...Views from mid-Atlantic
06 November 2004

Haaretz captures that rare beast, the perfect weekend read, with a long, fascinating, delightful piece on an odd subject - making soap in Israel: "Thanks to the operators of Laline, several of Israel's deepest cosmetic secrets have been revealed. For example, that redheaded Israeli women like the smells of lemon grass, grapefruit and manadarin, that dark women, on the other hand, prefer sweet smells such as vanilla, patchouli, coconut and melon, that fair women like 'fresh' smells like ocean and lavender, and that young women prefer dominant fragrances."

American historian Simon Schama has written two books with which I'm familiar - Rembrandt's Eyes and The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age - that demonstrate he himself has unusually sophisticated eyes for art. The Guardian has published an excerpt from a new collection of essays, Hang-Ups, published in Britain by BBC Books. In it, Schama claims that "Art replaces seen reality rather than reproduces it. And the strongest art is the work that is frankest about its artifice, its failure, finally, to duplicate the world, or even to arrest its mutability; the art that, when faced with the commonplace boast, ars longa vita brevis, humbly begs to differ...

"This craving to nail down transient experience is unassuageable, and as basic to us as the self-pitying sorrow for our own mortality, and just as invariably doomed to disappointment. But art draws its wistful power from this heroically futile struggle against disappearance, and what it leaves behind are the visual traces of its defiance. We infer from the awkward turn of the head of Vermeer's turbaned girl that she must soon turn again from us and dissolve back into the void. For a moment, the immense globes of her eyes are convex mirrors in which we might, were this not a picture, witness our own gaze. Pollock's serpents of dripped and whipped pigment forever writhe on the canvas at the precise moment before they settle back into dense encrustation. Constable's onrushing clouds will exit from his pictures as swiftly as they enter but for the instant the cloud-catcher has bagged them."

Few people would argue that Jorge Luis Borges is one of the best and most influential writers of the 20th Century. But he was also "a vain, timid, pompous mama's boy, given for much of his life to dithery romantic obsessions...about as different as one can get from the limpid, witty, pansophical, profoundly adult writer we know from his stories." The New York Times Book Review covers a new biography, Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson, an Oxford don and esteemed Hispanist whose Penguin History of Latin America the Times describes as "a small masterpiece of lucidity and triage".

"For Williamson, the great conflict in the Argentine national character is that between the "sword" of civilizing European liberalism and the "dagger" of romantic gaucho individualism, and he argues that Borges's life and work can be properly understood only in reference to this conflict, particularly as it plays out in his childhood."

05 November 2004

Sorry about the lack of posting today. Blogger - the site on which this blog resides - has been having trouble again, and was dead for most of the day. One must have patience, however, because the people at Blogger are reported to be hard at work repairing their system.

"In addition to buying and installing a supernatural amount of brand new machines," they say, "and upgrading existing hardware, we're moving away from the last of some third-party solutions that have given us trouble. Blogger will be on an impressively scalable custom Google architecture which translates into much more than just speed. It means improvements, enhancements, and integration."

Don't quite know what a supernatural amount is, but I'm prepared to believe it's going to be enough, until the evidence says not.

04 November 2004

This story about a Taiwanese man who jumped into an enclosure full of lions yesterday in order to convert them to Christianity seems a particularly convenient point from which to reflect a little bit about George Bush's presidential victory. It conveys a little of the quality of absurdity which some people in the US, in Europe and in other places on the globe see in the choice by American voters of a man who is seen as a dangerous simpleton to lead them. And it seems to me to throw into a relief as stark as I can make it the mistake many people make when they think about Mr Bush and his supporters, which is an inability to have a nuanced view, an inability to see them in any but cartoon terms.

It was, pollsters and pundits agree, a concern about deteriorating moral values in the United States that drove voters to vote the way they did. I heard one man say on the radio this morning that those with values derived from Christian teachings felt they had been backed up to the edge of a precipice, and that their choice was stark - push back, or be pushed off. These voters are what are called Evangelical, or Conservative Christians, and their image outside the middle of the United States is rather like that of our unfortunate Taiwanese friend - a deranged lunatic driven by religious fervour to the edge of sanity.

