Commenting mainly on France and U.S.policy in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Author of "Web of Deceit, the History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush." Now finishing a novel, "The Watchman's File," delving into Israel's most closely-guarded secret. [It's not the bomb.]
President Obama’s speech, announcing his intent to reign in
America’s global war on terror is playing out with a certain grisly irony here
in England, a country reeling from the latest terrorist act.
here is filled with ghastly images of a man, clad in a jacket and woolen
cap, glaring at the camera, a knife and meat cleaver in his bloody hand—just
after he and his partner hacked to death and tried to behead a young British
soldier in Woolwich in southeast London two days ago.
What is particularly
alarming is the similarity of these two newest terrorist murderers in the name
of Islam to the two brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon last month, to the
23 year-old son of Algerian immigrants, who shot down seven people in France a little
more than a year ago.
In England, as in the earlier attacks in the U.S. and France,
the terrorist killings provoked a wave of horror and outrage across the country.
Islamic leaders denied such dastardly deeds had anything to do with the true
faith. The murders were condemned as the totally senseless, cowardly act of
unhinged killers, their minds deranged by radical Islamist claptrap.
“Britain will never buckle,” said Prime Minister David
Cameron. “The terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values
we hold dear.”
In fact, however, as one of the two killers in Woolwich talked
to a horrified onlooker before the police arrived, in his own mind, at least, their
actions were quite rational. They were in retaliation for Britain’s
participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you
until you leave us alone.” the man with the meat cleaver said. “Your people
will never be safe. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are
dying by British soldiers everyday. We must fight them as they fight us. An eye
for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I apologize that women had to witness this
today but in our lands our women have to see the same.”
He went on, “So what if we want to live by the Sharia in
Muslim lands? Why does that mean you must follow us and chase us and call us extremists,
“Rather, your lot are extreme. You are the ones. When you drop
a bomb, do you think it picks on a person? Or rather your bomb wipes out a whole
The investigation in London is just getting underway, but
there is no evidence that the two men of Nigerian parents were part of al-Qaeda
or any sophisticated terrorist network. One of them had converted from
Christianity to Islam, but they were what the British authorities call
“self-starters,”a potentially far more dangerous threat to Britain and the West
than al-Qaeda itself.
They were almost certainly swayed by radical Islamic clerics
in England or via the Internet, such as the fiery English-language sermons
delivered by Anwar al-Alwaki, an Al Qaeda preacher based in Yemen. An American
citizen, he was killed in a drone strike in 2011. But the West’s dilemma is
that his call for wannabe jihadis to
launch whatever bloody attacks they can conjure, echoes on—as does the motto “Just
That’s also the story behind the bombings at the Boston
Marathon, perpetrated by the two young Tsarnaev brothers, immigrants from the
restless Muslim nation of Chechnya.
Here again, there is yet no evidence that they received any serious terrorist training
or were acting as agents of any sophisticated network. Like the two men in
Woolwich, they were freelancers--carrying out their own murderous schemes,
inspired by nationalist cum religious sentiments, abetted by on-line instructions
Their motives?The surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was determined to make them
clear. As he lay bleeding from his wounds, hidden from the police inside a boat
in the back yard of a Watertown, Ma., he wrote
a message on the interior wall of the cabin.
The note said the bombings
were in retaliation for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and called the
Boston victims "collateral damage" in the same way innocent victims
have been in the American-led wars. "When you attack one Muslim, you
attack all Muslims," Tsarnaev wrote.
Again, in March 2012, France was traumatized by the murderous
outburst of another young Muslim in Toulouse.Mohammed Merah, 23, first gunned down three French
soldiers—one of them Muslim—then three days later he methodically shot four more
people—a rabbi and three students at a nearby Jewish School.
He attacked the military base, Merah later told police,
because of France’s involvement in Afghanistan; and the Jewish school because
“The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” He was also outraged, he
said, by France’s ban of the full veil.
As in Woolwich and Boston, the immediate suspicion that
Merah was somehow linked to al-Qaeda; but it turned out that it wasn’t. As
I blogged at the time, Merah had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but
there was no evidence that this former petty criminal was part of any serious
That being the case, how on earth can the authorities in the
U.S. and Europe deal with the threat of such “Just-Do-It” jihadis?
