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Lee Kuan Yew 1024x576(EN)

[update below]

I would likely not be doing a post marking Lee Kuan Yew’s death this past Monday were it not for my visit—my first—to Singapore last June. I spent three full days there, which is the right amount of time for a tourist (and that’s what I was). I was interested in seeing the place but had certain preconceptions: that it would be sterile, soullessly modern, overly expensive, not much of interest to see or do… And then there were the news stories from past decades of the petty repression, of being fined for spitting, chewing gum (which I don’t), etc. I was quite impressed with the city, though, which has much to recommend it and is absolutely worth a visit if one happens to be in that corner of the world (I was coming from Malaysia). The modernity is married well with the older ethnic quarters (Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street…). Singapore is a well-ordered city-state, easy to get around (on foot and by the excellent public transportation system), and not overly pricey (hotels, restaurants) if one knows where to go. And I was particularly impressed with the cultural patrimony—which is not insignificant—and the museums, which reveal the will to build a national identity in a city-state that was not a nation when it became independent en catastrophe in 1965. I learned more about the modern history of Singapore—of the construction of the state and nation—at the National Museum than in any book (not that I had read a tremendous amount on the subject beforehand). And the nearby Peranakan Museum—entirely devoted to the hybrid Chinese Confucian/Malay Muslim subculture, now vanished, that was born in Malaya and Singapore in the late 19th century via mixed marriages (Chinese men, Malay women)—was fascinating. I had no idea. And the Chinatown Heritage Centre was well worth the visit, where one sees—as at the National Museum—how poor Singapore was and how miserably most people there—mainly Chinese migrants—lived into the 1960s.

Modern Singapore is a miracle (and aided by the modern miracle of air conditioning, as economist Branko Milanović reminds us via Paul Krugman, without which no successful economy in the tropics or a desert—including the US sunbelt—would be what it is). From a piss poor country six decades ago Singapore now has a higher per capita GNI at PPP than the US or any member state of the EU (I was informed while there that the salaries of public primary school teachers begin in the mid five figures in US$, and university professors are all paid into the six figures US$; and for nationals, housing is not expensive). And Singapore is not a Gulf emirate or sheikhdom living off rentier income. The Singaporeans have done it by hard work and, while they’ve been at it, in forging a collective national identity based on what in France is called communautarisme (Chinese 74%, Malays 13%, Indian Tamils 9%). And it works. And all thanks to one man: Lee Kuan Yew.

Far from me to praise an authoritarian (soft) and who theorized nonsense on something called “Asian values.” On this subject I go with the critiques of Amartya Sen and Li Xiaorong—Asians both—end of discussion. But one must give credit where credit is due. Lee was an authoritarian who succeeded (how nice it would be if the Arab world could boast such a figure). On this, I link to James Fallows’s remembrance, “Lee Kuan Yew, the leader who lasted.” Also the one by conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple on “The man who made Singapore,” in which he expresses his admiring ambivalence of the sociopolitical order created by Lee. Echoing the last line in Dalrymple’s piece, a Turkish resident with whom I conversed par hasard told me that Singapore is an excellent place to live and where one can do well for oneself, provided that one scrupulously obeys the law and respects all the rules (of which there is a plethora). If one does that no questions asked, then one will have no problems. But if one transgresses, big problems will ensue.

While Lee’s ideas on “Asian values” were problematic, to put it mildly, he had interesting things to say on other topics, notably that of Islam, a religion well represented in Singapore via the Malay community and a minority of the Indians (Tamils, Punjabis). As I read in TOI last October 17th, Lee clearly designated Saudi Arabia as the culprit for the rise in jihadi terrorism in Southeast Asia after 9/11.

According to Lee, Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant. But in the 40-odd years since the oil crisis and petrodollars became a windfall in the Muslim world, Saudi extremists have been proselytizing, and building mosques and madrassas that preach Wahhabism. Lee argued this Wahhabi brand is a “venomous religion” that has radicalized Southeast Asian Muslims, and marketed to Muslims throughout the world that the gold standard for being a good Muslim is Saudi Arabia.

Southeast Asia has thus fallen victim to the Wahhabi-driven al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah (JI) that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing and a string of terrorist attacks in Indonesia from 2003 to 2005. Now, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines are witnessing a revival of Islamic extremism via the spread of ISIS.

