Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mais Oui: A Culture of Contradictions


AIS-EN-PROVENCE, France -- At the Musee National Picasso in Vallauris, where the master painted War and Peace on a chapel ceiling, photographs are forbidden. Visitors must check bags. But one tourist shared the chapel’s wonders with his toy poodle, tucked under his arm.

The museum’s exhibits were well lit and beautifully displayed. In high-heeled leather boots, one of the guards looked straight off Paris’ Champs-Elysees. But the seats had been removed from the men’s and women’s toilets.

To an American visitor, these might seem jarring juxtapositions. But then, this museum is quintessentially French.

In our more than four months here, my wife Kathy and I have found this to be a culture of sometimes startling contradictions.

Nowhere have we encountered greater courtesy than in the stores, cafes and casual encounters in the sunny city of Aix. Stop by Monoprix, a middle-class department store in its midst, and the counter clerk would sooner sell us a ripped shirt than ring up our purchase without first saying, “Bonjour monsieur et madamer,” fixing us first with a warm smile. It’s the same elsewhere. Face to face, the French of Provence are gracious, warm and embracing.

But in the anonymity of their cars, the Provencaux turn ferocious. I live in Boston, America’s rotary capitol, and I was trained for combat driving in the madness called Manhattan. But I turn with trepidation onto narrow mountain roads here. I’ve had French drivers hug my bumper at 40 and 50 miles an hour, either bursting past on “straightaways” a block long or forcing me to pull onto the shoulder to let them through. On the single-car wide lane where we live, drivers play a different game of chicken. When I hesitate as they bear down, they keep coming, stopping nose to nose, a few feet away. Then one car – well, mine – backs up, teetering on the edge of a ditch or under a hedge while the other inches past. (I have heard there are rules of etiquette on such narrow lanes – men back up for women; younger women for older women; and younger men for older men …. Perhaps I look really young for my age?)

Questions of pace are equally perplexing. Mealtime is sacred. Food must be eaten slowly, one course at a time, with plenty of time to digest in between. We’ve learned that evenings demand a choice: One can eat, or one can do something else. Because from appetizer to after-dinner coffee (typically course four or five), dinner takes three hours

In a hurry? We’ve managed a single-course lunch in 90 minutes, the last 30 reserved for smiling and waving a few fingers for the check every few minutes as the waiter walks by without a glance our way.

Given the pace of cuisine, one might expect the French to wait patiently for a concert to begin or a line to move. One might, but one shouldn’t. The other night, the Flamenco performance we attended began 15 minutes late. After five minutes the audience began clapping rhythmically. A second and third round of clapping, each louder, followed before the show began.

And these little outbursts don’t compare with the experience of getting on a French ski lift or a crowded bus. It’s a little like trying to escape through the single door of a burning theatre.

Peter Mayle, who has chronicled all Provencal, describes the idiosyncrasies of French impatience in his book, Provence A-Z: “It’s odd, this urge to save a few minutes, since the normally easygoing people of Provence are not noted for hurrying. My theory is that it has something to do with … a fierce joy in overtaking, whatever the conditions – a competitive instinct that is always there, whether on four wheels or two legs.”

And then, alas, there is the nagging question of “facilities” in a country where the perfect look is nearly as important as the perfect meal. Perfection does not apply to the plumbing, however. Not close.

Our second week in France, we stopped with a French family in an expensive, refurbished mountain cafe. The renovators had forgotten one thing. The old-fashioned stand-and-stoop toilets remained.

Our acquaintances were embarrassed. Such ancient facilities, they said, should be relegated to the past. But even in Aix, with its picturesque shops and people who not only dress well but, as Kathy notes, almost “in costume,” that has yet to happen. Walking through the Saturday market here -- with sparkling stalls of green, yellow and red pepper; bins of fragrant and pungent spices; and shoppers dressed in flowing, colorful skirts, scarves knotted just so, makeup applied to perfection -- is sort of like walking through a Hollywood set. It is a place of sparkle and elegant sensuality. We’ve learned, however, that choosing where to order coffee in the crowded cafes lining the market squares requires strategy. If nature calls, the wrong choice of where to sit can mean no seat at all.

Undoubtedly, like the 35-hour work week, this way of life will soon vanish. I may miss those topless toilets on future visits. But at the Musee National Picasso, in the village of Vallauris, I collected my camera and knapsack, said goodbye to the guard, and looked for a more modern W.C.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

When Morality Fails Us

This piece appeared first on CommonDreams.org.