Since 2005, for instance, British security services have
prevented more than a dozen terrorist plots on British soil, including a scheme
to blow up airliners with liquid-based bombs, to targeting shopping centers and
nightclubs with fertilizer-based explosives, to taking out the London stock
exchange. But the two Woolwich killers slipped through.
This, despite the fact that, according to reports here, both
of them had been on an MI-5 watch list. One had apparently been arrested while
attempting to travel to Somalia to join a radical Islamic group.
But after that, what should the authorities have done? Hold
him for life? Let him go but keep him under constant surveillance? With some
2.5 million people of Muslim descent in England? Many of them unemployed, alienated
from their government and its tendency to follow the lead of the United States
in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East. How do you keep a handle on them
French authorities also singled out Mohammed Merah for
special attention after his trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Merah shared
space on that watch-list with some 600 other radicals from right to left just in
the Toulouse area alone. Don’t forget, there are more than five million people
of Muslim descent in France, many of them also bitter, unemployed, poorly
French authorities have also foiled terrorist plots over the
past few years, but there is no way they could have predicted that a young man
like Mohammed Merah, who first turned to Salafism in a French prison, would migrate
from radical “attitude” into full-blown terrorism. Indeed, apparently before he
set out to avenge his Moslem brothers for France’s military role in
Afghanistan, Merah had earlier tried to enlist in the French army, presumably
to go to Afghanistan to fight against Islamic radicals.
Thus, there are certainly other precipitating factors—apart
from ideology alone--that transform young men and women into terrorists. The
elder Tsarnaev brother in Boston, for instance, had been a promising amateur boxer.
He was apparently radicalized when the people running the Golden Gloves
championships restricted admission
to American citizens only. That decision meant the end to Tsarnaev’s boxing
career and turned him towards religious extremism.
But, the only real common ground among the terrorist killers
have been the statements they’ve issued themselves: Their bloody actions,
they’ve all claimed, are retribution for the policies of the U.S. and its
allies in the Middle East and Central Asia, the lurid pictures of collateral
damage from Drone strikes, and the continued shame of Guantanamo.
Ironically, all those actions were supposedly undertaken to
make the U.S. and its allies safe from terrorism.
Will the apparent shift in America’s policy announced by
President Obama change that fatal dynamic? It depends on whether or not he now backs
up his high-flying rhetoric with concrete action.
The investigation is still continuing into the motives and methods
of the two Tsarnaev brothers,
but it may well be that the most terrifying lesson of the Boston Marathon
bombings is that what precipitated it were not exhortations of Al-Qaeda-linked
militants; not the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; not the carnage
wreaked by America’s drones —though all that may have played a follow-up role--but
a decision made by the folks who ran the U.S. Golden Gloves boxing competition
This is according to a must-read article
in the New York Times.
What happened was that in 2010,
the men running the boxing national Tournament of Champions changed the ground
rules so that only American citizens could compete. The result was that several
top amateur boxers were barred--among them, Tamerlan Anzorovich Tsarnaev, 23, a
young man who had immigrated with his family from Kyrgyzstan a few
years earlier and had
just won his second consecutive title as the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion
of New England.
According to the
Times, that decision was a major blow for Tamerlan. Amateur boxing had become
an intrinsic part of his identity in his new homeland—a sort of emotional underpinning.
He had talked about wanting to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, and then
According to the
Times, who interviewed dozens of people and relatives who had known Tamerlan, “His aspirations frustrated, he dropped out of boxing
competition entirely, and his life veered in a completely different direction….”
on Islam became increasingly radical, as did his hostility to the U.S. and its
actions in the Muslim world. Presumably, he also radicalized his younger
again, all that occurred, said the Times, “only after his more secular dreams
were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift.”
On the other hand, an in-depth
piece on the Tsarnaevs by the Washington
Post , makes no mention at all of Tamerlan’s being barred from the
Tournament of Champions. But it does chronicle in tragic detail the way in
which the dream that had brought Tamerlan’s family to the United States in
2004, had slowly tarnished, until it all seemed to fall apart in 2010 and 2011—when
his father, with cancer, divorced his mother, and moved back to Dagestan.
