...Views from mid-Atlantic
25 June 2005

American historian Victor Davis Hansen has been thinking about what's likely to fall out of the currently fashionable demonisation of the US war against terrorism. In a Washington Times column, he writes: "There is...an asymmetry in these slurs. Few mention there really are monsters and mass killers living among us - the North Koreans who have starved 1 million of their own, Saddam's reign of terror that may have killed as many, and, of course, the Islamicist murderers who behead, blow up and torture. Mein Kampf still sells well in some Arab capitals, not in Washington or New York.

"So cowards such as officials of the Red Cross and Amnesty International, and, yes, American politicians, prefer to showboat the purported misdemeanors of people who are civilized and will listen to them, rather than to condemn the horrendous felonies of those who are barbaric and will pay them no heed.

"As a result, the bar is lowering. In today's climate, Alfred Knopf has already published a novel about killing the president. Charlie Brooker writing in the Guardian in London prayed for another Lee Harvey Oswald to take out George W. Bush. Comedians, New York plays and art exhibits also bandy about assassination. Each time a public official evokes Hitler to demonize the president, the American effort in Iraq or its conservative supporters, cheap rhetorical fantasy becomes only that much closer to a nightmarish reality where the unstable, here and abroad, act on the belief America really is Hitler's Germany."

After a short break for referenda, Brit-bashing and such, the EU's got back to its proper work. "The European Commission," says the London Times "wants to force councils to give lollipop ladies and park attendants sunscreen and parasols. A directive being scrutinised by MEPs would oblige employers to check how hot it is each day and gauge the strength of ultraviolet rays. If there is a risk to workers they must be given suncream, sunglasses, a hat, a T-shirt or even a parasol. Who would hold the parasol for the person holding the parasol has not been resolved.

"The rule would affect thousands of companies and apply to builders, farmers, gardeners, park attendants, lifeguards, sports teachers, policemen, traffic wardens and even waiters. Despite resistance from politicians and businesses, Commission officials say that the directive, which covers radiation from X-rays, lasers and volcanoes, as well as sunlight, should be accepted in full."

Some French wine-makers, faced with dramatic losses in wine sales (exports were down 9 per cent in 2004 and 13 per cent in the first quarter of this year), according to the London Times, "have adopted the traditional strategy. This involves demonstrations, vandalism, appeals and requests for state subsidies: the French Government announced a $85 million package in January, but vineyards want more." Others are using their obviously lurid imaginations.

Nigeria's anti-corruption commission has produced figures showing that that country's past rulers stole or misused more than $400 billion - as much as all the aid given to Africa by western countries over four decades. The Telegraph says, with remarkable restraint, "The figures...provide dramatic evidence of the problems facing next month's summit in Gleneagles of the G8 group of wealthy countries which are under pressure to approve a programme of debt relief for Africa."

One of the Anglican Church officials who voted for (it was unanimously agreed in the consultative council) disinvesting from Israeli companies to protest Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. The Guardian reports that the British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has warned through a spokesman that "Moves toward divestment ... will do nothing to advance the twin causes of security for Israel and statehood for the Palestinians."

No, but prejudice against Israel and the US are a kind of badge of British-ness at the moment, and the Anglican Church apparently hasn't either the intellect to see it for what it is, or the courage to stand against it. They have become the blind leading the blind. Rowan Williams must bear particular blame for this failure - he of all people is in a position to know of the example set by his wartime predecessor, William Temple, who is revered by Jews for the strong, principled stand he took on their behalf in the 1940s. It was a time when the British and most of the rest of the world really would have preferred to look the other way as the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews. The then-Archbishop led them, by reasoning, by bullying, by cajoling and by embarrassing them, into facing up to the horror of what was going on, and doing something about it.

The odd thing is that his Christianity forced him to play that role. I wonder what is so different about Williams's understanding of his Church's teaching.

24 June 2005

DEBKAfile claims Iraqi al Qaeda commander Abu Musab al Zarqawi has announced that an on-the-run Saudi Arabian terrorist leader, Abdullah al-Rashoud, was killed in a battle with US forces at al Qaim, near the Syrian border.

"On April 8, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 201 reported al-Rashoud had escaped a major Saudi offensive that wiped out the cell's leadership at al-Rass, 190 miles north of Riyadh, on April 3. Senior ideologue of the cell, al Rashoud was one of two or three leaders who got away. At least 14 Saudi cell members and many security personnel were killed in the three-day battle in which the Saudi cell's command post was destroyed. Zarqawi now claims al-Rashoud reached Iraq six weeks ago from Saudi Arabia where he was a hunted man.

