Saturday, September 30, 2006

In the Words of Former President Jimmy Carter:

Here are some interesting things President Carter said when he urged Nevadans on Thursday to elect his Democratic son, Jack, to the Senate to help combat the Bush administration. I find them quite enlightening [highlights mine]:
"What has happened in the last five years has been a radical departure from what all previous presidents have done, including George Bush Sr., and Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower," the former president said, listing the last five Republican presidents
We have never before in this nation had a policy of pre-emptive war, which means we go to war against people not because they are a danger to our country, but because our government feels another leader will not comply with the demands that come out of Washington,"
[He also said that] when the United States entered Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the country was "perhaps as united as we have been since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.""We also had the unanimous support of every country on earth. ... Every country pledged to the United States, `We will stand by you and be a partner with you in a unanimous commitment to root out terrorism around the world,'" he said.
"We frittered that away. We gave it up by going into Afghanistan in the beginning and then in an ill-advised departure from the war on terrorism, we decided to invade Iraq and we let Al-Qaida build up its strength and we let Osama Bin Laden escape."
"For the first time in history since Israel became a nation, this administration for the last five years has absolutely refused to have any substantive peace talks between Israel and its troubled neighbors," he said.
"It's a total abandonment of the finer aspects of America that made us great in the past as we brought agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, first of all, secondly with Egypt and also with Jordan," he said.


UPDATE on Free Speech, Europe and Islam.

We mentioned a couple days ago the story of this French philosophy teacher, Robert Redeker, who is now under police protection after receiving death threats over an op-ed article which he wrote in a national newspaper. IHT has a pretty informative article with interesting details:
"Jesus is a master of love; Muhammad is a master of hatred," Redeker wrote, adding: "Whereas Judaism and Christianity are religions whose rites forsake violence and remove its legitimacy, Islam is a religion that, in its very sacred text, as much as in some of its everyday rites, exalts violence and hatred. Hatred and violence dwell in the very book that educates any Muslim, the Koran."
Many Muslim scholars would disagree. (see our post here or this Informed Comment or this site, or that one) and Redeker's views are flawed at best. Besides, he is not a theologian but a philosopher so what businness doe he have writing such crap in a national newspaper?
He also wrote,
"Islam tries to dictate its rules to Europe: opening swimming pools at certain hours exclusively for women, forbidding the caricature of this religion, demanding a special diet for Muslim children in school cafeterias, fighting for wearing the veil in school, accusing free-thinkers of Islamophobia."
Clearly, Redeker has a biased agenda. He confuses cultural (over)sensitivity with political extremism. I personally don't necessarily support the "opening swimming pools at certain hours exclusively for women" for instance but it does not mean Islam tries to "dictate ts rules to Europe" either. Too strong a word in my opinon.

And now here are some details concerning the death threats:
The author of several books on philosophy, began to receive death threats by telephone, e-mail and in the Internet forum. The forum published photos of him, what it said was his home address, directions to his home and his cellphone number.
That's got to be scary. Maye that's why he went over the top and sounds paranoid as in the next comment:
Asked to describe the sort of threats he had received, Redeker said: "You will never feel secure on this earth. One billion, 300,000 Muslims are ready to kill you." Among the threats was one by a contributor to Al Hesbah, an Internet forum that is said to be a conduit for messages from Al Qaeda and other jihad organizations.
In a letter to a friend published this week in Le Monde, Redeker wrote that one website condemning him to death included a map showing exactly where he and his family lived, along with photos of him and his workplaces. (Time)
It is important to say that while Redeker should have the right to say those things, they must be criticized for what they are - Islamophobia. It is not because he faces death threats that his words are wise and true. That's probably why... while "two large teachers' unions, in separate statements Friday, also threw their support behind Redeker's right to speak freely, one of them made clear, "We do not share his convictions."

This is a perfect case where this famous quote attributed to Voltaire applies best:
Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.


Friday, September 29, 2006

Watch out for that beard and dark complexion!

Last month, we mentioned the two Asian students who were thrown off a plane (en route from Malaga to Manchester) at gunpoint because other passengers "feared" they were terrorists or that other flight diverted because flight attendants smelled a strong odour after one of them discarded a bottle of water found behind a seat.
Well, the paranoia continues and it's looking more and more like collective hysteria:
A Spanish university professor with a long beard and dark complexion said Thursday he was briefly forced off an airliner during a layover on the Spanish island of Mallorca by passengers who feared he was an Islamic terrorist.
"The pilot said the passengers believed I was a Muslim," Gutierrez Vega said.
On the runway, the pilot apologized for the incident and said he was willing to expel the passengers who confronted him and continue the flight with Gutierrez Vega on board. (The Seattle Times)
The irony is that all the 9/11 hijackers were clean-shaved anyway. And even if Gutierrez Vega were a Muslim.... so what?


Free Speech, Europe and Islam.

This week, Europe has faced some serious anxiety over the issues of free speech, self-censorship and Islam. First, the Berlin opera decided to cancel an avant-garde version of Mozart's "Idomeneo" because of Islamic threats. As can be expected, that caused uproar in Germany and throughout Europe. It also united the media and the politicians in a call for the reinstatement of the show.