Again-all this on the
heels of Tamerlan’s being barred from the tournament of Champions.
that the precipitating factor that led to the tragedy in Boson? We’ll never know for sure. But that convoluted
and very human tale rings far truer than the facile clichés and pontifications
of the so-called experts on terrorism who filled the media over the past couple
also brings home the ultimately impossible task of the 200,000 employees of the
Department of Homeland Security, established after 9/11, with a budget of 50
billion dollars a year—dedicated to protecting Americans from exactly the kind
of terrorist activity as occurred in Boston.
do you provide one hundred percent protection to Americans when the decision by
a Golden Gloves official can propel a young man towards violent jihad, much
more effectively than a fatwa from Osama bin Laden himself?
may be interested in an earlier piece I did on the Boston Bombers: America
I write this, we still don’t know who was responsible for the horrific bombing
attack in Boston. Perhaps it will turn out to be the work of home grown
rightwing nuts; perhaps it’s the act of foreign terrorists. But, whatever the
source, what strikes me is the number of times the barbaric assault is being denounced
in Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis’s warning
that “This cowardly act will not be taken in stride.”
Indeed, “Cowardly” is the epithet being used by political figures across the
United States; it was used by an editorial writer in Kansas
City Star and a spokesman
for the United Maryland Muslim Council in Baltimore.
is the term being used in messages of support from abroad, from the Prime
Minister of India
to the Prime Minister of Italy.
all, what could be more cowardly than for some unknown, unseen, unannounced killer to blow apart and maim innocent
men women and children, without any risk to himself.
if that be the definition of cowardice, what could be more cowardly, than the now
cliché image of the button-down CIA officer agent driving to work in Las Vegas
to assume his shift at the controls of a drone circling high over some dusty
village on the other side of the world?
different are the images produced by such attacks—shattered bodies, dismembered
limbs, severed arteries, frantic aid givers and terrified survivors—how different
from the moving images of the tragedy in Boston now being broadcast and
rebroadcast on TV stations around the globe?
those scenes in mind, I would ask you to read a portion of a
blog on Drone Wars I posted a few weeks ago, citing the fact
that over the past few years, U.S. drones have made mincemeat out of an
estimated 3000 to 4000 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and
Somalia.At least 200 of them were
figures are very rough because no one--certainly not the U.S. government--is
releasing an accurate count. The London
based Center for Investigative reporting, which attempts to track the drone
strikes, has been able to identify by name only a few hundred of the actual
victims. Who knows what their political affiliations really were? Or even less,
what considerations—legal and otherwise—went into justifying their demise?
a terrifying situation.” Jennifer Gibson told me. She’s an American lawyer in
London with Reprieve, an organization taking on the “drone war” issue. “There
are villages in Pakistan,” she says “that have drones flying over them 24 hours
a day. Sometimes they’ll stay for weeks. But my clients and people there have
no way of knowing if they are being targeted. Or what kind of behavior is
likely to get them killed.
don’t know if the person riding beside them in a car or walking with them in
the marketplace may be a target. It’s terrorizing entire communities. Even
after an attack, there is no acknowledging by the U.S. government, no response
at all, absolutely no accountability. And the vast majority of casualties don’t
even have names attached to them.”
Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or
arbitrary executions, told
a conference in Geneva that President Obama's attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried
out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-established human
rights standards. He suggested that some strikes may even constitute “war
few Americans seem to carry about U.N. rapporteurs. It’s only when Americans are potential targets for
those drones, that Congress and the media get stirred up.
they’re probably right. A recent poll
taken by Farleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind, found that by a two to
one margin (48% to 24%) American voters say they think it’s illegal for the
U.S. government to target its own citizens abroad with drone strikes.
when it comes to using drones to carry out attacks abroad “on people and other
targets deemed a threat to the U.S.” voters were in favor of a margin of
six-to-one [75% to 13%].
may be interested in checking out another
blog I wrote-“Drone Wars: The End of History?”) Since I first posted this blog, a reader, Jim Rissman has sent me the link to a brief news article about a drone strike in Pakistan on Sunday--day before the Boston attack:
A US drone strike killed four militants on Sunday in the Datta Khel tehsil of North Waziristan Agency.
A security official said the US drone fired two missiles at a compound in Manzar Khel area of Datta Khel, some 40 kilometres towards west of Miramshah, the headquarters of the agency.
Tribesmen recalled seeing six drones hovering in the air since the afternoon, spreading panic and fear in the area. One of the drones fired two missiles at around sunset, killing at least four militants.
The compound caught fire after the strike leaving all the bodies burnt.
The last drone strike occurred in the agency on March 22, when US drones targeting a vehicle in Datta Khel killed four militants.
