...Views from mid-Atlantic
26 March 2005

Julia Blackburne has written a book about Billie Holiday, and writes wonderfully about it in the Guardian today. "If Billie Holiday had been able to steer her way past the troubles of her middle life into old age, then she would be celebrating her 90th birthday this April. Imagine her giving one last performance. Imagine the huge roaring wave of pleasure from a packed audience, in the moment when the First Lady of Jazz steps on to the stage.

"What might she be wearing? Perhaps a white evening gown, with the trademark white flowers perched like butterflies on the side of her head and a necklace of real diamonds around her neck, because surely by now she would be able to afford real diamonds and not the tatty paste jewellery she became used to during the years when things were so tough. But I think it's more likely she'd be dressed all in black, hardly a trace of make up, her grey hair pulled back to reveal the stark iconography of her face."

Bombs have apparently started to go off in Christian areas in Beirut. It's making people there wonder, as the Globe and Mail says, "whether the country, instead of leading a wave of reform in the Middle East, isn't sliding back toward the bad old days. The anti-government demonstrations had been remarkable for bringing together Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druze, groups who fought each other during the civil war. But much of that hopefulness has now been grounded by worries that the next bomb could destroy the unity and set Christians and Muslims against each other once more."

You've got a choice in the way you think about this. Bombs in Christian areas might have been planted by Muslims. The bombs that are undoubtedly going to be planted in retaliation in Muslim areas might have been put there by Christians. Or, the alternative is that they're all being planted by someone with a vested interest in being asked to stay in Lebanon to lend a hand keeping the peace.

I wonder who that could be.

More creative PR from the United Nations, it seems. They're leaking the fact that Paul Volcker's next report on the UN Oil-for-Food scandal, due to be published on Tuesday, is critical of Kofi Annan. The New York Times is one of the media carrying the story this morning: "A report from the commission investigating corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program in Iraq is likely to criticize Secretary General Kofi Annan for failing to perceive the appearance of a conflict of interest posed by his son's employment by a program contractor. It will also say that the son, Kojo Annan, received more than twice the compensation the company had long acknowledged.

"According to an investigator and another person who has read the current draft, the report will fault both Mr. Annan for his management practices and his son, who it will say was paid nearly $400,000 between 1996 and 2004 by Cotecna Inspection Services, the Swiss-based company that had a contract to monitor the humanitarian goods that Iraq bought under the $65 billion program."

I think the UN understands that the media will only go all out when a story's fresh. It is calculating, shrewdly, that the combined impact of the leaks and coverage of the release of the report will be markedly less than would the release of the report without the leaks, especially since stories like the NYT's are appearing on a Saturday, when people aren't paying a lot of attention.

It's difficult to know quite how to describe Camille Paglia. Teacher at the Philadelphia College of Art, author, ultrafashionable darling of the flitterati - she is all those things, but they don't quite convey an accurate impression. Throw serious intellectual provocateur into the mix and you're as close as I can get you. The critic Clive James has reviewed her new book Break, Blow, Burn in the New York Times this weekend, and it is a gem not to be missed. James's reviews are always a delight. There are no highs and lows - every sentence contains something fresh and challenging, like waves breaking on a beach. And Paglia, he judges, has written something unexpected and important.

"The term 'a poem'," he writes, "is one we have to use, because our author is strong on the point that a poet should be measured by individual poems, and not by a 'body of...work'. To a reader from outside America, she sounds tremendously right about this, but inside America her view is likely to go on smacking of subversion for some time to come. One can only hope that the subversion does its stuff. Good poems are written one at a time: written that way and read that way. Even The Divine Comedy is a poem in the first instance, not part of a body of work; and even in Shakespeare's plays there are passages that lift themselves out of context. ('Shakespeare the poet,' she says, 'often burns through Shakespeare the dramatist, not simply in the great soliloquies that have become actors' set pieces but in passages throughout his plays that can stand alone as poems.') The penalty for talking about poets in universal terms before, or instead of, talking about their particular achievements is to devalue what they do while fetishizing what they are.

"This insidious process is far advanced in America, to the point where it corrupts not just the academics but the creators themselves. John Ashbery would have given us dozens more poems as thrilling as his jeu d'esprit about Daffy Duck if he had never been raised to the combined status of totem pole and wind tunnel, in which configuration he produces one interminable outpouring that deals with everything in general, with nothing in particular, can be cut off at any length from six inches to a mile, and will be printed by editors who feel that the presence in their publication of an isotropic rigmarole signed with Ashbery's name is a guarantee of seriousness precisely because they don't enjoy a line of it. Paglia, commendably, refuses such cargo-cult status even to Shakespeare...

