Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fiction to Justify Torture.

This summer, there's been a of talk in the US media about "The Dark Side" (here or here), a book by New Yorker investigator Jane Mayer on how the Bush administration has twisted the Constitution and the rule of law to justity torture, which has been reframed "enhanced interrogation techniques".
I haven't read it yet, but I have listened and read extensive interviews of the author and her work seems well documented and factual. In fact, so far no one has contradcted the facts she's presented.
But the book is not only about torture, it is also about the exercise of power of an imperial executive and the disregard of the legal contrainsts provided by the constitution, thanks to "executive privilege" and the exploitation of fear that resulted from 9/11.
The most unbelievable part is when a sitting judge at the Supreme Court uses fiction to justify torture. As we mentioned last year, Judge Scalia did exactly that last summer at a convention in Canada:
“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives... Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so."
As Newsweek reminded us this week, reality is very different from what '24' shows on tv. [Just in case you wondered....)
For one thing, Jack Bauer operates outside the law, and he knows it.
Bauer is also willing to accept the consequences of his decisions to break the law. In fact, that is the real source of his heroism—to the extent one finds torture heroic. He makes a moral choice at odds with the prevailing system, and accepts the consequences of the system's judgment. The "heroism" of the Bush administration's torture apologists is slightly less inspiring.
And finally, not only U.S. interrogators rarely if ever encounter a "ticking time bomb," someone with detailed information about an imminent terror plot, but [experienced interrogators know that] information extracted through torture is rarely reliable.


Obama, the Teacher.

I don't know if a good teacher can make a good president, but as a teacher myself, I am very impressed with the way Obama seems to have handled things when he was a law professor at the University of Chicago. It shows integrity and a very smart way of having the students thing for themselves. No wonder he was a popular professor.
Here's a great article that just came out in the NYTimes yesterday that gives a good insight:

Mr. Obama had a disarming touch. He did not belittle students; instead he drew them out, restating and polishing halting answers, students recall.


As his reputation for frank, exciting discussion spread, enrollment in his classes swelled. Most scores on his teaching evaluations were positive to superlative.


But the liberal students did not necessarily find reassurance.

For one thing, Mr. Obama’s courses chronicled the failure of liberal policies and court-led efforts at social change: the Reconstruction-era amendments that were rendered meaningless by a century of resistance, the way the triumph of Brown gave way to fights over busing, the voting rights laws that crowded blacks into as few districts as possible. He was wary of noble theories, students say; instead, they call Mr. Obama a contextualist, willing to look past legal niceties to get results.

For another, Mr. Obama liked to provoke. He wanted his charges to try arguing that life was better under segregation, that black people were better athletes than white ones.


Soon after, the faculty saw an opening and made him its best offer yet: Tenure upon hiring. A handsome salary, more than the $60,000 he was making in the State Senate or the $60,000 he earned teaching part time. A job for Michelle Obama directing the legal clinic.
Your political career is dead, Daniel Fischel, then the dean, said he told Mr. Obama, gently. Mr. Obama turned the offer down. Two years later, he decided to run for the Senate. He canceled his course load and has not taught since.

But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Comparing the French and the American Economies

Here are a few figures that should allow for some comparisons :

But does it even make sense to compare our two economies?

As regard to the debt, shouldn't the household debt also be taken into account? The American household debt is about 139% (2006) of personal disposable income (is was 89% in 1993), compared to 68.4% for the French household debt (2006)

Even a seemingly simple figure like "unemployment" is not a great tool for comparison. Not only are the measurements controversial, but the very meaning of "employment" and its effect on a society vary greatly.
Here's an interesting research paper from the University of Massachusets comparing French and US Labor markets:
The authors make the case that a well-functioning labor market should produce not just enough jobs, but enough decent jobs.

They compare U.S. and French performance according to: 1) the low-wage share of employment; 2) the underemployed share of the labor force; and 3) the adequately employed share of the working age population.
The authors find that with very few exceptions, French workers of all ages, education levels, and genders have dramatically lower rates of underemployment and low-wage employment, and much higher rates of adequate employment than their U.S. counterparts.

The authors conclude by recommending that indicators such as these, and not just the unemployment rate, should have a central place in discussions of national labor market reform.
By the way, French unemployment is currently offcially at about 7.5% (French statistics bureau for 1st semester of 2008) compared to 5.5% in the United-States (US Bureau of Labor statistics for June 2008)


American National Debt in the last 60 years.

