Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The 'aristo' as France's new P.M.

One of the reasons why the French voted ‘NO’ to the European Constitution is their feeling that French politicians are out of touch with their daily lives and earthly concerns (mainly unemployment). It has nothing to do with the text but that’s a fact.
Well, this morning Chirac made a decision whose irony should not espace you - he named his protégé, Dominique De Villepin as France’s new Prime Minister. Now, if you don’t know him, you may remember his face at the U.N when he strongly opposed the US over the war in Iraq. He was probably at the height of his popularity in France.
The irony though is that Villepin is the very essence of French elite, almost to the point of caricature, indeed he is:
  • a career diplomat whograduated from the prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration.
  • the son of a French politician who has himself never stood for elected office and who commands little party support.
  • he is also a self-published poet and author of several books about contemporary French culture and a biography of Napoleon.
But the best part is that he has given the worst advice to Chirac, as BBC News reminded us:
for he is widely held responsible for Mr Chirac's 1997 dissolution of parliament which brought a Socialist-led government to power and began five years of "cohabitation" with the left.
If you think this is unfair, and that there is a chance de Villepin might be intellectually able to relate to the rest of us, 'common people', or if you think he may in some extraordinary fashion in touch with his time, well, think again and remember that.. :
Villepin positively worships Napoleon, and models himself after his hero. In a 600-page biography, Villepin wrote admiringly about the difference between great men like Napoleon and the “common run” of men.
And in praise of French nationalism, de Villepin wrote,
“The Gaullist adventure renewed the élan of [Napoleon's] Consulate through the restoration of a strong executive and the authority of the State, the same scorn for political parties and for compromise, a common taste for action, and an obsession with the general interest and the grandeur of France.”


Monday, May 30, 2005

Bush's graduation address

In the US, a sitting president will often give the commencement address to some lucky class of college graduates. This year (last week) GW Bush addressed the graduating class at Calvin College, a small Christian liberal arts college in rural Michigan. I doubt very much that President Bush would dare address any one of the secular institutions for fear of a student and/or faculty protest. Judging from the reaction at Calvin, his fears appear to be justified. Even at this small Christian college, many of the faculty and students respectfully protested through buttons and a signed letter in the local Grand Rapids newspaper. Nothing too unruly or disruptive, just some good clean "I respectfully disagree"ing!

For an event on a Christian campus, why go to the Washington Post or NY Times for coverage when you can get Christian coverage (no, not the Christian Science Monitor) - take a look at the differing takes in Christianity Today and Sojourners Magazine.


Non, more info!

Daniel Drezner on the Non vote.

Instapundit with a roundup of coverage

and the WaPo with more coverage on what it all means.


Main reasons for the 'NO' vote - fear and anger inded.

As I said last night, the 'NO' vote to the Constitutional Treaty is the result of anger and fear. Here's what the N.Y Times says this morning:

Pollsters said the rejection reflected French voters' anger at the 72-year-old president and his center-right government for failing to improve the country's troubled economy, as well as fear that the treaty would erode France's generous cradle-to-grave social safety net.

The debate had been colored by fear of the mythical "Polish plumber," the worker from recent European Union members from the East who is increasingly free to move West and willing to work for lower pay than Frenchmen.

Proponents of the "no" fueled voters with fear of a more powerful European Union where France no longer has influence, and of an increasingly "Anglo-Saxon" and "ultraliberal" Europe where free-market capitalism runs wild.


More detailed map of the referendum result.


Result Map of the French Referendum to the EU Constitution ('NO' in red, and 'YES' in blue

What to make of this?


Sunday, May 29, 2005

The NO wins.

Paris, Sunday night: 22:10 p.m.
Not only has the 'NO' won, but it has won big time. In my opinion it sucks, and I can't help thinking that this outcome has little to do with the text. It seems to me it is acutally the politics of fear and anger that has won.
The worst thing now is that we have to listen to the pro-NO politicians 'teaching a lesson' to the rest of us. It's party time for the extreme left and right. Well, in the end, it's not going to be Armageddon of course but it's just going to make things Europe a bit worse off and weaker for some time.


Friday, May 27, 2005

Nonisme... a new religion?

The debate over the French referendum being polarized as it is has resulted into a funny neologism - the word 'NONISTE' has appeared in the press lately. As you may guess even if you don't speak French, a 'NONISTE' is someone who favors the 'NO' vote.
But 'nonisme' is even better. It sounds like a religion - and it could very well be the religion in France whose people like to say 'non' all the time...
and who knows... it may soon be in the dictionary or be officially published in the 'Journal Officiel' by the General Committee of Terminology and Neology (but because it is not the result of some English invasion of our language, it's unlikely)



On this Friday night my feeling is that against all odds France will actually vote 'YES' to the Constitutional Treaty on Sunday, albeit with a small margin.
UPDATE: Wel, obviousl, this was my own wishful thinking.


Untold Consequences Outside the E.U. of a 'NO' Vote

Here's an interesting point of view on a 'NO' vote to the European Constitutional Treaty (a topic we have largely discussed on this blog) and its possible consequences in other parts of the world. This comes from The Herald Tribune.

Much less attention has been paid to the substantial effects of a "no" on partners and issues lying outside the EU framework.
Since the most obvious consequence of the constitution's rejection would be to plunge the EU into a protracted period of institutional and political introspection, Europe's partners would no longer be able to count on the same level of European commitment.
This would be bad news for ventures relying to any significant extent on European support, like the
Middle East peace process or Western efforts to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Efforts to prevent or limit violent conflict in Africa would suffer particularly, given Europe's key role in this regard. In other cases, this lower European profile may be greeted with relief: For instance, the United States would presumably have less cause to worry about the lifting of the EU arms embargo on China, an initiative that would presumably be put on the back burner.

It is in the Balkans that a "no" could have inordinately baleful consequences. The long-term prospect of EU membership is the most powerful lever that the Europeans have at their disposal to promote the political and economic transformation of societies still bearing the scars of the wars and civil strife of the 1990s.

