Wednesday, December 31, 2003

My wars
My first war was the Falklands conflict, which as a first year lefty student I dutifully objected to. There was something dubious about the Falklands venture, namely the apparent efforts of the British government to invite the Argies in to gain the political kudos for expelling them. But looking back, what I really objected to was the stifling patriotic monoculture that attended the conflict, one which I imagine harked back to the Queen Victoria’s little wars of the 19th century. Plebs discontented in their dark satanic mills? Cheer ‘em up by slapping a few foreigners around.

One of the more interesting political phenomena of the past twenty years is the fact that this reflex shows continuing signs of failing to work. Gulf War One was popular, but I didn’t detect anywhere near the same level of emotional involvement. Likewise with intervention in the Bosnia crisis. By the time Kosovo rolled around, distinct misgivings were beginning to show themselves, especially with the creepy messianism with which Blair conducted his end of the business. Afghanistan was accepted with a kind of glum inevitability. And after all, any successor regime could only be better than the Taliban. Which it is, partly.

Of course, Iraq split the country down the middle, more or less. But the interesting thing was that by far the greatest number of people who really cared about the issue seemed to be on the anti side. The government’s claims that Iraq presented a concrete threat were greeted with open contempt and the mood music of liberation, played at greater or lesser volume according to convenience, never twanged the heartstrings in the way it was intended to.

I’m not quite sure why this should be so. The antiwar left, so called, are simply horrified that so many people refused to act like sheep in the name of the freedom of others. I would have thought that the failure of the usually potent mix of war and state propaganda to work its old, time dishonoured magic would have been welcomed on the left and anywhere else where public skepticism about the motives of the overclass is considered a good thing.

Anyway, to all who greeted the combination of panic mongering and emotional blackmail that was used to sell the war with a robust, English cry of "bollocks" a happy and productive new year. Our skepticism helps keep the world sane.
General Steiner will rescue Berlin!
They're at it again

President George W Bush was sent a public manifesto yesterday by Washington's hawks, demanding regime change in Syria and Iran and a Cuba-style military blockade of North Korea backed by planning for a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear sites.

Europeans are generally considered to be unrealistic because of their generally greater scepticism towards military adventure. But there's nothing like having the largest military budget in the world to enable enclosure in a complete fantasy world.

I'm not Orwell's biggest fan, but this seems apposite. From Notes on Nationalism:

"Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily in amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connexion with the physical world."

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Well, there's a thought
Perhaps in response to the increasing prominence of Ayatollah Al-Sistani and his insistence on an election which would result in a Shia governed Iraq, the US appointed IGC are agitating for an ongoing role in government after bailout day on June 30, the LA Times reports. One member gives us the benefit of his thinking on civic matters

"They [IGC members] should play a pivotal role in the next leadership. They have expertise and experience," Rabii said of his fellow council members. "You need continuity. We can't have this idiotic American system of dumping everyone from their positions when a new president wins election."
(via Juan Cole)

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Empire of signs
Sascha Matuszak celebrates Christmas in China, via It reminds me of some time spent in Beijing a few years ago, in early January, when the fairy lights were still up and adorning the maximum security architecture all the way down Jianguomenwai, where I was given to understand that they would stay until Chinese New Year.

Things have intensified since then, according to Mr M, but still seem to have the characteristic pattern of western cultural penetration into China – in the form of an Ikea flatpack without the assembly instructions, a blizzard of signs and symbols without the narratives and traditions that tie them together. They are then reassembled in an ad hoc, exuberant and frankly rather appealing way.

Did Christmas ever have a “real meaning” in China, as the phrase is understood here? The solemn reports on Radio 4 of packed cathedrals and churches in urban China certainly used to be a regular feature of the early days of “reform and opening up”. But a friend from Shanghai told me that she and her friends used to sneak off to church and spark up in the back pews simply as a matter of rebellion. Even the dear old C of E, redolent with futility and the aroma of old womens knickers, smelled like teen spirit to sensation starved Chinese youth.
and then you wake up
A little cold water for new year, in the form of a dissection of Murdoch in Counterpunch by Alexander Cockburn and Bruce Page.

Money quote:
This brings me back to Page's book, whose core thesis is that Murdoch offers his target governments a privatized version of a state propaganda service, manipulated without scruple and with no regard for truth. His price takes the form of vast government favors such as tax breaks, regulatory relief (as with the recent FCC ruling on the acquisition of Direct TV) monopoly markets and so forth. The propaganda is undertaken with the utmost cynicism, whether it's the stentorian fake populism and soft porn in the UK's Sun and News of the World, or shameless bootlicking of the butchers of Tiananmen Square.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

not socks
The haul for this years's saturnalia included:
1 bottle of Bushmills 10 year old malt
1 bottle of Chivas Regal
1 bottle of Yrraziuz Merlot reserva

11 books, including: AJP Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, Black Sea by Neal Ascherson, The Tiananmen Papers and Deutscher's The Prophet Armed.

Aaaaaah, I dunno. How do you indicate deep satisfaction in blog form? Hmmm? All I can say is that this list proves that God does not exist. An intelligent designer would see to it that whisky and books were all that were necessary for human sustenance. As it happens, I have to take time off from these to work for money to secure food, clothing and transport. What a waste.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

J G Ballard is not only a genius
but also a hero.

