Sunday, February 27, 2011

From Dairyland to Cheese-Eater, let's unite!

While the international media have been focusing on the protests in the Arab world, I personally find the uprising in Wisconsin even more baffling. I have never seen anything like it.

For nearly two weeks now, tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating in the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin against governor Walker's anti-union bill.
And the crowd, initially made of teachers, firefighters and other public workers has been growing to reach 70,000 demonstrators yesterday (NYTimes / UPI)

It is pretty clear that behind the pretext of budget deficit lies an ideological battle :
-Although the unions have already agreed to the budget cuts in exchange for keeping their collective bargaining rights, governor Walker refuses to back down.
-When Walker was pranked by a journalist posing as David Koch from the Koch Industries (one the richest men in the US and major funders of dozens of right-wing groups) he came out as a clear ideologue out there to get "the bastards" , not even blinking an eye when it was suggested he might plant some trouble makers into the demonstrators, acknowledging he "thought" about it. (source)

The unions are not without fault and deserve a lot of their criticisms - either in France or the U.S. but without unions to bargain, it is a return to a feudal type of relationships between workers and corporations.

The most bizarre part of the Wisconsin story so far is this one:
Wisconsin State troopers were dispatched early Thursday morning to the homes of the 14 Democratic state senators who have been in hiding over the last week to delay a vote on effectively ending collective bargaining rights for most public workers. (

Interesting development yesterday - the police who were supposed to throw out the demonstrators have actually joined them. (Salon).
And the protests are spreading to Missouri, Ohio, and across the nation.

Whereas what is going on in Wisconsin is very different from say, the protests in the Arab world, it is not very different from what we have seen in Europe. No wonder why the ordinary folks are upset!
The European governments may not have cracked down on unions yet, like Walker does, but the story has been essentially the same :
Brutal cuts in public services by politicians who claim they have no choice because of the state deficit and debt, but there is a sense of unfairness and injustice: it was NOT the teachers, fire fighters, policemen, and college students that caused the economic recession that devastated government budgets, it was Wall Streets and the banks, (ThinkProgress).with the complicity of politicians in many cases.
In every country affected by damaging cuts, it is the ordinary folks who pay the price for something in which they had no say, meanwhile major corporations and banks continue to make millions and not necessarily pay the taxes they owe to pay.) I realize that this may sound awfully far-left, like the words of some neo-marxist and be reassured I am not.

My favorite example (among many others one could find) is that of Goldman Sachs in Greece :
Goldman Sachs arranged swaps that effectively allowed Greece to borrow 1 billion Euros without adding to its official public debt. While it arranged the swaps, Goldman also sought to buy insurance on Greek debt and engage in other trades to protect itself against the risk of a default on those swaps. Eventually, Goldman sold the swaps to the national bank of Greece.
Despite its role in creating swaps that may have allowed the Greek government to mask its growing debts, Goldman has no net exposure to a default on Greek debt, a person familiar with the matter says. (Businessinsider)
In other words, Goldman Sachs caused higher risk credit for Greece by secretly lending the Greek government money and acquiring credit protection on the trades on the cheap to protect itself from the risk only it knew. Wicked indeed!

In the debt crisis in Greece, just like in the subprime crisis in America, it is those instruments - the financial derivatives - developed by banks such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgans and the likes that caused the economic crisis - NOT the public services, however costly they might be. (NYTimes)

Now what about the situation now....
It is undeniably true that there is no money left in state coffers, and so politicians on either side of the Atlantic are asking ordinary folks to sacrifice their education, health system and other public services while many corporations are getting away without paying taxes by rigging the tax code to their advantage.

Thinkprogress assembled a short but far from comprehensive list of these tax dodgers (see here) : they include Bank of America, Boeing, Citigroup, Exxon-Mobile, GE, Wells-Fargo, etc...
France is far from immune - while high profile dodgers such as L'Oreal owner Bettenocurt (with the complicity of French politicians) have made the headlines - more than 60 large French companies have been investigated for tax dodging among which are Michelin, Total or Adidas. (The Guardian)

One might argue that in good times everyone, even the little guy, benefited from economic growth and so it is normal they too should accept cuts in public services. Except it is not true. Not in the U.S. anyway :
In 2007, when the world was on the brink of financial crisis, U.S. income inequality hit its highest mark since 1928, just before the Great Depression. (Hufftington)(see here too)

This whole narrative given to us by Republican ideologues is beyond 'myth', it is a lie. Just like the idea that public employees are overpaid at the expense of taxpayers. Here's a study showing the opposite. Food for thought and discussions if anything.

And the same lies are being told all over the world by the same people who are either blind or so greedy they don't give a dam.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Learning English on the Cheap.

This blog has always been about questioning our assumptions about each other's cultures in the hope we can reach better understanding and acceptance of our differences. One of the ways to improve understanding is of course communication, which means having a common language.

As a teacher of English in France, I strongly believe that today's lingua franca is the key to functioning in the world, and it is often said to be at the heart of global competitiveness.

Last night the French evening news had a piece on how the French have improved their use of English in the workplace.
The part that got my attention (about 20'47" into the news), was when a teacher of English corrected the pronunciation of the word "operator" by stressing the penultimate syllable [op-uh-rey-ter] instead of the usual first syllable [op-uh-rey-ter].
I don't know if you any of you English speakers have heard but it does not seem to be either British or American, and well, the jury is still out as to whether the teacher is a native speaker...
This may seem like a small mistake but from my experience stresses are the greatest obstacles to communication in English for French people. This is particularly true of words that are the same in French and English like "orange".

