust to the younger generation, there is a film on the subject presently showing in cinemas in France, ‘Les Héritiers’ (English title: Once in a Lifetime), and that merits mention. The pic is based on a true story, of a class of 10th graders at the Lycée Léon Blum in the Paris banlieue of Créteil during the 2008-09 school year and their participation in the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation: an annual competition, inaugurated in 1961 by the Ministry of Education, of participating 9th and 10th grade history classes, which submit class projects around a theme—set by the Ministry for the year—concerning some aspect of the resistance or deportation during the war. The theme for the 2008-09 year was “Children and teenagers in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.” The Lycée Léon Blum class, composed mainly of turbulent 15 and 16-year-olds of immigrant families from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, ended up winning the competition.

I was particularly interested in seeing the film, on account of the theme but also because I live right next to Créteil, in the banlieue to its north, and thus know the place well. The Lycée Léon Blum, where the film was also shot, is 15 minutes by car or bus from chez moi, just off the major arterial thoroughfare and behind the Créteil mosque (which one sees in the film). Créteil, which has a population of 90,000, is not attractive—with its forests of soulless high-rises, most of them public housing—but it’s not the ghetto, let alone a “no-go zone” (a cockamamie fantasy that Fox News and certain right-wing commentators outre-Atlantique went on about after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders last month, provoking incredulity, hilarity, and ridicule in France). Créteil has a major teaching hospital, a campus of the University of Paris system, and is the prefecture of the Val-de-Marne (94), with a multitude of civil servants employed in administrative and judicial organs of the French state there. And it’s connected to Paris by the metro (line 8). The city, which has a large post-colonial immigrant population but also a sizable middle class, votes for the left—François Hollande took 62% of the Créteil vote in 2012, ten points above his national score—and is run on the municipal level by the Socialists (not the Communists, which is normally a sure giveaway that a poor, immigrant-origin population predominates in the commune).

A notable feature of Créteil’s multi-ethnic demography is its Jewish community, which numbers some 20,000—mainly of Tunisian and Moroccan origin—and with some 15 synagogues, making it one of the largest in the Île-de-France. The different ethno-confessional populations have lived in bonne entente since the immigration waves began in the 1950s, though there have been incidents in recent years, the worst being the antisemitic crime this past December 1st, committed by three lumpen immigrant-origin youths (two African, one Maghrebi) and that happened in the area just behind the Lycée Léon Blum. ‘Les Héritiers’ does have a couple of scenes depicting the general bonne entente between Maghreb/African-origin kids and Jews, though one sees no Jewish students in the lycée itself, likely because they are few in number—most cristolien Jewish teens attending the nearby private Collège-Lycée Ozar Hatorah or one of the well-reputed public high schools—i.e. with middle/well-to-do class compositions—in neighboring, more upscale Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (one of the schools being my daughter’s alma mater).

The film hues closely to what happened in the Lycée Léon Blum class in 2008-09, as the screenplay was co-authored by one of the students, Ahmed Dramé—along with director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar—and who plays the student named Malik in the film (and for which he has been nominated for “Most Promising Actor” in the upcoming César Awards). And, as it happens, Dramé, now age 21, wrote a book, Nous sommes tous des exceptions—published last October by Fayard—about his tough upbringing—uneducated immigrant parents from Mali, growing up in a cité, raised by his mother (father absent), older brother in prison—and the lycée competition (watch him here interviewed on television last November). Dramé presents Léon Blum as the best public lycée général—i.e. for university-bound students—in Créteil and that he was determined to attend, but his 10th grade class being the most rowdy and undisciplined in the school. When their prof principale (homeroom teacher) and history-geography teacher, Anne Anglès, had to absent herself for a couple of weeks early in the year, the unruly students made life miserable for her substitute. So when Mme Anglès returned, she proposed, in order to re-establish authority and get control of the class, that the students participate in the national competition on the Nazi camps.

The students initially scoffed at the idea—as did the school principal and other teachers—saying that it was not something for them or that they were capable of. And there was reticence over the subject, with retorts to the teacher on the order of “Madame, we’ve had enough hearing about the Shoah” and “Madame, why does everyone always talk about the Jews?” As Dramé writes in his book—and that one sees in the film—the students, whose understanding of the Holocaust was rudimentary at best, viewed it as a massacre like so many others in modern times (Rwanda, Bosnia, etc). But Mme Anglès—played by the perfectly cast Ariane Ascaride (who’s been in almost all the films of gauchiste director Robert Guédiguian)—wouldn’t give up trying to persuade the students to participate in the competition. She patiently and respectfully responded to their questions, explained the specificity of the Holocaust—a genocide driven by a racialized, essentialized hatred of Jews that aimed to kill every last one the Nazis could get their hands on—, took them on a field trip to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris—where I’ve taken American students a dozen or so times over the past decade—, all of which finally convinced the class—after three months of hesitation—to go ahead with the project (the film shows only one student refusing to participate, an ethnic French boy recently converted to Islam). But what clinched the students’ commitment to the project was a visit to the class by Holocaust survivor Léon Zyguel, who was arrested in Mont-de-Marsan in June 1942—at age 15—with his mother and siblings (his father had already been hauled off the previous year), interned at Mérignac and then Drancy, deported to Auschwitz, and who survived the January 1945 death march to Buchenwald. The students were stunned by Zyguel’s account—as the film shows and Dramé writes—and with many in tears (Zyguel is in the film and the emotion of the amateur cast was apparently for real; much of the film was indeed improvised by the cast, so it appears). So with that, the students forged ahead with the project. And they won. The ceremony at the École Militaire—facing the Eiffel Tower—and with the Minister of Education declaring the winner is a moment of high emotion in the film. Only those with hearts of stone will not be moved by it.

