...Views from mid-Atlantic
04 June 2005

Keith Windschuttle is the controversial author who, in a book called The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, took issue with historians who he said had corrupted the story of the relations between early Australian colonists and the Aborigines. It won him a reputation as a scathing critic of academics who let their politics get in the way of the truth.

In this New Criterion piece, entitled The Journalism of Warfare, he's taking aim at leftist European journalists like Robert Fisk. He says "...Hankering after the trappings of aristocracy, or anything that smacks of aristocracy, is behind much of the anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiment that now emanates from the European news media, especially in the writings of European leftists such as Fisk. The aristocratic disdain for American society goes back more than two hundred years. It originated in the presumption that none of Europe's cast-offs would ever amount to anything great. Even Alexis de Tocqueville's otherwise illuminating work Democracy in America stated that only a society based on privilege, never an egalitarian democracy, could produce a great culture. Indeed, all the settler societies of the New World were saddled with the same condescending presumption: no greatness without an aristocracy. It is heavily ironic that leftist authors like Robert Fisk, who imagine themselves the ideological heirs of the French Revolution, now speak more for the world view of the ancien regime." Read of the week.

The Washington Times is carrying a wonderful feature about an independent film maker from Virginia, Tom Davenport. A long-running project of his has been to "translate" some of Grimm's Fairy Tales. "His first project, a quarter-hour dramatic short that transposes Hansel & Gretel to the backwoods of Appalachia during the Depression, began shooting near the Davenport residence about 30 years ago. It had its first public showings in 1977. Supported for a number of years by modest grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mr. Davenport completed eight more titles by the end of the 1980s.

"The later installments expanded to about 40 minutes, and the emerging inventory became a reliable, esteemed fixture of the nontheatrical market. The Davenport films repeatedly won praise and awards at film festivals; they also joined the repertory of children's fare acquired by public libraries. The final chapters of the series, beguiling adaptations of the Cinderella and Snow White tales called Ashpet and Willa respectively, were shot in the early 1990s..."

The completed cycle is available on a seven-volume DVD set, from Davenport films, but don't try to use the URL given in the story...it contains an error. Go here, instead.

A thumping great majority of people in Britain believes that pumping billions of pounds into Africa would be a waste of money, according to the Telegraph. The paper calls this revelation "a major blow to Tony Blair's crusade to rescue the continent." The poll the paper's talking about shows that 83 per cent of people are not confident that money given by the West would be spent wisely. It also shows that 79 per cent of voters believe that corruption and incompetence are to blame for Africa's problems.

In what I guess is an attempt to head off this kind of opposition, the British are to add a new clause to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 later this year, which will ratify the UN convention against corruption. "It will give the Government power to seize the assets of corrupt former politicians from overseas in a similar manner to the power that already exists when dealing with suspected terrorists and organised crime.

"The Daily Telegraph has learned that several bank accounts, containing millions of pounds, are already being monitored so that they can be frozen as soon as the law is in place. A list of 'politically exposed persons' has been circulated to banks and building societies. The Government also intends to do more to deal with companies that offer bribes to corrupt officials."

The artist Cy Twombly is a favourite of mine, so it was certain that I would read this little feature about him in the New York Times this morning. On Twombly, it's interesting enough. But it contains a gem of a story. One of the paintings on display at the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston when writer Ralph Blumenthal interviewed Twombly, was "the gallery's largest painting, an allegory of Orpheus' trip to the underworld, 13 feet high and a whopping 52 feet long. Painted between 1972 and 1994, it has been called by assorted names, including, Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor - a reference to the Roman poet who, like Mr. Twombly, deftly mixed learned allusion and earthy expression.

"With evident pleasure, the artist recounted the painting's effect on a young Frenchwoman who visited the gallery some years ago. The lone guard found her standing in front of the vivid whorls, scattered verses and bright splatters of color, totally nude. 'Right here in this room!' Mr. Twombly affirmed. He was delighted, he said. 'Wouldn't you be? That's pretty good. No one can top that one. Come on. How many people?'"

Well...that's a great little story, and I don't want to take away from it, but two others get close this morning. The Guardian reoprts on a saga that began yesterday morning when Northamptonshire police received a call from a reporter telling them someone was offering a stolen copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for 50,000 pounds - and that he had a gun. That's got to be up there.

And Renee Fleming, in a book excerpted in the Guardian (where else?) tells of singing the lead role in Handel's Alcina at the Paris Opera, a production for which William Christie was the musical director. "I fully expected that Christie would ask me to sing the role very purely with no vibrato and a very white sound, which I was more than willing to try, but he was adamant: 'This music made people swoon when it was premiered. People fainted. That's what we're going for.' He told me to bring everything I had to the score, all the sex, all the jazz, everything. So I tried to sing as I would jazz, bending a phrase here, flattening out a note there. I would begin a tone without vibrato and then add it later on...

