...Views from mid-Atlantic
24 January 2004

Kenya has a press than can hold its own with any of the world's wilder scandal sheets. The headline on a recent front-page lead in the eight-page Dispatch was: "Police Nab He-Goat Minister in Hot Sex with Greedy Slut." They're having a field day with the recent scandal of the two-wife president who can't keep his number one wife quiet. What Kenyan voters want to know is how a president who can't seem to be the boss in his own household expects to be able to run a country properly.

AS Byatt doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the description of Edith Grossman's new translation of Don Quixote as a masterpiece, perhaps because it contains what she describes as "infelicities". But it does, she says, have energy and clarity and has been written in a robust style neither ancient nor modern. What she really likes about it is that it is a translation of the best book there is: "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza grow more real as they suffer and discuss. They have real bodies in a real landscape and an almost-real society. Once you have met them you can never forget them. Any discussion of the invention of character in prose fiction radiates round Cervantes. Dickens, Dostoevsky and Balzac would not have written as they did without him."

Theodore Dalrymple gives away to the readers of the Spectator one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the journalistic world - in any story about a country to which a journalist has to travel, background information always comes from one or two special sources of information.

23 January 2004

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos that terrorism and the war against it threatens to undermine human rights and split the world along cultural, religious and ethnic lines. This is a little like the pot jumping up and down about how black the kettle has become.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times this morning, conservatives David Frum and Richard Perle argue that the UN itself has been a prime contributor to the threat.

"The United Nations," they say, "has emerged at best as irrelevant to the terrorist threat that most concerns us, and at worst as an obstacle to our winning the war on terrorism. It must be reformed. And if it cannot be reformed, the United States should give serious consideration to withdrawal.

"The U.N. has become an obstacle to our national security because it purports to set legal limits on the United States' ability to defend itself. If these limits ever made sense at all, they do not make sense now."

US Labour Secretary Elaine Chao has warned that NGOs - non-governmental organisations - pose a danger to US law.

Speaking to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Ms Chao delineated the growing relationship between NGOs and multi-lateral organizations and the way that relationship helps undermine U.S. law.

"NGO and multi-lateral organizations are becoming key players in global public opinion and global standard setting. They are patiently laying the groundwork in international law, standards and practices that the United States will one day be pressured to adopt."

She's right about the danger, although I don't know why she casts it as being simply to US law. NGOs use their ability to sit as observers in conferences of all kinds, around the world, to urge their own agenda on the people who must abide by the rules that are set.

I argued in an article published recently that they were at the root of the breakdown of the recent World Trade Organisation conference. In that case, they wanted the WTO to allow trade to be restricted on the basis of political, rather than scientific judgements. Many of them are green environmental groups, which want environmental officials to have extraordinarily broad rights to protect the environment.

There is nothing to prevent such a thing being provided for in a specific international agreement, but green groups want to create a situation in which powerful countries, such as their friends in the EU, should be able to force other, weaker countries, to change their domestic environmental policies under threat of trade coercion.

An Iraeli official, speaking after a meeting between Condoleezza Rice and Ariel Sharon, says very little can be done to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East in the absence of Palestinian action against terrorism. The Washington Post suggests he might be preparing the way for those unilateral steps Mr Sharon threatened a while ago. There is another possibility, though, which is that he is trying to encourage the Palestinian Authority to give support to the proposal that emerged a short time ago to replace Ahmed Qureia, who seems to have been more or less useless as head of the Authority, with Salim Fayed, the pro-US finance minister. Despite huge obstacles, the largest and most significant being Yasser Arafat, Fayed has done a good job in reforming the finances of the more or less dysfunctional Authority. He may have the force of character needed to break loose from Mr Arafat's death grip.

Senior US commanders say they're making progress in the struggle against insurgents in Iraq, which is encouraging news. How long will it be before the armchair commanders far from Iraq tell us they're wrong?

