Saturday, October 31, 2009

Are the French Japanese and the American Chinese... about languages?

On his blog, James Fallows (Atlantic Monthly writer) made a daring comparison of the French and the Americans to the Japanse and the Chinese when it comes to how they handle and view their languages :
In France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"
Correspondingly (…/…) Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean..." (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.).
The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say.
Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity -- and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants.
This is interesting. However the comparisons has a few flaws. French, contrary to Japanese is spoken by a great number of people outside France.
Moreover, I’m not sure that the French think their language is “pure and difficult”, even though they attach great value to their language. They see it as the vehicle for their culture which is at the core of their identity. So they see their language from a cultural perspective and also give language an esthetic value. More importantly, I think the educational system is based on penalizing every single mistake. This is also true of foreign languages, which is why I believe most French are actually extremely self-conscious (which is why they usually claim to speak less than they do), but being a proud people, they tend to play along the clichés people may have of them.
As for the Americans, I think they have a much more practical approach of languages (as of many other things). They don’t care so much about the particulars as long as it works. The fact that they (mostly) don’t speak foreign languages also makes them more impressed with other people who do or simply try. The downside is that if your English is good enough so you are understood, it’ll be much harder to make progress because no one will correct you.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Limitating Internet Access in France and the U.S.

One thing that France and the United-States is that both countries face the perils of the limitations of access to the Internet.

In France, the new anti-piracy law (called HADOPI 2) has finally been validated by the Constitutional Council. It is a "three strikes" law that will allow a state agency to cut off the access of Internet users accused downloading copyright content without authorization.

The change from the previous bill is that there will some judicial review, but the new law allows a fast-track procedure that will deny the right to due process and the presumption of innocence. The suspension of internet access will be decided by a single judge on the basis of the case file.
This of course is the latest developments in the fight of the old guard of an industry unable or unwilling to question their business model under the false pretext of helping the artists and the ‘creators’. The discussion of alternative models has been made impossible. (it must also be reminded that the state imposes on any device able to store media content regardless of their purpose or final usage to the benefit of the copyright holders). Unfortunately, it seems the old guard is winning.
No surprise that France should be the first country to invoke a “three strikes” law for repeat file-sharers. [Thankfully for those who are geeks, there will be technical ways to circumvent the new law. It is a losing fight in the end]

In the U.S., it is net neutrality that is being under attack. 'Net neutrality' says that broadband providers cannot block or hinder the internet traffic of any web site or service (regardless of whether or not that site or service competes with a similar site or service offered by the ISP itself).
Recently the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has voted to open a proceeding that would guaranty net neutrality. In other words it would make it illegal for telecom companies to impose a service model to control the pipeline and force people to buy their own (uncompetitive and more expensive) services.
But then came John McCain who introduced a bill that would prevent the FCC from making roles on net neutrality. Of course, McCain used what many Republicans have used to defend big businesses in the past – the fear of “government takeover”. Who cares if the government is actually defending people’s freedoms? Guess what he called his bill… : the Internet Freedom Act. Don’t you love the spin?

“Today I'm pleased to introduce the Internet Freedom Act of 2009 that will keep the Internet free from government control and regulation. It will allow for continued innovation that will in turn create more high-paying jobs for the millions of Americans who are out of work or seeking new employment. Keeping businesses free from oppressive regulations is the best stimulus for the current economy.” (CNN)
The best part is that this comes from the man who during the presidential campaign described
himself as technologically "illiterate". Well, of course the fact that McCain has netted about $765,000 in political donations from those telecom lobbyists, their spouses, colleagues at their firms and their telecom clients during the past decade has nothing to do with his newly found technological literacy. What underlines this battle is the fight between the champion for the old-line phone industry and the new powers of Silicon Valley.
So we have two different battles in two different countries: France and the U.S. but what they have in common is an old guard trying to cling to their old-time privileges.
In both cases, the control over the Internet is fought by an industry that’s afraid of change and is incapable of having a new vision and finding new business models, an industry lacking innovation.
Meanwhile the consumer is the cow that’s being milk to keep afloat a little longer an industry that will eventually die if it does not change. Why prolong the suffering at the expense of people’s freedoms? Because politicians, big businesses and the establishment are afraid they might lose out, and reed will do the rest.