The EU, NATO and the United Nations have until now introduced a modicum of stability in the region, in the face of severe deprivation and large-scale crime. The sudden removal of the beacon of EU membership through a French "no" would plunge much of the area into a pit of despair from which nothing good could emerge.


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Finally... Revenge of the Sith!

Today I finally got to see "Revenge of the Sith" today. If you haven't, I don't think what follows will spoil much.. but just in case, you may want to avoid the rest of the posting (but if you haven't seen the movie yet... well, it's probably because you don't care anyway)
Basically it wasn't bad despite the unfortunate not-so-subtle 2 cent-worth political analogies to the present day. I also tend to agree with Kevin Drum's view that Anakin's
journey to the dark side is little more than a sullen stew of teenage angst and alienation. Sure, there was all that pop psych stuff about his mother too, but really, Anakin mostly seems to be just a standard issue kid pissed off that his elders don't take him seriously enough.
In any case it was good entertainment with a few good laughs even. It was better than I and II but still not as good as 'The Empire Strikes Back' which is, in my opinion, the best of them all.

As far as the question we asked in our posting about the origin of the name 'Darth Vador', we were finally given the answer by one of our faithful commentator - and the answer comes from the Master himself.
In the june 2 edition of Rolling Stone there is a article on the cult of Darth Vader. It's an interview with George Lucas. In it he's asked this same question. His reply was, 'Darth is a variation of dark and Vader is a variation of father, so it amounts to dark father.'
That simple, eh?
So the French translation 'Dark Vador' really doesn't work... but who cares? ;-)


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

English spoken (not) here!

When I visited Athens, not long ago, I noticed that contrary to Paris, most people under 40 speak some English at least and you always find someone willing to use the little English they know and a lot of them actually speak it quite well.
This is definitely not the case in Paris. There are many reasons – mostly cultural ones – why the French tend to not speak English but one thing is certain is that exposure is a key element to language learning, and the fact is that French (especially teenagers) are actually hardly ever exposed to movies or TV shows in English – everything being dubbed.
When you turn on your TV in Greece, you have a movie in English with Greek subtitles just about every night. In Scandinavian countries they don't even show the subtitles. Even in French speaking Belgium, you see more movies in English than you do in France. This may not change everything and it would certainly nor turn the French into fluent English speakers but it would help some. Being exposed to English on a regular basis certainly helps.
The problem is that most French seem very unwilling to make the effort. While becoming more popular, cable television shows fewer and fewer movies and shows in V.O. (Original Version i.e. in English with subtitles) and just about everything is dubbed.
Recently France launched a somewhat ambitious Digital Terrestrial Television or D.T.T (Télévision Numérique Terrestre in French). It allows digital television to be broadcast entirely over earthbound circuits. As a result it offers a clearer picture, superior sound quality with less interference than analog TV but above all, it offers far more channels AND the possibility of choice of languages for the different programs. But no, all the programs so far are dubbed. Even the French-German channel ARTE, the ‘artzy’ channel for a sophisticated audience, shows fewer and fewer programs in 'V.O.'.
This is really not going the right way, and yet it would seem a fairly inexpensive way to expose people to a language greatly need in today’s world.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Grappling for God

Every few years the state of Minnesota shows that it has a special relationship with...wrestling, of all things. Six years ago they elected for themselves Jesse "the Governor" Ventura, former wrestler and Hollywood actor. Ventura, a former Navy Seal as well, went on to become a political mentor of sorts for another muscle-bound actor (yes, I'm using that term lightly), Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now, the local MN paper tells us that the state known for its fierce independent streak, is home to a whole new sort of wrestling - Christian Wrestling. That's right, there's word of a whole new arena (ahem) for wrestling - the Church. Perhaps Ventura will provide some color commetary from the front pew.

kudos to kstrygg for this gem of a find!


The French vote discussion redux

Since you're probably tired of reading what we have to say about the French vote next week, take a look at what some others are saying. Daniel Drezner has a good post up on the way the polls have been trending. For extra fun read the comments that follow the post; there's a bit of everything, from naive to informed.


What makes France so 'special'.

This may look like a hoax but it really isn’t. It just proves that reality can once again surpass fiction.
I just found out that there is in France an official General Committee of Terminology and Neology (Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie). It was created in 1996 under the authority of the French Prime Minister. Its point is to “enrich the French language by creating new words and thus promotes French.”. It has 17 members- including the Permanent Secretary of the Académie Française. (I've always loved the idea of a 'Permanent' Secretary - sounds so... democratic!) and is officially part of the French Administration. .
What they do is basically translate words (mostly English ones of course) into “correct French equivalents” , then their decisions are published in the Journal Officiel - the government publication listing new acts, laws ect… So even though it may be funny, it is no joke. It is an official matter and official matters sanctified by the state ought to be treated… officially seriously.
But this is not all – they sometimes come up with really funny things too. Their latest official decision - published in the J.O. is their translation of “BLOG” (from ‘web’ + ‘log’) which mus now be called ‘bloc-note’ (i.e. ‘note pad’) shortened into ‘BLOC’. I kid you not!
Whether you know it or not, (and most likely ‘not’), if you’re French, you’re actually reading our ‘bloc’. I see what you’re thinking… and you’re right! It is a dumb idea which even the Quebecois (who have their own ‘Bloc’, albeit quite different) have not dared to come up with yet.
What I wonder though is whether those 17 people in charge of that committee – probably generously paid by taxpayers’ money – have any idea of the ludicrousness of their idiotic decision!
Well, in any case, they gave me a good laugh which in itself makes their existence worth my taxpayer's money!


Monday, May 23, 2005

Gallup Poll - American & Evolution.

A poll is only a poll but still... this Gallup Poll has pretty scary results:
Only about a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by the evidence, while just as many say that it is just one of many theories and has not been supported by the evidence. The rest say they don't know enough to say. Forty-five percent of Americans also believe that God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago. A third of Americans are biblical literalists who believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.
Pretty amazing, eh? Any idea why that is? It baffles me...