"But the most threatening thing about her, from the American viewpoint, is that she refuses to treat the arts as an instrument of civil rights. Without talent, no entitlement. She has the powers of discrimination to show what talent is - powers that add up to a talent in themselves. A critical scope that can trace the intensity uniting different artistic fields is not unprecedented in America, but she is an unusually well-equipped exponent of it. Making a solid attempt to pin down the sliding meanings of Wallace Stevens's little poem Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock, she brings in exactly the right comparison: a piano piece by Erik Satie. She compares the poem's 'red weather' with a Gauguin seascape: right again. These comparisons help to define the Post-Impressionist impulse from which all the verbal music of Stevens's Man With the Blue Guitar emerged, while incidentally reminding us that Paglia, before she made this bid on behalf of poetry, did the same for painting, and with the same treasury of knowledge to back up her endeavor. But above all, her range of allusion helps to show what was in Stevens's head: the concentration of multiple sensitivities that propelled his seeming facility. 'Under enchantment by imagination, space and time expand, melt and cease to exist.' Nobody has a right to a creative mind like his. It's a gift."

James isn't gaga about la Paglia, even though he obviously feels her book is a good one. He's uncomplimentary about some aspects of it, and James can be brilliantly uncomplimentary when he wants to be: "Paglia by now should be famous enough to start throttling back on some of the stuff she is famous for. She might make a start with bitchery, for which she has a taste but no touch. The media want snide remarks from her the same way that the Sahara wants rain. But writers capable of developing a nuanced position over the length of an essay should not be tempted into believing that they can sum it up in a sound bite. Liberal orthodoxy will always need opposing, but not on the basis that all its points are self-evidently absurd. According to Paglia, gun abuse is a quirk of the sexually dysfunctional. That might be right, but people aren't necessarily deluded when they want a ban on the sort of gun that can kill a dozen people in half a minute. Waiting until everybody is sexually functional would be a long time to hold your breath.

"Nor does Paglia's useful conviction that feminism, as an ideology, is as debilitating for individual responsibility as any other ideology make it true that women are now out of the woods. Only the misapprehension that she can be wise like lightning could explain her brief appearance, in Inside Deep Throat, to tell us that the cultural artifact in question was 'an epochal moment in the history of modern sexuality.' On the contrary, it was a moronic moment in the history of exploitation movies made by people so untalented that they can't be convincing even when they masturbate."

She might not have the touch, but he certainly has. If you read nothing else this weekend, read this.

Directors of the American International Group, according to the New York Times, are getting close to a decision to cut all ties with Maurice R. Greenberg, its former chief executive. I assume that will mean he will also have the reins of two related, private entities, CV Starr and the Starr International Company taken out of his hands. As a result of his position in them, he virtually controls compensation to AIG executives. Greenberg is also still chairman of Starr Foundation, one of the nation's largest private foundations, which makes contributions to organizations and charities run by the company's directors.

NYT says "The board's recent deliberations on severing AIG's relationship with Greenberg come roughly two weeks before he is scheduled to testify before prosecutors in the office of Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general. His deposition, planned for April 12, will focus on a variety of questionable transactions he took part in, according to a person briefed on the investigation. At the heart of the investigation is a deal Mr. Greenberg struck in late 2000 with General Re, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, the company run by Warren E. Buffett. The arrangement artificially inflated AIG's reserves by $500 million; reserves are the funds an insurer sets aside to pay future claims. Changes in an insurer's reserves are closely watched by investors. But in recent days, the investigation has expanded well beyond one transaction, said the two people briefed on the matter. On Thursday, the AIG board was advised that an internal review by the company had initially identified about a dozen improper transactions that might have to be reversed.

"Undoing the deals could force AIG to restate its recent results by $1 billion, according to a person briefed on the review, who added that the figure could change. The company is scrambling to complete its internal investigation so that it can file its annual financial report with the Securities and Exchange Commission by a Thursday deadline. Failure to file on time might cause investors to question whether the company's accounting problems are much broader than previously believed."

25 March 2005

A report of an inquiry into the conduct of Ward Churchill has been completed by a Chancellor's Committee at the University of Colorado, and has found sufficient evidence of plagiarism and other misconduct to refer the matter to a disciplinary body. It found that his essay describing 9/11 victims as "little Eichmanns" was protected by the First Amendment, however repugnant. A copy of the report can be found here. A summary of its conclusions reads as follows: "Professor Churchill has outraged the Colorado and national communities as a result of profoundly offensive, abusive, and misguided statements relating to the victims of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. As repugnant as his statements are to many in the University community, however, they are protected by the First Amendment.

