March 25, 2006

La petit vessie de Chirac

I thought that I would allow myself to quietly gloat about this, but at the advice of a friend, I will laugh my ass off:
PRESIDENT CHIRAC stormed out of the first session of a European Union summit dominated by a row over French nationalism because a fellow Frenchman insisted on speaking English....

When M Seillière, who is an English-educated steel baron, started a presentation to all 25 EU leaders, President Chirac interrupted to ask why he was speaking in English. M Seillière explained: "I'm going to speak in English because that is the language of business."

Without saying another word, President Chirac, who lived in the US as a student and speaks fluent English, walked out, followed by his Foreign, Finance and Europe ministers, leaving the 24 other European leaders stunned. They returned only after M Seilière had finished speaking.

And I would have to agree that this is the best part:
Embarrassed French diplomats tried to explain away the walk-out, saying that their ministers all needed a toilet break at the same time.
Vive l'impérialisme culturel Anglo-Saxon!
Posted by richard at 04:12 PM | Comments (1)

March 24, 2006


Julia and I just got back from V for Vendetta and I really enjoyed the movie. It did a very good job of building tension, making the oppression palpable, and making you feel invested in the characters. The dialogue, which began with the unbearable pretension of V's alliterative and eponymous soliloquy, eventually found its stride and "worked" with the story. This despite the Wachowskian tendencies towards verbosity familiar to fans of the Matrix. The relationship between Evey and V was complex and satisfying, the back story horrific, the torment credible.

The movie pays unabashed homage to Orwell and owes much more to Nineteen Eighty-Four than just John Hurt – though it is gratifying in some twisted way to see an aged Winston recapitulate Big Brother's close-up talking head. Still, it manages to allude to the previous depictions of totalitarian governments without being exactly the same.

It achieves this partially by examining the moral ambiguity behind the fact that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". While often questionably applied (the takfiri "resistance" in Iraq are in no way comparable to Minutemen), there is a relativistic point worth making here.

In short, the movie was a decent parable of the dangers of totalitarianism and demagoguery in the modern age, layered on top of an exploration of acceptable forms of resistance. Unfortunately, rather than be content with the eternal relevance of that theme, it ended up a weaker movie than it could have been by trying to be especially relevant for today. This was my fear going into the movie, and it was born out to some extent.

More, including maybe spoilers, below the fold...

First, I recognize that I come to this movie from a particular perspective, not shared by all, and that it's quite possible that most of my criticism will be blunted if you don't share my world view. But that is the risk, I suppose, of all true and honest criticism.

The core problem of V for Vendetta was that the bad guys fit too neatly into the mold of traditional liberal bugaboos. The people to be afraid of were white, Anglo-Saxons, male, conservatives, Christians, capitalists, and.... gasp... owners of pharmaceutical company stock. The troubles began with "America's war", presumably in Iraq. Islamic extremists are fearful props used to manipulate a bovine population, rather than real threats. Biological weapons are more scary in the hands of greedy, power-hungry capitalists than "terrorists". Qurans symbolize intolerance, but ours not theirs.

A more complete list of the Left's bogeymen would be hard to compile. (Thankfully, the evils of Zionism seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.)

Unfortunately, in this day and age, it's difficult to take in this litany of right-wing bad guys without soaking up the implied message: we need to worry more about the Religious Right and Republicans than the Islamic terrorists.

The most outrageous example of this is the story of Valerie, the lesbian actress who is marginalized, imprisoned, and eventually killed by "the Party". Through her letters, she sustains Evey and V in prison, connects their experiences despite the time between them, and helps them complete their transformations into freedom fighters. Her humanity is touchingly revealed, only to be crushed by the jackboot of the homophobic Party. Perhaps the irony is only apparent to me, but to use gay rights as the ultimate condemnation of the Party, while the Islamic extremists we're told pose no real threat are actually – right now, today – executing people for homosexuality... well it seems a bit rich.

To me, one of the great strengths of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the fact that it's not overtly political even while it deals with the political. Sure, Orwell was a committed man of the left going back to Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. But like Trotsky, he recognized in Stalinism the common threads shared with inter-war fascism and national socialism. And so, what he wrote about in his last novel was totalitarianism and its tools: the cult of personality, propaganda, fear, the secret police. In the end, this leant the book a universality and timelessness that it would have lacked if it had been a simple screed against fascism from the left or communism from the right.

