...Views from mid-Atlantic
26 February 2005

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has today announced that he has ordered a review and amendment of the country's presidential election laws, paving the way for the possibility of multi-candidate polls in September, according to AlJazeera.

This might be a good time to reflect on something the Lebanese Opposition leader, Walid Jumblatt, said to David Ignatius of the Washington Post this week: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

The United Nations has begun a campaign to mend relations with the Bush administration and with congressional critics who have questioned Secretary General Kofi Annan's fitness to lead the organization, according to the Washington Post.

"Senior UN officials have begun courting some of the organization's fiercest congressional critics - including Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who has called for Annan's resignation - while opening a search for a Republican representative in Washington to lobby on its behalf. In addition, the United Nations has undertaken the most extensive personnel changes since Annan became secretary general in 1997, forcing out several senior UN officials who have clashed with the United States or engaged in conduct that exposed the organization to criticism. The changes are intended to assure the United States that Annan, whose son is the target of a UN probe into influence-peddling, is committed to overcoming a series of scandals involving his organization. But they also reflect a belief by the United Nations that it must respond to U.S. demands for greater accountability and transparency.

"'Getting the relationship repaired is key,' said Mark Malloch Brown, the world body's new chief of staff, who visited Coleman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's permanent subcommittee on investigations, and other Republican leaders this month. 'I cannot think of a time in the UN's 60-year life when the organization has prospered and done well that it hasn't rested on a strong, effective relationship' with the United States."

Meantime, the Washington Times is reporting that the head of UN peacekeeping is expanding an investigation of staff and troop conduct from Congo to 15 other missions to ensure greater transparency, even though additional sex scandals are likely to emerge. "Undersecretary-General Jean-Marie Guehenno said the effort will include an audit of all missions, immediate action against peacekeepers who violate laws and UN regulations, and a public report to be released in April. 'As we take action in that direction, I think things may well get worse before they get better,' Mr. Guehenno told editors and reporters at the Washington Times."

In his first interview since leaving office, Colin Powell seems to have confirmed that much of the innuendo surrounding his volatile relationship with the US defence secretary was well-founded. The Telegraph says that although he didn't blame Rumsfeld by name for the problems that eventually persuaded him to resign, Powell said the "nation building" that followed the invasion had been deeply flawed. He admitted that Rumsfeld's controversial plan to fight the war with limited troop numbers had been an outstanding success, but said more troops should have been used in the aftermath of victory.

Now Ward Churchill, the professor who said those who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 were 'little Eichmans', seems to have been exposed as an art forger, according to this Colorado CBS affiliate. Churchill claimed to be an American Indian, and doesn't seem to be; he claimed to have been a Vietnam combat-hardened paratrooper and turns out not to have done anything more stressful than drive a jeep and run a film projector; he wrote a paper claiming the US Army was guilty of deliberately spreading smallpox among American Indians that seems simply to have been made up. Nonetheless, he's defended by many academics as a kind of free speech poster boy. I wonder how the academics who are trying to push Lawrence Summers out of his post as president of Harvard would describe him.

25 February 2005

Friend and colleague Tim Hodgson, editor of Bermuda's Mid-Ocean News, has written and published today really rather a fine appreciation of the late Hunter Thompson who, he says, paid Bermuda a visit in 1960. Tim explains that "He was deposited on our shores...when the storm-battered yacht he was sailing on limped into harbour, perhaps the most unlikely creative flotsam to wash up here since Mark Twain almost one hundred years earlier. Like many scribblers before and since, most famously Twain - his closest literary antecedent - Hunter S. Thompson was taken with the island and wanted to stay in Bermuda. Mercifully, though, fate intervened in the form of unsympathetic Bermudian bureaucracy...After a Royal Gazette story reported on the castaway he was asked to leave the island post haste, despite having applied for a position at the Bermuda News Bureau. The loss to the Bermuda tourism industry's publicity mill was, of course, a boon to the world of literature."

Tim's assessment of Thompson is that he wasn't entirely like the man he liked to portray: "The wild man image he created in his first-person dispatches from the front lines of the culture wars, the Don Quixote in aviator shades whose ever-present cigarette holder is permanently tilted against the windmills of drab conformity and cant, was not an entirely true to life image of HST. Thompson's anarchic literary alter ego, who he christened Dr. Raoul Duke (later appropriated by cartoonist Gary Trudeau as the model for Doonesbury's Uncle Duke), was Thompson as he would have liked to have been – not as he really was.

"A Kentucky-born Southern gentleman, he was more of an inspired cultural anthropologist than the feral man-child he depicted himself as in the exaggerated Duke pen-portrait. Dr. Duke, the narrator of Thompson's journalism, was self-dramatising and self-parodying by turns, propelled through life on a hedonistic jet stream of booze and pharmaceuticals.

"Hunter S. Thompson was an altogether more thoughtful individual who smashed the false gods of American society with his typewriter, not drug- and alcohol-fuelled rampages. His writing was built on a solid bedrock of conviction. Ultimately, HST was not, as his critics would have it, America's most erudite anarchist; he was in fact the country's most original moralist."

So how did President Bush do in Europe? There's a real divergence of opinion. The Wall Street Journal thinks his trip was a triumph. "Probably the most important component (of his successful formula) is that President Bush's vision of spreading democracy - of getting to the 'tipping point' where tyrannies start to crumble - seems not only to be working but also winning some unexpected converts. Just ask the Lebanese who are suddenly restive under Syrian occupation. As a result, European politicians are in a poorer position to lecture this President about the true ways of the world."