It’s a wonderful story—and literally so close to home for me—though I won’t say that the film, as cinema, is a chef d’œuvre. Much of it has the quality of a téléfilm, it’s replete with bons sentiments, is clichéd at times, and, helped along by the piano soundtrack, clearly seeks to jerk one’s tears (it certainly did with mine, I will readily admit). But who cares? While watching it I was reminded of the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, which I loved and found so inspiring at the time. And the experience of the Concours had such an impact on the students themselves, with all passing the baccalaureate three years later—and twenty with a mention (i.e. making the honor roll)—as one learns in this joint France 2 interview with Anglès and Ascaride the day of the film’s opening on December 3rd. It clearly affected the lives of a number of students, and, above all, Ahmed Dramé, who writes in the epilogue of his book of how the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation changed both his world-view and perception of himself.

Reviews of ‘Les Héritiers’ by Paris critics have been very good on the whole—not one is negative—and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. And it’s done well at the box office, with 530,000 tickets sold so far—which is not bad at all for a film of this kind—and is still showing at 109 theaters across the country nine weeks after its release. The Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher murders have certainly increased the interest in the film. And à propos, Anne Anglès was interviewed in Le Figaro on January 23rd on how the events were perceived by the students at the Lycée Léon Blum (there were only two incidents in the school of students not respecting the minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher victims). Trailer w/English subtitles is here.

In the William Karel-Blanche Finger documentary on the destruction of Europe’s Jews, more than one historian interviewee mentioned that there would soon be no survivors of the Holocaust left to offer personal testimony to the younger generations. As fate would have it, Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem issued a communiqué on January 30th—nine days ago—informing the public that Léon Zyguel had passed away.

Ahmed Dramé_Nous sommes tous des exceptions

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Americans abroad

the other americans in paris

Victoria Ferauge—American in Paris, voracious reader, and friend—has a great American diaspora reading list on her (excellent) blog, The Franco-American Flophouse. She’s read far more on the subject of Americans aboard than I have, that’s for sure. One of the top books she mentions—and highly recommends—is American in Paris, historian, and friend Nancy Green’s The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941, which was published last summer by the University of Chicago Press (and whose forthcoming publication I mentioned in a post 3½ years ago on David McCullough’s best-selling—and quite certainly less good—book on Americans in Paris). Nancy kindly had a copy sent to me, though I have yet to read it (but I will, promis juré), so here’s the description from the U of C Press website

While Gertrude Stein hosted the literati of the Left Bank, Mrs. Bates-Batcheller, an American socialite and concert singer in Paris, held sumptuous receptions for the Daughters of the American Revolution in her suburban villa. History may remember the American artists, writers, and musicians of the Left Bank best, but the reality is that there were many more American businessmen, socialites, manufacturers’ representatives, and lawyers living on the other side of the River Seine. Be they newly minted American countesses married to foreigners with impressive titles or American soldiers who had settled in France after World War I with their French wives, they provide a new view of the notion of expatriates.

Nancy L. Green thus introduces us for the first time to a long-forgotten part of the American overseas population—predecessors to today’s expats—while exploring the politics of citizenship and the business relationships, love lives, and wealth (and poverty for some) of Americans who staked their claim to the City of Light. The Other Americans in Paris shows that elite migration is a part of migration tout court and that debates over “Americanization” have deep roots in the twentieth century.

In her post, Victoria also recommends my mother’s memoir of the two years our family lived in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the 1960s, and which I mentioned in a blog post 3 years ago. C’est gentil de ta part, Victoria.

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The tragedy of the Congo

Congo David Van Reybrouck

Adam Shatz, who writes excellently on every topic he chooses to write on, has a fine review essay in the latest London Review of Books—at which he is a contributing editor—of prolific Belgian author David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, a 600+ page tome that sold over 300,000 copies in its original Dutch version—which is a lot given the number of Dutch-readers in this world—and has won numerous prizes, including two in France, whose French publisher refers to it as “Le livre du Congo, un essai total écrit comme un roman” (and which is akin to the assessment of one Dutch reviewer, who deemed it “More gripping than a novel. The style is casual, yet captivating.”). Adam doesn’t quite describe Van Reybrouck’s book in these terms, presenting it rather as the latest contribution—and an ambitious one—to the already extensive and accomplished literature on the tragic history of that country.

Among the many Congolese tragedies was the short-lived rule and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Belgian/CIA/et al plot against whom Adam naturally discusses in his essay. À propos, the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs had an article by Stephen R. Weissman entitled “What Really Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu.” Weissman, a former Staff Director of the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa—and who likely knows the subject of US-Congolese relations better than anyone—, has examined recently declassified documents—Church Commission, State Department—and parliamentary reports from Belgium, which “[paint] a far darker picture [of the role played by the US government in the Congo] than even the critics imagined.” As it happens, the incoming Kennedy administration was considering a reassessment of US policy toward the Congo, leading the CIA station chief in Léopoldville—who was intimately implicated in the plot against Lumumba—to keep his superiors in Washington out of the loop until the Belgians and their Congolese allies carried out the murder.

On the subject of Lumumba, for those who don’t feel like reading about him—and even for those who do—, there’s the 2000 movie, ‘Lumumba‘, by Haitian director Raoul Peck, which I rate as one of the best biopics ever made (or, I should say, that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many). The film, which was shot on location in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, is historically accurate, at least insofar as I understand the history of Lumumba’s life and times (and the scene of the meeting where the decision is made to liquidate him is likely close to the reality of how it happened).

A more recent Congolese film is ‘Viva Riva!’, which I wrote on 2½ years back (and included mention of my own visit there in 2008). This one is fun, entertaining, and not at all political.

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France-Switzerland, Salvador, June 20th

France-Switzerland, Salvador, June 20th

France-Switzerland: What an amazing game! Five f—ing goals scored by Les Bleus—and by five different players—and against a good team to boot! Haven’t seen that kind of performance by Les Bleus in a long time (okay, there was that little victory against Ukraine last November…). The French national team is definitely back—and will definitely have regained the esteem of the French public—, even after/if it is eliminated in the knockout phase of the tournament.

On the subject of l’équipe de France, historian Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, who works in the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian, had a post on June 17th on TNR’s Goal Posts blog, “French revival? Five story lines to watch during Les Bleus’ next matches.” As it happens, Dr. Krasnoff published a book in 2012 on the formation of players for the French national teams in soccer and basketball, The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. I haven’t seen it yet but am sure it’s a good, informative read.

