...Views from mid-Atlantic
17 September 2005

Victor Davis Hansen has a go at the press coverage of New Orleans after Katrina in the Washington Times this morning: "For all the media efforts to turn the natural disaster of New Orleans into either a racist nightmare, a death knell for one or the other political parties or an indictment of American culture at large, it was none of that at all. What we endured instead were slick but poorly educated journalists, worried not about truth but about pre-empting their rivals with an ever more hysterical story, all in a fuzzy context of political correctness about race, the environment and the war.

"Let ghoulish CNN file suit against the government to film all the bloated corpses it can find. Let a pontificating PBS 'NewsHour' conduct more televised roundtables with grim-faced elites searching out purported national racism. But few any longer trust a frenzied media whose reporters and commentators continually prove as incompetent as they are disingenuous.

And on that subject, City Journal star Heather MacDonald adds a corollary: "While the race-mongers try to stoke blacks' suspicion of whites, the public is showing that it regards all Americans, whatever their color or economic situation, as brothers and sisters. That people are giving so feverishly in spite of the competing images of looting by the flood victims and the reports of murder and rape is even stronger proof that racism has lost its grip on the American mind: the givers are refusing the bigot's reaction of impugning an entire race by the loathsome behavior of a few."

I've posted before about the Telegraph's recent discovery of counterfeit documents in the files at the British National Archives. It now appears that Scotland Yard has begun to conduct an investigation.

"The first batch of counterfeit papers uncovered by the Telegraph suggested that Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was murdered by British intelligence agents in May, 1945. They were used to support claims in a book, Himmler's Secret War, by Martin Allen, that the man who implemented Hitler's Final Solution for the Jews of Europe was eliminated with the full knowledge of Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet.

"Further inquiry, partly with the help of Dr Audrey Giles, former head of Scotland Yard's Questioned Documents unit, showed other papers had also been forged and slipped into files at the archives' offices in Kew, south-west London."

On the subject of investigations, another has begun in Britain into the truth of the long-running rumour that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stole the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles from a young friend, then murdered him to keep his plagiarism secret. The Times reports that a group of scientists and amateur detectives has formally applied for permission to exhume the body of journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson from a grave in Ipplepen, on the edge of Dartmoor, to establish, by forensic testing, whether he was poisoned. My personal opinion, as I think I may have said before, is that this one is a complete crock from start to finish, but it is going to do a great job of selling the book.

Robert Hughes has a great little shy at Edvard Munch in advance of an exhibition of his paintings at the Royal Academy in London next month. Writing in the Guardian with his usual, rock-hard self-assurance, Hughes says "It is hardly surprising that someone as miserable and self-obsessed as Munch should have painted so many self-portraits. They number in the hundreds, and a large show of them will go on view at the Royal Academy next month. If there was ever a time since Munch's death that they seem to fit, it is the present - current art is not merely interested in, but in places obsessed with, the depiction of human powerlessness, of anti-heroism, of admissions that the world is spinning too fast and its contents are too strange to make sense of - and Munch's ways of self-depiction are a continuous admission of such feelings. He was an extremely, almost incredibly, shameless painter, never afraid of showing weakness, because he believed that the human psyche, far from being the centering and mastering apparatus of traditional portraiture, was unhinged by its nature, in its very essence. Long ago, with a few brave exceptions, painting disengaged itself from the task of describing sexual longing and actual sexual relations. Picasso was one of the last painters to immerse himself in that sea of experience. Munch, 20 years Picasso's senior, was one of the first to cast himself into it in its raw and relatively unmapped state. Part of Munch's impact, a very large part, comes from his complete lack of decorum, and it produces the same kind of feelings as the very late Picassos do - something close to embarrassment, but furious in its urgency despite its apparent repetitiveness. If his self-portraits sometimes give you the willies - this scowling, anguished, screwed-up old man, his apparent state of mind so much in contrast with the bright, lashing brushwork - it's because the willies were all he had, and he had to trust those willies, having so little else."

16 September 2005

"If Gordon Brown and his high-spend, high-tax allies persist, Britain's economic performance will continue deteriorating until it stagnates like Germany, Italy and France," claims Richard W Rahn, director general of the Center for Global Research, in the Washington Times this morning. "The good news is, if the coalition for tax cutting, spending and regulatory restraint can gain power either within Labour or more likely by replacing Labour, Britain can again become the engine of economic growth within the EU. Unfortunately, the majority of Conservative politicians still seem to be very slow learners, and it is not at all certain they will learn the way to regain power is to advocate a flat tax and tax cuts."