UPDATE: The French satirical investigative journalism weekly “ Le Canard Enchaîné” reveals “that our holier-than-thou presidency is in fact a pirate’s lair.
In a stunning display of hypocrisy, the presidential audiovisual services produced 400 unauthorized copies of the 52 minutes documentary “A visage découvert : Nicolas Sarkozy”… It is even more appalling that we are dealing with repeat offenders : last spring, while the Hadopi law was discussed, U.S. music duo MGMT received €30,000 as a settlement for a copyright infringement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party who used one of its songs at a political rally without permission. Those who led the charge against Internet users are not the most respectful of copyright.” (Boing Boing)


Motivation, the Great Money Maker.

In the land of ever more optimism (see our previous post), here’s an example of American ‘exceptionalism’ - the “Get Motivated” seminars.

Those are clearly uniquely American. They offer a mega-Christian-Evangelical-revival-church-like show mixed with patriotism, inspirational success stories and tips for salespeople, business men and women. “Attend This Dynamic Seminar to INCREASE Your Productivity and Income!" the Web site says. "Your life will be changed and you will leave refreshed, ready to rise to the top of the pack and achieve your dreams," it adds, "Everyone who's anyone will be there! Will you?"

But does the increase of productivity mean happiness? Undoubtedly. At least according to Peter and Tamara Lowe, who run the show and the company, and promote themselves as "the dynamic duo who create and produce The GET MOTIVATED! Seminar, and have been happily married for 20 years." To illustrate this happiness of theirs, they have even posted a picture of themselves online kissing at Seriously!

And the worst part is that they gather thousands of people. According to Lowe, “between 10,000 and 50,000 people attend each "Get Motivated!" seminar”. And if seminars, even in big stadiums are not enough, they also sell everything from CDs, DVDs, inspirational tapes to weight loss programs.
That’s probably why their guest this week is former-president George W. Bush. The official theme being – I kid you not - "How to master the art of effective leadership", it would be interesting to see how one turns miserable failure into an inspiration for America's businessmen and women, if only I could go. Absolutely brilliant!

Other than the fact that Bush can’t speak (as the least articulate ex-president), I wonder what ‘the decider’ may inspire anyone about. How to get a country into an unnecessary war? How to spin reality and deny scientific truth? How to enthusiastically embrace torture? How to turn the Department of Justice into a tool to promote one’s agenda? Well, I suppose one can learn a thing or two about manipulation on greater scale, how to bend the Constitution and use fear to promote a political agenda. Mission accomplished… for a while at least.
Of course, George W. will have a captivated audience anyway that is already won to his cause. (plus, the seminar will be held in Texas). And no pressure for him - there are other no less prestigious guests like former secretary of State Colin Powell, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani – for the body, with Earl Mindell, the “ultimate authority on vitamins, fitness and nutrition” and anti-ageing enzyme, and for the soul, with "inspirational” televangelist speaker, Dr. Robert Schuller.

Europe has tried in many ways to copy the U.S. but let’s hope this sort of thing, will remain uniquely American.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Dangers of American Positive (& French Negative) Thinking.

One of the notable differences between the French and the Americans is certainly to be found in their outlook on life. The Americans value positive thinking as the way to happiness and prosperity whereas the French value cynicism and dim anything too positive as incredibly naïve. This is probably where our two cultures are the most different.

Interestingly this week, Jon Stewart had the author of “The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”, Barbara Ehrenreich, on his show this week.
I have not read the book but her interview, however short, was fascinating. Her personal story was that she confronted to breast cancer eight years ago and while trying to find support she was told she had to be “positive and cheerful” and “embrace her disease because she was going to come out of it a better person” which she did not.
More interestingly, she blames part of current economic crises as a by-product of positive thinking when people were told that everything was going to go up forever (hence the subprime crisis). This idea certainly deserves some thought.