(source here)


US Deficit getting Higher and Higher...

USA Today:
The White House has increased its estimate for next year's deficit to nearly $490 billion (against a previous prediction of $407 billion by President Bush earlier this year)

The actual 2009 deficit could climb still higher because the new projection does not reflect full funding for the wars. In addition, a worsening economy could add to the red ink by reducing tax revenue and increasing safety-net payments, such as jobless benefits and food stamps.Both presidential candidates have proposed tax cuts that could further swell the deficit.
The non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimates that Republican John McCain's cuts would cost $4.2 trillion and Democrat Barack Obama's $2.8 trillion over 10 years. Neither candidate has specified major spending cuts he would make to reduce the deficit.
As a share of the economy, the 2009 deficit would be 3% to 4%, below the post-World War II record of 6% set in 1983.
In addition, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about $10 billion to $12 billion a month, which may leave little room for other new initiatives in such areas as education or transportation.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Californian, a World of Freeways.

I have been traveling across the U.S. this summer, and contrary to what many Europeans may think, the regional differences between states, and regions are pretty big, so much so that you sometimes feel that you are in different countris, even if you are still in the United-States.

Take California, it is a nation of its own, and in fact, Southern California itself is a country of its own. One of the major features of life in Southern California is the "freeways". They are big (sometimes as many as 14 lanes) and numerous.

I am sure you have seen pictures of the tangles of freeways passing over and under each other with overpasses made of concrete pillars holding them up. (I imagine they are "earthquake proof" but still wouldn't like to be there for the Big One). From the sky it looks like a web, but from the ground, it is more like a post-apocalyptic spectacle of concrete jungle disconnected from any sense of human measurement in mythical proportion.

This "regional feature" is actually also reflected in linguistic differences:

  • "freeways" in CA are often called "highways" or "expressways" everywhere else and "interstates" (because that's what they are) in the South, and they are all essentially the same.(A highway in Clifornia seems to be for smaller roads like PCH - Pacific Coast Highway)
Strangely, the police on California freeways are called "Highway Patrolmen" (remember CHIPs?).

  • when the freeways are not "free", they are called "tollways" in California and "turnpikes in the Midwest and in the Northeast.
  • Then, as Kevin Drum noted this week, Southern Californians tend to use a definite article (the) when referring to freeways. Therefore you talk about "the 5", "the 405", or "the 10".This is not something you hear in the rest of the country. (you say, for instance, "take 95 to...." without the definite article).

This habit though seems not to have spread north of Monterrey.
Adding the in front of highway names seems to be a Southern California issue. In the San Francisco Bay area 'the' is almost never pre-pended, and the same applies to the Sacramento area and all of California north of San Francisco as far as I can tell. Indeed, my Southern California habits in this regard have gotten on the nerves of SF Bay Area natives more than once. (The Wash. Monthly)
  • California freeways are also referred to by name. (The Santa Monica Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, etc... ) although that does not seem specially SoCal (in Chicago "expressways" are often referred to with their names, "The Edens" or "The Kennedy,")
NOTE: For some reason, it seems that in "Ontario (Canada) no one calls it "Highway 401" or "Highway 400", it's "the 401" or "the 400".". (Wash Monthly)


Friday, July 25, 2008

France as a Role Model for Conservatives?

To be fair, McCain had some good things to say about France, something risky for a Republican candidate who is regarded with suspicion by the most conservative wing of his party:
On Tuesday, Mr. McCain came closest to Europhilia.
Talking about new energy sources in New Hampshire, Mr. McCain said that it took France five years to build a nuclear power plant and complained that in the United States it took 15 years or more. He also acknowledged that Americans did not readily accept France as a role model, saying self-mockingly, “As you know we always want to imitate the French.”
Here's more:
My friends, the French -- 80 percent of French electricity is generated by nuclear power. We always want to imitate the French, OK? And by the way, in case you missed it, we now have a pro-American president of France which shows if you live long enough anything can happen in America. (APPLAUSE)
So -- what do the French do with their spent nuclear fuel? They reprocess it. We can store it, we can reprocess it, we can do both. But it will have an immediate impact on our demand for foreign oil.
If not France, at least Sarkozy has become an icon for many Republicans. I suppose winning an election while being a member of an unpopular government with the promise of change is a dream for any Republican candidate these days!