Syndicated columnist Austin Bay thinks the moment when he really socked it to Jacques Chirac characterised a trip in which he socked it to all of Old Europe. In the Washington Times, he crows: "Chalk it up as a second VE Day (Victory in Europe), and credit President Bush for following Winston Churchill's wise counsel: 'In victory: magnanimity.' Mr. Bush's low-key shellacking of France's crook in chief, Jacques Chirac, signals the political defeat of 'Old Europe' on the issue of Iraq. On Monday, before a state dinner in Belgium, a reporter asked Mr. Bush if he would invite Mr. Chirac to his Texas ranch. Mr. Bush quipped, 'I'm looking for a good cowboy.' Remember, 'cowboy' is Euro-snob code for 'pathological American suffering from hyper-power and gigantisme militaire.'" Bay makes a good point when he suggests that Old Europe has been set back not only by the Iraqi election, but also by what he calls "the continuing and oh-so-public moral collapse of the United Nations...Mr. Chirac banked on the United Nations as a platform for his cynical brand of political power projection." Even so, Bay's enthusiasm seems to me the product of wishful thinking more than it should be.

It's probably not the best way to make guesses, but...from the body language of Bush's press conferences with Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin, my guess would be that it went considerably less well than the Times and the Journal suggest. Chirac and Putin both looked bad-tempered and dismissive to the point of being downright rude. Bush looked like a kid whose parents had just caught him trying to set the family cat on fire.

I'm thinking the Telegraph's take is closer to the truth. "Despite the bonhomie and the conciliatory rhetoric, the first foreign tour of George W. Bush's second term has not been an easy one. The invasion of Iraq has done lasting damage to the Atlantic Alliance and it will require more than a brief presidential visit to Europe to put it right."

The Washington Times looks at the volteface that Ariel Sharon has made in order to ensure he takes every advantage of the opportunity for peace that that gangster Arafat's death represents. "Since Menachem Begin's 1977 election victory brought Likud to power, there is arguably no Iiving Israeli who has done more to expand settlements than Mr. Sharon. On Sunday, however, the Israeli leader pushed through a plan that will uproot more than 8,000 Israelis and permit more than 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza to live under Palestinian jurisdiction. The plan also would free hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank from the burden of living under Israeli security control. Mr. Sharon is drawing heavy criticism from settlers and their political allies, the most strident of whom brand him a traitor for his willingness to give up some West Bank settlements. Should he relinquish more outlying West Bank settlements - something most Israelis would probably accept, and that Mr. Sharon is likely to do in a final peace settlement with the Palestinians - the political outcry will be tremendous."

But what, the Times is wondering, is his Palestinian counterpart, President Mahmoud Abbas, going to be prepared to do.

"To his credit, Mr. Abbas has forcefully denounced terrorism and has begun to clamp down on the anti-Semitic incitement routinely heard on Palestinian airwaves. But the need for Mr. Abbas to act militarily against terrorism grows stronger every day. A senior Israeli military intelligence official told the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee this week that terrorists are using the cease-fire negotiated by Mr. Abbas to continue to produce rockets and mortars with which to target Israel. Thus far, the picture is mixed. Palestinian security forces have begun to arrest terrorists and are working to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. Still, the Palestinian security forces need to be more aggressive - and sooner rather than later."

Saul Singer, a Jerusalem Post columnist, has been reading Afghan Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel, The Kite Runner, one of those books that had a tepid critical reception, but an adoring public reception. What the book shows, he says, "is how ignorant even Americans are of the enormity of their good deeds. The sad fact is that, absent 9/11, the Taliban and Saddam would likely still be in power, and the incredible suffering of millions would have remained out of sight and mind. And how ignorant, even in this era of instant communications, do we remain of the millions who at this moment are being crushed by tyranny?

"Iraq's election let the cat of the bag for an entire region, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall did for Central Europe in 1989. The terrorists said, 'you vote, you die', and the people gave the terrorists the finger - stained with purple ink. It is no longer possible to credibly argue that Arabs are uniquely indifferent to freedom or democracy. It is no longer possible for the surrounding dictatorships to defend their oppressive ways as the immutable order of things. The mullah has no clothes."

The Indian Express has a story up this morning quoting Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf as having said that only war with India in 1965 saved him from being drummed out of the army. ‘"As a young Second Lieutenant, court martial proceedings were initiated against me for another disciplinary infringement (probably absence without leave, the Express says). War with India broke out just in time to block the proceedings. My subsequent war performance and a gallantry award finally saved me from the court martial," wrote Musharraf, who went on to become army chief before taking power in a bloodless 1999 coup.

The story is taken from a From-the-President's-Desk letter posted on a new Musharraf website. It's well worth a read...if the President wrote it himself, he really knows what he's doing. It's simple, direct and polished, a text-book example of good written communication.

Sample - "Ironical as it may sound I am a strong believer in democracy - albeit in the real essence of democracy and not the superficial facade of merely an elected Government. Political restructuring was one of the four areas of focus fixed right in the beginning. We examined why democracy remained dysfunctional in Pakistan and addressed the core malaise. We empowered the people of Pakistan at the grass roots, we empowered the women of Pakistan, we empowered the minorities and also introduced institutional checks and balances. The media was removed from its shackles. Complete freedom of speech and expression was allowed. Multiple private TV channels were allowed for the first time in the history of Pakistan . Elections were held on time in accordance with the Supreme Court verdict and power to govern handed over to a civil elected Government. Seeds of a sustainable true democracy have been laid. It is now to be consolidated."

Heather MacDonald has made a considerable reputation for herself with articles in New York's City Journal that puncture the sanctity of those little balloons of untruth that political correctness protect - her 2002 articles debunking the myths of racial profiling, for example, are must-reads for anyone who wants to understand that issue. In this piece, she looks at the fuss over Larry Summers' remarks about the paucity of women in science careers and another issue, not so well known, in which political pundit Susan Estrich has launched herself at the throat of the Los Angeles Times' op-ed editor, Michael Kinsley, for alleged discrimination against female writers. "It is curious how feminists, when crossed," she says, "turn into shrill, hysterical harpies...precisely the images of women that they claim patriarchal sexists have fabricated to keep them down. Actually, Estrich's hissy fit is more histrionic than anything the most bitter misogynist could come up with on his own...As it happens, I have published in the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages over the years, without worrying too much about whether I was merely filling a gender quota. Now, however, if I appear in the Times again, I will assume that my sex characteristics, rather than my ideas, got me accepted."

