...Views from mid-Atlantic
10 September 2005

I missed this yesterday - it's not Claudia Rosett on the Volcker Report, exactly, but it is the talented Miss Rosett on the UN's attempts to pretend all that didn't happen, or didn't matter or didn't...something. In the National Review, she writes that "The day Volcker released his report, Annan's under-secretary general for communications, Shashi Tharoor, prepared a set of talking points for UN officials having to contend with media questions. As it happens, his memo leaked. In the spirit of the newfound transparency the UN proposes to adopt, NRO is sharing it here. In the interest of even further transparency, I offer a few talking points of my own, interspersed in italics."

Today's issue is the last of the Guardian as a broadsheet newspaper. From tomorrow - the paper says: "The broadsheet is dead. Long live the Berliner!"

Fiona MacCarthy is telling the story in the Guardian this morning of an Irish-Scots aristocrat who had such an effect on architecture in Paris in the early part of the last century that she affected the development of art deco. "Eileen Gray is the mystery figure of 20th-century modern architecture. How did the Irish-Scots aristocrat from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, become an originator of Parisian art deco? Even stranger, how, without any training as an architect, did she reinvent herself as one of the superstars of quite a different style, the architect of modernist buildings of a reticence so powerful they take the breath away? The answer must lie in Gray's exceptional contrariness as a woman and as an artist. 'To create,' she once said, 'one must first question everything.'"

A group of Muslim clerics has issued a religious diktat demanding that India's teenage tennis star Sania Mirza cover up during matches, saying that her skirts and T-shirts are "un-Islamic" and "corrupting". According to the Guardian, these silly old fools want her to wear a headscarf and a long tunic!

I imagine there's a good discussion to be had about the development of the ethics of living in the world and whether that's affected by the same kind of Darwinian dynamic that affects the development of species. But we don't need to look for complexity in dealing with this kind of dilemma. The simple way to look at it is this: The world has, over time, worked out a way for people of different cultures to live together with a minimum of conflict. Muslims, for example, can behave as they want in their own house. Good manners demand that if someone from another house visits theirs, their rules should be respected. But if a Muslim leaves that house to visit or live in another, that house's rules should be respected. Those to whom that's not acceptable should stay at home.

Sania Mirza has left the Muslim house and is in someone else's. If Muslims are so affected by the the sight of her legs that they can't cheer her on as one of their own, doing well in a tough world, they should give their television sets away and do something else with their spare time.

People from Ontario in Canada who are proposing that special sharia courts should be set up to apply Islamic law on family issues, as the Jurist is reporting, should be ashamed of their lack of pride and confidence in their own culture.

09 September 2005

Bermuda is apparently sponsoring yet another fashion event in the US in a bid to shore up our sagging tourism figures - this time it's New York Fashion Week. The Kansas City Star says we're keeping company with deep-pocket advertisers like Olympus, Pantene, the New York Times and Sprint. I've no idea what it costs to be a sponsor of New York Fashion Week, but a hell of a lot seems close enough. Our Tourism Minister paid a designer early this year to include Bermuda shorts in his collection, and I thought that was one of the silliest ideas ever spawned in connection with promoting Bermuda's ailing tourism business. We're mentioned in connection with shorts anyway - what's the point of spending a lot of money reinforcing the connection? I doubt it has any effect at all on our tourism bottom line. About the only thing it does is give a lot of our upwardly mobile tourism executives and political hangers-on an excuse to schmooze with the beautiful people at American fashion shows.

Peter Ferrara, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation, and director of domestic policy at the Free Enterprise Fund, thinks Americans are looking in the wrong places for people to blame for the bumbling New Orleans disaster relief effort. In the Washington Times, he concludes that the Governor of Louisiana, Mrs. Kathleen Blanco, and the Mayor of New Orleans are the people who screwed it up. He thinks they should "resign in disgrace, as thousands of their own constituents died because of their misconduct."

