Saturday, January 03, 2015

Happy New Year, Happy New Gun-Control Nonsense

If we are to believe the timestamp — which, amusingly enough, reads “12:01” — we must reasonably conclude that the gun control movement managed to get just one minute into 2015 before it substantially embarrassed itself. Take a bow, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik:

In the essay depicted above, Gopnik considers what he pretentiously terms “The Moral Work of Gun Control.” The result is one part The-Science-is-Settled desperation, one part smug social-positioning, and one part literary catharsis — all washed down with a healthy dose of basic ignorance. Take, by way of example, the very first paragraph
The news that the parents of the children massacred two years ago in Sandy Hook, near Newtown, Connecticut, by a young man with a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, were undertaking a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer was at once encouraging and terribly discouraging. The encouraging part is that those parents, suffering from a grief that those of us who are only witnesses to it can barely begin to comprehend, haven’t, despite the failure to reinstate assault-weapons bans and stop the next massacre, given way to despair. Like Richard Martinez, after his son was murdered by a weapon that should never have been in the hands of a lunatic, or anyone else, for that matter, they’re allowing themselves to be angry, and then turning their anger into action: they’re naming the business that helped kill their children and asking a court to hold that business responsible.
This is most impressive. In the space of just 144 words, Gopnik has managed to: 1) conflate the supposed problem of “assault weapons” with the actions of the man who murdered Richard Martinez’s son (when, in fact, that killer did not use a rifle, but instead used a trio of bog-standard handguns that were legal even in California); 2) propose that those handguns “should never have been in the hands of a lunatic” (when, in fact, that “lunatic” passed the federal and state background checks that Gopnik’s ilk routinely sell as a panacea for our problems); and 3) pretend that there is any evidence whatsoever that to “reinstate assault-weapons bans” would likely “stop the next massacre” — which, as even the Obama administration’s DOJ concedesthere is not.

Incredibly, it gets even worse. Getting into his stride, Gopnik contends that:
one of the ironies of the whole story is that there already is a long-standing ban on truly automatic weapons—machine guns—whose legality not even the N.R.A. or their allies dispute. If anything, they tend to make a sniffy point of discriminating actual machine guns from mere semi-automatic ones, among them the Bushmaster. (Back in the twenties, the availability of the tommy gun to gangsters meant that the police were often brutally out-gunned.)
This is false. There is no “ban” on “truly automatic weapons.” They are legal under federal law and are available for purchase and for ownership in almost every state. There are some restrictions, yes. Buyers must select their weapon from a cache of pre-1986 firearms that cannot be updated by either manufacturers or importers; they must go through a stricter background=check process than is usual; they must pay a $200 transfer tax, per firearm; and they must register their ownership with the ATF. But they can not be said to be “banned” in any possible sense of that word. Last time I checked, there were around 250,000 in circulation.
What can he mean? 

As for why those in the know tend to differentiate ”actual machine guns from mere semi-automatic ones”? That would be because they are completely different — not just legally, but functionally too. Really, one would have presumed that a man who felt comfortable enough to claim in public that “no honest or scrupulous person can any longer reject the evidence that gun control controls gun violence” would have known some basic facts about how the damn things work.

One would also have presumed that such a man would have refrained from presenting the following nonsense as a “neatly logical” or “indisputable argument”:
the gun manufacturer is guilty of having sold a weapon whose only purpose was killing a lot of people in a very short time. Despite the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives having previously declared that such weapons “serve a function in crime and combat, but serve no sporting purpose,” Bushmaster sold it anyway—and precisely on the grounds that it could kill many people, quickly. “Forces of opposition bow down. You are single handedly outnumbered,” the advertising copy read. 
The lawsuit is discouraging because the death-by-gun lobby has successfully advocated for legislative prophylactics that prevent gunmakers, almost uniquely among American manufacturers, from ever being held responsible for the deaths that their products cause. If a carmaker made a car that was known to be wildly unsafe, and then advertised it as unsafe, liabilities would result. The gun lobby is, or believes itself to be, immune.
First off the bat, a reminder: There is absolutely no requirement whatsoever that legal firearms in the United States serve a “sporting purpose.” As should be clear to anybody who is even remotely familiar with the topic, the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” has precisely nothing to do with either hunting or with sport, and it has absolutelyeverything to do with the Lockean conception of self-defense, with the ideal balance of power between the citizen and the state, and with the classically liberal understanding of what “popular sovereignty” means in practice. Hunting, as John Cleese says in the Parrot Sketch, “don’t enter into it.”

