Thursday, March 31, 2005

Theater memories

Concentration has never been my strong suit, and a typical day of translation work is peppered with internet searches for something urgent, such as an early 1950s-vintage Citroën Traction (more on that another time). That I am supposed to appear on stage and sing a song Friday in front of 100 or so strangers as part of my voice workshop is not helping me to concentrate (more on that in a few days if I survive). But it is making my daydreaming performance-oriented.

My last – and only – period of intense theater activity took place in high school, between the ages of 15 and 17. As this was Long Island, NY in the 1970s, the repertoire was the American musical comedies of the 1940s and 1950s (you have to please the parents): South Pacific, Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, Bye Bye Birdie and others. The memory that pops into my head was from a summer production of Applause, the then-recent Broadway adaptation of the 1950 film All About Eve.

I rarely had a major role in these shows because they all required solo singing. Maybe that’s why I’m doing a voice workshop now, though it’s a wee bit late. So I was usually in the chorus, which required singing, but no solos. My friend L., however, landed a minor role in Applause. It was minor compared to the major roles, but it was major compared to the chorus. This status got L. access to the “stars” dressing room. He liked that. To stoke my jealousy, he described the scene. Among other things, the stars often had to make elaborate costume changes at lightning speed, and there wasn't enough space for privacy. He liked that, too. Would I like to see for myself, he magnanimously offered.

A few days later, during one of the dress rehearsals, L. and I wandered into the “stars” dressing room, deep in conversation (on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if I remember correctly), as nonchalantly as we could manage. Sure enough, there was F., who played the leading role of Margo Channing, her top half bereft of all clothing, her face attended by a make-up artist, her look generally fretful. Satisfied, L. suggested we continue our conversation (by now we had moved on to Much Ado about Nothing) elsewhere, as it was noisy in the “stars” dressing room.

During one of the performances a few days later, I took advantage of a few scenes in which I didn’t have any entrances to watch the play from the wings. After a few minutes, N., playing Eve Harrington, the other leading female role, appeared, looked around anxiously and asked me, could I hold this dress for her please. She then made her entrance in the next scene. A few minutes later F. appeared.

“What are you doing here?” It was all she could do to keep her voice a whisper.
“I’m watching the show.”
“What are you doing with that dress?”
“N. asked me to hold it for her.”
“Give me that. You just want to see N’s tits.”

Over the years, whenever this scene has wafted forward in time from its never-too-distant hiding place at the mouth of some cerebral cave, it has always been accompanied by the responses I could have offered, but didn’t.

Defensive: “But I was just standing here …”
Apologetic: “I really was rather boorish the other day, wasn't I?”
Wise guy: “Oh, is that why she asked me to hold it?”
Vicious: “Not to worry. If they’re anything like yours, I won’t be sticking around.”

Alas, never was a young face whiter, a young jaw slacker, young eyes wider and a young mind blanker than mine were that evening. I handed her the dress and fled.

On Friday I’ll be singing Un Homme Heureux (William Sheller) as part of a duet. Wish us luck!

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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Very little of what you always wanted to know about the EU Constitution

Two recent polls in France have indicated that if the referendum on the EU Constitution were held today, the French would vote against it. This has sent the entire French political class into a panic, because no one is quite sure what would happen if French voters actually vote against the Constitution.

In a discussion yesterday morning on Radio Classique, someone (sorry, can’t remember who it was) pointed out that the Constitution has a very French flavor to it. A Frenchman presided over the drafting of it, and many ideas dear to France were included. So in Brussels, there’s just plain confusion about France at the moment, he said. Another participant in the discussion said that Europe hadn’t quite decided yet whether it wants a "United States of Europe", with a strong federal government and tight political, monetary and fiscal integration, i.e. an extension of the euro zone, or a big free trade area, where goods and services can circulate with a minimum of restrictions, but no real political union.