But is that what they are like? Is the American heartland full of simpletons being led around on the edge of sanity by those crazy TV evangelists? That, after all, is the stage to which journalists invariably go when they want to illustrate religious stories. The truth, must be, though, that those who derive their morals from the bible make up a community as inclusive and as socially and intellectually nuanced as the community of those who have ten fingers and ten toes. Crazy simpletons are very much in the minority. These are simply people who, faced with finding answers to moral questions like gay marriage and abortion, look for them in the Bible. They are not the Christian equivalent of Islamic fundamentalists, as someone scornfully suggested on election night. If one is to argue with their legitimacy, it seems to me, one can't point to the way they comb their hair, or to their familiarity with the works of Ingmar Bergman, one must argue either with the legitimacy of their interpretation of Christian morals, or with the legitimacy of those morals themselves.

My own moral beliefs are more derived from secular than religious sources, but they aren't significantly at odds with Christian morals. It would be interesting to me to be able to examine the canon of beliefs of those who are so concerned with how unsophisticated conservative Christians are. I suspect there isn't such a thing.

It's the same with George Bush. He looks and sounds, people say, like a Texas yahoo. Can he be? Is it conceivable that a man who succeeds to the extent that he becomes President of the United States, twice, can be stupid and incompetent? No, is the simple answer to that question, it is not conceivable. To dismiss him on that kind of ground, as so many do, is to dodge a fundamental responsibility to engage him and his views. There might have been some kind of excuse to hold him at arm's length while people believed he did not win fairly and squarely in the first election, but there is no excuse any more. Now it is clear that he has the majority of the population of the United States behind him, he must be taken seriously.

I hope people like Maureen Dowd, who seems to me to typify those who can't get beyond the look of the man, will be able to see that truth.

In a report to the Security Council, Kofi Annan says the Sudanese government has failed to stop widespread killings, rapes, looting and village burnings in Darfur. As the Globe and Mail reports this morning, he says there are strong indications of war crimes "on a large and systematic scale" in Sudan, where the violence has now affected two million people.

It must be depressing for those who believe in using the UN to solve problems like this to be able to see, without any particular political fight to muddy the picture, how powerless the body is even to stop the violence, far less solve its underlying causes. Hundreds of thousands of people have died since the UN became involved some months ago. It sounds terrible to say so, I know, but there is much to be said for the old ways of dealing with things like this - sending in a gun boat, perhaps, and hanging the Sudanese Cabinet from some convenient lightposts to encourage a sense of urgency among those members of the government who survive.

The author and anthropologist Desmond Morris has published a fascinating piece in the BBC Magazine about Homo floresiensis, the little man whose skeleton has been found on an island in Indonesia. "Suppose for a moment," he says, "that a living tribe of these beings is discovered, how should they be treated? Are they merely advanced apes, or are they miniature humans?" Christians believe, albeit a little vaguely, that God sees them as his special creations. For them, Desmond Morris's question is a very hard one to answer. Will they have to share God's spotlight with this little person?

The knife-sharp divide between critics and supporters of Norman Sherry's monumental, three-volume biography of Graham Greene gets an airing in the New York Times this morning, in an article which does not do a lot to clarify the situation. Greene's family, perhaps understandably, is angry about what they see as an undue focus on Greene's sexual life, and about they see as an attempt by Sherry to cloak himself in Greene's skin. All that's rather predictable. What is more interesting to me is why US critics, who have welcomed and praised the book, and UK critics, who have reviled it, should be in such startling disagreement. About that, there is little.

