...Views from mid-Atlantic
11 December 2004

There's a fine dissection of the appeal of Babar the Elephant in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. It's written by Alison Lurie, who the New York Times once described as "One of this country's most able and witty novelists."

"Babar, of course, both is and is not an elephant," Lurie writes. "Or rather, he is an elephant only in the sense that the characters in Aesop's and Jean de La Fontaine's Fables are animals. Essentially, all of them stand for human types and have the traits that humans, sometimes arbitrarily, have assigned to them. (La Fontaine's crow, for example, is vain and easily deceived, though real crows are neither conceited nor foolish.) As an elephant, Babar is traditionally strong and wise and has a remarkable memory...He is also naturally large and powerful, unlike many animal heroes of children's picture books, who tend to be smaller than humans. From the start, most original editions of the Babar books have appropriately been elephant-sized, just as Beatrix Potter's tales of rabbits and mice are very small.

"Babar is not only both animal and human, he is both a child and an adult. His name makes this clear: it combines the French terms for father (papa) and infant (bebe)...One sign of his ambiguous position is that, unlike the other adult elephants in the story, he and his wife, Celeste, have very small tusks even after they are married and have become parents. They rule a kingdom, but they also enjoy many childish pleasures, as the British critic Margaret Blount has noted in Animal Land:

"'Babar does what most small children would like to do - joins in the adult world on a child's terms, and gets away with it...He can wear grown-up clothes, ride up and down in the lift, go fishing, drive a car, marry Celeste and become King of the Jungle all because his real self is hidden behind an animal hide and he is neither child nor adult but a bit of both...'"

I have to say that the standard of articles in the New York Times Sunday Book Review has gone up enormously since Times editor Bill Keller ordered a makeover a few months ago. The link is to a thoroughly interesting piece on Sylvia Plath, written by Erica Jong. If you had told me four or five years ago that I would ever be able to enjoy another piece about Plath and her relationship with Ted Hughes, possibly the most overworked subject in literary history, I wouldn't have believed you. But this one is nicely written and intelligently even-handed (and furthermore spicily alleges that Hughes made a pass at Jong after Plath's suicide). It's well worth reading. There's quite a resurgence of interest in Plath at the moment. My spies tell me that Sarah Churchwell, the American writer who teaches modern American literature at the University of East Anglia, and is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, is to publish an article on Plath/Hughes in the Times Literary Supplement next week, which ought to be worth reading. Churchwell is working on a book about Plath at the moment.

The New York Times has published its selection of the ten best books of 2004, chosen from last week's 100 best. I took a stab at figuring out which would win, and I'm feeling more than a little inadequate this morning. I got only three right out of ten, War Trash, Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One and Will in the World. Commentator Don Grearson got another one of them, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. A pathetic performance, on the whole! Good thing we both admitted we were guessing - we'd have been drummed out of the commentariat, otherwise.

Painter Red Grooms writing about Willem de Kooning? An irresistible combination, I think, especially for a Sunday. In the New York Times Book Review, Grooms is reviewing, approvingly, De Kooning An American Master, which is a new biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.

10 December 2004

A few days ago, I linked to this Los Angeles Times story about the failure of the President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, to live up to the promise seemed to embody when he ran for office four years ago. My Mexican correspondent has weighed in (a little late, but he had a good excuse) with the inside story:

"The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was in Power (Yes, capital P!) for 70-plus years and its tenets have permeated every last aspect of Mexican life...corruption is everywhere. One slips into the outstretched hand of the Postman a little "something" to insure prompt service, into the grubby fingers of the Dustman to make sure that all one's garbage is picked up...just imagine what must be done to insure that a business is set up and then to run it efficiently. Justice is bought by money or by influence, or better still by a combination of both. This goes for Justice at all levels...from a traffic ticket to drug-running, kidnapping, general mayhem and murder!

"Those who came into power after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1923) cleverly saw to it that their families and compadres were embedded into the system, a practice that has evolved over more than four generations. The Revolution was not institutionalized, corruption and cronyism were.

"Into this mess strides Vicente Fox, a good, honest and decent man, elected by a population fed-up with the system, but still timid enough that they failed to elect a majority of Fox's Party to the Congress - the Chamber of Deputies and The Senate. This followed in the wake of that old Mexican saying, "Better the bad that you know, than the good that you must get to know."

"Fox thought that a majority of Mexicans, both of the left and right, would rally around him for the good of the Country. He was sadly wrong...those who had been voted out of power used the knowledge they gained from 70-plus years of guile and deceit, and behind-the-scenes strength, to thwart him at every chance in order to hang on to their sources of wealth and power, and the good of the Country be damned!

