Newsnotes 2011 06

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Pure As New York Snow [the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal]

Elections: Canada

Elections: Singapore

Elections: Britain’s PR Referendum

Elections: Scotland and Wales

Elections: West Bengal

Elections: Uganda

Elections: Egypt

Raiders of the Lost Bin Laden [His assassination]

No More Superpowers? [China’s global role]

Price of a UK Soul [small business people]

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery In Private [Ryan Giggs]

One Small Hop for a Yank [The USA’s First Space Venture]

No Place Like Home (or not many) [Exoplanets]

Wild Weather


Pure As New York Snow [the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal]

You don’t need to view Dominique Strauss-Kahn as an innocent to see the whole handling of the case as remarkably fishy. A man of 62 with no criminal record and no history of fighting other men does not need to be handcuffed, as he was. Nor is there any logic to sending him to a maximum-security prison: that sounds like harassment. Putting him on ‘suicide watch’ also sounds like harassment.

Another curious detail: the man had phoned the hotel to ask about his missing mobile phone. He then told them that he was at the airport, and without this he would probably have been out of US jurisdiction before any arrest could have been made.[B] First reports suggested he was acting like a fugitive, but this now seems untrue.

While he was jailed but still head of the IMF, I wondered why he could not be put under house arrest, or some other form of civilised confinement. Remarkably, this has now happened – but only after he decided to resign. That looks highly political: someone was out to get him. And it seems he was on the moderate wing of the international financial community that has been scooping up wealth and damaging the Western economy since the 1980s.

“The big picture is probably much more impactful on French politics and President Sarkozy than on the global economy, writes Channel 4 News Economics Editor Faisal Islam.

“He’s a credible candidate from the Socialist Party to beat Sarkozy, and Sarkozy regularly manoeuvres to try to limit his popularity in France.

“However, you did see his influence after the economic crisis. For example, after the Lehman Brothers crash, really for the first time the IMF talked about using fiscal policy to pump-prime the economy.

“The IMF is also far less doctrinaire about what became known as the ‘Washington consensus’ on economics – free markets, unrestricted capital markets, privatisations etcetera.

“As countries like Brazil, India and China have asserted their financial power, Strauss-Kahn has adapted the modus operandi of the IMF away from its US Treasury roots.

“If he had announced a bid for the French presidency, he was probably would have been a few months away from leaving the IMF in any events.

“But it does focus minds on the debate over his succession, and it has been typical to carve up the IMF job for Europe whilst the World Bank President is an American. This arrangement is unsustainable, given the change in the balance of financial power.” [A]

Are such differences important enough to justify a ‘honey trap’? Or was it a quick improvisation after some unexpected incident that was noticed by detectives or secret service people keeping an eye on him? In the West and especially in the USA, whatever once existed by way of an old-fashioned sense of honour has faded. Nothing much has replaced it in mainstream culture. Various ‘alternative values’ have so far failed to flourish: that was the success of Reagan and Thatcher. Perhaps they also believed their line of patter about restoring older values, or at least Thatcher probably meant it, though she also associated with a lot of doubtful characters, most notably Jeffrey Archer. Regardless, what you have now in the USA is a bunch of dirty little cheats with a line of sanctimonious patter that is a neat defence against morality

But that doesn’t mean the whole thing was staged or invented. True, Mr Strauss-Kahn is rich enough to hire prostitutes, but for some men it is a point of pride to have ‘conquests’: paying for sex with a regular sex-worker does not count. And we already know that he was in the habit of harassing females.

He may also have been in a bad mood. He might have been in New York on some secret negotiation that did not go well: he is more normally in Washington. When he got the job – back in 2007 – it must have seemed a prize. Since then almost everything has gone wrong and he must be under a lot of pressure. Rape is just as often about power as sex, and since he was a rich man it would make sense as an act of power for someone who must be getting very frustrated at balancing rival financial demands in a vast and chaotic global economy dominated by greedy fools who understand little outside of their own area of expertise. For a frustrated man to take it out on some innocent woman would be all too typical.

It’s not hard to construct a hypothetical chain of events that would fit the known facts. The chambermaid knocks to see if the guest has gone, Strauss-Kahn is in the shower and does not hear. He comes out, grabs her, does something sexual. Then pays her off: at the time she appears to have accepted. Then maybe someone persuades her to take it up: the police are encouraging. That would explain the odd contradictions in what’s been reported so far.

We may have to wait till the trial to get the facts clear. If indeed there is a trial: I would be less than astonished if the issue somehow vanished and Mr Strauss-Kahn walked free after his main financial and political significance had ended. And I’m still hoping it ends the man’s political career, as well as generating a lot of ill-will between the USA and France: just what we need now. I’d sooner the clowns of the New Right had another real crash rather than the soft-landing that Strauss-Kahn seems to have been arguing for.


Elections: Canada

The recent General Election in Canada saw the Conservatives finally get an overall majority. This has been widely reported. But what may be more significant is that it also saw the Canadian Liberals collapse and be replaced by left-wing New Democrats. The Liberals fell from 77 seats to 34: the New Democrats rose from 37 to 103.

There has been talk about New Democrats working with the Canadian Liberals. It would be amazingly foolish of them to do this. They should view the Liberals as enemies, rivals whom they could hope to eliminate. The centre-right is bound to exist in some form or other, so the Conservatives are merely opponents, and likely to lose the next election if they fail to make an impact on the continuing decline of the Atlantic nations. And Canada has a First Past The Post electoral system, meaning that the two main parties are likely to squeeze out any rivals.

The election also hit the Bloc Quebecois, which is a broad front for Quebec’s French-speaking separatists. They crashed from 47 seats to 4. Remarkably, the New Democrats largely replaced them, despite having previously always been weak in Quebec. Politics within Quebec has been mostly split between the left-wing Parti Quebecois and the Liberals. If the Canadian Liberals collapse, that might strengthen the Quebec Nationalists. Quebec’s branch of the Liberals has been either the government or the main opposition in the province for a long time.

