...Views from mid-Atlantic
01 January 2005

Two interesting things about this New York Times review of a new biography of Christopher Marlowe. First, it was written by John Simon, the Times's theatre critic, which is an interesting little cross-over. Are film reviews by book critics in store? Achitectural reviews by music critics? Second, it doesn't mention that Christopher Marlowe is considered to be the most likely Shakespeare, if Shakespeare himself wasn't...if you get my drift. The theory goes like this: Marlowe was, as this book acknowledges, a highly-ranked secret agent in the service of Queen Elizabeth I, sent by her on missions to stir up trouble and dig for information. He was also wanted by the Church for a little session in the torture chambers having to do with that business of being an atheist.

On a day in 1593, they were hot on his heels. Just before they could lay hands on him, though, he was killed in a brawl in a bar by being stabbed in the eye. But things weren't what they seemed. The bar was really a rooming house. The rooming house was really a kind of safe house, owned by a woman with connections to the Queen. It was on a river, which was really the Elizabethan equivalent of having a house near the airport. You can guess the rest - it was a set-up, he didn't die, he was smuggled out of the country to France the next day. He had to use a pseudonym to continue to write, and continue to write he did, for years, while William Shakespeare, whose name is used, went unwittingly on, grubbing for money in Stratford. Good tale. If you must have a theory, this is the one to have.

31 December 2004

William Safire has published a seductive little test of our political skills in the Houston Chronicle this morning. One correct wild guess, he says, will give you bragging rights forever. He's given his answers. Mine are different. If you're interested, they're as follows: 1 d. 2 none. 3 none. 4 d. 5 c. 6 d. 7 b. 8 c. 9 a. 10 a. 11 c. 12 d.

Jeb Bush is obviously more than just his brother's brother. His leadership in Florida during the last hurricane season was outstanding, and makes his choice as one of the officials sent by the President to have a look at the damage in the Indian Ocean a sensible one. He's apparently having an effect in education, as well. In an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, he explains how Florida has made university entrance race-neutral, and still continues to increase the number of minority students who attend. "Our policy," he writes, "assumes all children can learn, and we intend to ensure that they do, regardless of race or other factors, to the extent that government can influence results. Offering school choice where needed has helped strengthen our public schools, according to one study. Identifying and mentoring troubled schools, setting high standards, and holding the schools accountable for results also has made a difference.

"In Florida, we don't push unprepared children forward. Nor do we separate them by racial classification. We maintain that the best way to ensure minority participation in higher education is to provide the same opportunities and support to all students and to hold all students to the same standards."

Government departments have taken so long to change restrictive old laws that the new Freedom of Information Act could be seriously undermined for years, the Telegraph says this morning. There are also concerns, it says, that last-minute changes in the amount of time that public bodies may take to answer requests for information could weaken the powers in the Act.

But the man who is going to administer the Act, the Information Commissioner, says he'll be getting tough with any Government body that fails to comply with public requests for information. Quoted in the London Times, Richard Thomas says that the law will not be a "cranks' charter or a journalists' charter". But the presumption will be in favour of disclosure, he says, unless there is good reason not to disclose material.

When he gets good and weary of trying to whip Government bodies into line, I suggest he should nip down to Spain for a little holiday, where he might gain a new perspective on his problems. There, according to the Times, the right-wing Mayor of Salamanca has put up barricades around the the city's Civil War archive to thwart a decision by Spain's Socialist Government to return documents that General Franco seized from Catalonia. Now, that's a refusal con cojones!

Author Dore Gold was once Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, and has written a book about his experiences, entitled Tower of Babble: How the UN Has Fueled Global Chaos. He's now the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and has written a fine critique of the UN, published this morning in the Jerusalem Post. "The UN was born in 1945 at a moment of extraordinary moral clarity," Gold says. "To become a founding member, states had to declare war on one of the Axis powers and in effect become allies of the Big Three. There was no doubt then that Nazi Germany stood for evil and the Allies for good. But within a few years, the UN standards became muddied with the addition of new members, who sought to alter the organization's ethos to serve their own authoritarian agendas.