If the Bolkestein directive is any indication, French people do not want a big free-trade area. They have a mistrust of Brussels generally, of free-market ideology, which here is called “libéralisme”. The Bolkestein directive, a Brussels initiative, would have allowed services approved in one EU country to be sold in every other EU country. Personally, I thought this was already the case (e.g. insurance), but OK, I hadn’t been paying attention. The French cried “dumping social !” and president Chirac demanded that the text be rescinded, modified, delayed or all of the above, which he obtained.

From my scattered discussions with people here, many seem to think Europe is moving ahead too quickly. Ten, twelve, fifteen, now twenty-five countries, soon who knows how many more. Will the EU be a victim of its success? Will it collapse under the weight of its own bureaucracy? The prospect of Turkey entering only exacerbates this feeling of uncertainty.

People are also unhappy with the government’s economic policies – unemployment is creeping up, so is the workweek, a cause célèbre here – and alarmed that the economics minister needed a 600m² (6,000 ft²) apartment in central Paris for himself, his wife and his eight children and that he “didn’t know” the price of said apartment (he was forced to resign).

Now, just when the government is supposed to launch its “oui” campaign, it is beset with infighting. Both the mainstream left and the mainstream right support the constitution, but the right has managed to disagree with itself. Some see the prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin as the problem. As outside France, the name Jean-Pierre Raffarin probably evokes more “Who?” than any other reaction, just think Gérard Depardieu minus stage presence. Never viewed as charismatic, even in France, Mr. Raffarin now has his own party members telling him that his government’s image problems make him a liability in the campaign. They’re very concerned that the upcoming referendum on the EU constitution will turn into a vote of confidence on the government’s domestic policies. Consequently they’re talking about it so much that they risk turning the upcoming referendum on the EU constitution into a vote of confidence on the government’s domestic policies.

Of course, all of this has nothing to do with the EU Constitution. So I decided to have a look at what the Constitution itself actually says. Mind you, it’s long, and I also have a day job. More specifically, it’s 475 pages long, or 157,327 words – good translation work if you can get it – compared with the US constitution, which runs 8,189 words, including amendments. I chose a section more or less at random: “Protocol on special arrangements for Greenland”. Here is the essential part of the text of that “protocol”:

The treatment on import into the Union of products subject to the common organisation of the market in fishery products and originating in Greenland shall, while complying with the mechanisms of the common market organisation, involve exemption from customs duties and charges having equivalent effect and the absence of quantitative restrictions or measures having equivalent effect if the possibilities for access to Greenland fishing zones granted to the Union pursuant to an agreement between the Union and the authority responsible for Greenland are satisfactory to the Union.

Clear? I’m still savoring this section. For languages fans like me, I also found the following passage, and I’m sure there are many more like it. This is the 50th of the 50 “Declarations” annexed to the treaty after the “Protocols” (including the one quoted above) and Annexes I and II:

Declaration by the Republic of Latvia and the Republic of Hungary on the spelling of the name of the single currency in the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe: Without prejudice to the unified spelling of the name of the single currency of the European Union referred to in the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe as displayed on the banknotes and on the coins, Latvia and Hungary declare that the spelling of the name of the single currency, including its derivatives as applied throughout the Latvian and Hungarian text of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, has no effect on the existing rules of the Latvian and the Hungarian languages.

I wonder how the Greenland protocol reads in Latvian. Now I sooooo want to read the whole thing, but I’ll have to get back to you on it.


Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Anheuser Busch ad

A friend in the US has just sent me the Anheuser Busch commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. For those who haven’t seen it, it shows an airport terminal scene, then American troops returning home, presumably from Iraq. As they file through the hall, people start clapping, first one person, then two, then five, then a standing ovation from everyone in the hall. It ends with the words “Thank you” printed on the screen.

I had a strange mixture of feelings after watching this ad. It all seemed very distant to me. (Needless to say there are no “Support our troops” bumper stickers here in France.) The scene was like a curtain call. The audience stood and applauded as if in the theater. Granted, the people in this romanticized short film had no other way of expressing their appreciation, short of running up and hugging the soldiers. But I asked myself: appreciation for what? For protecting our homes and our families? For protecting our way of life? Or was it plain admiration for their courage that prompted the ovation?

