Our Fearless U.S. Media

A poster at the conservative National Review’s “The Corner” observed yesterday:

Before long the only art France will practice is the art of surrender

French journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet tweeted aptly in reply:

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Indeed. It appears some brave souls in our U.S. media would love to find a way to re-dredge up the “surrender” nonsense. I had been wondering when we’d start to see it again.

I think this in my archives is worth a relink here today:

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Have a good Friday, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Bluntly Tweeting

Singer James Blunt has been in the “non-musical” news here in Britain in recent days. He got into a dust up with a Labour MP over that politician’s assertion that artists from elite educational backgrounds disproportionately dominate the U.K. entertainment scene. Many onlookers have sided with Blunt.

One of Blunt’s statements in his very public reply published in The Guardian:

….I got signed in America, where they don’t give a stuff about, or even understand what you mean by me and “my ilk”, you prejudiced wazzock, and I worked my arse off. What you teach is the politics of jealousy. Rather than celebrating success and figuring out how we can all exploit it further as the Americans do, you instead talk about how we can hobble that success and “level the playing field”….

The politician came back at him immediately and condescendingly….

Stop being so blooming precious….

Thus perhaps another difference been the U.S. and U.K. In America, I believe a politician would have instead at that point sought to “tone it down” and “make nice.” Advisors would have been nervously at him, warning, “Don’t alienate his fans! They’re potential voters!”

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What Qualifies Someone To Be A Cable News “Expert”?

In the past, I know I’ve taken good-natured jabs at U.S. morning television, especially ABC’s Good Morning America:

Good grief, have you seen it? I mean really watched it? No wonder half of Americans think Beirut is in Northern Ireland.

One minute of frenzied “news” every half hour. Darting from Story A to Story B to Story C in seconds. Bells and whistles. Flashing graphics. Hurrying to get to the latest cat video.

We understand why. The more we have at our wifi’ed, iPad’ed fingertips, the tougher it’s assumed to be to hold all of our attention. That belief’s no doubt now impacting even how novels are written.

U.S. 24 hour cable news is in its way worse in that regard than even network morning TV. For it purports to be able to provide grounding and more in-depth “analysis.” Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders this came out of the mouth [starting at about 1 min 15 sec] of a Fox News “expert”:

“I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq, Kashmir, India. At times it [Paris] felt like that.”

L.A. resident Parisian cook and food writer, Cécile Delarue, ridicules his take. (I had never heard of him before reading her tweet.) And reasonably so: image

In a full response to that “expert,” Muslim Parisian Sened DHAB composed an actually serious and thoughtful analysis. If you’re interested, have a click over.

Fox may have apologized for that “expert’s” comments by now. They seem to be apologizing all over themselves during the last couple of weeks. But it’s unlikely to be the last time we’ll be confronted with a mile wide and a quarter inch deep being passed off by cable news as “expertise.”

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His “expertise” is apparently amply demonstrated to us viewers by his offering the most basic of factual errors. An egregious example: he states France is “10-12 percent” Muslim. Almost no one reputable believes the percentage goes that high. Okay, perhaps that’s debatable. Yet he himself also notes it having “5 million Muslims.” Presumably, he also knows its total population is about 66 million, so simple arithmetic therefore tells us that’s nowhere near “10-12 percent.”

If an “expert” gets something so elementary so wrong right in front of us, frankly I’m going to be very suspicious of just about everything else he has to say. We all should be. And that’s even leaving aside his opening by ridiculously stumbling over a vital – in the realm in which he is sharing his “expertise” – French word, which as an “expert” surely he should have been able to pronounce without having to apologize for possibly mispronouncing it.

Watching the video, I wanted to turn down the volume and look away. He’s like an undergrad doing a weakly prepared presentation in a Politics of Western Europe class. I found myself almost feeling sorry for him, and wishing someone would please get the hook and pull him off the global stage because he’s embarrassing himself.

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Moreover he’s also greatly embarrassing that news channel; but evidently that channel isn’t easily embarrassed. It is also exceedingly fond recently of citing a July 2014 ICM survey that claimed some “16 percent” of French citizens supported the terror group Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS, and ISIL in English-speaking lands; in France, it’s referred to mostly by its derogatory shorthand in Arabic: Daesh). That poll is, unsurprisingly, dutifully once again referred to during his segment.

However, the accuracy of that poll has also been reasonably questioned elsewhere. Fox News here, perhaps unsurprisingly also, says nothing about that. Neither does its “expert.”

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Sadly ignorance, exaggeration and errors do not make that “expert” unique on U.S. cable TV news. There’s just too much airtime to fill and all channels (even my preferred CNN) seem to rely heavily on way too many “talking heads” whom harried producers know are readily available to rush before cameras within the next hour. (Full disclosure: a relation of mine is a producer on a well-known U.S. news program.) Yet what truly forms the underpinning for their expertise is often anyone’s guess. Sometimes you suspect you would learn more from a well-sourced Wikipedia entry or two.

