Saturday, March 27, 2010

Freedom in the Conservative Mind.

From Europe, the American health-care debate looked pretty surreal.

Now the rage of the the far right-wingers has been even more puzzling, and the several acts of vandalism and threats to some Democratic lawmakers around the country this week are just bewildering.
The rage is not about, say, the banking system, or... unemployment, or the war, but no, it's all about the health-care bill.

Isn't it ironic, when you think of it, to see so much outrage about universal health-care when there was so little about a war fought under false pretense that caused many unnecessary deaths? Outside America, it very much looks like those conservative Americans have their priorities wrong.

But of course, the anger is not really about health-care, it is about government, and anyone familiar with American history knows that anti-government sentiment is an old American tradition that goes back to the founding of the colonies and the revolt of the colonies against king and parliament.

What I find particularly striking is the emotional response of those most conservative Americans when ever you have a conversation about politics, "government" or related issues (such as taxation). Immediately comes the word "freedom" with the assumption that government is there to take away their freedom (preferable through a conspiracy). The assumption is also that "true freedom" only exists in the US (contrary to "socialist Europe)" which makes those Americans closed to considering any other alternative (such as, in this case the European health-care system). In fact, there is no way to talk about anything else to those people.

Of course, freedom lies at the heart of the American identity as individuals and as a nation. The word itself is so emotionally charged in the U.S. that most Americans use it without thinking about what it really means If you ask them, they may mention "democracy" or most certainly "free market", and maybe the right to bear arms and more generally, they'll talk about less government and less taxation - which are both seen as necessary evils.
This very limited definition of freedom is deeply rooted in the national narrative - after all, wasn't the American Revolution fought because of taxation of a "tyrannical" British government? (when in reality, Americans had more freedom than their contemporaries). Isn't the American hero a self-relying rugged individual? These may be myths but many Americans believe in them and find it hard to question a system and an ideology that, in their eyes, has been proved successful. After, all, isn't that because of her "unique freedom" that the United-States has become the most powerful and the wealthiest in the world?
So goes the reasoning anyway.

But the reason why health-care became such a hot issue is political is that the Conservative wing of the Republican party (which is most of it) and its media tool, Fox News, have been using and twisting his national narrative for their own agenda (and that of the insurance lobbyists).

If you think of it, in reality more freedoms were taken away from the American people by the Patriot Act than any other measure since WWII, the government became more powerful under Bush or Reagan than Clinton, and the deficit grew during Republican administrations and decreased under the Democrats. Where was the outrage then? Where were the Tea Party nuts?

The very fact that so many Americans can go bezerk and extreme over the issue of "government" shows that it is deeply entrenched in a twisted national narrative - it goes beyond reason. Times have changed and this is not the 18th or 19th century any more. Of course, in reality freedom is not under threat and tyranny of government is not around the corner. If the American right-wing nuts were not so rigid in their view of freedom and less isolated intellectually from the rest of the civilized world, they would see that access to health-care is a more important freedom in this day and age than free access to weapons, which, ironically they would defend to the death.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The stupidest remark this week - Gays Make Soldiers Week.

The most ridiculous statement this week comes from A US army General called John Sheehan who claimed that
the Dutch army failed to protect the city of Srebrenica during the Bosnian war partly because of the presence of...... gay soldiers in its army.
His basic idea is that the inclusion of gays has weakened the European military.

Yes, seriously - and if you don't believe it, here's the video for you.

Gen Sheehan said that after the end of the Cold War, European militaries changed and concluded "there was no longer a need for an active combat capability."

He said this process included "open homosexuality" which resulted in "a focus on peacekeeping operations because they did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back."

"The case in point that I'm referring to is when the Dutch were required to defend Srebrenica against the Serbs," he said, referring to the UN peacekeeping force deployed to protect Bosnian Muslim civilians.

"The battalion was understrength, poorly led, and the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone poles, marched the Muslims off and executed them."

Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pressed him to clarify his comments.

"Did the Dutch leaders tell you it (the fall of Srebrenica) was because there were gay soldiers there?" asked an incredulous Levin.

