Saturday, 31 January 2009

Yahya Jinx

Here's an interesting thought from an interview with the geneticist Steve Jones in today's Times:

He is actually less angry, and less baffled, by the rise in creationism among his students, which he attributes with surprising certainty to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Most of these students are Muslim, he explains, and “it's an attempt to give themselves a stronger personal identity built around Islam”. If that sounds odd, it's not half as odd as the multimillion-pound Islamic creationist campaign run by one Harun Yahya, whom Jones believes is behind the whole phenomenon. Yahya, based and formerly jailed in Turkey, is “a very sinister character” who has distributed tens of thousands of books on Islamic creationism at his own expense to spread the view that “if you believe in it you're Islamic and if you don't you're anti-Islamic”. Which, Jones adds, “is completely potty because if you look at the Koran it says almost nothing about creation”.

(Giles Whittell)

Professor Jones is a well known Israel/Palestine bore, so it's perhaps not particularly surprising that he sees it as connected to everything else in the world, even the supposedly objective field of biological science. Nevertheless, I think he might be onto something. In the United States, creationism emerged in the early years of the 20th century as part of an assertion of Christian identity in response to the challenges and confusions of modernity. It has usually been strongest in rural areas and small towns, where cleaving to the literal truth of the Bible functions as a shibboleth. Creationists may not have the money or the power, but they can content themselves with the knowledge that they are spiritually blessed, in possession of the truth - and loyal to a tradition that the wider world has abandoned. Similarly, the historically novel spread of creationism in Muslim communities - which is now rampant - fits into the Islamising project of drawing distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims, thus reinforcing notions of separateness and collective identity. It might be described (in more senses than one) as a mental veil. There's also, I suspect, a desire not to be outdone by Christians - especially Americans - in the religious craziness stakes.

As for the specific point about Palestine, that intractable territorial dispute has long since been folded into narratives about Islamic victimhood and enveloped within conspiracy theories. Creationism itself, of course, is a type of conspiracy theory, premised on the notion that the world's elite scientists are bent on suppressing the truth of Creationism. Here the role of Harun Yahya - also known as the Roger Delgado lookalike Adnan Oktar - becomes pivotal. Oktar is the mysteriously wealthy Turk behind the lavishly-produced but scientifically worthless Atlas of Creation. And he's certainly no stranger to conspiratorial thinking. For example, he claimed in an interview last year that Islamist terrorists were actually secret Darwinists:

And when we look at the present day, we see that all the members of terrorist organizations -- even those that portray themselves as Muslim organizations -- are Darwinists, atheists. That is to say, a faithful person who prays regularly does not go and plant bombs here and there. It is just people who pretend to be Muslims, those who depict themselves as Muslims, who perpetrate bombings, or Darwinists who make it clear that they are terrorists or communists who commit terrorism. Consequently, they are all Darwinists.

He has also told an interviewer from Al Jazeera that "Freemasonry is a Darwinist idea" - which is rather back-to-front, given that Freemasonry predates evolutionary biology by at least a couple of centuries - and that "after I first published my book Judaism and Freemasonry, they put me in a mental institution." Interesting admission, that. He went on:

Freemasonry is a global organization. Their real power base is in England and France. But they also have large organization in the United States. They have branches in Russia, everywhere in the world. In India, they have taken hold of the key positions in the government. They even can exert power over the courts. Sometimes they lay hands on the security forces. They can assume control over of every kind of sectornin the state. They can worm their way inside. If they want to organize any kind of action, they use their members to set up these things.

Oktar denounces terrorism as incompatible with Islam - hence his theory that the 9/11 hijackers cannot have been Muslims. But while his methods may not be those of Al-Qaeda, he apparently believes he can achieve with his Creationist atlas what Osama Bin Laden (if he still lives) wants to achieve through bombs. Here's what he told Al Jazeera:

I do not defend Bin Laden, of course. I do not accept his position as he has launched his movement as an act of terror. Cultural supremacy, intellectual supremacy, will soon lead the world to accept Islam. In other words, there is no reason to attempt to do this with the help of weapons. You can easily achieve this goal by intellectual means. Look, that is the struggle we are engaged in, the struggle to defeat the philosophy which has sprung up in connection with Darwinism, and it will subsequently lead to the further advance of Islam....Results can be achieved very easily by means of an intellectual campaign. If the world were engaged in an intellectual struggle, Islam would become dominant all over the world in a period of 5 to 10 years.

Read the rest of this article

Friday, 30 January 2009

God v Mammon: America Divides

Gallup recently released the results of a poll into the religiosity of Americans. An unusually high sample of 350,000 adults were surveyed as to whether they considered religion "important to their lives". The results were, I suppose, fairly predictable, with conservative Bible Belt states showing the most devotion and the godless particularly noticeable in the north east.

The most religious state was Mississippi, followed by Alabama and South Carolina - all scoring over 80%. Four New England states brought up the rear - with Vermont's religiosity quotient a European-sounding 42%. Alaska was also fairly low down, with 51% religious. Sarah Palin will be disappointed.

Just for fun, I compared the findings with the state rankings based on per capita income. Once more, there was a geographical divide - but a contrasting one, with the richest states clustering in the north east, and the poorest in the South. Mississippi has the distinction of being both the most religious, and the poorest state.

The correlation isn't exact by any means, but when I plotted both sets of results onto a graph the trend seemed reasonably clear. On average, the richer the state, the lower the level of religious commitment. I've no idea whether poverty makes people turn to God, or whether religion is somehow implicated in poverty. Whatever, the many American believers in the "prosperity gospel" - the idea that God rewards believers by making them rich - might have some explaining to do.

Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Tory Swinger found (again)

According to the latest Popbitch, one of the "big questions" that people are asking this week is "Which London Conservative has a secret past running group sex parties?"

I assume they're referring to long-time Cameron speechwriter Dougie Smith, whose double life as organiser for the posh swingers club "Fever Parties" was exposed in the Sunday Times as long ago as 2003. The paper luridly described a typical evening in which "up to 50" well-heeled couples would meet in discreet locations in central London, "mingle over drinks and canapés served by waiters in a candlelit lounge", before heading off to the bedrooms to have random sexual encounters.

In those days, Dougie was co-ordinator of think tank Conservatives for Change and a close aide to Francis Maude. Confronted with the scandalous evidence, however, he was unrepentant:

I have never made a secret about the fact that I run both Cchange and Fever. The two things don't overlap and therefore do not pose a problem. Fortunately we're living in the 21st century and even naturally censorious people tend to feel slightly self-conscious about wagging their fingers at what consenting adults do behind closed doors.

Ann Widdecombe was not amused. "I take a dim view of that sort of behaviour," she declared. Which would have come as a tremendous surprise to the many people who had Widdy down as a secret swinger. Other than that slap on the wrists from someone not exactly in the "modernising" mainstream, though, there were few political consequences for Mr Smith, a former associate and gambling chum of Sir Jimmy Goldsmith. Smith may have been of the Right, but he had never pretended to be of the Religious Right: if anything, his combination of entrepreneurialism, metropolitan swank and laisser-faire sexual standards portended the exciting Tory rebirth that David Cameron would shortly inaugurate. The story died.

In any case, it's all several years in the past. More recently, Smith has been linked with Boris Johnson's glamorous cultural commissar Munira Mirza. [And, indeed, they are now married - thanks to whoever pointed that out.]

The real question, then, isn't which Conservative has a secret sexy past, but why is this old and (at the time) extremely well-publicised story being dredged up - and by whom? Lord Byron - who knew a thing or two about gossip - once commented that "dead scandals form good subjects for dissection": but if no-one cared in 2003, are they any more likely to care today? Does it represent the first stirrings of a recession era revulsion against the excesses of the past decade? Or is it just that someone heard about it for the first time and assumed they must be in possession of a news bombshell? Read the rest of this article

Manchester wins ID prize

For years it was easy for many people to overlook New Labour's love affair with corralling the British population like sheep. No longer: the party, filled with fury and knowing its time is short, is now embarked on a headlong rush towards the Brave New World. I suppose the idea is that if they can "roll out" enough of their agenda before the election the next government will find much of it difficult to repeal. Perhaps the reorganisation of the Home Office and the creation of the Justice Ministry played their part: now there are two whole departments devoted to thinking up new schemes of "public safety", two cabinet ministers competing with each other to produce the most dangerous legislation. The police, meanwhile, are preserving freedom and democracy by searching the likes of Tony Benn and Daniel Hannan's seven year old daughter under the Terrorism Act.