"A lot of these medals are orders of the British Empire, which is a bit ludicrous. The dreams of empire were only swept away relatively recently, in the 60s. Suddenly, we seem to have a prime minister who has delusions of a similar kind.

"It goes with the whole system of hereditary privilege and rank, which should be swept away. It uses snobbery and social self-consciousness to guarantee the loyalty of large numbers of citizens who should feel their loyalty is to fellow citizens and the nation as a whole. We are a deeply class-divided society.

"I think it's deplorable when leftwing playwrights like David Hare, who have worn their socialist colours on both sleeves for so many years, should accept a knighthood. God almighty, this man actually knelt down in front of the Queen.

I'm in impressive company [in refusing]. Most of them are thoughtful people and people of spirit and independence. It's good to see quite a few showbusiness people, like Albert Finney, a great actor. There were Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves - it suggests there's quite a large number of people who reject the whole notion of honours in their present form. And it might do something towards bringing the whole system down."

Here's the full roll of honour. A big chunky list it is too, and a timely slap in the face to the people who patronized Benjamin Zephaniah when he turned down his OBE. His comment about thousands of years of imperial brutality was somewhat inexact, of course. But it did bring to mind H L Mencken's definition of the relationship between radicalism and patriotism, namely that a radical is a true patriot because his radicalism stems from the knowledge that his country is being debauched. Contrast that with the successful social climber, bowing and scraping before the royals, afterwards waving his gong from the top of the greasy pole...

Friday, December 19, 2003

Youth up in smoke
A friend alerts me to the tobacco papers, the latest scorching expose from the bowels of the coffin nail industry, wherein I read that the evil swine are actually marketing the product to...young people! On the grounds that it’s sexy and cool!. Is there no end to their iniquity?

What’s more interesting about this is the meta-discourse, the role the tobacco industry plays as the scapegoat of the business world, taking on the burden of unease felt by the public towards the market generally and its various rewards, punishments and trickeries. They key to this is false opposition. Since the tobacco industry is immoral, it follows that the business world generally is moral and acts with nothing but our best interests at heart. But what’s really disturbing about business is the fact that it is amoral and rational, exploiting the legal and social framework in which it operates to the maximum of its abilities. If that context is high wages and secure employment, it can be got to go along. If that means the slave labour camps managed by the SS for Porsche and IG Farben during World War II, that’s also fine. Money doesn’t care how it is made.

If we ever get to the market dictatorship of which libertarians dream, I expect that it will be enlivened by an annual human sacrifice of executives from the tobacco trade, who will die screaming in expiation of the sins of us all.

Nonetheless, there is something depressing about the papers, excerpted here by the Independent.

A briefing paper by the CDP advertising agency in London for Benson & Hedges says: "We want more 18 to 34-year-old blokes smoking B&H than ever before. We want to see these dudes ripping up packets of Marlboro and Camel and treating them with disdain that second-rate, American filth deserves. For Christ's sake, what the hell are people doing smoking brands for 'cowhands' and not [for] the youth of the trendiest, coolest, most happening country in the world."

The briefing paper then goes on to say that it is, "in many ways ... really a charity brief. Trying to help people recognise the error of their ways, thinking they are being cool smoking what 'Roy bloody Rogers' smoked and opening their eyes to the unchallengeable truth that the coolest smoke in the world is a B&H". It goes on: "We want to see Great, British B&H in the Ben Sherman shirt pockets of Brit-popped, dance-crazed, tequila-drinking, Nike-kicking, Fast Show-watching, Loaded-reading, babe-pulling, young gentlemen."

So why do people start smoking? I started late, at 21, by scrounging tabs from the people with whom I was working. There wasn’t really any conscious ‘why’ to it at first. But after I started, I got a definite feeling that I wasn’t in training any more – I’d graduated from the state where everything was arranged for me and was beginning to make whatever mark on life I could. I was serious at last, because I was doing something vaguely life threatening, though not for decades.

How dispiriting, then, to see something so intensely personal for me and millions of others crunched down into data points and picked over by a bunch of braying, honking, clueless wankers from the advertising trade. I’m sure its awareness of things like this that sends sensitive types into the arms of the crusties. Better to forget how to shave and go and live in a tree or a hole in the ground than to have your every peak experience intermediated and repackaged by cretins.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Despite a defense amounting basically to “the cat ate them” it took the Jury in the Soham murder trial five days to find Ian Huntley guilty. Maybe it was the sheer improbability of his story that led to all the confusion. His contention that both girls died by accident one after the other, is so unlikely that it seems pointless to invent. A liar would surely come up with a better lie than that.

It’s fashionable to sneer at juries, but in my experience, they take their duties very seriously. I wouldn’t be surprised if they spent a long time mulling over the above conundrum until common sense supervened.

Once the verdict was in, it was revealed that Huntley was the suspect in a long string of previous sexual assaults. Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram wonders why these allegations never got anywhere. They were either withdrawn, or the CPA failed to proceed on them, usually on he said-she said grounds. His worry is that the emphasis on meeting targets means that tough cases are simply not brought to court.

