Friday, 27 February 2015

JIhadi John and breaking the human bond

It seems that Westerners have flocked to Syria to fight with ISIS – maybe as many as 3500. But the saddest spectacle of all, certainly for anyone in Britain, was the three girls, a sixteen-year old and two of fifteen, who travelled out there last week. Bright, well-adjusted, educated girls, who have left loving and now distraught families behind them.

Voluntarily travelling towards a miserable –
and probably short – 
life with ISIS
And now the real identify of Jihadi John has been revealed. He’s Mohammed Emwazi from West London, educated, with a promising future, now turned into someone who likes to behead innocents with a knife. In fact, his victims aren’t merely innocent: in many cases, they fell into ISIS hands because they had travelled to Syria to bring aid and comfort to the victims of the conflict there. They put their comfort and their ease at risk; he made sure they paid with their lives.

The organisation Cage speaks out for radicalised Islamic extremists from Britain. It spoke out for Emwazi, claiming it was his bad treatment at the hands of the authorities that made him what he has become.

Now I can understand that many have been mishandled by the security services, and might well be deeply bitter as a result. But to claim that this somehow justifies taking someone who has done him no harm, cutting his throating and then keeping on cutting till his head comes off, strikes me as pushing the argument just a tad too far. Like the three girls, something in him, and something in ISIS must have seemed attractive enough to make the trip and accept the harsh conditions that awaited them out there.

What is it they find attractive?

It certainly isn’t Islam. There are 44 million Muslims in Europe. 3000 have chosen to fight for ISIS. Only a tiny proportion sees anything in their faith to justify that cause.

Nor is it personal hopes of a better life. Women under ISIS, even the supporters, suffer a life of crushing oppression. Even the (male) fighters are locked into the fate they chose: there’s no way back from Syria for them. Indeed, the most likely outcome they face is death though some may in time be captured and face life imprisonment – genuine life imprisonment, without parole – as the reward for their sacrifices.

So what’s the draw?

It seems to me that it’s only the sense that cruelty represents some kind of strength. The man, or the movement, that is prepared to behead an adversary has shown a commitment to a cause and a determination to pursue it which suggests courage and strength of resolution.

In people who stop far short of these acts of brutality, we admire those qualities: Churchill standing firm in the face of Hitler, though he knew it would require huge sacrifice of life, even among his own people let alone among the enemy; George Washington freezing in Valley Forge with his men dying around him, in order to resist British rule; Chinese nationalists and communists killing and dying in a savage war against Japanese occupation.

It doesn’t take much to extend such admiration further, and find merit in brutality, by thinking only of the resolution it expresses.

Sadly, that isn’t a simple extension. It isn’t just more of the same. Take your admiration of strength that far and you step over a line into savagery. And forfeit the right to be indulged and accepted back.

For the girls, it may not be too late. For Emwazi, there is no hope of return. The families of his victims have called for him to be arrested alive and face trial then imprisonment. It’s not going to happen. He doubtless seeks a martyr’s death; I suspect he’ll find a sordid one – the reality of death in war being that it is far more likely to be sordid than heroic.

And my view of that? The same, whatever Cage may believe, as Hannah Arendt’s, about another man who broke the human bond and ultimately died for it. She believed his judges should have told SS bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann:

…just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations… we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Strange how the fascination with dynasties continues...

It’s amazing how difficult it is for us to rid ourselves of belief in the power of “blood” as the main determinant of anyone’s qualities. We all know it isn’t true, but we still somehow believe that mere birth will make someone better qualified than anyone else to lead, or to rule, or just to lord if over everyone around.

I mean, look at Prince Charles. You want proof that high birth doesn’t guarantee high qualities? Look no further.

The prejudice clings on even in a country where deliberate steps were taken to put an end to this preposterous notion. “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States” claims the Constitution of that fine nation. And yet the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of the second, John Adams. Just as Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd, was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth. Even the two Roosevelts, though not closely related, were distant cousins.

The dynasty that never fulfilled its promise was the Kennedys. Bobby and Ted both held high office, under or in the wake of their brother JFK, but both were cheated of going further by death: in Bobby’s case his own, in Ted’s that of Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned when he drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick.

These instances of keeping things in the family weren’t always bad. John Quincy Adams, for instance, strikes me as rather a fine fellow. He was defeated at the end of his second term by a cruel, bigoted and authoritarian successor, Andrew Jackson, the man who drove the Cherokees and other native Americans away down the “trail of tears” and had far less than enlightened views of the role of African Americans (he felt slavery was right for them). 

Undeterred, Adams got himself elected to Congress where he served 17 years, up to his death. And he appeared as a lawyer for the (successful) defence of the rebel slaves of the Spanish ship Amistad when their case went to the Supreme Court.

William Henry Harrison.
Distinguished only by the shortest presidency
And having a grandson who also achieved the office
Many of these blood relatives, however, were a pretty sorry bunch. William Henry Harrison’s presidency was distinguished only by being the shortest ever (32 days until his death from pneumonia); his grandson Benjamin’s presidency is undistinguished by anything at all.

But when it comes to sorry dynasties, we have to come forward to the present day for the sorriest. With Jeb Bush declaring his interest in the presidency, we have in prospect for the first time ever a candidate who is not merely the son of a President but the brother of another. And yet the father was unprepossessing in office, the brother lamentable.