That said, Orwell is an extremely high mark to hold an adapted graphic novel up to. And, as a simple drama, it was powerful and engaging, so it's hard to complain too much. I just can't help thinking that it could have been great.

Posted by richard at 11:33 PM | Comments (3)

July 18, 2004

Capitalist Discourse

You cannot escape it, even by slipping into Harry Potter's universe. At least, so says French literary theorist Ilias Yocaris:

On the face of it, the world of Harry Potter has nothing in common with our own. Nothing at all, except one detail: like ours, the fantastic universe of Harry Potter is a capitalist universe.
The apprentice sorcerers are also consumers who dream of acquiring all sorts of high-tech magical objects, like high performance wands or the latest brand-name flying brooms, manufactured by multinational corporations. Hogwarts, then, is not only a school, but also a market: subject to an incessant advertising onslaught, the students are never as happy as when they can spend their money in the boutiques near the school. There is all sorts of bartering between students, and the author heavily emphasizes the possibility of social success for young people who enrich themselves thanks to trade in magical products.

And this French Marxist objects:
We have, then, an invasion of neoliberal stereotypes in a fairy tale. The fictional universe of Harry Potter offers a caricature of the excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model: under a veneer of regimentation and traditional rituals, Hogwarts is a pitiless jungle where competition, violence and the cult of winning run riot.

Finally, we see the true harm of all of this. In real life, as in the Matrix Reloaded, the myth, the prophesy, the fantasy, the escape only exists as an additional form of control.
Harry Potter, probably unintentionally, thus appears as a summary of the social and educational aims of neoliberal capitalism. Like Orwellian totalitarianism, this capitalism tries to fashion not only the real world, but also the imagination of consumer-citizens. The underlying message to young fans is this: You can imagine as many fictional worlds, parallel universes or educational systems as you want, they will still all be regulated by the laws of the market. Given the success of the Harry Potter series, several generations of young people will be indelibly marked by this lesson.

No word yet on how Yocaris is able to break through the impenetrable shroud of capitalist consumerist-imaginings to pen such an insightful piece. The French, and their cultural quotas, are obviously the last bastion of hope in the resistance against the irresistible.

Dan Drezner has more.

Update: Steve Sachs takes the review apart.

Posted by richard at 06:07 PM | Comments (1)

March 28, 2004

L'affaire des foulards

Peter Northrup of Crescat Sententia has a great post linking to several arguments for and against the French headscarf, or hijab (الحجاب), ban. Worth a read if you've though about the issue at all. He eventually argues pretty strongly against the ban:

there really is a problem in some French schools that involves the hijab. Unfortunately, this means that the law isn't just an illiberal overreaction to hysteria over increasing pluralism and immigration; it also leaves untouched a deep failure to protect a vulnerable community from serious harm.

From what I know, I agree. Read the whole thing.

Posted by richard at 12:42 AM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2004

Pledge of Allegiance

It's remarkable to me how little I knew about the pledge before the Newdow case. For instance, until the Ninth Circuit decision, I had no idea that the "under God" section was added in 1954, lobbied for by "the Knights of Columbus, to draw attention to the difference between God-fearing Americans and the godless Soviet Union", as Jack Balkin points out.

I also didn't know that the pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist and devotee of his cousin Edward Bellamy's national socialist ideas. Edward Bellamy is famous for writing Looking Backward, a socialist "utopian" novel.

And finally, I didn't realize that the original salute to the flag that accompanied the recitation of the pledge was not the hand-over-the-heart that we see today, but instead was the one associated with the "Sig Heil!" of the National Socialist German Worker's Party. Alex Tabarrok is right, these pictures of children saluting the flag are creepy.

They don't teach these things in elementary schoool, do they?

Oh, supposedly Newdow did quite well arguing the case before the Supreme Court yesterday.