As Jon Stewart put it himself at the beginning of the show, positive thinking and the idea that by the power of your mind and attitude you can attract things like money and wealth is almost like a secular religion in America.
Go to any American bookstore, and read the titles of the self-help section, and you’ll see how this has become a major part of the post-modern American culture. Or consider the ‘prosperity theology’. It makes sense though – after all, positive thinking is what has sustained the economy in the last decades. The idea that tomorrow is bound to be better than today is at the heart of the credit culture and American capitalism.
The problem seems twofold:
  1. it leads to irrational exuberance (and makes people buy more than they can afford for instance);
  2. it invalidates people’s fears and makes them feel guilty for their (potential) negative thoughts.

Barbara Ehrenreich is convinced it is a sign of the empathy deficit in our society. She may be right. It is certainly true that (most) Americans have little patience with people who share their problems and don’t do well for too long. They’d rather have them see a shrink instead or keep their problems to themselves (or give them one of those self-help books).

That being said, the French way may not be a better alternative. Despite their good life, excellent wine and food, long vacations, first-rate health care, long holidays and sit-down lunches, protected jobs and generous welfare the French have one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD
More people take their lives as a share of the population than anywhere in Western Europe bar Finland and Belgium.

The Economist has an interesting theory as to why that is, in last week's issue:
In a country that idealizes the good life, the reality of drudgery and waiting for the monthly pay check, or of solitude in retirement, may be harder to accept.
In other words, the more prevalent the culture of good life is, the harder it is for those who don’t have it. There may be some truth in that - and the good life of some requires sacrifices that may be too costly to others.
However it seems ot me that the culture of negative thinking also plays a part in this, and it starts in school which contributes to the low self-esteem of a great number of French students.
Contrary to the U.S., the social pressure in France is against those who are too positive or at least who dare express it too much. They are seen as naïve or privileged, if by any chance, they have reasons to be positive. It is almost political. It is all the truer in this economic crisis where anything too positive is akin to indecency with regard those who are going through a rough patch.

There is a lot more to say on this topic, but we can probably safely conclude already that the best outlook on life is probably not to be found in any extreme.
The 'cure' to excessive positive thinking is certainly not negative thinking; it is realism with a bit of hope and a zest of dream for a better future.
Meanwhile positivity or optimism should not be confused with happiness, and everyone can pursue happiness in their own way. Ultimately, it is probably best to let our friends, family and colleagues be who they are, and somewhat recognize and validate their fears, joys or dreams without making feel guilty for how they feel.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nicolas Bonaparte's King Making.

The most scandalous political news these days come from France again, not from the U.S.. It is a change from the Bush era and it seems that French President is trying hard to outdo King George.

It is no surprise to those of us who have seen the early signs (here and here) that the the comparison between Nicolas Sarkozy and Napoleon had direct bearing on the governance of France.

After scandals over sex tourism (see our two previous posts), racist-sounding chaffing, now comes nepotism :

The French people found out this week that the president's son, Jean Sarkozy (i.e. as 'Prince Jean'), is a candidate chairman of the development agency for La Défense (called EPAD), a high-rise financial center to the west of Paris where major top firms have their headquarters - an area which is supposed to develop and compete with London.

Not only is Jean Sakozy only 23 years old, but he has not even finished school yet - he is repeating his second year of undergraduate law at the Sorbonne (after repeating his first), and has virtually no experience. Sure he was elected as a department councillor of the Hauts-de-Seine, but he complished little as he won the Neuilly seat, in his dad's conservative fiefdom.

He was then given the job of heading his dad's political party (UMP) in the department.

The French satitirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé (not available online) has also investigated on how the whole process was planned by the Elysées for more than a year, (by either forcing or coaxing people into giving up their seats to make sure there would be no opposition in the EPAD body).