The scene at the heart of the “non-controversy” shows Ideomeneo, King of Crete, enter the stage carrying a blood-covered bag. He turns to the audience laughing and triumphantly reveals the decapitated heads of religious icons: first Poseidon, next Jesus, then Buddha and finally the Prophet Mohammed.

I have seen it on television and it is not very impressive.

As Deutsche Welle notes (via Wash. Post):

The scene at the heart of the (non)-controversy "is generally critical of religion, yet not in any way exclusively critical of, or hostile to, Islam,".

It must be said that Mozart never wrote any such scene but while it may lack multicultural sensitivity, there’s been agreement in the West that the cancellation may set a dangerous precedent.

It seems that the problem has to do with some Muslim extremists outside Europe. While some world Muslims protested against the performance, German Muslims did not.

So what triggered the whole thing? Was it some Fatwa by some foreign Mullah? No, it was apparently some “anonymous tipster who called the police and threatened the leadership of the opera.” Was that all? I have not found information that there is more to it.

For the Berlin Opera's CEO the tip was credible enough to take Ideomeneo off the show plan for the fall.

That’s it? So a moron can call and make threats and you immediately bend? Well, it’s going to be party time for all the psychos around us.

The second incident involves a French philosophy teacher who is now under police protection after receiving death threats over an op-ed article which he wrote in a national newspaper. In the article (published in the conservative daily Le Figaro), he accused Islam of "exalting violence.". He was writing in response to the angry reactions of the Islamic world to the Pope’s lecture two weeks ago.

According to the FT, in his article entitled “Faced with Islamic intimidation, what should the free world do?” he attacked the Prophet Mohammed, saying:

“Pitiless war leader, pillager, butcher of Jews and polygamous, this is how Mohammed is revealed by the Koran.”

FT also adds that the philosophy teacher has "earned a reputation for his outspoken anti-Islam views", which I find very odd for a “philosophy” teacher. Not much, “philosophical” distance there, and anyone could have expected strong reactions in the Muslim world. It seems to me that he wanted to ignite a fire, he could have not done better.

That being said, in a free society, it should his right to do that. It is his absolute right to express offensive opinions and even idiotic ones. The very fact that Tunisia and Egypt have banned the editions of the French paper Le Figaro and Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is a great sign of the rift between the Muslim world and the Western world. Well, let me rephrase this, between non-European Muslims and the West. It is my understanding that European Muslims take a different approach to the issue.

But more than the ban, it is the death threats that should be our concern. What I wonder is how credible those threats may be? Was it an anonymous phone call to the police? Letters? Was it some terrorist group? I haven’t found any info on that.

However scary those different threats may be, the idea that we surrender our basic freedoms (as in Germany) to them is extremely disturbing. (at the time, it easy to say from the comfort of my anonymous chair!)


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Democracy in America.

What would you think of a democracy where instead of electors choosing their politicians, it is the politicians who chose their electors?

Well, in most electoral disctrics, that’s what American democracy is about, and the reason is simple: gerrymandering. [i.e. Gerrymandering consists in redrawing voting districts to capture the maximum amount of possible votes for your side.]

Once again, Paul Harris [who already addressed the problem of the new electronic voting machines, see our post here] writes in The Observer about a problem not much discussed:

Beneath the scary headlines about the Patriot Act, government spying, the conservative media of the awful Fox News or the evils of voting machines, it is gerrymandering that is the most obvious - yet least discussed - problem with America's electoral system.

The reason is that too many politicians benefit from it, on both sides of the aisle. As a result, while in theory, all 435 of the House's seats will be voted on this November, in fact, barely 33 or so, will actually offer any competition.

Harris also explains quite well that this means that in most districts only the primary elections now matter and that since those types of elections usually involve voters from a party's activist base, they make "American politicians of all stripes more radical than most actual Americans”:

This explains a fundamental paradox about America. The country is often described as deeply divided: red v blue; left v right. But, in travelling across the US, what is often striking is what most Americans have in common. On issues like Iraq, abortion, evolution, and gay marriage there is often a basic middle ground of opinion that favours compromise with either a slight tinge of the left or of the right. America's general public is really neither red nor blue but a ruddy purple.

But the political debate is never discussed on the middle ground because in a system so thoroughly gerrymandered as America's, the root to power does not lie through the centre. It's a strange twilight world where both parties collude in an illusion of free competition in order to maintain their own position. They are quite literally in it together.

This could very well partly explain the incraes in radical rhetoric we have witnessed in recent years and months, including what we posted in our previous post.

What troubles me the most though is something that Harris did not mention is the role of the Supreme Court in all of this. On June 28th 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court – which is supposed to be the guarantor of US institutions –upheld most of the gerrymandering done in Texas by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2003.

What this actually means is that politicians in all U.S. states are now allowed to redraw and gerrymander districts as often as they wish (not just after census-mandated reapportionment and redistricting) to protect their political parties and seats, so long as they do not harm minorities.

Sadly, the news was hardly addressed by the media and in reality nobody seems to care.


When Conservative Wackos Get Together…. and lash out at homosexuals!