Maybe. A few years back, I was a juror in a multiple rape case which ended in an acquittal by a majority verdict. I voted for acquittal, with serious misgivings. Thgis was mainly because the prosecution was almost incredibly lacklustre. It made no attempt either to investigate the background of the accused, interrogate them purposefully on cross examination or get them to say anything which revealed their general attitude to women. The prosecuting barrister seemed to proceed on the notion that acquittal was inevitable, so she wasn’t going to make too much effort. I don’t know whether this was from a cynicism about juries supposed unwillingness to convict in rape cases or just from cynicism full stop. It could be that at that time there was a big push on to get more rape cases tried and her performance was just a sullen response to what was seen as a politically mandated trial. Whatever, the general malaise over prosecuting sex crimes against adult women seems to go a lot deeper than the CPA.

Even now, I wonder about that verdict. It was probably the single most important decision I will ever make about someone else’s life, and thanks to the prosecution I had to make it without knowing as much as I needed to.
Rolling down the yangtze
An old friend and colleague of mine now blogs from China at Shanghai Eye. Pay him a visit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

C’est magnifique – but is it politics?
I’ve got very mixed feelings about the French ban on religious symbols, which should be confirmed by Chirac today. Reuters reports:

Chirac is trying to revive his popularity after an angry national debate over integrating Muslims into France's traditionally Catholic society, and wants to prevent a new surge by the far-right National Front in regional elections in March.

This is wrong on a number of levels. France is not a Catholic society. It’s a secular republic whose main religion is Catholicism. It ceased to be a Catholic society at the time of the French revolution, since when one of the main political fault lines running through the country has been the divide between clerical and reactionary forces and republicans of both right and left. DeGaulle tried to resolve this issue finally by creating a conservative republican movement, which people like Chirac currently represent. This isn’t about bashing Muslims to appease catholic right wingers. It’s about reaffirming the secular Republic in the face of a surge in support for anti-republican, neo-Vichyite forces represented by Le Pen. It puts Islamic extremists and neofascists in the same place – outside the mainstream of political discourse.

Alexander Cockburn gives a good account of the French secular tradition in The Golden Age is in Us.

“The de-Christianization campaign was pushed along by such men as Joseph Fouche, a former teacher from the South of France and one of the few principals of the revolution to die in bed. He ended up as Napoleon’s chief of police. During the revolution he ordered the words ‘death is nothing but eternal sleep’ to be put by the gates of every cemetery in France.

In Strasbourg’s Feast of Reason on 30 Brumaire, Year II of the revolution, citizens led by girls dressed in white carried a bust of Marat into the Cathedral, renamed the Temple of Reason and over whose doors were placed a tricolour and a placard reading Light after Darkness. In the nave was a symbolic mountain with statues of Nature and Liberty on top and on the sides, monsters with human faces half buried in rock, symbolizing the frustrated powers of superstition. The 10,000 strong gathering sang a hymn to Reason and then there was a bonfire on the altar of the remains of saints beatified by the court of Rome…”

Death is nothing but eternal sleep – stick that in your interfaith community and smoke it. Here in anglo-saxondom, the atheist, agnostic or simply apathetic majority are impaled on the fork of their own tolerance, forced to take seriously or at least politely the special claims to moral superiority of people with spirit guides from bronze age Palestine, believers in the hallucinations of epileptic Arabs, kneelers before magical cows and elephants. Sometimes, France seems like a spiritual home. Or at least a place that stimulates the intricate biochemical response in the brain which expresses itself as admiration.

And yet, and yet…was this a fight that France really needed to pick right now? At its best, the secular tradition claims human liberty as its own, and that necessarily includes the freedom to indulge the superstitious part of ones character. And picking on the way kids dress hardly shows secularism in its best light. It attacks the symbols of superstition, rather than the reality. The aim of a secular education should be to encourage people to want leave their crucifixes and headscarves at home, rather than to use the power of the state to remove them. And of course, there's the overall risk of pushing people who are simply stubborn about thgeir faith into the hands of the extremists.

But at least there’s a consistent principle involved. In the UK, the government veers between indulgence and spite – making insulting Islam an aggravating factor in racist assaults on the one hand and barking orders to Muslims to speak English in their own homes on the other.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

literary matters
Reid Kuhn. Kent Self. Chang Coleman. Why do the names on my spam e-mail headers sound like characters in Martin Amis novels?
Let George do it
I've been planning to post something on my growing irritation with George Orwell and his status as secular saint for virtue-mongers of left and right. As such, I've been noodling around the internet reading his various professional and amateur fans. It's depressing work. Imagine a sanctimonious finger wagging in the human face forever. But I have discovered two unbreakable laws of Orwell citation, reproduced here for those who may wish to join the cult.

i) I shall not refer to the blessed George without also using the words decent and honest.

ii) On close examination, I find that his politics exactly resemble my own.
Now we've got him
...what do we do with him? The Guardian chews the judicial fat in great detail, as one would expect, with the central debate framed as one between local justice and the more formal setting of an international tribunal. The gut satisfaction of a vengeance ethic, duly restrained and bewigged, or the more subtle pleasures promised by the opportunity for the world community to formally condemn very bad people doing very bad things? Will Saddam follow Slobbo to the Hague?

I doubt that. I've always suspected that the real reason for spiriting Milosevic away from Serbia was the fact that he still had something of a power base there, and if he was tried locally there would have been a chance that he would have got off, or at least that the management of his punishment process might have become embarrassingly obvious. The Hague tribunals ensured that the verdict would be correct. Which it was, of course - but the idea that the end result was in any way an open question, as in a normal trial, was a polite fiction.