"Allegations have been made that Professor Churchill has engaged in research misconduct; specifically, that he has engaged in plagiarism, misuse of others' work, falsification and fabrication of authority. These allegations have sufficient merit to warrant referral to the University of Colorado at Boulder Standing Committee on Research Misconduct for further inquiry in accordance with prescribed procedures. The research misconduct procedures afford Professor Churchill an opportunity to review and to respond to the allegations before any determination is made. If the Committee determines that Professor Churchill engaged in research misconduct, the Committee is to make recommendations regarding dismissal or other disciplinary action.

"Also referred to the Committee is the question of whether Churchill committed research misconduct by misrepresenting himself to be American Indian to gain credibility, authority, and an audience by using an Indian voice for his scholarly writings and speeches. Other issues brought to the attention of the reviewers, such as teaching misconduct, were not found to warrant action."

Kofi Annan's having a busy time of it, these days. He released two reports yesterday - one on sexual misconduct by UN peacekeeping troops, and one on the Hariri assassination in Lebanon. Neither one contained any particular surprises. This is the New York Times's coverage of the peacekeepers issue. If you have the patience to wait for it to download, you'll find a copy of the report embedded in the UN's statement about it at UN News Centre.

Curiously, although there's a story about it in just about every press outlet in the world this morning (this is the LA Times's coverage), the report on the Hariri assassination itself does not seem to be available for download. At least, I couldn't find it.

It's Pierre Boulez's 80th birthday tomorrow. To mark the occasion, the Guardian asked a handful of modern composers to rate his work. The result is a story that tells much about Boulez, certainly, but also says something about the American composer John (Nixon in China) Adams. He was almost alone among those asked to comment in keeping mist from his eyes: "As a conductor, Boulez did much to raise the standards of performance of 20th-century modernist classics. The precision of his performances and his recordings had a huge effect on folowing generations of conductors and performers. For this alone, I am immensely grateful to him.

"It would be curious to appraise Boulez the composer in 2005 had he not become Boulez the great conductor. A 'radical serialist' in the 1950s, his aesthetic throughout the intervening 50 years has remained firmly rooted in the mindset of that decade. Despite having lived through an era of earth-shattering revolutions in the world of vernacular culture, including the flowering of jazz and rock, he remained either aloof, cool or just plain tone deaf to all of the richness and vitality that the 'vulgate' has to offer. Perhaps he had too much good taste.

"Boulez's music, for all its technical sophistication, never ventures outside a narrow bandwidth of emotion. It lacks warmth, humour, boldness and the peril of emotional risk-taking that characterises great art. Historically I believe he'll be seen as a mannerist, a niche composer, a master who worked with a very small hammer."

Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac have crossed swords before, and it is easy to sense that Chirac thinks his English counterpart is a bit of a boy. At the EU summit this week, his contempt was visible again when he accepted Blair's help one minute, then attacked him the next. This morning, the Telegraph says Blair has counterattacked. "Tony Blair launched a fierce counter-attack against Jacques Chirac yesterday, accusing him of running an out-of-date economy that delivers low growth and high unemployment. In a statement to the Commons on this week's fractious EU summit in Brussels, the Prime Minister said struggling EU economies such as France's should imitate Britain which had successfully combined flexible labour markets with generous worker protection."

All of that is correct, no doubt, but it lacks the moxie to alter the perception that Chirac's the adult, and Blair really is the little lad. Maybe he should ask John Adams for some pointers.

I've been following Lee Bollinger's insightful attempts to overhaul the way journalists are trained at Columbia University, which offers the leading US programme of study in the field, since they began two years ago. This morning, the New York Times reports that the university plans a second one-year master's degree program to provide expertise in various subject areas. "The Graduate School of Journalism is adding a one-year Master of Arts program, the first new degree it has offered in 70 years, to its yearlong Master of Science, to give student journalists a chance to specialize in politics, business, the arts or science."

24 March 2005

A military threat? Us? People's Daily says the US is more of a threat than China is. "The Taiwan issue concerns the great cause of China's reunification, China has the right to conduct military readjustment within its own territory, the United States has no reason whatsoever to gesticulate in this regard."

"Since it was founded in 1949, New China has always persisted in a military strategy of active defense and a defensive national defense policy. China has always pursued the policy of not being the first to use nuclear weapons, it has never participated in nuclear arms race, nor deployed nuclear weapons abroad.

"On the contrary, the United States sticks to the strategic idea that 'the best defense is effective offense', emphasizing the strategic principle of active offense and preemptive strike. The United States also pursues the strategy of active and initiative nuclear deterrent and containment and has expanded its targets of nuclear attack from nuclear to non-nuclear countries."