"The general public, as savvy as it is to the pervasive and outward corruption in the system, is still naive to the hidden workings of real Mexican Political Power and has become therefore disillusioned by Fox's "failures", hoping, perhaps, that by wanting something badly enough, it will just happen. Critics, especially the press, both local and foreign, have descended like veritable vultures.

"Fox was further hampered by the US losing all interest in Mexico and Latin America as a whole after 9/11. It had, of course, much more important fish to fry. The Opposition took advantage of this situation to "bash" the US and Bush and also to bash Fox as Bush's friend! They used their majority in Congress to force Fox to vote against the US in the Security Council at the UN.

"The weaning of Mexico away from the bane of "PRI-ism" is going to take a complete decontamination and reeducation process, lasting at least two generations, and I can only hope that the Mexican people have it in them to face up to this task. Not to do so would sentence that beautiful Country and its delightful people to another century of being stuck in the Third World."

Fascinating...and it was particularly reassuring to learn that Fox's vote against the US in the UN was forced on him. Thanks, Mike.

Simon Jenkins of Britain's Times thinks that Mark Thompson, the new Director-General of the BBC, ought to get some kind of an award. Thompson has announced plans to cut a third of the corporation's 27,000 staff, including half its fabled management, and Jenkins is ecstatic. The BBC had lost its plot and found meaning only in bigness, he said.

"The present corporation is hard for its friends to defend. Its size is absurd. Radio remains excellent but television is dreadful, defying the concept of public service broadcasting. Small wonder that there must be more inquiries and reviews of the BBC's future than there are repeats on BBC Two.

"Mr Thompson has clearly reached two conclusions. One is that the nonsense cannot go on. Top-heavy organisations always implode. Bloated management ends by polluting everything. It happened to British Leyland, to British Rail and to GEC. It is now happening to the NHS. Making programmes for Channels 4, Five or Sky is like walking on air compared with stumbling through the BBC's commissioning swamp. The place is a mess."

I guess the members of the awards committee couldn't have said anything else in response to the Jerusalem Post's question "Do you regret giving Yasser Arafat a Nobel Peace Prize?" Still, it was a mistaken obeisance to evil of such enormity that you wonder why they don't disappear in a lightning-and-brimstone cloud every time they open their mouths about it. They believe, apparently, that they made the right choice, and that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, rather than Palestinian terrorism, was the prime factor in the collapse of the Oslo process.

Despite the hue and cry in Europe recently about gay-bashing reggae singers, there's no sign that any of them is about to change his ways, says the Guardian . The paper sent Alexis Petridis to Jamaica to find out why. She said: "Jamaica has more churches per capita than anywhere else on earth, most of them preaching a brand of Christianity that would seem pretty familiar to your average US Bible-belt fundamentalist. As a side order, there's Rastafarianism, particularly the hard-line bobo ashanti variety adopted by current reggae stars including Sizzla and Capleton. As well as believing in racial segregation, bobo Rastas go in for a fire-and-brimstone reading of the Old Testament that makes Jamaican Christianity look liberal.

"Over four days in Kingston, I hear every justification of homophobia imaginable, everything from semantic quibbling ('We can't be homophobic,' one person tells me, 'because phobia means fear and we aren't afraid of them') to the belief that the Stop Murder Music campaign is a kind of racist post-colonial plot. I'm told over and over again that Jamaica is a tolerant society and that homosexual murders, including the fatal stabbing of Jamaica's leading gay rights activist Brian Williamson in June, were not hate crimes, but the result of lovers' tiffs.

"What I never hear is any suggestion that the Stop Murder Music campaign has done anything to change Jamaican views about homosexuality. 'Various people have spoken up against human rights abuses of gay people,' says J-Flag's spokesman, 'but virtually everyone who has spoken up has qualified it by saying, 'Well, I don't like gay people myself, but I don't feel they should be discriminated against in any way.' Do I see that as a step forward? Definitely.' According to a producer and artist called Yogie, 'I don't think the man on the street cares too much. As much as music is an important part of the culture, the price of flour is more important than music or what artists say.'"

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is busy at the stove with the country's election books again. The Globe and Mail reports that he has barred western election observers from monitoring next year's parliamentary election and will ask only "fair-minded" countries to watch over the key vote. "Outside observers will be coming in strictly on the basis of invitation," Mr. Mugabe said in a state-of-the-nation address to parliament.

