Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Catharsis Benefits of American TV Series.

One of the most amazing characteristics of American TV fiction is its ability to address controversial issues. This week was no exception.

Not only has Law & Order (better known in France as New York District – go figure!) become the longest dramatic series (along with Gunsmoke) on American TV, but it has opened its 20th season this week with one of the hottest topic in American current affairs : torture and whether the US government should be held responsible.

As always with L&O, the story takes different twists and start with the death of a war veteran. I don’t want to give too many spoilers but at some point district attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) decides to prosecute a lawyer who wrote a Justice Department legal memo authorizing torture, as well as his co-conspirators in the chain of command all the way up to Vice President Cheney.

"Jack, you want to prosecute a member of the Bush administration for assaulting
suspected terrorists? "
"The word is 'torturing.' And yes, it's about time somebody did."

The character of McCoy takes some heat for trying the case, and he is nearly accused of treason :

"We're looking forward, not backward, we're not looking to give aid and comfort to the enemy."
"What are you accusing me of?", McCoy replies

Interestingly by the end of the episode, it is the need for Order that has taken over the idea of the Law. (For more, please watch the show, it is worth your time).

I believe L&O is underrated by the media. It is not your typical cop-law show where the bad guy with the hideous face gets caught by the good cops and successfully prosecuted by the good lawyers. It deals with issues that are important to the country and hardly touched by most journalists. This episode called “Memo from the Dark Side” has been largely ignored and unannounced.

Of course, a TV series is not going to change an entire society and in real life no such prosecution has taken place (yet) but one should really command American writers and television for dealing with such hot button issues right on. I do not believe there is any other country in the world that’s capable of facing its demons so directly and so quickly.

It is certainly not so much the case of France which has barely started acknowledging its own use of torture in the Algerian war of independence 47 years ago. I have yet to see the day when the French dubious roles in Africa today will be on French tv fiction or movies.

I think the ability to deal with one’s demons through fiction is extremely healthy for its catharsis effect on a country. After all, that is why the Greek cam up with the word catharis (meaning "purification", "cleansing" or "clarification ralted to fiction.
Drama and justice are the two best ways to get over the dark side and eventually move forward. Otherwise, if you ignore it, it will eventually get back to you years later (the French certainly know something about that).

This speaks volume about the ability of America to make amend and recognize its errors. But now that this recognition is taking place, it may be time to get down to the justice side and make some of those people in high power accountable.

NOTE: I really wonder why the French had to change the name of the show to "New York District" while the Québécois call it simply "La loi et l'ordre"....


Saturday, September 19, 2009

When Conservative Religion and Fear Rule the United-States.

In today’s world, the very idea that a movie on Charles Darwin fails to find a US distributor simply because they fear it would too controversial for their American audiences is frightening. The movie has been sold all over the world. It has even opened the Toronto Festival (in neighboring Canada).

150 years after “On The Origin of Species was published, you’d think that the passion over this might have cooled down a bit and not that it would be such a hot topic any more.

Of course, it may be that movie distributors look at the polls, and :

a Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they "believe in the theory of evolution," while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don't have an opinion either way. These attitudes are strongly related to education and, to an even greater degree, religiosity. (Gallup)

This, one must remember is uniquely American and itwould be wrong to see it as a Christian phenomenon. Indeed, not all Christian churches are set against the theory of evolution.
In fact, the Church of England has even made an apology for being “over-defensive and over-emotional in dismissing Darwin's ideas”, and they have a series on Darwin on their website. In America, the Episcopal Church has said that the theory of evolution does not conflict with Christian faith. And the Catholic Church (which still has the greatest number of members of all Christian churches) has admitted that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution should not have been dismissed and claimed it is compatible with the Christian view of Creation.
It should also be remembered that most of Darwin's theories are now accepted as a foundation of biological science.

