Sunday, January 31, 2010


The Thief seems to have left the Joker alone on this blog for a while and so the conversation has turned in to a monologue. Of course, the Thief has a large family, many obligations and a very demanding job, while the Joker has it easier. But monologues are boring.... and so the Joker thinks he may as well have a blog of his own.

Therefore, this has to be the END of Joker-to-the-Thief, after 5 years of duty but the quest for the light at the end of the tunnel continues on a new blog.

Thanks to our faithful reader and so long to y'all.


Friday, January 08, 2010

What Makes (some) Americans Buy the Eurabia Myth.

While in France, the debate over the ban of the burqa is raging, it seems that some American conservatives have their own obsession with Islam in Europe, and it’s not pretty.
During his holidays in France, conservative political scientist Charles Alan Murray was in Paris and this is what he reported :

I collected data as I walked along, counting people who looked like native French (which probably added in a few Brits and other Europeans) versus everyone else. I can’t vouch for the representativeness of the sample, but at about eight o’clock last night in the St. Denis area of Paris, it worked out to about 50-50, with the non-native French half consisting, in order of proportion, of African blacks, Middle-Eastern types, and East Asians. And on December 22, I don’t think a lot of them were tourists. Mark Steyn and Christopher Caldwell have already explained this to the rest of the world—Europe as we have known it is about to disappear—but it was still a shock to see how rapid the change has been in just the last half-dozen years. (here)

Of course, Murray did not bother to tell you that the St Denis area of Paris is well known for its immigrant population. It’s a bit as if you went to South L.A. and concluded that the American population was mostly made up of latinos and blacks.
The fear of a rising Eurabia is nothing new of course, especially since 9/11 and we have indeed posted on this topic in the past, and so we are not yet again going to go on about why this is simply a myth.
I would like to focus more this time on the racist aspect of the whole theory because it shows very clearly in what Murray says. By using the euphemism “people who looked like native French.”, he of course means “white people” as opposed to those with brown skin. Sure, Murray is just a racist moron, but unfortunately the Eurabia myth seems to be very popular in some conservative circles United-States including its racist undertone.
The question is why is this theory so popular in the United-States. It is not like Europe does not have its share of racist morons. French historian Justine Vaisse wrote in Foreign Policy that “despite their Europe-focused content, these books are a largely North American phenomenon”, and I agree with him.
His theory is that those books…
“offer a variation on the conservative Cold War vision of Europe as vulnerable to the spread of communism -- only now, Muslims have replaced Soviets and Euro-communists as the enemies. The continuity in clichés with the Europhobic literature of the 1970s and 1980s is striking: In both periods Europe is described with terms like appeasing, impotent, asexual, feminine, post-nationalistic, irreligious, apologetic, self-loathing, naive, decadent, and so forth.”.
The parallel is thought-provoking, and certainly worth exploring.


Monday, December 21, 2009

The Orwellian World of Laura Ingraham.

"I'm saying with great respect closing with this :

First they came for the rich,
And I did not speak out because I was not rich.
Then they came for the property owners,
And I did not speak out because I did not own property.
Then they came for the right to bear arms,
and I did not speak out because I was not armed.
Then they came for me and denied me my medical care, and there was no one left to speak for me…

If you think there’s something wrong with this poem, that's because…. there is.

The original version is as followed:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I
did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

… and it is about the apathy of German intellectuals following the round up of targeted people in Nazi Germany.

The new version comes from Laura Ingraham [radio host and Foxnews star] during a Tea Party gathering in Washington DC this week.
[Tea parties, for those of you who might not have been in the US for the last year, are gatherings of conservatives who protest against possible future tax increases or healthcare reform.]
And yes, you read it right, Ingraham compared the healthcare reform and raising the marginal tax rate to…. the Holocaust! As Jon Stewart pointed out, she didn’t have to say ‘with great respect’, it is… implied!
And it wasn’t just a few fringe demonstrators at this tea party, there were elected officials too, like former House majority leader Dick Armey, or Republican senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia or Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann. (CBS)

Of course, the Hitler comparison is nothing new and should not be a surprise. Hitler is the epitome of the villainous monster and the perfect boogeyman who gives people a simplified binary view of life down to good v. evil, and allows them to overlook the differences in the present situation.
It is called Reductio ad Hitlerum, a term first used by Leo Strauss as early as 1953. Reductio ad Hitlerum has been used ever since the very end of WWIIar. It has also been used in American political discourse for a long time: during the Gulf Crisis in 1990, or in the war in Kosovo in 1999 to name just a few examples. However irrelevant the parallel was, it usually meant that the ‘enemy’ (in war) was compared to Hitler and it was used in the context of genocide and tyranny.