Think Progress reported earlier this week on the meeting of some of the nation’s leading conservatives at the Christian conservative non-profit lobbying organization Family Research Council called “Values Voter Summit.”

Influential figures such as Tony Snow (the White House Press Secretary), Attorney General Gonzales, Sen. George Allen (R-VA), Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AK), Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity attended.

Some of the speakers lashed out against homosexuality with the full force of their hatred:

They had the usual religious wackos of course, like "Bishop" Wellington Boone, who declared:

Back in the days when I was a kid, and we see guys that don’t stand strong on principle, we call them “faggots.” … [People] that don’t stand up for what’s right, we say, “You’re sissified out!” “You’re a sissy!” That means you don’t stand up for principles.

[Of course Boone, who is black, also said things like "slavery was ultimately beneficial" and on Justice Sunday, he said that "Uncle Tom is a role model". That says it all!]

Another speaker apparently claimed “the gay rights movement was inspired ‘from the pit of hell itself,’ and has a ’satanic anointment.’ … even suggesting that the anti-Christ is himself gay, citing a verse from the book of Daniel saying the anti-Christ will have no desire for a woman.”

Were the US Attorney General and the White House Press Secretary actually present during that load of crap?

What I actually find a bit more worrisome though is when some elected officials, like Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO) seems to have nothing better to do than spend their entire time, money and energy to fight gay marriage. Well of course, she says we are in a cultural war, so anything goes, and all hell breaks loose, so to speak; Here's what she said:

I believe that when you’re in a cultural war like this, you have to respond with equal and hopefully greater force if you want to win this battle. But this battle is the most important issue that we face today, and what an honor it has been to serve in the United States Congress and carry the Marriage Amendment. (video here on Think Progress)

Among other things, her trivial use of the word “war” should put her to shame at a time when there are fellow citizens actually dying in a real war in Iraq. But it doesn't really matter - after all the *real* war is not in her mind an issue that matters so much. The 4th District of Colorado should be embarrassed and vote her out in November.
Anyway, when Think Progress reported this second piece on the Family Research Council, I thought I should post about it.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Like a Virgin.... fighting Global Warming.

Contrary to popular clichés, wealthy people are not all Uncle Scrooges. This is particularly true of the very very wealthy who have built their own fortune. Last June, we had a post about Buffet's philanthropic decision to give 85% of his wealth to charities. Bill Gates is also famous for his multi-billion donations to his charitable foundations. (and yet, he remains the richest man in the world!).
Well, Richard Branson (founder and chairman of Virgin) has now announced another philantropic decision - he has committed to spending all the profits from his airline and rail businesses to combat global warming. He has proposed a series of measures that he said, would cut the world's aviation emissions by up to 25%. Apparently, Branson was convinced of the urgency of the situation after watching Al Gore's movie. Whether it works or not, I have a lot of respect for that decision.

Is that a sign that philanthropy is becoming the norm for the very rich?

NOTE: Of course, Branson is a bit of maverick and somewhat a billionaire hippy from the 1960s (after all he admitted to smoking cannabis, and considered selling cannabis in Virgin stores if it were to become legal), but isn't that precisely what makes him unique?
NOTE2: here's a good article on who (and what) is behind the global warming deniers (in The Guardian)


What the Iraqis Think of US-led Forces.

Here's another interesting poll (conducted by The Program on International Policy Attitudes whose report is available here - Pdf) which shows that a clear majority of Iraqis want US-led forces to withdraw within a year. Obviously, and understandiblymore the Sunni than the Kurds.
More worrisome, a majority of Iraqis (61%) now support attacks against US-led forces . (27% strongly, 34% somewhat).
Today's Wash. Post reports on these results and those of another poll which show very much the same trend.


Bush more to Blame for bin Laden failure than Clinton.

In the wake of the Clinton interview controversy, it seems that the Clintonites are winning - at least according to the most recent Gallup poll.
The media may have paid too much attention on the emotional aspect of the interview and not enough on substance, but it seems that if we had more "angry democrats", they'd get their message across a little better. Sad but ture.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

New EU Membership (quitely) Approved.

This news has barely made the headlines and is certainly not getting a whole lot of people excited - certainly a sign of the "enlargement fatigue" in European public opinion, in the wake of the 'no' vote on the European Constitution:
The European Commission has announced that Romania and Bulgaria will be admitted to the EU in January 2007, but under strict conditions.
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said both countries had made enough progress to join the union.
Bulgaria's PM said the move was the fall of the Berlin Wall for his nation.The conditions are tougher than those imposed on previous new members, observers say. (BBC)
Indeed, problems remain and...
[Romania and Bulgaria] will be checked for progress in curbing organised crime and corruption, and ensuring food safety and the proper use of EU funds. (BBC)
Romanian and Bulgarian accession brings the EU club to 27 members and swells the current 450 million EU population to 480 million. The Official Report of the EU Commission on Bulgaria and Romania. (pdf).