"The Alcina set was a white box, with doors that would open on to images of green forests and meadows, pictures of gorgeous and glimmering nature projected on to the back wall to give the illusion of depth to infinity. Thirty or 40 men were arrayed on stage to portray Alcina's victims as "rocks" (which also served as the real furniture), as Alcina is a sorceress who feels it is her calling to seduce and destroy men, until she falls in love with Ruggiero. Many of the men were naked, which, although slightly distracting at times...was certainly never dull. Alcina was one of those magical events in which the ideas were genuinely fresh, and both the critics and the audience loved it - a rare combination."

03 June 2005

According to the Washington Times, half the artefacts stolen from Iraq during the American invasion have been returned. The Times based its article on remarks made to the National Arts Club in New York by Donny George, the director of the National Museum of Iraq. It commented that "Mr. George - like many Iraqis and much of the American press - blamed U.S. military planners at the time for ignoring the history and culture of the country they had come to liberate. But the museum director was much more conciliatory at the National Arts Club, where he told a well-heeled audience that he was 'satisfied' with the level of financial and technical support to rebuild the shattered museum."

Satisfied! The Times must have an uncommonly short memory. Donny George is the man who accused American forces of committing the "Crime of the Century" by failing to guard his Museum when Baghdad fell. He said that failure allowed looters to steal or destroy 170,000 artefacts. In fact, the true figure is 15,000, rather less than a tenth of his claim. For a long time, Mr George and other directors of the museum did not bother to tell American forces, or the press, that many of the Museum's most valuable pieces had been locked away before the war, either in underground store rooms or in bank vaults, and had survived more or less intact.

Some time after the Americans began to help the Museum figure out exactly what had been stolen, 130 of the 185 staff of the state board of antiquities' office in Baghdad signed a petition demanding the resignation of its directors, including Mr George. They said they believed some of the thefts from the museum were an inside job. As if that wasn't enough, they accused Mr George of having handed weapons out to them as US forces arrived in Baghdad, and of having ordered them to fight US soldiers. A little while after this, Mr George took to calling for American forces to shoot looters to death on sight, a little piece of drama that cynics might have thought was little more than a feeble attempt to re-establish his credentials as a serious member of the curatorial fraternity.

The paper says that at the National Arts Club, Mr George was asked whether the Pentagon had offered him an apology. "Mr. George said U.S. assistance allowed his staff to rebuild the museum's offices and galleries, install new security systems and create computer networks where there had been none. 'I will take that as an apology,' he said."

Gracious of him. In the circumstances, I'm surprised US authorities even let the little prick into the country. If it had been my decision, he'd have spent the last couple of years in orange overalls down at Guantanamo Bay.

Many US and European commentators, correctly to my way of thinking, say that if Europe truly wants to be a global economic force in the future, it is going to have to cut back on the cost of welfare. The Wall Street Journal offers a fairly dramatic comparison between the economies of the US and Europe, and comments that "...the Brussels bureaucracy has to this day purposely ignored the Continent's central ailments: high tax rates, bloated welfare benefits and industrial policies that pick winners and losers, usually the latter. Those topics are essentially taboo in Brussels, which has pursued an economic 'harmonization' strategy in part to inhibit the benign impact of tax cutting and tax competition among member countries by creating a de facto multi-state cartel. The nations that have prospered the most in recent years - Ireland in the 1990s, now the nations of Central Europe - are those that have resisted the harmonizing orders. Europe is now paying a high price for this failed experiment with welfare state socialism. Today's populist revolt against economic integration in France and Germany suggests that these nations remain mysteriously impervious to the need for change."

Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the Washington Times agrees: "...Europe faces a declining population, unassimilated minorities, low growth, high unemployment and an inability to defend itself, militarily or morally. Somehow the directorate of the European Union has figured out how to have too few citizens while having too many of them out of work. The only question that remains is just how low will the 100,000 bureaucrats of the European Union go in shrieking to their defiant electorates as they stampede for the exits.

"In fact, 2005 is a culmination of dying ideas. Despite the boasts and threats, almost every political alternative to Western liberalism over the last quarter-century is crashing or already in flames."

A man called Erno Golfinger sued the publisher Jonathan Cape back in 1959, when Ian Fleming's book Goldfinger was being printed. He claimed to resemble Fleming's villain in more than just name. Fleming, according to the Guardian, was so annoyed that "he asked Cape to insert an erratum slip in the first edition changing the character's name to Goldprick, a name suggested by the critic Cyril Connolly. Luckily for the film posters and theme tune of the future, sung by Shirley Bassey, Cape demurred."