Lee Kuan Yew got this one totally right. Saudi Arabia has been one of the most pernicious forces for evil in the world over the past several decades. But as Saudi Arabia has all that oil, occupies a strategic position in a part of the world vital to the world economy, and is a relatively stable (for now) state in a region going to hell in a handbasket, there is unfortunately almost nothing that can be done to counter the malevolent strain of Islam that it has been aggressively exporting.

As for the Islamic presence in Singapore—where religious tolerance is an ironclad rule, as is moderation in religious practice—here are some photos I took

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In Chinatown.

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Muhammet, tailor, South Bridge Road. He wants you to know where he stands on the question of secularism back in the home country.

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The Malay quarter.

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Bussorah Street, behind the Sultan Mosque.

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It’s ‘malam nisfu sya’aban’—the Night of Mid-Sha’ban—so hundreds of worshipers have come to the Sultan Mosque.

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I’ve lived in Muslim majority countries for some eight years of my life and have never seen such a sight, of so many women in colorful hijabs (not a single niqab) praying outside a mosque. Traditional Islam in Southeast Asia is the not the same as in the Middle East-North Africa.

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In Little India.

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To read, click on image and enlarge.

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This is the Kampung Kling Mosque in Malacca (Melaka), Malaysia, 235 km northwest of Singapore.

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Talk about a syncretic architectural style…

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An amazing mosque. I’ve never seen one like it.

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The mere sight of this mosque would give ISIS a collective heart attack. They’d definitely blow it up if they could.

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While I’m at it, this is the Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur (City Centre). Its design and construction were supervised by the British.

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The National Mosque, on the edge of the KL City Centre. Built in 1965.

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You can get a few thousand worshipers into this mosque.

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Architecturally speaking, it’s rather less interesting than the ones above.

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Moi.

UPDATE: Longtime Harvard professor Graham Allison has a piece in The Atlantic (March 30th) worth pondering on “The Lee Kuan Yew Conundrum.” The lede: “Singapore’s late leader governed undemocratically but effectively. Which raises a question: What is the ultimate purpose of government?”

On America and guns

sandy hook never forget

[update below]

Vox.com has a great, funny, must-watch 16-minute video of a stand-up act by an “Australian comedian [who] perfectly sums up why other countries think US gun laws are crazy.” The comedian is Jim Jefferies, whose act here was in Washington last summer. He completely, totally nails the absurdity of the arguments of the gun lobby and its supporters. Watch the YouTube and enjoy.

And ICYMI, here is Rachel Maddow last week on a “[p]owerful anti-gun ad [that] panics gun rights groups.” The lede

Rachel Maddow reports on an anti-gun publicity stunt that is so powerful in making its point that gun rights groups are freaking out, voicing their objections and attacking States United to Prevent Gun Violence any way they can.

Great stunt. SUPGV is an NGO that merits all the support it can get.

UPDATE: Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, has a piece in The Atlantic—in which he bends over backward to be polite to the gun lobby and considerate of its arguments—on “How gun rights harm the rule of law.” I wager that NRA members will reject whatever Professor DeBrabander has to say—if they even bother to read him—for the simple fact that he’s a college professor of philosophy (and writing in some librul publication they’ve never heard of…). Pour l’info, DeBrabander has a book coming out in May entitled Do Guns Make Us Free? Democracy and the Armed Society. (April 1st)

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.

Elections-departementales-2015

Two comments on yesterday’s election, which I had not intended to write about at this point but, in view of its manifest political importance, merits comment. First, this type of election, for departmental councils (conseils départementaux)—as the conseils généraux will be called from next month onward—is the least interesting and least paid-attention-to election in the French political system. Until now it was called an élection cantonale—a canton being a single-member constituency (elected in two rounds) for a departmental conseil général—and which hardly anyone not a farmer or living in a small town could care less about (as for the council’s powers, they’re not extensive; akin to county boards in the US). If one were to ask a representative sample of people in any urban area in France—and probably in smaller towns as well—who their conseiller général is, I guarantee that the vast majority would have no clue. So this has inevitably been the election with the lowest turnout rate. Moreover, the conseils généraux for the 96 departments of metropolitan France—minus Paris, whose municipal council is also a conseil général—were elected in halves, thus lessening the national impact of the vote. But President Hollande and his Socialists, in their (half-baked) scheme to redraw the administrative map of France—and ultimately abolish departments altogether, which will likely never happen—decided to change the system, to create gender parity in the new conseils départementaux, mandating “binôme” male-female tickets in each canton, thereby cutting in half the number of cantons, from 4,035 to 2,054. Moreover, the new law decreed that all the new conseils départementaux would be elected in one shot this year, making this the first-ever truly national election (minus Paris, the Lyon metro area, and DOM-TOM) of this type.

Lovely scheme of the Socialists—who can be against gender parity in a legislative body?—but which was guaranteed to be highly prejudicial to them in this election, as the new binôme enabled the UMP and UDI to establish tickets in most cantons, whereas there was no way the left—in view of its fragmentation, dixit Art Goldhammer—could possibly do the same. With a few exceptions (e.g. in the Île-de-France) electoral pacts between the PS and Front de Gauche have become nigh impossible (and with the infantile EELV going its own way). So it was a certainty that the UMP was going to come out on top in this election—and over and above the current political conjuncture—and with the PS taking a drubbing.

Second, the Front National vote, at 25% nationally, is quite simply amazing—and preoccupying, to put it mildly—and all the more so in view of the 50% participation rate, which is considerably higher than anyone expected (I thought it would be 40% max). The FN has never been competitive—or even tried to compete seriously—in this type of local election. La politique de proximité has not been the FN’s thing. But everything has changed with Marine Le Pen, whose party presented binôme tickets in 93% of the 2,000-odd cantons. But, as the FN doesn’t have a dense network at the local level in the vast majority of France’s 36,000+ communes, it recruited n’importe qui to be candidates, i.e. anyone it could, including one’s next door neighbor (e.g. go here and scroll). And it manifestly worked; or, rather, no one cared who the FN candidates were when putting the ballot in the envelope. For the anecdote, I was an assesseur titulaire yesterday (for the PS ticket) in my banlieue, in a polling station encompassing the one cité in my otherwise middle class/bourgeois, right-wing commune—one of the most so in the Île-de-France—and that has voted more to the left than any of the other 53-odd bureaux de vote in town. There were six tickets in the canton: UMP, UMP dissident, PS, FG, EELV, and FN. Taking them together, at least one of the binômes and their alternates are known personalities to those who follow local politics. Except for the FN. The FN has practically no presence in my town (which is sufficiently right-wing, so who needs them?). In the 15+ years I’ve been living here, I have never, not once, seen FN people leafleting in the marchés during election time or doing anything at all. And the head of the FN ticket, named Antoun Elkik (he goes by Antoine in his daily life)—a Franco-Lebanese architect by profession, who lives in an upscale part of town—is a rank unknown among local political activists. The politicos I spent yesterday with—both left and right—knew nothing about him, and despite insulting tweets he lobbed at Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (since deleted from his Twitter account, which has all of 21 followers). But his ticket nonetheless finished in first place in the polling station I helped run, with 22% of the vote (participation rate was 36%). Du jamais vu. I tried to imagine which voters who passed in front of me—whose IDs I checked—voted for the FN ticket. The bureau de vote is certainly the most ethnically diverse in town, with Algerians, Moroccans, Africans (Ivorians, Senegalese, Malians, Congolese, Comorians…), Sri Lankan Tamils (recently naturalized, with their over 18-year-old children, performing their civic duty), Portuguese, and regular French, most petits blancs and retirees on small pensions. One can’t know for sure but I have little doubt it was the latter who slid that FN ballot into the envelope, though am also quite sure not a single one had ever heard of Antoun Elkik or could care less (the FN ticket finished fourth in the canton with 14.6%).

More on all this after next Sunday’s 2nd round.

Projections dimanche 20h00 : 4 chaînes, 4 résultats différents  (Le Lab Politique-Europe 1)

Projections dimanche 20h00 : 4 chaînes, 4 résultats différents
(Le Lab Politique-Europe 1)

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Bibi’s triumph

Zionist Union supporters react to exit poll figures outside party HQ  Tel Aviv, March 17th (photo credit: AFP/Thomas Coex)

Zionist Union supporters react to exit poll figures outside party HQ
Tel Aviv, March 17th (photo credit: AFP/Thomas Coex)

[update below]

Bummer, that’s all I can say. Like everyone else (whom I know at least, minus a few) I was crossing my fingers that the branleur would lose. Not that a squishy, unstable, centrist Isaac Herzog-Tzipi Livni-led coalition would be any great shakes. But as Benjamin Netanyahu is, along with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the worst leader in the world of a country that can legitimately call itself a democracy (though for how much longer in Turkey?), the alternative was less important than just getting him out of there. Hélas. Bibi, like Erdoğan—and Vladimir Putin—will be in power for however long he wants to be. The Israeli electorate, like the Turkish, is structurally on the right. Bibi (or Erdoğan) won’t be defeated in the next election, or the one after that. Which means that we’ll have to live with the branleur for years to come.

