Monday, April 7, 2008

The Flame Fiasco

I've just seen the evening news footage of the Olympic flame's passage through Paris. Sarkozy knew how to keep the police in check and demonstrations in order when he was minister of the interior. I can't fathom why he would have allowed this event to get so far out of hand. To be sure, the police were handed an impossible task, but they should have been called off and the event canceled when the impossibility became clear. Why the Chinese organizers were allowed to have their own security forces--rather brutal, too, so far as one can judge by television at a distance--is another mystery, even if it was a Chinese group that organized the event.

That the messages of the protesters were confused is not the point. To challenge the very meaning of a symbol is often the purpose of a political demonstration, and despite Bernard Laporte's foolish repetition of the mantra "the Olympic flame is a symbol of peace" and "sports shouldn't be confused with politics," even he can't be naive enough to think that the Olympics are merely another sporting event. But perhaps it's time to face the fact: the Olympics have been destroyed by commercialization, mediatization, nationalization, and politicization. Athletes can find other auspices under which they can compete.

I hope the CRS who was filmed kicking a cameraman in the face is identified and dismissed. It's 40 years since May '68, but some things haven't changed.

Gaping Hole

"Europe suffers from a gaping hole in its financial supervision." So says Nicolas Véron. The European economic environment is more benign than the American at this point, he argues, but the European financial system is more fragile because of cross-border bank mergers and inadequate national-level supervision.

Meanwhile, Alan Greenspan believes that those who believe in regulation of the financial system are whistling past the graveyard.

Aside from far greater efforts to ferret out fraud (a long time concern of mine), would a material tightening of regulation improve financial performance? I doubt it. The problem is not the lack of regulation, but unrealistic expectations about what regulators are able to anticipate and prevent. How we otherwise explain how the FSA, whose effectiveness is held in such high regard, fumbled Northern Rock? Or in the US, our best examiners have repeatedly failed over the years. These are not aberrations.

Cheery. And this is from the system's greatest defender.
P.S. Yves Smith isn't buying it.

Bowling Not Alone

Eric Fassin uses Barack Obama's unfortunate excursion to a bowling alley in Pennsylvania as an occasion to comment on American attitudes toward gender, intellect, and power. He invokes such hardy perennials as Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and the "jock vs. nerd" culture of the American high school and suggests that Hillary Clinton's challenge to Obama that the two engage in a bowling match to see which should become the democratic nominee was an attempt to question Obama's "virility" and to cast him as a wimpy intellectual (much as Ségolène Royal questioned Bayrou's virility with her famous remark that he was reluctant to come up to her apartment to negotiate between the two rounds of the presidential election "comme un amant qui craint la panne").

Clever observations. I don't for a moment discount the importance of the phenomena Fassin observes. Comparative questions arise, however. Is the "jock vs. nerd" phenomenon less pronounced in France? If so, might it be because the budding intellectuals are skimmed off in early adolescence and educated in separate institutions, where the competition of the pubescent years takes a different form? These gender-derived markers are "slippery signifiers" par excellence. The voters described in What's the Matter with Kansas, who Thomas Frank believes voted against their own economic interest by rejecting the "effete" Al Gore and John Kerry in favor of the "macho" George Bush--well, perhaps they did, but perhaps they also resented the relative job security and earning power of the graduates of elite universities whose tastes and styles are closer to those of Gore and Kerry than to those of Bush.

Whether intellect is a disqualification for office in the United States is a vexed question. It's one of the supposed vices of democracy that what Tocqueville called l'homme du peuple--the "common man," or "median voter" as a political scientist would say today--resents the man of distinction and will not vote for him. Hence the "superior" must rule by subterfuge if they are to rule at all. Yet the common man voted for Abraham Lincoln, who, it is true, wrapped his superior mind in a costume of authentic homespun. I don't think it was the dazzling intellect of Kerry or Gore that turned voters to Bush, however. Perhaps the best instance of a candidate who lost at least in part because he was an "egghead"--to use the epithet attached to him at the time--was Adlai Stevenson, but Eisenhower as the victorious World War II commander could no doubt have defeated anyone. Woodrow Wilson, political scientist, president of Princeton, and far from exhibiting a common touch, nevertheless won election at a time when the proportion of the highly educated in the population was much lower than it is today. So intellect is but one factor among many.

