...Views from mid-Atlantic
07 October 2006

This is a long, fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal about Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad al-Siniora. He did unexpected things during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. Anyone who has an idea of how labyrinthine and difficult Lebanese politics is must now admire him. He was one cunning son-of-a-bitch who brought off impossible things. And the fact that he's still in power, despite the efforts of others, including that evil man Nasrallah, to get rid of him, are a testament to his continued cunning. He cried, didn't he, in the middle of yet another Israeli assault? Something you don't often see in a politician. He told the Journal's Michael Young: "I don't react to every word I hear. I take it easy. I have a high degree of serenity...Yet the impact of those tears on all the Arab world was greater than a thousand rockets [Hezbollah] fired on Israel." Good read.

One of life's fundamental concepts - like the inadvisability of playing cards with a man named Doc, or eating at a place called Mom's - is that people who live in San Francisco are different from the rest of us. If you don't grasp that, here's your big chance to get your head around it. Here is a long story in the Chronicle, high up in the editorial batting order, about the fact that Gavin Newsom, the mayor, ventured outside his...well, I suppose it must be a mansion since he's the mayor...without putting gunk on his hair.

"At some point early Tuesday, the mayor of San Francisco decided to walk outside without slicking his hair back with a double scoop of shiny product - something he has been doing, as best as anyone can remember, since he was in the womb. There was no press conference or news release e-mailed to the media. He just strolled to a meeting in the Bayview and conducted business as usual, as if the whole world wouldn't notice that he suddenly transformed from Pat Riley coaching the 1987 Lakers to Hugh Grant in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'.

"It's easy to scoff that the mayor's hair isn't news - especially when it's possible that this was a one-time experiment and he may be back on the gel already. (My attempts to contact Newsom's people about this matter either weren't received by press time or were mocked outright and then ignored. If I were part of his team, I'd probably choose the latter option.) But Newsom has always cast himself as a man of the people, and the people clearly like to talk about his hair. Searching 'Gavin and Newsom and hair' on Google reveals 86,900 articles. 'Gavin and Newsom and Muni' yields just 81,700.

"Newsom without his hair gel is like ZZ Top without the beards, or Ricardo Montalban without the accent. It would be no greater shock if Ronald McDonald showed up in a commercial wearing dreadlocks."

Ronald McDonald.

You have to admire the mind of a man who is able to fill what I imagine must be most of a page with a discussion about whether his iPod's random choices are really random or not. We're getting into rather a strange area for me, that in which progress is leaving me behind. I don't, and wouldn't, own an iPod, because I don't see the attraction of not being able to hear what's going on around me. For that matter, I don't own a mobile phone, because I value my privacy to the extent of having to fight the urge to throw all the ordinary phones in the house into a brimming bathtub, sometimes. I'd simply turn a mobile phone off, if such a thing is possible, and that seems to defeat the object of owning one.

But I digress. Steven Levy of the Guardian thought his iPod was playing entirely too many Steely Dan tunes. He concluded, naturally, that the damned thing was alive and prejudiced. But he embarked upon a long, intelligent kind of meditation on the subject, which I have to admit is quite fascinating. The bottom line is that humans wouldn't know randomness if it slipped up behind them on a crowded street and did something nasty. That's why some of us lose so much money gambling.

"Clusters of something are to be expected. Here's a classic maths trick: gather 40 people in a room and have everyone write down the day he or she was born. What are the odds that two people will have the same birthday? Nearly 100%. It sounds like a coincidence, like two Steely Dan songs in a set of four, but mathematicians will tell you it's much more unusual for there to be no such clusters.

"We perceive trends when there are none. Poker players invariably believe they can lock into streaks. Backgammon champions swear that dice can go hot or cold."

One of the things about which I would have posted yesterday, had web host Blogger been working (today, although it is much better than it was yesterday, it is sporadically not working) was Jack Straw's strange public complaint about not liking to talk to Muslim women in veils. I quite understand what he means, but as the Telegraph says in an editorial today, "The most interesting thing about Jack Straw's pronouncement on the Muslim veil is that it was made by Jack Straw. No prominent British politician has been more friendly towards Muslims. With 25,000 of them in his Blackburn constituency, he has a clear reason to avoid giving offence.