I feel admiration for US servicemen and women, too, but it’s empty admiration, because I can’t help feeling that it was all so needless. Like a student who spends hours on a difficult homework assignment, finally conquering it and getting the right answer only to find out the next day that he did the wrong assignment, these young Americans had been sent into battle on false pretenses. I would much rather they had stayed home. I felt sorry for them as I watched them file through the hall. Had I been there, I probably would have clapped, too, but for other reasons, namely for their bravery in obediently towing a line that didn’t need to be towed and generally making the best of a bad situation. There’s something Quixotic about the whole thing.

For me, the ad conjured up the image of an army fighting a war it never wanted to fight, but has to, because the war was foisted upon it as the result of an attack on our country or on our allies. Of course, there was an attack on our country, but it was unconnected with the war. That the soldiers might believe the two were connected was another reason I felt bad for them. Had the commercial aired during the 2002 Super Bowl, with the soldiers returning from Afghanistan, I would have felt a lot differently.

At the same time, right next to these feelings deep inside me was another one. I felt ashamed. I’m not sure if I was ashamed of my feelings or of the government of my country, or both.


Wednesday, March 16, 2005

On Strike

When you live in a country you didn’t grow up in, there are certain things you never really understand. At first you ask people around you, but the language barrier makes it difficult to formulate your question in a way that goes to the core of your misunderstanding. Even if it does, you often don’t understand the answer. If there are several people present, you might think you’ll have the benefit of comparing and contrasting several points of view, but instead, your question will spark a full-blown political discussion amongst the natives, while you hang on for dear life. These problems go away with time, but in the meantime, you’ve grown accustomed to the idea of not understanding, of not fathoming the unfathomable, until something rises to the surface again.

So it is with strikes in France. The first question the foreigner wants to ask is “Why are they striking?” Indeed the most striking thing about the strikes is that no one really seems to know why people are striking. Or rather, everyone does (see above: full-blown political discussion).

Last Thursday was a day of strikes throughout the country. Teachers and high school students, who have been active protesters over the past few weeks (more on them later) were joined by civil service workers, and even employees of private companies. This was not unprecedented, it’s just the first time it’s happened on my blog watch.

At the international school our kids attend, some classes were cancelled and others were not. So my wife had to go pick one of our boys up at midday. On their way back they were stuck behind a massive demonstration and had to abandon the car several blocks from home and continue on foot. Fifteen minutes later, as they neared home, demonstrators were still filing down the avenue where they left the car. This is unusual in Lyon. Even so, many people take it all in stride, because they sympathize with the strikers.

Last Thursday’s massive demonstrations were held to protest “the government’s social welfare policy”. This refers to general dissatisfaction with salaries, unemployment, purchasing power, etc. But what does an employee in a private company hope to accomplish by striking, the American observer might be tempted to ask.

Looking a little bit further, you realize that minimum wage laws are set by the government. So are rules governing corporate profit-sharing plans, or company obligations regarding lay-offs or redundancy plans. Furthermore, there’s always some election coming up in the not-too-distant future (municipal, regional, parliamentary, presidential, European parliament, referendum on the European constitution, etc.), so when a demonstration gets a lot of support, the government starts worrying. The government has already said it wants to explore these topics with the MEDEF, the employers’ representative body, but according to the MEDEF’s president, it’s having nothing of it. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is also proposing a little increase in civil service salaries. The government’s particularly afraid now that any dissatisfaction with its policies will translate into a “no” vote on the European constitution next month.

But wait. High school students on strike? This is legal? Are these spur-of-the-moment demonstrations organized by SMS? Rest assured, I don’t quite get it either, but from what I’ve heard, it isn’t as well organized as all that. A teacher-friend of mine said high school student demonstrations are much like toothpaste tubes. You press, but you never know how much is going to come out.