"Annan's panel (recommending UN reform) recognized that the change from the original 51 members to today's 191 member states meant that 'the General Assembly was transformed from a body composed of States that largely resembled one another to one whose membership varied dramatically.' A UN that, Soviet participation notwithstanding, had been dominated by democratic values became a tool of Third World authoritarians, who quickly raised the value of 'noninterference' above that of human rights. This dramatic distortion came to roost in the UN failures of the 1990s, which were characterized by a confusion between aggressor and victim. In Rwanda, the UN's initial moral equivalence between Hutus and Tutsis infused the military doctrine of its peacekeeping forces. In Bosnia, UN forces showed more sympathy for the Serb aggressors than for their Muslim victims. One reason the Oil for Food scandal went on for so long, according to former UN official Michael Soussan, was that the UN had more sympathy for Iraq's predicament than its own mandate to root out Iraq's WMD programs."

He speaks with no little bitterness about the failure of the UN to act ethically in dealing with the Israeli struggle with terrorism. And it strikes me that another story in the Jerusalem Post this morning actually heavily underscores his argument - those having to deal with the aftermath of the terrible tsunami in Asia are using a product developed in Israel to protect its users from the stench of death.

The Wall Street Journal joins commentators who think that in the war on terrorism, things are beginning to go the West's way. "Notably, when Fallujah was finally retaken in November, the only voice to be heard from the proverbial Arab street was that of Zarqawi himself. 'You have let us down in the darkest circumstances,' he berated Muslim clerics for their failure to raise an army to his cause. Both their failure and his remonstrance are a good indication that, in Iraq, things are gradually turning America's way.

"Elsewhere in the world, the year's news in the war on terror tended to be good. A.Q. Khan's nuclear-proliferation network was rolled up. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is disbanding itself as democracy takes root. There will be more genuinely democratic elections in the Arab world next month than there have been in the past 40 years. Even the U.N. managed to propose (if not yet adopt) a commonsense definition of terrorism. The main worry is Iran, which continues to bankroll Hezbollah and harbor al Qaeda while moving toward a nuclear bomb. Here the Administration's failure to announce, much less conduct, a coherent policy is leading toward crisis."

And while we're on this subject, there has been a...well, I don't suppose you can call it a Freudian slip, but it's in the same sort of area. In a statement quoted in the Washington Times, they say "Democracy is a Greek word meaning the rule of the people, which means that the people do what they see fit," the groups said in a warning. "This concept is considered apostasy and defies the belief in one God — Muslims' doctrine." That it does no such thing is a point moderate Muslims, among others, will want pick up on, I've no doubt.

30 December 2004

A New York lawsuit seeks $1 trillion in damages from supporters of radical Islamic jihad. On behalf of 700 survivors and family members of those killed by terrorism in Israel, trial lawyer Ron Motley is trying to change the face of counterterrorism. He is suing the Arab Bank, which is said to have funneled billions of dollars to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other terrorist organizations. The bank's chairman and part owner, Abd al-Majid Shuman, is an outspoken advocate of Islamic jihad, having made no bones about his support for the Palestinian intifada, the four-year campaign of terror aimed primarily at innocent Israeli citizens. Arab-language newspaper articles excerpted in the complaint indicate that Mr. Shuman is a well-known advocate of the intifada.

The Washington Times says "If Arab Bank has not supported terrorism...then either Mr. Shuman has lied about his jihadist financing or various Arab newspapers have fabricated statements from him. Neither potential explanation, though, would account for documents captured by the Israeli Defense Forces that show money being funneled to Hamas and other terrorist groups through Arab Bank's New York branch. Regardless of how the case against Arab Bank turns out, terror's sponsors will not have seen the last of Mr. Motley and his crew. The maverick trial lawyer is driven to bankrupt those who support and perpetrate terrorism; the September 11 victims' families he represents operate under the name '9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism.' Both in terms of punishing terrorism supporters and stopping the future flow of blood money, the suit against Arab Bank hopefully will mark another significant step by victims in their own war against terror."