French, American Caricatures...

Obama decried what he described as "caricatures" on both sides of the Atlantic, with Europeans viewing the US as militaristic and unilateral in their foreign policy, and Americans viewing Europeans as unwilling "to get their hands dirty" in world affairs.

He said Sarkozy had "shattered many of those stereotypes and has reminded Americans of the long tradition of friendship" between the two countries that dates back to French support for American revolutionaries in the 18th century (The Guardian)


Obamania in France.

Things have definitely changed for the better between France and the U.S. in the last 5 years, since our two nations got into a major row over Iraq. A new French president has been elected, despite his vocal admiration for the United-States, the war in Iraq has been proved to be a political failure, and there are American elections coming up.

Does it mean that “the average American has enormous fondness for the French people," as Obama said?

Well, the very fact that Obama showed himself with a French president is a sign that perceptions have changed. That would have never happened in the last presidential campaign:

Four years ago, Senator John Kerry spent months fighting back impressions that he appeared too French – even though he wasn’t – and conservative commentators used to create a caricature that likely affected his candidacy.

At the same time, and contrary to what happened in Berlin, Obama is not looking to draw crowds in Paris "because he knows his huge popularity in our country could ill serve him with a part the American centrist electorate.", as conservative newspaper Le Figaro wrote.

As usual for Sarkozy, there is no hesitation of show of emotions (which makes a lot of French a bit uncomfortable):

"Obama? He's my buddy," Le Figaro quoted the president as saying before Obama's arrival. "I am the only Frenchman who knows him." (AP)

It is true that Sarkozy met with Obama in 2006, before he was president. But he also met with McCain back then. However, both candidates have had different treatments:

Obama's reception in Paris contrasted with how his rival, Republican John McCain, was received in March. Obama was greeted by a smiling Sarkozy, who returned to Paris for the meeting from another summit. The joint Sarkozy and Obama news conference was held in front of the Elysee Palace; after Sarkozy and McCain met, the senator fielded questions alone from reporters in the courtyard. (LATimes)

Maybe Sarkozy genuinely prefers Obama or he’s trying to capitalize on Obama's great popularity among the French.

One thing that must be kept in mind is that actually very few people in France and in the world know anything about Obama’s policy. I even suspect that most people don't even want to know much.

All people outside America seem to care about is that he is not G. W Bush for one, that he is young (à la Kennedy) AND that he is black.

Interestingly, Obama’s candidacy resonates in the tougher neighborhoods of France where it triggers discussions about France’s own political integration of minorities (or lack of thereof). Ironically, it seems it in those neighborhoods that American foreign policy is most strongly condemned that Obama and the American model of integration are most highly regarded

If elected, President Obama may end up being a great disappointment, given how high the expectations are, but he will have accomplished two things: to make people believe in the possibility that there is an American dream somewhere out there, and improve the credibility of American foreign policy in the world, when it comes to justice and fairness.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Best movie of the year..

Last night, I saw Wall E and for what it's worth, I can only agree with all the positive reviews. It's been by far the best movie this year.

In the words of Roger Ebert :
an enthralling animated film, a visual wonderment and a decent science-fiction story. (...) That it works largely without spoken dialogue is all the more astonishing; it can easily cross language barriers, which is all the better, considering that it tells a planetary story.
Or of the NYTimes:

The first 40 minutes or so of “Wall-E” — in which barely any dialogue is spoken, and almost no human figures appear on screen — is a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in.

In addition to its beautiful look, drawing, and use of colors, Wall E is extremely well written with a distinct message which can only resonate in today's world on more than one level (topics such as the environment, mass consumerism, big business à-la-Wall Mart, politics, health, leisure, dependency, addiction, etc...)

Even more remarkable I find, is the growing affection I felt for the main character, a very simple robot with reduced but well rendered human expressions. It beats R2D2 or even ET! It somewhat reminded me of another robot from an 80's movie called "Short Circuit". The influence seems pretty clear but plays in favor of Wall E iwhich s far better and more touching. Apparently, I'm not the only one who made that comparison....

According to Wall-E designer, Andrew Stanton:
"you don't need a mouth, you don't need a nose, you get a whole personality just from [the eyes]", which meant the audience would feel he is "not just a human in a robot shell".
He said he found the inspiration by "playing with a pair of binoculars, which looked happy or sad depending on whether they were upside down or not". Ingenuity in simple things!