Mark Malloch Brown, Kofi Annan's new clean-sweeping broom at the UN, was forced yesterday to hold a press conference to try to undo some of the damage being done to the Secretary-General by new developments in Oil-for-Food scandal. Canada's National Post said his damage control effort was touched off by the revalation that the UN is paying Benon Sevan's legal bills. But he was also having to answer questions about a report that Mr. Annan's son, Kojo, may have received $300,000 from Swiss-based Cotecna, double the amount previously acknowledged by the company, which inspected goods entering Iraq to make sure they were not weapons-related.

"Malloch Brown recalled that the Volcker inquiry is already focused on whether Cotecna got the contract because of Kojo Annan's paternal tie to the UN. Mr. Volcker has said he will release his findings next Tuesday, ahead of a final report in the summer on the entirety of oil-for-food corruption allegations."

A media group has just filed a brief in the US Court of Appeals that makes eminent sense. The Washington Post reports that they are suggesting that "A federal court should first determine whether a crime has been committed in the disclosure of an undercover CIA operative's name before prosecutors are allowed to continue seeking testimony from journalists about their confidential sources, the nation's largest news organizations and journalism groups asserted in a court filing yesterday.

"The 40-page brief, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, argues that there is 'ample evidence...to doubt that a crime has been committed' in the case, which centers on the question of whether Bush administration officials knowingly revealed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in the summer of 2003. Plame's name was published first by syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak and later by other publications."

To borrow a line or two from an opinion piece by Anatole Kaletsky that was published in the Times this morning, the core idea of modern Conservatism is that state intervention, even when well-intentioned, is rarely a benign force in modern life, and that great social challenges can be met by reducing the role of government, instead of increasing it. Failure to recognise that fact, or perhaps failure to find a way of acnowledging it in practise, is seriously hobbling European governments in their attempts to find a way of becoming, in their union, a world power like the United States.

President Chirac's apparently irrational behaviour yesterday in repaying Tony Blair for his help in a European Union row over economic reform, by attacking Britain's EU rebate a few hours later, is rooted in the serious political problem he has with a French population that won't allow him to reduce the role of Government. If he expects to win the European Union constitution referendum, and re-election later this year, he calculates that he must work against the interests of the very organisation he has tried so hard to build up.

In an editorial, the Times complains, "logic has been abandoned as the warring French camps have hijacked the constitution, making it hostage to one of the bouts of domestic revolt that have punctuated French history since the Revolution. The people once again are up in arms against the ruling elite, as represented by M Chirac's Administration and the Socialist Opposition.

"The popular consensus, stirred up by dissident Socialist barons such as Laurent Fabius, a former Prime Minister, accuses the governing class of betraying the French system and the Gallic soul to 'liberalism'." In fact, Chirac was quoted yesterday as having said neo-liberalism is the new communism, and must be fought tooth and nail. In fact, Chirac's supporters are turning the language upside down in their desperate attempts to stay in power. The Times quotes Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Franco-German Green leader, 1960s revolutionary and no friend of naked capitalism, as having said "The degree of irrationality is incredible," he said. "Obviously, when the French cannot change something, they just say that they are going to stick it to liberalism, even if they do not know what that means."

As the Telegraph says in an editorial, "When the Lisbon agenda was launched five years ago, it did not seem outlandish that the EU could build 'the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world' by 2010. By the close of the latest summit in Brussels yesterday, that ambition was sounding like a bad joke."

The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, seems to be signalling that the internal committee he set up to investigate charges that pro-Palestinian professors were intimidating Jewish students has concluded that the charges have some substance. He gave an interview to theNew York Times last night, presumably to prepare the ground for the report's publication. Although he did not comment on what the report is likely to say, he said that if the committee found that professors had not been behaving professionally, the university must take it seriously, although he did not spell out what he might do. 'We should not say that academic freedom means that there is no review within the university, no accountability, for the content of our classes or our scholarship,' he said. 'There is a review, it does have consequences, and it does consider content.'"

Although the Times didn't mention it in its story, the scrappy little New York Sun (which I must say seems to get better at its job with every passing week) is running a story this morning saying that "A faculty rebellion is brewing at Columbia University against President Lee Bollinger over his handling of the university's investigation into the conduct of professors in the Middle East studies department. Leading the way is a former provost of the university, Jonathan Cole, who in a speech on Tuesday night before a restive gathering of professors and students strongly suggested that Mr. Bollinger wasn't doing enough to defend faculty members from accusations that they have intimidated Jewish students." That seems to me to be powerful corroboration of the suggestion that the report will find a true case has been made.

23 March 2005

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has moved his family's $7.1 fortune to Bermuda...sort of. The Telegraph reports that he's moved the family holding company to Bermuda and floated his personal investment vehicle on the Bermuda stock exchange. "Documents emerged yesterday showing that Mr Murdoch listed the holding company, Karlholt, for his media investment in Bermuda last October," the Telegraph said. Word is that he managed to duck paying stamp duty of $53 million and capital gains tax of up to $1.2 billion in the move.

