Sunday, February 29, 2004

short and sweet
Memo to Clare Short: get your big, fat, compassion-mongering arse out of the way of the story.

Britain's Army chiefs refused to go to war in Iraq amid fears over its legality just days before the British and American bombing campaign was launched, The Observer can today reveal.

The explosive new details about military doubts over the legality of the invasion are detailed in unpublished legal documents in the case of Katharine Gun, the intelligence officer dramatically freed last week after Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, dropped charges against her of breaking the Official Secrets Act.

The disclosure came as it also emerged that Goldsmith was forced hastily to redraft his legal advice to Tony Blair to give an 'unequivocal' assurance to the armed forces that the conflict would not be illegal.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

the blood never dries
I’m not going to see the Jesus chainsaw massacre. Apart from anything else, I know how it ends. I’m also a bit nonplussed about the two areas of controversy the film has generated. The film may well be anti-Semitic in that it regurgitates old blood libels. That’s because they’re right there in the New Testament. But anti-semitism these days is an almost-entirely political matter. You are an anti-semite, or under suspicion of same, if you don’t like Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. If you support them, then you’re not, no matter how strange your opinions towards Judaism itself. Since it’s Christian Zionists who seem especially eager to lap up the sacred blood from the multiplexes of the god-fearing republic, well…Jerusalem is worth a few blood libels.

But what of the gore? This does seem to represent a genuine shift in protestant thinking. As I recall, the unflinching way Catholics have traditionally accepted the gorier aspects of the propagation of the faith was always criticized by Protestants as proof that they weren’t really Christian; idolatory and pagan savagery still lurked beneath the vestments of Old Red Socks and his inamorata, the Scarlet Woman.

For those of us taught to dig with the left foot it just proved that Prods were wimps. What did they think a crucifixion involved, or a scourging? I remember being regaled in class with tales of the deaths of the saints, just before lunchtime, presumably to cut down on the Christian Brothers catering costs. Gather any group of former Catholic schoolchildren together and its pretty much a guarantee that all will have a gothic tale of some sort to offer.

And look at the great directors of horror movies. Dario Argento. George A Romero. What faith do their names suggest to you? (and yes, James Whale was a Catholic too). But now it seems that the prods have graduated from spiritual ready-brek to meatier fare. Next thing, they’ll all be building wicker men.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Henry and Al
I originally put the Al Smith link up for a laugh, and to poke a bit of fun at the rather anonymous nature of the Democratic field for the US Presidency. Recent turns in events - notably the attempts to add a “gays are second class citizens” amendment to the US constitution amid a general theocratic miasma amongst the Republicans – suddenly seem to make the whole thing more relevant.

Al Smith ran on the Democratic ticket against Herbert Hoover in 1928, the first Catholic to run for President in the US. This in itself set the Bible belt against him, and contributed to his eventual defeat, after the Southern States turned Republican (temporarily at that time). Smith was also widely regarded as anti-prohibition which further alienated Protestants against him. The 18th amendment was organised protestantism’s entry vehicle into US politics at that time, as opposition to gay marriage appears to be now, along with creationism, prayer in schools and so forth. The whole election presaged the culture war issues that the GOP seem intent on using to whip up fear of a Democratic presidency in 2004.

H L Mencken summed the whole thing up in his eve of election report:

“I daresay the extent of the bigotry portrayed in America, as it has been rvealed by the campaign, has astounded a great many Americans and perhaps made them doubt the testimony of their own eyes and ears…

…[The campaign] has brought bigotry out into the open and revealed its true proportions. It has shown that millions of Americans, far from being free and tolerant men, are the slaves of an ignorant, impudent and unconscionable clergy. It has dredged up theological ideas so preposterous that they would make an intelligent Zulu laugh and has brought proof that they are cherished by nearly half the whole population, and by at least four-fifths outside the cities. It has made it plain that this theology is not merely a harmless aberration of the misinformed…but the foundation of a peculiar way of life; bellicose, domineering, brutal and malignant…and it has shown that this compound of superstition and hatred has enough steam behind it to make one of the candidates for Presidency turn it upon his opponent – basely to be sure, but probably wisely.”


(from: On Politics – a Carnival of Buncombe)

I wonder if that last phrase will apply in 2004.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

the sound of both shoes dropping
Scandal aside, what does it take to win a US election? Fear and loathing seem to be good bets.
lean and hungry
Via Sascha Matuszack’s column at antiwar.com, news of a new maturity in Chinese foreign policy through a six page ponder-fest in Foreign Affairs magazine. As you’d expect, “maturity” in this context means “evolving a more pro-American line”, though the authors do warn that China might well use its growing clout to further the ends of Chinese policy. Expect nothing better from cunning orientals. Meanwhile, over at Asia Times, a publication never knowingly under-alarmed, Stephen Bland considers the possibility of a Chinese military assault on Taiwan with perhaps a little too much relish.

One interesting concept from the Foreign Affairs piece: China is moving from shouhaize xintai (victim mentality) to daguo xintai (great power mentality). I’ve worked on Chinese related stuff for most of my career and can confirm at an anecdotal level that there seems to be a lot less sensitivity about. It’s been years since I heard anyone remind westerners that China was responsible for the “four great inventions”, which litany was once a standard part of any foreign tour by PRC notables.

Opinion over Iraq also seemed to be a good deal less intense than over Kosovo, which is not surprising in that no Chinese diplomatic assets got bombed. But allowing for bedrock opposition to be found for ventures like Iraq in any country which has endured occupation, there’s a good deal less of the kind of hair-trigger hostility to America’s actions than I would have expected a few years ago.

The general attitude seems to be more of an eyebrow raised at the general folly of gweilos. Call it a confidence – even smugness – arising from newly acquired wealth and its wider penumbra of geopolitical heft. It’s not so much a move from victim to great power mentalities. In relation to the US, it’s a move from “anti-colonial” to “rival” mentalities. That would explain why the China Daily won’t allow the use of the term “invaders” as applied to US or British forces in Iraq, preferring just to refer to “military forces in Iraq” (but hell will still freeze over before they will use the term “liberators”).