NOTE: and of course, sci fi fans will not have miss the references to "2001 Space Odyssey" of course (with for instance AUTO, the autopilot computer with a red "eye")


Friday, July 18, 2008

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Presidency

Once again The Onion proves that satire is not dead in America. Hilarious!


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Capitalistic socialism....

Here's a little addendum to our previous post, that I heard today on NPR -
Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks that the plan to "bail out" Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac amounts to socialized capitalism. In fact, I strangely find myself on the side of the more conservative Republicans. Gulp!
The often-outspoken Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) railed against the plan during a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. "When I picked up my newspaper yesterday, I thought I woke up in France. But, no, it turned out it was socialism here in the United States and very -- going well," he said, raising his voice. "The Treasury secretary is now asking for a blank check to buy as much Fannie and Freddie debt, or equity, as he wants."(Wash Post)
Phew! Imagine the nightmare: waking up in France..... !!!


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Socialized Capitalism.

The big story here in California (other than the wildfires) is the failure of Indymac Bank, the largest savings and loan in the L.A area and the 7th largets mortgage originator in the US.
The collapse of Indymac is the second largest banking failure in American history!

It is really odd to see huge lines of people waiting for hours to retrieve their money - it just looks like something coming straight from the 1930s.

On NBC Evening News last night:
"Luckily, most Americans don't know much more about bank failures than we all learned from watching the Christmastime classic 'It's A Wonderful Life' with Jimmy Stewart. ... So when a big bank failed in California just a few days ago and, given some uneasy rumors about others, there are worries in this era of mortgage meltdowns that there could perhaps be more on the way."

"IndyMac is the bank which has failed. It's the second largest banking failure in American history. ... I just came from the stock exchange where the question isn't whether another bank will fail but which one and when."

The irony is that when things go well, conservatives wants the government off their backs, they want deregulation etc.... but then of course, when things go bad, they want the Treasury and Congress to act. In other words, as in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, profits are privatized and losses are socialized, which basically means the taxpayer will pick up the tab.
And in the meantime McCain's central economic plan is to extend the Bush tax cuts, pile other tax breaks and revenue reductions!


A Muslim at the White House?

Of course we ALL know that Barak Obama is a Christian, (and was raised a Christian) and NOT a Muslim..... Well, even now, not exactly ALL people do though:

According to a recent Newsweek poll (NBC news):
  • 12% think he is a practicing Muslim
  • 26% think he was raised Muslim
  • 39% think he attended an Islamic school
That says a lot about people's ignorance... and is not very surprising.
Of course, the main reason why this is a problem is that a Muslim would never get elected to the White House, and that's really unfortunate. In an ideal situation, and according to the principles of separation of church and state and religious tolerance, that should not be an issue.
I wish we hear more people express what this guy said :
Tony Kutalyi of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says: "He needs to come out and not just simply say I'm not a Muslim, but again, if I were a Muslim, what difference would it make?" (source CNN)
Unfortunately, in the real world, a Muslim or anyone remotely "muslim" will never get elected. And the Obama campaign knows that:
The Obama campaign is embarrassed to admit that one of its volunteers in Detroit kept two Muslim women from appearing near Obama, where media cameras could see them, after they refused to remove their headscarves. Obama personally called the women to apologize. (source CNN)
Well, we should probably give Obama a break there - it is hard enough to be an African-American, trying to make history in a country that is still grappling with racism!
Besides, this is not just an American thing - I don't believe many European nations, including France, would ever vote for a Muslim to lead their countries. Not even for a black man!


Monday, July 14, 2008

Tempest in a glass of water....Much ado about nothing.

"A tempest in a tea pot", which we used in our last post (meaning "something blown out of proportion") is an American English expression. The British equivalent is actually "A storm in a teacup"
[other less popular alternatives are "a storm in a cream bowl" and "a storm in a wash-hand basin" (The big Oxford English Dictionary via World Wide Words]
The American expression seems to be the older of the two most famous ones. It wasfirst recorded in 1838 in:
a long-defunct journal called The United States Democratic Review of January 1838 about the Supreme Court: “This collegiate tempest in a teapot might serve for the lads of the University to moot; but, surely, was unworthy the solemn adjudication attempted for it”.

