Thursday, 31 October 2013

Christian truth and importance

On a visit to Cambridge, I had a flier pressed into my hand by a campaigner for a Christian evangelical organisation. 

It announced a series of lectures on the legacy of the novelist and outstanding Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, whose words it proudly quoted:

‘Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.’

This is a striking illustration of the notion that a statement needs only to be made sententiously to carry weight. If it is attributed to a man of recognised authority, its significance and profundity seem proved beyond challenge. But it equally demonstrates that however brilliant and authoritative you may be, you’re not proof against fallacy, especially a fallacy that seems to reinforce your preferred position.

C. S. Lewis:
proof that not even brilliance is a guarantee against fallacy
In this case, Lewis is indulging in an excluded middle. There are, after all, other possibilities than the two alternatives he presents. Just for the sake of argument, consider one of them.

What if Christianity happened to be false but was still followed by 3.3 billion people around the world? That’s the number who regard themselves as Christian and they would be, if the religion is false, victims of a major illusion. Now that may not make Christianity infinitely important, but the sheer number of believers in an error would mean we couldn’t regard it as unimportant either.

Perhaps we might toy with the idea that its importance lay somewhere between the two extremes Lewis offers us.

Might we in fact not think that, in these circumstances, Christianity was moderately important?

Whatever Mr Lewis might have to say on the matter. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Brothers and neighbours

It was good to see my brother at the weekend, over from Paris with my sister-out-law, Danielle.

It feels like a good omen that she has the same name as my wife of thirty years. Good basis for an excellent relationship, I feel; certainly my Danielle has proved to have just the qualities I need to support me most the time and knock me into line some of the time.

Unfortunately our guest Danielle had her visit slightly spoiled on Saturday night by our neighbour from hell. She chose to have another of her all-night parties, starting with gaiety and Karaoke, and degenerating as the night gave way to the small hours into recrimination, anger and fighting. Par for the course for us, unfortunately, but a bit of a shock for our visitor.

The following morning the father of our neighbour’s child (as opposed to her present partner) turned up and had trouble getting any response to his repeated knocking on the door. He therefore resorted to his usual technique of yelling through the letterbox. My brother, unused to this endearing pattern of behaviour, opened our door to find out what was happening.

This being a family-oriented blog, I have subtly disguised some of the words in my record of the conversation, to avoid giving offence to more sensitive readers.

‘What the fudge do you want?’ said the shouter. ‘Shut the fudging door.’

My brother is completely unfazed by scintillating banter of this kind, and simply quipped back in kind.

‘I’ll shut the fudging door when I fudging feel like it.’

To everyone’s surprise, his interlocutor reacted with a beaming smile.

‘I like it,’ he said, ‘like your attitude.’

He all but offered his hand, perhaps put off at the last moment by my brother’s obvious disinclination to shake it.

Later that same day, Sunday, we travelled to see an old and recently-widowed friend. The visit went well, and in the course of it she told us about her new neighbours, millionaires from one of those sectors that do so much to bring joy into all our lives, such as financial services.

They had bought the house next door for the equivalent of about a quarter of a century’s income for anyone on normal earnings, and then spent a colossal amount more on major re-building. They would often clear off while the work was being done, and at one point the builders called on our friend.

‘Could we have some water?’ they asked. 

She assumed they must be wanting to brew up some tea or something, so she connected their hose to her tap, only mildly irritated by the fact that the neighbours had clearly turned their own water supply off before they left.

The following day she heard a cement mixer chugging away. She looked out of the window and saw the men using her water to mix their cement.

She disconnected the hose and offered it back to them.

‘But... how are we supposed to work without water?’ they asked.

Our friend gave them a polite reply because that’s her style. It’s a pity my brother wasn’t around; I suspect he would have said, ‘how the fudge is that my problem?’

Feed me, feed me! Who cares who's paying?
The neighbours did come round to apologise profusely, in time. They offered to pay for the water they’d taken. They also offered to pay for the damage the builders did to our friend’s fence, and to her electricity supply which they somehow managed to cut off. No payment and no repair work has been forthcoming so far.

It seems that a delightful insouciance towards to the concerns and comfort of others is not limited to a single class. Our neighbour, drifting along somewhere on the marginal fringes at the bottom of society, or our friend’s neighbours lording it over us from the top, share exactly the same indifference to the inconvenience they inflict on others.