An experiment in Scotland with teaching children how to read through phonics has been so successful it's to be studied in Britain as a possible solution to levels of literacy in the school system that have been called "unacceptable" by a Commons committee. One in five 11-year-olds is failing to reach expected standards in reading, said the Commons education and skills select committee, which is demanding an overhaul of the government's national literacy strategy introduced in 1998. The Guardian quotes Ruth Kelly, the Minister of Education, as having commented that "The debate now centres not on whether to teach phonics but how. Our strategy has continually evolved to ensure that it benefits from the latest developments, and the time is now right to renew the literacy framework, accelerate, and build on this success."

02 June 2005

Claudia Rosett, whose reporting about the Oil-for-Food scandal has been outstanding over the last few months, was given the Eric Breindel Prize for her coverage at the New York Historical Society last night. The New York Post was one of only two newspapers that covered the award this morning, that I could find.

The other paper giving her coverage was the New York Sun. Their editorial is in the subscriber only part of the paper, so I won't link to it, but these are some excerpts: "We’d like to be able to say 'our own' Claudia Rosett (for she filed some of her reporting on the UN scandal for The New York Sun). But no one owns Claudia Rosett. She is a one woman freelance news service and an extraordinary example to aspiring reporters looking for inspiration at a time of handwringing in the journalistic world.

"Ms. Rosett came up through the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and has done memorable work for Fox News, National Review, Commentary, and the Weekly Standard, among others. Ms. Rosett has been backed by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which, she pointed out in remarks prepared for delivery last night, has been the only think tank to have assigned a beat reporter to the United Nations story.

"The Breindel award is named for the late editor of the editorial page of the New York Post. Last night, Ms. Rosett recalled that, in February 1998, a month before Breindel died, he wrote an article about the return of Secretary-General Kofi Annan from a parley in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein. She reminded us that the trip was 'hailed by many in the press, and by Annan himself, as a triumph, in which he announced he could do business with Saddam.' Yet it paved the way for what she called 'the UN's stampede of corruption and deception.'

"At the time, Ms. Rosett said, Breindel had observed that the final chapter of the appeasement of which the United Nations had become a part 'has yet to be written'. No doubt one of the reasons that the givers of the Breindel prize chose Ms. Rosett is that she has been, in a sense, working to finish the chapter Breindel was writing when he died at such a young age. He could not have had a more worthy successor, which is why so many gathered with such warmth and affection to congratulate Ms. Rosett last night."

Bravo to Ms Rosett, and thanks to the Sun for its gracious editorial.

Mark Felt's admission that he was Deep Throat has touched off a debate in the US about whether what he did makes him a hero or, as some Watergate-era political figures have been saying, a villain. Peggy Noonan puts the arguments pretty well in her Wall Street Journal column this morning, and comments that "Maybe the big lesson on Felt and Watergate is as simple as the law of unintended consequences. You do something and things happen and you don't mean them to, and if you could take it back you would, but it's too late. The repercussions have already repercussed. Mark Felt cannot have intended to encourage such epic destruction. He must have thought he was doing the right thing, protecting his agency and maybe getting some forgivable glee out of making Nixon look bad. But oh the implications. Literally: the horror."

I don't think she's right. A leaker of secrets of that magnitude cannot have failed to contemplate the potential of his or her action. This particular leaker was uniquely equipped to have a fully-blown, accurate picture in his head of where things would go.

The LA Times is running an interesting piece on the debate within the FBI, quoting some staffers as condeming Felt, others sympathising. "'This isn't about keeping something within the bureau,' the agent said. 'I mean, this was a criminal investigation. And if he wanted to do something, he could have just gone public and put a spotlight on all the roaches that were in the White House. That would have been a lot better way to get to the truth than meeting some [reporter] in a parking lot.'" That's crap. Felt would have been roadkill instantly if he'd tried that.

The theory that a public servant owes an absolute duty of loyalty to his political masters presupposes that his masters are good and honest people, and that any difference between them is merely political. Those ties must come undone when serious crimes and misdemeanors are committed, and they must especially come undone in the law enforcement community. The startling thing about Felt is that he was the only one of hundreds of people in and around the administration with enough of a conscience to make him step forward. If determination to act correctly had been at the level it should have been among public office holders, Watergate wouldn't have happened. But having happened, there should have been dozens of Felts. That is surely Watergate's biggest lesson...not the law of unintended consequences, for Heaven's sake.