Thousands of pages of documents that an investigator took with him when he quit the UN oil-for-food probe will be given back to the UN, but only after Congress completes its own examination of the humanitarian program, officials announced yesterday. ABC News, noting that "Robert Parton resigned from the UN-backed Independent Inquiry Committee in April, reportedly because he believed it ignored evidence critical of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan," says a deal has been reached which will allow Parton to talk to all three congressional committees investigating oil-for-food. The United Nations will drop charges that he violated a confidentiality agreement, and Rep Henry Hyde's committee (to which Parton gave the documents) will return the material once it completes its own inquiries into oil-for-food and Volcker's committee itself."

In the swirl of coverage of UN reform and what was to be done to relieve world poverty, it was easy to forget that there was another fascinating event playing itself out on that stage - Ariel Sharon making his first speech ever there, in the wake of the evacuation of settlements from Gaza. His hand has been said to have been shaken by a great many leaders, including Muslim leaders, who have praised him for his courage and ability in confronting the powerful settlement lobby for the first time, and winning. Sharon is making it as clear as he can to everyone he meets in New York that Gaza is the test for the Palestinians. If they can make Gaza work, there is something to talk about for the West Bank. If they cant make Gaza work, then Israel will carry on as now, building the separation/security/fence/wall between Israel and the Palestinians to include the main settlement blocs so the fence pierces the West Bank in a number of places like fingers but only takes up about 8 percent of the entire area.

But he wanted the gathered leaders to hear some other things as well. As the New York Times noted in its coverage, he opened his address by saying, bluntly, "I arrived here from Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for over 3,000 years, and the undivided and eternal capital of the State of Israel." He said, too, that he hoped "the comprehensive reforms that the United Nations is undergoing in its 60th anniversary year will include a fundamental change and improvement in the approach of the United Nations, its organizations and institutions, toward the State of Israel."

The Palestinian Authority's representative at the UN sat silently through the speech, and did not join in the applause when it ended.

Bermuda's police and prosecutors damaged their reputation internationally with a thoroughly inept investigation and prosecution of two men they thought were involved in the horrifying murder of a young Canadian tourist some years ago. Recently, they dismissed as a suicide the death of a Cayman Islands accountant and businessman at a local hotel, despite facts the man's parents and friends insist were inconsistent with suicide. According to Caribbean Net News, our boys in blue are now backing away from their initial diagnosis. They are said to be "in the United States talking with the parents of deceased Dimitri Pappas about their son's death. And this time the police are no longer talking suicide but are, as they described it, discussing other theories. According to Dimitri's mother, Sue Kongsli: 'Two officers from the Bermuda police met with me, my husband and my lawyer recently.' She said they were scheduled to meet with Dimitri's father, on 15 September.

What is particularly disturbing to those interested in Bermuda's good reputation as a place of justice and mature policing is this paragraph from the Cayman News story: "Other sources in Bermuda said that new interest from the international network television powerhouse, CBS's 48 hours - sparked by Cayman Net News stories online, as well as local media in Bermuda - is another reason for the change in the investigation."

Thanks for the tip, Stephen.

There is a lot more coverage this morning of the Hitchens/Galloway debate on Wednesday night, some of it good, some of it not so good. The Wall Street Journal focused its attention on George Galloway, who offends its sensibilities in a big way: "...This was no debate. A debate, by definition, requires two people to defend their convictions. Mr. Galloway has no obvious convictions, or at least none that are defensible. This is a man who is antiwar, yet supports those who fight war against us. He accuses America of supporting dictators, yet in July traveled to Syria to praise its tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. He claims to have known that Saddam massacred his own people in 1988, yet went to Baghdad six years later to 'salute' the monster for his 'courage' and 'strength'. Nor is Mr. Galloway in any way a debater. His talent - if that's what you'd call it - is in whipping mindless crowds into furious hysteria over perceived bogeymen. There are historical precedents here, and let's just say that as the waves of Galloway outrage and anger ripped across the auditorium I half-expected his acolytes to break into a 'Heil!' or two."

Perhaps the best account of the bunch was published in the New York Sun, written by New Criterion editor Roger Kimball. Sadly, it is available only to those who have a Sun subscription. Kimball led on the atmosphere at Mason Hall: "It was like 1968 all over again. The long lines in front of Mason Hall at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center on 23rd Street snaked around the block in both directions. The air was heavy - with the sultry stickiness of late summer, the acrid tang of incense, the excited murmurs of aging activists in shabby clothes sporting 'Impeach Cheney' buttons, passing out copies of 'Worker's World', advising us to 'Tell the criminals in the White House to stop the war.'"

Kimball, too, focused on Galloway's thuggishness, but was alarmed by the audience's reaction to him. "Low comedy? Yes. And it's comic, too, that Mr. Galloway should be embarking on an 'anti-war tour' around America and Canada with Jane Fonda.