Being dismissed from his post as Shadow Minister for the Arts, and as Conservative Party Vice-Chairman, doesn't seem to have put much of a dent in Boris Johnson, MP's style. One British website still asks, tongue only slightly in cheek, whether he is the Messiah. A Guardian columnist says he's the only man who can save the Tories. And although he may look like a naughty public schoolboy desperately in need of a spanking and a haircut, in that order, he is actually quite a tidy little thinker. In the Telegraph today, he us pronouncing on the Indian Ocean tidal wave: "Whatever you say about the slipping of tectonic plates on the sea-bed off Sumatra, it had nothing to do with global warming. It was not caused by decadent use of Right Guard, or George W Bush, or the flouting of the Kyoto Protocol, or inadequate enforcement of the Windows and Doors Regulation of April 2002.

"There may now be six billion of us crawling over the crust of the Earth, but, when things move beneath that crust, we might as well not exist for all the difference we make. And if the priests and the scientists have nothing useful to say on the matter, the same goes in spades for politicians and journalists. We yearn, with that immemorial human ache, to find someone to blame - but whom?"

Next year, 2005, is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Uncle Einstein's ideas about quantum theory and relativity, which changed forever our understanding of the way the world works. Scientists are celebrating by declaring it Einstein Year and, according to this Telegraph story, we'd better be prepared to shed our ideas of the great man as "that mad scientist in Princeton with electrified hair, the little professor who shuffles around sockless in moth-eaten sweaters, puffing his pipe. Often he sticks his tongue out. He still stares out of T shirts and posters. Erase the prevailing image of Einstein as Walter Matthau with a cosmic aureole. Forget Princeton. This is not the creative Einstein but a faded and distorted version of the original. Next year, thanks to the detective work of scholars, we can at last see the real Einstein..."

Bugger that. I like the one we've got.

Hilary Benn, Britain's overseas development minister, made the speech at a meeting of the Overseas Development Institute, and my guess is that the British press didn't cover it, or didn't cover it very well. Now that the Indian Ocean tidal wave has set a huge United Nations relief effort underway, though, the Guardian , at least, has realised that what Benn said was highly relevant and important. He complained bitterly about the UN relief system, saying that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNHCA), headed by Jan Egeland, suffers from competing UN agency battles, poorly trained staff, lack of regular resources and no clear means of holding donors, agencies or relief operations to account.

Benn's speech evidently had the approval and support of the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and is a reflection of a long-running debate in the humanitarian community on how to deal with disasters, like that currently under way in Darfur. Mr Benn suggested the UN agencies had unclear and overlapping mandates and suffered from a lack of prioritisation and leadership. Serving notice he would put forward a reform programme as part of the UK presidency of the G8 next year, he said UN agencies often "measure needs on their own, in an uncoordinated manner and then appeal for funds to meet those needs. This does not produce a comprehensive assessment of need or effective response."

The Guardian is expressing doubt, on the eve of the coming into effect of the Freedom of Information Act in Britain, that there is going to be an easy transition to the new regime. "Many," the newspaper says, "are sceptical that officials' secretive habits, and this government's reliance on spin and control, will melt away...A potential problem for applicants is delay. Public bodies have not been given extra money to deal with requests. The public is entitled under the act to receive a response within 20 working days, but it seems inevitable that applicants will have to wait longer. There is also concern that, even though the public authorities have had five years to prepare, they will not be ready.

And in an editorial, the newspaper pours scorn on Lord Falconer's attempt (see yesterday's entry) to preemptively thwart those newspapers that might be tempted to use the Act to winkle stories out of the Government. Falconer "speciously misrepresented the protests of journalists as a desire that official information should be 'kept secret for them'.

"This is rubbish," the Guardian thunders, "as Lord Falconer must know perfectly well. The courts have long recognised that most media companies are commercial organisations as well as providers of news. The law acknowledges the value in intellectual property as well as in the exclusive revelation of information. Ferreting information out of Whitehall will often be time-consuming and expensive. Editors will be reluctant to assign reporters to long and labour-intensive investigations if the fruits of their inquiries will be released to every other journalist before they even have a chance to publish it themselves. This is not a wish to keep information 'secret for journalists'. No editor would object to all the documents being placed in the public domain immediately after publication. It is a simple question of timing. This sly little announcement reeks of Lord Falconer having been nobbled by a Sir Humphrey. He should think again."