In terms of its power and the ability to influence global events that comes through wealth, the US has been the mark for China since the beginning of the reform process. At first, this was accompanied by a generalized suspicion that the US and the West would try to sabotage the process. This has been diminishing for a while, but I think that the Iraq war has proved a turning point. For one thing, it seems to have produced a general feeling that the US is wasting its substance on over-elaborate military adventures while China can focus on catching up. For another, it gives the PRC the chance to study how American military power actually serves US political objectives. And for a third, it gives them the chance to view those objectives in plain sight and assess the quality of the thinking behind them. And when Bush was forced to tilt fairly decisively towards China in the spat about the Taiwan missile referendum last year, China got all the answers it needed.

This is not necessarily good news if you’re a supporter of Taiwanese independence, or indeed a Taiwanese who doesn’t want to see his capital subjected to a rain of Chinese missiles. Not that this is likely, even with the genie of pre-emption loose. I’d say overall that the chances of Chinese military intervention against Taiwan have gone from minimal-to-nonexistent to just minimal.
eating his own weight in insects
From Michael Brooke comes news of the sad demise of Eddie Clontz, former editor of the Weekly World News.

Two stories in particular got Mr Clontz noticed. In 1988, his organ revealed that “ELVIS IS ALIVE! (King of Rock 'n' Roll Faked his Death and is Living in Kalamazoo, Mich!)”. A few years later, the News reported that a bat boy, with huge ears and amber eyes and “eating his own weight in insects each single day”, had been found by scientists in a cave in West Virginia.

Both items were followed up for years. Elvis went on appearing; Bat Boy escaped, was recaptured by the FBI, fell in love and endorsed Al Gore for president. Readers wrote in with their own sightings, bolstering whatever truth the nation believed was there. In 1993, Mr Clontz dared to kill the resurrected Elvis (“ELVIS DEAD AT 58!”)—only to reveal some time later that this death, too, had been a hoax.


The WWN is generally seen as a bit of a giggle for journos, a childish part-time pleasure before they return to the serious business of the public tribunate; hyping bad science, faithfully recording the effulgencies of mad futurologists, re-writing corporate press releases as business news, inventing social trends to fool the status hungry, stitching together the assorted mendacities of politicians seamlessly into thoughtless think pieces and otherwise committing respectable reporting.

In fact, most hacks have a genuine liking and respect for such as Mr Klontz and his inventions. It has a lot to do with the trajectory of print media careers. The young would be reporter does on his or her NCTJ or media studies course hot to expose the powerful and bring down the mighty. Move onwards a few years, and the same young idealist is working for World of Polymers or Aggregates Monthly. Or he’s having opinions puked over him by bogus community leaders, self-aggrandizing CEOs and political numpties. He knows that everything they say is about as accurate as the news that Belgium has been destroyed by a rogue asteroid, without anyone noticing.

I know whereof I speak, but am not bitter. Instead there is a corner of my heart that has been taken over by martians. Within it stands a statue of a two-headed Elvis on which the name Eddie Clontz is carved in golden letters by a midget bat boy from Romania.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

the persian version
As Iranian democracy pursues its unusual course, an interesting interpretation of events comes from the ever creative minds at Stratfor:

U.S. intelligence about Iraq was terrible. It was wrong about WMD; it underestimated the extent to which the Shia in the south had been organized by Iranian intelligence prior to the war; it was wrong about how the war would end -- predicting unrest, but not predicting a systematic guerrilla war. An enormous amount of this intelligence -- and certainly critical parts of it -- came to the United States by way of the INC or by channels the INC or
its members were involved in cultivating. All of it was wrong.

It was not only wrong, it created an irresistible process. The WMD issue has delegitimized the war in the eyes of a substantial number of Americans. The failure to understand the dynamic of the Shiite community led to miscalculations about the nature of postwar Iraqi politics. The miscalculation about the guerrilla war created a U.S. dependence upon the Shia that is still unfolding. It is al-Sistani, in consultation with U.N. negotiators, who is setting the terms of the transfer of power. The U.S. position in Iraq is securely on Shiite terms, and that means it is on Iranian terms.


In short, that the inaccurate intelligence about the actual circumstances on the ground in Iraq was deliberately crafted to ensure that the occupiers would have to rely on Iran to help keep the peace, and that this was a caper cooked up between Chalabi and the government in Tehran.

I don’t know how far to go with this, but it certainly explains one otherwise puzzling aspect of the Iranian elections: namely, why the hardliners chose to purge reformists from the government when they did. After all, the reform faction of the Iranian Majlis hadn’t made much progress over the past four years, despite being in the majority. It was an inheritance issue: the mullahs wanted the reformers well away from any position of influence over Iraq, especially since they might make common cause with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who opposes direct religious rule.

There is a strong possibility that over time large numbers of lay religious Iranians will switch their allegiance to Sistani, and some of the [Iranian] reformers are said already to have done so," says Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a specialist in Shiite affairs.

On the other hand, Iraq’s more militant Shi’a clerics would make better partners for the Iranian hardliners. Yet they tend to be more nationalistic, and, as the CSM article goes on to explain, are suspicious of Iranian influence on Sistani:

Other than ideological differences, the Sadrists also harbor suspicions of Sistani's Iranian background - he speaks Arabic with a thick Persian accent. Many senior clerics in Najaf are of Iranian descent, whereas the Sadrs are Arabs of Iraqi-Lebanese origin.

Distrust of Iranian marja appears to have been behind the killing on April 10 last year of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, son of a noted Iranian scholar who returned to Iraq from exile in England and was stabbed to death in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Followers of Moqtada Sadr have been blamed for the murder, and there are fears that Sistani could be next.