"Less funny is the fact that at least 1,000 of the people huddled in Mason Hall on Wednesday do not regard Mr. Galloway as a deranged comedian. They look upon him as a political sage, a voice of freedom, a speaker of truth to power. It is pathetic. It is also vicious. Granted, George Galloway is in some ways a ridiculous figure. But he reminds us of the astringent truth that the preposterous has no trouble cohabiting with the malevolent."

Perhaps the worst coverage was in the Guardian, whose correspondent seemed to think it was a competition to see who could come up with the ugliest insult. Since his coverage focused on the insult trading almost exclusively, it must have been on that basis that Gary Younge declared Galloway the winner on points. He ended by saying "Sadly, by the end of the night, few could remember what the point was." I don't suppose that can be called a Freudian slip, but it was certainly the silliest of remarks from a man who paid not the slightest bit of attention to the point in his coverage.

15 September 2005

Claude Salhani, international editor of United Press International, writes in the Washington Times this morning that Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to investigate the Hariri bombing in Lebanon, is likely to name Baher Assad, the Syrian president's brother, as one of those involved. "...The Syrian regime fears Mehlis may include two names on the suspects list: One of the most significant figures is Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazaleh, former chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and who recently retired, and Maher Assad, the president's brother. 'Ghazaleh may be handed over as quick as a fax,' the source who asked to remain anonymous told UPI. 'But there is no way the president will hand over his brother to an international tribunal ... The president would rather face sanctions than turn on his brother.'"

There wasn't a lot of coverage this morning of the Hitchens-Galloway debate held last night in New York. James Bone, the London Times's New York correspondent, wrote the only substantial piece I could find, a piece in which, frankly, he appeared not to have understood a great deal of what he saw.

I was able to watch a live webcast of the event through Democracy Now!, an independent news service. The picture quality of the broadcast (or perhaps my monitor) wasn't up to much, so I'm unable to say whether Hitchens was scruffy and sweating, as James Bone seems to have thought.

It was a pretty unsatisfying event. Only Hitchens tried to justify and defend his position as you'd expect of a debater. If you're looking for winners and losers in that sense, he won the debate easily, almost by default. But in the sense that it was an intellectual prize fight, 'the grapple in the Apple' as it was billed, both men lost, and both, I thought, were defeated at their own hands.

Galloway, I think, misjudged the intelligence and nature of his audience. He seemed to think he could sway them with the kind of claptrap and demagoguery that he would have used on a political audience in his political constituency in Britain. By the time it occurred to him that they weren't a completely anti-war crowd, and wanted to weigh facts, not just fine-sounding but ultimately empty words, he was nearly out of time. He also made the mistake of rather intemperately criticising not just the Bush administration, which the audience would have felt was fair enough, but America and Americans, which wasn't smart. His best moments came at the end, when he argued, essentially, that the Iraq War had made the world a more dangerous place. But by then, he was far behind on points, both he and the audience seemed to have become a little bored with the debate, and it profited him very little.

Having watched him bamboozle an awful lot of people during his appearance before a Congressional committee a few weeks ago, it was greatly satisfying to me, however, to see Galloway expose himself as a fraud...a stupid and dishonest man with little more than a quick tongue to recommend him.

Both Galloway and Hitchens came across as being too interested in punching below the belt. Galloway called Hitchens a slug, for example, which was way over the top. Having made some good points about Galloway's honesty at the beginning, Hitchens would have been smart to stop with the insults. Instead, he tried so hard, at every turn, to expose Galloway as a villain that his arguments became convoluted and unwelcome.

Unlike Galloway, Hitchens is a highly intelligent man with a good command of both facts and language. He seemed surprised and a little at a loss because Galloway offered him so little in the way of solid argument. It might have helped if he had spent his time developing his case and pointing out how little was coming from his opponent. Instead, he became arch and perhaps a little childish. Getting so little real argument from Galloway, he began to argue with the audience, instead. The heckling wasn't audible on the broadcast I was listening to, but it obviously annoyed Hitchens, who kept warning people that they were going to be ashamed when they saw themselves on C-Span. It was such a distraction that it pretty much stopped the debate in its tracks. Not a great performance at all.

One final observation - Amy Goodman, (whoever she might be) made a Horlicks of her job as moderator. Quite why she should have tried to ask questions of the debaters in the middle of a debate that needed no help from her, I don't know. She made her position on the war abundantly clear very quickly - she was against it. The questions she asked seemed designed to advance her point of view, rather than elicit important information or direct the argument in one way or another. There was nothing particularly intelligent or incisive about them - in fact, one or two were downright silly. She asked Galloway to say, for example, in one word, whether he thought American forces should leave Iraq immediately. He seemed a little taken aback by that, and thereafter completely ignored her instructions.

