Sunday, January 31, 2010

European Exceptionalism?

Interesting post from John Quiggin on Crooked Timber :
Europe (is).../... the largest economic aggregate in world history, it has enough military power to repel any invader, but is deeply uninterested in using this power to any more glorious end. It grows by a process of reluctant accretion, controlled by ever more onerous admission requirements. In all of history, it would be hard to find anything comparable in terms of pacifism, godlessness, equality, leisure for the masses or public provision of services. It’s for this reason that American views of Europe resemble de Tocqueville in reverse. Something so unprecedented, and against the laws of nature, they think, cannot possibly survive, let alone prosper. And yet it does.

The Commercial you won't see on Superbowl Night.

Here's CBS commercial that won't air on CBS during the Super Bowl after they rejected it last Friday. If anything, it is rather humorous and certainly harmless :

A Great Obama Moment in Politics.

Anyone who appreciates politics just a weeny bit should watch this : Obama confronting the House Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore and answering their tough questions. Great politics from a great leader who knows his topics.

France's Judicial Power in Question.

The big news in France was the acquittal of former prime minister Dominique de Villepin who was accused of involvement in a plot to smear (now President) Nicolas Sarkozy. The latest twist was that the French justice authorities will appeal against the judgment.
It is a very complex matter that's really hard to sum up - especially for the readers who are not French.

Frankly, it may not be a very important issue - even though it has been making the headlines all week long in France,... well, other than the fact that it questions once again the independence of France's judicial system.
In France, investigating magistrates are independent of the executive, but the nomination and promotion of leading prosecutors must be passed by the president's office. (FT)
Of course, the magistrate may have made the decision to appeal on his own in this case but the ambiguity of the French system can only raise suspicion of government interference in the decision. It also questions the possible reform to come which should consist in transferring the magistrates' investigative powers to the prosecutor's office, which would make it somewhat dependent on the Executive.
The Sarkozy government should go back to the basics and read Montesquieu again and see that not only separation of powers is a prerequisite t0 good governance but also that "the independence of the judiciary has to be real, and not apparent merely"

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Social Mechanism of Fear.

Last night, I saw "The Hidden Face of Fear", a fascinating documentary on the social mechanisms of fear in the context of 9/11.

Here is some food for thought (according to neuro-biologists at New York University's Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety) :
  1. Fear is contagious and spread like a disease both in society and in our bodies.
  2. Post traumatic disorder (PTD) can develop even if you haven't directly witnessed or been part of a traumatic event.
  3. The way an individual copes with fear depends on their previous experience with it. A (forgotten) trauma from childhood can be reactivated when another trauma occurs. In other words, we are not equal when it comes to fear, and we often don't even know it.
  4. Our brains can learn fear from watching other people being hurt.
  5. Fear spread from Gound Zero to the whole world through images and events on television.
  6. We can learn to be fearful of something not only from what we experience but also from words and symbolic communication. Most of the time, we learn it because of what our parents taught us or because we saw a friend getting hurt.
  7. Brain imaging shows that traumatic events or repeated strong emotions can change the anatomy of the brain. (by adding new synaptic connections)
  8. But there's hope : psychotherapy can also change the physical mapping of the brains. So this means that words can actually change how the brain works.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn's Other Perspective.

The death of J.D. Salinger, writer of "The Catcher in the Rye" made the headlines this week. Justifiably so - his work has greatly contributed to American literature and it has now become a classic - especially for teachers of English throughout the world. It is taught in France and has been on the syllabus of many English exams (such as the Baccalauréat or the Agrégation).

However, the death of another great man - Howard Zinn a few days ago has been largely ignored by the mass media. This should be no surprise, I suppose - Zinn may have been too radical for mainstream America. For years, I thought he was too radical for me too and frankly, there were other priorities on my reading list. But then, last summer I was given his huge "A People's History of the United-States" as a present and so I finally read it.... and loved it.

His goal of course was to present the history of the United-States from the perspective of the oppressed - the Indians, the blacks, women, or working people. Zinn does not claim objectivity. In fact, he embraces subjectivity and a political view of history based on class-conflict.
Whether one shares his view (I don't always ) his work must be read and studied by anyone who wants a well rounded American history education. His work not only offers a different perspective but it gives you an alternative view to the general consensus taught in school. It challenges one's certainties and intellect and that's always good But it should not be read alone but only as a supplement to regular history.

