Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is there an election coming up in the next year or so?

I used to have a lot of time for Sarah Brown, the PM's wife. Of course, she is not nearly as entertaining as Cherie Blair but she has always seemed very pleasant and intelligent, even elegant in a quiet way, obviously a fond mother and a sensible spouse (though even she could not make a human being out of her husband).

I am beginning to change my mind. There seems to be rather a lot of Sarah Brown around. Clearly, the Labour strategists have realized that there are many people who feel as I do and find the lady quite attractive. What they have not realized, being the usual kind of political dim-wits, is that if they keep pushing her into the limelight that good will is going to disappear. Mine, for one, is already fading.

Apparently she visited Glastonbury with the model Naomi Campbell. I missed this momentous event as I am profoundly uninterested in Glastonbury but now that I know I cannot help wondering at the preposterousness of neat, quietly pleasant Sarah Brown at that muddy, rowdy, noisy event.

Now we are told that she will march in the Gay Pride parade this Saturday because both she and her husband (who cannot attend for security reasons) want to show their support for the gay community in this country.

Excuse me, but is the gay community in any way oppressed in Britain? Has anything happened since the last Gay Pride parade to make the Browns feel that their support is needed? Or did they not know that there has been an annual Gay Pride parade for good many years now? (I must say, if I were the Gay Pride parade organizer I would run shrieking away from the Browns and their support, not wishing to be contaminated.)

Tomorrow Trafalgar Square is being taken over for Canada Day. I am not a great fan of Trafalgar Square being taken over by any taxpayer-sponsored demonstration but I shall go along to this one. Canada and the Anglosphere need supporting and it would be nice if the Prime Minister and his lady thought so, too.

Incidentally, the Gay Pride parade is on July 4. Is there not another event to be celebrated on that day, one that has to do with our greatest ally and with the Anglosphere in general? I trust Mr and Mrs Brown will lend their support to the community that has been under attack for some years in this country - Americans who live and work here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't see it, myself

EurActiv is reporting that there is considerable excitement amongst the colleagues a.k.a. member states of the EU about the fact that the unreliable Czech Republic with its collapsing government and bloody-minded President will no longer be taking the rotating presidency of the Union. It will now be the much more reliable Swedes.

The Swedish government has already announced that the aim of the presidency will be "to push for 'more focused' Lisbon Strategy". A little late, methinks, as the aim of the Lisbon Strategy was to create by the rather unusual method of endless rules and regulations as well as scorecards, the most dynamic economy in the world by 2010. That economy was going to be the European one, whatever that might mean. Greater focus in the last six months of the allotted time is not going to achieve those desired results.

What I find rather peculiar is the assumption that somehow the Czech presidency made a difference and left scars on the political process of European integration. What difference? What scars?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

No need for military confrontation

The response of many to suggestions that President Obama could have been just a teensy-weensy bit more supportive of the anti-Mullah movement in Iran was the usual one of "what, you want America to invade Iran". Well, no. There are many points between vacillating the way the President of no vision has done and actual invasion, which is not being planned, would not be a good idea and, incidentally, was not planned under President Bush either, despite endless reports of people "in the know".

The Wall Street Journal reminds its readers of the way President Reagan managed to help Poland and the independent trade union Solidarność. It made a great deal of difference and, as we know, helped to bring down Communism in Eastern Europe without an invasion.

Of course, that needed a leader of vision. Sadly, it does not look like the United States has one of those at the moment.

Read the article in full.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Where are those Tory supporters of Obama?

President Obama and the White House has officially abandoned yet another promise that was going to make his administration so wondrous to behold and live under. During his campaign he made it clear that once legislation is passed by Congress it will be posted on the internet for five days before he signs it, so people can read and comment. No law is law in the US until the President has signed it.

Having not done as he had promised so far, he has now announced that it will not happen. There are all kinds of excuses but the problem is that socialists like President Obama want to push through as much legislation as possible in as short space of time as possible. Popular reaction and transparency would get in the way.

This is of particular importance at this stage:
The explanation of the policy change also presupposes that there is meaningful opportunity for public involvement while legislation is still pending and subject to revision. Yet as the debate over the Waxman-Markey climate change bill illustrates, this is not a fair assumption. As Jim notes below, the House is preparing to vote on an 1,000-plus-page bill that was subject to a 300-page amendment last night — an amendment that was not even available to many members of Congress until today. Most members of Congress have had no meaningful opportunity to read, let alone digest, the bill. The same is true for most legislative staff. Forget the public.

If legislation of this sort, which establishes the first-ever regulatory controls on the most ubiquitous byproduct of modern industrial society, imposes new efficiency requirements on all-manner of appliances and consumer products, could trigger the imposition of tariffs on foreign products (likely in violation of U.S. trade commitments), furthers the federal government's environmentally destructive love affair with corn-based ethanol, contains numerous provisions drafted or urged by various special interest groups, and (at least in one version) contained provisions designed to create a
national housing code, can be adopted by a House of Congress within hours of being written (let alone becoming public), then any claim of transparency in government is a farce.
As we know the Waxman-Markey passed the House, 219 to 212. How many of those 219 read the Bill or the 300 page Amendment? And the public? Oh well, they can just lump it.

Where are all those Tory supporters now?

Maybe the Tories should start paying attention

This is probably a lost cause but I cannot help advocating that the Tories, if they really do want to be known as a reasonable party rather than the Anything But Gordon Brigade, should pay attention to what is going on.

For instance, they seem to have got themselves into a real pickle over the new Spaker of the House, John Bercow, who has announced that he was pleased to be leaving the Conservative Party (as he has to, according to the rules). Shriek, howl, gurgle! Well, I'd be pleased to leave that snake pit (apologies to snakes) if I had ever bothered to join them.