"DEBKAfile's counter-terror experts add: This is the first such report ever issued personally by Zarqawi. Al-Rashid's death in al Qaim indicates he escaped from Saudi Arabia to Syria and was then smuggled into Iraq. Zarqawi's statement is also the first disclosure of an interconnection between the Iraqi and Saudi al Qaeda organizations. Until now, intelligence bodies in Iraq assumed that the two operations were quite separate."

The Miami Herald (the Billings Gazette's reprint is easier to access) says Bermuda-based Bacardi Ltd has turned its fortunes around: "The acquisition of Grey Goose and a spike in rum sales helped propel Bacardi Ltd. to a 25 percent gain in net earnings last year...The Herald obtained a copy of the annual report, which was sent to all shareholders in advance of today's annual meeting at its Bermuda headquarters. Bacardi, whose U.S. operations are based in Miami, does not release the report to the public.

"The rare look at the financial performance of the privately-held company comes as Bacardi is bucking the industry trends toward consolidation and focusing instead on growing its core brands. This year marked the first upswing in net earnings for Bacardi after two years of declines. It also came during a year that saw a turnover in leadership with the sudden departure of Chief Executive Javier Ferran in November."

It's becoming an annual event. California Assemblywoman Judy Chu has introduced the same bill into the state assembly this year as she did last year. It's designed to shut down the tax loophole that allows corporate inversions in offshore financial jurisdictions like Bermuda. The Contra Costa Times is supporting her this year, as it did last year.

The bill failed last year. It required a two-thirds majority of 54 votes to move on to the Senate, and fell six votes short on a 48-26 roll call. Ms Chu's fellow Assemblypeople understood that inversions are a response to a US tax system that is grossly unfair to companies that do business outside the US, and that is in dire need of reform. She'd be better off putting her shoulder to that ailment, and not waste time putting a bandaid on its symptom.

Tony Blair, the Guardian says, disarmed his opponents in the EU with the speech he made: "They were going to give him hell. Only 24 hours earlier, the European parliament had cheered an attack on Britain, denouncing perfidious Albion and its wicked plot to remake the continent in its own image. For days, Europeans had blamed Britain for derailing last week's failed summit. Yesterday they were licking their chops, ready to confront the wrecker-in-chief, Tony Blair.

"But when he arrived, they found the words stuck in their throats. Faced with the man himself, their anger dissolved. Perhaps they were struck dumb by the glamour of their star visitor, in Brussels to mark Britain's upcoming presidency of the EU. It's not often MEPs get to debate with a leader of worldwide reputation: they seemed overwhelmed by the occasion."

Crap. The speech Blair made can be read here. It's OK. Blair's good at speeches, and this one was up to his usual standard. But it was very much a politician's speech, and I think his audience knew that. I don't think they were struck dumb at all, or overwhelmed by it. I think their reaction was much like that of Dominique de Villepin, who said he liked it, but pointed out that Blair shouild be judged by what he does, not by what he says.

"I am pleased to hear these words from the mouth of Tony Blair. I am happy to see that, today, in the presidency of the European Union he wants to move forward," he said on France Inter radio. "I simply want to be sure we are talking about the same thing. I am not accusing him of anything. But we must judge him by his acts."

They've found a fourth poem written by the Greek poet Sappho, who inspired enormous admiration in her day. The Times Literary Supplement has the story, and the poem. This is a sample:

my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.

Good thing her reputation isn't riding on that.

I was as astonished as most commentators seem to have been by the Supreme Court's decision in the Kelo case yesterday, which had the effect of significantly expanding the state's right to compel the acquisition of land for public use. As the Wall Street Journal is saying this morning, "No one disputes that this power of 'eminent domain' makes sense in limited circumstances; the Constitution's Fifth Amendment explicitly provides for it. But the plain reading of that Amendment's 'takings clause' also appears to require that eminent domain be invoked only when land is required for genuine 'public use' such as roads."

You can read the Court's decision at this site, by courtesy of Cornell University's law school. The decision was written by Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens. He says that the disposition of this case turned on the question whether New London, Connecticut's development plan served a truly "public purpose".

"Without exception, our cases have defined that concept broadly, reflecting our longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments in this field...Viewed as a whole, our jurisprudence has recognized that the needs of society have varied between different parts of the Nation, just as they have evolved over time in response to changed circumstances. Our earliest cases in particular embodied a strong theme of federalism, emphasizing the 'great respect' that we owe to state legislatures and state courts in discerning local public needs...For more than a century, our public use jurisprudence has wisely eschewed rigid formulas and intrusive scrutiny in favor of affording legislatures broad latitude in determining what public needs justify the use of the takings power.

