Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cheesy Political use of Brie.

Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Tim Pawlently, the outgoing governor of Minnesota politicized cheese and wine:
“When you listen to the elites and the pundits talk about the tea party movement, when they talk about us conservatives, they may not always say it explicitly, but implicit in their comments is, ‘Maybe they’re not as sophisticated because a lot of them didn’t go to the Ivy league schools,’” he said. “'They’re from places like the heartland. They don’t hang out at chablis drinking, brie eating parties in San Francisco. They’re a little rough around the edges. They don’t dress like us. They actually enjoy shopping at Wal-Mart and Target. Sam’s Club Republicans.’”
The Spectator)
Of course, bashing education and foreign food is one of the traditional tenets of right-wing populism but it seems that Pawlently is a bit behind - like 20 years behind - for now brie and Chablis are both available in Wal-Mart. (granted, not in a very appealing form as you can see and probably tasting different from the original French Brie)
Even conservative commentators thought Pawlently's speech was passé ('Scuse my French) and cheesy!

Mark Mardell, the BBC's North America editor wrote a great piece on as to what it is about the American right and French cheese :
It was, I believe, the writer of The Simpsons who invented the sobriquet "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" for the French, but it was enthusiastically taken up by Republicans.
Tasty cheese, runny, smelly, even blue, is often used as a symbol of a revoltingly decadent taste, something far from the common people. That's rather the opposite of its image in France where this simple pleasure unites peasants and elite in both connoisseurship and dreams of a common rural idyll
One wouldn't have thought that the robust individuals of the conservative movement would wilt before strong flavours. They don't sneer at BBQ beef or chilli peppers, after all.
I have always suspected it has become a symbol of the alien and the foreign simply out of embarrassment. Americans have many skills, but cheese making doesn't appear among them, as anyone who attempts to chew on rubbery orange cheddar can attest.
But I've just finished reading The Cheese Nun, a chapter in a delightful compendium of food writing from the New Yorker, entitled Secret Ingredients.
It profiles an American nun who became an expert in microbiology to make better cheese. It contends that Americans make fantastic cheese, which - it argues - can only be made like moonshine, in secret, and sold under the counter, because of ridiculously tight food regulations.
A ripe case for small government conservatives, I would have thought. The Tea Party is all very well, but what about the Cheese and Wine Party?


The other day, two friends of mine contracted a PACS - a Pacte Civil de Solidarité (English - "civil pact of solidarity"), the French equivalent to civil union in the U.S.
Interestingly, for once, the French have been more flexible with their language than the Americans - the acronym PACS has generated the verb "se pacser" and the adjective "pacsé" in French. What about English? Are people "civil-unionized"? "civil-united" ? "partnered"? For some reason, none of those sound quite right.
The PACS was introduced in 1999, moslty so as to give some legal recognition for same-sex couples but in fact, more than 90% of PACS are used by heterosexual couples and there are two PACS signed for every three marriages.
It seems there must be a causal link between the popularity of the union and the linguistic acceptance of "pacsé / pacser" in a language usually considered less flexible , whereas on the other hand, the fact that civil unions have no federal recognition and are only contracted by same-sex marriage makes the the linguistic change less acceptable.
Another point to be made - depending on your political view, you may draw different conclusions to these figures. If you are socially conservative, you might see the PACs as proof that civil unions undermine the institution of marriage. But then, the logical conclusion would be that granting marriage to gays would be the best protection of marriage.
Besides, Americans have a more traditional view of marriage than secular Europeans who tend to be more wary of the religious and gender-role connotations of the institution of marriage.
But even those figures cannot tell whether PACS have undermined marriage. After all, the data does not show if PACs partners would have married if the civil unions did not exist, or how many might decide to get married later anyway.
Of course, my more socially liberal view is that people, whether gay or heterosexual should have the same choice and that marriage or civil unions between two consenting adults should be granted with no restriction (well, other than they not having blood ties of course) like they are in the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, Norway, Sweden and South-Africa. One day, we'll look back and won't believe how our societies put up with so much sexual discrimination!