While we are on the subject, I do find it just a little puzzling that people who have assured me and everyone else with foam on their lips that the real problem with modern politics is the Whip system and the obedience with which MPs accept the party's ruling are now the very ones to turn on Mr Bercow for rebelling against the party. Which is it we want? People who think for themselves, even if we do not agree with them or loyal party members?

The new Speaker's first pronouncement was perfectly sensible and well within the parameters of his job. Ministers, he said, must announce new policies to the House not the media. Who can disagree with that? The Ministers and their civil servants, that's who.

As Toby Helm, erstwhile Brusssels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, who has now gone to the Observer writes gloatingly in his blog:
So what do ministers do? How do they react to the Bercow edict in this new era of honest politics?

Well, they just carry on as before.

Ahead of a spurt of announcements this week, Whitehall seems to be leaking even more furiously than before Bercow's installation.

Senior ministers show no fear of the Tory they cynically planted in the job to annoy the Conservatives.
That business of Labour putting him there to spite the Conservatives is a media mantra, repeated by Tory bloggers and it may be true. Or maybe not. The Conservative leadership appears to believe it and is threatening to get rid of the Speaker when they are in government (most definitely not in power). Way to go if you want to make the House of Commons important, Mr Cameron and sundry members of the claque.

One can understand why one of the despised media fraternity should be gloating about such behaviour by Ministers, not that anyone is paying the slightest attention to announcements of new policies or new spending allocations or whatever since these announcements have long ago parted company with any semblance of truth.

Should the Conservatives not pay attention to the whole problem, though? We hear much about Parliament losing its importance and whatever respect the electorate may have for the Commons. Restoring ministerial pronouncements to where they belong is not quite restoring legislative powers but it is a small step in the right direction.

Somehow, I do not expect the Conservative front benches to make much of it. Presumably, they are looking forward to a time when they can announce some lie or other a new policy on the Today programme. And, of course, they do not like Mr Bercow. Nothing else could possible matter.

Friday, June 26, 2009

It really doesn't matter what one says

President Obama has shown himself to be a complete neophyte in foreign affairs, which is very amusing since part of his and his acolytes' campaign was the mantra that he was sophisticated internationalist unlike the hicks Bush and McCain and all because in Germany a huge crowd applauded wildly at some of the statements.

One of the things somebody is going to have to explain to the POTUS (maybe the TOTUS can take it upon himself) that out there in the big bad world people do not necessarily react they way they are supposed to and are much more likely to react the way they have always done.

It did not help the President that he pussyfooted round the Iranian events, saying very mild things but not really criticizing until the very end: he has still been attacked by President Ahmadinejad for allegedly interfering in Iranian affairs (because no Iranian could possibly think of such concepts of free and fair elections by himself or, in this case, herself).

It did not help that the State Department kept the invitation to the White House July 4 barbeque, issued to Iranian diplomats open as long as possible, an invitation the diplos in question did not reply to, not knowing whether they would still be in DC by then. (Scott Johnson traces the story on Powerline.) They and the President are still being warned not to interfere or criticize again.

There must be some cries of "why me" and "what did I do" resonating in the White House if the POTUS can tear himself away from the latest Vanity Fair photoshoot long enough to pay attention, that is.

As Jennifer Rubin says on Pajamas Media: "Reality bites, doesn't it Mr President".

An excellent word

Richard Landes, author of Augean Stables has a fascinating posting about a meeting for Arab students at Haifa University. To prevent violence the university authorities excluded Jewish students but one managed to get through and wrote up his account. The blog quotes that account with interesting analysis.

However, what struck me is the word Mr Landes uses: demopath. He defines demopaths "As people who have no respect for the human rights of others, but complain bitterly about others not respecting their human rights". We all know them and very plausible they are, too. That is why it is important to fight them.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

See it if you can

It took two years for Andrzei Wajda's brilliant film "Katyn" to open in Britain and then only for a couple of weeks in a few "artsy" cinemas. Nor has there been much publicity about it, almost as if our arts establishment did not really want people to see this work. I wonder why that is.

Could it be the shocking scenes where Nazi and Soviet officers greet each other in a friendly fashion before discussing what to do with the Polish officers the Red Army had, quite illegally rounded up? Could it be the sight of the red star on the engine that pulls those appalling cattle wagons in which the Polish officers are being taken to their last journey?

Could it be the sequence about post-war Poland where "liberation" means a new occupation and the truth cannot be spoken? Or could it be a fear that open discussions might raise the thorny question as to why the West, specifically the British and American governments, colluded for many years with the Stalinist lie?

I have a longer review on the New Culture Forum. You might like to read it but, if you can, go and see the film; find out what happened.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The horror that is Tehran

Other bloggers, mostly American ones have put together links, so I merely have to quote them but be warned: some of the pictures and videos are truly horrific. First off, we have ThreatsWatch, quoting a necessarily unnamed blogger who is bravely sending messages from the city.

Gateway Pundit has a round-up with more pictures. The police shoots, beats and hacks away at all protesters, regardless of age or sex. Well, I suppose, why should they consider little matters of that kind when they do not think that their own people are human beings.

In a previous posting he contrasts British, French and German condemnation of the Iranian government's violence with President Obama's desire to continue the "hot-dog diplomacy", constructed by the State Department. It has come to something when the President of the United States finds it impossible to voice a clear support for those who want freedom and democracy. Mind you, that will not help him: the Mullahs will continue to excoriate him and his country.