[The New Democratic Party in Canada has indeed stayed in opposition. Back in 2011, I had in mind the vanishing of the once-promising Social Democratic Party into the corrupt old Liberals, who now seem discredited by their coalition with the Tories and have almost vanished after the May 2015 British election. Meantime in Canada the provincial version of the New Democratic Party has just had a spectacular victory in Alberta, a place noted for oil fracking.]


Elections: Singapore

In Singapore, the ruling party got five times as many votes as its nearest rival. The British media mostly reported this as a significant weakening: they only got 60% as against 40% for six main opposition parties. Since Singapore too has First Past The Post, they got most of the seats.

The most successful opposition party is the Workers’ Party of Singapore, centre-left and featuring a tasteful yellow hammer on a red background as its logo. Its main idea is that Singapore, with its ‘First World’ economy, ought to have a ‘First World Parliament’, i.e. one in which there are several alternative parties of government. That strikes me as rather a weak argument: Europe is able to live with multi-party systems because it had an existing political culture in which most people would accept the outcome of elections as final. Also no European country has had the economic success of Singapore. France, West Germany and Italy had their best growth ever when the Christian Democrats were a permanent governing party in West Germany and Italy and France was given strong coherent government by De Gaulle. In the same era Japan had great success under unbroken rule of their centre-right Liberal-Democrats. They lost their secure grip on power when their Economic Miracle faltered. But the growth of more complex multi-party politics has not fixed anything.


Elections: Britain’s PR Referendum

‘First Past the Post’ commonly often gives voters a choice between voting for the candidate they most like and voting against the candidate they least want to see elected. It suits the two big parties fine: it inhibits smaller parties and break-away factions. A change would have suited the Liberal-Democrats, but they made a mess of their one big chance.

Somehow the ‘pro’ campaign failed to get across the matter of choosing between voting for the candidate you most like and voting against the candidate you least want. PR allows this, but the point got lost. The Tories fought cleverly, making it seem like some baffling mystery. David Cameron put it thus:

“Don’t trade in a simple system that everybody understands. I think there’s a fairness argument. Under our system, you vote once. Every vote is counted. Under alternative vote, some votes are counted more than once and I think that’s wrong. And there’s this effectiveness. I mean it may be an odd thing for a Prime Minister to say, but don’t give up a system that allows you to chuck out an unpopular government. It was effective in 79. It was effective in 2010. It’s a treasure we have to, as they say in America, throw the rascals out. And that may be odd for a Prime Minister to say, but I would strongly recommend a No vote.” [J]

Viewing the leading Liberal-Democrats as Liberal-Democrats, they did a very poor deal for their party after the last election. They have demolished and perhaps destroyed the network of local Liberal-Democratic power built up over many years.

But is that the right way to see them? Viewing the top Liberal-Democrats as ambitious individual you might see it differently: they have make themselves part of the global network of Western power and are likely to stay part of it regardless.

Like New Labour, they have accepted that the financial world is the core of wealth in the real world. Not as a imperfect reflection of real material wealth that is created elsewhere. You don’t need to be a socialist to understand that the money as such is useless, relevant only as a means to ease the circulation of the goods and services that people actually need. But the authentic traditionalist viewpoint that could see that much has pretty much withered and died, was killed off by the Thatcher – Reagan appropriation of their traditional notions and the redirection of those feelings towards money-worship.

[The Liberal Democrats crashed disastrously in the May 2015 British election, losing two-thirds of their votes from 2010 and most of their seats. I’ll be keeping an eye on what happens over the years to its leading members.]


Elections: Scotland and Wales

Scotland will probably quit the UK in the next generation, whereas Wales will stay. The Scottish Nationalists have emerged as the governing party in Scotland. Sensibly, they are delaying an independence referendum, which polls suggest they would lose if it were held now. If Tory power looks solid in the UK as a whole, quitting will look much more attractive. And the Tories have every reason to help them, if they can do so without being blamed. Subtract Scotland and Labour would find it much harder ever to be re-elected.

Wales is a different case, unfortunately. The Welsh much more like a national minority within England than a coherent nation. The various parts of Wales are linked more closely to adjacent parts of England than to each other. Labour is being trusted to run the devolved government and the Welsh Nationalists have lost ground.

[The Independence Referendum was held in 2014 and was lost 55 to 45. But the SNP then made a spectacular advance in the May 2015 British election.]


Elections: West Bengal

One of the last electorally successful Communist Parties has just lost power after 34 years in power. This was the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who in the 1960s were the pro-Chinese wing of Indian Communism. Since then they seem to have lost their way:

“Those defeated included chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, a pragmatic young communist leader whose drive to acquire land for a huge industrialisation project had alienated Bengal’s traditionally militant peasantry and loosened the left’s strongholds in rural Bengal.

“‘How could a communist government ask police to fire on peasants like they did in Nandigram to set up a chemical industry. That has eroded their support amongst the rural poor and Mamata Banerji has gained by leading campaigns against the acquisitions,’ said Bengal’s leading political sociologist, Pradip Bose.

“But many others say the urban Bengali gentry (called Bhadraloks) were also fed up with the communists for not joining the government in Delhi, even though they had at least two opportunities in the last 15 years.

“‘When left of centre parties formed a ruling coalition in 1996 and wanted the legendary Bengali communist leader Jyoti Basu to take over as prime minister, his party decided to stay out. Jyoti Basu described it as a historical blunder and that is what most Bengalis feel. So why should they vote for the communists?’ said former communist lawmaker Saiffuddin Choudhury, whose breakaway party – PDS – is now in alliance with India’s ruling Congress Party.

“The communists built up a formidable political party and were popular with the rural poor and industrial workers during their three decades of continuous rule in West Bengal.

“They also enjoyed the support of the influential Bengali intelligentsia – until Nandigram happened four years ago. After that, the cultural elite distanced themselves from the communists in protest of the police shootings that killed 14 farmers.” [C]

They’ve been defeated by a populist movement led by a woman who is currently working with the Congress Party and has in the past worked with the right-wing Hindu Nationalist BJP. Whereas the Communists have always been a national party, she has been part of the general trend towards regionalist parties in India’s huge states, themselves bigger than many European countries and culturally very diverse. Regionalism has been a growing trend:

“Banerji’s victory, marks the coming of age of Bengali regionalism.

