Friday, 25 November 2011

The full Mosley

Since leaving the FIA - since the News of the World sting operation in 2008, in fact - Max Mosley has embarked upon a curious second career as a campaigner for privacy, and most especially his own. His appearance yesterday before the Levenson inquiry was one of many he has made before committees and in interviews on radio and TV over the past three years. He has become a polished performer, his case increasingly honed, his determination to force the tabloid press to change their behaviour undiminished.

So we weren't expecting surprises. Nevertheless, his evidence (both oral and written [pdf]) contained some fascinating details that haven't been widely circulated before. A few highlights:

- Mosley has taken legal action in more than twenty different countries not only to seek damages but also to remove the News of the World's covert video footage from the Internet. The video was hosted in at least 193 websites in Germany alone. So far, this litigation has cost him at least half a million pounds. Despite this, he is resigned to the fact that it has not been successful and will probably never be. He's particularly angry with the "intransigent" attitude of Google persist in cataloguing the video, and called for new laws targeting search engines.

- He complained that whenever he walks into a shop or restaurant he has to prepare himself for the fact that "everybody knows" about his sex-life and most have probably seen the video. He believes that victims of press intrusion "suffer a terrible penalty. It is comparable to the penalties courts can impose on convicted criminals, if not worse."

- Mosley was disappointed to be awarded a mere £60 thousand by Mr Justice Eady in damages against the NotW and at the judge's "refusal" to award exemplary damages. The award left him out of pocket and represented neither proper punishment nor deterrent. "It is impossible to pretend that paying a large bill is a remedy."

- He suspects that the NotW's evidence in court was partly submitted with a view to the next day's headlines, and represented an attempt by the paper to cause him further embarrassment.

- He also claimed, on the basis of a conversation with "a former senior employee of NI", that Rebekah Brooks colluded with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to attack the character and reputation of Mr Justice Eady (as seen, for example, in Dacre's notorious speech to the Society of Editors in November 2008, which Mosley thinks was "a deliberate and calculated attempt to intimidate the judiciary.")

- In a hilarious aside, Mosley speculated about what the "smutty" content of the Mail's own website might suggest about Dacre's own sex-life. He also (as I myself have done) mocked Dacre's poverty of imagination if he thought that a spanking party in Chelsea represented "acts of unimaginable depravity". And he reminded the inquiry that the women concerned were, far from being exploited or degraded, if anything even more enthusiastic about being spanked than he was. This, of course, is true. Indeed, there's plenty visual evidence out there to prove it, though it would be breaking at least one Mosley's injunctions were I to tell you where to look.

- Mosley refers to the remarkable evidence - detailed at length in the Eady judgment - of NotW reporter Neil Thurlbeck's attempts to blackmail two of the women concerned and the even more remarkable manner in which this evidence seems to have completely ignored. Not only was Thurlbeck not prosecuted (or even investigated by the police) but his bosses apparently remained under the impression that his behaviour was acceptable.

- Mosley even wrote to Rupert Murdoch suggesting that Thurlbeck's use of blackmail ought to be investigated by News International; Murdoch "did not deign to reply. One can imagine that if one wrote to the head of a Mafia family complaining about criminal acts by an employee one might get no response. But I was surprised to receive no acknowledgement from the CEO of a major international corporation in response to serious allegations of criminal conduct within his organisation." Murdoch's attitude "leads inevitably to the conclusion that criminality was tolerated if not actively encouraged within Newscorp and its subsidiaries."

It's worth reading this in conjunction with Thurlbeck's own self-justification which appeared recently in the Press Gazette. Neville denied writing the "blackmail letters" to the Mosley women, instead blaming "a certain executive, who I shall not name here for legal reasons."

Max Mosley was, as ever, an impressive witness, even if you don't share his enthusiasm for prior restraint. But I increasingly think there's something a bit strange about his whole approach. On the one hand, he wants to preserve his (and to be fair other people's) right to a private life, in particular the private indulgence of sexual tastes that, so long as they are between consenting adults, should be no-one else's business. On the other, he recognises that, as he put it, his own privacy is irretrievably lost.

As he put it, whenever he walks into a shop or restaurant "everyone knows". He must also recognise that his high profile as a privacy campaigner has not only cost him a great deal of money, which must be subject to a law of diminishing returns (a recent victory in France netted him a mere €7,000) but has also placed his sexual preferences permanently before the public gaze. It's not his fault that the News of the World exposed his love of spanking and accused him falsely of taking part in a "Nazi-themed orgy". But the fact that he remains the public face of British S&M is directly attributable to his inexhaustible enthusiasm for talking about his humiliation in public. One word for this is "masochistic".
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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Mona Eltahawy beaten and assaulted by Egyptian police

A remarkable series of Tweets from by Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy gives a disturbing insight into how Cairo police are dealing with people involved in the Tahrir Square protests.

Eltahawy, who now lives in New York, returned to Egypt to cover the latest events in the country's stillborn revolution. Yesterday she was at Mohamed Mahmoud St, just off the square, where there were clashes between demonstrators and police. She was arrested - it's not yet clear how or why - and found herself at the tender mercies of the riot police.

Twelve hours later she emerged with two broken arms and descriptions of the sexual abuse she says she was subjected to during her detention.

Despite finding it difficult to type (for obvious reasons) she was able to Tweet the following:

Beaten arrested in interior ministry. 12 hours with Interior Ministry bastards and military intelligence combined. Can barely type. My right hand is so swollen I can't close it. I can barely imagine what my family and loved ones were going through those 12 hours-I know they were worried about me to begin with. Sorry.

Besides beating me, the dogs of CSF subjected me to the worst sexual assault ever. Yes sexual assault. I'm so used to saying harassment but those fuckings assaulted me. 5 or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers. They are dogs and their bosses are dogs. Fuck the Egyptian police.

[It seems that things improved slightly when she was handed over to military intelligence]

Didn't want to go with military intelligence but one MP said either come politely or not. Those guys didn't beat or assault me. Instead, blindfolded me for 2 hrs, after keeping me waiting for 3. At 1st answered Qs bec passport wasn't with me but then refused as civilian. Another hour later I was free with apology from military intelligence for what CSF did. Took pics of my bruises and recorded statement. On sexual assault and said would investigate it and said they had no idea why I was there. Then who does??! WTF!

The past 12 hrs were painful and surreal but I know I got off much much easier than so many other Egyptians. God knows what wuld've happened if I wasn't dual citizen (tho they brought up detained US students) & that I wrote/appeared various media. Egypt must be free of those bastards. The whole time I was thinking about article I would write; just you fuckers wait.