Now this kind of thing can happen in a monarchy, as in Britain. George III lost his mind by the end of his reign; he was succeeded by his vainglorious, self-indulgent son George IV; and then by a younger son, William IV, who though slightly brighter, was never going to set the Thames alight.

Surprisingly like the Bush bunch.

Now, that this can happen in a monarchy is sad but understandable. But in a strongly established republic? With two or three hundred million people to choose from? It seems amazing.

What’s particularly striking is that every presidential election between 1980 and 2004 – seven of them – had at least one Bush or Clinton on one of the tickets, running either for President or for Vice President. And 1992 pitted one of each against each other: Bush the father against Clinton the (erring) husband.

Well, if Jeb Bush gets his way, and Hillary Clinton gets hers, 2016 could see a re-run of that battle of the dynasties. Proof if any were needed that, whatever the Constitution says about actual titles, notions of aristocracy run as deep in the US as they do anywhere else.

Hillary Clinton: a more inspiring representative of dynastic politics
Besides, she's not really a member of the dynasty
To be fair, one of the possible outcomes would again prove that this kind of dynastic politics doesn’t always have to be bad news. A Hlllary presidency could be a great result, and not just because she would be first woman president, after the first African American, but because Hillary is even brighter than the other half of the Clinton duo – and in any case, she wasn’t a Clinton by birth, only by marriage.

Which naturally brings to mind the old story about the couple. Skip it if you know it, but in case you don’t, it bears repeating here.

The Clintons were filling up with petrol – gas, I should say – at some miserable filling station in the wilds of Arkansas. Bill was struck by the strange looks passing between his wife and the station attendant.

Once they were back on the road, he asks what that was all about.

“Oh, we dated for a while back then when we were in High School,” she explains.

Bill laughs.

“Well, just think what a different life you’d have had if you’d married him! You wouldn’t have got to the White House.”

“Oh,” replies Hillary, “if I’d married him, he’d have been its occupant.”

Monday, 23 February 2015

The lesson of ISIS: be careful what you wish for

Back in 2003, the West went to war in Iraq because it decided the world would be a better place without Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. It did that against the advice of many, none better placed than the weapons inspector on the ground, Hans Blix, who doubted there were any weapons of mass destruction there. The US in its wisdom, or at least in what passes as wisdom in George Dubya Bush, decided Blix and co were wrong and, with the fervent support of Britain under Tony Blair, waded in.

That was what we wished for.

Dubya, source of wisdom in the West at the time of the 2003 invasion
Showing his sureness of human touch

Once in Iraq, the West discovered that Blix had been right, and there were no weapons of mass destruction there. But it stuck firmly to its guns: it may not have been necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s weapons, but it was nonetheless a marvellous step to have rid it of him.

So that was what we wished for.

Because Saddam Hussein’s power base had been Sunni Arabs in a predominantly Shia nation with a large Kurdish minority, and because the Sunnis had been massively over-represented in the military, the West disbanded the old Iraqi army and set out to put in place a democratic constitution in which the majority would find its voice.

Democracy was what we wished for.

Elections returned a Shia-dominated government which set up a new, Shia-dominated army and, in its weakness, became a puppet of the West’s great bogeyman in the region, Shiite Iran. Sunnis felt disenfranchised and marginalised, and Kurds began to agitate for increased autonomy for their region. So we propped up the government in Baghdad and supplied it with lots of lovely weaponry.

A strong central government dependent on us is what we wished for.

The bitterness among Sunni Arabs created fertile ground for extremists to launch a movement. That gave ISIS its opportunity in Iraq. The disgruntled Sunnis have since had time to be completely disabused with their supposed liberators, but in the meantime ISIS had gained a foothold from which they could tackle the new Iraqi army with its lovely weaponry. ISIS pushed towards them, watched them disintegrate, captured and murdered large numbers of soldiers while the others hightailed it back to Baghdad, and then collected all that lovely weaponry for itself. So we started bombing ISIS.

A Middle East free from terrorist extremism is what we wished for.

Kurdish Permerga
Gutsy, determined, but without the heavy weapons they need
ISIS turned its attentions to the north of Iraq where it ran into the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurds. ISIS had good American kit, captured from the Iraqi Army; the Peshmerga had AK47s and courage. Western airpower helped them resist. But the Western powers wouldn’t arm them, because that might strengthen their drive for independence from Iraq.

A strong central government in Baghdad was still what we wished for.

As an article in today’s Guardian explains, now the Peshmerga sit facing ISIS lines on the approach to Mosul, an Iraqi city being terrorised by its cruel occupants. The West would like ISIS kicked out of Mosul, but isn’t sure it wants the Peshmerga, who have the will but not the means, to do it; we’d rather it was the Iraqi government, but though we’d probably supply it with the means, no one after the last debacle can possibly imagine it has the will; as for the unfortunate inhabitants of Mosul, while almost anything would be preferable to their so-called fellow Sunnis of ISIS, as Sunni Arabs there’s little comfort for them in the notion of finding themselves under the control of either the Kurds or the Shiites.

So today the West hesitates. It is perhaps thinking about what it should do next. Maybe it’s wondering what it should really be wishing for.

That might have been an intelligent thought back in 2003. But since we’ve let the ISIS genie out of the bottle, it may be a little too late.

Because now there really is a weapon of mass destruction loose in the Middle East.

