Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Playing Into Their Hands?

“And world leaders were standing together amidst a procession that included François Hollande of France, Angela Merkel of Germany, David Cameron of Great Britain, Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, along with the leaders of Mali, Jordan and Turkey. It is no small thing for the king of Jordan, a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, to march in a rally prompted by the murders of people who mocked Islam as well as of innocent Jews—all of whom were killed by Islamic extremists.”
—Jake Tapper, writing on the CNN web site on January 11

It was fascinating to watch the various reactions and narratives that came spinning out of the aftermath of Paris’s Charlie Hebdo massacre. Perhaps the most interesting was the kerfuffle that erupted in the U.S. over the fact that no high-ranking American official was sent to take part in the massive march on the following Sunday.

Yes, when watching coverage of the march, I did scan the footage to see if there were any faces from Washington, but when I did not see any I did not think too much about it. And I heard absolutely no mention of or comment on the American absence from any of the Irish, British or French coverage I caught. My news consummation is not necessarily exhaustive, but I saw enough of it to be reasonably certain that no one missed seeing President Obama or Vice-President Biden or Secretary Kerry. And I saw absolutely no mention of Kerry’s belated visit and his cringe-inducing presentation of James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend.”

For good or ill, the media here seem to be treating the U.S. government as pretty much irrelevant—at least when it comes the problem of terrorism.

As for the commentariat on both sides of the Atlantic, there was predictably near-unanimous condemnation of the killings, but there was also a fair amount of “it was reprehensible but…” Left-of-center pundits were quick to opine that the absolute worst thing about the mayhem was that it would strengthen the hand of far-right political parties.

Another take was best expressed by former Reuters and BBC journalist Amil Kahn, writing for Politico. His reaction was that, not only was Obama right not to go or to send someone to Paris, but that the march played right into the hands of the jihadists. In his view, the bad guys got exactly what they really wanted, which was to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims by manipulating non-Muslims into demonstrating in support of a magazine that viciously mocks Islam. He underlined his view by pointing out, quite correctly, that the French government displayed a double standard by censoring (among other things) the Facebook posts of the anti-Semite comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. (The French and other many other countries have undermined their defense of freedom of speech with complicated laws banning certain kinds of “hate speech.”)

“Overall,” writes Kahn, “the direction of the public debate plays directly into Al Qaeda’s narrative that Muslims cannot live in the West without demeaning themselves.”

One problem with Kahn’s argument is that it presumes that Muslims do not have the intellectual capacity to distinguish between, on the one hand, supporting the principle of free expression and being against violence and, on the other hand, endorsing hateful and offensive opinions. A more fundamental problem with the argument is that it can be—and frankly has been—applied to virtually every act that the West might ever take to defend itself against or to attempt to counteract Islam-inspired violence.

Perhaps the best response to Kahn’s view might be a piece by Jeff Goldberg for The Atlantic with the headline “Why French PM Won’t Use Term ‘Islamophobia’.” He recounts a conversation he had with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (before the Charlie Hebdo attack) in which Valls explained that “he refuses to use the term ‘Islamophobia’ to describe the phenomenon of anti-Muslim prejudice, because, he says, the accusation of Islamophobia is often used as a weapon by Islamism’s apologists to silence their critics.”

Goldberg points out that Valls is echoing the writer Salman Rushdie, who was threatened with a fatwa issued by the head of state of Iran. In an open letter Rushdie wrote, “We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia,’ a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it.”

The Atlantic writer further notes that the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has rejected use of the word Islamophobia for being used “to silence all those Muslims who question the Koran, who demand equality of the sexes, who claim the right to renounce religion, and who want to practice their faith freely and without submitting to the dictates of the bearded and doctrinaire.”

Goldberg concludes by taking what he considers a fair definition of Islamophobia (as described by Hussein Ibish, writing in The National) and then concluding that Charlie Hebdo’s provocative content does not meet its standard: “While many of the images it printed over the years were offensive to Muslims and many others, and were intended to be so, did its track record really suggest that its presence on the French scene in any way compromised, challenged, or complicated the ability of the Arab and Muslim migrant communities in France to function properly in that society? Clearly, the answer is no.”

I myself remember being amused by the antics of Charlie Hebdo (as well as Le Canard Enchaîné) when I lived in France back in the 1970s, but I was always more impressed by its audacity than for the coherence of its views. As someone who does his best to respect other people’s religious beliefs, I would not be inclined to endorse or recommend much of its content. But I have no ambivalence when it comes to defending its contributors’ right to say whatever they want.