It’s no laughing matter either. Disinformation and ignorance enters routine discourse all too easily. Suddenly someone has a new “fact” which gets shared and shared and re-shared: “Darling, my father was watching Fox yesterday. He said they had an expert on who explained how Paris is now almost run by ISIS. The girls want to go there on vacation?”

A rule I try to live by in our media-saturated world: if it sounds outlandish, count to ten. As viewers, we don’t have to have an opinion immediately. Seek a “second” or “third” unrelated source before quoting it to anyone else, because what you just heard may well have been sloppy half-truths at best, and quite possibly outright garbage.

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To end on a lighthearted note, Cécile is “French and perfect” …. you understand. She is also self-deprecating, witty and entertaining. This is one of her YouTube videos, in which she demonstrates how to make mousse au chocolat:

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Hope you are having a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Calming The Storm

It was 1998. I remember it happening like this.

A woman friend and I weren’t sure about having lunch at what was a non-descript, although decent looking, roadside diner/restaurant we happened to be driving by. It sat just outside of Swellendam, near Cape Town, South Africa.

It was a sunny, warm day. We pulled in, parked and started to amble to the restaurant door. Even as we walked towards the building we were still unsure if it was where we wanted to eat; but the parking lot was pretty full, and the place seemed to be buzzing. We shrugged, it would probably do.

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No Hugging, Please, We’re French

It has become the hug cringed at around the world. The Lebanese news site Naharnet has a nice summation of what went, uh, wrong:

….The towering John Kerry was meters from Hollande, striding fast, when he first opened his arms.

In turn, the French leader stretched out his, clasping Kerry’s hands. Kerry pulled him into a brief hug to his right, at which time Hollande appeared to go back in for “la bise”. [The kisses to cheeks.]

Kerry caught up, accepted the kiss on his right cheek, before they clasped hands again, awkwardly placing their arms around each other as they walked side by side up the stairs into the Elysee Palace.

Half-hug, half-bise, it was a moving clash of cultures….

It’s a surprise Kerry didn’t realize Hollande would be baffled. But the Secretary of State had signaled beforehand that he was going to go all “American” in terms of sympathy and give Paris “a hug.” Yet the French president obviously didn’t get what Kerry meant, or didn’t think it would be demonstrated, umm, “literally,” and so was clearly unprepared for an American-style, “Come here, pal.”

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My feeling is former president (2007-2012) Nicolas Sarkozy, who reputedly has a solid sense of “Americanisms,” might have handled it better.

One can imagine the fun media and bloggers around the world might be having now had Ségolène Royal been standing there as president instead. Then again I don’t believe that had she been that Kerry would have tried to hug her that way. Kerry was doing an “American guy thing” with Hollande – and Hollande didn’t understand it.

Younger French of both sexes – especially those who’ve been to the U.S. for any substantive length of time beyond a vacation – are more attuned to Americans’ “curious” behaviors. But middle-aged and older French men on meeting even in emotional circumstances, such as offering condolences, as a rule don’t open by hugging each other like that. French men don’t do American-style “bromance.”

Compared to Americans, the French on the whole are simply far less into demonstrative displays of physical closeness between acquaintances, even friends. But they are not alone in that. Other Europeans, including the British (of course), are similar.

Still, it was a lighthearted moment after a week and a half of at times incredible ugliness and sadness. We all needed it. It provided a badly needed chuckle.

A Danish close friend of ours, and her English husband of two years, are coming for a stay-over visit with us tonight.

We’ve known her for ages. I get kisses to both cheeks, and she lets me hug her. She even hugs me back.

However, if I ever moved to hug him, he’d probably think I’d lost my mind. Or I was going all “American” on him. A firm handshake between us men is all that’s needed. ;-)

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Brief Explanation (For Americans): Why Europe Has Anti-Hate Speech Laws

In the wake of the massive “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris following the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, we are inevitably seeing some U.S.-based media now questioning France’s commitment to free speech. Why? Because France has anti-hate speech laws. One example:

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Some background, and context, clearly appears to be necessary here.

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Perceptions Of France

I like to post daily – if possible. But I took yesterday off deliberately because I wanted to have an extra ponder on this post. I also wanted to wait for this to take place, and it was larger than anyone had anticipated:

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I’ve written before that I try to avoid “generalizations” here. This is a novel-writing and expat site. It is not meant to be yet another blog showcasing yet another blogger’s biased views on “politics.”

That caveat again duly shared, I’d like to offer a few observations.