ISIS about its ugly work.
Now there's a weapon of mass destruction in Iraq

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Bad news for the Greeks may be bad news for all of us

So the Greeks blinked first. And it’s not good news.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis:
the guts to denounce austerity but holding few cards
This week started with a pastoral letter from Bishops of the Church of England calling on its followers to get involved in politics and the General Election in May. They spoke great sense, which was encouraging, but weren’t echoed by any of the mainstream parties, which was galling.

That’s not a call for politicians to be Christians. A great many of them already claim they are, a claim with as much validity, I feel, as the claim of ISIS in Syria to be true Muslims.

The Bishops wrote:

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10). A Christian approach to politics must be driven by this vision: enabling all people to live good lives, with the chance to realise their potential, as individuals and together as a people.

You need to be a Christian to want to quote St John, but men and women of any faith or none could subscribe to the notion that all of us should realise our potential and live good lives.

The Biblical tradition is not only “biased to the poor”, as often noted, but warns constantly against too much power falling into too few hands. When it does, human sympathies are strained to breaking point.

Again, many of us feel the oppression of power being exercised by too few people. And sadly far too few show much “bias to the poor,” even among parties of the Centre Left.

Why is this? Precisely because power has been allowed to be too concentrated.

This week gave an excellent example: the Daily Telegraph in England is one of the papers that prop up the Conservative claim to office; it seems it has been playing down the scandal around the behaviour of HSBC, the bank that was helping wealthy clients avoid tax; HSBC was the advertiser the Telegraph apparently couldn’t afford to offend; the Conservative Party is reticent to take action against the bank or its clients; and those clients include many substantial donors to the Conservative Party.

Money circulates in tiny circles, and money means power. The few inside the magic circle exert a terrible attraction on those outside, who look to them with admiration or awe at their success. The Centre Left, such as the British Labour Party, isn’t in the circle, but its leadership brushes shoulders with those who are, meeting them in the corridors of the Palace of Westminster. Rather than break with Conservative principles, it therefore simply proposes to apply them more gently.

So Labour doesn’t want to reverse cuts, only to cut less and more slowly. It has bought the prevailing tale that austerity is the answer to our financial woes, though austerity has manifestly failed over the last seven years, and has been known to be a policy condemned to failure for eighty: Keynes refuted the belief that economic good management requires government to spend less, and that to restart a broken economy, government in fact needs to spend more.

Not all parties of the Left have fallen for this delusion advanced by the moneyed, powerful few. And one of them, Syriza in Greece, has been elected to power. It has an explicitly anti-austerity platform, and has been pursuing it over the last few weeks since it took office.

Last night, days away from running out of funds altogether, the Greek government caved into the EU, IMF and European Central Bank – which basically means to Germany. in return for a four month extension of credit, it agreed to put its anti-austerity measures on hold.

The loans it will now receive will be used not to alleviate poverty, but to shore up the banks further. Money flowing to money once more.

This is a triumph for the Conservative views of the German government. Indeed, the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, could hardly contain his delight: “being in government,” he declared, “is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream,”

Wolfgang Schäuble, German Finance Minister
A Christian Democrat with little Christianity
And old fox playing a handful of trumps, with an ugly line in gloating...
Reality, you see, means austerity. Even though we know that all it has achieved in Greece is drive citizens to despair, literally, with the saddest comments from that country being complaints at the lack of any hope whatever for the future. Yesterday’s decision will put the hopes excited by Syriza’s election victory on hold for a few more months at least.

The Bishops wrote:

Christ’s incarnation confirms the fundamental truth that every human being is created in the image of God. Because of this, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is the starting point for all of the church’s engagement with society, politics and national life. This is the truth that lies behind everything we have to say here.

Shäuble is a member of the Christian Democratic Union, so clearly calling yourself a Christian doesn’t stop you rejecting such basic Christian thinking. He’s clearly less than inclined to love his neighbours as he loves himself.

That he’s won this first round of the battle is a setback for the Greeks. It’s a setback for the kind of values the Anglican Bishops were propounding. And I rather fear it’s a setback for all of us who concerned at “too much power falling into too few hands.”

Friday, 20 February 2015

Nostalgia: it can be as good as you remember it

They (yes, the enigmatic, ubiquitous they) say that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. They also say that you shouldn’t go back to places you loved years ago, because you’ll be disappointed with what they’ve become.

Well, I’m glad to say I was able to prove “them” wrong last weekend.

When we last lived in England we used to enjoy walking around Stockgrove Park in central Bedfordshire. Taking our kids there, taking our dog, enjoying the woods, the hills, the valleys, the lake. But I hadn’t been back since we returned to this area, until last weekend.

What did I find? The park has grown. It’s merged with Rushmere Country Park to produce something far bigger, with walks that have grown still more impressive because they’re still more extensive.

I always loved the lake in Sotckgrove Park,
and it's unchanged
But the things I loved are still there. The lake where our wonderful border collie Bess, alas long since gone, would always swim.

Our friend Sarah in Stockgrove Park, 1988
The photo still adorns her parents' hallway
I'm told that Nicky, then four, is hiding behind the bench
The bench where I took one of my more successful photos. They’re all there and all as charming as ever.

Danielle and Emese on the same bench in 2015
In addition, though, the other bit – the Rushmere bit – has added at least one great new feature: a terrace overlooking a steep sided valley with water at the bottom, with trees in which herons congregate to nest at this time of year. The authorities that run the place have even set up a camera with a continuous feed to a screen inside the building to give us a close up view of what’s going on.

A heron. Minding its business. Unaware that I'm minding it too
Not good for heron privacy (a clear abuse of heron rights, in fact) but wonderful for us human.