But there have been variations of the Hitler metaphor like when in the 1990s, the pro-life movement (Operation Rescue) started comparing abortion to the Holocaust. Little by little the semantics started to shift towards the domestic sphere. Other Americans become the Nazis.
Of course, you always had some extremists who compared US presidents to Hitler, but they were seen as lunatics on the fringe.

Things probably started to change even more under George W. Bush, mostly because of Gitmo, the disregard of his administration for the rule of law and for international institutions, and the use of torture which seemed to make the comparison to the Nazi more relevant for some people. As in any other instance, the Hitler/Nazi metaphor was ludicrous there as well of course.

Meanwhile, as the use of the internet became more widespread so did populist forms of hate speech. Of course, on the Internet, anything goes. In fact, that may be the most important reason why the Hitler comparison has become so widely used in the last decade as we have grown accustomed to online extreme rhetoric and it has seemed to become more acceptable. In fact, it has been observed that
"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches”.
This is called Godwin’s Law. Although it originally referred to Usenet newsgroup discussions, it has gained relevance for other online communication: electronic mailing lists, message boards, chat rooms, blog comment threads, wiki talk pages, or social networking sites.

On top of that, the influence of Fox News, right-wing radios and the Christian far-right within the Republican Party, along with Lyndon La Rouche has increased the acceptability of extreme rhetoric in the regular media and for politicians. In the meantime, the more moderate elements of the Republican Party have been sidelined, leaving room to extremes. (see our posts)

Finally, the election of Obama unleashed the fury of those on the far-right who, as Jon Stewart put it, are confusing tyranny with losing elections to the point that it has become okay to make all sorts of comparisons between totalitarian regimes and the Obama administration, including the Hitler or the Stalin metaphor, and who cares about historical accuracy!

So here we go now in this Orwellian world in which someone like Laura Ingraham can get away with actually changing the meaning of words, turning the rich into the oppressed, the gun owners into victims, and healthcare reform or raising the marginal tax rate into Nazi oppression.
Thank God for Jon Stewart for making it look all so ridiculous that it actually becomes less scary, and for reassuring us that he’ll be there no matter what:
"If the government begins to round up and kill the rich and the landowning and those who choose to exercise the right to bear arms...I'll speak up.".


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tiger Woods in Puritan America?

The Europeans often criticize the Americans for their Puritanism. They find it hard to understand why for instance American politicians have to repent of their sins in public whenever they are caught cheating or lying.
That’s partly because the line between private and public is generally much more blurry in the U.S. than in Europe. That’s also because politics in America is as much about values as it is about ideas. Politicians are expected to live according to the values they claim to support and to show respect for their office.

A good case in point is that of Mark Sanford the staunch conservative governor of South Carolina who not only cheated on his wife after declaring Clinton's behavior to be "reprehensible" and voting for his impeachment, but also used public money for expenses with his mistress.
As for Bill Clinton, most Europeans did not get that it was the lying in a deposition as much as his cheating in the White House that shocked the Americans. As the nation's highest elected official the president in America is not just a politician, he embodies the nation. The French tend to think that the president is a man like any other and the separation between public and private is enforced by one of the toughest libel laws in Europe. (and Sarkozy’s public display of his private life has damaged his popularity in France).
Still, there is no doubt that in America, morals play a more crucial role in politics than it does in Europe.

What is much harder to understand is why someone who is neither a public official nor a high-minded preacher should be expected to make his private life public? After all, Tiger Woods did not win his fame for being a moral champion but a golf champion. He has broken no law, has done no physical harm and has never said anything scandalous in public. Yet, he was forced into making a public confession. His statement is extremely well worded:

I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. ... Although I am a well-known person and have made my career as a professional athlete, I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means. For the last week my family and I have been hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives. ... Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions. (Tiger Woods' Website)

Public repentance of one’s sins is most certainly a feature of American life that is unique and set the US apart from the rest of the Western world. This of course is often blamed on the Puritans. But puritan New England was a different society. The family was the basic unit of society and in a world without police; everyone was expected to supervise each other. The word ‘puritan’ in Europe only has negative connotations, but the puritans were not only self-righteous, they were also hard-working and egalitarian.
Unlike today’s America, they would have never turned a mere mortal into a god. Tiger Woods has been made a secular god and he is now a fallen idol. And what lies behind such worship is not the desire for morals but greed and the love of money thanks to a multi-million dollar system of contracts and commercial deals with “morality clauses”, the 24-hour news-and-entertainment media , the tabloids that have an appetite for sex scandal and finally the people who buy and watch them.
Tiger Woods is probably the greatest golfers of all time and we can revere him for that (as well for breaking another racial barrier) but as for the rest, it is his own business and he should not be expected perfection. As far as I can see, he has behaved in a dignified manner and simply refused to play the role expected of him.