Another recent, English-language scholarly type book on Les Bleus is Duke University history and French prof Laurent Dubois’s Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, published in 2011 by the University of California Press. I haven’t seen this one either but in view of Dr. Dubois’s fine Soccer Politics/The Politics of Football blog, am sure it’s tops.

On the Swiss team and its multiethnic character—which I mentioned in my previous World Cup post—, journalist Jérôme Houard has an interesting piece in Slate.fr, “La «Nati» suisse, une équipe unie par sa diversité” (June 20th).

Some Tweet-length comments on games of the past few days that I’ve seen in part or whole:

Brazil-Mexico: What an intense, tension-filled game! Whoever said scoreless ties couldn’t be exciting?!

Colombia-Ivory Coast: Too bad for Les Éléphants. Hope they whack the Greeks to advance.

England-Uruguay: Tough for the English, what to say? I would have liked to see them advance. Hélas.

Costa Rica-Italy: Wow, Costa Rica is for real! Whoda thunk it?

Ecuador-Honduras: Bof.

I unfortunately missed Chile-Spain and Australia-Netherlands. On Spain’s crashing out, I know how the Spaniards feel. We in France were there in 2002 and 2010 (though Les Bleus were eliminated in the third group games in those, not the second…).

making_lesbleus

9780520269781

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Yet one more massacre

The six Isla Vista massacre victims, from top left: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng-Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang.  (Credit: abc7.com)

The six Isla Vista massacre victims, from top left: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng-Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang.
(Credit: abc7.com)

[updates below]

Joe Nocera of the NYT has a must read column today on the Second Amendment, “What did the Framers really mean?” For those who are maxed out on their free NYT access or are too lazy to click on the link, here’s the whole thing

Three days after the publication of Michael Waldman’s new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a killing spree, stabbing three people and then shooting another eight, killing four of them, including himself. This was only the latest mass shooting in recent memory, going back to Columbine.

In his rigorous, scholarly, but accessible book, Waldman notes such horrific events but doesn’t dwell on them. He is after something else. He wants to understand how it came to be that the Second Amendment, long assumed to mean one thing, has come to mean something else entirely. To put it another way: Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?

The Second Amendment begins, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that’s where Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, begins, too. He has gone back into the framers’ original arguments and made two essential discoveries, one surprising and the other not surprising at all.

The surprising discovery is that of all the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, the Second was probably the least debated. What we know is that the founders were deeply opposed to a standing army, which they viewed as the first step toward tyranny. Instead, their assumption was that the male citizenry would all belong to local militias. As Waldman writes, “They were not allowed to have a musket; they were required to. More than a right, being armed was a duty.”

Thus the unsurprising discovery: Virtually every reference to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — the second part of the Second Amendment — was in reference to military defense. Waldman notes the House debate over the Second Amendment in the summer of 1789: “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In time, of course, the militia idea died out, replaced by a professionalized armed service. Most gun regulation took place at the state and city level. The judiciary mostly stayed out of the way. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the nation’s first national gun law, the National Firearms Act, which put onerous limits on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns — precisely because the guns had no “reasonable relation” to “a well-regulated militia.”

But then, in 1977, there was a coup at the National Rifle Association, which was taken over by Second Amendment fundamentalists. Over the course of the next 30 years, they set out to do nothing less than change the meaning of the Second Amendment, so that it’s final phrase — “shall not be infringed” — referred to an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a collective right for the common defense.

Waldman is scornful of much of this effort. Time and again, he finds the proponents of this new view taking the founders’ words completely out of context, sometimes laughably so. They embrace Thomas Jefferson because he once wrote to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms.” In fact, says Waldman, Jefferson was referring to some old letter he needed “so he could issue a rebuttal in case he got attacked for a decision he made as secretary of state.

Still, as Waldman notes, the effort was wildly successful. In 1972, the Republican platform favored gun control. By 1980, the Republican platform opposed gun registration. That year, the N.R.A. gave its first-ever presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan.

The critical modern event, however, was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which tossed aside two centuries of settled law, and ruled that a gun-control law in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The author of the majority opinion was Antonin Scalia, who fancies himself the leading “originalist” on the court — meaning he believes, as Waldman puts it, “that the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution is to ask what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.”

Waldman is persuasive that a truly originalist decision would have tied the right to keep and bear arms to a well-regulated militia. But the right to own guns had by then become conservative dogma, and it was inevitable that the five conservative members of the Supreme Court would vote that way.

“When the militias evaporated,” concludes Waldman, “so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.” But, he adds, “What we did not have was a regime of judicially enforced individual rights, able to trump the public good.”

Sadly, that is what we have now, as we saw over the weekend. Elliot Rodger’s individual right to bear arms trumped the public good. Eight people were shot as a result.

Also worth reading is Michael Moore’s reaction to the Isla Vista massacre, posted on his Facebook page (h/t Lisa H.)

With due respect to those who are asking me to comment on last night’s tragic mass shooting at UCSB in Isla Vista, CA — I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life. Everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago: We are a people easily manipulated by fear which causes us to arm ourselves with a quarter BILLION guns in our homes that are often easily accessible to young people, burglars, the mentally ill and anyone who momentarily snaps. We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) “interests.” The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol. While other countries have more violent pasts (Germany, Japan), more guns per capita in their homes (Canada [mostly hunting guns]), and the kids in most other countries watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games that our kids play, no one even comes close to killing as many of its own citizens on a daily basis as we do — and yet we don’t seem to want to ask ourselves this simple question: “Why us? What is it about US?” Nearly all of our mass shootings are by angry or disturbed white males. None of them are committed by the majority gender, women. Hmmm, why is that? Even when 90% of the American public calls for stronger gun laws, Congress refuses — and then we the people refuse to remove them from office. So the onus is on us, all of us. We won’t pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won’t consider why this happens here all the time. When the NRA says, “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people,” they’ve got it half-right. Except I would amend it to this: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon.

Yes, as this is America, it will indeed happen again. Very soon.

UPDATE: Americans get killed by guns every day, by people who are not criminals or “bad guys.” Every last day of the week. If one does not believe me, read the “Holiday Weekend Gun Report: May 23-26, 2014” on Joe Nocera’s NYT blog.