The news is of course welcome by the US which has been pushing for Europe to welcome Turkey to the club as well.
"We certainly would encourage the EU to continue to keep open a European horizon for a number of states, including those in the Balkans and Turkey as well, " said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
But that's goin g to a much harder sell, given the state of current public opinion across Europe. Besides, as The Guardian pointed out, there is going to be a more pressing issue to deal with:
The EU's rules are currently covered by the Nice treaty, which sets a cap on the number of members at 27. This will be reached in January. Croatia, which is next in line to join, will now have to wait until the EU decides what to do with its constitution.
Nothing will happen before the elections in France and Britain and there is nothing the Bush administration can do about that.


What the media really care about in the Clinton Interview Controversy. ,

Unless you lived in a cave or outside America, you have probably heard of Clinton’s interview on Fox News Sunday hosted by Chris Wallace - when the former president set the record straight on his efforts to combat terrorism, the Bush administration’s record and the tactics of Fox News.

Beyond the controversy, Jon Stewart makes a great point on the Daily Show on how serious mainstream media decided to ignore the substantive discussion of terrorism and instead focused on trivial matters such as “the angry Clinton”.

Watch it (here or here via Crooks-and-liars), it is quite informative on how today’s media work, and it is also quite funny, as always with Jon S..

Here (via Think Progress) is another good illustration of pretty much the same point – this time, it is MSNBC that decided to focus on the fact that former President Bill Clinton’s sock had slipped and part of his “white” leg was showing during his interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace.

HOST: Well, people haven’t just been talking about Bill Clinton’s red face in that Fox News interview and all the anger and the finger pointing, but some have been focusing on Clinton’s white legs. The former president showing off a little leg during the sitdown with Chris Wallace. We’re going to show you that, and that’s left some — see, there it is, a little glimpse of leg. Well, how does this happen? … I mean — is this a travesty or what?


RON CHRISTIE: Yes, I do have longer socks on. And the fact of the matter is —

HOST: How high do they come? To your calf or knee?

CHRISTIE: They’re almost up to the knee. You don’t have to worry about any leg showing here.

HOST: Very good. Because I prefer modesty in all of my interviewees.

CHRISTIE: Exactly.

HOST: Julian Epstein, Ron Christie, that was fun.


HOST: If I had been doing that interview, I’ve got to say, I would just say, “Oh, Mr. president, your leg is showing,” or it’s sort of like telling someone they have spinach in their teeth. Come on, it’s not cool to let someone go around with spinach in their teeth, same thing with leg.

Does anybody give a damn?! Believe it or not, that’s how bad mainstream media can get.


Monday, September 25, 2006

French Islam.

The French Muslims have just begun celebrating the Ramadan. This offers a good opportunity to deal once again with the issue of where the Muslims stand in French society.

John Thornhill editor of the FT's ­European edition wrote a great piece [available on MSNBC] about the integration of French Muslims. He actually reviews a book written by a French historian and an American political scientist, called “Integrating Islam: Political And Religious Challenges in Contemporary France”, published last month. The book is a comprehensive study of the state of Muslim integration into French society.

According to Thornill the writers debunk the myths entertained by rightwing commentators in the US that Europe's 15m Muslims are the potential enemy who are slowly but steadily turning Europe into Eurabia

Among other things, the book shows that France's Muslim population is extremely diverse with a strong attachment to France and a profound desire to integrate.

This is supported by different polls that have recently come out (see our post here), including the most recent one made in France (read this article in French).

According to this latest poll:

  • 88% of French Muslims say they practice the Ramadan
  • 17% say the go to the Mosque at least once a week.
  • 73% are in favor of the separation between state and religion (21% are opposed and 6% have no opinion)
  • 91% of French Muslims polled are in favor of equality between men and women
  • 79% are opposed to polygamy in Muslim countries.

Interestingly enough, while the authors acknowledge the serious problems and challenges that exist, they see the emergence of a religion and a population that feel at home in, and at peace with, French society - a "French Islam" to replace "Islam in France."


French Favor Smoking Ban.

Think of the baguette, a glass of wine, a beret and a cigarette and right away, you may think of France. Mention famous French intellectuals of the past and you think of cigarettes – Sartre, Colette, George Sand, Marguerite Duras, [André] Gide, they all smoked. The thing is that this cliché used to be quite true but it is slightly coming to an end.

Well, to be fair, there are actually 12 countries in Europe that smoke more than the French - The Greeks, the Spaniards, and even the Germans smoke more than the French do. There about 34.5% of smokers in France and about 23.6% in the US.

The big difference is really about teenagers and as a teacher, I can definitely see it. Among American teenagers, the rate is 10%; in France, it is 50%. (source here)

But things are definitely changing.

In 1991, the French government passed a law requiring restaurants and bars to provide nonsmoking areas. That was a first step but in practice didn’t work too well. It sent a signal though and there has been a change in mentality

Recently, the national French rail service SNCF announced it would prohibit smoking on all trains starting next year. But more importantly public opinion is changing to the point that the French government is considering a ban in all public places – similar to what’s happened in Spain, Italy or Ireland.

A recent poll by Ifop shows that [here]:

77% of respondents support the proposal to ban smoking in restaurants

66% of respondents are in favor of a smoking ban in cafes, bars and brasseries,

61% support it in discotheques and night clubs.