Which is a sort of comfort, when you think about it. Wouldn’t it have been depressing to discover that only the poor behaved badly? It’s much more reassuring to confirm, as if confirmation were needed, that arrant selfishness exists across all social boundaries. That accounts for much of the behaviour of government, for example: it’s made up of people who accurately reflect the society they ostensibly lead, or at least its lowest common denominator.

Come to think of it, that also helps explain quite a lot of the puzzling awfulness one so often meets out there.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

In praise of Blair the Peacemaker

What a disappointment it would be to meet one of the great figures of our time and find they didn’t live up to their reputation.

Imagine meeting George W. Bush (Bush the lesser, that is, or perhaps I should say, even lesser) and find him suave, witty, insightful?

Meeting Robert Mugabe and finding him gentle, cordial and sensitive?

Meeting Maggie Thatcher and finding her self-effacing, diffident and open to the ideas of others?

Equally, it would be horrible to discover a Tony Blair unafraid to admit his errors, happy to share credit for his achievements and prepared to atone for, or at least admit to, his untruths.

Tony Blair showing how foreign self-satisfaction is to him
So it was wonderful to see Blair writing in the Guardian about his ‘pain, passion and empathy’ and what he’s learned about peacemaking. His article is a fine tribute to his efforts as a peacemaker, making it quite unnecessary for me to sing his praises. It is also a glorious example of the use of the truth to deceive. 

It’s true that the Good Friday agreement which brought a measure of peace to Northern Ireland, was Tony Blair’s greatest achievement. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t celebrate it, and in this article he does little else. It’s also true that he speaks highly of the Irish players in the drama, including the then Prime Minister of the Republic, Bertie Ahern. He even gives credit to the Americans, Bill Clinton and George Mitchell, but then he never suffered from any failure to behave obsequiously towards leaders from the United States.

What he doesn’t mention is any of the British involved in the process. Mo Mowlam, for instance, gets no mention, but then she was an independent-minded woman not unwilling to tell Blair when she disagreed with him. Nor does he mention John Major, his predecessor as Prime Minister.

Now I don’t think anyone can accuse me of knowingly giving a Conservative credit for anything unless I absolutely have to, but the Good Friday agreement didn’t leap from Blair’s brain fully-fledged, like Pallas Athene springing fully-armed from the head of Zeus. It took years of careful preparation, rather longer than the eleven months Blair had between his election and the signing ceremony.

After years of mishandling of the province by Margaret Thatcher, descending to its most ludicrous when she had actors voicing over the words of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in TV interviews (so we weren’t hiding his words, just his voice), John Major put in some serious spadework. It involved both judicious use of intelligence operations and early, secret negotiations. It prepared the ground for Blair’s triumph.

See what I mean? Blair’s right to claim the success, wrong to hide the contribution of others to making his breakthrough possible.

But, of course, Blair’s worst silence in the article doesn’t concern Northern Ireland at all.

When we think of Blair, what is the first issue that comes to mind? Is it really Northern Ireland? Is it indeed peacemaking?

Surely the name of Blair will be forever associated with a another part of the world, and with war far more than with peace. And not any old war: a probably illegal war, waged in Iraq for no better reason than one of the worst American presidents of all time, Dubya, wanted to. It was a war, furthermore, which threw the region into even worse turmoil than before while costing an obscene number of lives.

That’s Blair’s real legacy. And it has given him the reputation for duplicity that haunts him still – deservedly: we
’ve discovered from the Snowden revelations that the intelligence services know a great deal more than they should, not a great deal less. A secondary effect of those disclosures must be that they had a good idea there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and so Blair was either unforgivably ignorant of the truth, or recklessly economical with it.

Yet of that he had nothing to say in his article.

Perhaps a second article, a sequel, in which he admits his lying and his errors. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change? Perhaps a shock though, as completely out of character.

And I certainly won’t be holding my breath.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Vigilantes, such a source of innocent fun

The attraction of fantasy depends on our accepting at least one complete fallacy after which we can accept that the rest of the story’s plausible.

You know, going along with the idea that vampires exist, or that someone in Nigeria’s burning with desire to give us money, or that if you vote for the Conservatives long enough they’ll eventually give you an even break.