There are certainly a lot of young couples in secular Europe who want the legal and emotional benefits of a committed relationship, but are put off by the religious and gender-role connotations of old-fashioned marriage. In America's relatively religious and traditionalist society, there's less such aversion; but in many states, particularly those with cumbersome and expensive divorce procedures (like New York), one could envision a fair number of couples who otherwise might have married choosing a civil union instead, if it were available. And heterosexual couples who currently feel guilty about marrying, out of solidarity with gays unable to marry, might feel obligated to pick civil unions if that were the only option available to same-sex couples.

The main problem with introducing civil unions in America would be linguistic: what adjective denotes people who are in a civil union but specifically chose that rather than marriage? Are they "partnered"? "Bonded"? "Allied"? Suggestions welcome.

Perhaps this provides grist for the mills of social conservatives (who could claim, stretching the data a bit, that gay-appeasing civil unions are undermining the sacred institution of marriage) – but it would oblige them to face up to the question of whether they should prefer gay marriage to potentially corrosive civil unions that straight couples can take advantage of too. Liberals and leftwingers don’t face nearly the same dilemma, since they can reasonably assume that those who choose civil unions over marriage have good reason for doing so (and perhaps will get married later if they want to; obviously, you can’t tell from data like this how many partners in pacs decide to get married later on).
The growth of the pacs’ popularity over its first decade is striking. There are now two pacs for every three marriages. Interestingly, this is because of both a significant decline in marriage, and a significant increase in the overall number of people willing to engage in some kind of state-sanctioned relationship. While you would obviously need more finely grained data to establish this properly, the obviously intuitive interpretation of this (at least to me) is that the pacs have grown both by providing an option for people who would probably not have gotten married in the first place, and attracted a number of people who otherwise would have gotten married, but who prefer the pacs’ lower level of formality (it is much easier to cancel a pacs relationship than to get divorced)
since France introduced domestic partnerships (known as PACS) in 1999, largely to accommodate same-sex unions without having to legalise gay marriage, the number of marriages has fallen, as heterosexual couples have opted increasingly for the PACS route.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Recycling Political Trash

I know that the whole idea of columns is that they are supposed to be written by people with strong opinions, but frankly I fail to see the need for a "liberal" quality newspaper such as The Washington Post to hire an apologist for a war crimes and tortures to write one of their weekly columns. Yet they apparently hired George W. Bush's former chief speechwriter Marc Thiessen :

In the past, Thiessen has written in support of torture, and is now making the rounds to promote his new book: “Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack.” The title shouldn't be a surprise considering that Thiessen declared that “Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office” just days after inauguration. (Politico)

Thiessen ... has spent the entirety of his post-Bush administration career attempting to defend the use of torture by his former boss. I'd have to say the highlight would be the time he argued that torturing Muslim terrorist suspects was necessary because of their religion -- and since that column appeared in the Post, I'm guessing Hiatt thinks there's something to this. Clearly, Hiatt felt that between Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol and Richard Cohen he still didn't have the whole "I heart torture" contingent covered. (Adam Serwer in The American Prospect)

This happens after the WaPo already hired another former G.W. Bush's chief speech writer Michael Gerson, the man who apparently came up with the phrase "Axis of Evil" and has a certain talent for re-writing the truth.

So what is it with the Washington Post - have they now become a recyle bin for political failures? Of course, the WaPo ditorial page editor is Fred Hiatt, himself a neoconservative in foreign policy and strong supporter of the war Iraq.

The recycle bin has extented to the whole so-called liberal media, - at least according to the calculations of Steven Benen in The Washinton Monthly:

It's been tough to keep up with all of them, but the list [of staff of the Bush White House in the mainstream media] is getting pretty long:
Dana Perino (Fox News), Michael Gerson (Washington Post), Mary Matalin (CNN), Sara Taylor (MSNBC), Tony Snow (CNN), Frances Fragos Townsend (CNN), Nicole Wallace (CBS News), Dan Bartlett (CBS News), Jeff Ballabon (CBS News), Tony Fratto (CNBC), Juan Carlos Zarate (CBS News), Karl Rove (Fox News, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal), and now Thiessen.

Meanwhile political recycle bin in France is not the media but the court although it does not necessarily work for every politician.