After all, to refuse to defend the rights of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo out of deference to religious sensibilities or out of fear, well, now that would be giving the jihadists what they want.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Que Vive Charlie

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
—S.G. Tallentyre (pen name of Evelyn Beatrice Hall), The Friends of Voltaire, 1906

“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
—The late Charlie Hebdo editor “Charb” (Stéphane Charbonnier) in 2012 after his offices had been firebombed

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”
—President Obama, addressing the UN General Assembly in 2012

Today something like a million people are marching in Paris to rally for unity in the wake of the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. Among the many taking part will be a very dear and longtime friend of mine, who lives in the Paris region. He made a poster for the occasion.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo

Personally, I am a bit cynical about facile posting of hashtags, like the ubiquitous #JeSuisCharlie, as a response to outrages like this. But a million people in the street does make a powerful statement. And world leaders can make powerful statements. That is why it was such a missed opportunity in 2012 when President Obama addressed the United Nations in the wake of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The administration had attributed the paramilitary attack to outrage over a YouTube video, and it undertook a campaign in the Moslem world with its own videos condemning the YouTube video. And the maker of the video was very soon arrested in the middle of the night in Los Angeles, although supposedly by coincidence since the charges had nothing to do with the video, the posting of which was not actually a crime.

To say the least, the administration’s performance was not exactly the robust defense of free speech that some of us would have hoped for. Nor was it encouraging when, in 2012, the president’s spokesman Jay Carney said of the Charlie Hebdo firebombing that “we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”

To be fair, the the president’s words, which I have quoted above, were in a context of a long list of people to whom the future should not belong. But his rhetorical approach was unfortunate. At moments like this, leaders need to speak clearly and forthrightly and not use passive voice or, as in the president’s case here, use a negative construction to make an ostensibly positive point. His apparent message was that the future should not belong to the intolerant.

Not giving offense to followers of a particular religion, however, was not the most important value to highlight that day. Freedom of expression is crucial to Western civilized values. That means not using violence against those who give offense—no matter how provocative.

If the values we cherish in the West are to survive, we need leaders who are willing to defend and proselytize those values with the same passion—if not the same methods—as those who oppose them.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Price of Zuzu’s Petals

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
—Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (1988)

Every few years, around Christmas time, I have to haul out Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

The first several times I viewed it, I perceived it purely as the timeless story of an everyman who gradually gives up on his big dreams and his grand plans to realize in the end that the best dreams and plans consist of family, love, friends and doing good in the world.

But on each viewing I notice something different or see things from a different perspective. For example, on the latest viewing my wife was with me. Somehow she had never seen the whole thing through to the end before—despite being around me for two decades now.

When we got to the part where George Bailey gets to see the world as if he had never been born, he goes running in a panice through the streets of his home town, now called Pottersville. The reaction of my European spouse, who is unburdened by American sentimentality, was a revelation. She commented matter-of-factly, “Oh, so the town was better off without him.”

I looked at the screen to see what she was seeing. And there it was. Pottersville was vibrant with crowds on the street and all kinds of businesses going full blast. Yes, they were mostly gin joints and strip bars, but the place was booming.

I tried to explain that the town had decayed morally without the influence of George Bailey. Yes, it was thriving, but it wasn’t a good place for families anymore.

“It looks like Las Vegas,” she said, still looking impressed.

The more I looked at it, the more I realized that the philosophies of good ol’ George Bailey and mean old Mr. Potter were really representative of Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes, respectively. George was pushing the economics of lending other people’s money to try to get a bit of construction activity going. Potter was pushing the economics of sound money and balanced budgets. As a consequence, George and his customers were barely getting by, while Potter was wealthy.

Of course, Capra stacks the deck by making Potter completely unpleasant and, in the end, venal and dishonest. When Potter’s policies have full sway in Pottersville, the town is booming, but this is shown to be a bad thing because it is no longer family friendly and public morality has declined.

One area where time has not really treated the film well is in the way it regards women. In the alternate timeline without George, we are meant to cringe because George’s poor wife has become an old maid and his friend Violet has become an out-and-out party girl.

In George Bailey’s world, things are more family-oriented but less prosperous. His Building and Loan is only able to finance homebuilding as long as savers do not come looking for their money. In financial terms, this is only a few short steps removed from a pyramid scheme—the kind of operation that cost Bernard Madoff’s customers their life savings. Just as banks made too many dodgy loans and precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, so in the film’s happy ending does George have to get bailed out. And who bails him out? Well, all the friends he made through a lifetime of being a nice guy. But all of their contributions are dwarfed by that of George’s childhood friend Sam Wainwright, who has gone off and made a fortune (and created jobs) by innovating and investing.

Wouldn’t George Bailey have done more good for his town by using his talents to start a business that provided jobs to the locals—instead of trying to create the illusion of financial security where none actually existed? It’s the same kind of mindset that focuses more on tax revenues than on jobs—inevitably resulting in the stunting of both. The movie offers the false choice between a wholesome life in which we struggle economically and a prosperous life in which we become morally depraved.

The film’s dodgy economics do not take away from its greater themes of family, friendship, loyalty, honesty and trying to do the right thing. And nothing makes one feel more like an old Scrooge than the idea of rooting for mean old Mr. Potter instead of nice guy George Bailey. But the fact that its story has become so ingrained in American culture has almost certainly had a down side. It is as though the continual viewing of stories like this have programmed us to think that a happy ending is one where our problems are solved with someone else’s money.