One particularly alluring form of fantasy is based on the sense that, ultimately, we all know who the real criminals are, and if all those stupid limitations the law imposes could just be lifted, it would be possible to mete out quick, exemplary and summary justice to them. Indeed, the main effect of the law is to provide a plethora of loopholes that allows vile specimens of guilty humanity to dodge punishment on technicalities, where they haven’t already got away with murder (or worse) because of the flat-footed ineptitude of a police force unable to catch them.

In those circumstances, what we really need is someone who won’t be hampered by all those hidebound, conventional restraints but will act as an avenging angel towrads the obviously guilty, on behalf of all of us.

That’s the fundamental premise of much immensely entertaining TV, such as the series Dexter. Dexter Morgan, the eponymous hero, has to be the first thoroughly likable serial killer I’ve ever come across, a quality not entirely unrelated to the fact that he’s a fiction.

Dexter: proving mass murder can be funny.
In fiction
What makes him most attractive is, of course, that he only kills bad people: brutal killers just like him, but who make the mistake of inflicting their evil ways on the innocent.

So that’s OK then.

In Britain, we can also enjoy a series called By any means, built around a shadowy group, neither spooks nor cops (whenever one of the group is asked who they are, the reply is ‘it’s a grey area’). Its mission is to do what it takes to inflict appropriate punishment on villains the law is unable to bring to justice. By any means, of course, as the title implies, though when they occasionally step over the line into downright illegality, it can lead to acute embarrassment.

Again, though, they only act against the clearly bad. 

So that’s OK, too, then.

By any means. Fun on screen.
Less amusing in reality, where call it police corruption
The inconvenient reality over which we’re asked to suspend belief for this kind of fantasy, is that it’s practically impossible to be sure of anyone’s guilt. And, what’s more, even the guilty aren’t necessarily evil: they may have many redeeming qualities which should at least give them the chance of rehabilitation.

That’s why we have a rather slow and ponderous legal system designed to test the guilt of people we believe to be responsible for crimes, and then to determine a reasonable punishment for them. It’s hopelessly flawed and makes a great many mistakes, but to paraphrase Churchill’s neat epigram on democracy, it’s the worst form of justice, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Certainly, I wouldn’t want to live in a society in which an individual vigilante, convinced of his own infallibility, can wander around with impunity dishing out death penalties in cases in which he acts as judge, jury and executioner. And the idea of a group in the penumbra of the security service doling out rough justice without accountability or constraint of law – why that’s the kind of thing Britain
’s had a great deal too much of in the police, locking up and occasionally shooting people they regard as dangerous, though often they’re merely guilty of having been incorrigibly Irish or Black.

Even so, the fantasy of swift and unerring justice is still attractive. Many of the world’s great religions believe it can be dispensed by God. As for the rest of us, we can at least enjoy it in skilfully-crafted TV series with a nice line in black humour.

Still, we need to guard against ever letting us believing any of this stuff. That would make it unhealthy.

Like any fantasy, really.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Exercise: it's just a gamble

There’s something wonderful about being in a swimming pool at 7:00 in the morning.

At least, I’m assured there is. I haven’t actually found the wonder yet, and I’ve been looking for some weeks now. Compared to an alternative, like say a warm bed, or even a real bath – the kind you don’t have to swim in – the wonderful aspect isn’t always immediately obvious.

Wow. Such a long way. And so wet. Particularly daunting at 7:00.
It leaves you feeling good all day, they tell me. There’s probably some truth in that, though I find it also leaves me smelling of chlorine. I’ve even taken to showering twice but that smell, it just clings.

In any case, what’s the good of saying it feels better afterwards? You think that’s convincing? Isn’t it what they say about banging your head against a brick wall? Feels great when you stop?

There must be something else. It occurs to me that it may just be one of those age-old traditions, practised by flagellant monks or pilgrims whipping themselves on the way to Kerbala: mortifying the flesh to exalt the spirit. It works too: having spent a while in the pool at silly o’clock certainly leaves me filled with that emotion, right up there with the most glorious we enjoy, self-righteousness.

I imagine those monks and pilgrims inflicting pain on themselves feel just the same.

Of course, the reality is that we don’t do this terrible violence to bodies that would far rather be pampered, for the sake of our souls. We do it for the sake of the bodies themselves. I realise that on the face of it, that doesn’t seem to make much sense: you just have to realise it’s a gamble.

