Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mass Shooting, again: a European Perspective.

This summer, I wrote extensively about Americans and guns after the mass killing in Aurora. (here and here).

Sadly, but expectedly, nothing has changed since then, and I could easily copy and paste what I said last July today. Only this time, the horror has reached a new peak with the death of so many children: undeniably the most sacrilegious killing in our Western societies.
Could this new abomination be the defining moment that may turn American public opinion in favor of gun control?

This is the kind of questions the rest of the world, and certainly the Europeans have been asking since yesterday.

And if we are to take president Obama at his words, something may be done:
We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

High profile NY mayor Bloomberg, a long advocate of gun control, is keeping the pressure:

The country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem," Bloomberg wrote. "Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership – not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response.” (Huff Post)
And maybe this time, the American people will as well. (here).

If things change, it won't be easy, if you look at the reactions of gun supporters.

THE ARGUMENTS OF GUN SUPPORTERS
Just hours after the shooting, some Gun Advocacy Group (Gun Owners of America) claimed that gun control is actually the reason why the shooting took place. Yes, seriously. Their "logic" is that if the teachers had had guns, they could have killed the guy. Read this amazing statement:
Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to insure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones. The only thing accomplished by gun free zones is to insure that mass murderers can slay more before they are finally confronted by someone with a gun.(Here)
You think this is just from some crazy group? Think again: a this week, Michigan passed a bill that would allow guns in schools. (here) :
Most of the attention on the new bill has focused on provisions allowing hidden handguns in places where they are now forbidden, such as schools, university dorms and classrooms, and sporting stadiums (Michigan Live)
BLAME IT ON THE HEATHEN
You'd think that a non-violent religion like Christianity might have helpful points to make. And indeed, many people turn to faith on such terrible trials.
Unfortunately, some major leaders - like a former governor and presidential candidate - have a very different view of God:
Mike Huckabee attributed today’s deadly massacre in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut to the lack of God and religion in public schools. (ThinkProgress)
If we followed the logic of this statement, then Europe should have a lot of violence in its schools. Fortunately, it is not the case.

THE U.S AND THE REST OF THE WORLD:
This may be a good opportunity to give this a little perspective by looking at statistics and compare our the U.S. with a few other industrial countries:

                                            (The Guardian)

                         Gun ownership                                        Gun murders
USA:            88.8 per 100 inhabitants                            2.97 per 100 000
Canada:        30.8 per 100 inhabitants                            0.51 per 100 000
The UK:       6.2 per 100 inhabitants                              0.07 per 100 000
France:         19 per 100 inhabitants                               0.06 per 100 000

(Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

GUNS DOWN, CRIME DOWN:
To be fair, it must be stressed that gun crime in the U.S., like all crimes, is going down. (The Guardian or National Institute of Justice), and....

... despite what is often said, so is gun ownership:
Since 1973, the GSS has been asking Americans whether they keep a gun in their home.  In the 1970s, about half of the nation said yes; today only about one-third do.  Driving the decline: a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the very weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes. (The Monkey Cage)
But it is still much higher than in any other Western country.

That being said, it is hard to compare the situations in America and in Europe: different histories, different results.

SOLUTIONS?
If we want to think of possible solutions, we need to look at the present reality as it is: there are already significant numbers of guns in circulation in the U.S. Once a lot of people have guns, it may seem more natural to want your own to defend yourself.
As Lexington put it yesterday on the Economists's blog, this may be "tinged with a blend of excessive self-confidence and faulty risk perception.":
I am willing to believe that some householders, in some cases, have defended their families from attack because they have been armed. But I also imagine that lots of ordinary adults, if woken in the night by an armed intruder, lack the skill to wake, find their weapon, keep hold of their weapon, use it correctly and avoid shooting the wrong personLexington 
The problems is that most Americans have too much confidence in the success of what they do. This has a lot to do with education, as we have discussed on this blog: Americans tend to be over confident, while the French are actually too pessimistic and have too much low self-esteem.