Worse, his “carmaker” analogy simply doesn’t work, implying as it does that Congress has elected to carve out an egregious exception for gun manufacturers that no other industry would be afforded. The reason that one can’t advertise “wildly unsafe” cars in the United States without inviting civil lawsuits and governmental punishment is that cars are designed to convey passengers safely from one place to another and not to kill them. In consequence, there is no benefit whatsoever to there being “wildly unsafe” models on the market. Firearms, by contrast, are deliberately lethal — not only in practice, but by explicit design
Indeed, they are lethal when they work properly. Of course the two industries will be regulated differently. Of course the rules that govern civil lawsuits will be different. Of course the state will weight its options in a different manner. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense for the federal government simultaneously to a) protect the right of the people to keep and bear arms; b) decline to pass laws that render those arms illegal, and c) permit the civil punishment of those who legally sell those arms in such cases as they are used as designed. Does Adam Gopnik not understand this?

I could go on and on here, I suppose. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll let you feast your eyes on these two extracts, and then invite you to tell me whether it is Gopnik’s opponents who are guilty of indulging what he priggishly terms “semi-theological dogma,” or whether it is Gopnik himself:
In public life, there are subjects about which the mental work is done, but the moral work still needs doing. Or to put it with another neatly alliterative pair, where the intellectual work is not yet complete even as the inspirational work takes flight. The argument over gay marriage was only the most recent one to show that, with the mental work done, the moral work could begin, and the right result would follow: the unthinkable, fifty years ago, first got thought through, and then got done. On the other extreme, it’s obvious that our thinking through of capitalism and its inequalities and how to mend them anew has hardly begun; the Occupy movement collapsed for that reason. The same is true about the vexing problem of sexual violence at universities—the mental labor of sorting through the obvious right of women to be safe from casual sexual assault, and that of the accused to be free from unsupported accusations—is only now underway. You know that your intellectual labor isn’t finished when you bleed natural allies—people who are inclined to agree with you, but are alarmed by the unconsidered consequences of your position. . . . 
Piece by piece, legislation by litigation, the curse will be lifted. Time and temperament and patience will win out. This is the belief that the Victorians called “progressivism” and it is still much mocked. But the neat thing is that it happens to be true. There are many issues—the overwhelming majority—on which we need an ongoing public “conversation.” On a few, we don’t.
“There is nothing so irresistible as an idea that happens to be true,” Gopnik concludes in his ultimate paragraph, before launching into a final fit of preening. On this at least, he is correct. There is not. And yet if you want to reap the benefits, you have first to be telling the truth. 

Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq on His New Book

January 2, 2015 | by 

Michel Houellebecq © Philippe Matsas / Flammarion

It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark ... and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.

The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission(Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he's given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.

Why did you do it? 

For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.

The death of your dog, of your parents?

Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

Whereas before you felt 

I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first.

How would you characterize this book?

The phrase political fiction isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ve read many similar examples, but at any rate I’ve read some, more in English literature than in French.

What books are you thinking of?

In a way, certain books by Conrad. Or by John Buchan. And then more recent books, not as good, which are more like thrillers. A thriller can unfold in a political setting, it doesn’t always have to be tied to the business world. But there’s a third reason I’ve written this book—because I quite liked the way it began. I wrote the first part, up to page twenty-six, practically in one sitting. And I found it very convincing, because I can easily imagine a student finding a friend in Huysmans and dedicating his life to him. This didn’t happen to me. I read Huysmans much later, I think when I was almost thirty-five, but I definitely would have liked reading him. I think he would have been a real friend to me. And so, after I wrote those pages, I did nothing for a while. That was in January 2013, and I must have gone back to the text that summer. But my project was very different at the beginning. It wasn’t meant to be called Soumission—the first title was La Conversion. And in my original project, the narrator converted, too, but to Catholicism. Which is to say, he followed in Huysmans’s footsteps a century later, leaving naturalism to become Catholic. And I wasn’t able to do it.

Why not?

It didn’t work. In my opinion, the key scene of the book is the one where the narrator takes one last look at the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, he feels a spiritual power, like waves, and all at once she fades into the past and he goes back to the parking lot, alone and basically in despair.

Is this a satirical novel?

No. Maybe a small part of the book satirizes political journalists—politicians a little bit, too, to be honest. But the main characters are not satirical.