"Yes," Sheehan said and added: "They included that as part of the problem."

Maybe Mr Sheehan should read his ancient history for one - who can believe in this day and age that strength and courage have anything to do with sexual orientation? There are tons of counter examples, including in the US armed forces. In fact, there are arguments for the exact opposite - that the ban on gays actually weakens the army.

What is clear is that only in America can a solider who gave his life in the line of duty be "posthumously stripped of his military honors and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army"(he was later re-instated). No other western country has a policy banning gays from service or discharging them merely for “homosexual conduct”.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is rooted in prejudice and causes some really bad behavior, such "outing someone thanks to anonymous e-mails to his superiors. " (We Europeans know something about reporting people anonymously and, and it is an ugly side of human nature we should never want to see again Hopefully we've learned our lesson...)

But there is hope that Americans are learning it too as public opinion is clearly shifting on the issue :
NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls in 1993 found no more than 43% of Americans supported lifting restrictions on gays in the military. A USA Today/Gallup poll in June 2009, by contrast, found 69% of Americans favored eliminating the "don't ask, don't tell" restrictions. (WSJ)
Although - surprise, surprise, not among Republicans :
A 2008 census by The Military Times of predominantly Republican and largely older subscribers found that 58 percent opposed to efforts to repeal the policy; in 2006, a poll by Zogby International of 545 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that three-quarters were comfortable around gay service members. (NYTimes)
... which may be why John McCain has been such a hypocrite about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and has made a 180° degree turn since 3 years ago!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why Glenn Beck is Bad for You whereas Jon Stewart is Good.

If you don't see why Glenn Beck is a buffoon who knows nothing about anything, here's his political analysis of France :
Here’s something else to watch. In France polls have this guy, the president, Nicolas Sarkozy – he’s center right – (…/…) his approval rating is down to 36%. However, this guy – far right – Villepin is at 57%. (see video here)
Beck's point was that extremism is on the rise in Europe, except that..... he confuses Villepin (who is ineded at 57% approval rate) with Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party. Villepin is in the same party as Sarkozy - center right - although a rival for party leadership. This more than undermines his point.

Of course, some might say that Glenn Beck is just good entertainment - a clown. The problem is he claims to be informative and it would take some effort for those who listen to him and have preconceived ideological views to get the distinction between entertainment and "news". People are lazy, and they don't know. How many Americans are going to know who Villepin is?! Seriously, I have talked to a number of right-wing people who always believe his crap. They'll tell you his ideas are supported by facts and that he gives you the facts... only the facts are simply WRONG. (and this is just one example)

But the worst part for me is that he's just not funny. And I'm not saying this because I don't like his views. I just don't see the humor or the wit in anything he says. and I fail to see how people can be entertained by someone who's always angry and keeps yelling at them. It seems to me that by the end of his show you're simply more scared, more tense and more confused. (it'd be interesting to measure those parts of the brain in the audience). What's the entertainment in that?

Compare, say, to... Jon Stewart. Now here's an entertainer for you- whether you like his views or not. Stewart doesn't claim to be informative and when Beck appeals to negative emotions such as fear , anger, paranoia, or insecurity, etc... Stewart uses humor, satire, or the burlesque. In fact, he transforms the fear and the anger into the ridiculous, and that's what parody is all about, and that's very healthy.

If nothing else, one should watch Stewart over Beck for health reasons - it is certainly far better to nurture humor and wit than fear and anger.

NOTE: incidentally, I found out there's a Beck Depression Inventory (a series of questions developed to measure the intensity, severity, and depth of depression in patients). How ironically appropriate!

Why US High Schools are going to Fail even More - Texas!