"As a Muslim, Sistani has a right to ask for the rights of Muslims. But he does not have a right to interfere in the affairs of Iraq," says Sheikh Tai. "We won't cause problems, God willing, but we won't allow anyone to interfere in Iraqi matters because this is a subject for Iraqis."


Over the long term, Sistani’s more secular approach to politics may undermine the position of the Iranian Shi’a hardliners through a kind of osmosis. But in the meantime, it expands Iranian influence in the region and gives them an effective guarantee that the US won’t undermine theocratic rule. Martin Woollacott recently came to similar conclusions in the Guardian.

But could a bunch of mullahs really pull the US along by the nose? I wouldn’t bet against it. There’s always a tendency to identify people we disapprove of with qualities we dislike. Back around the time of Tiananmen, there was a kind of general assumption that the students were bound to win; they were young, wanted democracy and in some vague but overarching way represented the future. Their opponents, on the other hand, were a bunch of stupid old communists, who when it came to the crisis would be too feeble to swing the club.

We all know how that turned out. So also with the mullahs. Not only are the three way links between Tehran, Chalabi and the neo-con axis in Washington suggestive, but, paradoxically, Iranian hardliners have more reason than most to study the geopolitical zeitgeist and take what advantage of it they can.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

landmark moments in the history of ettiquette
What would Miss Manners have made of this?

Aryanfest's gates opened at noon, and about an hour later, the gathering assemblage gradually hushed as all eyes turned upon the young man who had just paid his entrance fee and was casually perusing the hate-rock compact discs, swastika flags and white power watch caps at Panzerfaust Records' merchandise booth.

He was in his late teens or early 20s, had a shaved head and sported Nazi and white power tattoos on both arms, in addition to wearing the white tee shirt with bold, black script.

He would have fit in just fine, except for one thing: He wasn't white


....

About five minutes after arriving, the group of four was approached by a cadre of skinhead security guards. These storm troopers were painfully polite as they informed the brown kid he wasn't welcome. "We're sorry, but we've been asked by the managers of this event to tell you that you have to leave. We're going to escort you out," said one.

"Why?" asked the kid.

The skinheads looked at him incredulously, and not without a degree of sympathy. It was obvious that he actually thought he belonged there, amongst white power kinfolk. "Well, you haven't broken any of the festival's rules," began another skinhead, employing the sort of "I hate to break it to you" tone of voice of a father explaining to his 5-year-old son why a bed sheet tied around his neck doesn't mean he can fly. "The thing is, you're not white."

Crestfallen, the kid stood silent for a few beats, then responded, "Okay, okay. I understand. I respect that. I just hope you know I didn't mean any disrespect by being here. I just wanted to come out and show my respect for the white race and support the cause."


via Hit & Run

Saturday, February 21, 2004

happy warrior
He's back! He's rested and ready! He's the darling of the New York Street! He's the King of Tammany Hall and the political mentor of Franklin Roosevelt! He's been dead since 1942! Never mind! He has a blog!

Support Alfred E Smith for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America!

via Dragan Antulov.

Friday, February 20, 2004

what do you buy the person who has given up everything for lent?
Jesus nails, of course!

Pendants made from the pewter, 2 1/2-inch nails - selling for $16.99 - all but flew out of the Christian Publications Bookstore on West 43rd Street as soon as they were put on display.

Hundreds of stores across the country will be selling licensed items tied to the movie, a graphically violent depiction of the last 12 hours of Christ's life, which opens next week on Ash Wednesday.

The souvenirs include a book, pins, key chains, coffee mugs and T-shirts.

But the most unusual collectibles are the nails, each of which hangs on a leather cord.


via Arthur Silber
the filth and the fury
From this morning's popbitch.

Rumours are flying around Texas that Governor
Rick Perry's wife has left home after
finding him in a compromising position with
one of his senior (male) associates. It's
going to be a dirty election year in the states.



Indeed. And just look what's bubbling under.

PRESIDENT Bush faced an extraordinary claim last night that he once paid for a girlfriend's abortion...

I would have thought that it would have been more of a scandal if he had refused to pay for it but insisted she had it anyway. But I don't suppose conservative Americans see it that way.

Lets trace the slime trail to its source. According to some recent US polls, a generic Democrat would handily beat Bush. So the Dems seem to have responded by dropping Dean and going for a generic democrat, albeit one who bears a pleasing physical resemblance to a member of the Addams family.

I don't know much - anything in fact - about Kerry, other than that he's not Bush. Presumably the strategy is for the Democrats to play a straight bat, making Bush himself the main issue of the campaign. This leads on naturally to the question of whether Bush served his full term in the US national guard, an issue delved into in some detail by Calpundit and other bloggers.

It seems to me that the real issue here is not whether an American Oligarch could be bothered to pay lip service to national defence. It's increasingly becoming: where the hell was Bush during the time he was supposed to be in Alabama? I've had lost weekends, but a lost six months...is something of an achievement, but again not one that would play well with the punters.

Now we have a two pronged Republican response. First, to Kerry himself: the faked photocopy of him in close physical proximity to Jane Fonda, as though she were a form of kryptonite. And then the intern story, which followed a pattern established during the glory days of Clinton baiting: from Drudge to the Daily Telegraph and thence to the Sun.

I think the Republicans knew this wasn't true. If it had been, they'd have saved it for the campaign proper.

The second front. Defend Bush personally. First, by saying that he really, really meant to go to Vietnam, honestly.

Then attack his attackers, including former Senator Cleland, who came back from Vietnam three limbs lighter following a grenade accident which took place shortly after his involvement in a battle which won him the Silver Star.

Moreover, if we're going to start delving into exactly who did what back then, maybe Max Cleland should stop allowing Democrats to portray him as a war hero who lost his limbs taking enemy fire on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Cleland lost three limbs in an accident during a routine noncombat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix. In fact, Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman or what Cleland sneeringly calls "weekend warriors." Luckily for Cleland's political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam...


Mark Steyn, a more credible source if your definition of credible is "emitting less spittle" took up the talking point elsewhere.