According to new reasearch findings: "People with prefrontal brain damage suffer from difficulties in understanding other people's mental states, and they lack empathy," said study co-author Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a researcher at the University of Haifa. "Therefore, they can't understand what the speaker really is talking about, and get only the literal meaning."
No empathy + limited understanding... humm... who could thay be? Why, yes, a Theo-Con of course!


Space Junk

In case you were wondering, NO, billboards in space will not be allowed! I'll admit, I thought it was funny when I first read it, but I must admit that the more I've thought about it, the happier I am that they are pursuing regulationg authority before this becomes an issue. Can you imagine a billboard in low orbit that appears as big as the moon? Quelle horreur! I can think of several big companies and a few large egos that would try such a stunt because of the sheer publicity surrounding it. Not if the FAA has its way.



Here’s a few good excerpts from an article found in The Economist.

President Jacques Chirac wants to stop this American cultural invasion by setting up a rival French search-engine. The idea was prompted by Google's plan to put online millions of texts from American and British university libraries.

“I have nothing in particular against Google,” Jean-Noël Jeanneney, head of France's Bibliothèque Nationale told L'Express, a magazine. “I simply note that this commercial company is the expression of the American system, in which the law of the market is king.


The plan mirrors another of Mr Chirac's pet projects: a CNN à la française. Over a year ago, stung by the power of English-speaking television news channels in the Iraq war, Mr Chirac promised to set up a French rival by the end of 2004. The project is bogged down by infighting.


France's desire to combat English, on the web or the airwaves, is understandable. Protecting France's tongue from its citizens' inclination to adopt English words is an ancient hobby of the ruling elite. The Académie Française was set up in 1635 to that end. Linguists devise translations of cyber-terms, such as arrosage (spam) or bogue (bug). Laws limit the use of English on TV—“Super Nanny” and “Star Academy” are current pests—and impose translations of English slogans in advertising. Treating the invasion of English as a market failure that must be corrected by the state may look clumsy. In France it is just business as usual.

And, if I may add, it is not only clumsy, it just does not work…. and it makes those decision makers look more ridiculous and out of touch with the reality of today’s world.


Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Dark Side of the Farce.

A farce it is indeed! That's what the campaign for the referendum in France is becoming. After the siege mentality of the "NON" - based on fear and anger wiht a nice touch of that old French imperialism, it is now the "YES" that's using the politics of fear. Well, more exactly, it is what French Prime Minister Raffarin is attempting to do when he prophesizes economic chaos if the 'NON' wins. Given that the economy is doing pretty bad already, that's sort of an easy guess, isn't it? Whether or not he really believes this, it really sounds like a stupid thing to say anyway and it will no doubt feel like emotional blackmail to many people. To which it would be really idiotic to respond one way or the other. He's so good that whenever he speaks, the 'NON' side rejoices as they know it will backfire.

This ‘campaign’ is not about the text of the Treaty any more (Was it ever?), it is now about doomsday prophesized by both sides. Reason and reasoning has long disappeared. The 20 second format of television certainly helps convey fear and what is certain is that it sells better than 'reality tv'.

In the meantime, the media abroad seem to praise France for its democratic approach and for the discussions in every city, village and street corner… Well, frankly, from this end, it looks more like a farce, a sort of cheap drama played for the mob such as there were in Ancient Rome.

In the end, my mind is made up on a practical “OUI”, no matter what stupid argument can be used on either side, and my reasons for the OUI is pretty clear.


Friday, May 20, 2005

The Power of "NON"!

If you live in France – you may be getting a bit sick of the constant debates and discussions on the Treaty for a European Constitution in the media. It seems that everything has been said on the subject, and if you’re not informed at this stage, you must have spent the last few weeks in a cave, so shouldn’t we now stop debating and just wait for the vote on May 29? Yet to my great surprise, I continue to find more interesting things about the two sides. Well actually, I’ve been keener on trying to understand the “other side” – the “NON” side and the reason for their success in the polls.

Other than the political reasons commonly used by the “NON” side, they benefit from two things:

  • First their power is based on two strong emotions: fear and/or anger - FEAR of the future, of the unknown and of "the other", and ANGER for everything going wrong - and there is absolutely no way to beat that. It’s no surprise that the “OUI” side should appear a bit lukewarm. Positive emotions do not play as well as negative ones – especially on TV, and unfortunately, the debate is much more about emotions such as fear and anger than about reasonable arguments and sound reflection.
  • The other great thing that promotes the “NON” is people’s ignorance of the present European institutions and treaty. Most of what the “NON” has been complaining about – the enlargement of Union, or the free movement of people, goods and capital – are things that are already here now and that people voted for in the Referendum for the Maastricht Treaty. Very little in the debates is actually about the new things in this text to be voted. The blame should probably be put on people’s laziness, no doubt, but also on the media, on politicians [who have used the EU as an excuse for their lame policy], and on schools that have not taught Europe properly.
All that most certainly makes a lot of greedy politicians quite happy.


Thursday, May 19, 2005


Newsweek has received some pretty harsh criticism recently for running a story about a flushed Koran whose source didn't exactly turn out to remember things as printed. Now after an official retraction from the editors, the weekly magazine is still getting hammered in the blogosphere and by the White House. Conservatives are using it as another example of the hated liberal bias found in the media today. But for some real perspective, take a look at this opinion piece by conservative David Brooks in today's NY Times (another hated bastion of liberal hogwash for the conservatives!).


In case your inbox missed it

The latest round of infected emails comes courtesy of the Neo-Nazis. Who knew they were so into reaching out?!


Blogging Homeland Security

If you've ever wanted to know what happens when one of those flights get diverted to Maine so that the FBI can question some suspect who's on the no-fly list...well, wonder no more. Blogger Nicholas Genes kindly provides the details.


From Star Wars to Space Wars.

While "Stars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" is getting everybody excited and somewhat nostalgic, there is another 'Star Wars' that is being revived and it seems to get much less attention, even thought it made it to the NYTimes:
The Air Force, saying it must secure space to protect the nation from attack, is seeking President Bush's approval of a national-security directive that could move the United States closer to fielding offensive and defensive space weapons, according to White House and Air Force officials.
The proposed change would be a substantial shift in American policy. It would almost certainly be opposed by many American allies and potential enemies, who have said it may create an arms race in space.
At a time when a President could have been killed by a grenade and when two towerswere brought down by people armed with cutters, it makes you wonder about the competence and intelligence of decision-makers who do not seem to have their priorities right... or to curve to lobby's pressure.