The assumption is that we’re in for pain, one way or another.

One option is that we get it now in small doses, out there running across rough country to get to places we’re not interested in reaching; in a gym lifting stupidly heavy weights off the ground only to put them down again (or even worse, driving a rowing machine: it’s bad enough in a boat, but the machines don’t even move, and would sink if you tried to get them to); or indulging in the form of exercise I now seem to have adopted, ploughing up and down a pool, only to reach the other end and discover it looks pretty well the same as the one you’ve just left, and exactly the same as it looked when you were there two lengths ago.

The other option is that we let the old joints and arteries go and get all our pain in a much bigger dose in a few years time.

So the bet is that all the little bits of pain now will add up to less than all the terrible pain we might avoid – or at least push back – later. It’s the gamble I’m taking.

But, I tell you what: if in a few years I find myself dying of some ghastly condition all this exercise should have prevented, I shall be most put out. And thinking, all the way to grave, ‘what the hell! Why didn’t I lie in late a bit more often – and eat more chocolate?’

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Who'd be a teacher? At least, in a nation of shopkeepers?

It was Napoleon who said that England was a nation of shopkeepers.

He wasn’t being complimentary. It seems unfair to hardworking shopkeepers, but a nation made up of them? Nah. An idea we
’d treat with scorn

That even includes many of the English. Which is odd, because when it comes down to it, it isn’t commerce that attracts most contempt from a large part of the English public. It's the public sector.

Take teachers, for instance. Those long holidays – they’re clearly underworked. And at the end of their career, the most valued teachers may be on nearly two and half times median earnings, so they’re clearly overpaid. And they’re all infected with a sad, sixties-hippy radicalism, that somehow contrives to be ineffective but also dangerous – don’t they teach arithmetic by phonetics, and leave all the important battles out of geography?

On the other hand, you can go a long way if you stick to commerce. Consider Tony Hayward. He was Chief Executive of BP and being paid a little over a million a year (only a little over: £45,000 over the million mark, not even two median salaries).

Tony Hayward. Role model of the leader who steps up,
accepts the buck and takes the bullet 
Of course, he couldn’t possibly have got by on that amount, so shares and bonuses eked out his basic to a more comfortable £4 million. It’s not a bad salary; I’m sure teachers would regard it as reasonably generous. 

It’s not just handed out to any old guy, though: you have to be supremely competent and prepared to take responsibility if things go wrong. So when the BP Gulf oil spill took place in 2010, it fell to him to describe the incident as ‘relatively tiny’, an inspired choice of words for what turned out to be the worst ever man-made marine oil disaster.

Faced with a lot of ill-spirited criticism from the States, Hayward followed up with the heartfelt, ‘I want my life back.’ Well, who wouldn’t?

Still, responsibility is a demanding master. Hayward had to give up his job and lower his sights. Like a teacher who has been disciplined, his career was shot. These days, he holds a couple of corporate directorships (Corus Group and Tata Steel), has merged a company into Turkish oil firm Gemel Energy to pursue opportunities in Northern Iraq, and is interim chairman at Glencore International, the world’s twelfth largest company. The rumours have it that the position may become permanent.

You can imagine that he may well be struggling to get his income anywhere seriously into the seven-figure range. What teacher would want to face that fate?

And Hayward isn’t alone in showing how we value most highly those who serve the public most gladly. As long as they do it the world of commerce.

Sam Laidlaw is the Chief Executive of the energy conglomerate Centrica. He takes, or to use the courteous if misleading term, earns, well under £5m a year.

Well, not that far under.

It’s only reasonable to expect some pretty remarkable stuff from the guy, and boy did he deliver this week: 10% increases in energy prices from the old British Gas, now a Centrica subsidiary. That’s just over three times the rate of inflation.

Sam Laidlaw.
Also understands that high rewards come with an obligation to serve
To be able to pull off that kind of stunt and keep a straight face takes the kind of talent you just can’t buy. Well, actually, you can buy it and Centrica have. And it clearly doesn’t come cheap.

You have to remember that Laidlaw achieved this stunning success in a highly competitive environment. Six companies control 98% of the market. Imagine just how difficult it is, with six suppliers, to rig things so as to allow all the companies to make the same excessive price increases and pull in the same obscene levels of profits.