29 December 2004

President George W Bush is going to be assassinated this year, according to a Tunisian astrologer widely respected in the Arab world. The Jerusalem Post says the astrologer, Hassan al-Sharibi, gained fame for prophesying the 1997 death of Princess Diana, the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin last March and the "mysterious death" of former PA chairman Yasser Arafat. The Tunisian predicts that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian favoured to succeed Arafat, will also be assassinated, Saddam Hussein will die before his trial begins, Ariel Sharon will lose the Government of Israel and...oh yes, Osama bin Laden will be captured or killed.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, Republican from Georgia, is giving former President Jimmy Carter a bit of a scolding in the Washington Times this morning, accusing him of being unduly kind to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and then of being unduly unkind to the integrity of the American electoral system.

"Among other things," says Mr Norwood, "Mr. Carter wrote, 'The disturbing fact is that a repetition of the problems of 2000 now seems likely, even as many other nations are internationally certified to be transparent, honest and fair...With reforms unlikely at this late stage of the election, perhaps the only recourse will be to focus maximum public scrutiny on the suspicious process in Florida.' Thankfully, Mr. Carter's indictment of the 2004 electoral process in Florida proved to be unfounded, his dire prediction off base and the 'scrutiny of the suspicious process in Florida' utterly unnecessary to say the least.

"Being Jimmy Carter in 2004 meant turning 80 and looking back on a substantial and proud record of public service to our great nation. But being Jimmy Carter in 2004 also meant putting international expediency and political partisanship far before everything else. Here's wishing Mr. Carter a great 2005 — and a new year filled with much more straight-shooting and much less divisive posturing to boot."

The best books, the best movies, the best music...the LA Times gets to the best of the best with this piece on the best recipes of 2004.

Britain's Freedom of Information Act comes into effect on the first day of the New Year. It will no doubt be a profound shock to the keepers of a system that has always relied fundamentally on secrecy. If you want an explanation for the lawless frontier-like nature of the British press, you needn't look very much farther than the adversarial relationship it has with the British Government which, for all its unctious pretence otherwise, has never understood that the press has any legitimate role to play in a democracy.

One rather clear indication that that is the case has come from the constitutional affairs secretary, Lord Falconer, who is, as the Guardian so delicately puts it, "to forestall journalists from turning the Freedom of Information Act into a goldmine of newspaper exclusives by simultaneously publishing any information disclosed to reporters on the web." Nowhere else in the free world does a Government not understand that it should treat a journalist's questions as confidential, allowing the journalist to pick the time and the manner of their publication. Publishing the answers simultaneously on the internet is a fundamental betrayal of trust - no doubt a cynical attempt by Lord Falconer to give the press their freedom of information, good and hard. It will result in less trust, not more, between the public and the Government.

If you want to read Falconer's slimy, not to say Orwellian, attempt to justify himself, you can read it here: "So government departments will publish the answers to requests for information that is of general interest on their websites as well as making them available to the original requester. I have no doubt that this will be welcomed by all those who are committed to open government and to freedom of information, and by the public at large...Some members of the media seem to be taking what might be seen as a more partisan view, arguing that responses to their inquiries made under FOI should be kept secret for them. They suggest that simultaneous publication will undo their investigations.

"I find this response hard to fathom. Surely media organisations, for so long campaigners for open government and for freedom of information, cannot be suggesting that their own commercial interests are of greater importance to them than the public's right to know? They cannot be suggesting that the stories their commercial rivals would not otherwise have are more important to them than openness and transparency?

"Our approach means that we will publish information requested under FOI that is of wider public interest on our websites at the same time as we make it available to the applicant. Members of the public will not only be able to read stories in their newspapers based on information obtained under FOI, but will also be able to see the original information that the government department supplied. Members of the public will have exactly the same rights, at exactly the same time, as members of the media. Simultaneous publication is sensible publication.

"I believe this approach will help further transparency and openness, and help end the culture of secrecy that for too long has blighted Whitehall, local government and public authorities. FOI has already begun to change the way government makes information available to the public. From January 1 this process will be sharply accelerated. Freedom of information means open and widely accessible information - and open and widely accessible information for all."

We'll see how long he manages to make his policy stick. A week? A month? Three? I sincerely hope this infantile idea is swept off the map quickly enough not to give Bermuda's Government some idea of following suit. We were promised a similar Act at about the time of the last election and somewhere, someone is meant to be working to bring it about.