The Telegraph quotes a report by international lawyers as having said Zimbabwe's legal system has been subverted to keep the government in power and ensure that future elections can be neither free nor fair. "Stephen Irwin, chairman of the Bar of England and Wales, who visited Zimbabwe to draw up the report, said it was clear that Zimbabwe's corruption of the legal system was 'directly linked' to the election results in 2000 and the intention of President Robert Mugabe 'to keep a grip on power'. The report gave examples of senior judges, lawyers and magistrates being forcibly removed from office after being jailed, beaten or threatened with violence for failing to toe the government line.

"I do not believe it is possible to have free elections in 2005 if the situation continues," Mr Irwin said.

There may be a good reason for the lack of public interest, says the Christian Science Monitor in the use of drugs by sports men and women. Americans, the paper says, should look at what's in their own medicine chests.

That soldier's question about the scarcity of armour for US vehicles in Iraq highlighted an interesting problem that plagues military organisations world-wide - a rigid and slow-moving procurement bureaucracy that cannot change speed. The Wall Street Journal says: "When commanders first identified the need for more armoured vehicles, in August 2003, production was at 30 per month; it's now up to 450 a month and the plants making armour are running at full capacity. That's remarkable considering the modern bureaucratic burden that has built up for procurement, especially after the $400-hammer wars of the 1980s...Today, anyone who's tried to sell so much as a paper clip to the Pentagon will tell you what a time-consuming mess the system is. Forget to dot one 'i' and your company runs the risk of ending up like Halliburton, target of lawsuits and reviled in the press as a corporate predator.

"As bad as the bureaucracy is a mindset that says only 100% solutions will do. Suggest an 80% solution that can be implemented immediately and be prepared to be told that only a perfect fix is acceptable no matter how long it takes. This isn't the way to meet rapidly changing battlefield threats."

09 December 2004

Islam is normally understood to have been prevented from becoming an economic power because the religion forbids "usury" and other things necessary to what might loosely be called the use of money. But from a man called David Cowan, who has a degree in theology from Oxford University and has taught both Islam and religious theory at the Lutheran Seminary in Cambridge, comes the idea that things are changing. Writing in the Washington Times, he says there has been a "revolution" in Islamic thought "which could ultimately lead to a new economic bloc in the world. Since the 1970s, an economic theory has been taking hold in a number of Muslim countries, backed by a growing Islamic financial system.

"Simply stated, it rejects both the market economy and socialism, offering a system based on an Islamic worldview. Muslim economists argue that capitalism fails because it reflects a lack of contentment, illustrated by our single-minded pursuit of wealth, rampant consumerism and preoccupation with sensual pleasure. They say socialism fails because it lacks harmony between its goals and its worldview, which is rooted in post-Enlightenment secular philosophy...

"The solution propagated is a reallocation of resources and redistribution of wealth, fulfilling a Muslim's moral obligation to be a worthy example. Such Islamization of the economy aspires to spiritual as well as material well-being, thus establishing socioeconomic justice. This means an economy according to a divine mandate giving humanity stewardship of the earth's resources, refined through a 'moral filter' before being made subject to the discipline of the market.

"However distant the prospect at present," Cowan says, "this is a radical alternative economic system which has found a home in Islam, prescribing an holistic organization of society as an economic system. It is potentially a powerful vision, just as Communism and socialism were."

Author Max Boot says it's unlikely that moves to reform the UN will get off the ground. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, he says: "All of the reformistas' efforts founder on the rocks of apathy and inertia. The reality is that most of the UN's 191-member states, to say nothing of its 49,000 employees, aren't terribly interested in making it work better. They usually have other priorities. Even the Bush administration isn't making much of a stink over the oil-for-food scandal because it needs UN support in Iraq and elsewhere.

"Many member states don't want to rock the boat because they have cozy deals with the current UN regime. A French bank, for instance, was the prime repository of the oil-for-food billions. Others are afraid that a stronger UN would interfere in their affairs. Russia doesn't want the UN meddling in Chechnya, China doesn't want it in Tibet, India doesn't want it in Kashmir, and so on.

"Flawed as it is, the UN does some useful things, ranging from providing cover for the decision to launch the 1991 Gulf War to issuing an influential 2003 report on the failings of the Arab world. The United States should try to make use of it when possible. Leaving the UN, as some on the right suggest, is unrealistic. But it will never live up to the grandiose expectations of its starry-eyed supporters unless they get mad enough to demand real change. So far there's no sign of that happening."

