Category: Politics

Turkey’s Writers Face Yet More Trials

Aysegul Sert writing for the New Yorker
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Aysegul Sert writing about the current state of author prosecution in Turkey for the New Yorker:

On a sweltering afternoon in Istanbul last summer, loud noises woke the Turkish novelist Aslı Erdoğan from a nap. “Open, police! Open, or we will break the door,” a voice called. When Erdoğan, an award-winning writer, unlocked her door, the cold muzzle of an automatic rifle was placed against her chest. Soldiers in black masks and bulletproof vests barged in, shouting “Clean!” as they moved through each room. Erdogan, who is fifty years old, was alone in her apartment. The men, Turkish special forces soldiers, left after the arrival of dozens of members of the Turkish counterterrorism forces. As Erdoğan watched, men scoured every corner of her apartment. Erdoğan, who is not related to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was informed that she was going to be charged with supporting terrorism. The basis for the criminal case, she was told, was her five years of writing articles and serving on the advisory board of a daily newspaper, Özgür Gündem, which the Turkish government said was linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and which was shut down in 2016 but later reëmerged under a different name. After spending seven hours searching through the thirty-five hundred books in Erdoğan’s home library, the officers took six books on Kurdish history with them as evidence.

“Later, the judge asked me about those books,” Erdoğan recalled in an interview earlier this month, in Istanbul. “Is it a crime to read about Kurds in this country? Aren’t they a part of this nation? Not to read about them should be a crime,” she said, as she calmly smoked a cigarette.

When Erdoğan was arraigned before a judge and told the charges she faced, she fainted. She was charged under Article 302 of the Turkish penal code: disrupting the unity and integrity of the state. She was held in solitary confinement for the next five days—the first two of which she was deprived of water—and then jailed with other female prisoners. On Erdoğan’s hundred and thirty-third day in prison, she was given her first opportunity to defend herself in court. Looking thin and tired, she delivered a statement to the judge hearing her case: “I will read my testimony as if there is still rule of law in this country,” she declared. The courtroom microphone was off, though, and the journalists present could barely hear her. Later that night, Erdoğan was released from the Bakırköy state prison, in Istanbul, to a cheering crowd of family and friends. She is out of prison but barred from travelling outside the country, and her trial resumed last week. It was her fourth court appearance since December. She faces a life sentence if convicted.

In a separate trial that began last week, seventeen journalists stand accused of serving as the media arm of the failed July, 2016, coup. They include Ahmet Altan, age sixty-seven, a prominent novelist and journalist; and his younger brother, Mehmet Altan, sixty-four, a distinguished academic and the author of forty books. Prosecutors initially accused the Altans of sending “subliminal messages” to the plotters of the failed coup. “It was the first time in my career that I heard this term,” their lawyer, Veysel Ok, told me, smiling. “It was probably so for the prosecutor who wrote the indictment as well.”

All told, the brothers have spent nearly three hundred days in jail awaiting trial. Based on the charges currently filed against them, the brothers each face three life sentences if convicted. They stand accused of “attempting to overthrow the Turkish Grand National Assembly,” “attempting to overthrow the Government of Turkey,” “attempting to abolish the constitutional order,” and “committing crimes on behalf of an armed terrorist organization without being a member.” Prosecutors are using phone records, and articles the Altans wrote about various topics, among other things, as evidence against them. The oldest article dates back to 2012, four years before last summer’s failed coup. After five consecutive days of hearings, the judge ruled last Friday to continue the pretrial detention of all defendants. The trial is adjourned until September 19th.

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Interview: Hisham Matar

New Statesman interviews Hisham Matar
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 The novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist on travelling in time, living without TV and admiring Angela Merkel.

What’s your earliest memory?

Straight lines going up to the sky. I must have been in a pram in Manhattan. My mother was probably on her way to buy the latest Boney M record.

Who is your hero?

It is no longer that possible to have heroes. But before this tragic affliction took hold, and in chronological order, there were my paternal grandfather, Hamed Matar, who fought in the Libyan resistance under Omar al-Mukhtar and bravely took part in several battles against the Italian invaders; the mysterious Native American we called el-Hindi, who used to dive from great heights into the sea near our house in Tripoli; the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy; Malcolm X; the Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter; and Greta Garbo.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Great writing fills me with hopeful enthusiasm and never envy. The last book to do this was The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

I have admired many. Dag Hammarskjöld, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Merkel and the various men and women currently leading the peace process in Colombia are some.

