Thursday, June 30, 2005

Conservative flim-flam

Kevin Drum at Political Animal has an interesting post today about the underhanded shenanigans of some congressional Republicans. The same group who has fought tooth and nail to get rid of the estate tax (which benefits the wealthy) is now looking to close down the loopholes that allow the middle class to avoid paying these same taxes. In essence, it's ok to avoid these taxes if you're wealthy, quite another if you're not. I'm all for closing these loopholes, or more precisely, I'm all in favor of finding a system in which people are obligated to pay their fair share. But to suddenly attack the middle class when you've gone to great lengths to make sure the rich get to have their cake and eat it too...that's just pathetic. Conservative flim-flam at its finest.

Read the whole post for more details on the audacity of demanding of the middle class what you've just exempted the upper classes from.


Hell on Earth - Darwin's Nightmare.

This week I saw a fascinating documentary in the theater called ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ which really gives a whole new meaning to the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’.

The Austrian maker Hubert Sauper shows a picture of pure hell on earth and this hell is located in Tanzania by the shore of Lake Victoria.

The film shows different facets of the nightmare. First the ecological nightmare – the destruction of the biological diversity of the lake after a predator, the Nile perch was introduced in the lake in the 60s as some possible ‘scientific’ experience. As a result the alien perch has become the only means of survival to the local fishermen’s villages around the lake, making them more and more dependent on the Nile Perch filet factories run by Indians with European subsidies. The fish is sold to Europe and Japan making it so expensive that the local villages are left with nothing but fish heads, bones and tails which they boil and eat. There is one scene where you see kids literally fighting for a handful of rice while the camera is still running… and later sniffing local-made glue. There is no music and no comment but the breathing of the 12 year old kid inhaling the glue.

In the background you see planes landing with empty cargo (or with weapons sold to neighboring countries at war) and taking off with the fish. The interviews of the Russian pilots show that the misery extents far greater than imagined. The other people in this documentary are either forced into prostitution, dying of AIDS or violence but all have one thing in common: they are just trying to get by however they can.
Another shocking scene shows a woman drying the leftover carcasses of the fish (once the filets have been) saying ‘I’m not too badly off’ while the maggots wriggle around her bare feet.

The film is hard to watch. Really. It gives you pause to think. Those people’s reality is so removed from ours, that it is hard to even imagine humanity in such atrocious hopeless environment. The strength of the documentary is not necessarily the investigation nor its critique of globalization, it is rather the impressive testimonies it presents.

It is a scary illustration of the hellish end-result of our eating cheap Nile perch filet bought at our local supermarket.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bush's Speech... in a few words.

Here you get the 'essence' of the whole speech, in a few seconds.
[Thanks to TPMCafe and Pascal Riché]

“Global war on terror, September the 11th, 2001, terrorists, terrorists , totalitarian ideology , freedom, tyranny, oppression, terror, kill, terrorists, September the 11th, freedom, enemy , war, terrorists, kill, murderous ideology , terrorism, terrorists, free nation, war on terror, freedom, violence and instability, dangerous, violence, bloodshed, violence, sacrifice , war on terror, violence, killers, freedom, criminal elements, hateful ideology, freedom, liberty, democracy, terrorists, war on terror, terrorists, Osama Bin Laden, murder and destruction, enemy, terrorists, car bombs, enemy, terrorists, suicide bomber, enemy, terrorists, violence, terrorists, terrorists, terrorists , freedom, enemies, September the 11th, Bin Laden, enemy , free, tyranny, terrorists, anti-terrorist, free, al Qaeda, free nation, terrorists, terrorists, enemy security terrorists, anti-terrorist terrorists, terror, enemy, tyranny , enemies, freedom, freedom, ideologies of murder, atrocity, September the 11th 2001, car bombers and assassins, freedom, freedom, flying the flag, freedom, freedom, September the 11th 2001, enemies”.

Here's a little game for fun: 4 major words often linked to Iraqin a recent past seem to be missing.. can you guess which ones?


Bush's Speech & the Politics of Fear.

For those of us who remember 2003, the reason for the war in Iraq was to 'uncover weapons of mass destruction' and prevent Saddam Hussein from using them. It was a question of national if not global security. When that did not happen, well, the administration tried to link the war to the 'global war on terror' and to '9/11', and by repeating it over and over again (with the help of right-wing media), a lot of people believed it. The greatest motivation for such a war was the strongest emotion in humans - fear. As a result peole were ready to buy anything.
Last February polls showed that 64 % of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had strong links to Al Qaeda (up slightly from 62% in November) and 61 % believed that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was a serious threat to U.S. security (down slightly from 63% in November).
Well naturally last night, Bush evoked 9/11 to justify the war in Iraq , trying in a gross fashion to scare people into buying the carnage in Iraq. But things have changed - the 9/11 commission clearly dismissed possible links between Al Qaead and Saddam Hussein a couple of weeks ago, polls suggest that people are very concerned and doubtful about the war and 52 % of them say the administration “deliberately misled” the public about why we went to war.
So it is unlikely that the 'politics of fear' continuously played by this administration and their neo-con allies will work much longer. Their use of the tragedy of 9/11 to justify an enormous 'mistake' (which has resulted in more American and Iraqideaths) and their unwillingness to recognize that they were wrong may even back fire. but it may take time before a majority Americans see what has been plainly obvious to the rest of the world. Hopefully, Bush's latest propaganda speech will be a wake-up call for some.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Paranoia runs high.

When I watched the NBC News last night, I was dumbfounded by the realization that paranoia could run so high.:

For weeks, America was on edge as security operations went into high gear. Almost 30 international flights were canceled, inconveniencing passengers flying Air France, British Air, Continental and Aero Mexico.

But senior U.S. officials now tell NBC News that the key piece of information that triggered the holiday alert was a bizarre CIA analysis, which turned out to be all wrong.

CIA analysts mistakenly thought they'd discovered a mother lode of secret al-Qaida messages. They thought they had found secret messages on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language television news channel, hidden in the moving text at the bottom of the screen, known as the "crawl," where news headlines are summarized.
An excellent illustration that fear is the greatest thing to fear, as we have extenseively discussed before but hold on, now that I'm thinking about it, Brian Williams blinked twice while reporting this... Any possible hidden message there? Any clue, anybody?


U.S. Image in the World.

A new poll about 'U.S. Image in the World' shows that anti-Americanism is not as high in the world today as it was during the U.S.-led war with Iraq, but the overall image of Uncle Sam is till - to nobody's surprise - very negative throughout the world.
There is a few interesting elements to underline, however:
  • It seems however that such a negative view is very much linked to president Bush except for India (to the great delight of Thomas Friedman no doubt)
  • The American people are basically seen as 'hardworking and honest' but 'too religious' while most a majority of Americans think of themselves as not religious enough, thus in agreement with... muslim countries.:
"The biggest gap between the way Americans are seen by other Western countries and the way they see themselves," the poll said, "is with respect to religion." Majorities in France and the Netherlands and large numbers of people in Great Britain, Germany, Canada and Spain "see the U.S. as too religious," Pew reported."By contrast, a 54 percent majority of Americans say their country is not religious enough," the poll said "On this point, Muslims find themselves in rare agreement with the American public. Majorities in Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon and Turkey all believe the United States is not religious enough."