“‘Within thirteen years of breaking away from the Congress and forming her own Trinamul party, she has marginalised the Congress in Bengal as much as the communists now. That’s a major achievement,’ says political analyst Ranabir Sammadar.

“Gender expert Paula Banerji described Banerji’s stunning victory as a ‘demonstration of the political power of the Bengali women’.” (Ibid.)

She has defeated the left by sounding pretty left herself:

“Banerji also plans to promote inclusive development that benefits rural and urban poor by balancing allocations between agriculture and industry. She also wants to make governance more efficient – especially in terms of maintaining law and order in what has become a fairly violent state.

“‘I will continue to live like a commoner because I don’t like luxury. The support of my people is more important,’ said Banerji, whose austere lifestyle appears closer to the old icons of the Bengal communist movement than their successors who had become corrupted by three decades of power.

“‘I am against the Left here but not against Leftism. I share the values of the old Left,’ said Banerji.” (Ibid)

Can she make good? In their other strongholds, Kerala and Tripura, the Communists have lost one election and come back at the next. They hope now to do the same in West Bengal:

“‘Bengal’s communism was unique in that it grew among the people not through armed revolution. This was a party that grew by consensus by carrying with them all sections of middle class, rural and urban poor – even the gentry. But somewhere down the line, the arrogance of power led them to adopt narrow, sectarian politics and that is their undoing now,’ says analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri.

“Their only hope now is if Banerji, whose performance as India’s railway minister has not been overly impressive, fails in her position of governance.

“‘We are down, but not out. We will perform our role in opposition and win back the people’s trust,’ said Bengal communist party leader Biman Bose.

“Bose points to the state of Tripura, ‘where the communists messed up and people brought us back. That will happen in Bengal,’ Bose said. ‘They went out of power in 1988 and came back to power five years later…ruling it all the way until now.'” (Ibid.)

But it is also moot how secure India’s multi-party politics really are. Congress dominated during the critical early years and proved an effective party. Now politics are becoming much less coherent. While rejoicing at a Communist defeat, the Economist magazine was worried by more general trends:

“Unpicking lessons from such state elections is notoriously tricky. An optimistic analysis is that Indian voters are growing less loyal to parties or leaders who claim a following based on who they are (through their caste affiliation, say), rather than what they do. Voters look less tolerantly on rulers who perform badly. They have returned incumbents—such as Nitish Kumar’s government in Bihar, a poor northern state, last year—who are good managers and bring better schools, hospitals and roads, or those who bring more stability, as in Assam. By contrast, poorly performing rulers, eg, in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, have been sent packing.

“Such a trend, if true, would be an encouraging sign of a maturing electorate. However, it is belied by another one: many voters also seem more smitten by populist individuals than by parties setting out coherent policies. For example, few in West Bengal can spell out what the energetic Ms Banerjee stands for. In Tamil Nadu Jayaram Jayalalitha, a former actress, wowed voters with promises of free rice and other goodies. They made her chief minister for the third time.

“By contrast, the strongest opposition party at the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), picked up just 0.6% of all assembly seats returned in these polls. The BJP retorts that it was campaigning largely beyond its heartland (the Hindu ‘cowbelt’ in the north). But that, too, points to a discouraging fragmentation in Indian politics: politicians and parties wildly popular in one state often fail utterly to appeal beyond their home regions. The BJP had pointed to success in Tamil Nadu’s neighbour Karnataka in 2008 as evidence that it could branch out southward. Only it and the Communists have in recent times tried to rival Congress as parties that can appeal nationally. Both did dreadfully this time around.” [D]

[The BJP won a dramatic victory in 2014, with Congress losing heavily but still the second party nationally.  As of May 2015, Trinamul still rules West Bengal.]


Elections: Uganda

The USA inherited from Britain a system in which the results of elections were basically accepted, even when they might have been unfair. There was also always an undercurrent of violence: Henry ‘Light-Horse Harry’ Lee, a noted commander in the War of Independence and father of Robert E. Lee, was severely beaten and received injuries that caused his death a few years later while defending a newspaper editor attacked by a mob. A mob who were enraged by his criticism of the 1812 War with Britain, a war than gained the USA very little and could easily have been a disaster for them. Nearly half a century later, the Civil War in which Robert E. Lee gained such prominence was caused by a flat refusal by the Deep South to tolerate an elected President who was critical of slavery. It wasn’t anything Lincoln did as President: he had to wait months between winning the election and taking office, and the Confederacy was set up during that interval.

Somehow or other, the USA managed to take most of the violence out of politics. Violent rhetoric – such as claims of a ‘coup’ when peculiarities in a Florida ballot-paper gave a very close election to Bush Junior in the election of 2000 – has remained just rhetoric. But the influence on the rest of the world has been dreadful. They missed the chance to establish secure and peaceful politics after the Cold War: they preferred the short-term gains brought by the Colour Revolutions. They played with fire and now many parts of the world are burning, often quite against the wishes of the USA.

Uganda has had massive instability for many years, including the rule of Idi Amin. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, is a four-term autocrat who has done reasonably well. The vote was definitely imperfect, but another bout of chaos would do the damaged country no good.


Elections: Egypt

When the Arab Spring protests started, most Western commentators were thinking ‘Soviet Bloc 1989’. I was thinking ‘Iran 1979’. Back then, the Islamists won out in a revolutionary protest that began with a lot of Westernised elements who wanted more Westernisation. But ‘democracy’ means rule by the majority, and the majority was Islamist.

It looks very much as if the same will prove true in Egypt. It has already proved true in Iraq, but the Sunni / Shia and Arab / Kurd splits have so far prevented anything solid emerging. Egypt is much simpler, a large majority are Arab and Sunni. Mubarak was a weakened and discredited heir to the secular and socialist Nasserite tradition.