In a great deal of U.S.-based coverage I’ve seen of the Paris murders of journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine and Jewish shoppers at the kosher Hyper Cacher supermarket, reporting has seemed framed mostly in an “us” [non-Muslims] vs. “them” [Muslims] perspective. That’s not a surprise. For years I’ve been getting the sense many in U.S. media see France as a backdrop for a Woody Allen film that now also contains a terrifying and growing internal “Saudi Arabia” springing up all over the place.

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As in most things, mundane realities are far more complicated and textured than reporting can manage easily to convey. French Muslims, who are now often second, third, and even fourth, generation descendants of immigrants from predominantly North Africa (where France had once been colonial overlord), are often as ordinary as other French. Many drink alcohol. Many don’t bother to get married, and have children outside of marriage – just like other French. Increasingly many are showing themselves indifferent about religion, and some are even atheists – again just like many other French.

The population of France is about 66 million. There are an estimated “5-6 million” Muslims in the country. However, there have been claims recently that that long-cited figure is probably way too high; that the number of “practicing Muslims” is now below 4 million and may be as low as around 2 million, or even less.

The French republic is built on “assimilation” of newcomers. France is also a resolutely “irreligious” state: the French Revolution was about not only freedom from aristocracy, but freedom from clericalism. One is socialized to become “French,” and keep your religion to yourself, and that is that.

So the French government is forbidden from asking about a person’s religious affiliation in a census, but agencies may ask in specific, limited circumstances. Most information about Islam is gleaned from “North African” national origin questions (i.e. Algerian or Moroccan). Yet estimating religion based on geography can be a dicey business given not everyone who has immigrated from there has been Muslim. Some were Jews and Roman Catholics.

Moreover “national origin” cannot tell us how “observant” anyone may be regarding any faith either. Born of North African immigrants into a “devout” Muslim home, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisor Rachida Dati – while far more prominent than most – epitomizes an “assimilation” that is more common in France than U.S. media appears to grasp. Wikipedia details:

In September 2008, Dati announced that she was pregnant and would be a single mother. She revealed her pregnancy to a group of reporters who questioned her about mounting rumours. “I want to remain careful, because . . . I am still in the risky stage. I am 42″, she was quoted as saying. Her daughter, Zohra, was born in early 2009. As the name of the father was not revealed, many names circulated in gossip magazines….

An unmarried, single mother, who doesn’t share the name of the father of her child. That is NOT sexual behavior an imam would in any way approve of. And did she seem to care?

Clearly there are large problems. The existence of the far-right, anti-immigrant, National Front party reflects a raft of issues and disaffection among a substantial part of the French electorate. All is certainly not rosy.

But in day to day life, “assimilation” problems seem to stem not from religion nearly so much as from economic disparities, and cultural alienation due to marginalization and discrimination aimed at second and third generation children of immigrants – which perhaps makes some of them ripe for “radicalization.” For example, a 2010 study had shown that even with similar educational background and work experience, someone perceived as Muslim is much less likely to get a job interview.

Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.
Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.

Yet most Muslims are also so “assimilated” – they are teachers, lawyers, businesspeople, military and police, you name it – that if you visit France, chances are you might not be able to spot “a Muslim” on the street. On Friday, a French Huff Po writer pointed out how far more Muslims work for French security services – like policeman Ahmed Merabet, who was murdered outside of Charlie Hebdo – than Al Qaeda. Yes, there are noisy fundamentalists in some mosques, but usually they reach only small audiences: most Muslims don’t attend mosque any more than most French Catholics go to church – meaning rarely to never.

Some American media insist on portraying those murdering thugs’ take on Islam as “conquering” France. However, the norms of “France” appear to be proving much more “seductive” for most Muslims. On France 24 the other night, a commentator noted that before the 2010 ban on women wearing the “niqab” (a full face covering, which was worn by only a few thousand women), far larger numbers of Muslim Frenchwomen preferred bikinis anyway.

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UPDATE:
Similarly Americans are fed daily nonsense like this about Britain:

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That comes from the “most watched” news channel in the country. The likes of that hardly helps Americans at home better understand what life is actually like over here. But, then again, is that the goal?

Watching Our Words

Like so many – perhaps including you – I followed yesterday’s coverage of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris by gunmen apparently claiming to have been avenging the magazine’s caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.

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Last night, on France 24, during discussion of the killings, a studio guest wondered at one point if too much criticism of Islam was stoking tension with Muslims in France. Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, “Submission,” came up. (The other day, just before the attack, I saw noted that “Submission” had been “Number 1″ in Kindle book sales in France.) Bloomberg View summarizes the book this way:

It was at least symbolic that the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo was a newly published book, “Submission,” by the French author Michel Houellebecq. The novel’s plot imagines France in 2022 after the election of an Islamist government, which has excluded women from working and opened Islamic schools. The premise is ludicrous (even by 2030, Muslims are projected to make up only 10 percent of the population, and France is among the world’s most determinedly secular countries).