At least, according to the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, Iranian diplomats will no longer be welcome at the President's July 4 celebration. Mind you, it is not clear whether the invitations were rescinded because of what is going on in Tehran or because the Iranians have not RSVPd in time.

Another round-up by the Anchoress.

Will the BBC return to its assumption that Ahmadinejad won the election? Will the rest of our media follow suit? Will people go on blathering about the wonderful Mahmoud who stands up to the West and the Zionists and has only the welfare of his people at heart? And will idiots compare him winning an election with Gordon Brown not being elected? No doubt all these things will happen.

The truth is that such events do not go without consequences. Ahmadinejad's standing as the fighter against American oppression may remain untarnished among the anti-Americans, both left and right in the West, but it will take a severe hammering in the Middle East. And Iran will never be the same.

How appropriate

Big Hollywood has an article about a new film about an event that took place in Iran soon after the Ayatollah Khomeini and his goons took over, but one that has been replicated across that country and numerous others - the stoning of a young woman for alleged adultery and about the subsequent discussion, which had some disgraceful aspects to it.

The film is called "The Stoning of Soraya M" and sounds even more harrowing than the one I saw this week-end, Andrzei Wajda's "Katyn". There is also an interview with the director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, who explains that the real thing is considerably worse than the horrific scenes in the film. I have not seen it so have to go by the accounts I have read.

Most of us would say, especially with the Iran protests still in the news that any information we can have about the horrors of that country and of Sharia law as it is applies to individuals, in particular to those of the female gender, is useful. Apparently not. Well, not according to that soi-disant human rights organization, Amnesty International.

According to Elise Auerbach, Iran specialist for Amnesty International, USA (that is not a memebr of the central research team but someone attached to the American group), this film merely exploits the human rights issues in Iran for its own, "sensational" purposes. Hmm. I guess she could not blame Bush for it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A new Speaker

Curiously enough, there was a kind of a buzz in both Houses yesterday as the MPs went through a ridiculously laborious exercise from which the 157th Speaker, John Bercow MP, emerged. Ceremonies matter, not least for what they represent.

The system had been changed after the fiasco of the Martin election when there were 14 candidates and, in the end, the Speaker was elected and dragged to the Chair by the Labour Party only. As it happens, I do not think the exhausting new system, which started with 10 candidates and went through three secret ballots was any better and the result did not produce anyone unexpected.

By the last ballot it was down to Sir George Young (own rather dull website), which would have put another Old Etonian into a position of importance in the House of Common or John Bercow, the son of a Jewish taxi driver from North London. (Here is his website). These things should not matter, but I cannot help wondering how much of the Tory fulmination (here and here, not to mention comments on the various blogs) is due to the fact that Mr Bercow is just a bit uppity. (Incidentally, I note that the Jewish part has been removed from Wikipedia. Is that because it was not true or because somebody does not want people to be reminded of it?)

It is undoubtedly true that John Bercow has been politically slippery even by Tory politicians’ standards and there have been rumours for some time that he might cross the floor. As he started his political career on the extreme authoritarian right of the Conservative Party a move of that kind could have seemed a step too far but, in reality, how much difference is there between an authoritarian right-winger and an authoritarian left-winger?

When I first met John Bercow, he was not yet an MP but he cheerfully admitted that he would do anything to further his career. He also added that some issues were too important not to support despite that career and he named Maastricht as one. Had he been in the Commons then, he assured me, he would have voted against it, no matter what the cost would have been. Well, maybe. Even at the time I was doubtful.

Much water has flown under the bridge since then and there have been many twists and turns in Mr Bercow’s career until yesterday when he was dragged to that Chair. Given the rather colourful history of the Speakership since its beginnings, I remain philosophical about Mr Bercow’s personality and political inconstancy. After all, Speaker Lenthall, who has gone down in history as a personification of all that is finest in the office, was, in reality rather a poor fish and much despised by other parliamentarians.

Nor are the various accusations of skulduggery exactly new. In fact, all this added to our feeling in the House yesterday that we were witnessing another episode in a long historical process.

In the meantime, let us not forget that all this discussion of whether he is a reformer or not, and whether the House will regain credibility while he is in the Chair is so much hot air.

While legislative power remains in Brussels or with various quangos in this country the House of Commons will remain a poor, much despised body, no matter who the Speaker is.

On a different level, while MPs think that they can simply double their salaries without paying any taxes on the second half, they will remain, in most electors’ opinion, despised and pathetic.

Will the new Speaker do anything about that? As he cannot, I suspect he will not.

Friday, June 19, 2009

To be continued?

Jane Austen’s two unfinished novels were completed by several hands, each pedestrian and imitative; other novelists have produced continuations to such brilliant creations as “Pride and Prejudice”, all short of the original.

Other hands have finished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” but have never managed to live up to Dickens’s standards of writing and have merely succeeded in deepening that mystery.

It is tempting to have a go at finishing what great writers have begun; it is even more tempting to continue the lives or adventures of much loved characters. We all want to know how the Bennett-Darcy marriage fared as Jane Austen gives frustratingly few details. Then again, Dickens does give many details in his last chapters but we still want to know whether Nicholas Nickleby managed to squander his wife’s money. Well, no, maybe we do not care all that much. But we do want to know what happened to Edwin Drood.

The greatest temptation lies with well-known and well-loved characters who have transcended their fictional environments. Many of them are detectives whose lives and adventures have been continued by other hands.

It is hard to give up the notion of a new case for Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe or, perhaps, Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie disposed of the last one by his death in “Curtain” and, in any case, he and Miss Marple as well as Inspector Battle and Colonel Race are still in copyright. Why the estate allows those misguided perversions on TV is anybody’s guess but, apart from that, no new adventures can be written.