2nd UPDATE: Michael Waldman had an article, adapted from his book, in Politico Magazine dated May 19th, “How the NRA rewrote the Second Amendment.” The lede: “The Founders never intended to create an unregulated individual right to a gun. Today, millions believe they did. Here’s how it happened.”

3rd UPDATE: Mother Jones has an interview (June 19th) with Michael Waldman, in which he talks about his book, informing us that “The Second Amendment doesn’t say what you think it does.”

71R1DRJ8pML

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piketty2

[updates below]

That’s what political scientists Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson call him in a TAP forum, “Piketty’s Triumph,” on the publication this month of his Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), which has been taking the US by storm. It’s really something the gushing attention that’s being showered by the American chattering class on a 700-page book by a left-wing French economist—who could write his own ticket in American academia but prefers life in Paris—and the English version of which is a translation from French. I’ve been familiar with Thomas Piketty’s work and perspectives for a while, as he has been writing for and speaking to the larger public on economic issues since early in the last decade—he had a regular economics column in Libération for several years, entre autres—, and was an economic adviser to successive Socialist party presidential candidates. I haven’t yet read his latest book; I’d normally get a copy here in V.O.—it was published last September by Editions du Seuil—but as the English one was translated by my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer—and who no doubt improved on the original French version—, that’s what I’ll read.

Even if I had read the book, though, I wouldn’t offer a review of it, as there are countless others more competent to do that than I. Here are links to good stuff I’ve read (or watched) of late on Piketty’s magnum opus:

One of the best is Emily Eakin’s April 17th article in The Chronicle Review, “Capital Man.” The lede: Thomas Piketty is economics’ biggest sensation. He’s also the field’s fiercest critic.

Paul Krugman—who’s been singing Piketty’s praises on his NYT blog—has a review essay on the book in the NYRB (issue dated May 8th), “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age.”

Bill Moyers, on his TV show Moyers & Company, had a great 20-minute interview last night with Krugman on Piketty’s book, “What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know.” Make sure to watch this one.

On Tuesday the Tax Policy Center—of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution—had an hour-and-a-half forum, at the Urban Institute in Washington, on Piketty’s book, with Piketty presenting his argument and then commentary by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (liberal-left) and Kevin Hassett (co-author of the 1999 best-seller Dow 36,000) of the American Enterprise Institute (conservative). A good, highbrow debate. Watch it here.

On Wednesday the CUNY Graduate Center hosted an event on the book, with Piketty, Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Steven Durlauf, and moderated by Janet Gornick and Branko Milanović. I wish I could have attended that one. It may be seen on the Graduate Center’s YouTube channel.

For those who can follow French, here’s Piketty debating Emmanuel Todd last September 6th on France 2’s Ce soir ou jamais, on the occasion of the book’s V.O. publication.

The New Republic’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 17th), “The Economist Was a Rock Star.” The lede: Thomas Piketty isn’t just a brilliant economist; he’s a fantastic storyteller.

À propos, see the dispatch in yesterday’s NYT, “Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment.”

In The Observer (April 13th) is a commentary by Andrew Hussey entitled “Occupy was right: capitalism has failed the world.” The lede: One of the slogans of the 2011 Occupy protests was ‘capitalism isn’t working’. Now, in an epic, groundbreaking new book, French economist Thomas Piketty explains why they’re right.

For a critique of Piketty’s book from the left, see economist James K. Galbraith’s “Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?” in the Spring issue of Dissent. Entre autres, Galbraith sniffs that Piketty’s policy views “reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal.”

See also Dean Baker’s critique, “Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th,” on the Huff Post Business blog (March 9th).

For a slew of other reviews of Piketty’s book (by e.g. Brad DeLong, Doug Henwood, John Cassidy…), go to this post on the CEPR website.

I had a blog post three years ago in which I made reference to a book Piketty co-authored (with Camille Landais and Emmanuel Saez) that detailed a progressive proposal on how to reform the (impossibly complex and perverse) French tax code. Among the intended recipients of the plan were PS presidential candidates, who would be in a position to take it up in the event one of them were elected in 2012. So has François Hollande adopted the Piketty et al plan as his own? Yeah, sure.

UPDATE: Columbia University Ph.D. student Timothy Shenk has a lengthy essay in The Nation (May 5th issue), “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.” The lede: Capitalism’s new critics take on an economics run amok.

2nd UPDATE: Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (conservative)—who asked the final question in the Tax Policy Center forum linked to above—has a critique of Piketty in Forbes (April 17th), “Whither The Bottom 90 Percent, Thomas Piketty?” He thus begins: “While not quite inducing Beatlemania, French economist Thomas Piketty’s visit this week to America has inspired the Washington analog of teenage frenzy.” This looks to be the first in a series of pieces Winship will be publishing in Forbes on Piketty’s book.

3rd UPDATE: Robert Solow, 1987 Nobel Prize in economics laureate, has a review essay on the book in TNR (April 22nd), in which he says that “Thomas Piketty Is Right.”

4th UPDATE: Piketty’s book is presently Amazon.com’s nº1 best-seller. Amazing. À propos, Rana Foroohar, a Time magazine editor of economics and business, explains why “this best-selling book is freaking out the super-wealthy.” (April 23rd)

5th UPDATE: Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, who teaches at George Mason University—a well-known repaire of public choice theorists—, has a review of Piketty’s book in Foreign Affairs (May-June issue), “Capital Punishment: Why a Global Tax on Wealth Won’t End Inequality.”

6th UPDATE: TNR’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 24th) on “Piketty’s ‘Capital’: A Hit That Was, Wasn’t, Then Was Again.” The lede: How the French tome has rocked the tiny Harvard University Press.

7th UPDATE: U.Va. political scientist Deborah Boucoyannis has a post on The Monkey Cage blog (April 22nd) arguing that “Adam Smith is not the antidote to Thomas Piketty.”