I like that "luckily". If you are going to engage in below the belt stuff there's a good reason to go for the outright knee in the bollocks from the start. It leaves your opponents winded and on the defensive while the poison seeps in.

On the other hand, plenty of moderate, thoughtful types have demurred at the Democrats portrayal of Bush as AWOL during Vietnam. They're hardly going to think much of the notion that a man who lost three limbs while serving his country was just making capital out of an unfortunate drinking accident.

In a dirty fight, swing voters will go for the man who disgusts them least. I'd say at this point in time the tide of filth is flowing in a way beneficial to the Democrats. Which brings us back to the beginning of the post.

I'm sure we're going to have more low blows, Glasgow kisses and knees in the knackers. What else is there to fight on? Both parties will want to put themselves at a suitably deniable distance from the consequences of the Iraq invasion, and both will want to manage then distortions to the US economy caused by defecit spending until something turns up.

I'm really going to enjoy this election. And what a fine example it gives to those poor, benighted Iraqis of democracy in action!

Thursday, February 19, 2004

it's lonely at the top
The reminisceneces of Kenji Fujimoto, personal chef to Kim Jong Il.

One day in 1992, as I was riding behind Kim Jong Il at a right-turning path, I noticed that his horse was standing by itself. Kim had fallen off the horse. It had apparently slipped on a bed of pebbles laid over some asphalt being repaired. Kim Jong Il had hit his head and shoulder quite hard and had fallen unconscious. A doctor was called immediately.

I'm not sure when he regained consciousness, but the next day we all returned to Pyongyang by his private train.

From that day, every evening at 10:00 P.M. for the next month, five or six of his administrative staff members and I would be injected with the same painkiller that Kim Jong Il was taking. He was afraid he would become addicted to it, and didn't want to be the only one.


Kim also drinks Czech beer and smokes Rothmans Royals. And note the following:

At this time several areas in North Korea were suffering from floods and food shortages. Whether he was aware of this or not, Kim Jong Il certainly seemed to be enjoying his Jet Ski races.

Indeed not. Mr Fujimoto was a guest of the Dear Leader - guest in the sense of a man too terrified to leave. But eventually, a cunning ruse secured his escape.

And then, at that moment, I remembered that my sister had dubbed several dozen of her more interesting videos of Japanese TV shows for me. Among them was a tape of a cooking program called The "Which Dish?" Show. I recalled that an exceedingly tasty-looking sea-urchin dish was featured on the show, and thought that I should show it to Kim Jong Il. I knew that he was very fond of sea urchin, and that once he saw the show, he would want to try the dish. That would be my chance. I would just have to suggest, "Shall I go to Hokkaido to buy sea urchins for you?"

I took the videotape to Kim Jong Il. Lo and behold, when he saw the sea-urchin dish, he exclaimed, "Wow, that looks really good!" Without missing a beat I made my pitch: "I will go to Rishiri Island, in Hokkaido, and buy some sea urchin. And I will reproduce the dish you just saw on this show."

Kim Jong Il replied, "That's a great idea. Go for it!"


via Arts and Letters Daily
bombing your way to democracy
Ryan at Beatnik Salad expresses some frustration over the ongoing self-righteousness of the pro-war left, and especially their tendency to lump everyone who opposed the war together with those who now explicitly support the Iraqi insurgents, as with Tariq Ali here.

Sooner or later, all foreign troops will have to leave Iraq. If they do not do so voluntarily, they will be driven out. Their continuing presence is a spur to violence. When Iraq's people regain control of their own destiny they will decide the internal structures and the external policies of their country. One can hope that this will combine democracy and social justice…

Well, we can all hope can’t we? Like Ryan, I don’t believe that the bombers and snipers themselves offer much of a programme for a new Iraq. But maybe unlike Ryan, I do think that they are pushing a process forward by which Iraq stands more chance of getting a government which has reasonable autonomy and expresses at least some of the will of the majority of the Iraqi people, whatever the motives of the insurgents themselves.

And we don’t know much about these motives. Killing so-called traitors was also a habit of the Algerian FLN and the Vietnamese Stalinists. I don’t recall there being much of a problem on the left about supporting either of these groups against colonialism. Are the Iraqi insurgents really so much wrose than the Vietnamese stalinists, and are the IGC any better than the various thugs and buffoons who ran South Vietnam?

And besides, the whole pro-war argument rests on the notion that, in fact, you can bomb your way to democracy. Here’s how the rebels are doing it.

According to plan A, once Iraq was occupied it was to remain under direct US control for anything up to 18 months, with Washington also taking responsibility for the constitutional arrangements under which Iraq would be governed after that period. That plan was changed last November under pressure from Grand Ayatollah Sistani, representing the moral force of moderate Shia opinion and by the insurgents, representing the immoral force of militant nationalists, islamists and Allah knows who else. It’s Sistani who represents the peaceful option and at least the chance of a graceful US exit from Iraqi politics, but it’s the bombers who have kept Iraq on the front pages for the wrong reasons and forced the US to take the Shi’a option more seriously, if only to increase the chances of its own electoral survival. And every outrage committed by the insurgents makes Sistani’s goodwill more important to the United States, and so tends to increase the chance that Iraqi Shia will finally get fair representation in the state in which they form a majority.

I don't believe for a minute that this is why the insurgents are doing what they're doing. I'm making a case based on a brutal political calculation. But brutal political calculations are a natural consequence of invasion and occupation. Shall “we” let the Kurds establish their own state in the North, even though this would almost certainly lead to more ethnic cleansing of Arabs? How much shall “we” indulge Shi’a majoritarianism, even if it involves a politics of extensive confessional revenge on the Sunni. Maybe “we” should counter this by indulging the terrorism of Sunni insurgents. After all, “we” can’t go having a pan-Shi’ite Islamic movement leading to an Iraq firmly under Iranian control. Or maybe “we” can, to keep the Bin Ladens of the future occupied in their own backyard instead of ours.

