...Views from mid-Atlantic
30 December 2006

Germans do an odd thing on New Year's Eve - all over the country, they sit down to watch their favourite British film comedy, Dinner for One. It's odd that they should want to ring in the New Year by watching the same film year in, year out, odder that it should be a British film, and the oddest thing of all is that no one in Britain's ever heard of it. The Los Angeles Times says: "The two 'stars' of the film, Freddie Frinton and May Warden, were British entertainers who had been performing this sketch at seaside resorts for years. It was written in the 1920s and Frinton bought the rights in the 1950s. During one performance in Brighton in 1963, German TV presenter Peter Frankenfeld happened to be in the audience and liked the sketch so much he invited Frinton and Warden to perform on his show.

"It was such a roaring success that the sketch was then performed in front of a live audience in Hamburg and filmed by the local station NDR - and it is this version that is shown on German screens to this day. The tradition of showing the skit on New Year's Eve took off in 1972 and it is shown repeatedly across most of the channels - making it virtually impossible to avoid. In fact, Dinner for One holds the Guinness Record for the most-aired TV program in history."

Good tip, Brenda.

I've had experience of the gob-smacking inefficiency of British Airways luggage handlers at Heathrow on a quiet day. What must have happened during those busy days of fog delays and cancellations I can only guess. The Telegraph reports: "Tens of thousands of families travelling abroad for Christmas and the New Year have been left without their luggage following a series of administrative fiascos by British Airways handlers at Heathrow.

"A 'baggage mountain' is building up outside Terminal Four, and families are being advised that they may have to wait weeks for their items to be located and returned to them. It is the latest embarrassing episode for BA, which had to cancel hundreds of flights over the Christmas period due to fog. The airline last night apologised to the estimated 20,000 passengers affected by the baggage incident, and promised they would be compensated."

The only foreigner teaching philosophy at a Chinese university, Montrealer Daniel Bell, is recommending regime change - to a Confucian form of government. The Chinese don't seem to know quite how to react. The Globe and Mail explains that Professor Bell "is convinced that China's political institutions will change dramatically in the coming decades.

"'One reason I like to be in China is that the political future is open,' he says. “Nobody thinks the political status quo will remain the same in 20 or 30 years. It's a stimulating time for political theorists to be here."

Bell believes that "a future China should be ruled by a 'modern Confucian democracy', with a democratic lower house and an elitist upper house whose members would be selected on merit, based on exam results - just like the traditional method of choosing civil servants in East Asia.

"'The country would have a group of talented and disinterested individuals ready to act for the common good,' he writes in his book, Beyond Liberal Democracy. A system based on meritocracy 'would resonate with traditional political culture, it could be supported by interest groups at a constitutional convention, and it could be readily adapted from an existing political institution,' he says in the book. 'It would be Chinese-style democracy: rule by the people, with Confucian characteristics.'"

29 December 2006

Thomas Sowell follows up his column of yesterday on disparities in income and wealth. In another National Review piece, he writes: "People in the media, in academia, and among the intelligentsia in general who are obsessed with 'disparities' in income and wealth usually show not the slightest interest in how that income and wealth were produced in the first place.

"They are hot to redistribute the existing income and wealth but seem wholly unaware that how you do that today can affect how much income and wealth will be produced tomorrow. Any number of schemes for redistributing wealth have ended up redistributing poverty in a number of countries.

"'Progressives' in the media and among academics and intellectuals claim to be interested in ending poverty but the production of more output is the only way to end poverty for millions of people.

"It not only can be done, it has already been done in many countries, for all countries were once very poor by today's standards. But most self-styled progressives show virtually zero interest in economic history or in economics in general."

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblat has for the first time publicly accused Hizbullah of being involved with the Syrian regime in "some assassinations if not...all."

Naharnet reports that "In an interview with the Al Arabiya television network Thursday evening, Jumblat said the question of assassinations targeting anti-Syrian Lebanese figures became intolerable the day MP-journalist Gebran Tueini was murdered in a massive car bomb December 12, 2005.

"'I said enough,' added Jumblat, a legislator and a key figure in the anti-Syrian majority coalition. 'There is a political, security and intelligence linkage (between Hizbullah and the Syrian regime). The tools, operations and results are all the same,' Jumblat said. 'Ever since that time I have been accusing them somewhere of standing behind some assassinations if not say all.'"

If I understand Lebanese politics correctly, this is not simply a politician offering his opinion, but the leader of a small (about 5% of the Lebanese population these days), but politically important Muslim sect, the Druze, confirming at what he feels is an important moment, his alliance with the country's government and anti-Syrian elements.