In the meantime, definitely worth following Mona's timeline. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Two Brains v No Brains

I was looking forward to hearing David Willetts outline his vision for the future of universities in Cambridge last night, and to the lively - perhaps even angry - question-and-answer session that would have followed. It's rare these days to find a politician willing to engage with an unpredictable and unscripted audience, and Willetts had promised to take questions for up to an hour. It was not to be. Before the universities minister had a chance to open his mouth he was interrupted by protesters reading out a long and frankly rather pretentious statement accusing the minister, among other things, of trying to "steal our honey". About twenty of them in all, seated strategically throughout the hall. Then they invaded the stage, as you can see below. Willetts left soon afterwards.

Juvenile, pointless gesture politics, I thought. A piece of collective bullying by smug and self-righteous hooligans, ostensibly aimed at David Willetts but in reality targeting the many people who had come to hear what he had to say and indeed to challenge him. No free speech for them. After the activists been droning on for several minutes, a few audience members began asking them to sit down and give Willetts a chance to speak. They were ignored, just as the protesters claim that Willetts and the government have ignored them.

Note to protesters: Not doing what you say is not the same as ignoring you.

The protest was loud, boring and uncomfortable for all concerned. Towards the end the chanters' "epistle" veered into Braveheart territory:

You can try to intimidate us; you can threaten to shoot us with rubber bullets; you can arrest us; you can imprison us; you can criminalise our dissent; you can blight a hundred thousand lives, slowly, and one-by-one, but you cannot break us because we are more resolute, more numerous and more determined than you.

But there were no rubber bullets, although by the end I found myself wishing there had been. No arrests were made; no security guards appeared; no attempt was made to restore order. The surrender was total even before the moderator, Professor Simon Goldhill, stepped forward to announce that Willetts had gone home.

They're still there. Apparently they're calling themselves Cambridge Defend Education. They've got a website and everything, and are planning to stay at least until next week, holding poetry-readings and impromptu activist training courses to while away the time. The usual stuff. The university authorities have still made no move to evict them, or even (according to Lorna, who is a research fellow in philosophy at King's and was deputed - or just volunteered - to speak to me) to ask them to leave. There has been no contact whatever. I'm told there are now around forty people there, taking turns to be on "door duty". When I went down there a lone security guard in a high-visibility jacket was wandering around outside, looking profoundly bored.

Here's the full text of my interview with event organiser Professor Goldhill this morning:

H: Was it anticipated that Mr Willetts' talk would be disrupted or interrupted by protests, and were there any contingency plans for dealing with trouble? Had there been any negotiation with the protesters prior to the event?

SG: It was anticipated that there might be some disruption, but not that there would be an attempt to stop the lecture altogether. This did not happen even in 1968 (which was in 1969 in Cambridge,...)

H: When was the decision made to cancel the talk and was it a unilateral one by Mr Willetts?

SG: The decision to stop the lecture was taken by Mr Willetts and myself when it became clear that the handful of students had no intention of allowing any views but their own to be heard.

H: Do you have a message for the protesters and/or a more general comment about what happened last night and what it might say about the debate on the future of universities?

SG: I regard the form of the protest first of all as an extraordinary opportunity missed. Mr Willetts had agreed to take questions for up to an hour, and there were many of his most articulate critics in the audience. What a pity we could not see for once how these questions are to be answered. If the minds of the public are to be informed and changed, it needs proper public debate.

Second, I regard not the fact of protest but the form of protest as an absolute abuse of the freedom of the university. The university is nothing if not a place for the free and frank exchange of critical ideas. This was an attempt to stop the exchange of ideas, and was done against the overwhelming wish of the majority of people in the hall. It was made in the name of the values of the university, but distorted and destroyed those values. It was politically not just misguided by giving all the strong lines to Willetts, but the sort of totalitarian behaviour that we all should hate. In the name of giving voice to their so-called non hierarchical and open views they refused to let anyone who disagreed with them speak. You cannot shag for chastity.

Of course I wanted there to be an extremely robust rejection of what Willetts and his Government stand for in educational terms, but by rebuttal and argument. The students claimed very loudly to support critical thinking: what they showed was unfortunately reminiscent of the most extreme forms of totalitarian abuse of democratic openness. I also note that I have received dozens of comments from other students (and others in the audience) saying how ashamed and angry they were by this handful.

H: Writing for Varsity, Lawrence Dunn has described the protest as "sadly necessary"and writes: "I would-and I think Dr Goldhill would too- have been more embarrassed with the lack of political activism at Cambridge were Willetts' talk allowed to go ahead unimpeded". Do you have a response to that?

SG: From the quotation you have given me, Mr Dunn shows the lamentable confusion in thinking that motivates the handful. Of course I am happy to see student protests: protest, as Naomi Wolf said in Cambridge recently, is a democratic necessity. But because protest as a notion is supportable, it does not mean that any form of protest is acceptable or productive. A political act that destroys the values it is enacted to support has been shown repeatedly by the history of the twentieth century as well as by any decent theory to be misguided.The word that most people have used in response to the event was "ashamed" -- ashamed of the protest and angry for the opportunity lost.
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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Coming Revolution

The huge election victory by the Spanish conservatives represents a rejection of the institutional left. For Daniel Hannan, it also represents a rejection of the Indignados movement that has, since the summer, been clogging up the public spaces of Madrid and Barcelona - and whose pale shadow can currently be seen clinging to the pavement outside St Paul's Cathedral. Hannan writes:

Happily, no one can now question the PP's mandate. Throughout the campaign, Rajoy promised to cut the debt and get people back to work by reforming Spain's sclerotic labour laws. The indignados turn out to be very much minoritarios: the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

EU Referendum is scathing:

It is the complete inability of the likes of Hannan to understand or even recognise this deeper mood which guides him to the belief that we are seeing a standard shift in between the normal left-right paradigm. But the mood for change is indeed much deeper. Standard politics no longer has a grip and the average politician is the object of contempt which is fast becoming universal.

Instead, we're pointed to a Guardian article claiming that, au contraire, the result was actually "a mandate for the Indignados". The evidence for this is that, while conservative voters were casting their ballots in the usual way, the creative dissidents of tent city were busy scrawling the words "ballot box" on drainpipes and encouraging people to spoil their election papers. As a result (it is claimed), there were eleven million abstentions and spoiled papers, more than twice as many as last time and more than voted for the winning party.

Nothing new there. In 2005 in Britain more people voted for no-one than voted for Tony Blair's Labour Party. This, too, was looked upon as proof of massive disenfranchisement. In the United States, the very home of democracy, it's now rare for any presidential election to have more than a 50% turnout. But abstentions and spoiled papers don't count. However much a result may be said to lack "legitimacy" as a result of widespread non-voting, it does not lack the legal legitimacy that comes with gaining the largest number of votes that are actually cast.