Sherlock Holmes was first brought back from the dead by his reluctant creator who then remained chained to the Baker Street ménage for many years to come with the stories getting ever weaker (though I do have a fondness for the autumnal sadness of “His Last Bow”). Homes, Watson, Mrs Hudson, Lestrade and sundry other police inspectors as well as the Baker Street Irregulars became so real in people’s minds that the idea of there not being any more adventures after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s death cause mass neurosis across the planet.

Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr valiantly tried to step into the breach and produced various new and further adventures and exploits of Sherlock Holmes. They were not very good though not quite as bad as the radio programmes Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce recorded in the forties. Those are actually rather entertaining, what with the improbable plots, ridiculous dialogue and references to the ongoing conflict in Europe and the Pacific.

Subsequent attempts to write Sherlock Holmes stories failed with the exception of Nicholas Meyer and his wonderfully witty “The Seven Per Cent Solution”. (And even he then produced a couple more unmemorable novels.) More recently writers have been producing new, long to the point of bloatedness adventures with Inspector Lestrade as the hero, Irene Adler as the heroine or even a young student of ancient languages who is successively Holmes’s pupil, assistant and wife. None of them come anywhere near the original stories.

Other detective characters have also suffered posthumous resurrections. Jill Paton Walsh completed Dorothy L Sayers’s unfinished “Thrones, Dominations”, which I have read and wrote another Lord Peter Wimsey story on the basis of Sayers’s notes, “A Presumption of Death”, which I have not.

Ms Paton Walsh is a writer of detective novels herself (as well as other literature) and her plots are usually infuriatingly sloppy. They work well until one realizes that the ages of characters do not correspond to the time that has elapsed or that certain developments are inherently unlikely in the social and geographic settings given.

Her Lord Peter is not only credible in Sayers’s terms but is actually a more appealing person as she cannot quite recreate the snobbery of the original novels and has not fallen in love with the character. Her Harriet is also more likeable than the original, who steadily becomes more infuriating through the novels till one feels like throwing the book, specifically “Gaudy Night” out of the window. (But I didn’t.)

The plot of “Thrones, Dominations”, on the other hand, is silly even by the Wimsey saga standards.

Then there are the Nero Wolfe adventures. Rex Stout turned out around seventy volumes, most of them of unsurpassable silliness. Their great strength is the atmosphere: the house on West 34, the description of New York City (with occasional forays outside) and, above all, the characters.

There is Wolfe himself, the gigantic Montenegrin who has become the best known private detective in NYC. He weighs one seventh of a ton, reads lots of books, loves food for quality and quantity, drinks a great deal of beer, cultivates orchids, tries never to leave his home and has opinions on many things, though, sadly, these tend to be rather trite, despite the man being a supposed genius.

The undoubted hero is Archie Goodwin. Charming, clever, good with guns and self-defence, indefatigable and completely loyal to Wolfe despite many provocations. He is also a wonderful writer since it is his accounts we read, presumably, as noted down by Rex Stout.

There are the household, Fritz Brennen the brilliant chef and Theodore Horstmann the orchid man; the police, Inspector Cramer, Lieutenant Rowcliff and Sergeant Stebbins, the last two waging a perpetual losing war with Archie; there are the free-lance operators, led by Saul Panzer, Archie’s girl-friend, Lily Rowan (though he loves dancing and takes many other girls out), the journalist Lon Cohen and assorted others who turn up from time to time.

There are sites devoted to Nero Wolfe, among them Wolfe Pack, which is the official site of the Nero Wolfe Society and Merely a Genius, which is, presumably, an unofficial site.

It was inevitable that the death of Rex Stout would cause a world-wide neurosis and that there would be other hands ready to pick up where Stout left off. The safest pair turned out to be Robert Goldsborough’s. He is an old newspaperman and an author of other detective stories as well about Chicago in the thirties. But his first fictional efforts were several new Nero Wolfe adventures.

The story is that Mr Goldsborough’s mother who had introduced him to Rex Stout’s writings, sighed for a new Nero Wolfe adventure when she heard of the writer’s death. As she herself was ill, too, her affectionate son decided to brighten her life by writing one, “Murder in E Minor”.

This was later accepted by the Rex Stout estate and published. The second novel in the series was “Death on Deadline”, the one I read last week. That sent me off musing about continuations of classic novels and new adventures for those well known detectives.

The good news is that Mr Goldsborough produced a novel, which was roughly the same length as most of Rex Stout’s were, clearly not feeling the need to write a blockbuster. The plot is marginally better than all but about three of the Stout ones were and the characters are accurate enough.

The book is well enough written though there are various literary infelicities. Archie Goodwin seems to be altogether too fond of the words “total” and “totally”; the Archie we know and love would never have written “that was totally uncalled for”. He also splits infinitives rather a lot. Nero Wolfe would never have used the word “quisling” wrongly.

The updating is skilful. The self-righteousness of the media, particularly of TV journalists in the post-Nixon era is well observed and, indeed, the omnipresence of television both in the form of its journalists and as entertainment is cleverly shown.

There are two serious problems, both endemic to the continuation industry. One is the slightly mechanical aspect of the characters. Goldsborough did not create Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin any more than Adrian Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; they are merely putting somebody else’s creation through their paces and it shows.

There is a carefulness, an artificiality about all continuations, a fragility as if the authors were afraid of the mechanism breaking down. The alternative seems to be something along the lines of Caleb Carr’s “The Italian Secretary” in which Sherlock Holmes is so unlike the original or, indeed, any possible Victorian character that the book becomes a monstrosity.