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Distorted U.S. News Coverage.

Earlier this week, we mentioned in one of our postings the lack of coverage of the British Memo scandal in the US media. Well, one of our favorite blogs, Political Animal, not only shows that the silence continues but he also interestingly compares that fact to the overraction about the Newsweek story. Here it is:
The Newsweek retraction story is on Page 1 of the New York Times, Page 1 of the LA Times, and Page 3 of the Washington Post. That's pretty strong coverage for a story about a newsmagazine retracting a small error in a short piece from two weeks ago.

And how did these same news organs respond three weeks ago to a leaked British memo making it clear that President Bush had already committed himself to war with Iraq by the summer of 2002 and was actively "fixing" intelligence and facts to support that decision? It eventually ran on Page 3 in the LA Times, Page 18 in the Post, and nowhere at all in the New York Times aside from a buried Page 9 piece that treated it as strictly a British election issue.
So whenever the Conservatives tell you that the press is bias they are undoubtedly right. No wonder why so many people in the U.S. can be virtually ignorant of facts known by the rest of us.

In case, you don't think the 'Newsweek story' has been blown out of proportion, here's a good article by Molly Ivins who makes some good arguments and concludes:
Seventeen people have died in these riots. They didn’t die because of anything Newsweek did — the riots were caused by what our government has done.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Toto, we're not teaching science in Kansas anymore

I haven't posted about this recent debate on evolution in the Kansas classroom, mostly because I find it incomprehensible that we should be equating intelligent design with evolution in the realm of science and, secondly, because I think it best that the scientists refute bad science. So here it is, an anthropologist refuting bad science. Adam proves yet again that nothing refutes as well as clear, concise writing.


Monday, May 16, 2005

French Paradox

Business as usual in France yesterday – apparent social chaos with people on strike, or on holiday while others were working on their cancelled bank holiday. Nobody ever seems happy these days, always finding something to complain about and the debates on the Constitution have exacerbated concerns about jobs, salaries and a gloomy economy.

Yet at the same time - and quite paradoxixally - while the blues seems to have taken grip of its people, France is experiencing a real Baby Boom :

In 2003 - the last year for which figures are available - the EU's overall population growth of 216,000 was almost entirely created in France, where numbers went up by 211,00.

The other interesting element is that France has one of the highest rates of working women in the European Union. The paradox can be partly explained by better subsidies for childcare, as well as sizeable child benefits, and good paid parental leave, and more childcare facilities which means that you don’t need to ask women to stay at home to encourage them to have children. You just need to give them some logistical and financial help.
One of the conclusions to draw is that appearances can be deceiving in France and while things often seem to be really bad, they never reall are. So don't (always) believe a French whiner!


Darth Vader Vs. Dark Vador!

Star War Episode III: Revenge of the Sith triumped at Cannes last night. It's supposed to be the best episode in the whole series and there are high expectations. Personally, I cannot wait to see it. but I have one question whose answer I cannot find...
The first time I ever saw a Star War movie though, it was in French and I believed the bad guy was called "Dark Vador" but later I was really susprised when finding out that (in English) it was actually "Darth Vader". Weird... isn't it?
Does anyone have any idea why the French did not keep the name? What is it like in other languages? Any idea where the name "Darth Vador" come from? It's a bit of a strange name anyway, isn't it? Does it sound like anything to English natives?

The name bears no connection with any real word except for the not-so-famous town of Vader.... which must be really scary at night!
Vader, WA (city, FIPS 73780)
Location: 46.40278 N, 122.95565 W
Population (1990): 414 (179 housing units)
Area: 2.3 sq km (land), 0.0 sq km (water)
Zip code(s): 98593

Thanks to kstrygg, here are some explanations:
  • Another explanation - DARTH : Title taken by Sith Lords. Early Sith Lords did not carry this title as it had not been created yet, but then later Lords took the title as they saw fit. Darth Revan is the earliest Sith Lord known to carry the title. From Darth Bane onward, all Sith Lords took the title Darth. This is also the time when the tradition of one master one apprentice began.
Yet this last one hardly explains where the word 'Darth' came from.... neither the word 'Vader'!
  • DARk lord of the siTH...DARTH, a title. Also, vader just happens to be dutch for father(akin to german-vater or swedish-fader)...maybe that's just coincidence...or maybe....



The vote for the referendum on the Treaty on the European Constitution in France will be taking place shortly. Its ramifications are immense. Andwhile I agree that the debates preceding this vote represent the best of democracy, I’m getting really sick of the lame strategies used by both sides. This blog has decided to endorse the OUI (yes) vote for many reasons, but no matter how convinced either side is, it seems that people always have something to complain about. Most of these complaints, I find, have little or no connection to the actual text that we'll be voting on. People, it's time to get real!

Let’s try to make things very simple – no, the Treaty is not perfect (treaties are by nature about compromise, not about getting everything you want - Treaty of Versailles aside!), but if I could just give one good reason to vote OUI it is precisely that the new institutions will be more democratic in one key thing – the legislative process. And that’s of great importance.

Contrary to the arrangment as it exists today, no law will be made if, in the end, the European Parliament cannot agree with the European Council. The Council will not be able to ignore parliament anymore (Part II, title 5, Chapter I, Articles 33-34). It may good to keep in mind that 70% of our laws are the direct effect of decisions made in Brussels, and people have justly complained that the legislative process was not democratic enough.

So there you have it, reason alone to vote OUI and give Europe back to the representatives of the European people. That’s DEMOCRACY!

Now, I also want to point out that I find the NON arguments mostly reactionary – in the most straightforward sense of the word – a reaction to whatever is wrong in people’s lives.