Western liberalism flourished in Europe after many decades of progressive authoritarian rulers modernising the society. In Iraq, Egypt etc. the process has been cut short, partly because of a Western belief that if progressive authoritarian rulers are removed, Western values will spontaneously emerge. What will actually emerge is likely to be something quite different:

“It’s hard to miss the new headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Cairo neighbourhood of Moqattam – six stories towering over the dusty street with the distinctive Qur’an and crossed swords symbol emblazoned on the stucco facade. The decor is a medley of parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, swagged velvet curtains and gilded furniture.

“In the lobby a team from the brotherhood’s fledgling TV station is interviewing a bigwig as a sharp-suited, clean-shaven aide hovers fussily.

“‘After 100 days we are sure the revolution is on the right track,’ beams Issam el-Erian, the articulate and experienced spokesman for the organisation known in Arabic simply as the Ikhwan. ‘In a few months we will have a new parliament and then a new constitution for the new Egypt.’…

“Erian and two other senior figures have resigned from the leadership to found the Freedom and Justice party (FJP) to compete in September’s elections – Egypt’s first free vote since the 1952 revolution. The new party and the 83-year-old Muslim Brotherhood have ‘the same mission and goals, but different roles’, he explains.

“Predictions range from the FJP becoming the dominant force in the new parliament to capturing around 20% of the seats because, the argument goes, in a multi-party democracy its old anti-regime appeal will be weakened.

“The brotherhood did not organise the Tahrir Square protests, but backed them when the regime was teetering. It is careful now to avoid appearing too ambitious or threatening. It says the FJP will field candidates for up to 50% of parliament and, crucially, none for next year’s presidential race (though an independent candidate, Abdel-Moneim Abul Fotouh, does come from a reformist brotherhood background). ‘It is not the time for decisions,’ Erian added. ‘This is the time to be united and move Egypt from dictatorship to democracy.’

“But Muntasser al-Zayyat, a prominent Islamist lawyer, believes the Ikhwan could end up controlling as much as 60% of parliament – because their secular and liberal rivals are divided and far less experienced than ex-members of Mubarak’s now disbanded National Democratic party, who are likely to stand as independents in their old constituencies.” [F]

The Christian minority in Iraq suffered very badly after the fall of Saddam Hussein: a lot of them have left lands where there were strong Christian communities while most of Europe was still pagan. Egypt may end up as an even worse case: the Copts speak a language descended from that of the Pharaohs and they were the strongest single force defining early Christianity, but now the Arab and Muslim majority see them as alien:

“Freedom is not for free, said a sign raised in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the revolution that overthrew Egypt’s government. Since then, the price of greater freedom seems to have fallen disproportionately on the large Coptic Christian minority. Sectarian clashes, a dismal feature of Egyptian life for more than a decade, have risen alarmingly.

“The latest one, in the Cairo slum of Imbaba on May 7th, left 12 people dead, more than 200 injured and several churches smashed, with one burned to cinders along with Christian-owned shops and homes. The trouble began when a small group of Salafists—Muslims inspired by Saudi-style puritanism, supposedly harking back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad—marched on a church in response to rumours that a female convert to Islam had been kidnapped and was being held there. Local Christians surrounded the building to protect it. With police failing to act and crowds gathering, shots were fired. The mêlée lasted into the early morning.

“For months Salafist preachers had roused passions with similar tales of forced reconversions of women, which the ageing and equally conservative church leadership only feebly denied. The women in most of these cases appear to have resorted to converting to Islam to escape unhappy marriages, since the Coptic church bans divorce. It says they either never converted or sought sanctuary in the church to return to Christianity. The Salafists cite rules of Islam that forbid leaving the faith, and accuse the church of kidnapping and brainwashing their Muslim ‘sisters’.” [G]

The state ought to uphold the right of women to get a divorce, but does not. So it becomes a battle between religious communities. Stories about kidnapped women could be easily discredited if they were total inventions, so I suppose there is some substance to it. And you’d expect this ancient survival to be tenacious on its grip on its own identity in what was originally wholly its own land:

“In the centuries when Alexandria was a centre of Christian learning and Egypt the hinterland of the Christian faith, the Church in effect became the country’s ruling institution. In the centuries after Islam’s conquest, as most Egyptians converted to Islam, the Church still played a dominant role in Christians’ lives, as a theological guide and a haven from a society that had become conspicuously and unremittingly Islamic.

“Egyptian Muslims have almost the opposite experience. Islam came to Egypt as the religion of its new rulers: Egypt rapidly became the most important province of the burgeoning Islamic empire and Cairo became the capital of the Fatimid caliphate and the base of three powerful Islamic states. Islam faced no theological confrontations in Egypt (though the Fatimids were Shia, Egypt was always Sunni). In effect, Egyptian Muslims, at least since the ninth century, have been the mainstream in an Islamic country. So Christians’ self-perception – and their view of Egyptian society – has always been very different from that of Muslims.

“The second factor behind the recent violence is that the notion of Egyptianism as a collective identity has been severely weakened over the past six decades. The modern state was created in the early 19th century, when exposure to Europe triggered a social movement aimed at modernising education; the emergence of a constitutional monarchy; exponential increases in immigration; and a swelling of the middle class. The most popular political party in the early 20th century, al-Wafd, adopted a strictly secular political narrative. Egyptian resistance to British occupation was a national, not a religious, endeavour. Christians played prominent roles in government, art and the economy, and the era witnessed a refreshing and effervescent cultural ambience.

“The whole experiment came to an abrupt end. Arab nationalism, espoused by Egypt’s legendary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, steered the country away from Egyptianism and immersed it in Arab socio-politics. The Nasserite variant of Arab nationalism was meticulously secular. He was sensitive to the sensibilities of the Christians. But by placing Egypt in the heart of Arab politics and culture – abandoning the individualistic identity and Mediterranean cultural outlook of its liberal age – he turned society towards Islam’s hinterland (the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant). Inevitably Islamism gained ground in the country’s socio-political life.

