Sunday, March 31, 2013

What the Redefinition of Marriage in France and the United States Says about Our Cultural and Political Differences (and what it does not).

In our ongoing quest for better understanding the cultural differences between France and the United States, the issue of same-sex marriage (or Marriage for All as it is called in France) is a case in point as it has been in the headlines in both our countries this week. It makes for an interesting pause.

In the United States, the talk is mostly about legal rights and equality, when in France, it's been mostly about families and children.This of course stems from significant differences in cultural, legal and political contexts. In the U.S. the battles for equality and civil rights are typically fought in court (up to the Supreme Court) rather than through the legislative process as in France.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases:
- one concerns the constitutionality of California's ban on gay marriage (Called Prop 8)
- the other is a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996  which prevents the recognition of same-sex marriage at the federal level, even when recognized by individual states.

In France, a bill granting French same-sex couples (better known as Marriage for All / Mariage pour Tous) the right to marry and jointly adopt children was recently voted by the National Assembly in February. It now needs to be approved by the Senate to become law. The vote is scheduled for April 4. So last week-end was sort of a last chance for the opponents to gather people and express their view... in the streets of Paris. And they did.

And this yet another major difference between France and the U.S.: whereas Americans fight against what they deem as unjust laws in court before a judge; in France, they do so in the streets so as to put pressure on their political leaders, especially right before a vote in the House or the Senate. As a result, the impressive marches and counter-demonstrations need to be taken into cultural perspective. It is quite common in France.

In both our countries, the right-wing parties (The Republican Party in the U.S. and the UMP in France) are the parties of opposition to same-sex marriage. In the U.S., however, the Republicans are slowly changing their minds, including some of their leaders (NYTimes) but also major conservative pundits like Bill O'Reilly (see here). This is due to change in public opinion as polls show that supports for same-sex marriage even among American conservatives is growing. It is also the result of individual politicians changing their minds because they have relatives coming out, as is the case of Senator Portman. (here)

In France, the political context is very different as the left-wing government is down in the poll and under a lot of pressure because of a very gloomy economic environment. So the opposition is emboldened and seizes any political opportunity that can become a lightning rod for anger over President Francois Hollande’s economic policies:
Some demonstrators called for Hollande to resign, citing France’s deteriorating economy. “The protestors’ slogans have changed,” Le Parisien newspaper said. “They are no longer limited to the subject of marriage but are encroaching on economic matters.”(Bloomberg). 
The latest major protest last week drew between 300 000 (according to the authorities) and 1.4 million people (claimed by the organizers), ... and the the truth is probably in between, (say 600, 000). Of course, not all the protesters have done so for political reasons alone, but nonetheless, pretty much all of them were right-wing voters and/or catholic activists, including extremists for some of them.

Some commentators in France (here in French) have even seen similarities between the 'Demonstration for All' (as the anti-Marriage-for-All demonstrators have called themselves) and the Tea Party in the United States. The resemblance is indeed striking.

Both movements:
  • are made of white middle-class conservatives who can't keep up with change,
  • believe they defend the traditional values of the country,
  • claim to be non-political but to represent the "silent majority",
  • are against the "mainstream media" (who, they believe, have all an agenda)
  • have a lot of anger in them (and express it - read this article in French), and promise doom, including civil war, if they are not listened to (France-info)
  • use patriotic symbols (national flags), including founding mythical revolutionary symbols from the 18th century. (see pictures below)

  • are well organized, with codes,  colors (yellow / pink) and flags.
  • have chosen charismatic female voices (Sarah Palin / Frigide Barjot) as their leaders.
  • deny the legitimacy of the representative democracy

Of course, the comparison only goes so far - for one, the Manif Pour Tous movement is so far only focused on the same-sex marriage issue, and it is also tied to the catholic church who's been a very vocal opponent.

Despite these movements, it should be noticed that in both France and the U.S.polls show that a majority of people support same-sex marriage. (here France and here for the U.S.).

As far as the issue is concerned in France, the opponents to Marriage-for-All framed it not in terms of equality, as you might have expected, but in terms of "family values", not only regarding adoption (which is in the bill) but also concerning the right for reproductive technology or gestational surrogacy (which are not in the bill). The latter is not only illegal in France for heterosexual couples, but it is also a very divisive issue. Hence the confusion.

As a result, the debate has not been about the rights of homosexuals to marry but about their rights to have a children (which tends to be more divisive). Eventually, this was shifted to the "rights of children" (i.e. to have both a father and a mother) as opposed to the rights of adults.
This semantic spin is very powerful: first because it seems like a legitimate question, then because it confuses people who are not very familiar with the issue and finally because the right of children is undeniably sacred. (Who can seriously be against children's rights?), and trumps over the right of adults.
But instead of focusing on the rights of children of gay couples, who already exist, they have turned the argument to the right of potential children who do not yet exist  (i.e. who may be born if the bill becomes law.)
By saying that a child needs both a father and a mother, they actually assume that single-sex parents are not good enough to raise children. This ironically fails to take into account the fact that, in France, it has been legal for at least 50 years for single people to adopt a child,without anyone making any fuss about it.
The magic word used for the right of children argument by all the opponents to the bill is "filiation" - not a very common word in English or French. It means "lineage" and is often used in legal discourse to determine the paternity of a child. (see this Le Monde Article).  It is a very powerful concept because it is linked to heritage - a concept central to French culture and identity. France even has a special day of celebration of its national heritage, called "Heritage Day" (Journée du Patrimoine) and the success of its grand Agricultural Fair in Paris is another expression of the French symbolic attachment to their roots.
This is clearly a cultural difference between France and the United States. This question of "filiation" is not something you'd hear in the American debate, even when the question of adoption is raised.