05/17/07 --Just how pervasively and insidiously the grinding and open-ended Iraq war has eroded our moral foundations became clear to me late last week when I came across an article titled “Plan B for Iraq: Winning Dirty.”

It was written by Morton Kondracke, veteran executive editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, and a regular contributor and co-host on Fox News.

“The administration and its critics ought to be seriously thinking about a Plan B, the ‘80 percent solution’ - also known as ‘winning dirty,” he wrote.

"The 80 percent alternative involves accepting rule by Shiites and Kurds, allowing them to violently suppress Sunni resistance and making sure that Shiites friendly to the United States emerge victorious…

"Winning will be dirty because it will allow the Shiite-dominated Iraqi military and some Shiite militias to decimate the Sunni insurgency. There likely will be ethnic cleansing (emphasis added), atrocities against civilians and massive refugee flows…"

He ends his column by quoting an unnamed Congressman who supports this approach:
‘The quicker we back the winning side, the quicker the war ends,” his source says. “Winning dirty isn't attractive, but it sure beats losing.”

Kondracke, a Washington journalism insider for decades, seemed to be suggesting that America can still win in Iraq – if only it would support ethnic cleansing by an American-friendly faction of Shiites against the Sunnis.

He might as well have written: “They may be indiscriminate mass murderers, but they are our mass murderers.” But then, what would that make us? After reading Kondracke’s piece on www.realclearpolitics.com, I rubbed my eyes and waited for the fallout. Not a word.

Perhaps Kondracke, co-host of Fox News’ the Beltway Boys, was speaking strictly for himself. Perhaps his wild “plan” didn’t dignify a response? But what, I wondered, if this was but the first “trial balloon” of an emerging administration Plan B? Would anyone notice?

Because whatever its origins, Kondracke’s bankrupt reasoning seems an inevitable outgrowth of four years of daily carnage in Iraq. The erosion of American law, of the Geneva Conventions, of military conduct and ultimately of our country’s morality have been gradual but grinding.

In 2004, for example, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison, captured in still photos by the interrogators themselves, shocked the American public. In comparison, disclosures nearly two years later of a Marine massacre of 24 men, women and children in the town of Haditha -- four were charged with unpremeditated murder -- caused barely a stir. Stories of other U.S. atrocities continue to trickle out, the result no doubt of a war being fought without clearly defined purpose, without true engagement by Americans at home, without clear end.

War, it’s said, is Hell. If it must exist, it should be limited to times when one wrong is so far worse than others that someone must combat it. Adolph Hitler’s Germany comes to mind, not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as evil as he without doubt was.

But this is not a column about why we entered the wrong war. It’s about why we keep fighting it and how, in doing so, we are draining our capacity to differentiate right from wrong. As awful as they have been, I can fathom the worst actions of our troops better than I can the cold-blooded calculations of some politicians and pundits stateside who seem bent on continuing the war at all costs.

American troops are fighting for their own lives and for each other – not for raw power or some vague strategic goal. They are the pawns let loose in madness, some perhaps turned mad by its grip. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies comes to mind.

But what excuses have those arguing for ways to legitimize mass murder in the name of foreign policy? And what excuses have those who, by standing by, continue to let the bullies and morally bankrupt hold sway?

Neither political party is blameless here. Yes. This is George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s war. Every serious Republican presidential candidate for 2008 continues to back it.

But even as congressional Democrats push to set limits on funding, they’ve been slow, the International Herald Tribune reports, to roll back the most heinous aspect of the Military Commissions Act. The law, passed a year ago, denies even the most basic right of law – habeas corpus, the right to challenge detention through the courts – to so-called enemy combatants held in Guantanamo and elsewhere.

This creates a Catch 22 for a democracy – how can a country determine whether the bad guys are really bad (and the good guys really good), when those bad guys have no rights and no voice? How can a democracy lock people up, throw away the key and still call itself a democracy?

Then comes Kondracke’s suggestion that we accept “ethnic cleansing” in Iraq. Ethnic cleansing, of course, is simply a euphemism for genocide. We ignored it in Rwanda. We’ve ignored it in Sudan. Are we now going to actively support it in Iraq?

Just what would we call ourselves then? Or have we, as a nation, reached the point where winning is all, where nothing else much matters?