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The Art and Activism of Grace Paley

Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker
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Alexandra Schwartz explores the relationship between Grace Paley’s politics and her fiction.

She spent her life as a protester. How did she find time to reinvent the American short story?

There’s a case to be made that Grace Paley was first and foremost an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist who managed, in her spare time, to become one of the truly original voices of American fiction in the later twentieth century. Just glance at the “chronology” section of “A Grace Paley Reader” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a welcome new collection of her short stories, nonfiction, and poems, edited by Kevin Bowen and Paley’s daughter, Nora. 1961: Leads her Greenwich Village PTA in protests against atomic testing, founds the Women Strike for Peace, pickets the draft board, receives a Guggenheim Fellowship. 1966: Jailed for civil disobedience on Armed Forces Day, starts teaching at Sarah Lawrence. 1969: Travels to North Vietnam to bring home U.S. prisoners of war, wins an O. Henry Award.

Such political passion may seem in keeping with those times, but Paley didn’t slow down once the flush of the sixties faded. In the mid-seventies, she attended the World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she infuriated Soviet dissidents by demanding that they stand up for the Asian and Latin-American oppressed, too. In the eighties, she travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with mothers of the disappeared, got arrested at a sit-in at a New Hampshire nuclear power plant, and co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And that’s not the half of it. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” The F.B.I. declared her a Communist, dangerous and emotionally unstable. Her file was kept open for thirty years.

Paley was an archetypal Village figure, the five-foot-tall lady with the wild white hair, cracking gum like a teen-ager while handing out leaflets against apartheid from her perch on lower Sixth Avenue. She also lived in Vermont, where her second husband, Bob Nichols, had a farmhouse. In May, 2007, they drove to Burlington to protest their congressman’s support for the Iraq surge. Paley was eighty-four, undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Three months later, she was dead. “My dissent is cheer / a thankless disposition,” she wrote in her poetry collection “Fidelity,” published the following year. That incorrigible cheerfulness carried her to the very end. No one was more grimly adamant that the world was in mortal peril, or had more fun trying to save it from itself.

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Out of the Iron Closet

Masha Udensiva-Brenner for Guernica
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In search of acceptance, a gay Russian man seeks asylum in the United States:

March, 2015

Sitting in his seat, the plane scheduled to leave JFK for Moscow, Lev noticed how nonchalantly the passengers browsed their computers and iPads, their papers, and magazines. The doors had just closed, the flight attendants were giving their safety speeches, and Lev felt himself falling into a wild panic. It was March 2015, and he had been in the US seeking asylum for nearly two years when he felt he couldn’t take it anymore—his lover, the only person he had become close to during his time in New York, had just left the US for good; he desperately missed his friends and family; and his asylum proceedings were plodding along with no end in sight. He decided to go home, where at least he could see his mother, but now, with the plane doors closed, he couldn’t breathe.

He grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, and told her he had to get off.

She didn’t understand, so he jumped out of his seat and ran to the front of the plane, where he approached the pilot as he entered the cabin.

“I am not going to fly,” he said.

The pilot looked around. “It’s not going to be easy to get you off.”

Scared of causing a commotion, Lev told him to forget it and rushed back to his seat.

Minutes later, both pilots found him.

“Will you fly or not?” the head pilot asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you have to decide.”

* * *

May, 2013

Though Lev spent his first nights in New York City sleeping on a bus-stop bench near city hall and brushing his teeth at Starbucks, he maintains the experience wasn’t traumatizing. As soon as his flight from Moscow landed at Kennedy Airport in May 2013, he felt so free that nothing could have brought him down—not the fact that he spoke almost no English, nor that his living arrangements had dissolved, nor that he didn’t know a single person in the entire city. When he emerged from the A train on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, he was in awe.

For three days Lev wandered the streets, gazing at the throngs of people and savoring his newfound happiness—even the sky seemed iridescent. On the fourth day, unable to bear the possibility of never seeing his mother again, he went back to the airport and, with his meager savings, bought a ticket home for the following evening. But when it came time to leave, he lost his nerve and stayed.

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Inshallah

Laura Kasinof writing for Harpers magazine
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Laura Kasinof travels to Djibouti to investigate the Yemeni refugee crisis in the gulf of Aden, for Harpers magazine:

We traipsed across a muddy, trash-strewn creek bed in Djibouti City. Om Sakhr had insisted we chat someplace pleasant, and this was the way to the garden. She was dressed in a wispy black abaya and hijab, her lips painted a tart red. Her strappy heels weren’t exactly suited for the walk. But after several minutes, we reached a wicker table beneath long palms, tucked away in one of the city’s residential districts, a welcome respite from the afternoon sun.