The high school students were protesting the loi Fillon, named after the education minister, which is supposed to reform (or revolutionize, depending on who you talk to) the middle school and high school experience nationwide. It appears a lot of course requirements and options will be changed, and staffing cut, but it’s hard to know just how much, in the end, will really change. My wife says she’s been hearing about reforms since she entered first grade.


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Diane Arbus

There was an article in Saturday’s New York Times about a Diane Arbus exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum. As I read about her life and her work, I realized how closely tied they were to New York and how much they drew me back there. I read the descriptions of some of the photos in the exhibit, and I could see them before me although it’s been 20 years since I last looked at them. I remember the chronological progression in her monograph, entitled simply “Diane Arbus”. The people with something unusual about them, the people who look normal but are hiding something mysterious, then the “freaks”, and finally, the mentally retarded. My photography teachers at Princeton knew her and one said he saw her a few days before she died, that she had her cameras with her and seemed excited about taking pictures again.

When I lived in New York my haunts included photo galleries and book shops, where I gravitated to the photography books like a bee to a flower bed. Sooner or later I always found myself with the Diane Arbus book in hand. I leafed through it so many times I nearly memorized it. I couldn’t afford then to collect books of all my favorite photographers, nor did I have room in my 160ft² (16m²) apartment to keep them. My brother-in-law used to call my apartment “the hovel”.

A friend once took me to a Diane Arbus exhibit in New York while I was still living there. I have never seen anything like it before or since. It was a performance. The space was divided into booths. In each booth were people dressed as the subjects of her photos, with the décor to match. Suddenly everyone snapped into position and there was a flash of light. An image was fixed on my retina. It was the image of a Diane Arbus photo. Then I went into the next booth.

There are parts of my life in New York that have never found an echo here in France. There’s no French counterpart to replace them. France is neither a continuation of them, nor an answer to them, nor the antidote, just different, something other. In some respects it has taken me a long time to open up to France’s otherness, or my experience of it as otherness, to allow a place for it inside me. When I have, usually through another person’s enthusiasm, the experience has been rewarding, first on an intellectual level, then on an emotional attachment level. There are wonderful things here, some that I have already discovered (it’s only been 15 years!), others that are waiting to be discovered.

Now I can afford those photography books and could order them easily from Amazon, but I haven’t got the courage to do it. I’m afraid to re-open a closed chapter of my life, apprehensive about what I might find inside.

But I still miss New York.


Friday, March 11, 2005

Domestic debates

Riverbend has written a very funny piece entitled “Chalabi for the Nobel Peace Prize”. It’s about political debate in Iraq, but I won’t spoil it for you; you have to go there yourself and read it.

On a personal level, her post reminded me of political debate between my father and my uncle when I was growing up. Whenever the family got together for a holiday meal, they went at each other, one provoking the other with some comment intended to gain an advantage. My father, usually on the defensive, would raise his voice – I’d say little by little, but in fact it was all at once – while my uncle calmly, but loudly, reeled off anecdotes and analogies to prove his point, whatever it was. The analogies usually had some compelling logic to them, which infuriated my father, never a particularly logical debater, even more. My uncle camped on his position, convinced of the rightness and righteousness of it. Needless to say, the debates dominated the dinner hour and no other discussion was possible.

I say this took place while I was growing up, but in fact, the debates continued well into my adulthood (and their old age). In the later years the arguments became vicious. Several times, my father and my uncle stopped talking to each other, made amends, then stopped again. The arguments really ended for good only with my father’s death two years ago, but in his last few years, they had hardly spoken to each other. In the family, the rest of us had always said that things would be saddest, not when they argued, but when they stopped arguing.

My mother was always searching for a way to defuse the arguments. She tried to find subjects my father and uncle could agree on, but these were rare. She also tried to make light of the issue from time to time, but her attempts at humor were waved off by the two serious men discussing the momentous issues of our time.