"Whether on big policy issues such as Iran's nuclear bomb, on which he was terribly weak when Foreign Secretary, or on small matters of style, Mr Straw has always stood out for his Islamophilia, and has sometimes been craven towards extremists. When the Danish cartoons of Mohammed were published, he attacked the European papers that reprinted them, not the mobs who burnt the Danish flag. I even have a strong memory - though I have not been able to trace it - of hearing him say 'the Prophet Mohammed - Peace Be Upon Him' on the radio.

"So when he says that he would rather Muslim women removed their veils when they talk to him, something big is inducing him to speak as he does."

I wonder if it might not have something to do with this - The Independent says the British Police are about to get tough on Muslim extremists who use demonstrations to push their violent agendas. It seems that concern about this phenomenon is being expressed by moderate Muslims, who worry that the extremists are giving Islam a bad name. The Brits are perfectly capable of orchestrating a little campaign to put the extremists on the back foot, and Jack Straw - prominent politician who is not a prominent politician - is the perfect spokesman for it.

05 October 2006

Dick Armey was House majority leader between 1995 and 2002, and is now the chairman of FreedomWorks. He is writing in the Washington Times this morning about the difference between American and European views on competitiveness. "In the United States, the antitrust laws are premised on consumer harm. No consumer harm, no antitrust violation. Vibrant competition is the gold standard for U.S. authorities. Europe has a completely different take, as suggested by the fact that they require a 'Commissioner of Competition'. For Europe, managed competition is the ideal, with regulators taking an active role in designing the market and products that consumers ultimately can purchase. Dominant firms can compete, but not too hard. This world diminishes innovation for the sake of protecting big business, leaving consumers to bear the cost."

It doesn't take Armey long to get to the problems Microsoft is having with Vista, its most recent version of Windows. "Despite the lack of consumer interest in software designed by bureaucrats, EU regulators are threatening aggressive actions against Microsoft if it fails to incorporate its latest 'designs' in its new operating system. As it prepares to launch its newest version of Windows, European regulators are again threatening to take action. Security problems have been a concern to anyone using the Internet, yet the European Union has warned Microsoft about bundling new security features with the products it sells to consumers. In a networked world, the diminished security capacity of computers in Europe would be felt globally. In addition, new handwriting recognition technologies in the operating system are being viewed as a threat, rather than a benefit for consumers.

"Now, rather than worrying about innovation, Microsoft is bogged down in lengthy bureaucratic negotiations that threaten to delay the release of the new Windows. These regulatory skirmishes reverberate well beyond Microsoft, as computer manufacturers, investors and the broader technology industry hold their breath and await the outcome.

"This issue gets to the heart of the European problem. The perceived threat is not to consumers, but to other companies that compete with Microsoft. When American companies begin to worry more about pacifying regulators than benefiting consumers, innovation takes a back seat to lawyers, legal fees and red tape. Firms become more adept at working the regulators than pleasing consumers, which may explain why European firms are struggling to compete for consumers in the first place."

Michael Scheuer's a hard man to read. He was the CIA man who ran the Get Osama desk, then resigned in 2004, because he said he disagreed with the 9/11 Commission's failure to find any shortcomings in the intelligence community that contributed to the disaster. While he was in the CIA, He published a couple of popular books about terrorism, under the name of Anonymous. He carries around a lot of anger, and has expressed some rather surprising opinions, including calling Jewish influence on American policy "covert". It's difficult to figure out where he's coming from, sometimes. (I have to say it's also pretty damn difficult to figure out where the CIA's coming from half the time.) In this Washington Times piece about a book George Tenet is writing on his leadership of the CIA, Scheuer continues to be slightly puzzling. His last sentence is this: "So let's all look forward to Mr. Tenet's book and to seeing what he will make of the opportunity to talk frankly to Americans. What will it be Mr. Tenet, truth teller or apple polisher?"