As you can imagine, this has provoked an outcry in France, and even made the headlines in China. A majority of French people find it scandalous 63% oppose the decision... What why 37% don't seem to be bothered.

I suppose some people may be blasé. It is true that political dynasties are nothing new in France where the presidents are more elected monarchs (who act as if they had been given all powers for term, not unlike George W. Bush) than modern presidents.

But this is different because Nicolas Sarkozy ran his presidential campaign claiming that his self-made man background made him different from the politics-as-usual. He was elected on the promise of a new "irreproachable republic" based on work, merit and the end of "birth privileges". The hypocrisy is killing me.

But here's the icing on the cake - on the very day following the news of his son's appointment, President Sarkozy gave a speech on education reform in which he praised Napoleon Bonaparte for having founded an egalitarian high school system that effectively ended "the privileges that come with birth" into families of high standing, adding that "to succeed in France, what counts is no longer being well-born, but having worked hard and proven yourself through your studies and work."

And he said it with a straight face.

Indeed he was right, Napoleon seems to be more relevant than ever - Napoleon, also known as the "King Maker" was the master of nepotism, making his family members kings and queens of countries he had invaded.

Hopefully for his own sake (and for the French) Prince Jean will not be another King of Rome but we may not get rid of Sarkozy dynasty so easily. Jean Sarkozy and his wife are expecting their first child by the end of 2009.

UPDATE : Under enormous pressure from negative public opinion - including petitions and funny flash-mob demonstrations in which young people wielded bananas like mobile phones (video) as reference to the Banana Republic France is becoming - Prince Jean finally gave in and said he would not seek the presidency of the organization that runs France’s most important business district


Sunday, October 11, 2009

On the Difference between 'Art' and Government.

Interesting and unexpected developments followed the Polanski case (see our previous post).
As you may have heard (or not), the whole Polanski case has turned here in France into the Mitterrand case. The French Minister of Culture has been criticized by a number of politicians for his attack on the United States when he expressed his outrage after Roman Polanski was arrested.

It also turned out that the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, (nephew of the now deceased former French-president François Mitterrand) had written an autobiography (‘La Mauvaise Vie’, ‘The Bad Life’) in which he talks about his sexual tourism and adventures with boys. (see excerpt here in French). Imagine how the media got a field day on that one.

The controversy started when Marine Le Pen (extreme far-right) read an excerpt on television and demanded his resign.
What followed was a controversy, a scandal and an interview with French television network TF1 on the 8 o’clock news (which had a record audience) in which Frédéric Mitterand said he "absolutely condemn(s) sexual tourism, which is a disgrace, and ... pedophilia," in which he insisted he has never participated. He also admitted to "errors" in paying for sex in the past, but said he had relations only with men his age.

It is very unusual in France to talk about the private life of a politician. There are very strict laws protecting people’s privacy but this case is different because Mitterrand made it public by writing a book about it, and also because he’s a member of government and as such his words and actions are (and should be) scrutinized.
The other reason why it is unusual is that Frédéric Mitterrand has been a rather popular figure in the French media. He was known for being a great story teller and a bit of an eccentric which the French tend to like. This may explain partly why some people are so uncomfortable with this affair.