So are we seeing politics as usual, one mainstream party temporarily obliterating another as the pendulum swings its inevitable swing? Or is this the beginning of the great cataclysm, as the various campers-in would have it?

Over the past week I've been attending some lectures given by Professor Manuel Castells, veteran Spanish sociologist and guru of "network power", currently the leading theorist of the transformation of politics in the digital age. Castells is an old Sixties radical, and there was more than a hint of Sartre saluting the Soixante-huitards in his somewhat misty-eyed evocation of the Indignados and their primitive democracy. Indeed, he'll be giving a potted version of his lectures to Occupy London itself on Friday. (Anyone going along should be warned that his analysis is in places quite theoretical and despite many years in the United States he has a thick Spanish accent, both of which made him quite hard to follow.)

Katharine Ainger, in the Guardian, writes that the Indignados have been "exploring ideas that go far beyond party politics or even changing electoral law, such as participatory budgets, referendums, election recalls and other forms of citizen-initiated legalisation." Castells described this process in some detail: no formal leadership beyond rotating "moderators" ; decisions made by ad hoc assemblies after lengthy discussions, but which might be overturned another day if a different bunch of people turn up; no coherent ideology ("the ultimate anarchism is when they aren't even anarchists").

In the Internet age, Castells maintains,

Social change comes from communicative action that involves connection between networks of neural networks from human brains stimulated by signals from a communication environment through communication networks. The technology and morphology of these communication networks shapes the process of mobilization, thus of social change, both as a process and as an outcome.

All very interesting, I couldn't help thinking, until the police turn up and start whacking people over the head. In the end, there's a limited amount that can be achieved by passing resolutions. As distinguished and intellectually opaque as he is, I fear Castells ended up sounding all too like Laurie Penny.

But he did make one fascinating point. He compared what is happening today with what happened to European liberalism in the period before the First World War. Parties that had been what might loosely be called the "establishment left" or the progressive wing of the ruling elites, lost credibility, support and then political power as they were outflanked by new political organisations rooted in the working class. This is the scenario described by George Dangerfield in his famous study The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Castells' point is that this was a crisis in politics on the Left. Bourgeois liberal parties were eclipsed and either disappeared or went into a decades-long decline; their support fragmented, some going to the new working-class movements like the Labour party, the rest being absorbed into the mainstream centre-right. But the conservatives didn't go away, because conservatives never do: conservatism represents something eternal in politics and in the human soul.

Ultimately, then, politics reorganises itself into something new. But this process invariably takes the form of one vehicle of progressive politics losing its legitimacy, to be replaced by something that better articulates radical aspirations. It looks like transformation, but only half the political spectrum really changes, and it's always the same half.

The Spanish election result may well bear this out. Hannan is correct to see it as a rejection of the Socialist party, but the Indignados are equally right to see it as further proof that the old politics is dead. The old Left politics, at least.
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Monday, 21 November 2011

Why bankers used to be good

This is a guest post by Rev. Julian Mann.

Hopefully Private Eye editor Ian Hislop's BBC programme about Victorian financiers - When bankers were good - will properly explain why they were.

The answer very clearly is that Victorian Britain was saturated with Biblical values in the wake of the 18th century evangelical revival. Evangelical Christianity teaches that the whole of life is impacted by the truth of the gospel. That means one should earn one's money in an ethical manner and use it for the love of God and of one's neighbour.

Such a spiritual and moral culture thus conduced to bankers with active consciences moved to virtue, in contrast to the financiers spawned by de-Christianised Britain.

My Hislop's own position in relation to Christian Britain is interesting. He clearly has some sort of spiritual sympathy with it, having presented a previous BBC series about Victorian philanthropists.

But the magazine he edits was a product of the 1960s, the decade which set the hounds on Christian Britain. Private Eye, launched in 1961, belongs to the Beyond the Fringe satirical movement championed by its former proprietor, the late Mr Peter Cook, which set out to lampoon authority and undermine respect for the then British establishment.

The current corrosive cynicism about politicians, in fact more accurately the nihilism about political engagement, has its roots in that godless movement.

The antidote to greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, and a cynical public is evangelical Christianity. That antidote was active in Victorian Britain when rich people were more inclined to listen to Jesus Christ: "Take heed and beware of covetousness; for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth (Luke 12v15 - King James Version)."

Mr Hislop's moral position would be more consistent if he preached that message, forsaking the cynical cultural Baal of Private Eye, now ironically a journal the Ahabesque British establishment is quite comfortable with. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Playing the determinism card

Frances Ryan on the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the Evangelical Cornish hoteliers who didn't want a gay couple doing the dirty on their godly beds:

When civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy were denied a double room, the harm didn't simply come from the effort of re-arranging their plans, or even the (at best) embarrassment that such a need would cause. It came from being excluded because of a biologically determined difference, from being banned from doing something because of who they are.

Oh dear. Why do so many proponents of gay rights make biological determinism a central plank of their argument? It's a dangerous route to take, whatever the current (and unsettled) state of the science. What creates homosexual orientation is a fascinating question for scientists, but it is wholly irrelevant to the matter at hand. Nor is it conducive to true tolerance or equality to imply that gay people are somehow fundamentally different from the heterosexual majority.

Homosexuality is not genetically determined in the same way as skin colour (I do not say "race", because race is an artificial construct that ignores the basic genetic homogeneity of homo sapiens). On the other hand, it's clear that sexual orientation is not freely chosen - some interplay of biology and environment is at work, over neither of which individuals have any control. How much of it is genetic, how much embryological, how much rooted in early childhood experiences: these are open questions. But not relevant ones. And even if sexuality were purely a matter of choice, that would not detract one iota from the right of gay people to live their lives and pursue their happiness as they see fit.

By stressing biological determinism, gay rights activists offer up a hostage to fortune. They make their case dependent upon a particular interpretation of the science that may turn out to be erroneous, rather than on the humanistic principles of autonomy and justice. And it's certainly not the case that sexual orientation is "biologically determined" in a strong sense. There may be a "gay gene", but in the absence of environmental factors it may never be "turned on". And there are undoubtedly practising homosexuals who do not have it. Behavioural genetics is based on tendencies, on statistical averages. At most sexuality is biologically influenced. But so what? These are questions of fact, not morality.

The modern view of homosexuality as an "orientation" - and thus as a source of "identity" - is in any case quite recent. It would have made little sense even in the era of Oscar Wilde (married, not unhappily, with children) and may seem equally strange to our descendants. In ancient Athens male homosexuality - in a particular, culturally endorsed form - was all but universal; yet while it was expected that a man would take an adolescent boy as his lover it would have caused bemusement if he did not also have a wife. Was this all the result of some genetic peculiarity of the ancient Greeks? Somehow I doubt it.