A UN envoy last month said US drone attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.
As Colin Powell famously warned George H.W. Bush on the eve of the
invasion of Iraq, “if you break it, you own it.”
France is not responsible for “breaking” Mali. The country was
already a West African basket case long before the French intervention.
But France, which enraged many Americans by refusing to
participate in the invasion of Iraq, now finds itself stuck with the results of
their own intervention.And
there’s no crazy glue in sight.
That’s what I wrote
a couple of months ago after President Francois Hollande dispatched French
troops to Mali.
The irony today is that not only is there no obvious solution to
Mali’s plight, but Hollande himself is having enormous problems running his own
deeply troubled country.
Back in January Hollande’s aides hoped that a forceful
intervention in Mali would give the lie to the charge that he was a feeble,
But now, in mid April, with 4,600 French troops in Mali, the
magazine L’Express is running an
abject photo of Holland on the cover, over the humiliating headline: “M. FAIBLE.” (Mister WEAK). Similar devastatingly
mocking jibes fill the media—from all sides of the political spectrum.
with Hollande confronting a major domestic political crisis, after his Budget
Minister-in charge of collecting taxes--admitted to having stashed money in secret
bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore, the president’s popularity is still
plummeting (now about 20%).
being driven ever lower by France’s abysmal economic situation,mounting crime and racial tensions.
With three of Hollande’s own ministers now publicly challenging the
government’s economic program, the ineluctable conclusion is that no one’s really
this is the same man who is supposedly leading the battle to save Mali from
France intervened in January, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius vowed the action
would be over in “a matter of weeks.”
in mid April, 4,600 French troops are still in the country, supported by about
6,000 soldiers from several African states. Led by the French, they’ve retaken most
of the major population centers from the jihadists who had threatened to
overrun the country. They’ve also pummeled rebel redoubts in the North, reportedly
killing hundreds of radicals and destroying tons of equipment.
the situation is still tense. Islamists who had faded into the villages and
rugged mountains are still capable of deadly hit-and-run attacks. And the ethnic
Tuaregs in the North, who began the rebellion, are still demanding autonomy or
Hollandeis also out on a limb. Though he claimed
he was acting to protect Europe from radical Islam spreading in Africa, he has
received precious little support from his European allies. Nor—aside from some
important intelligence and logistics support—has he received much real backing from
the United States.After Iraq and
Afghanistan, no one is rushing to get involved in yet another quagmire.
the Mali adventure is
costing France—whose budget is already in disarray-- close to three million
Euros a day—probably much more. By this summer, the cost will probably have
risen to at least half a billion Euros…and counting.
Hollande’s predicament now is not that different from the one
facing President Obama in Afghanistan: how to drastically decrease France’s
involvement in Mali without making it look like France has cut and run, leaving
an unseemly chaos in his wake.
solution: France will turn over the mess in their former colony, as soon as
possible, to a new “democratically-elected” Malian government.
it was that Hollande dispatched Foreign Minister Fabius to Bamako to lay down
his dictat to the major political
actors: presidential and
legislative elections were to be held by July.
rebel Tuaregs were supposed to lay down their arms, though they still occupy Kidal
and a part of Northern Mali; a French reaction force would stay in place to
ensure that “the terrorists” didn’t come back.
imagine the plans also include a kind of George W. Bush “Mission Accomplished” moment:
A beaming Hollande attending the inauguration of Mali’s new leaders. He salutes
the sacrifice of the heroic French and African troops, vows undying support for
the future of France’s former colony--and continues to withdraw French troops.
the end of 2013 only 1000 French troops will be left to work with a UN
Peacekeeping Force from other mainly African countries.
the deal. The problem, according to many observers, is that attempting to hold meaningful--never
mind democratic-- elections by July is just a wishful figment of Hollande’s
desperate imagination--a frail fig leaf for France.
if Mali were secure, the idea that it might be possible to organize a real
campaign in a country twice the size of France, draw up lists of electors when
at least 400,000 Malians from the north have fled south or to their African
neighbors, is a chimera.
no time for new political leaders or parties to organize and present
themselves, the field is left to the same threadbare, corrupt politicians who
presided over the country’s ruin and final collapse in 2012.
that debacle, it turned out that what had once been trumpeted as a showcase for
post-colonial government in Africa, was in fact a“Potemkin” democracy—all façade, no substance.
will probably be the upshot of the elections scheduled for July (if they
actually take place.)
scenario after that: those 1,000 French troops, with 10,000 soldiers and police
from the new U.N. force—many of them poorly equipped and trained—will somehow maintain
order in Mali’s restive towns and cities and vast hinterlands, while the new
government struggles to resolve the country’s huge
problems, made even more desperate by the changing climate of the Sahel.
line: fifty years after it became independent, Mali has still to rely on its
former colonial ruler to keep the country intact.