As for the French equivalent, it is "Tempête dans un verre d'eau" = "Tempest in a glass of water" and it is said to haved first appeared in 1849.

This is all the same as "much ado about nothing" of course, which was created by Shakespeare (although before the play by that name)


Obama and the New Yorker: a Tempest in a Teapot.

It seems to me that the whole buzz and controversy over the New Yorker’s cover (showing Obama dressed as a Muslim and his wife as a terrorist) is a bit of a tempest in a teapot.

First of all, it is so over the top that it is hard to miss that it is a satire of what the New Yorker called “the politics of fear”, made possible by the stupidity of a small part of the American electorate spreading false rumors about Obama being a Muslim or his wife being a secret Black Panther terrorist.

Of course, any satire may be misinterpreted or taken out of context, and as the magazine's editor, David Remnick pointed out: “I bet there are people who watch Stephen Colbert and think he's a conservative commentator”. But it is not because some people are too stupid that our society should put the blame on the satirists. In this day and age of dramatization of the news, they are needed more than ever before.

Second, the New York audience is a sophisticated one, used to the cartoonists’ satirical style. As the magazine's editor put it in a statement:

Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to the absurd,”

According to Huffingtonpost, the cover will be THE image to be used by “Anyone who's tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who's tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism”. That may be so, but those people won’t listen to reason anyway, and in the end, I don’t think it’ll make a big difference.

Paradoxically, if anything, it may have actually the merit of bringing the topic out in the open in the regular pass media, and clarify a few things for people who have genuine doubts or are ill-informed.

Interestingly, while both the Obama’s and Mccain’s campaigns have criticized the cover, calling it “tasteless and offensive”, Obama himself shrugged and replied: “I have no response to that.”

Well, he can’t complain too much, at least most other newsmagazines have had much more positive covers.

And the smear campaign may backfire and actually help him.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Are the French an emotional people?

Here's a follow-up on the Newsweek article mentioned in our last post:
"Americans tend to see the French as an emotional people. However, on technical matters at least they seem to be considerably more rational."
My take is that the French act emotional but may not actually be so....


Shall we all go nuclear?

After Chernobyl, I must say that I had my doubts about the nuclear option, but that was before global warming started showing its damaging effect.

Nuclear power has two advantages: it reduces dependence on oil producing countries, and, more importantly because nuclear power plants do not burn fuel, they do not emit carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief greenhouse gas. And no matter how much cleaner coal power plants may become, they still reject too much CO2. As for other greener forms of power productions (wind, solar, hydro, etc…) they depend largely on local conditions and are not yet dependable on a massive level. Those technologies thus need massive improvement.

In 2005, it was estimated that 86% of primary energy production in the world came from burning fossil fuels with the remaining non-fossil sources being hydroelectric 6.3%, nuclear 6.0%, and other (geothermal, solar, wind, and wood and waste) 0.9 percent. (source EIA)

Nuclear power is one of the few instances where France has been, leading the way, as a Newsweek article recently reminded its readers:

France now emits only about half the greenhouse gas per unit of GDP of the United States (about the world average), which propels France to near the top of Yale's and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

20% of electric consumption is produced by nuclear power in the US; 80% in France. (in the US, coal generates 54% of its electricity, and is the single biggest air polluter in the nation). (IAE)

The excitement about plug-in hybrid vehicles makes no sense for the environment if the electricity needed for them comes from burning coal.

The two major questions as regard to nuclear power are of course safety and the management of the fuel cycle, from uranium ore to enriched fuel to waste for disposal. Then, there is also fear of uranium shortage in the 30 years or so. But there are reasons to be optimistic :

To prevent that possibility, France is now doing the R&D on a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors, called breeders, that can produce new fuel for itself or other reactors. Rather than burying its waste permanently and then facing a fuel shortage, France will be in an enviable position of having a virtually unlimited supply of fuel.

The breeder technology that France expects to have ready for commercialization in 30 years addresses these concerns. The reactors could be used to destroy the long-lived radioactive components of spent reactor fuel, creating a new way of disposing of this hazardous material more effectively and safely than is now possible. Waste treated by an advanced breeder would need to be buried only for a thousand years, greatly simplifying the safeguards needed in a repository. (Newsweek)

I still shrill at the idea of a new Chernobyl of course, and it seems to me that nuclear makes sense as of now. Then in the longer term, what will certainly be needed is diverse means of electric production (Because of its choice of nuclear energy, France has unfortunately underinvested in new technologies of production of renewable energy.), but nuclear power seems to be the only immediate ready-to-use technology for western countries as well as for China (China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. ) and India (India is right behind China in stepping up its construction of coal-fired power plants).