There's obviously no chance of Saddam being found innocent in Iraq, so there's no barrier to a "fair trial" being staged locally. The question remains about what he is going specifically to be tried for. Saddam's crimes can be roughly divided into the atrocities he committed as leader of his own people and the war crimes he committed against other nations as acts of state.

It's this second area that presents his jailers and other interested international parties with some dificulties, since it offers him the opportunity to talk in detail about his formerly warm relations with, well, nearly all of them.

There's a good deal more chance of details like this coming out in somewhere like the Hague than in Iraq itself. There, memories of his personal depredations are going to be primary, and the role of his accomplices and sponsors likely to be lost in the opportunities for cathartic political theatre provided by the trial and finally forgotten in a predictable international furore over his eventual death sentence.

Monday, December 15, 2003

While we're on the subject of the meaning of life
According to the selectsmart philosophy quiz I am 100% John Paul Sartre and 85% Kant. I suppose this means that I'll have to read Sartre at some stage. Well at least I'm not a total K...
For your reading pleasure

A christmas story for atheists

"Why in hell," he observed impatiently, "do all them goddam hypocrites keep the poor bums waiting for two, three hours while they get off their goddam whimwham? Here is a hall full of men who ain't had nothing to speak of to eat for maybe three, four days, and yet they have to set there smelling the turkey and the coffee while ten, fifteen Sunday-school superintendents and W.C.T.U. [Women's Christian Temperance Union] sisters sing hymns to them and holler against booze. I tell you, Mr. Ammermeyer, it ain't human. More than once I have saw a whole row of them poor bums pass out in faints, and had to send them away in the wagon. And then, when the chow is circulated at last, and they begin fighting for the turkey bones, they ain't hardly got the stuff down before the superintendents and the sisters begin calling on them to stand up and confess whatever skullduggery they have done in the past, whether they really done it or not, with us cops standing all around. And every man Jack of them knows that if they don't lay it on plenty thick there won't be no encore of the giblets and stuffing, and two times out of three there ain't no encore anyhow, for them psalm singers are the stingiest outfit outside hell and never give a starving bum enough solid feed to last him until Christmas Monday. And not a damned drop to drink! Nothing but coffee--and without no milk! I tell you, Mr. Ammermeyer, it makes a man's blood boil."

by the great H L Mencken.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Saddam uncovered
...with a small arsenal, US$750,000, and by the look of him an unlimted supply of Special Brew.

His captors also uncovered a vat of Sarin, a comprehensive command structure of the al-Qaeda network and an application to join the Legion d'Honneur, countersigned by Jacques Chirac.

Well, no. Never mind. Let the wish fulfilment commence.

The urgent question is whether his capture will see the insurgency lose momentum. I've always taken the view that Saddam's freedom was an inhibiting factor for the insurgency. If he was a gangster followed by gangsters, why would the bring him back when they could grab power fopr themselves? The possibility of his return also helped keep the Shia in line. And I don't think that foreign jihadis would blow themselves up specifically for his sake.

In the early months of the insurgency, Mosul was considered something of a haven. It was certainly regarded as such by Uday and Qusay Hussein, before they were found and killed on July 23. Before that date, US forces suffered no casualties in and around Mosul. Since then, according to the Iraq casualty count, they have lost 36 dead and 62 injured.

So, the Iraqis are free of Saddam at last. But as a certain SecDef said, freedom can be messy.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

recapture the real spirit of christmas

via eigenstate
here's a good example...
of how patient choice improves medicine.

AN ALTERNATIVE healer who claimed that he could cure cancer was told yesterday that he faced jail after being convicted of two offences under the Trades Descriptions Act.

Reginald Gill, 68, of Poole. Dorset, who described himself as a wellness practitioner, sold a terminally ill cancer patient an electronic device that he said would reverse the illness

If you happen to be a hardcore libertarian, none of this is a problem except in its contractual dimension. You've got the right to go to hell in your own way, like any other damn fool. But this is not how the notion of choice fits into the New Labour worldview.

In the real world, choice is limited by both supply and information. Our choice in medicine is always going to be limited by the fact that we don't have the same level of knowledge as medical providers. And sometimes there isn't much choice, just a way of doing things which leads to a cure and a whole lot of other ways that lead to death.

In NewLabourWorld, choice "empowers". The very ability to make choices confers power and wisdom. The choices themselves are all of equal value, each being part of a great mosiac of diversity. This is not a matter of intellectual enquiry. In fact it's quite the reverse. It's about the acquisition of goods and services as fetishes and taboos of a private religion.

The logic of this in policy terms is that Mr Gill was not really a crook, he was just offering choices that the still producer-dominated health service was too inflexible to appreciate. On a slightly less bizarre level, this is what the MMR furore is about too. As choice extends itself through the health service, other Mr Gills may have the opportunity to offer their nostrums and crystals to the public, courtesy of the taxpayer, who will in return be expected to make "co-payments" for the costs of having his or her broken leg set in plaster, or some other prosaic cure not amenable to psychic waves and spirit guidance.

Leadership in this comes straight from the top.

