Friday, May 14, 2010

Guess Culture Vs. Ask Culture.

A friend of mine recently pointed out this post by Kevin Drum (famous American political blogger) on "Askers Vs. Guessers" written after reading a column on the Guardian website :
In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it's OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't even have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

My friend told me he thought of me because I'm an Asker whereas he's a Guesser (although, with time, we have probably both become more moderately so.).

For me, the problem with the Guessers is precisely that it is sometimes hard to figure out what they really mean, and as an Asker, I may easily offend them and so I may easily bad, if not guilty. Whereas I'm not subtle enough to be a Guesser, I can be sensitive enough to fear my Guesser friends may be offended which can make my life complicated at times.

So how do you recognize an Asker? Well, here's a clue :

... in many social situations (though perhaps not at work) the very fact that you're receiving an anxiety-inducing request is proof the person asking is an Asker. He or she is half-expecting you'll say no, and has no inkling of the torture you're experiencing. So say no, and see what happens. Nothing will. (The Guardian)

It's true that as an Asker, I have no problem with people telling me "no" (as long as they do nicely of course)., and I'd rather have that than a insincere 'yes' - even if I find it hard to sometimes say 'no' myself. This means these types may of course vary and we may be a bit of both, depending on the circumstances. I may also be a Guesser when I'm on the receiving end, and that's because of something else - guilt.

The Guardian column is right though that those differences are very cultural, and may partly explain cross-cultural awkwardness - between, for instance, Americans and Japanese (Japanese culture being more of a Guess Culture) but also between more similar cultures such as French and American.

My guess (no pun intended) is that generally speaking, European culture is probably more of a Guess-culture, which would make sense since it is rooted in traditions, old social codes and rather homogeneous history, whereas Americans are made up of immigrants with difference cultural backgrounds. But then, there are also huge differences within the United-States.

As my friend (who is American) reminded me, people in the Midwest - those of Nordic descent anyway - tend to be more Guessers, than, say, Cuban-American or even Californians who are mostly Askers.

A Little Sense of Humor Won't Hurt.

A few weeks ago, I heard about this funny ad for a low-cost German car hire company called Sixt (known for its provocative advertising) which read :

"Do like Madame Bruni: Go for a little French model".
Well, Charles Bremmer from The Times just wrote that they have now produced a French version of its current German campaign : As Bremmer reminds us, Sarkozy is usually quick to sue anyone who uses him or his wife for advertising and he is notoriously sensitive about his lack of height (see Le Parisien article on the net) I guess we'll soon see if he has a sense of humor. So far, it seems that the ad has only appeared on the internet.

Weeks ago, when the German version first appeared, Yann Barthes ( a French journalist/comedian) parodied the ad on Canal+ Grand Journal, with a Mercedes version that read:
“Faites comme Monsieur Merkel. Optez pour une grosse allemande”.
"Do like Mr Merkel, Go for a Big German Model".

NOTE: I also like this comment to Bremmer's post on the Sarkozy ad: "The advertising for manual transmission should have added: With short stick for convenient shifting of gears."! Excellent!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why France Today is NOT Like France of Vichy Times.

This week's American magazine Newsweek had an article with this provocative title : France Today Looks Like France of Vichy Times, by David A. Bell. I must say I was a bit in shock when I saw see this in a so-called serious international magazine.

In France, it is usually the French opponents to Sarkozy on the extreme left who tend to make such nonsensical comparisons, but then again, that's excepted, they're on the extreme fringe and have little credibility precisely because of their extremism. (it's like comparing Arizona governor Jan Brewer to Hitler).

In case you're not familiar with French history, the comparison between France today and 1940 does not stand for many reasons and a couple big ones that are very obvious:
  • France of 1940 was deeply shocked by the debacle and the defeat after the short "phony war"
  • not only the defeat, but also the stigma of WWI some 22 years earlier partly explain why the National Assembly voted to grant extraordinary powers to P├ętain, an 84 year-old man with the reputation of outstanding military leadership in the previous war who was seen as the savior of France.
  • The Vichy government promulgated the first law of racial segregation in its homeland territory ever with the Statutes on Jews in October 1940. There is no such thing today. Even the much discussed anti-Burqa law does not even begin to compare.
Strangely enough, most of the article is actually about how different France today is from what it was in the 1940s, although in the 2nd paragraph, the writer points out that "70 years later, France is still very much, well, France.". Well, what do you expect? France to be ... the U.S.? Spain? This is clearly a ridiculous statement - the same can be said of any country, including - I'm afraid - the United-States.