As of now, anyone who wants to evolve a realistic vision of the future of Iraq also has to decide which Iraqis he or she would prefer to see robbed and/or killed. This is what we can thank the invasion for, and moral responsibility for this lies with those who supported that invasion.
i drink beer, me
Yes, I write. But I do so in a butch, life-affirming, testosterone drenched, football loving kind of way. So saith the gender genie.

found via Crooked Timber.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

astute feminist political commentary
Some Democrats thrust themselves on interns. Others have interns thrust upon them.
uncover her face
In the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding introduces some new perspectives on the French religous symbols law.

On the government's other flank stand the National Front and Bruno Mégret's Mouvement National Républicain, which still have the capacity to bruise the centre right. With regional elections next month, the veil has provided a pretext for the ruling UMP to show that it is policing proper republican standards, in ways that both the far right and the religion-mongers of immigrant descent are not - and to steal some of Le Pen's thunder. Le Pen has inadvertently flattered the government by opposing the ban - when it comes to veil-politics he hasn't much room for manoeuvre - on the grounds that by wearing the hijab, Muslim women distinguish themselves from 'les Français de souche', i.e. people of bona fide Gallic stock, and that this is fine: it will make things easier, the implication is, when it comes to throwing them out.

I think it reasonable to assume from this that the law isn't an attempt to pander to the far right. In fact, it seems to have smoked the fascists out. Inter alia, the law insists that people take their "yellow stars of david" off. Harding also points out that this isn't an example of mandarin secularism, but a response to pressure from those most immediately effected.

Teachers tell worrying stories which depict the veil as the beginning of selective opposition to the curriculum. This might, for example, include a Muslim student's refusal to do gym or discuss certain areas of natural science, or to countenance teaching on the Holocaust, and then shade off into abuse or physical violence after a classroom session on the Middle East. Teachers are also clear that the wearing of religious symbols tends to exacerbate the divisions over heated issues such as Palestine.

One comparison here is with attempts to force "intelligent design" on to the syllabus in several US states, and the support by the British government for taxpayer funded creationism. When given the chance to do so, many religions exploit a fundamentally secular conception of freedom - that religious and non-religous points of view deserve equal tolerance - to push their own agenda forward. You either indulge this in the hope that it won't go too far or you try to put a stop to it. Either is a reasonable option, though both could result in repressive consequences. Right now I'm inclined to believe that the French approach is the least worst.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

unintended consequences
He's back, sort of.

A PARTY led from behind bars by former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic looks set to return to the political main stage, ending weeks of deadlock in Serbia but prompting concern among the international community.

The Socialist Party of Serbia, which under Milosevic was one of the main actors in the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia, confirmed yesterday it was prepared to support a minority Serbian government led by moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica. Three smaller parties agreed at the weekend to join Mr Kostunica’s cabinet, but they lacked a majority in parliament after falling out with the Democratic Party of the assassinated Serbian premier, Zoran Djindjic.


If we're supposed to regard as credible attempts to bring liberal and democratic values to Iraq then it's probably worth looking at the success, or otherwise, of the interventions in the Balkans undertaken for the same purpose. The ethnic cleansers are back in power, or close to it, in both Serbia and Croatia. And in Bosnia, four years under Paddy Ashdown hasn't stopped ethnic nationalism remaining the country's main salient political fact. Here's Lord P's explanation.

"You have a balance between the pull of Europe and the pull of the nationalist legend," he said.

"When the scales shift and the pull of Europe becomes more powerful than the pull of the past nationalism, countries move forward."

"That's what's happened clearly in Croatia. In Serbia, the pull of the myth of nationalism remains stronger than the pull of Europe - though it is gaining, it hasn't yet gained.

"In Bosnia, that balance is about 50-50."


Others argue differently.

Analysts argue that increasing public frustration with the international community's demands - particularly relating to the tribunal - have also contributed to the SRS's growing popularity.

In a recent interview with the German media, Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic of the DS accused the West of responsibility for the nationalists comeback, accusing it of being "too rigid" over the EU integration process and membership criteria for the NATO Partnership for Peace programme.

Full cooperation with the war crimes tribunal is a prerequisite for membership of both international bodies, and the SRS has capitalised on popular opposition to The Hague.

Following Nikolic's success in the recent presidential elections, several DOS leaders, including Muslim moderate Rasim Ljajic, pointed to the increasing demands of the tribunal and accused Carla Del Ponte, the Hague's chief prosecutor, of behaving as if she were "a member of the radicals' election campaign staff".


In the event, the Serbian radicals did win a plurality of votes. And now in order to keep them from power, Slobbo has to be resurrected from the political graveyard. Is it the actual experience of applied liberalism that's reviving nationalism as a going political concern? Further evidence from Russia.

Indeed, all the problems Gessen sees as products of Putin's regime can be easily traced to the Yeltsin era. War in Chechnya, abuse of the media, vote rigging, using Zhirinovsky as a fake opposition figure… it's all there. The only difference is that Yeltsin didn't feel obliged to make many concessions to populism. He governed for the benefit of the Moscow elite, with an eye on pleasing his American advisors. He couldn't have cared less about ordinary Russians. They knew it, and hated him for it. And as Ames pointed out in our last issue, they're grateful to Putin for siding with them against Yeltsin's elite. Like it or not, that's democracy.


Monday, February 16, 2004

scrabble post deleted - doing strange things to the format
they'd be just fine if they had that polytheistic work ethic
Via Brad deLong, some spiritual advice for those made unemployed by outsourcing.

Aparna Jairam isn't trying to steal your job. That's what she tells me, and I believe her. But if Jairam does end up taking it - and, let's face facts, she could do your $70,000-a-year job for the wages of a Taco Bell counter jockey - she won't lose any sleep over your plight. When I ask what her advice is for a beleaguered American programmer afraid of being pulled under by the global tide that she represents, Jairam takes the high road, neither dismissing the concern nor offering soothing happy talk. Instead, she recites a portion of the 2,000-year-old epic poem and Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita: "Do what you're supposed to do. And don't worry about the fruits. They'll come on their own."