I find it hard to believe that Tenet's choice could be quite as simple as that; and, by inference, quite as damning of the Bush administration.

The New York Sun, maybe feeling a little chagrined at being beaten by the Washington Times on a story that it has tried hard to make its own for the last few months, weighs in on what it calls 'Kofi Annan's last cover-up'. "In the wake of the oil-for-food scandal, one of the few reforms that was brought in on the watch of Secretary-General Annan at the United Nations required officials of the world body to fill out a financial disclosure form. Mr. Annan's undersecretary-general for management, Christopher B Burham, explained the need for the form in a December op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: 'No organization can exist unless firmly established on a foundation of ethical standards and conduct.'

"No doubt. And when asked in February whether Mr. Annan himself would fill out the form - conveniently the reforms Mr. Annan introduced obligated almost all UN employees, just not himself, to sign the form - the hapless Mr. Burnham said that Mr. Annan would 'not only fill one out but would probably be the first to do so.' Then months passed, and no form came from Kofi. Three months later, in May, Mr. Annan's spokesman promised that Mr. Annan would submit a financial disclosure form 'to show an example, to be an example to the rest of the staff who need to fill it out.'

"Additional months passed during which no form came from Mr. Annan. Seven months later, in September, when asked about the form, Mr. Annan (with trademark clarity and openness) said, 'I honor all my obligations to the UN, and I think that is as I have always done.' Now, finally, eight months later, his spokesman announced Tuesday that Mr. Annan has filled out the form and handed it in on September 22. But - wait for it - the man at the heart of the United Nations won't be making his form public."

I think the Sun ought to be careful about that 'last cover-up' business. The man doesn't leave until January.

Here's a suggestive sort of story. A man called Robin Robertson's collection of poems, called Swithering, has won Britain's Forward prize for poetry, beating an impressive shortlist, including Seamus Heaney, who entered his new collection, District and Circle. The Guardian has a piece about it this morning. What makes it suggestive, to me, is not simply that this man (there's a piece of his poetry at the end of the story which I wouldn't give you tuppence for) beat Heaney. There's also the business of the man who founded the contest saying of him that 'Robertson is capable of an unabashed seriousness that is rare in contemporary poetry.' Unabashed seriousness? What, in the name of all that's holy, is that? And there's also the fact that Robertson works as Jonathan Cape's poetry editor...

04 October 2006

His politics used often to drive me crazy, but there was no question that he was a wonderful writer, one with perhaps a special understanding of food and drink. Johnny Apple - RW Apple of the New York Times - died early yesterday. The Times does a good job remembering this Falstaffian man: "'I used to say that Johnny grew into the person he was pretending to be when we were young,' Joseph Lelyveld, a contemporary who rose to become The Times's executive editor, told the writer Calvin Trillin in a 2003 profile of Mr. Apple in The New Yorker. 'Now I wonder whether he actually was that person then, and the rest of us didn't know enough to realize it.'"

The New Yorker paid tribute this week by rerunning the Trillin profile: "'It's like having a big old Labrador dog,' Jim Wooten, of ABC, said recently of Apple. 'He knocks over the lamp with his tail. He slobbers on everything. But you still love him.'"

The poisonous atmosphere that has characterised Sino-Japanese relations for the last few years are to get an airing out during a visit the Chinese have asked the new Japanese Prime Minister to make, starting on October 8. People's Daily says: "Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will pay an official visit to China from October 8 to 9, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao announced on Wednesday. 'China and Japan reached a consensus on overcoming the political obstacle to the bilateral relationship and promoting the sound development of bilateral friendly and cooperative relationship,' Liu said...The Sino-Japanese relations have been soured by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead, including 14 class-A war criminals in WWII, are honored.

For my food-loving friends, another couple of very useful links. The San Francisco Chronicle's Food Pages are celebrating their 20th Anniversary by giving access to a bonanza collection of the best recipes they published in every year since they began.