It may take a while but it is bound to happen at some point. I am in favor of a total ban inside “public” places. Second-hand smoking really sucks. Besides, it seems the breeze always blows my way when people smoke next to me. It’s annoying.

However, there might be some power struggle with cigarette makers and those who sell it.

By the way, do you know what the best-selling cigarette in France is? It’s an Marlboro – an American brand (29.5% of the market). The famous French Gauloises brunes have 10.6% market share. ( source here)


Sunday, September 24, 2006

US Intelligence Agencies Say War in Iraq Fuels Terrorism.

The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a more direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism than that presented either in recent White House documents or in a report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, according to several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.

National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative documents that the intelligence community produces on a specific national security issue, and are approved by John D. Negroponte, director of national intelligence. Their conclusions are based on analysis of raw intelligence collected by all of the spy agencies.


Bush Believes in Getting to Universities on Merit Only!

Talking about brains (or lack of) and universities, here's a good one I found while doing a bit of research on the subject. It was published a couple of years ago but it is one of those Bushism I guess I just missed (too many of them to keep up!) :
President Bush was reminded by columnist Roland Martin that Texas A&M Univeristy recently announced it would end preferential treatment toward applicants whose parents and grandparents were graduates.
"If you say it's a matter of merit and not race," Martin asked Bush, "shouldn't colleges also get rid of legacy?"

Bush tried to dance for a moment with a light joke saying,
"Well, in my case I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow the old man's footsteps." Then he added, "If what you're saying is, is there going to be special treatment for people -- in other words -- we're going to have a special exception for certain people in a system that's supposed to be fair, I agree. I don't think there ought to be."

Martin followed up, "So the colleges should get rid of legacy?"
Bush said, "Well, I think so. Yeah, I think it ought to be based on merit."
One more time, a few moments later, Martin asked, "Just to be clear . . . you believe that colleges should not use legacy."
Bush answered, "I think colleges ought to use merit in order for people to get in."
We don't know yet what Bush thought to himself as he left the Unity conference of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American journalists. But even the world's most famous legacy admission and the world's most glaring example of privilege with his C average at Yale, had to realize the seismic proportions of what he said. (Boston Globe)
So not only did he benefit from the system of legacy but he doesn't want any one else to - not even his peers. How unfair!


Top US Universities : Bastions of Privilege and Hypocrisy.

We all know that American universities are by and large the best in the world. As we posted on this blog last year, America boasts 17 of the world's top 20 universities, while Britain has two, Japan has one and France has none.

In fact, the state of French universities is not very good but what can you get for a public-funded university and for $250 tuition a year. This grim picture of the French university system is not complete - there are also very competitive schools (the Grandes Ecoles) but those schools do not emphasize research and only 4% of French students make it there, even if those competitive schools have some noticeable success.

It is undeniable that American universities are the most competitive ones in today’s world:

American universities currently employ 70% of the world's Nobel prize-winners, 30% of the world's output of articles on science and engineering, and 44% of the most frequently cited articles. Source to be found here.

One of the greatest failures of American universities these days though is that they have become bastions of privilege, and not engines of social justice.

That’s at least according to Daniel Golden, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was actually awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories exposing the privileges enjoyed by wealthy white students. Now, Mr Golden has published a book (“The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates”) which [see Wash. Post review here) the Economist is praising this week in their article, properly called Poison Ivy.

There all sorts of ways to go through the backdoor if you can’t make it through the front door (if your SAT score is not so good).

One of the most well-known ways is to get legacy preference. A legacy student is a student who is admitted to a school primarily because one or both parents are alumni (= former graduates of the same school). A great way to perpetuate the "race":

Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni.

However, all sorts of people benefit from the system, celebrities, politicians and even academics which is proabably why it is very unlikely things will change:

Academics not only escape tuition fees if they can get their children into the universities where they teach. They get huge preferences as well. Boston University accepted 91% of “faculty brats” in 2003, at a cost of about $9m. Notre Dame accepts about 70% of the children of university employees, compared with 19% of “unhooked” applicants, despite markedly lower average SAT scores.

Of course, in a country where in..

... the last presidential election both candidates—George Bush and John Kerry—were “C” students who would have had little chance of getting into Yale if they had not come from Yale families

And where....

Al Gore and Bill Frist both got their sons into their alma maters (Harvard and Princeton respectively), despite their average academic performances.

This should not come as a surprise. Beyond the moral problem of the lack of meritocracy, there is yet a greater danger - that American universities may have become too money-addicted and in the end, that they may lose some of their competitiveness by not admitting enough people on the basis of their intellectual ability. This is particularly bad “when social inequality is rising at a time when the escalators of social mobility are slowing (America has lower levels of social mobility than most European countries).” (The Economist)

Something between the French egalitarian system which does not take money (i.e. reality) into consideration and the American system which is obsessed with money, there might be a fine line. Competition is fine if it is based on merit and it seems to me that the private sector might be interested in investing in a system that will attract brains – real ones.

NOTE: Former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers had this to say on legacy, "Legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is.". Right.... and that justifies it, I guess.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

French Paper says bin Laden Dead... maybe.

