THE ATLANTIC
The Atlantic is a cultural and current affairs magazine and website, created in 1857. It was originally based in Boston, Massachusetts, but has since moved to Washington, D.C.
Paris Calling
Rozena Crossman

Bad American Art — How Trump Looks In France

A self-described American aesthete has no good answers for her French friends aghast at the reality show in the White House.

-Analysis-

PARIS — Even as the Republican National Convention invades our screens this week, I keep going back to an unlikely sentence written a few months ago about Donald Trump's presidency: "Artistic institutions should be taken seriously."

Such was the round-about yet relevant conclusion of an article in Les Echos by French political scientist Dominique Moïsi, who argued that American oeuvres about dystopian democracies — such as Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America and the TV series The West Wing — "often prove to be more accurate than expert analysis."

Moïsi, an expert analyst himself, argues that Trump is not the cause but a symptom of a broken democracy, degraded over decades due to various political and economic factors. This is certainly true, but it's his emphasis on culture as political forecasting that nags at me ever more persistently the closer November comes. As an American living in France, a nation famous for government spending on intellectual expression, I believe Trump is also a symptom of another scourge: bad art.

Adam Smith's proverbial invisible hand does not deal art equally.

While the United States produces its fair share of Martin Scorseses and Toni Morrisons, it also generates an inordinate amount of disingenuous would-be "creative" output. America, a capitalist wonderland, has a hard time making art that isn't driven by money. Hollywood continually remakes movies that succeeded in the past, Netflix uses data on their customers' preferences to ensure the movies they produce will bring home the bacon, and the names of musicians who top the Billboard Artist 100 chart don't seem to really change.

Adam Smith's proverbial invisible hand does not deal art equally. When culture is completely managed by the private sector, it can act as a kind of built-in censor to actual daring and provocative creations.

Trump graffiti in Paris — Photo: Thierry Le Fouille/SOPA/ZUMA

So of course Trump would flourish in a place where ideas, expression and innovation are controlled by cash flow, as the morphing of U.S. politics into a reality TV show now also features Kanye and the Kardashians eyeing the new fall season in the White House. The very public display of the "insanity" of society is a question of culture — and yes, bad art.

The songs we hear in our cars on the way to work, the movies we unwind to at the end of the day: All of this conveys the creator's vision of what life, love, good, evil, happiness, despair, success and failure look like. In the United States, only a certain kind of art makes the financial cut, meaning Americans are imbibing repetitive, monotonous statements. This engenders both a craving for increasingly outrageous content and an aesthetic dependence on familiar elements. Enter Trump: scandalous and a household name.

Don't get me wrong — the French love "Tiger King" and produce some pretty bad pop music.

As mentioned, I make these observations from a very literal distance. While there are many reasons why France shouldn't be idealized, its public investment in the humanities and programs for supporting creative professionals are formidable for any American aesthete to behold. Here, artists have their own special tax bracket, philosophy is a mandatory subject in public high schools and 9.7 billion euros were allocated to the French Ministry of Culture's 2020 budget. This longstanding support system ensures the ability to make art for art's sake, promoting the circulation of avant-garde, stimulating, intelligent thought. Meanwhile, the greatest creative minds of my generation back home struggle to pay their medical bills and student debt.

Don't get me wrong — the French love Tiger King and produce some pretty bad pop music. But, mes amis, we are worlds away from seeing a Trump here. How could the world's master of cultural (and scientific, and political…) exportation be governed so irresponsibly? We are (all) now seeing the dire consequences of America viewing art as a principally monetary endeavor. The French, on the other hand, have long understood the proper role artists and intellectuals should play in politics, which helps keep their reality stars away from positions of power. My fellow Americans would do well to follow Moïsi's enlightened advice and take artistic institutions seriously.

Geopolitics

Feeding A Shutdown World: How COVID-19 Squeezes Supply Chains

On the list of the most urgent COVID-19 priorities, right after saving the lives of those infected comes feeding the rest of us. A mix of logistics, impromptu trade barriers and economics make these efforts a major challenge. And the longer the crisis continues, and the farther it spreads, the stakes of the food supply chain go well beyond keeping your favorite brands stocked in supermarkets. In some places, it can also be a matter of life or death.