That being said, it is pretty obvious to me that he should resign from his position, if nothing else because he is not fit to be a Minister.
  • First of all, he should think before he opens his mouth which clearly he didn’t (i.e. when he defended Polanski by blaming the U.S. without even knowing all the details). He acted as a private citizen, not as a member of France’s government.
    Then, I thought his interview was less than convincing – Thailand is known for the prostitution of its young boys and Mitterrand’s text is ambiguous enough to keep the suspicion. (it is available in French here). He mentions a boy of 20 but he also uses the word “ephèbe” (usually a boy who just reached puberty.).
  • But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, he has still admitted having had sex with prostitutes in Thailand. What is that if not “sexual tourism”? So how can he not see the contradiction between what he says when he said he "absolutely condemn(s) sexual tourism, which is a disgrace” and his actions and his refusal to resign? How can he talk about defending his honor and not admit what he did and humbly resign? What honor is there to cling onto his post?
  • Worse still, I think : he has also turned his sexual encounters into an object of good literature, and here lies another problem – he has kept the ambiguity about whether his book was a biography or partly fiction. It is extremely hypocritical and an easy way to deny reality. I was not born yesterday and am no puritan - I know that from André Gide to Vladimir Nabokov, the subject of sex between mature males and young boys or girls has been the theme of great literature (but clearly not my favorite). But it is one thing to write a novel and be an artist dealing with one’s own demons, it is another to be a Minister and a member of France’s government. Different positions, different standards.
  • His ambiguous words (to say the least) undermine the credibility of France’s government abroad. It also undermines the fight against sex tourism (France has precisely arrested returning sexual tourists from Thailand ) and even, because of the ambiguity of the words he used, against pedophilia.
  • Worse still, it creates sick associations in people’s minds between homosexuality and pedophilia which have nothing to do with each other, and may make some people more suspicious of gays.
  • It also undermines the credibility of the political world (as if they needed it) when the media pundits and fellow politicians defend him simply because they know him. Such defense underlines the collusion of the elite and takes them further apart from the rest of the country. A lot of people might see that there are double standards between the way the little guy is treated by the authorities and how a Minister can get away with pretty much anything. After all, Sarkozy has constantly made a point of tough treatment of sex offenders.
  • Finally, the subtext of how Mitterrand has been handling the situation is that people of talent (i.e. artists) should get away with some things because of their talent. It is the old idea of the doomed artist that no one in the regular world can understand who should be given some leeway so he can do his art. I don’t agree and think it is a myth perpetuated by people in power who use art as a smokescreen. In other words, it is bullshit.

I am not saying Mitterrand should necessarily be put on trial if he committed no crime (frankly, I know nothing of the legal implications here), and I am not for either beating a dead horse or going on a witch hunt but frankly; I don’t want to be alongside traditionalists who may use this for their political agenda, and I certainly do not like what Marine Le Pen has in mind, but it remains that this whole case is a real shame for this country. I find the whole idea that this man should represent French culture abroad impossible to defend. Let him be a damned artist if he wills, maybe a sensitive writer as he is perceived by some who are “touched” by his writing, and certainly a great man of culture but certainly not a member of government.

This is likely to have great political implications in France. I have not read polls on this particular case, and don’t really know what the public opinion is, but the popularity of the Sarkozy government has just taken another dip, and they just don’t need this.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Polanski and the French..... Elite.

When I heard that Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski had been arrested in Switzerland on the way to a film festival regarding a 1978 U.S. arrest warrant for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, I didn’t know what to think of it and like most people in France didn’t actually think much of it at all afterwards.

Then I heard the French Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterand (the nephew of François Mitterand) say this, in very emotional tone of voice :

"Seeing him alone, imprisoned while he was heading to an event that was due to offer him praise and recognition is awful, he was trapped. In the same way there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face."

Then I thought, oh boy, here we go again….
Followed more support, notably from no less than the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

I guess I expected the usual iconoclastic reaction from the self-proclaimed Left-Bank intellectuals à-la Bernard Henry-Lévy (and was not disappointed) but certainly not support from members of the French government immediately upon hearing the news without even knowing the details of the case.
As for Mitterand’s statementit was was dumb and arrogant : 1) Obviously every country has a generous and a “scary” side… including France. 2) the “scary” side of America certainly exists but this hardly qualifies (if you want "scary", I'll give you "scary" but not just in America). 3) Who does Frédéric Mitterand think he is to give good and bad points about another democratic country?
And for the French Foreign minister to imply that he is somewhat special because of his talent is where the injustice lies:

"This affair is frankly a bit sinister. Here is a man of such talent, recognized worldwide, recognized especially in the country where he was arrested. This is not nice [sympathique] at all," (here in French)

Pas très sympathique? This has nothing to do with being nice and even less to do with his talent.
This is somewhat typical of the way the French (mostly Parisian) artistic and intellectual circles tend to believe that art and talent allow for some leeway in morals. But morals is one thing, justice is another.
Our readers should also remember that the French artists and intellectuals may be revered for their work by the French, but certainly not followed in this cultism of the poor damned artist.