The building housing the screen also has a rather better cafe than the one in the Stockgrove bit, so it feels to me the place has noticeably improved. A good place to pause with Danielle and our guest for the weekend, Emese, at the end of our walk.

No. “They” were wrong. Nostalgia was all it was cracked up to be. The new park is even better than I remembered it. And all the more enjoyable for the company.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Money moving among the wealthy: a neat arrangement

In Britain, we’re being regaled by the tale of an Osborne and an Oborne.

The Osborne is George, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the present British government. In the midst of the current scandal about tax avoidance schemes being peddled by the Swiss subsidiary of HSBC, one of the major pillars of our fine banking industry, it has emerged that back in 2003 he was offering public advice to invest in some such tool.

“I probably shouldn’t be advocating this on television,” he added. I’d say, George, I’d say.

Peter Oborne: left the Telegraph and rather slammed the door
The Oborne is Peter, a journalist who has just resigned from the leading organ of respectable Conservatism, the Daily Telegraph. He felt the paper was a quality publication, dedicated to informing its readership of what was happening in the world, and doing so honestly, albeit from a specific point of view.

To live that way, a paper must maintain a strict separation between its editorial and its advertising departments. Unfortunately, Oborne feels that such a separation has gone at the Telegraph, one of whose major advertisers is, precisely, HSBC. As a result, he feels, the paper has given the scandal minimal coverage.

“You needed a microscope,” he writes, “to find the Telegraph coverage: nothing on Monday, six slim paragraphs at the bottom left of page two on Tuesday, seven paragraphs deep in the business pages on Wednesday.”

On the other hand, HSBC has maintained its advertising with the paper.

This, Oborne feels, is nothing short of deception: “The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers.”

Certainly, it’s fascinating to have the workings of the HSBC-Telegraph nexus exposed in this way. Because, actually, it’s three-way nexus.

George Osborne:
much to be gleeful about, as the cash registers keep clinging
On the one hand, we have a government that seems at best relaxed about the kind of activity HSBC undertook. Challenged on the subject four times by Ed Miliband, leader of the Opposition, David Cameron evaded the issue four times in Parliament. That contrasts with his much more severe attitude towards other kinds of financial fraud, such as illegal benefits claims, or even legal claims he feels are without moral justification: he’s just announced new plans to force young people to work for benefits if they don’t find work, in a market where there simply aren’t enough jobs to go round.

Next we have the people who were benefitting from the kind of clever financial products HSBC was offering. Rather a large number of them seem to have been donors to the Conservative Party. They figure, in other words, among David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s paymasters.

Finally, there’s the Telegraph, speaking for those same Conservative interests represented by Cameron and Osborne and by the donors who took advantage of HSBC’s sleight of hand. The Telegraph that breaks its own editorial principles so as not to offend HSBC. And by doing so benefits financially from it.

It is also one of the major figures in the overwhelmingly right-wing media environment in Britain, that contributes to keeping the Conservatives in government.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Impressive and harrowing, or pleasant and anodyne: that's my choice of from films this weekend

We saw a strange pair of films this weekend. Neither of them particularly uplifting, but one was insightful, the other entertaining. Though to be merely “entertaining” is a sad indictment for one of the great directors of of the seventies and eighties, now long past his best.

First the insightful piece: Leviathan, a 2014 production by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. As soon as I say “Russian”, you naturally understand that we’re not talking anything “light-hearted”, let alone “amusing”. “Feel-good”? Forget it.

The film is set in a sadly reduced fishing village on the Barents Sea, where mild weather means that the puddles thaw. So picture spectacular views of wide open spaces, desolate and windswept, great sweeping views of cliffs and a sea that doesn’t begin to tempt you to take a dip, plenty of derelict boats and buildings suggestive of a long-past period, a golden age when people merely suffered from poverty and boredom but didn’t yet have to cope with the enlightened rule of Vladimir Putin.

Yep. Spectacular. And that's about as cheerful as it gets.
Putin's portrait hangs in the official buildings. There’s rather a good scene in which the main character, Nikolai, goes out with his supposed friends from the local police to do some target shooting, and the most senior cop produces a serious of portraits they can fire at: Lenin, Brezhnez, Gorbachev… None of the present regime, though: there isn’t yet sufficient “historical perspective.”

In this setting we’re regaled with a long tale (two hours twenty minutes) of betrayal, infidelity, oppression and corruption, against which there is no effective remedy, but only the temporary anaesthetic of vodka by the tumblerful. It’s a powerful tale, well told, but if you’re looking for a happy ending, look again.

It seems the Russian Minister of Culture didn’t like the film, which he felt gave a view of his country which he didn’t recognise. It seems the Ministry is proposing guidelines that prevent films being made that denigrate the national culture. That rather suggests Zvyagintsev got it about right.

This morning I heard US commentator Joseph Nye on BBC Radio 4 describing Russia as a “nation in decline”. I can imagine Putin’s Culture Ministry wouldn’t be keen on that view, and it’s certainly what comes across from the film: Nicolai declines rather more quickly but one can’t help feeling his country’s not far behind.

The other film? Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight. Normally I’d do everything in my power to avoid using the word “nice”, but this is certainly a “nice film.” Or more precisely a “nice little film.” Fine stereotypical characters, especially well-portrayed by Colin Firth as the hard-boiled rationalist who’s never going to be fooled (or will he be?) by Erica Leerhsen, the spiritualist fraud (or is she a fraud? You won’t find out till the end of the film – that’s how exciting it gets – but if you’re worried about the stress of the suspense, don’t be: believe me, you’ll cope with it.)