So in other words, when it comes to religion, Americans have more in common with their Muslim brothers than with their European cousins.
Favorability ratings of the United States - while well below levels of 2002, before a trans-Atlantic gulf opened over Iraq - improved slightly even in France and Germany, as both sides have sought to mend the earlier wounds. says the I.H.T.
My theory (largely influenced by André Kaspi) is that in France, the elite is much more anti-American than the people, while in Germany it tends to be the opposite. )

One last note: Germans strikingly underestimated their own popularity. While only half thought their country was well-liked, Germany received the highest favorability rating of the five economic powers in the survey, particularly from its historic foe, France.


Monday, June 27, 2005

Dordogne-shire : a Utopia or a dream?

Yes, the French socio-economic model is going through a hard time - France is actually trying to find a balance between quality of life and competitiveness.
While N.Y. Times neo-con editoralist Thomas Friedman plays his favorite sport - French bashing - calling them 'a bunch of antiglobalist Gaullist Luddites' [incidently, he is the one who once said 'France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy.', a good illustration of his quasi-racist agenda], many Britons continue to move to France by the thousands "in search of the good life a la francaise - sunshine, excellent schools and health care, and a slower, gentler way of living", as The Guardian explains, to the point that the French southern region of vineyards and medieval villages called 'Dordogne' is now nicknamed 'Dordogneshire'.
Now it is true that the British who move to France don't do it to become rich and in fact, a lot of young French people often go to live in Britain to make more money and avoid the problems resulting of a sluggish economy with a 10% unemployment. But while Britain has fewer saftey nets, worse public schools and expensive care, there are fewer people unemployed.
The question is whether France can really have its cake and eat it too. It seems to me that it is a question of prioritizing goals. Maybe the French should accept some privatization, [which a lot of leaders do against popular sentiment] and focus all their effort on a smaller number of priorities - their 'high-quality healthcare to all, including the unemployed and homeless' and their 'rigorous public schools that guarantee the same education for all children, rich and poor'. It seems to me that it would be 'fair deal' that might turn the 'French Utopia' into a 'French Dream'.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

Darker is Better.

Eating dark chocolate may have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system in healthy people, the results of a new study suggest.
Something that my body and I have always known somehow. Boy, it feels good to know you've always been right eating all that dark chocolate over the years... ;-)


Internet 2.0

Is this news to anyone else? Are they seriously considering building an entirely new internet? Is that even possible? I just stumbled across this in the WaPo today and was left scratching my head. Yes, this animal is big and bulky, but can it really be rebuilt?


Quote of the day.

"Being born in the elite in the U.S. gives you a constellation of privileges that very few people in the world have ever experienced," Professor Levine said. "Being born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada"


Friday, June 24, 2005

Class Matters (part 3) - on T.V. ? Not Always.

In its series on 'Class' the N.Y. Times had a chapter on culture... well, actually it was on television. One of their major points is to say that whereas TV 'used to be fascinated' with ‘blue collar life’, it now shows us a world of 'cops, doctors and lawyers'.
It seems to me that the word ‘fascinated’ is a somewhat an exaggeration. Yes there were shows like "The Honeymooners," "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son" and "Roseanne," but those were the exceptions rather than the rule. Besides, I don’t know why TV should necessarily reflect reality. Both television and cinema are forms of entertainment and people want to dream their everyday lives away when they go to the movies or watch a fiction. They want to be entertained. That is why the musicals were so popular during the depression. It takes excellent writing and cast to make a ‘blue collar’ show (or any show about the ‘guy next door’ for that matter) really entertaining. Life and routine can be a bore on TV. Look at ‘Desperate Housewives’ which is supposed to be about a regular upper-middle class neighborhood… well, hardly your regular everyday life. Look at a good show like ‘Lost’ - do you often see a plane crash with so many (mostly good looking) people coming out of it without a scratch? No! But frankly, who cares? It’s a very good show anyway.

However, I’d agree with the N.Y.Times that ‘reality television’ is a twist of the American dream for wealth and fame (although mostly fame) are instantaneous and not the result of hard work. It presents a very unrealistic way of rising in class. But there too, maybe the NYT reads too much into it. Those shows are mere entertainment. I’m not sure people are really fooled into taking them seriously – and if they are, well, then it won’t change anything and they probably deserve to be. After all, there will always be some form of ‘opium for the masses’.


Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Issue of the Day... who cares?!

A constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the U.S. flag moved closer to reality. Wednesdaywhen the House of Representatives passed it 286-130. (USA Today)
Now don't these people have anything better to do?


Drought and Corn.

The scorching heat wave sweeping Western Europe is not much compared to that of India but at least they have the Monsoon rain to hope for over there, we don’t. Sure, the heat is a pain but there are ways around it. The drought, however, should be more of a concern. After all, about 60% of our drinking water comes from natural sources. Extreme drought has gripped most of Portugal and Spain and is now threatening northern Europe.

A few regions in France have already taken water restriction measures, and this is where the thing are becoming really interesting. Most of the water is actually used for agriculture, and about 50% of the water used for agriculture goes to corn. Now I am no farmer but from what I have read, corn happens to need much soil moisture during its growing seasons, (spring and summer) which means constant irrigation. One must also bear in mind that corn production used to be very small in France but that has changed – from 1,111,995 acres (450.000 ha) in 1955 it increased to about 8.6 million acres (3. 5 million ha) today, with so much more water needed. The European C.A.P. has greatly encouraged corn production by giving more subsidies to cereal farmers, and this does not even take into account the other effects of intensive farming such as water pollution…

So whereas there are many things that cannot be done about droughts, there are some things that can be done fairly - quickly and effectively. Once again it seems that Blair makes a lot of sense, let's cut the damn subsidies to corn farmers!


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Crying Wolf.

This week, The Economist had a good article on drugs – more particularly on methamphetamine (also called meth, glass, ice, or crystal). Apparently, one of the spooky effects of meth is ‘early ageing’, with cheeks sinking, eyes turning glassy and teeth rotting (also called ‘meth mouth’) and in case of heavy users, a shrinking of the brain. It is also America’s leading drug problem and is becoming increasingly so in Europe.

Now the interesting twist is that despite “the evident dangers of increased meth use, the U.S. government’s anti-drug policy is once again on marijuana”. A similar thing is happening in France where the debate has shifted from discussion on relaxing the legislation on marijuana (in the late 90s) to campaigns showing cannabis as a nasty drug. It is a drug the same way alcohol and cigarettes are drugs, so I really don’t understand why the mood is suddenly so negative towards marijuana.

The Economist article ends on a wise note, saying that the anti-marijuana campaign may backfire once teenagers realize that cannabis is not so bad. It's all about credibility of course, and most certainly they won't believe future anti-meth campaigns that tell them meth causes terrible things - which it does.


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Class in the U.S. (part 2)

As we have discussed before, the N.Y. Times has recently published an interesting series on class in the United-States. One chapter concerns religion, particularly the evangelical Christians (by ‘evangelicaism’ here, we mean the more conservative version of Protestantism, which is how the term is now often used in the U.S. even though the term in its strictly lexical definition means 'the belief in the gospel') .

It did not come as a surprise to read that the class status of evangelicals has evolved in the last 40 years from a "religion of the disinherited" to a religion of the affluent.
This change is explained by a number of things, including:

  • the Sun Belt expansion of the 1970's and the Texas oil boom, (which brought new wealth and businesses to the regions where evangelical churches had been most heavily concentrated),
  • the shift of some southern states from the Democratic Party to the Republican and by t
  • the growing political activism of those churches. The conservative Christian political movement seldom developed in poor, rural Bible Belt towns.

The article thus explains the new influence of evangelicals in American culture and politics by their growing wealth and education.
Then a large part of the analysis focuses on the power strategy of the new affluent evangelicals who are trying to influence the
Mecca of the secular elite – the Ivy League schools ( the most prestigious and selective universities in the U.S.) through the Christian Union, an organization intended to "reclaim the Ivy League for Christ,".
Personally, I'm all for 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom of religion', but the main problem is that of course the lofty ‘spiritual goal’ of organisation such as the Christian Union comes with a very earthly Conservative political agenda, which I think has very little to do with what Jesus has tought us. Their move is clearly not (just? at all?) guided by mere altruism, or by concerns for 'wretched souls' – it is about political influence - the leaders of tomorrow as of today will graduate form those schools. One good illustration to keep in mind - seven of the nine Supreme Court justices are Ivy League grads.

NOTE: it is interesting to note that in France, the evangelical Christians tend to be theologicaly but not politically conservative. In fact there is a great variety of political beliefs within the French evangelical church even though a majority is probably more to the left - for historical reasons
[the French Protestants used to be discriminated by the Catholic church and the catholic elite and so they tend to emphasize social and economic 'equality' and justice. Being in the minority, I think, has made them more aware of the plight of other minorities, and this is still true today]


Monday, June 20, 2005

Blair is blamed but he makes sense.

Blair is blamed for this latest European crisis over the E.U budget but it seems really hard to not agree with him when he says this:

"It simply does not make sense in this new world for Europe to spend over 40 per cent of its budget on the common agricultural policy, representing five per cent of the EU population producing less than two per cent of Europe's output,"
And as he argued as well, 'the 40% of the EU budget taken up with agricultural subsidies was seven times the total amount spent by the EU on science, education and innovation.' So it is not really idiotic to consider that it might be time to consider goals worth of the 21st century.
Where Blair is wrong is when he refuses to increase the E.U. budget at all, and I see
Jean-Claude Juncker’s point when he spoke of a "cause for shame" after the EU's newest, and poorest, member states offered to take a cut in their shares if a deal could be brokered.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Mundane.

In their profile, the Joker-to-the-Thief team said that their fascination for French and American cultures included 'exploring the mundane'. Well, here's something mundane for you - something that concerns all of us, men, women, people of all colors and ages or sizes...
Today's topic - the flushing toilet, something way too often ignored although obviously widely used in both countries (who said we did not have much in common). One great technological advancement in France, even better than the TGV (High Speed Train) or the Minitel, is the dual flushing system.
As you may be able to see in this picture, the system actually has two buttons (or sometimes it is a specialized handle) for flushing, using a full flush for solids or half-flush for liquids.

For most dual-flush toilets, the half flush uses 3 litres (0.8 gallons) of water, which is half the water used in most standard low-flush toilets. The full flush uses 6 litres (or1.6 gallons) of water. The dual flush toilet saves about 30% over a regular flush toilet, or about 12.800 liters (or 3,400 gallons) of water per year.
Can you imagine what a little button can do?! Unfortunately, whereas this system is fairly common in French homes, it has yet to be widespread in the U.S. , even though it seems like a fairly painless way of saving water. In fact, I have personally never seen it in American homes, have you?

Incidently, (and to finish on a cultural note), I have since then learnt that the first flushing toilet is said to have been invented by Sir John Harington in 1596 for Queen Elizabeth I but
his design was ridiculed in England, and was adopted (therefore?) in France under the name Angrez. The design had a flush valve to let water out of the tank, and a wash-down design to empty the bowl. This system would not be in use on a large scale for another 182 years though.
So many generations sacrificed!


Friday, June 17, 2005

Le bac - French Rite of Passage.

As ‘French-American’ educators and explorers of each other’s culture, here’s a topic of interest to us - the French baccalaureate which has just taken place.

Unlike the U.S., France schools do not have graduation ceremonies with students marching onto the stage in their black gowns, the reading of speeches and the giving of diplomas. They don’t have proms, the formal end-of-high-school dance either, with guys dressed in tuxedos and bowties, and girls with their formal dresses and corsage (i.e. ‘bouquet’, not to be confused with the French word which means ‘blouse’).

Yet the French also have their rite of passage, it is ‘le bac’ (the baccalaureate).

Le bac is the end-of-high school exam that French students must pass in order to go to college and university. In France it has become a real rite-of-passage in a very Jacobin fashion since it was created by Napoleon in 1808 - every student is supposed to sit for the exam at the exact same time, and if a single mistake is made in some corner of the country or if some fraud is suspected then an alternative subject is ready. At the core of the procedure of this very costly exam (an estimated 65 euros per student) is the idea of fairness.

Every year, the exam is launched with the Philosophy exam, with topics such as “whether language's only purpose is to communicate” or “whether being free simply means not encountering obstacle” (2005 exam).

The exam and the subjects are the hot topics in the media every year, with the very same reports and articles about the students’ anxieties, the preparation, etc….

This year, a total of 634,168 students are taking "le bac," from mainland France to South Pacific territories or India (Pondichery) and in lots of countries with French lycees, or high schools.

It is worth noticing that the French are very attached to their ‘bac’. As pointed out in this article, “In France, a student who goes on to higher education doesn't say he has a university degree, for instance. He says he has a "bac plus two" or "bac plus four," depending on the number of years at university.”.This year, the (previous) Minister of Education tried to modify the exam by using test points accumulated over the year toward passing the exam. Well, there was general uproar and, bien sûr, demonstrations and strikes. The minister eventually backed down.
The bac is clearly more than a mere exam in
France, it also serves as a unifying element to a nation that has lost some of its other rites of passage (such as the mandatory military service for young men). It is perceived as part of the French identity.

This year, 4 million tests are being corrected by 129,441 correctors, (all high school teachers) and I’m one of them. You get about 80 papers to grade over a week, and it takes about ½ an hour to grade one single paper, so it is quite a bit of (boring and repetitive) work that one must do as exactly and fairly and as possible.

Here’s a few basics concerning the bac in case you might be interested:

Most examinations are given in essay-form. The student is given a substantial block of time (depending on the exam, from two to four hours) to complete a four to six page, well-argued paper. Math and science exams are problem sets. All foreign language exams include a short translation section as well.

A passing mark is a 10 out of 20. Three levels of honors are also given. A mark of 12 will earn a student a "mention assez-bien", a mark of 14 will earn a "mention bien" and a mark of 16 will earn a mention of "très bien". If a student earns an 8, he or she is permitted to sit for the "épreuve de ratrapage", an oral exam given in two subjects. If the student does well enough in these orals to raise the total grade to a 10, then he or she receives his or her baccalauréat. If the student does badly in the orals or receives below an 8, he or she may choose to sit for the entire examination once again in September. If in September, the student fails, he or she may choose to repeat the final year of lycée.


Thursday, June 16, 2005

English matters.

In France, people tend to be wary of English as they often see it as threat to the core of the French identity and as a weapon of Anglo-saxon materialism that ultimately undermines their culture. But no matter what, English has become the ‘lingua franca’ of today’s (and tomorrow’s) world.

A similar debate has been taking place in India where the dominance of English raises questions about Indian national identity and even more about the legacy of British colonialism but as this article originally published in Outlook India shows, a lot of Indians have now come to terms with their fears and they are embracing English, in their own way. The author makes it very clear that it is about being competitive on the global market but he also underlines that this does have to be to the detriment of one’s own culture. He differentiates between ‘mother tongue’ or ‘home tongue’ and ‘power tongue’ (i.e. English).

When Indians embrace English in order to win in the global market place, they don't turn their back on their mother tongue. While English empowers us, our mother tongue continues to give us identity. I agree with Ananthamurthy that in our big cities, we retain our 'home tongues', while using a 'street tongue' and working in the 'power tongue'

I like such a pragmatic approach which to me is very wise. This is all the more interesting when you keep in mind that most people in the world today are actually bilingual. (Most French speaking Africans, for instance, also speak a local language which they have kept through years of colonial occupation). The author also underlines this pragmatic approach when he says that:
Every Indian mother knows that English is the passport to her child's future – to a job, to entry into the middle class – and this is why English medium schools are mushrooming in city slums and villages alike.

Now the Indians have come up with a more accepted form of English called ‘Hinglish’ (a mix of Hindi and English) which the author says “should in fact be called Inglish because it is increasingly pan-India's street language”, but unlike Franglais which is a loaded term, Inglish is very popular in India, even in the parts of Indian that don’t speak Hindi. Apparently, Hindi has also gained popularity throughout India thanks to Bollywood movies. He goes as far as thinking that after American English, Inglish “or at least an English heavily influenced by India (and China, to a lesser extent)” will be the next world’s language.
An interesting idea that I still find hard to embrace. It is English
which is now becoming an Indian language but the Indians are leading the way “in a world where a quarter of the people already know the world language and where experts predict another half will be English literate within a generation,” when China has the “objective to make every Chinese literate in English by the 2008 Olympics”.

As unrealistic as it might be, it reveals one thing – the two largest countries in the world have undertaken the immense task of embracing English as the necessary language for the future. So it is about time that France, a second-rate power, should take it more seriously and consider it a national priority for the future if it wants to keep a voice that will be heard, i.e. taken seriously.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Class in the U.S. (part 1)

A few weeks ago, the New York Times started a series on the role of class in contemporary American society. The findings are quite interesting and they challenge the idea of greater social mobility and equality of opportunity at the core of the American dream, even though the Dream is very much alive in the minds of most Americans.
The after-tax income of the top 1 percent of American households jumped 139 percent, to more than $700,000, from 1979 to 2001, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which adjusted its numbers to account for inflation. The income of the middle fifth rose by just 17 percent, to $43,700, and the income of the poorest fifth rose only 9 percent.
As could be expected, 'class' (particularly income) seems to play a bigger role than before in education and health. The explanation given to the jump in inequality income is the usual one - globalization and technological change that have made education and skill more necessary and valued on the market. (and as could be expected, 'class' - particularly income - seems to play a bigger role than before in education and health.)
The most surprising part is that, against all odds, mobility is in the U.S. is not higher than in France or Britain and lower than in Scandinavian countries.
Morevover, and that's an interesting twist, most Americans still believe that there is more social mobility today than 30 years ago, contrary to what the figures show.
40 percent of Americans believed that the chance of moving up from one class to another had risen over the last 30 years, a period in which the new research shows that it has not. Thirty-five percent said it had not changed, and only 23 percent said it had dropped.
This can probably be explained by the fact that this is not a hot political issues, (unlike abortion or gay marriage) and therefore it does not make it to the headlines.
It is also a sign of American (blind?) optimism and faith in the future. After all, wealth has continued to increase, and so each slice of the pie has become bigger even if the slicing has been increasingly unequal, and even though merit is class-based, the U.S. s still in many ways a meritocratic society.
This is really interesting if compared to (Continental) Europe which holds a much more negative view of its economic situation. Europeans may be more in tune with reality but at the same time, they may also lack the necessary idealism that makes a nation move forward. It is clear that the education and health systems you find in most of Western Europe have reduced the inequality in the 'slicing of the pie' but the perception in Europe is that European pie (and thus each slice) is not getting bigger.
We all know you cannot "have your cake and eat it too", but it would be nice to have a bigger cake with better slicing and that should be the goal.


Tuesday, June 14, 2005

French ex-Hostage Florence Aubenas told the story of her ordeal to journalists today after 5 months in a 2X4 meter basement. What is literally astonishing is not just her testimony (even though it is fascinating) but it is her way of humouring it as well as the simplicity of her persona. An incredible woman indeed.


Unnecessary Crisis in the E.U. !

Following the French and Duch 'NO' votes to the E.U Constitution, and in the midst of a major crisis due to the vaccum left by a lack of plan B, Europe is now again facing a major crisis - this time over the E.U. budget. The major key players in this new drama are Chirac of course, Blair and Shroeder. Chirac along with Shroeder is putting pressure on Blair for giving up the British rebate.
This rebate of three billion pounds (4.32 billion euros, 5.6 billion dollars) on its annual contribution to the EU budget was originally negociated in 1984 by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The situation has obviously changed since then as Britain is now much more prosperous than it was during the economic crisis of the 80s. The rebate was also initially justified by the fact that the UK did not get much of the farm subsidies given to France or Germany by Brussels. Fair enough.
So now of course, Blair refuses to renegociate the rebate unless changes are made in the entire budget, which means renegociation of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policicy). Of course, Chirac won't do it, saying:
“I’m not disposed to compromise on the unanimous accord reached in 2002 on the Common Agricultural Policy and it is a question that I am not prepared to revisit.” , adding “Our British friends must be aware of how things are changing, and therefore of the necessity of a greater fairness in the burden carried by each member.”

This really blows my mind. Jacques Chirac, the most unpopular president in 30 years, who got humiliated by a vote that underlined his disconnection from the French people has the guts to tell the British government that they "must be aware of how things are changing". Yes, indeed, things have changed but Mr Chirac does not seem to have learn his lesson and remains as arrogant as ever. Once again, Chirac acts as an Old (Absolute) Monarch who is 'not disposed to compromise'. I thought that Europe was precisey about making compromises for the good of the entire union..... !!!
The form put aside, the core of the question is really whether the French farmers are worth a new crisis in Europe. A majority of them have voted against the Constitution even though they are the ones who gained the most from Brussels in the last 30 years.
Nearly half of the EU budget (48 billion Euro) of 98 billion Euro is alocated to agricultural spending, and France is the first beneficiary, yet the farmers represent only 2.6% of the working population in France (official data found on the website of the French Ambassy in the U.S.).
So, it may be about time that Chirac should take into account the other 97.4 % of us whenever he makes a decision for the nation. It is time he should stop acting like an all-powerful monarch with a Napoleon wannabe Prime Minister. So let's renegociate the CAP and get the British to also pay their due in greater fairness.
Unfortunately, our stubborn Monarch is unlikely to follow such a wise path..and Europe will lose yet more credibility and strength in the world...


'Kung Fu Hustle' - A Cult Movie To Be.

Last night I saw the long awaited Stephen Chow's 'Kung Fu Hustle'. It is fairly safe to predict that 'KFH' will soon be a cult movie of its own.
Sure it has some of the features of previous popular Chinese action movies that you can find notably in "Crouching Tiger", "Hidden Dragon", "Hero", or "House of Flying Daggers" such as with swooping choregraphy and thrilling combat but it is more than anything else a hilarious comedy with crazy Looney-Tune like ideas at an incredible speed. There are also tons of references to pop culture and movies (from Sergio Leone's westerns to Stanley Kubrick's 'The shining' or the 1982 martial-art movie 'Buddha's Palm', and many others). It does not take itself seriously which is probably why Chow has been able to push the limits of creativity to a new level.
So if you want good entertainment, go see it, you'll have a good laugh and will not believe your eyes. And next time you see a frog, well.... watch out.

Unilkely Kung Fu Heroin


Monday, June 13, 2005

Congo: primitive atrocities and high technology savior.

This week's Economist had a good article on the war in Congo, a war which is more or les over now even though tension remains high. Make a pause for a couple of minutes and read the following chilling account.
It's a good exemple of the coexistence of sheer primitive horror (similar to that you may have read in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness which was also taking place in Congo) with high technology that happens, in this case, to have made a difference. This is the way the world goes sometimes...

First, the horror:
Even by the standards of war, some of the atrocities in eastern Congo are shocking. Zainabo Alfani, for example, was stopped by men in uniform on a road in Ituri last year. She and 13 other women were ordered to strip, to see if they had long vaginal lips, which the gunmen believed would have magical properties. The 13 others did not, and were killed on the spot. Zainabo did. The gunmen cut them off and then gang-raped her. Then they cooked and ate her two daughters in front of her. They also ate chunks of Zainabo's flesh. She escaped, but had contracted HIV. She told her story to the UN in February, and died in March.
Then comes some unexpected use of technology, helping corruption but saving a girl's life:
Veronique, an office worker, was separated from her daughter by the war. When peace broke out, she booked an aeroplane ticket for her (penniless) girl to rejoin her. But before the daughter could board the plane, she was detained. Her yellow fever vaccination card had been stamped by rebel health authorities, and so was invalid, the officials tut-tutted. Alas, she had no money for a bribe.

But Veronique was able to send her the equivalent of cash by mobile telephone. She bought $20 worth of telephone cards. These give you a code number which you key into your phone and thereby “recharge” it with pre-paid airtime. Veronique called the obstructive officials and gave them her code numbers to recharge their own mobile phones. It took only minutes to send her bribe across the country—faster than a bank transfer, which would in any case have been impossible, since there is no proper banking system.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Guantanamo - hyperbole and myth.

Undoubtedly Guantanamo's closure would be a good thing - for one thing it has become a rally point for people denouncing the U.S. then, and despite what the president may say, it is not in line with international standards (nor with any standard at all for it has its own standards, apparently). Moreover there have been enough reports of abuse at the facility to undermine this country's reputation for upholding human rights, thus making its credibility more fragile.
On the other hand, and as it has been pointed out in many editorials this week, Amnesty International's comparison of Guantanamo Bay to the Gulags of the Soviet Union is ludicrous and has somewhat undermined the credibiliy of the whole report. A good article published by The International Herald Tribune yesterday gives a good analysis of the danger of hyperbole and dubious historical comparisons:
it revives the tired specter of moral equivalency between flawed democracies and totalitarian dictatorships - a specter particularly obscene when real gulags still exist in places like North Korea. It also gives the Bush administration an "out" to deflect attention from its own policies to its critics' hyperbole.The hyperbole is wrong - but that's cold comfort to those of us who believe America should hold itself to a higher standard than "we're better than the gulag.

Yet one thing bothers me in this otherwise excellent article by Cathy Young - it is this part:
It is important to remember that the United States is dealing with the unprecedented situation of de facto enemy combatants who belong not to the army of a hostile state but to a vast, murky terror network - a network that proved its deadliness on Sept. 11, 2001, and other occasions. This does not give America carte blanche for indefinite detention without charges, let alone torture of suspects, but it does pose serious issues of balancing civil rights and national security that other democracies, such as France, are grappling with as well.
Her use of the (albeit quite common) myth of "a vast, murky terror network" troubles me for, as we have already discussed on our blog before, while terrorism is an undeniable reality, the idea of a "vast network" organization is not only untrue but dangerous. The Christian Science Monitor is one among many that has analyzed the myth of a powerful terrorist network, showing that Al Qaeda has become the easy label used by both politicians and the media to name the perpetrators of all terrorist attacks:
By allowing Al Qaeda to become the top brand name of international terrorism, Washington has packaged the "enemy" into something with a structure, a leader, and a main area of operation.
So it is a bit ironic that while rightfully denouncing the hyperbole of the Gulag comparison, Cathy Young somehow 'justifies' the initial idea of Guantanamo by using a threat of mythical proporitions which has little to do with reality.