"...To suppose that the United Nations will reform itself from within is to miss the eerie unreality of the place," writes Claudia Rosett in this morning's Wall Streeet Journal. "It is not simply changes in some of the staffing that are needed, or U.N. commissioned reports recommending that the U.N. 'reform' by way of doing even more of whatever it does already. What's needed is something that among sovereign states we have come to call regime change - the basic alteration of a system that in its privileges, immunities and practices resembles rather too closely some of the dictatorships that still pack its ranks."

28 December 2004

If the Falungong thought they were out of the Chinese woods, they have another think coming. People's Daily says in an editorial today that "...Our struggle with the Falungong cult is a long-term, arduous and complicated process. We shall never treat it lightly. The Falungong cult won't cease disrupting and doing harm to society, just like it will never stop fabricating lies. We shall persist in the struggle with the cult until it is eradicated at the root."

A recently-published study of some aspects of the institution of marriage is reporting encouraging results. The Washington Times reports that a drop in teen pregnancy is the most dramatic - a 10 percent decline in two years. An apparent levelling-off of the divorce rate has taken place, too. The data aren't perfect - some states, including California and Colorado, don't even keep track of divorce - but the numbers the authors point to, collected by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that the divorce rate decreased slightly from 1991 to 2001 in the states that do collect data.

This is a bad news, good news sort of story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The bad news is that "The UN-ordered probe into Iraqi oil-for-food corruption is being seriously hampered by an elaborate system of ghost firms set up around the world to cover the tracks of bribes to Saddam Hussein as he cheated the $60 billion program..."

The good news is that at least one country, Switzerland, is really taking its reponsibilities in wake of the UN Oil-for-Food scandal seriously. "What singles Switzerland out from other countries involved in the oil-for-food affair - including Britain, France, Russia and the United States - is that it has already taken action. In October, Switzerland fined a company $42,250 for paying kickbacks to secure Iraqi oil contracts." Although under Switzerland's confidentiality policies, the Geneva-based company has not been publicly identified, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, which imposed the fine, says it intends to investigate the Iraqi dealings of several more trading firms.

How does religion explain this devastating earthquake in the Indian Ocean? Sounds like a silly question, huh? This utterly un-silly piece by Martin Kettle in the Guardian will make you think again: "From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?"

There was a time I wouldn't have agreed with Newt Gingrich if he said today was Tuesday. But in this Christian Science Monitor piece about Donald Rumsfeld, I agree with him completely. "Rumsfeld, standing on his remarkable record of achievement, is far too effective a Defense secretary for any serious student of recent American history to think that he should be replaced."

The behaviour of Sikhs in Birmingham who shut down a play they didn't like is causing some heart-searching in Britain. Fiona Mactaggart, the home office minister, refused to offer support for either the theatre or the author following protests by a violent mob some days ago. Sikh groups organised the demonstrations because part of the play, which involves scenes of rape and murder, takes place in a temple, or gudwara. But as the Wall Street Journal points out, "Freedom of speech that does not embrace the right to offend is a farce. The stipulation that you may say whatever you like so long as you don't hurt anyone's feelings canonizes the milquetoast homily, "If you can't say anything nice. . .." Since rare is the sentiment that does not incense someone, rest assured that in that instance you don't say anything at all...

"The fact that we have to be free to outrage one another is potentially in conflict with a law that soon will be put to the Commons that would add 'incitement to religious hatred' - punishable by seven years in prison - to the equally dubious legislation already on the British books banning 'incitement to racial hatred.' Laws that prohibit incitement to illegal action seem defensible enough. But with this and similar 'hate crime' legislation, are we not on the way to classifying hatred itself as a crime? And while we are at it, should we not then criminalize envy and narcissism for also being antisocial states of mind? Moreover, what is the difference between 'incitement to hatred' and 'incitement to fierce dislike'? Or 'incitement to mockery'?"

But the temptation to mollycoddle people who are unable to deal with insulting challenges to themselves or their beliefs is very strong. USA Today reviews a book, 'Perilous Times': When freedom is tested that details a few of the occasions, pre-passage of the First Amendment, of course, when even Presidential goats were got in a serious way. Lincoln, I'll bet you didn't know, even exiled an obstreporous congressman to Bermuda for daring to criticise him.


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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