As an antidote to harrowing tales from the shores of the Barents Sea, Magic in the Moonlight works perfectly. Even as a pleasant hour and a half on a much warmer sea – it’s set on the Côte d’Azur – when you’re too tired for anything more challenging – or indeed more rewarding. Besides the film’s made by a great lover of jazz and set in the jazz age, so the music’s fun.

Pretty camerawork
And you'll never guess what happens between these two
As a piece worthy of the director of Annie Hall, Manhattan or even Mighty Aphrodite and Play it again, Sam, it leaves you wondering how far the mighty can fall.

Still, there are worse ways of passing the end of the evening. As for Leviathan, well it certainly won’t cheer you up, but it you like your magic realism gritty, it won’t disappoint either.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The scientific method: authoritative, impregnable. Even in the hands of humans

What gives science its authority is its ability to test ideas, in a way that can be repeated by other people, and based on prediction rather than on hindsight.

In a field like history, in which I worked for a while, one looks back on events and tries to come up with a plausible explanation for them. But plausibility isn’t proof, and there’s no clear way of distinguishing which of two or more plausible explanations is true (if any of them), which is why history is a subject of so much debate and revision.

For instance, today, on the 70th anniversary of the Dresden bombing, though we still feel horror at the number of deaths, we believe there were far fewer than Kurt Vonnegut mourned when he wrote Slaughterhouse Five. There are voices suggesting today that the bombing was even, perhaps, justified – including the voices of a number of survivors.

Dresden after the bombing of 13 February 1945
Science isn’t like that. A theory suggests that something must be a certain way, so we take a look – and it’s important that just anyone with the necessary skill and equipment can take a look – and if we find that things aren’t that way, the theory needs revising. If it is, we don’t necessarily accept the theory as true, but we feel we can perhaps keep using it as a helpful set of assumptions.

It’s true that there are some applications in the life sciences in particular, where we may be dealing with an individual’s reaction to a particular pathogen (or, to use a more technical term, a grubby little germ) and demanding that an observation be reproducible may be a tall order. However, generally, insisting on predictions that can be tested in reproducible experiments is a powerful methodology that has served us well.

One of the more famous such confirmations concerned Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (not sure whether the capital letters are absolutely obligatory, but they somehow seem deserved). He predicted that light would be bent by gravity around really massive objects. So when light coming to us from a distant star has to travel close to the sun, it would be bent towards it, and the star would look further away from it than it should be.

In normal conditions, you can’t check that: the light from the sun completely drowns out any star shining behind it. But in a total eclipse, the sun’s light goes and stars apparently close to it can be seen. It ought therefore to be possible to see their apparent position.

Arthur Eddington
Confirmed Einstein's theory. Which he admired
In 1919, Arthur Eddington organised two expeditions to carry out the necessary observations during that year’s total eclipse, one in Brazil, the other in West Africa. Their measurement of the apparent displacement of the stars didn’t just to confirm that the phenomenon was happening, but that it was happening to the degree that Einstein’s calculations suggested.

Staggering proof of the power of Einstein’s theory, greeted with great acclaim around the world.

Except. The bending of visible light is slight. And during a total eclipse all sorts of strange currents get going in the atmosphere, creating all manner of problems seeing through it. Many people looking at Eddington’s photographs can only ask: how on Earth can you really assert anything from pictures as muddy and uncertain as these?

Eddington's picture of the 1919 total eclipse (negative and positive)
They support precise measurements, do they? Seriously? 
Interestingly, measurements carried out since by telescopes outside the Earth’s atmosphere, or on radio waves where the phenomenon is far greater, have all confirmed Eddington’s findings. So we can breathe easy (well, as easy as the weird picture of the universe that emerges from General Relativity allows). Still, it does leave a bit of a question, doesn’t it? Did Eddington really see what he claimed he’d seen? Or was it just too convenient?

The scientific method: rigorous, systematic, impartial. And authoritative as a result.

But it has to be applied by men and women. Who aren’t always quite as rigorous and systematic as one might hope. And who might, perhaps, be a little partial to one particular theory – such as Einstein’s.

Still, Eddington has ultimately been vindicated. So who cares whether his results were reliable or not? Doesnt matter, does it? 

Or does it?

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Nicola Sturgeon: another voice raised for a (moderately) radical approach to our problems

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, speaking in London today, called for an end to austerity policies and described their continuation as “morally unjustifiable and economically unsustainable.”

Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP:
A radicalism so mild it's barely radical. But it's still refreshing to hear
Consensus is attractive when the alternative is conflict, but much less so when it just means conformity. Especially when what we’re conforming to is principally a matter of fashion.

It has been fashionable in the leading economies since the 1970s or 1980s, to proclaim belief in the working of free markets with minimal regulation. That view tended to come in tandem with faith in trickle-down economics: a free market will allow highly entrepreneurial individuals to make a great deal of money; when they spend it, the resultant wealth will trickle down to the rest of society.

Many of the measures that had been put in place to control, in particular, the financial sector were dropped during the time of Thatcher and Reagan. Unleashed, the banks took increasing risks in order to amass unprecedented fortunes, until they took a risk too many and came unstuck in 2008. At which point, people who had spent decades decrying state intervention, turned to the state – more precisely to all taxpayers, including the poorest – to rescue them from the disaster they’d brought down on themselves.