All in all - it was like a poor meal at a really good restaurant.

Zadie Smith's new book, On Beauty, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. Her first novel, White Teeth, and her second, The Autograph Man, were longlisted for the prize. In the Guardian this morning, there is an excerpt from On Beauty that really is worth reading - it's about Greta Garbo: "Her vulnerable, changeable face is what comes prior to the emphatic mask of a beautiful woman - she is the ideal of beauty that those masks attempt to capture. Post-Garbo, we have taken what resonated in Garbo's fluid sexuality and mystery and hardened it, made it a commodity.

"Take Garbo's heavy, deep-set eyelids: these have become the mark of the diva, passing down through Marlene, to Marilyn and, more recently, to Madonna, in whom they have become ironic. Hers is the ultimate modern Garbo face, attached to a worked-out body, and also to the idea of female ambition and talent. The idea of Garbo is somehow more elevated than that - it doesn't even condescend itself to the pursuit and fulfilment of talent. It merely 'is'."

Victor Li, a civil and engineering professor at the University of Michigan, has created a concrete suffused by synthetic fibers that make it stronger, more durable and capable of being bent like metal, the Christian Science Monitor says.

"Li's creation does not require reinforcement, a property shared by other concretes that use chemical additives called plasticizers to reduce the amount of water in their composition. Using less water makes concrete stronger, but until the development of plasticizers, it also made concrete sticky, dry, and hard to handle, says Christian Meyer, a civil engineering professor at Columbia University...

"A more directly 'green' concrete has been developed by the Australian company TecEco. They add magnesium to their cement, forming a porous concrete that actually scrubs carbon dioxide from the air."

14 September 2005

Claudia Rosett weighs in on Kofi Annan and UN reform in the National Review this morning: "It seems at this stage that no one expects managerial competence or integrity from Annan. It is enough that he presides over a global icon, runs programs disbursing billions worth of other people's money, and performs well at parties. It is perhaps pleasing to Russia, France, and China that last October he denounced as 'inconceivable' the idea that their positions in the debate over Saddam's Iraq could have been influenced by Saddam's payoffs (and ensuing opportunities for blackmail).

"These are not qualifications for overseeing a sweeping reform of the UN. Nor do Annan's proposals for reform in any way overcome his personal failings. His chief contribution to the future of his imploding institution has been a list of treadworn proposals, a few with merit, but most of them devoted to taking what's wrong with the UN, making it even bigger, and demanding more money to pay for it.

"Having evidently learned nothing from Oil-for-Food, Annan's pet plan these days is that rich nations contribute an automatic 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product for official development aid to poor countries - much of that presumably to be channeled through the UN. However lofty the intent, the design is perverse, not least in diverting yet more money from the private sector - which is the real source of development - toward some of the world's worst crooks. The UN is the leading global clubhouse legitimizing the dictators whose policies produce the world's worst poverty. (Watch for their motorcades on Fifth Avenue this week). And until the UN centers its reforms not around shaking down rich donors, but around true transparency and responsible, accountable leadership, sending another flood of money its way is not a recipe for development. It is an invitation for yet more scandal and corruption."

Some of those Americans held hostage in Iran 25 years ago strongly disagree with the CIA's decision to clear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of charges that he was one of those who kidnapped and held them. The New York Sun reports this morning that they are "demanding that the CIA turn over a classified report that they say wrongly cleared Iran's new president of his role in interrogating them during the 444-day hostage crisis in Iran that began on November 4,1979. Incensed that the Bush administration failed to investigate properly Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's role in the hostage crisis, they have launched a campaign ahead of his speech this week at the United Nations to hold the Iranian leader to account."

The Economist is carrying a very nicely-done summary of what the UN is calling "the draft outcome document", the reform plan which is to be put before world leaders on Wednesday September 14th. The magazine touches on each of the crucial issues the document contains: humanitarian intervention, the definition of terrorism, creating a so-called Peacebuilding Commission, a new human-rights council, development, management reform, and expanding membership of the Security Council.

Michael Kinsley is leaving the Los Angeles Times after a controversial 14-month stint as editorial page editor. Kinsley once edited both Harper's and the New Republic, and was the left-leaning co-host of CNN's political talk show Crossfire, opposite conservative Pat Buchanan. He helped found the online magazine Slate before being hired in April, 2004, by then-Editor John Carroll to run The Times's daily and Sunday opinion and editorial pages. The paper saw the hiring as such important news that it put the story on the front page."

But according to the Times this morning, the marriage didn't take. "The 54-year-old editor's reputation within the paper was mixed. He won praise for sharpening the focus of editorials and eschewing a single orthodoxy. But he alienated much of his own staff through his personnel moves and an apparent preoccupation with international and national affairs at the expense of local issues.