In fact, just last week, Justice Antonin Scalia, a very conservative Supreme Court Justice also linked the
redefinition of marriage to the question of adoption, he said :
And there is considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that os harmful to the child, or not. (Wash. Post)
As Jon Stewart reminded us, his claim is contradicted by serious studies, including those done by the American Academy of Pediatrics who say
There is no cause-and-effect relationship between parents' sexual orientation and children's well being". 
Here's also what the American Sociological Association reports:
The claim that same-sex parents produce less positive child outcomes than opposite-sex parents—either because such families lack both a male and female parent or because both parents are not the biological parents of their children—contradicts abundant social science research. Decades of methodologically sound social science research, especially multiple nationally representative studies and the expert evidence introduced in the district courts below, confirm that positive child wellbeing is the product of stability in the relationship between the two parents, stability in the relationship between the parents and child, and greater parental socioeconomic resources. Whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child’s wellbeing. (Read here, p.3)
Clearly, if the standard for recognizing marriage is whether or not the couple would make good parents, a lot of heterosexuals should not marry.

Stewart of course says it way better:


Of course the 'filiation problem' is just a smoke screen which has no bearing on reality. It is a lot of hot hair that's been well crafted so as to seem to be part of the widely shared national cultural values. The tactic is clearly to confuse and scare people. In this respect, it is not so different from the tactics of the Tea Party movement.
What it comes down to is the belief that homosexuals cannot be proper parents. It is nothing new even if the packaging is different. It is rooted in the old idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, even a a perversion and that it will pervert innocent children.

As for the argument of "tradition", which denounces the change in the law on the ground of tradition,  it is precisely that tradition that saw homosexuality as a legally intolerable perversion. The use of tradition in this respect is indicative of a very poor understanding of history. Clearly, just like the civil union 10 years ago, it will soon be a non-issue. But in the meantime, it is painful to watch so much anger and intolerance.

Whereas the decision of the Supreme Court remains to be seen, and won't be made before June, it is likely that the French Senate will vote the law on April 4 anyway. So why the big fuss? What do the anti-Marriage-for-All people want?

Well, they say they want a referendum, which seems like a good democratic principle since it lets the entire nation decide, but in fact it is a very dangerous populist argument.
  • First, because referendums in France have always been not about the question asked, but about whether or not you support the government. 
  • Second, because article 11 of the Constitution (ironically passed by the conservative Sarkozy majority) specifies that it is impossible to have a referendum on questions concerning the civil society (See here in French)
  • Thirdly, and more importantly, because you don't put a fundamental right to a vote precisely precisely because of the risk of the majority tyrannizing the minority. That's the whole idea of fundamental civil rights and this is a civil rights issue (see my post here) It's like asking white people whether blacks could marry whites in the American South in the 60s. Being gay is no different in the sense that it is part of who you are and not something you can change. As such, it is a civil rights issue, not a simple political issue. 
Lastly, and despite everything I have said here, and my attempts at understanding this movement, I still fail to see why people get so worked up about a law that would not affect their lives in the least and is simply an extension of their own existing rights. In this case, giving more rights  to others does not take anything away from anyone else. And those people call themselves Christian? Where exactly does their action fit anything Jesus ever said?
At the risk of being politically incorrect, the arguments used by people opposing same-sex marriage are steeped in bigotry, and there's no other way around it. And this is true both in France and the United States. Our bigots may look and sound different, but deep down, they are very similar.

Bigotry is the result of ignorance and a lack of basic empathy. The very fact that people who have relatives that come out gay change their minds - think of Dick Cheney for instance - is very telling. Once people put a human face to homosexuality, they become more accepting. They don't define them by their sexual orientation. They see them as real people with the same basic needs, faults and qualities who just happen to have a different sexual orientation. So once more homosexuals come out, people will realize that they are in every circle, and they will become more tolerant and less judgmental.
So there is hope of light of the end of tunnel. We can already see it! Alleluia!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

How American Series (sometimes) Reinforce Negative Clichés about the World.

Even though the number of U.S. passports issued is on the rise, a majority of Americans do not travel and view the world only through what they hear and see in the media. This lack of exposure makes them an easy prey to clichés and nothing is better than fiction to reinforce or change clichés.
So this recent episode of "The Good Wife" called "Je Ne Sais What?" got my attention as the trailer promised that  "cultures will clash" and clearly seemed to deal with French characters :

For those who don't know, The Good Wife is a legal drama centered around the wife of a former state attorney who was jailed after a humiliating sex and corruption scandal. In order to provide for her family,  she returns to work as a litigator in a law firm. As always with American series, each episode deals with several characters and narratives.
The 'cultural clash' plot is about one of the main characters, Will Gardner, one the senior lawyers in the firm who has to replace another lawyer at the last minute to defend Anna, an athlete accused of doping before  the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), which operates under rules set by Swiss law.

Of course, you can already assume that since Will is defending Ana, she must be certainly innocent, and that it's got to be somewhat not so simple, or else there would be no plot.

The court hearing looks to be on the cheap - it is set at a sport training facility with just a few tables and chairs.
The judges in panel are all European - one Italian, one German, and the presiding judge, a Frenchman, called Villapique, a character seemingly based on former French Foreign minister Villepin (who gained fame by opposing the U.S. at the United Nations in the debated leading up to the War in Iraq).
In the first scene Villapique starts right away in French, even though he's on US soil. This of course is meant to show that the judge assumes that everyone else speaks French,  a sign of the cultural arrogance of the entire court.
"What the hell?? It's in French?" wonders Will Gardner who tells the judge he doesn't speak French. Villapique tells him (in perfect English - hardly credible when you know most French people!) that the court agrees to continue in English "for your benefit", he adds, with a smirk, after the opposing lawyer, an American presenting the case against Ana, says in perfect French (Not the slightest accent - not very credible either) that Will is "yet another victim of our American educational system."
This first scene ends with Will Gardner introducing himself as "Will Gardner, from good old US of A"
Obviously, everything is set for a great clash of cultural misunderstanding indeed: the good all-American lawyer Vs. the European arrogant panel led by a snotty French.

Baffled by what he initially thought would be an easy wrap, Will Gardner asks for the help of a senior partner of the firm, Diane Lockhart,  a character well versed in art (she can spend huge amounts on paintings for the office) and all forms of high culture, who of course speaks French.
This comes in handy when the panel starts grumbling in French.  Diane is able to show them not only that she understands them but also to admonish them in both English and (terrible) French,  concluding “Prejudices have no place here.” Judge Villapique looks mesmerized, as if charmed by Diane's strong character.