Today we learn that the lovely Jacqui Smith wants to pilot ID cards before the end of the year in a specially selected "beacon area", probably Manchester. Lucky Mancunians will be able to apply for the swanky EU compliant cards - and have their details registered for life (fines if you forget to tell them your new address) "on a voluntary basis". Airport workers in the city - unless legal challenges succeed - will have no choice.

Why Manchester? Is it because it's the spiritual home of the Guardian? Revenge for Terry Christian? Or perhaps Jacqui thinks the city's residents deserve a treat after plans for a mega-casino were shelved in order to demonstrate Gordon Brown's moral seriousness. A Home Office spokesman said that the "beacon area" scheme would allow the government to "manage demand" for the cards. Otherwise, I suppose, they would have to decide who gets one by a lottery, like tickets to a Wimbledon final.

This morning she visited a school in "a deprived part of Manchester" to spread the glad tidings among ID-hungry youth. She's particularly hopeful that 16 year olds will take up the offer of database slavery for a mere £30 - though why any self-respecting 16 year old would want a card that proves to the world they're below the drinking age is a mystery to me. She said "I think, having talked to young people this morning, that having a safe and secure way of proving your identity is something they want and something they need." I wonder if she explained about the fines.

ID cards are already being imposed on "foreign residents", many of whom have lived here without any trouble for decades; there wasn't much of an outcry, I suppose, because these days "foreign" is taken to imply something vaguely shifty and middle-eastern. Almost 50,000 have already been issued - and they have already "proved their worth", says our Jacqui. Apparently one person is "facing a conviction for people-trafficking". It's not clear just how an ID card helped solve that particular crime, but in any event one conviction per 50,000 cards issued hardly seems like the most cost-effective use of resources. On that basis, and taking the lowest, Home Office approved estimate of £5 billion for the entire scheme, the cards might be predicted to solve somewhere in the region of 1,000 crimes once the whole population is enrolled. That's around £5 million per crime.

Cheaper than bailing out RBS, I suppose. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

God Rigged Election, says top Muslim

Many of the 16% of Americans who don't believe in God were delighted when Barack Obama mentioned "non-believers" during his inaugural address last week. It wasn't much when set against the two long prayers that interrupted proceedings, but it was enough to annoy some Christian leaders. E.W. Jackson of the Exodus Faith Ministries, for example, who complained, "The overwhelming majority of Americans identify as Christians. What disturbs me is that he seems to be trying to redefine who we are."

Not all religious leaders seem put out, though. While atheists may be acting as though Obama had been put into the White House with a bit of help from the ghost of Charles Darwin (and some people at the BBC like to think they did it), Bosnia's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mustafa Cerić, is apparently of the view that he was appointed by God. "I believe that Obama is a divine sign to humanity," he told Adam Tanner of Reuters in an interview in Sarajevo before news emerged that the president had granted his first interview to Al Arabiya. "Americans think that they have elected him, but I believe that he was elected by God," he went on." Barack Obama is one of these most noble goods of our time and our civilisation, that is why I think he is a gift of God."

The aforementioned E.W. Jackson won't like that - or perhaps he will feel it merely confirms his own suspicions. He didn't much like Obama's inclusive reference to Muslims and Hindus in the speech.

Obviously, Jewish heritage is very much a part of Christianity; the Jewish Bible is part of our Bible. But Hindu, Muslim, and nonbelievers? I don't think so. We are not a Muslim nation or a nonbelieving nation.

According to Tanner, Cerić is "sometimes called one of the world’s most liberal grand muftis" - which may not, of course, be saying much. He is much involved with inter-faith dialogue and would seem to be quite politically active, too. Here's a photo of him meeting Gordon Brown. In comparison, I suppose Obama may well seem divinely anointed.

I'm sure the excitement will eventually die down, even at the BBC. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Wading in

Journalists and journalism students had a rare treat yesterday when Rebekah Wade - long-serving Sun editor and arguably the most powerful woman in Britain - delivered the annual Hugh Cudlipp Memorial Lecture at the London College of Communication. Fellow hacks and editors were agog with excitement at seeing the Wapping Boudica in action. The Press Gazette's Axegrinder reported that "there was a sophisticated lighting job and it was interspersed with professionally produced audio-visual segments" - and wondered if the corporate presentation style might presage some move higher up the Murdoch ladder.

Wade reassured pessimists, who might imagine that collapsing sales portended the end of journalism as we know it, with tales of Julius Caesar and the Acta Diurna he caused to be posted up in the Forum. Unexpected, that. So to was the admission that "We gave away 120 million free CDs and DVDs - of questionable quality and at enormous cost - just to rent readers." She (less unexpectedly) sang the praises of various Sun anti-paedophile campaigns and attacked the Guardian's and the BBC's "knee-jerk tabloid kicking". Then it was on to her real bugbear, Max Mosley and the effect his successful privacy suit has had on her colleagues' "right" to jeeringly parade intimate details of people's lives before the public gaze.

In this, of course, she was following the trail laid previously by Mail Editor-in-Chief Paul Dacre, whose colourful language and personal attacks on the integrity of Mr Justice Eady caused a stir last year. She took the same general line, that human rights law, as developed (largely) by the aformentioned judge, represents a severe threat to the freedom of the press, and thus to civil liberties generally.

I disagree. Liberties and human rights belong, fundamentally, to individuals and not to corporations. For a newspaper such as the Daily Mail to campaign against government attacks on privacy while demanding the right to attack privacy itself is the height of hypocrisy. Perhaps Wade can't be charged with that, because the Sun has never knowingly seen a human right or an ancient liberty without wanting to snuff it out in the name of defeating terror or protecting the children. As New Labour has built its surveillance state Rebekah Wade has stood by and cheered.

I wondered if she'd had a change of heart when I read this: "This country is full of regulators, lawyers and politicians eager to frame and implement legislation that would constrain freedoms hard won over centuries."

But no: she wasn't talking about Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, protection against secret tribunals or extradition at the whim of a foreign government - still less about ID cards, which her Sun has supported since the beginning. When she talks about "freedom", she has only one freedom in mind: the freedom of the Sun and the News of the World to run sleazy exposés of celebrities. Her reasoning, though - perhaps because of the audience - was unusually candid:

Our ancient craft is to tell many people what few people know. The sheer thrill of disclosure motivates the best journalists. And as an industry, we should use our collective power to campaign for the freedom to do so.

It's not so much about the public's "right to know", it seems, than about the press's right to tell them. Wade doesn't need to invoke the usual high-minded talk of the public interest in exposing wrongdoing in high places. Or she's sufficiently self aware to acknowledge that that isn't quite the game she's in. It's the supposed rights, not of whistle-blowers, but of malicious gossips, that concern her. It's hard to imagine that this weekend's exposure of the Noble trouser-stuffers would have been hindered by a privacy law, after all.

Echoing Dacre's call for the right to pry into people's personal lives, Wade complained about "being created by the drip, drip of case law in the High Court without any reference to parliament." She even described it as "the epitome of self-flagellation" (hee hee) that the Guardian had published an interview recently with Max Mosley in which the spankers' hero outlined his push for ever greater privacy protection. But surely that is both newsworthy and important - or does Wade imagine that if the press doesn't give Mosley any coverage he'll just go away? Or maybe Max got a little too close to the truth:

To live in a society where the rules are made by the [tabloid] editors, I think, would horrify most people. Particularly as it's very one-sided. They never hesitate, for example, to use completely illegal means to get information, such as bribing people with access to the police computer. So they can't talk about morality, they are immoral themselves.

There are, indeed, severe dangers in an all-embracing privacy law of the kind Max Mosley favours, with judges pre-vetting journalistic copy. But privacy itself has never been more in peril - not just from newspapers, not just from a government wedded to the collection of sharing of increasingly detailed and intimate data on all our lives, but from self-exposure and exposure by others on social networking sites and blogs. Government snooping attracts most of the criticism - but unattractive and illiberal though that is it doesn't occur in isolation. Companies snoop on their customers - and can be just as careless with the details as some branches of government. Worse, though, many people think nothing of invading their own privacy - think nothing of the consequences down the line when prospective employers decide to check up on their candidates or ex-lovers feel like getting their revenge.

I suspect that much of the widespread complacency surrounding the government's data fixation is caused by a collapse in the notion of personal space, the increasing disappearance of the walls between the public and the private aspects of life. There are many symptoms of this, from the use of Blackberries to ensure that employees are constantly in touch - and thus on duty - 24 hours of the day to the cult of the webcam and Twitter. It's neatly summed up in that evil little slogan "If you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear". Too many people take it to heart, twisting it round to imply that there is something dangerous, suspicious or anti-social about the very notion of personal privacy, that one's life should be an open book.