In her own personal relationships, she always found common ground with other people and focused on it. There were very few people in our family she ever broke with completely. Looking back, I think that was part of her legacy to me: keep the lines of communication open.

Now, if you haven’t read Riverbend’s post yet, click here.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Bruno Gollnisch finally booted out of Lyon III

Usually when there is an anti-Semitic event in France – the vandalizing of a synagogue, the defacing of Jewish graves – my inbox fills up. The content ranges from concern about anti-Semitism in France, which many people outside the country think is rampant, to tirades against France as the most anti-Semitic country on Earth, parallels to the Dreyfus Affair and “humor” about French anti-Semitism. In the past few weeks, my inbox has not been so full. But look at what has been happening.

In late January, President Jacques Chirac attended the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and gave a moving speech. A few days earlier he inaugurated the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, now Europe’s largest documentation center for Jewish contemporary history, on a level with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Last month, Israel opened its new embassy in Paris and the Israeli foreign minister, Sylvan Shalom, was received by President Chirac. Shalom expressed satisfaction at recent French domestic and foreign policy positions, specifically, that the French government had taken a pro-Hezbollah radio station off the air (even if it hasn’t agreed to call Hezbollah a terrorist organization), that it favored Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon (this was before Hariri’s assassination) and that it was determined to stop Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Around the same time, Israel’s head of state visited France, only the second time an Israeli president has done so since the State of Israel was founded. Was Chirac just posturing? If so, why was he posturing when he was friendly to Israel but sincere when he visited Yassir Arafat in the hospital? (I got some lovely e-mails after that one.)

The biggest news came this week. Bruno Gollnisch, heir to the throne of the far-right Front National political party – if its superannuated leader Jean-Marie Le Pen ever steps down –, member of the European parliament, Rhône-Alpes regional councilman and professor of law and Japanese civilization at Lyon University (“Lyon III”) has finally been kicked out of that university for his revisionist remarks.

In a press conference last October he said that “no serious historian still believes in the conclusions of the Nuremberg trials” and claimed that historians should be able to debate the “real number of victims” of the Holocaust. Finally, he said that “there should be debate about how the people actually died” (my translations). He didn’t call the existence of the gas chambers into question directly, but … let’s just say this wasn’t the first time Mr. Gollnisch’s tongue got away from him. Nor, as we’ll see in a minute, the last.

Interestingly, in an absolute sense, I agree with him. We should be able to debate these things freely and openly. France’s strict prohibition against the expression of revisionist, anti-Semitic or racist beliefs may, in theory, go too far. In reality, however, it seems to me the vast majority of the those who say these things harbor deep-seated anti-Semitism and allowing them free rein would just be encouragement, not for debate, but for pursuit of their pre-determined agendas.

There was indignation throughout France after Mr. Gollnisch’s October remarks, and particularly here in Lyon (he teaches a few blocks from here). Once the heat got turned up on him, he said that the Minister of Justice, Dominique Perben and the Minister of Education, François Fillon, were persecuting him because they “had promised his head” to the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), the French Jewish umbrella organization. Naturally. Everyone knows that Jews control the country, and French politicians are their lackeys.

Mr. Gollnisch has both supporters and detractors, so the climate at the university was confrontational. To prevent an outbreak of violence, in December the dean of the university denied him access until the school’s disciplinary committee rendered its report. The Conseil d’Etat overturned that decision, and he resumed his lectures, with bodyguards at his side and police standing by, but then Mr. Fillon decided it was best to suspend him pending the decision of his peers.

That decision came on Saturday: a five-year suspension. Until now Mr. Gollnisch’s teaching post and standing as a specialist on Japanese civilization have always lent him respectability. They have also tarnished the reputation of Lyon III. That advantage is now history. When the suspension is over, he’ll be 60 years old, and eligible for retirement. Of course he can always appeal….