03 November 2004

It seems clear that George W Bush has won the presidential election, as predicted on this site a day or two ago. I suspect that once Messrs Kerry and Edwards have had a little sleep, they will agree that it is statistically not possible for them to take Ohio, and will concede. The Bush victory was far from close. He won by taking both the electoral college vote and the popular vote. He also won in Florida, redeeming his razor-thin victory over Al Gore there in 2000. The Republican party increased its margin in the Senate, and, if you like symbols, took the head of a Democratic champion, Democratic minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

I thought there were three things worthy of note. The first was the smoothness of the procedure. With minor, scattered exceptions, the election was well-organised and well-run, coping with record numbers of voters without particular strain. In the light of the fact that voters all over the country were super-sensitive to any hint of impropriety, that seemed extraordinary. Fears that roving bands of feral lawyers would hold the country to ransom for weeks and months are now most unlikely to be realised.

There was, according to NPR this morning, one voting machine in the Democratic stronghold of New York that would only register Republican votes. No word on how officials dealt with this ornery little critter, but judging by the general good temper of both voters and officials, my guess is that they simply made it stand in the corner for the rest of the evening.

The second was the odd way the issues played. Every political pundit agreed, before the event, that terrorism and the war in Iraq would be the overriding concerns of the electorate. That was certainly true on the West Coast and on the East Coast. But in the great bulk of the rest of the United States, moral values emerged as the most pressing issue on people's minds. I'd like to be able to say I know exactly what that means, but...

And finally, I thought the extent to which the networks went to clean up their prediction act (after the debacle in 2000) was quite extraordinary. They seemed more concerned about not making mistakes than they were concerned with telling people what was going on, which made it, for me, a dull and frustrating evening. The Washington Post has more.

Historian Niall Ferguson agrees with yesterday's Wall Street Journal comment that Time Magazine got it wrong when they described the United States as "a nation divided" by the Presidential election. Writing in the Los Angeles Times this morning, he says: "To my mind, the most telling measure of the country's new political vigor is the extraordinary health of American political satire these days. And not just 'Team America'. The other night on Jon Stewart's hugely popular 'Daily Show' there was a 'Fiasco Preview', in which the deadpan Stewart told viewers: 'Florida has been warned by God four times during this hurricane season not to let it happen again.'

"That's not to say it won't descend into lawsuits again this week. But rest assured: A nation that finds this kind of thing funny is not about to descend into internecine warfare."

Janet Daley, an American journalist who has worked in London for many years, has a crack at analyzing Europe's dislike of President Bush, in a bitter piece in the Daily Telegraph this morning: "He is hated because he is the embodiment of everything that the United States is, and Europe is not: not just enormously powerful, militarily and economically, but brashly confident and fervently patriotic. Where Europe is steeped in historical guilt and self-loathing - so immersed in its own unforgivable past that it is trying to fashion a constitution that actually prohibits national pride - America is profoundly proud of the success of its own miraculous achievement.

"What it has succeeded in doing is cracking the great dilemma of modern history: how can disparate and ethnically diverse people live together? How can people of differing and deeply felt religious convictions survive, with their beliefs intact, in a single unified country - evangelical Protestants such as Mr Bush alongside practising Catholics with Jewish roots such as Mr Kerry - without their cities turning into Belfast or Beirut? The answer lies not in the post-religious, anti-clerical mania of the European Union which has just rejected a commissioner for espousing mainstream Catholic principles, but in that patriotism so despised by European elites. It is the unifying force of national self-belief with all those ridiculed school rituals - pledging allegiance to the flag, reciting the preamble to the Constitution - that makes America whole and at one with itself.

"Bush is the personification of that unashamed America and that is why Europe cannot bear the sight of him."

02 November 2004

The San Francisco Chronicle's columnist, CW Nevius, points out that "Today is the first day of a major change in American politics. Naw, not the election. We've been holding those for 208 years. No, these are the first elected officials who will spend their entire terms in the sights of the Blogger Nation, the Wi-Fi world of wonks who aggressively target politicians. Bloggers closely covered the campaigns and even attended the two parties' national conventions, and Markos Moulitsas, the Berkeley-based creator of the mega-blog Daily Kos, says they are just getting started."

Mark Steyn's election-day column predicts/hopes for a Bush victory. In the Telegraph, he says "It was, with hindsight, foolish to think that the differences between America and most of the rest of 'the West' would somehow not also be manifest within America itself. For all those who complain with feigned ennui about the choice of candidates - the lesser of two evils, the evil of two lessers, yawn - the political system has contrived to throw up two men who are almost perfect embodiments of the choice facing the country.