"In affirming the City's authority to take petitioners' properties, we do not minimize the hardship that condemnations may entail, notwithstanding the payment of just compensation. We emphasize that nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose 'public use' requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline. Some of these requirements have been established as a matter of state constitutional law, while others are expressed in state eminent domain statutes that carefully limit the grounds upon which takings may be exercised. As the submissions of the parties and their amici make clear, the necessity and wisdom of using eminent domain to promote economic development are certainly matters of legitimate public debate. This Court's authority, however, extends only to determining whether the City's proposed condemnations are for a 'public use' within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Because over a century of our case law interpreting that provision dictates an affirmative answer to that question, we may not grant petitioners the relief that they seek."

It's a good example, I think, of a path of sound reasoning that leads to an unreasonable position. The writers of the Constitution, as other Justices pointed out, quite plainly did not have this particularly commercial kind of 'public use' in mind when they wrote the Fifth Amendment. Indeed, some commentators are talking about how pleased WalMart executives will be this morning, since this decision may well make their land acquisitions for new branches a great deal easier.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote one of the dissenting opinions, incidentally. As the legal blog site, The Volokh Conspiracy, points out, its eloquence puts paid to the claim that he isn't a good writer.

23 June 2005

There is, as usual, a lot of bad news about this morning. But for some, nothing will be quite as bad as this: The San Francisco Chronicle says "Whisky shortages have reached such extremes that one distillery began vatting its 12-year-old single malt with whiskies from other distilleries. This caused such turmoil within the industry that the offending party was forced to relabel its product as 'pure malt' rather than single malt."

By law, single-malt scotch must be at least 3 years old, but no distiller in his/her right mind releases a spirit that young. Malt whiskies don't reach perfection until they are, on average, 10 to 18 years old. Some, like Laphroaig's 30-year-old and the Macallan Millennium 50-year-old, push the distiller's skills to the limit. As with wine, whiskies can be barrel-aged past their peak. But the older the spirit is, the more money it brings.

Although we live in a high-tech age, it still takes 30 years to make the Dalmore 30-year-old the Stillman's Dram. This obvious fact was relatively ignored until a few years ago, when the Lagavulin distillery on Islay suddenly discovered it was running out of its slightly sweet and immensely smoky 16-year-old single malt, because too much had been sold over the years for blends, primarily for JohnnieWalker Black and J&B. As a quick fix, the distillery introduced Lagavulin 12-year-old Cask Strength, a 115.6 proof, right-from-the-barrel powerhouse that shaved four years off the waiting time. Currently warehoused barrels will reach their 16-year goal and once again be bottled, but that does nothing for the shortage of 16-year-old Lagavulin today."

Two noteworthy developments in the UN's Oil-for-Food scandal - the Washington Times, among others, notes that the UN procurement officer who has been the focus of allegations that he helped his son get a job with a firm that did business with the world body has resigned. "Alexander Yakovlev quit abruptly Tuesday night after the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services opened a formal investigation into reports the 52-year-old Russian citizen had urged New York-based IHC Services to hire his son, Dmitry. UN officials also said that investigators from an investigative panel into the oil-for-food program headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker asked that Mr. Yakovlev's office be immediately sealed to protect materials that may relate to their probe."

And Benny Avni, who has done some excellent work on this story for the New York Sun, says that "Staffers at the United Nations Development Program have demanded that the agency's outgoing administrator, Mark Malloch-Brown, fire an employee who they say has violated rules designed to assure the world body's neutrality by working for the Democratic presidential campaign. The letter, signed by '12 UNDP Staffers' demands the immediate dismissal of Justin Leites, who heads the UNDP internal communications department."

Leites took a leave of absence to work for the Kerry-Edwards campaign last year, which the 12 staffers say has given the agency a "dubious reputation as a Democratic political outpost."

The Sun says "The unnamed staffers call on Mr. Malloch Brown to dismiss Mr. Leites 'before you relinquish office as UNDP administrator.' A Turkish national, Kemal Dervis, has been named to replace Mr. Malloch Brown at UNDP, starting August 15, as Mr. Malloch Brown dedicates himself fully to serving as UN chief of staff."

Michael Smith, the journalist (he writes on defence for the Sunday Times) who broke the Downing Street Memos story, explains in the LA Times this morning how it worked. "It is now nine months since I obtained the first of the 'Downing Street memos,' thrust into my hand by someone who asked me to meet him in a quiet watering hole in London for what I imagined would just be a friendly drink. At the time, I was defence correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, and a staunch supporter of the decision to oust Saddam Hussein. The source was a friend. He'd given me a few stories before but nothing nearly as interesting as this. The six leaked documents I took away with me that night were to change completely my opinion of the decision to go to war and the honesty of Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush."

