Friday, March 13, 2009

Quarter of a Million

As you can see from the counter to the right, the blog has now passed 250,000 page views. Mind-boggling, really.

Thank you for reading, and please don't stop.

Albion Discovers Astérix

Well, well, well ... British business secretary Peter Mandelson, who used to be Sarko's bête noire, has apparently discovered the virtues of modern French-style industrial policy.

“We have not set major infrastructure objectives and then organised our industry and supply chain to deliver them as has been done in France,” he said. “We are quite good at putting the regulatory system in place, but we have always assumed the supply side would take care of itself.

Mandelson seems to be focusing on new objects: economic collapse, like impending execution, concentrates the mind wonderfully.*

*"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
Boswell: Life of Johnson

Franco-American Spaghetti

In my childhood my mother occasionally served some awful glop out of a can labeled "Franco-American Spaghetti." What this mess had to do with France, America, or spaghetti was never clear to me, but the amalgam has stuck in my mind as the perfect symbol for what goes wrong when comparative analysis goes off the rails for want of proper methodological precautions. Henry Farrell gives, as always, the careful, nuanced statement of this metaphorical condemnation. But Ross Douthat, who is soon to become the NY Times' conservative pundit of the hour, replacing the unlamented Bill Kristol, ignores Henry's warning and plunges right ahead with the conservative anathema of the hour: Obama is turning America into "France."

But saying "let's not turn into France" is a form of shorthand, not a rigorous comparison of systems: It's a way of saying "let's not dramatically change the relationship between the American state and American society," at a time when both short-term politics and long-term trends make a substantial change seem possible.

As Henry notes,

.... the claim is that America will become ‘France,’ not that America will become France. The ‘France’ of Cohen and Crook’s articles is less a country than a numinous state of being, consisting primarily of state-provided everything, laziness (both enjoyable and otherwise) and very good cheese. It has no actual inhabitants (excepting, perhaps, Peter Beagle’s imaginary Mr. Moscowitz who at the last became so French that France itself was no longer good enough for him).

Indeed. Let's hope that the editors at the Times will hold Douthat to a higher standard of argument. But given the enormities that they allowed Kristol to get away with, I doubt that much hope is warranted.

"Injure publique"

Nadine Morano is suing Daily Motion to obtain the IP addresses of Internet users whom she deems to have defamed her: injure publique is the legal term. I don't know what the alleged insults were, but this is incredible. It seems to me that if you accept a ministerial post in a democratic regime, you accept the possibility of being subjected to "public insult," no matter how unjust, uncivil, offensive, or even lewd. It goes with the territory. To invoke the force of law against your detractors is to attempt to silence public debate. The Sedition Act is one of the more infamous moments in American history: "The Sedition Act (officially An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States) made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. Enacted July 14, 1798, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801." The government repeated the mistake during World War I. Mme Morano may not regard her legal action as having anything to do with the suppression of free speech, but she should. This is a terrible precedent. The courts should throw out her suit.

"No View of the Middle-Term"

Today's Le Monde features an editorial suggesting that Sarko, after flirting with substituting Britain for Germany as France's key European partner, has rediscovered the virtues of the "Paris-Berlin axis." The return to NATO is presented as a gift to Angela Merkel, who did not want France to strike out on its own in bilateral cooperation on specific issues with the US and/or Britain. In this perspective, NATO is thus a step toward Europe rather than toward "Atlanticism."

Perhaps. But it may well be simply the velleity of the moment. What has been striking about Sarkozy's tenure thus far is the investment in initiatives that make headlines for a few weeks and then vanish. Is there any steady direction to his policy, foreign or domestic? If so, it's not easy to discern. Over coffee yesterday a distinguished French visitor suggested to me that what Sarkozy lacks is any vision "even of the medium term, let alone the long term. He flies by the seat of the pants. He is the very incarnation of the pure politician." To which I remarked that the irony was that Sarko, who defined himself as the anti-Chirac, has lately been doing a tolerably good imitation of the late Chiracian style: a foray here, a foray there, a discreet retreat here, a wholesale abandonment of previous commitments there (whatever happened to the Attali Commission report, for instance?), occasional bursts of energy followed by spells of apparent torpor (disguised in Sarko's case by the appearance of perpetual motion).

Only the total absence of coherent opposition keeps these defects from becoming more troublesomely apparent.

So Why So Many Bookstores?

Casual observation suggests that France has many more bookstores per capita than the US. Yet it seems that 64% of the French classify themselves as "infrequent readers." So who's buying all the books?