Today in the French news, they say that Osama bin Laden might be dead. A document of the French Foreign Intelligence Service (DGSE) was leaked and published by a local newspaper (l'Est Républicain):
"According to a usually reliable source, the Saudi services are now convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead," the document said.
"The information gathered by the Saudis indicates that the head of al Qaeda was a victim while he was in Pakistan on August 23, 2006, of a very serious case of typhoid which led to a partial paralysis of his internal organs."
He is said to have died of typhoid in Pakistan in late August - not a very flamboyant death if true. Caution is required of course, even if bin Laden has not been 'seen' on videotape since 2004. This is not the first time that bin Laden is said to be dead. The Pakistani seem to have some doubts. Strangely, I have not seen this piece of news in the US media.
In the meantime, France is probing the leak of the intelligence report ... and the NYTimes just had an op-ed on what to do with bin Laden once he is captured.

UPDATE: Now of course the American media have cought up and it's all over the news in America too. The good thing about this rumor is that there will be a way to confirm it or not simply by wathing in the next few months if some video comes out proving he is sill alive. If nothing comes out, well, that's probably because he's dead! It's rather simple.

UPDATE: Details on the report:
  • bin Laden is said to have had a tropical disease that killed him in August makes no sense. It said that his disease led to paralysis of the legs. It would have to be polio! Unlikely except in East Africa.
  • This report appears to be based on a single source. Single sources are famously unreliable.
  • The report was denied by Saudi Intelligence, which said that UBL was alive and well.
  • It was also denied by Pakistani intelligence. US intelligence said that it didn't have any such information.
  • In other reasons, there is no reason to believe this report whatsoever, as Peter Bergen on CNN also concluded.


Friday, September 22, 2006

If the earth’s population was a “global village” of 100 people.

Business for Diplomatic Action has yet another funny feature, the famous “Global Village” metaphor for our planet [not this other world which is the Internet, no, the *real* planet!] Just for the fun of it, I thought it might be entertaining to post it.

If we shrank the earth’s population to a “global village” of only 100 people and kept all the existing human ratios, there’d be:

  • 61 from Asia
  • 21 from China
  • 17 from India
  • 13 from Africa
  • 12 from Europe
  • 5 from the U.S.
  • 1 from Australia and New Zealand
  • 22 who speak a Chinese dialect, (18 of whom speak Mandarin)
  • 9 who speak English
  • 8 who speak Hindi
  • 50 females
  • 50 males
  • 32 Christians
  • 68 non-Christians,
  • 15 of whom are nonreligious
  • 19 Muslims
  • 6 Buddhists
  • 1 Jew
  • 30 who have enough to eat
  • 88 old enough to read,
  • 17 of whom cannot read at all
  • 1 teacher

…. you are one person traveling that world.


Practical Advice for (Ugly) Americans Traveling Abroad!

The Business for Diplomatic Action - a business group of communications, marketing, political science, global development and media professionals aimed at improving America’s image abroad, as we were talking in the previous post – that we were talking about in our previous post has a "World Citizens Guide" which is basically some practical advice for Americans traveling abroad, with a few simple suggestions.

It is interesting inasmuch a it also reveals some things, not necessarily about how Americans are "really" perceived abroad but rather how they think they are perceived and how they see themselves!

Look. Listen. Learn. New places mean new cultures and new experiences. Don’t just shop. See the sights, hear the sounds and try to understand the lives people live.

Think big. Act small. Be humble. In many countries, boasting is considered very rude. It’s easy to resent big, powerful people. Assume resentment as a default and play down your wealth, power and status. When Americans meet each other for the first time, our job (and implied status) is a key part of “who” we are, and how we introduce ourselves. This is less important elsewhere, and can be perceived as braggadocio.

Be patient. We talk fast. Eat fast. Move fast. Live fast. Many cultures do not. In fact, time is understood very differently around the world. In the short term, speed and instant satisfaction are less important than enjoying a new culture.

Be proud, not arrogant. People around the world are fascinated by the U.S. and the lives we Americans live. They admire our openness, our optimism, our creativity and our “can-do” spirit. But that doesn’t mean they feel less proud of their country and culture. Be proud of being an American, but resist any temptation to present our way as the best way or the only way.

Keep religion private. Globally speaking, religion is not something you wear on your sleeve. Often it is considered deeply personal -- not public. Some may have no knowledge of the Bible, nor is it appropriate to tell them about it unless you are a professional missionary identifi ed as such.

Show your best side. Americans are a kind and generous people. You can help dispel the stereotype of the Ugly American; impress people with your kindness, curiosity and fair nature.

Try the language.Try to speak some of the language even if the only thing you can say is “Hello.” And “Thank you.” It’s okay to sound like a child. Making the effort is more endearing than off putting. Refrain from lecturing. Whether on pollution, energy usage or the environment, it’s not a polite stance. Nobody likes a know-itall, and nobody likes a whole nation of them. Rightly or wrongly the
U.S. is seen as appointing itself as policeman, judge and jury to the world. Be aware of this perception and try to understand other viewpoints.