“The same period saw a notable withdrawal of Christians. Nasser’s socialist policies triggered waves of emigration to North America and Europe, led by wealthy Egyptians, including many once-prominent Christians. From the 1970s, political and militant Islamism began to spread, resulting in a conservative social code and, at times, violence against Christians. Since the Coptic Pope Shenouda III was consecrated in 1971, the Egyptian Church has once more become an active political player with special privileges and wide influence. Slowly but steadily, religious identities gained ground while Egyptianism fell back.

“The current tension reflects this history. Egypt’s 2011 revolution succeeded because it affixed itself to an Egyptianism for which its huge middle class is nostalgic. It would be a huge waste of potential and ambition if society fails to cling to that.” [H]

Nostalgia is no basis for effective politics. When Mubarak was under threat, I suggested that the protestors should let him go quietly and with dignity, preserving some continuity. It now seems that he and his sons will be put on trial. That effectively will criminalise the whole secular tradition.

Most Western commentators are still expecting a pro-Western outcome, ignoring the other big issue, general Egyptian distaste for the peace with Israel. But even without that, there is a basic incompatability. At least one former neocon has seen it:

“Fukuyama made a powerful case against his former neocon allies in his 2006 book America at the Crossroads. He still wants to ‘export American ideals’, but tells me ‘it ought to be done through soft-power instruments’. ‘In general,’ he says, ‘Americans are not very good at nation-building and not very good colonialists. Look at the impact of the United States on Latin America or the one colony we had, the Philippines. Those countries are still not doing very well. We stumbled into Afghanistan and Iraq, which are basically tribal societies, and most Americans have no idea of how a tribal society operates.’

“The mistakes of the Bush years were, he believes, a direct consequence of Reagan’s success in seeing off the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a high-stakes gamble that could have backfired and succeeded only because of the liberalising role played by Mikhail Gorbachev. ‘This minor political miracle happens – they take this very principled stand against a dictatorship, they’re not willing to compromise, and then the dictatorship collapses. That was their [the Republicans’] last experience of government, then you had the Clinton years, and what they were hoping for was a repeat of that in Iraq. You take a principled stand against a dictator, you depose him, and then you have a similar eastern Europe-style upwelling of support. But they should have realised that the eastern European situation was an unusual one. The roots were there. They were basically western countries that had been knocked off course by the Soviet Union, and it was natural that they should embrace western values and democracy, whereas Iraq, because of the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the whole history of colonialism, was never going to embrace the west.'” [E]

In a few years time, there might be a block of Iran, Iraq, Syria, radical Palestinians and Egypt ready to take on Israel again. That’s assuming that Israel goes on resisting efforts to force them to a peace that Arabs might find acceptable, and that seems almost certain.

It could also be the world’s first nuclear war. But when you are dealing with people for whom an afterlife with Paradise and Hell is a solid certainty, nuclear holocausts are not such dreadful threat.

[This was of course prevented by a military coup. Preceded by demonstrations by the pro-Western elements who got less than 9% of the popular vote, but treated this as some sort of accident.  They failed to seek a serious compromise with the Islamists, and are now back where they started.]


Raiders of the Lost Bin Laden [His assassination]

Would photos of Bin Laden’s final moments have shown a very sick and feeble old man? Would photos of the USA’s triumph have looked not at all heroic? That’s one possibility.

In the immediate aftermath I thought about the other possibilities, including that this was not Bin Lanen. I soon decided not. Even if the USA had had reports of his death, they could never be sure that these were true. So by claiming to have killed him, they would risk him appearing again on video, maybe holding one of the papers reporting his death. And though Bin Laden alive would be a general humiliation for the USA, it would rebound particularly against Obama. He’d be putting his reputation and political future in the hands of a large number of people who’d have to be involved in any ‘fix’. It would make no sense to do this at a time when he has an excellent chance of being re-elected anyway.

Soon afterwards it was confirmed by the Islamists that this was indeed Bin Laden, now viewed as a martyr and perhaps more useful as such. It feeds into the general ill-will between the USA and Pakistan:

“In a ten-minute television address, Obama left no doubt that US personnel alone were involved in the action that brought bin Laden to justice. ‘Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan,’ Obama said, adding, ‘A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.’

“While Obama said ‘It’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,’ he made no mention of any Pakistani military role in the operation. US officials in background briefing made it clear that no country, much less Pakistan, was informed of the operation.

“In fact, there was not even a word of thanks for Pakistan. Instead, Obama said: ‘Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al-Qaida and its affiliates.’

“The finger of suspicion is now pointing squarely at the Pakistani military and intelligence for sheltering and protecting Osama bin Laden before US forces hunted him down and put a bullet in his head in the wee hours of Sunday. The coordinates of the action and sequence of events indicate that the al-Qaida fugitive may have been killed in an ISI safehouse.

“US analysts uniformly suggested that the Pakistani security establishment’s claim of a role in the operation is clearly aimed at ducking charges of its military’s possible role in hiding bin Laden. ‘This is hugely embarrassing for Pakistan,’ was a common refrain on US TV channels throughout the night…

“US officials have said for years that they believed bin Laden escaped to Pakistan after the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan. But Pakistani officials, including its former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, insisted that he was in Afghanistan, even as Afghan officials would angrily refute it and say he is in Pakistan. In the end, the Americans and Afghans were right on the money.” [M]

Obviously the neighbours would have noticed Bin Laden’s hideout as something quite out of the ordinary, and reported it to the police. Someone must have then decided to do nothing. Perhaps just wanting to avoid trouble: the current upsurge of Pakistan Taliban attacks were fairly predictable.

It also put Abbottabad on the map. Surprisingly, it is named after General Sir James Abbott, a British army officer in colonial India. This man also wrote a poem about his little city: a poem that’s so bad it’s almost good. In part it says:

“I remember the day when I first came here

“And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air

“The trees and ground covered with snow

“Gave us indeed a brilliant show

“To me the place seemed like a dream

“And far ran a lonesome stream

“The wind hissed as if welcoming us

“The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss”

Western visitors nowadays are very likely to be welcomed with a hiss, and maybe also bullets. And I’d say that Bid Laden has achieved his main aim, to generate massive antagonism between the West and Islam. That won’t end soon, and probably not until the Western hegemony fails and falls.