Will also discovers that he has to  present a defense without hearing the charges, and when he later objects, he is told that "There is no objecting. This is not ‘Law & Order.’ (Great mise en abyme of a fiction referring to another fiction!)
Even worse, when our all-American lawyer tries to cross examine the analyst who tested Anna’s sample, Judge Villapique objects by saying “This is not an American court, Mr Gardner, we don't need to be at each other's throat. This is not Rambo.”
What is it with him and Rambo?” Will  later wonders, “Does anybody even watch ‘Rambo’ anymore?” According to the judge, the rules do not require actual proof. In other words, it is up to the accused to prove she is not guilty.
Our good American lawyers decides to flip the German Judge by showing that the French judge was biased against a German cyclist in another ruling. Then they also get the Italian judge on board by getting Kalinda (a cute investigator in the firm) to flounce over her in her miniskirt to present papers, and of course, what is assumed works.

In the end, it turns out that the French judge used his influence to get rid of the German cyclist to favor a French one, and so the three judges get at each other's throats. This could actually be a great metaphor for a meeting of European leaders at E.U. Commission!

As you can see in the video below, the scene ends with Villapique telling the German Judge (in French) "At least my athletes are not nazis!"


On the face of it, it seems rather funny, and to a certain extent, it is. It plays on clichés which are, after all, often the stuff of comedy.
There is however, a more serious side to it: it reinforces a number of negative clichés, not just about the French or just the Europeans but anything not American, and in the end it amounts to adding fuel to the the belief in American Exceptionalism.
Clearly, the Europeans in this scene are shown as rude and arrogant, and with no respect for the country they're in. It is exactly the negative clichés that many Americans have had about the French, ever since De Gaulle at least, and to be honest, the French have often met their expectations - unfortunately.
Those scenes though are not about cultural misunderstanding but rather about a moral dichotomy between what is American (and what is "right", fair and innocent) and what is foreign (or unruly, and corrupt). There is no attempt by any of the characters to understand where the others are coming from, as they use more clichés (like Rambo) to qualify what the others do.
The implication is also that the law outside the U.S. is not just different but deeply unfair, biased and even corrupt, as the last scene shows.
This also says plenty about why so many Americans were in denial regarding Lance Armstrong and believed him innocent even though tests in France had shown he was doped. The results had to be a French anti-American conspiracy (See my articles here and here). What else?

The Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) exists in real life, and even though I am not familiar with how they work and proceed, from what I have gathered online, most studies point to a court with plenty of credibility:  "Since its creation as an arm of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1984, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has grown to the stature of a respected independent authority in the resolution of sports-related disputes of every kind" (Source here)

Here's the conclusion of an academic study:
The foregoing study has shown that the CAS forms an integral part of the world-wide fight against doping. It can provide effective protection for the rights of the accused athlete and is able to ensure that the fight against doping will be upheld unremittingly.
And another:
To conclude, CAS is likely the most appropriate internal regulator of the internationalsport system. It is an independent body that exercises a supervisory jurisdiction over international sport bodies, operating both within and outside the Olympic Movement, includingWADA. Indeed, the responsibility of CAS to exercise this role is essential to its legitimacy as anautonomous regulator of the international sport system.
Here's a legal comment found on the Website of The Pepperdine School of Law:
When reviewing CAS awards, the SFT and U.S. courts recognize there  is no place for nationalism and ethnocentrism in the legal regulation of  Olympic and international sport, a judicial view consistent with the  approach the CAS generally takes when applying national law in appeals  arbitration and ad hoc Division proceedings. (Source here)
More here.
Clearly, this episode of The Good Wife not only departs from reality - which is, after all, the very nature of a fiction - but it actually mocks it. The implications are political in nature by giving a bad image of an international institution that is unfair and corrupt and whose very system is prejudicial, and fails to give the basic rights to the accused. This of course is in line with the belief of many conservative Americans who don't think the U.S. should be accountable to the U.N. or the International Criminal Court. This was well illustrated by the Bush Administration's policy of hostility towards the court and dismiss of the United Nations in his war in Iraq.

One could wish that a legal drama actually spent more time on explaining the differences between the adversarial system (or adversary system), as in the United States, where two advocates represent their parties' positions before an impartial person or group of people to determine the truth of the case, and  the inquisitorial system, as in France,  in which a judge (or a group of judges who work together) investigate the case. (Wikipedia). Personally, I prefer the adversarial system, which, for one think makes better dramas, but a case can be made in favor of the inquisitorial system, which does not trump on basic fundamental rights either.

But there was probably nothing dramatic enough in being pedagogical for the writers of The Good Wife, which is one of reasons why this show is clearly not as good and interesting as Law & Order as far as legal dramas are concerned.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Tire-d of Clichés? A French-American Spat that Will not Be.

Franco-American relationships took a blow this week, thanks to American CEO of tire maker Maurice Taylor. Mr Taylor did not only dismiss the French government invitation to invest in a struggling tire factory in northern France, he did so by writing a letter that has shocked la France entière, in which he claimed that the country's “so-called” workers put in “three hours a day” with the rest spent eating and talking. (see NYTimes article for details)

The French government, naturally upset, responded by saying that the letter was "extremist and insulting" and displayed "a perfect ignorance of what our country is about", ending with a warning note of potential retaliation "Be assured that you can count on me to inspect your tire imports with a redoubled zeal"

Mr Taylor is also a right-wing Republican who made a try in the presidential primaries in 1996, à la Ross-Perot, who "promised to balance the federal budget in 18 months, mainly by cutting about one-third of all the bureaucrats." and co-authored a book called " Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government." Now of course, one can only imagine that his visit to a French factory and talks to French unions must have been like two worlds colliding.