Anyone with an interest in how it all worked should have a look at this morning's Washington Post, by the way. They may have been taken by surprise and started late, but they've now produced some pretty good stuff, including a must-read first person account of the genesis of Deep Throat by Bob Woodward.

And I was interested to note that the Washington Times has covered this little melodrama with only one story, published this morning, which quotes the former attorney for Clinton scandal whistleblower Linda R. Tripp - who, like Deep Throat, exposed White House misdeeds - saying that his client's harsh public treatment stands in stark contrast to the veneration of Mark Felt. "'I think that what happened to Linda Tripp - demonization is too kind a word,' said David Irwin, who represented Mrs. Tripp during President Clinton's impeachment trial. 'I thought she got the brunt of a lot of people's frustrations.'"

I think the arrest of this man in California for crimes committed in Cambodia may signal what the US will do with Cuban Luis Posada, who was arrested for being an illegal immigrant a few days ago. The New York Sun says Yasith Chhun, who is a Cambodian-American accountant, will be tried in California on charges he violated American law by leading a militant group that tried to overthrow the Cambodian government. He was indicted this week on charges "of conspiracy to commit murder overseas, conspiracy to damage property overseas, and mounting a military expedition against a friendly nation."

Sounds more or less like what Posada spent his life doing with Fidel Castro's Cuba, sometimes in the pay of the CIA. There have been hints that the US will turn down a Venezuelan request for extradition on charges that, in Caracas as a naturalised Venezuelan citizen in the 1970s, he masterminded the blowing up of a Cuban airliner, full of civilians, in airspace near Barbados.

On the other hand, San Salvador has also asked for his extradition on charges of forgery that do not carry a penalty of imprisonment. If the US sent him there, (as Cuba fears), they'd be rid of a substantial problem and he could duck out of sight pretty quickly.

Tanita Tikaram isn't well-known outside Europe, but I thought her 1988 album, Ancient Heart, was superb. Subsequent albums were disappointing by comparison, and she kind of died away, even in Europe. But now the Guardian says her release of the first album for seven years may bring her back. It's called Sentimental, and it was nearly a decade in the making. During those ten years, the paper says, "she left her label and spent a couple of soul-searching years in Perugia, Ravenna and Paris. The result is a silken, sophisticated pleasure to hear. If ever an artist can be said to have grown into her voice, it's Tikaram, who discarded months' worth of electronic experiments before deciding that warm and natural were her best bets." Sounds worth having, and if you haven't heard her before, you should try Ancient Heart anyway...it's lost none of its appeal.

David Brooks has another good column in this morning's New York Times, which deals with the importance of the results of the EU constitution referenda in France and Holland. I think he knows what he's talking about: "The Western European standard of living is about a third lower than the American standard of living, and it's sliding. European output per capita is less than that of 46 of the 50 American states and about on par with Arkansas. There is little prospect of robust growth returning any time soon.

"Once it was plausible to argue that the European quality of life made up for the economic underperformance, but those arguments look more and more strained, in part because demographic trends make even the current conditions unsustainable. Europe's population is aging and shrinking. By 2040, the European median age will be around 50. Nearly a third of the population will be over 65. Public spending on retirees will have to grow by a third, sending Europe into a vicious spiral of higher taxes and less growth."

01 June 2005

Although this story in Britain's Independent newspaper says Dr James Martin is "now based in the US", he actually lives in Bermuda. The point of the story is that he has donated 60 million pounds in an endowment to Oxford University to help it become a world leader in solving the most pressing problems of the 21st century.

"Dr Martin," the Independent says, "accurately predicted the arrival of cellular telephones, the world wide web, the internet and e-mails in the 1970s." He wrote a widely-read book called The Wired Society in 1977, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and which contains those preductions and others. Dr Martin has written over 100 textbooks, some of which changed perceptions in the information technology industry. Two of his recent books were concerned with the evolution of new forms of corporations. The magazine Computerworld, in its 25th anniversary issue, ranked Martin fourth among the 25 individuals who have most influenced the world of computer science. Ten years later, in the 35th anniversary issue, he was still among the computing world's leading lights, along with people like Larry Ellison of Oracle, Alvin Toffler, the author and futurist and Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers.

The Iraqi Finance Minister, Hoshayr Zebari, says the Iraqi government is worried that the US won't stay the course with them in Iraq, and will leave too soon. Al Jazeera quotes him as having said "I am concerned - I am concerned. I'm a realist, OK, and we've seen that before. We need to complete this mission with their help. We are getting very close. The riding is getting tougher. "We are confident that we will make it."

Al Jazeera says Zebari also demanded Iraq's neighbors, particularly Syria, to do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq, and welcomed the news that Syria stopped more than 1,000 foreign fighters from entering Iraq. But he said that this confirms that Syria was one of the fighters' main transit routes.