In this nation of shopkeepers, Laidlaw’s is the kind of talent that’s really appreciated.

It’s not the same everywhere. In Finland, for instance, teaching is seen as one of the most desirable professions. Only if your degree is among the top 10% will you be considered for appointment to teaching, and even then you need a minimum of a Master’s degree.

Curiously, pay isn’t all that much higher than in England. At the top of the scale, allowing adjusted for purchasing power, Finland’s only about 4% above England. Sounds like the only really substantial difference is in the public perception of teaching and its prestige.

The impact, however, seems significant. Finland comes top of evaluation after evaluation of educational systems. The OECD, as I mentioned recently, finds that England is right down there among the also-rans when it comes to literacy and numeracy levels. 

Englands answer to this kind of difficulty? Under the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, it is to launch ‘free schools’, free of irritating constraints like having to use qualified staff as teachers. Finland succeeds and demands a Master’s degree as a minimum; England fails and is pioneering unqualified teaching.

You want to understand our admiration for men like Hayward and Laidlaw, our contempt for the profession of teaching? Perhaps you need look no further than the OECD’s findings. I like the American expression, ‘go figure’, but the OECD found levels of numeracy which suggests that those who most need to do the figuring probably can’t. 

Lack of education feeds the undermining of education. And that perpetuates the forelock-tugging to our elite of high-earning mediocrities.

Too many electors cling to their comfort zone, content to live in a nation of shopkeepers. When what they really need is to build a land of talent. For which it would be a good start to learn a lesson from Finland

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The curious effect of a dog in a night garden

It seemed so empty, so mind-blowingly banal, the older person’s dogged determination to follow a dull routine through to completion, each and every day.

That was how I saw my grandparents’ generation, as a child. Or worse than a child: as that most awful of creatures, an adolescent. 

I’d see those old people, each night, turning off lights, putting things away in the fridge, carefully turning lock after lock on their doors. Painful.

‘God preserve me from ever becoming that dull,’ was my unspoken prayer.

I’m not at all convinced that one of these old people I watched with such a sense of superiority was my maternal grandfather, but for some reason when I remember those times, it’s him I think of. And I have those memories most days.

That’s because each night, any time after 10:00, my dog Janka gets her last trip of the day to the garden. She likes gardens. She likes to be among plants and flowers. So she likes that final visit of the day.

Janka feeling comfortable
Its a peaceful moment, a sort of cadence to the day. And the ritual has clearly defined rules. The other day I tried to take her out at 9:30, but got an incredulous look.

‘What game are you playing?’ she seemed to be saying, as she refused to leave her place of comfort on the sofa. ‘This is much too early. Try again in an hour or so. Half an hour if you’re really too knackered to last any 

But some time after 10:00, right up to 1:00 in the morning (that’s the deadline before the barking starts), she’s fine and ready to head out. Just as long as I come with her. I don’t have to do anything, or even be that close to her. Just stand a way back on the path while she pees, tell her she’s a good girl when she’s finished, and then follow her back into the house.

It’s slightly odd because for the first pee of the day she needs nobody. Open the door and out she goes. But in the evening she needs a more companionable moment, so I provide a little company.

Then we get back indoors. First thing, to ensure I don
’t forget, I turn the garden light off (did I fail to mention that Janka feels a little light is an essential ingredient of a comfortable garden visit at night?) Then there’s the back door. For reasons that escape me, it has three locks. I’m sure there’s no need for all of them, but if there are three, I’ll lock three.

That’s when the memories hit me. As I doggedly turn the locks, and carefully check that I’ve done everything, back comes the image of those old guys doing their banal daily duty. And I
’m invaded by the chastening feeling that my prayer, like most prayers, went unheeded. I’ve turned into just the kind of person I hoped I’d never become. 

Not a particularly gratifying sensation.

But, hold it, what the heck. I’ve just had a moment of sociable peace with my dog. And funnily enough, when I think of my grandfather, it isn
’t obsessive evening rituals that come to mind, but his smile, his strength, the things he cared about passionately and the things he didn't care for at all. Welcome memories. Thirty years ofter his death. 

That's got to be worth a moment of mild self-deprecation.

In any case, got to get the door locked. After all, who wants to offer an easy opportunity to burglars?