Interestingly, Zinn is probably the last historian who lived through the depression, and WWII - both events seemed to have a great impact on his academic choices. (incidently, he participated on the bombing of Royan, which killed more than 1000 French civilians and leveled the city.)
His (many) critics miss the point when they accuse him of partiality. He claims nothing else. They are also wrong when they accuse him of cynicism and pessimism. As you can read here, Zinn was actually an optimist.
His recent interview on Bill Moyers last month may have very well be his last one.

I wonder if France will ever have her own "A People's History"..... or does it? (Of course, a radical leftist perspective would be much less iconoclastic in France....)

Essay on Populism in France and the U.S.

"Populism" has been on the rise in the last few months. Anti-establishment rhetoric has been particularly in vogue with the current economic crisis.
The situations in France and the U.S. may have similarities in that both leaders try to channel people's anger at the financial world - see Sarkozy's extreme rhetoric in Davos and Obama's more moderate attack on bankers in Washington.
But populism in France or the US also take different forms - Sarkozy's burqa issue vs. Obama's budget freeze . Of course, populism is not limited to world leaders - the opposition has been riding the wave of anger using its extreme form to reap political benefits. Besançenot and his New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), or George Frêche in France and of course Sarah Palin or Tea Party movement in the U.S.
In other words, everyone their own.....

What's much more interesting is how the word "populism" takes on different meanings and connotations in France and the US.
A French magazine rightly wrote this week "In the US, populism is not a dirty word" ("Aux USA, le populisme n'est pas un gros mot"). If anything, the American usage of the term is ambivalent at best whereas in France, and the rest of Europe, it is used only in the demagogic sense. Why is that?

The American exception has to do with its history of course and possibly with a linguistic confusion between "popular" and "populism".
As David Brooks remind his NYT reader, populism has been very popular with the elite, but I disagree with him that the U.S. has been built by anti-populists. For every Hamilton or Lincoln, you also have an Andrew Jackson (nicknamed King Mob for obvious reasons) or a Ronald Reagan.
In fact, I would argue that the United-States was built if not by populists, certainly by populist ideas - the rejection of the establishment of Old Europe, and an anti-intellectual religious fervor wary of contemporary education and continental Enlightenment which was feared to subvert belief and faith.
In the American consciousness, the ideal American has become not a man who thinks, not a man from the ruling class but a common man who is a builder - from the taming of the wild west to today's small business - a man who solely depends on his practical ingenuity and not on his intellectual or academic achievement.
Very tellingly, the Populist Movement of the late 19th century was started by small farmers and at the core of William Jenning Bryan - the famous American populist of the eraly 20th century - was his religious beliefs. Those movements are always doomed to fail but they impact the political culture.
I always argue that reality is less important than perception. A politician viewed as an illiterate incompetent can be elected to the highest office, while those associated with Ivy League Schools and the East Coast establishment can easily lose elections, if they don't downplay their background.

The reason why, contrary to America, "populism" is only used as a negative term in Europe probably also has to do with its history. I would think that the impact of fascism in the 1930s has made the Europeans extremely cautious of "populist" movement. "Populism" is indeed today usually associated in France with extreme right-wing movements such as Poujadism and the National Front.
The French Revolution was different in nature from the American Revolution.It was driven by the intellectual elite of the Enlightenment, and education has been perceived as a liberating force and has since become a tenet of the French Republic. Culturally the French have always looked up to their intellectual elite to make sense of the world around them.
At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the French have always had a fascination for strong lpolitical eaders (from Napoleon to De Gaulle or Sarkozy) with quasi-monarchical powers, and for the elite. Indeed French society remains very hierarchical as do businesses. It is also very centralized which makes strong leaders necessary.
The French educational system is also very elitist which is culturally accepted because the ideal is that everyone may eventually become the elite. (This has become one of the Republican Myths). The reality may be very different but the perception is that every French person can have his son or daughter be some day part of the elite (hence the concours to become a civil servants). In other words, in France, you don't so much want to get rid of the elite, as you want to be part of it.