I must say that having seen from the inside how and why governments work they way they do, there is nothing in the memos that either surprises or dismays me (and I suspect that that is more or less the reason the American press hasn't pushed them as had as the more hard line British press has). Michael Smith, having published them, would make himself seem a dreadful cynic if he failed to say they changed his opinion, but I do wonder whether he would have been able to bring himself to make that claim if he had had some experience in government.

Israel-bashing Brits are at it again! A recommendation that the 38 provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion should divest themselves of holdings in companies that support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is to be made before the Anglican Consultative Council in Nottingham tomorrow. The Telegraph says "The recommendation stems from a report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issued last September by the Anglican Peace and Justice Network. One of its main backers is Bishop Riah Hanna Abu El-Assal of Jerusalem, who hosted the network's delegation during a 10-day visit.

"The report is a piece of sanctimonious claptrap whose authors didn't even bother to talk to Ariel Sharon's government. It takes scant account of the trauma to which the second intifada has subjected Israeli civilians and endorses policies, such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees since 1948, that would spell the death of the Jewish state. It has rightly been condemned by, among others, the International Council of Christians and Jews, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Jonathan Sachs, the Chief Rabbi."

Jonathan Jones, the Guardian's art critic, has used a soon-to-open show at the National Gallery in London, Stubbs and the Horse, to write a long and beautiful article about man's relationship with horses. It is a piece that demonstrates once again why the Guardian (despite its political confusion) is one of the finest newspapers on earth.

"Taming horses," he writes, "was one of the great human achievements and one of the first things artists commemorated. People in the ancient world regarded the taming of horses as a living part of their history, a battle newly won. This is what we need to remember when we look at later representations of the horse, whether by Stubbs or Leonardo da Vinci, both of whom were consciously working in the classical tradition. 'The classical tradition' suggests a frigidity, a disdain. In reality, the art of Greece (often known through its Roman imitations) obsessed European art until very recently because it is so alive, so wild. There's a raw innocence to ancient horses, a sublime magnificence that Donatello and Verrocchio, in the 15th century, tried to recapture in their equestrian monuments.

"Learning to ride took a long, long time. The ancient Roman poet Lucretius saw it as one of the definitive moments in human evolution: 'The art of mounting armed on horseback, guiding the steed with reins and keeping the right hand free for action, came earlier than braving the hazards of war in a two-horsed chariot.' As far as the ancient Mediterranean and near east go, he got this backwards. The chariot came first and mastering horse riding - and fighting at the same time, for this was always a martial art - took longer. It was probably in Ukraine, about 6,000 years ago, that horses were first domesticated. And it was probably in the Steppes, too, that horses were first ridden - from where nomadic peoples rode menacingly along the Black Sea coasts.

"And untold ages before humans tamed horses, they painted them. Paintings of horses - and other wild animals of ice age Europe such as lions and mammoths - long predate human portraiture. The artists who painted deep inside caves, perhaps in a shamanistic trance, in France and Spain 30,000 years ago had no concept of riding the horses whose bristling manes and long faces they delineated so brilliantly; on the so-called horse panel in the Chauvet cave they are not treated in a different way from rhinoceroses. But the look of these paintings by the old, old, old masters is startlingly familiar. The ice age horses have the same bristling energy as the Parthenon sculptures. The raw energy, just curbed by their athletic riders, of the Parthenon horses comes to us straight from the ice age, from the dawn of humanity. These are the same horses - smaller than modern ones - bred just for a few generations out of wildness. Riding them really is an achievement that defines civilisation - which is what Greek art is all about."

This article in Le Monde illustrates what a factual mess the political arguments over the EU and its constitution have left in their wake. Ignacio Ramonet, who seems to have been a no voter, makes arguments for his point of view which are indistinguishable from those made by yes voters. "This no vote," he writes, "is of capital importance. It represents a setback to ultraliberal attempts to impose, all over the world and in contempt of people’s wishes, the economic monoculture laid down by the dogma of globalisation.

"Outside France commentators believe that the no vote has weakened Europe in relation to the United States, leaving the American superpower with no effective counterweight. They are wrong. In fact the proposed constitution would have gone even further in aligning Europe with US interests (particularly at the military level).

"A new situation has been created. People have been given a chance to state their views about the rules and values that should govern the project for a united Europe. That project cannot be reduced simply to the free circulation of capital, goods and services. Seen in this perspective, the no vote of 29 May does not close doors. Instead it opens the door that leads to hope."