8th UPDATE: UC-Berkeley’s Brad DeLong, writing on The Equitablog (April 23rd), offers his take on Piketty’s book. His conclusion: “To sum up: a very good book, a very, as Solow says, serious book. It has certainly moved me from thinking that the odds that two generations hence we will have a much more unequal and plutocratic society were 2-1 against to thinking that they are 3-1 for…”

9th UPDATE: Here’s Martin Wolf’s review of the book in the FT (April 15th), which I missed. Voilà Wolf’s conclusion: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realisation, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it. In a society dominated by wealth, money will buy power. Inequality cannot be eliminated. It is inevitable and to a degree even desirable. But, as the Greeks argued, there needs to be moderation in all things. We are not seeing moderate rises in inequality. We should take notice.” Amen.

10th UPDATE: Duke University law and political theory prof Jedediah Purdy has a review essay of Piketty’s book in the Los Angeles Review of Books (April 24th), “To Have and Have Not.”

11th UPDATE: Paul Krugman’s column in the April 25th NYT focuses on “The Piketty Panic” on the American right.

12th UPDATE: Ross Douthat, a columnist I normally don’t bother reading, has a post (April 25th) on his NYT blog that attracted my attention on account of the title, “Piketty and the petits rentiers,” and in which he makes some valid points.

13th UPDATE: Tim Fernholz, who writes on politics and economics for Quartz—”a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy”—, has a piece (March 30th) on “Everything wrong with capitalism, as explained by Balzac, ‘House’ and ‘The Aristocats’,” in which he meditates on the dilemma of Rastignac as spelled out in Piketty’s book.

14th UPDATE: Martin Wolf’s latest FT column (April 25th), taking up “the rising tide of anxiety” in reaction to Piketty’s book, argues that “A more equal society will not hinder growth.” The lede: Inequality damages the economy and efforts to remedy it are, on the whole, not harmful. Wolf informs the reader that, two months ago, “the staff of the International Monetary Fund…in a note entitled Redistribution, Inequality and Growth…came to clear conclusions: societies that start off more unequal tend to redistribute more; lower net inequality (post-interventions) drives faster and more durable growth; and redistribution is generally benign in its impact on growth, with negative effects only when taken to extremes.” Further down Wolf writes that “It is not only possible, but valuable, to marry open and dynamic market economies to the sense of shared purpose and achievement brought by tolerable degrees of inequality. Moreover, less inequality is likely to make economies work better by increasing the ability of the entire population to participate, on more equal terms. An important condition for this, in turn, is that politics not be unduly beholden to wealth.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

15th UPDATE: Financial journalist and blogger Felix Salmon has a post on the Reuters blog (April 25th), “The Piketty pessimist,” in which, entre autres, he links to Chrystia Freeland’s April 20th review in Politico, “The book every plutocrat should read: Thomas Piketty’s new tome just might save the super-rich from themselves,” and former World Bank economist Branko Milanović’s 20-page “The return of ‘patrimonial capitalism’: review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century,” from last October.

16th UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer, writing in The Daily Beast (April 26th), incisively explains how right-wing columnist James Poulos “gets Piketty–and Tocqueville–wrong.”

17th UPDATE: Garett Jones, who teaches econ at George Mason U., has a critique of Piketty (April 26th), “Living with Inequality,” on the Über-libertarian website Reason.com. The lede: Has Thomas Piketty really found “the central contradiction of capitalism”?

18th UPDATE: Here’s yet another argument for Piketty’s global wealth tax.

19th UPDATE: The NYT’s David Leonhardt writes in the NYT Magazine (May 2nd) that “Inequality has been going on forever…but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.” He says that “For all of the clarity of Piketty’s historical analysis, I emerged from the book not quite grasping the mechanics of rising inequality. What is it about market economies that typically cause the assets and incomes of the rich to rise more rapidly than those of everyone else? So I called Piketty at his office in Paris, and he agreed to walk me through it.” And Piketty does.

20th UPDATE: TNR’s Isaac Chotiner has an “Interview with the left’s rock star economist” (May 5th), in which the economist in question, Thomas Piketty, says “I don’t care for Marx.” Dis donc. At the end of the interview is a 42-minute video discussion with Piketty in Huffington Post Politics, led by Ryan Grim and former Wall Street banker Alexis Goldstein.

21st UPDATE: TNR’s John B. Judis follows up from Chotiner’s Piketty interview with a piece (May 6th) informing the reader that “Thomas Piketty Is Pulling Your Leg.” The lede: He clearly read Karl Marx. But don’t call him a Marxist.

22nd UPDATE: Mike Konczal, who blogs at Rortybomb, has a review essay (April 29th) in the Boston Review on “Studying the Rich: Thomas Piketty and his Critics.”

23rd UPDATE: Writing in the NYT’s The Upshot blog (May 9th), Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examines a conservative/libertarian critique of Piketty, concluding that “Piketty’s Arguments Still Hold Up, After Taxes.”

24th UPDATE: Salon.com columnist Thomas Frank—of What’s the Matter with Kansas? fame—has a piece (May 11th) explaining “The problem with Thomas Piketty: ‘Capital’ destroys right-wing lies, but there’s one solution it forgets.” The lede: After “Capital,” we’ll never talk income inequality or meritocratic myths the same way. But we must talk unions.

25th UPDATE: Economists Odran Bonnet, Pierre-Henri Bono, Guillaume Chapelle and Etienne Wasmer—affiliated with Sciences Po-Paris’s Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’évaluation des politiques publiques (LIEPP)—published a working paper on April 17th (in French and with English translation), “Does housing capital contribute to inequality? A comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which they contradict Piketty’s thesis. The paper was mentioned in a post (April 29th) on the NYT’s The Upshot blog by libertarian economists Tyler Cowen and Veronique de Rugy, “Why Piketty’s Book Is a Bigger Deal in America Than in France.”

26th UPDATE: Thomas B. Edsall has a column (May 14th) in the NYT on “Thomas Piketty and His Critics.” Among the critics he mentions—and whose reviews he links to—are Kenneth Rogoff and Clive Crook.

27th UPDATE: The Spring 2014 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas has a review of Piketty’s book by Lawrence Summers, “The Inequality Puzzle.” The lede: Thomas Piketty’s tour de force analysis doesn’t get everything right, but it’s certainly gotten us pondering the right questions.