It is about time that people should stop making moral judgment on people they have never met, and Americans should stop enjoying the sick pleasure of the public humiliation and torment of others.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Healthcare International Comparison.

I will spare you the commentary - the following OECD figures really speak for themselves :

(Source : The Economist)


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Immigration, Islam and Minarets.

The following figures are somewhat interesting, given that all the countries in this comparison have similar numbers of immigrants (roughly about 10%).

(from The Economist)

It is interesting to note that once again perception matters more than reality :

Roughly 10% of peope in Britain are imigrants; the average Briton believed the
figure to be 27%.

It is too bad Switzerland was not part of the poll, given their recent vote for the ban on building Minarets, it would be interesting to analyze their views (although polls did not predict the vote).

The Minaret question is linked to the immigration in Europe. It has been the center of discussion in the rest of Europe this week, fueled by far right-wing parties.

However, it does not seem to catch on in France. As for the United-States, I have seen a few more or less large mosques with Minarets in large cities but I don't think that they have ever caused controversy. (although the number of Muslims in the U.S. is smaller, compared to the population and also of different socio-economic background than in Western europe)

It must also be noted that there is already about a dozen Minarets in France, compared to four in Switzerland. The oldest one was built in Paris in 1922 with the Great Mosque of Paris "as a sign of France's gratefulness to the Muslim tirailleurs from the colonies who fought against Germany" during WWI. No Minaret in Europe is used for the prayer call, they have no purpose other than architectural. (interestingly and somewhat paradoxially the first Minarets were originally inspired by Christian churches)

Islamic Center of America, Dearborn, Michigan.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Popularity Vs. Quality.

Is the notion that most popular forms of entertainment (best seller books, blockbuster movies, music hits) tend to be low in quality is just an elitist idea, or if there is some truth to it?

Well, it would make sense if you think that the ability to assess the quality of something requires exposure to it.

In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, in 1963, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.)
A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it. (The Economist)

So whether it is an elitist idea, one should not necessarily dismiss it. It is true of food, wine and ‘high culture’ as well.


When More Choice means... Less Choice.

Obviously the Internet has changed the world of entertainment (often referred to as ‘culture’ in French), in ways that are still hard to assess. The Economist has a lengthy report this week on the future of entertainment. Their analysis, based on figures and studies, can be summed up in the following paradox: the more choice you have, the less choice you make.

Blockbusters are doing well not in spite of the fact that people have more choice in entertainment, but because of it. Imagine walking into a music shop containing 4m songs (the number available on We7, a free music-streaming service in Britain) or more than 10m (the choice on iTunes), all of them arranged alphabetically in plain boxes. The choice would be overwhelming. It is far easier to grab the thing everybody is talking about or that you heard on the radio that morning.

Hence the increasing importance of the social dimension when buying entertainment products. I found it quite relevant. If you are like me, you may have also felt overwhelmed by the number of products now available, even to the point of freezing. Too many alternatives are impossible to process of course, you will go more easily towards the product you have heard of.

As a result, it seems that even though people have more choice they do not necessarily opt for more obscure entertainments. Of course, the internet has vastly increased the supply of niche media but, according to The Economist, it has also increased the supply of blockbusters.

The unfortunate result is that sales become more concentrated, be they in movies, books, music or newspapers. As for the less popular products, they will inevitably be more expensive (as it is on television with for example HBO).


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Lessons to Learn from Irak.

The war in Afghanistan has been the subject of many articles, posts and editorials lately but very few seem to see that there are lessons to learn from the war in Iraq.
One aspect hardly ever mentioned is the failure of relationship between the American military and its allies. In fact, it has gone so sour in Iraq that even the British have become vocally critical of the U.S. leadership. What is particularly pointing about the following comment is not only that it underlines the hubris of the US command but also that it underlines a more important problem - the divide between how the Europeans and the Americans handle conflicts.

According to the British chief of staff in Iraq, Colonel J.K.Tanner:

“We experienced real difficulty in dealing with American military and civilian organisations who, partly through arrogance and partly through bureaucracy, dictate that there is only one way: the American way.
“I now realise that I am a European, not an American. We managed to get on better…with our European partners and at times with the Arabs than with the Americans. Europeans chat to each other, whereas dialogue is alien to the US military… dealing with them corporately is akin to dealing with a group of Martians."
“If it isn’t on the PowerPoint slide, then it doesn’t happen.”
(The Telegraph)

War is certainly the greatest test of friendship between allied countries, and it seems that the so-called « Special Relationship » between the UK and the U.S. has failed the test of the war in Iraq. (I personally think it has been a myth for many years, and so it is about time that Brits finally acknowledge it.)
More importantly there is a useful lesson to learn for the war in Afghanistan whose success may precisely depend even more on cohesion and communication. If president Obama wants more troops from his allies, he needs to set clear goals and strategy not to them but with them. It is the only way European leaders, including the British and the Feench, can justify sending more troops to their public opinion.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Opposite of Competition in Europe and the U.S.