22 June 2005

Something of a milestone in the history of Islam has been passed during the last few weeks - a woman has led a mixed congregation of men and women in Friday prayers for the first time in history. MEMRI says it happened on 18 March, in New York. The prayers were held, not at a mosque, but at the St John the Divine Episcopal Church in New York City. Several mosques declined to host the event because of threats by extremists. The imam was Dr. Amina Wadud, an American Muslim of Indian origin who is professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of the book The Qur'an and the Woman: Rereading the Holy Text from a Female Perspective. The call to prayer was also performed by a woman, who in addition to setting this precedent did so with her head uncovered. The service was attended by some 100 men and women.

MEMRI's coverage includes reaction from a wide variety of Muslim sources, including one or two who denounced the event as part of an American plot to undermine Islam. But it was for the most part sober and thoughful comment, not the flourish of shrieks, shots and fatwas that one might have expected.

DEBKAfile's sources are saying that the published accounts of the Sharon/Abbas talks yesterday are misleading. "Nothing was settled between the Israeli and Palestinian sides because the interchange was dominated by a flat refusal by Abbas flanked by prime minister Ahmed Qureia and other cabinet ministers to budge on any of the points raised by the Israeli side. Instead they pressed hard on their own. The atmosphere of the talks dropped to freezing before they broke up."

People's Daily has published some terrific pictures of a model of the great Chinese navigator Zheng He's treasure ship. It has been built by Wei Wenxi, who the Daily describes as "a grass root expert on ancient ships".

They explain that "2005 is the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's voyage to the west oceans. To commemorate the great navigator, Wei Wenxi, 71, a resident in Changshu, east China's Jiangsu Province and an expert on ancient ship, spent his savings on constructing a model of 'Zhang He's treasure ship' in the proportion of 1:40. According to historic records, the treasure ship of Zheng He is 44 Zhang (a Chinese unit of length, one Zhang equals to 3.3 meters) and 4 Chi (a Chinese unit of length, one Chi equals to approx. 33.3 centimeters) in length, 18 Zhang in width. The ship has '9 masts and 12 sails'.

"The model has won praise from many domestic experts specializing in ancient ships, and they all believe that Wei's model is the only one that possesses the original characteristics among the model ships on display so far." Interesting that the masts are so stubby. I was watching some of the Marion-Bermuda cruising race participants arrive yesterday, and their masts seemed to me twice as tall, perhaps even a little more than that. Perhaps they hadn't figured out how to reef a sail 600 years ago.

"The top U.S. operational commander in Iraq warned yesterday against an emerging 'complacency' among Americans who now question whether the two-year war in Iraq 'is worth it'," according to the Washington Times. "'The United States has not been attacked again since 11 September. And so there's some questioning, perhaps, of whether or not what's going on here is worth it,' said Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commands the Multinational Corps Iraq.

"'Quite honestly, I think we have a pretty clear-cut choice. We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us, as it would inevitably, as it has previously.'"

It can't be said more clearly than that, can it?

A tearful Senator Richard Durbin has apologised for remarks comparing the alleged abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to the behaviour of the Nazis, the Soviet communists and the Khmer Rouge. The Washington Post's story about it is as thorough as any other. I think it's interesting that his remarks quickly and completely overshadowed those made a few days before by Amnesty International which, though a little less childishly and hysterically phrased than Senator Durbin's, amounted to the same thing. Perhaps it was because it was easier to attack the more frivolous set of remarks, or perhaps it was because Americans felt more comfortable taking one of their own to task. I hope it doesn't escape Amnesty International, though, that the chorus of protests against what Senator Durbin said was directed, by inference, against them as well.

The Washington Times did an admirable job, I thought, of identifying what it is that is leading Amnesty International, Senator Durbin and many others astray. They quoted William Barr's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, when he talked about "an extreme...effort to take the judicial rules and standards applicable in the domestic law enforcement context and extend them to the fighting of wars."

The Times says: "Mr. Barr is referring to the current effort to treat Guantanamo detainees like American criminals, with full access to our courts. We agree with the former attorney general that 'nothing could be more farcical, or more dangerous.' If the critics are right, and detained terrorists have an inalienable right to access U.S. courts, then they have created a new standard - one which has no precedent in the Geneva Conventions, the Constitution or US history. Even worse, as Mr. Barr suggested, it is a standard that would effectively make victory in the war on terror impossible. 'For every platoon of combat troops, the United States would have to field three platoons of lawyers, investigators and paralegals,' Mr. Barr said. 'Such a result would inject legal uncertainty into our military operations, divert resources from winning the war into demonstrating the individual 'fault' of persons confronted in the field of battle.'"