No More Superpowers? [China’s global role]

The USA and USSR were both able to reach far beyond their home territories. People in foreign countries were quite happy to line up with one or the other during the Cold War. This remained the case when the USSR collapsed: many countries and Europe especially were keen to have a Globalist Gang with the USA as recognised Boss.

This could never be the case with China. In a small way it applied under Mao after the Sino-Soviet split. But Mao’s attempts to revitalise Leninism failed, probably because Leninism had largely exhausted its historic liberating role and other possibilities had now opened up. China now is a rising nation-state, the world’s largest, one fifth of the global population. But this is likely to sink as other developed countries grow while China is running short of cultivable land and is over-populated. And China is too distant from most other cultures to form a Globalist Gang of its own, even if it wished to. Only Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and the two Koreas have much in common, along with Taiwan if you count Taiwan as a separate country. All of those have mixed feelings about Chinese power. All of them together are overshadowed by China in terms of population. Vietnam and Singapore have made a sensible choice in being part of ASEAN, a club which together is comparable to China or India, though smaller.

China meanwhile is keen to learn the lessons from the USSR’s implosion. There was an interesting article recently in their on-line newspaper Global Times:

“The lessons from the failure of Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) are valuable for China, which is experiencing reform today.

“Firstly, the party should not give up its leadership of the country during the reforms. The CPSU, though it had been plagued by corruption to a severe degree, could have been resurrected. But in the clamor of ‘limitless openness,’ the CPSU had lost its control of the intelligentsia, theory circles and the media.

“Secondly, reforming should not abandon the principle of public ownership as economic foundation. The socialist public ownership has determined the nature of socialism and guaranteed the people can manage themselves. It is also the most substantial part of the socialist system. As long as the position of public ownership is sustained, the foundation of socialist countries stays, no matter how the reforms proceed….

“Thirdly, reforming doesn’t simply mean denying previous leaders. Nikita Khrushchev repudiated Joseph Stalin in the ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956. And from then on the anti-Stalin movement lasted several decades in the Soviet Union, and led to the disastrous consequences of denying the history of the Soviet Union, and finally opposing the systems and goals of communism…

“Fourthly, the reform should not rely on external powers. The US never changed its goal of trying to ‘peacefully transform’ the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. It took steps to put ideological pressure on socialist countries, while the leaders of the Soviet Union who supported reform took no precautions at all.

“Gorbachev cared about evaluation and praise from the US, and his efforts to promote openness and the so-called ‘cultural autonomy’ were all in the hope of obtaining US support.” [N]

Of course Gorbachev was looked after by the USA after his ignominious fall.  Mubarak has been ratted on and will serve as a permanent reminder of the risks of relying on the USA.


Price of a UK Soul [small business people]

Thatcher attracted the support of small business people, but she and her heirs have not served them well. Small business people notice that the state stops them doing things, but not that it is their only possible protection against big business. Particularly the chain stores that are destroying smaller businesses because they buy in enormous quantities and can successfully demand lower prices from suppliers.

Books are one case. The existence of Amazon as an on-line service has been one element, but also the discounting of books had a big effect once it was legalised. The most popular and profitable books can be used as loss-leaders by the big chains.

Waterstone’s has been the big gainer, absorbing or destroying alternatives. Then Waterstone’s itself was swallowed by a bigger group, HMV, originally a music business. Now HMV is in trouble and Waterstone’s has been disgorged again, sold for 53 million to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut. [K]

So what’s left of Britishness?


Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery In Private [Ryan Giggs]

MPs are elected by convincing the voters that they are fit representatives. I personally would have no objection to a candidate who was gay, or a persistent womanizer, or a woman with lots of lovers. But if others feel differently, they have a right to know. That’s democracy, a system whereby the mob can usually exercise its beliefs, ideals and prejudices without actually causing a riot or a civil war.

I can not see how this extends to either sports people or business people, so long as they do nothing criminal. An adulterous footballer should not be a public issue: only his performance on the football pitch should count. (Or not count: I’d never previously heard of Ryan Giggs and do not care.) But a talent for football should not mean that your private life is open for public view. I suspect that most of those arguing for ‘press freedom’ would take a different view if the leak was about some private matter of their own or relating to one of their friends or relations.

Polly Toynbee has taken a sensible stand on this:

“Wondering if he was standing like Canute against the tide, the judge in the footballer injunction case rightly stood his ground yesterday. There is, he said: ‘No solid reason why the claimant’s identity should be generally revealed in the national media … The answer is as yet in the negative. They would be engulfed in a cruel and destructive media frenzy.

“Sadly, that may become unavoidable in the society in which we now live but, for the moment, in so far as I am being asked to sanction it, I decline to do so … It has not been suggested that there is any legitimate public interest in publishing the story.’…

“The strict injunction against anything being said about defendants in the Stephen Lawrence case is to stop the case collapsing: the media pushes the outside edge of contempt in many cases. Many injunctions about private lives are blackmail cases: to reveal the names of victims taking out injunctions would do all the damage the blackmailer intended – a blackmailer’s charter. If privacy is dead, what’s wrong with News of the World phone hacking anyway?

“The naturally amoral press spits blood at Twitter revealing secrets they cannot. But as the judicial committee said, ways ‘would be found to curtail the misuse of modern technology’. Those who first leaked and re-tweeted names that broke injunctions could indeed be prosecuted – preferably not sent as press freedom ‘martyrs’ to jail, but fined mightily.

“Child porn on the net is censored, and its users prosecuted. The Human Rights Act, with its occasionally contradictory right to free speech and right to privacy, was drafted with strong press involvement, ensuring the privacy clause was precisely in line with the press code that is written by editors and ratified by the Press Complaints Commission. If the PCC were not a spineless industry body that turned a blind eye to practices like phone-hacking, privacy would be protected, since its own code says: ‘Everyone has a right to his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence including digital communications.’