24 February 2005

The pro-Syrian Lebanese Prime Minister says he is prepared to resign in the wake of unprecedented anti-Syrian demonstrations, and will ask Parliament on Monday to vote on whether he should stay or go, according to AlJazeera. The news service report also says that French President Jacques Chirac has warned Syria that the Security Council could slap sanctions on the country if it fails to comply with the UN resolution 1559 which calls for its troop withdrawal from Lebanon. "Chirac said he was 'surprised by the unanimous determination, not only of the president of the United States but also of the entire EU, that 1559 be really applied and under the attentive watch of the UN.'"

One of the things that is putting pressure on Mr Karameh and his Syrian masters is a tent city that has sprung up near the immense crater created by the blast that killed Mr. Hariri and 16 others, peopled by protesters who refused to go home after a demonstration Monday described as the largest anti-Syrian protest ever held. The Washington Post quotes "regional analysts" as believing that the Syrian Government is likely to be unnerved more by the Lebanese protest movement than by by foreign political pressure.

The president of the Reform Party of Syria, Farid N Ghadry, argued in the Washington Times that if the US gave him a little support, his group would be able to defeat the Syrian government from within. "The United States has no need to mobilize its own troops, but should, instead, seek to mobilize Syrians," he wrote. "The Reform Party of Syria, along with other Syrian opposition groups, can mobilize thousands of people for acts of civil disobedience within Syria. To do so, we will need US support. Alone, we will suffer the same fate as the Lebanese. With US assistance, however, we can hold the Ba'athist regime accountable for its crimes at home and abroad. As Mohammad al-Douri, then Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations said on April 10, 2003, the day after Saddam's statue came down in Baghdad, 'The game is over.' If the United States gives the Syrian opposition its backing, the game will be over in Damascus as well."

Can one take it, I wonder, that his public lobbying means he's already asked the US privately for support, and been turned down?

CNN and others are reporting that Benon Sevan, the longtime head of the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, has asked the United Nations for more time to appeal his suspension over allegations of unethical conduct.

In a related development, the New York Sun is reporting that Undersecretary-General Dileep Nair, who heads the UN's internal investigative arm, may be the next senior official to be forced out. "A letter sent to Secretary-General Annan by representatives of the United Nations staff union may set up the next firing of a top Turtle Bay figure, following a weekend that brought the housecleaning under the new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, to new heights. The confidential staff union letter, dated February 17, marked a new round in a battle to investigate allegations of abuse of power by Undersecretary-General Dileep Nair, who heads the U.N. internal investigative arm, the Office of Internal Oversight Services."

Jim Hoagland, who writes a column for the Washington Post, says he thinks the US administration should make more of the fact that nearly one-third of the 140 winning candidates on the Shiite parliamentary list were women. "Moreover, those 45 women from the list supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tend to be more educated, better informed and more committed to change than are their male counterparts, who include a number of political hacks...The fact is, the women candidates had to be competent to get on the list. They met higher standards,' said Nabil Musawa, a campaign strategist for the Iraqi National Congress.

"The example they have set," says Hoagland, "cannot be lost on Arab women at large."

A Member of the British Parliament who was one of the founders of the anti-war group, Labour Against the War, has quit, according to the Times, saying that after last month's elections in Iraq he now believed Allied troops should remain in the country. "Harry Barnes' defection will be welcomed by the Labour leadership, which fears that many of the party's traditional supporters will stay at home in the forthcoming General Election because of anger over Iraq. The North-East Derbyshire MP, who is stepping down at the election, accused his former colleagues in the anti-war movement of retailing 'simple-minded' claims about the extent of civilian casualties in Iraq since the war."

Talk about burying the lead to a story! You have to read down to the very last paragraphs of this Guardian piece to discover that one of the terrorists the Iraqi authorities put on TV yesterday to admit their part in the beheadings of dozens of kidnapped people was a Syrian intelligence officer!

"One of the men in yesterday's broadcast was named as Lieutenant Anas Ahmed al-Essa of the Syrian intelligence service. His group was recruited to cause chaos and stop the US attacking Syria, he said. The interviewees said they were taken to Latakia in Syria in 2001 in anticipation of an American invasion of Iraq and trained by a Syrian officer named Anis in beheadings, bombings, shootings and film-making. Asked why they used knives rather than guns to execute, one man replied: 'The Syrians told us to do it.'"

The terrorists say they practised on chickens and sheep to master their technique before they started on people in the northern city of Mosul.

The Kenyan corruption pot stirred by the British High Commissioner, Sir Edward Clay, recently, seems to have taken on a life of its own. The Guardian says that MPs from Kenya's ruling party have announced they're going to push for a vote of no confidence in the president over his failure to fight corruption. Despite being elected on an anti-graft platform in 2003, the administration has been engulfed by allegations of sleaze.

Meantime, other evidence of the unpleasant realities of life in that country is being uncovered by a Kenyan Parliamentary enquiry, which the Telegraph reports has been told that the Kenyan government organised an assassination attempt in London against a senior Scotland Yard detective. It doesn't seem to have been a particularly ept attempt - airport police found the would-be assassin's gun and ammunition and arrested him. In any event, the detective he was after was out of the country at the time.

23 February 2005

AlJazeera has demonstrated once again how easy it is to perform a little surgical nip-and-tuck on the news to make it seem as if the US is a greater villain that it is. In this story, they report on an Amnesty International report on life for women in Iraq. "The US," AlJazeera says, "claimed that removing Saddam's regime would free the Iraqi people and set the ground for democracy in the country, but Amnesty said that post-war insecurity left Iraqi women at risk of violence and reduced their freedoms. "The lawlessness and increased killings, abductions and rapes that followed the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein have restricted women's freedom of movement and their ability to go to school or to work," Amnesty said. "Women have been subjected to sexual threats by members of the U.S.-led forces and some women detained by U.S. forces have been sexually abused, possibly raped," it added.