The France 24 guest had made much the same argument about the book being “ludicrous.” (I think he called it “preposterous.”)

Anchor/ presenter Laura Cellier quickly – and quite rightly – replied that the book is fiction. She questioned: Should fiction not be allowed?

Can they both have been right? That there may be “too much criticism,” but that criticism – in all its forms, including via fiction – is going to come everyone’s way in a democracy? Well, yes.

It was – to me anyway, as a writer – eery how the issue had been framed in those terms.

Caricature cartoons, of course, can be hard-hitting stuff – especially if you are on the receiving end. Charlie Hebdo assailed politicians, the religious, most anything, in often the most crass and vulgar manners. In fact, its attacks on Islam have often been relatively “tame” compared to how it has regularly skewed Christianity. For example, this was published last month, and tweeted last night by Paris-resident photojournalist, and Syrian anti-Assad activist (and regular guest on France 24), Emma Suleiman:

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We have all seen what we may support, or treasure, torn apart by critics. Most of us also just take it in stride. We understand it’s called freedom of speech and that it’s a bedrock of our democracy.

Yet we can easily forget not everyone everywhere thinks that way. If you are an author, are you mindful of what you write? Do you ever worry about any possible reaction beyond just a “1 star” Amazon review?

I think on some of the things I’ve touched upon for story purposes – race, religion, immigration, Israel, Palestine, even police brutality, among others – and I do wonder occasionally how some readers might receive them. Sometimes it’s only a sentence or two, and I admit I’ve thought to myself briefly, “Is this such a good idea, writing this?”

I’ve not consciously cut out anything out of “fear.” But I have also been “careful” at times, partly (as I reflect on it now) out of an innate respect that I may actually feel, and which I am perfectly entitled to feel. Moreover, being rude should not be elevated to a virtue that’s beyond criticism either.

There’s a line here, and I can’t say I know where it is. Yet if we ever lose the ability to feel free to speak our minds even in an “offensive” manner (to some), where are we? Somewhere I suspect most of us surely don’t want to find ourselves.

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UPDATE: Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, in the Telegraph….

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….is well-worth a read.

“Don’t look into their eyes! You’ll be turned into stone!”

I don’t like to talk U.S. party politics here, really (as you know, it’s about writing and expats, etc.); but this is interesting in terms of media. And it this isn’t just an Americans’ issue. It’s also an international one given how U.S. domestic politics can resonate around the world:

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I don’t watch Fox News with any regularity. The article also addresses Fox’s left-wing opposite number: MSNBC. MSNBC is not available here in Britain, but, similarly, I wouldn’t watch it much either even if it were.

I find both Fox News Channel and MSNBC to be essentially unwatchable yell and snark fests. However, back in the States, my mother must be one of the few who revels in both channels. “I like to hear what both sides are screaming about,” she laughs.

There’s a program on Fox I’ve seen a few times called “The Five.” My Mom likes that one for amusement; but to me, frankly, the less said about it the better. One minute chattering hosts hold forth on ISIS (“The Middle East is so complicated, and Obama won’t do anything!”), or global economics, and after a commercial break on some celebrity’s award show outfit.

My Mom often has MSNBC on as background noise in the kitchen. In my mind, it’s mostly a blur of predictably left of center opinions. A few times, however, I’ve also overheard anchors/ presenters getting so carried away I expected hammer and sickle flags to be unfurled on set at any moment.

From U.S.-based TV news channel offerings – and I know I’m a minority, and I know it has its own issues – I still much prefer CNN. Here in Britain, we see CNN International. Above all, it has Hala Gorani:

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Choose your viewing carefully. Also create a list of varied web sites from at home, and from around the world. Spending “quality time” on news is far more worthwhile than sitting through Fox and MSNBC doing their TV impersonations of “talk” radio.

And life’s too short.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Sorry, But You Don’t Have A “Right” To Relocate Wherever You Want

Forgive a long post, but this is a complicated, emotional issue just about everywhere in the world, and can’t be addressed glibly. If you aren’t interested, click away. But please do come back another day! :-)

In the last decade of the 19th century, Italian ancestors of mine emigrated to the United States. (One was evidently about age 9, and unaccompanied by a parent.) On cramped, uncomfortable ships they traveled for weeks – from Sicily to Naples, then to Marseille, and eventually they reached New York’s Ellis Island, where admittance to the U.S. was not a certainty. They were granted entry. None ever returned to Italy. They had left behind brothers, sisters, and parents whom they never saw again.

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