I also find it really amazingly naive that the NON camp believes that the rest of Europe is ready to espouse their reasons for disliking the constitution and agree to the changes they'd like to see - as if France was going to show the light to the people of Europe who would happen to be in the dark - ça alors! It shows great ignorance of what goes on in most other countries and belittles the democracies of our European neighbors. It is reminiscent of French Imperialism which followed the Revolution.

Besides, the idea of negotiating presupposes that France will have a single voice in those negotiations, not likely considering the wildly disparate voices on the NON side. I don't imagine that Le Pen nationalists will see themselves agreeing with the socialist NON during those negotiations. But, it would be entertaining to see them try to hammer something out. They may be wishing they'd voted OUI!


Sunday, May 15, 2005

Smoking Gun Memo.. but who cares?

Bush has been lying to the American people. Whereas this has always been suspected by…. a great number of people, to say the least, there was no material evidence to support that view. Things may be changing with the release of an intelligence British memo disclosed by the press during the British elections earlier this month. But it seems the U.S. Media have surprisingly mostly ignored the news so far. Do we really need to ask why...?

The document which was leaked during the recent British elections – is a high classified memo which summarizes a July 23, 2002, meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair with his top security advisers, reports on a visit to Washington by the head of Britain's MI-6 intelligence service. It was published in The Times on May 1st. It indicates that Bush had decided to go to war as early as mid-2002, and that U.S. policymakers were trying to use the limited intelligence they had to make the Iraqi leader appear to be a bigger threat than was supported by known facts. When this was suspected by Bush’s critics of the war, it was never successfully proved.

Its authenticity has not been disputed by Blair. Blair's senior advisers at the July 2002 session decided they would prepare an "ultimatum" for Iraq to permit U.N. inspectors to return, despite being told that Bush's National Security Council, then headed by Condoleezza Rice, "had no patience with the U.N. route," according to the notes. "The prime minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors."

In the light of the current situation in Iraq, it is interesting to underline this:

"There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action," the notes say
So not only is this administration grossly deceitful, they are also highly incompetent... but what blows my mind is that they can get away with it so easily....

The latest development is that:

89 Democratic members of the U.S. Congress last week sent President George W. Bush a letter asking for explanation of a secret British memo that said "intelligence and facts were being fixed" to support the Iraq war in mid-2002.

We’ll see if anything comes out of that and if the UK memo finally makes it to the headlines in the US. But I won't hold my breath.


Thursday, May 12, 2005

Back to those pesky textbooks

I told you I’d be back to write about the textbook selection process in the US so here it is. I’ll try to keep this interesting. The first thing to note is that 21 of 50 states are what is called “adoption states”- that is, they have a state committee that approves textbooks for use in the public schools throughout the state. They don’t necessarily select them, but they decide which ones can be on a list for the different districts to choose from. This entire adoption process is a holdover from the reconstruction era following the Civil War in which Southern States didn’t want the Northern States (where the publishers were located) telling their kids about their own history. So the North published two sets of textbooks, one calling it The Civil War and the other calling it The War Between the States or The War of Southern Independence. Today, these 21 states are all in the South or West. The two biggest are Texas and California. Together they represent 21% of the textbook market. They’re choices determine whether a textbook succeeds, financially speaking, or not. If these states keep you off the adoption list, you can kiss your investment goodbye.

The textbook market in the US is worth almost $4.5 billion each year. In such a lucrative market, you’d expect to see some healthy competition. Unfortunately this is not the case. Texas and California are notorious for their demands. Not only do they want textbooks; they want all the ancillary material as well – CDs, workbooks, internet sites, videos, DVDs, overheads, etc. It can cost upwards of $1 million to bring a book to market. Hardly the kind of money a small-time publisher can afford to lose. The other element prohibiting small-time publishers is the outrageous vetting process conducted by the states. Because committees in Texas and California decide the fate of textbooks, the special interest groups have made these two states their battleground in their fight for the soul of the country.

The liberals (here & here) have the greatest influence in California while the conservatives (here & here) rule the day in Texas. Both believe in the power of the written word, that what students read they will imitate and aspire to. It is, therefore, their job to give them the proper model. For this model, liberals look toward an ideal future in which there is no racial conflict, no ethnic strife, no differences, no value judgments; everyone is happy and equal. Conservatives on the other hand, try to evoke an idyllic past reminiscent of an idealized 50s where dad worked while mom stayed at home with the kids and cooked in the kitchen. The former can’t tolerate intolerance, dominant groups, inequality, or any sort of prejudice. The latter abhor anything judged anti-American, which cam be loosely summed up as anything anti-patriotic, anti-authority, anti-military, anti-free market and anti-Christian.

The important thing to remember is that if a special interest group from either side makes enough noise about your textbook, you will not be approved in either state. You must, therefore, appease the special interest groups. Publishers have taken to including members of the various groups on their review committees which read through and approve the content of their textbooks. Anything judged controversial or objectionable is removed or modified. Let me give you a few examples:

From Diane Ravitch’s book, The Language Police, the following words were deemed offensive and should therefore be avoided:

Elderly, slave, cowboy, businessman, handicapped, pop/soda, man-made, huts, fat, blind, deaf…

On the right, one only need read through the transcripts of the Texas Adoption Hearings to know what they find offensive:

Evolution, sex education, tolerance toward other beliefs, omission of God…

My favorite anecdotes are the following:

Liberals made publishers change the gender of “The Little Engine That Could” so that they could raise the number of female characters in literature readers.

Conservatives objected to the Wizard of Oz in the same readers because the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man accomplished their mission on their own, without first praying to God to ask for his assistance.
It should be noted that these represent extremes. Very few people would agree with these two worldviews, but this is what makes American history textbooks so tragic right now – 5% of the population (the two extremes) is determining the national narrative for our public schools. And publishers are caving in to their demands. The result is a mish-mash of benign historical moments and issues in which historical inaccuracies are less offensive than any hint of stereotypes or anti-American sentiment. American textbooks, file them under pulp fiction.


A Nation & its Past.

As we said in a previous post, France has always had a really hard time dealing with the darker chapter of its past. It took some 50 years for a French president to apologize for France's role in the Holocaust during the Vichy government. But it seems that things might be changing.
While France [and all of Europe] just commemorated the end of WWII on May 8, Algeria was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the repression of pro-independence demonstrators under French colonial rule. But for the first time this year Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has publicly asked France to express formal regret.
"The paradox of the massacres of May 8, 1945, is that when the heroic Algerian combatants returned from the fronts in Europe, Africa and elsewhere where they defended France's honor and interests," Mr. Bouteflika said in the speech, "the French administration fired on peaceful demonstrators." The speech, given in the city of Sétif on Saturday, was published by Algeria's state media.
The good news is that now that it’s all out, France will probably oblige as it will have to match its official rhetoric with action for credibility reasons. And the indeed a Turkish newspaper was quick to underline the possible paradox:
The French Parliament undertook a decision in 2001 regarding the Armenians despite all of the Turkish reactions that had defended the deaths in 1915. However, France has not adopted the same attitude to Algeria.
Fair enough, but it might good to point out, however, that the killings French colonial Africa cannot be reasonably compared to the genocide of the Armenians which took place some 40 years before the Sétif Massacre. Yet what is certain is that official acknowledgement is absolutely necessary, and the mood has greatly changed in favor of public acknowledgement the last few years:
France officially acknowledged Vichy in 1995, and in 1999, the words 'War of Algeria' were officially recognized by the French Parliament [it was known as "the events of Algeria" before], and now the nation is ready to deal with its slavery past with an official “Journée des mémoires de la traite négrière” [A Day for Remembering Slave Trade] for the first time next year.
But this is definitely something to continue to probe... and we will.


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

And they said it would never happen here...

Over the years, Americans have gotten into a lot of arguments with foreigners about so-called freedoms. We have historically criticized any country that restricted the freedoms of its population - from the obvious lack of freedoms in the totalitarian states (Soviet Union, ex-Zaire, North Korea, Syria, etc.) to the less hostile but still intrusive threats to freedom in the "quasi-socialist" states (think Europe). The most popular critique of the latter group was the fact that the police could ask to see your carte d'identite anytime so you had to carry it with you at all times. "What rubbish!" said we.

Well, we're about to eat our words. In legislation passed yesterday the senate approved spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (yes, by the way, there's still a war going on in Afghanistan). Attached to this bill, which already passed in the House, is a little rider calling for the establishment within three years of a national identity card which the federal government mandates and the states have to provide. It will most likely be a modified version of the driver's license, but one with much more information stored on it and, if the Department of Homeland Security gets its way, a radio reader device so that simple proximity to a scan machine will allow your information to be read/shared. This Orwellian technology is no longer just an idea, it's becoming a reality. And to add insult to injury, the Supreme Court decided last year that it was not a violation of a person's civil rights for the police to ask a law-abiding citizen for identification. And to think this is happening under a Republican administration! What will we tell the children?

The best response that I've heard to criticism of id cards is the oft-repeated, "You just don't understand the situation in the US right now." Right, because the rest of the world hasn't been dealing with terrorism for decades already. Do we have a monopoly on pain and suffering? We certainly seem to on fear. I guess you can file this under F for FEAR, just like the bogus missile defense shield that's supposedly going to protect us from those North Korean missiles.

Freedom or fear? How about freedom from fear?


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

From Nutella to malnutration.

On a lighter note : a French maker of humanitarian nutritious products has come up with a great idea : a peanut-based paste which has the great advantage of requiring no preparation or mixing as it can be eaten right out of the bag (contrary to powdered milk formulas that need to be mixed with clean water).
The product called Plumpy'nut has already been used to feed some 30,000 children in Sudan's Darfur region and aid officials there say it has helped cut malnutrition rates in half.
The idea came to its inventor, Andre Briend, one morning of 1997, while eating breakfast, when he noticed a jar of Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread popular in Europe. He had seen it on breakfast tables, including his own, for years, but this time he recalls thinking, "Of course! Why not a spread?"
Imagine that... it only took a jar of Nutella! A lesson to the rest of us - nutella lovers!


Monday, May 09, 2005

On the teaching of History

The previous post brought up a great point which I'd like to elaborate on since it has to do with the subject of a number of recent articles and books (for example, here, here and here - disclosure note: the second title is my own offering on this subject.) History is one of those school subjects that students find either really engaging or mindnumbingly boring. In most cases, it depends on the expertise and passion of the teacher involved but often enough it's a case of the resources at hand. I'd just like to address one of them - textbooks.

The United States is different than almost every country in that it has no identifiable national history standards. Almost every other country does. Vidal-Naquet's quote from the previous post pointed out that Japan's standards are highly centralized and that France's are not. This is true, but misleading (especially since Japan modeled it's educational system after France's.) France has what's called a "programme national" which means that the Ministry of Education decides on what topics should be taught and then leaves it up to the independent textbook publishers to print the books, which must, of course, follow the programme. It doesn't tell them how to cover the events, only which events or issues to cover and during which years. While this is more centralized than the US, it is not the state-sponsored history (identity) indoctrination of non-democratic societies like Saudi Arabia, Syria and North Korea where the Ministry of Education decides on a curriculum, prints the textbooks themselves, and distributes them to the schools for use, an approach reminiscient of the former Soviet Union.

The US, as I was saying, has no history standards. Americans of all stripes and colors are a bit too suspicious of the federal government to allow it to dictate to them their own history. The left wants a more inclusive, multiculturalist history which emphasizes no single group over another, while the right wants the traditional patriotic rendition complete with the Founding Fathers and Christian message. What ends up in the classroom often depends on where your classroom is located. The content of a history course in Tennessee might sound considerably different than a course in Massachusetts. The textbooks themselves are often a mish-mash of empty authoritative language "so much sound and fury signifying nothing" since publishers must watch what they write in order to not offend potential customers (school boards or adoption committees.) I'll write more on this selection process in the coming days, but I wanted to leave you with one important statistic:

In 2001, 57% of seniors scored below basic in US History. In no other subject area do students score so low.

What role do textbooks play is an important question, especially when you consider that in a survey that asked high school students to name the ultimate authority in the history classroom, the overwhelming winner was the textbook. 80-90% of classroom work is based on textbooks according to certain shadow studies published by the NEA (note: I can't find the specific link presently, but when I do find it I'll update the post).


Sunday, May 08, 2005

The other cultural war - France and Colonialism.

France is in the painful process of dealing with its colonial past and it is not going easy with everybody. While for the first time this year, the media draw attention to the other May 8, 1945 Commemoration – that of the Massacre of Algerians in the French Algerian city of Sétif which took place precisely on V-Day, others seem to resist the necessary acknowledgement of some of the darkest chapters of French history.

A petition against a law passed on February 23 3005 has been signed by historians, writers and intellectuals. The law initially intended to recognize the contribution of the ‘Harkis’, the Algerians who fought with France during Algeria’s War of Independence (1954-1962) before being cowardly abandoned by France (which resulted in the execution of many of them). But, on this occasion, a conservative member of parliament with close ties to the ‘Pieds Noirs’, the community of former French settlers in Algeria, added an ambiguous amendment (article 4) to the bill which states that “school syllabus should recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa.

Teaching the spositive role of colonialism with a good cup of chocolate...

In Libération, an eminent historian, Pierre Vidal-Naquet summed up the core of the problem:

"It is not up to the state to say how history should be taught. (../…) In Japan, a law defines the contents of history lessons, and textbooks minimise Japan's responsibility in the Sino-Japanese war. If France wants to be like that, it's going the right way about it."

It is worth noticing that if you believe that history is not political, think again – while a leftist newspaper like Libération or a moderate left newspaper like Le Monde had the Sétif Massacre issue on their front page, conservative newspaper Le Figaro ignored it altogether, choosing to solely focus on the WWII Celebrations.


A good old Baptist Imam

A local pastor issues a fatwa against nine church members who disagree with his politics. If there's any justice in this world, this imam will have nobody from his flock in church this morning, except to protest him and those who voted against the dem 9. What else can you say about stuff like this? Except that he'll probably be getting his White House invitation within a week...

UPDATE: Pastor resigns. No word yet on the White House invitation.


Friday, May 06, 2005

Ideology in the U.S. Media

If you think that radio stations in the U.S. tend to be more and more politically biased these days and WAY MORE Conservative than ever before, you’re right and here is why:

Clear Channel Communications, the world's largest radio broadcaster, concert promoter, and billboard advertising firm owns approximately 50 percent of the U.S. radio stations, five times more than its closest competitors, CBS and ABC. The founder of C.C.C., Lowry Mays is a staunch Republican Texan and one-time George W. Bush business associate, and the company has a ‘clear’ political agenda as political contribution data can show. They have been repeatedly accused of being the biggest coporate censor in US history.

According to the director of the telecommunications project at the Center for Public Integrity, John Dunbar, “If you have a politically active CEO who is of a particularly ideological bent you become worried that if they control entire markets, which Clear Channel does, that ideology might make into some of the coverage,”

Given that the other media empire - that of Rupert Murdoch - with Fox News and the Weekly Standard, right-wing radio talk shows and the Wall Street Journal editorial page also clearly supports a neo-con ideology, it’s no wonder why so many people have no clue about what to think, and why there has been a growing divide between what Europeans and Americans believe about the world.

The only good thing is that Clear Channel profits seem to be sinking.


An Epic with a good message!

One of the reasons to go to the movies and pay about 8/9 euros/dollars is to see a genre of entertainment that can only be rendered on a big screen and that would be spoiled on your TV or computer screen and Ridley Scott’s latest picture clearly delivers that promise. Kingdom of Heaven is in my opinion a good reason to believe that movie theaters will always be special places, and that Internet downloading will never be a threat for such spectacles.
Sir Ridley Scott (now himself a knight, mind you) is definitely the master of the modern epic movie. Many other directors have tried and failed (Think of "Troy" or "Alexander"). This time the story is about the Crusades - a very touchy subject in our post-9/11 world and much to my surprise it succeeds in conveying a much needed message of peace.
The story takes place during the few years of peace between the Frankish King Baldwin of Jerusalem and Saladin as the truce between the two leaders is constantly under threat by conspiracies within the kingdom, and will eventually collapse.
Surely enough, one can easily argue that it is precisely anachronical in many ways - just about everything and every character is open to historical interpretation. For instance, very little is known of the main character, Balian, but it seems fairly certain he was a lord, not a blacksmith, and the historical King Baldwin died a year before the film's story begins. I think I remember hearing the characters also speak of ‘meters’ (to be confirmed) although the metric system would not be invented for another 600 years.
One could also argue that the story conveys a very 21st century message in not-so-subtle way:
that lost faith can be regained, that nations can be joined, that leaders can set an example of respecting the God worshipped by their political opponents instead of using their own deities to justify slaughter and imperialism and that faith is different from the business of religion.
Scott stresses that he was creating a film story based on history, not a documentary. Kingdom of Heaven uses historical events as a canvas on which to paint a rich human drama.
"We've chosen a point in history in which we see a state of peace, which we don't seem to be able to attain today," he notes.
On thing that makes me relish the message is that it has upset both Christian and Muslim extremists, as the BBC pointed out: .
Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Islamic law at the University of California, went as far as saying it was bound to provoke hate crimes.
At the other end of the spectrum, Cambridge academic Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith dubbed it "Osama Bin Laden's version of history" and said it "will fuel Islamic fundamentalists".
Those reactions are good signs that the movie offers a good challenge to religious extremism and I think that’s great, whether or not the story has any resemblance with reality. After all, who cares?!
"Religious difference, right now, is causing a great lack of understanding, so I felt it was important to show that not all Muslims are bad, and that not everyone in the West is good," Scott said.
In any case, for those who are just looking for mere entertainment, Kingdom of Heaven will give them just that - a great human drama with visual artistry, very much in the vein of Gladiator.