Haaretz is this morning quoting an apparently respectable poll that suggests that "For the first time since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, a majority of Palestinians, some 52%, oppose violence against Israel. The figures also indicate public support among Palestinians for a Palestinian Authority initiative to reach an agreed upon cease-fire with all militant groups."

The debate is so old, says Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, that it should have its own place in the Shakespearean canon. "Is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands a "pound of flesh" from a debtor, a villain or a victim? Every time The Merchant of Venice is staged, the debate is restaged along with it. Does Shakespeare's play merely depict anti-semitism, or does it reek of it? Is the Bard describing, even condemning, the prevalent anti-Jewish attitudes of his time - or gleefully giving them an outlet?"

He's writing about a new film of the Merchant of Venice, made by Jonathan Radford, and he comes to a politically correct conclusion: He quotes Radford has having told the Jewish Chronicle, "I was never worried about the anti-semitism of the play."

"Many, though not all, of the critics have shared his insouciance. I suspect this is because they believe modern audiences have been so sensitised by the Holocaust that they are all but inoculated against anti-semitism. The result is that stories of anti-Jewish hatred take on an almost allegorical quality - as if they are not about Jews at all, but are, instead, parables for racism or intolerance in general. (Radford has hinted that his film should be understood in the light of the current collision between Islam and the west.)

"This might work if Shylock was, say, an Inca, or a Minoan - if, in other words, the Jews were no longer around. But Jews are still around - and so, unfortunately, is anti-semitism."

I think that's silly over-analysis. Shakespeare was writing about one Jew, in one place, at one time. That Shylock happened to be a cliche of a character was a literary convenience, a device to allow Shakespeare to avoid wasting time explaining his character, not a political comment. He didn't mean Shylock to be taken to represent all Jews any more than Dickens meant Scrooge to be taken to represent all businessmen or...well, supply your own cliche. There's an abundance of them, from one end of literature to the other.

I read with great interest this Guardian debate, between Booker-winning novelist Monica Ali and Jenny Colgan, a former journalist who has just published her second novel, over whether Pride and Prejudice deserved to be called the book that most changed the way women saw themselves. Ali thought it did, Colgan thought there were more deserving books. I couldn't help thinking that the question was misleading. It's really the process of reading books that has the power to change lives - and if you're apt to think that one particular book deserves the credit, then you haven't read enough. Keep reading, because further rewards are in store for you.

This story about deadbeat UN diplomats who don't pay their parking tickets in New York appears as often as stories about the weather. This one does contribute a fact that is new to me, which is that British diplomats make a point of not having fines outstanding. Reassuring in this age of ethics lite.

08 December 2004

To give them their due, Bermudians, especially Bermudian males, are late bloomers whose lack of educational moxie in secondary school doesn't necessarily translate into lowered horizons for their rest of their lives. But the achievement standards in schools here are poor enough that our Department of Education doesn't like talking about how our students stack up against their peers internationally. So it was a pleasant surprise when I stumbled across this story this morning. Buried away in the body of it is the news that Bermuda students came third in the world in the GMAT - which I think is the General Management Aptitude Test.

At the top of the league were the Chinese students, with a mean score of 593. Next, was a tie among Australian, New Zealand and British students with a score of 587. Then, by cracky, Redif.com reports that "Students from Bermuda reported a total mean score of 585 to be placed third and were closely followed by students from Belgium who reported a total mean score of 584."

There is probably a comparatively small number of students involved in taking the GMAT, but a praiseworthy accomplishment nonetheless (and no wonder we're such a good offshore financial centre). Well done us!

The Washington Post is reporting this morning that Syria may be more of a villain in the Iraq struggle than people realise. "Concerns about Syria's role in Iraq were...expressed in interviews The Washington Post conducted yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah and Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar. 'There are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam back,' Yawar said. 'They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are...disturbing or undermining our political process.' And the allegation is being made that the governments of both the United States and Iraq believe that 'foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria.'"

This is a really enjoyable, well-researched story in the Los Angeles Times about the growing popularity of Japanese knives in the cooking world. The best of them are superb instruments, beautifully made. There are drawbacks, though, which writer Russ Parsons doesn't mention. First, they are made of softer steel than Western knives commonly are, and so need a lot of maintenance. If you live in a humid climate, the job gets harder. Second, they are very specialised - a suite of a dozen different knives would not be out of place in a well-equipped kitchen. There isn't such a thing as a knife for all purposes. And since the Japanese eat lots of vegetables and fish, they are designed for cutting those materials and will suffer if you try to use them for meat or fruit. Third, they can be expensive - knives that cost one or two thousand dollars are not at all uncommon. Having said all that, if you like fine things, these are the Rolls Royces of knives.