Amnesty's report is here. If you read it, you'll find that far from being written as an indictment of US behaviour, it is a reasonable and workmanlike report that says there's a long way to go in Iraq before women are given the freedoms they should have in that society. No doubt the timing of its release has something to do with the election in Iraq, because Amnesty includes a long list of things it thinks the new government ought to do. Under the heading Recommendations, the report says this:

"Amnesty International's Stop Violence Against Women campaign calls on world leaders, states, organizations, including the UN, the European Union, the Arab League and other international and regional organizations and individuals to:

"Publicly pledge to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which promised equal rights and equal protection for all - a reality for all women;

"Develop action plans to end violence against women, and set up mechanisms to monitor their implementation;

"Fully and speedily implement all international and regional treaties, declarations, resolutions and recommendations aimed at condemning, prohibiting and preventing all acts of violence against women, investigating all cases of violence and bringing perpetrators to justice in accordance with international standards of fair trial, as well as providing reparations for victims;

"Support and encourage initiatives to provide training and exchange of information for judicial personnel and lawyers who act on behalf of women who have experienced violence;

"Support and encourage initiatives for the prevention of violence and the protection of women at both the governmental and the NGO level."

See anything about getting the US barbarians out in there?

Now that the initial, unimaginative reaction to Hunter Thompson's death has died down, people like this San Francisco Chronicle columnist are beginning to assess his contribution to literature, and to cluck approvingly. David Kipen seems not entirely sure of himself, and marks him down as a great journalist. That's underegging it. In truth, Thompson's controversial persona obscured the fact that he was a writer of great talent, who made a great contribution to contemporary literature with Fear and Loathing. Is there another book that illuminates America's sudden, self-destructive love affair with drugs in the 20th Century as well? Is there another that comes even close? I don't think so, and I think it secures him a place among writers of great American literature. For what it's worth, I think that in the ranks of other great American writers of the 20th Century have to be found William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, despite the fact that they were fond of behaving in ways that offended straightlaced citizens.

This gentleman disagrees. Stephen Schwartz makes a living writing about radical Islamists. What prompted him to make this disastrous foray outside his area of expertise is a mystery. What prompted the Weekly Standard to publish his collection of bad-tempered, ignorant, off-the-mark comments about Thompson and about contemporary literature is a greater mystery.

There aren't many stories making their rounds in the world as depressing as those detailing the drubbing Harvard president Lawrence Summers has been taking for suggesting reasons why men get involved in mathematical careers more than women do. These faculty meetings he's been summoned to have the flavour of the Spanish Inquisition, or of a 17th Century witch hunt. He hasn't defended his remarks, although they were well within the bounds of legitimate enquiry, and he hasn't fought back against those who attacked him, although their reaction was obviously over the top - childish and reprehensible. Instead, I imagine in order to diminish the notoriety the controversy has visited on Harvard, he has apologised for any offence his remarks might have caused with an astonishing, almost sickening abjectness. It doesn't seem to have impressed his attackers in the slightest.

As the Washington Times says, this is a dangerous assault on free speech, free thought and dissent. Yet, "at the same time, it's educational for the American people to see for themselves every once in a while how degraded our institutions of higher learning have become. Mr. Summers' critics have chosen to splash their witch hunt on the front pages for all to see. Organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and activists like David Horowitz, who are waging an important struggle against repressive universities, couldn't have asked for a better marketing tool. Their case has always been 'it's worse than you think.' Now, millions of Americans are beginning to understand that they're right...

"Should Mr. Summers retain his position as president - and he should - the entire fiasco may have represented the high-water mark of liberal-dominated political correctness. Even if Mr. Summers is forced out, people who had never given a second thought to academia will immediately wonder why their child's professor or university defended Ward Churchill, but attacked Mr. Summers. The liberal academic's mind has been revealed to be closed. The end of such a mentality will be a long time in coming, but perhaps we have just witnessed the beginning of the end."

The Guardian demonstrates once again why it is the most imaginative newspaper in the world insofar as arts coverage is concerned, by asking biographers, editors and fans a simple question - Who was Shakespeare? Was he the magic mirror in the public bathroom? A gay Catholic who spent some time in Lancashire? An invisible man who never gets in the way of his own work? An eternal drunk, dribbling, maudlin and angry? The real Birth of the Cool? The answers the paper gets are a little out of control, maybe, (how could they not be, in the face of a question like that?) but worth reading, nonetheless.

Claudia Rosett argues in the Wall Street Journal this morning that Ruud Lubbers, the disgraced head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees who resigned a few days ago, leaves behind him a scandal that has so far been overlooked by UN critics.

"If you believe in the UN charter's promise to promote 'justice and respect for obligations arising from treaties,' along with 'the dignity and worth of the human person,' then the real scandal - less racy, but colossally more devastating in human cost - has been the UNHCR's failure in recent years to stand up for refugees fleeing North Korea. The problem here is not, as far as I am aware, one of embezzlement or fraud. Nor is it on a par with any amount of sexual harassment in the comfortable Geneva headquarters of the UNHCR - however upsetting that might be. The true horror is the way in which the well-mannered nuances of UN bureaucracy, structure and management have combined to dismiss demurely the desperate needs of hundreds of thousands of human beings fleeing famine and repression in the world's worst totalitarian state."

The New York Sun has made it its business to examine the beliefs and credentials of Joseph Massad, one of those Columbia University teachers complained about by aggrieved students for his anti-Semitic views. The picture that emerges is not at all comforting. Mr. Massad, who teaches in the university's Middle East studies department, the newspaper says, argues in a recently published essay that "Palestinian Arab 'resistance' against Israelis is not anti-Semitic but an expression of goodwill toward Jews living in the Jewish state."