Blocking imports: In Goa, one of the richest states in India, famous among tourists for its picturesque beach resorts, finding food has become dangerously hard since a nationwide shutdown began two weeks ago. French daily Le Monde reports that the local governor has shut off any incoming food supply trucks, and stocks have been rapidly vanishing. Locals report that the population of northern Goa has almost nothing left to eat.

A farmer in Uttar Pradesh during India's nationwide lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic.Photo: Prabhat Kumar Verma

Blocking exports: The world's eighth-largest producer of wheat, Kazakhstan, has banned flour exports and imposed restrictions on selling vegetables and buckwheat abroad. Serbia has banned vegetable oil export. Vietnam, the world's third-largest rice exporter, has a ban on new rice export contracts. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization fears such protectionist measures could provoke global food market instability, raise prices and leave populations at risk of hunger.

Blocking labor: There is also the question of how the goods are actually produced, right down to the local farmers. Italian magazine Internazionale reports on as many as 370,000 seasonal workers — mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland – who are blocked from entering Italy because of closed borders. "We're a sign of what's to come, because we're already harvesting," notes one farmer. "Today, workers are missing for asparagus harvest, but tomorrow they'll be missing in apple orchards, for planting season and for all the other crops. It's going to get really get bad."

All of this raises questions that will be posed even after the national quarantines are lifted. Since the beginning of the pandemic, politicians have been reassuring the public that any empty shelves in grocery stores were caused by bottlenecks in the supply chain and stores should be able to replenish quickly. But this short-term emptying is proof of a deeper fragility of our current "just-in-time" consumption system based solely on efficiency, writes The Atlantic. We can add "how we feed ourselves' to the growing list of questions about the ways that life will (or won't) change in the post-coronavirus world.

Geopolitics

Coronavirus — Global Brief: Quarantines And The Climate Change Long Game

The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet is a blunt reminder of how small the world has become. For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on this crisis from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

SPOTLIGHT: WHEN QUARANTINES END — EYEING THE CLIMATE CHANGE LONG GAME

There's been no shortage of hopeful speculation that this epidemic may prompt a turning point in the fight against climate change. We've seen the immediate benefits of imposed reductions in human activity, notably with the unprecedented slowdown in emission-producing transportation. But will these clean spring skies last? Alongside the short-term gains in cleaner air, are we set for some kind of global "wake up" needed to permanently reverse global warming? Or will our carbon footprints simply reappear the day we step out the door when the lockdown ends?

There are signs that real change could stick. Since the spread of the virus, The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Australians have been buying up solar panels as a back-up energy source in case something goes wrong with the main grid. The expanding supplies of wind power is itself proving to be reliable, with 96% of Europe's turbines continuing with business as usual through the crisis.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), sees the unveiling of national stimulus packages to avert economic collapse as a chance to go green for the long haul, believing a commitment to investing in renewables will "bring the twin benefits of stimulating economies and accelerating clean energy transitions."

Still, lasting change will come down to hard decisions in both halls of government and executive board rooms. It's notable that the United States' unprecedented $2 trillion economic stimulus did not include support for green business. Moreover, many important clean energy projects are spearheaded by top oil and gas companies that are facing a coronavirus-induced collapse in crude prices, and may be strapped for resources to invest in renewables.

As for the rest of us, this crisis has been a sharp reminder that we can actually change our habits, but only if we are obliged. In numerous countries, the quarantines required to limit the spread of the virus did not work on a voluntary basis — the government needed to enforce fixed rules.

Yes, this virus has woken people up to the importance of: policy. A general public that flouts safety regulations, corporations leaving the planet by the wayside, the urgent need for coherent healthcare systems… none of this will change without smart and swift government intervention.

— Rozena Crossman

THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

  • European glimmers of hope: The daily death toll in Spain has dropped for the fourth day in a row, down to 637 and Italy"s death toll dropped to its lowest in two weeks. France has 6,838 people in intensive care, some 105 of whom are under the age of 30, but the numbers are rising at a slower rate.