"Kinsley's innovations included full-page color cartoon strips on the cover of the Sunday Opinion section, recently redesigned and renamed Current. An attempt to let readers rewrite an editorial on the Internet, a so-called 'Wikitorial,' had to be killed when online vandals posted expletives on The Times website.

"'He was trying to remake the editorial pages and the Sunday section, to make them more engaging. I think he was trying for a younger demographic,' said Bill Boyarsky, a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and former city editor of The Times. 'The idea of trying to change things was good. But what he did and the way it turned out was bad.'"

Hayao Miyazaki's new film, Howl's Moving Castle is opening in Britain on September 23. He has been called the world's greatest animator, but according to the Guardian, which interviewed him during a visit to Venice, he is fatalistic about the future of hand-drawn cell animation. "If it is a dying craft we can't do anything about it. Civilisation moves on. Where are all the fresco painters now? Where are the landscape artists? What are they doing now? The world is changing...I am very pessimistic. But when, for instance, one of my staff has a baby you can't help but bless them for a good future. Because I can't tell that child, 'Oh, you shouldn't have come into this life.' And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction. So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making."

13 September 2005

Christopher Hitchens, due to debate George Galloway on Wednesday night, has been doing a little preparation. In Slate, under the headline George Galloway Is Gruesome, Not Gorgeous - Now, watch me debate him, Hitchens isn't working to soften Galloway up as much as he is to soften up his audience, warning them that "Galloway's preferred style is that of vulgar ad hominem insult, usually uttered while a rather gaunt crew of minders stands around him. I have a thick skin and a broad back and no bodyguards.

"He says that I am an ex-Trotskyist (true), a 'popinjay' (true enough, since its original Webster's definition means a target for arrows and shots), and that I cannot hold a drink (here I must protest). In a recent interview he made opprobrious remarks about the state of my midriff, which I will confess has - as PG Wodehouse himself once phrased it - 'slipped down to the mezzanine floor.'

"In reply I do not wish to stoop. Those of us who revere the vagina are committed to defend it against the very idea that it is a mouth or has teeth. Study the photographs of Galloway from Syrian state television, however, and you will see how unwise and incautious it is for such a hideous person to resort to personal remarks. Unkind nature, which could have made a perfectly good butt out of his face, has spoiled the whole effect by taking an asshole and studding it with ill-brushed fangs."

Seems perfectly fair comment to me.

Winning the Ashes back from Australia after nearly 20 years has done very special for the morale of the Brits. I thought this was a particularly good story about it in, of all places, the LA Times, which quotes one man has having said: "It's made cricket once again what it used to be when I was a child - a national religion."

Arthur Chrenkoff, the Oz blogger who has twice monthly published columns in the Wall Street Journal that focus on the good news from Iraq and Afghanistan, is quitting. In his last column this morning he says: "It has been almost a year and a half since I first started compiling the often under-reported and overlooked stories of positive developments in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. Now I must say goodbye. I have no doubt that good news will continue to come out of the Middle East and Central Asia, but a change in my work circumstances unfortunately prevents me from chronicling it in the future. The trend has been set, however, and I'm sure others will rise to the task of filling the news void and redressing the media's negativity.

"Big thanks go to James Taranto, editor of this Web site, who alone in the mainstream media had the courage, imagination and foresight to provide a regular forum for the good news. Big thanks also to all the readers for your support and encouragement. I do not know how Iraq and Afghanistan will look in five or 10 years, but I hope for the best. If, despite the horrendous problems and the enormous challenges, both countries manage to make it through and join the international family of normal, decent and peaceful nations, it will be all due to the amazing spirit and commitment of the majority of their people, and to the crucial help of the coalition members, their soldiers and their citizens. If that does indeed happen, many will wonder just exactly how these two countries, seemingly only in the news when the blood flows, have ever managed to get there. But you, having read these roundups, will not be surprised."

Chrenkoff provided a unique and highly valuable service to readers, and in doing so, reflected great credit on the brand-new world of bloggers. Somebody needs to give him a medal. Or a boot full of Fosters, maybe.

One of the little-known facets of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was the fact that negotiations went on behind the scenes to save the elaborate greenhouses the Israelis had built there. (The greenhouses employed about 3,500 people, and made a highly lucrative business in fresh produce for Jewish settlers while they were there.) Israeli and Palestinian diplomats did the formal stuff, but the hard work was done by former World Bank head James Wolfensohn, who is the international envoy for the Road Map principals, the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, there to observe Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. He knew that the Palestinians would desperately need employment and income, he knew the Israelis were planning to destroy the greenhouses to keep them out of Arab hands. So, early in August, he called Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the New York Daily News and a real estate tycoon, and asked him for help. Zuckerman sent out word to Jewish organisations in the United States for help. Within 48 hours, he received $14 million. Wolfensohn, incidentally, contributed $500,000 of his own money. Essentially, they bought the greenhouses for the Palestinians.