A year ago, the Times printed the following account of what they did on their summer holidays at the luxurious Maroma Hotel on Mexico's Caribbean coast. The Blairs visited a 'Temazcal', a steam bath enclosed in a brick pyramid. It was dusk and they had stripped down to their swimming costumes. Inside, they met Nancy Aguilar, a new-age therapist. She told them that the pyramid was a Mayan womb in which they would be reborn. The Blairs saw the shapes of animals in the steam and experienced 'inner-feelings and visions'. They smeared each other with melon, papaya and mud from the jungle, and then let out a primal scream of purifying agony. No one followed-up the Times's scoop - deference is not as dead as some people would have you think.

When the Blairs moved into Downing Street, a feng shui expert rearranged the furniture at Number 10. Cherie wears a 'magic pendant' known as the BioElectric Shield, which is filled with 'a matrix of specially cut quartz crystals' that surround the wearer with 'a cocoon of energy' and ward off evil forces. (It was given to her by Hillary Clinton, another political spouse who combines the characteristic Third Way vices of sharp prac tice and bone-headedness.) Then there have been inflatable Flowtron trousers, auricular therapy and acupuncture pins in the ear.

New Age Labour has spilled out of Downing Street and blighted public policy. In January 1999, for instance, the Government recruited a feng shui consultant, Renuka Wickmaratne, to discover a magical way to improve inner-city estates without raising taxes

I've always thought of New Labour as more of a cargo cult than a political movement. But of that, more another time.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Aside from being...
...a miserable failure, the man is clearly unelectable, just like it says on crooked timber
Paradox of the week
If the involvement of communists invalidates pro-peace demonstrations in the West, does the involvement of communists invalidate pro-peace demonstrations in Iraq?

If the absence of coverage of the recent pro-peace/anti-terrorist/pro-American demonstrations in the pro-war media is anything to go by, then apparently it does.

Perhaps it was the prominence of secular leftists and feminists in the demonstrations that led them to be blanked by media appealing to a conservative readership.

From an editorial point of view, if your aim is to cater for people who support the war you want to see US flags being waved by grateful natives, not red ones by people opposed to your political outlook but who depend on US and coalition forces for protection.

Coverage in conservative Arab media was also minimal, but emphasized the role of the Iraqi communists, as though to underline the marginal character of the demonstrators and the cause they represent.

In his recent debate with Christopher Hitchens, Tariq Ali made the point that the Iraqi communists could have committed themselves to lending a secular character to the resistance, but made a mistake in choosing to work with the occupiers, thereby becoming dependent on a US government hostile to their general aims while alienating large sections of the public.

The media response and non-response tends to make his point for him. The demonstrators were too pro-American for the anti-war media and not pro-American enough for the pro-war media. In exposing themselves they simply became a source of political embarrassment to the CPA.

They made the fundamental mistake of believing in promises, of mistaking moral issues for the real issues that these are meant to conceal. Well, they’re committed now. They’ve made a bet that Iraqi opinion is with them and not scared to reveal itself in future demonstrations, and I hope for their sake that they’re right. The latest from salam pax sounds ominous though.

The strangest moment was when an American convoy came out of the nearby tunnel while the maddah was praising the deeds of the so-called resistance, the TV sets showing pictures of funerals of Iraqis killed by coalition fire. Everyone turned around and looked at the convoy. Not good.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Here's a democracy some democrats made earlier
Daniel Davies critiques the competence of the liberators.

This is why I never quite understand why the pro-war crowd, left and right, seem to think that injecting the phrase "Bush is a moron" into the debate is in some way unsportsmanlike, unmannerly or evidence that one's opposition is partisan or not serious. It's an entirely germane point in considering the costs and benefits of a war whether or not it's being run by a moron, and it is by no means established that the option of a war not run by a moron was completely out of the question.

I argued in his comments that invading Iraq was not something a smart administration would do in the first place. Or at least, not one which was smart enough to know the limits of its power to shape the political and economic future of a foreign country while at the same time establishing a regime that both reflected the will of the locals and respected minority cultures and rights. The issue here isn't intelligence, but hubris.

Four years after it was "liberated" by a NATO bombing campaign, Kosovo has deteriorated into a hotbed of organized crime, anti-Serb violence and al-Qaeda sympathizers, say security officials and Balkan experts.

Though nominally still under UN control, the southern province of Serbia is today dominated by a triumvirate of Albanian paramilitaries, mafiosi and terrorists. They control a host of smuggling operations and are implementing what many observers call their own brutal ethnic cleansing of minority groups, such as Serbs, Roma and Jews.

This particular fiasco was brought to you by Bill Clinton. A smart fellow, as I recall.

link via Jim Henley
oooooooh, spiteful!
It's official: the open, competitive tender is not going to be part of the new Iraq. Protests, of course, from those affected. But Germany, France et al can't be too surprised. After all, part of the reason for opposing war was that it would lead to just this sort of thing, so they won't have been keeping legions of hairy arsed builders on standby.

But then, with his ineffable sense of comic timing, George steps in...

President Bush spoke with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany on Wednesday about his administration's decision to bar firms based in countries that oppose the Iraq war from bidding on contracts for Iraqi reconstruction projects.

Bush called the leaders about "the need to restructure and reduce Iraq's crushing debt load," McCormack said. The talks came as Bush prepared to send former Secretary of State James Baker abroad, probably next week, to jawbone other countries on reducing Iraq's debt.