Last week, Charlemagne, The Economist’s weekly column, had a good wrap-up of one major differences between continental Europeans and Anglo-Saxons:

If you play word association, it turns out that for many in a Parisian classroom, the polar opposite of “competition” is “solidarity”: i.e. the useful rigor imposed by competition is overshadowed by the pain caused as society divides into winners and losers. For Anglo-Saxon liberals, the instinctive opposite of “competition” is “monopoly”: i.e. the pain of competition is justified by a quest for fairness, even before getting to arguments about efficiency and companies’ long-term fitness.

In Paris the idea that a free-market liberal may believe he is defending a moral position (rather than a necessary evil) often causes surprise. In parallel, it is salutary to be reminded that the other side has a point too. The open borders written into the
EU can be both positive and painful, as globalisation produces losers as well as winners.
As the object of this blog is to try to build bridges between the United-States and France, this is not only relevant but also deserves pause for thought. If we consider that we are all products of our environment, I would be tempted to see (partly at least) a historical explanation to this divide between our views of economics.

For centuries, wars, revolutions and plagues ravaged the European continent and the impact on civilians only worsened with modern times to reach the climaxes of World War I and World War II and both wars changed Europe more than anything else since the Great Plagues in the 13th century.
One might argue that the notion of "solidarity" started to gain popularity during the enlightment and gained momentum with the French Revolution. Others might think the French Commune was also a major change, but I would argue that it took the impact of two world wars to build the consensus over the notion of solidarity.
In other words, the only way to survive and reconstruct a society that has been near annihilation is to get people to unite not only at a local level, but even at a state level – hence the need for welfare and government intervention. Contrary to the late 19th century, it became a national consensus in many European countries – and especially in France. The greater the destruction, the more national ‘solidarity’ was needed. (Americans may have had a sense of what that means when they think of the aftermath of Katrina). This also explains why the British turned toward a more socialistic policy (with a wave of nationalizations) in the wake of WWII, even though this world view is less engrained in their mindset, in part because destructions, wars and revolutions have not been part of their recent history to the level of continental Europe. This is why Europe has been built around the core idea of peace, security and prosperity. This is also why security (including economic security) is more relevant to the Europeans.

Now of course, there are many other historical factors to explain this quasi obsession with ‘solidarity’ – class antagonism, or the political role of the church (in France for instance), but it seems to me that the drift between Europe and the U.S. has been even greater in the aftermath of WWII. This, you might add, is an old story. After all, it’s been over 60 years now.
True, but the trauma of destruction lingers on and is passed on to the next generations. It also shaped a society and has turned the values of solidarity into mythical proportions (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité say the French). This, by the way, also explains why the Europeans are so keen on using diplomacy to the last resort and war as the last possible option – the trauma of war is greater in Europe, even at a subconscious level. (Many Americans often forget how the scars of World Wars are visible in every single village in continental Europe).

Imagine 9/11 or Katrina and multiply it to the point that everyone in the nation is personally affected and you can be sure if would change the values of the American people for decades. After all, the 1930s economic crisis almost turned the U.S. into a near-socialistic government.

This is not to say that Europe knows better. There can’t be value judgment in this, and no one is right or wrong. But it would help bridge the gap between us if Europeans and Americans realized that their world views are shaped by their history and that they are products of their own environment and history which they cannot escape and that there is precisely no value judgment to be made.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Getting Cosy with Sarkozy - on the Simpsons.

Nicolas Sarkozy et Carla Bruni dans les Simpson !
envoyé par lemondededemainTV. - L'actualité du moment en vidéo.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jon Stewart - Priceless

Last night's Daily Show episode was one of Jon Stewart's finest. How does one man skewer Fox News, Sarah Palin and Lou Dobbs in 40 minutes? The best quote, among many good ones:
"Because experts at Fox News are like winners at the Special Olympics, if you show up, you are one."


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Propaganda.... works.

I always thought that a bit of cynicism was good protection from propaganda and manipulation, but I may have been wrong.
That's at least what seems to indicate a new British study:
Michael Bruter, a senior lecturer in European politics at the school, fed a steady diet of slanted newsletters about Europe and the European Union — either all good news or all bad — to 1,200 citizens of six countries over two years.