To be sure, not every prominent person in France has condemned Mr. Gollnisch. In February, Raymond Barre, former prime minister under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and former mayor of Lyon, said in an interview that he knows Bruno Gollnisch personally, and that “he gets carried away sometimes, but he’s a good man. Comments escape him, but underneath it all, I don’t think he believes them” (my translation again). Raymond Barre was PM when the synagogue in the rue Copernic was bombed in 1980 and uttered an infamous slip of the tongue, lamenting that the attack had struck “Jews and innocent Frenchmen”. Just thinking about that comment now makes me realize how far French politicians have come in the past 25 years.

Also to be sure, there are still plenty of anti-Semitic incidents taking place in France. As there are, sadly, in other European countries, in the United States and elsewhere. (Here are two web sites that catalog them: the CRIF, mentioned above, and the Anti-Defamation League.)

I searched for “Gollnisch” in the online versions of several US publications for news stories about this series of events and here is what I found:

Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland Plain Dealer, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Miami Herald: no stories

New York Times: most recent story – Nov. 2003

Washington Post: “World in Brief” item, dated March 5, 2005, as follows (entire text):

LYON, France -- Lyon University, part of which is named after Jean Moulin, the hero of the French Resistance murdered by the Nazis in 1943, said it would suspend a professor for five years after he questioned whether the Nazis used gas chambers in the Holocaust.

Bruno Gollnisch already faces a legal probe in France for questioning how the gas chambers were used by the Nazis and how many Jews were killed.
Just wanted to let everyone know that mixed in with the bad things, good things are happening too in France, even though the France-bashing media aren’t reporting them.

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

The prisoner's dilemma

Stories about capital punishment in the US always make the news here in France and this week’s was no different. There seemed to be a little more emphasis in the European media I read (The Guardian and Le Monde) on the international pressure aspect than in my US papers of choice (New York Times and Washington Post). The nuance was not lost on Justice Scalia, either, who is apparently concerned that foreigners are telling Americans how to run their judicial system. How I would have liked to say to him, “No, only you, the nine Supreme Court justices, can interpret the US constitution, but to do so, you are allowed, even encouraged, to consult experts from around the world.” Indeed the United States would not have a constitution as strong as it is had its framers not taken ideas from many of the European philosophers of their day. There must be some valid “foreign” ideas, that at least deserve a place in the debate, no?

After more than 45 years on the planet, I’m still not sure where I stand on the issue of capital punishment in general. I used to think I was in favor of it for its value as a deterrent, for the certainty that an executed murderer will not be out on parole someday and back in circulation and for the money it saves not having to keep lifers fed, clothed and housed for the rest of their days. Now, with mounting demands for proper medical care for prisoners, we have the increasing prospect of older inmates on life sentences being allowed to live out their final years in relative comfort. This bothers me. Finally, terrorists never demand the release of dead prisoners, nor do dead terrorists ever direct operations from their prison cells.

On the other side there's the sanctity-of-life argument, but if the number of people who are pro-life/pro-capital punishment or pro-choice/anti-capital punishment is anything to go by, this argument would seem to be honored more in the breach than in the observance. (Aside: I recognize this is unfair; there are plenty of pro-life/anti-capital punishment folks, and pro-life/pro-capital punishment advocates who point out that the fetus hasn't done anything wrong.) Anyway, this isn’t what bothers me most, it’s the finality of capital punishment. How many mistakes do we make, which be definition, we can’t undo? I’m not sure any number is acceptable to me. I don’t know what the latest wisdom is on the deterrent argument, but the cost argument isn’t so clear anymore. So much money is spent appealing death row cases that in the end I’m not sure which solution costs society more, life in prison or capital punishment.