The other problem is the politics. With Rex Stout we think we know Nero Wolfe’s politics but it is cleverly obfuscated. He is generally against big government and, usually, against big business; dislikes Washington DC and federal authorities though both he and Archie work for those authorities during the war.

Does that put Wolfe on the right or on the left? In American terms that is not clear. Both sides have small government, populist anti-big business aspects; indeed, in modern America it is more likely to be the right that preserves what might be termed the traditional American values.

Things are somewhat different in “Death on Deadline”. Lon Cohen, of whom we know little except that he works for the Gazette, either dispenses information for Archie’s benefit or is given a scoop, and plays poker once a week with Archie, Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin, moves to the centre of the stage.

Lon apparently has a wife though when he sees her is a mystery to all and one that Nero Wolfe really needs to solve before there is a messy divorce. Secondly, he turns out to be a Journalist with a capital J who dislikes the idea of the Gazette being taken over by a Scottish [?] tycoon who runs newspapers just for profit. Shock, horror. Mind you, Lon does not dislike what must be a substantial salary or his pension or profit shares. That idealistic he is not.

Wolfe and Goodwin come out on the same side. The sacred nature of crusading journalism is just that … sacred. One must admit, however, that the journalists that Archie has to deal with show themselves to be stupid and unpleasant.

To push the plot and to show his soft left credentials Nero Wolfe takes out a page-size advertisement in the New York Times calling on all decent people to prevent the take-over of the Gazette. His argument is that the tycoon has taken journalism down to unheard of levels of sleaze and smuttiness but, even more importantly, he has supported all right-wing causes and has never thrown his weight behind a Democrat politician. His newspapers have consistently supported Republicans. Can’t have that, can we?

One cannot imagine Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin making such utter fools of themselves. Probably they did vote Democrat but, given Wolfe’s dislike of big government, maybe not, unless he was considerably less logical than he is supposed to have been.

We must ask ourselves what makes authors who decide to prolong the adventures of well-known and much loved detectives of the past turn them into mushy progressives?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Remember this

In case the Mad Mullahs of Iran and their puppet "President" Ahmadinejad succeed in destroying the opposition - and the news is that meetings and protests are continuing but they are being viciously broken up with leaders arrested across the country - let us not forget that they are sitting on top of a barrel of dynamite. Via Instapundit we get a picture that sums up much.

I do wish our media stopped referring to Ahmadinejad as the man who won the election and to Mir Hossein Musavi as the loser. There are serious doubts about that election and a few references to that might be useful instead of the implication that the protesters are ridiculous and unpleasant opponents of the democratically elected leader.

Meanwhile, President Obama is still desperately seeking his chance "to engage" in dialogue with Teheran, pronouncing himself to be "disturbed" by the violence. While it is sensible not to take sides at this stage and even reasonably sensible to say this is for the Iranian people to decide (let us hope he feels the same way about the truly democratic state of Israel and its Prime Minister, Netanyahu) a few words of encouragement for democracy might come in useful. It does look a leeeeeeeeeeeetle like the President would prefer the Mad Mullahs and their puppet to win though why he thinks their negotiations would be conducted with anyhting but a forked tongue is anybody's guess.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Class warfare is a bad idea

Well you knew that, I expect, but the fact is that it comes in many different shapes and sizes, punitive taxation on "the rich" being a favourite one with politicians because they think it might resonate with voters. Here is Dan Mitchell of Cato Institute explaining why President Obama's own class warfare is an extremely bad idea:

Open thread?

I should really have put this up on Saturday before I went to Oxford, knowing that on my return I shall be quite busy. However, here it is, belatedly. All can have a go at various subject but usual rule of comments applies. I am, incidentally, quite ruthless if needs be.

Later on I shall post on various matters but, in the meantime I have to go and read boring documents about nutrition advice. Sigh!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Children and the Platonic ideal

As I listen to the jets flying over my house in West London away from the centre where they have been trooping the colour I am reminded of an episode in 2002. We joined the huge crowds in the Mall who were celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee. It was a very happy and jolly occasion with participants waving flags of all countries and regions. There was even one from the Isle of Man.

As the military planes flew past (one from every year of the Queen's reign) a little boy behind me repeatedly demanded to be told when the Spitfires were coming. They were not, of course, being from an earlier period. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by his insistence, the likelihood being that his grandparents had not been born when the Spitfires flew.

In the end I decided that he was thinking along the same lines as children do when they imitate choo-choo trains and draw steam engines if asked to explain what a train is like. The steam train and the Spitfire are clearly the Platonic ideal form of a train and an aeroplane. Children do not need to have this explained to them. They just know.

News from the Axis of Evil

In Iran both incumbent President Ahmadinejad and his rival, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, both hard-liners on just about every subject, have also both claimed a decisive victory after an election with a high turn-out.
In a news conference held before the balloting was completed, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main challenger of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed a decisive victory. But minutes later, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) announced that Ahmadinejad had won reelection.

"In line with the information we have received, I am the winner of this election by a substantial margin," Mousavi, 67, declared. An aide said the moderate candidate had won 65 percent of the vote.

However, IRNA said, "Dr. Ahmadinejad, by getting a majority of the votes, has become the definite winner of the 10th presidential election."
Official results are expected to be released early on Saturday.

President Obama described the campaign as exciting. Most other people prefer the words bitter and nasty. That, in itself, means nothing. The question is will the losing side accept defeat and if not, what will it do.