Over time, Bruter found, and without exception, the readers subconsciously adopted the bias to varying degrees and changed their view of the EU and of themselves as Europeans, a few of them in the extreme. Surprisingly, they didn't register any change right after the newsletters stopped — not until full six months later, when they had obviously let down their guard.

Bruter calls this the "time bomb" effect of one-sided news. His study paints a blunt picture of how cynicism, far from inoculating citizens to resist political persuasion, merely delays the impact. (Source)

Mmmm... I wonder if fair and balance news could somehow make people "fair and balance" over time.....


Sarkozy, the Rejected Suitor.

This week Nicolas Sarkozy decorated Clint Eastwood with the order of Commander of the Legion of Honour, the highest decoration in France (established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802).Eastwood was actually ‘upgrade’ from ‘knight of the Legion of Honor’ previously given by Jacques Chirac.
Charles Bremmer asks a pointed question :
What is the service that Eastwood has rendered ?
Sarkozy's office says the honour is deserved because Eastwood "is a global star who is very fond of France.".

This is not only strange, it is typical, as Bremmer said, of the lingering love-hate relationship between the U.S. and France.
Sarkozy’s case is different from his predecessors’ though. After he initially threw himself into the arms of the US, he now acts more like a rejected suitor.
He took his first summer holiday as President in New England, not far from the Bushes. He has cooled off in a big way. Obama's refusal to take up his offer of special complicity has been taken as a personal affront by the French President. On Monday, he tore a strip off Obama over his failure to come to Berlin for the Wall celebrations, according to a leak of his remarks in le Canard Enchaîné. [French satirical paper].
"Obama is very disappointing in foreign policy. He doesn't just have difficult relations with me," he was quoted as saying. "It's the same with (Chancellor) Merkel and (Prime Minister) Brown. Europe does not excite him. As for the rest of the world, it's a disappointment too. The language has changed. There has been an opening up. The hand is outstretched but it is grasped by no-one."
A few days earlier Sarkozy launched into an anti-Obama tirade at the weekly cabinet meeting, comparing himself highly favourably with the US president, who, he said, had only managed to produce a single reform so far.(Le Canard is usually quite accurate with its Sarkozy quotes. Ministers read it closely to find out what the boss is
Sarkozy should take this as humbling experience rather than a personal smack, but I am afraid his ego is way too big for him to put it all in perspective. The fact remains that for Obama, Europe is less relevant that it used to be and France better get used to it.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy tried (too) hard this week to “emulate the gesture of reconciliation by the late President Mitterrand when he held hands with Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the Verdun battlefield in 1984”. This seems more like a desperate move after failing to build up a new relationship with Britain. Besides, Angela Merkel may not be so keen on those big shows of unity.
"France looks a little like the rejected lover in this couple de raison," le Monde said on Wednesday..
The fact that Sarkozy is down in the polls makes some grand scheme of unity probably more relevant to refurbish his image. That, and the French identity debate. His behavior, his lack of tact and finesse are quite embarrassing but unfortunately, they are neither new nor unexpected.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Linguistic Offense?

Excellent post on Charles Bremmer’s blog (the correspondent of Times in Paris) on how similar terms in French and English can be deceiving and may even cause offense. It’s something most of those who speak two languages know but it’s always good to be reminded every once in a while:

We have a ripe example of the linguistic minefield between France and Britain today. A French minister [Claude Lellouche, French minister in charge of Europe] has caused offence in Britain by calling the Conservative Party autistic.
[But] words often carry quite different tones on opposite sides of the Channel.
In France in recent years, autism has become a standard term in the political-media vocabulary. It does not shock. Handicap organisations complain about it, but the word has become a routine put-down for someone who seems determined not to listen to your point of view. Trade union leaders use it against the government. Teenagers use it in school yards. In Britain, of course, it is an outrage to use a metaphor that is akin to the old insult spastic.
He used other strong language, saying the plans of David Cameron, the Conservative leader, were 'pathetic' and would 'castrate' Britain in Europe. "They have essentially castrated your UK influence in the European parliament," he said.
Lellouche does not seem to be very sensitive to the strong overtones of these words in English.
Saying that someone's power has been émasculé in French is not as strong as saying that he has been castrated in English. Lellouche has been saying on the radio that he meant pathetic in the French sense of pathéthique -- meaning sad, like Tchaikovsky's symphony. The English sense is lamentable in French. He also said that he had no idea that autistic was offensive in English.

These are among dozens of terms -- like miserable and misérable (destitute in English), seduction and la séduction (the act of charming or winning over) or ...politician versus politicien, which refers to petty politcking. A politician in French is un homme or une femme politique.

The word autistic has stung most in Britain because sensitivity over the condition has put its metaphoric use beyond the pale.

