Monday, February 20, 2006


Ever since he was a child, Amerloque has had many hobbies. Among them are film and writing.

Several decades ago, in one of his professional incarnations, he was able to combine his keen interests in both subjects. After analyzing the Parisian cinema world as it was then (in the late 1960s and early 1970s), Amerloque located himself at the very beginning of the food chain – right at the front of the line, when everyone involved in a given film was optimistic and prepared to spend substantial sums of money to transform a wild idea into reality. Amerloque set up shop and worked feverishly for several years in the French cinema industry as a synopsis-writer-cum-script-doctor.

His primary task was to take an original French scenario and/or script and come up with an attractively written version in English. This version anglaise was destined to be placed in the hands of foreign, non-French speaking producers and investors, who were supposed to exclaim rapturously at the brilliance of the synopsis or script, rush en masse to pull checkbooks from their purses and pockets, and invest forthwith in the film with nary a qualm. In addition, not only was Amerloque's English version of the script used to recruit non-francophone actors and actresses, it would frequently find a well-deserved place on the set and act as the "shooting script" for those very same players - thus saving money for the producer(s), who could kill two birds with stone.

For several years, Amerloque had quite a bit of fun, traveled throughout France, and met a number of interesting people, some of whom were quite bizarre, indeed (stuntgirls and animal trainers headed the list of weirdos). He participated in numerous shootings in Paris and the provinces (quite a bit on the Cote d'Azur), working with unknowns, up-and-comings, and world famous actors and actresses, both French and foreign.

However, after several consecutive years of intensely productive efforts – intellectual, physical, emotional - the Paris film world had paled somewhat. First of all, there was quite a bit of stress involved. No one Amerloque worked for ever went as far as that apocryphal Hollywood mogul (Sam Goldwyn ? Darryl F. Zanuck ?) who allegedly said "We don't want it good, we want it yesterday !" but, at times, it was a close-run thing indeed. Second, Amerloque was increasingly unable to accept the then-consensual French viewpoint that film was inevitably and axiomatically an artistic medium. For him, cinema could be an Art, but not necessarily - more often than not, it was Entertainment, a business - just like professional sports. Amerloque found that such a definition of cinema was, sacré bleu, politically incorrect in most French "intellectual " film circles (Mais … mais … c'est le septième art, tout de même ! ). Finally, Amerloque wanted to be able to pick and choose which producers he collaborated with, and, most importantly, where. Working closely as he did with moneymanagers and casting agencies, he was told time and again that while quality was indeed important, cost was even more crucial. Amerloque pitched his remuneration at a level the producers could afford. Nevertheless, Amerloque was called on to travel more and more, and he became fed up with traveling and interacting with the cinema crowd (Nous nous sommes jamais vus à Cannes ?), no matter how glorious the cast or how fat the check.

So Amerloque gradually wound down his "career" in the cinema and moved on to other activities, in which he had even more fun and made an excellent living. Several not unconnected object lessons from those memorable years in his life remained with him, however. One was that the English language was to become increasingly important worldwide (this was the 1970s, remember). Another was that "the French" generally felt threatened by what they termed "American cultural imperialism". The final one was that human nature would always be human nature … and that genuine independence of thought and action were awfully rare commodities. The cinema world – at least the part that Amerloque dealt with - was populated by conformists: it was rare indeed for new ground to be broken. Imitation was not only flattery but the shortest and quickest way to the bank.

Thirty or forty years down the road, with the advent of the internet and globalization, it appears that English has taken the world by storm. Everyone seems to speak or write some variety of English: American, British, African, computerese, business English – or a distinct subspecies: Franglais, Jinglish, Globish. Amerloque likes to think that the Two Bills, William Shakespeare and Bill Gates, stand as symbols of that prepotency: the former as an embodiment of "entertainment", the latter as one personification of "technological dominance".

Nevertheless, much as the Loch Ness monster, the question of "English" comes back with annoying, depressing regularity. Questions are asked every day, particularly in France, about "the domination of English". While the existence of Nessie has yet to be proven, though, English is here, to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

Amerlque's view about speaking and using English was forged years ago, when he was hammering out summaries and pithy dialogues on an old Royal typewriter at all hours of the night and day. "English" is both a skill and a tool for communication. To succeed in the world of today – and tomorrow - one must be at the very least "operational" in English. However, this is a skill/tool which is fairly easy to acquire; it is not an insurmountable undertaking. Being operational in English can simply be compared to … having a driver's license. One does not lose one's ability to crawl, walk, jog and sprint when one has learned to drive a motor vehicle. Why should one lose one's native language when one learns English ? Coexistence of two or more languages is possible and, in Amerloque's view, desirable. At the very worst, English can and does act as a sort of metalanguage (for want of a better word !) which allows people of differing native tongues to communicate in a relatively efficient manner. At the very best, cultural elements, particularities and arts can be exchanged, too.