Incidentally, I can give a personal endorsement to one of the dealers mentioned in the story, the Korin Japanese Trading Corporation down on Warren Street in lower Manhattan, in which I spent a couple of delightful hours recently, choosing a wedding present for the son of a dear friend. Ask for Aye.

Those stories out of Egypt yesterday about a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians having been brokered were overly optimistic, but that doesn't mean that no progress has been made. Haaretz reports that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak "is asking Kuwait to present an initiative for the Gulf states to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, in exchange for a significant acceleration of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the start of negotiations between Syria and Israel. In effect, those are the general lines of an earlier Egyptian initiative and Saudi initiative, which sought to offer Israel a 'security belt' in exchange for a peace deal with the Palestinians. This time, Mubarak wants to translate that 'security belt' into a political action: diplomatic ties between the Gulf states and Israel."

That's not all, of course. Everyone's putting best foot forward in an attempt to make sure that the opportunity created by Arafat's death and the forthcoming election isn't wasted. Even the French, according to David Horowitz, writing in the Jerusalem Post, are getting in on the act. "In a radical departure from years of Parisian critical rhetoric, the French ambassador to Israel, Gerard Araud, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that he thought Israel 'has tried to show the utmost restraint' in the course of the conflict with the Palestinians since 2000." That's a rare tune for the French to be tootling.

But the Palestinian election is going to play a huge role in deciding whether the opportunity will be seized or missed. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, is Israel's minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. He writes in the Los Angeles Times this morning that the last thing the Palestinians need is another Arafat. "Yasser Arafat is dead. A so-called moderate is now chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Elections to choose a Palestinian Authority president are scheduled in the West Bank and Gaza for early January. Optimists see an opportunity for restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the possibility of a meaningful and comprehensive settlement of the conflict."

He warns that it was the West that created the conditions that allowed Arafat's to nudge the Middle East peace process to get out of control.

"The Palestinian Authority used all the resources at its disposal to fan the flames of hatred against Israel. The media under his control incited the current generation of Palestinians against the Jewish state, and his PA-run schools ensured that the next generation would be even more poisoned with hate.

"Even as negotiations were conducted and summits were held with a succession of Israeli prime ministers, the regime was crushing Palestinian civil society and creating an autonomy of terror.

"Not only did the democratic world not raise its voice in protest, it actually did everything it could to strengthen the regime. The most egregious example occurred when Israel agreed, with the blessing of the free world, to transfer 20% of Palestinian value-added-tax revenues into Arafat's personal account. When I repeatedly protested against this transfer of public funds, I was told that if Arafat needed some pocket money to fight terrorism, it would be a small price to pay for our security.

"In the post-Arafat era, the success of the peace process will hinge on whether the world finally focuses on what goes on inside Palestinian-controlled areas. Just as the democratic world did not care how Arafat ruled, it may not care how his successor rules. Indeed, we already hear those who argue that the biggest danger today is chaos in the Palestinian areas and stress the need to quickly identify a Palestinian strongman who will keep order, enforce his will on extremists and forge a deal with Israel. If we heed this advice, we will only repeat the tragic mistake of Oslo.

"If, however, the free world is concerned less with the personality of a particular leader and more with how that leader governs, then the peace process will have a real chance to succeed."

This is fun. The Guardian asked seven current panto dames to explain what (on earth) that unexportably British Christmas role is all about. Among the comments were these: Ian McKellen said "The dame is a nice, complicated character for an actor to play - but even so, it's not that far from Shakespeare. There's soliloquy and direct address to the audience, there's spectacle, transformation, rude jokes and cross-dressing."

Paul O'Grady said "I hate that traditional dame thing, which is basically a heterosexual man taking the piss out of women, hitching up the fake tits, lifting up the skirts, all that 'Aren't I funny?' shite. It's not funny, and we do not want to see your knickers, thank you very much."

John Linehan said "I think I was the first dame for about seven years in Belfast who wasn't gay. I'm straight and married - and people always assume the dame is gay. In rehearsals, you can always see the male dancers making certain assumptions - then I mention that I'm off to see the wife and the grandchildren, and suddenly their voices drop about half an octave."

There's a lot more, and I don't want to spoil it for you. You'll have a lot more fun reading it than these hapless chasers-after-a-plastic-Santa had in Lapland, and it won't cost you a penny!