Meanwhile, the UN has announced severe sanctions against North Korea in the wake of all those nuclear tests. One can't help feeling excited: we haven't had any UN sanctions for a little while. Not that North Korea or, for that matter, China will pay any attention but it is good to be back in UN sanction-land, which is full of the usual prevarication:
The Security Council's action marked a significant escalation in the United Nations' effort to coerce North Korea into halting a barrage of ballistic missile tests and to prod it back into six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The 15-nation council is now set to begin negotiations over imposition of an asset freeze or travel ban on additional individuals and
state companies linked to North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile program.

But the authority of the council's move was mitigated by its unwillingness to use force to ensure compliance, or to impose a comprehensive economic blockade that would severely curtail a boom in North Korean trade, particularly with
China. "This is not a trade embargo," Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador, Philip Parham, said shortly before the vote.

In a sign of its reluctance to cut off Pyongyang, Beijing insisted that today's resolution include an exemption from an arms embargo that allows China to sell Pyongyang small arms and light weapons, including the signature AK-47 used by North Korea's giant military, according to council diplomats.
Good to have a British diplomat, a representative of that Rolls-Royce civil service, explaining the truth. Not a trade embargo, eh? Not an arms embargo, either. So what is it?

It looks like the next leader of the Democratic Republic of North Korea will be Kim Jong Il's youngest son, the 26 year old Kim Jon Un. He has been named Brilliant Comrade by the North Korean media.

UPDATE: Ahmadinejad is declared to be the winner by the Interior Ministry on 62.2 per cent of the vote. His opponent is disputing the results and attacking the conduct of the election. Clashes between supporters of the two have been reported.

From the other member of the Axis of Evil we hear that Pyongyang's response to those UN sanctions is a wow
to "weaponize" all the plutonium it could extract from used fuel rods at its partially disabled Yongbyon nuclear plant.

It also pledged to start enriching uranium to make more nuclear weapons. For the past seven years, North Korea has adamantly denied U.S. intelligence reports that it even had a uranium-enrichment program.
At least now we know for sure. Another huge success for the UN and transnational politics.

Friday, June 12, 2009

With a smile on one's face

Let's have something cheerful and light-hearted for a change. One of my favourite sites is ZooBorns, which publishes pictures of new born additions in zoos all over the world. Sometimes the pictures are of cute and fluffy animals, sometimes of slightly odd looking but still rather lovely creatures, sometimes (all too often) of animals that are gradually disappearing from the wild, not necessarily because of "wicked" economic development either, and sometimes of not very cute but fascinating animals. Python babies, for instance. Astonishing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How far can one stretch liberalism?

Among other anniversaries 2009 is the 100th one of the birth Sir Isaiah Berlin, writer, historian, philosopher, raconteur, memoirist and Oxford personality. He is highly regarded by many (and rightly so) as one of the definers of true liberty and true liberalism. There were, however, many other aspects to his activity.

On Sunday I went to a memorial meeting in Pushkin House, which is a sort of centre of Russian cultural activity in London. The talks, discussions and reminiscences centred on Berlin’s links with Russia and Russian culture, particularly his well-known meeting with the great poet Anna Akhmatova in 1945 and 1946 when Berlin was at the British embassy in Moscow.

Other reminiscences went along the lines of “And then Berlin asked me what’s the news from Russia and I said not a great deal but we now have lots of leaders to quote whereas before we had only one”. Less than fascinating to anyone who is not a complete groupie.

The Akhmatova meetings have been well analyzed by memoirists and scholars both in Russia and the West. Their own memories are not entirely reliable but the poetry that Akhamatova spun out of the meetings, the references in “Poem without a Hero” to the “guest from the future” and the third dedication, which is clearly to Berlin, though in 1956 she could hardly admit to this, are all the stuff of legends, as is Akhmatova’s rather strange conviction that the Cold War was triggered off by those meetings.

However, one thing was triggered off: a renewed and more ferocious persecution of the poet that included public attacks by the Culture Commissar Andrei Zhdanov, a yet another arrest of her son Lev and the eventual arrest of her second (but that time ex-) husband, the well-known art historian, Nikolai Punin. Lev Gumilyov survived all his arrests, Punin did not, dying in camp in 1953.

Nobody has ever managed to discern whether Berlin understood the damage he had done to Akhmatova as his versions of the tale changed with every telling.

The only reference to Sir Isaiah’s non-Russian activity was by Professor Alexander Pyatigorsky, whose fascinating biography was matched by an eccentric mode of delivery.

Enunciating every syllable in a slightly melodramatic way, Professor Pyatigorsky told us that Sir Isaiah was the last of the REAL li-be-rals and added with a capital L though, I suspect he meant with a small l. He compared Berlin to Professor Leonard Schapiro. Both of them, he said were open to all points of view, accepted all opinions.

In this, I think, Professor Pyatigorsky was unfair to Professor Schapiro, who was a real liberal in that he believed in liberalism, freedom and the rule of law. He also understood that those concepts had to be defended, sometimes ferociously. Not for him the notion that all opinions were equally valid.

Sir Isaiah Berlin was of a very different mentality. His liberalism frequently slid into a moral paralysis. One rather amusing story was told at the meeting by Valentina Polukhina, professor of Russian Literature at Keele and expert on Joseph Brodsky’s life and works.

It seems that for Brodsky’s fiftieth birthday she arranged a series of interviews about him, one of them being with Isaiah Berlin. To her grief and astonishment the great man talked in harsh and critical terms about the poet. Polukhina realized that he must have been influenced by another Russian poet, Anatoly Naiman, Brodsky’s great rival. The interview was published but Polukhina then arranged for another one and this time Berlin spoke of Brodsky with love and admiration.

Polukhina explained this by a somewhat child-like attitude to life, which meant that “Isaiah” would be influenced by the last person he spoke to. Some of us would describe it more harshly.