The results of this survey in Britain are deeply disturbing. One in seven Britons believes the scale of the Holocaust has been exaggerated: one in five would have difficulty with a Jewish prime minister. David Blunkett, the home secretary, gets it about right when he says "It means people are prepared to set aside not only the evidence, but the overwhelming emotion that goes with it. They delude themselves into believing that the Nazis are not what we know them to be and this is very depressing."

There can't be any doubt that the watering down of education in Britain must be at least partly responsible for the survey's results. As this story demonstrates, the focus of education bureaucrats has sometimes come seriously adrift. Their interest in altering the Shakespeare test, for example, is obviously in being able to claim a good pass record, as opposed to doing a good job educating children.

Turkey, whose membership in the European Union depends on a solution to the partition of Cyprus, is expected to propose a new package of measure in the next few days that will fire up UN-led negotiations again. All parties seem to want the Island's reunification. Although this story doesn't make it clear, the fly in the ointment is the ornery leader of northern Cyprus, Rauf Denktash, supported by Turkey's military, which has a habit of going its own way despite what Turkey's government wants.

It's one of those seemingly silly issues to which high stakes have attached themselves.

In all the hullabaloo about Mars, it's easy to forget that as that chapter of space exploration opens, another is ending a little closer to the earth. The Chicago Tribune (you'll need to register) reminds us of the accomplishments of the Hubble telescope.

"Hubble added a fundamental clue to one of the great mysteries of science. It discovered evidence of a mysterious force, called dark energy, which scientists believe is causing all of the objects in the universe to move apart at an accelerating rate.

"Beyond that, Hubble has awed and inspired a generation of star gazers. One picture, popularly known as 'The Pillars of Creation', taken in April of 1995 showed what a Tribune writer described as 'a nursery for baby stars nestled into giant pillars of hydrogen gas and dust reaching into a vast and mysterious cosmos'... It is now one of the great astronomical images of all time, one that continues to stir people to thoughts about God and the universe."

In the novel on which the opera is based, Carmen lived in Seville, and worked in that city's cigarette factory. So it makes sense for the most-performed opera to be performed there. What makes this performance a little different is that the audience and the performers will have to shift to allow each act to be staged in a different location. The production is to be the centrepiece of the First Seville International Music Festival, which runs from September 2 to 12. Carlos Saura, who made a fine film of Carmen in the early '80s, is going to direct this...uh, moving version.

22 January 2004

I can't imagine many Americans need an excuse to come to Bermuda at this time of year, but just in case, here's a little deal sweetener.

UPDATE: I linked to rather a puzzling story that, though it was dated January 21, referred to an exhibition that had ended several days before. Masterworks explains this morning that the pictures are no longer on display, but are part of their collection of more than 1,000 works of art that feature Bermuda. When their new building is finished (it's months away) the Homer watercolours will be accessible again. Sorry for the confusion.

The Washington Post cuts a little chaff away from the Iowa caucuses result and says there were two big lessons to be learned from what happened. The first was that among the major candidates, the two who were furthest to the left on core political issues lost, while the two who had moved closer toward the centre won. The second was that organised labour's failure to turn out the union vote for Mr. Gephardt or Mr. Dean means that unions are no longer the political powers they once were in election contests.

Max Boot of the Los Angeles Times points out that "When Christopher Columbus set sail from the port of Palos de la Frontera on Aug. 3, 1492, no doubt there was some peasant standing on the wharf, muttering to himself, 'A fine waste of royal escudos. As if we don't have enough problems at home. Why are their stinkin' majesties funding a voyage to nowhere?'" He makes the simple point that the journey to Mars would be a cool thing to do. Pretty much unanswerable, I'd say.

Equipment shortages suffered by troops in Iraq were caused in part by the refusal of Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary, to allow any preparations until four months before the war, his senior civil servant, Sir Kevin Tebbit, said yesterday, Sir Kevin, permanent under secretary at the Ministry of Defence, was giving evidence to the House of Commons public accounts committee, which is looking into reports that shortages were fatal for some people.

Attempts to blame the Treasury for not releasing money in time seem not to be working.