There can be few ideas more destructive of freedom. For if the only possible life is one entirely open to public scrutiny, there is no room for experimentation, no room for eccentricity, no room for difference (except for the jejune and approved forms of difference known as "diversity"). People's actions, and increasingly their thoughts, will be ever more conformist, bland and unimaginative. Society, fearful of idiosyncrasy, will stagnate. But it won't necessarily become more decorous; since there is no privacy anyway, bad behaviour that might once have stayed behind closed doors for shame's sake finds safety in numbers and publicity. Hence the Hogarthian revels of public drunkenness and copulation, the pervasive rudeness, the unselfconscious spilling of one's most intimate secrets into a cellphone handset while on a train.

In such a situation, a law of privacy seems philosophically anomalous, or at best futile. Yet that is precisely why it is to be welcomed. It offers something like a property right in one's own private space. Privacy - and the right to defend private space and private information from intrusion, whether from the press or from government - isn't just desirable in itself, it is also a prerequisite for any genuine kind of freedom. Which is one reason why an overweening government is so alarmed by it.

Of course, "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" rarely applies to MPs, who very nearly exempted themselves from the Freedom of Information Act and have made sure that their own childrens' details will not be made available to around a million public sector employees through the ContactPoint database (opposition to which, once growing, has become worryingly muted since the Baby P case, though it would not have saved him).

Jack Straw would seem to be listening. Despite facing his own difficulties with disclosure - it turns out that disgraced peer-for-hire Lord Taylor has been channelling money in his direction - and as keen as ever to introduce secret inquests for embarrassing deaths, the Times reports that the Minister for Injustice wants to review the emerging law of privacy with a view to making things easier for the likes of Dacre and Wade. Writes Frances Gibb:

Mr Straw’s unreported comments came as MPs grilled him over an interview he did with the Daily Mail in which the Justice Secretary said that the Human Rights Act was being perceived as a “villain’s charter”.

But it is not only the perception that it helps criminals more than it does defendants: the Act is now seen as a screen behind which celebrities and others in the public eye can hide anything they want to keep secret.

Such as their private lives, presumably. This is what how the Mail reported its interview with Straw last month:

But it is not just the issue of human rights which preoccupies him. A succession of controversial High Court libel judgments - most notably in favour of Formula 1 boss Max Mosley who won a libel action against the News of the World despite being exposed as serial user of prostitutes - has raised alarm bells that judges are quietly legislating for a privacy law.

Mr Straw shares the concerns of those who are worried about a drift towards a privacy law, although he argues it was already happening before the Human Rights Act came in.

They seem to be utterly obsessed with Max Mosley. It's almost as though, by successfully taking the Screws to the cleaners, he committed some unforgiveable act of lèse-majesté against the almighty press. Dacre and Wade clearly need the Mosleys of this world to keep them financially afloat - especially in difficult times, as advertising revenues dry up and, as Wade admitted last night, in 2008 382,000 people stopped buying a daily paper. Straw, for his part, needs to keep the editors at least partially on board - especially in difficult times, as the economy worsens and millions of voters look set to desert the Labour party. So it's perhaps not overly surprising that he shares the Mail's - and Rebekah Wade's - "concerns" about privacy legislation.
Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Pope's new best friend

Here's "bishop" Richard Williamson of the breakaway Society of St Pius X, a group of ultra-conservative Catholics which split from the Vatican when he and three others were consecrated as bishops by rebel Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. He's sharing his considered views on the Holocaust - for example, "I believe there were no gas chambers."

Forget the plummy accent and the frock. Don't you think he'd look right at home in an SS uniform?

Williamson is in the news because he and his fellow "bishops" have been welcomed back into the bosom of the official church by special dispensation of Pope Joseph Ratzinger. Does that mean he's now a proper bishop? I'm not sure. But it does apparently mean that His Heiliness considers the group's submission to Vatican authority as rather more significant than his repulsive views. Holocaust denial, unlike saying boo to the Pope, is not an excommunicable offence - or even, it would appear, a sin. The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris is said to be delighted.

Needless to say, the action hasn't gone down quite so well with Jewish groups - and doesn't bode well for the former Hitler Youth member's planned visit to Israel in the spring. Many Catholics are unhappy, too. It's not as if the pope hadn't been warned about Williamson, whose links with the far right have been extensively documented. But "paternally sensitive", in the words of the document "to the spiritual unease manifested by the interested party", he decided to go ahead anyway. He is, we're told, very committed to Catholic unity. He's also quite keen on building bridges with the Russian Orthodox church, currently meeting to elect a successor to the ghastly patriarch Alexy. Beyond that, it gets a bit hazy.

Damian Thompson, editor of the Catholic Herald and waspish commentator (and, in his Counterknowledge persona, a champion of reason) seems to be struggling with cognitive dissonance on this one. One of Ratzinger's greatest fans and cheerleaders, he has long been using his Telegraph blog to taunt and undermine his detractors among the English Catholic bishops. Encouraging Anglo-Catholics to defect Romewards the other day, he urged them to "remember that, if they become Roman Catholics, they will be joining a Church led by Pope Benedict XVI, not some grey-shirted placeman from Eccleston Square." Yet his hero has now welcomed back a shameless old anti-semite and his colleagues, whose views seem almost as questionable.

Alas, poor Damian, especially since the Catholic Herald has in the past been particularly active in exposing Williamson. Here's what the Herald told its readers last March:

A senior bishop of the Lefebvrist Society of St Pius X (SSPX) has endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery that enjoys widespread currency in neo-Nazi circles.

Richard Williamson, one of four bishops ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, told The Catholic Herald that the document - which supposedly reveals a Jewish plot to dominate the world - was authentic.

He is also on record as saying that the Jews are fighting for world domination "to prepare the Anti-Christ's throne in Jerusalem". The SSPX has refused to condemn English-born Bishop Williamson and says it has "no policy" on the authenticity of the Protocols, a Russian Czarist forgery that has been described as "a manual in Hitler's war to exterminate the Jews".

The Society's support for Williamson - who also believes that the Americans planned 9/11 - is likely to end any chance of full reconciliation between the SSPX and Rome.

Er - put that in the Anatole Kaletsky Book of Bad Predictions.

Just the other day, Thompson drew attention to the failure by "bishop" Bernard Fellay, leader of the Lefebvrist faction, to distance himself from Williamson's views. He noted that "Catholics and public opinion throughout the world will be appalled if the Pope does not address this matter before any action [to lift the excommunication] is taken", adding that "I do not wish to belong to the same Church as Williamson - or ... Fellay."

Well now apparently he does, along with around a billion other Catholics. So what's he going to do about it? Come round to the idea, of course. In his first reaction yesterday, he admitted that it was "going to be a very hard sell for the Vatican PR machine" - as though that were the only important thing - but comforted himself with the thought that Williamson was "increasingly a loner inside the SSPX". This despite the other "bishops"' repeated failure to repudiate him or his opinions, of course. "I've been surprised by how many Catholics who are not fans of the SSPX believe that this is the right step to take," he adds, before lamenting that Ratzinger is "in some ways an isolated figure", surrounded by cardinals who "do not show him the loyalty he deserves".

A few hours later, Thompson was "beginning to think that the Pope's gamble will pay off". And in his final thoughts of the day, he was really tying himself in knots trying to justify the situation. Quoting Andrew Sullivan's comments that he was "truly, deeply ashamed of my church", remarks that "those would have been my reactions until about 24 hours ago, when - after reading several careful analyses of the situation - I finally understood why the Pope has lifted these excommunications".

Almost until the moment Ratzinger withdrew the excommunication, Damian was begging him not to. Now, however, it seems that the pope was right all along. Perhaps it's the operation of grace. Instead he wants us to turn our anger on "a man who yesterday signed a law preparing the ground for the killing of countless unborn babies." He means President Obama, who has lifted the Bush administration's ban on funding aid agencies that support abortion. Because that's the real Holocaust.
Read the rest of this article

What the Beeb is worried about

Some fascinating hints about what lies behind the BBC Gaza appeal row are contained in an article in the Observer by former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. The article isn't accepting comments, so I'll have to respond to it here.

Llewellyn's own position couldn't be clearer. He describes the decision not to air the appeal as an "extraordinary piece of institutional cowardice" which makes him and many still working for the corporation "incandescent with rage". He talks of the BBC's staff as "lions led by donkeys", and of BBC managers as trying to outdo the government "in grovelling to the United States and Israel". The decision represents a "pusillanimous obeisance to some imagined governmental threat". He sees it as a betrayal of the high standards of journalism upheld by such broadcasting legends as the late Charles Wheeler, whose memorial service he attended last week.