The notion of innate, or biologically determined, sexuality is at best wildly simplistic. The law restricts "sexual orientation" to the gender of the person or persons to whom one is attracted, but sexuality is far more fluid and complex than that allows. But in any case the only principle that matters is that in a free society people should be allowed to live their lives in whatever way they choose, provided it does not harm others, and they should not face oppression or discrimination if their private habits differ from some conventional norm.
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Thursday, 17 November 2011

World Leader Porn*

Benetton's latest advertising campaign, featuring various personalities in photoshopped clinches, has succeeded in its aim of attracting free attention by garnering headlines. One design that showed the Pope with a leading Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed El-Tayeb, was swiftly withdrawn after the Vatican got upset. Ratzinger's spokesman called it "an offence against the sentiments of the faithful" and claimed that it violated "the elementary rules of respect for persons in order to draw attention through provocation."

"We reiterate that the meaning of this campaign is exclusively to combat the culture of hatred in all its forms" said Benetton. The company wished to create "a new culture of tolerance ... building on Benetton’s underpinning values."

On the contrary. The company wants to sell sweaters. Their distinctive advertising campaigns are designed for one thing, and one thing alone, which is to promote knitwear.

The new posters, which also feature Barack Obama smooching with Hugo Chavez and Benjamin Netanyahu getting up close and personal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are fairly blatant rip-offs of the famous East German mural which depicted a full-on snog between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the GDR's Erik Honneker. You've probably seen it.

I always assumed that the mural was a purely symbolic affair, a pictorial representation of the closeness between the Warsaw Pact allies. But not a bit of it. Good old Google turned up the original photo on which it was based, which was taken at a ceremony in 1979 to mark thirty years since the creation of the German Democratic Republic.

And poking around, I found some eerily similar images, enough to have given Benetton material for its campaign without any recourse to Photoshop. Here's Yasser Arafat with the Ayatollah Khomeini:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greeting an anti-Zionist rabbi (I think at his notorious Holocaust-denial conference):

And less explicit (but they still look very pleased to see each other), Colonel Gaddafi and Tony Blair.

It would be wrong, of course, to read any of these photos as in any sense homoerotic. The leaders concerned are representing not themselves but their countries. They are providing a visual synechdoche for the relationship between their countries that they wish to present to the world. In other words, a relationship based on emotion rather than pure pragmatism. The language of public diplomacy, and especially its expression in press reports, is often couched in intimate, pseudo-sexual language: of allies "getting into bed together", for example. There may be echoes here of an earlier period in which international relationships often actually were sexual in nature, alliances typically being cemented by marriages between members of respective royal families.

*Title copyright Quiet Riot Girl

PS: Luckywood below draws attention to the "suppressed homoerotic charge" of this picture of the Bush/Blair bromance. Who could possibly resist?

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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Pio's Fraud

Padre Pio, the celebrated Italian stigmatic, may not have been all that he appeared, nor everything that the Roman Catholic Church has subsequently declared him to be. A new book claims that the bloody wounds on his hands that helped propel him to sainthood were neither miraculous nor a type of psychosomatic phenomenon, but something much more prosaic:

Italian historian Professor Sergio Luzzatto has discovered documents including a letter from a pharmacist who arranged carbolic acid for Pio. Professor Luzzatto suggests in Padre Pio: Miracle and Politics in a Secular Age that it was the corrosive acid that caused the bleeding on the saint's hands.

Actually, this isn't a new story. On its last outing four years ago, Pietro Siffi, the president of the Catholic Anti-Defamation League, refuted the suggestion with the unanswerable put-down that "We would like to remind Mr Luzzatto that according to Catholic doctrine, canonisation carries with it papal infallibility." Roma locuta est, taceat scientia

Nevertheless, the carbolic acid theory was widely known during Pio's lifetime. The head of Milan's Catholic University of the Sacred Heart,Agostino Gemelli, thought Pio a "self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people's credulity", while a report compiled towards the end of his life for Pope John XXIII was said to be "devastatingly critical". It disappeared into a Vatican vault. Pio had great popular appeal but the Church hierarchy kept him at arm's length. It was only long after Pio was safely dead, and especially during the superstition-soaked pontificate of John Paul II that the Vatican came to look more kindly on his manifestations. There's a story that Pio predicted Karol Wojtyla's ascent to the papacy when the young Polish priest visited him in 1947.

I must admit that, gullible as I am, I'd always been quite convinced by the psychosomatic theory. Unless he was actually a masochist (and there is undoubtedly a masochistic element in some traditional forms of Catholic devotion) pouring acid on your hands seems a rather extreme thing to do. Did he do it for the attention, or because he genuinely believed that faking a miracle promoted the faith of others? And if so, was he right?

It could perhaps be argued that subjecting oneself to the agony of self-inflicted wounds in order to produce a miracle is a more "saintly" thing to do than merely to manifest the stigmata through no fault of one's own. It demonstrates self-sacrifice and devotion of a particularly stark kind. And the aim - to bring dull-witted people closer to God by providing "proof" of supernatural power - might be seen as worthy of praise, even if the means are somewhat questionable. Better to save souls through a colourful fraud than lose them by sticking to sermons. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 14 November 2011

The end of the road for democracy in Europe?

Unless my ears deceived me, someone on the Today programme this morning was talking with approval about the "suspension of democracy" in Italy and Greece. The phrase certainly seems apt, but is entrusting the goverment of these countries to unelected "technocrats" an aberration created by a passing economic crisis or a taste of things to come?

Richard Morris writes that were what has just happened in Italy to be repeated in Britain, Peter Mandelson would be prime minister by the end of next week. I can see the comparison - like Mandelson, the new Italian PM was once a European Commissioner (and a longtime member of the Bilderburg Group). But Mandy was at least once endorsed by the good people of Hartlepool. Mario Monti has never been elected to anything. Mandelson has been a politician all his life and a member of the House of Lords for several years. He has extensive ministerial experience. He is intimately acquainted with Parliament and the inner workings of the democratic process. Mario Monti isn't merely unelected. He isn't even a politician.

The last time anything remotely comparable happened in Britain was in 1963, when Harold Macmillan decided that it was his right to choose the next prime (and that his sucessor ought not to be Rab Butler) and pushed the 14th Earl of Home into the job. But the 14th Earl (who was already Foreign Secretary and, despite not being elected, was a practising politician) promptly disclaimed his peerage and found himself a safe seat. This was widely seen as constitutionally essential, even though the 20th century had begun with a government led from the House of Lords by the Marquess of Salisbury. At least since the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, membership of the House of Commons has been a sine qua non of the highest political office. An unelected British prime minister is an unthinkable proposition.