Mr Taylor also added what looks more like old clichés than anything else:
"France does have beautiful women and great wine. PS: My grandmother named my father after French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, and I inherited the name."
In a final flourish, he said: “I have visited Normandy with my wife. I know what we did for France.” (Telegraph)

This comes in a context when the French are indeed rather sensitive to "le French bashing", as the Telegraph rightfully observed:
They think nobody loves them. They are inclined to see signs of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy involving credit rating agencies (why did they downgrade France but not, until Friday night, the UK?), the British press (led by The Economist), prime minister David Cameron with his proffered red carpet for exiled entrepreneurs, and now multinationals such as Titan and ArcelorMittal.
Clearly, this is clearly noticeable in the way the media reacted to the story:
The French daily le Parisien actually sounded hurt Feb. 21 when it ran a front-page headline declaring, “No, the French Aren’t Lazy!” Reports elsewhere revealed that Goodyear employees working reduced hours in Amiens do so at management’s requests in response to slumping activity. Harder-hitting French commentators took aim at the avowedly right-wing Taylor, and poking fun at his ferocity-inspired nickname, “the Grizz”—a bearish association he shares with Sarah Palin. True to that company, left-leaning daily Libération described Taylor as “an extremist used to provocations.” In other words, exactly the kind of American businessperson France and most Europe wants nothing to do with. (Time)
Granted there may be some need for self-criticism on the part of the French, especially regarding the communist-backed CGT union who is radical and uncompromising. Besides, the It remains that the charges that the French workers are lazy do not stand when faced with statistics. Even the Financial Times agrees.
Here's what Time Magazine concludes:
Statistics compiled by international organizations routinely find French workers among the most productive in the world in terms of GDP per hours worked. Numbers from 2011 rank, French employees seventh globally in per hour productivity—three places (but less than 3% behind) the U.S. workforce. French labor productivity per hour actually exceeds that of Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. when calculated in adjusted euro figures. That reputation-defying efficiency has also helped make France the ninth-largest recipient of foreign direct investment in 2011 with $40.9 billion—third among European Union members. Not bad for a place where everybody supposedly takes lunch breaks and talks all day.
So could this French bashing lead to American bashing in return? I doubt it. This is most likely of little consequence in the long term as Mr Taylor has been seen as a nutjob rather than a representative of anything more than himself.
This little incident got the U.S. State Department's attention though:
Earlier, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland played down the cross-Atlantic spat as a "private matter" and not a concern between the United States and its "oldest ally" France.
"We have deep and broad relations, including many successful American businesses operating in France, many successful French businesses operating in the United States," she added. (Telegraph)
One of the most damaging consequences is probably that this diverts the attention from some of the true problems France faces, by victimizing a whole nation. Making outrageous statements does not help, especially when you point out the wrong problems.
As much as I disagree with the solutions The Economist usually offers, I agree with their conclusion on this matter:
At a time when the country has lost competitiveness to Germany, the economy is sliding into recession, taxes are at a record high, and the government has conceded that it will miss its deficit-reduction target for 2013, genuine concerns about the prospects of turning things around are wide-spread. Clara Gaymard, the French head of GE, an American conglomerate which successfully manufactures high-tech industrial stuff in France, put it well in her response to Mr Taylor’s letter. Yes, she said, “France’s image abroad is poor”. But “we are both a wonderful country and a very irritating one. (The Economist)
In the end, this spat between an American Republican businessman and the French government may not even be worth the time I spent writing this post.

UPDATE: The latest "twist" to this ridiculous story is a letter sent by Coca Cola to the French government in which the soft drink company says it “was happy to invest in France, for over 90 years" (....) and "hopes to more actively promote the attractiveness of the French territory to foreign companies,”.
(Source: Le Monde)

Ordinary Heroes in SOTU Addresses.

Heroes have always played a central role in American culture, starting with the pioneer, or the cowboy of the Frontier, extending to national political heroic figures like the Founding Fathers, George Washington (like in this statue of Washington as Zeus in the National Museum of American History) or Abraham Lincoln.
If the Greek hero was a demigod with both extraordinary powers and human flaws (think of Hercules, Perseus, or Achilles), a bit like today's fictitious Superheroes, the American hero is typically an ordinary person who distinguishes himself or herself not by his powers but by his or her character.
One of the roles of national leaders is to honor national heroes, and this is not specifically American. Plato and Thomas Hobbes already noted that one of the functions of republics was to reward those who serve them and are conductive to good citizenship.
American presidents have thus always referred to heroes from the nation's past, including their predecessors. U.S. presidents have also liked to project themselves as "hero-presidents", from Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and G. W Bush (as when he landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln aboard an S-3B Viking jet, emerged from the aircraft in full flight gear before announcing "Mission Accomplished)... to name the most obvious ones.

But not everyone can be a George Washington, an Abraham Lincoln a Martin Luther King, or even a George W Bush. This is something that Ronald Reagan understood well when he broke the tradition of just naming heroes of the past and started introducing ordinary citizens in his speeches to Congress.
This began in his State of the Union address in 1982, when he named, Lenny Skulnik, a Federal Government employee who dove into the icy Potomac River after the crash of a plane to save a woman. According to Reagan, this ordinary citizen embodied "the spirit of American heroism at its finest." One of the goals was to democratize heroes, and the president made it very clear:
We don't have to turn to our history books for heroes. They're all around us. 
It was such a defining moment that every other president has continued and extended this tradition ever since, and the term "Lenny Skutniks" has been used to refer to individuals invited to sit in the gallery, and often cited by the President, during the speech

Barack Obama's state of the Union two weeks ago was no exception. In fact, it may have been the only rhetorically and emotionally powerful bit of his speech, in what was otherwise a more substantive than poetic address. At this point, two questions may arise: What sort of heroes do these citizens represent? And, if we assume that the mention of individuals serves a rhetorical and political function what political role do they play?

Initially, when Reagan cited Skutnik, there did not seem to be much more political meaning other emphasizing individual moral responsibility. Skunik belongs to the "rescuer" type of heroes, if we consider Professor of Political Science Gerald Pomper's typology of heroes (in Ordinary Heroes and American Democracy).
This citation is meant to be uplifting by associating ordinary citizens (and thus the entire nation) to extraordinary deeds as well as giving a role model of good citizenship. As a result, even the most common person in menial occupations can become heroes.
This is what Reagan said in his 1984 SOTU:
 And then there are unsung heroes: single parents, couples, church and civic volunteers. Their hearts carry without complaint the pains of family and community problems. They soothe our sorrow, heal our wounds, calm our fears, and share our joy.
Eventually, Reagan's heroes evolved into other types, such as the 'champions over adversity', especially the "entrepreneurs who had pulled themselves up through their own enterprise or who carried out projects on behalf of the poor or downtrodden that governments might otherwise have to shoulder."
(See Vile, John; Presidents as Commenders in Chief- Recognitions of Citizen Heroes from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, Congress & the Presidency, Vol. 34, N°1, spring 2007), who are also the champions over adversity types.