The French are continuing to struggle with inculcating the principles of liberte, egalite and fraternite into the Muslim part of their population. The Guardian quotes interior minister Dominique de Villepin as regretting that "of the 1,200 imams who practise in our country, 75% are not French and one-third do not even speak our language. This is not acceptable. In France we should have French imams, speaking French."

"The majority of imams preaching in France are self-taught or have had no formal religious education," agreed Abdellah Boussouf, a moderate imam from Strasbourg.

As a result, Muslim prayer leaders in France are to be offered university training in French law, civics, history and culture from next autumn as part of a bid to build a moderate "French Islam" that respects human rights and the Republican code.

07 December 2004

House Republicans were gunning for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan yesterday. They are convinced, according to the Washington Times, that the truth about the UN Oil-for-Food scandal is never going to see the light of day unless the US is prepared to withdraw funding from the organisation if it doesn't start to cooperate.

"House Republicans yesterday called for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to resign in light of the oil-for-food scandal and threatened to withhold funding from the United Nations unless it fully cooperates with investigators. 'The oil-for-food program is a scandal of enormous proportions, and it may reach into the highest levels of leadership at the UN,' said Rep. Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who introduced a resolution yesterday calling for Mr. Annan to resign." Mr. Flake and other Republicans say the United Nations is not cooperating with investigators, is withholding information, and has denied Mr. Volcker's investigation any subpoena power to get information. 'I'm convinced that the only way we can ensure the UN's full cooperation is with the threat of withholding our funding,' Mr. Flake said."

Meantime, his sense of urgency perhaps sharpened a little by the pack baying at his heels, Annan has warned the 15 members of the UN's Security Council that "Chaos is looming in Sudan's western Darfur region as violence increases, order collapses, and the number of desperate people in need of humanitarian aid." Newsday says the number of such people has now reached nearly 2.3 million.

The CIA seems to be at it again. The New York Times is carrying a story sourced only to "government officials", saying that the agency's Baghdad station chief has warned that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and may not rebound any time soon. What on earth is going on in that organisation? Their behaviour for the last few months, insofar as their hostility to the administration is concerned, is completely mystifying. Their acting director has said that politicians with access to intelligence are to blame. But it seems plain that the leaking is coming from within the organisation, and not from politicians at all.

The Weekly Standard has been focusing attention on the extraordinary granting of permission to the head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, to publish a book, detailing his differences with the administration's approach to the fight against terrorism. Scheuer says four top managers at the agency gave him permission. The CIA is now challenging that story. Matthew Continetti's story says "Little about this story makes sense...former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow says "His assertion that I gave him 'carte blanche' to attack the president is absurd.

"Even [Scheuer] seems to have recognized that, since he was subsequently quoted in the Washington Post on November 2[5] as saying I told him in July to stop his incessant media commentary saying, 'This is affecting the president, you're getting involved in the election. The agency is being interpreted as not being evenhanded' and also saying (quite accurately for once) that I told him some of his comments quoted in the media were "inappropriate for a currently serving intelligence officer."

Barry Scheck is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York. He might also be remembered as the DNA specialist on the team of lawyers who defended OJ Simpson. In the Washington Post, he argues that mandatory sentencing laws have infected federal courts with a touch of madness: "There is a developing consensus among judges, prosecutors and the defense bar that something must be done to restore sanity to federal sentencing. Let's hope it infiltrates the Capitol. Congress and the Sentencing Commission should create a blue-ribbon panel to study constitutional and human issues raised in the sentencing cases now before the Supreme Court. The panel should look at the good and the bad of what developed from the last effort at sentencing reform, 20 years ago. We can make the system better."

Meet Gene Savoy - the real Indiana Jones. The Los Angeles Times says the 70-year old "plunged into the Peruvian jungle half a century ago in search of the fabled El Dorado, a lost Incan city so wealthy that its king reputedly walked coated in gold dust. For months at a time, Savoy tromped through mountain terrain that local Indians were reluctant to enter. He was bitten by snakes, lost in the jungle and once nearly lynched by irate campesinos.

"Now semiretired, Savoy never found El Dorado. But along the way, he became the world's foremost chronicler of a forgotten civilization known as the Chachapoya - and a blight to traditional archeologists. Savoy, 79, is among the last of a dying breed - the swashbuckling adventurer whose expeditions plow through the world's rain forests in search of lost history."

06 December 2004

Palestinians are furious at the prisoner exchange Egypt and Israel have just concluded, says DEBKAfile. They understand that it marks an epic policy switch by Egyptian President Mubarak - from playing the role of Palestinian protector and patron, to one of partnership with the US and Israel in forcing Palestinians to accept the end of their conflict with Israel.