As for the common used argument of preventing tyranny:
As for the National Rifle Association bumper stickers arguing that only an armed citizenry can prevent tyranny, I wonder if that isn’t a form of narcissism, involving the belief that lone, heroic individuals will have the ability to identify tyranny as it descends, recognise it for what it is, and fight back. There is also the small matter that I don’t think America is remotely close to becoming a tyranny, and to suggest that it is is both irrational and a bit offensive to people who actually do live under tyrannical rule. Lexington 
Banning all guns will never happen, but stricter regulation is clearly needed.

MYTHICAL VIOLENCE:
Just as importantly, if not more, but never mentioned in the media, Americans need to have a discussion on their mythical approach to violence (see my post here), especially in popular culture where violence is often shown as the normal way of resolving issues, where the violent past such as wars is often glorified, and where children are so often exposed to violence in movies, series, and videogames.

Here I am not talking about censorship, but about a way of discussing the real impact of violence on people's real lives, and make it a big deal. It might be also a good idea for a lot of politicians to tone down their violent rhetoric against their opponents (like here)



It remains to be seen if, once the emotion wears off, anything meaningful will really happen. Personally, after so many years of hearing the same things, I have some doubt. But if the killing of 20 children does not do it, nothing will.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

'Les Revenants', THE French Series to Watch.

Imagine if the dead came back. Not as zombies, but just as the way they were when they died. Imagine if they showed up years later, as if no time had passed and nothing had changed.

This is the main theme of a new series which premiered two weeks ago. What is unusual about it is not that it is excellent, but that it is also French. Let's face it, this is not a format in which the French usually excel.

That's why the exceptions are notable: Canal Plus is the closest thing France has to HBO. They have produced a few very good TV shows such as Maison Close, or the very popular police drama Engrenages (Spiral in English), dubbed the French equivalent of 'The Wire'.


This time, Canal Plus has outperformed itself with Les Revenants, loosely based on a 2004 movie of the same name (released with the English title They Came Back). It is esthetically entrancing - the photography is sleek with cool colors that can be reminders of north-european productions such as The Killing (Forbrydelsen).

The location is a modern town in the mountains which offers a mix of geometrical buildings, well-trimmed landscapes and the wilderness of the mountains looming in the background. Nature has been tamed, yet something unnatural seems to be threatening (clues: power outages and the mysterious disappearing of the water in the dam).  There is also a sort of savagery in some of the characters, as if the beasty nature of man was about to come out.

Of course, the return of the dead is a good way to tackle deep issues and basic emotions such as fear, pain,  love, anger, as well as questions of faith, religion and the resurrection. Not so common in French shows.

The writing is quite good - each character has a unique reaction, coherent with his or her story and personality, very much the way each individuals may react differently to the death of a close one. It is a sort of mourning in reverse: denial, disbelief, anger, depression and acceptance. If you have ever lost someone you loved, you can't help thinking how you'd react.

In addition to the return of the dead, there are many other elements of strangeness and mystery, which appear to be so many clues of a larger mystery, a bit like the cult show Twin Peaks. Here as well, the pace is rather slow, the atmosphere somewhat oppressive and heavily charged, and the mundane gets suddenly interrupted by the uncanny.

There are secrets, and there is sheer evil, both now and in the past, and it is hard to figure out where the evil really is. Each character seems tormented by the past, and on the verge of losing his or her mind, and in way, the living seem to be actually "deader" than the dead.


The secret of high quality show is clear: good writing and money: - Canal + spent 11 million euros and 5 years on this show for only 8 episodes. And I bet you'll hear of it. I'd be surprised if it didn't end up as another show adaptation on American television.


To get a better idea, have a look at the following video of the credits. It's very much like the credits done by HBO for their high-end shows. Among other things, they use one of my favorite camera  effect: the tilt shift photography which gives the impression of a miniature scene. The original music by Scottish band Mogwai is also perfect for this show.