And my friend Brenda in Britain draws attention to a piece in the Food Section of the New York Times documenting something of a renaissance in the fortunes of the once breakfast-bound egg: "We have come to reappreciate the egg at dinner. That's partly thanks to the popularity of salade lyonnaise, a pile of greens with bacon and a soft-cooked egg on top, and partly thanks to chefs in what seems like every restaurant in town who have begun offering soft-cooked egg in one form or another."

Fresh from causing a sensation yesterday by calling for House Speaker Dennis Hastert's resignation, the sassy Washington Times is criticising Kofi Annan this morning for a little piece of last-minute hypocrisy before he hands over to a new secretary-general in January.

In pursuit of a more open United Nations, Annan nearly a year ago ordered that its senior officers should fill out financial disclosure forms. In May, he announced through a spokesman that even though his rules didn't oblige him to do the same thing himself, he would, to encourage others through his example.

But, says the Times, "Mr. Annan's example has been a very poor one. On Sept. 13, he said he would not provide the information, which is required of most UN staff under procedures Mr. Annan had instituted in order to make the United Nations a more 'open' organization. Two days, later, while he was in Cuba paying tribute to ailing dictator Fidel Castro, the secretary-general took time out of his busy schedule to announce that he would submit a financial disclosure form to the UN ethics office. But unsurprisingly, there's a catch: Although Mr. Annan filled out the form, it will not be made public. "

Canadian literature seems to be coming of age, with fine, internationally-known writers like Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and William Gibson giving long-absent respectability to its writing community. Canadians are smart and pushy, sometimes, so the wider literary community can also take a bow for the part it plays. The Globe and Mail has a case in point: "There were surprises aplenty at yesterday's announcement in Toronto of the short list for the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize for excellence in Canadian English-language literature.

"For the first time in the Giller's 13-year history, the five candidates for the country's top literary prize - the winner gets $40,000, the runners-up $2,500 each - are largely unknowns (rookies in two cases) published mainly by small or medium-sized presses. Gasps were heard as the nominees were announced.

"Moreover, two of the five shortlisted titles are French-to-English translations, and two are collections of short stories. Traditionally, the Giller has been the province of established anglophone novelists such as Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler and Richard Wright affiliated with larger publishers such as McClelland & Stewart, Doubleday Canada and Random House."

03 October 2006

Mongolia says Genghis wasn't really a hordesman at all - he was a misunderstood good old local boy who was really the George Washington of his country. The Washington Times reports: "He's one of the most famous names of the last millennium, and he's the father of his country, which turns 800 years old this year. That's why the DC region's Mongolian community would like to see a statue erected of Genghis Khan, the George Washington of Mongolia. The Mongolian Embassy in Georgetown has inquired with the State Department and had preliminary discussions with a contractor who works with embassies.

"Supporters of the statue say that the popular image in the West of Genghis Khan as a ruthless barbarian invader gives Americans a misconception of a leader who some historians say was ahead of his time and progressive in many ways. Genghis Khan established an empire based on religious tolerance in an age where the Crusades and religious wars were commonplace, his advocates say. He was an ardent free trader and established principles of diplomatic immunity."

Benny Avni of the New York Sun reports that Mr Ban of South Korea seems assured of getting the job of secretary-general of the United Nations after another straw vote last night. He writes: The 15-member (Security) Council is set to officially vote to recommend Mr. Ban as its preferred candidate for the post of secretary-general next Monday, after which the recommendation will in short order be brought to a vote by the 192 members of the General Assembly....Mr. Ban was in Seoul, South Korea, yesterday, but the second runner-up for the job, Indian candidate Shashi Tharoor, withdrew from the race and congratulated the victor, saying, 'It is clear that he will be our next secretary-general.'"