In this "best case" schema, this means that the French questions about the "preeminence of the American cultural model", heavily dependent on English, are not ill-founded or invalid. They are proper and appropriate. The USA's economic power enables its culture - including but not limited to music, cinema and science – to be exported throughout the world. Hence, if one is operational in English, one can experience firsthand the good and the bad of "American culure". If one's English is very limited or nonexistent, one cannot – and one must then inevitably depend on an intermediary, one whose English is allegedly operational, to communicate what the middleman - or woman - perceives as the salient points of the cultural message.

Several questions immediately arise: are the intermediaries competent ? Are they well trained ? Do they have enough educational and cultural background ? Are they well paid ? Do they have a hidden agenda ? Are they simply reflecting politically correct viewpoints, or are they thinking as the creator(s) of the original work thought ? Are they accurately conveying what is/was meant ?

Amerloque was recently reminded of the dependence on intermediaries, when he was sorting though his collection of DVDs. Ameloque loves to suspend daily life de temps en temps and boldly go into the Hollowod time machine. Since he feels that, by and large, cinema is "entertainment', many of Amerloque's DVDs are what the French call productions hollywoodiennes, those box office successes that won praise and audience in the USA but might have been the object of some ridicule, if not outright mockery, in France.

Take, for example, Sylvester Stallone. His "Rocky" series, which brilliantly retold for the upteenth time the "never give up, keep trying" morality play so dear to Americans, was certainly betrayed in the French market by the voice that was given to Stallone: the voice of a retarded, musclebound, uneducated idiot. Some might argue that such a voice accurately reflects the "Rocky" character - at least, the French perception of it - mais passons. That is not the entire issue, which is, succinctly: did the French version of the film reflect the all the artistic wishes of the team which made it ? Pas évident. The Sly Stone problem continues: the very same voice has been used in all the Stallone films, notably "First Blood" (known as "Rambo" here in France). Stallone was catalogued – by sheer accident, or by malignant design ? - as a musclebound idiot representing lowbrow, violent "American culture". The fact that "First Blood" was a pertinent, acerbic comment on American society and its treatment of Vietnam vets was occulted in France by Stallone's voice and by the "rewrite" carried out on the film in its French incarnation. Dialogues were changed, words misconstrued or expurgated – or just misunderstood.

In a similar fashion, the entertainment icon that is Arnold Schwartzenegger has sometimes been crudely betrayed. In his epic and exceptional "Conan the Barbarian", Schwarzy is considered by the French to be yet another musclebound American idiot; the film in French lights is without redeeming social value; Arnie's "French" voice is a reflection of this. The film was apparently shortened a bit for its release in theatres, thus ensuring that the magical world of prehistory so carefully and expensively crafted by the producers and director was irremediably shortchanged for the cinemagoer.

Furthermore, the "writer" of the French version seems not to have had enough mastery of English to differentiate between the modern vernacular and that used in the "heroic fantasy" genre. Subotai's Let me not die in hunger but in combat !, almost Shakespearian in inspiration, symmetry and resonance, becomes in French the quite pedestrian Je ne veux pas mourir de faim, mais au combat. The same warrior's My god is stronger – he is the everlasting sky is transformed into Mon dieu est plus fort - il est le ciel eternel. On a day to day basis, the French éternel is probably acceptable in most cases as a translation of "everlasting", but in heroic fantasy ? Mon dieu est plus fort – il est le ciel infini would obviously have been better and more in keeping with the message of the film – whether art ot entertainment.

Amerloque only shares here two of the more egregious examples: throughout his years in France he has seen and heard hundreds, perhaps thousands, in cinema, TV, news programs, documentaries, brochures, books, commercials. If one is French, non-anglophone, and uncomfortable with increasingly invasive English, one has to rely, alas, on intermediaries, the self-appointed guardians of language: translators and interpreters.

Quite bluntly … how does one know that the intermediaries are competent and … honest ? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes ? Who will guard the guardians ?


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque

Monday, February 06, 2006

Clashes 2

(continued from Clashes 1)

Is there a "Clash of Civilizations" underway, insofar as one or more democratic values are concerned ?