This enabled Reagan to recognize successful minorities and immigrants, while illustrating the great opportunities of American capitalism, making government help seem unnecessary.

The practice of naming ordinary Americans in state of the Union addresses continued with G. H Bush and began to include war heroes that fit the category of "martyrs", giving a moral and emotional accent to the rational of the wars in Panama and Iraq.
In 1993 for instance, G. H Bush quoted the widow of a war heroes who died in Iraq, as saying that she would one day be able to tell her children "that their father went away to war because it was the right thing to do."
But it is Bill Clinton who used this rhetorical device the most. He cited more ordinary Americans in his speeches than any other president and went even further than his predecessors in making direct connection between them and his policies - particularly his welfare reforms ("the real heroes of the welfare revolution") or gun control bills.
In 1996, president Clinton mentioned a federal worker, Richard Dean, who had saved people after the Oklahoma City bombing, but had been subsequently forced out of his office when the Government shut down, as a way to blame the Republicans:
On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Let's never, ever shut the Federal Government down again. (Bill Clinton, SOTU, 1996)
The mention of a number of minorities may have helped him with the Hispanic or Asian communities but it also put a human face to a number of reforms. What better face than Rosa Parks, the "perfect activist" in Clinton's own words to get support for his "Employment Non-Discrimination Act" and his "Hate Crimes Prevention Act,”?

Just like some of Clinton, G W Bush used ordinary Americans to illustrate his political agenda, starting with his tax-cuts or faith-based initiatives. But following 9/11, and the subsequent wars, G. W Bush mentioned more war heroes and martyrs than other presidents. Like all national war heroes those martyrs illustrated "the honor of serving and dying for (their) country", thus giving legitimacy to the war, but their sacrifice took more universal significance, as they died for freedom itself:
Ladies and gentlemen, with grateful hearts, we honor freedom's defenders, and our military families, represented here this evening by Sgt. Norwood's mom and dad, Janet and Bill Norwood. (G.W Bush, 2005).
Similarly, Barack Obama linked his 'heroes' to his policies regarding the economy, green energy, healthcare, or more recently, to voting reform and gun control. He also chose heroes who emphasize his narrative on the American Dream, especially in the context of the economic crisis. Somewhat unexpectedly for a Democrat, the true hero of the story can be the business itself:
a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie's tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant."
In this case, the "single mom" is a "champion over adversity" but the company (Siemens) is also heroic as it is the actual rescuer. In a similar fashion, a private company is literally the true hero of this story:
Center Rock manufactured the drill bits and other equipment used to find and rescue 33 trapped Chilean miners in October 2010. (Obama, SOTU, 2011)
The only major differences between democratic and republican presidents - for as much as our 30-year sample is of any significance - stems from their political agenda and their view of government, with greater emphasis of Clinton and Obama on the positive role of government and on communities, whereas Bush I & II were more strictly interested in individual successes, with more mention of war heroes in the case of G. W Bush, linked to the war on terror.

By looking at the different types of heroes cited in State of the Union addresses in the last 30 years, we can make a few other observations:

  • Citing an ordinary American as a role model for his or her action, or his moral qualities has been on the increase, with a peak in the Clinton years, and has become a requirement.
  • These heroes are carefully chosen to illustrate a policy and are highly dependent on the political context. 
  • They serve different functions: 
    • they put a human face on policies that may be complicated to explain,
    • they reinforce the belief in the exceptionalism of the nation, 
    • they make citizens feel good about themselves by proxy and association, 
    • they legitimate the actions of the president, 
    • they make heroism more democratic, including minorities that were not part of the classical all-male, all-white pantheon of American heroes. 
On the other hand, flattering "the people", and using basic emotions instead of relational arguments seem more like populism. Another potential problem is that the very mention of too many heroic figures linked to policies may be counterproductive by making them look banal or insincere. If anyone can be a hero, then heroes lose their meaning. If the ordinary citizens-as-heroes are to be credible, they will have to be farther and fewer between, and their link to policies will have to be more subtle.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Same Sex Marriage Debate(s)?

It is quite rare that similar legislation are debated at about the same time on either side of the Channel, but this month, both the U.K. and France are about to make same-sex marriage legal.
On Feb. 12, the French National Assembly is expected to pass a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. Although the bill still needs to win the approval of the French Senate and be signed by the president, it is expected to become law as soon as May 2013.
On Feb. 5, the British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favor of a same-sex marriage measure. Another vote in the House of Commons and a vote in the House of Lords are still to come, but the bill is expected to pass and become law in summer 2013. (Pew Forum)
In both countries, the legislation has large public support (here and here).

Nationwide, there is a now majority of public opinion in favor of it. But, as always with the U.S., most laws are defined by the states, rather than the federal government. So far, 9 states have legalized same-sex marriage - 3 of which through popular vote - but 30 states prohibit it in their constitutions.
At the federal level, The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996, prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and allows each state to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states (Wikipedia).
Since then, a lot has happened: both Bill Clinton changed and Barrack Obama changed their minds a (here and here), and Obama became the first sitting president to endorse marriage rights for same-sex couples. As with other politicians, it seems that this change of mind can be attributed to personal ties, and to having gay people leading comfortably conventional lives in their worlds. Exposure is definitely a key factor in how people respond.
As often the case in major legal issues in the United States, it is now up to the Supreme Court to weigh in, notably about the constitutionality of DOMA. (NYTimes). It remains to be seen whether the justices have also had similar exposure as other politicians have. Their decision is expected in June.

In the meantime, it may be interesting to hear what happens elsewhere. As you can see in Jon Stewart's funny report here below, the debate and vote in the U.K. was relatively uncontroversial and swift (only 6 hours),  ending in a 400–175 vote in favor, including almost half of the the Tories (conservative).