Where did you get the idea for a presidential election, in 2022, that came down to Marine Le Pen and the leader of a Muslim party?

Well, Marine Le Pen strikes me as a realistic candidate for 2022—even for 2017 … The Muslim party is more … That’s the heart of the matter, really. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense. 

But to imagine that such a party might find itself poised to win a presidential election seven years from now 

I agree, it’s not very realistic. For two reasons, actually. First—and this is the most difficult thing to imagine—the Muslims would have to succeed in getting along with each other. That would take someone extremely intelligent and with an extraordinary political talent, qualities that I give to my character Ben Abbes. But an extreme talent is, by definition, an unusual occurrence. But supposing he existed, the party could take off, but it would take longer than seven years. If we look at the way the Muslim Brotherhood has done it, we see regional networks, charities, cultural centers, prayer centers, vacation centers, health care, something not unlike what the Communist Party did. If you ask me, in a country where poverty will continue to spread, this party could attract a lot more than just “average” Muslims, if I can put it that way, because really there is no longer such a thing as an “average” Muslim since we now have people converting who are not at all of North African origin … But such a process would take several decades. The sensationalism of the media plays a negative role, really. For example, they loved the story of the guy living in a little village in Normandy, as French as he could be, not even from a broken home, who converted and went off to wage jihad in Syria. But we can reasonably assume that for every guy like that there are several dozen who convert and don’t go off to wage jihad in Syria, who don’t do anything of the kind. After all, one doesn’t wage jihad for the fun of it, that sort of thing only interests people who are strongly motivated by doing violence, which is to say, necessarily a minority.

You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting.

I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.

That hypothesis is central to the book, but we know that it has been discredited for many years by numerous researchers, who have shown that we are actually witnessing a progressive secularization of Islam, and that violence and radicalism should be understood as the death throes of Islamism. That is the argument made by Olivier Roy, and many other people who have worked on this question for more than twenty years.

This is not what I have observed, although in North and South America, Islam has benefited less than the evangelicals. This is not a French phenomenon, it’s almost global. I don’t know about Asia, but the case of Africa is interesting because there you have the two great religious powers on the rise—evangelical Christianity and Islam. I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.

But why did you decide to tell these things in such a dramatically exaggerated way when even you acknowledge that the idea of a Muslim president in 2022 is unrealistic?

That must be my mass market side, my “thriller” side.

You wouldnt call it your Éric Zemmour side?

I don’t know, I haven’t read his book. What does he say, exactly?

He and a number of other writers overlap, despite their differences, in describing a contemporary France, which strikes me as essentially fantastical, where the menace of Islam looms over French society and is one of its principal features. In the plot of your novel, it seems to me, you accept this as a premise and you promote the same description of contemporary France that we find in the work of those intellectuals today.

I don’t know, I only know the title of Zemmour’s book [Le Suicide français], and this is not at all the way I see things. I don’t think we are witnessing a French suicide. I think we are seeing practically the opposite. Europe is committing suicide and, in the middle of Europe, France is struggling desperately to survive. It is almost the only country that is fighting to survive, the only country whose demographics allow it to survive. Suicide is a matter of demographics, it’s the best and most effective way to commit suicide. That’s why France is not committing suicide at all. What’s more, for people to convert is a sign of hope, not a threat. It means they aspire to a new kind of society. That said, I don’t think people convert for social reasons, their reasons for converting are deeper—even if my book contradicts me slightly, Huysmans being the classic case of a man who converts for reasons that are purely aesthetic. Really, the questions that worry Pascal leave Huysmans cold. He never mentions them. I almost have trouble imagining such an aesthete. For him, beauty was the proof. The beauty of rhyme, of paintings, of music proved the existence of God.

This brings us back to the question of suicide, since Baudelaire said of Huysmans that the only choice he could make was between suicide or conversion 

No, it was Barbey d’Aurevilly who made that remark, which is fair enough, especially after reading À rebours. I reread it closely and, in the end, it really is Christian. It’s astonishing.

To go back to the question of your unrealistic exaggerations, in your book you describe, in a very blurry and vague way, various world events, and yet the reader never knows quite what these are. This takes us into the realm of fantasy, doesnt it, into the politics of fear.

Yes, perhaps. Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.

Like imagining the prospect of Islam taking over the country?

Actually, it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.

Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis?

None. No effect whatsoever.

You dont think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?

In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.

Doesnt it make you want to write about something else so as not to join the pack?