Given the obviously-orchestrated "outrage" in the Muslim world over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish press, the French press, and their subsequent republication in many European papers, Amerloque is prompted to ask the question and search – vainly, perhaps – for a satisfactory answer. Quite frankly, Amerloque is a bit bewildered by some positions taken publicly by Western governments, politicians and media commentators … and wonders, in the long, dark hours of the February nights, if they have not in some respects taken leave of their senses.

It goes without saying – Amerloque will say it anyway - that the history of Western Europe is not the same as the history of the Muslim world. From time to time, on rare occasions, the two "civilizations" have cooperated, but for majority of the hundreds of years since the Muslim religion was founded (seventh century AD/CE – say 1400 years or so), they have been at odds, if not at war, outright. The premises of one civilization are not the same as those of the other, nor are the development or the worldview. Nowhere is it ordained or written that civilizations should be the same, should be uniform, should have the same values. There are no surprises on this score.

It should nevertheless be emphasized that one phenomenon took place that changed the Western world forever. That event, lasting many years, was the Age of Enlightenment. Rationality became the basis for establishing a referential system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge, which in many spheres replaced irrationality, superstition, and tyranny. Furthermore, one of the concrete results of the Enlightenment was the establishment of representative democracy and the separation of Church and State. No longer was a religion able to impose its will on the people. Human beings were free to believe – or, more importantly, not to believe – in any religion whatsoever, or in atheism, or in agnosticism. Dissenting, opposing views were tolerated. "Unbelievers" were not to be executed for any "heresy" whatsoever.

A major freedom springing from the Age of Enlightenment was Freedom of Expression (including artistic expression), which to this day is enshrined in various ways in the democratic forms of government. Part of that freedom is Freedom of the Press (again, preserved in differing manners in democracies). In Western democracies, one way for an individual to offer an opinion is through the caricature, which is a variety of artistic expression.

What, then, is a caricature ?

Wikipedia offers: A caricature is a humorous illustration that exaggerates or distorts the basic essence of a person or thing to create an easily identifiable visual likeness. while gives: A representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject's distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect..

It is clear that there must be an element of humor, exaggeration, or distortion and that the effect must be "comic" or "grotesque".

On September 30, 2005, after requesting artists to depict Islam's Prophet, Mohammed, a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) published twelve caricatures (cartoons). The whole exercise was apparently designed to challenge what the newspaper thought was a tendency to self-censorship among artists dealing with issues related to Islam. Among the cartoons there were incendiary images such as Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. There was relative silence … until last month, when a Norwegian magazine reprinted the images and the Arab street began to demonstrate.

Under a wide definition, Muslims in Muslim countries make up the Muslim ummah, the community. Islamic law (shariah) applies in the ummah. Secular life and religious life are as one; there is no separation of Church and State under shariah. Any putative separation of Church and State, any alleged or perceived Freedom of Expression, no matter how little or how much, in any country in the Muslim ummah, has most assuredly not been preceded by an adherence to rationality similar to that of the Western European Enlightenment. That is quite clear.

Hence the demonstrators in the Muslim street are protesting the caricature of the Prophet as a "terrorist", right ? They are asserting that the Western European press has no right to publish "uncomplimentary" cartoons of Mohammed which "hurt religions feelings" or "portray Islam in a negative light" or "insult Moslems" or "humiliate the Arabs", right ?

Well … yes and no.

Islamic tradition apparently bars any depiction of the prophet at all, so as to forestall idolatry. Basically, it wouldn't matter at all which caricatures the Danish, or French, or European press published or how many times they published them. Any image of the Prophet – whether complimentary or disparaging – is forbidden. Not much room for discussion on that one, it appears.

If such is the case, then in Amerloque's view it doesn't really matter why the Danish newspaper published the caricatures. It could simply have been to lampoon self-censorship, as the paper asserted … or the reason(s) could have been far more sinister, with malice aforethought, so as to trigger off discord, which would clearly demonstrate that a percentage of the Muslims in the world were fundamentalists and would take to the streets, with violence. Moreover, it doesn't really matter if the images were "in poor taste" or "upsetting" or "outrageous". Finally, it doesn't even matter what the day-to-day consequences of publishing the images are, or whose feelings were "hurt" or not hurt, or who was "insulted" or "humiliated" or "disrespected": it is the mere fact that the images exist and that they were published which is at issue in the fundamentalist Muslim mind. The fundamentalists, rioters and demonstrators are asserting that because they believe something religious, others must believe it, too. No Enlightenment ever took place in the Muslim world.