Why the Times should confine itself to saying there is no precedent in US history, I can't imagine. There is no precedent in history, period.

21 June 2005

The Wall Street Journal's assistant editor, Brendan Miniter, says "The last thing we need in Iraq is a timeline for withdrawal. Victory sets its own schedule, and it's not contingent on the US election calendar. Arbitrarily forcing a timetable on the battlefield will only aid the enemy. Yet a growing number of politicians are now calling for just that - or, at least, a better (read more negative) official accounting of what's happening in Iraq. With polls showing less support for the war and pols parroting that public opinion, we're in danger of losing sight of how to defeat the enemy."

Seems about right to me. But guess who agrees with him, wanting to send "a loud and clear message of support for the political transition in Iraq"? Who is it who would say "There are, of course, those who wish to exacerbate communal tensions and prevent the emergence of a democratic, pluralist, stable Iraq. They seek to capitalize on the serious difficulties faced by ordinary people, and to exploit popular anger and resentment to promote hatred and violence. Their work is seen on the streets of Iraq every day...But let us not lose sight of the fact that all over Iraq today, Iraqis are debating nearly every aspect of their political future?

You're forgiven if you guessed it was that indefatigable optimist, the blogger Arthur Chrenkoff, whose pieces I keep linking to. But no, it is a gentleman with a much higher profile, who is the author of these fine words in the Washington Post this morning: "In aid of the transition, the United Nations is at work, both inside and outside the country, to support donor coordination, capacity-building of Iraqi ministries and civil society organizations, and delivery of basic services. Reconstruction of schools, water-treatment and waste-treatment plants, power plants and transmission lines, food assistance to children, mine clearing and aid to hundreds of thousands of returning refugees and internally displaced persons - all of these activities occur every day in Iraq under UN leadership.

"The Iraqi people continue to endure a painful and difficult transition, and they still have a long and tough road ahead. The United Nations is privileged and determined to walk it with them. In doing so, we serve not only the people of Iraq, but the peoples of all nations."

Is it my imagination, or does his voice sound an octave or so higher than usual?

This story's pretty fresh, so it still has an element of incoherence about it. But as far as I can make it out, the UN is urgently looking into allegations that a senior UN purchasing employee, Alexander Yakovlev of Russia, helped his son get a job with a company that once did business with the world body. The Moscow News says Paul Volcker's probe largely portrayed Yakovlev as an employee who played strictly by the rules, despite strong political pressure. But the UN received fresh allegations of a conflict of interest involving Yakovlev last week, and is now taking a second look.

The LA Times has had to shut down its experiment with edit-able editorials because people (the Times calls them 'bottom feeders') kept posting pornographic images on the page it made accessible to readers. "The Los Angeles Times has canceled a novel Internet feature that allowed readers to rewrite an editorial on the newspaper's website, after some users sabotaged the site with foul language and pornographic images. The newspaper launched the experimental 'wikitorial' Friday and killed it early Sunday after an unknown user or users posted explicit photos." I did notice that the name of Michael Kinsley, the editorial and opinion editor whose idea the wikitorial was, and who was mentioned prominently in stories promoting the idea, does not appear in the story about its failure.

What's a 500-year old self-help book like? Just like the stuff that's churned out today, apparently - a mixture of good advice and silliness. The Guardian says that the Renaissance manuscript, the Tacuinum Sanitatis (Table of Health) has lots of pictures, and all you need to know about living a more 'balanced' life. It covers anything from what not to wear, to how to exercise, eat, farm, shop and cook. It is, according to medieval manuscripts specialist Dr Alixe Bovey, 'a cross between Gillian McKeith's You Are What You Eat and Mrs Beeton's Household Management'. Like all good lifestyle manuals it has 'some highly sensible advice and some absolutely crazy stuff mixed in'."

The Toronto Globe and Mail has published an extraordinary photograph of a Palestinian woman in the act (unsuccessful, as it turned out) of blowing herself up. The woman had been severely burned on her neck, hands and feet from what she said was a cooking accident months earlier, and was given permission to cross into Israel to receive treatment for her injuries. "When she approached the Erez crossing, suspicious soldiers asked her to raise her hands and she attempted to detonate the bomb," according to Major Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman.

The Globe and Mail's story says that "At the Shikma Prison in Israel's Negev desert, the Shin Bet security service made the unusual move of letting Israeli television and foreign reporters interview the woman just hours after she was captured. 'My dream was to be a martyr,' she said. She said she was recruited by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a violent offshoot of Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement. 'I believe in death.'"