Avni's bosses, in an editorial, suggested that among the first things Mr Ban should do when he assumes his post on January 1, next year, is to get the hell outta town: "With the candidacy of the South Korean foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, to be the next secretary general of the United Nations increasingly looking all but guaranteed of victory, talk is already turning to what Mr. Ban will be able to accomplish once he assumes that lofty post. The UN is such a discredited and unpredictable institution it's impossible to imagine what his achievements, if there are any, will turn out to be, but by our lights the best thing he could possibly do for New York - and, we don't mind saying, for the United Nations - would be to move the United Nations elsewhere. New Yorkers don't want it here, and our enterprises could put the land it currently occupies to uses that are far, far better for the city's economy."

There are so many biases at work in the British press over Iraq that you are never quite sure whether you're reading the truth, less than the truth or more than the truth. This Guardian piece suggests that al Qaida is taking a beating from a coalition of tribal leaders in provinces in the west of the country: "It is a battle being driven by deep-rooted social, religious and political considerations. The traditional power of the tribal leaders has been undermined by al-Qaida 'emirs'. Some sheikhs have also become sickened by al-Qaida attacks aimed at Shias, believing they are not only wrong, but that they will ultimately hurt Sunnis - an issue that apparently came to a head with the bombing of the Golden Shrine in Samarra in February.

"The battle has been going on for months in areas such as Qaim, where the Bou Mahal tribe drove out much of al-Qaida, angry at attacks on government ration trucks and the destruction of water plants and electricity pylons.

"'People just got sick of it,' said one Anbar resident. 'They were setting up their own checkpoints, taking property and houses for their use. They were killing not just police and army but clerics they did not agree with and tribal leaders.'"

That little bit of good news was given extra oomph by another story, this one published in Aljazeera this morning, saying that "Iraq's prime minister has announced a plan to end the deepening divisions between Shia and Sunni parties in his government, and to unite them behind the drive to stop sectarian killings in the country.

"The four-point plan, which emerged after talks between both sides, is to resolve disputes by giving every party a voice in how security forces operate against violence on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood level...Local committees will be formed in each Baghdad district, made up of representatives of every party, religious and tribal leaders and security officials, to consult on security efforts."

"Even now, as he lies in a stroke-induced coma from which he is not expected to recover, the vilification of Ariel Sharon continues," notes the Wall Street Journal. "Last month, one of Britain's leading magazines, The New Statesman, in the course of attacking Tony Blair for supporting the 'racist regime in Tel Aviv', attributed to Mr. Sharon a series of racist remarks about Arabs. But Mr. Sharon had never said them. They were the words of extremists that he had specifically repudiated. It was the equivalent of taking the words of the Ku Klux Klan and putting them in the mouth of George W. Bush. The New Statesmen eventually printed a letter noting its error, but without offering an apology or official correction.

"Mr. Sharon's long and controversial career - as Israeli general, politician and peacemaker - has inspired so much vituperation and calumny that it has often been difficult, especially for observers outside Israel, to separate fact from fiction. Thus Ariel Sharon: A Life is especially welcome. While the authors, Israeli journalists Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom, clearly hold their subject in high esteem, their tone is far from merely adulatory. They do not shy away from the misdeeds and excesses of which Sharon has often been accused. But they seem intent, most of all, on faithfully describing the full arc of his crowded life."

Lula of Brazil might just have got himself involved in one scandal too many. The New York Times says: "Mr. da Silva had appeared to be on his way to a resounding victory until mid-September, when the police caught operatives of his leftist Workers Party trying to buy a contrived dossier they apparently thought would incriminate Mr. Alckmin's party (they're Lula's Opposition) in a kickback scandal. That skullduggery, which Mr. da Silva says supporters carried out without his approval or knowledge, put him on the defensive, where he remains.

"'This second round is starting with Lula declining and Alckmin rising, which could lead to even more surprises if it continues,' said Rubens Figueiredo, a political analyst and consultant in Sao Paulo. 'Public opinion has shifted in a short time because of the dossier case, which still hasn't run its course.'"