No, part of my work is to talk about what everyone is talking about, objectively. I belong to my own time.

You remark in your novel that French intellectuals tend to avoid feeling any responsibility, but have you asked yourself about your own responsibilities as a writer?

But I am not an intellectual. I don’t take sides, I defend no regime. I deny all responsibility, I claim utter irresponsibility—except when I discuss literature in my novels, then I am engaged as a literary critic. But essays are what change the world.

Not novels?

Of course not. Though I suspect this book by Zemmour is really too long. I think Marx’s Capital is too long. It’s actually the Communist Manifesto that got read and changed the world. Rousseau changed the world, he sometimes knew how to go straight to the point. It’s simple, if you want to change the world, you have to say, Here’s how the world is and here’s what must be done. You can’t lose yourself in novelistic considerations. That’s ineffectual.

But you dont need me to tell you how a novel can be used as an epistemological tool. That was the subject of The Map and the Territory. In this book, I feel that you have adopted categories of description, oppositions, that are worse than dubious—the sort of categories relied on by the editors of Causeur, or by Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, even Renaud Camus. For example, the “opposition” between antiracism and secularism.

One cannot deny there is a contradiction there.

I dont see it. On the contrary, the same people are often militant antiracists and fervent defenders of secularism, with both ways of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment.

Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace. A striking example? The left wing candidate on Olivier Besancenot’s ticket who wore the veil, there’s a contradiction for you. But only the Muslims are in an actually schizophrenic situation. On the level of what we customarily call values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic. That seems obvious to me.

But I dont understand the connection with racism 

That’s because there is none. Objectively speaking, there is none. When I was tried for racism and acquitted, a decade ago, the prosecutor remarked, correctly, that the Muslim religion was not a racial trait. This has become even more obvious today. So we have extended the domain of “racism” by inventing the crime of islamophobia.

The word may be badly chosen, but there do exist forms of stigma toward groups or categories of person, which are forms of racism 

No, islamophobia is not a kind of racism. If anything has become obvious, it’s that.

Islamophobia serves as a screen for a kind of racism that can no longer be expressed because its against the law.

I think that’s just false. I don’t agree.

You rely on another dubious dichotomy, the opposition between anti-Semitism and racism, when actually we can point to many moments in history when those two things have gone hand in hand.

I think anti-Semitism has nothing to do with racism. I’ve spent time trying to understand anti-Semitism, as it happens. One’s first impulse is to connect it with racism. But what kind of racism is it when a person can’t say whether somebody is Jewish or not Jewish, because the difference can’t be seen? Racism is more elementary than that, it’s a different skin color …

No, because cultural racism has been with us for a long time.

But now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. Racism is simply when you don’t like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn’t got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.

But since, from a biological point of view, races dont exist, racism is necessarily cultural.

But racism exists, apparently, all around us. Obviously it has existed from the moment when races first began mixing … Be honest, Sylvain! You know very well that a racist is someone who doesn’t like somebody else because he has black skin or because he has an Arab face. That’s what racism is.

Or because his values or his culture are 

No, that’s a different problem, I’m sorry.

Because he is polygamous, for example.

Ah, well, one can be shocked by polygamy without being the least bit racist. That must be the case for lots of people who are not the least bit racist. But let’s go back to anti-Semitism, because we’ve gotten off topic. Seeing as how no one has ever been able to tell whether somebody is Jewish just by his appearance or even by his way of life, since by the time anti-Semitism really developed, very few Jews had a Jewish way of life, what could antisemitism really mean? It’s not a kind of racism. All you have to do is read the texts to realize that anti-Semitism is simply a conspiracy theory—there are hidden people who are responsible for all the unhappiness in the world, who are plotting against us, there’s an invader in our midst. If the world is going badly, it’s because of the Jews, because of Jewish banks … It’s a conspiracy theory.

But in Soumission, isnt there a conspiracy theory—the idea that a “great replacement,” to use the words of Renaud Camus, is underway, that Muslims are seizing power?

I don’t know much about this “grand replacement” theory, but I gather it has to do with race. Whereas in my book, there is no mention of immigration. That’s not the subject.

Its not necessarily racial, it can be religious. In this case, your book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.

No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.

You who have become an agnostic, you can look on cheerfully and watch the destruction of Enlightenment philosophy?

Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stagewhich began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear. 

Why did you choose to set your novel in the world of academia? Because it embodies the Enlightenment?