A few weeks earlier, in April, 53-year-old Om Sakhr, along with her youngest son, Sakhr, arrived in Djibouti by boat after fleeing their home in Yemen’s southern port city Aden, now the center of the country’s civil war. (Om Sakhr translates to “mother of Sakhr”; she asked me not to use her real name.) In Aden, she had been a women’s rights activist. I asked her what she does with her days in Djibouti City. “Here, I don’t have any work except flipping through CNN, Al Arabiya, BBC, and Al Jazeera,” she told me, so she could keep up with the war in Yemen, where her husband still lives. “It’s not good for your psyche, but what else will I do?”

Om Sakhr suffers a common feature of refugee life: she waits. She waits for peace so she can return to her home, or for options—a job opportunity or a visa—so she can move on and try to establish a new life. Right now, none of these are available. Some Yemenis I met in Djibouti said they didn’t like being labeled refugees because they associate the term with the thousands of Somalis who used to pour into their country, fleeing violence and famine—but now they are desperate too.

Yemen’s long-simmering conflict reached a tipping point in February, after a rebel group of Iranian-supported Houthis attacked cities throughout the country and forced out Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In March, a Saudi Arabia–led coalition responded to the uprising by carrying out a series of airstrikes on Houthi targets. Later in the month, the coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen’s ports, cutting the country off from crucial imports such as medical supplies and fuel. The Houthis, with support from fighters aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been engaged in bloody street battles in Aden for nearly two months.1Neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.

When Om Sakhr’s boat took off from Aden’s shores, she watched her beloved home, a beautiful coral-white city, disappear in the distance. “I never thought I’d leave Aden like that,” she said. “I was born in Aden and spent all my life in Aden, so taking me out of Aden is like breaking me down. It is not something I want to think about again.”

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4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump

Dale Beran writing for Medium
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Dale Beran investigates the pivotal role 4chan played in the rise of Trump, Anonymous, and the new radical right, for Medium.

1. Born from Something Awful

Around 2005 or so a strange link started showing up in my old webcomic’s referral logs. This new site I didn’t understand. It was a bulletin board, but its system of navigation was opaque. Counter intuitively, you had to hit “reply” to read a thread. Moreover, the content was bizarre nonsense.

The site, if you hadn’t guessed, was 4chan.org. It was an offshoot of a different message board which I also knew from my referral logs, “Something Awful”, at the time, an online community of a few hundred nerds who liked comics, video games, and well, nerds things. But unlike boards with similar content, Something Awful skewed toward dark jokes. I had an account at Something Awful, which I used sometimes to post in threads about my comic.

4chan had been created by a 15 year old Something Awful user named Christopher Poole (whose 4chan mod name was “m00t”). Poole had adapted a type of Japanese bulletin board software which was difficult to understand at first, but once learned, was far more fun to post in than the traditional American format used by S.A., as a result the site became popular very quickly.

These days, 4chan appears in the news almost weekly. This past week, therewere riots at Berkeley in the wake of the scheduled lecture by their most prominent supporter, Milo Yiannopoulos. The week before that neo-Nazi Richard Spencer pointed to his 4chan inspired Pepe the Frog pin, about to explain the significance when an anti-fascist protester punched him in the face. The week before that, 4chan claimed (falsely) it had fabricated the so called Trump “Kompromat”. And the week before that, in the wake of the fire at Ghost Ship, 4chan decided to make war on “liberal safe spaces” and DIY venues across the country.

How did we get here? What is 4chan exactly? And how did a website about anime become the avant garde of the far right? Mixed up with fascist movements, international intrigue, and Trump iconography? How do we interpret it all?

At the very beginning, 4chan met once a year in only one place in the world: Baltimore, Maryland at the anime convention, Otakon. As a nerdy teen growing up in Baltimore in the 90s, I had wandered into Otakon much like I had later wandered into 4chan, just when it was starting. I also attended Otakon in the mid-aughts when 4chan met there, likewise to promote my webcomic.

As someone who has witnessed 4chan grow from a group of adolescent boys who could fit into a single room at my local anime convention to a worldwide coalition of right wing extremists (which is still somehow also a message board about anime), I feel I have some obligation to explain.

This essay is an attempt to untangle the threads of 4chan and the far right.