But after half a century, France, like the other
once great powers, no longer has the appetite nor the resources to play a colonial
role. Hollande, as we’ve noted, is having a hell of a time, just attempting to rule
his own restive nation.
Nor for that matter does the United States have
much in the way of state-building zeal these days. President Obama would much rather
deal with terrorist threats through killer drones, than boots on the ground and
massive aid programs.
means that imposing elections for July on Mali, though a flawed, cynical step,
may be the only realistic way forward. It may at least get some kind of
political process sputtering again.
And France and the rest of the world will provide
some aid, some investment, some military training—and Mali and its peoples will
almost certainly endure decades more of political turbulence and strife.
Their desperate situation will be mirrored in the
turmoil, which may also last for decades, of failing states across the region, from Tunis to
Libya to Egypt to Syria.
After all, the reverberations of the French Revolution,
which took place in 1789, are still being felt in France to this day.
President Francois Hollande’s government is reeling from the
latest scandal to jolt this country-the admission by Budget Minister, Jerome Cahuzac,
after months of denying the charge, that he had secret offshore accounts. This
newest affaire only adds to the strange
brew of outrage and despair that has enveloped the citizens of what was once Europe’s
Nothing brings home more starkly France’s awful decline than
a visit to the Basilica of Saint Denis in the northern suburbs of Paris. It is still
considered one of the architectural marvels of Europe. Its vaulted domes, 13th
century nave, slender towering walls and luminous stained glass windows were
models for the high Gothic style that that inspired the architects of Notre
Dame in Paris and other great abbeys and temples to the Christian God
throughout Europe. Inside are the tombs—though not always the remains--of most
of the kings and queens of France over the past 1500 years.
It’s a memorable
sight. But there were precious few tourists there when I visited yesterday; and
non apparent on the streets outside.
Once you exit the cavernous, hushed Basilica you’re suddenly
walking the main shopping streets of one of Paris’s most notorious urban slums,
filled mainly with immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from the sprawling
lands that France once ruled in Africa, not that many years ago.
Today, however, Saint Denis is more notorious for
its crime and drug rate than its basilica. Probably 25% or more of the young
people on these streets are unemployed. Saint Denis is also associated with
gang violence, car burnings, housing complexes that even the police fear to
enter, and a predominately Islamic population that feels increasingly estranged
from the rest of France.
And Saint Denis is far from being an exception in France.
Despite President Hollande’s vow when he entered office to
reduce unemployment, the number of jobless is still high—more
than 10% and growing higher--throughout the country.
As is the crime rate, from petty street and auto thefts to
apartment break-ins, assaults, and all-out gang warfare on the streets of
Marseilles. The Interior Minister talks darkly of new violent mafia-like
organizations in France, run by legal and illegal immigrants who have swarmed
into the country from Eastern Europe in the past few years.
Despite President Hollande’s promise to revitalize French
industry and block factory closures, factories continue to shut down. Others
continue to lay off thousands of workers. The 35-hour workweek still reigns
Meanwhile, Hollande’s politically-driven drive to raise
taxes on the wealthy, particularly a charge of 75% on those making more than
one million Euros a year, has probably cost France far more than any such tax
could ever bring in. The latest demented development is that the companies that
pay those salaries will also have to pay the taxes. That includes France’s
major football teams and millionaire stars.
Hundreds of thousands of French—many of the best and the brightest--have
fled abroad over the past few years, more than 400,000 to London alone.
But a survey taken found most of them left not to so much to avoid French
taxes, but to escape stifling French bureaucracy and regulations, and do
something about the huge waste.
Every French government in recent history has promised to do
something about that bureaucracy. None have succeeded in tackling the
entrenched labor unions and special interests.
In fact, most French long ago gave up their claim to be a
major power. They would happily settle for a good, secure government job, with
decent schools, housing, a comfortable retirement and continued access to one
of the world’s best medical systems. They would settle in short for security, in their own land..