Of course, it can get complicated at times since British and American can use different stresses on the same word, and pronounce things differently (here) but overall, most English native speakers understand each other.

The conclusion of the news clip is that the French have been improving their English.
-1/3 of the French workers are allegedly autonomous in English. (level B2)
- to no surprise, the highest scores are to be found in the workers between 25 and 35.

Good news, right? Well, yes, of course, but as always reality is slightly more complicated.

This result comes from ETS Global, a private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization which has developed a number of worldwide famousstandardized tests for non-native English speakers like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication).

In the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), France made a national score of 748 points – an improvement of 64 points since 2004. Out of the 120 countries surveyed, France is in the first third of the group, behind Germany, but above Spain, Turkey, Greece or South Korea. (La Croix)

This particular result (which is what the news clip is based on) comes from the TOEIC exam which tests reading and listening. It is a good test but only for those abilities in the specific context of multi-choice questions which does not necessarily reflect the work environment.

The main problem is that high scores in reading and listening comprehension does not necessarily indicate you can express yourself well, either orally or in written, and as an teacher of English in France, the French have a much harder time with expressing themselves orally than with understanding a written text.

On a regular basis the French government talk about how to improve the French ability to speak English.
- they tried to have English taught in primary schools, which despite the spin has been a failure for lack of qualified teachers in English.
(when a teacher says "pick up your hand" instead of "raise your hand" 12 times a day, it is likely the kid will eventually learn the wrong expression). (see great video clips here in French)

Now they're talking about teaching English to 3 year-olds (Le Figaro) but because there's no funding for qualified teachers or even for English native assistants - every country is broke these days - the French Minister of education has suggested using "modern technologies", mostly the Internet.

A 3 year old learning a foreign language in front of a computer screen? Seriously?
Yeah... if he can spend about 12000 hours in front of the screen... he may learn it but most likely with a few other deficiencies in the process.
My mind is literally boggled that some people are even buying it.

There is not way around it: exposure is what is needed to learn a foreign language - either with a qualified teacher (in small groups over many hours) or through time in a foreign country.

NOTE: if they want to go on the cheap, they should make more movies and programs available in English with subtitles (in V.O.) or V.M.) on French television, especially on public television which NEVER broadcasts in English. Especially since with the "new technologies" like the Digital Terrestrial Television or - Television Numérique Terrestre - now available almost everywhere in France, it is quite for people easy to choose - providing there is choice

Sunday, February 6, 2011

U.S. Censorship of Al Jazeera.

Seeing a revolution or a war unfolding live on television is always fascinating and somewhat exciting and in many ways the protest-revolution in Egypt has reminded me of the Revolutions in Eastern Europe, (particularly in Romania where television played a crucial role).

Of all television coverage on the events in Cairo, Al-jazeera’s has been the most interesting one, mostly because it offers a different perspective a but also because it is the most watched tv channel in the Arab world. Much has been said about the importance of online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook - whose role may have been exaggerated in the West - but these are only available to the young in the -upper-middle-class whereas most Egyptians are informed through satellite television and not the net.

Al Jazeera has done such a good job that it has been specifically targeted as their bureau in Cairo was shut down and their network’s licenses and accreditation cancelled or withdrawn.

This is not the first time that they have been banned, restricted or threatened by autocratic Arab regimes since they started broadcasting in 1996 - in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and even Kuwait.

But until this week, I had never realized that the reason I can watch Al-Jazeera is that I do not live in the United-States where it has been banned from the largest cable networks.

As Frank Rich pointed out in his excellent Op-Ed in the NYTimes this week:

… in America, it can be found only in Washington, D.C., and on small cable systems in Ohio and Vermont. None of the biggest American cable and satellite companies — Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner — offer it.

This week the director-general of the Al Jazeera network wrote an interesting article in Newsweek which caught my attention. In it, he underlines the contradiction between the much claimed free press concept in the West and the refusal to provide “alternative viewpoints” to the American audience.

Of course, as always in the West, the censorship is never direct but it is sugarcoated with commercial reasons like :

… the insistence by U.S. operators that Americans are not interested. From a commercial standpoint, they argued, Al Jazeera was not worth their precious bandwidth. (Newsweek)

Of course, Al Jazeera claims otherwise – and they seem to have figures to prove their point:

Tony Burman, Al Jazeera’s head of strategy for the Americas, said traffic to the satelite network's English-language website, where a live stream of its broadcast is available, increased 2,500% during the past week of Egypt coverage. He said up to 60% of the traffic was from the United States. (LATimes)

The « commercial reason » is moot (more here) if you consider the loads of useless crappy channels available on U.S. cable tv anyway.

In reality American broadcasters are afraid of the fearmongers on the right like Bill O’Reilly who brands the Arabic channel “anti-American” and “anti-Semitic” – which shows his utter ignorance since Arabs are semitic people -. Of course, this accusation would be propagated by Islamophobic Foxnews. After all, this view of Al Jazeera was first promoted by officials in Bush administration when they didn’t like the graphic footage from the war in Iraq. There have even been allegations of a memo in which president Bush speculated about a U.S. bombing raid on Al Jazeera world headquarters in the Qatari capital and other locations.

More generally this virtual ban of Al Jazeera in the United-States is the “consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America”.

Of course, the Qatari channel is at times critical of US and Israeli policy – it may also show crude images of wars but it has the merit of giving another perspective and an Arabic insight which might help Americans (who are willing) understand a bit better what the Arab world is about.

In any case, before anything else it should be a question of principle. Freedom of expression cannot stop at what makes you uncomfortable. If Al Jazeera is available even in Israel, why not in the United-States?

It is time for Americans to do at home what they ask others to do in the world for credibility sake.