28th UPDATE: Dani Rodrik, writing in Social Europe Journal (May 16th), weighs in on “Piketty and the Zeitgeist.” Money quote: “Perhaps more than the argument itself, what makes Capital in the Twenty-First Century a great read is the sense of witnessing a superb mind grapple with the big questions of our time. Piketty’s emphasis on the political nature of the distribution of income; his subtle back-and-forth between the general laws of capitalism and the role played by contingency; and his willingness to offer bold (if, to many, impractical) remedies to save capitalism from itself are as refreshing as they are rare for an economist.”

29th UPDATE: Jeff Madrick, writing on the Triple Crisis blog (May 20th), asks “Is the Piketty enthusiasm bubble subsiding?

30th UPDATE: Uh oh, the FT reports (May 23rd) that the “Piketty findings [are] undercut by errors.”

31st UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (May 24th) on his NYT blog on the “[g]reat buzz in the blogosphere over Chris Giles’s [FT] attack on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which he asks “Is Piketty all wrong?” The short answer: a little bit but not really. In the post, Krugman links to two posts on the NYT’s The Upshot blog that also take on Chris Giles’s attack, one by University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, who says that the “new critique of Piketty has its own shortcomings,” the other by Neil Irwin, who asks “Did Thomas Piketty get his math wrong?

32nd UPDATE: The Economist’s Free Exchange blog has a post (May 24th) on the Piketty data error brouhaha, asking is there “A Piketty problem?” The short answer: Insofar as there is one it does not “support many of the allegations made by the FT, or the conclusion that the book’s argument is wrong.” The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim informs us that “The economists FT relied on for its Thomas Piketty takedown don’t buy it” (May 27th). And Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason writes in The Guardian that “Thomas Piketty’s real challenge was to the FT’s Rolex types.” The lede: If the FT’s attack on the radical economist’s ‘rising inequality’ thesis is right, then all the gross designer bling in its How To Spend It section can be morally justified.

33rd UPDATE: More pushback against the Chris Giles FT attack. Mike Konczal at Rortybomb says “The FT Gets Piketty’s Capital Argument Wrong” (May 24th).

thomas piketty_capital in the twenty first century

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On nationalism

I think about nationalism a lot. I hate nationalism. Nationalism—called “patriotism” in America—is a scourge of the modern era. As for nationalists—whatever their nationality—, discussion with them is futile, when not impossible. On the perversity of nationalism, I particularly like this passage by Erich Fromm, from his book The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1955), pp. 57-60.

[W]e find, in the European development, the persistence of…the fixation to blood and soil. Man—freed from the traditional bonds of the medieval community, afraid of the new freedom which transformed him into an isolated atom—escaped into a new idolatry of blood and soil, of which nationalism and racism are the two most evident expressions. (…)

(…) Nationalism, originally a progressive movement, replaced the bonds of feudalism and absolutism. The average man today obtains his sense of identity from his belonging to a nation, rather from his being a “son of man.” His objectivity, that is, his reason is warped by this fixation. He judges the “stranger” with different criteria than the members of his own clan. His feelings toward the stranger are equally warped. Those who are not “familiar” by bonds of blood and soil (expressed by common language, customs, food, songs, etc.) are looked upon with suspicion, and paranoid delusions about them can spring up at the slightest provocation. The incestuous fixation not only poisons the relationship of the individual to the stranger, but to the members of his own clan and to himself. The person who has not freed himself from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being; his capacity for love and reason are crippled; he does not experience himself nor his fellow man in their—and his own—human reality.

Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare—never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of love for one’s humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.

The idolatrous character of national feeling can be seen in the reaction to the violations of clan symbols, a reaction which is very different from that to the violation of religious or moral symbols. Let us picture a man who takes the flag of his country to a street of one of the cities of the Western world, and tramples on it in view of other people. He would be lucky not to be lynched. Almost everybody would feel a sense of furious indignation, which hardly permits of any objective thought. The man who desecrated the flag would have done something unspeakable; he would have committed a crime which is not one crime among others, but the crime, the one unforgivable and unpardonable. Not quite as drastic, but nevertheless qualitatively the same would be the reaction to a man who says, “I do not love my country,” or, in the case of war, “I do not care for my country’s victory.” Such a sentence is a real sacrilege, and a man saying it becomes a monster, an outlaw in the feelings of his fellow men.

(…) Even if a man should speak disparagingly of God, he would hardly arouse the same feeling of indignation as against the crime, against the sacrilege which is the violation of the symbols of the country. (…)

After the great European Revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries failed to transform “freedom from” into “freedom to,” nationalism and state worship became the symptoms of a regression to incestuous fixation. Only when man succeeds in developing his reason further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home.

Brilliant. I have the passage in French translation as well, which I’ll put up at some point.

9780805014020

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black_panthers

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

1960s activist Steve Wasserman has a most interesting review essay in The Nation on the recently published Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., academic historians both. Wasserman, who knows the subject rather well, is critical of the book, which he says is “about as close to an official history as can be imagined.” Reading the essay brought back memories from my early ’70s gauchiste teen years, when I thought the Black Panthers were cool. I subscribed to the Black Panther Party’s official newspaper for a stretch—and remember well its exalting The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung—and, of course, read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (didn’t everyone?). My main memory from that is Cleaver recounting his pre-revolutionary youth, when he would rape black women as practice for raping white women. Nice.

On Cleaver, who was the BPP’s “minister of information,” Wasserman writes

Cleaver was regarded by many of the younger recruits within the party as their Malcolm X. A strong advocate of working with progressive whites, Cleaver was a man of large appetites, an anarchic and ribald spirit who relished his outlaw status. After years in prison, he was hellbent on making up for lost time and wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone—neither to Ronald Reagan, whom he mocked mercilessly, nor, as it would turn out, to Huey Newton. He was the joker in the Panther deck and a hard act to follow. Like so many of the Panthers’ leaders, he had killer looks, inhabiting his own skin with enviable ease. (The erotic aura that the Panthers presented was a not inconsiderable part of their appeal, as any of the many photographs that were taken of them show. And in this department, Huey was the Supreme Leader, and he never let you forget it.) Eldridge was the biggest mouth in a party of big mouths. He especially loved invective and adored the sound of his own voice, delivered in a sly baritone drawl. He was a gifted practitioner of the rhetoric of denunciation, favoring such gems as “fascist mafioso” and given to vilifying the United States, at every turn, as “Babylon.” He was a master of misogynist pith, uttering the imperishable “revolutionary power grows out of the lips of a pussy.” He was fond of repeating, as if it were a personal mantra: “He could look his momma in the eye and lie.” He was notorious in elite Bay Area movement circles for his many and persistent infidelities and for his physical abuse of his equally tough-talking and beautiful wife, Kathleen. About these failures, however, a curtain of silence was drawn. He was, all in all, a hustler who exuded charm and menace in equal measure.