Mr Bell seems to believe that the United-States has changed more and that "certain things about French society have remained remarkably constant since the blitzkrieg, particularly in comparison with the United States."
That may be, but it still does not mean that a comparison between France today and France in 1940 is fair and historically accurate.
Most important, the French state retains an outsize role in society. In a tradition of dirigisme (from the verb "to direct") that stretches back to the Old Regime, the state encases markets in thick webs of regulations while itself managing health care, most major cultural institutions, and most education from preschool to postdoctoral.
When President Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, conservative American observers hoped he would emulate Margaret Thatcher and slash the state sector. But despite some tentative reforms, the state's authority remains largely unshaken (government expenditures consistently account for more than 50 percent of GDP, compared with barely 36 percent in the United States before the recession). And as in 1940, the most attractive career track for smart, ambitious students is the elite civil service.
This may be true but the same can be also be said of France of the early 20th century or of the 1930s, or of the 1950s.... or even of the 19th century. As Bell himself noted, dirigisme in France is nothing new. You may argue it is a bad thing, but it is certainly not a distinct feature of 1940. So why pick 1940?

Bell's second point is about the "furious outbursts of prejudice and agonized debates about 'French identity.'" both in 1940 and today:
In 1940 the worst outbursts were directed at the Jews, and they set the stage for the anti-Semitic policies of the collaborationist Vichy government, which willingly sent 76,000 French Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps.
Today, the far less noxious but still objectionable National Front party derives its support largely from hostility to French Arabs, and the debates focus on whether the secular republic can "integrate" Muslim populations. The Sarkozy administration has wrestled awkwardly with the issue, creating a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, and trying to ban women from publicly wearing burqas. Concerns about "Islamicization" are in fact mostly exaggerated, and the anger expressed by young French Muslims (for instance, in the massive 2005 riots around depressed housing projects) results less from a generalized hostility toward French society than toward the isolation they feel from it."

How is it exactly that the Vichy government sending 76,000 French Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps can compare to creating a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, and trying to ban women from publicly wearing burqas?

I am not the last person to criticize Sarkozy for his policies (see here, here, here or here) which I think are too nationalistic (in the wrong sense of the term) but the comparison to Vichy is absolutely outrageous - particularly since it trivializes the genocide of the Jews and the other victims of the death camps.
I agree with Mr Bell that "the debate over immigration is passionate and intense." but precisely, there IS a debate which was not the case in 1940 and the debate , by the way, is not about whether France should send Arabs to death camps or even have them wear yellow badges.
You may find the current climate in France detestable or even nauseous - I do - but it is not very different from what is going on in the rest of Europe (Italy or even Britain) or even in the United-States with illegal immigration or the tea-party movement (and its racist undertone).

Overall, the articles makes some interesting points but its basic thesis is strangely not up to the game. As we say in French, "Comparaison n'est pas raison" (i.e. comparison proves nothing). In this case the comparison between France today and Vichy France is not only an intellectual fallacy - which is all the more surprising coming from a writer who is a respectable historian from Princeton - it is also a dangerous one which falls into the trap of Reducto ad hitlerum (or in this case, Reducto ad petainum) which as the Godwin Law states, robs the valid comparisons of their impact.

Finally, the last sentence of the article, while being extremely condescending, may be the truest :
But in its very passion and intensity it reveals yet another continuity between 1940 and 2010—namely that the subject on which the French speak most eloquently, and most engagingly, is still themselves.
But again, isn't that true of any given country? Watch the U.S. news, and you'll see how much is devoted to international issues. It seems almost ironic for an American to criticize the French for being self-absorbed. If I used a cheap argument, I'd say that at least, the French do it eloquently.
(and that, by the way, is just as condescending except it is a French joke which is based on the assumption that my American readers have a good sense of humor).

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nationalist Populism in France and the U.S.

One common trend I see these days in both France (or Europe at large) and the U.S. is how politicians use fear and nationalist populism at the expense of freedom for quick political gain and how the media play along to make an extra buck.