20 June 2005

The hot stuff out there in the vast Bloggy Way this morning is a suggestion that those Downing Street memos that surfaced in England a few days ago may be...well, at least not verifiable. Captain's Quarters says: "...no one questioned the authenticity of the documents provided by the Times of London. That has now changed, as Times reporter Michael Smith admitted that the memos he used are not originals, but retyped copies (via LGF and CQ reader Sapper): The eight memos - all labeled 'secret' or 'confidential' - were first obtained by British reporter Michael Smith, who has written about them in The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times. Smith told AP he protected the identity of the source he had obtained the documents from by typing copies of them on plain paper and destroying the originals. The AP obtained copies of six of the memos (the other two have circulated widely). A senior British official who reviewed the copies said their content appeared authentic. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of the material.

"Readers of this site should recall this set of circumstances from last year. The Killian memos at the center of CBS's 60 Minutes Wednesday report on George Bush's National Guard service supposedly went through the same laundry service as the Downing Street Memos. Bill Burkett, once he'd been outed as the source of the now-disgraced Killian memos, claimed that a woman named Lucy Ramirez provided them to him - but that he made copies and burned the originals to protect her identity or that of her source."

Interesting comparison. But what's the logic for making it?

Claudia Rosett, writing in the New York Sun, analyses that memo that suggests Kofi Annan might have been involved in tweaking the award of a UN contract to the company his son worked for, Cotecna. And when I say analyses, I mean she is on that thing like a whip on a balky mule. It's all fascinating and well worth reading, but I take the story as a vehicle, at least in part, for this paragraph: "...the talk is now making the rounds at the United Nations that it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of at least one more silent witness to the Paris meeting attended in November 1998 not only by Mr Wilson, but by the mysterious KA. A source close to the UN jokes that in light of the fracas last year about possible eavesdropping at the United Nations, one has to wonder if, when the secretary-general visits Paris, there are any authorities listening in - or whether, at least, the French, who played a large role in oil-for-food, might be in a position to know more than the secretary-general might like about the identity of the mysterious KA." Think she knows something? Bet on it.

The Hindustan Times is published in English, so inept translation can't be blamed for Puneet Mehrotra's incoherence. Must be she was that angry with Google.

"Corporate communication and blogs combined with technology blasted in the new media aka www and the impact could be lethal. Vested information enthroned on the blog squalled on the www and eureka the message would be delivered. What a terrific idea, resulting revenues and an informative column. Alas! not all dreams are meant to come true and the same happened with my column on blogs and corporate communication. A week's research nuked by Google. If on a Sunday afternoon you read a headline like 'Google Takes on Paypal' you can't help but put everything down."

Oh, I know...

Another major newspaper is casting about for ways to shore up its sagging circulation figures. The New York Times says that starting in September, the Wall Street Journal is to begin publishing a Saturday issue, named Weekend Edition, "with a new emphasis on softer features - entertainment, travel, sports, arts, books, real estate and, yes, recipes. The goal is to attract a more diverse base of advertising to pull The Journal out of its prolonged slump. The Saturday paper, which will be delivered at no extra charge - at least initially - to subscribers, will have a more airy, more casual feel than its daily counterpart, but will still be instantly recognizable as The Wall Street Journal."

19 June 2005

This is a pointed, sharp, nasty story about the US administration, written for the LA Times by Ann Louise Bardach, author of Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. It says, more or less, that US policy on Cuba is embarrassingly wrong...a gift to people like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. And frankly, she's right. Cuba can be effectively opposed and contained without resorting to behaviour like keeping Ibrahim Ferrer out of the country because he won't publicly denounce the head of his own country. (In case the name isn't familiar, Ibrahim Ferrer is a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, a sonero. He spent his life in obscurity and poverty because of Mr Castro's political choices until the American musician Ry Cooder found a way for him and his fellow musicians to present themselves on the world stage. He had been nominated for a Grammy and wanted to go to the US to see if he won. He did, for best traditional tropical Latin album.)

Ms Bardach remarks "with enemies like us, Castro really doesn't need any friends."

The New York Sun revealed yesterday that Mark Malloch-Brown was renting his house in Westchester county from George Soros, the billionaire financier and prominent opponent of President George W Bush, for $120,000 a year - only $8,000 less than his annual take-home pay. The disclosure disturbs critics of the UN, who regard Soros as a nut-case and Malloch-Brown's position as his tenant as inappropriate. They have a point.