Meantime, the president of the Reform Party of Syria, Farid N Ghadry, writes in the Washington Times this morning that the Syrian government is about to collapse: "Revolutions are born when certain political, economic and social ingredients coalesce to generate the energy necessary to remove oppressive dictatorships. In the case of Syria, most of the ingredients are in place."

The Times editorialises that if Bashar Assad's Ba'athist dictatorship is in the serious trouble Mr Ghadry says it is, and falls, "it would represent a major change in the balance of power in favor of the United States and its allies and against the jihadists. Although he has not called for regime change in Syria, President Bush noted in this year's State of the Union address that 'Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region.'"

According to Accountancy Age, there is a chronic shortage of female accountants in Bermuda, and male accountants are unhappy about it. I'd have said that if you can't find...er, um...a female friend in this, of all places, then all my darkest suspicions about accountants have been confirmed tenfold.

Remember Czech musician Tomas Strnad? I posted a piece two or three days ago saying that he might well be the mysterious Piano Man, who was found wandering around in a bit of a state on the Isle of Sheppey some weeks ago. Another Czech musician had told British police he was sure the man was his friend Strnad. According to the LA Times, the real Tomas Strnad says it isn't him: "Two days after officials in Britain said he might be a 'significant lead' in their search for the identity of a mysterious patient known here as the 'Piano Man,' Czech musician Tomas Strnad emerged Tuesday in his native Prague to declare that it was a case of mistaken identity.

"'I want to set the record straight. This is someone else, not me,' said Strnad, who had been identified earlier by prominent Czech rock musician Michal Kocab and two other former associates as the silent young man who turned up in April walking in the rain on a British coastal isle."

As with Deep Throat, it would have been slightly disappointing if it had turned out to be Strnad. We humans like our little mysteries.

Here's another one, this time from India. The Telegraph says: "The hunt is on for an Indian Army brigadier who allegedly betrayed his country for 20,000 rupees, selling battle plans to bankroll his wife's passion for preserving fruit and vegetables.

"The extraordinary claims have caused consternation in India where an internal inquiry was ordered yesterday to establish the identity of the alleged traitor."

As one of those cooperating in the tireless search for silly asses in the universe, I can report having struck gold this morning. He is the new artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, a man named Dominic Dromgoole. The Times describes him as "ebullient" (a shade of meaning I'm thinking of reporting to the people at the Oxford Dictionary) and quotes him thusly: "I think that all this theorising about Shakespeare is absolute baloney. There is a mass of historical evidence that shows there was a working-class playwright from Stratford writing the plays. All of this other stuff is nonsense. It says more about the people who are putting forward the theories than Shakespeare himself.

He believes that supporters of Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, are motivated by snobbery. "People can't accept that he was working-class. They can't accept that his father was illiterate, and that he wasn't posh."

Although initially, Woodward and Bernstein refused to say anything about it, the Washington Post has confirmed this morning that Mark Felt, then deputy director of the FBI, was Deep Throat. The Post comments: "In a small irony, Deep Throat's unveiling comes as the media and Washington officialdom engage in one of their periodic debates about the use of anonymous sources. We think that both the debate and the newly professed cautions about relying on such sources are healthy. As we noted, The Post's reporting depended on many sources, and the truth emerged thanks to the courage of US District Judge John J. Sirica, then-Sen. Sam Ervin and others who rose to the occasion. But it's worth remembering that this landmark victory for the rule of law also depended on the secret patriotism of a source named Deep Throat - that is, Mark Felt. It's nice to be able to honor him by his real name while he still lives."

To give credit where it's due, Felt made his little announcement while he was being interviewed by the magazine Vanity Fair. There is a link to its well-written piece in this Slate story by Timothy Noah. It is at the beginning of what ought to be about Noah's tenth paragraph, but he was apparently so busy patting himself on the back he forgot whether he was writing in this century or the 19th. It is, in fact, at the beginning of his third paragraph.

Claudia Rosett asks who Americans should blame for the deaths of so many of their soldiers in Iraq, in her Wall Street Journal column this morning: "Also on the list would be the corrupt and craven crew at the UN," she says, "who hid the rebuilding of Saddam's resources, who preferred to give Saddam an 18th chance. It is important to understand that while the UN-approved investigation into Oil for Food, led by Paul Volcker, has focused narrowly on questions of whether anyone administering the program violated UN procedure, the deeper horror was the assurance of the U.N. that all was well - while Saddam skimmed billions and used some of that to buy weapons and restock the war chest that certainly helped fund his military in 2003, and is very likely funding terror in Iraq today. Federal prosecutors have mentioned two unnamed high-ranking UN officials alleged to have taken bribes from Saddam; this is a matter not only of venal and corrupt behavior among those entrusted with serving the public good, but of UN officials with blood on their hands."