Some politicos seem to have missed this point and have not addressed it, although, to be fair, perhaps they felt the strict minimum would do the job this time around. The French Socialist politician, Laurent Fabius, said the caricatures were "in bad taste" (de mauvais goût) and that one "had to be very attentive to everything that could harm religions feelings (il faut être extrêmement attentif à ce qui peut porter atteinte au sentiment religieux). Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, croaked "There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory." He certainly could have been more clear. The German home minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, vigorously defended the freedom of the press to make its own decisions. "Why should the German government apologize?" he said. "This is an expression of press freedom."

The media ? Newspapers throughout Europe jumped on the bandwagon and published the images in solidarity, while the TV media generally chose not to show them. CNN (aka "Craven News Network", as some would have it) and several US TV channels, according to press reports, chose to show the cartoons – but blurred, out of "respect". Undoubtedly they were thinking first of their reporters on the ground, in Iraq and elsewhere … rather than of the millions and millions of people down through history who have died because of religious intolerance or simply because of differences of opinion over god(s). Putting people before principle is fashionable, nowadays.

Much as there are different kinds of expression, there are different kinds of terrorism, which is not necessarily limited to strapping on a bomb and blowing up a bus or a subway, or hijacking an aircraft and ramming it - and its passengers - into a skyscraper. Demanding public excuses from sovereign governments for real or imagined "insults" appearing in a free press, burning flags (Amerloque didn't realize that so many Danish flags were so easily available in the Muslim world …), torching consulates and embassies, and threatening people with beheading might be considered forms of terrorism, too. Or ... are such actions simply "expression" ? In France, as in most countries in Western Europe, the courts in the justice system (another benefit of the Enlightenment !) will end up deciding whether or not these images and caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed fall within the boundaries of Freedom of Expression in a free society. They will also decide if demonstrators' placards containing incitement to violence, murder and terrorism are within the purview of free speech. Et tant mieux !

Moderate Muslims want Western Europeans – and others, starting with the politicians and continuing to the media – to believe that they are not terrorists. Fine. Moderate Muslims might remember that two wrongs never make a right. Contrasting the media treatment of "Muslims" with that of the "Catholics" or the "Jews" is avoiding the issue and not addressing the problem. Reasonable people all over the world do not believe that the extremist Stern Gang represents the majority of "Jews", any more than they feel that the IRA represents the majority of the "Irish" or that the project kids rioting represent the majority of the "French".

Reasonable people want to believe that the extremists and fundamentalists do not represent "Muslims", at least in Western Europe. Since moderate Muslims want to be seen something other than as terrorists, should they not step forward ? Do they not see that the protection of one minority is the protection of all minorities ? Do they not subscribe to Western European values ? Do they want to return Europe to a time before the Enlightenment ?

Is there a Clash of Civilizations insofar as Freedom of Expression is concerned ? Today, in Amerloque's view, it appears that there is, and it is a huge one.

What would freedom of speech be worth if it were only the freedom to say what offends no one ?


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque

Clashes 1

Much has been written about an alleged "Clash of Civilizations", originally articulated by Samuel P. Huntington in 1993. His thesis is straightforward: major conflicts are always defined by clashes between fundamentally different civilizations. Given events since the appearance of his book, and more especially since 9/11, commentators of every political stripe and persuasion have eagerly seized on Huntington's ideas and recast them as one black and white boundary of the battleground on which the war for hearts and minds is currently being fought worldwide.

What is unclear today – at least in Amerloque's humble view - is whether or not a "clash" is indeed in progress. It is also far from evident, pace the media, the politicos, and the commentators, exactly what form such a "clash", if any, has taken. Certainly a part of this conflict could involve a confrontation between Western values - of capitalism and democracy - and non-Western values. Defining such a clash is never easy, for what appears to be irreconcilable and lasting may just turn out to be an issue that can be resolved once all parties decide to negotiate in good faith. One might be far too willing to visualize a clash where, in fact, no conflict exists – for example, when an individual has made a smooth transition from one civilization to another. Perhaps, too, a kind of clash can occur when one side is simply unwilling to admit that times have changed.

Amerloque was reminded of this recently when Lakshmi Mittal, the "Indian" chief executive and primary owner of Mittal Steel, the world's largest steelmaking company, made a hostile takeover bid for the highflying flagship European steel company, Arcelor, a public company and Mittal's main rival. Arcelor was created in 2002 through the merger of the French, Spanish and Luxembourg national steel champions, all of which had benefited from billions in public funds over several decades for "restructuring" and "reorganization" and "rationalization". Mittal Steel is a Dutch company, and Arcelor is a Luxembourgian company.