You can also check out their game-like websites: http://lesrevenants.canalplus.fr/#!/

Fiscal Cliff and Tea Party Metaphors.

The expression "fiscal cliff" has been so prevalent in the headlines these days that it has now become part of the American lexicon. It is a metaphor made popular by Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve at the beginning of this year, to describe "the automatic tax increases and spending cuts due to take effect on 1 January".
But why a cliff? Because some economists believe it would send the U.S. (and the world) into recession.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the economy would contract in 2013 by 0.5% and unemployment would rise to 9.1%. (CBO)

It is clearly a very dramatic metaphor which has a powerful grip on the imagination. A cliff implies a potential fall to your death. Thus it generates fear, hence its popular use in the media. With the January 1 deadline, it means there is great and immediate danger.
According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer (BBC News), the phrase "fiscal cliff" has been used in the past - probably as early as 1893, and definitely in the 1950s, and it may have gained in our modern era popularity because of the cliffhangers of Hollywood. It may also be that it taps into our basic understanding of the world and our way of conceptualizing the economy: Good Is Up / Bad Is Down, according to linguist George Lakoff. Clearly, even Wall Street seems to follow the basic assumption of this metaphor. (here)
For other economists, like Paul Krugman or Robert Reich, it is a misleading, if not dangerous metaphor (here). What will probably happen if no agreement is found is that taxes will go up so people take home less of their income, and Congress will have to find spending cuts.
"But nothing's going to change much in the first two weeks. It's more like a slope or a hill, if we're going with topographical metaphors." says Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic. (BBC)
Besides the "Fiscal Slope", other metaphors have been suggested:
 "Minor step off a curb", "Bad overhang", "A very tall mountain to climb" or a "Fiscal fast" (Huffington Post)
No metaphor is likely to accurately relate the complexity of the issue, but how you frame the issue remains crucial because  as Thomson said: " it can generate a panicked deal instead of the right deal."


The main reason for the current gridlock is the pledge of many Republican party members not to increase taxes, even on the wealthiest. It is opposed by the Republican Party under the Tea Party's influence, and lobbyists such as Grover Norquist. (see here)
As we have said before on this blog, the Tea Party is a very interesting "bunch" (for lack of a better term since it is hardly a movement and certainly not unified) whose very name is metaphorical in nature and taps into the national founding myths: the Boston Tea Party agains British taxation of tea in her American colonies.
It may be hard for outsiders to see the connection with our present times (and that is because there isn't), but the Tea Party considers that the (moderate) 'welfare' state and the current government is a  form of tyranny in part because of its taxation, juste like the British. Of course, they conveniently forget that the in the 18th century, the colonists complained of "taxation without representation", not quite true today. Congress may be ineffective but it's still a democratically elected body.
The Tea Party has mythologized its anti-government, anti-tax agenda into a definition of American identity. It has tapped into mythical symbols of the national history to turn a political agenda into a patriotic stance, thus making those who oppose them de facto un-patriotic.

But the Tea Party's use of myth should be understood in all sense of the word: their protest became visible in 2009, precisely  at a time when Federal taxation was actually at its lowest  in 30 years. (WP, ) and the same as it was in the 1950s.
Even total government tax revenue (federal, state, and local) was lower in 2010 than pretty much any time in the last 40 years.

And I'm not even talking about the unproven but often repeated assumption that high tax rates on rich people hurt the economy. (If anything, it seems  history suggests otherwise - see here as well)

Just for comparison, the United States has one of the lowest tax revenue as share of GDP of all modern economies.

The paradox of anti-taxation rhetoric at a time when taxes are lower suggests a displacement from other unsaid angers to the government which becomes the easy anonymous target. Since the demography of Tea Partiers is mostly older white male, one may think this is just the wrong expression of a true sense of disempowerment by people who used to feel they had economic power - or at least symbolic power in the nation. As Ken Burns said it on Meet the Press the other day, the Tea Party's anger may have at least been partly fueled by the elections of a black president. Race is always an issue in the United States, even indirectly.
In any case, it is not the reality of taxation that makes sense but the symbolic value of the oppression perceived by those supporting the Tea Party's anger. It must also be added that a lot of the supporters may be genuine, but the "movement" is far from a simple grassroots spontaneous expression, as it has been portrayed. It has been funded by powerful industrialists such as the Koch Bothers to support their interests.