Unfortunately, holding out their hands to the state didn’t mean that these leaders of economic thinking were prepared to dump the ideology which, particularly in its trickle down aspect, had made them inconceivably rich over a generation.

The success of trickle-down was measured by their wealth; its failure by the impoverishment of everyone else. As Will Hutton argues in his insightful piece in today’s Guardian, “wages have fallen, in real terms, by the greatest degree in more than half a century, inequality of income and wealth have risen to desperately high levels that may soon metastasise into a serious economic and social cancer.”

Sadly, in Europe we’ve been driven since the 2008 crash by such carcinogenic thinking. The consensus claims that austerity is the only way out of this crisis: reduce government deficits and debt by slashing public spending, and we shall cure our problems. As Hutton points out, all this is achieving is to create a society in which “millions of workers struggle in a harsh demimonde of temporary jobs and zero-hour contracts.”

And yet these ideas, the new fashion, merely replaced economic thinking which could really explain our problems. The theories of John Maynard Keynes showed that it isn’t by reducing expenditure that a government gets out of economic difficulty, but by making investments. That provides employment which increases the tax take from workers, and it stimulates the economy to grow by increasing demand – which also increases the tax take. So paradoxically, the government may well get its deficit down more quickly by spending more, not less.

But we’ve been living the Reagan-Thatcher consensus. Keynes is out. Austerity and trickle-down are in. And, sadly, conformity to that credo has extended way beyond the traditional conservative parties. Many in the Labour Party, not least Tony Blair and his one-time voice piece Peter Mandelson, who famously – infamously – once declared himself “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

Well, I’d be relaxed about it too, if getting filthy rich didn’t always happen on the backs of a lot of poor people getting a great deal poorer.

To stand for a different set of ideas, for Keynesian ideas, is regarded by the proponents of austerity as a dangerous reversion to old-style, wildly left-wing socialism. Which is odd, since whatever Keynes was, he wasn’t a socialist. He wanted capitalism better managed, as does Hutton.

Calling for better management of our capitalist economy is dangerously radical? 


Keynes: hardly a left-wing firebrand
But we need his approach back, and that has to come from the Left
Fortunately the conformity to this dire consensus hasn’t been total. Every now and then a voice speaks out against these failed and failing views. And, recently, sometimes those voices have been heard.

I spoke yesterday about Alexis Tsipras in Greece. Succeed or fail, at least he’s trying a different approach in a country driven to despair by the previous policy of austerity.

Now Nicola Sturgeon has also spoken out. She, like many of us, feels there’s nothing tremendously inspiring about a Labour Party promising to do the same as the Tories, but a bit less, and a bit less fast.

And yet what she’s proposing isn’t that radical: an increase in spending of £180bn over five years of a parliament. That represents less than two years of running the English NHS, spread over five. Not exactly revolutionary: like Hutton, like Keynes, she just wants capitalism to behave more fairly.

But compared to everyone else calling for more cuts, isn’t it refreshing?

How sad that it has to come from a party whose main aim is the independence of Scotland. That the great party of the left in England, the Labour Party, didn’t beat her to it.

Ed Milliband, Ed Balls: come on, if Sturgeon can do it, surely you too can speak out for a real alternative to the failed policies of the Tories?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Time for the left to raise its game

Striking words, I felt, at the weekend from Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian:

Labour… [looks]… like a team facing an open goal and poised to miss. They need to raise their game – and fast.

Yes, I thought. We had Ed Miliband at the latest Labour Conference, insisting on proving the quality of his memory by delivering his key speech without notes, and then suffering a total memory failure and forgetting to talk about the economy (not the least significant of issues, one feels). And last week we had his Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer incapable of naming a single Labour donor, except for “Bill… Bill somebody…”

Ed Miliband: it's time to set the electorate alight
They seem to be taking aim at the government, but hitting their own foot.

Five years of shambolic government has hugely increased national debt while imposing austerity to reduce it. Austerity that has only left us with healthcare in crisis, education near bankruptcy and a police force unable to deal with crime. That sounds like an open goal. But Labour seem unable to get the ball into the net, with the opinion polls showing the two main parties level pegging.

What is it about this leadership that seems to leave it as though frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car? Why can’t it find a note that inspires the electors? The message that persuades the swing voters we so badly need, that it deserves the chance to form a government?

I keep watching Greece. I know that Alexis Tsipras may fall flat on his face and Syriza may find itself incapable of getting the nation’s creditors to ease their draconian debt conditions. But right now, at least he’s inspiring, he’s taking bold action, re-employing people thrown onto the jobless queue without hope of a job, raising the minimum wage to help alleviate the pain of utter, jaw-breaking poverty.

He’s telling the international financial community that he values their ability to make huge sums rather less than the ability of those who are suffering the worst hardship to feed and heat themselves.

Why can’t the British Labour Party strike that kind of note? Instead it seems exclusively concerned with convincing the business community that it can do just as well under Labour as under the Tories. And yet we all know that the business community will vote massively for the Conservatives whatever Labour leaders say?

Today, to add insult to injury, we had Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, generally far closer to the Tories than to Labour, saying that contacts he’d had with some Labour backbenchers suggested they’d rather a coalition with his party than with the Scottish SNP. Even though the SNP is firmly anchored on the left. Dodds may be making this all up, of course, but in my bones I fear he isn’t.