"John Kerry, with his pining for summits, his aspirational French, his boundless retrospective wisdom after some other fellow's taken the difficult decisions he ducked, his modish embrace of the Viet Cong and the Sandinistas and even Saddam in his Kuwaitswallowing days, is almost a parody Eurograndee.

"But America cannot be a Greater Belgium or a Greater Canada or a Greater Spain. The only thing that enables Belgium to be Belgium and Canada to be Canada and Spain to be Spain is that America is America. If everyone in the civilised world's torpid and ineffectual and semi-non-aligned, it's not gonna work. Americans will not choose transnational complacency over national resolve."

It's interesting that the Guardian's arts critic, Charlotte Higgins, feels she does not need to explain who Derek Jarman is, in this story this morning about an exhibition of the British film-maker's notebooks. Although he was prolific enough to have made, I believe, more than 50 films during his life, he and his films were decidedly out of the ordinary. I'd have thought his work would too arcane to make him a household figure, as is implied by Ms Higgins' article, but I'm delighted that is not the case. He is, as I say, a very unusual man who made extraordinary films - Caravaggio, for example, or Wittgenstein. The notebooks that are going to be on display at the British Library later this week seem to bear that out. Their covers, say Ms Higgins, are beautifully personalised with gold or black impasto, and the pages are full of poems, jottings and memories.

"'My earliest memory is of a lawnmower,' wrote Derek Jarman on a page ripped out of an A4 exercise book," Ms Higgins writes. "It was 1991, his health and eyesight were failing, his elegant, swooping italic hand was unravelling a little, but he was still scribbling down his thoughts on gardens and gardening, subjects close to his heart and inextricably bound up with his output as filmmaker and writer."

She quotes Jarman as having written, "Lawns, it seems to me, are against nature..."

The ugly reality of what it is, really, that terrorists do, seems to be sinking into the consciousness of many Arabs. The Christian Science Monitor quotes Abdel Moneim Said, director of Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, as having said "People are coming ... to grips with complicated realities. We can't deal with the emergence of groups like the ones who bombed Taba here in Egypt until we understand that some of these so-called resistance groups are intrinsically evil."

If this man Scott Peterson is guilty of killing his wife and unborn baby, as the prosecutor in the case has told a California jury, then he really is an extraordinary cliche. I'm not sure many novelists would have had the courage to create a fictional character who "killed his wife to achieve freedom and his fantasy of a jet-set lifestyle that he would never see as a married father" in anything but a comic novel.

The Wall Street Journal says Time magazine's characterisation of the United States as a "nation divided" as voters go to the polls today is off the mark. Time said in its last issue that the country is split "over its place in the world, over its basic values, over its future direction. No matter who wins, the Uncivil War is likely to continue."

On the contrary, says the Journal, "Notwithstanding Time's description of a 'venomous campaign', this one strikes us as comparatively tame. Some rhetorically challenged columnists for big-city newspapers may resort to calling everybody who disagrees with them 'liars', but the two campaigns have mostly stuck to the issues...For all the talk of a 50-50 country, our differences tend to be narrow rather than deep. It was instructive, for instance, to see how Mr. Kerry couched his differences with the President over Iraq in tactical rather than ideological terms: It wasn't opposition to war per se that the Democratic challenger was expressing, only to this particular choice of a front. More recently, Mr. Kerry's attacks on the President have been about competence, with the implied promise that the Senator will fight it better. We may have our doubts about his sincerity. But in politics, one's insincerity is sometimes just as revealing."

01 November 2004

Half of the American public, come Wednesday, is going to need break from reality, whatever it has become by then. The BBC is airing something that might fill the bill on Wednesday evening, something the San Francisco Chronicle describes as "a lovely, thoroughly engaging and, yes, surreal movie." It's The Young Visiters, an adaptation of a book written by a precocious 9-year-old British girl named Daisy Ashford to cheer up her ailing mother. She wrote it in 1890. It was discovered 29 years later and turned from the free-form whimsy of a child's imagination into a real book. It became an instant success and has never, in its run as a British classic, been out of print.