The American people have not been fooled, it seems. Most polls these days show that a majority of Americans support raising taxes for the wealthy (here). That's why this "fiscal cliff" battle is a game loser for the Republicans, and they know it. In end, they just need to find a way to save face as much as possible. Whether they choose to skydive, bungee jump,  build a bridge, or a hard stop, they will need to do something to avoid cliff, if they don't want to be blamed for the consequences.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Daily Show: It's about feeling it!

The first time I attended service a black church was in Harlem, New York, in the late 1980s. Of course, I was struck by the exuberant singing and dancing during the service, and the constant verbal interaction between the preacher and the parishioners; even during the sermon.
Only later, did I realize that this call-and-response culture was a tradition rooted in Africa, and transmitted through centuries to African-Americans. which, to this day I find amazing. And it is not limited to church services as you can see in this great piece on the Daily Show.
Notice not so much what is being said as much as how it is said and the reaction of the women around Representative Marcia Fudge.
Here's a fun teaching moment on black culture, and here's the greatest lesson:  it is not about repeating but about "feelin' it". So enjoy it!


video


NOTE:Little did I realize that there was so much of Africa in British Parliament!

French and American Paradoxes.


As I was reading this very interesting book: POTUS Speaks: Finding the Words that Defined the Clinton Presidency, by Michael Waldman,  on presidential speech making during the Clinton administration, I came across what seems to me a great comment on an obvious American paradox:
American voters are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. They want their leaders to denounce government while keeping the services coming. (p.114)
This is, in my opinion, a relevant comment in this time of battle over the budget.
Because in the United States FREEDOM is the most cherished value at the core of the national identity, any issue framed in terms of interference to freedom is likely to strike a chord. That is why taxation has been such a dirty word in the United States: since Reagan it has been framed as a form of interference to your rights to keep your money. That's why a movement like the Tea Party has had so much appeal to a number of Americans. It also plays on the old idea that Big Government is bad, if not tyrannical, not unlike the British crown during the Revolution. This is all based on national founding myths which are emotionally more powerful than any reasonable argument one can make. Never mind that  those taxes provide services  that people did not have in the 18th century but want to keep today (Medicare, schools, the armed forces, etc...). This is simple math and explains why the deficit grew more during Republican administrations: cutting taxes without curbing government spending because of the impact on services that people were not ready to do without (and because of costly wars).


Nothing shows this better than natural disasters where you see Republican governors call for Federal help, even if their party platform is dead-set against the "idea" of government. I love the irony.
As Bill Clinton said it himself:
Most people are conservative most of the time. They turn to the progressive party in a time of crisis. (p.188)


To be fair, it should be noted that France also has its own inability to match its professed ideology with reality. Its mythical birth is also a revolution, and its national motto may be libertéegalité, franternité, but for reasons I will not develop here, it is the last two values - equality and bortherhood - that have been at the core of the national talk. France has one of the lowest approval rate of free-market economy.
Yet people do buy iPhones, eat at Mcdonald's, drink coffee in Starbucks and wear Nike sneakers, while demonstrating against capitalism. Indeed, capitalism thrives in France but it may be the country's greatest 'dark' secret (but only to the French). It is after all still the world's fifth largest economic power.
In other words, the French are ideologically socialists but operationally capitalists.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

French Paradoxes


At so many levels, France and the United States seem to hold contrasting if not opposed values: the Americans are more prone to self-reliance, action (including war) and black-and-white rhetoric when the French believe in the nanny state, co-operation, diplomacy and ambiguity. To paraphrase Robert Kagan's famous words, one might easily conclude that the Americans are from Mars, and the French from VenusThis fits American clichés: it emphasizes the view of a dominant America (Mars after all is the God of War) and a submissive Europe. (cf. John Gray's "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus")