Or is it? One of the most striking features of British politics during the past few years has been the disparagement of democracy. The expenses crisis has been corrosive of trust in politics, of course, but equally so was the last government's obsession with news management and spin and, most of all, the seeping away of power from Westminster towards the at most pseudo-democratic institutions of Europe, to appointed quangoes, to judges and to the markets. All these factors reinforce each other. The loss of power and the politics of image both tend to degrade the quality of politicians, as the truly talented shun the drudgery of backbench life and those interested in power for its own sake find alternative routes to obtaining it. And the public sense that their elected representatives are no longer making most of the important decisions that affect their lives, and the upshot of that is not merely a decline in trust (which is recoverable) but contempt (which isn't).

Neither Greece nor Italy have the ancient institutional memory that would make the "suspension of democracy" and putting in an unelected Eurocrat as prime minister seem so extraordinary in a British context. But it's still striking how widely such an anti-democratic procedure has come to be accepted as normal and right: good for the markets, good for the single currency, good for "stability", therefore good. Not only have the people not been consulted, sending for the technocrats is openly praised as a mechanism for avoiding consultation, whether by referendum or a general election. Instead, "governments of national unity" - a euphemism for something like one-party state - are sworn in as though there's a war on. There's not a war on. Nor has society collapsed, not even in Greece. It's just a common-or-garden economic crisis, no worse than that which British democracy sailed through in the late 1970s.

Daniel Hannan, as usual, puts this down to the "hideous strength" of the EU. He regards the imposition of unelected technocrats in Rome and Athens as "the culmination of the European scheme". Perhaps it is. But I doubt that is the whole explanation. "Democracy is finished" has recently become something of a fashionable meme. Matthew Parris, for example, has been writing in the Times about how "the people are wrong" and about how the European elites, too, have gone wrong in trying to pander to them. Democracy, he suggests, breeds a politics of delusion because, to get elected, politicians have to make promises that they cannot fulfil.

But it could also be that technocrats provide objectively better government. Their expertise lies in policy and its implementation, whereas the expertise of democratic politicians lies in getting themselves elected. Democracy reaches its culmination when getting elected becomes the only thing that counts, when government becomes a permanent election campaign. And then it dies.

Michael Heseltine raised eyebrows the other day by telling a meeting of Tory MPs that it was a big mistake for Britain not to have joined the Euro. If we had, "the Germans would have forced us to be more competitive". (As the forced the Greeks to be more competitive, I suppose.) But his really interesting comments went further, calling (rather in the manner of the Vatican) for world government:

The nation state is in decline everywhere — superseded by supra-national structures and blocs. We have unleashed forces that nation states simply can not regulate. That is why we need not just political union within Europe — but, yes, ultimately, some kind of global governance. The Chinese know this; I know this. Believe me, it is the future.

"The Chinese know this." The growth of China has energised anti-democrats everywhere. It seems to prove that government of unelected technocrats is more efficient, better at running an economy, and thus better, than one that is democratically accountable (like, say, India). Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues his tsar-like dominance of Russia while the United States, constitutionally invulnerable to technocratic rule, seems mired and old-fashioned, yesterday's empire. It may prove to be the last bastion of democracy, though its vertiginous inequalities make it a paradoxical one. In Europe, elections will still take place, but increasingly may become purely symbolic affairs, like the consular elections that still took place in Rome under the Caesars, or elections in China today.

This is an old story. It has happened many times in history that as societies become larger and more complex democratic institutions wither and die. It happened in Greece at the end of the fourth century BC, when the city-states came under the domination of the kings of Macedon (Philip and Alexander). It happened in Medieval and Renaissance Italy as city republics were absorbed by more autocratic neighbours or converted into duchies. It may indeed be, as Lord Heseltine believes, that the nation state is the largest unit that can sustain democratic government; and therefore, as Lord Mandelson once said, that the era of representative democracy is drawing to a close. At least until history turns full circle.

As Aristotle knew, democracy is inherently unstable. It tends to be a transitional form of government. Eventually, politicians run out of money with which to bribe the voters, as the society's resources are redistributed upwards to plutocrats who arrange to put most of their money beyond the reach of tax. And the technocrats move in.
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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Where have all the lawyers gone?

The House of Commons is full of lawyers, isn't it? Not really, not any more. Last night I was at a Cambridge seminar presented by David Howarth, the former LibDem MP for the city and now an academic, on the "decline and fall" of lawyers in Parliament. The statistics he presented were (if you like the idea of the people who create the law knowing something about it) sobering.

On the one hand, there has been a slow but steady decline in the proportion of lawyers and former lawyers taking their seats in Parliament, from almost a third a hundred years ago to around 15% today. More strikingly, over the course of the last decade, while the number of lawyers in the Commons has flatlined, the proportion of MPs with a background in the worlds of advertising and PR has doubled: for the first time, there are now more ex-PR people in Parliament than lawyers. And more than half of new MPs are career politicians, many of them people who have never in their lives done anything except politics. Two thirds of these were formerly lobbyists or special advisers. The apotheosis of this tendency, of course, is David Cameron. And Nick Clegg. And Ed Miliband.

The Bar used to provide one of the standard routes into politics. I can remember a barrister giving a careers talk at my school and saying that it was provided great training for would-be MPs because politics was largely concerned with "arguing about law". So what changed?

Lawyers have either been losing interest in a Parliamentary career or have been squeezed out. Howarth thinks that it's a bit of both. A top-flight QC or a partner in a large City law firm would, after all, face a serious drop in income and status as a backbench MP, not to mention the soul-destroying tedium of whipped votes and constituency drudgery. Meanwhile, the characteristics being looked for in today's Parliamentary candidates aren't necessarily those most associated with the legal profession. Modern selection criteria embrace things like "people skills" and "ability to motivate" that lawyers might be deficient in. And even "communication skills" might be beyond many of them. Bob Marshall-Andrews aside, the days of histrionic advocacy in either Parliament or the courtroom are long-gone. Some modern lawyer-politicians have these qualities (think Tony Blair). But they tend not to be particularly lawyerly lawyers and usually give up the law as soon as they can.

Not only is politics proving less attractive to lawyers (lawyers less attractive to the party apparatus) even those lawyers who do turn to a political career increasingly seem embarrassed of the fact. Howarth mentioned one MP (who shall remain nameless), whose CV (as shown on her Who's Who entry) listed numerous jobs with big City law firms yet whose campaign leaflet described her merely as a "local businesswoman" who ran a marketing consultancy.

Being a marketing consultant is something to boast about, if you want people to vote for you. Being a highly successful lawyer is something you want to hide.