When the French media report about capital punishment, the US is often presented as one of the last bastions of a barbaric practice. They love it even more when the case reveals some contradiction or bizarre consequence of the sentence. That’s why this week’s news reminded me of an article I saw in Le Monde a couple of weeks ago about the case that led to the Supreme Court’s previous 2002 decision outlawing capital punishment for the mentally retarded. The article was entitled, “Le condamné Daryl R. Atkins a-t-il acquis le QI suffisant pour être exécuté ?” (Is the IQ of death row inmate Darrel R. Atkins now high enough for him to be executed?) Here’s my translation of the first paragraph:

Will Daryl Renard Atkins return to Death Row? A Supreme Court decision removed him from it in June 2002. He escaped the state of Virginia’s lethal injection because he showed slight mental retardation. But now, the prosecution claims that the efforts he has made to defend himself over the years have stimulated his intelligence to the point of making him once again eligible for capital punishment.
According to the article, Atkins’ IQ was measured at 59 at the time of his trial in 1998. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled on his case, finding, 6-3, that executing someone with low intelligence would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”. From 1998 onwards, however, Atkins had frequent contact with his lawyers and invested a lot of effort in his defense. A psychologist who studied the case said that he received more intellectual stimulation during that time than in all his adolescent years. When he was retested recently, his IQ was 76, higher than Virginia's threshold of 70, and the state plans to pursue the case. A classic Catch-22? A new twist on the “prisoner’s dilemma”? If the prisoner’s intelligence is below a certain threshold, he cannot be executed, but if he works hard to prove that his intelligence is below the threshold, his intelligence will rise and he’ll be eligible for the death penalty again.

I became aware of this latest development in the Atkins case not by reading the Le Monde article (which I subsequently found was based on a New York Times article), but by hearing a much more succinct version on the radio. My fear is that the average French radio listener came away from the news item with a confirmation of the notion he may already have, namely, “Ils sont fous, ces Américains !” (Those Americans are just crazy!)

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Criminal justice fantasy

I was reading Maureen Dowd’s Bushworld one evening last week after skiing. Wait!! Don’t bail, she not my favorite writer either (Ann Coulter is). She has some clever insights and a good sense of humor, but sometimes she just goes head first off the deep end into fantasyland. There’s an advantage to this, though: she frees my spirit to do the same.

So I started fantasizing about George Bush’s bold policy of pre-emptive war. The Bush administration has declared that in today’s world, we cannot afford to wait for tragedy to strike, we must head it off in advance. Even if the potential perpetrator has no weapons of mass destruction, the mere intent to acquire them is enough to galvanize us into action, and rightly so, because ultimately, deeds follow intent. The Bush doctrine has fundamentally changed the face of international relations, for the better, making the world a safer place.

Now, since it’s working so well on the world stage, I thought, why not bring the idea home and use it domestically. Just imagine the advances that could be made in criminal justice systems worldwide if we could catch criminals before they commit their heinous crimes. The Timothy McVeighs of the world would be in prison (or six feet under) long before they get their eyes on explosives.

We could even use it to prevent crimes that don’t always cause death or injury but simply carry a significant risk of it, such as drunk driving. Imagine the scenario: the police pull up to a bar late at night and jot down some license plate numbers. They go inside, give all patrons breathalyzer tests and interrogate everyone in order to establish who drives and rides in each car. If all the occupants of a given car are drunk, it’s an open-and-shut case. No need to pull them out of messy accidents. The testing can be done right there in the warmth and comfort of their local drinking establishment. (Anyone who thinks my proposal trivializes the deaths of more than 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001 and the national trauma that went with it need only remember that 3,000 people die on America’s highways alone every month and that a high percentage of those deaths involve alcohol. An equal or greater number die on Europe's roads, but I digress.)

Of course, concepts like professional secrecy would have to go. Lawyers, psychiatrists, doctors, bankers and members of the clergy would be required to tell all. But that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it? The opportunities are positively titillating.

There’s only one thing that troubles me: I haven’t figured out how to get the system to work against people who simply think about committing crimes without telling anyone. Lie detectors are notoriously unreliable. For that, I suppose we must settle for our favorite writers. Kurt Vonnegut and another fellow named George come to mind.