I relate all that to underline what an outrage it is that Palestinian security forces were unable (or whatever) yesterday to stop Palestinians from looting the greenhouses. The Jerusalem Post relates that although the Palestinian police seem to have been told how important it was to keep people away from the greenhouses, they failed miserably. So did the Egyptian border guards, who failed for a second straight day to control a rush across the Gaza-Egypt border, which was a formidable barrier when still patrolled by Israel. Gazans dug under walls and climbed over barriers to get to Egypt where they stocked up on cheap cigarettes, medication and cheese. The Post rather chastely comments that "The chaos raised new questions about the Palestinian forces' ability to impose order in Gaza."

It's the elephant in the room that everybody avoids talking about, isn't it? At the very best of times, the Palestinians would be unable to organise, as the phrase has it, a piss-up in a brewery. Really, they are their own worst enemy in the Middle East.

Negotiators reached a last-minute compromise at the United Nations last night to resolve their differences in time for this week's summit meeting on reforming the UN. According to the New York Times, "The draft document addresses seven main issues: a new human rights council to replace the discredited human rights commission; steps to promote development and reduce poverty; a new peace-building commission; a management overhaul; nuclear nonproliferation; terrorism and a measure to allow international intervention when countries fail to protect their populations from genocide.

"In many cases, the solution was to substitute specific goals with broad statements of principle, leaving the details to the upcoming yearlong General Assembly session. Progress had stalled over management reform because of resistance by some countries to proposals by the United States, Europe and other big donor countries to vest more power and executive flexibility in the secretary general's office. The nations of the developing world say they are reluctant to cede power from the General Assembly."

Meantime, Benon Sevan, the fugitive head of what has become known as the biggest swindle in human history, told the International Herald Tribune over the weekend that first, the Oil-for-Food programme was a resounding success, and second, to the extent that anything went wrong, it was the : Security Council's fault, not his. He doesn't, of course, address questions like the money that is alleged to have stuck to his fingers, or what he's doing hiding out in a country from which there is no extradition to the US.

And the Washington Times today publishes a review of a nicely-timed new book, The UN Gang: A Memoir of Incompetence, Corruption, Espionage, Anit-Semitism and Islamic Extremism at the UN Secretariat, written by one-time UN official Pedro Sanjuan.

"If you have been holding your breath awaiting punishment of UN officials involved in the Iraq oil for food scandal, you will exhale upon reading this book. Punishment won't happen any time soon, if ever. In this lively - though sometimes depressing - memoir of the author's years at the UN Secretariat, we quickly learn that corruption is endemic to the place. So are anti-Semitism, plotting by supporters of radical Islamism and lack of cost controls. Many departments seemingly report to no one. Audits are superficial and inconclusive. Whistleblowers are shipped to an internal Siberia. In the early 1980s, then-Vice President George H W Bush urged UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar to install Peter Sanjuan as director of political affairs at the Secretariat. Our then-ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, had recommended this, as there was no high-ranking American official in the UN apparatus to keep an eye on Soviet machinations there. As Mr. Sanjuan puts it, 'I was the only American spy.'"

12 September 2005

A new urban legend has been born, this one in the Islamic world. The Art Newspaper says: "Images of life-like sculptures of imaginary genetic mutants by the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini (what a name!) have been circulated around the Islamic world as a part of a hoax story about a girl from Oman who was turned into a beast by Allah after throwing away the Koran in a dispute with her mother. In April, an image of one of the figures from Leather landscape, a sculpture exhibited by Piccinini at the 2003 Venice Biennale, was posted with the story on a Sudanese Arabic language website, sparking a massive response from Muslims from everywhere from Nigeria to Afghanistan, and causing the Australian artist to be swamped with e-mail enquiries.

"The extraordinary urban legend appears to have originated in India in March, where news reports appeared of a girl in Pune who had turned into a lizard after kicking away the Koran in a similar argument with her mother, causing thousands of people to besiege a local hospital where the lizard girl was rumoured to be."

Guess the West doesn't have the corner on gibbering idiots it thought it did.

The Sun is angry, apparently. SPACE.com says: "An ongoing series of seven major solar flares, including two on Saturday, could disrupt communications on Earth and generate colorful sky shows for people at high northern latitudes for the next several days. Already satellites have been affected. Even more serious effects are possible this week.

"The spate of activity from the Sun is being generated by a large sunspot named 798. Sunspots are cooler and darker regions of pent-up magnetic activity. When they unleash their energy, it's a bit like the top coming off a shaken champagne bottle.