I wasn’t too crazy about Cleaver—who, pour mémoire, converted to Mormonism in the 1980s and became a conservative Republican—but thought Huey Newton was pretty good, particularly after watching him on William Buckley’s Firing Line in 1973 (YouTube excerpt here). But Newton was as much a thug as Cleaver and which Wasserman reminds us of in quoting later published accounts of BPP members—but which Bloom and Martin leave out of their book. They leave a lot out, it seems

You won’t learn from Bloom and Martin the hard truth about Flores Forbes, a trusted enforcer for Newton, a stalwart of the party’s Orwellian “Board of Methods and Corrections,” and a member of what Newton called his “Buddha Samurai,” a praetorian guard made up of men willing to follow orders unquestioningly and do the “stern stuff.” Forbes joined the party at 15 and wasted no time becoming a zombie for Huey. Forbes was bright and didn’t have to be told; he knew when to keep his mouth shut. He well understood the “right to initiative,” a term Forbes tells us “was derived from our reading and interpretation of Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.” What Forbes took Fanon to mean was “that it is the oppressed people’s right to believe that they should kill their oppressor in order to obtain their freedom. We just modified it somewhat to mean anyone who’s in our way,” like inconvenient witnesses who might testify against Newton, or Panthers who’d run afoul of Newton and needed to be “mud-holed”—battered and beaten to a bloody pulp. Newton no longer favored Mao’s Little Red Book, preferring Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which he extolled for its protagonists’ Machiavellian cunning and ruthlessness. Nor will you learn from Bloom and Martin how Newton admired Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the tale of a hustler who becomes a revolutionary. Military regalia was out, swagger sticks were in. Newton dropped the rank of minister of defense. Some days he wanted to be called “Supreme Commander,” other days “Servant of the People” or, usually, just “Servant.” But to fully understand Huey’s devolution, you’d have to run Peebles’s picture backward, as the story of a revolutionary who becomes a hustler.

The political consciousness of the BPP cadres was clearly not raised during their period in Algiers, the world capital of tiersmondisme back then. For the anecdote, an Algerian-in-the-know told me stories some two decades ago about the BPP’s Algiers years (1969 to ’71 or thereabouts). The Algerians were initially thrilled to receive Cleaver and other Panthers (Algeria and the US did not have diplomatic relations at the time), who were set up in a villa in a nice neighborhood (probably Hydra) and supplied with resources, including women (i.e. prostitutes on the state payroll). But the Panthers quickly became a problem for the Algerians, with their loud parties—Algiers is a sleepy city after dark—, doing drugs, trying to pick up women in public… Instead of getting bona fide American revolutionaries, the Algerians got American urban voyous. The 1954-62 FLN had its share of voyous but also advanced political leadership. The BPP had a lot of the former but little of the latter. So the Algerian authorities quietly encouraged the Panthers to move on—and which they did (as they must have been bored out of their minds in Algiers; if one doesn’t speak French or Arabic and has little interest in Algeria, it would be a deadly dull place to live in).

UPDATE: Writer Brendan I. Koerner has a must-read post and with photos—undated, from 2013—on the Roads & Kingdoms blog, “A Black Panther Guide to Algiers.” Koerner likewise has a book on the subject, published by Crown in 2013, entitled The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.

2nd UPDATE: Elaine Klein Mokhtefi has an exceptional essay on the Black Panthers in Algiers, in the June 1, 2017, issue of the London Review of Books. Complementing this is a 45-minute interview with her conducted by the historian Malika Rahal in June 2015. And on May 16, 2017, ARTE aired a fascinating, hour-long documentary, “Alger, la Mecque des révolutionnaires (1962-1974),” which had footage of the BPP (it may be seen on YouTube here). From these accounts, it appears that the one recounted to me in Algiers in the late ’80s/early ’90s (see above) was not entirely accurate.

3rd UPDATE: Malika Rahal also conducted an interview with Kathleen Neal Cleaver on her experience in Algiers with the Black Panthers.

PANTHERS IN KASBAH 1969

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le-premier-homme

[updates below]

Voilà some publicity for Harvard University Press’s recent publication of Albert Camus’s Algerian Chronicles—a compilation of Camus’s essays and letters on Algeria from the 1930s through the ’50s—, translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer—of French Politics blogging fame (and who has been translating French social science and humanities since my college days)—and edited and introduced by Alice Kaplan (reviews here and here). On the subject of Camus—whose birth centennial is this November 7th—I recently saw the cinematic adaptation of his unfinished autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme (in English, The First Man), by Italian director Gianni Amelio. I liked the novel—and more than any other I’ve read by Camus, including L’Étranger and La Peste—, in particular for its vivid imagery of lower-class pied-noir life in Algiers in the 1910s and ’20s. The film closely follows Camus’s childhood such as depicted in the novel via the character of Jacques Cormery and with flash-forwards to the 1950s—of Cormery’s return to Algiers during the war—, scenes that weren’t in the novel. Technically the film—which was entirely shot in Algeria (mainly in Algiers and Mostaganem) and employed Benjamin Stora as historical adviser—is impeccable. Nice to watch. But it doesn’t work. This is one of those novels that cannot be adapted to the screen. And if one has not read it—and is not aware that Jacques Cormery is Albert Camus (and does not know too much about Camus or Algérie française)—, the film will make no sense at all. So if you haven’t read the book—and are not familiar with France’s history in Algeria—, do not see the movie; you will be wasting your time. Gianni Amelio directed two very good films in the ’90s, ‘Il ladro di bambini‘ and ‘Lamerica‘, so I had somewhat high expectations for this one. Oh well. US reviews are here and here, French reviews here, and the NYT review of the book here. [And see updates on Camus below]

Needless to say, the film was not a box office hit in France. I saw it on the first Saturday night after its opening and in a big Paris multiplex. The salle was well over half empty. Un échec annoncé. As I’ve said before, the French movie-going public is simply not interested in Algeria, post- or pre-1962.