31 May 2005

We're in the middle of one of the sun's periodic storms, apparently, and scientists are said to be taken aback by the intensity and the eccentricty of this one, according to the Telegraph. "The sun has dazed and confused scientists by triggering the biggest 'proton storm' to bombard the Earth for half a century, challenging many ideas about how to forecast space weather to protect astronauts and satellites," the newspaper says.

Christopher Hitchens and his brother, Peter, are in the same business, but don't get along. The Guardian's book section got them together in front of a live audience to explain how they came to dislike each other. I warn you, the paper's story is a bit like one of those American daytime TV talk shows in which DNA is tested to see if the father of the girl's child really is the father. There's enough bad temper around to start a small war.

The crossword puzzle, I seem to recall, was born in Britain. And they developed a particularly difficult brand of puzzle in one or two newspapers - the Times and the Telegraph, for example. But now, they've forsaken the crosswork puzzle, apparently, to take up Sudoku, which is described in this Christian Science Monitor story as a simple Japanese numbers puzzle. I had a look, didn't look particularly simple to me, but you never know until you try, I suppose. The Monitor says "Newspapers have fallen over each other to feature it. National championships are promised. A Sudoku book has become an instant bestseller. Logic has not been this fashionable since the Rubik's Cube."

If you want to have a go yourself, this is the Guardian's Sudoku page, where a week's-worth of puzzles are rated in terms of difficulty.

I really am a sucker for a story that deals with what excellent writing journalists are capable of, like this one in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. One of the reporters quoted by its author, David M Shribman, is Mary McGrory, the Washington Post columnist who died a year or so ago, and who, Shribman recalls, wrote this: "Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's funeral, it can be said, he would have liked it. It had that decorum and dash that were in his special style. It was both splendid and spontaneous. It was full of children and princes, of gardeners and governors."

Shribman gives other examples of good writing, all of which are pretty good. But he seems to have a taste for a sad quote. I like them fullblooded, like the lead on this INS story of the shooting of John Dillinger back in 1934: "John Dillinger, ace bad man of the world, got his last night - two slugs through his heart and one through his chest. He was tough and he was shrewd, but he wasn't as tough and shrewd as the Federals, who never close a case until the end. It took 27 of them to end Dillinger's career, and their strength came from his weakness - a woman." Smokes, don't it?

Or how about the lead on one of HL Mencken's pieces from the Scopes trial in Tennessee in the '20s: "At last it has happened. After days of ineffective argument and legal quibbling, with speeches that merely skirted the edges of the matter which everyone wanted discussed in this Scopes antievoloution trial, William Jennings Bryan, fundamentalist, and Clarence Darrow, agnostic and pleader of unpopular causes, locked horns today under the most remarkable circumstances ever known to American court procedure." Nobody in the world ever read that paragraph and failed to read on and finish the story...expect maybe William Jennings Bryan himself, who took a pretty good licking that day.

The novelist Michael Chabon has written in the The New York Review of Books about the struggle he underwent before he wrote his first book: "Was everyone obliged to write a novel? Could I write a novel? Did I want to write a novel? What the hell was a novel, anyway, when you came right down to it? A really, really, really long short story? I hoped so, because that was the only thing I knew for certain that I could manage, sort of, to write...

"The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the genre fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life - fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction - to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going. Something (on my side at least) much closer to deep, passionate, physical, and intellectual love than anything else I had ever experienced with a human up to that point. But when it came to the use of language, somehow, my verbal ambition and my ability felt hard to frame or fulfill within the context of traditional genre fiction...

"I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and 'round' characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instill - or rather I didn't want to lose - that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, which was sometimes called 'the sense of wonder'. If my subject matter couldn't do it - if I wasn't writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together - then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week."

If you write, you'll know about and be interested in this kind of stuff. If you don't, you should.

30 May 2005

Over the last few days, a bizarre, complex case of industrial espionage has been slowly unfolding on the front pages of Israel's newspapers. On Sunday, a Tel Aviv magistrate lifted the gag order on the case, nicknamed Horse Race, which had made information about it so hard to come by. DEBKAfile says a lot of important people are in a lot of trouble: "Nine of Israel's top business executives and 11 heads of three leading inquiry companies - including Modiin Ezrahi - are in custody suspected of complicity in a massive computerized commercial espionage conspiracy. Michael Haephrati, who was arrested with his wife in London Thursday, May 26, is suspected of designing the illegal raider software called Trojan Horse for the three inquiry firms. They offered clients business intelligence on their rivals, some of whom trade on the stock exchange, by illegally planting spy software in the targeted computers and downloading their classified data.