But that’s even beside the point. Regardless of what one believes, the very notion that a movie cannot be distributed because it may offend a religious group is appalling. It means that culture is based on fear and intimidation. It is the way of countries run by religious fundamentalists like Iran, Saudi Arabia or Taliban Afghanistan, not the way of a democratic country that claims to believe in freedom of expression. If this movie finds no distributor, it will be a great shame to the United-States.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

France's Lead on Climate change Issue.

It is not often that this blog has praises for French president Sarkozy - in fact, it’s never happened - but one must render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.

This week, Nicolas Sarkozy laid out his (radical) plan to impose a carbon tax on homes and businesses. Essentially, here’s the idea :

The tax would be initially based on the market price for carbon dioxide emissions permits, which is now euro17 ($24.74) per ton of carbon dioxide, Sarkozy said.

At that level, the government expects to raise euro 3 billion, which will be entirely returned to households and businesses through a reduction in other taxes or repaid via a so-called "Green Check," Sarkozy said.
The result would be a shift of the tax burden from other revenue sources to energy derived from fossil fuels in an effort to discourage their use

There are many remarkable things about this plan :

  • First, Sarkozy is delivering on a promise he made during the campaign but also during the Grenelle Environment round-table talks (Grenelle de l’Environnement) – France’s Green New Deal.
  • the French president is fulfilling his promise against public opinion, which is I think a sign a of great leadership. (one does not govern by public polls).
  • France will thus become the biggest country (with the largest economy) yet to try taxes to slow global warming. The smaller countries (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and parts of Canada) that have adopted similar plans have seen a significant reduction of CO2 emission.

Of course, one may always suspect Nicolas Sarkozy of ulterior motives – his ego showed up again when he talked about “saving the human race”, and of course, it is pretty clear that Sarkozy loves it when he can be in the lead. But so what? What matters also is that the rest of the E.U is likely to follow France’s example, which in turn might give Europe renewed credibility in international talks on climate change.

Of course, it will take strong leadership as people are always keen on helping the environment if someone else pays for it. And the French are no exception.
The most popular figure in France is environmentalist Nicolas Hulot who not only favors the carbon tax but “extracted a promise from all leading candidates during the 2007 presidential election that they would introduce the idea, if elected.” (Carbon taxes were also approved by an environmental conference, uniting politicians of all parties, pressure groups, unions and industry, in October 2007, a few months after President Sarkozy was elected.) Yet now in having to face the reality of it, the French are mostly against it. I understand they may distrust the government giving their money back with the Green check, but they should give it a chance if they have is any coherence.
The worst part is how the socialists jumped on the wagon of criticism on a plan they also initially favored. It blows my mind to see how much they are losing credibility on this (as on so many other things).

The good thing is that the French media – both left and right - have echoed such contradiction :

The centre-right paper Le Figaro says when Nicolas Hulot speaks about the carbon tax, everyone is in favour yet when Nicolas Sarkozy does the same, people disagree. Nicolas Hulot is a famous French television presenter who hosted a series on the environment. He is hugely popular and even considered running for the presidency. In the end, he didn’t but he used his popularity to get French politicians to sign an environmental pact. The paper says the time for words is over, action is needed and the tax should be introduced.

The left-leaning Libération is, for once, in agreement with Le Figaro. The paper says that the Ecology Party will inevitably claim the tax doesn’t go far enough while the Socialists will inevitably say the tax is unfair and hits the poorest hardest.
However Nicolas Hulot’s environmental tax was signed by all concerned so for the sake of coherence, the tax should be brought in and should be supported by all parties.

So the carbon-tax seems to me to be a sensible measure, no matter what ulterior motives Sarkozy may have. The French president has taken a lot of heat both the left who dimed his plan unfair to the poor and the right who fear protectionism in disguise. This makes me think it is actually a good emasure.
Sarkozy found a great ally in Nobel Price for Economics Paul Krugman's note in the NYT - and I could not agree more :

Yet when France’s Sarkozy says something entirely reasonable on the subject — and something that may well be an essential part of the politics of climate change policy — the usual suspects pop up declaring that it’s evil protectionism.
Again, it’s the economic principle that should matter — that and, um, saving the planet, which is is any case more important than the trading system.