The president's calls came on a day when the contracting dispute prompted Russia, Iraq's biggest creditor, to threaten to take a harder line on Baghdad's debts.

Solemn liberals are putting this down as a typical example of the chaos surrounding the Bush foreign policy team. Meet the Keystone NeoKons!

I think it has more to do with this, from back in October

Many of the US firms which won lucrative Iraqi reconstruction contracts are major donors to President George W Bush's political campaigns, according to a new report.

The report, by pressure group the Centre for Public Integrity (CPI), claims that most of the contractors gave more money to Mr Bush's 2000 presidential campaign than to any other in the last 10 years.

The report covers 70 companies and individuals who between them have won reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq worth up to $8bn (£4.8bn).

Now, there's $87 billion to spend and an election coming up. Clearly there are friends and donors to be rewarded, but it won't end there. Prosperity must be spread across the land and if some of that prosperity has to be recycled through Iraq, then that's the way it's going to be. Clinton was a spoilsman too, and I don't recall much of the reconstruction budget for Gulf 1 being spent outside the USA.

That's why I think that all of the contracts for Iraq- at least all of the major ones - will go to US companies. Shafting your opponents in public is an excellent way to draw attention away from shafting your allies in private.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Memoirs of some revolutionaries
George Monbiot competently nails the UK’s very own LaRouchies in Tuesday’s Guardian.

The organisation began in the late 1970s as a Trotskyist splinter called the Revolutionary Communist party. It immediately set out to destroy competing oppositionist movements. When nurses and cleaners marched for better pay, it picketed their demonstrations. It moved into the gay rights group Outrage and sought to shut it down. It tried to disrupt the miners' strike, undermined the Anti-Nazi League and nearly destroyed the radical Polytechnic of North London. On at least two occasions RCP activists physically attacked members of opposing factions.

In 1988, it set up a magazine called Living Marxism, later LM. By this time, the organisation, led by the academic Frank Furedi, the journalist Mick Hume and the teacher Claire Fox, had moved overtly to the far right. LM described its mission as promoting a "confident individualism" without social constraint. It campaigned against gun control, against banning tobacco advertising and child pornography, and in favour of global warming, human cloning and freedom for corporations. It defended the Tory MP Neil Hamilton and the Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansers. It provided a platform for writers from the corporate thinktanks the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Frank Furedi started writing for the Centre for Policy Studies (founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher) and contacting the supermarket chains, offering, for £7,500, to educate their customers "about complex scientific issues".

And bloggers Nick Barlow and Alister Black supply their own reminiscences of what was once the Revolutionary Communist Party. I think anyone who was at university between 1975 and 1990 who had any political interest must have come across the RCP at some point. Clearly it was a memorable experience for others apart from me.

I remember them from the old Polytechnic of Central London in the early 1980s. In particular I remember Fiona Fox, since I was a good enough friend of hers at one stage to stay the night at her parent’s house. I liked Fiona, but found it difficult to talk to her beyond a certain point. She got revolutionary politics early, and got it bad. RCP members weren’t as quick as some to jump into ferociously clichéd denunciations of this or that. It’s just that they would never develop an argument beyond a certain point, that point being when they had demonstrated the pointlessness – so they believed – of the political activity or cause any of their rivals were involved in. Another RCP member at PCL was Ed Bazalgette, the former bass player in the Vapors and brother of the visionary who started reality TV off with a cavalcade of chefs.

I also seem to remember that they had a three stage membership structure. You would start out selling papers and doing other lowly work, graduate to more complex tasks and then, joy of joys, be translated into the group’s intellectual elite. But first stage members also didn’t seem to be allowed to conduct autonomous arguments. They were given a line of the day, told to steer conversations round to it if possible, and once it was reached refuse to move on from that point.

What makes me think that they haven’t changed much is that you can still see the same process at work in Spiked.

The RCP had another unique feature. They were the only sectarian communist group on planet earth with a dress code. Like bouncers of the revolution, they would only admit people wearing smart casual clothes to the cause. I believe this was something to do with winning the suburbs over to Marxist Leninism. It certainly made them odd to talk to in general social situations, as though they had joined the RCP as everyday people and then been told to imitate their normal selves as a conscious act of revolutionary practice. They marketed themselves, which must have facilitated their eventual move into corporate public relations.

There’s a pretty good account of the RCP/LM/Spiked group and my old mate Fiona at gm watch. A couple of points to add: Fiona was involved with them for a long time before the researcher seems to think. And their media strategy included successfully infiltrating the Economist Intelligence Unit.

As is by now well-known, Living Marxism has become adept at finding or placing supporters in what it regards as influential positions in the media. This is all perfectly above board: the Times was desperate enough to offer LM's editor, Mick Hume, his own column. The signatories of LM's letters are familiar bylines across Fleet Street. But the pivot of Living Marxism's activities in the mainstream is, for some reason, the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has at times, backstage, been torn asunder by arguments over key positions held by the group's leading members.

So comrades, how can we explain the RCP’s remarkable communal trajectory from revolutionary oppositionists to corporate libertarians? On one level, the group’s track record for trying to wreck left wing causes and groups is just as applicable from the right as from the sectarian far left. They’re still busy creating front groups and organizing conferences, just as they were then, though these days more for profit than fun.