Now read this article in the Sunday Times: "The United Nations has become a place of scheming and skulduggery, according to the British chief of staff of Kofi Annan, the secretary-general. Mark Malloch-Brown claims that the atmosphere is growing poisonous as insiders in the UN's headquarters in New York attempt to stall reform. 'This place is entirely like revolutionary France, where the level of backstabbing and betrayal would make Shakespeare wince,' he said."

Puts it all into perspective, doesn't it?

I'm listening to ragas this morning, courtesy of the excellent Raga Radio (reachable on Winamp). In their honour, I'm going to give you the elements of a pun - a tale, donkeys - but I'm not going to resolve it. The tale is this: donkeys are dying out in Italy and, as everyone up to and including the Washington Post knows, Italy without donkeys is like Italy without churches. Or a cushion without...a chair.

The WP says "It's a tough sell, but breeders across the country are beginning to take steps to preserve the animals. In Sardinia, where the donkey population shrank from about 20,000 in the 1940s to a few score by 2000, researchers are keeping breeds of both the Sardinian ass and the Asinara donkey in a national park on Asinara island, once the site of an Alcatraz-style prison. The Martina Franca donkey, from the instep of Italy's boot, once numbered in the thousands but declined to 96 by 2,000. The stock has climbed back to 207 through the efforts of private breeders, who preserve embryos in freezers to facilitate in-vitro fertilization...

"Maria Patrizia Latini, who keeps five donkeys for the use of both tourists and disabled children, said she was trying to persuade investors to explore the legendary cosmetic properties of ass's milk. The historical testimony is convincing: Cleopatra, Nero's wife Poppea and the Austrian Empress Sissi all soaked in baths of donkey milk. 'I don't see why we Italians should go around worrying about saving whales and tigers while our own donkey goes extinct,' Latini said." There...it's a tale, and it's on the donkey. How did it get there? Medals...brooches...wrestlers. But you can't...blame it on me.

Pondblog's hip-hop correspondent has pointed Krumping out to us - the NYTimes says that's "equal parts break dance, pantomimed battle and demonic possession. As break dancing did 25 years ago in the South Bronx, krumping arose spontaneously some time in the last decade in neighborhoods in Long Beach and throughout South Central Los Angeles. And, just as break dancing was confined at its beginnings to a fragment of a New York borough then in ruins, krumping is still mostly unknown beyond the freeways that border these ragged areas of LA. Over the past five years or so, though, a phenomenon that began with a handful of dancers has grown to include perhaps a thousand dancers and at least 80 independent crews, loosely organized and all part of a network connected informally but intricately by word of mouth. Most krump crews are black, but many are Asian, like the Rice Track Family, or white or Latino; they are allied less by race, as it happens, than by economics and their commitment to an unlikely form of art."

It sounds absolutely, mind-numbingly awful to me, but Soriano (aka Hot Rod Soriano), the young Filipino founder of the Race Track Family told the Times "In this neighborhood, if you're not an athlete or a rapper or a gangbanger, you aren't going anywhere. Who knows if we weren't dancing if we wouldn't be gangbanging, too?" I guess, since I came out this morning unarmed, I'll have to let that one go.

The Times reviews an unusual biography called Stuart: a Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters. Stuart was, when Masters first saw him, "sitting on a square of cardboard on a pavement in Cambridge at Christmas time in 1998, an impossible man of 30, broken-toothed, hairy, filthy, weird looking, the sort of man people edit out of their consciousness. When Masters, his future Boswell, bent down to hear him speak, Stuart whispered: 'As soon as I get the opportunity I'm going to top myself.'"

Masters sets out to find out what it was that tipped Stuart over such an edge, and finds...plenty. "Again and again a little common sense might have rescued Stuart, but common sense is rare. Getting the simplest thing done always seems strangely impossible. We understand much better why bullying is so psychologically disastrous, but schools still cannot control it. In the face of such intractable problems one can only say, with Arthur Miller's character in Death of a Salesman: 'Attention should be paid.'"

John J. Pullen's book, The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War is known as one of the best unit histories ever written. Pullen served with the 65th Infantry Division during WWII, and heard George Patton give one of his famous before-action speeches. Pullen made notes and, happily, transcribed them before he died last year for this article, published in American Heritage. Good speech. Unsummupable, but here's a fairly representative sample: "Friend of mine, General Scott, a little fellow about so high [here the general held his hand out level with his lower rib], once said to me, 'I would be willing to get into the ring with Joe Louis if the son of a bitch would promise to defend himself.' It was his way of saying that defending yourself is the surest way in the world to get yourself killed. You must always attack, attack, attack."


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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