À propos, another movie about Algérie française—and likewise based on a novel by a major author—opened in France last fall: ‘Ce que le jour doit à la nuit’, from Yasmina Khadra’s eponymous 2008 novel (in English: What the Day Owes the Night), which I have not read. This director of this one was the middle to lowbrow Alexandre Arcady, juif d’Algérie who is not precisely known for making films d’auteur. I hesitated on seeing it and despite the compelling subject matter, in view of its 2 hour 40 minute length and the fact that Arcady has never done anything that could remotely be called a chef d’œuvre, but decided to throw caution to the wind (Saturday AM matinee) before it disappeared from the salles. I’ll let Le Monde’s Noémie Luciani—who liked the pic more than did other French criticsdescribe it

Dans l’Algérie des années 1930, Younes, 9 ans, est recueilli par son oncle et sa tante et rebaptisé Jonas. Elevé par ce couple peu ordinaire (Mohamed est musulman, Madeleine chrétienne), Jonas grandit à Oran puis à Rio Salado, véritable jardin d’Eden où la vie est douce et lente, jusqu’à ce qu’Emilie n’amène les premières violences de l’amour, et l’Histoire les premiers feux de la guerre.

Adapté du roman à succès de Yasmina Khadra, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit est une fresque monumentale dans tous les sens du terme. Reconstitution détaillée à l’extrême, musique grandiose, mise en scène toute dans l’ampleur, jusqu’aux orages, qui répondent avec un mimétisme verlainien aux émotions : que Jonas perde un instant le goût de vivre, et “il pleure dans son coeur comme il pleut sur la ville”.

Ce totalitarisme de moyens, s’il est indéniablement l’expression vibrante d’un amour fou du réalisateur pour le livre auquel il offre un monde visible, a ses charmes et ses limites. D’un côté l’élégance du décor, la belle musique d’Armand Amar, une intelligence remarquable du rythme, tenant de bout en bout l’histoire sur presque trois heures de film.

De l’autre, l’explicite imposant, le poids des fatalités trop visibles, la place ténue de l’humour. Surtout, le jeu d’acteurs enivrés de se voir devenus Rhett et Scarlett, Juliette et Roméo : exalté, plus rarement exaltant, tout en grands gestes, grands mots, grands yeux noyés de larmes. Fu’ad Aït Aattou (Younes/Jonas) : la gravité un peu appuyé de la voix, le port de tête. Nora Arnezeder (Emilie) : le sourire lentement construit pour illuminer, un peu trop lent à venir. Anne Parillaud (madame Cazenave, la mère d’Emilie) : la démarche alanguie, la diction lourdement sensuelle, les tics de séductrice aguerrie.

On hésite à leur autoriser tant de fards : peut-être faut-il autant pour que l’histoire ait moins à voir avec le commun amour qu’avec le mythe. Peut-être avons-nous perdu l’habitude. Dans le doute, être un peu plus crédule, glisser sur certains traits. Tout travaillé qu’il soit, tout alourdi d’art qu’il peut être, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit garde au coeur un souffle romantique volé à l’Hollywood des heures anciennes : naïf et flamboyant à son image, emportant furieusement tout ce que l’on consentira à lui laisser prendre – l’amour, le feu, la guerre…

A ‘Gone With the Wind’ in the waning days of Algérie française (for a synopsis of the pic in English—there are as yet no reviews from the US or UK—, go here). One gets the general idea. The film is melodramatic and maudlin, i.e. it’s schlock. But… I was thoroughly entertained (as were others who saw it, to judge by Allociné’s audience ratings; though, as befitting films in France with an Algeria theme, it was a box office failure). It’s a grand spectacle and in which the director pulls out all the stops (trailer here). So for this one I suspended critical judgment and decided to just take it in (it’s also hard for me to give the total thumbs down to a film on Algeria whose historical adviser was the incontournable, inévitable Benjamin Stora). As it will likely not be making it outre-Atlantique or outre-Manche anytime soon, the only way to see it will be via streaming (if one requires English subtitles, that might be a problem).

There was a special projection of the film in Algiers last October, which was the subject of an amusing reportage by El Watan’s Chawki Amari, “Le film d’Arcady n’a pas réconcilié les Algériens.” The lede

«Ce que le jour doit à la nuit», le film d’Alexandre Arcady, tiré du chef-d’œuvre de Yasmina Khadra, a été projeté à Alger sur fond de rivalités entre des ministres et de rumeurs sur la mort du président Bouteflika. Récit cinématographique.

Among other things, one learns that Arcady’s film, despite the sponsorship of the Algerian Ministry of Culture, failed to receive the necessary authorizations in time, so had to be shot in Tunisia. Une histoire algérienne. Amari’s article, which is quite funny—I was cracking up while reading it—, will be appreciated by those who know Algeria well.

UPDATE: Columbia Univ. doctoral student Thomas Meaney has a review essay, entitled “The colonist of good will,” on three books on or by Camus—including Algerian Chronicles—in the September 16 2013 issue of The Nation. And the LDH Toulon website has posted a critical analysis by Christiane Chaulet Achour—delivered as an academic paper in October 2011—on “Albert Camus face à la question algérienne.”

2nd UPDATE: Benjamin Stora is interviewed in La Provence (September 7) on his latest book (co-authored with Jean-Baptiste Péretié), Camus brûlant.

3rd UPDATE: Benjamin Stora is interviewed again (September 19) on his new book, this time in Mediapart (via Jeune Afrique).

ce que le jour doit à la nuit

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Khomeini rises

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

cov3508

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Dealing with bad reviews

[update below]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

roger_ebert,_1942_2013

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