Is intellect incompatible with virility, as the "jocks vs. nerds" argument would imply if taken to an extreme? The reductio ad absurdum is perhaps Eliot Spitzer, whose double 800s on the SATs apparently failed to hobble his libido. The case of Bill Clinton needs no gloss from me.

How different is France? Perhaps it's the multiplicity of parties rather than a fundamental difference in attitude toward intellect and machismo that makes the difference. The bourgeois parties do not deprecate intellect and taste to the same degree as the anti-intellectualist parties in the United States, but there is a populist strain in France, just as there is a populist strain in the U. S. The difference is that the system is less bipolar, hence there is less pressure on the major parties to incorporate populism and its anti-intellectual proclivities. A Mitterrand could exhibit rather recherché literary, culinary, intellectual, and aesthetic tastes (Chardonne, Jünger, Tournier, ortolans, Duby and Dufy) and yet score points against the didactic Giscard (je ne suis pas votre élève--a populist retort delivered with perfectly aristocratic morgue), while at the same time enjoying a reputation as a ladies' man and producing a second family at his funeral to confirm that there is virility after death.

If Sarkozy's reputation as "l'Américain" is undoubtedly overworked as well as overblown, the populist strain in his style might reasonably be compared with latter-day Republican-style populism in the U.S. His fondness for swagger, blunt talk, pokes in the chest, slaps on the back--all these are tricks he might have learned by studying George Bush, if they hadn't come naturally to a young man of diminutive stature and no social standing who has made no secret of the fact that, for him, part of the pleasure of politics is the possibility it affords to avenge slights, old and new. The compensatory value of a beauty wooed and won while in office is too obvious to require comment, and Carla Bruni not only distracts from Sarkozy's unprepossessing presence but adds intellectual heft to their couple: she, at least, does not regard Marc Lévy as the arbiter of literary elegance. Perhaps that's why the French in a recent poll seem willing to approve of her while continuing to punish him. (Her "sulfurous" reputation seems to have been quickly forgotten, even as she appears in the nude on the front pages of foreign newspapers--will this establish a new standard for First Ladies that other countries may find hard to match?).

For female politicians in France, however, the norm is evolving. One often hears the word "elegant" used in descriptions of Rachida Dati and Michèle Alliot-Marie. "Elegant" bespeaks a refined feminity, offering a hint of the same sexuality that male politicians try to project but without any suggestion of rapacity. By contrast, Ségolène Royal seems to go out of her way to avoid the "elegant" label. She works to make her natural allure appear more workaday. Yet, as the gibe about Bayrou quoted above makes clear, she is not averse to alluding to her sexual power when it suits her purpose, as if sexual power were an essential part of the politician's panoply, as perhaps it is, and no doubt more so in the media age than in the past.

Breteau Bretteur

You knew this was coming, right? Eric Breteau, the leader of the Arche de Zoé, claims that he had the backing of the French government for his operation, that he received advice from "advisors of Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner," and that Rachida Dati and Cécilia Sarkozy were set to welcome 103 "rescued children" personally at the Vatry airport. He has written a book in captivity and will be marketing it assiduously with a full media blitz.

Kops and Rooters

From Le Monde:

Le samedi 29 mars, on aurait bien fait de détourner les yeux de la banderole progressiste qui rayait le kop parisien, vers le match qui se déroulait quinze mètres en contrebas.

Anybody but me to whom the word kop was new? It has been in the press frequently lately in the wake of the banderole affair. Here is an explanation. In American English, as far as I know, the word has yet to penetrate.

Human Rights Realpolitik

The other day, an objection was raised to my use of the word realpolitik to describe certain aspects of French foreign policy. At Telos, Zaki Laïdi makes the following point: "Human rights and realpolitik are often opposed. It's time to integrate the former into the practice of the latter." Along the way, he makes a number of important comments about the role and limitations of sovereignty, the reality of nationalism, and the importance of public opinion even in its "excesses" and with all due allowance for its occasional lack of "realism" and "responsibility" (failings which, Laïdi notes, are not exclusively limited to the public). A good, intelligent piece, and something to bear in mind as the Olympic flame passes through France today, with the expected expressions of both public outrage and nationalism of two kinds (Chinese and Tibetan).