  • UK leaders: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted to hospital for persisting coronavirus symptoms, shortly after Queen Elizabeth gave a rare TV address to urge resolve in face of the pandemic.

  • Monday markets: Global stocks and U.S. futures on the rise as coronavirus cases slow in some European countries, but oil prices remain on edge with postponed Saudi Arabia-Russia talks.

  • Japanese emergency: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expected to declare state of emergency after surge of cases in Tokyo.

  • Abidjan fears: Locals destroy a coronavirus testing center that was under construction in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, fearing it was too close to their homes.

  • Feline cases: A tiger tested positive for the virus at Bronx zoo, after being reportedly contaminated by caretaker. Last week a cat was confirmed to be infected in Belgium.

  • Double duty: Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who worked as a doctor for 7 years, has rejoined medical register to help fight against the pandemic.

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Society
Martin Greenacre

Just A Handshake? Touchy Subject For Pious Muslims In The West

A series of recent legal cases across Europe have questioned whether those who refuse to shake hands with people of the opposite sex for religious reasons are guilty of discrimination.

PARIS — The traditional Muslim veil has long been a source of conflict in the West over integration and gender equality. Now, another familiar practice is prompting debate: the handshake.

Last week, it was reported that a Muslim couple had been denied Swiss citizenship after refusing — for religious reasons — to shake hands with people of the opposite sex during their interview. Officials cited a lack of respect for gender equality as the reason for their decision.

It is not the first time the topic of handshakes has caused a stir in the country. In 2016, two Syrian immigrant brothers refused to shake their female teacher's hand, arguing that Islam did not permit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex who is not a family member. Shaking the teacher's hand before and after class is a long-standing tradition in Switzerland, and the regional educational authority ruled that parents of children who refuse would face a fine. Swiss Muslim groups disagreed over whether the brothers were justified in refusing.

The Swiss Federal Court has previously rejected a local ban on wearing hijabs in schools. The board of education, however, ruled that forcing the students to shake the teacher's hand was a reasonable intrusion on their religious beliefs, since "it did not involve the central tenets of Islam," The New York Times reports.

Hafid Ouardiri, a Swiss mediator who is active in the fight against radicalization, told Geneva-based newspaper Le Temps: "We need to take this case very seriously. It is unacceptable that these students refuse to shake their teacher's hand in the name of Islam Above all, our religion teaches respect." The newspaper asked whether the refusal could be the sign of a "slide" towards radicalism, after one of the boys posted videos of soldiers on Facebook in which there was "no explicit violence, but a black flag, identical to those used by the Islamic State group, was visible."

She puts her hand to her heart.

Also last week, a Swedish Muslim woman won compensation after her job interview was cut short when she refused to shake the male interviewer's hand. Sweden's Labor Court ruled that she had been discriminated against, since there was no evidence her refusal would cause difficulties in her work as an interpreter, The Local reports. The woman had argued that when both men and women are present, she greets them the same way, by putting her hand to her heart.

France, where the battle over the Muslim veil has been a major issue for years, has also found itself at the center of the handshake debate. In 2017, an Algerian women was denied citizenship after she refused to shake the hand of a senior official during her naturalization ceremony. Le Figaro reports that the ruling was recently upheld by the Council of State, France's highest administrative jurisdiction. The government claimed that the actions of the woman, who has been married to a French man since 2010, "reveal a lack of assimilation."

The question of gender boundaries is not limited to Islam. When Mike Pence became Vice President of the United States, an interview from 2002 resurfaced in which the evangelical Christian revealed that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. A 2015 survey by National Journal found that several female aides in Washington reported being barred from "driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression," reports The Atlantic. The magazine argues that similar policies harm women's progress by cutting them off from powerful people for long parts of the day.

Also Orthodox Judaism has rules forbidding a man from touching a woman who isn't his wife. Earlier this year, a Jewish candidate in a local election in Antwerp, Belgium, caused controversy by initially refusing to shake hands with women, the Flanders news site VRT NWS reports. He planned to run representing the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (CD&V). One of the party's leaders, Hendrik Bogaert, wrote on Twitter that a man who refuses to shake a women's hand "doesn't belong on a CD&V list."