France is less sensitive over using human iimpairment and physique in invective. Crétin is a more acceptable insult in French than English. Things are however changing. An association called Autisme France has been campaigning in recent years to have the media and politicians stop wielding the condition as an insult. "In colloquial French this designates someone in a bit of a bubble, who is a little dreamy," the association said recently.

The threshold of offensiveness is always moving. It is still acceptable in both languages to 'turn a deaf ear' or be 'blind' to something. The British call people dumb now in the American sense of stupid (which came via German). In French it remains acceptable to allude to bodily functions that are unmentionable in English. A senior radio commentator last night dismissed President Chirac's new memoirs as "chiantissime". That would politely be rendered as ultra-boring, but literally and crudely, it means that it provokes extreme excretion. And then there is the matter of race. Anything remotely ethnic cannot be used metaphorically in English. France is not quite there yet. The French for speech-writer or ghost-writer is still un nègre -- a negro.


The Political Allegory of "V"

Good science-fiction is allegorical and often political in nature.
Examples abound – here are two obvious ones: in movies, (The Invasion of Body Snatchers as an allegory for communist infiltration, or more recently Distcrict 9 clearly about Apartheid) or TV (Star Trek and its-anti-Vietnam war message, or The Invaders also about communist infiltration).

The very best of science fiction is not only allegorical; it also deals with myths of our time. The most achieved sci-fi narrative is definitely Battlestar Galactica with its religious and political allegories so extended and well constructed that they become myths.
In 2005, Time said it was “a ripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with religious fundamentalists (here, genocidal robots called Cylons), sleeper cells, civil-liberties crackdowns and even a prisoner-torture scandal”.

BSG has definitely raised the bar so high that it will be hard for any new Sci-Fi to match its quality.
So what type of political allegory would (evil ) aliens pretending to be nice and offer ‘hope’ and ‘change’ be?
This week’s new series “V” is just about that – beautiful aliens showing up on earth and indoctrinating people (especially the youth) into spreading their messages of hope and change, while a group of people who know the truth organize resistance.
As the story progresses, you cannot escape the political allegory for Obama. But the “revelation” comes about 25 minutes into the show when the aliens’ plan for taking lover the world is finally revealed:
Ana, the charismatic leader gives an interview
“The intent goes beyond just healing we want to provide complete medical
services to all.”
“You’re talking about Universal Healthcare?!”.
“I believe that’s what you call it, yes”.
Meanwhile, the group of underground resistance sounds awfully like the tea-baggers.
It worries me that they came when we needed them the most. All they’re really doing is positioning themselves as the saviors of mankind.”, one of them says.

In case, you’re not familiar with Sci-Fi, V (which stands for “Visitors”) is a remake of a 1980s version, except that in the original (cult) series, the political allegory was clearly WWII and Nazi occupation with an anti-fascist message. And the Aliens did not give humanity health-care but the cure of cancer and other diseases. (and from a narrative perspective, what an anti-climax it would for these aliens to simply bring.. universal health care. After all, it is something that some countries (in real life) have already achieved on their own. Sure, it would be for the whole world, but I don’t think I’d be impressed with anything less than the cure of AIDS, Cancer, etc…)

As may be expected, the writer/producer, Scott Peters has denied any political undertone.
But Peters says the show has been in the works since 2007. Reality was "never really a factor," he says. "There's no political message being shoved down anyone's throat." (WP)
Whatever the producer may say, the political undertone is more than obvious which has not escaped far right-wing commentaries :
Fox News personalities Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck have all “endorsed” V as “a critique of ‘Obama-mania.’” The report quotes Hannity as saying: “You know, I think this is one show that I can actually get behind.” (Media Matters)

Here’s what Bill O’Reilly had to say about “V” :

From a purely entertaining perspective, the show is watchable but has a lot of tacky moments (and why, I ask, does the Alien speak French with… an American accent?) and it is probably also due to the fact that the first episode goes too fast and the story is too condensed. They should have had a two hour pilot instead and slowly build in the tension. It will most likely never match BSG.
The best scene in the pilot is probably when Ana, the alien leader gets ready for the interview with a journalist and blackmails him into showing the aliens in a positive light:
"Don't ask any questions that would portray us negatively."
He hesitates but
she says she’ll cancel the interview altogether
"This interview would
elevate your career, wouldn't it, Mr. Decker?"
And he finally gives in to her demand. It’s one of the most well written scenes in the whole episode.

It seems that Scott Peters (The 4400), the man behind the first episodes will be replaced by Scott Rosenbaum, the executive producer of Chuck and one of the writers of the cutting edge show “The Shield”.

As for me, I'll continue to watch "V" just to see how it's going to develop but I much prefer “Flashforward”, probably the most promising new SF series on air right now.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What it means to be French....

What does it mean to be French?