Trying to look at the not dark side of things, Moriel Rothman-Zecher—who identifies himself as an “American-Israeli writer, activist, refusenik and poet”—has a post on his The Leftern Wall: Leftist Politics, Poetry, Prattle and Praxis from Israel-Palestine blog, in which he offers, “before we all sink into despair [after the Israeli elections,]…5 thoughts on hope.” One of these is the achievement of the Arab Joint List, with its 14 seats and status as the third largest group in the Knesset. This is amazing when you think about it. Avigdor Lieberman wanted to eliminate the Arab parties entirely and he got the exact opposite. The Israeli Palestinians—whose turnout numbers dramatically increased—will have a voice in the Knesset such that they’ve never had before. If the next Israeli government tries to reintroduce the nationhood bill—which is unlikely, I would think—the firestorm will be that much greater. And its chances of passage lessened that much more.

Another achievement of the Joint List—quoting from Times of Israel reporter Elhanan Miller—is that while it will be

limited in its ability to affect Israeli policy, [it] has nevertheless managed to heal deep rifts within Israeli Arab society, [Jack] Khoury [a political analyst for Nazareth-based A-Shams radio and Haaretz] opined. “The List has calmed things down for Arabs,” he said. “Significant fissures emerged following the municipal elections [in 2013] … but they didn’t affect this election campaign. [An Islamist candidate] like Masoud Ghanaeim could never deliver a speech at a Christian neighborhood in Nazareth on the eve of elections, nor could [secular socialist candidate] Aida Toma Sliman address women in Islamist communities in the Triangle, were it not for the Joint List.”

Merci, Monsieur Lieberman.

A second thought by blogger Rothman-Zecher is the observation that the overall vote of the right did not, in fact, increase significantly. Likud’s 30 seats came mainly at the expense of other right-wing and religious parties, notably those of Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, who, as we know, lost ground. This point has been made by others, e.g. University of Wisconsin political science prof Nadav Shelef in a post on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog, “Why Netanyahu’s win isn’t that dramatic.” The ups and downs for lists mainly reflected movements within blocs, and with the center-left and Arabs in fact making modest gains.

Mais bon, Bibi and the right will still be in power. But what, concretely, will change? So Bibi has ruled out the two-state solution. But does anyone seriously think he would ever agree to one if push came to shove? The fact is, a final status agreement formally creating a Palestinian state is out of reach for the foreseeable future, as I’ve insisted elsewhere. The two sides are too far apart; even if Herzog-Livni had won a decisive victory they would not be capable of concluding a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. The best that can possibly be hoped for right now is a long-term interim agreement, which would, entre autres, freeze settlement construction (with perhaps exceptions for specific settlement blocs). Bibi is probably as capable of negotiating this as anyone else, particularly given his strengthened position vis-à-vis his eventual right-wing partners.

Not that he’s likely to do so. Knowing the branleur, it’s probably only a matter of time before he announces some new housing project in East Jerusalem—including E1—or Area C. So what will be the US reaction when the resolution condemning the Israeli action comes before the UNSC? Will the US veto or abstain? Obama will do the latter, I guarantee it. He’ll tell Bibi ”make my day.” And the Congressional Republicans too.

ADDENDUM: While I’m at it, I want to recommend this must-read review essay by David Shulman in the November 20th 2014 NYRB, “Gaza: The Murderous Melodrama.” If you want to read something that will stoke your indignation over Israeli policy toward Gaza since ’67, this is it.

UPDATE: Mitchell Plitnick of the Foundation for Middle East Peace has a blog post on his “Takeaways from Israel’s election,” which focuses mainly on the impact Bibi’s triumph will have on the United States. If Bibi does not walk back his rejection of a two-state solution, there are sure to be consequences in the attitude of both the Democratic party and liberal American Jews toward Israel.