22 February 2005

Cigar-chomping televangelist Gene Scott, he of the white hair, the scruffy beard and the occasionally foul mouth, has died at the age of 75. The US officials who used to try so hard to catch him playing fast and loose with his church's money will be heartbroken. As the San Jose Mercury News noted, "he supported the war in Iraq. 'Iraq is a threat to the world,' he said in a 2003 speech posted on his Web site. 'So kick the hell out of 'em, George.' Recognizable by his mane of white hair and scruffy beard, Scott never stuck to a conventional format for his show - he once wore glasses with eyes pasted on them and sometimes smoked on the show. On his Web site, he said about himself, "What you see is what you get."

I'm a Bishop Jakes man myself (there having been no greater showman since PT Barnum), but I admit, Gene Scott was right up there. Sorry I didn't watch more of him, now.

The World Tourism Organization has released its report on tourism worldwide for 2004, and says that after three years of stagnant growth, international tourism experienced a spectacular rebound in 2004. According to WTO World Tourism Barometer, presented to the media at a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, international tourist arrivals reached an all-time record of 760 million - an increase of 10% over 2003.

I can't link to the report, which the WTO gives only to its members, but it does contain this paragraph: "In the Caribbean arrivals grew by 8 per cent over the first eight months of 2004, and apart from some exceptions such as Bermuda or Martinique, all destinations maintained the good results of the final months of 2003, as competitive advantages derived from a weak US dollar continued. Major destinations such as the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico reported increases between 7 per cent and 10 per cent, while many of the smaller destinations reported double-digit increases."

Bermuda is an exception. That doesn't say much for the efforts of our Tourism Department, which seems to have been able to do nothing but throw money at the problem (like that utterly tasteless business of paying designer Peter Som to put Bermuda shorts in his spring collection), and prance around the world making deals with countries like China and Zambia, of all way-off-the-point places.

This is useful. A new study gives the intelligence pecking order among birds. Quail, emus, ostriches and nightjars are down around the bottom somewhere. Crows, rooks, jays and ravens are up at the top. The Telegraph doesn't say where squawkers like that crowd who are trying to beat up Lawrence Summers come, but somewhere near the emus would be my guess.

Former British Prime Minister John Major makes some very pointed remarks about Tony Blair and the Labour Party in this Telegraph op-ed. It's all about Labour's love for spin, which Major calls a cancer on the body politic.

"It is easy to mock the Prime Minister's depiction of himself as a 'straight kind of guy'," Major says, "but, to him, it is a self-portrait. Yet he employed the spinners. He knew they had form. He knew what they could - and would - do. He gave them authority. If it were not for the Prime Minister's sanction, there would be no group to dig up dirt if it can be found; or invent it if not. As Jim Callaghan once parroted: 'A lie can be halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on,' and, for 10 years, that maxim has been New Labour's guiding star. It has led it, when criticised, to play the man and not the ball, in a reflex action that has proved a mightily effective tool in warning off critics. It is a shabby way to conduct a democratic debate. Such tactics are a cancer in the body politic. The Prime Minister cannot avert his eyes - or evade his responsibility - any longer.

"Every time the Government has been caught out, it promises that lessons have been learnt. We're told the Prime Minister is 'listening'. That he 'understands'. That we should 'move on'. It is nonsense, of course. The script soon changes. Within weeks, New Labour is back to its old ways. Such behaviour cheapens our politics and leads the political system to become further detached from the electorate. We cannot afford that. Nor can our system of government thrive if the tried and tested conventions that protect it from abuse continue to be thrown so casually aside.

"When the Prime Minister has left the corridors of power far behind him, he will reflect and, unless he acts now, will regret - too late - the destructive manner of politics he permitted to take root. The Prime Minister can stop it. He should stop it. He would gain from stopping it - and so would we all."

The more I read about Cesar Chavez, the more I think he is one very sick puppy. The Guardian reports on some remarks he made during his weekly radio and television show, Hello President. "If I am assassinated, there is only one person responsible: the president of the United States," Mr Chavez said. He offered no proof of any conspiracy but said the Cuban president, Fidel Castro, had warned of a possible plot against him last week.

"If, by the hand of the devil, these perverse plans succeed, forget about Venezuelan oil, Mr Bush...I will not hide, I will walk in the streets with all of you, but I know I am condemned to death," Mr Chavez told his listeners.

Hello President.

This is rather an odd piece that appeared in the New York Times Magazine over the weekend. I guess it's meant to be an enquiry into whether intelligent design, as applied to the universe and all, isn't a contradiction in terms. Perhaps that's a little harsh, but it does seem to be what Jim Holt, the writer, is on about.

"What can we tell about the designer from the design?" he asks. "While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety...

"The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones. Consider how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by pain throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain mechanism may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to protect our bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases - cancer, for instance, or coronary thrombosis - the signal comes too late to do much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is completely useless.

"And why should the human reproductive system be so shoddily designed? Fewer than one-third of conceptions culminate in live births. The rest end prematurely, either in early gestation or by miscarriage. Nature appears to be an avid abortionist, which ought to trouble Christians who believe in both original sin and the doctrine that a human being equipped with a soul comes into existence at conception. Souls bearing the stain of original sin, we are told, do not merit salvation. That is why, according to traditional theology, unbaptized babies have to languish in limbo for all eternity. Owing to faulty reproductive design, it would seem that the population of limbo must be at least twice that of heaven and hell combined. It is hard to avoid the inference that a designer responsible for such imperfections must have been lacking some divine trait - benevolence or omnipotence or omniscience, or perhaps all three."

Having spent the weekend wrestling with a computer algorithm that was designed to do a simple job so well that it prevents itself from doing it at all (don't ask), this question suddenly occurs to me. Is God aware of Himself? Herself, Itself...Whatever.