"The sunspot is just rotating into view, so its energy has been directed sideways and not directly at Earth. In coming days, if more major flares erupt as forecasters expect, they'll head right at us and radio blackouts, cell phone dropouts and other communications disruptions are more likely, scientists said."

This is a clever piece from Michael Kinsley in the Washington Post. "Of course, my job isn't to predict and prepare for disasters. My job is to recriminate when they occur. It's not easy. These days the recrimination business is overrun like Baton Rouge with amateurs, who are squatting on all the high ground. The fetid aroma of hindsight is everywhere.

"Sen. Mary Landrieu and other Louisiana politicians have been flashing their foresight all over the tube. They say they asked repeatedly for more money so that the Army Corps of Engineers could strengthen the levees, but repeatedly the Bush administration actually cut the Corps budget instead. The Corps itself is feeling pretty smug. It has long wanted money to build levees that would survive even a Category 5 hurricane, let alone a measly Category 4 such as Katrina.

"Sure, and if there were a Category 6 or a Category 473, there would be a dusty Corps of Engineers report in a filing cabinet somewhere asking for money to protect against that one, too. The Corps has done many marvelous things. But it would cement over the Great Lakes or level Mount Rainier if we would let it.

"Its warnings about natural disasters are like the warnings of that famous economist who has predicted 10 of the past five recessions."

Having published articles on both sides of the Atlantic a few days ago about the desperate need for reform in the world of Islam, Salman Rushdie reports in the London Times that he's had a good response from Muslims in Britain: "Several writers challenged me to take the next step and hypothesise the content of such a reform movement. The nine thoughts that follow form an initial response to that challenge, and focus primarily on Britain.

"It may well be that reform will be born in the Muslim diaspora where contact (and friction) between communities is greatest, and then exported to the Muslim majority countries. It would not be the first time such a thing has happened. The idea of Pakistan was shaped in England, too. So were the history-changing characters of Mahatma Gandhi, Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the pro-British Indian Muslim leader Sir Syed Ahmad Khan."

It's a pleasure to read so optimistic an article about so seemingly intractable a problem.

Tony Blair's term in office has been marked, in part, by stories that he has taken advice from people who should instead have been run out of town on a rail. He remains true to form, with news that he's being advised on Muslim matters by a dangerous lunatic who claims, according to the Telegraph, that the PM decided to wage war on Iraq after coming under the influence of a 'sinister' group of Jews and Freemasons. The lunatic in question is Ahmad Thomson, a Muslim barrister from the Association of Muslim Lawyers, and he says Mr Blair is the latest in a long line of politicians to have been influenced by the group, which saw the attack on Saddam Hussein as a way to control the Middle East. The Telegraph says "A Government spokesman confirmed last night that ministers and officials consulted Mr Thomson on issues concerning Muslims but refused to be drawn on his views. 'We talk to a lot of people, including many whose views we do not necessarily agree with,' she said." That's a silly, disingenuous way of looking at it. A better way is to remember the old saying that if you lie down with dogs, you'll wake up with fleas.

Sadly, Clarence Gatemouth Brown died yesterday, and is being honoured in obituaries on both sides of the pond. This one's from the Independent: "The guitarist and fiddle player Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown effortlessly straddled the disparate sound world of American roots music. Long regarded as a master within the Texan blues tradition, his fluid playing style was an important influence on iconic figures such as Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Frank Zappa. Brown's subsequent explorations of country, jazz, R&B and Cajun forms led to the creation of a potent hybrid that he dubbed, quite simply, 'true American music'."

This one's from the New York Times. "American music, Texas-style" was how Mr. Brown characterized his music, even making that phrase the name of one of his albums; he refused to call it blues and was scornful of musicians who let themselves be too easily understood by settling into a single sound. He disdained deep delta blues, calling it 'negative'. He wore a western shirt and a cowboy hat onstage, covered jazz numbers like Duke Ellington's Take the A Train and Lou Donaldson's Alligator Boogaloo, and sometimes played the fiddle, mandolin and harmonica in performance as well as the guitar.

Ontario's Premier has ruled out any adoption of sharia law in the province, according to the Globe and Mail. It seems, from the way it turned out, that the problem was that the Ontario government had already begun dabbling in allowing religions to play a part in matters normally dealt with by secular authorities, and was hard-pressed to figure out how to allow Jews and Christians to get in the game, but not Muslims. In the end, Ontario decided, correctly if painfully, that it had made a mistake in the first place, when it allowed religion-based settlements in matters involving such things as child custody and inheritances in the 1991 Arbitration Act, and now intends to change the law.