Sitting in his comfy New York chair, a New York Times editorial writer, reflecting on Saddam Hussein's fate, demonstrates how genuinely silly liberals can be when they chase pretty thoughts, like butterflies: "What really mattered was whether an Iraq freed from his death grip could hold him accountable in a way that nurtured hope for a better future. A carefully conducted, scrupulously fair trial could have helped undo some of the damage inflicted by his rule. It could have set a precedent for the rule of law in a country scarred by decades of arbitrary vindictiveness. It could have fostered a new national unity in an Iraq long manipulated through its religious and ethnic divisions.

"It could have, but it didn't. After a flawed, politicized and divisive trial, Mr. Hussein was handed his sentence: death by hanging. This week, in a cursory 15-minute proceeding, an appeals court upheld that sentence and ordered that it be carried out posthaste. Most Iraqis are now so preoccupied with shielding their families from looming civil war that they seem to have little emotion left to spend on Mr. Hussein or, more important, on their own fading dreams of a new and better Iraq."

It's not worth arguing, really, because all that's well off the point. Saddam is an evil man, a genuine monster who is responsible for crimes that have anguished and will continue to anguish his countrymen for generations. No claim is being made that his execution will solve problems in Iraq. It is a simple ceremony. His execution is humanity's way of symbolically settling accounts with this man who has disgraced us - not just Iraqis, but all of us. Alive, he is an affront to what, so far in our journey, we've learned to stand for. When he is dead, we can move on.

So let's cut the bleeding heart breast-beating and get on with it.

28 December 2006

The economic disparity between whites and blacks is a political issue in Bermuda these days, our Government pledging to shift some of the wealth in the hands of rich whites into the hands of poor blacks, on the grounds that slavery and segregation made them what they are today and they deserve better. It's sort of an updated and refined take on reparations for slavery, an idea which has gone precisely nowhere, for obvious reasons.

Here, there really has been no practical bar to people climbing the economic ladder on the grounds of race for a couple of generations, and Bermuda is one of, if not the wealthiest country in the world on the basis of per capita income. Our statistical department, nonetheless, claims that Bermuda has twice the number of poor people the US has, with a very large majority of them being black. The reason for that seems primarily statistical, in that we make no adjustment to account for disparities in the makeup of households, as all other countries do. Apples, therefore, are being compared to oranges. In the circumstances, it's easy to think that someone wants to be able to cast the widest net possible in the event of any transfer of wealth.

This National Review column by Thomas Sowell is about economic disparity, albeit on a larger scale, but some of the arguments he makes hold true reagardless of scale: "The media and academic obsessions with economic 'disparities' have gone international. Recent news stories proclaim that most of 'the world's wealth' belongs to a small fraction of the world's people.

"Who are these minority of the world's population who own a majority of the world's wealth? They are the population of the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and a few other affluent countries.

"How did these particular people come to possess so much more wealth than other people? They did it the old-fashioned way. They produced the wealth that they own. You might as well ask why bees have so much more honey than other creatures...Human beings own wealth. Once we put aside lofty poetic nonsense about 'the world's wealth', we at least have a fighting chance of talking sense about realities."

The New Yorker gives a little end-of-the-year treat to its readers this week - a portfolio of covers from all 47 issues of 2006, including the full set of four Thanksgiving covers by Chris Ware that I posted about back in November. I don't know about anyone else, but I think New Yorker covers would be a powerful reason for choosing to live in the 20th Century, if one were given a choice.

The Los Angeles Times has published its best 10 recipes of 2006. They seem a little contrived, on the whole, but only the tongue can tell with recipes. Burrata, by the way, is a cheese, a kind of combination of mozarella and cream.

I'm not quite sure what prompted the London Times to write this particular editorial - I hope it wasn't simply the noise arising from that little diplomatic contretemps over Tony Blair's recent remarks about Iran.

"Oil money buys off dissent, but President Ahmedinejad's popularity is shrinking even faster than oil revenues. In recent municipal elections, his supporters were trounced by moderate conservatives and reformers. Voters were promised a war on corruption and a campaign for economic revival. They got, instead, an escalation of confrontation with the West, and they do not like it. Technically, financially and politically, the regime is thus more vulnerable than it pretends. Bombastic nationalism may have seen Mr Ahmedinejad through 2006 but, at home if not abroad, it has run its course. The world's strongest weapon in 2007 may be the hunger for change within Iran itself."

