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!




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 libert√©egalit√©, franternit√©, 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.