The American Institute of Physics has named the biggest scientific achievements of 2004, not only in lab physics but also in fields closely allied with physics, such as cosmology. This one's not at the top of the list, but it's the one I think is most interesting, and was picked by the noted physicist-author Michio Kaku of City University of New York. Quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kaku says "What has excited me personally about the top stories of 2004 was confirmation that the universe is accelerating, a staggering discovery that has deep philosophical and even theological implications...When it was first announced a few years ago that the universe was not just expanding, but actually accelerating, in a runaway mode, the world of physics was agog, with mouths hanging open, but die-hard skeptics demanded more confirmation. How could the universe be careening out of control?

"This has philosophical implications, because it means that the universe is dying, and eventually the Big Freeze will kill off all intelligent life forms. This has theological implications, because what is the meaning of life if all life is doomed to freeze by the laws of physics? What kind of deity would allow life, in all its glory, to flower in the universe, and then snuff it out cruelly by freezing it to death? Personally, I believe that the only hope for intelligent life to escape the death of the universe is to leave the universe itself...If our universe one day becomes too cold to support life, then perhaps we will be forced to harness the most advanced physics to open up a hole in space, travel between dimensions, to a much younger, warming universe."


Eliminating US farm subsidies, says a visiting fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, "would dramatically reduce government spending, end a program that mostly benefits corporate interests and the wealthy, strengthen US agriculture, give us much needed leverage in international trade negotiations, and allow the United States to extricate itself from embarrassingly undermining its own foreign aid program."

Writing in the Washington Times, Sara F. Cooper says New Zealand did away with its subsidies in 1984. "Expectations to the contrary, New Zealand lost less than 1 percent of its farming businesses. Family farming, not corporate farming, expanded. New Zealand agriculture was not destroyed. Rather, it was forced to change to meet the demands of the market and thrived. What happened in New Zealand could be duplicated in the United States. In fact, the US has less at stake than New Zealand did. Agriculture in New Zealand comprises more than 13 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. Here, agriculture accounts for around 2 per cent of GDP.

"Simply, there are too many reasons for eliminating farm subsidies. Such a reform - which the farm lobby would fight tooth and nail - would force US agriculture to make decisions based on market conditions, rather than the availability of government subsidies. New Zealand has proven it's possible; it is time for the United States to prove it again."

The Washington Times says recent polls are confirming that boorish America is getting more boorish by the day. "A survey of 2,000 adults released by New York-based Public Agenda two years ago found that eight out of 10 Americans say lack of respect and courtesy is a 'serious national problem'."

The newly published 17th edition of Emily Post's Etiquette now devotes an entire chapter to rudeness in all its permutations, complete with the Dirty Dozen - a list of society's rudest behaviors, over-the-top cellular-phone volume, children behaving badly, four-letter words, unruly shoppers and caterwauling in general. Worst of all, says the book, is the telling of ethnic jokes.

The Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk is a frustrated man, according to blogger Arthur Chrenkoff, in his latest twice-monthly roundup of the good news from Iraq. "It is not all death and destruction," says the Archbishop. "Much is positive in Iraq today...Universities are operating, schools are open, people go out onto the streets normally...Where there's a kidnapping or a homicide the news gets out immediately, and this causes fear among the people...Those who commit such violence are resisting against Iraqis who want to build their country." In the Wall Street Journal, Chrenkoff quotes the Archibishop, Louis Sako, as having said: "Europe must understand that there is no time to waste on marginal or selfish interests: The entire world needs peace."

"Archbishop Sako's frustration is increasingly shared by other Iraqis," says Chrenkoff, "who can hardly recognize their country from the foreign media coverage. Westerners, too, both military and civilians, upon their return are often finding to their surprise and concern they had lived and worked in a different country to that their loved ones, friends and neighbors back home saw every night on the news. 'Our' Iraq is a place of violence, uncertainty, and frustration; 'their' Iraq is all that, but also so much more: work and renewal, hope and enthusiasm, new opportunities and new possibilities."

The promise of democratic progess that Vicente Fox wore like a cape when he defeated the well-oiled reactionary machine of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, in Mexican elections four years ago, appears to have evaporated. "President Fox is less than a lame duck. He's a dead duck," writes a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, Denise Dresser, in today's Los Angeles Times. "Politics can't tolerate vacuums," she says, "and the PRI is filling the one created by Fox's failures. Day after day, Mexican newspapers portray a paralyzed country in which very little has changed and even less gets done. Mexicans don't talk about what Fox has accomplished but about what could have been. Mexico seems to be speaking the vocabulary of disenchantment. The words 'failure,' 'disillusion,' 'lack of leadership' are a daily part of the national conversation."