I wonder if Ms Jairam was ever exposed to the doctrine that Western wealth simply flowed from the protestant work ethic? If so, an elegant revenge. And of course, her Chinese counterpart could turn to Lao Tze.

Therefore the wise say,
"Do not interfere, and people transform themselves...



Sunday, February 15, 2004

Sunday heresy corner
Bill Hicks wasn't very good. People would realise this if he were still alive.
from deep in the heart of texas
I occasionally regret letting my subscription to Stratfor lapse, but then I'm reminded of why I did it. From their latest weekly analysis (no link).

The issue now is simply one of timing. The Afghan-Pakistani
border currently is difficult to navigate: Mountains plus winter
equals no tanks. Once spring arrives, however, the United States
can roll in and -- in theory -- nab all the appropriate
personalities, just in time for the Democratic National
Convention in July. If the Bush administration can pull it off,
more Democrats than Howard Dean will be screaming.

The plan is not quite as neat as it seems. Northern Pakistan is
rugged territory, but people actually live there and like it.
Most are none too pleased with what the United States has been
doing across the border in Afghanistan of late. This region,
dubbed the Northwest Frontier Territories, is heavily Pushtun and
is rife with al Qaeda supporters. Rolling into it would not be
pretty.

In the hopes of heading off what would likely be a bloody U.S.
intervention in Pakistan, Musharraf is trying to make the case
for a major Pakistani military offensive against al Qaeda and its
supporters in these tribal areas.


OK, so in order to push for final victory against al-Qaeda to fit the US electoral timetable, the President of Pakistan will obligingly launch a civil war. Failing that, or if the proposed offensive fails, the US army will launch a full scale invasion oif one of the world's most ungovernable places to winkle out the jihadis, which task will be completed just in time for the US political conventions.

I'm all in favour of unconventional wisdom, but I think it's time the Stratfor boys left Texas.

However, there does seem to be growing momentum behind the idea of invading Pakistan at some stage. The prospect hasn't gone unnoticed by local analysts. Their considered response: come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.

The tribal areas has seen many occupiers. They are classic practitioners of Liddell Harts strategy of indirect approach. Their guerrilla tactics are far more subtle than that of Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Che Guevara. They apply Mao without knowing what he had written. They apply Sandino's Nicaraguan tactics which brought US Marines to grief without ever having heard of him. They are warriors par excellence.

For each militant handed over the tribals gain goodwill from greedy political agents who they deceive and thus succeed in sheltering 50 militants. There is a method in the apparent outward collaboration of the tribals. They cannot be overawed by a telephone call or bought by a million dollar retainer.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

tremors of intent
I've got a number of savagely self indulgent lengthy posts bubbling under, but they haven't quite crystallised yet into fully fledged diamond quality rants. In the meantime, may I suggest that anyone wishing to astonish their loved one this Valentine's day do so with singing Korean vegetables?

from b3ta

Thursday, February 12, 2004

the smack of firm liberalism
Well, it looks like an IWPR fest today. But this shouldn't go unremarked.

Amid fears over the low numbers of women registering to vote in Afghanistan, a tribal council in the conservative province of Paktia has provided a fearsome incentive.

Families that do not enroll women will have to forfeit the equivalent of 2,000 US dollars and a bull. In addition, the family's houses will be burned down, said Haji Kala Khan Ahmadzai, the tribal leader of the Ahmad Abad district of Paktia.


I suppose that sometimes you just have to act. I also get the impression that this is exactly how the Afghan communists would have behaved if they had been allowed to remain in control of the country - except that it would have happened twenty years ago and New York would still have a World Trade Centre.
what the Iraqi papers say
sign up for a daily update, five days a week, from IWPR. They also produce the invaluable Afghan recovery report.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

if you can't win the argument, change it
Government damage limitation over Hutton has so far taken two lines of attack. Firstly, claim that no-one's interested in exactly why we fought an elective war. Secondly, claim that criticism of Blair plays into the hands of the Tories and everyone should just shut up and rally round.

With polls divided on whether Mr Blair will win a third term, if he chooses to stand, Mr Mandelson acknowledged the turbulent political mood by calling on "the whole party, including those who oppose the prime minister over the Iraq war, to close ranks behind him in the face of pernicious attempts to undermine trust in him".

There's two problems with this. The first is that it falls into the trap of personalizing the issue. Mandelson's assumption is that the fortunes of the Labour government rise and fall with Blair. The question that many party members and supporters now seem to be asking is whether it's time to cut Blair loose before he drags the Labour government down with him.

The second problem is that it relies on an insurgent Tory party to provide a suitably menacing alternative. And it doesn't look like Howard's doing a very good job of that.

Mr Howard’s rating as a leader has slipped since December. Voters are asked to mark leaders on a one-to-ten scale and his rating fell from 4.73 to 4.40. This is behind Mr Blair and Charles Kennedy, both of whose ratings have also fallen this year. Mr Howard’s rating is only just above the level touched by Iain Duncan Smith last summer before his standing began to slide, and has also slipped lowest of the three leaders among their own party supporters.

Being as they're in substantive agreement with most of the Blair agenda, I thought the Tories would run an inheritance strategy: Mr Blair is a very well-meaning fellow, but isn't it time the grown ups were back in charge of foreign affairs and market reforms?

Instead, they've come up with stuff that bears the horrible whiff of obsolete post-modernism, aping the parts of new Labour practice that the public seem to have grown thoroughly sick of. Anyone remember what Howard believes right now, apart from that people should be big? What is the British Dream. Is it a kind of Angel Delight? And the only question to ask a politician promises to "reduce waste" you know that he either has no idea generally or no specific ideas.

