Archive for January, 2014

Diana Johnstone and the Politics of Memory

January 26, 2014

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The January 24-26 edition of CounterPunch contains an article by Diana Johnstone entitled Blasphemy in Secular France. The article is about the French comedian, Dieudonné, who has been accused of anti-Semitism, and who is a political ally of the far right National Front. Dieudonné has made jokes about the concentration camps and has expressed admiration for the Holocaust denier, Robert Farrison. Discussing the criticisms of Dieudonné, Johnstone writes:

    For his fans and supporters, those accusations are false and absurd. The most significant result of the Dieudonné uproar so far is probably the dawning realization, among more and more people, that the “Shoah”, or Holocaust, functions as the semi-official State Religion of France.

Oh. Really? Really?

Johnstone goes on:

    In addition to history courses, teachers organize commemorations of the Shoah and trips to Auschwitz. Media reminders of the Shoah are almost daily. Unique in French history, the so-called Gayssot law provides that any statement denying or minimizing the Shoah can be prosecuted and even lead to prison.

    Scores of messages received from French citizens in response to my earlier article (CounterPunch, January 1, 2014) as well as private conversations make it clear to me that reminders of the Shoah are widely experienced by people born decades after the defeat of Nazism as invitations to feel guilty or at least uncomfortable for crimes they did not commit. Like many demands for solemnity, the Shoah can be felt as a subject that imposes uneasy silence. Laughter is then felt as liberation.

Under the Vichy government, 76,000 French Jews were sent to concentration camps. Some would see the willingness of the French to discuss a shameful episode of their history as something admirable. Here in the U.S., some people get upset whenever one tries to talk about the genocide of Native Americans or the horrors of slavery. Johnstone, however, believes such discussions can only make people feel guilty and depressed. What’s more, she believes that they are based on a false view of history:

    The sacred nature of the Shoah is defended by the argument that keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust is essential to prevent it from “happening again”. By suggesting the possibility of repetition, it keeps fear alive.

    Nothing proves that repeated reminders of an immense historic event that happened in the past prevent it from happening again. History doesn’t work that way. As for the Shoah, gas chambers and all, it is quite preposterous to imagine that it could happen again considering all the factors that made it happen in the first place. Hitler had a project to confirm the role of Germans as the master “Aryan” race in Europe, and hated the Jews as a dangerous rival elite. Who now has such a project? Certainly not a Franco-African humorist! Hitler is not coming back, nor is Napoleon Bonaparte, nor is Attila the Hun.

Johnstone attacks an argument that no one makes. Nobody really believes that the Third Reich is going to happen all over again. Hatred, however, can take many forms, not just the form of a concentration camp. There were 614 anti-Semitic attacks, including physical and verbal attacks, recorded in France in 2012. In March of that year, three children and a rabbi were shot to death outside of a Jewish school. Given this context, it should not be surprising that some people do not find Dieudonné’s jokes about the Holocaust “liberating”.

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American Hustle

January 21, 2014

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American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, is loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970’s. This resulted from a sting operation in which the FBI developed the methods of entrapment it uses today against Muslims.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are a couple of swindlers who are caught in an FBI sting operation led by Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso tells them that he will not press charges provided that they agree to help him catch white collar criminals, which they reluctantly consent to do. The three of them eventually set their sights on a powerful New Jersey politician, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who wants money to build casinos, which he believes will revive the state’s economy. They hook Polito up with a phoney sheikh (Michael Peña), who promises him money. The scheme begins to involve more people, including Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), one of the most powerful figures in organized crime. Meanwhile, Rosenfeld comes to believe that Polito, although somewhat corrupt, is basically a well-intentioned person, and he begins to regret the fact that he is setting him up. Rosenfeld’s woes are exacerbated by the erratic behavior of his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who nearly blows his cover.

American Hustle is an amusing comedy that benefits from strong perfromances (although Louis CK is not quite convincing as DiMaso’s boss). I have never been keen on Chirstian Bale in the past. His performances have struck me as either too operatic (The Fighter) or too understated (The Dark Knight Rises). In this movie, he strikes just the right balance, playing a character who is sleazy, but not totally devoid of empathy. And it’s fun to watch Jennifer Lawrence playing a character who is the human opposite of the one she plays in the Hunger Games films.

American Hustle questions whether the FBI’s sting operation actually accomplished anything. People have asked similar questions about the FBI’s sting operations against Muslim “terrorists”. (I have written about one of these cases here.)

Fearmongering

January 20, 2014

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The Scientific American has posted an article debunking the story that there was a spike in infant mortality rates in the Pacific Northwest immediately following the Fukushima nuclear accident. This was the first in a series of alarmist stories that have come out about that disaster, the latest of these being that the floor of the Pacific ocean is covered with dead animals. (This has also been debunked.) An interesting question here is why do people make up these stories. The Fukushima disaster is something we should all be concerned, and outraged, about, and the people responsible for it should be held accountable, but what is accomplished by making false claims about it? Do some anti-nuclear activists think that they can advance their cause by making false claims? They are deluded if they think so.

Some people actually seem to take a perverse pleasure in the idea that the sky is falling. Consider the popularity of the patently absurd “Mayan Prophecy” hoax. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of conspiracy theories, which portray us as helpless victims of a small, secret group of individuals.