This is definitely not something you'll see in France and probably not in the U.S. either. Despite public support in these countries, the topic is also clearly more controversial and divisive for American and French politicians alike.
You may be surprised of the similarities of the arguments used by the most extreme conservatives in both France and the United States. As in the video above, similar outrageous homophobic have floated around linking homosexuality to polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and even zoophilia (The Guardian)

In a measure of the bitterness of the public debate, Serge Dassault, CEO of the Dassault industrial group and a conservative politician, predicted in November that gay marriage would lead to the decline of the French nation, like the peoples of ancient Greece.
"We'll have a country of gays and in 10 years there'll be nobody left - that's stupid," the senator for the centre-right UMP party said.
In September, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon, argued that plans to redefine the concept of marriage would open the door to incest and polygamy. (BBC)

Most surprisingly, in a country with such strict separation between church and state, religious leaders have been deeply involved and unanimously against the bill, even though the new law would only affect civil marriage, which are strictly distinct from religious ones. (In France, people who want to marry in the church have two ceremonies - one for the Republic, and one with a priest).
Yet, almost half of practicing catholics are in favor of it and even the right-wing Catholic review Temoignage Chretien (Christian Testimony) has endorsed this bill in an editorial, (published in Le Monde).:
The impact of its statement is even more interesting in that it comes from a religious publication:
"Homosexuality has been persecuted or oppressed for many centuries. However, it is a sexual orientation as legitimate and worthy as heterosexuality. Marriage is a contract chosen by people more freely and willingly today than ever. … Denying homosexuals that contract would add yet another layer of discrimination on those who have been too often subjected to such indignities. That's why we believe it is fair to open marriage to those who want to give a legal framework to strengthen their union.” (Translation here)
As in the U.S. this new bill was also a political opportunity for the conservative opposition to the government to rally its radical wing, especially after the deep division over the leadership of the party.
The French right (....) has attempted to draw out the proceedings for as long as possible. More than 5,300 amendments have been tabled by the opposition, some of which were absurdist, such as the demand that polygamous and incestuous marriages be legalised in the name of equal rights.
Several rightwing MPs warned of an influx of gay foreigners wanting to marry in France. With about 3,000 amendments still to be dealt with in at least another week of debate, the spats are continuing, with the speaker of parliament often urging both sides to calm down. (The Guardian)
Since the law would also allow gay couples to adopt, the conservatives have strategically focus the debate on "children", but not the children of the gay couples that exist, but of the potential children that might exist and be raised by gay families, claiming the "children need both a father and a mother", conveniently forgetting that single people have had the legal right to adopt since 1966. This was as smart as the support for adoption by gay couples barely reaches 50%.

That being said, there was there more to it than mere political expediency as for a lot of people who demonstrated against the bill, it was more about what it means to be a parent than about marriage. Then there is a fear for some people that it might lead to legalizing artificially induced pregnancies for gay couples, and surrogate motherhood which is seen by many in France as exploitation of poor working women by the rich (NYTimes) - something that goes against the founding myths of France.

Because this is France, philosophy and intellectual debates play a greater role in shaping public opinion than in any other country.
In a brilliant Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune, Robert Zaresky considers that at the heart of the matter is the meaning of the trio of revolutionary values — liberty, equality and fraternity — that France has made its own since 1789, illustrating the  question by the debate between two of France’s most influential intellectuals: Elisabeth Badinter and Sylviane Agacinski, who a fierce debate with similar argument about a law imposing sexual parity in political office.
At heart of it, is a disagreement  about attributing rights based on difference instead of sameness.
Basically, Badinter rejected political "parité" for the same reasons she favors same-sex marriage - the idea that revolutionary France’s liberating credo is based on the universal character of human rights, and the no one should be treated different based on race or gender.
Attributing rights based on difference instead of sameness would reduce the nation to a motley collection of tribes, each pursuing its own instead of the nation’s interest. France would become little better than America, where the range of hyphenated citizens would be as varied as the coffees at Starbucks.
For Agacinski, life’s fundamental dichotomy is the biological difference between a man and a woman, and the difference needs to be recognized so inequality can be remedied. This view also leads her to believe that "the family is yoked to biological filiation", which has been the argument of those opposing the bill.
The problem is that both claim their respective positions have universal foundations which may explain in part the radicalization of the debate.
Where Agacinski glimpses the end of civilization as we know it, Badinter sees civilization as we should know it. 
It seems to me that this EITHER/OR is a false dichotomy. There is room in the French republic for those who claim the "right to be different" (a popular motto of the 60s and 70s) and those who claim "the right to be the same".
There is more danger in denying differences; as Badinter does, because it threatens individual liberties to which all humans aspire.
That being said, I also fail to see the logical link between the fundamental different between a man and a woman, and biological filiation that Agacinski  makes. Research has shown that sexual identity is not synonymous with gender, and a child can develop his sexual identity, even when raised by same-sex parents. (notwithstanding that role models other than just the parents exist in any family).
In this respect, I agree with Badinter that desire, not biology, is essential. It is interesting that heterosexual desire for children tends to be praised, when the desires for homosexuals to have children is often seen as selfish. This reeks of homophobia.
The family, Badinter contends, is the “convergence of individual liberty and shared goals.” It is immaterial whether a couple’s child issues directly from the couple or a surrogate mother. If anything is sacred, it is not the womb, but a couple’s desire, whether they are infertile or gay, to raise a child.

I would like to end this on a note of irony in the words of Frederic Martel in another article by the NYTimes:
Now we’re at a moment when we are all a bit hysterical about marriage — gay marriage. But this is really a conservative movement, about stability in society and being good parents and protecting children and becoming rather ordinary.” (NYTimes)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

President Obama's Inaugural Address, a New Rhetorical Strategy.

A presidential inaugural address is a ritual of transition linking past, present and future as well as a reflection on the people, the citizenry and national identity. That's at least according to Karlyn Campbell, and Kathleen Jamieson in their masterpiece on presidential speeches,.

Indeed, an inaugural speech always makes the link between the MYTHS OF ORIGIN (sacred texts like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers, etc..) and present issues, in a light that will make the president's political agenda seem rooted in national mythology.