02 October 2006

Following up on the Sunday Times story I linked to yesterday about whether Kofi
Annan bore responsibility for the failure of the international community to do anything about the situation in Darfur, this Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker discusses the problem's roots: "Until recently, it was striking how little the elites of nearby Islamic capitals like Khartoum, Rabat, and Cairo knew or cared about the slaughter of Muslims in Darfur. It almost made their denunciations of civilian deaths in Iraq and Lebanon seem like selective outrage. That has begun to change, though not the way one might expect.

"Last month, an Egyptian lawyer explained to the Times why Muslim sentiment is so inflamed against the West. 'The people embrace their Arab-Muslim identity and feel an injustice is done upon them in more than one place—Iraq, Palestine, Darfur, Afghanistan, Lebanon,' he said.

"Darfur, where an Arab government unleashed Arab militias to commit massacres against Muslim African farmers, has joined the growing list of Arab grievances - against the West...

"International intervention as a means of stopping mass slaughter has never had many supporters, other than an idealistic minority in the West and the desperate people in need of rescue. But in Kosovo and in East Timor in the late nineteen-nineties it had its moment. The results were decidedly mixed, but the worst was prevented or stopped.

"Intervention required an unlikely combination of propitious circumstances on the ground, political will in world capitals, and a kind of moral legitimacy that was able to override the self-serving objections of ethnically or economically interested parties. In Darfur, the circumstances are confused and complex, with the rebel groups turning on one another and much of the violence indistinguishable from banditry. After three years, Darfur is starting to look less like Rwanda and more like Congo, and no intervention will end the fighting by force."

Here's a piece of intelligence for investors interested in the idea of making money out of the inevitable death of Cuban President Fidel Castro. Check out Nasdaq's CUBA - the Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund Inc. Caribbean Net News says: "There is no sign and not even a visible street address outside the Miami office of money manager Thomas Herzfeld. 'I'd appreciate it if you don't mention where we are,' Herzfeld, 61, told Reuters during a break from trading one recent afternoon.

"Explaining the premium he puts on privacy - he uses only a PO box as his business address - Herzfeld said he received death threats from Cuban Americans 12 years ago when he launched a fund that provides his clients with a back-door way to invest in Cuba.

"Miami is the heartland of opposition to Cuban leader Fidel Castro and money, or virtually anything else to do with the island, can stir controversy in its hardline Cuban exile community."

Benny Avni, who covers the United Nations for the New York Sun musts this morning that the new UN secretary general may be the organisation's last: "The new Turtle Bay chief - most likely the South Korean foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon - must realize that if he stays in office for two terms, he may go down in history as the last UN secretary-general.

"Can this inefficient, corrupt institution, which was born of the victory over the Nazis, shaped during the Cold War, and kept on life support during the short-lived single-superpower era, survive another decade as new alliances shape a new international power structure?

"...If he is confirmed, as early as today, will the now pro-American Mr. Ban be able to persuade future Washington administrations to finance Turtle Bay, with its diminishing image among voters and its failure to deliver foreign policy dividends? Without America, there is no United Nations, and betting on America staying until 2017 is a risky proposition."

If you've never noticed the huge prices people pay for running shoes of a certain type, prepare to have your eyes opened in a big way by this Christian Science Monitor story. It begins this way: "If Imelda Marcos's much-publicized love affair with shoes set the bar for footwear obsession, then Brian Spar's sneaker love is just a notch below it.

"Like the former Philippine first lady, who reportedly owned some 3,000 pairs of shoes, Mr. Spar could go months without wearing the same pair of sneakers twice. He has more than 300 pairs of them - from off-the-shelf Nike Dunks SB (a skateboarding shoe that retails for about $70) to rare Nike Air Force One low-tops that could fetch more than $1,000 in some sneaker-collecting circles.

"Spar is a bona fide 'sneakerhead' - one of a growing number of enthusiasts who collect, critique, discuss, analyze, obsess about, display, sell, and sometimes even wear the sneakers, or 'kicks', they buy. His living room - and bedroom, closets, and just about anywhere else he can find space in his New Haven, Conn., home - is a sneaker shrine."