The Mittal bid was immediately rejected by Arcelor's CEO, one Guy Dollé. Belgian and Luxembourgian politicians unhesitatingly jumped into the fray, followed immediately by the French Minister of Finance, Thierry Breton. All roundly condemned Mittal's bid, described as "badly prepared" by Breton, who also accused Mittal of not following "the grammar of business of the 21st century" and not "respecting the rules". France, it was clear, was against the merger and "pro-European".

Dollé, the Arcelor CEO, fatuously poured further oil on the flames, saying that Mittal Steel was a "company of Indians" and a "group of less-than-average" businesses. He railed on that European steel was like "perfume", while Mittal manufactured steel that was "eau de cologne". He then left no doubt how and where he stood: he stated that Mittal would pay for its bid in "monkey money" (monnaie de singe), a French expression equivalent to "Monopoly money", i.e., worthless scrip. The shameful double-entendre of "monkey" was lost on no one. Dollé the CEO laid it out: in his view, the sleazy, second-string Eastern company was attempting to take over the selfless, superior Western company.

Well, well. Amerloque couldn't help sadly laughing to himself at Dollé's desperate words, designed to foment an upsurge of economic patriotism in the "European" press and among various national authorities – and, in passing, save his own job. Just over a year ago, interviewed by Business Week magazine for an article concerning Mittal and the worldwide steel industry, Guy Dollé was quoted: "Mittal has had a vision for the industry that goes back a long way, well before the majority of his peers." Now, fourteen months later, outmaneuvered and outgunned by Mittal, Dollé is energetically marshalling his forces for what apparently is to be a long, somewhat bitter takeover battle.

Before looking at a hypothetical "clash of civilizations" (East meeting West), as symbolized by the Mittal/Arcelor encounter, several issues germane to the bid itself should be noted. First, both Mittal and Arcelor each hold about 5% of the worldwide steel market, Mittal a bit more than Arcelor, so a successful merger would produce a "world leader" … with only 11% or so of the world market, three times more than its nearest competitor. Second, the market fits are like hands and gloves: Arcelor is strong in strong in western Europe and Latin America, while Mittal is mainly concentrated in eastern Europe and North America. Third, the European Union will probably not oppose the takeover and merger, since by no stretch of the imagination can 11% of a market be considered a "monopoly position". Fourth, Arcelor itself is no stranger to hostile takeovers: just last month, Arcelor won a heated battle against a German rival, ThyssenKrupp AG, for a $5 billion steel producer in Canada. In a manner of speaking, Arcelor is now hoist on its own petard. Fifth, the takeover offer is composed of cash plus shares, usually a hard combination to beat. Sixth, Mittal and his family hold something like 88% of Mittal Steel, a substantial private holding which rules out any Arcelor counteroffer based on purchasing Mittal shares on the open market: there just aren't enough available to make a difference.

France has no concrete veto power over the merger: it is not a shareholder. Certainly French politicians are interested in the deal because Arcelor has 28,500 employees in France, and "economies of scale" (a codeword for "layoffs" in many people's minds) are to be feared if the merger succeeds … but real, "hard" veto power ? They have none. "Soft" veto power - the French use of which should not be underestimated – is another story. It looks like the success or failure of the bid, businesswise, depends on Arcelor shareholders only.

Is there actually more to the story ? Has a rapacious and unscrupulous Indian businessman, with a different culture, from a different civilization, fresh from dusty West Bengal (Mittal was born in Rajasthan, and raised in Calcutta), suddenly swept into town ? Playing by his own rules, does he plan to loot Europe of one of its industrial crown jewels, Arcelor ? Is there, in fact, a Clash of Civilizations insofar as capitalism is concerned ?

In this case, no, in Amerloque's view. Some Indians who immigrated to the UK in the 1960s and 1970s became shopkeepers. Others became manual workers. Conforming to rules laid down by their host country, some went into business; some became very successful. Of Indian origin, Lakshmi Mittal came to the UK, and, complying with Western values, adapted and succeeded in business. He has lived in Britain for some thirty years and is a British national. Mittal Steel is a Dutch company: its ADRs (American Depositary Receipts) are quoted on the New York Stock Exchange. Mittal Steel owns no plants in India. Individuals of many nationalities work at the Mittal firm: Poles, Frenchmen, Romanians, Kazakhs, Indonesians, Algerians, Americans … it is a global company with global reach, and global ambition. There is no "clash" - any native-born European could have done as he did.

* * * * *

(continued in Clashes 2)

© Text Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque