Thursday, August 31, 2006

More bad news

"America itself, its state and system of government, is undergoing defeat", says Anthony Barnett:

It is a moral defeat, from Guantánamo to the Manichaean unilateralism of good against evil. It is a constitutional defeat for a system that permitted Bush to steal an election and whose courts have yet to re-establish fundamental rights. It is a democratic defeat because the politics which permitted it is based on a financially suborned, gerrymandered, often uncheckable, low-turnout voting system that threatens to reduce suffrage in the US to government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich – while it invades countries abroad in the name of democratic self-rule. It is a defeat for its media that misleads and misjudges. A defeat for its political class which as a whole has lost the capacity to oppose.
Phew! Glad you got that off your chest, Anthony. Have a glass of water. Meanwhile, in Damascus, Hugo Chavez makes whoopy with the president of a police state who is the son of a mass murder.

Bad news from Tehran

Ramin Jahanbegloo, "formerly a prominent thinker and writer on democracy and non-violence", has made his confession. As The Economist noted last week:
Thanks to America's reorganisation of Iraq in favour of its Shia majority and the Islamic Republic's successful cultivation of the new elite there, Iran has a degree of influence to its west that it has not enjoyed since it lost its Mesopotamian possessions in the 17th century...For most of Iran's sad reformers, it is Mr Bush's blunders, not the clergy's inspired leadership, that have put Iran in its present strong position.
(P.S. 1 Sep: Rasool Nafisi comments here on Jahanbegloo’s release)

Good news from Columbus

Ohio to delay destruction of presidential ballots - "With paper ballots from the 2004 presidential election in Ohio scheduled to be destroyed next week, the secretary of state in Columbus, under pressure from critics, said yesterday that he would move to delay the destruction at least for several months".

Nature cures

Apples in the Tamar Valley:

Upstream from Cotehele Quay, in his 10-year-old orchard of local varieties, all labelled with names and provenance, James has summer-pruned the cherries, looking forward to a mature orchard of overarching boughs. Some have already developed distinctive shapes above their lichen-encrusted trunks. Speckled wood butterflies flutter beneath the Queens apple tree, over ground strewn with fallen red fruit, and the beauty of Cornwall is laden with pale yellow apples streaked with scarlet. In readiness for the visit of a group of 40 Belgian fruit enthusiasts, sward has been topped, contrasting with sheltering boundary hedges, all thick with reddening hawthorn berries, hazel nuts, blue sloes, blackberries, elderberries and late-flowering honeysuckle.

Wolves are back in Germany:

The wolves, who arrived from Poland or other neighbouring countries, live in a largely vacant area of abandoned strip mines and vacated troop training grounds southeast of Berlin.…Other species, like the crane and the white-tailed eagle have also flourished in the east as the human population decreases. "The wolves were gone for over 100 years and first started coming back a while after the Berlin Wall fell," said Matthias Freude of the Brandenburg state environmental office…"They swam across the Neise river or walked across the ice in winter," he added. "There are hardly any people left there now."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

"Fear is a method"

Camus was no pacifist, but he deplored the logic of thinking in categories. "We have witnessed lying, humiliation, killing, deportation and torture, and in each instance it was impossible to persuade the people who were doing these things not to do them, because there is no way of persuading an abstraction, or, to put it another way, the representative of an ideology," he wrote. Terror makes fear, and fear stops thinking. The way out of [behaving like the pathological character Mersault in The Outsider] is to think about particular people, proximate causes , and obtainable objectives -- not an easy thing to do in any circumstance and nearly inpossible in the face of those ideologies, left and right, for which, Camus writes "fear is a method".
--from Adam Gopnik's comment in The New Yorker (28 August) on George W. Bush's summer reading list.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


"They took their surnames from the colours of the sky, rainbow and clouds"--Kathleen Jamie quoting Martin Martin in The island at the edge of the world

Friday, August 25, 2006

Al Qaeda -- the whole story?

In his 250th column for openDemocracy, nearly five years on from the attacks in New York and Washington, Paul Rogers says that Al Qaeda "far from being a nihilistic better described as an unusual transnational revolutionary movement rooted in a quasi-religious ideology which promotes a number of clear-cut aims".

It is vital to know one's enemy, and this description seems like a contribution to a good start on that, but I'm not convinced it's the whole picture.

Others argue that Al Qaeda phenomenon and its associates have many of the characteristics of a cult. How useful is this analogy and what can it teach us?

One other thing. Paul Rogers lists one of Al Qaeda's five near term aims to be the establishment of the Palestinian state. He does not mention the elimination of the state of Israel. But is this not an Al Qaeda aim?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Almost miraculous

By the tenth week of gestation, a human embryo is forming 250,000 neurones in the brain every minute. And the rate increases each week thereafter.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Who smote?

I am happy to be alive on the day that Saddam goes on trial for the Anfal, one of the worst crimes of the 1980s in which more than 180,000 people were killed (see here and here). My three wishes are:
  • 1) may Saddam and others accused, if any, get a trial that is very clearly fair so that if convicted no reasonable person can doubt justice has been done;
  • 2) may it give pause to some Islamo-nutters and their fellow travellers to recall that the biggest killer in modern times of people ycleped Muslims was Saddam; and
  • 3) may the trial hearings help remind more people in the US and elsewhere of essential role of the Western powers in supporting Saddam when he was at the height of his tyranny.

In chastening times (see Hendrik Hertzberg, Frank Rich and Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro) perhaps there is some possibility of progress on number three.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dates for your diary

Bush’s strongest supporter in Europe continues to be...Tony Blair, but many in Blair’s own Foreign Office, as a former diplomat said, believe that he has “gone out on a particular limb on this”—especially by accepting Bush’s refusal to seek an immediate and total ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. Blair stands alone on this,” the former diplomat said. “He knows he’s a lame duck who’s on the way out, but he buys it”—the Bush policy. “He drinks the White House Kool-Aid as much as anybody in Washington.” The crisis will really start at the end of August, the diplomat added, “when the Iranians”—under a United Nations deadline to stop uranium enrichment—“will say no.”
-- from Watching Lebanon by Seymour Hersch, 14 August

Hersch reports that, following the Israeli experience in Lebanon, Donald Rumsfeld may be more cautious about an attack on Iran, but that policy is being led by Dick Cheney and Elliott Abrams. Paul Rogers thinks the pressure for an attack on Iran is likely to increase (see An Unfinished War, 14 August).

In an e mail I received back on 27 April one analyst said:
“I've pencilled in 26-28 October [for a US attack on Iran], just before the mid-sessionals [i.e. the US Congressional Elections], just after a new moon and with the mid-sessionals taking place after 'mission accomplished' but before the Iranians can respond fully”.
As a side note, a senior British diplomat working closely with the Prime Minister's office on a different issue says he thinks Blair has gone quite mad.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Radetsky March

I got back from Papau a few days ago, but have had a medical problem that has knocked me back a little, and I am still finding my bearings. This is just to note the worth of a good piece of serious fiction: Joseph Roth's still relevant meditation on decaying empire, The Radestzky March.

I was very young when I first read Tolstoy, Chekov and Thomas Mann, so missed a lot. Now, many years later, I have come to Roth for the first time, and probably appreciate this remarkable (if not quite as “great”) writer more fully.

Radetzky has luminous passages that bear comparison with the very greats. There is, for example the description at the beginning of chapter 9 of the swampy district on the Russian frontier and the people who live there. (Regarding the traders of the district who deal in everything including slaves, it looks like not much has changed since the book was written). And there is the account of the death of the servant Jacques, which is Tolstoyan in its realism.

I understand Roth has been criticised for creating characters who behave like martinets or automatons, and who are often not very bright. But I think that is part of the point of his vision. It is a profound and disquieting truth that human behaviour can be shallow and predictable as well as nasty (Roth was after all a contemporary of Kraus and Kafka as well as Freud and Mann), and it’s not as if we won’t see evidence of this in contemporary life.

It is the true that Radetzky March pays little attention to women. And some passages stretched credulity, at least for me – the Hungarian officers skipping gleefully to a speeded up funeral march on the news of the Sarajevo assassination, for example.

Is the novel excessively portentous? The ravens coming south with advent of war, for example. But to me this seems very real. Like the grandson’s dismissal of his manservant’s selfless generosity as something out of a bad fiction, the point, says Roth, is that we have been fooled by bad copies into thinking that such things don’t really happen.

“Sympathy” is not the right word for Roth’s attitude to conservatism, which he understands so well (the obvious pigeonhole for Roth himself would be “progressive”); but his historical, moral and psychological vision is more complex and enriching than can be described by any label I can think of.