Revue de Presse: November 29

29 November 2020

Under fire from French officials and media figures, James McAuley of the Washington Post and Adam Nossiter of the New York Times defend their recent reporting. The two Paris correspondents have come in for criticism for their coverage of debates over laïcité and “separatism” since the murder of Samuel Paty in October. In an episode of France Culture’s “Le temps du débat,” McAuley and Nossiter say they do not reject the French tradition of laïcité, nor is it their job to shoehorn happenings in France into familiar American categories. McAuley contends that the correspondent’s job is to provide an outsider’s perspective—which includes pointing out where reality does not live up to cherished ideals.


There’s no shortage of commentary on political “polarization.” But maybe the better term is stasis. In the New Statesman Teresa Bejan notes that, for the Greeks, stasis meant not just civil war but also a state of mind—in which fellow citizens transform into enemies. Bejan wants to separate political rhetoric from literal warfare. We can stand up for our beliefs without assuming politics is always war by other means.


Annelien de Dijn also thinks contemporary democracy would benefit from a study of the ancients. In a conversation with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins in The Nation, de Dijn discusses her recent book Freedom: An Unruly History. While many now discuss freedom in terms of curtailing government interference, the ancient Athenians believed they were most free when participating in government. de Dijn regrets that, by the nineteenth century, political thinkers in Western Europe and the United States showed less concern with who governed than with limiting governance altogether. This, she argues, is a short-sighted view of freedom.


Stéphanie Hennette Vauchez fears French freedoms are under assault. Writing for AOC, she notes that recent state initiatives—concerning everything from Covid response to the proposed security law—reflect a dangerous normalization of this year’s state of emergency. In another AOC piece, Sébastien Thiéry discusses last week’s confrontation at the Place de la République, where police forces dispersed hundreds of exiles. Thiéry worries that the protestors filming police violence might in fact spread the government’s message: migrants should not come to France. He instead calls for building organizations that welcome and humanize migrants. Viral videos, Thiéry fears, do neither.


In the New Left Review, Perry Anderson delivers a sweeping history of British political decline. His 72-page essay doubles as a survey of the Review’s critique of Westminster over the past six decades, from post-War Labour to post-Brexit malaise. As Anderson and his fellow editors have long argued, the British order (or “Ukania”) rests on an unstable union of three crowns. The causes of Britain’s early parliamentary success in the eighteenth century have led to a number of economic and cultural cleavages that the London elite are increasingly unlikely to solve. Summarizing the essay in UnHerd, Aris Roussinos stresses that Anderson’s pessimism is informed not just by Western Marxism but by his study of British nationalism(s).


And America’s political decline? The sociologist Richard Lachmann, attributes the United States’s recent failure to tame the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the country’s struggle to ensure economic and social support for the majority of its denizens, to an inability to curtail its economic elites. In our post-deregulation era, Lachmann argues in the Jacobin, elite actors hold significant leverage over state authorities, not the other way around.


Jason Farago, an art critic for the New York Times, provides a visual close-reading of Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770), now housed at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. West’s painting depicts the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, fought outside Quebec City during the far-reaching Seven Years’ War. Farago explains the history and iconography behind the British, American, French, Canadian, and native figures shown battling for the New World.


The representation of a very different eighteenth-century icon—Mary Wollstonecraft—continues to generate debate (and plenty of Twitter snark). Excitement for the first full-scale sculpture of Wollstonecraft turned to derision when her naked bronze was unveiled in North London earlier this month. The feminist journalist Helen Lewis quips that the quarrel over objectification, femininity, and the male gaze has started to sound more French than British. But in a post for Past Meets Present, Eileen Botting (editor of the forthcoming Portraits of Wollstonecraft) situates the controversy not merely within recent British and American disputes over public art but also the history of depicting  Wollstonecraft, dating back to 1795.


Barack Obama’s new memoir is out, timed to coincide with the Biden transition and holiday sales. Reviewing A Promised Land for the New York Times, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie finds the memoir literary but aloof. But Ngozi Adichie reminds readers that the 44th American president was an “overwhelmingly decent man,” committed to self-criticism and a desire for bipartisanship. Timothy Shenk takes a more critical stance in Dissent magazine. He suspects that what’s missing from Obama’s account might be the most informative. Shenk finds Obama’s details on Donald Trump, the deficit, immigration, and Harold Washington somewhat unreliable.



Photo Credit: lindalino, Newspapers, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


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