Last but not least, it seems to me that the closure of the prison camp won't change much of anything if the real issues of abuse and due process are not addressed. Those issues as well as the question of how relevant the info obtained from the prisoners in Guantanamo should also be thrown into the public debate.


Saturday, June 11, 2005

Patriot Act - thou shalt not debate

In what has to be one of the all-time biggest cases of situational irony, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) House Republican and chair of the panel reviewing the Patriot Act, abruptly shut down debate on the act while the Democrats were speaking critically of it. Sensenbrenner, who authored portions of the act, felt that Dems and their witnesses had had enough time to present criticism of the controversial piece of legislation. Do you understand? The most important piece of legislation dealing with civil and human rights can't even sustain its own critical inquiry. Opposition was NOT allowed to finish speaking. Dems were left shouting into microphones that had been turned off. This sort of thing just blows my mind. I'd love to be wrong about this. Are there details I'm missing, or is this the biggest mockery of the democratic process we've seen since the President's "Town Hall" meetings?


Goodness, mind your manners!

Judith Martin, a.k.a Miss Manners, has written a new book of good manners in which she sums up her broad knowledge on the topic and dispenses it for her reading public. I haven't read the book, but the NY Times book review by Julia Reed gives it a thumbs up. I can't imagine writing such a book in our age of neanderthals and troglodytes, but if ever a people and time needed it, it is our people in our time. We've taken to insulting each other in politics (when's the last time you heard a really good political discussion?), avoiding each other in conversation (hello internet), and eating out of a bag. Forget the salad fork, we can hardly identify a metal fork.

Of course, the advice comes off as somewhat elitist (good manners are, after all, the bourgeoisie imitating the artistocrats) and for a feminine readership (how many husbands actually help with the thank you notes or even consider getting monogrammed sheets?) but she doesn't just give the typical 'which cutlery for which course' kind of advice. She also has some very practical advice for the rest of us, i.e. the non-elitist neanderthals:

...and she recognizes that there is a need for such social niceties as the hungover apology letter (you should laud your hostess's own behavior as ''magnificent'' while owning up to no specific behavior of your own).

note to self: write to compliment host, not to apologize for boorish behavior! Yep, got it. And one more thing, screw the monogrammed sheets.

By the way, don't you think Judith Martin looks a 70yr old Paris Hilton?


Friday, June 10, 2005

Journalists in Baghdad

Journalists have been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism in the last couple of years, especially since the beginning of the Iraq war, for being either too cushy with the present administration in Washington or for being too critical of the same. While some of it is deserved (CBS, Newsweek needed to apologize for not vetting sources, FoxNews & "Talon News" needed to explain their unprecedented access to officials) much of it is not. The press, for all its warts, still does one helluva good job providing information to the rest of us who sit in our comfortable armchairs reading about wars in Iraq, genocide in Darfur, AIDS in Africa, druglords in Afghanistan, etc. It's good to be reminded of this from time to time, which is why I was really struck by an excellent article in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly by their Iraq correspondant, William Langewiesche. It's a very non-politicized piece about the simple pleasures and trials of residing in Iraq and trying to provide coverage for an audience half a world away, both physically and mentally. Just read it. You'll be doing yourself a favor.


Thursday, June 09, 2005

What's in a pill....

This year is the 40th anniversary of the pill, or rather of the Supreme Court's decision that "legalized birth control for married women and that laid the groundwork for later decisions on abortion and birth control for unmarried women."
You might think that by now the pill would have been pretty much accepted by everyone. Apparently not. Some pharmacists have refused to fill doctors' prescriptions for birth control. Believe it or not, they see contraception as a form of abortion. Pro-Life Wisconsin director Peggy Hamill claims the following:
"We want to turn around the contraceptive mentality," she said. "The mentality that is unwelcoming to the gift of life that is a product of marriage."

And this is not just some red-neck reaction, Republican Sen. Tom Reynolds has been trying to pass a bill that would basically amount to a pharmacists' conscience clause measure that would give them legal ground for refusing to fill prescriptions for anything they see as a form of abortion. Thankfully, some Democratic Congressmen proposed a bill yesterday that would be the exact opposite and would require pharmacists to fill prescription contraception orders regardless of their moral beliefs.

It just blows my mind that some people could have the sort of medieval mentality that would consider that the goal of mariage should be to have children. In other words, it means that you should only have sex if you want to have children. What sort of backward notion is this?
The good thing though is that it will obviously never work. Sex is too great a thing for most of us to have it only when you want children.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Sky is (probably not) Falling!

Science is really taking a beating in the US right now. If it's a mock trial in Kansas pitting science against "intelligent design" (in which science lost!), it's the fact that more and more foreign scholars are finding it increasingly difficult to get visas to study and/or work in the US. The latter has the potential for some serious longterm consequences when you consider that study in the US has always been one way to spread American democratic ideals abroad. This lack of hospitality in the US has encouraged other countries to throw their doors wide open. France is now teaming with foreign scientist/researchers and the scramble is on for government money to put them to work.

Humourous interlude: If this administration is so against science and into shaping popular opinion, don't you think they would want to remind people that two of the 20th century's most ruthless leaders came to Marxism in Paris (Ho Chi Minh - 1917, Pol Pot - 1949)? Even Hollywood is playing that card. In the recent Sydney Pollack film, The Interpreter, we learn that the revolutionaries met during their schooling in France. It's almost become a cliché : Paris + Marxism = Revolutionary.

In the latest round of science vs politics, the White House has employed a former petroleum industry lobbyist to act as chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Policy. You can imagine where this is going. It's all rather predictable:

A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents.

Yep, that's pretty much what you'd expect. Why do they hate science? Do the scientists feel disrespected?

...the scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because all agency employees are forbidden to speak with reporters without clearance, said the kinds of changes made by Mr. Cooney had damaged morale. "I have colleagues in other agencies who express the same view, that it has somewhat of a chilling effect and has created a sense of frustration," he said.

Yep, disrespected. Here's an example of the type of changes Mr. Cooney made to the documents.

...a sentence in the October 2002 draft of "Our Changing Planet" originally read, "Many scientific observations indicate that the Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change." In a neat, compact hand, Mr. Cooney modified the sentence to read, "Many scientific observations point to the conclusion that the Earth may be undergoing a period of relatively rapid change."

You can see the edited documents yourself if you click the link on the front page of the NY Times.

Meanwhile the trickle of foreign scientists continues. Pretty soon they'll be joined by American scientists who feel disrespected and unwelcome and within their own country. Paris wants your scientists Mr. Bush. Vive la Révolution!


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Accidental Wisdom.