But don't be looking to make a quick buck with this. Only 10 shares were issued, each worth about $712m. Trading will be fairly light, I'd say.

It sounds as if the investigative team sent by the UN to Lebanon to investigate the Hariri bombing might not have done such a great job. AlJazeera is reporting that Kofi Annan told the Arab League summit in Algiers that he believes "a more comprehensive investigation may be necessary". He expects, apparently, to release the report of the first group some time in the next few days.

I'm really using this - yet another horror story about the bizarre, gruesome mismanagement of Zimbabwe by its government, published this morning in the Telegraph, to introduce you to a website run by Zimbabwean journalists in exile.

The Zimbabwean was launched a few days ago with the aim of "providing vital information to millions of Zimbabweans around the world about their troubled homeland, while the 10,000 copies shipped into Zimbabwe are being snapped up by people eager to get independent information about the state of their country." The site was designed by the Guardian as a kind of public service, in the hope it would serve to counter the news blackout Mr Mugabe and his thugs have achieved through deportations, imprisonments and other anti-press measures. It may not be entirely effective, but it will be interesting to watch in the run-up to the election.

Britain's ambassador to Israel says the Brits have changed their attitude towards Hizbullah over the last few days, and are now urging the EU to condemn the organisation and seize its assets. An article in the Jerusalem Post quotes Simon McDonald as having said: "The British have changed policy towards the proscription of Hizbullah, and this is something we have been talking to the government of Israel about a great deal."

"'There had been a proposal in the EU to proscribe the assets of the military wing of Hizbullah and we agreed with that. There was also a proposal to proscribe (odd word - it means condemn, as far as I know, but he's obviously using it to mean seize) all the assets of Hizbullah, including the civil, political and social wing, and until last week the British government had resisted that. Now... we support that idea.'

"McDonald said Britain was pursuing the matter in the hope that other member states would follow suit. 'This is the first week of the new policy so there is still some way to go, and there are still half-a-dozen member states that have some reserve, but there is now movement,' he said."

The Pritzker prize for architecture was given this week to an American architect, for a change. He is 61-year old Thom Mayne, who is based in Santa Monica, California. According to the Guardian, he's an outsider, but "Every now and then,' says Lord Palumbo, chairman of the Pritzker jury, 'an architect appears on the international scene who teaches us to look at the art of architecture with fresh eyes, and whose work marks him out as a man apart in the originality and exuberance of its vocabulary, the richness and diversity of its palette, the risks undertaken with confidence and brio, the seamless fusion of art and technology.'

"Mayne, born in Connecticut, founded Morphosis, an avant-garde architectural practice based in Santa Monica, in 1974. Ever since, he has worked a long way out of the box of convention. In fact, his buildings often have the look of exploding boxes. Highly expressive, seemingly fragmented, open-ended and a little bit on the deconstructivist side, they are beautifully wrought and very much all of a piece. Creations such as the Diamond Ranch high school in California (2000), which steps down hillside terraces in waves of sensational geometry, are, for all their energy and originality, remarkably serene and at one with the landscapes they adorn."

Good piece.

I've heard buzz before about the new types of use to which some architects and builders are putting concrete. The Christian Science Monitor has more, quoting a new book written on the subject by a designer, Fu-Tung Chen: "'What I'm trying to do is put some emotional soul back into modernist work,' says Mr. Cheng, who stresses concrete's art-form component. He favors unique surfaces - stamped with such found objects as old auto parts, or tin ceiling tiles. Concrete around Cheng's fireplaces is often hand-tooled to look like stonework." His book is called Concrete At Home, published by Taunton Press.

Reaction to Kofi Annan's UN reform plan is still a little sparse. Claudia Rosett, writing in the Wall Street Journal, thinks some good ideas conceal what is, on the whole, more of the same, and rather more fanciful at that. "To be fair to Mr. Annan, there are the germs of a few good ideas in this report. These include recognizing terrorism as such in all cases, rather than excusing select terrorists (i.e., as a UN rule of thumb, those attacking Israel) as 'freedom fighters.' It's also worth reshaping the UN Commission on Human Rights, which two years ago embarrassed even the UN by choosing as its chairman the ambassador of Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi. And there's no question the Security Council needs reform, though given that the council's basic failing has been lack of integrity, it's not clear why Mr. Annan thinks the answer is to make it bigger.

"From there, Mr. Annan forges on to propose nothing less than reforming the entire known universe, via the UN, while he bangs the drum for a budget to match. He wants to expand his own staff, change the world's climate, end organized crime, eliminate all private weapons, and double UN-directed development aid to the tune of at least $100 billion a year, 'front-loaded,' for his detailed plan to end world poverty. This comes from a UN that only three months ago was finally strong-armed by Congress into coughing up the secret internal Oil for Food audits confirming that under Mr. Annan's stewardship the UN was not even adequately auditing its own staff operations."