Some years ago, Isaiah Berlin’s name came up in a conversation I had with a right-wing academic, one of those who had been under severe attacks in the late sixties and early seventies from left-wing student leaders and New Left academics while spineless university authorities helplessly and metaphorically wrung their hands.

Many of them were surprised and disappointed by the fact that the doyen of liberal thinking, the man who had defined the notions of liberty, Sir Isaiah Berlin OM, would not defend them or speak up on their side, preferring to see everybody’s point of view and, on occasion, prevaricating.

My response was that I did not think this was simply a matter of moral cowardice but a real inability to understand the difference between those who speak up for freedom and those who speak up against it. Berlin, in my opinion, could not see that a true liberal has to take sides.

I came to this conclusion a long time ago when, as an undergraduate, I read Sir Isaiah’s essays on Russian radical thinkers, first published in the magazine Encounter and collected into one volume in 1978. These studies were immensely influential: they introduced generations of scholars to Russian political philosophy, created new courses in universities and, most importantly, influenced Sir Tom Stoppard to write his magnificent trilogy “The Coast of Utopia”. (I saw it in the National Theatre and it is magnificent though much disliked by the leftish theatre critics.)

There were two problems with those essays and their influence. One was that Berlin confirmed and, possibly, enforced the view that the only thinking in Russia was on the left, ranging from the liberal Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev to the more radical and totalitarian Mikhail Bakunin or Petr Tkachev. This is a view with which the eminent historian Richard Pipes has been battling with for some time.

That may be described as a sin of omission. There was, however, one of commission as well. Sir Isaiah Berlin, the doyen of liberal thought and the man who defined the two kinds of liberty, saw no real moral or political difference between the various strands of thought. He did not like the Bolsheviks but his view of his Russian subjects, be it Herzen, who was largely liberal in his views, though leaning to socialism, or Tkachev who was a radical totalitarian, was usually benign. They were all fighting against tsarism and, naturally enough, some of them were a little carried away but, his “liberalism” suggested, one must accept all those points of view.

It is this view that has influenced the study of Russian nineteenth century thought in British universities. (I am not sure about American ones and would welcome information.) Alternative points of view have been frowned upon and often discarded. It is not surprising that a man whose idea of liberalism stretched into political relativism in theory should have prevaricated in practice.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Sorry not to be posting on this blog about the European elections. There is a live update going on over on EUReferendum but a rebellion is in the offing as my postings keep going AWOL.

However, in the other election, in Lebanon, where the turn-out was 52 per cent, higher than across the EU, it looks like the Hezbollah and its allies have lost. Good news, of course, but will Hezbollah accept the result?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sixty-five years ago

Normandy June 6, 1944 D-Day

Friday, June 5, 2009

Is there any way ...

... by which we can stop even highly intelligent people from saying rather silly things about politics? I am thinking about Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home who has an article on Comment is Free today in which he gives a good and very pithy analysis of what is going on around the Prime Minister.

He does not mention that getting rid of a Labour leader is considerably more difficult than of a Conservative one but, in a sense, that is irrelevant. What he wants is for Brown to resign and for a general election to be called, not a particularly logical development in any case. A new leader would, most definitely, go to the wire.

As it happens I never thought Brown would resign or call an early election and am on record as saying so. Mr Montgomerie seems to be coming round to that point of view.

What I really object to is the following sentence:
The parliamentary Labour party has shown it can't run the country and it is now looking like it can't run a leadership coup.
Amusingly phrased or rather re-phrased from previous sayings. The only problem is that it is not the job of the parliamentary Labour or any other party to run the country. Even theoretically, they are part of the legislative not of the executive.

MPs have a double role: they must legislate (as little as possible) and hold the executive to account (as strictly as it is humanly possible). They do neither, having given away their legislative powers and being able to do nothing but occasionally squeal at the huge flood of it coming it and having decided that they cannot be bothered to do the second. Running the country they neither can (being unable to run the proverbial whelk stall) nor should.

How long before our political commentators finally grasp this simple concept?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Whose side are we on?

Another great headline: BBC deals "stop scrutiny". Apparently, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has produced a report on the way the BBC opens up information about the way it spends taxpayers' money.
The BBC refused to give the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, a breakdown of presenters' salaries for a selection of radio shows unless the NAO signed a non-disclosure agreement, the committee said.

Edward Leigh MP, the chairman of the committee, said it was "disgraceful" that the BBC could dictate what the NAO could inspect when public money was at stake.
Whose side do we take? It's a tough call.

Twenty years ago

Tiananmen Square June 4, 1989

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Prince of Wales will be going

My first reaction to the news that the Prince of Wales will be going to the D-Day celebrations after discreet negotiations and a "change of heart" on the part of Presidents Sarkozy and Obama was that he should not have given in but treated that bunch of self-publicists with the scorn they deserve.

I was wrong and the Prince was right. The three narcissists have already shown themselves to be puny and contemptible and the day is not about them but the veterans who will be glad to have the Prince there to represent the Royal Family. It is good to be generous and to place emphasis where it belongs.

Once again, Royal Family 1: Politicians 0. And that is how it should be.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Well, of course, he should stop apologizing

Barack Obama should stop apologizing for America, says Nile Gardiner and, for once, he is absolutely right. Not because the American government or its various institutions never make mistakes - they do, frequently; not because there are no obnoxious Americans and venal politicians in that country - there are; but because by and large American influence on the world, coming as it does from an Anglospheric frame of mind, has been benign. Think of the alternatives.