The American president can show some accidental wit and wisdom:
'See, in my line of work, you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.'
(Bush in Greece, N.Y., May 24, once more explaining his Social Security plan to a town hall meeting of perfectly average citizens, except they had all been pre-screened to allow only those who agree with him into the hall.)

For audio version, click here and for more Bushism click here.


Monday, June 06, 2005

France et l'anti-américanisme

The Joker and Thief recently attended a one day colloque in Paris at the Cité Universitaire on the topic "Du modèle US à la superpuissance?" It was intended for history teachers in the French schools, to give them an opportunity to discuss America as a topic for their classes. Already the US occupies much of the curriculum since it dominates current events. But talking about the US in a balanced way can be a bit tricky in France right now with students more than willing to reduce American culture to McDonalds and Michael Jackson (et alors?...) than to discuss any upside of American society.

The first speaker was the reason for our presence, Andre Kaspi, professor of American history at Paris IV - la Sorbonne, who gave a talk on the reasons for the anti-américanisme in France today. His points are worth outlining here.

First of all, there are three types of people that express opinions on the US in France:
- those who know it well
- those who don't know it but are curious
- those who don't know it but think they do

The last one is obviously the most vocal and the most annoying since they generally take their limited experience with the US as representative of the whole. Bush for them becomes the typical American. While we can agree that he's almost a caraciture of the ugly American abroad, he's hardly representative of the "typical American." - if such a thing exists. For a country of nearly 300 million, it's difficult to find general principles that apply everywhere at all times.

Of this anti-américanisme, Kaspi describes three types:

Political - the idea that the American society is characterized by rampant consumerism (i.e. How Much?). There is, as he describes it, a paradoxical set of views which most French hold as well, that the US is extremely materialistic yet profoundly religious.

Economic - the rich get richer and the poor poorer, business is king ("business interests prevented them from signing Kyoto")

Social - the words typically associated with any criticism of American society are racism, genocide (of the indigenous populations), poverty, drugs, apartheid, etc.

While these firt two topics are interesting, it was the third that provided the most fruitful discussion, "How to explain the French/American relationship."

Most explanations today offer one of two explanations, either A) that the US and France share a common interest in human rights and personal freedom (the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Human Rights were both inspired by the Englightenment ideas circulating in the French salons of the 18th century), or that B) France was at one time in the position that the US now occupies, having once offered the French universal model and had its own civilizing mission. Kaspi find these two theories unsatisfactory alone and offers a third, C) that France has become one of the most Americanized countries in the world. It's cultural reference points are becoming American - cinema, food, politics, fashion, music, language, etc. - and the only ones they can identify as truly French are those reference points of contention or hostility. It's an interesting point, one that can certainly be used to expand our understanding of le sentiment anti-américanain which exists in France. This American influence has certainly not slipped in under the radar. What Americans call globlization, the French refer to as américanisation.

Unfortunately for the French, the term anti-américanisme is a rather recent term (1968) and takes its inspiration from the left-wing protests on the American university campuses of that era. In other words, in this country that goes to great lengths to impose its own linguistic standards, the word used to reject America is itself an American import! Somehow, that just seems right.


Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself.

As I mentioned before, I recently saw an excellent BBC documentary called 'The Power of Nightmares’. The thought provoking thesis at the core of this three part documentary is that the threat of Al Qaeda has been greatly exaggerated, and somewhat fabricated for political purposes.

You’re thinking ‘Liberal Propaganda’, and that’s initially what I feared, but the reputation of the writer and producer, Adam Curtis is excellent and his rigorous and meticulous intellectual analysis are quite obvious. In other words, Curtis is no Michael Moore. Over the past dozen years, via similarly ambitious documentary series such as Pandora's Box, The Mayfair Set and The Century of the Self, Curtis has established himself as perhaps the most acclaimed maker of serious television programmes in Britain.

His film makes the case that "in a post-ideological age, politicians increasingly use fear, rather than vision, to bolster their positions.". The documentary does not deny the existence of terrorism but it puts it into perspective and shows that it is not the super-coordinated international terrorist network with sleeper cells on every continent everybody, especially the media, assumes it is. In the end, the terrorists are a number of extremely dangerous but often disparate small groups of extremists

Adam Curtis also draws an interesting parallel between the Neo-con philosophy inspired by Leo Strauss and that of the Fundamentalist Islamists – a parallel based on their common hatred for the same enemy : liberalism and individualism. Both groups believe that moral relativism and individuality threatens to break down the unity of their respective societies, hence the need for a common enemy which unifies people. Curtis also explains quite convincingly the alliance between the religious right in the US and the secular neo-cons by pointing out the Leo Strauss’ belief that religion is a noble lie - a necessary myth to ensure a stable society and social order.

When I heard about this documentary, I feared a Michael Moore-like- conspiracy theory but it was not. It was quite factual and gave a lot of historical background, with the a tone that combines traditional BBC authority with something more modern and sceptical. The world is thus not divided into absolute good and evil but it draws a much more complex picture. For example, instead of esaily blaming 'evil' politicians, it shows that they have themselves been formatted into taking the ‘precautionary principle’ (which originated in the Green Movement) to an extreme and as a result politicians assume the worst.

A good illustration was also the dirty Bomb which according to some experts would actually pose little danger.

“The American department of energy, says Dr Theodore Rockwell, an authority on radiation, has simulated a dirty bomb explosion, "and they calculated that the most exposed individual would get a fairly high dose [of radiation], not life-threatening." And even this minor threat is open to question. The test assumed that no one fled the explosion for one year. Apparently, it is the panic resulting from the fear that would have a real impact.
But who is ready to listen to such a non-dramatic message? Indeed, drama sells better.

To conclude, Curtis says that both the fundamentalists and the neo-cons have a similar interest in sustaining the "fantasy" of the war on terror. Whether the thesis in this film fits your political outlook or not, the documentary is definitely worth watching and discussing as it debunks many of the myths we all live in. In the end, it also has the power to give us intellectual reasons to not be so afraid of the world we live in. In other words, it is a great remedy to the fear that tempts us all for 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.".

PS: If you want more details on the program we just talked about, here’s a good link.


Sunday, June 05, 2005

Science is no religion and religion is no science.

On this beautiful Sunday, the Lord’s Day, I find it quite appropriate to tackle again the controversial issue of Evolution and ‘Intelligent design’ as it has been in all over the news in recent months and days. I am myself a Christian (of the Protestant Kind) but being European I hold rather liberal views both in politics ad theology. I also tend to have the greatest respect for the scientific world and happen to know quite a few – especially in the science of maths.

First it is important to say that the Evolution/Creation debate is strictly an American issue and for most Westerners in the world today that very fact seems to indicate that the States is the only country that has not taken the Enlightenment seriously – and this is a moderate way of putting it.

Second, I find it interesting to read in Courrier International that this recent issue of the scientific magazine Nature has created great controversy and has resulted in a great number of mails including furious scientists.