So clear is Llewellyn's wrath, indeed, that one begins to see why BBC bosses are fearing for their reputation:

How is the BBC's impartiality to be prejudiced by asking others to raise money for the victims of an act of war by a recognised state, an ally of Britain, using the most lethal armaments it can against a defenceless population? What sly little trigger went off in her head when Thomson questioned whether the aid would reach the right people? What right people? Hamas, the elected representatives of the Palestinian people? The hospitals and clinics run by private charities and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency? The mosques? The citizens of Gaza, persecuted beyond measure not only by their Israeli enemies but by the western powers who arm and sustain Israel and defy the democratic vote of the Palestinian people?

Indeed, how could the Beeb's impartiality possibly be compromised by taking sides? Yesterday, Tony Benn was invited onto the Today programme to denounce the BBC - and don't the Today boys just love demonstrating their fearlessness and independence by sticking it to their superiors? - and during the interview he read out the Appeal's phone number. "I expect that's why you've asked me on," he claimed. Ed Stourton denied it. But according to Llewellyn the programme "rightly" produced Benn "because they knew he would articulate what their bosses have failed to: reason and humanity."

Llewellyn clearly values impartiality less than campaigning journalism. He - and, to judge by his account, most of his former colleagues, "reporters of the calibre of Jeremy Bowen, David Lloyn, Lyse Doucet, experts in their field and brave people all" - wish to draw attention to what in their minds is a clear case of good versus evil. No plainer statement could be found of the deep pro-Palestinian, even pro-Hamas and lurking anti-Israeli feelings that are common currency within the organisation. In this, he echoes health minister and former BBC man Ben Bradshaw, who on Any Questions the other day seemed to forget, in his indignation, his responsibilities as a member of the government, instead lambasting the Israeli government for "bullying" the BBC - an allegation for which so far he has produced no evidence whatsoever, but which has already been noticed in the Arab world and may well cause both the BBC and Britain lasting damage.

There is a place for partial and committed reporting. But that place is emphatically not in a publicly funded monolith whose very name makes it a flag-carrier of the British national interest and which has to rely upon its international reputation for impartiality. Its status, and Britain's too, is put in jeopardy when it appears too much like the mouthpiece of a terrorist organisation, even when said organisation is, as Llewellyn proudly points out, "the elected representatives of the Palestinian people". I don't generally have much sympathy for BBC bosses, who can be mulishly conceited and impervious to reasonable criticism, as they demonstrated admirably over the Ross/Brand affair. But this insight into what they are up against makes their stand far more comprehensible.

Viewed in isolation, there is little cause to object to the appeal being broadcast - at least if sufficient safeguards can be put in place that the money raised doesn't go astray. (Which would be a pretty big if, even if the impartiality of some of the charities involved in the appeal were not in question). That is why the indignation is widespread. But where the BBC is involved nothing can be viewed in isolation. The very fact that BBC types can jump so easily to the bonkers conspiracy theory that the management has been leant on by the Israelis reveals how seriously impaired the corporation's impartiality has become. This isn't the first time a DEC request for an appeal has been turned down by the broadcasters. It is, however, the first time that the denial has become, itself, a major news story. The way in which the demos have been co-ordinated by the SWP/Islamist dominated Stop the War Coalition, with George Galloway leading the protest outside Broadcasting House, shows how humanitarian concern has in this case become dangerously politicised. But it also demonstrates the spluttering, incoherent rage to which the "liberal" Left is reduced when the BBC temporarily stops behaving like their mouthpiece.

The BBC bosses, I suspect, were influenced less by Israeli pressure (or even the prospect of such pressure) than by knowledge of how the appeal would reflect back on its own coverage. It was not to preserve the actuality of BBC impartiality on Gaza - because there is none - but rather to salvage the impression of impartiality that they felt compelled to take such a stand. There's more than a whiff of the corporation protesting too much. By taking a loud and unpopular stand on this issue, they will in future be able to produce it as evidence that their reporting is not anti-Israel. Even though, for arguably good reasons, it is.
Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 24 January 2009

BBC: Clueless on Gaza?

The BBC deserves more sympathy than it is getting for its reluctance to broadcast an appeal on behalf of Gaza. The corporation tends to make a fetish of its independence, even when it is at its most craven and politically correct, yet chief operating officer Caroline Thomson was surely right this evening to describe its position on this issue as principled, indeed brave. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that it was right.

The Disasters Emergency Committee has been co-ordinating appeals for the relief of natural and man-made disasters since 1963. According to their website,

Crises and emergencies occur regularly throughout the world and we cannot respond to them all. DEC appeals are reserved for major disasters and emergencies which cannot be dealt with by the usual in-country coping mechanisms, and where DEC member agencies are in a position to respond quickly and effectively.

What this means in practice is that the DEC exists to respond to emergencies that are newsworthy. Indeed, the organisation's own guidelines state, as one of three conditions to be met before a joint appeal is launched, that "there must be sufficient public awareness of, and sympathy for, the humanitarian situation so as to give reasonable grounds for concluding that a public appeal will be successful."

The situation in Gaza clearly meets this newsworthiness test. Indeed, it's largely due to the BBC's own coverage of the conflict - and that of other broadcasters - that public awareness is so great. Naomi Wolf, writing in Saturday's Times, contrasted the presentation of the issues here with that in the US:

Reading the US papers, one would have the sense that the Gaza conflict was an even-handed struggle. We saw images of bodies from afar, but not an actual bloodied child. In England I found, on every cover of almost every news publication, close-up images of wounded children.... And a single sentence in The New York Times mentioned “protests in Europe” about Gaza. Not until I surfaced in the UK did I have any idea that there were hundreds of thousands of citizens on the streets throughout Europe.

By the same token, though, reading, or listening to or, above all, watching the British coverage one would have the sense that the Gaza conflict was no more than a war of aggression waged for no good reason by a strong power - Israel - against a defenceless civilian population. This isn't entirely or even mainly a BBC problem. Channel 4 has been even more one-sided in its coverage. But it does mean that running an appeal aimed at alleviating the undoubted humanitarian crisis in Gaza inevitably becomes politically charged.

Conspiracy theorists, who apparently include the absurd health minister Ben Bradshaw (to judge from his performance on Radio 4's Any Questions last night) allege that the BBC has simply bowed to Israeli pressure. "The Israeli government has a long history of bullying the BBC", he alleged, adding that it was "completely unacceptable" and "the BBC should not be cowed by it". Presumably they should only allow the Labour government to bully them. Or does Alastair Campbell's behaviour during the Iraq war merely count as "friendly advice"?

Actually, if the Israeli government does attempt to influence the BBC's coverage of the Middle East (and I don't doubt that they do) they don't seem particularly successful. This isn't the place to embark on a defence of Israeli actions, even if I wanted to, which I don't. The heavy-handed tactics of the IDF and the killing and injuring of many blameless civilians, including far too many children, have alienated and bewildered even many of their natural supporters. It was a one-sided war, and the consequences are plain for all to see. The public anger that followed has had some ugly side-effects, but it was a natural, understandable, even inevitable consequence of the news footage. And the Israelis should not be surprised that their policy of prosecuting a war in a small and crowded strip of land has led to international dismay.

But in covering this conflict as, essentially, a humanitarian disaster, the BBC and other broadcasters have decontexualised it. They have ignored wider, more complex questions about the role of Hamas in precipitating the conflict - which went beyond reckless, and must be described as deliberately causative - and about the involvement of surrounding states. Almost nothing, for example, has been said about the position of Egypt, which has played an interesting (and very cynical) double game, emoting in public about the plight of the Palestinians while privately backing Israel and supporting their blockade of Gaza. Nor, in the aftermath, has there been much coverage in the British media of the opinions of the many Gazans who are well aware how much Hamas must share the blame for the devastation that has been brought upon them.

This is not a new problem. A report commissioned by the BBC governors in 2006 found serious deficiencies: its reporting was significantly misleading and contained "gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective". The report criticised both the BBC's coverage of the sufferings of Palestinians, and also the its reluctance to use the word "terrorism" to describe the actions of militants. (A reluctance that continues to this day.) Some see these problems as evidence of inherent anti-Israel bias in the BBC. More charitably, it can be seen as a bias towards strong visual images and simplistic narratives over much less appealing explanations of the origins and progress of a decades-long conflict.