"Clients under suspicion of accepting the offer include Volvo Motors importers, Yes satellite TV, Pelephone and Cellcom cell phone license- holders. Their senior officers are in custody. Their victims included Orange (Partner) cell phones, Hot cable TV, Strauss-Elite, Champion Motors, Mei Eden mineral water, Ace DIY, and Zoglobek sausages."

The space craft Voyager I, at 8.7 billion miles away from Earth, has passed through the last limits of the solar system, a zone astronomers call the termination shock region, where the solar wind - a rapidly moving stream of electrically charged particles - is met and slowed by the pressure of gas that sits between the stars. SpaceDaily says "For a long time, mission scientists were not sure where the termination shock ended and interstellar space began, because irregularities in the solar wind's speed and intensity affect the termination shock's location.

"In December 2004, however, the Voyager 1 instrument package observed sudden increases in the strength of the magnetic field surrounding the spacecraft and in the temperature of the faint surrounding gas. Ever since, the readings have remained high, though fluctuating...For the next 15 years, both Voyagers are expected to continue to probe the unexplored reaches of interstellar space, and mission scientists will continue to receive signals from both spacecraft - assuming their funding holds out."

Two different takes from Britain on the meaning of the French No vote on the EU Constitution. The Telegraph reminds us that although the vote was remarkable because it meant the French were reviling their own creation, "almost every Euro-poll has produced a No vote, whether in Ireland, Sweden or Denmark. On any normal measure, the EU has lost the confidence of its citizens. But the project was never meant to be democratic. From the first, the EU's founding fathers understood that it needed to be immune to public opinion. The genius of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman was to design a system in which supreme power was wielded by unelected officials, and in which the peoples were presented with a series of faits accomplis. When, in 1992, they got their first No vote in Denmark's referendum on Maastricht, our masters were too set in their ways to consider respecting the result, and so pushed on regardless. They will do the same thing today."

The Times sticks a little closer to the obvious - "the EU proceeded towards a monetary union that has so far produced pathetic economic growth, an appalling lack of competitiveness in international trade, massive unemployment, the revival of protectionism and an atmosphere in which extremists of several stripes can happily flourish. The single greatest condemnation of the EU constitution is that it promised more of the same. This fate can be reversed after this referendum. C'est 'non' is surely clear."

It was also pretty clear that the French were afraid that voting Yes would have put an end to the cushy little number decades of socialist governments have worked up for them - their six-week vacations, their 35-hour workweeks and their powerful unions. Over the long term, they're going to get a nasty shock on that score - no economy which wants to be competitive can afford those things. They can have competitive or they can have protective, but they can't have both. Sooner or later, they will have to choose. Jacques Chirac, with his distant, leave-it-to me brand of government, has never had the courage to tell them that.

Chirac seems determined to ride this problem out. He'll shuffle his Cabinet a bit, but he won't face up to the fact that he is largely the author of the problem he faces, a failure of perception similar to that he showed when he said, with a completely straight face, that he rejected criticism that the EU Constitution was hard to understand...he knew it was not because he'd written it himself.

So what is Chirac likely to do? He can, as the EUobserver says, simply ignore the result as others have done before him. "...It is up to the French to decide if they will respect their referendum or ignore it. In 1992, Danish voters rejected the Maastricht treaty. Two days afterward, foreign ministers met in Oslo on the fringes of a NATO event and decided formally to continue the ratification process despite the Danish No.

"It was legally possible only because the Danish government ignored the referendum and promised they would achieve ratification at a later date. And they did, after a new referendum in 1993 where the Danes were offered some permanent opt outs from the treaty, which was then formally ratified by the Danish government. When Ireland voted No to the Treaty of Nice, the Irish government also ignored the No and came back at a later date with a new referendum. The Nice Treaty continued to exist as a formal proposal because the Irish government revived it formally."

The Dutch, according to opinion polls, are likely also to vote against the EU Constitution on Wednesday. And since the referendum isn't binding on them, either, it is open to the Government to ignore their result as well.

29 May 2005

An article in the National Review does a particularly good job of exposing the illogic of that Amnesty International Report published the other day that, among other things, described Guantanamo Bay as a gulag. Authors David B. Rivkin Jr and Lee A. Casey say that "First and foremost, Amnesty's report is emphatically not an honest assessment of American compliance with international law. Rather, it is an assessment of how well the United States complies with Amnesty International's political and ideological agenda... With respect to the war on terror, Amnesty's principal complaint is that 'hundreds of detainees continue to be held without charge or trial at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.' This, of course, is the installation that Amnesty's secretary general, Irene Khan, characterized as 'the gulag of our times'. Khan is either profoundly ignorant of the actual gulag, where Communist regimes 're-educated' political dissidents through murderous hard labor, starvation diets, and exposure to the elements, or engaging in highly improvident hyperbole. It is most likely the latter...