Britain’s not in as dire a state as Greece. We don’t need to be as radical as Tsipras. But some radicalism, surely, we can dig out of somewhere? Something that distinguishes us from the Conservatives? Something our supporters can rally round?

I have to confess that I wasn’t being entirely honest in quoting Freedland. He wasn’t talking about Britain, but about Israel. Where another right-wing government has left an open goal for Labour to shoot at – and finds Labour unable to take the shot.

Now I live in Britain and I’m a member of the British Labour Party. So my main priority is to see the Cameron government go and Labour back in office. But I have to admit if there’s a nation in even greater need of ridding itself of a dire government, it has to be Israel – and it would do the entire world a huge favour by dumping Netanyahu.

But, hey, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get rid of our mini-Netanyahus over here too. That needs a Labour leadership that gets some fire in its belly and inspires the electorate. As Freedland puts it: that needs to raise its game – and fast.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Parenting. We do it so well. Simply by instinct.

“Will you cut that out?” yelled the exasperated mother from the swimming pool changing cubicle behind mine, her voice battling with the sound of the wailing child.

The injunction had the effect you’d expect. The child’s crying grew louder.

“Honestly, it’s always the same. You just have to go and spoil everything.”

A louder explosion of wailing.

“Every time. You just can’t stop yourself.”

A pause. Sobbing.

“Well, don’t think you’re going to have any friends. You’re just a horrible little girl. No one’s going to come over to see a horrible little girl like you. Clara isn’t coming.”

More sobs.

“And Caroline isn’t coming either. No, she isn’t. Why should she come and see such a horrible little girl?”

New outburst of wailing, with some barely distinguishable words.

“Sorry? No, you’re not sorry. Why would a horrible little girl be sorry?”

The wailing dies to sobs, to whimpers, to soft crying as the child regains control.

in a shaky voice: “I really am sorry, Mummy.”

“No you’re not. But you will be.”

The wailing starts up again.

The great test we all just naturally know how to pass
Life calls on many of us to do two key jobs, with little preparation.

For one of them, staff management, we are at least able to call on some training, such as it is, though it isn’t much: usually abstract with little bearing on everyday business life. It’s all Drucker and Maslow and countless other academics, but little to do with the team member who’s missed another deadline, but also happens to be a harassed mother let down by her childminder.

For our other great responsibility, parenting, we generally receive no training at all. Especially now that we no longer live in extended families, with grandparents and older siblings around to offer the gentle, tangential hint that there might be a better way of doing things. And occasionally a little help.

Bringing up a whole new generation, securing the longevity of our species, we do by the seat of our pants.

But then, as the exchange I overheard at the pool confirms, we’re just naturally born to do it well. As Bill Bailey would put it, we take it to it like a duck to a pancake roll.

Who needs training?

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The remittance man: find him today in the Gulf

Dubai is a weird place. The words “where every prospect pleases and only man is vile” would apply to it perfectly, if only the prospects were more pleasing.

The first problem is that Dubai’s on the wrong end of a long slope. That means that dust constantly blows over the city from the desert behind it. The air’s never pleasant to breathe, and there’s a constant haze spoiling the view, such as it is.

The view is mostly man-made. And the theme is simple: build it big. So Dubai is all huge expanses of concrete upwards, and wide stretches of tarmac horizontally. Colossal buildings linked by fast roads with little or nothing done for pedestrians. And constantly humming through it all is a hymn to money. I’ve never seen such a collection of yachts in the harbour, so large, so luxurious, so completely immobile.

Dubai: where few prospects please
but the scent of money's everywhere
It’s the money that decides the human mix too. A mix which doesn’t mix: humanity in Dubai is rigidly divided by class, which in there means race.

At the top of the hierarchy the tiny number of Dubai citizens, none of whom I ever saw: presumably they move only from air-conditioned mansion to air-conditioned shop by air-conditioned, tinted-window car.

Next are what we casually refer to as Westerners: Americans, Europeans, Japanese.

Behind them come the underprivileged. First the citizens of former Soviet Republics: Russians, Kasakhs, and others from the region. They’re the waiters, the receptionists and the chambermaids. Or, so I’m told “chambermaids.”

And finally the huge army of Pakistanis, Nepalese and other South Asians, who form the queues each morning at the building sites, working for a pittance, in dangerous conditions, with minimal rights.

Migrant workers in Dubai
Exploited, endangered, enjoying few rights
This is reminiscent of nothing so much as the period of European colonialism. But with one difference: European colonialists were at the top of the tree, behaving with ugly arrogance. In Dubai they’re one level down and have to be a bit more careful, behaving with ugly obsequiousness.

A colourful figure from that colonial time has been reincarnated today, in a rather reduced version: the remittance man. This was the Black Sheep sent away, usually after some scandal at home, to a distant colony where his small remittance would allow his family and friends to ignore him.

You get quite a lot of that kind of character out in Dubai these days. Disreputable, slightly fly-blown, always looking for the scheme that’s going to make them rich. And some of them, suprisingly, manage.

I met one of them out there. Sam (that wasn’t his name and, as far as I know, it still isn’t) had been Chief Executive of a company he’d founded with a group of colleagues. They’d had an innovative idea in software development, and got a system out to market fast, giving them several years of impressive success. Sadly, however, when small companies find a clever notion, the big boys won’t be far behind. They have the resources to put huge teams onto them, and eventually turn out something more powerful, more effective and easier to support. Suddenly, the small company’s playing catch up.