Given that the war has been painted in such black-and-white terms, it's easy to see how giving airtime to a humanitarian appeal might lead to suspicions of bias. When people are displaced and bereaved by a natural disaster such as an earthquake, there may well be people to blame (cost-cutting builders, for example) but the direct cause of the tragedy is impersonal, an act of God. Not so here, where the vast majority of those injured have been injured by the Israelis, and those who have lost their homes have lost them to Israeli bombs. If the BBC and other news organisations had done their job properly in explaining the nuances of the Middle East dispute, then this need not have been a problem. But the public perception is now that the undoubtedly tragic situation is entirely (or almost entirely) Israel's fault.

No-one should doubt the appeal organisers' good intentions, but the sad fact is that even showing humanitarian concern for the victims has become a political act - or at least a politically ambiguous one. On balance, I think a carefully-worded appeal ought to be able to work around these issues. A potentially greater problem might lie in the actual delivery of aid. There must be a danger that some of the money raised would be siphoned off by Hamas and spent on weapons. It might validly be said, however, that this consideration hasn't stopped such appeals in the past. It is a recurrent feature of aid programmes in war-zones and places where the government is institutionally corrupt that not all the money raised ends up helping the most needy. And the distribution of aid in Gaza would presumably take place under conditions of great publicity and international scrutiny.

The BBC and (initially) the other broadcasters may well have made the wrong decision, but it was neither an inexplicable nor an outrageous one, and a much closer call than most of their opponents are willing to accept. Cheap populist shots from government ministers ring particularly hollow when set against New Labour's long record of bullying and suborning the BBC, or the Beeb's own record of craven subservience to the government's agenda. It is particularly strange that ministers' ire should be directed against a broadcaster that weighed a tricky situation rather than against the country that did the damage. As for the appeal itself, this row has given it far more publicity than it could otherwise have expected. And that must be a good thing.
Read the rest of this article

Friday, 23 January 2009

Saudis launch new anti-witch drive

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have announced a new crackdown on witchcraft. According to Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat,

Sources within the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice [that's the religious police] in Saudi Arabia have revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the CPVPV will move to combat magic and those who practice it, and regulate the exercise of legitimate spiritual healing, by instituting a system designed to deal with such practices which are against Islamic Shariaa Law...Asharq Al-Awsat managed to obtain a copy of this draft which gives the police the right to deal with witches and sorcerers, and the means to identify and convict them.

There have been crackdowns before, even death sentences - and charges of witchcraft are not infrequently brought against domestic workers and other victims of the country's neo-medieval social system. But until now it has all been a bit disorganised and ad hoc. And as the subtle legal minds of Sprenger and Kramer discovered long ago, when you're dealing with Satanic mischief you need to lay down proper guidelines.

The report continues:

A study of this project was carried out by the Center for Research and Study which is affiliated to the CPVPV and which put a number of legal opinions on the table including; a definition of magic, witchcraft, divination, fortune-telling and other similar practices, a scientific definition to magical practices, and a model in order to help uncover such practices.

The study, also clarified the signs and symbols that can be used in the practice of magic, as well as the tools used to control magic, while also advising that a system of cooperation be initiated between the various authorities involved in this fight against such practices and those who perform them.

By "tools used to control magic" it's not entirely clear if they mean their own legal powers or, for example, magic wands.

The study also suggested that information be used in the fight against magic, and that the public be warned against it, as the CPVPV has been attempting to do.

A warning, by the way, that the Heresiarch would heartily endorse. Turning someone into a frog can be very dangerous. It's always nice to see an "awareness campaign". And we should bear in mind that even the EU has seen fit to legislate against psychics.

But what has led to this new initiative? It appears that just as we in Britain are threatened by epidemics of obese children or "extreme" internet porn, the Saudis are menaced by a less visible but equally growing problem:

Previous cases involving magic prosecuted by the CPVPV revealed the spread of witchcraft and magic throughout the country, and this is as a result of the number of arrested, and the information provided by the relevant authorities involved in the project to address these practices.

The joint-taskforce comprising the CPVPV and the appropriate security agencies was adopted in order to combat what the CPVPV leadership called "the manifestations of this problem, and to define the responsibilities of the parties involved in order to reduce the spread [of magic]" while also recommending that incentives be given to the security agencies that combat magic and witchcraft.

A bonus per witch convicted, presumably. We all know how effective that can be in improving the performance of the police. But why now? It seems to be largely down to (you've guessed it) the internet. The report stressed the need for "regulations to be put in place with regards to the role of telecommunication and Internet service providers to protect the public from communication and television channels that promote magic, while also penalizing those that perpetrate such crimes." But where do they propose to draw the line? Are Harry Potter fansites to blame for the spread of witchcraft and wizardry in the kingdom (as not a few Christian campaigners believe) - or are we talking something more sinister, real "hardcore" black magic sites which contain details of actual spells? The suspicion must be that such websites might lead vulnerable or impressionable people to cross a line and actually start practising black magic. No doubt they "normalise" sorcery, giving "permission" to potential wizards who might otherwise have kept magical thoughts to themselves.

The report concludes:

The rationale behind the CPVPV study, was to seek to fill the vacuum by making legal and regulatory determinations, as well as clarify the burden of evidence for magic and witchcraft cases as being scientific and practical, while also increasing the number of those involved in combating such cases, from the security agents on the ground, including the men of the CPVPV, to investigators, and judges.

Closing loopholes, appealing to science, hiring more staff to combat an imaginary problem. It could almost be New Labour.
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Exiting Left

This is a guest post by Edwin Moore

Sometime after the first meeting of the devolved Scottish parliament in 1999, a Scottish writer said that she felt 'proud' to be a member of a nation that had elected Tommy Sheridan as a Scottish Socialist Party MSP. The comment raised some eyebrows, but was not that uncommon a view. For many Scots, the charismatic Tommy was the spirit of Red Clydeside incarnate; he had been one of the key figures of Scottish Militant, a campaigner against nuclear weapons and the poll tax.

Frequently jailed for his activities, Sheridan was also the leading campaigner against the hideous Scottish tradition of poinding and warrant sales, in which people who couldn't pay their debts (or poll tax) had their household possessions auctioned off. Once elected, Sheridan put forward a private member's bill to abolish poinding and warrant sales, which became law in 2001.

After 2003, photographs of Sheridan and his crew of six fellow socialist MSPs, squeezing comradely up against each other, appeared regularly in the press. Of course, it all fell apart in a spectacularly grotty sex scandal, the details of which the curious can google. The political outcome of the scandal was huge. The former SSP became two parties - the continuing Scottish Socialist Party (Sheridan's enemies) and Solidarity (Sheridan's friends), and all of them lost their seats at the 2007 election, with the SNP being the main beneficiary of their collapse. At the Glasgow East by election of 2008 both left-wing parties lost their deposits.

Sheridan himself is now studying law and became, he has said, a member of the current Celebrity Big Brother house in order to raise funds for his studies. He was evicted from the house on Wednesday night along with La Toya Jackson. The Scottish media, along with the rest of the British media, is very interested in CBB, and at one time the notion of Sheridan in the house would have provoked ecstatic coverage in Scotland. Alas, Sheridan has entered the Donald Dewar Zone for failed icons and his presence and eviction has had little coverage. Dewar, of course, was a leading campaigner for the Scottish parliament, and when he died in 2000, the Scottish media went into full-blown elegaic mode. The prize for over-the-top rhetoric went to an ex-moderator of the Church of Scotland who, the morning after Dewar's death, announced on BBC Scotland that 'we were blessed that he walked among us'. Dewar was 'Father of the Nation', a demigod, but somehow also a peculiarly Scottish egalitarian demigod. It was left to George Galloway to provide an affectionate picture of the real man, remembering him rebuking a reporter for daring to ask if he could call him 'Donald'.

Then Dewar's will was published - not only did he have several houses, he was a rich man who had stocks and shares, and the Scottish establishment speedily deemed that we are no longer blessed that he walked among us.

The paths of Dewar and Sheridan crossed several times, most notably in Dewar's constituency party of Garscadden, where Scottish Militant made a determined attempt to deselect him (and could have succeeded, were it not for Neil Kinnock). But the dead Dewar and the living Sheridan are now united in having become establishment outcasts; Big Scottish Brother has evicted them into the dustbin of Scottish history.

Gore Vidal said in 1968:

'By exalting the chorus and diminishing the actors, television has changed entirely the nature of our continuing history. Watching things as they happen, the viewer is a part of events in a way new to man.'