President Obama's second inaugural address is no exception but what makes each speech unique is the strategy used to make this link between ORIGIN and NOW credible and successful.


Very tellingly, Present Obama's speech starts with the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, and not with the words of the Constitution.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Declaration of Independence is the founding text par excellence, particularly relevant when it comes to civil rights, equality and freedom if compared to the Constitution, which, after all, asserted that slaves would count for three-fifths of a person and denied women the right to vote.
As Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for president Clinton, noticed  "The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence. This speech was really rooted in that tradition" (WP blog)
From this point, the rest of the speech is about making a convincing link between today's issues and the Declaration of Independence. As James Fallows - also a former presidential speechwriter - observed, the following sentence is the summary of the whole:
Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time
Here we also have one of the key metaphors of the speech, quite often used in American presidential discourse, and particularly in Obama's addresses (see my post here): the journey metaphor.


One of the reasons the journey metaphor is a very common metaphor in American politics is that it is a concept at the heart of the mythical American historical experience: the voyage across the Atlantic, "the errand into the wilderness" of the Puritan discourse, or the historical frontier motif of settlers who traveled westward, and Obama makes this very clear:
It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began
Very conveniently for an inaugural speech, this metaphor also encapsulates two paradoxical notions: change (the realities of our time) and continuity (the meaning of those words). It is also an ongoing process and thus allows for the imperfections of reality for the time being.
For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  
Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
This idea of process is also rendered by another metaphor: the nation as a building.
America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
Because it is also an ongoing process, it makes the discrepancy between the professed American ideals (those words) and reality seem more bearable and acceptable. What could be seen - from a cynical perspective - as hypocrisy is turned into something positive, simply yet to finish.

The journey metaphor also gives sense to the need for individual differences, if not division, as long as we keep moving from the same point of origins towards the same ideals:
.... that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still..... It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. 

A journey also implies movement - something in line with the American view that action is good and passivity is bad. This is also rooted in the Puritan discourse that exhorted people to action to assure their redemption, and America has seen itself as a "can-do" nation ever since. (Something one could see in the "Yes, I can" of Obama's first presidential campaign).
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial. 
But, unlike simple movement, a journey implies a destination and so it is purposeful and directional. Because the point of origin and the goal is the same, the journey is essentially collective: 
preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

Even if the journey is incomplete and somewhat uncertain, the president remind the American people that they can find comfort in their being on a mission: 
answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom
... and being a chosen people, akin to the Jews in the Old Testament: 
Freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
Eventually, it is the American character that justifies confidence in the future: 
we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinventionwe are made for this moment, and we will seize it -- so long as we seize it together.
These are the tenets of American Exceptionalism - something that every modern U.S. president has expressed, by they Republican or Democrat. 


Alongside the notions of 'MISSION' and 'CHOSEN PEOPLE', comes a third christian concept - that of 'SACRIFICE'. 
By using the image of "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword," president Obama refers directly to Lincoln's second Inaugural address, but instead of saying, as Lincoln did, that the civil War was God's punishment for the sin of slavery and calling for reconciliation, Obama uses this rhetoric to stress national renewal: 
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Violence here is seen in a positive light, as an opportunity to start anew and move forward and it links modern nation formation to Christian martyrology. This idea is also made obvious in Obama's insistence that God's precious gift, (freedom in the president's own words) requires sacrifice:
Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm
This too enables the president to bind together the idea of change and permanence. The lesson of the civil war was the renewal of the nation, so change is good, and change implies new action. It is part of the national mythology. 
As a result, the fights for civil liberty - Selma , Seneca Falls  and Stonewall -  are not liberal events but they are part of the American tradition. 
(NOTE: the reference to Stonewall has been given much attention by the media as the first reference to gay right history in a presidential inaugural speech. Jon Favreau, one of the main architect of the speech  said "The line about Stonewall and Selma and Seneca Falls was actually in the commencement speech he gave at Barnard [in 2012]. And so we brought it back for this because it hadn't gotten much attention at all." source Huffington Post. If nothing else, it shows that inaugural speeches are still relevant today when a president wants to get his message across). 

If blood and sacrifice may be needed, the need for change also means new policies:
enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.
We are here very far from Bush's War on Terror which implies the very opposite. 

Finally, as in any powerful speech, Obama's second Inaugural Address includes all the members of the nation in the ritual. By repeating "We, the people...", he is almost chanting, like a mantra, the words of the Constitution, thus sacralizing the people at the heart of American national experience, while at the same time legitimating his political agenda. 

The inclusion of the people goes even further by comparing the president's oath to every citizen's oath - that of a soldier, or an immigrant or every American's pledge to the flag, thus empowering the citizen as much as reming them of their obligation. In other words, the "WE, the people"... becomes the "You and I, as citizens" through the same oath to the nation, thus reinforcing the sense of national unity. 


President Obama's second Inaugural Address has cast his political agenda (climate change, equal rights for women and gays, immigration and voting reforms, market regulation) as part of the great American tradition rooted in the national mythology based on individual rights and collective action. 
In this respect on could say that Obama has used a strategy similar to that of Reagan in his first Inaugural Address. Contrary to his first Inaugural speech, president Obama did not offer bipartisanship. This time he laid out his agenda head on and did not hesitate to make direct response to the Republican political philosophy (by saying for instance, "The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.").   

As E.J. Dionne noted in his Washington Post Op-Ed:
Reagan used his first inaugural to make an unabashed case for conservatism. Conservatives who loved that Reagan speech are now criticizing Obama for emulating their hero and his bold defense of first principles.
Clearly, both Obama and Reagan's speeches are combative in tone and unapologetic, but more importantly, they use traditional American myths to make their polical agenda relevant. In this respect though, I would rather compare Obama's strategy to that of FDR who saw privileges and prejudice as threats to the American freedom, thus requiring collective action: 
Obama took the advice most notably offered in a much-discussed 2007 essay by Bill Galston for the Washington Monthly entitled “Taking Liberty,” urging progressives to reclaim the rhetoric and substance of their own championship of freedom as integral to the case for collective action through government. (Washington Monthly)
But of course, only history can tell.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance Armstrong's French Bashing.