The Washington Times isn't quite as aggressive as Ms Rosett, but is going in the same direction: "Mr. Annan has kicked off an important debate on reforming the United Nations. But he would be well-served to jettison the ultimata and put forward more specifics about how his proposed reforms would work."

And if AlJazeera's reaction is anything to go by, Mr. Annan's reforms have very little chance of going anywhere. It argues first that if there is to be any reform at all, the UN must first "confront" Britain and the US over their transgressions, like invading Iraq. Then, shooting off in a different direction, AlJazeera says the UN doesn't need reform at all: "The only reform needed is to reaffirm that the UN is United Nations and to take action as United Nations."

But if any reform is necessary, it should be getting rid of the veto power of members of the security council, because AlJazeera feels the UN should be guided by the wishes of a simple majority of its members. "First and foremost, to be effective in preserving World peace and stability, the UN must act and enforce the decision of the majority and not bow to policies, wishes, and demands of one nation...For the UN to be a truly impartial World organization for peace, it must include all nations in all decisions of International consequence. No UN member nation should ever have the right to Veto. The vote of the majority is fair and just. Having the power to veto any decision made by the majority is unfair and an injustice to all member nations."

22 March 2005

Eight out of 22 leaders of Arab nations attending the Arab League Summit, which begins today in Algeria, are sending surrogates, according to AlJazeera.

It's probably the most important agenda they've ever had before them. But as the San Francisco Chronicle says, this ain't the most effective organisation ever formed. Is it that they're unwilling, the Chronicle asks, or is it that they're unable to deal with their business? Among the issues they should be dealing with are the ongoing violence in Iraq and its spread beyond that nation's borders, tension between Lebanon and Syria, fears of a new Lebanese civil war and the Palestinians' fate in the post-Arafat era.

"Nevertheless, even before the conference had begun, Arab foreign ministers gathering in the Algerian capital for preliminary talks last weekend quickly rejected a proposal Jordan had planned to put forth at the summit that called for 'the readiness of Arab countries to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to be engaged in security and stability in the Middle East.'"

As far as the Jordanian proposal is concerned, Haaretz says, it was a collission of two very different worldviews.

"One view is held by countries like Syria, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, and backed by Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa. It says that diplomatic ties with Israel would be a reward for its brutal policies of occupation without anything in exchange from Israel. They think of it as an Arab concession, a form of surrender to American and Israeli pressure and a betrayal of the Palestinian cause that creates a domestic public relations problem for them.

"The other approach, represented by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other states, says that diplomatic relations with Israel would not harm the ability of the Arab countries to pressure Israel and advance the peace process. To prove that, Egypt and Jordan point to the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire they helped work out, and various local bilateral issues that have been advanced, such as free trade zones - without giving up 'the national cause.'" Jordan's Finance Minister was so annoyed by opposition to his country's proposal he accused those who opposed it of not being able to read, and suggested they go back to school.

The Jerusalem Post says that Jordan's Foreign Minister put it slightly differently: 'Arabs cannot read history well and they are led by their emotions, not by reason.' Syria, its ally Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen led the fight to reject the Jordanian proposal.

It doesn't look as if Israel's Foreign Minister's suggestion of yesterday, that 11 Arab nations would recognise the state of Israel in the wake of the meeting in Algeria has much chance of being correct.

The New York Sun says UN spokesman Fred Eckhard has admitted to it that the organisation has been lying for months, now, about whether it is paying Benon Sevan's legal bills. This despite the fact that "the UN's own investigation panel denounced Mr. Sevan for his central role in the oil-for-food scandal that has engulfed the world body. Questions regarding whether the UN would cover Mr. Sevan's legal fees were raised soon after the name of the oil-for-food program chief appeared on a list published by the Iraqi newspaper al-Mada shortly after the start of the Iraq war. The newspaper accused world diplomats, businessmen, and U.N. officials of accepting bribes from Saddam Hussein in the form of oil allocations. Up until late last week, the UN said it had not paid any of Mr. Sevan's legal fees. But yesterday, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard told The New York Sun that the U.N. had been paying his legal bills up until last month."

The Office for National Statistics in Britain has released a special edition of its annual Social Trends report to mark its 35th anniversary. The Guardian reports that Brits eat better, but are nonetheless fatter than they used to be. Go figure.

21 March 2005

Israel's Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, has told Aljazeera that he expects 11 Arab countries to establish relations with Israel soon. He made the comments after meeting the new Egyptian ambassador to Israel, Muhammad Asim, on Sunday. AlJazeera quotes Shalom as having said he expected the process to be finalised after the end of a summit of Arab countries, which is currently taking place in Algeria.