If we ever worried about politicians being out of work.......

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The French Paradox

One of the distinct feature of France is that its people are the most dissatisfied with capitalism and the most willing to see government play a more active role in owning major industries. This is not only what makes France different from the U.S. but even from its closest neighbors like Germany, Great-Britain or even Spain.

Last November a survey of 29,000 people across 27 countries (almost all democracies) by GlobeScan and the BBC World Service found that

- Only 23% agreed that capitalism is “fatally flawed” and needs replacing but in France, that number was 43 %.

- There was more support for an increased government role in redistributing wealth and regulating businesses than for outright state control of big industries - except for France where 57% call for their government to do more incontrolling or owning major industries.

As to why there is so much dissatisfaction with capitalism in France than anywhere else, there may not be one single answer. The paradox is that France as a whole has largely benefited from the "capitalist" system and the country has some of the most successful firms in Europe - Carrefour, L'Oréal, etc..... and it remains the 5th largest economy in the world and the 2nd largest in Europe. So why is that?

The Economist suggests that at its core is the paternalist belief in the state’s duty to protect citizens from the turmoil of the market, and to play a strategic role in shaping the economic arena. That is certainly true. The dirigist culture is more prevalent in France than anywhere else, even in Europe.
In fact, one could argue that there is some sort of political consensus of the political elite as to giving government a strong role in the economy as in social matters. My take is that , in addition to the long history of strong government, the French have also now equated dirigism with national sovereignty.

They see big government as a means of protection from the threats both inside (the chaos of social disintegration) and outside (outsourcing and globalization). This is nothing new in the French mindset from the Jacobin centralized republic during the French Revolution to the post-world war II central planning, following the chaos and the destruction of the war. So it has been at the core of the French identity for the last 200 years.

Not only is big government perceived as protective but it has also been very successful in making France a strong economic power in Europe. Indeed, dirigism worked out pretty well for the French and modernized the country- from the development of their large industry groups backed by the government to the current infrastructure and energy nuclear "independence". Even though the state owns less than it used to, following WWII or the 1980s, it continues to own shares in corporations in a range of sectors, including banking, energy production and distribution, automobiles, transportation, and telecommunications more than any other European country.
So it is no wonder it is a favorite of the French in this day and age of soul searching and economic crisis. Whether this is a sustainable system for the future in this globalized world remains to be seen.....

The Palestinians, Our World's Na'vi?

This week, activists from a small Palestinian village got their hands on a bootleg copy of "Avatar," they immediately dressed up to look like Na'vi in order to stage a demonstration in front of the Israeli West Bank barrier. (source)
This is a very unique rather smart way to demonstrate..... I'm impressed with the idea. It is non-violent, draws media attention and makes a point!

The Right of Religious Expression and Political Life.

As a follow-up on one of our previous posts - as to whether a woman with a headscarf should be an acceptable candidate in a French election, the French feminist association Ni Pute,s Ni Soumises (which translates as "neither a whore nor a doormat.") has a clear answer : they have actually decided to file a suit against the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for running a candidate who wears a scarf over her head. A suit! Seriously?

«Il n’est pas question d’arborer un symbole religieux alors qu’on a, en tant qu’élue, une obligation de neutralité et de réserve», a-t-elle invoqué hier, dénonçant à l’AFP une «attitude antiféministe, antilaïque et antirépublicaine».

"Wearing a religious signs is out of the question since as an elected official you have the duty of neutrality" claimed Sihem Habchi, the president of the feminist association, adding that it is "antisecular, antifeminist, and antirepublican"

That's all very nice, but Ms Habchi seems to forget that the French Republic did not always have problems with elected officials wearing religious clothes.
In 1946, l'Abbé Pierre - a French catholic priest who became famous in France - was elected deputy for Murthe-et-Mosell in the National Assembly as a member of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP). He took his seat in French National Assembly wearing his cassock. Was his duty of neutrality questioned? No, because he was a resistant and man of integrity.