Just in case you think the story is an exaggeration, a visit to Ebay this morning turned up a pair of "Jordan 5 grape, size 9.5" - I assume grape is the colour, although they look perfectly white to me - selling for $20,000!

This is a terrible tale of a shipload of oil sludge that was dumped, to save costs, in a populated area of the Ivory Coast, which, shall we say, lacks the resources to prevent such a thing from occurring. The New York Times says the sludge "came from a Greek-owned tanker flying a Panamanian flag and leased by the London branch of a Swiss trading corporation whose fiscal headquarters are in the Netherlands. Safe disposal in Europe would have cost about $300,000, or even twice that, counting the cost of delays. But because of decisions and actions made not only here but also in Europe, it was dumped on the doorstep of some of the world's poorest people."

The Times comments: "How that slick, a highly toxic cocktail of petrochemical waste and caustic soda, ended up in Mr. Oudrawogol's backyard in a suburb north of Abidjan is a dark tale of globalization."

I wonder if they don't have editors at the New York Times any more...or at least editors who care about not allowing their reporters to advance their political agendas in their stories. This isn't a tale about globalization at all, as we define that very modern issue, but a tale about simple avoidance of responsibility, perhaps in this case criminal, that has been around since before there were countries, when the first guy to build a boat agreed to clean up the area outside the family cave, sailed it down the coast and dumped it in the front garden of some other caveman.

01 October 2006

The new Gunter Grass autobiography, Beim Hauten der Zwiebel, or Peeling the Onion, is reviewed this week by the Times Literary Supplement. The controversy over his revelation that he served in the SS during the war, and kept it a secret until this year, has by no means died down. His critics have fallen on the confession like vultures on a particularly tasty piece of carrion. His personality is such that he has lots of critics.

The TLS says: "The ubiquitous loudmouth with the abrasive manner and bushy plebeian moustache, who for so long had rubbed fastidious noses in unwelcome historical truths, was now found to have been concealing an unwelcome historical truth of his very own - for more than sixty years. The late historian Joachim Fest declared that he 'wouldn’t buy a second-hand car from this man'. Others suggested that Grass's career was over, that he should give back or be stripped of his Nobel Prize for Literature and his honorary citizenship of Gdansk, that his opinions on moral and political matters were henceforth worthless, and that even the works that made his name were now devalued and would have to be read in a more sceptical light. Many seemed ready to believe that Grass had timed his revelations as a publicity stunt, in a cynical attempt to shift a few more books."

Pretty rough stuff. But the simple truth is that Grass is a singularly talented writer whose output has been good enough to win him a Nobel Prize. That prize isn't awarded only to people who have lived a politically-correct life, so I doubt there is the slightest chance of his being stripped of it. That is as it should be. He is one of the best writers living. Perhaps this revelation about the SS will alter people's opinions of him personally, but it can't alter the significance of his writing, which now has an existence quite extraneous to his own.

The Washington Post has a useful page on its website containing articles and discussion on the race in the UN for the secretary-general's job. And as decision day looms, the Sunday Times Magazine runs a piece by Adam LeBor, author of Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide, about the outgoing secretary general, Kofi Annan. LeBor asks whether Annan's decisions in Rwanda, Srebrenica and in Darfur have been so lacking in care and respect for humanity as to have put blood on his own hands. Good article.

John F. Cullinan, formerly a senior foreign-policy adviser to US Catholic bishops, ends his National Review article this way: "Perhaps the Muslim diplomats gathered at Castel Gandolfo this week were expecting some further expression of 'regret' for the 'reaction' of their co-religionists to the Regensburg remarks. What they got instead was a challenge." That's rather a butch way of summing up an article that is, instead, an erudite discussion of the intricacies of the relationship between Catholicism and Islam, and how Pope Benedict intends to take it further.