But of course, if you ask the French, they will not think that their values are particularly feminine, but rather 'civilized' and they might just see America's masculine assertion as mere bullying. So it is little surprise that the French tend see America's love story for guns as uncivilized and the Americans may see the French reliance on negotiation  and discussion as a paralyzing weakness. Yet, as we have amply discussed before on this blog, reality is far more complex. It has always been our belief that not only our values, but our entire worldview and mindset are the product of our history and social environment, and it is extremely hard to change that or harder still, to understand another's. 

This is why this week's Economist's lengthy report on France is an excellent read. It will help Americans understand where the French come from, and the French see another 'Anglo-Saxon' view of their own perspective. Always a good lesson. 


Beyond their provocative cover, The Economist has a great analysis of the complexity of French culture and economy. This is rare in a magazine, and even if one might disagree with some of their conclusions and/or solutions and remedies, their analyses are fair, balanced and well founded.  

L'Etat.

Just as it is impossible to understand what seems like America's love for guns without taking into account her historical background , including the Frontier myth, it is impossible to understand the French idea that the government must steer the economy without looking at its historical roots, going back at least to the 17th century when Louis XIV supposedly asserted 'L'Etat, c'est moi' and when 
"the state-financed Canal du Midi. His finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, founded the Saint Gobain mirror factory and took over the Gobelins tapestry firm. In the 18th century the state established the royal saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in the Doubs."
One could ad that the French identity was shaped by the centralized state: it unified a diverse country by imposing (coercively) a common language that defined the culture and the nation. This is partly why the French are so defensive of their language and so reluctant to learn others. It is the core of their national identity. 
Talking about language, it might be interesting to note that the word 'government' is 'l'Etat' (the state), and the government is the political administration or cabinet, while the administration is the administrative organ of the state. It emphasizes the permanence of the state, while cabinets come and go. Despite more political power given to the regions, the local authorities are never referred to as a local government. 
In France, thus, l'Etat is not seen as an obstruction to individual freedom but as a source of neutral empowerment of citizens. As such it is supposed to guarantee liberty, equality and fraternity (through education and justice for instance). This is a legacy of the Revolution, the mythical birth of modern France. 

Equality

The problem is that the French are literally obsessed with equality even though, as the Economist reminds us France is now a rarity in that inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is actually lower today than it was in the mid-1980s. 
This may be why the French are "instinctively hostile to capitalism" and has a "deeply anti-business culture." 
....  economics textbooks in schools and universities generally take a more hostile view of free markets and a more favourable one of state intervention than those in other countries. Opinion polls show that the French are less keen on Anglo-American free markets than people in other countries. Asked if capitalism is functioning reasonably well and should be preserved, only 15% of respondents in France say yes, compared with 45% in Britain, 55% in America and 65% in supposedly communist China What is missing in France is a discussion about the contradiction between professed ideals and concrete realities - something akin to hypocrisy that the French may not be aware of. This is partly hypocrisy: despite its apparent distaste for American imports, France has more McDonald’s restaurants than any other big country in Europe, and American-style coffee shops have made inroads into the market of traditional French cafés.
This may also have to do with a traditional suspicion of money at the heart of the political rhetoric:  

not only Mitterrand (who denounced “all the power of money”) but also de Gaulle, who declared that “my only enemy, and that of France, has never ceased to be money,” and Edouard Balladur, a former Gaullist prime minister who once defined civilisation as the struggle against the market. 