Check the atlas. You may not believe anyone could confuse “Australia” with “Austria,” but it happens. Everyone’s home is important to them. It’s helpful if you familiarize yourself with local geography.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

American Products and Culture Less Popular?

The argument goes that anti-Americanism is mainly political and that while people are critical of the Bush administration, they continue to consume U.S. products so... if it's OK for the economy, who cares... . Well, apparently this is no longer true, the decline of America's image is beginning to affect America’s business in the world, and it is getting the business world worried.

According to a recent study of teenagers in thirteen countries, not a single American company is on their list of favorites. Even Nike has been overtaken. The three that received the highest marks are Sony, Adidas and Nokia. (Le Monde via WatchingAmerica)

In 2003, the Business for Diplomatic Action was created – a sign that the business world believes that their own action is likely to be more efficient that that of the government
Its aim:

to enlist the U.S. business community in actions to improve the standing of America in the world with the goal of once again, seeing America admired as a global leader and respected as a courier of progress and prosperity for all people.

As Le Monde reports;

The group's vice president Thomas Miller says quite directly, the American government is no longer a credible messenger: "He [Bush] speaks, but in the rest of the world, people don't believe him."

The United States is no longer one of the top three countries that young people want to live in or visit. America has been overtaken by Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.

"People go where they get the warmest welcome," said Miller. "The world saw us closing our doors.".

"There is a cooling toward American popular culture," notes Mr. Miller. More and more people are turning to local culture.

According to Thomas Miller, the decline of America's image began before September 11 2001, because of the rapidity of globalization.

"We said to ourselves: we won the Cold War. Everyone loves us."

I think that's a good point. It is undeniable that Bush's foreign policy has sped up the process, but it started before the war in Iraq and before 9/11. As the only remaining world super power, the US was bound to be seen as a the village's bully. Only, it seemed a much more charming and benevolent bully with the face of Bill Clinton. As for President Bush, he it way too easy for people to lash out and blame America for every going wrong in their lives and on this planet.

In the same article, former president of DDB Keith Reinhard says he “places his hope in the universities which are among the rare American institutions to have escaped the international lack of love”.

Well, that may be true but the hassles to get a visa and the proper papers may challenge that hope.

NOTE: In France at least,American culture is very much present. American movies and TV shows are more popular then ever. CSI and Cold Case are among the most popular shows on TV these days and there are lines of Parisians in Starbucks (which have only been here recently).


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The "Danger" of Having Gay ArabTranslators in the Military.

On this blog, we have altready talked about this Arab translator, Bleu Copas who was dismissed from the military because he was gay (not because he said so but because he was accused of being gay by anonymous emails - a breach of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy!)
Some time ago the Daily show had a good take on it, but this time, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones goes even further with a hilarious interview of Paul Cameron of the Illinois Family Institute.
Cameron is a fierce opponent of gays and lesbians serving in the military, who wrote a book called "Homosexual Sex as Harmful as Drug Abuse, Prostitution or Smoking." - I guess he forgot "terrorism" and Cameron agreed when Jones implied
it is better to be killed in a terrorist attack than to share a shower with a gay man! Cameron said the stupidest things, (like "a large proportion of male homosexuals enjoy drinking each other's urine.") making you wonder if he doesn't have some hidden fantasies of his own.
The end of the segment is amazing and took guts to perform! If you want to have a good laugh, watch it here.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Chirac's Change of "Heart" on Iran.

You might have thought that the unity of the five permanent Security Council members (plus Germany) against Iran's uranium enrichment would have been breached by China, but it is French President Chirac who has broken ranks. So far, the idea was that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment as a condition for the start of negotiations but now Chirac is saying:
"We must, on the one hand, together, Iran and the six countries, meet and set an agenda, then start negotiations. Then, during these negotiations, I suggest that the six renounce referring (Iran to) the UN Security Council and that Iran renounce uranium enrichment during negotiations," he said in an interview with Europe-1 radio. (Times)
“I am never in favor of sanctions. I have never seen that sanctions were very effective. I don’t want to say that we will never have to resort to sanctions.”, adding, “But nothing replaces dialogue, you know.” (NYTimes)
This does not seem to make a whole lot of sense. As the NYTimes reminds us, Chirac had so far taken a hard line against Iran in both public and private in the last few years. So is he really a weasel and a coward? That's probably what it is going to come down to in the US but the reality may be more complicated than that.
The BBC suggests that his view may reflect that of other European leaders who think they can sway Iran by stayong on good terms with it rather than by hostile pressure or threats.
Indeed, Germany recently said "it was hopeful about further talk" and China warned that "sanctions might inflame the volatile situation, although it acknowledged it did not want to see Iran get nuclear weapons". But why did Chirac have to shoot first? Ego? Maybe.
Charles Bremner, Times correspondent in Paris also suggests this may be...
a way for the French President to to assert his country’s standing in Middle Eastern affairs after his display of French diplomacy over the crisis in Lebanon. The French may now need to be perceived as a key player in the Middle-East, and the best way to do that is to show you can differ from America.
"The French feel they need to be seen to be calming the Americans. Chirac is calculating that Iran is ready to talk and could be persuaded to make concessions."
This comment on US-France relationships in the same interview by the French president may be another hint:
"In our relations we can only be equals. It cannot be a relationship of submission."
Will it work? I'm not sure. The risk may be to be seen as making more and more concession with nothing in return. And it's not like the US, busy as they are in Iraq, have a whole lot of gunpower to back any tough talk.