"...Purely theological dialogue inevitably mixes apples and oranges. But basic disagreement over the nature of God in no way precludes discussing how best to coexist peacefully in a pluralistic world. That's the meaning of Benedict's September 25 exhortation in favor of 'sincere and respectful dialogue, based on ever more authentic reciprocal knowledge which, with joy, recognizes the religious values we have in common and, with loyalty, respects the differences.' In other words, it's possible to share - and discuss - certain religious values without sharing religious truths.

"Similarly, fruitful dialogue does not consist in futilely seeking to assign relative responsibility for religious conflicts lasting more than a millennium. These historical issues - all too easily reduced to whataboutery or the politics of the last atrocity - have rightly been relegated to a joint Vatican/al Azhar commission. What really matters, as Benedict put it in another address he quotes, is the 'imperative to engage in authentic and sincere dialogue, built on respect for the dignity of every human person, created, as we Christians firmly believe, in the image and likeness of God.' Do Muslims believe in the equal, indivisible, and inviolable dignity of every person, or are some (namely Muslim males) more equal than others?

"...The Holy Father identifies religiously-motivated violence as an urgent agenda item, as he did quite forcefully in a little-noticed address to German Muslim leaders in Cologne in August 2005. In fact, one of the reasons why Benedict quoted the now-famous passage from a hitherto forgotten Byzantine emperor was to point out that jihad - in the sense of armed conflict for religious reasons - remains a living element of Islamic thought and life, while all Christian churches long ago set their faces against holy war in favor of the just war tradition (with its wholly secular categories) or outright pacifism."

Warren Zozak, who is described as a regular contributor to the New York Sun, has written an interesting piece about people who are apt to believe in conspiracies. He says: "...Five years after 9/11, there now appears to be a growing number of people who say Al Qaeda did not perpetrate the attacks on that day. They believe this, in spite of the fact that the terror was witnessed firsthand by thousands of people and tens of millions more on live television. Osama bin Laden has even taken credit for the attacks, and that confession is captured on videotape as well. But to conspiracy theorists, evidence is as irrelevant as truth. Every man, woman, and child on earth could have been standing on Chambers Street on the morning of September 11, 2001. It doesn't matter.

"The theories are pretty far-fetched, but that doesn't matter either - the more outrageous and illogical they are, the more legitimate they become. So a professor at the University of Wisconsin (no less) says our vice president, Dick Cheney, was behind it all (and the professor keeps his job). Charlie Sheen, that eminent actor, tells us it wasn't the jets but a controlled explosion inside the towers that caused the World Trade Center to fall. The one I find particularly off the charts: the passengers on the four doomed jets were transferred to military planes at an airport in the Midwest and then dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. The original lie began in the Islamic world (steeped in a tradition of intrigue and lies) as the smoke was still rising over Manhattan. It claimed that all Jews were warned to stay away that day because Israel was really behind it all - a lie that has become rock-solid belief in the Arab world today. Now, following the terror and blood they sent us five years earlier, their lies have come to our shores as well, adding insult to injury."

It's the standard line on conspiracy theorists. But Zozak also says something rather telling: "Lee Harvey Oswald, the poster child for an inferior personality, probably would have been a first-class conspiracy theorist himself. He succeeded at almost nothing in his pathetic life except, unfortunately, his final act. His colossal stupidity led him to the Soviet Union, where he envisioned he would be hailed a hero. When that didn't happen, he whined to the American embassy that he wanted to return home. His marriage was not a success. He worked at a boring, minimum-wage job he thought was beneath him."

To my knowledge, this is not a well-studied phenomenon, but it ought to be. Conspiracy theorists have an enormous effect on public opinion, and contribute singularly to erecting impossible barriers of misunderstanding between protagonists. I think conspiracy theorism may well be a clinically identifiable mental condition - those who have it may well share Lee Harvey Oswald's disappointment with the lack of success in his own life. And their aptness for believing anything but the blindingly obvious may be an attempt to add colour to their lives, to present themselves to the world as, for lack of a better word, deep - to present themselves to those around them as having a special and rare understanding. That would certainly fit all those that I know.


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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