The Chronicle says "There are a lot of silly, sweet and wonderful moments in The Young Visiters. For adults, watching great actors say the lines of a 9-year-old who, while impressively mature, nevertheless misuses words and meanings in her quest to write like a grown-up, is charming and funny from beginning to end. For children, The Young Visiters creates a wholly believable adult world, part Willy Wonka without the candy and Alice in Wonderland without the, um, mind-altering parts."

Sounds like an improvement on the Bush and Kerry show, doesn't it?

Registration for voting in Iraq's election in January began this morning.

Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, is using up some more space in the Times to explain the genesis of that missing 350 tons of explosive story he ran a week ago. This time, he's telling the story differently. Last week, he said the Times and CBS had a deal to publish the story more or less simultaneously - CBS on Sunday night's 60 Minutes and the Times on Monday morning. But they brought publication forward by a week, he said, because the story began to leak on the internet. This morning, he says the story was published a week before the election, cutting CBS out of its co-publisher role, out of a sense of fairness, to give the candidates plenty of time to respond.

The relevant section of the Times story reads like this: "Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said the paper learned from CBS of a memorandum about the high explosives, sent from the Iraqi interim government to the International Atomic Energy Agency, early in the week of Oct. 18, and that its reporters reported through the week.

"'The timing is really not much of an issue,' Mr. Keller said. 'The story was ready to go and was published more than a week before Election Day. There was plenty of time for the candidates on both sides and their partisans to react, for additional information to come out.'

"Had the article not been ready until a day or two before the election, Mr. Keller said, the decision to publish would have been more difficult. 'I can't say categorically you should not publish an article damaging to a candidate in the last days before an election,' he said. 'If you learned a day or two before the election that a candidate had lied about some essential qualification for the job - his health or criminal record - and there's no real doubt and you've given the candidate a chance to respond and the response doesn't cast doubt on the story, do you publish it? Yes. Voters certainly have a right to know that.'

"But he added, 'If you have it ready to go a week earlier and you hold it till two days before the election, then the ambush question kicks in.'"

I said last week, when Keller first told his story in the Washington Post, that I thought the internet leak he referred to was a fantasy. It was much more likely that CBS and the Times realised that publishing such a story hours before an election would stink to high heaven. CBS, whose credibility is already at rock bottom because of its involvement in the the forged Bush National Guard papers story, simply could not afford to be involved in so transparent an attempt to influence the outcome of the election, so the two organisations revised their plan at the last minute. The difficulty is that the explosives story was little better than the National Guard papers story - it couldn't bear scrutiny for long before it started unravelling. So it has not had nearly the effect on the election that it would have if it had been published today as the Keller/Rather October Surprise.

Where's that man Spitzer now he's needed?

Martha Kessler doesn't think the recent French/American initiative to get Syria out of Lebanon is a good idea. Ms Kessler was a senior Middle East analyst with the CIA, until her retirement in 2000, and is the author of Syria: A Fragile Mosaic of Power. In the Los Angeles Times this morning, she argues that "Lebanese leaders are more likely to accept a Syrian patron than a return of the French era or the advent of Pax Americana. As is true of virtually every other small state in the area, a strong patron is still required. The people of Lebanon, like many others in the region, view Washington's motives very cynically. And in the wake of nearly two decades of strife, the stability they have established even with Syrian overseers is preferable to a vague promise of future democracy."

The US presidential election is the biggest news story in the world. It comes at a time when news is more instantly available and minutely examined than at any other time in human history. Every news channel, every national broadcaster with a reasonable news operation and every big newspaper in the world needs to cover Bush v Kerry, as well as bloggers who are now getting accreditation. This leads to some incredible numbers, and one of the least attractive experiences on the planet, says the Guardian.