NOTE: If I my add, while it shouldn't be a "relationship of submission" à la Blair, let's not kid ourselves, Mr President, the idea that the French and the Americans are equals is just hilarious - a long-gone dream for some - so it might be wise to face reality for once and stop pretending to be De Daulle again!


Sunday, September 17, 2006

What the Pope Did Wrong.

Undoubtedly, you have heard of the whole controversy over Pope Benedict's speech at Regensburg University last week. His rather long, scholarly address dealt with reason and faith in the West. His point was basically that coercion of conscience is incompatible with reasoned faith and he ambiguously used Islam as a symbol of the coercive unreasoned faith. Not a very good idea in this day and age.
His speech is available here in English in case you want to put it in context. Of course when you read the whole thing, you realize it is more complex than what the media make it out to be. But the fact remains...
He began his speech recounting a conversation between the 14th-century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and a Persian scholar on the truths of Christianity and Islam.
"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the pope said. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'" (IHT)
The problem is that he Pope remained ambiguous - neither explicitly agreeing with the statement nor repudiating it.

One thing that strikes me is that while the Pope - and particularly this pope - may be a great theologian and a prolific author on Christian theology, I do not see what business he has in commenting on the theology of another religion. This is what happens when you talk about things you know nothing about! This is especilly true at a time of great tension between the Muslim world and the West.
Besides, why quote a
14th-century Byzantine Christian Emperor who lived during clashes between the Ottoman and the Byzantine empires?
According to Juan Cole and others, the pope gets a number of things about Islam wrong anyway. Suffice to say that despite what you hear quite often, the Qur'an does not ask to spread faith by the sword, even if some extremists do (in the same way that the Bible is not about burning people or killing Jews and Muslims during crusades).
Cole reminds us that this what the Qur'an says about the religions:
[2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians-- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
Now of course, if you didn't have a "religion", you were pretty much screwed, but there must have been very few people who would have claimed to be atheists. You would have probably been identified to the religion of the community you belonged to.
The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet's death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away.
Strangely, while Benedict endorses "creative reason", he opposes the "strict rationality" of the Enlightenment and believes that the world is "moving towards a dictatorship of relativism. (Wikipedia). Something he shares with some Protestant Christians and Muslims.
Ironically, his response andregret may have been a bit too... relative for some.


Big Bother is Waching and Talking...

Britain is known for its many security cameras. Now new CCTV (Close Circuit TV) cameras have arrived there, and they are actually "talking".
The system allows control room operators who spot any anti-social acts - from dropping litter to late-night brawls - to send out a verbal warning: 'We are watching you'.
That they use technology to fight crime is one thing but to use it to spot "anti-social acts" is another. In fact, whatever it means, the whole idea of "anti-social acts" is ambiguous at best and sounds awfully like a term the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis have used.

For instance, is a demonstration anti-social? What about riding a bike in a pedestrian area?
The Mail on Sunday watched as a cyclist riding through a pedestrian area was ordered to stop.
'Would the young man on the bike please get off and walk as he is riding in a pedestrian area,' came the command.
The surprised youth stopped, and looked about. A look of horror spread across his face as he realised the voice was referring to him.
He dismounted and wheeled his bike through the crowded streets, as instructed.
(Source Daily Mail)


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Is the White House Actually a French Chateau?

When you look at the picture of the Château de Rastignac (photography by Jacques Mossot), outside of Périgueux, France, it may strangely remind you of something very familiar...
...the White House!

Experts think the two are too similar to have developed coincidentally. According to Michael Johnson in yesterday's IHT article, A chateau fit for a president, while some historians believe Rastignac is simply a replica of the White House, [the dates of completion - 1817 for the former and 1802 for the latter - would seem to support that idea], others claim the opposite. Jefferson may have been inspired by Rastignac to build the White House, and Michael Johnson believes this is the case:
Construction work had been undertaken before the French Revolution of 1789. The project was interrupted for nearly 20 years during the turbulence of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era.
Thomas Jefferson was in France as U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary when work on the chateau began. Among his sidelines was a passion for architecture, and he travelled around France viewing the great edifices of the 17th and 18th centuries. An amateur architect himself, he intended to create an American school for his expanding young country, based on European examples.
Jefferson toured the Bordeaux region in the spring of 1789, the eve of the revolution. This would have been the occasion for a look at the drawings for the Château de Rastignac. With a small leap of faith, it is easy to imagine that these drawings inspired the future American president's additions.
He returned home in the fall of 1789 and went on to be elected third American president in 1801. "President's House" became his residence.
I wonder if the idea that the symbol of American democracy was actually inspired by a French château would play well with this administration. The irony is that whether it is true or not, the idea fits too well this imperial president now, doesn't it? A château for King George!

NOTE: Incidently, I didn't even know Rastignac was even a real name - the only French Rastignac I knew was the fictional name from Balzac's La Comedie Humaine.