Some wonder why high-school education is failing in the U.S. How about school boards changing the facts to fit their idological agenda? And that's not only evolution v. creation.
After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light. (NYTimes)

You may think this is not surprising coming from Texas and who cares what happens in Texas if you live in a more civilized part of the country. Think again! Texas sets the tone when it comes to textbooks nationwide.
[W]hen it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation's second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers.
Until recently, Texas’s influence was balanced to some degree by the more-liberal pull of California, the nation’s largest textbook market. But its economy is in such shambles that California has put off buying new books until at least 2014.(Wash Monthly)
This is what happens when you leave the content of education in the hands of a few ideologues and the tyranny of economics.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nuts and Anti-Government Hate Speeh.

The Pentagon shooting last week is just the latest in a series of strange attacks by individuals with mental problems - plane crash against an IRS building in Texas or the shooting last June of a museum guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the District. They all have something in common though :
All three also appear to have drawn ideological nourishment from the same well: online communities of like-minded people who validate and amplify extreme views. Today, more than in recent years, such communities are tapping into a broad undercurrent of anti-government discontent fueled by economic recession, joblessness and concern over the growing federal deficit, according to experts who have studied the phenomenon. (Wash. Post)

Given the current political climate and the violent hatred expressed by some - see here or here , it's a wonder there hasn't been another Oklahoma bombing yet. Of course, right wing extremists will wash their hands off their responsibility for their inflammatory rhetoric anyway. In fact, they already have - accusing the "liberal" media of jumping to conclusions and the Pentagon shooter of being a left-wing extremists. Seriously!

Who cares if those nut-cases vote Democrat or Republican, what matters is that their actions have been triggered by violent hateful anti-government rhetoric used by right-wing extremists (including Glenn Beck and his coterie on FoxNews!) who no matter how much they deny it, will bear responsibility for the actions of the next Timothy McVeigh! Isn't anti-government hate speech unAmerican anyway?

What is clear is that the way those people lash out against their government, while claiming to be patriotic is uniquely American!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Something Rotten in the State of France - How Politicians Are Given Special Treatments to Become Lawyers!

If you have any doubt that France is a country where privileges remain and where success depends on your network and carnet d'adresse (address book), here's some news for you:

French politicians can become lawyers without taking the Bar Exam.

This is what I found out a few weeks ago when I read that Dominique Villepin became a lawyer by "special application" [my rough translation of "sur dosssier"] without taking the Bar Exam. It turns out that this is actually a very common thing that French politicians do, (see here or here) although usually with utmost discretion.
It is legal of course, since a law (l'article 11 de la loi du 31 décembre 1971) in very ambiguous wording allows "some people with professional experience" (« certaines personnes justifiant d'une expérience professionnelle ») to become lawyers without taking the exam.
More "precisely", this concerns people "who have held certain jobs or activities in France, and who have at least a Master's in law or titles or diplomas with the same recognition" (« Les personnes ayant exercé certaines fonctions ou activités en France, [titulaires] d'au moins une maîtrise en droit ou de titres ou diplômes reconnus comme équivalents pour l'exercice de la profession. »). It's even easier for those who graduate from ENA (Ecole National d'Administration).

It is really all about you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours - while the politicians who become lawyers are given a well-paid job, they bring in their contacts in high places, their so-called address book to the firm that hires them.
Who cares if there's a conflict of interest between being a lawyer for a firm and voting laws (see here)!

While I was googling on this topic, I came across a great illustration of what's rotten in the state of France :
The bio of Rachida Dati who held the prestigious post of Keeper of the Seals, Minister of Justice in the Sarkozy administration is exemplary of this problem of cronyism in France. As you can read in her French bio, she was a mediocre student, and failed many times but fate changed when she met Albin Chalandon, himself an influential politician at a party in the Algerian Ambassy in Paris and this was the beginning of her rise to the top thanks to a series of "special appointments" by different mentors (Jacques Attali and Simone Weil, among others) who would help her rise to the topn despite her obvious lack of qualifications.
Now, she's no longer a Minister as she unwillingly accepted running for a (safe) seat at the European Parliament. Unhappy and bored there, she has now become a lawyer without ever taking the exam!

How Laissez Faire Ideologues Praise Regulations.... sometimes!