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Tower of Babble

Joe Kloc sums it all up in Harper’s Magazine
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Over on the Harpers Magazine blog, Browsings, Joe Kloc frankly sums it all up:

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Trump announced that he would win the Latino vote, and tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl from Trump Grill in Trump Tower with the message “I love Hispanics!” Trump referred to a black man at one of his rallies as “my African American,” and pledged his support for black people at a gathering of mostly white people in Wisconsin, whom he often referred to as “the forgotten people.” “I am the least racist person,” said Trump, who was sued twice by the Justice Department in the 1970s for allegedly refusing to rent apartments to black tenants, whose Trump Plaza Hotel was fined $200,000 by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1992 for removing black dealers from card tables, who allegedly told a former employee that he hated “black guys counting my money,” who in 2005 floated the idea of pitting an all-black Apprentice team against an all-white one to reflect “our very vicious world,” and who was endorsed by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, one of whom said, “What he believes, we believe.” Trump tweeted statistics credited to a fictional government agency falsely claiming that the majority of white murder victims in the United States are killed by black people. Trump tweeted a photoshopped picture of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who Trump had said “had blood coming out of her wherever,” standing next to a Saudi prince, who tweeted back that he had “financially rescued” Trump twice, including once in 1990, when the prince purchased Trump’s 281-foot yacht, which was formerly owned by a Saudi arms dealer with whom Trump often partied in Atlantic City, and with whom Trump was implicated in a tax-evasion scheme involving a Fifth Avenue jewelry store. Trump disputed former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s claim that Trump magazine is defunct, showing as proof an annual circular for his clubs that was not Trump magazine, which folded in 2009. Trump republished his book Crippled America with the title Great Again. Trump told and retold an apocryphal story about a U.S. general who executed Muslim soldiers with bullets dipped in pig’s blood and proposed that Muslims be banned from entering the country. At the first primary debate, Trump praised his companies’ bankruptcies, including that of Trump Entertainment Resorts, in which lenders lost more than $1 billion and 1,100 employees lost their jobs, and that of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, a publicly traded company that Trump used to purchase two casinos for almost $1 billion, and from which he resigned after the company went bankrupt for the first time, but before it went bankrupt for the second time. “I made a lot of money,” said Trump. At the fifth primary debate, Trump defended the idea of retaliating against America’s foreign aggressors by killing non-combatant members of their families, saying it would “make people think.” At the eleventh primary debate, Trump told the crowd there was “no problem” with the size of his penis. Trump said that he knew more about the Islamic State than “the generals,” and that he would “rely on the generals” to defeat the Islamic State. Trump said he would bring back waterboarding and torture because “we have to beat the savages.”

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Why we’re post-fact

Peter Pomerantsev writing for Granta.
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In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, we look back to Granta magazine’s revision of why we’re a post-truth society. Words by Peter Pomerantsev:

As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.

How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.

Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’.

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Sudeer Hazareesingh on the decline of French thought

In the Guardian
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Cultural historian Sudeer Hazareesingh’s new book was excerpted in the Guardian recently. It’s a tired old subject, the decline of French thought, but he’s at least given it more thought than Time magazine did. The section on ‘the pessimistic turn’ takes us right up to Piketty, Zemmour and Houellebecq’s Soumission:

Since the late 20th century French thought has lost many of the qualities that made for its universal appeal: its abundant sense of imagination, its buoyant sense of purpose, and above all its capacity (even when engaging in the most byzantine of philosophical issues) to give everyone tuning in, from Buenos Aires to Beirut, the sense that they were participating in a conversation of transcendental significance. In contrast, contemporary French thinking has become increasingly inward-looking – a crisis that manifests itself in the sense of disillusionment among the nation’s intellectual elites, and in the rise of the xenophobic Front National, which has become one of the most dynamic political forces in contemporary France. Nora, writing in 2010, concluded despondently that France had become the land of “shrinking horizons, the atomisation of the life of the mind, and national provincialism”. Time magazine proved him right in 2015 when it included Marine Le Pen in its list of the world’s 100 most influential figures (the only other French person on the list was the economist Thomas Piketty, the author of the best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

How is this transformation to be explained? Among the most important factors is a collective recognition that France is no longer a major power. The complicated condition of the European project, which was decisively shaped in the past by a string of French figures (from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors), bears witness to this decline. This change in the nation’s collective psychology also stems from a delayed recognition of the devastating character of France’s military defeat in 1940, and the impact of two further catastrophes that were not fully internalised: the loss of Indochina and the withdrawal from Algeria. For most of the post-liberation decades, these events were cushioned by the reassuring fiction that the French had behaved heroically during the war, and that France still represented an alternative force in world politics, thanks to its seat at the UN security council, its messianic Gaullist leadership and its distinct political and cultural values (as De Gaulle once observed: “I prefer uplifting lies to demeaning truths”). This myth was largely intended as a replacement of the (equally fabulous) ideal of the French mission civilisatrice in the colonies. Yet this collective confidence has been seriously damaged by the unravelling of the myth of the resistance and the emergence of a “Vichy syndrome”, which in the last two decades of the 20th century detailed the extent of French collaboration during the years of occupation.