Above all, he should not be tempted to apologize for American actions in World War II. In fact, he should not be equating the bombing of Dresden with the death camps in his forthcoming visit to Germany. (It seems that on balance his great uncle, not his uncle, liberated Buchenwald, not Auschwitz. Good to know.) In fact, to avoid such an equivalence he ought not to be going to Dresden at all. Or, maybe, he should also visit London, Coventry, Bristol, Plymouth and one or two other places in Britain, not to mention Warsaw.

Let's imagine

The June issue of Standpoint, an excellent magazine, always full of good reading material, has a theatre review not by the usual critic, Minette Marrin, but by Mark Ronan, who also blogs on the arts. (Actually, he is quite a guy, a professor of mathematics who has also acted and danced as well as written about both the arts and mathematics. In fact, I am beginning to think that he is a figment of somebody’s imagination.)

The review in question is of two plays by Ronald Harwood at the Duchess Theatre in London, both about German musicians who remained in the country under the Nazis and went on working, indeed flourished but had to face up to the consequences in 1945. Appropriately enough, it is called “Facing the Music”.

(Here is another review of the plays in the Economist.)

The two musicians are Richard Strauss, long “known” by all bien pensants for being a Nazi (Ken Russell has much to answer for) and the sublime conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Respectively, the plays are entitled “Collaboration” and “Taking Sides”.

Mr Ronan’s first paragraph sums up the problem about judging people on the basis of hearsay:
When I once performed an acting role in Richard Strauss's Salome, in Chicago, one of the singers said to me, "He wrote glorious music, but what a f***ing Nazi!" I was astonished. This was not the Richard Strauss I knew about, so I rang a lady friend in England, who said, "And did this man know that Strauss had a Jewish daughter-in-law, of whom he was extremely fond? And that he protected her and his Jewish grandchildren throughout the war?"
There is also the fact that Richard Strauss insisted on keeping the name of Stefan Zweig, the Jewish writer and librettist of Die Schweigsame Frau, on the playbill.

But, undoubtedly, Strauss collaborated to some extent with the regime, as did Furtwängler, though he was not a member of the party, however hard the American interrogator tried to prove that and he did help Jewish musicians in escaping. The accusation that by helping them he knew what was going on and was, therefore, guilty, apparently levelled at the conductor in 1945 could have come only from people who understood nothing about the realities of totalitarianism.

It seems, however, that certain record shops have decided that they know everything:
[W]hen Harwood was preparing the play he asked his daughter in New York to go to Tower Records and get him all the Furtwängler recordings she could. She called back half an hour later to say, "Dad, I've had a terrible time, I went in and the man said, ‘We don't keep Nazi recordings in this shop'."
At the end or his article Mr Ronan says:
We are left with questions. How would we have acted in the circumstances of the time? Some people seem certain of their own righteousness and condemn the musicians, yet self-righteousness and condemnation are something of which the Nazis were guilty. A contemporary theatre critic in a major newspaper wrote that Strauss was a Quisling. Does he not understand the meaning of the word? Strauss was German, so was Furtwängler. Their country, ruled by a government they disliked and officials who disgusted them, can be easily condemned, but condemning those who lived there as things went from bad to worse is another matter entirely. Was Strauss a "f***ing Nazi"? Was Furtwängler? These plays should inspire us to examine ourselves and our world.
The last reference is to the repeated attempts to boycott Israeli academics and artists simply because they are Israeli (oh what the heck, because they are Jewish). Often these calls are voiced by the same people who spit at the name of Strauss or Furtwängler, assuming they have heard of the latter.

As for how would any of us behave in those circumstances, we do not know if we have not been through it. The most surprising people behave heroically; it is the theme of many stories, such as Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”. Come to think of it, is that not what the story of Mary Magdalen about?

There is, yet another way of testing our attitudes. Suppose the discussion quoted at the beginning had not been about Richard Strauss but about Dmitry Shostakovich. “He wrote glorious music but what a f***ing Stalinist.” How does that sound? Yet, it was true. Shostakovich wrote music to order, agreed to censorship, watched silently as his colleagues were persecuted and arrested without, to my knowledge, saving anybody. Perhaps he could not. It is not, precisely, for me to judge. But it is something to remember.

It is not about the settlements, apparently

Before President Obama addresses the Arab world (which he and his advisers mistakenly assume to be the same as the Muslim world) and before Secretary of State Clinton (if she is allowed) becomes too involved in Middle Eastern negotiations, they should all read this interview with a supposedly high-ranking officer in Hezbollah.

"Mahmoud", one assumes, speaks for Hezbollah and its supporters (coyly not named). His description of the organization may seem wonderfully romantic from the way the BBC quotes and paraphrases but it is really a very nasty paramilitary, terrorist group who achieve their aims within Lebanese politics by force.

And the money quote:
But more recently, the United Kingdom government decided to distinguish between the two faces of Hezbollah - by talking to its politicians while keeping the military wing on the terrorist list.

But Mahmoud, the fighter, says the UK is fooling itself by making this distinction.

"We have two arms, but we belong to one body. There is no such things as the military wing or the political wing of Hezbollah - we are all part of one resistance," he said.

"Hezbollah will become a purely political party only when Israel ceases to exist," he said.
No, it is not about the settlements. They were taken down in Gaza and nothing changed. It is about the existence of Israel. Got that? Of course, there is no explanation as to what will happen if Israel were cease to exist. Would all the problems of the Arab countries magically disappear?

ADDENDUM: Denis Prager suggests the speech that President Obama ought to make in Egypt but, alas, will not. Possibly because many of those facts would be new to him as well.

This looks like a promising beginning

Richard D. North (not the boss of EUReferendum but the other one) has started a new site that is going to be "a family of creative, intelligent, challenging and trustworthy websites". Wow!