What it needs is another smart idea, to get some edge over the big players again. But good ideas aren’t that common or simple to come up with. And Sam’s company didn’t.

His reaction was quite a common one: under pressure, he would disappear. He’d turn off his mobile and clear off somewhere that nobody could find him. Leaving his colleagues in disarray.

Eventually, they got tired of him and pushed him out of the Chief Executive position. But they didn’t sack him – indeed they left him with a massive salary and, of course, his shares.

Things continued to get worse, and he kept on disappearing. But, freed of even the responsibilities he ignored as Chief Exec, he’d disappear a lot further. He started heading off regularly to the Gulf. There he could enjoy the pink gin existence, with few questions asked, of the remittance man. All he had to do was attend a few meetings out there and report home about how good the prospects were.

That left him convinced that he was an important contributor to his company. I once had the privilege of working with another former Chief Executive like him: he once assured me “I feel I’m working at all times, whenever I’m thinking about the company.”

“So,” I asked him, “as long as you think about the company, you’re working even if you’re lying in the bath?”

Sadly, he explained to me that this was exactly how he saw things.

The beauty for Sam was that he could be out in the Gulf whenever things got tough at home. Eventually, his colleagues sold the company and even got a reasonable deal for it. Inevitably, in time, the new owners decided it was time for a new broom. Many of the old guard, the people who’d built the company and its products, were sacked.

But not Sam. He’d persuaded the owners that the Gulf was the place. The new Eldorado, the land adventurers from Europe sought to bring gold home. The Gulf was the place that could provide gold today, for a company that knew how to play its cards. Sam had persuaded the new owners that he was the man to play the cards. And he was out of the country when the axe fell on his colleagues.

How much gold has he brought home? I saw Sam out there six years ago. At that stage, after two years in the region, he had nothing but glittering promises. To my knowledge, today, after eight years, he’s still produced nothing.

Except for a good salary for himself. On top of the seven-figure sum he had for his shares.

It’s wonderful to see the old traditions being maintained. Fortune favours the guy who knows how to be out of the way at the right time, bluff the people in power, and sell snake oil at a high price.

Leaves you with a lovely warm feeling, doesn’t it?

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Misty's diary: snow and misplaced faith in a domestic

Another entry from Misty’s diary. In which he records his disappointment at the limitations on the magical abilities of one of the domestics.

February 2015

Domestic number 2 thinks I’m pretty dumb. And he’s not entirely wrong: the problem is that I keep underestimating just how incompetent he is. Despite my repeated experience, I nurse expectations of him. Massively unrealistic expectations.

This came to a head the other day when we got that ghastly white stuff falling out of the sky. Domestic number 1 always gets excited about these terrible moments.

“At last,” she cries out, “snow. We can get the skis out again.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Getting the skis out? They did that a couple of years ago. It was frankly embarrassing. They came up the street on skis, making complete berks of themselves. Who on earth skis in a town? If you have to do that kind of bloody silly thing, do it somewhere way out in the country. Somewhere nobody sensible can see you.

As for me, I loathe that miserable cold stuff. I work on my paws. I keep them clean, I keep them neat. Snow? Half a dozen steps and all my efforts are for nothing. What it does to fur, my dear, has to be seen to be believed. It really shouldn’t be allowed.

Cold. Wet. Miserable. And wreaks havoc on the paws
Well, the other day had been tough and I simply hadn’t noticed the snow. 

So when I saw Domestic number 2 by the door I trotted over quite optimistically. I’ve got him trained to spot when I want to go out, though it took some extra effort to get him to cut out the sarky comments. You know, quips like:

“What, too lazy to go out of the cat flap and climb the fence?”

Even when he used to make that kind of remark, he’d still open the door. However, I can frankly do without that kind of crack. So sadly it escalated into one of those teeth and tongue things: my teeth teaching control of his tongue.

But when I got to the door the other day, ready to dash out, what did I see? Bloody white stuff all over the place.

No joke.

So I shot back inside before he could push me out. Not that he usually dares – that’s a Domestic number 1 trick – but you never know when he might decide to try it on and risk the consequences.

Of course, he laughed. “Ah, not so keen now, then, are we? A bit cold on the delicate little paws?”

Like he goes out barefoot in the snow…

But, and this is a habit of his, it wasn’t long before he was back at the door.

He takes rubbish out a lot. You know, he’ll go out with a couple of cardboard boxes, walking straight past the empty plastic bottle. Then he’ll see the plastic bottle, and take that out. And then – oh, yes, the yoghurt carton he’d carefully left near the door so as not to forget it. You have to wonder whether he enjoys his little visits to the bins.

Still, I’m not complaining. It’s a chance to get out by the front door each time. And I treasure them.

So I went over to be let out again.

“What, really, you think the snow will have gone? In ten minutes?” 

It hadn’t and he enjoyed having a good snigger at my expense. Smug git.

But I wasn’t so stupid as to think it would just have gone of its own accord. My mistake was putting too much faith in him. Again. He
’s the character who can conjure meat out of a tin, without even hunting. I mistakenly imagined getting rid of some nasty cold wet stuff would be child’s play. And I reckoned he’d have done it by then.

Seems not. Magicking food out of the fridge? No problem, apparently. But getting rid of cold wet stuff? Beyond his power. Like putting in cat flaps.

Ah well. I fall for it every time. I expect him to amaze me and, sadly, disappointingly, he always does. Leaving me looking a fool.

But all through his own incompetence.

A tough day. spent minding my own business.
And not noticing the snow