Posted by richard at 04:54 PM | Comments (1)

March 02, 2004

Same Sex Marriage

Here's an interesting 1998 article on early Christian same-sex marriage in the Irish Times (although the link is to something called, I did confirm through a search, that the article does exist on the Irish Times site, albeit in a subscriber-protected area). Worth reading for anyone who opposes gay marriage for religious reasons. Here's a quote:

Contrary to myth, Christianity's concept of marriage has not been set in stone since the days of Christ, but has evolved both as a concept and as a ritual. Prof [of History at Yale, John] Boswell discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient church liturgical documents (and clearly separate from other types of non-marital blessings such as blessings of adopted children or land) were ceremonies called, among other titles, the "Office of Same Sex Union" (10th and 11th century Greek) or the "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th century).

These ceremonies had all the contemporary symbols of a marriage: a community gathered in church, a blessing of the couple before the altar, their right hands joined as at heterosexual marriages, the participation of a priest, the taking of the Eucharist, a wedding banquet afterwards. All of which are shown in contemporary drawings of the same sex union of Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867-886) and his companion John. Such homosexual unions also took place in Ireland in the late 12th/early 13th century, as the chronicler Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis) has recorded.

Boswell's book, The Marriage of Likeness: Same Sex Unions in Pre- Modern Europe, lists in detail some same sex union ceremonies found in ancient church liturgical documents. One Greek 13th century "Order for Solemnisation of Same Sex Union" having invoked St Serge and St Bacchus, called on God to "vouchsafe unto these thy servants [N and N] grace to love one another and to abide unhated and not a cause of scandal all the days of their lives, with the help of the Holy Mother of God and all thy saints." The ceremony concludes: "And they shall kiss the Holy Gospel and each other, and it shall be concluded."

Wikipedia has more on John Boswell and the subject. Others argue that while these adelphopoiia ceremonies were not necessariy homoerotic they did go beyond the modern notion of friendship, getting closer to the "eternal soul-union" that we might identify with modern marriage.

My take away: even if these ceremonies aren't strictly speaking "gay marriage", they do call into question the assertion that marriage as the union of a man and woman only has been an unchanging pillar of Christian society – it seems much more likely that various unions with various social meanings have been performed and celebrated within the Chuch since the early days. The meaning of love, commitment, kinship, and parenthood are continuing to change as the world around us changes and so should our institutions.

Posted by richard at 07:44 PM | Comments (1)

February 24, 2004

The Hispanic Challenge

David Brooks seems to get it right in taking apart Sam Huntington's position about the unique challenge of Hispanic immigrants.

While I don't have a lot of patience for people who argue against assimilation and for bilingual everything, I see no reason to think that Hispanic immigrants can't or won't assimilate anymore than the Germans, Italians, Poles, Irish, Jews, Chinese, or Vietnamese weren't able to – no matter what the Reconquista conspiracy theorists think.

And further, Brooks is right:

Frankly, something's a little off in Huntington's use of the term "Anglo-Protestant" to describe American culture. There is no question that we have all been shaped by the legacies of Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin. But the mentality that binds us is not well described by the words "Anglo" or "Protestant."

Posted by richard at 12:41 PM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2004

Jedi Reader

Lileks is not happy about the storyline of the Jedi Reader, a story book for young children set in the Star Wars universe — not to mention the fact that such a thing exists. Of course, it features Jar Jar getting into trouble:

Jar Jar closes his eyes, because he does not want to see Sebulba punch him.

“Stop!” someone says.

It is Anakin Skywalker!

“Do not hurt Jar Jar,” says Anakin. “Jar Jar is a friend of the Hutts.”

The Hutts are bigger and meaner than Sebulba.

Now Sebulba is afraid.

WTF? What is this? It’s bad enough that Lucas invented Jar Jar in the first place; it’s bad enough that they made childrens’ books with him, but Anakin is DARTH FRICKIN’ VADER. To have him show up and dispatch the bully by suggesting that Jar Jar has mob connections is so totally farged I can’t even begin to untangle the moral idiocy of the story. Boil it down: young Damien from “The Omen” saves Rastus McWebfoot from a beating by claiming that the Corleones have his back.

He's not satisfied by what appears to be the moral of the story:
“Be less afraid,” Anakin says to Jar Jar. “Bullies pick on those who are afraid.”

Yes, we know. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, suffering leads to agony, agony leads to Episode Three....

I'm glad I grew up when I did.