“Never mind that the spirit and often the letter of the code is broken almost every day of the week, the fact remains that the HRA enshrines the British press’s own code on privacy. Now they write editorials justifying breaking that code on the grounds that almost anyone, one way or another, deserves to have their private life exposed.

“Footballers or the Formula One boss ‘should be role models’, as should any minor star, or often bystanders dragged into the periphery of some news story. And of course ordinary people should have equal access to privacy laws with legal aid. But these papers eagerly quote the granting of an injunction to Trafigura to stop the Guardian revealing its toxic waste dumping – oddly, at the time those papers barely covered that injunction: no sex, no celeb.” [L]

She might have added, continuous leaks about celebrities does indeed make them role models, but for exactly the things that the press is supposed to be campaigning against. I don’t take the campaigning seriously: reports of sex scandal meet the same needs as pornography, but have the demerit of involving real people who have no wish to be part of it.

As for the argument that the internet will leak it: how many people will actually see such a story while it is only on the internet? Also there are possible counters. Some of the celebrities might get together and organise a ‘White Noise’ defence. Hire a few eager teenagers to post wholly fictitious stories that randomly paired celebrities and destroyed the value of any authentic leak.

That would only work for as long as the big media refrained from picking up and authenticating the real stories. And creating a general social degradation, which Polly Toynbee rightly complains about:

“Envy, anger, hatred, desire to destroy are a poison poured into the ears of a public, while urging celebrity fixation. Put new celeb up, knock them down, often within days: the public is invited to join a steel-toed kicking, as if grouped around the playground bully. That’s the price of fame, say the hideous mob of paparazzi hounding celebs to madness.

“Maybe. But the greater social price is that we are made complicit. All of us are spectators in this brutishness, willy-nilly. Once the gossip is out there, we all get to know it, contaminated by its prurience and nastiness. The phoney moralising and loathing of rich stars comes from newsrooms where editors like Paul Dacre are paid millions, and whose politics decry high taxes or curbs on top earnings.

“Spreading jealousy taps into the social dysfunction of extreme pay inequality. Pressing everyone’s nose up against impossible lifestyles, editors like to stir envy, while diverting political impulse to personal revenge.” [M]

But what will be the long result? The right-wing media fancy themselves as conservative, but are mostly just nihilistic. A successful conservative or reactionary movement has to create a way of life that is enjoyable and satisfactory to most of those living within it. What’s been propagated since the 1980s is angry and dissatisfied. It flourishes by persuading people that alternatives are worse. That can’t last for ever.


One Small Hop for a Yank [The USA’s First Space Venture]

Fifty years ago, Alan Shepherd managed to boldly hop where Gagarin had been before. On 5 May 1961, a Mercury-Redstone rocket shot Alan Shepard to an altitude of 187km on a sub-orbital flight lasting under 16 minutes. [P] Possibly they could have got into space first, but there had been some previous embarrassment with rockets blowing up. They played safe and caught up gradually.

The USSR had developed giant rockets first, needing them to hit the USA with nuclear weapons whereas the USA had bases close enough for bombers to fly. The giant rockets were also suitable for space, but when it came to developing even bigger rockets to get to the moon, the USA succeeded with the Saturn rockets and the USSR failed.

After which, with some mythological aptness, Saturn ate its own children. Grand plans for going on to put men on Mars were perfectly possible, could have happened in the 1970s or early 1980s. But the cost would have been high and selfishness was on the rise, along with a cultural move away from science. Besides, robotic probes could do most of the important jobs, as with the brilliant Voyager missions to the outer planets.

The USA also went down a technological blind ally with the Space Shuttles, which tried to do too many jobs at once and did none of them well. We may in time see a genuine Space Plane, a vehicle that can use oxygen from the air to burn its fuel and thus be much more efficient. But for the time being, rockets are the name of the game.


No Place Like Home (or not many) [Exoplanets]

“Sophisticated ideas about the formation and evolution of planetary systems go back to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in 1755 noted that the solar system’s planets all orbit in the same plane around the sun’s equator. This led him to the ‘nebular hypothesis’: that the sun formed as a great cloud of gas and dust collapsed inward, and worlds coalesced in a spinning disc of material around its midriff. Looking to the heavens, Kant saw fuzzy spiral wisps that he interpreted as such nascent solar systems.

“We now know these are galaxies, not solar systems, but the nebular hypothesis has remained at the heart of our ideas about planetary formation. Four decades after Kant first proposed it, the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace reformulated the theory in the precise, calculable terms of Newtonian gravity. Recently, computers capable of crunching through many millennia of world-making in a single afternoon have allowed us to model the process and produce a menagerie of planets like those in our neighbourhood.

“And so we came to believe that our solar system’s story was universal. ‘Politically, socially, religiously – it’s human nature to adopt the environments within which we live as universal norms,’ says Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, the doyen of planet hunters who has more confirmed alien worlds to his name than anyone else…

“In 1995, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland discovered a gas-giant planet with a mass similar to Jupiter’s in a scorching four-day orbit around the sun-like star 51 Pegasi (Nature, vol 378, p 355). Within a year, Marcy and his colleague Paul Butler, both then at San Francisco State University in California, had confirmed that discovery, and also found two more ‘hot Jupiters’. Later that year, they confirmed Latham’s discovery as a planet.

“It was clear we had ignored a fundamental rule of science. ‘We had been judging the cosmic diversity of planetary systems based on a sample size of one,’ says Marcy.

“If these were the first hints that our solar system was not normal, they were not the last. Other planets were soon caught breaking all sorts of rules: orbiting in the opposite direction to their star’s spin, coming packed in close orbits like sardines in a can, or revolving on wildly tilted orbits far away from their star’s equator (see diagram).

“There are many good reasons to believe that planets do form in circular orbits in more or less the same plane, as Kant had suggested. But it appears they do not always stay that way. Soon enough, theorists began to supply the necessary creation stories. Young worlds might drag against dust and gas yet to be hoovered up into a planet, losing momentum and spiralling inwards towards their star to be consumed or, perhaps, to become hot Jupiters. Others might tussle gravitationally with another member of their brood, with the loser being flung out into the void and the winner left in a disturbed, elliptical orbit….