There is absolutely no telling what set David McKie off on this story in the Guardian, but it is always a mistake to demand that art explain itself before one makes a pact to enjoy it.

This little bit of art is about the man in the moon - "In what sense did he come down too soon? Might he have burnt himself less had he landed later? Did his reported decision to go by the south indicate a detour through Suffolk, and if so, why was it made? And while it is, of course, possible to burn one's mouth on something extremely cold, that would probably mean a temperature of around minus 20 degrees, which is difficult to achieve with cold porridge."

Scientists, bless 'em, have confirmed what has been known universally since the dawn of time once again by saying the best course of action for people who finds themselves stumped by a seemingly unfathomable problem is to go to sleep.

In a study, the researchers found that sleep helped to stimulate creative thinking, allowing people to find solutions to puzzles that eluded them if they went without 40 winks. The finding supports the common experience that answers to problems which seemed baffling the night before can pop up effortlessly in the morning.

As predicted, the BBC aired a programme last night criticising itself over the "sexed-up dossier" allegations made by reporter Andrew Gilligan and is this morning criticising itself severely for bad journalism. The Panorama programme suggested that in backing Gilligan up, the BBC's director general and his senior executives "bet the farm on a shaky foundation."

Canada's Globe and Mail has a good summary of the situation in Haiti this morning, and of the efforts to negotiate a solution to that country's problems. The paper quotes James Morrell, an adviser to Mr. Aristide while he was in exile and now head of a policy group in Washington called the Haiti Democracy Project, as having said that "Decisions on Haiti's future need to be taken in Washington and in Ottawa, too - in other words, they should shift support to a democratic alternative process instead of relying on the incumbent...But as long as Washington is asleep at the switch, it's hard to say how it will play out." Asleep at the switch! Funny how one intervention works to make it an American problem forever.

Allowing women to mix with men, says Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, is the root of every evil and catastrophe. "It is highly punishable," he said. Mixing of men and women is a reason for greater decadence and adultery. I severely condemn this matter and warn of grave consequences. The reason for his outburst was the appearance, without a veil, of Lubna Olayan, an internationally-known businesswoman, when she delivered the opening address at a forum in Jeddah this week.

21 January 2004

The Washington Post this morning publishes a story about a geologist's "maverick theory" that coral reefs are being killed by clouds of dust blown by the summer trade winds across the Atlantic from the African desert. The Post says fellow scientists have called Gene Shinn's theory outrageous, extreme and imaginative, seeming to suggest he's alone in believing it. That's not quite true, the theory has been the subject of research for years. American Scientist published the results of a study by Shinn and three fellow scientists in 2002.

"By some estimates," the four said, "as much as two billion metric tons of dust are lifted into the Earth's atmosphere every year. Most of this dust is stirred up by storms, the more dramatic of which are aptly named dust storms. But more than mere dust is carried aloft.

"Drifting with the suspended dust particles are soil pollutants such as herbicides and pesticides and a significant number of microorganisms - bacteria, viruses and fungi. We can gain some appreciation of how much microbial life is actually floating in our atmosphere by performing a quick calculation.

"There are typically about one million bacteria per gram of soil, but let's be conservative and suppose there are only 10,000 bacteria per gram of airborne sediment. Assuming a modest one billion tons of sediment in the atmosphere, these numbers quickly translate into a quintillion (10 to the power of 18) sediment-borne bacteria moving around the planet each year - enough to form a microbial bridge between Earth and Jupiter."

The legendary Daily Telegraph newsman, WF Bill Deedes, dismisses worry over the paper's future in the wake of the Conrad Black affair as "a little turbulence". Lord Deedes was the Telegraph's editor himself between 1974 and 1986. He reported on his first war from Abyssinia in 1935, and hasn't missed much since, so he knows turbulence when he sees it.

What's that saying about being careful what you wish for? A town in England that won a generous EU grant to improve its layout now rues the day. "I don't think the town will ever recover," said one resident. "The European money has ruined it for ever."