And in any case, coal burning should really be more and more a thing of the past.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Worst Place to be a Terrorist. (part2)

One little note worth adding to our previous post:

Of course, "the worst place to be a terrorist" is most certainly Guantanamo but I suppose it doesn't count since technically it is not US territory (although that too is controversial). hum, hum.... and in any case, it is SO above anyone's league that it's not fair to compare.

As far as France using "a catch-all offence to charge suspects", it may be up to debate but one may have doubts about the fairness of the French judicial system when its efficiency to fight terrorists puts France on a par with Jordan, Egypt, Singapore, and Russia. [Then again, there is always "a dark side of the Force" : the U.S. is on a par with China, Iran, and Viet Nam when it comes to Capital Ppunishment. ]

A more fun question to ask may actually be what is "the best place to be a terrorist"? Off the top of my head, I'd say.... Iraq? Afghanistan? Corsica?
[Well, isn't Corsica in France? That too is up to debate... . Besides, those terrorists are only amateurs, they hardly kill anyone. They only bomb, assault, rob banks, and extort! and more importantly, they're not even MUSLIMS.... Phew!]


Monday, July 07, 2008

The Worst Place to be a Terrorist.

France is the most visited country in the world, and the U.S. is second.
More interestingly, according to FP, France is also the worst place to be a terrorist in the West. Phew! So France may be a role model after all..... or NOT!


Saturday, July 05, 2008

What is Patriotism?

On this 4th of July week-end, it seems quite appropriate to have a little discussion on patriotism. It has been, after all one of the issues recently raised in the presidential campaign. Unfortunately, whereas love for country should be a unifying factor, it has been used as a divisive issue, mostly by conservative Republicans.

In very telling manner, Powerline (the influential conservative blog) has summed up the vision of the conservative wing of the Republican party:

One of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives, perhaps the most important one politically, is what they think (or how they feel) about the United States. Conservatives think the U.S. is a great country. Liberals think it is a deeply flawed, but redeemable, country. Radicals think it is hopelessly bad and should be destroyed or remade.

Barack Obama gave a speech on the subject in which […/…] he suggested that the height of patriotism lies in criticizing one's country. This is a common liberal conceit.

This is a complete fallacy of course, which implies tin essence that there is only one correct form of patriotism: one that does not allow criticism. It also gives an overly simplified binary version of one’s relationship to one’s country, a reminder of the once popular bumper sticker “America, love it or leave it. But indeed, one may “love” and be critical at the same time. Parents (especially conservative ones) do it all the time with their children. Besides, blind love of country amounts to idolatry.

What Obama underlined in his speech is indeed exactly the opposite, that America is a nation of diversity with “varied convictions and beliefs.” And that “We argue and debate our differences vigorously and often" which is precisely what makes America one of the great countries: it gives people the right and the freedom to express their criticism.

Unfortunately, many of the conservative Republicans equal criticizing the government (especially in foreign policy) with being unpatriotic and even un-American, but only of course when the administration is run by a Republican president. For this is nothing new of course: it was done in the 50s, in the 80s and they’re doing it again.

The other characteristic of conservative patriotism is that it has a great love for ostentatious signs of patriotism and it measures one’s love for their country by their public display of the flag or their participation in collective rituals such as the Pledge of Allegiance, public prayer and even loyalty oaths. It doesn’t mean that those who love such gestures are un-Patriotic or that they are hypocrites, no, it just means….. not a whole lot! Those gestures are very easy ones to make.

As David Greenberg puts it, other more liberal people (like many Europeans) tend “to regard collective gestures like the Pledge of Allegiance as hollow, tokenistic, and even potentially coercive—and thus antithetical to the individualism that lets free thought flourish”.

John McCain’s patriotism cannot be questioned of course, because he was a P.O.W. and as such he is for Americans, the embodiment of courage but Obama represents another form of patriotism, the embodiment of American ideals: "this essential American ideal—that our destinies are not written before we are born—has defined my life. And it is the source of my profound love for this country: because with a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, I know that stories like mine could only happen in America.".