“All this makes the status of our solar system increasingly clear. ‘Our system is a rarity, there’s no longer a question about that,’ says Marcy. ‘The only question that remains is, just how rare is it?’

“It is an opportune moment to ask: NASA’s Kepler space telescope, launched in May 2009, promises a flood of new planets of all sizes. Early indications are that solar systems like ours are as elusive as ever. Take the system Kepler-11, revealed with great fanfare in February this year (Nature, vol 470, p 53). Its six transiting planets are between two and four times the size of Earth, and five of them would be within the orbit of Mercury. Based on their size and estimated density, all six worlds appear to be composed mainly of ice and gas, as if they formed far from their star.

“How they migrated inward so gracefully is a mystery. Any ancient convulsions, we had supposed, would leave migrating worlds’ orbits out of kilter. But Kepler-11’s architecture is proportionally flatter than a vinyl record – far flatter than the planetary orbits in our own solar system, which lie around the equator of our sun only to within about 5 degrees either way. A third of the candidate planets found by Kepler so far seem to reside in similarly pancake-like configurations, implying a history even more sedate than ours.” [Q]

If future discoveries confirm that our solar system is unusual, that might explain why we have never had alien visitors. It might be that only such rare solar systems have a chance of producing complex life and eventually a technological species. And perhaps most of those don’t realise that chance. The Milky Way galaxy has 100-400 billion stars. Perhaps only a few million of those end up with rare solar systems like ours, and might be set aside to see what develops.

Science Fiction has tended to take models of invasion or colonisation from Earth’s past. Since the middle of the 20th century we have broadly rejected the idea of conquest or of seizing land that belongs to others. Continuing disputes relate to overlapping claims, territories which a majority population thinks of as part of ‘home’ even though there is a minority population that thinks otherwise. Such disputes are not likely to be settled soon, but also they are not relevant to possibly intrusion by aliens. Quite likely we are being watched but left alone.


Wild Weather

Earth humans are not currently making a good job of managing their own planet. Warning of climate change have been ignored or played down, but 2011 has so far proved to be another usual year. Or else part of a new norm which goes against previous experience:

“Last month was the UK’s warmest April on record, the Met Office has said.

“The records, which go back more than 100 years, show much of the UK experienced temperatures 3 to 5C warmer than is normal for April.

“It was also the 11th driest month, with on average half the usual rainfall.

“But there was also great variation in the amount of rain. Parts of north-west Scotland saw about 110% of normal April rainfall, while parts of south-east England saw less than 10% of normal.

“The UK average temperature was 10.7C, exceeding the previous warmest April on record of 10.2C in 2007.

“Following a drier-than-average winter, the dry April followed a dry March which saw less than half of the normal rainfall falling across the UK.

“A BBC Weather Centre spokesman said: ‘The UK-wide records began in 1910, but the central England temperature series goes back to 1659, making it the warmest April here for over 350 years.'” [R]

“The outbreak of tornadoes that ravaged the southern US last week was the largest in US recorded history, the National Weather Service has said.

“The three-day period from 25-28 April saw 362 tornadoes strike, including some 312 in a single 24-hour period.

“The previous record was 148 in two days in April 1974.

“The tornadoes and the storm system that spawned them killed at least 350 people in Alabama and six other states. It was the deadliest outbreak since 1936.” [S]

This month there have so far been less tornadoes, but one particularly deadly strike at the town of Joplin. It has also been a particularly bad year for Mississippi flooding, among other things:

“Under orders laid out in acts of Congress from 1928, once water reaches a certain height or pressure, the corps commander is committed to certain responses – blowing up levees in Missouri, or opening up giant floodways in Louisiana – to reduce strain on levees around strategic areas.

“But some flood experts blame the corps for the very crisis it is facing now. They say it has lulled the public into a false sense of security about its ability to manage the Mississippi. Over the years, individuals and communities moved increasingly into flood-prone areas around the Mississippi because land is cheap, and because they were persuaded the risk of floods is low.

“It is becoming evident that the Army Corps of Engineers and other forecasters have underestimated the frequency of severe flooding along the Mississippi.

“‘We had a 500-year flood in 1993, a 70-year flood in 2001, and a 200-year flood in 2008. What blows my mind is that I just published this paper in 2008 and every year since then we have had another 10-year flood,’ said Robert Criss, a hydrologist at Washington University in St Louis. ‘The observed frequency of flooding is completely incompatible with the Army Corps estimates.’

“The forecasts at the time were based on a relatively short historic record.

“Snow and rainfall patterns change over time, altering the frequency and magnitude of floods. Climate change is also increasing the intensity of storms. Last April saw six times as much rain in the Ohio valley, which drains into the Mississippi, as in a normal year.”[S]

“April was a historic month for wild weather in the United States, and it wasn’t just the killer tornado outbreak that set records, according to scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“April included an odd mix of downpours, droughts and wildfires. Six states — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia — set records for the wettest April since 1895. Kentucky, for example, got nearly a foot of rain, which was more than three times its normal for the month, NOAA reported.

“Yet the U.S. also had the most acres burned by wildfire for April since 2000. Nearly 95 percent of Texas has a drought categorized as severe or worse, exacerbated by the fifth driest April on record for the Lone Star state.

“Add to a record 305 tornadoes from April 25-28, which killed at least 309 people and the most tornadoes ever for all of April: 875. The death toll and total tornado figures are still being finalized.

“Much of the southern and eastern United States were near record hot for April, while northwestern states were cooler than normal. Overall, the month was warmer than normal for the nation, but not record-setting.

“The odd mix of massive April showers and bone-dry drought can be blamed on the cooling of the central Pacific Ocean, which causes storm tracks to lock in along certain paths” [T]

And we’re not yet even half-way through the year.

[2011 ended up as the second warmest year in the UK since 1910.  2014 has now topped that as the warmest year on record.]


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[Q] From issue 2812 of New Scientist magazine, page 46-49.

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