Thursday, May 05, 2005

Ethics 101

It appears that journalists are not as unethical as most people perceive them to be. According to a Gallup poll taken last November, only 21% of the public considers journalists to be ethical. This perception is contradicted by a new study just conducted which used the Defining Issues Test to rate the different professions on the ethical quality of their reasoning. It seems that journalists scored near the top, right behind seminarians/philosphers and med students and practicing physicians (that's reassuring). Not that this will alter the public's perception at all, but journalists can now point to an actual study when they say they're being maligned. No word on where lawyers or politicians scored. But junior high students scored the lowest, below prison inmates! To those of us who have taught at the junior high level, it tells us nothing new. But it's reassuring to know that somewhere between junior high and a professional career our youth are learning something about ethics.


Is French-bashing making a come back?

Judging by these two books recently published:
- "The French Betrayal of America" by Kenneth R. Timmerman (Crown Forum, 2004)
- "Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France" by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky (Doubleday, 2004),
you may easily conclude that it is and that this is actually déjà-vu Francophobia (Remember the 'freedom fries' which did not last long and did catch on with people). But if you look into it more carefully you realize that it just a return of classic anti-Gallic rhetoric by the American Conservative right minority.... and minor it is!
The prestigious journal Foreign Affairs said about “Our Oldest Enemy”

That a book as shoddy and biased as this one should be published by a reputable press is eminently regrettable.
Even in Conservative circles, it is seen as way over the top, as the American Conservative review pointed out:

What Miller/ Molesky have done is furnish maximum negative spin and place most blame on the French.
They omit details that don’t fit a Francophobic version.
They divide the world into friends and foes. A friend is not “difficult to control.” Since French governments, with broad public support, pursue an independent foreign policy,
France is our foe. This book evaluates as “fawning” the admiration of American realists like Kissinger and Nixon for Charles de Gaulle, whose proud and independent France they considered generally an asset in the Cold War. An idealist foreign policy sounds superficially more “moral” than the calculation of national interest, but it leads easily to self-righteous crusading.

The authors’ venomous reaction to France is just ideological. Miller, Molesky & Timmerman all work for The National Review, the epitome of ‘neocon magazines’ with a clear agenda. Timmerman’s book is basically about Chirac’s ties to Saddam Hussein, claiming that Saddam’s genocide campaign against the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq occured to make their region "safe" for French oil engineers.Miller is also connected to The Heritage Foundation, a Conservative think tank with among other members Richard Perle who has shaped ‘neocon’ policy in the last 10 years.
Those attacks constitute French bashing because they are more than mere reasonable criticism as they border racism under some intellectual veneer. The arguments are so grossly one-sided and exaggerated though that they are self-defeating and it is easy for anyone who knows a tiny bit of history to debunk their cheap attempt. These attacks on
France should really be treated as mere stupidity not even worth these lines. The main reason to write about such trashy books is to put them into perspective and remind ourselves that they should not be regarded as significant of a general sentiment in the U.S.. Anti-French rhetoric just happens to sell well with morons or cynical spin-doctors who think they can benefit from it.

Indeed it is better to laugh it off in the end (here's a good exemple..) for only humor can save us from depair...

As for the rest of anti-French rhetoric you may hear on the radio or in some newspaper, remember that whilebashing the French and knocking the Dixie Chicks, mega-media conglomerates like Clear Channel [with 1,200 station and some 100 million listeners across all 50 states ] and Rupert Murdoch’s empire [Murdoch, a pragmatic neocon believer owns 175 newspapers, including the New York Post and The Times of London as well as the Twentieth Century Fox Studio, Fox Network, and 35 TV stations] continue doing business big-time in evil France. So who's the traitor then?


Monday, May 02, 2005

Abortion & Faith.

Abortion can be a really hot issue. In the U.S. abortion has been legal since 1973 [Roe vs. Wade] and yet it is one of the most divisive question and public opinion seems polarized between 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' beliefs – both expressions being obviously highly manipulative. Interestingly, abortion is not really a hot issue in most of Western Europe, even if the debate about the Constitution has underlined some divisions between nations. I believe that the strong feelings some people have about the issue is linked to a quasi-religious approach based on strong personal moral beliefs.

On the one hand, 'pro-choice' advocates support the right of women to have full control of their bodies, and on the other hand, 'pro-life' people point on that all human life is sacred. Both positions have equal legitimate moral value.

The major difference is in fact simply about what constitutes a human being, as the Schiavo case recently underlined more acutely. The term 'human life' can be misleading if it is not clearly defined. If one chooses to define it as 'any living thing with human DNA', it can be an ovum, a spermatozoon, a zygote, an embryo, a foetus, a newborn but also just body parts such as a white blood cell, sperm cell, or even a hair, or some skin. Therefore all human life does not constitute a human person.

There is a societal consensus that newborns constitute people, the disagreement is about how much before birth does personhood begin. And you find a whole range of belief from the very moment of conception to the actual time of birth. The reason why there is such a wide scale of opinion shows the entire subjectivity of the matter. In reality, nobody knows for sure for it is not a scientific question but a moral one. We all have to make a choice of some kind about what to believe, a choice purely based on a subjective approach influenced by a great number of factors.

Whatever our position may be, it might thus be wise though to acknowledge that our belief in this matter is entirely subjective and it then becomes particularly irrelevant to have heated arguments about it, albeit make the whole issue a priority in national or international politics as if the other side was pure evil.

It should also be said that the Bible – and particularly the N.T. – never specifically mentions the topic of abortion (even thought it was widely known in the Ancient World) and that Christians have been divided over the issue throughout history. (Saint Augustine, for instance favored abortion because be believed in the ‘delayed ensoulment’ belief of Aristotle.).

It is clear that in many ways, it is a complex and highly personal issue but at the same time, it can be made very simple with a pragmatic approach: I believe it is good to legalize abortion just because the alternative is a lot worse.

Women have always had abortions and they always will, so it is better that those abortions are practiced in safe and somewhat controlled environments where the women in need can be given possible alternatives and psychological hep and in my opinion, their safety and their health should be the priority. The alternative is to have women use backroom doctors, or thrown a knitting needle into their wombs - that’s the main reason why it is important that abortion should be legal. The rest is a question of faith.

For a very good site on the question, go to http://www.religioustolerance.org/abortion1.htm