Of course Ms Habchi's views are vastly shared by the French political elite. But this fear of a loss of partiality is a sham. The only way to make sure that an elected official is being fair and neutral is public scrutiny. Isn't it better then that the public should be let know of a candidate's religious views? It is a question of transparency.
Laicité means tolerating others, including other forms of religious faiths and expressions, while according preference to none, and so I can only agree with Arthur Goldhammer and this definition of secularism.

Voting for a woman wearing the Islamic scarf may also teach people, including voters, tolerance towards people of faiths.

Finally and more importantly, a citizen's right to religious expression should not be granted at the expense of her right to be part of the political life of her country. There is no moral or legal basis for such discrimination and it's about time the French political elite should start thinking things over and move on from the old war between the Republic and religion.

Friday, February 12, 2010

49 out of 50 - not bad!

There was snow on the ground in 49 states Friday. Hawaii was the holdout.
It was the United States of Snow, thanks to an unusual combination of weather patterns that dusted the U.S., including the skyscrapers of Dallas, the peach trees of Atlanta and the Florida Panhandle, where hurricanes are more common than snowflakes.
More than two-thirds of the nation's land mass had snow on the ground when the day dawned yesterday, and then it snowed ever so slightly in Florida to make it 49 states out of 50. ( A.P.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Snowpocalypse vs. Warmageddon.

Americans always have a thing for hyperbolic expressions. "Snowmageddon" or "Snowpocalypse" might have been Hollywood blockbusters but they are the actual blizzards hitting the U.S. Capital and the mid-Atlantic states this week-end, at least as dubbed by the media.
Of course, it is quite a blizzard indeed - more than two feet of heavy snow, knocked-out power lines, toppled trees and deserted streets.... but probably not as unique as some people would have you believed. In any case, it has already sent some people into a state of panic, when others are literally freaking out in a more theatrical fashion.

Meanwhile, yet others use the weather to promote their anti-global warming political agenda.Clearly, it is much harder to "feel" the reality of global warming when you're snowed in, and the Virginia Republican Party knows it.

They bet on people confusing 'weather' and 'climate' - which may actually work, if we are to believed this British article. Who cares if despite the cold in North America and Western Europe, January 2010 is the warmest on record. Of course, global warming is slow, unimpressive and hard to see from our local perspective, and it may be more insidious but it is also the real long term threat.
Are people really that stupid.....?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Prisoners of National Narratives.

More than other peoples, the Germans are anxious about the debt, (and have the reduction of the debt written in their Constitution) as they remember the days of the Weimar Republic and how the economic crisis led to the Nazi era.

Meanwhile the French are anxious about how religion -namely Islam- may be encroaching on their national secularism when becoming more visible (see the Burqa and Headscarf recent controversies or the National Identity debates), as they remember how religion (the Catholic church) opposed Republican ideals and freedom.

As for the Americans, they have their own national anxieties - that the government should take away their personal rights and freedom, including their rights to bear arms, which is iniquely American (including the Tea Parties), as they remember the American Revolution and the fight against a “tyrannical government” (Taxation without Representation) and as weapons played a major role in American history, including its western expansion.

No one can deny that the debt is real and may cause serious problems (look at Greece this week) or that Islam extremists have a scary political and religious agenda, or that the US Federal government is more powerful than in any other time in history.

But if you think reasonably about it, the situation in Germany and Europe has nothing to do with the 1930s, religion (including Islam) is no threat to the French Republic, and the U.S. government, as powerful as it is, is far from tyrannical (while many Americans don't like to pay taxes, they can vote and be represented).
Not only are those fears unreasonable, but they are also unique to each nation and cannot be transferred anywhere else.

So my question now is are all mere products of our history and can we somewhat escape our national narrative?

Personally, I find this a very challenging idea.
As I was listening to the opposition party leader say that she "would not accept a woman with a headscarf on one of her lists [of candidates] because religion must remain a private matter and not become part of Republic domain. You are elected and present the Republic, you represent everyone and you don’t need to show ostentatious [conspicuous] religious signs which belong to the private sphere." (here in French), I was torn.
At some level, I got it and agreed... but at another level, I suspected my views were tainted by my upbringing in French national narrative. So I have been trying to change the paradigme and find some less "national istic"view of the entire issue. After all, the French claim that their ideas from the Revolution and the Enlightenment are universal. But are they?