During the last couple of days, I've read scores of obituaries of Hunter Thompson, from newspapers around the world. And I've been struck by how poor most of them are...how many of the writers seemed almost to be embarrassed to be writing about him. I formed the opinion that the worst ones were written in the United States, and I thought that perhaps the reason that might be true is that really, there is very little room in the American soul for eccentricity. That is an absurd generalisation arrived at on a ridiculously small amount of evidence, I know, but...I'm eccentric that way. Tom Wolfe's piece in the Wall Street Journal wasn't bad. "Hunter's life, like his work, was one long barbaric yawp, to use Whitman's term, of the drug-fueled freedom from and mockery of all conventional proprieties that began in the 1960s. In that enterprise Hunter was something entirely new, something unique in our literary history. When I included an excerpt from The Hell's Angels in a 1973 anthology called The New Journalism, he said he wasn't part of anybody's group. He wrote 'gonzo'. He was sui generis. And that he was."

The best pieces I read about Thompson were both published in England, the cradle of eccentricity, and both were interviews with the same man, the artist Ralph Steadman. Steadman may not have entirely understood Thompson, but he understood him enough to wholeheartedly and unreservedly admire him. This interview is from the Guardian, which always does well with stories like this. And this one's from the Independent, whose writer was smart enough to include this kind of detail from Steadman: "I was beginning to take in the whole of the man's appearance, and his was a little different too. Certainly not what I was expecting. No time-worn leather, shining with old sump oil. No manic tattoo across a bare upper arm and, strangely, no hint of menace. This man had an impressive head chiselled from one piece of bone and the top part was covered down to his eyes by a floppy brimmed sun-hat. His top half was draped in a loose-fitting hunting jacket of multicoloured patchwork. He wore seersucker blue pants and the whole torso was pivoted on a pair of huge white plimsolls with a fine red trim around the bulkheads. Damn near six foot six inches of solid bone and meat holding a beaten-up leather bag across his knee and a loaded cigarette holder between the arthritic fingers of his other hand. Arthritis was to plague him all his life, as was the football knee-injury which left him with one leg shorter than the other, but it never truly encumbered his physical rage or his action-packed approach to a deep respect and love of writing - and righteousness."

Righteousness. People get very edgy when they talk about what they think was Hunter Thompson's highly suspect love of guns. I don't think it was the guns - it was hitting what he aimed at that he liked...taking a righteous shot. For a writer, nailing something with words is the same thing. Nailing an image with a pencil is the same. So is easing a motorcycle around a corner as fast as you can go without losing it. It has to do with achieving perfect oneness with the laws of the universe, and he spent his whole life in pursuit of that experience, I think.

Wolfe says he would nominate Thompson as the century's greatest comic writer in the English language, and I agree with that wholeheartedly. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the funniest, most subversive book ever written...has no rivals.

It's not just press people like Dan Rather and Eason Jordan who seem to be prepared to use lies to advance their opposition to the Bush administration. Here, by courtesy of Zombie, a contributor to the Little Green Footballs blogsite, is a transcript of a tape recording of an American Congressman making the allegation that White House official Carl Rove planted those forged documents about President Bush's National Guard service with CBS. The allegation was repeated by several news outlets, but none of them reported the rest of it. Congressman Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from New York, admitted to his audience that he hadn't a shred of evidence of Rove's involvement. And when a member of the audience asked him whether he didn't think that such behaviour was irresponsible, replied "No, I don't, I think it's very important to make charges like that ... I think it's very important to combat this kind of activity in every way that you can, and I'm willing, as most people are not, to step forward in situations like this and take risks."

21 February 2005

Whether it is going to be raised or not during President Bush's talks with German President Gerhard Schroeder or not, I don't know. But there is an extraordinary accusation being discussed by the Americans and the Germans at the moment, to the effect that the American authorities kidnapped a German Muslim in 2003 and spirited him off to Afghanistan to be interrogated about his ties to terrorism. Der Spiegel has a long run-down on the details. "According to the authorities in Neu-Ulm, (Khaled) el-Masri is a well-integrated member of the community, although he is known to have close ties to a multicultural house in town being observed by German authorities as a known Islamist hotspot. El-Masri allegedly had contact with Reda Seyam, a suspected al-Qaida member, though authorities never found any concrete evidence that el-Masri engaged in any sort of terrorist activity.

"In Germany, the information on el-Masri isn't even enough for authorities to launch an investigation. The situation in the United States is completely different, though. Following Sept. 11, US President George W. Bush has authorized American agents to act outside of all internationally accepted legal norms in the fight against terror. Thus, the first opportunity was to be used to ferret the suspect from Neu-Ulm off to be interrogated in the secret prisons in Afghanistan. On Dec. 31, 2003, el-Masri boarded a bus in Munich bound for Macedonia. He was looking, he said later, to get some time away. A week of vacation in Skopje seemed just the thing. He and his wife had fought heavily, el-Masri claimed. When he crossed the Serbian-Macedonian border, patrols pulled him off the bus. All explanations were in vain as three armed Macedonian men in street clothes took him to a hotel. After three weeks of interrogations, one of the Macedonians told el-Masri that 'the matter is now no longer in our hands.' El-Masri recalls that seven or eight masked men put some diapers and a dark-blue training suit on him, before bringing him to an airplane, fastening him up tight with a seatbelt and then sedating him with an injection.

"In a city that el-Masri believes was Kabul, several masked men with American accents beat him, he claims. Tied up with handcuffs and foot shackles, a man of Lebanese descent relayed the cold, hard truth to him: 'You are in a country where the laws don't apply to you.' Following endless interrogations, a hunger strike, and permanent proclamations of innocence, el-Masri says he was flown to Albania one day and then transported back to Macedonia in a car. Aboard the plane a man passed on an important news item to him that helped el-Masri place events in a proper timeframe: Germany has just elected a new president. It was May 28, 2004."