There are real people such as Tommy Sheridan, Donald Dewar and Barack Obama; there are also the fantasy versions we get on telly, and a moment's reflection is enough to convince one that no saints could climb the rock faces of Scottish or Chicago politics without getting dirt under their fingernails. It is now deeply unfashionable to praise Tommy Sheridan, yet his will and energy drove through a real and lasting change to Scottish law. Donald Dewar was a rich man whose private tastes were not those of everyday Scots, yet he also drove through real and lasting change to Scottish life. Like you, dear reader, I have no idea who the real Barack Obama is, but if he changes the world for the better then we shouldn't care.

As the monstrous Pat Buchanan said, one of the few things we can say about Obama is that he has probably had sex with fewer black women than Bill Clinton, but that knowledge doesn’t really advance us much. Clinton, of course, used to claim he came from a place called Hope, and managed to convince lots of people who damn well knew he didn't, that it was in some way true. Perhaps this is what comes from hanging on to the TV remote for too long. If it all doesn’t work out, there may be a new messiah on the next channel. Or we could turn to the real world, while we still can.

Edwin is the author of Scotland: 1000 Things You Need To Know. You can read his blog about it here.
Read the rest of this article

A super-abundance of caution

According to a report on the BBC website, Chief Justice Roberts' oath-fluffing was "little-noticed at the time". I assume they mean that their commentators chose not to mention it - for if something hasn't been officially announced by the BBC then clearly it didn't happen or doesn't exist. Similarly, the sight of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair was "litttle-noticed". I was waiting to hear the reason for his unexpected evocation of Dr Strangelove - but the commentary passed it over in silence. It was about then that I switched over to Sky.

Outside of Beebland, where reality is what they deem it to be, the whole world noticed - though a surprisingly large number of people didn't seem to notice that it was the Chief Justice who messed things up. First, he spoke over the president who was repeating the phrase "I Barack Hussein Obama"; then he (famously) omitted the word "faithfully"; then he (from what I can make out) actually said "the office of president to the United States". Was it nerves or sabotage? Who knows. But in the age of YouTube the clip will haunt Roberts to the grave.

And so, out of a "super-abundance of caution" - a phrase apparently coined by Akhil Reed Amar, professor of constitutional law at Yale, but today being credited to White House counsel Greg Craig - Barack Obama has re-taken the oath. Super-cautious or not, the precedents are quite clear. On the two previous occasions where the oath didn't come out right - Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and Chester Arthur in 1881 - it had to be re-taken. No cheering crowds this time; no Lincoln Bible, either. No Bible of any sort, as it happens - we're told that there was "none to hand". Interesting that Barack Obama couldn't find a Bible at short notice; no doubt he was still unpacking - but I doubt George W Bush would have had the same problem.

Most presidents choose to be sworn in on a Bible that has some personal or sentimental meaning for them. Perhaps Obama, who I've long suspected isn't particularly (or at all) religious, doesn't have such a Bible. Abraham Lincoln's own religious views are a subject of some controversy - while he often used languaged drenched in Biblical imagery, he does not seem to have been an orthodox believer. He seems to have looked to Christianity mainly for its moral messages and social implications rather than for his own personal salvation, and once said that he was "not at all concerned" whether God was on his side. He was probably some sort of Deist.

Given his pleasing and unexpected nod towards "non-believers" the other day - an unprecedented inclusion of atheists and agnostics in a society where some politicians openly cast doubt on the patriotism of non-theists - and his own religiously complex and contested upbringing, it's quite possible that Obama's God isn't strictly orthodox either. In any case, he now joins Theodore Roosevelt (who had Calvinist objections) and John Quincy Adams (who preferred to take his oath on a copy of the Constitution) in the short list of presidents who were not sworn on a Bible. Perhaps that accidental precedent will prove more telling than the rather laboured attempts to draw parallels with Lincoln.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

There's definitely nothing to complain about

So it's over. As I predicted, the Advertising Standards Authority has dismissed all the complaints against the Atheist buses, on the grounds that "the ad was an expression of the advertiser’s opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation." Purely by coincidence, in my own submission to the ASA I had written that "the existence or otherwise of God is incapable of objective substantiation, being a matter of belief" and that "the statement that 'there is probably no God' thus ... is rather an expression of opinion."

The ASA also concluded that the words were "unlikely to mislead or to cause serious or widespread offence." Of course, there was Ron Heather, a driver in Southampton who refused to drive a godless bus. But his employers were pathetically eager to humour him:

"When I first saw the bus last Saturday I was shocked," Heather said. "I was just about to board and there it was staring me in the face. My first reaction was horror. I'd heard about this silly campaign in London but I had no idea it was coming to Southampton. I had certainly hoped they were not coming here because I didn't want to make a stand.

"I was in a dilemma but I felt strongly I couldn't drive that bus and so I went up to my inspectors and told them there was no way I could drive it. They said they didn't have another one, so I thought I'd better go home."

The news is hardly a surprise. Indeed, given that the ASA based their decision on the fact that the slogan was clearly an expression of opinion, it looks like the slogan didn't even need the qualifier "probably". Although, used creatively the word does offer some possibilities:

More examples here.

The ASA's statement notes that it received a total of 326 complaints about the bus ads, which were "carefully assessed". I wonder how much time they wasted doing that. It didn't add how many counter-submissions there were in support of the campaign: I know of only two, including mine, but I suspect there were several more. Of the 326 complaints - a very high number, although most of them would have been prompted by the publicity, of course - the details only of two have been publicised. Comedy fundamentalist Stephen Green of Christian Voice said that "I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it." Ha! Green, however, is taking some comfort in what he deems to be the ASA's finding that the Bus Campaign "can't substantiate their claims".

"Distinguished Catholic commentator" Clifford Longley, meanwhile, copied some misleading and manipulated quotes by (properly distinguished) scientists from a religious website and revealed himself to be (in the words of a long-standing friend) "silly". The BBC is still happy to give him a slot on Thought for the Day, however. His most recent effort included the following gem:

Mr Obama himself said the guarantee of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence came not from the law but directly from "Our Maker." And he wasn't talking about General Motors!

And they said Ariane Sherine was a comedy writer.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Not quite the Messiah

Being an old pagan at heart, despite my rationalist pretensions, I couldn't resist a shiver of trepidation when Chief Justice Roberts failed to read the Presidential Oath correctly. The Romans would have considered this a very bad omen, and insisted that the whole ceremony begin again. What worried me even more, though, was Barack Obama's response. He hesitated slightly before repeating Roberts' garbled (and, strictly speaking, unconstitutional) formulation. Hardly the action of a decisive, self-confident leader, who would surely have had the presence of mind to come out with the right words whatever the idiot in the black robe had misspoken. Obama must know the words - he must have rehearsed them again and again and again, probably since he was at Harvard. "I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States." It's not difficult. Whereas "I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully" sounds like something Dubya might have said.

A Bush appointee, it is of course possible that the Chief Justice shares his patron's linguistic disabilities. Or perhaps he did it deliberately; as a senator, Barack Obama had cast his vote against Roberts' nomination. Either way, it was clearly the low point of the Inauguration - the high points being the chorus of boos that greeted the appearance of the outgoing president and the sight of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair, looking even less jocund than usual. The official story is that he had an "accident" while clearing out his desk. Perhaps he was laying a booby-trap for his successor and it unexpectedly went off. Or perhaps he tried to shoot himself. The elder president Bush, by contrast, looked rather cheerful (if liable to fall over) as he wobbled his way down the staircase. Spare a thought for Papa Bush. It was John Adams - as viewers of the recent HBO series will have been reminded - who first had the rare distinction of living to see his son elected president. But Adams' fate was kinder than HW's: he died a few months later, and so was unaware what a comprehensive hash John Quincy Adams made of the job.

As for the big speech itself, I suspect most people will have been distinctly underwhelmed. He was supposed to have invoked the shades of Lincoln, Kennedy and Roosevelt in an oration that would write the first page in a new chapter of history; instead, Obama's most resonant phrase was stolen from Irving Berlin. And while America might well need to pick itself up, dust itself down, and start all over again, it's hard to imagine the new president actually thinks his most appropriate historical precedent is Fred Astaire. But bathos is invariably the price paid for inflated expectations. In recent days the BBC seem to have been playing Kennedy and FDR on a continuous loop, as though there were only two inaugurations speeches worth quoting (perhaps there are) and only two notable phrases ever coined. Certainly, there was nothing comparable here: the mistake Obama's people made, I suspect, was to make it seem not merely possible but expected that there would be.