This pessimistic sensibility has been exacerbated by a widespread belief that French culture is itself in crisis. The representation of France as an exhausted and alienated country, corrupted by the egalitarian heritage of May 68, overrun by Muslim immigrants and incapable of standing up for its own core values is a common theme in French conservative writings. Among the bestselling works in this genre are Alain Finkielkraut’s L’identité malheureuse (2013) and Éric Zemmour’s Suicide Français (2014). This morbid sensibility (which has no real equivalent in Britain, despite its recent economic troubles) is also widespread in contemporary French literature, as best exemplified in Michel Houellebecq’s recent oeuvre: La carte et le territoire (2010) presents France as a haven for global tourism, “with nothing to sell except charming hotels, perfumes, and potted meat”; his latest novel Soumission (2015) is a dystopian parable about the election of an Islamist president in France, set against a backdrop of a general collapse of Enlightenment values. A major underlying consideration here is the perception of the decline of French as a global language, and its (much-resented) replacement by English. A variety of groups and associations have long been campaigning vigorously against the importation of English words into French. The linguist Claude Hagège referred to the invasion of the English language as a “war”, claiming that its promotion “served the interests of neoliberalism”. Since 2011, the website of the Académie Française has a section dedicated to weeding out anglicisms from the French language. Among the expressions recently singled out for censure were conf calloff record, donner son go (authorise), chambre single,news and faire du running (notwithstanding this crusade, the word “selfie” is set to be included in the 2016 edition of the Larousse dictionary).

A more profound cause of the current malaise relates to the ways in which French elites are recruited and trained. For much of the modern era, the nation’s republican and socialist leaders were grounded in a meritocratic and humanist culture typically provided by institutions such as the École Normale Supérieure: among its most famous graduates were the likes of Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. However, since the 1960s French elites have increasingly come from technocraticgrandes écoles such as the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Most of the recent leaders of the Socialist party, including prime ministers Fabius, Rocard and Jospin; and president Hollande, are énarques. Their intellectual outlook reflects the strengths of this type of technocratic education, such as a capacity for hard work and for mastering complex briefs. But it also illustrates its endemic weaknesses: an inability to think creatively, a tendency towards formalism and rule-following, a socially exclusive and complacent metropolitan outlook, a corporatist, bunker mentality (as the joke goes, “Spain has the ETA, Ireland the IRA, and France the ENA”). Above all, it shows an overwhelmingly masculine style and ethos. Women in France struggle even more than in other advanced industrial societies to assume leading positions in politics (the law on parité, for example, is openly flouted by all parties) – and when they do break through the glass ceiling, female politicians face an exceptional barrage of hostility: Édith Cresson is the only woman to have served as prime minister, and she lasted less than a year.

This ascendency of technocratic values among French progressive elites is itself reflective of a wider intellectual crisis on the left. The singular idea of the world (a mixture of Cartesian rationalism, republicanism and Marxism) that dominated the mindset of the nation’s progressive elites for much of the modern era has disintegrated. The problem has been compounded by the self-defeating success of French postmodernism: at a time when European progressives have come up with innovative frameworks for confronting the challenges to democratic power and civil liberties in western societies (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of empire, and Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the state of exception), their Gallic counterparts have been indulging in abstract word games, in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard. French progressive thinkers no longer produce the kind of sweeping grand theories that typified the constructs of the Left Bank in its heyday. They advocate an antiquated form of Marxism (Alain Badiou), a nostalgic and reactionary republicanism (Régis Debray), or else offer a permanent spectacle of frivolity and self-delusion (Bernard-Henri Lévy). The sociologist Bruno Latour clearly had this syndrome in mind when he observed: “It has been a long time since intellectuals were in the vanguard. Indeed it has been a long time since the very notion of the avant-garde …passed away.” But we should remember that in France especially, there is always the potential for a sudden reversal: regeneration is one of the essential myths of French culture.

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