This is the first day of the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on the fitness of John Roberts to be president of the Supreme Court. The Wall Street Journal has a useful take: "For lovers of ballet, the...first day of hearings for John Roberts, beginning today at noon, will be easily recognizable: one danseur noble and 18 ballerinas fighting over a single tutu. When I (Manuel Miranda, former counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is going to cover the hearings for the WSJ) previously described the Senate's confirmation process as a kabuki dance, a reader suggested the proper comparison is to a Japanese Noh play where the actors appear in grotesque masks. Pretty good. Of course, a puppet show, with various interest-group heads pulling the strings comes easily to mind. But let's just say that it is a simple play, complete with a cast of characters."

11 September 2005

China's legendary Shaolin monks - Shaolin Temple is the birthplace of kungfu - seem to want in on the lucrative kungfu movie bandwagon. People's Daily says they're going to make their own movie and TV Series. Quoting sources at the 1,500-year-old temple, the Daily says "Shaolin Cultural Broadcast Company, an affiliated unity of the Shaolin Temple, said the new picture and TV series, both of which were named 'Legends of Monk Warriors from Shaolin Temple,' were based on a real story about martial-art monks who once lived at the Temple...

"The Shaolin Temple, located in central China's Henan Province, was famous for its martial arts, or kungfu. The Temple was built in 495 and abounds in the legendary stories on the martial monks. Among them was the one to be adapted for the new picture and TV series. The story occurred at around 1520 when the country was ruled by Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). At that time, 30 kungfu monks, headed by Yuekong, were sent by the Temple to join the Emperor's army to fight against the pirates rampant along the southeast China's coasts. Most of the monks died at the battle fields, said the company...a group of Shaolin monks would take part in action designed for the new film. Some monks will even play roles in it, according to the company."

And while we're on the subject of people flying through the air and whacking each other with poles and things, Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway are going to be doing that sort of thing in their debate on Iraq on Wednesday evening. Sparks of a very fine quality are expected to fly. The two of them are going to be debating Iraq in a kind of grudge match at the Baruch College performing arts centre in New York, an event for which tickets sold out weeks ago. I don't know of any plans to televise it, but if C-Span has anything on the ball...

It's hard to find any US publication writing about this heavyweight contest (the US press can be so fucking humourless at times), but the London Times is fairly salivating over it. As is the entire punditocracy.

Meet the Pastafarians from Oregon! The Telegraph tells us that "In the past few weeks, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has become perhaps the world's fastest-growing 'religion' and maybe its most improbable. While no one can be sure of the exact numbers of 'Pastafarians', as acolytes are called, they may number in the millions.

"All of which has come as something of a shock to Bobby Henderson, an unemployed physics graduate from Oregon. According to Mr Henderson, the FSM - as His Noodliness is sometimes known - 'revealed himself to me in a dream'. Like most mysterious prophets, Mr Henderson communicates with the outside world only occasionally, although this may be more to do with having only one telephone line to his home in the small town of Corvallis and a Google e-mail account swamped by hundreds of messages every day."

As observers try to guess what the Palestinians will do, tomorrow, once the Israeli Defence Force withdraws completely from Gaza, the Jerusalem Post publishes an interesting look at the possibilities through IDF planners' eyes: "The army has decided to view the upcoming period through the prism of four possible environments, each with its own opening fire regulations. These are: calm and coordination; increasing terror; limited terror, total terror.

"This means, for example, that a mortar shelling during a period of calm and coordination that does not cause any casualties may not elicit an Israeli response. But a similar attack could trigger a reinvasion of the Gaza Strip if it occurred during a period of intense strikes on Israeli communities. One of the assumptions in the IDF is that under the 'calm and coordination' scenario it would not engage in preemptive fire into Gaza from across the border and that all retaliation to, say, attempted infiltration by terror squads or tunneling under the barrier would be restricted to the moment the terrorists got to the fence.

"The army expects that its grocery list of responses to Palestinian attacks to be built according to the security environment as defined by the government. Thus, should the environment be 'limited terror,' the IDF could automatically stage a preemptive strike at, say a Kassam rocket squad detected as they prepared a strike from inside Gaza City."

The situation on the ground is that the bulk of the Israeli army is already outside Gaza after blowing up military positions, logistical installations and the Erez coordinating HQ Friday. The arrangement between Israeli and Palestinian officers is for an orderly handover of the Gaza Strip Monday, Sept 12, after the 12-hour withdrawal of the last Israel troops Sunday night.

Britain's Independent reviews the first Thinkpad put out by the Chinese company Lenovo since it took over IBM's PC division. "The X41 tablet...will be reassuringly familiar to Big Blue's existing customers. Lenovo intends to continue the Thinkpad line where IBM left off, and the X41 is an evolutionary product rather than a totally new design."


Art in Bermuda
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Helen Lives!
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More Doomsday Nonsense
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New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
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On Collecting Books - Part Two
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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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