The other day, a friend of mine who is obsessively pro-laissez faire and sees everything through the distorting lens of free-market economy posted this WSJ op-ed on his FB page :

How Milton Friedman Saved Chile, Milton Friedman gave Chileans the intellectual wherewithal first to survive the quake, and now to build their lives anew by Bret Stephen.

The title speaks for the whole piece. Stephen's thinking is that thanks to Friedman, "Pinochet appointed a succession of Chicago Boys to senior economic posts" and the liberalization drive made the "Chileans South America's richest people" which in turn allowed them to have stricter codes and enforce them, which has now saved lives.

My first issue with this is that it is pretty lame for the deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal to use two terrible human tragedies to support his ideological agenda. Clearly, the op-ed is shallow and doesn't even try to contextualize the situations.
It also fails to mention that the earthquake in Chile was centered offshore, deeply underground in a relatively unpopulated area while Haiti's earthquake struck closer to the surface and right on the edge of Port-au-Prince.
Of course, it goes without saying that Chile is wealthier, better prepared, with strict building codes, better emergency response and a history of seismic catastrophes that makes them aware of the risks - unlike Haiti. That part is so obvious that it is pretty useless to write about it.

Finally, and that's the most beautiful part, the irony of free-market ideologues supporting strict regulations (in building codes) is worthy of Jon Stewart's Daily Show.
Thank you, Mr Krugman for pointing this out :
Friedman wasn’t exactly fond of such codes — see this interview in which he calls such codes a form of government spending, because they “impose costs that you might not privately want to engage in”.
And for contextualizing Pinochet's economic miracle.

Attacks on Science.

It seems that in some parts of the United-States, science is believed to be a matter of opinion that can discuss like you can politics or tastes.
In Kentucky, a bill recently introduced in the Legislature would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.” (NYTimes)
And this is not an isolated case :
In Louisiana, a law passed in 2008 says the state board of education may assist teachers in promoting “critical thinking” on all of those subjects. (NYTimes)
The strangest thing is to link those issues together. Evolution is a scientific theoretical explanation, global warming is a strong scientific hypothesis and human cloning is a scientific procedure.
Being a high school teacher myself, I can only imagine the kind of "discussion" on global warming or evolution one can have with a group of 16 year old kids with - if any - only a thin layer of scientific background . (it also pre-supposes that teachers have the scientific knowledge to lead the discussion - which most of them do not).
The weirdest part is that the Kentucky discussion is not about the truth but about the "advantages and disadvantages" which means, I suppose, that whatever is inconvenient should be rejected or denied. A great way to deal with science!
This of course is only the latest in a series of attacks on science by American religious extremists . Two days ago, it made the New York Times front page story under the headline: Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets. Apparently, this is very political:

The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.

Yet they are also capitalizing on rising public resistance in some quarters to accepting the science of global warming, particularly among political conservatives who oppose efforts to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases. (NYTimes)

If you think discussions on global warming are harmless, you need to put it into context :

“Wherever there is a battle over evolution now,” [Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist who directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University ] said, “there is a secondary battle to diminish other hot-button issues like Big Bang and, increasingly, climate change. It is all about casting doubt on the veracity of science — to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism.” (NYTimes)

There is no doubt that global warming has divided people along party lines in the U.S. with Republicans mostly denying it and Democrats mostly believing it. This is the recipe for losing track of the actual question at the expense of science, and it's not like the business world, with its anti-regulation lobbying is helping making the discussion become more reasonable.

Of course, it's not like France is immune from "scientists" who talk about things that have no expertise about.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hotel Price.

The Hotel Price Index for 2009 shows that travelers paid 14 percent less for hotel rooms in 2009 than in 2008.
Guess which city is the most expensive? New York? London? Paris? Nope, Monte Carlo with an average of 177 euros / 240 $!
Here's the list :
1 - Monte Carlo : 177 euros /240 $ = - 9%
2 - Abu Dhabi : 164 euros / 221 $ = - 13%
3 - Geneva : 163 euros /220 $ = - 12%
4 - Moscow: 152 euros / 205$ = - 41%
5- New York: 149 euros / 199 $ = - 22%
6- Rio de Janeiro : 137 euros / 184 $ = +12%
14- Paris : 113 euros / 152 $ = - 8%
(Hotel Price Index)

Clearly, the hotel industry in New York has been more impacted by the economic crisis than in Paris, although nothing compared to Moscow, and Rio has probably greatly benefited from the economic zip of Brazil and maybe the news of the Olympics....