DEBKAfile says that a big chunk of the gangster Yasser Arafat's secret hoard of aid money - $4 billion of it - has been documented and accounted for in a painstaking project undertaken by Nigel Roberts, the World Bank's country director for the West Bank, and Palestinian finance minister Salam Fayyad. DEBKA says "They have obtained partial information about another $1 or 2 billion and found a further three to four billion invested on Arafat's behalf by two individuals, his chief financial adviser Mohammed Rashid, and Palestinian-born international tycoon Samer Khoury."

The Chinese have found that British cancer-causing dye in food products on sale in three Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Beijing, according to People's Daily. The banned dye was found in spice pickle powder, used in three KFC foods: spiced drumsticks, spiced chicken wings and strong chicken-flavored popcorn. People's Daily says "The Food Safety Office and the Beijing Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Department have asked KFC to suspend sales of the three products. The three foods can be sold again only after they pass inspections."

It's not April 1st yet, so I guess we have to believe that this story in SpaceDaily isn't a joke. Scientists are the University of Bath in England are apparently working on "A revolutionary machine which can make everything from a cup to a clarinet quickly." So instead of going off to a shop and buying a new clarinet, you pay for it on line, download some kind of program and feed it into your cloning machine. Zippity zap, and you're ready to tootle.

I'd like to believe it, I really would, but what on earth is the world going to do for work?

The 27th annual National Hurricane Conference opens today in New Orleans, according to the Southwest Florida's News-Press. Facing, according to the experts, 11 named storms and six hurricanes this season, experts and officials are looking for new and better ways to forecast what these weather systems will do and why. Last year, what used to be called the Bermuda/Azores High, but is now called the Bermuda High for some reason, took up an unusual position in the Atlantic, pushing storm after storm west onto the Florida coast. It looks as if it might do it again this year, and scientists are puzzled about why. So there's going to be a lot of talk about that in the Big Easy, I guess.

Are there more hurricanes in Florida's future this year? One expert, who lives in Miami, says "I would not venture a guess. But I would have my shutters ready."

Trying to make itself useful, no doubt, the Telegraph commissioned four British poets to write verses for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles next month. The newspaper says the four found much about the wedding "to lament, poke fun at or to be loftily indifferent about." It's pretty much the same with their poems.

This is a little grab bag of facts recently discovered in Britain. The Guardian sponsored a survey that has shown that "One in five of Britain's ethnic minority voters say that they considered leaving Britain because of racial intolerance, according to the results of a special Guardian/ICM poll published today. Labour's support among Britain's ethnic minority voters has fallen to 58%, from 75% in 2001, and they are far less likely to get to the polls than the rest of the population."

The Guardian also reported on a study it had sponsored with the Teacher Support Network that found that teachers are becoming more and more concerned about pupil behaviour in the classroom. The study found that 98% of the 173 respondents had been verbally abused and 45% said they had been threatened with violence.

The Telegraph quoted a Government-funded report as having found that "Black pupils are still being expelled from schools at three times the rate of other children and some schools have become 'institutionally racist'.

That newspaper also reported that the less pupils use computers, the better they do in international tests of literacy and maths.

The Telegraph comments that that particular finding raises questions over the Government's decision, announced by Gordon Brown in the Budget last week, to spend another $2.8 billion on school computers, in addition to the $4.75 billion it has already spent." To say nothing of making monkeys of every government from Bermuda, moving east, to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

20 March 2005

In his latest column, Historian Victor Davis Hanson is criticising people like Al Gore, Senator Robert Byrd and financier George Soros for too easily comparing the administration to Nazi Germany in their criticism of the war on terrorism. In the National Review, he says "The effort to remove fascists in the Middle East and jump-start democracy, for all its ups and downs, has been opposed not just by principled critics who bristled at tactics and strategy, but also by peculiarly vehement cynics here and abroad — whose disgust was so often in direct proportion to their relative political impotence. One of their most hackneyed charges, begun almost at the beginning of this war, has been the Bush/America as Hitler/Nazi Germany comparison.

"True, fast-changing events in the Middle East recently have left many of these hypercritics either embarrassed, discredited - or desperately reinventing themselves into the 'I told you so' crowd. But we should not forget these slurs - nor expect them to disappear entirely inasmuch as they reflect a deep sort of self-loathing among Western elites. At some point a Gore, Byrd, or Soros has a moral responsibility not to employ Nazi analogy, if for no other reason than to prevent unleashing even greater extremism by the unhinged. No doubt Abu Ali's lawyer one day soon will say that his disturbed client's 'musings' were no different from what he read from Knopf or in the Guardian - or that he simply fell under the influence of Moveon.org and thought it was his duty to remove the Bush/Nazi threat that even US senators and presidential candidates had identified and warned about.