As I understand it, the arrest of Mr Appel may well tease into the open evidence that is needed to charge Ariel Sharon in this scandal, which has been unfolding at glacial pace over the last few years.

This second article explores the implications for Mr Sharon's future...one senior Labor legislator calling the affair a political earthquake, over which the Prime Minister should have been forced to resign years ago.

Mel Gibson may...may, I said...have had the best motive in the world for making The Passion of Christ. But somehow, it seems to have attracted the crassest behaviour possible - critics criticise without having seen it, marketing people use the Pope to promote it... Now, just in case you thought there was no new depth to plumb, read this document. It's a classic. Creates its own league.

How can you write an article about a poet who wins a prestigious prize without quoting so much as a line of his poetry? Try this one.

Hen-pecking was freed from its boundaries in Liberia yesterday, when a warlord's wife called his officers together and announced she was sacking him for not playing the war game properly. One must assume, though that the other shoe is on its way down...

Caribbean nations trying to broker a solution to the situation in Haiti acted from a sense of trying to do the right thing, I'm sure, but their attempt was made when the positions of the government and the opposition in Haiti had become far too solidified to allow for any compromise. The Caribbean team met with the Haitian opposition in the Bahamas yesterday, but the Haitians seemed more interested in using the occasion to get publicity for their stand than in serious peacemaking.

The European Commission's spring report, the focal point of the March European Union economic summit, will set out in stark terms the reasons for the widening economic gap between Europe and the US when it is published on Wednesday. It is expected to cite low investment, low productivity, weak public finances and low employment rates as being among the many reasons for Europe's comparatively poor performance. The two systems also have a different focus - Europeans wanting to tame unruly individuality by rule-making, Americans wanting to tame rules by encouraging individuality. The American system does seem to produce a better climate for productivity.

20 January 2004

Comics go from strength to strength. They're doing well economically, and their impact and influence on culture is becoming more and more appreciated as time goes on, especially because of the influence of the Internet. I should acknowlege that I found that story through the good folks at ArtsJournal, who seem themselves to be going from strength to strength.

DEBKA has published a fascinating analysis of the fix Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, finds himself in at the moment. He's worried because Europe is falling in line with American demands that he clean up his act, because the Americans are doing well in their fight against pro-Saddam guerrillas in Iraq, because he sees a fully-autonomous Kurdish entity as a threat to Syria, and because he is under pressure in his own country, where the opposition leader is calling on the Syrian people to rise up against him.

One Canadian or another has been trying to create some kind of relationship involving "union" with countries in the Caribbean for as long as I can remember. Tried it with Bermuda back in the '50s. When will they realise that their advances just aren't welcome, no matter how polite people are about them?

A Los Angeles times commentator suggests that hate is really what makes the world go round. "Cultures become themselves," he says, "by a consciousness of their enemies. They are united in proportion as they are at war. We are what we are not: Arabs, gays, Jews, heathens, women, savages, Negroes, weirdos. We are defined together by what we exclude, and this is as true on the playground as on the global stage.

"Any old dog can love you, but it takes a real human being to hate you with the obsessive focus and enduring, almost inanimate commitment that characterizes our species: (with apologies to any Latinists who may still exist) Homo abominens."

More and more, the opinion is being expressed that Ariel Sharon's days as Prime Minister of Israel are numbered. So says this Ha'aretz columnist, and so also says JTA, the Jewish news agency.

A report published yesterday in Britain says that four in 10 white people don't want an Isian or a black Briton as a neighbour. There's a lot of hand-wringing going on about it. But I'll bet the results would be more or less the same if the question were put to Asians, or black Britons. Four of ten of them wouldn't want to live next to a white Briton. I'm not sure there's necessarily anything wrong with that. People do tend to feel more comfortable with people they think are like them. Success in the fight against racial inequality ought not to be measured by the extent to which there is some kind of racial homogenisation, but by the extent to which "life" presents the same face to all races - equality of opportunity, equality of access to education, equality of access to economic success and so on.