How the Republican Party has adopted Extremist Rhetoric.

Related to our pevious post, here's a fascinating interview on Fresh Air (NPR) of journalist Max Blumenthal whose book, "Republican Gomorrah, Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party," seems like a good read - especially if you've been wondering how and why the comparison of Obama to Hitler and Stalin has become more popular in more righ-wing circles this summer. (the influence of Foxnews and the Christian Right is of course mentioned as well as Lyndon La Rouche)

Basically, Blumentahl immersed himself in far-right fringe culture for six years and investigated how the Republican Party has been hikacked by extremists, and how more moderate Republicans like Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush or even John McCain have been pushed to the side.

"The GOP has become subsumed by dysfunctional personalities with no capacity for restraining themselves, either from acting out hysterically or from their most devious urges. For these internally conflicted figures, who will continue to produce new and increasingly bizarre scandals, right-wing political crusading is simply a form of self-medication."

Blumenthal partly explains the far right's new vigor by the fact that it functions best when the government and Congress is democratic so they can more easily throw stones form the outside. It seems like a scary but necessary read as one should face the reality of what is going on.

If you want more, here's another interview of Blumenthal on Democracy Now.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

70 Years Later.. : Hitler has become a Man of Peace!

In relation to our previous post, here’s another example of a political pundit re-writing history, and on this 70th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, it is worth pausing upon it.

This time, it is Pat Buchanan who wrote a column on MSNBC website entitled "Did Hitler Want War?" in which he claims that Hitler didn’t really want war and that the British are really to blame for WWII. (It is also the thesis of his latest book, called “The Unnecessary War”.). His theory is basically that if Britain hadn't aligned itself with Poland, the Holocaust wouldn't have happened. Seriously!

Hitler had never wanted war with Poland, but an alliance with Poland such as he had with Francisco Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy, Miklos Horthy's Hungary and Father Jozef Tiso's Slovakia.

As often before, he also makes dubious parallels between WWII and the war in Iraq, and as much as one can be critical of the motivation for the war in Iraq, making such historical comparisons is idiotic, and worse, it is dangerous. (the same can be said about arguments using WWII to support the war in Iraq).

Now in case you are not familiar with Pat Buchanan, the man is not just any one, he’s an influential American conservative political commentator, author, syndicated columnist, politician and broadcaster. He was a senior advisor to American presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, and was a host on CNN's Crossfire. And today, he's a political commentator on the MSNBC cable network including the show Morning Joe and a regular on The McLaughlin Group. (He also ran for the Republican presidential ticket in 1992 and 1996).

Interestingly, his views are unlike those preached by L. LaRouche, the wingnut who provided the health-care Town Hall protesters with Obama=Hitler signs this summer. Beneath the deceiving innocuous, respectable guise of a simple foreign policy debate, one must remember Buchanan is an isolationist in the (American) tradition of immigrant-bashing nativism which blames everything wrong on the Jews, Hispanics, blacks, the media and large corporations.
Recently, Jonah Goldberg told us that Adolf Hitler was of the Left, and now Buchanan says Adolf Hitler was a man of Peace….
Such historical revisionism would never be tolerated in (Western) Europe and there would be an outcry over this sort of things… but in America, it took The National Jewish Democratic Council to release a statement in which they implored MSNBC to remove the article from their Web site for MSNBC to react and do it.

However, it is not the first time that Buchanan goes off the wall with bigoted speech, yet MSNBC continues to employ him. Maybe they want to show that they are open to a diversity of ‘opinions’ and that they are more “fair and balanced” than FoxNews but this sort of historical revisionism is not another ‘opinion’, it is a dangerous re-writing of history which ignores facts and selects whatever fits a right-wing agenda, but unfortunately not enough Americans know enough about WWII to see that.