According to the Times, a cult has grown up around Jon Favreau, the "fresh faced wunderkind" who wrote the speech. The 27 year old has "spent the last two months working for up to 16 hours a day on the speech in locations all over Washington...As the day approaches, he has found himself writing until 2 or 3am, fuelled by double espresso shots and Red Bull." Moreover, "a team of assistants" were on hand to "furnish him with material, from research on key moments of crisis in American history to the collected speeches of former presidents." I suspect that was the problem. It was derivative, full of echoes, not just of Kennedy and FDR but of Lincoln, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jefferson and the Bible - but such echoes merely made the clichés of language and sentiment more glaring. I suspect Favreau's first draft was probably much better.

This speech - stilted even in delivery - was a disappointment after the passion of Obama's victory speech, just as even that was a pale shadow of his earlier inspirational speech in Iowa. The metaphors were clumsy and contrived - "rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace", "our patchwork heritage". There were some predictable noises about unity and purpose, some barbed asides aimed at Bush, hints about the environment and talk of a "new age of responsibility". Perhaps the only truly brave part of the speech was the addition of the phrase "and non-believers" to a delineation of America's religious plurality. (Atheists are Americans too - yay!) The sentiments were fine (although, worryingly, the only discernable reference to Britain was as "the Enemy"), but overall it fell flat. Even Obama himself seemed bored by it. It wasn't a particularly bad speech, by normal standards: but Obama's standards are not normal, and for him it was a dud. Next time, Mr Favreau, don't try quite so hard.

Still, I particularly liked this passage, and hope he means it:

As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Most of the time, of course, a speech is just a speech: what matters is the work that comes after it. It is rare for a speech to transcend its time, lastingly enriching the language. Perhaps only Churchill managed to do it consistently - and he, of course, wrote his own speeches. But it was not unreasonable to hope that this Inaugural address would contain a phrase to sit alongside "we have nothing to fear but fear itself", or "ask not what your country can do for you", or "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" or "I have a dream". It was not to be. The world will little note, nor long remember, what Obama said today. Let's hope his deeds will be more resonant.
Read the rest of this article

Monday, 19 January 2009

The Thoughts of Chairman Icke

Not everyone has high hopes of the Obama administration. David Icke, for example, has been warning his followers that, however different from this predecessor he might appear, the new president is basically just another creature of the Illuminati, or the extraterrestrial lizards, or whichever secret elite actually controls the planet. Indeed, in a long article posted on his website (which he is anxious to distribute as widely as possible) he fears that Obama may be even more dangerous than Bush. Mainly because people seem to like him. Whereas "Bush was a transparent idiot with no communication skills who needed massive fraud at the polls to get him officially 'elected'."

Icke is "dismayed" that so many people all over the world have been "duped by the mind-game called Operation Obama." Even many "with some understanding of the conspiracy" think the incoming president is better than Bush, he laments. When in fact, of course, he's far worse. As for Michelle Obama, Icke wouldn't trust her "to tell me the date in a calendar factory". Which strikes me as unnecessarily ungallant, even for a conspiracy theorist.

In Icke's view, Obama's campaign was one of successful manipulation and mind-control, unencumbered by actual policy. He's a blank canvas onto which voters can project ideals: his campaign "has been so successful because so many people live their lives in a permanent state of trance." He is a "blatant fraud" who has "cold eyes just above the painted smile" and "speaks from the autocue, not from the heart". Obama's sudden rise to power - and the inflated expectations he arouses in his cultish supporters - reminds Icke of Hitler. "Obama may not look like Hitler, nor sound like Hitler, but the themes are just the same." Really? Perhaps he should go off and read Mein Kampf, and then Dreams from My Father, and see if he can spot the difference.

That sort of thing is just silly - even if it's true that all modern politics owes more than its practitioners would ever like to admit to the propaganda techniques devised by Dr Goebbels. Nevertheless, Icke's main charge - that Obama's campaign relied upon the clever manipulation of crowd emotions, and was unconnected to any real programme - is not confined to the lunatic fringe. Peter Hitchens, for example, has written in somewhat similar terms:

The swooning frenzy over the choice of Barack Obama as President of the United States must be one of the most absurd waves of self-deception and swirling fantasy ever to sweep through an advanced civilisation... I really don’t see how the Obama devotees can ever in future mock the Moonies, the Scientologists or people who claim to have been abducted in flying saucers. This is a cult like the one which grew up around Princess Diana, bereft of reason and hostile to facts.

Maybe the two of them should get together. Here's David Icke on Obama's invocation of "change":

Obama's predominant mantra has been 'change'. Indeed, his massively-funded, record-breaking campaign was based on that one word - change. This is a technique used by Bill Clinton and many others and it is highly effective because, at any point, the system ensures that most people are not happy with the way life is. So, when you don't like the status quo, 'change' can be a potent message, even if, like Obama, you don't say what it means.

It has been vital to his success, and that of his controllers, that he has never specified what his 'hope', 'change', and that other mind-control trigger-word, 'believe', were referring to in terms of policy and the way society in general will be affected. Hope for what? Change what? Believe in what? To answer those questions with specifics would have been fatal to Obama's appeal.

This isn't entirely true. Obama has specified several aspects of what his "change" programme entails. He will, for example, be changing lightbulbs:

First, we will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient. Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won’t just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work.

As this extract suggests, the problem with Obama's programme is not lack of detail: if anything it is too wide-ranging and ambitious. The new president gives every impression of being concerned with details - much more than Bush or Blair. It's true, though, that many of the voters were less concerned with the minutiae of policy than with the general mood of change and hope that he represented: change and hope that are certainly much desired at the present time and, I would suggest, rather more appealing than the alternatives, which are stasis and despair.

It wasn't simply mental manipulation that made the voters in America long for change. "Change" is always a potent slogan, of course, but it is only decisive when there is real dissatisfaction. Otherwise the opposite slogan - "continuity" - is at least as powerful. When things are going reasonably well, governments play on the fear that the other lot will ruin things. The trouble with Icke's analysis - with all analyses based on small groups of conspirators secretly controlling the world - is that it assumes both blind stupidity on the part of the public and preternatural intelligence on the part of the elites.

Icke is equally unimpressed by hope, "a meaningless emotion because its fruits are always in the future and, by definition, never in the NOW." It is "a diversion technique... to keep the masses from truly rebelling."

Well, no. Hope is only meaningless if it is divorced from realism. There's little point in hoping that you might win the lottery. But there's ever reason to hope that if you work and and exploit the opportunities that come your way you will make some progress in life. Without hope, progress is impossible, because hope propels effort. It was above the gates of Hell that Dante placed the legend "Abandon hope all ye who enter here": and that was because there was no way out.

But of course Icke's main problem with Obama is that he is merely a tool in the hands of the New World Order. In his universe, the democratic process is one in which the masses are brainwashed into voting for whichever candidate has been pre-selected by the Secret Rulers of the World. The dramatic contrast with Bush is all part of the plan - the "Illuminati" will use the feelgood factor to advance their plan of global domination. At most, Obama is good cop to Bush's bad cop:

The Neoconservative 'Republican' wing of the Illuminati controlled Bush for eight years and led the country into foreign wars and financial chaos (bad guy/problem); now the 'Democratic' wing, led by the infamous Zbigniew Brzezinski, has brought forth the 'saviour', Barack Obama, to lead us into the sunshine with 'hope' and 'change' (good guy/solution).

The "infamous" Zbigniew Brzezinski? The most infamous thing about Jimmy Carter's one-time national security adviser, surely, is the difficulty of spelling his name. Not for Icke:

The Trilateral Commission and the wider Brzezinski network, including Illuminati fronts like the Ford Foundation, have now chosen Obama and the situation will be the same. Brzezinski will call the shots; Obama's job is simply to sell them to the people. This is rather alarming when you think that Brzezinski wants to trigger a war involving Russia and China.

As an Illuminati operative, Brzezinski's aim is to create a world government, central bank, currency and army - a global dictatorship - underpinned by a microchipped population connected to a global computer/satellite system.

Icke digs up an old book of Brzezinski's, published in 1970 and entitled (unenticingly) Between Two Ages: America's role in the Technetronic Era, which he claims is some sort of blueprint for the coming international slave state. I managed to track down an online version, and it's actually very interesting and perceptive about the transition between the industrial and the "information" society - although the high word-score didn't foresee the downfall of communism and thought that by 1985 everyone would have video phones (which would give some governments opportunities for mass surveillance). I was particularly struck by this passage about the threat to liberal democracy posed by "the gradual appearance of a more controlled and directed society":

Such a society would be dominated by an elite whose claim to political power would rest on allegedly superior scientific knowhow. Unhindered by the restraints of traditional liberal values, this elite would not hesitate to achieve its political ends by using the latest modern techniques for influencing public behavior and keeping society under close surveillance and control. Under such circumstances, the scientific and technological momentum of the country would not be reversed but would actually feed on the situation it exploits.