Is it all right to say I don’t know? Because really, I don’t think I do. The truth is that I wanted there to be a long subplot dealing with Huysmans, that’s where I got the idea of making my character an academic.

Did you know from the beginning that you would write the novel in the first person?

Yes, because it was a play on Huysmans. It was like that from the beginning.

Once again, youve written a character who is partly a self-portrait, not entirely, but there is the death of his parents, for example.

Yes, I have used things, even if the details are really quite different. My main characters are never self-portraits, but they are always projections. For example, what if I’d read Huysmans when I was young, if I’d studied literature and become a professor? I imagine lives that I haven’t led.

While allowing actual events to insert themselves in your fictional lives.

I use moments that have struck me in real life, yes. But more and more I tend to transpose them. In this book, all that’s left of reality is the theoretical element—the death of the father—but actually everything about it is different. My father was very different from this guy, his death didn’t happen that way at all. Life just gives me the basic ideas.

In writing this book did you feel you were a Cassandra, a prophet of doom? 

You can’t really describe this book as a pessimistic prediction. At the end of the day, things don’t go all that badly, really.

Not so badly for the men, but for the women 

Yes, that’s a whole other problem. But it seems to me that the project of rebuilding the Roman empire isn’t so stupid, if you reorient Europe toward the south the thing starts to make a kind of sense, even if it doesn’t make sense right now. Politically, one might even welcome this development—it’s not really a catastrophe.

And yet the book is extraordinarily sad.

Yes, it has a strong underlying sadness. In my opinion, the ambiguity culminates in the last sentence—“I would have nothing to mourn.” Really, one could come away feeling exactly the opposite. The character has two things to mourn—Myriam and the Black Madonna. But he happens not to mourn them. What makes the book sad is a sort of ambience of resignation.

How would you place this novel in relation to your other books?

You might say I did several things that I’d wanted to do for a long time, things I’d never done before. Like having a very important character whom one never sees, namely Ben Abbes. I also think it’s the saddest ending to a love plot that I’ve ever written, because it’s the most banal—out of sight, out of mind. They had feelings. In general, there is a much stronger feeling of entropy than in my other books. It has a somber, crepuscular side, which accounts for the sadness of its tone. For example, if Catholicism doesn’t work, that’s because it’s already run its course, it seems to belong to the past, it has defeated itself. Islam is an image of the future. Why has the idea of the Nation stalled out? Because it’s been abused too long.

There is no trace of romanticism here, much less lyricism. Weve moved on to decadence. 

That’s true. The fact that I started with Huysmans must have something to do with this. Huysmans couldn’t go back to romanticism, but for him it was still possible to convert to Catholicism. The clearest point of connection with my other books is the idea that religion, of some kind, is necessary. That idea is there in many of my books. In this one, too, only now it’s an existing religion.

Whereas earlier one might have invented a religion, along Comtean lines.

Auguste Comte tried in vain to create a religion and, indeed, I have sometimes created religions in my books. The difference is that this one really exists.

What is the place of humor in this book? 

There are comic characters here and there. I would guess that it’s about the same as usual, really, with the same number of ridiculous characters.

We havent spoken much about women. Once again you will attract criticism on that front.

Certainly a feminist is not likely to love this book. But I can’t do anything about that.

And yet you were shocked when people described Whatever as misogynistic. This book wont help your case.

I still don’t think I’m a misogynist, really. I would say that this isn’t the crucial thing, in any case. The thing that may rub people the wrong way is that I show how feminism is demographically doomed. So the underlying idea, which may really upset people in the end, is that ideology doesn’t matter much compared to demographics.

This book is not meant as a provocation?

I accelerate history, but no, I can’t say that the book is a provocation—if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.

While you were writing or rereading the book, did you anticipate any reactions to its publication?

I still can’t predict these things, not really.

Some might be surprised that you chose to go in this direction when your last book was greeted as such a triumph that it silenced your critics.

The true answer is that, frankly, I didn’t choose. The book started with a conversion to Catholicism that should have taken place but didn’t.

Isnt there something despairing about this gesture, which you didnt really choose?

The despair comes from saying good-bye to a civilization, however ancient. But in the end the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it—or rather, read it. The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims. Obviously, as with all religious texts, there is room for interpretation, but an honest reading will conclude that a holy war of aggression is not generally sanctioned, prayer alone is valid. So you might say I’ve changed my opinion. That’s why I don’t feel that I’m writing out of fear. I feel, rather, that we can make arrangements. The feminists will not be able to, if we’re being completely honest. But I and lots of other people will.