31 October 2004

I really am fascinated by Osama bin Laden's sudden appearance on the world stage a couple of days ago. What does it mean...what did he intend to accomplish? The reaction of many has been, I think, a little shallow. They think he was trying to influence the election, although they don't seem able to say quite what influence he wants to have. The presidential candidates say he wants to intimidate the American people. That wasn't, I must say, my impression - combat gear and an AK-47 would seem the correct dress for an aggressive message. Instead, he was dressed in mellow, even stylish garb, and sat, looking well-groomed and reasonable against a warm background. What on earth was he up to?

This is supposed to have been the text of his message. I have to point out, though, that there is good reason to believe that al Jazeera aired only a five-minute clip from an 18-minute tape. Looking at what we have, though, and allowing for the fact that his words are being translated from a language far removed from English, and that he comes from a culture that is far removed from our own, this is not what you would call a finely-structured message. Early on, he says "I will tell you about the reasons of these events and about the moments in which the decision (to attack) was taken so you will ponder them." But he doesn't tell us...he wanders about the subject as if there were no particular reason to take care to be accurate...as if he were talking to a small audience at dinner. There wasn't a lot of meaningful stuff at all in what he said.

In the Guardian this morning, an expert called Jason Burke has rather a lurid piece, suggesting we're dealing with some kind of Fu Manchu criminal mastermind. That's a very British -media conclusion, but it seems a little under-supported by the evidence.

I preferred the dry and rather understated conclusion of John O. Brennan, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and a longtime senior CIA analyst, according to the Washington Post. Brennan says bin Laden's purpose was "to demonstrate that al Qaeda, as an organization, is still effective, even though they have not, in fact, been able to do something here in the States." He was "looking for a way to justify the organization's continued existence and (to show) that there is still something there," Brennan said.

In other words, bin Laden didn't say much because he wasn't speaking to us, he was communicating with his own people. In the absence of a real terror strike against the US at election time, a strike he wasn't able to mount even though the radical Islamist world expected him to, he made himself the strike. 'Look at me,' he was saying, 'here I am, well-dressed, healthy and comfortable despite the huge forces arrayed against me. I am lecturing them on their moral perfidy and their mistakes. I am twisting Bush's tail. Do I look hunted and worn down by the West's forces? No? Then why are you losing faith?'

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, now president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has a crack in the Washington Times this morning at figuring out who it was who tried to get the New York Times and CBS to make such a big deal about those explosives which may or may not be missing in Iran. Who's he trying to fit up for the crime? None other than the head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad El Baradei. "'The U.S. is trying to deny El Baradei a second term,' a high U.S. government official told me. "We have been on his case for missing the Libyan nuclear-weapons program and for weakness on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program.' Mr. El Baradei also opposed the liberation of Iraq and objects to Washington's tough stance regarding Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. He would like nothing better than to see President Bush defeated."

Peter Conrad of the Observer likes Bevis Hillier's biography of John Betjeman, this most recent volume called Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter. It certainly was a considerable labour - three big books written over a period of 30 years. In the Guardian, Conrad says "It is an admirable, venerable achievement - devoted and compassionate but sharply perceptive about the man's foibles and his petty vices; valiant in defending his poetry against sniffy modernists yet prepared to admit that he often produced weary doggerel; omniscient in its account of the society that changed around him and effaced its architectural past as he aged."

Betjeman is an underrated poet, at least in part, perhaps, because he was such a difficult man. But there is no question that he is as skilled and as gifted as the best of British poets of the 20th Century. If you want to learn more about him, there is a good official Betjeman web page here, although the selection of poems available there is a little thin. The important thing about Hillier's biography, as Conrad says, is that it confirms Betjeman's place in the front ranks of the poetry battalion.

Conrad ends his review with this paragraph: "It (the book) begins with Betjeman's discovery of the relativity theory, after a stint teaching in Cincinnati: '1860 over there seemed as old to me as Perpendicular does here, and Red Indians seemed as long ago as Anglo-Saxons, and what is time anyway?'. A biography this good abolishes time in its own way, and triumphantly ensures Betjeman's survival."


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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