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Cross-country karma

Well, the Alps certainly were snow-covered. It snowed virtually every day of our week in Villard de Lans, as it had the week before our arrival, and the snow base was between one and two meters thick. You could ski on the picnic tables we ate lunch at last year. Temperatures ranged between –15°C (5°F) and –4°C (25°F).

Unlike most downhill ski resorts, Villard de Lans has a big cross-country ski area, and our family was split down the middle, voluntarily, into a downhill and a cross-country team. In the evening each team regaled the other with their respective experiences. We also did a half-day each of downhill and cross-country as a whole family.

As downhill resorts go, Villard de Lans is not very pricey. Downhill lift tickets cost €25 a day for adults, compared with €39 at Tignes/Val d’Isère. I looked at some US resorts and saw prices up to $70 a day, even at Killington in Vermont!! So despite exchange rates, come on over while the snow’s fresh!

Signing our kids up for ski lessons was, as it always is in France, hassle-free. Once you’ve reserved spots for them, you find their group, tell the instructor they’re there, give them a kiss and off you go to ski the black diamond trails while they’re in their lesson. No papers to fill out, no releases or insurance forms to sign. Trouble is, we’re not sure we’re happy it’s so hassle-free. Luckily, nothing happened to ours during the week, but we wondered how “something” might have been handled. What if parental approval or information about medical history (allergies, etc.) had been required before transferring a child to a hospital, operating on him, or administering medicines? Any French doctors out there have the answer to this one?

For me, downhill was the usual city-in-the-mountains scene, the annual urban transhumance. After a half-day, I had had enough of the drone of the lifts, the people everywhere, the weight of the skis on my shoulder or in my hands as I slowly progressed up the line to the gondola. Of course, when I say a half-day of downhill skiing, I really mean an hour of skiing, because the rest of the time is spent on a lift or queuing for one.

Or rather, crowding for one. At the approach to a ski lift in France, there is no crowd control, no ropes or barriers to create and maintain an orderly line. So you can’t really enjoy the scenery or have a conversation, because you have to concentrate on how you’re going to nonchalantly stick your pole between the skis of the person next to you, so he will be obliged to wait for you to pass. In the end I was not unhappy I had only planned to do a half-day of downhill skiing. This said, I did enjoy my two slides down the mountain.

As I was not part of the downhill half of the family, I spent the rest of the week in the serenity and quiet beauty of the cross-country ski trails, savoring an early morning “Bonjour” from a skier coming in the other direction, marveling at undisturbed snow piled high on fir branches pyramiding to a peak, reveling in the ability to turn back and have another look at something I’d missed.

It was also hard work. Three hours of cross-country skiing is three full hours of skiing. But it was hard mostly because I was learning a new skill: skating. Many other skate skiers, people in no better overall shape than I, gracefully overtook me on the uphills, while I sputtered like an old jalopy in need of a tune-up.

Which brings me to some popular received wisdom about cross-country skiing, at least here in France, i.e. that it’s either too difficult, tiring or boring. (Mind you, it wouldn’t bother me if most people continued to believe that!) According to my ski instructor, cross-country skiing used to attract people of all ages and physical abilities, but with the growing popularity of snowshoeing, people who weren’t really in it for the physical exertion part have been siphoned off. Little by little, however, skating is attracting a younger, more competitive-sports-oriented crowd. I wonder if the skating phenomenon is more recent here than it is in the US, where I think it has existed for around 20 years already.

At the end of the week, my lesson group did an all-day cross-country outing and skied to a restaurant accessible only on skis or by snowmobile. Log cabin on the outside, on the inside the theme was late 19th century hunter-trapper. Our instructor said he wanted to open a restaurant like it in New York, where he was certain none existed. Here's a picture of it:

"Malaterre" restaurant in the woods near Villard de Lans

I wondered if the New Yorker’s view of “French restaurant” was broad enough to encompass not only the three-star Michelin, the bistrot, the brasserie, the Provençal country kitchen and the crêperie, but also the mountain auberge. If so, the economist in me says there must already be one. Is there?