Their oppositionism has been the one constant thing about them. Yet it does seem to have led over the years to a kind of surreptitious hankering after nihilism, expressed at one level by their eager apologetics for genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda and on another by their inability to avoid mechanical sneering at any social or political phenomena. In theory, they are apparently in favour of confident humanity making choices. A glance at Spiked tells you that they can find nothing good to say about the choices humans make. The whole site reads like the effusions of the snottiest 14 year old in the grammar school playground. This is apparently where vanguardism for its own sake leads.

Monbiot is worried by their current influence in the pro-GM science camp. Well, it does show you how easily smart people can be fooled. On the other hand, literally thousands of people will remember them from encounters at university. And very few people who did meet them will trust them as far as they could comfortably spit a rat.

So if this site has any readers from the world of biotech public affairs – and I’m sure there must be thousands – it’s worth them bearing in mind that for thousands of well educated, intelligent and in some cases influential people, involvement by the RCP/LM/Spiked/Institute of Ideas in any cause immediately arouses incurable suspicion. They’re not worth your money.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

an orgy of mutual self promotion
My first external link, to my knowledge. If you came here from there go back there immediately and say thank you on my behalf.
More subtantial blogging tomorrow, once work removes its greasy thumb from my throat.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Know thyself
Which historical lunatic are you?

I am King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Serfs, build me a gingerbread castle!

Friday, December 05, 2003

there's the rub
From the New York Times:

"Nobody wants Palm Beach County in Baghdad," Mr. Feldman added. "Historical experience also suggests that quick elections under postwar conditions elect people not dedicated to democratization. Simply put, if you move too fast, the wrong people could get elected."

Ah, the right people. That was always the problem with the “trust George” argument. The US and its appendages have put a huge amount of blood, money and effort into the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It strains credibility to believe after that that they would let a bunch of Iraqis run around the place deciding things on their own behalf. They may have thought that the invasion would lead spontaneously to the rise of a friendly government, elected by a grateful populace, which would automatically endeavour to meet US policy goals in the region. Let’s call that the sincere neocon position.

Or they may have thought that this was just grist for the suckers and that the real job was to create a proxy government, preferably by democratic means but in practice by any means necessary. After all, its only real jobs would be to recognize Israel, host US troops and act as a facilities management service for KBR, et al. Call that the cynical realist position.

What we seem to have got is electoral realism: Let’s rig up something that’ll quiet everybody down until the week following the first week of November 2004. So, what are we likely to get? The B&T punditry department offers three alternatives.

Benign: A vaguely theocratic Shi’a dominated state, Islamic in general character but liberal enough in practice for Sunnis, Kurds and secularists to rub along together reasonably well. It probably represents a step back in women’s rights, but the chicks are always an afterthought in these situations. It also tees up an interesting conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and shifts the focus of Sunni jihadism away from the West. That in turn enables victory in the war against terror to be declared. In the longer term, let’s get hydrogen power on stream as fast as possible.

Moderate: A similar regime takes power, but is distrusted and seen as lacking popular legitimacy, and as such fails to disarm or break up confessional or ethnic paramilitary groups. While none of these enjoy mass support, Iraqis distrust each other and the government enough to let them recruit and operate. Low intensity conflict continues over several decades until all sides collapse into a “peace of exhaustion.” The Northern Ireland scenario.

Terrible: A government is installed which no-one accepts. An armed power struggle ensues between and within major factions, inflamed as outside powers use local fighters as proxies. Outlined here. The Zaire on the Euphrates scenario.

I don’t know how things will actually work out. I bet George and Tony don’t either. My hunch: that if you take the above as a scale, it’ll be somewhere between two and three.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Un-american of the day

Anti-americanism is becoming excellent sport, but it needs more to sustain it than robust Australian parliamentary rhetoric and intermittently amusing receptionist pesterers.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Gore Vidal.
Australia's new opposition leader... a man of strong opinions:

Hand in your badge, Adolf."
- directed at former immigration minister Philip Ruddock.

"Howard is an arse-licker. He went over there, kissed some bums, and got patted on the head."
- description of Prime Minister John Howard's trip to the United States.

"There they are, a conga line of suckholes on the conservative side of politics."
- on Coalition support for the war in Iraq.

"Bush himself is the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory."
- on US President George W Bush.

"(John Howard) has forgotten how to be a good Australian, not some yes-man to a flaky and dangerousAmericanpresident."
- same again.

via Tom Watson MP
pampered prime minister

From today's popbitch

>> Blair follows through <<
Tony forced into man nappies

Poor Tony Blair. Senior Labour politicians are
gossiping that his recent stomach troubles have
forced him on several occasions to wear
sanitary protection, or "man nappies".

(FYI: There's a strange rumour going round that Tony
secretly had his appendix out at St Thomas' hospital)

A disturbing thought to take about one's daily business...

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

let an ayatollah lead you

He's emerging as a major force in occupied Iraq. He commands the loyalty of millions of pious Shi'a. He wants the new Iraq to be democratic in structure but Islamic in character. But what does Grand Ayatollah Sistani think of anal sex?

link via Matthew Yglesias
You're nothing without me...nothing!

The prime minister is rapidly emerging as a master of the two stage argument. Stage one: lightly cover any proposed measure with the fairy dust of keywords. It is modern, dynamic, fair and inclusive, whatever it happens to be. If that doesn't work threaten to resign in a fit of nuclear petulance.