The difference between the New York Times's interpretation of a report on Yasser Arafat's death and that of Haaretz in Israel (Pondblog commented yesterday) was a subject of speculation round the world. Today, Haaretz says: "If the story has a bottom line it is this: It is doubtful that the mystery of his death will ever be solved. On the other hand, Arafat's passing came at a time convenient for all. One can only shudder at the thought that the Gaza withdrawal would have been accompanied by 'V for Victory' hand signs and other Arafatian mannerisms we are glad to have forgotten. Abu Mazen's celebrations, like the man himself, will probably be paler and more restrained. Arafat is no longer in the picture. And it's nicer without him."

There has been no report yet that I can find of Chinese reaction to this story, but you can bet there will be a strong one. The Globe and Mail says: "After deliberating five hours over two days, jurors on Thursday acquitted a Homeland Security officer charged with beating a Chinese tourist at the US-Canadian border. Robert Rhodes, a customs and border protection officer, was on trial in U.S. District Court on a single count of violating the civil rights of tourist Zhao Yan. Government prosecutors claimed Mr. Rhodes used excessive force when he slammed the businesswoman's head into pavement and struck her with his knee after pepper-spraying her at a Niagara Falls inspection station...Mr. Rhodes told investigators he believed the women might have been associated with a drug suspect and ordered her inside, but she took off running."

When the incident occurred just over a year ago, in July, 2004, it was treated by the Chinese as a major incident - the story was followed in People's Daily for months, quite literally. It's a mug's game to second-guess a decision by a court if you haven't yourself heard the evidence, but it is worth saying that on the face of it, pepper-spraying a woman, kneeing her and banging her head on the pavement seems over the top even if Rhodes's story is entirely true.

A scathing editorial in the Wall Street Journal this morning in the wake of publication of the Volcker report: "Oil for Food is not about some isolated incidents of perceived or actual wrongdoing during the course of a seven-year effort to maintain sanctions on Iraq, monitor its oil flows and feed its people. Oil for Food is a story about what the UN is. And our conclusion from reading the 847-page report is that the UN is Oil for Food...

"Why Mr Annan chose to see no evil on Iraqi sanctions violations, much less use his bully pulpit to denounce it (as he later denounced the Iraq war as 'illegal'), is an interesting question. Our sense is that the UN Secretariat as a whole took the view that the sanctions regime was immoral and that Saddam was within his rights to break free of it...

"So it was that the largest fraud ever recorded in history came about. Press reports often cite the overall size of Oil for Food at $60 billion, but Mr. Volcker's report makes clear that the real figure was in excess of $100 billion. From this, Saddam was able to derive $10.2 billion from illicit transactions. But the important point is that he was able to steer 10 times that sum toward his preferred clients in the service of his political aims...

"As for the UN, it proved its worth to Saddam as the one hall of mirrors in which such shenanigans could take place. Yet even now we are told that "at least" Oil for Food fed the Iraqi people when they were on the edge of starvation, and this is accounted a UN success. That is false. Oil for Food offered a lifeline of cash and influence to a regime that was starving its people. The program did not corrupt the UN so much as exploit its essential nature. Now Mr. Annan wants to use this report as an endorsement of his 'reform' proposals. Only at the UN could he dare to think he could get away with this."

The London Times rather neatly casts the story of "how Mr Annan reached this sorry pass as the story of a man who rose to power through taking the path of least resistance, but who was then undone by that very practice." The paper quotes a senior Western diplomat as having said the Volcker findings were so serious that Mr Annan would have had to quit if he worked in a national government or the private sector. If he manages to resist calls for his resignation, the Times says, "some diplomats suggested that Louise Frechette, Mr Annan's Canadian deputy, criticised with Mr Annan in the Volcker report, might have to take the responsibility for him."

If that's true, and Annan allows it to happen, then he will have sunk to a level at which someone really ought to grab him by the scruff of the neck and throw him out the door.

08 September 2005

I posted something a few days ago about the offers of help the US has had from countries around the world in the wake of Katrina, and expressed the hope that the American government would accept as much of it as it possibly could. Predictably, perhaps, they've rejected an offer of medical help from Cuba, and a strings-attached offer from Iran. But, as the New York Sun says, they did accept an offer from Venezuela, despite Mr Chavez's recent unpleasant growling.

Speaking of hurricanes, little Nate is grumbling his way past Bermuda down to the southeast today. The effect is limited to some breeze and a little rain, but if Iran wants to give us the 20 million barrels of oil the US rejected nonetheless, that would be very nice.

Daniel Johnson, who writes the New York Sun's London Letter, says Hurricane Katrina has given European public opinion "an excuse to indulge in the most distasteful exhibition of schadenfreude at America's expense that I can ever recall. Once the full extent of the calamity that had befallen New Orleans became clear last week, Europe's professional anti-Americans fell over themselves to exploit an unprecedented opportunity to crow...

"The real target was not Mr. Bush, however. The indictment is not only of a president, but of a people. It is the American way of life that is, in the eyes of many Europeans, the cause of all the troubles of the world. And it is because Mr. Bush is so irredeemably American that every anti-American stereotype is held against him. America, for the armchair moralizers across the Atlantic, means lawlessness, injustice, ignorance, selfishness, and megalomania, all personified by the president.

"And because, like so many of his countrymen, Mr. Bush is a Christian, the secularized sophisticates of the Old World are relishing the irony of the fact that the most powerful man on earth has been humbled by this act of a God whose name they never normally deign to mention."

Britain's Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, was frustrated by anti-Americanism when he went to Strasbourg to try to persuade the European Parliament to join in a common front against terrorism. Angered by his reception, he told the Europeans "This debate has illustrated the dangers and the desire of some political forces to spread poison, malice and disinformation about these difficult and problematic matters."

Later, he told the London Telegraph that "There are some political and national forces who have a knee-jerk anti-Americanism. It is very, very foolish indeed for the European Union to develop its policy and approach on the basis of anti-Americanism, whether on Iraq or whatever. There are elements of the EU that have a false view of the relationship between all these events. If there is anybody in the whole of the European Union who believes they are protected, or inoculated against terrorist attack on the basis that they did or did not take some particular policy decision at some particular moment in the international situation, they're wrong.'"

In the US, Francis Fukuyama, author and academic dean of Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies told a bipartisan forum on terrorism and security that Western Europe is a core recruiting ground for Muslim terrorists that is being overlooked given the U.S. focus on Iraq and the Middle East. The Washinton Post quotes him as having said that "The failure of European countries to assimilate their large and growing Muslim populations in the era of globalization has caused an alienation among the young that has created a 'hard core for terrorism'."

"'Fixing the Middle East is only part of the problem. It is a West European problem, too,' Fukuyama said. He pointed out that the leaders of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks came out of a cell in Hamburg and that most of the extremists participating in the more recent bombings in Spain and England were born in those countries."

If you have the time and the fortitude to read its 850-odd pages, the full Volcker Committee Report on the UN's Oil-for-Food failures is up on the UN website. It may be a cop-out, but I'm leaving that little job to Claudia Rosett, who I know will do a great job, and who, I suspect, has her nose in it right this moment.

It's worth noting that both the Telegraph and the London Times think Kofi Annan should resign. The Times says "The criticism in the report is trenchant and personal. He must heed it and draw the honourable and only possible conclusion."

Comparatively few people outside Brazil (I have a family connection) have heard of cachaca. It's a liquor made from distilling sugar cane juice, and until fairly recently it was a working man's drink - a raw, un-aged booze that could soften brains and shorten lives. Recently, however, cachaca has been going highbrow. As the imaginative LA Times food section says, it "has made a heady move up the social ladder in recent years. Like those other better-known New World distillates, rum and tequila, cachaca (ka-SHAH-sa) was originally a working man's drink but has lately been taken to new, more sophisticated heights by ambitious producers. Although very few of the thousands of cachacas made in Brazil are available in the United States, the drink is catching on here. It's part of the international fascination with all things Brazilian, and it's showing up in the US not only at Brazilian restaurants but also at fashionable bars and liquor retailers.

"Liquor stores aren't always quite sure what to do with it. Sometimes they stock it with the rums, sometimes among the tequilas, sometimes over on that odd shelf with the liqueurs. Brazilians rightly insist that cachaca belongs in a category of its own."

Actually it doesn't. It belongs with the rest of the rums. Although most rum is made from molasses, in the French West Indies, it is made from distilled sugar cane juice, just as cachaca is, and called Rhum Agricole. It is delicious, and at the upper end of the market, quite extraordinary. Try a bottle of Neissen Rhum Reserve Special from Martinique (it should cost about $60 in the US)...it will give you a new understanding of what rum can be.

She wasn't well known outside the Caribbean, but Dame Eugenia Charles, who died a few days ago, was a smart, independent and tough-minded Prime Minister of Dominica until 1995. Her support for the US invasion of Grenada made her a favourite of Ronald Reagan's, but not a favourite with some of the other political figures in the area, where conservative politics aren't popular. The Times says she died in a hospital on the French island of Martinique, where she had been taken for treatment after suffering a broken hip in a fall at home.

Ya gotta love experts - in the Middle East, they're saying Yasser Arafat had AIDS and died of poisoning. But in the US, they're saying that Arafat's Middle East doctors hadn't much of a clue, he didn't have AIDS and he died of a heart attack.

The bombings on the Paris Metro in 1995 were blamed on Islamic extremists - but they may have been carried out by Algerian officials worried that France was going to withdraw support from their junta/. The Guardian reports that the Algerian regime so infiltrated radical Islamist groups in Algeria that: "'It became impossible to distinguish the genuine Islamists from those controlled by the regime,' says Salima Mellah, of the NGO Algeria Watch. 'Each time the generals came under pressure from the international community, the terror intensified'. By January 1995, however, Algeria's dirty war began to falter. The Italian government hosted a meeting in Rome of Algerian political parties, including the FIS. The participants agreed a common platform, calling for an inquiry into the violence in Algeria, the end of the army's involvement in political affairs and the return of constitutional rule.

"This left the generals in an untenable position. In their desperation, and with the help of the DRS, they hatched a plot to prevent French politicians from ever again withdrawing support for the military junta. As Aggoun and Rivoire recount, French-based Algerian spies initially given the task of infiltrating Islamist networks were transformed into agent provocateurs. In spring 1995, Ali Touchent, an Algerian agent, began to gather and incite a network of disaffected young men from north African backgrounds to commit terrorist attacks in France. The DRS's infiltrators, led by Zitouni, also pushed the GIA to eliminate some of the FIS's leaders living in Europe."

07 September 2005

Today's the day the Volcker group's main report on the UN Oil-for-Food Scandal is to be published. Claudia Rosett in National Review Online is a little cynical about the event: "Now comes the grand unveiling of the main report, which will be known mainly through instant rehashes of its executive summary, until a hardier band take the needed time to digest the complete mega-document. But the early signs that there will be full disclosure or genuine assignment of responsibility - with serious consequences - are not promising. In a preface to the report, released Tuesday, the Volcker committee says it plans to disclose "serious instances of illicit, unethical and corrupt behavior within the United Nations". But the thrust of this preface from there is to blame all and sundry: the general assembly, the security council, and the secretariat. To blame all is in the end to blame none - at least not at the top.

"Signs, too, are that Annan has already seized on this report as the exoneration he prematurely claimed last March, when the Volcker committee released interim findings that Annan had failed to adequately inquire into the business dealings of his own son, Kojo Annan, with a major UN Oil-for-Food contractor. That interim judgment then excused Annan from serious blame on grounds the committee had found no evidence he influenced the contract. One of the three commissioners of the Volcker inquiry, Justice Richard Goldstone, already leaked word last month that investigators have found not a "tittle" of evidence implicating Annan in foul play related to his son's business activities."

Maybe. But the world's opinion of Kofi Annan has changed radically over the last few months. This Jerusalem Post, for example, comments that "Despite the current investigations into his brother, his son, his son's best friend, his predecessor's cousin, his former chief of staff, his procurement officer and the executive director of the UN's biggest ever program, the secretary-general insists he remains committed to staying on and tackling the important work of 'reforming' the UN." That doesn't sound like the kind of public opinion surface Annan's going to find it easy to walk on from now on.

Revalations about the Annan family's willingness to use the secretary general's position to improve their lot in life keep coming - the Financial Times is carrying a story this morning suggesting that "Kojo Annan...received more than $750,000 from several oil trading companies now under investigation for their role in the UN's oil-for-food programme (OFFP) for Iraq. The funds were dispatched between 2002 and 2003 to an account Kojo Annan opened under his middle name - Adeyemo - in a Swiss branch of Coutts bank, according to people familiar with the transactions and records from two of the companies that issued the payments." Somewhere else on the web there's a story that he managed to get a discount on an expensive car by flashing his famous father's name.

That kind of stuff is intensely corrosive, and I doubt the secretary general has enough stainless in his steel to survive for very long.

Aljazeera reports that Italy has expelled a Moroccan-born imam after anti-terrorism officials verified that he was responsible for "a serious disturbance of public order" and represented "a danger for the security of the state". Bourki Bouchta was picked up from his home in the northern city of Turin early on Tuesday and put on a plane bound for Morocco at Milan's Malpensa airport, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. The statement said authorities were considering taking similar measures against other foreigners in Italy.

Britain seems to have great difficulty doing the same sort of thing - the Telegraph is reporting that Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke is launching "an all-out challenge against human rights laws that prevent the deportation of terrorist suspects and their supporters. In a speech to MEPs in Strasbourg...the Home Secretary will call for the EU's judicial systems to be "rebalanced" to take account of the al-Qa'eda threat.

That reminds me of a famous phrase often lifted from a 1949 American Supreme Court case involving free speech. The court's majority opinion, written by Justice William O Douglas, who had strongly liberal views, overturned the conviction for disorderly conduct of a priest whose pro-Nazi ranting had started a riot.

But Justice Robert Jackson thought the conviction should have been upheld: "The choice," he wrote, "is not between freedom and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact."

Seems about right, doesn't it?

The Wall Street Journal calls Attorney General Eliot Spitzer New York's Lord High Executioner, and there is general agreement among businessmen that he gets where he wants to go as much by being a bully as by his talents as an investigator. But the nature of businessmen is that they understand better than other people what the cost of fighting too hard might be. As the New York Sun says, "Until now, only individuals facing personal loss, such as chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Grasso; and a broker for the Bank of America, Ted Sihpol, have dared to challenge the man."

Now, though, an investment advisory firm is going to try to do what others have so far failed to accomplish...stopping the attorney general of the state from trying to patrol areas already regulated by the federal government. The Sun says "Yesterday, Daniel Pollack, of Pollack & Kaminsky, filed a lawsuit before Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York on behalf of J & W Seligman & Company, and its president, Brian Zino. The lawsuit asks the court to enjoin the attorney general 'from involving himself in a matter reserved by Congress to the Securities and Exchange Commission.' Mr. Spitzer 'has done so by way of subpoenas and by threats to bring enforcement proceedings against Seligman for allegedly excessive advisory fees,' the lawsuit alleges..."

"Advisory fees, Seligman argues, is an area 'reserved by Congress to the SEC', and by 'seeking excessive power over Seligman in this area, the Defendant threatens to do violence to the regulatory scheme created by Congress.' Allowing Mr. Spitzer to start regulating this area 'would open the door to 50 different state attorneys general doing the same thing, thus defeating the carefully conceived and comprehensive federal regulatory scheme enacted by Congress.'"

This sort of hypocrisy is so common in the Middle East that it scarcely raises an eyebrow, yet... "A report published by Palestinian Media Watch revealed that after having signed a deal with the US for $50 million to help with housing and infrastructure, Palestinian Authority officials called to launch attacks against US soldiers and portrayed the US as 'an enemy'.

The Jerusalem Post reports that "PMW noted that in recent days PA religious officials in radio and television sermons described the US as 'the most heretic' among countries and as an enemy who is trying to dismantle the Islamic world. One of the officials called to intensify terror acts against US soldiers in the presence of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas."

My UK friend Brenda points to an article in the LA Times in which Niall Ferguson, the Brit who's an author and professor of history at Harvard, points out how ridiculous it is to be blaming natural disasters like Katrina on some kind of Divine judgement.

"...few Christian churches risk such strong moral medicine these days. No such inhibitions constrain today's Islamic extremists. Associated Press reported that they rejoiced in America's misfortune, giving the storm a military rank and declaring in Internet chatter that Private Katrina had joined the global jihad. With God's help, they declared, oil prices would hit $100 a barrel this year. It would be hard to get more tasteless.

"Yet the same underlying impulse - to interpret the disaster as confirmation of one's own ideological position - was at work among many American liberals too. Opponents of the war in Iraq were not slow to point out that National Guardsmen who should have been on hand to rescue hurricane victims were instead failing to prevent lethal stampedes in faraway Baghdad.

"And, inevitably, environmentalists could not resist portraying the storm as retribution for the Bush administration's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. After all, our consumption of fossil fuels causes global warming, and global warming leads to more frequent 'extreme weather events', not to mention rising sea levels. Could the prospect of even higher gasoline prices, as a direct result of storm damage, finally bring Americans to their senses about climate change?

"...The reality is, of course, that natural disasters have no moral significance. They just happen, and we can never exactly predict when or where."

06 September 2005

DEBKAfile (standard caution - this site uses raw intelligence which may or may not be accurate) says it has the skinny on the arrests of thos generals arrested in Lebanon the other day: "Another corner of the veil concealing the elaborate assassination conspiracy against Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri is lifted here by DEBKAfile's exclusive counter-terror sources.

"A key discovery by the UN inquiry team led by the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis is a secret headquarters the plotters set up in two luxury apartments in the upscale Beirut suburb of Hamra. One was used by the assassins as living quarters, the second housed advanced electronic jamming gear whose employment ensured the successful execution of the crime." The generals were silly enough to leave their fingerprints, apparently.

All of a sudden, we are having to alter our beliefs about the nature of the solar system in a pretty radical way. SpaceDaily says "Planetary science is awakening to the realization that our solar system contains many more planets than any 20th century textbook ever envisioned. It's not your father's solar system." Their fine story on the subject was headlined When Copernicus Smiled, which I thought was a nice touch.

Elsewhere, SpaceDaily talks of scientists being stunned by new pictures of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft - "Extraordinary pictures from Cassini...had many astronomers gasping in amazement at details that formerly they could only guess at, through Earth-bound telescopes or a snatched glance by NASA's Voyager spacecraft. One surprise is the sheer diversity of the clouds lurking in the depths of the atmosphere of Saturn, a gas giant like its slightly larger sibling, Jupiter."

This Washington Times story muses about the probable length of the war on terror, which it calls the Long War. That reminds me of Philip Bobbitt, the man who wrote the book The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, which has been called by some pretty serious people one of the most important works on international relations published during the last 50 years.

Bobbitt sees the wars of the 20th Century as being of a piece. The Long War, for he calls it that, as well, lasted continuously from 1914 until it was terminated by the Peace of Paris in 1990. It encompassed the First World War, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War - phases of a single conflict fought over a single set of constitutional issues. His Long War was fought between the proponents of what were initially three different visions of national welfare, those of the fascists, the communists, and liberal democrats. When only one was left standing, it was mistakenly assumed by many that this particular form of the nation state had triumphed, and that, as Francis Fukuyama famously put it, history was finally at an end.

That wasn't quite correct - the liberal democratic nation state evolved, and is now in the process of turning itself into something else - the market state. I'm not sure how, with his eyes fixed on such a long expanse of history, he'd see the war on terror - a bloody, but relatively unimportant mopping up, perhaps?

AP seems to have acquired a draft copy of the foreword from the Volcker report on the UN Oil-for-Food scandal, and says, as we did last week, that Koffi Annan's going to be criticised again. The AP report is being carried by scores of newspapers, including the Fulton Daily Ledger in Illinois. I didn't look at them all, but in a random sampling of half a dozen, AP's spelling mistake - forward instead of foreward - was repeated in every one. But only a Neanderthal would expect an editor to know how to spell, in these halcyon days of computerised spell-checking. Right?

You know, it's early in the morning and whether I had too much sleep or too little, the net effect is that I can't think of a thing to say about this, um...interesting...report from Tokyo, published in the London Times. Bummer.

Oz Blogger Arthur Chrenkoff reports, in his twice-monthly compilation of good news from Afghanistan, that it has begun to rain. What that means, he says in the Wall Street Journal, is that a seven-year drought has broken. It had turned fields into monochrome plains of brown dust. "But good snows and rains have many Afghans seeing color again - seas of golden wheat undulate in the breeze, green apricot trees are plump with yellow fruit, melons of every hue dot fields. It is much-needed relief for impoverished farmers as well as the estimated 3.4 million Afghans who have been relying on food handouts from overburdened international aid groups.

"One wheat farmer sees the end of the drought as a sign that God is pleased with the country's fledgling democracy. 'Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has started to recover from the drought and people's lives have been getting better,' said Fazah Rahman, 36. 'In previous years, no one even bothered to plant crops because our lands were dry like a desert, but that has all changed and everyone is sowing their land,' he said.

"Mohammed Sharif-Sharif, a senior official at the Agricultural Ministry, said the harvest is exceeding expectations. 'This year, we will be in need of less food aid from other countries,' he said. 'In the past seven years, nearly all our wheat was imported. But fortunately, it will significantly drop this year.'"

05 September 2005

A couple of days ago, I linked to one of the articles on Britain that fill the latest issue of the New Criterion (what an excellent magazine that is). I'd like to recommend another - this one written by Daniel Johnson, who writes the New York Sun's London Letter column. The British are embarrassed by talk of intellectuals, he says. Their attitude has meant "The British are returning to the state in which Bacon found himself more than seven centuries ago when, as he exclaimed, 'there are not five men in Latin Christendom who are acquainted with the Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic grammar,' while scholars 'neglect and condemn the sciences of which they are ignorant.'

"A new dark age threatens, in which knowledge of all kinds is instantly accessible, but the majority even of the educated are incurious about anything beyond their immediate purview, and those who are cultivated enough to put knowledge to good use are fast dying out."

As what nowadays, in this part of the world, is called a yoot, I thought Nelson Riddle was a guy who specialised in taking the fizz out of decent seltzer (which should tell you something about the distance that lies between me and my yoothood). It wasn't until I heard Linda Ronstadt's album, What's New, that I realised what a terrible mistake I had made. The San Franciso Chronicle gets it about right when it says "He was the master colorist of American popular music, an artful arranger who seamlessly blended Basie and Debussy, strings and saxophones, French horn, guitar, tiptoeing harps and tart, muted trumpets."

The Chronicle talked to his son Christopher, who took over his father's orchestra when he died, and got him to tell a story or two.

"...Riddle's final project was the Blue Skies album with opera soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, whom he coached in the subtleties of singing Kern and Berlin. Floating over Riddle's gossamer arrangements, she said, 'I felt like I was singing on a cushion of air.'"

Riddle was famous for the work he did with Frank Sinatra, but was wary of getting too close to him. Sinatra must have picked that up, because he failed to appear when he was supposed to emcee a tribute to Riddle in 1979. That killed their relationship.

"In '83, pop singer Linda Ronstadt asked Riddle to arrange Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry for her - it's on Only the Lonely, which Ronstadt adores. Riddle said he'd arrange a whole record, but not just one song. The result was What's New?, which opened a new path for Ronstadt and hipped younger listeners to Riddle, who made two more records with her.

"Christopher Riddle recalled Ronstadt walking to the stage at a Beverly Hills fundraiser in '84 and, as she passed Sinatra's ringside table, playfully saying, 'I hear you've been singing some of my songs.'

"Somebody in the band said, 'I hope he's not armed tonight,' Riddle recalled. 'Sinatra was seething.'"

Chocolate hand grenades? Exploding plums? Flaming eggs? From the guys who did for uniforms what Michaelangelo did for chapels? There must be some mistake.

Whimsy must be almost as rare in Guardian editorials as slender-billed curlews are in Suffolk, but send me the form - I've had a sighting. It's all about Kenneth Clarke and the cell phone he may or may not own, and if those of you on the left bank are puzzled by the references to Wisden and Andrew Flintoff, it's all about cricket, too.

04 September 2005

This is something rare for the American press just at the moment - a sober, straight-up look at what might have screwed up FEMA's ability to respond quickly and effectively to the Katrina disasters. It's from the Washington Post: "Despite four years and tens of billions of dollars spent preparing for the worst, the federal government was not ready when it came at daybreak on Monday, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior officials and outside experts.

"Among the flaws they cited: Failure to take the storm seriously before it hit and trigger the government's highest level of response. Rebuffed offers of aid from the military, states and cities. An unfinished new plan meant to guide disaster response. And a slow bureaucracy that waited until late Tuesday to declare the catastrophe 'an incident of national significance,' the new federal term meant to set off the broadest possible relief effort." Must-read stuff.

There's nothing like a fiery row, is there? One has broken out between graying members of the Black Panthers, on the one side, and Huey Newton's widow, Frederika, and her business partner, David Hilliard, who was among those who founded the Panthers, on the other. The Telegraph is dishing the dirt this morning. It revolves around a Newton/Hilliard plan to release a barbecue sauce - the Burn Baby Burn Revolutionary Hot Sauce (described on that website as "a revolutionary hot sauce with a taste straight out of the '60s, whatever that might mean). Other Black Panthers have accused the pair of 'ripping off the movement's legacy' and trying to 'privatise the party so only they can use it'."

I think the Black Panthers were a gang of profoundly stupid, criminal hot doggers and fashionista poseurs who did more harm to the black cause around the world than the Klan ever dreamed of doing. If they're true to form, it will all end in gunfire.

I saw this story, about an Israeli offer to help with Katrina recovery, and cynically thought that, as has happened many times before in similar circumstances, the rest of the world would ignore it. So I checked. Not a bit of it - even alJazeera covered it - not very prominently, perhaps, but it got a mention. From that newspaper, I learned that "Despite differences with Washington, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, UAE, and Azerbaijan were among dozens of countries that offered financial aid and other assistance to help ease the suffering of the victims of Hurricane Katrina."

I know the US finds it hard to think of itself as a nation that needs anyone's help, but I found myself hoping, as did al Jazeera, that it will be smart enough to swallow its pride and accept help from wherever it can. The symbolism involved could be extraordinarily powerful.

I figured Uncle Fidel would make a speech, and found the text of it on Prensa Latina. If you haven't read one of his speeches before, try this one. It is typical - no one in the world talks as much as he does. But his speeches are like the way he is physically - long and gawky, but somehow also graceful and charming. This is a tiny fraction of what he said:

"If there is anything we can offer that may be considered important - primarily thanks to the experience we have dealing with hurricanes and in the implementation of measures to protect, evacuate and offer assistance to the population, among other things - it is in the area of medical services. Following the catastrophic events of September 11, Cuba was the first country to offer the United States support. Upon receiving news that there were planes in the air that could not be authorized to land on US airports, we immediately offered our airports and, later, we offered what we were in a position to offer: medical assistance, in response to the magnitude of the damage and the immense number of potential victims.

"We're closer to New York than California is. Aid from Cuba can reach New York before aid coming from California, it's a three-hour trip from Cuba to New York. I believe it's twice that time from California to New York.

"Anyway, we offered medical assistance. It wasn't a ridiculous gesture, since sometimes a blood transfusion can save someone's life, and a rare blood type may be required. One, two, three, ten lives, that's not the issue: if you can save one life, you're duty-bound to save it."

The New York Times thinks that email is going to mean a sea-change in the biography business. In an article in the Book Review, where she is an editor, Rachel Donadio says: "Today, a new challenge awaits literary biographers and cultural historians: e-mail. The problem isn't that writers and their editors are corresponding less, it's that they're corresponding infinitely more - but not always saving their e-mail messages. Publishing houses, magazines and many writers freely admit they have no coherent system for saving e-mail, let alone saving it in a format that would be easily accessible to scholars. Biography, straight up or fictionalized, is arguably one of today's richest literary forms, but it relies on a kind of correspondence that's increasingly rare, or lost in cyberspace."

She doesn't mention it, but a related problem - the speed with which technology spawns new and better ways of storing digital files - is also posing problems for archives around the world, which can't quite figure out which one to use.


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

Article Archive

2003 Index


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