27 December 2006

I guess this barb from Beirut's Daily Star is both accurate and deserved: "Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the fundamental problem in the Middle East is not intervention by the West. On the contrary, the real problem is that, for all their dabbling, the Western powers seem capable of neither war nor dialogue. This leaves everyone in the region at the mercy of the Middle East's oppressive regimes and proliferating terrorists.

"Advocates of the Iraq war lacked an understanding of the complexities on the ground to wage an effective war of liberation and democratization. As a result, their policies merely ended up eliminating Iran's two major regional rivals: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's regime. This presented Iran with a golden opportunity to project itself as a regional hegemon, and Iran's leaders are unlikely to let this opportunity slip away.

"Advocates of dialogue with the Iranians and their Syrian allies, like former US Secretary of State James Baker, labor under the delusion that they can actually reach an understanding that would enable a graceful US exit from Iraq and help stabilize that wounded country. The delusion is based on two false assumptions: that the Iranians and the Syrians can succeed in Iraq where the US has failed; and that the international community can afford to pay the price of ensuring their cooperation.

"True, Syria and Iran are playing a major role in supporting Iraqi insurgents, and Syria is still encouraging the trafficking of jihadists and weapons across its borders with Iraq. But the idea that these activities can be halted at will is naive."

I know the NY Times is using him as a hook for a travel story, but it does give me an excuse to draw attention to the fact that Peter Matthiessen is one of the most underrated, underappreciated authors writing in English today. He's perhaps best known for Snow Leopard. This article, about Florida, couldn't fail to make much of his Florida trilogy, but for me, Far Tortuga is his masterpiece. It's classified as a novel, but it's really a poem from start to finish. Part of the reason it has never been much noticed, I think, is that people in the US don't understand their ties with the Caribbean, and think the area's culture begins and ends with Coppertone and rum swizzles. Matthiessen, on the other hand, understands that Florida and the Caribbean are contiguous - not at all what their borders suggest.

Anyway, this piece is worth reading. The Times writer says: "This is not exactly the kind of romantic literary image one might expect would draw travelers to this oozy corner of Florida, where the great and endangered River of Grass that is the world's only everglades gives way to the Gulf of Mexico in a maze of mangrove islands and mysterious shallow bays. Not the way, say, Tender Is the Night might lure you to the South of France, or even, for that matter, the way Mr. Matthiessen's own masterful Snow Leopard has inspired pilgrims to the Himalayas. Still, there is something about his telling and retelling, and finally re-retelling of the Watson story in the three books - Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone - that makes some fans want to drive on past Fort Myers to the end of the road and then get into a small boat and go on even a bit farther."

China is to publish a set of Agatha Christie mysteries to mark the 30th anniversary of her death, according to People's Daily. Sun Shunlin, director of the project department of the People's Literature Publishing House says they will be the first legally translated copies of her stories in China. Dozens of print versions of the author's masterpieces available in underground markets in China, but they are all pirated versions.

According to Sun, a first collection of 14 stories by Agatha Christie, who died in 1976, will include famous tales such as Death on the Nile, Murder in the Calais Coach and Hercule Poirot. Another 32 works of Agatha Christie, including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, will be translated into Chinese and published by PLPH in 2007.

Author Theo Hobson says Britain's Anglicans will never get back the ground they've lost in the country's religious life. In London's Times, he writes: "What defined British, and especially English, religious culture was reticence. Religion was a part of life that kept its voice down. The Church of England knew that keeping quiet was the key to remaining powerful. It wanted to keep religion in the background, in order to keep it in the picture. The Church was meant to unite the English people in one faith. Some chance. So it evolved a more realistic aim: to keep religious division at bay, by means of an official religious culture in which the extremes were proscribed. The English people chose to sustain the fiction of national religious unity under the Crown, for it led to stability. It also led to a high degree of liberalism: a powerful state church was the means to a society free of religious and political extremism.

"Anglicanism could only sustain its established status by being a place of reason, compromise, moderation. And because the established Church has to assume the role of representing the religious character of nation, it has to remain in tune with prevailing social attitudes. Even as church attendance declined over the past 40 years, it could still be claimed that the majority wanted the Church to be there, to marry and bury them, and to stage lovely royal pageantry every few years. That we are still an officially Christian nation is due to the Church's uniquely liberal form of Christianity.

"All has changed, changed utterly. The established Church has become incapable of keeping religion quiet. The primary cause is not Islam. It is the rise of Christianity as a distinct identity. This is mainly due to Evangelicalism, which encourages the Christian to see himself as different, set apart from society. The Church of England has traditionally been hostile to this form of theology, but in the 1990s it began to value its ability to put bums on pews. As a result the Church of England is now a contradiction: an established Church that is largely kept afloat by a sectarian form of theology."