What does all this mean? Most obviously, it suggests (as if we didn't know it already) that politics is increasingly a distinct profession. Howarth compares it to a medieval guild. After serving an apprenticeship as a Spad or policy wonk, the successful politician embarks on a career as a "journeyman" politician - anything from the Welsh assembly to Westminster itself, along with senior positions in quangoes or lobbying firms. The grade of master would embrace not just government ministers but "grandees" who end up running think tanks or chairing the major quangoes. The system has become self-replicating, turning out politicians increasingly indistinguishable because they increasingly conform to a pre-set template of what a modern politician is supposed to be like.

But it may not simply be a question of the professionalisation of politicians (something that may not entirely be a bad thing). For Howarth, what we're seeing is the rise of "symbol manipulation" as the core activity of politics: it's now an environment where images matter more than arguments or evidence. When the House of Commons was stuffed with lawyers, politics seemed to be a law-making activity. I agree that modern politics looks more and more like a specialised branch of the marketing and PR industry. Laws still get passed - more than ever, in fact - but politicians neither know nor understand how they work. Some Acts of Parliament, indeed, serve little purpose beyond enabling the government to be seen to be "doing something" about some passing tabloid panic.

One consequence of the decline in the number of lawyer MPs might be a falling off in the quality of legislation, or at least of legislative scrutiny. A good political candidate (ie someone with voter-appeal) is not the same thing as a good legislator. Howarth's successor as Cambridge MP, Julian Huppert, is a scientist by training. At a recent meeting of Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub, he too was lamenting the current scarcity of Parliamentarians with a legal background. Like scientists (though in a different wasy) lawyers, he suggested, cared about evidence. PR executives just want to sell you stuff.

Howarth himself doubts that srutinising legislation is, in fact the primary purpose of the House of Commons; he sees it more as an electoral college which sustains the government. He pointed to other, less obvious changes. In the middle of the 20th century there was an intimate relationship between Westminster and the Inns of Court. The old Parliamentary hours allowed the significant numbers of QC MPs to argue a case before a judge in the morning and in the Commons chamber in the afternoon. It wasn't unusual for a former MP to become a judge, sometimes with no decent interval in which to detoxify from the world of politics. Some MPs were even appointed straight to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords - including Lord Reid, who is generally looked upon as one of the greatest judges of the 20th century.

Today, by contrast, legally qualified MPs are rarely still-practising lawyers, and on leaving Parliament few return to the legal profession.

In the old days, there was much less emphasis on a strict separation of powers. The Lord Chancellor still sat as a law lord. The Law Lords themselves still sat in Parliament as legislators as well as judges (they have, of course, now been evicted). A cosy Establishment club, perhaps - but as David Howarth pointed out, an advantage of the system was that "judges understood democracy and MPs understood the rule of law". When lawyers and politicians occupy different professional and mental landscapes, with different, sometimes mutually contradictory priorities and increasingly little understanding of one another, there's much more potential for conflict.

David Howarth began his talk with Max Weber's observation that "modern democracy is inextricably linked to lawyers"; he ended by asking if, in that case, modern democracy may be at an end. But one can go much further back. Right at the beginning, in ancient Athens, there were no lawyers, only spin-merchants and rhetoricians. What passed for law was little more than advocacy, as Socrates (most famously) found out to his cost. Law and politics were both branches of the PR industry. If politics is returning to its ancient roots as an intellectually bankrupt popularity contest, we might as a society be better off if the lawyers stay somewhat aloof.
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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The truth about Theresa May, and passport queues

Political Scrapbook is crowing about its discovery that, back in 2004, Theresa May called for a Home Office minister to resign over a row involving... officials letting immigrants into the UK without full background checks being made, in order to clear a backlog. The full, almost forgotten, story is here. No doubt it seemed important at the time.

May demanded:

I do think Beverley should resign as minister on this particular issue and I find it absolutely extraordinary that she’s… blamed officials in her department ... I'm sick and tired of government ministers in this Labour government who simply blame other people when things go wrong.

Well, yes, of course she did. She was in Opposition. Just as Yvette Cooper is now. (And I must say, she seems to be enjoying it a lot more than government.)

The circumstances weren't precisely the same: the 2004 case involved actual immigrants, this week's row is about passport queues. But the principle is, indeed, similar. British constitutional theory (if not practice) demands that ministers are answerable for the actions of their officials. British political practice is that Oppositions demand ministerial resignation whenever something in their department goes seriously wrong. Or when something is claimed in the Mail to have gone seriously wrong, which of course isn't always precisely the same thing. Ministers, for their part (the new convention probably began with Michael Howard, if anyone out there still remembers him) will answer that their responsibility is discharged by blaming the official held to have supervised the blunder, whatever it is.

Theresa May thus stands revealed to be (gasp) a politician. Who'd have thunk it?

What happens next invariably depends on largely extraneous factors, such as: Is anything else is going on in the world that is particularly newsworthy? Is the minister concerned a particular friend of the prime minister? Is this a first offence or has the minister blundered before? Is the minister popular with the press, with his or her civil servants, with colleagues on the back benches, with the BBC? The actual rights and wrongs of the situation tend to come a long way down the list.

For my part, I can only think that the decision to reduce time-consuming identity checks at airports (for non-EC citizens, who the current discriminatory regime deems to be lower than vermin where borders are concerned, even if they're Americans) during the height of the summer season was obviously the correct one, whoever took it. Even if (as we do not know) someone undesirable had slipped into the country unnoticed as a consequence of lax security, many many more people will have had a slightly more pleasant holiday or business travel experience as a result. And that matters. Especially at a time of economic gloom, the country relies on tourists and foreign business travellers coming here, spending their money, doing business, and finding the process at least tolerably hassle-free. And coming back. The advantages to the nation as a whole of relaxing some of the more laborious biometric checks - checks that we managed to do perfectly well without for decades and even centuries - far outweighed any disadvantages.

Passport queues are not nothing. They are not simply time-consuming, they are burdensome, expensive to carry out, and inherently degrading of the 99.9% of honest, innocent travellers who merely want to get on with their holiday or business meeting. They make international travel an ordeal, fray tempers, can have adverse health consequences for some passengers and increase the cost of moving people around the world. The fact is that there are simply too many people wanting to pass through airports to make the carrying out of rigorous checks compatible with basic human decency. So people are treated like convicts, or at best like suspects, and this is not good for anyone.

Whether or not Theresa May gave Brodie Clark the nod to implement these modest measures at a few airports, she should be justifying it, indeed taking credit for it, explaining that in an imperfect world a balance must be struck between absolute security and civility and that efficient, fast-moving passport queues are something worth striving for. Clark deserved a promotion.
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Friday, 4 November 2011

Charlie Hebdo

Hands up anyone who was surprised that the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were firebombed in protest at a cartoon image of the prophet Mohammed appearing on the front cover. No, I thought not. It would have been more surprising if the offices had not been firebombed, really. Because throwing Molotov cocktails in response to perceived insults to their religion or its prophet is just how we all expect angry Muslims to behave. Call it the real Islamophobia: not hatred of Islam, but literal fear of the religion and its adherents.