"The final irony? The president who is most slandered as Hitler will probably prove to be the most zealous advocate of democratic government abroad, the staunchest friend of beleaguered Israel, and the greatest promoter of global individual freedom in our recent memory. In turn, too many of the Left who used to talk about idealism and morality have so often shown themselves mean-spirited, cynical, and without faith in the spiritual power of democracy."

Syndicated columnist Debra J Saunders went to Rome for the funeral of the intelligence agent who was killed getting Giuliana Sgrena to the Baghdad airport. In this Washington Times piece, she notes that "Italians also are skeptical of Giuliana Sgrena. Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini dismissed her talk of being the target of an ambush as 'groundless', while other officials suggested she was mistaken due to the stress of being kidnapped.

"I think an Eric Hoffer quote says it best: 'People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them.' Worse, when she licked her captors' boots, she called it Truth."

Tomorrow, Kofi Annan presents his plan for United Nations reform to the world. In preparation, his people seem to have been handing out a draft copy of the report to newspapers around the world. Most of them...at least the ones interested in informing their readers...agree that it contains a proposal for restructuring the Through-the-Looking-Glass world of the UN Human Rights Commission, a proposal to swiftly expand the Security Council and greater checks and balances within the organisation to prevent the kind of abuse that has caused scandals for the body in recent months. It also proposes ways the UN can remain central to global security decisions and international development issues.

The Boston Globe, in its analysis, suggests that "The blueprint is not as bold as Annan may have liked. The changes depend on the endorsement of the 191-member General Assembly and the agreement of world leaders who are due at a UN summit in September. Many of the ideas in the document had been floated in recent months by special panels Annan commissioned on UN reform and global development. But fierce political reactions by some governments led Annan to temper a proposed definition of terrorism, stop short of requiring criteria for membership on the human rights panel, and caused him not to choose between two options under study to expand the Security Council, UN officials said.

"Diplomats say they are prepared for six months of intense negotiations to further refine the proposals into a form on which the majority of the Assembly agrees. US opposition or new revelations in a series of scandals could weaken Annan's position to the point where he could not win enough support for the package."

The Globe, like other US papers, tries hard to present a fair picture of what is in the draft. Contrast its coverage with that of the Telegraph, which casts the report as another skirmish in the ongoing gunfight between the US and the rest of the world: "The security of America and other wealthy countries will for the first time be declared a key priority for the United Nations under reforms designed to restore confidence in the crisis-ridden international body. The reforms...will be seen as a concession to Washington after repeated clashes with President George W Bush over US foreign policy, including the war in Iraq."

In its efforts to stir it, the Telegraph is driven to quote an unnamed, sniffy official at the French mission to the UN and, of all people, Zimbabwe's ambassador to the UN. Zimbabwe! The story was written by one Charles Laurence in New York, whose ambition in life, I'd guess, is a job at the National Enquirer.

One British police chief has told the Telegraph that his men spend 10% of their time fighting crime, and 90% on paperwork. Bob Quick, the Chief Constable of Surrey, said "It costs a third of a million pounds to train a constable in the first four years of his career, so it does seem bizarre that for nearly 90 per cent of their time they are either doing form-filling and bureaucracy or they are doing lower order tasks that are well below their training and skills threshold." No surprise to me, having worked in Bermuda's civil service. If you combine the appetite of the organisation for paperwork with the appetite of the employees for unnecessary meetings and discussion, it would be perfectly easy to have a government department devoted entirely to sustaining itself.

The trial of Michael Jackson panders to some of the ugliest aspects of human nature...stuff I really can do without. But I must admit, I'm fascinated by what drives those people who hang about outside, as is Guardian writer Sanjiv Bhattacharya, apparently. In a long article, he talks to what are, to me, some of the strangest people in the world. "Even those who balk at jumping from Jackson to Jesus without a safety net see him in pseudo-religious terms. 'He represents goodness,' says Faisal Malik, a 30-year-old scientist from Los Angeles. Malik, who calls himself Faze, searches for a cure for cancer by day, and by night likes to meet fellow fans to distribute leaflets in malls. He too dresses inconspicuously - jeans and sweat shirt - and is a veteran of Neverland, having been there six times. He doesn't reveal much about his trips there; all Neverland visitors have to sign confidentiality agreements. But they confirmed for him Jackson's innocence.

"'If you've seen Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp, that's what Michael's like - he finds the goodness in children and he's able to pass that on. No other major artist does songs like Heal the World and Man in the Mirror. No one else opens up their home to disadvantaged and sick kids.'"


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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