The reason may be that for a long time, money was perceived as often inherited and thus not legitimate. 
Ad to that the fact that the French political elite is structurally disconnected from economic realities: 

Few have any business or international experience or speak any foreign languages. Most are graduates of one of the grandes écoles (Mr Sarkozy was an exception, but with Mr Hollande the country has resumed its habit of choosing énarques as presidents). Most ministers, even on the lower pay set by Mr Hollande, work in grand town houses dotted around central Paris and are ferried about in cars (you seldom see a minister on the metro). All this breeds a detachment from reality that strengthens an innate belief in statism, a mistrust of free markets and a hostility to the world of finance and commerce, all deeply entrenched in the French body politic
The current crisis may force the French leaders to take a new reality check. It also shows an increasing dichotomy between who do not govern (and can strike a chord by professing some ideals that may appeal to a lot of French people, even though it is totally disconnected from reality), and those who govern and have to take the reality of the world into account. Once in power, the socialist party has for instance been much more moderate and pragmatic than their rhetoric might have let you believe. 

Words, Not Deeds

This is another characteristics of France: the discrepancy between words and actual deeds. The French love words, (look at their obsession with literature and how self-professed intellectuals are the gurus of the media), but sometimes, the words in France are just words. 
In a similar vein, you may want to take French pessimism with a grain of salt: 

The mood of ordinary French people is, indeed, startlingly bleak. But then the French are born pessimists. In one poll in 2011 four-fifths of the German respondents were positive about the future whereas four-fifths of the French ones were negative. Another poll found that no other Europeans were as pessimistic as the French.
The French do not believe in the future, yet they have more babies that about any other Western country, including the United States. French pessimism must be taken with a grain of salt. Expressing optimism in France is akin to naiveté - a major fault in a country that reveres the intellect. (One might also suspect this is reflexion of French education that induces anxieties - look a how the French take all kinds of anti-anxity pills - One way to alleviate anxieties is to express fears and thus believe we can be ready and survive if the worst should happen.). 

French Paradoxes

Two other contradictions that The Economist was quick to point and deserve national discussions in France: 

How the French love Europe only when they can influence it: 

Many French politicians believe that the EU has changed from a project that was designed partly in France’s interests—for example, getting German taxpayers to pay a large chunk of subsidies to French farmers—into one that frequently acts against them. They are painfully aware that France has less influence in an EU of 27 countries than it did in one of six, nine or 15, whereas a unified Germany has a lot more. Even the French language, once dominant in the corridors of Brussels, has lost out to English. To some in Paris this is symptomatic of the triumph of Anglo-Saxon liberalism inside the European institutions. France led the opposition to the notorious (in Paris) “Bolkestein” directive that tried unsuccessfully to free up EU trade in services (and enrich the continent).

How the Republic is shaped like a monarchy, with a more or less irrelevant parliament, and therefore a lack of actual debates:

French political leaders are so reluctant to cede more power to Brussels is that, under the constitution of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, they have such a lot of it. In most European countries coalition governments are the norm, so elected parliaments are robustly independent. In France, save for the occasional periods of cohabitation, the president is all-powerful, able to pick and choose prime ministers and members of the government at will and largely unchallenged by any parliamentary opposition. Presidential authority also benefits from France’s relatively weak and often fawning media.This has several undesirable consequences. One is that opposition in France, rather than making itself heard in parliamentary or public debates, often takes the form of street demonstrations. 
French politics in the Fifth Republic is also unusually personalised. Political parties have a tendency to become vehicles for their leaders.
Here's a most interesting consequence: opposition in France, rather than making itself heard in parliamentary or public debates, often takes the form of street demonstrations. 
This structure can also be found, I'm afraid, in French firms and private enterprises. 

Conclusion

The Economist also had plenty of positive things to say about France, and I have just pointed some of the most useful points, in my view, that can hep understand the French better. There is plenty more to read, however, especially when it comes to the economy. 
One of the most important thing to remember about France is that it is neither a southern nor a northern European country, but a balance between the two: a mix of "northern puritanism" and "southern laxity", as this report smartly puts it. 


Let's at least hope that the cliché of America being form Mars and Europe from Venus, however false it may be, will at least help our two continents get along. After all, Mars was one of Venus's lovers.