We all remember the Danish cartoons. Some of us are old enough to remember the Satanic Verses (I regret to say that I am). Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death in a street in old Amsterdam for Submission, an artistic response to the treatment of women under Islam produced in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Even some works intended as compliments have attracted the ire of angry and intolerant extremists: a few years ago, the publisher of a soppy romantic novel about Mohammed's underage wife Aisha was also firebombed. So, no surprise.

It's important to remember, of course, that while many Muslims (like many Christians) are angered or pained by satirical treatments of their faith, very few actually commit acts of violence in response. Nevertheless, actions like the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo are predictable. It only takes a few violent extremists to commit acts of extreme violence, after all. Fortunately, in this case no-one was hurt. Perhaps that's a sign that their sense of humour is improving. Though I doubt it.

Some would say that if you poke a tiger with a stick and get your hand bitten, it just shows that you were foolish to poke the tiger. Sensible people don't poke tigers, even if they have a right to do so. Those who narcissistically flaunt their right to poke tigers deserve everything they get. Time magazine's Bruce Crumley has gone further - much further - suggesting that poking a tiger is not merely foolhardy but morally wrong. His sympathies are all with the tiger.

It's an argument that we've all heard before, but Crumley puts it in a particularly stark form. He suggests that Charlie Hebdo was hoping for precisely such a violent response, presumably for the publicity, because "What was the point otherwise?" He links the magazine's satire with France's recent ban on the burqa as evidence of rampant French Islamophobia. He writes that the price of the magazine's self-consciously brave defiance of extremists was "offending millions of moderate people as well". He even grumbles about "Muslim leaders in France and abroad [who] also stepped up to condemn the action".

The reaction to this has not been universally positive. James Kirchick suggests that Crumley "would make an excellent propaganda commissar in Uzbekistan or Iran". His argument was "just the latest iteration of a tired excuse for terrorism, expressed by everyone from Noam Chomsky to Ron Paul, which is that the victims of terrorism have it coming", but was especially shocking coming from a professional journalist. Nick Cohen writes that Crumley "seems to be trying to provide a defence for anyone who attacks his own company’s premises."

Both articles are excellent, and it's good that Crumley doesn't seem to have attracted much support for his views. At the same time, there's more to this than the (valuable and correct) maxim that "no-one has a right not to be offended".

Crumley's argument is twofold. Firstly, it's a standard piece of victim-blaming: the publishers knew, or ought to have known, what was likely to happen. This is philosophically problematic, because it relieves the perpetrators of full moral responsibility, but it can perhaps be pragmatically justified. Consider some parallels. If you leave your car unlocked and the keys inside, don't be surprised if a thief makes off with it. But that doesn't excuse the thief. If you walk late at night in a rough part of Mexico City, you are laying yourself open to being kidnapped. This doesn't excuse the kidnapper, but it's still a bit stupid. Or let's be more contentious. Women who drink themselves senseless leave themselves open to being sexually assaulted. Of course, this doesn't excuse rape. But still, not a good idea.

The main problem with this argument, as applied to the Charlie Hebdo case (or others like it) is that if artists don't push the boundaries of taste and offensiveness, there will be no intellectual progress. And pushing the boundaries means being undiplomatic, foolhardy even. Free speech ceases to be free when limits are placed on what can be said out of fear of causing offence or provoking a reaction. You know the drill.

Why "insult" Islam and its prophet? Because of the things that have been done, and continue to be done, in its name: not just terrorism (a relatively minor problem, though it looms large in Western imaginations) but things like the repression of women and the ill-treatment of religious minorities in many Muslim countries. Or the implementation of Sharia law itself, which was the particular target of this issue of Charlie Hebdo. The Koran and the prophet are both invoked by Islamists to justify repressive policies and regressive ideas. Islamist extremists - the sort of Muslims who firebomb publishers who offend their sensibilities - are scarcely in a position to complain about those who mock what they hold to be sacred, since they traduce their religion, and besmirch the reputation of ordinary Muslims, every day.

But what of those ordinary Muslims? This is where the second part of Crumley's argument comes in. His problem with the mockery of Charlie Hebdo and other satirists boils down to this: ordinary Muslims - the sort who don't firebomb publishers, or even take to the streets in rage - are collateral damage in all this. They don't deserve to have their religion mocked just for the sake of it, so that satirists can "make a politically noble statement by gratuitously pissing people off." Especially since France's Muslims are already "feeling stigmatized and singled out for discriminatory treatment."

This goes beyond mere victim-blaming. Crumley is accusing CH of being part of a wider Islamophobic campaign rather than, as they would claim, opposing oppressive religious domination. Or, at the very least, of not caring that their magazine offends "millions of moderate people as well".

This is doubly patronising of Muslims. It suggests that they are vulnerable and need protecting from criticism; and it suggests that they are offence-taking machines who lash out violently at the slightest provocation and, thus, that the enragés are indeed representative of Muslims as a whole. This is a classic liberal dodge. And it doesn't seem to require evidence. Where are all the millions of offended Muslims? In France there has been more Muslim criticism of the bombing than of the cartoon.

The irony is that this kind of argument is a form of Islamophobia itself, both because it demonstrates actual fear of Muslims (they might bomb us) and because it caricatures them as all the same, all equally thin-skinned and all interested in nothing beyond upholding the dignity of their holy prophet. But in fact Muslims (whether they know it or not; many do) have much more than other people to gain from a lifting of the taboo on criticising any aspect of their religion, whether Sharia law, the Koran or the personality of Mohammed. As long as such things cannot be discussed openly, Islam will continue on its present retrograde path, increasingly dominated by conservatives and those who use the religion as a vehicle of political power.

Something else: the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo was not inevitable. It was an isolated incident. It might easily not have happened. Even Geert Wilders' deliberately provocative Fitna, which caused him to be temporily banned from Britain by a timorous home secretary, attracted no more trouble than a few placards from Anjem Choudary and his mates.
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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Athenian democracy

On Saturday morning, I was at the Battle of Ideas at the RCA in London, listening to a fascinating discussion on the future of the Eurozone. Bruno Waterfield - the Telegraph's Brussels correspondent - made the point that one of the EU's most unfortunate tendencies, brought to a new level by the introduction of the euro, was the return of compulsion in European affairs, with small countries forced to implement austerity programmes on the orders of their larger, more powerful neighbours, however destructive to their own interests such policies may be.