So the Tories are still decadent. But that hasn't stopped the people in the Blairite bunker from relying on them to shore up Blair's position. The end may be near.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

it’s poppy growing time again
Head-shaking over Afghanistan’s lively opium trade has become something of a yearly ritual, a fact which regime change in that country has done nothing to alter. So also this year:

The BBC's Andrew North in Kabul says they discussed whether it was possible to reduce demand or develop "alternative livelihoods" for the farmers.

However he adds that they admitted that it would be difficult to find any crop to compete with the profits from opium which is why many put greater emphasis on law enforcement measures such as the forced eradication of poppy fields


…leaving the Afghan farmers to starve, join the Taliban, whatever. I don’t feel any urge to cheer on this process, even though, apparently, Afghanistan produces over 90% of the raw opium that finds its way in the form of heroin into Europe. When I consider the comparative life chances of the average Afghan peasant compared to those of the average European junkie, I know where my sympathies lie. As for producing alternative crops, food prices have been driven so low that it’s only through cultivation of illegal substances in places like Afghanistan and Bolivia that farmers can earn enough to own their smallholding and maybe live in reasonable comfort by local standards.

This doesn’t mean to say that nothing could be done to regularize the trade. A certain amount of legally produced opium goes on to the market every year for medicinal uses. There’s no reason why Afghanistan’s output couldn’t be integrated into this trade. Excess capacity could be soaked up by greater medicinal use – if anything, heroin is underused, given its effectiveness as a painkiller, with this being largely a by product of the general moral panic over drug use. All sorts of scare stories about the effects of heroin fuelled calls for its prohibition. Prohibition duly followed, and to uphold the majesty of the law the prejudice against the drug spilled over into legitimate medical use. In the US, for instance, morphine analogues like Dilaudid and Dolophine are still used in place of heroin, because, I believe, they are supposed not to have the same euphoric effect. Can’t let a little thing like the relief of agonizing pain undermine the great war on drugs, can we?

Heroin is still used on the NHS. Around five years ago, I had the interesting opportunity to watch a close family member die. It was a process made much less traumatic through the constant administration of heroin, duly euphemized as diamorphine, which was the only thing that stopped her dying in agony. I’ve had very warm feelings for the drug itself since then, and it would be good to think of others in the same position being comforted in their last moments by a product grown and traded for a fair return by some of the poorest people on earth. This is how trade is supposed to work. It would also help stabilize Afghanistan’s economy and divert the profits of the trade away from the warlords and traffickers, and maybe enable Hamid Karzai to venture out of Kabul once in awhile.

update: an opium farmer's account of the trade.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Friday, February 06, 2004

play national glory bingo
with Michael Lind

About a decade ago, I invented a game with a colleague of mine who, like me, had once worked for Irving Kristol. We called it neoconservative bingo. The idea was that the clichés of neoconservative discourse would be arranged in various combinations on bingo cards: "The World's Only Superpower"; "The New Class"; "The China Threat"; "Decadent Europe"; "Against the UN"; "The Adversary Culture"; "The Global Democratic Revolution"; "Down With the Appeasers!"; "Be Firm Like Churchill." The free space in the center of the bingo card would be "The Palestinian People Do Not Exist" (nowadays it would be "No Palestinian State" or "All Palestinians Are Terrorists"). As you read an essay or a book by a neoconservative, you would check off each slogan on the card in the order in which it appeared.

We never printed our neocon bingo cards. But the neoconservative manifesto by David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil, which is more a collection of talking points than a coherent argument, can serve just as well. The United Nations "has traduced and betrayed" the dream of world peace. The China Threat: "Eventual Korean unification will reinforce the power of the world's democracies against an aggressive and undemocratic China, should China so evolve." There are the Neville Chamberlain appeasers and the Decadent Europe theme: "To Americans, [Europe's doubts about the invasion of Iraq] looked like appeasement. But it would be a great mistake to attribute European appeasement to cowardice--or to cowardice alone." There are the obligatory Churchill references--a chapter is titled "End of the Beginning"--and there is this: "We will never cease to hope for the civilized world's support. But if it is lacking, as it may be, then we have to say, like the gallant lonely British soldier in David Low's famous cartoon of 1940: 'Very well, alone.'"

Bingo.


from antiwar.com

it's the weekend!
So curl up on the sofa with a copy of Modern Drunkard magazine
via Mr Happy

Thursday, February 05, 2004

the laughter of Canton...
Comparisons of the EU and US economies are a mainstay of business page op-eds, usually to the detriment of the EU. This tends to conceal the fact that the economic policies of the Bush administration and of at least some of the big Eurozone economies have important features in common, namely reflation through defecit spending and tax cuts (in France and Germany at any rate. In the UK, it's deficit spending and tax rises)

Via a Fistful of Euros, an article from the FT shows that the effects are similar in both cases, combining an uptick in productivity with a stagnant employment picture.

But the survey, which is closely monitored by the European Central Bank, showed employment contracting for the second month in a row despite companies' growing optimism about the economic outlook.

In Europe's case, this is put down to the rising Euro and its effect on export profitability. But the fact that both sets of policies have led so far to a jobless recovery indicates that something else has been at work, namely the legions of cheap and increasingly highly skilled workers on offer from China and India. This adds deflationary tendencies to the global economy as a whole, to which Western policymakers respond with cheap money and huge piles of government debt. Consumption remains more or less steady but increasingly relies on a large but basically static pool of consumers, who rely in turn on being able to service personal debt to buy all the stuff from China and fend off calls from the Bangalore chapter of the bogus Man United fan club.

China joined the WTO a few months before 9/11, gradually infiltrating the global division of labour when everyone was watching the US and co wilfully imposing nobility across the Middle East . As I understand the marketing of the WOT, it was at least partly about defending the virtuous circle of the West, wherein free minds, free markets and free institutions collaborate to accumulate and distribute capital in a manner both efficient and sublime. And what does capital do while it is being so defended? Bug out to China, the world's last great leviathan state. Thanks suckers: and so long.