Sybil Rhoda is 101 - the only British silent screen actress still alive. She can't remember what it was like working in Alfred Hitchcock's film Downhill, nor what it was like to play opposite Ivor Novello. Otherwise, she sounds about as old as she was in 1927, when her career began to look up. "An American director made her the understudy to the leading lady," the Guardian says. "He also asked her to go to America with him. She almost accepted. 'But then I thought that if this man wanted to sleep with me, how the hell was I going to get home. That put me off. I was scared to go. But I often think about it because I was good-looking, I had a beautiful voice and I think I could have done well there.'"

Radical changes in the way the British government communicates its policies were demanded yesterday by an independent committee which blamed Whitehall, the parliamentary lobby, and the media for a breakdown in trust between politicians and the public, according to this story in the Guardian.

The committee, chaired by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group plc, effectively depicts the existing Government Information and Communication Service (GICS) as a shambles, and the government's lobby briefing system as working to help neither Whitehall nor the media. So ineffective is the GICS that the committee decided it was "no longer fit for [its] purpose". It contained only a third of the government's available media staff; it had no influence on day-to-day operations; and it was never consulted by people at the top. Sounds a familiar story.

The Canadian General who was in charge of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide there, is testifying at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania against the Rwandan Chief of Staff, who is accused of being the mastermind of the Hutu rampage of murder of Tutsis. Gen Romeo Dallaire has described dealing with Col. Theoneste Bagosora in those bloody days as having to "shake hands with the devil."

If you thought the US Supreme Court's ruling last year ended the affirmative action debate, think again. The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative has launched a petition to ban such preferential treatment by amending the state's constitution.

I think I agree with Daryl Smith, a professor of education and psychology at California's Claremont Graduate University, who says that truly equal opportunity cannot be achieved without first interrupting - temporarily - the cycle of disenfranchisement and unequal opportunity that minority students face. That's certainly what happened in the Bermudian civil service 40 years ago, and it worked.

The Episcopal Chuch in the United States, the American equivalent of the Anglican Church, is still suffering from the effects of the recent consecration of a gay bishop. Conservatives say the budding Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes is not the result of a split in the Episcopal Church, but rather the creation of a church within a church. They don't want to leave the church, because to do so they would probably have to surrender their properties to the denomination.

A backlash against the Patriot Act seems to be gaining momentum. Three state governments and 236 communities have passed resolutions against it. Opponents of the Act are hoping to force Congress and the White House to do something about some of the law's less popular provisions.

19 January 2004

The General Synod of the Church of England is being asked to recognise the Pope as the "universal primate" of the Christian religion.The Synod is to debate the proposal, made in a joint Roman Catholic and Anglican report, next month. One fears it is going to be the usual sort of debilitating and destructive argument, with Church liberals for, Church conservatives against.

And speaking of debilitating and destructive argument, the World Social Forum kicked off in Mumbai, India, over the weelend. The Forum is, according to this Wired News article, "the grassroots answer to the annual World Economic Forum" in Davos, Switzerland. The social forum is to focus on issues affecting the world's poor and powerless, talking about globalisation, militarism and racism. We're going to be hearing a lot about it over the next few days, you can be sure.

Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader of the British Labour Party, says that the BBC should not be airing a programme about the scandalous Parliamentarian Alan Clark because, in addition to being a snob, a bully, a teacher and a racist, he was an ass. Perhaps. But he was an amusing ass, not a pompous, self-important, belligerent and boring ass. Makes a difference.

This article by the professor of classical archaeology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, formerly a director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, takes the argument about whether the Elgin marbles should be repatriated to Greece a step further.

"The Munich declaration, signed last month by 30 museums," he says, "points to a possible solution that could be translated into an international agreement. On the one hand, there should be a crackdown on illegal trafficking of archaeological and artistic objects and, on the other, nothing should be returned if it was exported before such laws were implemented. This implies that history, with all its stratifications, is preferable to the "return to origin" idea of repatriation at all costs."