Bang on cue, up pops the leader of the small country that has had the toughest austerity programmes of all imposed upon it to suggest that the Greek people might like to be consulted on the matter, and all hell breaks loose.

EU Referendum notes that George Papandreou first mooted holding a referendum on the issue back in June, so yesterday's announcement shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise to the other Eurozone leaders (such as Sarkozy, who proclaimed himself utterly astonished). Yet I just heard on the radio that in Greece itself "no-one saw this coming" and the reaction has been stunned and almost entirely hostile. In fact, the Beeb's reporter sounded almost as infuriated by Papandreou's inappropriately democratic behaviour as the French president himself.

A few minutes later Paul Mason revealed that "senior leaders" in Cannes, where the G20 summit has been overtaken by events, have been coming up to him asking if he has a clue what Papandreou is playing at, because they haven't the foggiest. Perhaps they imagined that Papandreou's promise was just a "political" one, like David Cameron's offer of a referendum of the Lisbon treaty that vanished once he got into office.

Another of Saturday's speakers was Philippe Legrain, an adviser to Manuel Barroso. He made the point that there's not much overlap between what is politically possible and what is (economically) necessary, and admitted that the EU leadership doesn't have a good track-record of taking the people of Europe with them. The Greeks weren't so much being invited to make sacrifices for their own good as being told that they were themselves the sacrifice for the sake of Europe and the euro; and they might not altogether like the prospect. This is quite an admission from such a rampant Europhile. It may help to explain why Papandreou's proposal, surprise or not, has produced such a reaction: not so much indignation, perhaps, as fear.

The spluttering of Sarkozy, Merkel and co, though, seems to bear out Daniel Hannan's view that EU leaders can no longer tolerate any interference from the people in their plans. Whether the referendum idea is a cyncial power-play aimed at undermining his political opponents (as seems likely), or whether Papandreou has indeed become imbued with the spirit of Pericles scarcely matters. By asking the people to settle a question that belongs properly to politicians and bankers, he has committed "an act of ingratitude bordering on treason."

As a report BBC radio put it this evening, Papandreou has been "summoned" to the G20 meeting to explain himself with the dyarchs, where he may come under "strong pressure" to abandon the referendum plan, or at least to present the Greek people with a question to which they will be certain to vote "yes". This might just have been his plan all along, of course - Hannan points out that he's as Euro-enthusiastic as the rest of them, despite everything. But it still looks like a deliberate piece of humiliation.

Poor Papandreou might almost be the rebellious satrap of a Western province summoned to the throne of the King of Kings in Persepolis.
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Who you gonna call?

This story comes too late for Halloween, unfortunately. But it does go to show that the notorious Saudi religious police can sometimes perform a valuable social service.

"Family saved from magic spell" proclaims the headline on the Gulf news website Emirates 24/7. Quoting reports in the Saudi press, it tells the story of a family, unnamed, who "suffered from psychological and health problems because of a magic spell cast by their housemaid before departing from the Gulf Kingdom." Happily, for them, they discovered the malefic incantation, which was "wrapped in a small old piece of paper carrying unreadable language and hidden inside a deserted bathroom."

Whether they found it by accident or went searching for it isn't clear. But they "realized that it was the cause of all their sudden troubles", which included a daughter-in-law walking out on her husband and another son having mental health problems. So they took the scrumpled paper to the police, who knew exactly what to do, having a dedicated spellbusting division, and it was swiftly deactivated.

There, the Commission experts dismantled the spell and destroyed all its contents, using Koran verses... Once they did so, the mother fell unconscious and when she woke up later, she felt much better…the son who had mental problems said he does not remember he had any,” the paper said.

The family then took the elder son to his wife’s parents and asked for her return….the family was surprised that the wife and her parents welcomed the idea and she did return to her husband.

If she was indeed been responsible for casting the spell on her employers, this housemaid would seem to have made good her escape before her occult activities were discovered. Others haven't been so fortunate. Indeed, Indonesian maids would seem to be responsible for a veritable crimewave in the Kingdom. The Emirates website lists several related stories:

On October 6th, it was reported that an Indonesian maid had been apprehended by Customs after her employer told the religious police that he suspected she would cast a magic spell on his family. When they opened her luggage, police found "a small bag containing bread, spice, hair and underwear belonging to her employer’s family members." The maid hadn't yet cast any spell, they concluded, but she plainly intended to do so. "The man was assured that he and his family were saved from magic."

In July, another Indonesian housemaid was arrested an entire family of ten to fall ill through the power of magic. "The family members had all been well before they have started over the past six months to have bad headaches, joint pain, breathing difficulty and shivers." Unable to find a medical explanation, the father went to the religious police, who immediately suspected witchcraft and searched the family home. The search resulted in the discovery of "talismans and other magic-related items in the housemaid’s room." They also found nails buried in the garden. "Some family members screamed as the spell was broken...the maid was arrested but she has not explained why she had done this to the family."

Back in March, an Indonesian maid was convicted of sorcery and sentenced to five years in prison. The complainant "believes the housemaid is responsible for all problems that have befallen the family, including her divorce from her husband, the divorce of her daughter from her husband and her elder son’s decision to leave the house on the grounds he no longer stands the family." The maid confessed to spellcasting but later withdrew her confession. A standoff ensued in which the victims refused to allow her deportation to Indonesia until she had lifted the spell, while she apparently told the religious police that she would only be able to undo the magic once she had returned to Indonesia.

Also in March, a Saudi man went to the religious police after his Indonesian housemaid had left the country and his son had soon afterwards fallen ill. "The unnamed man was tidying up his house when he found talismans and other pieces of papers carrying strange writings concealed under a bed", the report noted.

Last November, yet another Indonesian housemaid was arrested for allegedly using magic "to control the life of her Saudi employing family for nearly two years." This one was a seriously kick-ass witch, it appears: "The parents and their children in the central town of Barida had been almost hypnotized by the maid’s powers while they were also so frightened of her that they could not report her to the police all that time." With the aid of magic, this maid inverted the master/servant relationship such that "the mother began to serve her, prepare her meals and make coffee and tea for her."

Fortunately, the victim's sister stepped in when she saw the maid bossing the family members around and realised something was not quite right. She brought in the police. "Members of the Commission [for Virtue and Vice, aka the religious police] who sneaked into the house at the request of the mother’s sister could not believe their own eyes when they saw her give orders to the family…they quickly arrested her" realising that that only possible explanation was witchcraft.

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. As the rest of the Arab world is convulsed by political crisis, revolution and upheaval, the Saudi kingdom is in the enviable position of being able to indulge in a bizarre moral panic about witchcraft. Arabia Felix indeed.
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