"Of course, the men held at Guantanamo Bay are not political dissidents. They are captured enemy combatants. Under the laws of war, they can be detained until the conflict, or at least actual hostilities, are concluded. This has been the practice of the United States, and of every other major power in Europe and elsewhere, for centuries. It is not illegal; it is not immoral. In fact, this rule is one of the first and most important humanitarian advances made in warfare. The right to detain is the necessary concomitant of the obligation to give quarter on the battlefield, to actually take prisoners alive...

"What Amnesty is really saying is that, in its view, America's fight against al Qaeda is not an armed conflict, to which the laws of war apply, but a criminal-enforcement matter where the rights to a speedy, civilian trial are applicable. This is evident in the report's description of the Guantanamo detainees as individuals 'held without charge or trial . . . on the grounds of possible links to al-Qa'ida or the former Taleban government of Afghanistan.' Despite the fact that the vast majority of detainees at Guantanamo were captured on the battlefield, in arms against the United States or its allies, this 'criminal enforcement' view is widely held on the Left."

It was the London Times that broke the story of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's wound a few days ago. Now, the paper's saying that Zarqawi has been taken from Iraq to Iran for an operation. (Iranian authorities, Debkafile says, have denied that.) The terrorist was wounded, the Times's sources say, by shrapnel from a missile that struck his convoy three weeks ago, as he fled an American offensive near the town of al-Qaim in northwestern Iraq. The shrapnel is said to have struck him between the right shoulder and the chest. It has not been removed, and although his condition is described as stable, he has bouts of high fever as a result.

Douglas Hurd (tall, rather distant mandarin with a great shock of white hair who was Britain's Conservative Party Foreign Secretary under John Major), says people have pumped up the importance of the French referendum too much. In an opinion piece in the Telegraph, he says that "if the French vote No today, our leaders should hold a quick meeting to say goodbye to the constitutional treaty, pack their suitcases and go on holiday. The old City motto 'Sell in May and go away' should apply. When they come back, Britain will be in the chair of an EU which, with all its faults, is safer, more prosperous and more democratic than ever before. Their agenda will give them plenty of useful work. We should not let them talk us into crisis."

As I remember, this was Hurd's approach to just about every problem he faced...would have been if World War Three had been just around the corner. He has a bias - he's a strong supporter of British involvement in the EU, and would not want dire consequences of any kind to flow from a No vote. In fact, as I remember, he was forced to resign as Foreign Secretary by Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party.

Hurd does, however, get this little piece of Euro-analysis about right: "The leaders of the four major countries of Europe, Britain, France, Italy and Germany are, in Disraeli's phrase, exhausted volcanoes. We see the occasional puff of smoke, but nothing of purpose. These are men without credit, without the power any longer to move and persuade. Chancellor Schroeder, by pleading for early elections, seems to have given up even on self-preservation. Blair can limp on for a year or two more at home, but his power to persuade in Europe is crippled."

There are really three different issues jumbled in together in the controversy over the EU. The first is the important one - should there be a United Europe? The answer to that, I think is that there should be - without that kind of market-based grouping, Europe will become a backwater. The second is whether Britain should be a part of it. I think it should not be...Britain would be better off as antidote than dote in that part of the world in the future. And, as Douglas Hurd says, there is the issue of the dottiness of the current leaders of Europe, with their hopelessly out-of-date vision of what the EU should be and how their goals should be achieved. Their time is finished. European countries desperately need a good excuse to re-think their political approach to the modern world, and the crisis over the EU constitution may provide just what they need.

Calm, thoughful analysis over, I now give in to baser cravings and say also how much I hope that arrogant prick Jacques Chirac will get a couple of good hard slaps around the ear in the process. And Dominique de Villepin.

In moments of danger she rips off her burka, revealing a skin-tight bodysuit, an ample bosom and a powerful punch. Her mission: to protect the City of All Faiths from the destructive forces who are battling for its control. In her day job, she's Dr Ansam Dajani, a nuclear scientist. But when she does the clothes-ripping number, she's Jalila - Middle East superhero. The Jerusalem Post explains that she's the creation of AK Comics, an Egyptian company that has created the first four Middle Eastern superheroes - Jalila, Zein, Rakan and Aya. Not only do they battle evil, they encourage non-violence and peace in the region. Ya.


Art in Bermuda
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Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
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Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
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New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
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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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