But that’s exactly what’s being threatened in an atmosphere
of moral decay and crisis—of underlying rot.
Francois Hollande was elected eleven months ago to deal with
all this-to bring an end to the frenetic bling-bling
reign of Nicolas Sarkozy, to restore order, to return to a feeling of probity;
to be, as he promised, “a normal president.” Instead, he's turned out to be weak, indecisive, uninspiring.
And now comes the affaire
Jerome Cahuzac, Francois Hollande’s Minister of the Budget, who
had vowed to clean up France’s huge deficit, its finances, and go after tax
dodgers. This past December a new investigative on-line journal Mediapart, reported that Cahuzac had an
illegal bank account in Switzerland. Cahuzac solemnly swore to his colleagues
in the National Assembly, swore to all who would listen, that the charge was
This week, however, he finally admitted that, yes, he had
secret account in Switzerland, which he then moved to Singapore. The account
totaled about 600,000 Euros.
The French media immediately compared Cahuzac with Bill
Clinton and the Lewinsky affair, Richard Nixon and Watergate.
Cahuzac’s humiliating admission is like blood in the water
to the France’s political and media sharks. Before this scandal broke, the
level of public approval for Hollande had plummeted to less than 30%.
could only be lower. Now all sides are demanding to know how, if a small muck-raking
journal could discover Cahuzac’s misdeeds, how is it that President Hollande—with
all the investigative tools at his disposal--couldn’t have found out earlier.
Then today came
further embarrassing news for Hollande. The revelation that the treasury of
his last election campaign—the one that was waged to bring honesty etc. into
government—the treasurer also had a couple of off-shore companies in the Cayman
There are increasing calls—even from within his own party--for
him to completely reform his government, to strike out in some heroic new
direction, to revive France’s faith in its future.
There’s no indication that Francois Hollande has either the
stomach or the backbone for such a challenge. Nor that the French would
willingly make the sacrifices necessary to retool and rebuild their nation.
They’re reluctant to even seriously discuss what’s needed.
Perhaps that’s because the problems they confront—like
unemployment, economic growth, crime, racial strife, the survival of the Euro
----perhaps because those problems are so complex, the French—like other
nations—find it much easier to obsess about other simpler issues—issues someone
can have a real opinion about. Like..well, should a Muslim woman working in a
government office be able to wear a veil?
Or, should France’s social security system pay for a homosexual couple
to have a child using artificial insemination and a surrogate mother?
Yet all the while, France’s real problems keep growing.
This week for instance, the Canard Enchaine, reports that, according to a recent government
study, the time-off taken for such things as “sickness” and “accidents at work”
by the 57,000 people employed by the City of Paris, came to an average of 20
days—that is about one month—per employee. That’s in addition to the five weeks
of holiday they get each year.
That represents a total of more than 1.15 million days of
work—a cost of 160 million Euros per year.
Meanwhile, as part of a project to refurbish the Basilica of
Saint Denis, its marvelous stained glass windows, which looked over the tombs
of France’s greatest monarchs, were removed from the church, replaced by
artificially colored panes, and sent off to be repaired by skilled French
artisans. Ten years later, those windows, according to a guide I spoke with,
are still locked away in their protective cases.
The authorities can’t find the money to restore them.
A few weeks ago, I decided to apply
to go back to college--to one of the 20 top liberal arts colleges in America. It
turned out to be deceptively simple: No SAT exams, no mammoth tuition fees, no huge
student loans, no nail-biting wait to see if I was admitted.
I simply signed up and now I’m
now taking a course at Wesleyan given by Michael Roth the President of the University,
a brilliant, entertaining lecturer, an expert, among other things on the
The current fees for tuition and housing
at Wesleyan are about $60,000 a year. I’m taking this course for free.
Wesleyan is located in Middletown
Connecticut. I’m taking the course in my home office in Paris. Professor Roth
is not here on sabbatical. He’s on my computer screen. Whenever I want him.
The course is a product of a brave new world of education called MOOC, which stands for Massive On Line
Courses. Massive indeed. I was one of more than 25,000 students across the
globe, of all ages, all nationalities, all with different goals, who signed up
to take this course which began last month.
This could be the beginning of
an enormous revolution in education. Or maybe just a very glitzy but ultimately
ineffectual technology. Rather
than write about it from the outside. I decided to sign up for a course myself.