Knowing little about the original case myself, I decided to watch last year’s HBO’s documentary “Polanski: Wanted and Desired" - as in “Wanted” in America and “Desired” in Europe. (for detailed explaining read this Dailymail article)
In some ways, it does put things somewhat into perspective as the words "rape" and "13 year old" sound like one of the worse offenses. The victim who was 13 at the time says in an interview that she had sex before meeting Polanski, drank alcohol and had used Quaaludes [a sedative used as a recreational drug in the 70s] when she was real little. (Yet she refuses to blame her mother for all that).
More interestingly, it shows in details how the Judge, Lawrence Rittenband, violated judicial ethics on multiple occasions. (although the prosecutor, David Wells, who said in the documentary he colluded with the judge to increase his jail sentence now says he lied)
At the end of the documentary, there’s a powerful interview of Roger Gunson, the now-retired deputy district attorney who was one of the prosecutors against Polanski and says if he had been in the director’s position, he would have fled as well.

So in addition to the fact that Polanski has suffered many terrible events in his life (which has been put forth by many of his defenders), like his mother's death at Nazi hands or the murder of Sharon Tate, his pregnant wife, in 1969, or the fact that he was certainly trapped, there are also mitigating factors in the legal case.
That being said the fact remains that he gave a 13 year old drugs and alcohol, and had sex with her knowingly. And that was hardly an “erreur de jeunesse” (“a youthful error”) as Bernard Henry Levy puts it. Polanski was over 30 at the time.

So is he the victim of some monstrous injustice or persecution? Given all the daily injustices in our world, I would think if there is any injustice at all here, it is a minor one - certainly not worth the uproar.

In the case of Polanski, it seems the big uproar has actually divided the French. And as the NYTimes put it, it says something about French popular opinion that President Nicolas Sarkozy, the ministers’ boss, has so far declined to take up Mr. Polanski’s case in a pointed article.

Meanwhile, a popular French cable television satire, “Les Guignols de l’Info,” ridiculed Mr. Mitterrand. Recalling Chris Rock’s joke that O. J. Simpson would have been in jail years earlier if he had been “Orenthal the Bus Driving Murderer,” a puppet on the show depicting the French culture minister referred to “the Beast of the Bastille,” Guy Georges, who raped and murdered perhaps as many as 10 young women in the early 1990s. “If Guy Georges had directed ‘Citizen Kane,’ ” the minister-puppet said, “I would have let him out.” (NYTimes)

And as Charles Bremmer has noted at the end of his post :
The Socialist opposition finally came down against the government for criticising the Polanski arrest. Several eminent figures in Sarkozy's UMP party are also unhappy with the way Mitterrand and Kouchner jumped to take sides against the USA. A few from the film world, including Luc Besson, are also unhappy with the rush to defend Polanski. (Timesonline)
What to conclude? Well, first, the same old wise conclusion that whatever French officials may say should be taken with a grain of salt and does not reflect what the rest of the people think or believe. (The divide between the elite and the people is certainly wide in France.)
Then, as Meghan Daum concludes in the LATimes, we may conclude that pain is not penance and talent not a substitute for justice.

That being said, some questions remain. Is the money to extradite and prosecute Roman Polanski over a 30 year old case in which the victim says she has forgiven him and doesn’t want to hear about it worth being spent? Doesn’t the state of California have better ways to use its money these days? Would justice act the same way if Roman Polanski was not a cause célèbre?
And then there’s the Swiss…… Why did they act so suddenly after letting Polanski come and go as he pleased for decades….? That, like other things in Switzerland, even today, secrets are well kept.