While Lance Armstrong's "confession" is pathetic, his lie would have not lasted so long, had the sports news media not been so jingoistic, especially after EPO was find in samples of his urine by France’s national anti-doping agency (AFLD) in 2005.

On August 23, 2005, L'Équipe, a major French daily sports newspaper, reported on its front page under the headline "le mensonge Armstrong" ("The Armstrong Lie") that 6 urine samples taken from the cyclist during the prologue and five stages of the 1999 Tour de France, frozen and stored since at "Laboratoire national de dépistage du dopage de Châtenay-Malabry" (LNDD), had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO) in recent retesting conducted as part of a research project into EPO testing methods.
Armstrong immediately replied on his website, saying, "Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and tomorrow's article is nothing short of tabloid journalism.  (Wikepedia
Lance Armstrong's confession last week was particularly pathetic not because of the lie, but because of how he lied - by vehemently attacking and bullying those who had suspicion: the news media, France, or anyone who dared to speak out.
Here's an example (that I mentioned in a previous blog), when Armstrong used French-bashing for self-defense some 7 years ago:
Our defense when we look at this thing and we say -- and I guess I try to ask people to sit in my seat and say, "OK, you know, a guy in a French -- in a Parisian laboratory opens up your sample, you know, Jean-Francois so and so, and he tests it. Nobody's there to observe. No protocol was followed. And then you get a phone call from a newspaper that says we found you to be positive six times for EPO." CNN Larry King, 2005 Transcript. . 
Americans and the media in particular were in denial. They portrayed him not only as innocent but also as a victim of some sort of French anti-American conspiracy (particularly CNN, Foxnews)
As I wrote in 2005, this is because Armstrong and Landis's stories of courage and come back (cancer, hip problem) is exactly the sort of stories people want to believe in. It reaches mythical proportion and it is very hard indeed to put someone down from their pedestal once they become heroic figure. It is also hard for most people to think that "good" guys can do bad things. This is especially true in a country so thirsty for heroes that lead to blind faith.

This is something that we should all reflect on. Armstrong's lie was made possible by those who chose to believe in him despite the mounting evidence of his guilt. Innocent until proven guilt is ont thing, losing one's critical mind is another.

Django Unchained and the Victim Empowerment.

As often with Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained is a revenge/rescue tale with a mix of violent action, humor and multiple low budget cinematic references from the 70s (in this case the "spaghetti western").

But unlike classic revenge tales, where the victim (usually a woman, or a child) is avenged by a hero (a strong white male type), here, Django is not only black, he is also both hero and victim, and one of the kicks of this story is that it is ultimately about the empowerment of the victim.


Django is first introduced to us as one of the insignificant and certainly weak chain gang slaves, wearing a blanket and limping as they are escorted through Texas to their new owners. When he is freed, there is this great slow motion shot at his uncovering his blanket, as it he took away the burden of slavery, showing his back with both muscle (hero) and the scars of the whip (the "chokecherry tree" in Toni Morrison's Beloved). This is the transition from victim to potential hero and the audience is made aware of it in this scene.


While it is now established for the audience that Django is a heroic figure, for him to become a credible hero requires process and a rite of passage. The different stages he goes through are shown by the clothes he wears - from looking like a slave, to looking like a child, and by his social status - from being a slave to playing a free servant. Not quite the heroic type just yet. Very tellingly, Django chooses to wear a (funny) 18th century child-like costume (inspired by Gainsborough's Blue Boy), which may reflect on his immaturity.
The actual rite of passage for Django is not just the killing of the men who tortured and branded him and his wife, but also their whipping in front of the slaves - a very powerful scene where the victim becomes the torturer.
Django's 'heroic' character development continues with the training by the man who freed him and has become a sort of surrogate father -  dentist, Dr. King Schultz. He learns how to shoot and of course, he's a natural.
Finally, his appearance changes completely: he becomes the typical cool heroic cowboy and believably so. He is now ready to 'go and save the girl' - this is when the rescue narrative begins.

What is fascinating about Tarantino's stories is how his stories are about empowered victims: a pregnant woman left for dead (Kill Bill), three women getting their revenge on a psychopathic killer (Death Proof),  Jews killing Hitler (Inglorious Basterds). There is something definitely exciting for an audience to see a victim taking vengence, instead of having someone else do it for them. There is the feeling that victimization does not have to be a definite status or type.
In any case, Django, just Inglorious Basterds, is on the side of the oppressed.

Django Unchained has a number of types: the smart progressive father figure, the evil slave owner, the evil Uncle Tom, the heartless goal-oriented hero on a mission to save the helpless woman held who needs rescue, and each may represent different facets of the whites and blacks in ante-bellum America.
Sure, Broomhilda isn’t much more than a damsel in distress, but it comes with the genre, (the film is already 2hr45'long).
The two villains in the movie are absolutely remarkable. The character of Stephen, played by Samuel L Jackson is particularly chilling. He's probably "the most reprehensible negro in cinema history" (Jackson here). He almost seems to be the brain behind the master of the plantation. It is a fascinating idea, however unrealistic. It also reflects the status that some enslaved garnered from their proximity to the master.

The controversy over the use of the word 'nigger' seems to me completely out of touch: it is a function of the genre. Should the slave owners use the word African-american instead? This is like saying a film about WWII should not have nazi characters use anti-semitic words. There's a point when political correctness becomes absurd (see this argument developed here).
Of course, from a European perspective, the scope of offensiveness of the slur is hard to comprehend. (It is difficult for instance to understand how, in the land that worships freedom of expression, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned from a number of school because of its use of the word 'nigger'. See more here.)
As for Spike Lee who said it was "disrespectful to his ancestors" (here or here), without even seeing the movie - what he means is that no fiction about slavery should ever be made, let alone by a white man. (hence his criticism of Tarantino after Jackie Brown came out). But as he put it himself, Spike Lee does not represent the black community (see here)

Yet, this movie is precisely great for striking a fine balance between comedy and tragedy. Never in the movie, does Tarantino trivialize the pain and suffering of slavery. Whether the story is historically accurate is besides the point - it is a fiction.