Big Nose is what they call Australian John Wotherspoon on the streets of South China. He runs a school there for the children of refugees who would otherwise be unable to be educated. People's Daily says "He is an Australian, who came to Hong Kong more than ten years ago. He learned to speak Cantonese and mandarin, though not very fluently. In 2001 a school in Zhaoqing employed him as a foreign teacher. He seems amicable to the author. 'Ah John' also has a Chinese name - Hu Songheng. So the students and parents also affectionately call him teacher Hu.

"During leisure time he often strolls around the Beiling mountain near the school. He discovered that many children of migrant workers often spend all day playing. These children failed to go to school mostly because of the poor financial situation in their families. Therefore he conceived an idea of running a learning place, where these children could study and play. But how could he make these boys and girls aware of the existence of such a free learning place? Ah John used the most 'dumb' method - he asked them one by one on the street. Actually this was also the most effective method since those migrant workers and their children would never look at those 'student recruitment advertisings'."

John B Roberts, who served in the Reagan White House and now writes frequently on national security affairs, says in the Washington Times this morning that "The combination of Ambassador John Negroponte and Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden as the top overseers of America's security services under the new intelligence-reform bill is as close to ideal as we are likely to achieve." That's a comforting thought, after the extraordinarily inept performance of US intelligence agencies in recent months.

Biblical Archaeology Review, having damaged its reputation with an endorsement of the discredited Israeli artifact, the James Ossuary, seems now to be trying to salvage it with an attack on the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The Washington Post says the Review published an article last week, written by its editor, Herschel Shanks, detailing mistakes in what it called a "badly bungled" investigation by the Israel Antiquities Authority. I can't link to this article, because the Review has stopped making its stuff available to the public without subscription. However, the first couple of paragraphs, which are available, seem to suggest the focus is on the possibility that the Antiquities Authority was fooled by the presence of a preparation used to clean the inscription on the box. "The Israel Antiquities Authority's conclusion that the James ossuary inscription is a forgery," said the Review, "is based on the results of an oxygen isotope study of a coating covering the inscription area. This inscription coating produced oxygen isotope readings indicating that it was created in modern times, not as the result of a cave environment over thousands of years. The IAA noted that this inscription coating could be the result of a paste made to cover the inscription in order to conceal the forgery or the inscription coating could be a result of cleaning the inscription area. The IAA never bothered to consider the second possibility - a result of cleaning..."

In fact, evidence the box was a forgery was much more pervasive. Dr Rochelle I. Altman, who is an expert on scripts and an historian of writing systems, wrote a devastating report, which can be read at this site among others. For a scientist to say, as she did, "You have to be blind as a bat not to see that the second part (of the inscription) is a fraud," is a pretty good indication that you can be confident it's a fraud. Her conclusion was this: "If the entire inscription on the ossuary is genuine, then somebody has to explain why there are two hands, two different scripts, two different social strata, two different levels of execution, two different levels of literacy, and two different carvers...“The ossuary itself is undoubtedly genuine; the well-executed and formal first part of the inscription is a holographic original by a literate (and wealthy) survivor of Jacob bar Yosef, probably sometime during the Herodian period. The second part of the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition, probably around the 3rd or 4th centuries, and is questionable to say the least."

Her verdict was born out by the opinion of her fellow scholar, Dr John Lupia, art historian and expert on the materials involved, who said this: "When I first saw digital photographs of the so-called James Ossuary, I immediately knew the inscription was fake without giving a paleographic analysis for two reasons: biovermiculation and patina. Biovermiculation is limestone erosion and dissolution caused by bacteria over time in the form of pitting and etching. The ossuary had plenty, except in and around the area of the inscription. This is not normal. The patina consisted of the appropriate minerals, but it was reported to have been cleaned off the inscription. This is impossible since patina cannot be cleaned off limestone with any solvent or cleanser since it is essentially baked-on glass. It is possible to forge patina, but when it is, it cracks off. This appears to be what happened with the ossuary...With these observations, I immediately knew the inscription could not be authentic regardless of what any paleographer might say in favor of it since the physical aspects are prima facia evidence of forgery."

The response from the IAA to Mr Shanks's latest article is just as devastating. Deputy Director Uzi Dahari dismissed Shanks as "totally crazy" and his claims as "pathetic." Dahari denounced ossuary owner Oded Golan as a "scoundrel" and a career criminal who lives off the proceeds of doctored artifacts.

Primates from the 78 million-strong worldwide Anglican communion gathered in Northern Ireland last night to try to save their denomination from falling apart over the divisive subject of homosexuality among the clergy. The
Guardian reports that the next five days are going to tell whether the Church can live with homosexuality, or will split because of it. The Archbishop of Canterbury who will preside over the meeting, is hoping the Anglican church will emerge intact from the meeting. Although sympathetic to the plight of gay people within the church, he has tried to maintain an impartial position as the debate has swirled around him.

As President Bush begins his visit to Europe today, the Lebanese opposition scheduled a big demonstration in Beirut, which is now moving peacefully from the site of the assassination of Mr Hariri near the Phoenicia Hotel to Martyrs' Square, which is where demonstrations are generally held. Security authorities were concerned about preventing the demonstration from turning into a march on the Parliament, which is where the opposition hopes to be able to demonstrate its call for Syria to leave. The San Francisco Chronicle carried an afternoon report from the Associated Press.

UPDATE - "Amr Mussa, the head of the Arab League, said that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, had assured him this morning that Syria was prepared to fulfil its obligations in the Taef accords that ended Lebanon's civil war in 1995." This from the Times in London and other publications.

This migration to a new blog host is going to take longer than I thought. Stand by...