Where's Pondblog's Mexican correspondent?

This is an interesting new twist on a popular story - researchers at the University of Munich have announced that performance in math and reading suffered significantly among students who have more than one computer at home. And while students seemed to benefit from limited use of computers at school, those who used them several times a week at school saw their academic performance decline significantly as well. "It seems if you overuse computers and trade them for other [types of] teaching, it actually harms the student," lead researcher Ludger Woessmann told the Christian Science Monitor. "At least we should be cautious in stating that increasing [access to] computers in the home and school will improve students' math and reading performance."

05 December 2004

London University's School of Oriental and African Studies is being criticised for having agreed to be the host for a conference today, at which academics are to begin a campaign to break links with Israeli universities, significantly increasing an academic boycott of Israel. The Guardian reports that several people known to have strongly anti-Israel views will be there, including Tom Paulin, who is to deliver the keynote address. He was criticised in 2002 when he was quoted in the Arab newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly as saying that Jewish settlers "should be shot dead", although he later claimed to have been misquoted.

Other speakers at the conference will include Professors Steven and Hilary Rose, who began the call for an academic boycott of Israel more than two years ago in a letter to the Guardian, and the linguist Mona Baker, who was the subject of an official inquiry by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology after she sacked two Israeli members of a journal she edited.

Coincidentally, Israel's former chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, told Haaretz last week that he thinks European Jewish history is nearing its end. He called on the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to prepare for the absorption of Europe's Jews in Israel. "There is a rise in anti-Semitism in nearly every European country that is being expressed, among other ways, via extreme anti-Israel sentiments," Lau warned in a statement.

And in Frankfurt, there are still hard feelings about anti-Semitic works that were displayed at the Book Fair earlier this year, which featured books from the Arab World. The Jerusalem Post reports that material like the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf and books that deny the Holocaust are a driving force within the Arab publishing industry.

"At one point, The Protocols was a bestseller in the West Bank, and it was a major theme of a 41-part Egyptian TV series. Now, the notorious forgery has risen to academic levels with the recent publication of a scholarly work by two professors from Cairo's al-Azhar University, who claim to authenticate The Protocols based on Talmudic verses. A 10th edition of one version of the popular Protocols was just published in Cairo.

Lebanese publishers regularly reprint Mein Kampf, generally with striking poses of Hitler on the cover, for distribution throughout the West Bank and Arab Mideast.

The New York Times Book Review has listed 100 notable books of the year this week, and intends, next week, to reduce them to the ten best of the year. Let's see how many I can guess will be among the finalists. I stress it is a guess, although I've read about all of them, I have actually read only three of the eleven I mention.

Four from the fiction category - Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons; The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (this year's Booker winner); The Prodigal, which Derek Walcott says will be his last book of poetry; War Trash, by Ha Jin.

Six from the non-fiction category - Richard A Clarke's Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror; Chronicles: Volume One, by Bob Dylan; The Life of Graham Greene. Volume Three: 1955-1991; Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward; The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States; Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt.

And one that doesn't quite fit in that list, but that ought to be at the top of it - Edith Grossman's new translation of Don Quixote.

Any argument?

Coincidentally, the Guardian yesterday published another booky piece of the type I can't resist, listing the recommendations of a bunch of critics and authors. This links to half of it, there's a link at the bottom of the page to the other half. Bob Dylan's Chronicles gets a remarkable number of nods.

Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan says that in the voting crisis in the Ukraine, "the Bush administration and the European Union have committed a flagrant act of transatlantic cooperation. If Ukrainians eventually vote in a free and fair election and thereby thwart the reemergence of an authoritarian Russian empire along the borders of democratic Europe, it will be one of those rare hinges of history where looming disaster was turned into glittering opportunity. And it would not have happened without the joint efforts of the United States and the European Union using - dare one say it? - 'soft power' to compel Vladimir Putin and his would-be quislings to retreat from their botched coup d'etat."

Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP, in to introduce a Bill in the British Parliament within weeks to change the law in favour of homeowners being allowed to use force against burglars, after it topped the ballot for Private Members' Legislation in the House of Commons, according to the Telegraph this morning.

Yesterday, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said householders should be able to use whatever force is necessary to defend their homes against criminals, even if it involves killing the intruder. Overly dramatic way of putting it, perhaps, but that's the way it ought to be.


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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