Asked by Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy whether the forthcoming vote on top-up fees amounted to a vote of confidence in his leadership, Mr Blair said: "Of course it is important for the government - all these votes are important to the government."

He has already admitted his authority is "on the line" over the vote.

Well, no party wants to lose its leader. But the threat also chimes in to the founding doctrine of New Labour theology - that everyone in the Labour party owes all their success to him and him alone.

It's time this myth was exploded. Labour assumed a derfinitive lead in the polls after the Major government was forced out of the ERM, and stayed there until the great fuel sulk of 2000 saw the Tories make a brief revival.

The Major government saw the Tories slide into senility, moving from 'repulsive but right' to just repulsive. Does anyone really think that John Major could have beaten John Smith back in '97? Getting rid of the Tories then was partly a compassionate act. Let's put the old dog in a sack and dump it in the canal. It's the kindest thing to do.

It's surely true that Labour wouldn't have won with such large majorities. Blair collared huge numbers of votes amongst the vaguely concerned middle classes. But the Blair effect did not ensure that Labour won. It ensured that Portillo lost.

The irony is that it's these "vagues" who seem to be the most disillusioned with Blair. They voted for honest, non-politicised administration and got lunatic military adventures, crony PFI capitalism and public services mangled by the government's cargo cult of enterprise. They got a government committeed to the involvement of private enterprise in every area of government activity, yet also completely unable to negotiate a sound contract. Now they're getting whacked with higher fees to send their kids to college. They have left the Church of Blair, feeling somewhat used.

The vote on top up fees goes ahead in January, just at the time Hutton emerges with his final report. That should be an interesting combination. Don't slam the door on your way out, Tony...
Links de-knackered
Thanks to Ryan

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

links knackered...
Haven't got a clue why. Back to the drawing baord, or blogger template or whatever (sigh)...
Appointment in Samarra
Scepticism grows over the Sammarra firefight, with even the Telegraph sucking its teeth and shaking its head.

US forces insisted they had killed 54 Iraqi attackers after two of their armoured convoys came under co-ordinated attack while delivering new currency to local banks on Sunday. But local people and a hospital doctor reported only eight dead, who they insisted were mainly civilians, including an Iranian pilgrim.

Yahoo news goes into the inconsistencies in more detail.

According to him, a total of 60 militants, divided into two groups, attacked two convoys escorting new Iraqi currency to banks in the city.

Another four assailants in a BMW attacked a separate engineering convoy.

If the US troops killed 46 and captured 11 of them, only three of the survivors would have been left to pick up the corpses.

On Kimmit's figures the calculus becomes even hazier -- with 54 killed, 22 wounded and one captured, 13 militants remain unaccounted for, although both commanders did say the cash convoys also came under attack on their way in and out of the city.

As to how the troops came up with their casualty figures, Rudesheim said it was by counting their weapons.

So what actually happened? A firsthand account here from SFTT

...most of the casualties were civilians, not insurgents or criminals as being reported. During the ambushes the tanks, brads and armored HUMVEES hosed down houses, buildings, and cars while using reflexive fire against the attackers. One of the precepts of "Iron Hammer" is to use an Iron Fist when dealing with the insurgents. As the division spokesman is telling the press, we are responding with overwhelming firepower and are taking the fight to the enemy. The response to these well coordinated ambushes was as a one would expect. The convoy continued to move, shooting at ANY target that appeared to be a threat. RPG fire from a house, the tank destroys the house with main gun fire and hoses the area down with 7.62 and 50cal MG fire. Rifle fire from an alley, the brads fire up the alley and fire up the surrounding buildings with 7.62mm and 25mm HE rounds. This was actually a rolling firefight through the entire town.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Dressed to rob
This doesn't make any sense

An ambush on US troops in Iraq's city of Samarra was an attempt to seize new Iraqi banknotes, the US military say.
"It was a co-ordinated attack... on a convoy... delivering a significant amount of Iraqi currency," US Colonel Fredrick Rudesheim told reporters.

In the Samarra incident, US commanders initially reported 46 dead and 18 wounded but later raised the death toll without explaining whether the additional victims were insurgents or civilians.
US spokesman Lieutenant Colonel William MacDonald said that US forces had fought back with tank fire when they were attacked three times by militants wearing uniforms of the pro-Saddam Fedayeen fighters.

So after happily attacking occupation forces and civilians in plain clothes for months, insurgents assume dress uniform to pull a heist? Of course, they could be completely stupid. Or maybe the fedayeen 'uniforms' were just a keffiyah pulled over the head, in time honoured one-across-the-pavement style.

But the report smacks of a consistent problem with coalition propaganda. Instead of shaping events into a credible pro-occupation story, they are inflated Jessica Lynch style into something practically unbelievable. Believing in them then becomes a kind of patriotism test.

There seem to be two ideas the coalition want transmitting: that insurgents are under Saddam's control, and that they are a standard issue bunch of thieves and killers. Well, maybe, for all I know. But as presented here, they conflict with each other and make the coalition account of the event unconvincing.

Note to Centcom: propaganda wars are fought against the enemy, not those back home inclined to treat hot news from the front line with due scepticism. It's much easier to get people to believe what you say if you don't offend their notions of credibility.