Posted by richard at 07:52 PM | Comments (1)

January 06, 2004

"Sacred" Marriage

Andrew Sullivan has a point about the sanctity of marriage:

We live a world in which Britney Spears just engaged in something "sacred" (in the president's words), where instant and joke hetero marriages and divorces are a subject of titillation, and where a decades-long monogamous lesbian marriage is a threat to civilization as we know it. Please.

I understand why he's infuriated, which is why I voted in this poll by the AFA. I voted for civil unions rather than straight-up marriage for gays mostly because I think that government should pretty much get out of the marriage business completely and leave it to religions. Right now, much to the AFA's chagrin I'm sure, the poll is running 60% for legalization of marriage, 33% against, and 8% for civil unions with the full benefits.

Posted by richard at 01:16 PM | Comments (3)

Soldier's Funeral

This chokes me up and made me proud to be a Texan: SOLDIER'S FUNERAL TEXAS STYLE. (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the pointer).

Posted by richard at 01:06 PM | Comments (1)

December 03, 2003

Pastrami - Most Sensual of all the Salted, Cured Meats

An interesting review at National Review about an "ecofeminist" book called The Pornography of Meat. By Carol J. Adams, the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, it is about how the eating of meat and the objectification of women are actually two sides of the same (predatory, patriarchal) phenomenon.

The review is, as you'd expect from NRO, highly critical — and it seems to me, rightly so. I haven't read the book, but from the description and quotes it seems to fall into the common academic trap of explaining everything with a single ideology du jeur — in this case the never-dull, white male patriarchy explains everything. What could be an interesting subject area — the juxtaposition of food and sex, the erotic qualities of food, the common imagery used to sell food and sex, cultural symbols of "otherness" — turns into an ideological screed against modernity and men.

Things are always more complicated than a single theory of power relations would imply. Or rather, in most cases, their are a plurality of simple reasons that explain it — in this case, the fact that, hey, sometimes people just like to eat meat. But that never sells as well as one, over-arching theory of oppression.

One thing I'm very proud of The Wife for is that she's working very hard to avoid that trap in her dissertation. In her study of the roots of "shareholder democracy", she's eschewing the easy management/capital bad, labor good, class-warfare argument and going for a more nuanced approach. Yes, it's still about power relations and interest groups, but it's a much richer, and hopefully accurate, view than just slotting yet another historical moment into a nice, neat framework. Here's hoping it gets the good reception it deserves.

Posted by richard at 02:18 PM | Comments (2)

October 30, 2003

Women at Work

Interesting article in the NYT magazine this Sunday about The Opt-Out Revolution. On the surface this is about women who, after Ivy League educations, high-powered professional degrees, years of achievement and promotion in the workplace, choose to leave their careers for "the mommy track". As the article says "women are rejecting the workplace" and "26 percent of women at the cusp of the most senior levels of management don't want the promotion".

But what struck me when reading it, is how much the article resonated with me as a man — and with things I've seen and heard my male friends say and do. Perhaps part of what's going on is the larger story of the death of the career. As the women say,

All that coming and going, they say, is the entire point. ''This is not permanent,'' Kresse says. ''It's not black and white; it's gray. You're working. Then you're not working. Then maybe you're working part time or consulting. Then you go back. This is a chapter, not the whole book.''

Van Hooser says: ''I am not a housewife. Is there still any such thing? I am doing what is right for me at the moment, not necessarily what is right for me forever.''

Likewise, most of my male friends tend to be on non-traditional career paths. They don't want to work 9-to-5 at a steady job for 40 years. They switch jobs, take time off, start businesses or non-profits, consult, work part time, write, study, take care of family (dogs), etc. With 7.5 years at Fulcrum, I have the longest tenure of anyone I know from my class at school — and I would be out of here in a minute if I didn't get to pretend to be the boss most of the time.

So, perhaps, there's something bigger going on. Is it driven by technological change? The transition to the service economy? The requirement of our "flexible" economy? Or is it a cultural ripple effect from the feminist revolution — the unleashing of a new group of employees on the workplace making all workers take a look around and say "Hey, this ain't that great." I don't know, but this may be another step towards a Free Agent Nation.

Posted by richard at 09:43 AM | Comments (2)