Above is the cover of the April 28, 2005 issue of Nature.
Is the cover 'sticker' a taste of the future? Few scientists have any time for the concept of intelligent design. Its thesis is that scientific knowledge cannot explain the natural world fully, and never will. Biological systems are too complex, gaps in the fossil record too large and interspecies differences too great to be explained by natural selection alone. Based on those perceptions, proponents of intelligent design argue that an intelligent creator must be directing life on Earth. OK as theology, but not as science. Yet intelligent design is catching on among students on US university campuses, and some academics offer courses on the subject. Is the presence of intelligent design in universities legitimizing the movement? And what should scientists do about it? Geoff Brumfiel reports from the ideological front line.
The question is not so much, I think, about whether the debate should be addressed by professors in American Colleges but whether it should be taught in science or in philosophy or religion.

I m no scientific myself but it seems pretty clear to me that the greatest danger here is to confuse religion, philosophy and science. These are very different fields. There needs not be a war between science and religion precisely because they do not deal with the same question. They may sometimes overlap at best but the very nature of faith makes it foreign to science.
I find it amazing, that Salvador Cordova, one of the main advocates of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) club can say this:

"If I could prove even one small part of my faith through purely scientific methods that would be highly satisfying intellectually,".

It is as if he wanted to prove God’s very existence scientifically. Cordova’s quest is intellectually incoherent- even idiotic and extremely arrogant. It shows a great state of confusion – if not a lack of faith.

On the other hand, some Darwinists have also used their cause to go a step too far and try to ‘debunk’ religion. This is nothing new, and Charles Darwin’s theories were used in the 19th century and early 20th century to justify a social view based on the "survival of the fittest." also known as ‘social Darwinism’. And this has been going on even recently:

Popular contemporary biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have also exacerbated the divisions between evolutionists and creationists by directly challenging the validity of religious belief - Dawkins by repeatedly declaring his atheism (''faith,'' he once wrote, ''is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate''), and Wilson by describing his ''search for objective reality'' as a replacement for religious seeking.

In a recent book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University and a staunch supporter of evolution, says that many scientists have hurt their cause by “habitually stepping outside the bounds of science into social theory”.

I think Ruse is also totally on target when he says that :

that many religious believers who currently reject or remain indifferent to Darwin can come to accept it - as long as they are presented strictly with scientific facts, and given less reason to think evolution could be a threat to their social and spiritual values.

It is the case in Europe and the rest of the world - science is strictly taught as science - and this is why it is not an issue outside America. The danger of missing the point that religion and science have no business with each other may result in the teaching of Creation (or ‘Intelligent Design’) as an ‘alternative science’ and if Bush gets one or two more Supreme Court Justices, they may overturn the 1987 decision to forbid the teaching of creationism in schools and Intelligent Design may be in the classroom fairly quickly.


Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

It is usually assumed that suicide bombers are religious fanatics but a new book called ‘Dying to Win : The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’ blows that assumption. According to political scientist Robert Pape of the University of Chicago suicide attacks in Iraq and elsewhere around the world are a response to territorial occupation and have no direct link with Islamic fundamentalism. To come to such unexpected conclusion, the author has compiled a database on every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003.

Robert Pape cites Lebanon as a prime example:

In one of those campaigns in 1983, the United States had forces in Lebanon as peacekeepers. And then, on a single day, 241 Marines were killed by a suicide bomber driving a truck. Those who sent him got exactly what they wanted.
"Ronald Reagan, no pacifist … withdrew all our military forces from
Lebanon and virtually abandoned the country," Pape said. "Doing that sent a clear message to terrorists, suicide terrorism pays."

Here are some interesting findings, according to Pape:

  • Suicide terrorism is not primarily a product of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • The world’s leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka–a secular, Marxist-Leninist group drawn from Hindu families.
  • Ninety-five percent of suicide terrorist attacks occur as part of coherent campaigns organized by large militant organizations with significant public support.
  • Every suicide terrorist campaign has had a clear goal that is secular and political: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.
  • Al-Qaeda fits the above pattern. Although Saudi Arabia is not under American military occupation per se, one major objective of al-Qaeda is the expulsion of U.S. troops from the Persian Gulf region, and as a result there have been repeated attacks by terrorists loyal to Osama bin Laden against American troops in Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole.
  • Despite their rhetoric, democracies–including the United States–have routinely made concessions to suicide terrorists. Suicide terrorism is on the rise because terrorists have learned that it’s effective.

The book seems to also provide the first comprehensive demographic profile of modern suicide terrorist attackers. With data from more than 460 such attackers–including the names of 333–we now know that these individuals are not mainly poor, desperate criminals or uneducated religious fanatics but are often well-educated, middle-class political activists.

That would be a very interesting part to read for it is hard to imagine, however, why someone with a rational mind would be willing to die for a cause. I suppose that strong conviction and good propaganda alone can do the trick to some weaker minds. Religion is not really needed. Japanese kamikazes were a good example of thatbut also the resistance in Europe during the Nazi occupation.

And so success and conviction seem to be the keys as explained here:

Success only half the time may not sound like much, but the fact that groups so weak in a conventional military sense have any success at all may attest to the strange potency of a weapon that is comprised mostly of a person willing to kill himself for a cause.

"It makes us feel that our enemies are so committed to their cause that they're willing to do this seemingly irrational thing," said Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Terror in the Name of God."

"They are willing to lose their lives because they feel so strongly that they are right and we are wrong."

In a recent Op-Ed for the N.Y. Times, Robert Pape makes some puzzling conclusions :

Understanding that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism has important implications for how the United States and its allies should conduct the war on terrorism. Spreading democracy across the Persian Gulf is not likely to be a panacea so long as foreign combat troops remain on the Arabian Peninsula. If not for the world's interest in Persian Gulf oil, the obvious solution might well be simply to abandon the region altogether. Isolationism, however, is not possible; America needs a new strategy that pursues our vital interest in oil but does not stimulate the rise of a new generation of suicide terrorists.

Beyond recognizing the limits of military action and stepping up domestic security efforts, Americans would do well to recall the virtues of our traditional policy of "offshore balancing" in the Persian Gulf. During the 1970's and 1980's, the United States managed its interests there without stationing any combat soldiers on the ground, but keeping our forces close enough - either on ships or in bases near the region - to deploy in huge numbers if an emergency. This worked splendidly to defeat Iraq's aggression against Kuwait in 1990.

The Bush administration rightly intends to start turning over the responsibility for Iraq's security to the new government and systematically withdrawing American troops. But large numbers of these soldiers should not simply be sent to Iraq's neighbors, where they will continue to enrage many in the Arab world. Keeping the peace from a discreet distance seems a better way to secure our interests in the world's key oil-producing region without provoking more terrorism.