The flag-waving Greek left

www.neakriti.gr page=newsdetail&DocID=1208125

[update below] [2nd update below]

That’s the title of an article (here)—dated Feb. 9th but that I just got around to reading—by Christopher Caldwell, reporting from Athens, in the right-wing TWS. The lede: “A collision between national sovereignty and the European Union in the birthplace of democracy.” Caldwell, who is not on the left, loin s’en faut, is surprisingly sympathetic to SYRIZA. Or perhaps not so surprisingly in view of his euroscepticism, which he wears on his sleeve whenever writing about the European Union. But whether one is a eurosceptic or not—and I am not—Caldwell’s piece is smart, interesting, and worth the read.

Libération’s Brussels correspondent Jean Quatremer, who is definitely not a eurosceptic, has a must-read, blow-by-blow account (March 12th) of what happened behind the scenes during the negotiations between the new Greek government and the leaders of the Eurozone, “Grèce vs Eurozone: histoire secrète d’un bras de fer.”

A reader has brought to my attention a post (dated Feb. 25th) on the leftist Analyze Greece! website by three academic political economists—Spyros Lapatsioras, John Milios, and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos, all SYRIZA members—who argue that “SYRIZA’s only choice [is] a radical step forward.”

And if one hasn’t seen it by now, the latest issue of Paris Match has a photo spread—that has been the rage on Twitter the past couple of days—of Yanis Varoufakis and his wife Danae Stratou—an internationally known installation artist—at their well-appointed Athens pad. La belle vie. Monsieur Varoufakis se pipolise, semble-t-il. If Yanis & Danae ever invite me over for lunch on their terrace, I certainly won’t decline…

UPDATE: Manos Matsaganis, Associate Professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business, has an absolute must-read piece (dated March 14th; h/t Stathis Kalyvas) on the OpenDemocracy website, “The trouble with SYRIZA.” The lede: “Despite being ‘a man of the Left’, and despite being hugely critical of the parties that ruled the country since 1974, there are several things about the rise of SYRIZA that absolutely terrify me.” This passage is particularly notable

Summing up, to a great extent SYRIZA is a mutant Left: unfamiliar to western eyes (and hence poorly understood by many western observers), but all too terrifyingly familiar to those living in that unhappy corner of the world otherwise known as ‘the Balkans’. To stretch an analogy, the nationalistic left ruling Greece today is in many respects far more akin to the ethno-bolshevism of Slobodan Milošević than to Spain’s Podemos

In his piece, Matsaganis links to a 77-page report he co-authored with Aristos Doxiadis in 2012 on the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, “National populism and xenophobia in Greece.” In the report, which was published by Counterpoint, the authors “argue that Golden Dawn is in many ways a manifestation of a world view that is widely shared in Greece, albeit at its most violent extreme.”

2nd UPDATE: Guillaume Duval, editor-in-chief of the excellent Alternatives Economiques, has a piece in L’Humanité (March 12th) in which he asserts that “L’inaction des gauches au pouvoir pèse sur les difficultés de Syriza.”

Le reportage de "Paris Match" sur Yanis Varoufakis.

Selma

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

As today is the 50th anniversary of Selma, Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday,” I suppose this is a good day to have a post on the movie, which I saw in the US on precisely January 9th (and which opens in France next Wednesday). Like just about everyone, I thought it was a well done, well acted, even riveting film about this momentous moment in the civil rights movement, and with the climate in the South of the time—of the apartheid/terrorist order under which black Americans lived—impeccably depicted, as were the details of the period. And it was nice to finally see a biopic (of sorts) of Martin Luther King Jr., who, one need not be reminded, was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. On this score, David Oyelowo was well cast as MLK, as was Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (both merited at least Oscar nominations, which they didn’t receive). The casting was indeed pitch perfect all around, particularly Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as George Wallace.

I have no specific memory of the Selma march—I was nine at the time—but the civil rights movement is a part of my family history. I participated in my first civil rights march in the fall of 1964—with my parents obviously—in downtown Milwaukee WI. I have one memory of it—like a photograph (as youthful memories can be)—and specifically being told by my parents that if people aggressed us or threw things, not to react. I remember the week my father went to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to give a talk or maybe teach a class, in the fall of 1967, of what a big deal it was and awaiting his daily letters. And I won’t recount the atmosphere at home when MLK was assassinated on April 4th ’68. So, like I said, the story recounted in ‘Selma’ resonates personally with me.