Obama is America’s best (potential) asset in the world, and his being elected would send a very powerful signal to the rest of the world, a sign that would definitely make up for huge the loss of confidence and tarnished image of the United-States in the world in the last few years. This is no small consideration for it would give make the rest of the world believe in America and her ideals again.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Political Segregation.

Our first post on our first day back online should really be about politics. After all, the US elections are all over the news both in the U.S. and in France.

Many of those who have experienced life in Europe, (France in particular) and in the United-States have undoubtedly noticed that the Europeans tend to be more outspoken about their political views. As much as the French will not talk easily in public about their religious beliefs (probably a trauma of centuries of religious wars and tensions), they will be glad to offer their - sometimes unsolicited- political views to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues

The French will particularly even enjoy it if they can find someone who disagrees with them. And the debate will become a sparring match whose point may not be so much to win over their partner but to find the best and most logical arguments.

In North America, however, politics will quickly become a personal matter which is probably why people will mostly express their political views mostly where it’s safe, i.e. with people they agree with or else they’ll avoid them altogether with people they disagree with.

What I have known from experience has actually been confirmed by a study. It was carried out in 12 countries and it shows that “Americans are the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.” (The Economist)

Why is that? The Economist suggests that it is because Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views” than others. Why? Because “Americans are increasingly choosing to live among like-minded neighbors which makes the culture war more bitter and politics harder.” It seems that more and more Americans choose a neighborhood for being in accord with their political views.

That, plus home-schooling, plus increasingly ideological television shows (no matter “fair and balance” they claim to be!), plus the Internet which can easily be used by picking and choosing sites that will only to re-enforce pre-existing biased views have increased the political divide in America.

What is the consequence? A more divided country with more extreme views and more partisanship.

Studies suggest that when a group is ideologically homogeneous, its members tend to grow more extreme. Even clever, fair-minded people are not immune. Cass Sunstein and David Schkade, two academics, found that Republican-appointed judges vote more conservatively when sitting on a panel with other Republicans than when sitting with Democrats. Democratic judges become more liberal when on the bench with fellow Democrats.

Voters in landslide districts tend to elect more extreme members of Congress. Moderates who might otherwise run for office decide not to. Debates turn into shouting matches. Bitterly partisan lawmakers cannot reach the necessary consensus to fix long-term problems such as the tottering pensions and health-care systems.

But why is it so different in Europe then? Well, first, Europeans are not as mobile as Americans and European neighborhoods tend to be divided along economic lines rather than political ones.

I would also suggest that contrary to Europe, politics in America has been increasingly linked to culture and values, which are much more personal. Politics is not any longer about the different (and sometimes opposite) “methods used to formulate and apply policy” with the goal of bettering the community or providing for the self-fulfillment of individuals. It has become something about values which are (perceived to be) at the core of one’s identity.

Therefore rejecting someone’s political views in America may be construed as a rejection of them, of who they are. That is the risk many Europeans take when they engage Americans in political discussions, but many of them are clueless about it.


Long time, no see!

As you may have noticed, Joker-to-the-Thief has been silent for months now but it is being brought BACK TO LIFE. (back to reality...)
The reason for this long silence is that both of us were too busy. No…. Really.!
One of us was working on his Harvard PhD thesis while raising kids, and the other was studying for a highly selective civil service competitive examination (known as the Agregation in France). The good news is that our break from the blog was not totally unwarranted – since to our own amazement, we both passed.

So now we are BACK - we owe it to our faithful readers as much as to ourselves to resume our discussions on France and the United States from our cross-cultural perspective.

Hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do. And please, don’t hesitate to step in and leave your comment.

PS: Incidently, I have always been told that the non-English syntax of "long time, no see" found its origins in an American-indian expression:

The 'OED New Supp.' cites the oldest use in literature in 1901 in "31 Years on Plain" by W. F. Drannan. 'When we rode up to him (an American Indian), he said: "Good mornin. Long time no see you".' It is used in Harry C. Witwer's 'Love and Learn,' 1924 (p. 73)

But apparently, it is of Chinese origin:

The Simplified Chinese is 好久不见 ('hao jiu bu jian' or 'ho noi mou gin' in Cantonese) which literally means, "very long-time no see".

(Wiki source)