The Government of Israel can say what it likes, its ambassador to Sweden behaved like an idiot in attacking a museum exhibit in Stockholm. If the exhibit offended him, it was open to him to make his point in by simply leaving, and making it known why he left. Art rage is no more civilised and justifiable than road rage.

Paul Bremer goes to the United Nations to ask Koffi Annan for help in resolving the dispute over whether to use regional caucuses or a general election process to pick Iraq's interim government. This is a simple summary of what is at stake, together with links to other background information.

Meantime, the incomparable David Warren, columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, has an interesting take on the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shia cleric, and what he might be up to by throwing his weight around in the way he has.

"He began," says Warren, "by counselling Iraqis to co-operate with U.S. and British troops, and by declaring that he had no political aspirations. While he still plays the role of a purely religious leader, he has surrounded himself with political operatives. His demands have become more strident, and are now coupled with threats. He adds new demands to further increase the pressure: most recently saying that the snap election must be combined with a referendum on whether U.S. troops should be allowed to stay."

18 January 2004

British historians have attacked the film director, Sir Ridley Scott, for distorting the historical truth of the Crusades in his latest work in order to be able to portray Arabs in a favourable light. They've described his version of events as "rubbish", "ridiculous", "complete fiction" and "dangerous to Arab relations". I don't know...the maker of Bladerunner gets a lot of credit to work off in my books.

The BBC has made and is airing a programme that criticises its own behaviour in the Andrew Gilligan/ David Kelly affair. Let's see if they condemn their own lack of impartiality once they see it.

David Spector, former aide to Ariel Sharon, is sure that when police finish their investigation into allegations of financial impropriety, the Prime Minister will be arrested. "...When this business comes out," he says, "people will see to what extent it is a group of criminals. This is a crime industry. The prime minister and the people around him do not hesitate to lie."

The Rt Hon Alan Kenneth McKenzie Clark died of a brain tumour in September 1999, aged 71. Yet Alan Clark - diarist, philanderer, historian, politician, racist and rake - is with us still, more alive than any of the contemporaries who outclassed and outlasted him in the slippery game of politics.

When Rocky Ryan died, everybody thought it was just another of his hoaxes. After all, he was the man who, among other things, persuaded the Israeli press that Hitler was alive and working in London.

Robert Graham of the Financial Times took Bernard Kouchner, founder of Medecins sans Frontieres to lunch the other day. The resulting story is a fascinating look at a charming, erudite man.

Known as the Elgin Marbles by those who say they belong to Britain (which acquired them from the Ottoman Turks, in 1806), and as the Parthenon Marbles by those who say they were stolen, they have become the world's most famously contested works of art. But so far, all the diplomacy has not succeeded in getting them back to Athens, even for a short-term loan. Among the many reasons British officials give for not relinquishing the marbles: Greece doesn't even have a suitable museum to contain them. Greece has solved that problem, says the New York Times (you'll need to register to read the story) as part of a campaign to use the 2004 Summer Olympics to put pressure on Britain.

Meanwhile, back at Broomhall, Lord Elgin (the descendant) bristles at the suggestion that the Marbles might be stolen property: "Totally unfair and completely untrue," he harrumphed, before suggesting that everyone in Britain "should be proud of what was done," by his ancestor. The 7th Earl had the express consent of the Ottoman Empire to remove the marbles, he said. It was an act of conservation, without parallel at the time.


Art in Bermuda
Bermuda's Cuban Connection
Death of the Nation State
Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Poetry
Me and Evergreen Review
Michael Howard's Vision
Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
More Doomsday Nonsense
Mullah Nasrudin's Lessons
New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
On Charles Ives
On Colin MacInnes
On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
On Napoleon
On Patrick Leigh Fermor
Race and Bermuda's Election
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Gift of Slang
The Limits of Knowledge
The Nature of Intelligence
The Shared European Dream
The US Supreme Court's First Terrorism Decisions
Useful Yiddish
Yukio Mishima's Death

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2003 Index


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