This said, the film, while good and a must-see, is not without problems. As every minimally informed person is aware by now, director Ava DuVernay’s treatment of President Lyndon Johnson and his role at the time has been vehemently contested, notably by Joseph Califano Jr., who blew his fuses at the film’s depiction of LBJ’s reticence over moving forward on the Voting Rights Act. DuVernay defended herself but the polemic over her portrayal of LBJ’s role has pretty clearly resolved that she gave LBJ a bum rap—and not only over his alleged foot-dragging on the Voting Rights Act but also in the suggestion that LBJ knew about, and even authorized, J. Edgar Hoover’s dirty campaign against MLK.

For more on this, see novelist Darryl Pinckney’s review of the film in the February 19th issue of the NYRB, “Some different ways of looking at Selma” (and the responses to it).

Another point of contention is how the film “airbrushes out Jewish contributions to [the] civil rights [movement],” as this critique by Leida Snow in the Jewish Daily Forward postulates. In this vein, an op-ed in the JTA by Dartmouth College Jewish Studies prof Susannah Heschel explains “What Selma means to the Jews.” But as Jews are always arguing and disagreeing with one another, JDF blogger Katie Rosenblatt had a riposte to Snow’s critique, asserting that “‘Selma’ got it right by leaving out Jews.”

One critique of the film—and not an insignificant one—is that it “ignores the radical grassroots politics of the civil rights movement,” as Princeton grad student Jesse McCarthy argued in TNR. On this score, the most consequential salvo has been fired, not surprisingly, by University of Pennsylvania political science prof Adolph Reed Jr., “The real problem with Selma: It doesn’t help us understand the civil rights movement, the regime it challenged, or even the significance of the Voting Rights Act.” I say “not surprisingly,” as Reed’s academic/intellectual trademark is launching broadsides against movies, books, persons, etc, on the subject of Afro-Americans—of which he’s a leading specialist—broadsides that are always insightful and smart, albeit overly long, when not long-winded (e.g. see his barrage two years ago against Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained). In his critique here (19 pages printed out), Reed takes issue with the film’s “King idolatry,” asserting, entre autres, that there was a whole array of prominent actors in the civil rights movement of the time, some of whom are seen in the film but not accorded their due. The core of Reed’s argument, however, is on the centrality of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the history that led up to this. For the civil rights movement, this was IT (the early scene in the movie of the Oprah Winfrey character trying to register to vote is one of its most powerful). I won’t try to summarize what Reed has to say on this, except that it’s complex, informative, and important (though, as is Reed’s wont, a little long). Definitely worth reading.

To summarize, ‘Selma’ was about one big thing, which was voting rights—and which are under assault today, with the 2013 SCOTUS ruling and the ambiguous posture of the current GOP on the question. As for other current issues concerning black Americans—notably the DOJ’s just released report on Ferguson MO—I’ll come back to this another time.

À propos, journalist Ari Berman—who’s written extensively on civil and voting rights issues—has a piece in The Nation, “Fifty years after Bloody Sunday in Selma, everything and nothing has changed.” The lede: Racism, segregation and inequality persist in this civil-rights battleground.

John Lewis, who was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago today, has given the thumbs up to Ava DuVernay’s film. Also doing so is UT-Austin prof Charlotte M. Canning, who has a piece in TAP on “‘Selma’ and ‘The Birth of a Nation': A tale of two films, 100 years apart.” The lede: A century after D.W. Griffith’s artful abomination, Selma succeeds by telling the true story of everyday people who come together to achieve the improbable.

I’ve never seen ‘The Birth of a Nation’. As this is its centenary and in view of its notoriety—and as it’s available on YouTube—I’ll bite the bullet and watch it. C’est l’histoire de l’Amérique.

UPDATE: That was one helluva speech President Obama gave in Selma yesterday (watch here). (March 8th)

2nd UPDATE: The Über-conservative National Review has a commentary, by staff writer Charles C.W. Cooke (who’s British), deploring “The GOP’s conspicuous absence from Selma.” C’est bien.

3rd UPDATE: The other day I attended a round table featuring Sciences Po prof and américainiste Sylvie Laurent, who discussed her latest book, Martin Luther King: Une biographie intellectuelle et politique. As Mme Laurent is one of France’s leading academic specialists of the US civil rights movement—and her biography of MLK looks first rate—I asked her what she thought of the movie ‘Selma’. Her response: It’s a very good film, portrays the events of the time as they were, and with the depiction of LBJ’s disputes with MLK over the Voting Rights Act largely accurate, i.e. she disagrees with the POV of Joseph Califano & Co. Dont acte. (March 21st)

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