24 December 2006

It's quiet out there this morning. Which makes a welcome change from the rest of 2006, doesn't it?

Pondblog wants to wish all its readers, especially that little band of commenters who keep this journal on the straight and narrow, a most excellent Christmas.

In keeping with the spirit of both the season and the year, I offer a little constructive revisionism.

Ebenezer Scrooge. Was he really so bad?

I mean, what possessed Cratchit to so neglect his education that he had to take a minimum wage clerk's job? And what possessed him to try to raise a child on his salary? Wasn't Marley just bent on revenge? And wasn't the whole saga all about a low journalist, a sensationalist of the worst kind, taking Scrooge's perfectly correct instincts about money out of context?

The Independent thinks Scrooge is "the most neglected economic prophet of our age".

"...His real importance is as an economic influence. It is not going too far to say that without the benefit of the commercial maxims pithily formulated by him at a very early stage in his career ("It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's") the whole concept of supply-side economics would have been very different. What might be called the Scrooge principles, though abused by opponents, constitute a model of social responsibility, promoting industry and frugality, offering an example to the underclass of how to escape poverty and, through the employer's hard work, providing jobs for others. As a macro-economic model designed to lessen the overbearing influence of the state this could hardly be bettered. While Keynesians have attacked his stance as a root cause of unemployment and changes in the business cycle, Scrooge's trademark business technique - hoarding - is a virtue, contributing to capital formation, job creation and economic health."

Steven Landsburg of Slate Magazine agrees, though for slightly different reasons. "In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser - the man who could deplete the world's resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

"If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer — because you produced a dollar's worth of goods and didn't consume them.

"Who exactly gets those goods? That depends on how you save. Put a dollar in the bank and you'll bid down the interest rate by just enough so someone somewhere can afford an extra dollar's worth of vacation or home improvement. Put a dollar in your mattress and (by effectively reducing the money supply) you'll drive down prices by just enough so someone somewhere can have an extra dollar's worth of coffee with his dinner. Scrooge, no doubt a canny investor, lent his money at interest. His less conventional namesake Scrooge McDuck filled a vault with dollar bills to roll around in. No matter. Ebenezer Scrooge lowered interest rates. Scrooge McDuck lowered prices. Each Scrooge enriched his neighbors as much as any Lord Mayor who invited the town in for a Christmas meal."

So you see, those who reject that Merry Christmas, Everyone blarney, scrimp on Christmas presents and heat and other indulgences of the season are really doing the world a favour...giving a helping hand to the poor, and so on and so fashionably forth. (If you want to take this thought a little further, think of joining SCROOGE - the Society to Curtail Ridiculous Outrageous & Ostentatious Gift Exchanges. It may be the best two bucks you ever spent.)

Furthermore, economic genius though he was, Scrooge was a sick man. He concealed it, but he knew that in that day and age, what he had couldn't be treated. It was incurable. He selflessly blamed his eccentric symptoms on a bit of undigested beef, if you remember.

The Times confirms that Scrooge 'was a victim of brain disease'.

"A pair of medico-literary sleuths claimed last week to have tracked down the illness that haunted Scrooge. They concluded that Charles Dickens brilliantly observed the symptoms in A Christmas Carol.

"Robert Chance Algar, a Californian neurologist, and his aunt Lisa Saunders, a medical writer and physician, believe that the affliction that made Scrooge a byword for miserliness and redemption was Lewy body dementia (LBD), a disease so complex that doctors did not include it in the medical lexicon until 1996...

"Algar thought at first that Scrooge was in the grip of depression or a bipolar disorder, yet neither would explain his ghostly visitors. 'All the events described in the story fit a person suffering from the early stages of LBD,' he said."

So you see, Ebenezer Scrooge was both more and less than we thought. The perfect man for 2006, a year in which many erred grievously in the name of being exactly what they made themselves out to be. At any rate, he's a lot better than YOU, whoever that might be. (What a ridiculous misdemeanour that was for intelligent people to commit. But that's another story.)

Let's give the last word to Mr Landsburg, who ends his piece on a note of miraculous clarity: "If Christmas is the season of selflessness, then surely one of the great symbols of Christmas should be Ebenezer Scrooge - the old Scrooge, not the reformed one.

"It's taxes, not misers, that need reforming."


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
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On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
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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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