In France, it is not only the success of the right-wing 'Front National' (a party which has advocated sending African immigrants back to the continent) in the regional elections, it is also the government itself which has pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment to try to divert attention from problems they can't solve (the economic crisis) and to woo their most extreme right-wing voters. They initiated an unnecessary debate on French identity (which eventually back-lashed) and are now ready to vote a law to ban the full-body veil (which really concerns a mere 2,000 women in the whole country at the most). Meanwhile people are struggling with trying to find a job or making ends meet when they have one, and most worry more about the national debt than about the full-body veil or their national identity.

In the U.S. there seems to be similar tendency towards strong anti illegal immigration. Of course, illegal immigration causes serious problems and the current violence across the border in Mexican cities makes people very nervous, but this does not explain why Arizona Governor Jan Brewer claims her state has been under "terrorist attack" by illegal immigrants:

It blows my mind that the new anti-illegal immigration law was even voted. It requires the police “when practicable” to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization. It also allows the police to charge immigrants with a state crime for not carrying immigration documents. And it allows residents to sue cities if they believe the law is not being enforced.

Obviously, there is no way one can spot an illegal immigrant from a regular immigrant or from an American citizen of Hispanic decent - a fact acknowledged by the governor herself, whose discomfort at the question is pretty obvious :

She nonetheless signed the bill - who cares if it's unenforceable. The same could be said about the full veil ban in France.

I am amazed how easily political leaders can do away with constitutional principles. There is a backlash of course and some people will oppose them but it still means that enough people are okay with those laws so that they can be passed. Where is the tea-party movement who claims that there's too much interference of government in their lives? Their silence is evidence of their political bias.

As a side note, it must be added that while in France, you are supposed to carry some form of ID with you, it is also illegal to ask anyone for their identification in the streets without probable cause (see here in French).

Online Connections.

Here's some interesting data I found recently on
It is "a set of visualizations that display how cities across the globe are interconnected (by router configuration and not physical backbone)" as of 2007.
The result is of no surprise - most of the online connections take place in north America and Europe. So goes the world wide web!
World Connection Density

World City-to-City Connections

Oil Drilling and the Benefit of Regulation.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an embarrassment for Barack Obama who accepted more drilling off the coast to secure the support of both Republicans and moderate Democrats to get the climate-change bill (especially the the cap-and-trade) through the Senate.
But even though the GOP is trying to spin the crisis into an "Obama's Katrina", it is the Republicans and their "drill baby drill" chanters who should be mortified.
Worse still, even though the investigation is still pending, it seems already that the oil well lacked safeguard device (WSJ) which is required by other countries and used by other oil companies.
In 2000, the federal agency that oversaw oil rig safety issued a safety alert that called added layers of backup "an essential component of a deepwater drilling system." The agency said operators were expected to have multiple layers of protection to prevent a spill.
The industry aggressively lobbied against an additional layer of protection known as an "acoustic system," saying it was too costly. In a March 2003 report, the agency reversed course, and said that layer of protection was no longer needed. (ABC News)
The investigation seems to focus on another big name - Halliburton which seems to have a poor record on the job :
Investigators delving into the causes of the massive gulf oil spill are examining the role of Houston-based Halliburton Co., the giant energy services company that was responsible for cementing the deepwater drill hole, as well as the possible failure of equipment leased to British Petroleum.
Halliburton has been accused of performing a poor cement job in the case of a major blowout in the Timor Sea off Australia last August. An investigation is underway.(LATimes)
According to experts cited in Friday's Wall St. Journal, the timing of last week's cement job in relation to the explosion -- only 20 hours beforehand, and the history of cement problems in other blowouts "point to it as a possible culprit." Robert MacKenzie, managing director of energy and natural resources at FBR Capital Markets and a former cementing engineer, told the Journal, "The initial likely cause of gas coming to the surface had something to do with the cement." (LATimes)
Halliburton, in case someone forgot, was the big oil company that was granted a major contract in rebuilding Iraq while Vice President Cheney was still on its payroll. (see here or here)
Ironically, the last time Halliburton was heard of in Louisiana was when they were granted a $29.8 million contract for cleanup work in the wake of Katrina through their subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (Joker to the Thief & Molly Ivins)
Something that must have been missed by Senator Landrieu of Lousiana, a conservative Democrat and long supporter of off-shore drilling who continues to support drilling. I am not sure how well this is going to play with her electorate.
Some may agree with Sarah Palin that "No human endeavor is ever without risk", but most will probably wonder whether we can learn from past mistakes and support MORE REGULATION to minimize the risks. Something most right-wing republicans are too stubbornly ideological to see.