An overwhelming majority of the French believe their language is the greatest symbol of their nation. (in two different polls 80% here and here). This is uniquely French and certainly a major difference with what the Americans (or the British) might answer. (after all, contrary to France, the US has no official national language).
This has also interesting implications. It may for instance explain why the French are so reluctant to learn foreign languages (and particularly English of course).

The Republic came second with 92%. Public services came third with 91%. The Tricolor flag made (surprisingly) 88% and the Laicité (the French version of secularism) came next with 85 percent, followed for 77% by the Marseillaise national anthem.

Why these polls?
Because, in a very typical French fashion, the government has just decreed a debate on French identity. It is supposed to take place in the prefectures and sub- prefectures with the participation of NGOs, teachers, trade unions, elected officials etc…. Just like anything else they have done, it has taken everyone by surprise.
But no one is fool enough to miss the political timing of this initiative which is probably why it has sparked controversy. It is easy to see it as an attempt to divert attention from the recent polemics over Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand's past as a sex tourist in Asia, and over the president’s attempt of nepotism.
Sarkozy has also been accused of trying to woo the far right voters with the coming regional elections in mind, as the debate has come in the midst of the government’s talk to ban the full-body Islamic veil and implement a tougher approach to immigration.
Of course, in France, talks of national identity and national pride smacks Marshal Pétain's days and still is a sensitive issue. Recently, Sarkozy said that Frenchness had been forged by the "singular relationship of the French to the land", and that "All French families have grandparents who at one time or another worked the land.". This link to the land was also a common theme of Pétain (and here) but in today’s France, it is nothing more than a myth. Farmers represent only about 3% of the working population. Worse, this link to the land somewhat excludes all those French born in families of immigrants. (which is kind of ironic since the French president is himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant father with no farming grandparents and thus no connection to the French land or the “terroir”).

This soul-searching debate was initiated by the Minister of Immigration and National Identity Eric Besson. Yes, however strange this may sound, there is a ministry of ‘National Identity’ in France – a novelty even in this country. (Eric Besson, interestingly, used to be a socialist and switched side during the presidential campaign, and helped Sarkozy prep for the presidential debate during the campaign, giving him insight about his opponent, Segolène Rorale and was so he rewarded with this new ministry in the government).

What I find particularly it disturbing is that a debate on French identity should be so intimately linked to the immigration question. Just as disturbing to the left is that it comes from Eric Besson whom they see (rightfully) as a traitor and an opportunist. Divide to conquer is certainly what Sarkozy must have in mind (but division on this question also appears in his own camp).

Besson said he wants every young French citizen to sing the Marseillaise once a year, following a course on the theme of the national hymn. (Personally, I think the lyrics - here in French and here in English - are horribly gory and violent. My suggestion would be to change them, or find another song altogether. Unfortunately, given the recent polls, I’m afraid not many French people would agree with me.).
Forcing kids to sing the national anthem would be nothing more than a useless gimmick. Paradoxically, Besson seems to find the inspiration for this overt form of patriotism in… the American model (including with regard to immigration). He doesn't seem to see that what works in a country may not work in another! That is simply not the way the French do it.
What will come out of this 4 month debate? I think it is a lot of hot air. Inevitably, we’ll end up with reinforcing images d’Epinal (French expression referring to an emphatically traditionalist and naïve depiction of something), and for that, why not simply read Asterix, (who just celebrated his 50th birthday). At least, he is funny, which is a lot more than anyone in this government can say :

"It is clear that Asterix was made with the image of the French," says Uderzo. "We took the tics and the manners of the French" – but that it relies so heavily on ingenious wordplay and puns for its humour.

Uderzo told French radio that Astérix was born when the owner of a French magazine called Pilote wanted a comic strip his kids could read that represented French culture. The creators settled on Gaulles as their characters, because he said, nothing is more French than the Gaulles. (VOA)



Death of Claud Levi-Strauss.

Today the last of the great French intellecuals died at 100.

For those of you for whom Levi-Strauss means denim, you should know he was one of the preeminent social anthropologists of the 20th century and whose erudite, often mind-bendingly labored studies of indigenous Brazilian tribes led to influential theories examining human behavior and culture Mr. Lévi-Strauss was often paired with writers Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux as the towering
French intellectuals of the last century. He said his life's work was "an attempt to show that there are laws of mythical thinking as strict and rigorous as you would find in the natural sciences." He was best-known for popularizing a social science theory known as "structuralism," a philosophical method of approaching anthropology that identified behavioral codes that were crucial to the functioning of any society and that are inherent in the human mind.

(Wash Post)


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Are the French Japanese and the American Chinese... about languages?