In the rest of France, it is 92 euros on average but Deauville and Cannes are more expensive than Paris, whereas Vannes is one of the cheapest (but who wants to go there?!)
As for the U.S., Boston is third (117 euros / 158$) behind Honolulu and San Diego is one of the cheapest (94 euros / 127 $) definitely a great city to visit, from my experience. (HPI)

France is the First Country in The world To.....

.... to remove transsexualism from its official list of mental disorder. (Time)
Really? Because it was a mental disease?! I thought it was a genetic condition....

Monday, March 1, 2010

Freedom of Expression Vs. Right of Privacy.

Last week, the rage on the internet seems to have been about the Google case in Italy where a judge found four Google Execs guilty of violation of Italian privacy law by allowing users to post a video on one of its services. The ruling has been seen by many as an attack on freedom, which it might be.
The Wall Street Journal called it “madness,” and suggested it was “crazy, even for Italy,” while the Inquirer called it “a blow against common sense and Internet freedom.” Danny O’Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it “a threat to the Internet,” and the National Post said it suggested that “Fascism is alive and well.” (Gigaom)

It seems rather harsh to call today's Italy fascist and certainly ridiculous to compare it to China. In Italian court what was at stake was the right of privacy not censorship:

The case revolves around a video uploaded to Google Video in 2006 showing an autistic boy in Turin being pummeled and insulted by teenage bullies at school. It drew 5,500 views in the two months before Google Italy pulled it down two hours after being notified by police. The boy's father and an advocacy group for people with Down syndrome complained the video violated privacy protection laws.

Prosecutor Alfredo Robledo told the Associated Press the verdict upheld privacy principles and put the rights of individuals ahead of those of businesses. He said the case will force Google and other firms to be held accountable for screening videos hosted on their sites. (The Salt Lake Tribune)

Of course, Google will appeal and its chance to win are good since a European Union directive gives service providers safe harbor from liability for content they host. From a practical standpoint, it seems very difficult to hold online service providers responsible for all contents as long as they agree to remove content when there is a complaint - which was done in this case. The same can be said of regular media online with regard to the comments of their readers.

Adam Liptak of the NYTimes saw what is really interesting about this case - the deep divide between Europe and the U.S. over the balance of freedom of expression and the right to privacy. In Europe, privacy comes first, even if it measn huge economic losses and in the US, freedom of expression and business come first.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” The First Amendment’s distant cousin comes later, in Article 10.

Americans like privacy, too, but they think about it in a different way, as an aspect of liberty and a protection against government overreaching, particularly into the home. Continental privacy protections, by contrast, focus on protecting people from having their lives exposed to public view, especially in the mass media.(NYTimes)

Here again, the differences of emphasis come from historical experience :

The title of a Yale Law Journal article by James Q. Whitman captured the tension: “The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity Versus Liberty.” And historical experience helps explain the differing priorities.

“The privacy protections we see reflected in modern European law are a response to the Gestapo and the Stasi,” Professor Cate said, referring to the reviled Nazi and East German secret police — totalitarian regimes that used informers, surveillance and blackmail to maintain their power, creating a web of anxiety and betrayal that permeated those societies. “We haven’t really lived through that in the United States,” he said.

American experience has been entirely different, said Lee Levine, a Washington lawyer who has taught media law in America and France. “So much of the revolution that created our legal system was a reaction to excesses of government in areas of press and speech,” he said.

And indeed, France is probably the European country with the strictest laws for the protection of privacy, compared to the U.K. or even Italy - a country that invented 'paparazzi'. I have always found this one of the most important gap between the U.S. and France.

The question of privacy appears even more clearly in the recent European Google street-view case.