20 February 2005

It's going to be an interesting week in Lebanon. The Washington Times, and others in the West, seem to think that in assassinating Mr Hariri, "Syria has clearly miscalculated. Far from intimidating Lebanese opposition to Syrian occupation, it has strengthened it. And worse for Syria, it has opened a door through which the United States will be able to push its anti-Syrian policies - now with the support, rather than opposition, of European and Middle Eastern governments." The Times points out that the Syrian occupation of Lebanon "has generated a great convergence of disparate ideologies and perspectives. France and United States see eye-to-eye. Arab opinion ranges from opposition to the occupation to neutral 'bureaucratese'. Even the U.N. Security Council has been able to reach common ground on the issue. The editorials of Le Monde are curiously similar to those of this newspaper on the issue."

That may be so, but I doubt the Syrians have miscalculated. I don't think their intention was to intimidate the Lebanese with the bombing at all. Why would they need to? I think they felt Hariri was a serious threat to their continued occupation of Lebanon and were willing to pay the price of generating all this anger and hostility to get rid of him. That course, to them, would seem the lesser of the two evils they face. What's the world going to do, even with its new-found solidarity on the issue? Invade Lebanon and kick the Syrians out? I don't think so. The Syrians will see this as the correct moment to consolidate their hold on Lebanon, even if they have to come out of the closet a little to do it. The danger is that their idea of consolidation may be very uncomfortable for the Lebanese.

This very thorough article in the Los Angeles Times contains a telling quote from former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel. "Syria considers its presence here not as something temporary, not as a foreign occupation, but as something natural. They think that Lebanon is a part of Syria." That's the true root of the problem.

President Bush is off to Europe today, to try to repair some of the division that was created by the Iraq War. Members of the commentariat on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be glad he's doing that, but have no illusions at all about what he might achieve. The Washington Post says "The president's job will be harder than it might sound. Though anxious to mend relations with the United States, European governments remain broadly skeptical about a Middle East strategy centered on "spreading freedom." Many don't entirely accept Mr. Bush's premise that a Cold War-like struggle against a global enemy is getting underway. They may be willing to help a little more with Iraq and Afghanistan and will support Palestinian state building. But they are less interested in elections than in prodding Israel for steps toward a peace settlement. They also are committed to a strategy of negotiating with Iran's existing regime about the country's nuclear program and are pressing for U.S. participation in an eventual bargain. And they have priorities not on Mr. Bush's list: global warming, aid for African development and U.S. acceptance of a lifting of Europe's embargo on arms sales to China."

The London Times takes a similar view. "At the heart of this rift is the role that both continents see for each other in the early part of the 21st century. America has become the proponent of encouraging - even imposing - democracy on tyrannical regimes. This is in the firm belief that democracies do not make war on each other and that their governments are bound by the electoral system to do the best for their own people in order to remain in power. America sees the spreading of democracy as a guarantor of the West's security from Islamic terrorism or rogue states such as North Korea. In the process it expects support from its allies within Nato, something that was strikingly absent during the invasion of Iraq. It rightly sees its policy vindicated by the elections in both Afghanistan and Iraq, which took place in the face of a terrorist onslaught. The bien pensants of Europe remain unconvinced, however, and fearful of America's next move.

"This has caused understandable pique in Washington, which believes that Europe relied for decades on the United States taxpayer to protect it from the Soviet threat. The American elites talk of Europe...sitting on its hands when confronted by the threat of Islamo-fascism. They are well aware of French ambitions for a 'multipolar world', which Washington regards as a barely disguised attempt to limit US power while enhancing that of France. Sclerotic Germany is increasingly looking eastwards to Russia, supplier of much of its energy resources, while Russia itself seems to be moving away from enlightened democracy at a helter-skelter pace."

Recently, Times writer Gerard Baker said "There is growing confidence in Europe that the US can be persuaded, once the constitution is approved, to change the terms of transatlantic debate; to recognise the EU as the principal interlocutor on US-European relations and to abandon the outdated notion of nation states making their own foreign policy. A key element of this strategy is to encourage the US to abandon NATO as the principal forum for the discussion of transatlantic relations. As a genuinely multilateral body, NATO is an inconvenient obstacle to the EU's superstate ambitions in foreign policy. Time to ditch it. At the Munich conference, Gerhard Schroder, the German Chancellor, let slip the real agenda. Nato, he said, was no longer the place for consideration of transatlantic relations."

But on Saturday, in the Telegraph, an account of a pre-visit interview President Bush had with a small number of European papers suggested that he had made a point of rejecting Chancellor Schroder's ideas about NATO. "I disagree," Mr Bush said. "I think NATO is vital. NATO is a very important relationship as far as the United States is concerned. It is one that has worked in the past and will work in the future just so long as there is that strong commitment to NATO."

The Telegraph editorialised that "it is for America, and not for us, to decide whether it wishes to encourage the birth of a superpower whose big cheeses want it to be the global rival of the United States. All we British can and should say (which our Government won't) is that there's nothing in that for us, and hope that Americans therefore question whether it's really so marvellous for them."

Britain's Food Standards Agency triggered an international alert yesterday involving hundreds of products contaminated with a dye that is thought to cause cancer. Some of these products are on sale here in Bermuda, as well as in the US, Canada, the Caribbean and Europe. The FSA said the dye, Sudan I, was in a batch of chile powder used by Premier Foods to make a Worcestershire sauce. That in turn was used as an ingredient in more than 350 frozen and fresh food products, including pies, sandwiches, sausages, soups and sauces.

The full list of products affected can be read here.

The Agency is said to be furious that the additive has been allowed to enter the food chain. They believe food companies and supermarkets should have conducted more rigorous tests after an alert over the dye in 2003. And they have confirmed that charges could be brought against companies and their directors for "selling food injurious to health". Under food safety laws, the companies involved could face unlimited fines.

There's no word yet on what Bermuda's health authority will do, but I expect there will be something of a scramble to get the affected products on sale in Bermuda off the shelves tomorrow morning. Should be, anyway.


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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