This is something of a challenge, to say the least, to the neoliberal view of the relationship between markets and political structures. We're all cautioned against protectionism and will be until punditry gets outsourced to a shack somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. Nonetheless, there's huge scope for economic populism, especially in America, as working hours get longer, wages stagnate and job insecurity grows.

Dean's campaign seemed to he trying to articulate some of this, but he peaked too soon. He should have saved his fire till 2008, when the idea that the opportunities have gone to where they can be offered for less money sinks in. I have no idea where all this will lead. But there's a few points it's safe to make:

The Thatcher Reagan cycle of political economy is over. If we don't want the socialism of fools - some combination of blanket protectionism and political nativism - we'd better come up with some other kind of socialism pretty quick.

Free markets don't lead to free minds. Businesses prefer to deal with dictatorships, provided that they are not kleptocrats.

The social contract based on capital accumulation is over. Profit growth does not automatically lead job growth. It's arguably more likely to lead to the company you work for being in a fit state to shed expensive Western labour and make even more money points East.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

I can see! I can see!
Back to normal. That's what you get for installing a rogue site metre.
if you're reading this
that's more than I'm doing. The whole page has gone blank...
we were very, very drunk: alcoholic bohemia and memories of the BBC
Some coverage of Hutton has harked back to the time when BBC political reporting consisted of a man in a dicky bow asking the minister if he would be so kind as to explain his policy to the viewers and listeners, followed by a hushed and reverent silence as the great man held forth. The Beeb’s cultural output on the old Third Programme was just as formal to the listeners but somewhat more riotous behind the scenes.

I know this because my mother was employed by the BBC in the late 1950’s as a kind of bouncer. When I say “bouncer”, what I mean is production secretary in radio drama, her formal title. She got the job after an interview in which her “strong North Midlands accent” was formally noted. Perhaps the interviewers thought that a big northern lass was just the thing for what they had in mind.

It wasn’t a normal secretarial job. Typing didn’t much enter into it. Nor did office work generally, though she had fond memories of trotting up the front steps of Broadcasting house on Portland Street, to have the lift in the foyer held open for her by Sir Hugh Carleton Greene himself; a good man, she always said, putting his Toryism down to a congenital deformity rather than a conscious choice of evil.

Shortly after this she would leave the drama department to track down her producer in one of the various local pubs in which he preferred to nest and plan his programmes. Having located him in one of maybe five pubs he favoured, she would then be given her main job of the day. A list would be produced of the various minor literary types who were due that day to turn up in the studio to give talks, act in radio plays or take part in other acts of wilful culture-mongering. Beside each name on the list would be the time he – it always was a he – had to be at a studio. Then a taxi would be called and she would set out after her quarry, who would at that time be getting pissed in any one of the dozens of pubs and backstairs drinking dens in Soho or Fitzrovia.

There’s a general impression that the fifties were an age of buttoned down conformity, before the sixties came along and gave birth to the counterculture in all its druggy glory. In fact, the fifties were just as countercultural, but the bohemian types of those days didn’t have the wide array of drugs to choose from that their successors enjoyed. They were stuck with alcohol, and made the best of it. From my mum’s account, everybody with any creative impulse did their best to be pissed all of the time. And it’s a constant feature of other memoirs of the period…

“…acquaintances were often rated exclusively by their habitual drinking volume. So-and-so could ‘put it away (drunk a lot of the time), or ‘drank like a fish’ (drunk almost all the time) or – this usually said with an air of gravity – was a ‘very heavy drinker’ (blotto ad inf). The word ‘alcoholic’ was reserved for people shackled to their hospital beds, screaming at the pink mice nibbling their toes…”

Yes, they were titans then. Boho London is arguably the only environment in which the introduction of cocaine actually improved the general level of health. And it added extra urgency to mum’s job. She not only had to track down drunken literati in time for them to go to air, she had to get hold of them before they became completely incoherent.

By and large she succeeded, but it was a hectic life. One moment she would be scanning a late Victorian gin palace from end to end, remembering always to look under the tables. The next she would be racketing up some back stairs, past startled Maltese gangsters and into some hellish bottle shop, eyes alert for paralytic literary gents. She fended off the used car dealers of Warren Street and bantered with the screaming queens of Piccadilly. Eventually, she would return with her haul of dissolute belletrists and herd them into the right studio. Then it would be time to venture forth again.

Fast forward to a seventies childhood in the Potteries, to where my mother eventually returned. Plonked down by in front of BBC2 to imbibe culture, she would then undermine its effects with a soundtrack:

“I remember him, he was drunk all the time…

“The last time I saw him he’d passed out in front of the French Pub…

“I loved Stevie Smith, but the only time we met she was being sick into her handbag…”

Mum always meant to set these experiences down in a memoir, but never got round to it. For what it’s worth, here they are now.

Monday, February 02, 2004

spook revenge in backlash whitewash probe bombshell shock:
As the UK government looks set to follow the US lead and declare an inquiry into the absense of WMD in Iraq, Peter Hain sets up the party line

But Commons leader Peter Hain said he had seen "categoric evidence" that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological WMD.

"I saw that intelligence, so did the prime minister, so did other Cabinet ministers," he told BBC One's Politics Show.


While in Sunday's Observer, news that intelligence services were less than confident that WMD would be found.

A second leaked document prepared by the BBC for Hutton also reveals crucial details of why executives stood by its controversial Today report, detailing a lunch between the head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and Kevin Marsh, the editor of the Today programme.

In a witness statement prepared by Marsh and BBC legal representatives, it is claimed that Dearlove suggested that 'hard evidence of WMD in Iraq would never be found'


Obviously, timing needs to be sorted out here. When did Hain hear his 'categoric assurances' (and what 'category' are they in - presumably not the category of 'total bollocks') and when did Dearlove let slip the awful truth.

What does look like shaping up in the enquiries on both sides of the pond is a battle between the respective governments and intelligence services, with the pols claiming a bad steer from the spooks, and the spooks claiming political pressure on their intelligence gathering processes. I suspect that both are right.