The emergence of a large dominant party, alongside the more narrowly focused and more intensely doctrinaire groupings on the right and the left, could accelerate the trend toward such technological managerialism. Such a large dominant party would combine American society's quest for stability with its historical affinity for innovation. Relying on scientific growth to produce the means for dealing with social ills, it would tap the nation's intellectual talent for broad target planning and exploit the existence of doctrinaire groups by using them as social barometers and as sources of novel ideas. Persisting social crisis, the emergence of a charismatic personality, and the exploitation of mass media to obtain public confidence would be the steppingstones in the piecemeal transformation of the United States into a highly controlled society.

The inclination of the doctrinaire left to legitimize means by ends could lead them to justify more social control on the ground that it serves progress. The conservatives, preoccupied with public order and fascinated by modern gadgetry, would be tempted to use the new techniques as a response to unrest, since they would fail to recognize that social control is not the only way to deal with rapid social change. Such an outcome—were it to come to pass—would represent a profoundly pessimistic answer to the question whether American liberal democracy can assimilate and give philosophical meaning to the revolution it is undergoing.

That last sentence of course tends to undermine Icke's view of Brzezinski as a sinister architect of the coming surveillance society - which now seems closer than ever. On the contrary, I hope Obama listens to his advice. Apparently he has been urging the new president not to commit ever more forces to the doomed war in Afghanistan, a strategy that "runs the risk of gradually turning the Afghan population against our efforts. The enterprise thus, paradoxically, is turning in the direction painfully reminiscent of what the Soviets experienced," he said. How true. Obama's apparent determination to sink ever more troops and resources into that unwinnable conflict is perhaps his most misguided policy. He could do worse than pay attention to wise old Brzezinski - even if he is secretly a lizard.
Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Plus ça change

The Independent today re-published a very remarkable leader column that first appeared on the eve of Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. I couldn't find it on their website to link to, so I hope they won't mind too much if I quote it.

Lucky Americans! After the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush Republican era, tomorrow's inauguration of Bill Clinton gives the United States one of those fresh starts that democratic systems desperately need - and for which human nature craves. On this side of the Atlantic we may be forgiven a powerful twinge of envy for the cleansing of the Augean stables that is taking place across the water.

In Britain, after nearly 14 years of the Thatcher-Major era, there is something of the same sense of public disenchantment with the nation's leadership that led to George Bush's defeat. But we have had no similar change since 1979, and no relief is in prospect, apart from an upturn in the economy. We are sentenced to four more years of the same, with the government showing all the signs of tiredness, insensitivity to the public mood and proneness to lapses of morality to which long tenure leads; and the prospect offered by the current Opposition lifts few spirits.

Mr Clinton will have great difficulty in fulfilling the high hopes placed in him. His gifts include great energy, determination and staying power allied to formidable intelligence and (not always a concomitant) a great willingness to learn. But his ability to make difficult decisions and choices has yet to be tested. Ruthless he undoubtedly can be, but no-one knows whether he will deploy that attribute against the right people and interest groups as they crowd in upon him. Vested interests are well represented in his cabinet, of whose 18 members 13, including himself, are lawyers.

As I said, a most remarkable, perceptive piece. With just a few changes of name it could have been written today, which I assume is why the Indy decided to re-run it. It's difficult, in retrospect, to connect the Bill Clinton who inspired such great hopes with the vacuous sitcom the Clinton White House became. And the Major government, which so bored and depressed the leader-writer, looks with more than twelve years' hindsight to have been positively benign (as, indeed, does the presidency of the first George Bush). If you had a time machine you'd want to advise whoever wrote this not to get their hopes up, to be more realistic. And also to realise that the Major and Bush governments of the early 1990s were not, in fact, quite so bad as they seemed.

All - or almost all - administrations begin in hope and end in disillusion. High expectations are rarely fulfilled to everyone's satisfaction. Even low expectations - such as attended the advent of George W Bush - can prove to have been dismayingly optimistic. The opening sentence, however, expresses most Britons' thoughts this weekend as well, or better, than it did eighteen long years ago. Lucky Americans! Read the rest of this article

Friday, 16 January 2009

John Mortimer 1923-2009

Today we learned of the death of the great, the good, and the occasionally infuriating Sir John Mortimer QC, barrister, writer, thorn of an Establishment of which he contrived nevertheless to remain a beloved member, and all-round national treasure. Something irreplaceable, uniquely English (not British) and infinitely valuable goes with him. A non-believer, though one of gentle disposition (he once complained about the way Richard Dawkins "goes around preaching about it all the time") he will not be anticipating a welcome in heaven. Immortality of a different sort, however, surely beckons.

It is rare for anyone to achieve distinction in more than one field, yet Mortimer managed it with panache. As a barrister, he had notable triumphs to his name: his successful appearance in the Lady Chatterly (and even his unsuccessful appearances in the Oz and Gay News trials) helped permanently to change the law. He was the prolific author of plays, novels and pamphlets. Most of all, I suppose, he will be remembered for Rumpole, his alter ego, mouthpiece and Falstaffian hero. Rotund, infuriating, long-winded, self-important but ultimately good, Rumpole was an anachronism even when Mortimer invented him: today, he seems as fantastical and unlikely a creation as anyone imagined by Dickens. Rumpole was the perfect fictional distillation of the strengths and weaknesses of the English bar in the last days of its greatness, before the modern world finally crashed in upon it. Mortimer will surely always be remembered as Rumpole's creator, as Arthur Conan Doyle will always be remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes - and as a character, indeed an archetype, Rumpole deserves Holmes's immortality.

I hope, though, that Mortimer's work in defence of civil liberties will not come to look as whimsical as Doyle's sponsorship of fairy photos. He supported Labour all his life, or most of it anyway, yet found himself comprehensively disillusioned by New Labour in power. At first, it was the "Thatcherite" indulgence of bankers and big business that annoyed him, but he soon found a better target for his rage in the government's increasingly authoritarian turn. Already in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 he was complaining about Tony Blair's "horrifying disregard for liberty". New Labour, he wrote ruefully in 2003, seemed to have been "born without a single civil libertarian instinct". At heart, he was a left-wing libertarian, a combination that seemed possible, even natural, in the days when Roy Jenkins was at the Home Office but sounds like an oxymoron today. And if he didn't coin the phrase "champaigne socialist", he certainly embodied it.

His disaffection sprung, principally, from his belief in liberty: traditional English liberty at that - for his appreciation of individual rights was firmly based in the principles and traditions of English law (jury trial, habeas corpus, equality before the law, etc), principles that this government has merrily tossed aside. He wrote in the 2003 article I quoted from above that the presumption of innocence was something that "we should be proud of as a nation as the writings of Shakespeare and Wordsworth". The legal profession has often had a bad rap from outsiders, but at its best (and Mortimer, like Rumpole, embodied this best) it has been independent-minded, rigorous and courageous.

"Our civil liberties," wrote Mortimer, "depend to a great degree on poorly rewarded criminal defenders"; some may question whether they are always, or even often, "poorly rewarded", but the right of every accused person to a full, fair trial assisted by an expert counsel is surely the most fundamental freedom of all. Although even that would seem to be in danger in the era of ASBOs and on-the-spot fines. Looking at the snipping away at the justice system - well advanced even more than five years ago - he found it especially sad that it had been accomplished by "a government full of lawyers".

His was essentially a romantic view of the law, even (though he would have hated the suggestion) a Tory one. He greatly regretted the effective abolition of the Lord Chancellorship - that oldest and most paradoxical symbol of the ancient constitution - and the way it seemed to have been "scribbled on the back of an envelope". Perhaps this is why one of his first campaigns against New Labour took the form of a defence of foxhunting. The other wellspring of his libertarianism was a deep dislike of Puritans and busybodies. Late in life he returned to smoking. "I only started again because of all the anti-smoking hysteria", he told Laurie Taylor.

He never gave up the fight: he was in fine form in an interview with Lucasta Miller in October 2006:

"One thing my father said was that if you find yourself in a country where you have to carry papers, you know it has a lousy government."

Indeed. But you have to wonder why they knighted him - and why he was prepared to accept it.
Read the rest of this article