On his blog, James Fallows (Atlantic Monthly writer) made a daring comparison of the French and the Americans to the Japanse and the Chinese when it comes to how they handle and view their languages :
In France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"
Correspondingly (…/…) Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean..." (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.).
The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say.
Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity -- and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants.
This is interesting. However the comparisons has a few flaws. French, contrary to Japanese is spoken by a great number of people outside France.
Moreover, I’m not sure that the French think their language is “pure and difficult”, even though they attach great value to their language. They see it as the vehicle for their culture which is at the core of their identity. So they see their language from a cultural perspective and also give language an esthetic value. More importantly, I think the educational system is based on penalizing every single mistake. This is also true of foreign languages, which is why I believe most French are actually extremely self-conscious (which is why they usually claim to speak less than they do), but being a proud people, they tend to play along the clichés people may have of them.
As for the Americans, I think they have a much more practical approach of languages (as of many other things). They don’t care so much about the particulars as long as it works. The fact that they (mostly) don’t speak foreign languages also makes them more impressed with other people who do or simply try. The downside is that if your English is good enough so you are understood, it’ll be much harder to make progress because no one will correct you.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Limitating Internet Access in France and the U.S.

One thing that France and the United-States is that both countries face the perils of the limitations of access to the Internet.

In France, the new anti-piracy law (called HADOPI 2) has finally been validated by the Constitutional Council. It is a "three strikes" law that will allow a state agency to cut off the access of Internet users accused downloading copyright content without authorization.

The change from the previous bill is that there will some judicial review, but the new law allows a fast-track procedure that will deny the right to due process and the presumption of innocence. The suspension of internet access will be decided by a single judge on the basis of the case file.
This of course is the latest developments in the fight of the old guard of an industry unable or unwilling to question their business model under the false pretext of helping the artists and the ‘creators’. The discussion of alternative models has been made impossible. (it must also be reminded that the state imposes on any device able to store media content regardless of their purpose or final usage to the benefit of the copyright holders). Unfortunately, it seems the old guard is winning.
No surprise that France should be the first country to invoke a “three strikes” law for repeat file-sharers. [Thankfully for those who are geeks, there will be technical ways to circumvent the new law. It is a losing fight in the end]

In the U.S., it is net neutrality that is being under attack. 'Net neutrality' says that broadband providers cannot block or hinder the internet traffic of any web site or service (regardless of whether or not that site or service competes with a similar site or service offered by the ISP itself).
Recently the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has voted to open a proceeding that would guaranty net neutrality. In other words it would make it illegal for telecom companies to impose a service model to control the pipeline and force people to buy their own (uncompetitive and more expensive) services.
But then came John McCain who introduced a bill that would prevent the FCC from making roles on net neutrality. Of course, McCain used what many Republicans have used to defend big businesses in the past – the fear of “government takeover”. Who cares if the government is actually defending people’s freedoms? Guess what he called his bill… : the Internet Freedom Act. Don’t you love the spin?

“Today I'm pleased to introduce the Internet Freedom Act of 2009 that will keep the Internet free from government control and regulation. It will allow for continued innovation that will in turn create more high-paying jobs for the millions of Americans who are out of work or seeking new employment. Keeping businesses free from oppressive regulations is the best stimulus for the current economy.” (CNN)
The best part is that this comes from the man who during the presidential campaign described
himself as technologically "illiterate". Well, of course the fact that McCain has netted about $765,000 in political donations from those telecom lobbyists, their spouses, colleagues at their firms and their telecom clients during the past decade has nothing to do with his newly found technological literacy. What underlines this battle is the fight between the champion for the old-line phone industry and the new powers of Silicon Valley.
So we have two different battles in two different countries: France and the U.S. but what they have in common is an old guard trying to cling to their old-time privileges.
In both cases, the control over the Internet is fought by an industry that’s afraid of change and is incapable of having a new vision and finding new business models, an industry lacking innovation.
Meanwhile the consumer is the cow that’s being milk to keep afloat a little longer an industry that will eventually die if it does not change. Why prolong the suffering at the expense of people’s freedoms? Because politicians, big businesses and the establishment are afraid they might lose out, and reed will do the rest.

UPDATE: The French satirical investigative journalism weekly “ Le Canard Enchaîné” reveals “that our holier-than-thou presidency is in fact a pirate’s lair.
In a stunning display of hypocrisy, the presidential audiovisual services produced 400 unauthorized copies of the 52 minutes documentary “A visage découvert : Nicolas Sarkozy”… It is even more appalling that we are dealing with repeat offenders : last spring, while the Hadopi law was discussed, U.S. music duo MGMT received €30,000 as a settlement for a copyright infringement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party who used one of its songs at a political rally without permission. Those who led the charge against Internet users are not the most respectful of copyright.” (Boing Boing)