I logged on to the site of Coursera, a startup founded just a year
ago by two Stanford University professors, which now has more than three
million students taking 320 university courses in 210 countries.
I scrolled through the
catalogue of hundreds of on-line courses offered by professors from Stanford to
Cal Tech to Duke to the University of Pennsylvania—Astronomy, Advanced
Calculus, Marketing, Music, Art, Creative Writing, Computer Engineering.
One survey course given by Wesleyan University caught
my fancy: “Modernism and Post Modernism”.
We’d be covering the likes of
Kant, Marx, Manet, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Virginia Wolfe, and so on. The
last time I’d been confronted with such a challenging intellectual array was in
college fifty years ago. To my shame, I’ve shied away from such reading ever
The course would be starting
in a few days. It would run for fourteen weeks.
Signing up on line took about
We’re now a little more than half
way through the course, and it’s been great. I’m already recommending it to friends.
There’s nothing to lose but your
This is the way it works: Ever
Monday, Professor Roth uploads an hour’s video lecture to the course site, the
lecture usually split into four 15 minute segments. Whenever they choose, course members simply log on, download
a segment, and watch it on their PC’s or laptops or IPads or whatever.
We’re not in the classroom
with the professor, true. Many years ago, my father paid a pile so I could
study at a top ivy-league university. I sat in cavernous lecture halls, often
with hundreds of other students, listening to different Great Minds on the
podium, scribbling notes as I tried to stay awake and keep up, jotting
something down even if I wasn’t sure I understood it. I had precious little
personal contact with those Great Minds.
I also take notes as Professor
Roth talks. He’s on the screen just in front of me, most of the time, full-frame,
dynamic, entertaining, comparing Emmanuel Kant with Jean Jacques Rousseau,
reading poetry by Baudelaire, analyzing Sigmund Freud.
But if I drift off or the
telephone rings, and I need to review what he’s said--no problem. I put the
professor on pause, go back a couple of minutes and play it again.
I also download written
material—essays or articles or books by the figures we are covering that week. That
material is also free.
True, most university courses
usually break down into sections, giving students the chance to discuss what
they’re studying face-to-face, directly with teaching assistants and each
There’s no such possibility
with the kind of massive on line course I’m taking. Nor can we go personally to
the professor at the end of class or during office hours to ask our penetrating
On the other hand, there is an
on-line discussion forum that any of us, from anywhere on the planet, can log
on to and create a new “thread” related to the material we’re studying.
Some threads are predictably
pedestrian. Others, more provocative. “What would Karl Marx have thought of the
The obvious interest and
maturity of many such threads keeps me reading, thinking, and commenting myself.
With some of my fellow students, a bond is already forming.
Several threads were launched
by students looking to hookup with others from their area to form their own
study groups—from India, New York City, Seattle Bulgaria, Melbourne, Turkey,
Iran. There are Spanish-speaking and Russian-speaking groups, but the most
active is : “the Online, Older Study Group.”
What about exams or tests? There
are 8 written assignments, limited to a maximum of 800 words, the subject given
by Professor Roth at the beginning of the week; the essay due about five days
I do a lot of blogging, but I
was surprised by how warily I approached the task of writing a cogent 800-word
essay about such daunting figures as Darwin, Flaubert, or Nietzsche.
Because of the thousands of
people taking the course, there is no way that Professor Roth and his two
teaching assistants can grade the mountain of essays. Instead, we grade each
After submitting our own
essay, I download the essays of three other students. i have no way of
knowing who they are, but, furnished with instructions on how to evaluate them,
I proceed to pass judgment. I
probably learn as much by agonizing over the essays of my peers as by writing
my own assignments.
I was also surprised by the
tightening in my gut as I logged on to the site to find out what kind of marks
my own essay received.
In a breathless blog, Coursera
has just notified me that, though their company is less than a year old, students
around the world have now signed up fro a “staggering 10 million courses.”
What Coursera doesn’t say, is
that, though millions may sign up for free courses, millions also drop out
before finishing. Of the 25,000 who signed up for the course I’m currently
taking, probably only about 10% will finish.
Where is this phenomenon
headed? If the courses are free, how can Coursera and the universities who are
flooding into this market make money?
What’s in it for them? What’s
really in it for the students?
And how am I going to deal
with the essay I’m supposed to write on Freud and Virginia Wolfe?