You could replace the word feminists with women, no?

No, you can’t replace the word feminists with women. Really you can’t. I make it clear that women can be converts, too.

Sylvain Bourmeau is a producer at France Culture and an associate professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.
Translated from French by Lorin Stein.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Nylons for nothing in Cuba

By Charles Krauthammer
January 1, 2015

A U.S. and Cuban flag hang from the same balcony in Old Havana, Cuba, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

There’s an old Cold War joke — pre-pantyhose — that to defeat communism we should empty our B-52 bombers of nuclear weapons and instead drop nylons over the Soviet Union. Flood the Russians with the soft consumer culture of capitalism, seduce them with Western contact and commerce, love-bomb them into freedom.
We did win the Cold War, but differently. We contained, constrained, squeezed and eventually exhausted the Soviets into giving up. The dissidents inside subsequently told us how much they were sustained by our support for them and our implacable pressure on their oppressors.
The logic behind President Obama’s Cuba normalization, assuming there is one, is the nylon strategy. We tried 50 years of containment and that didn’t bring democracy. So let’s try inundating them with American goods, visitors, culture, contact, commerce.
It’s not a crazy argument. But it does have its weaknesses. Normalization has not advanced democracy in China or Vietnam. Indeed, it hasn’t done so in Cuba. Except for the United States, Cuba has had normal relations with the rest of the world for decades. Tourists, trade, investment from Canada, France, Britain, Spain, everywhere. An avalanche of nylons — and not an inch of movement in Cuba toward freedom.
In fact, one could argue that this influx of Western money has helped preserve the dictatorship, as just about all the financial transactions go through the government, which takes for itself before any trickle-down crumbs are allowed to reach the ­regime-indentured masses.
My view is that police-state control of every aspect of Cuban life is so thoroughly perfected that outside influences, whether confrontational or cooperative, only minimally affect the country’s domestic trajectory.
So why not just lift the embargo? After all, the unassailable strategic rationale for isolating Cuba — in the Soviets’ mortal global struggle with us, Cuba enlisted as a highly committed enemy beachhead 90 miles from American shores — evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet empire. A small island with no significant independent military capacities, Cuba became geopolitically irrelevant.
That’s been partially reversed in the past few years as Vladimir Putin has repositioned Russia as America’s leading geopolitical adversary and the Castros signed up for that coalition too. Cuba has reportedly agreed to reopen the Soviet-era Lourdes espionage facility, a massive listening post for intercepting communications. Havana and Moscow have also discussed the use of Cuban airfields for Russia’s nuclear-capable long-range bombers.
This in addition to Cuba’s usual hemispheric mischief, such as training and equipping the security and repression apparatus in Venezuela.
No mortal threat, I grant you. And not enough to justify forever cutting off Cuba. But it does raise the question: With the U.S. embargo already in place and the Castros hungry to have it lifted, why give them trade, investment, hard currency, prestige and worldwide legitimacy — for nothing in return?
Obama brought back nothing on democratization, a staggering betrayal of Cuba’s human rights crusaders. No free speech. No free assembly. No independent political parties. No hint of free elections. Not even the kind of1975 Helsinki Final Act that we got from the Soviets as part of detente, granting structure and review to human rights promises. These provided us with significant leverage in supporting the dissident movements in Eastern Europe that eventually brought down communist rule.
If Obama insisted on giving away the store, why not at least do it item by item? We relax part of the embargo in return for, say, Internet access. And tie further normalization to serial relaxations of police-state repression.
Oh, what hypocrisy, say the Obama acolytes. Did we not normalize relations with China and get no human rights quid pro quo?
True. But that was never a prospect. The entire purpose was geopolitical and the payoff was monumental: We walked away with the most significant anti-Soviet strategic realignment of the entire Cold War, formally breaking up the communist bloc and gaining China’s neutrality, and occasional support, in our half-century struggle to dismantle the Soviet empire.
From Cuba, Obama didn’t even get a token gesture. Not even a fig leaf such as, say, withdrawal of secret police support in Venezuela. Or extradition of American criminals now fugitive in Cuba, including a notorious cop killer. Did we even ask?
Obama seems to believe that the one-way deal was win-win. A famous victory — the Cuba issue is now behind us. A breakthrough.
Indeed it is. You know how to achieve a breakthrough in tough negotiations? Give everything away. Try it. You’ll have a deal by noon. Every time.

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