Monday, 14 October 2013

The man who saw through the fund managers: a well-deserved Nobel prize.

Delighted to see that Eugene Fama is one of the three economists just honoured with a Nobel Prize. 

Fama: Nobel Laureate who saw through the trick
I’ve had a soft spot for him for ages. He’s the one who dug into all those claims of fund managers to be such a great asset for your savings. You know, the ones who say entrust us with your money and watch it grow, grow, grow under our inspired and expert nurturing.

What did Fama find? On average, the growth of managed funds over any reasonably extended period – say twenty years or so – is statistically indistinguishable from the growth of a bunch of shares bought at random on the stock market and kept for the same period.

Isn’t that a great finding? Overall, those super clever traders and dealers add absolutely no value above the average behaviour of the stock market: some may get a better return, but for each of those, there
’s one who under-performs. Taken as a whole, their expertise contributes nothing to getting funds to grow better than they would on their own.

Savour that irony for a few moments. Smile at it. For now.

Because the next piece of the jigsaw’s less funny. All these clever guys charge a fee. So the performance of managed funds, from the point of view of the client, is actually less good than the random behaviour of the stock market.

Of course, like most people, I’m far too lazy to go out and buy my own shares. My pension is dependent on funds managed by some of these characters. So I contribute to keeping them in the lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed.

Which is a great lifestyle. Those fees generate some mouth-watering salaries. Funded by the general indolence of the many like me who prefer to depend on them, rather than on ourselves.

Fine work, if you can get into it. Which takes ingenuity. But then I did say they were clever.

All of which makes me deeply grateful to Eugene Fama for having cut through all the tinsel glamour that surrounds that profession. And delighted that the Nobel prize committee shares my esteem for him.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Dubai: just the place for the rich

‘Visitors complain that there’s no historic old town,’ I’m told one of his advisers complained to the Sultan of Dubai, during a conversation about how to stimulate tourism.

‘That’s OK,’ replied the Sultan. ‘We’ll build one.’

Dubai: haven of the synthetic.
Note the dust haze in the background

What prompted me to think of Dubai again was a friend’s photo from his hotel window there. It showed a glittering panorama of nighttime lights, conjuring up the liveliness that gives the place its charm. 

For those who find it charming.

The story about the old town may be a myth. Many myths, though, contain a core of truth, and Dubai is the expression of everything that is artificial, synthesised, planned.

But like most state planning (one thinks of the Soviet Union), it’s not always well-planned. The city has a super-highway running through its centre. That’s like plunging a dagger through the heart of a community. It’s what makes Birmingham a sad place, despite the liveliness of the area around Broad Street and the Canal: try to walk almost anywhere and you have to get to the other side of a major road, and that means boxed-in underpasses, dank, sinister and usually smelling of urine.

Isn’t it odd that so many men only need a cover over a street to feel they can pee in it?

Birmingham: many charming sights
but in a sadly vandalised city
Dubai’s highway is several lanes wider than Birmingham’s. And the lack of planning meant there was no provision made for the elevated railway the Emirate decided to add later. So, when I was last there, I was amused to see that they frequently had to bring the ‘elevated’ track down to ground level to get it under bridges across the roadway. 

Indeed, at one point they were having to scoop out the ground to take the railway down below ground level.

Its attachment to high-speed roads means that Dubai has the same problem as Birmingham for walkers, but in spades. While we were out there to discuss a project, a colleague suggested that the two of us walk the few hundred metres between our hotel and another where we were to attend a working dinner. The idea was that we could talk over some of the issues ahead more easily than we could at a crowded table.

The walk took nearly forty minutes. Again and again, we were forced to backtrack, as we reached roads we couldn’t cross: no underpass, no traffic lights. Eventually, we found a way through, but it took us across a building site and we arrived with mud-caked shoes.

Dubai doesnt do walking. The beaches are slightly unprepossessing, especially as Dubai is generally cloaked in a fine mist of dust blowing off the desert inland. But in any case it’s extremely difficult to reach the coast on foot, so the simple desire to go for a walk along the beach is beset by logistical obstacles so immense that they’re likely to be terminally off-putting to most normal people.

Dubai, though, appeals to the super-rich. They, after all, travel everywhere by vehicle: why would they want to walk from one hotel to another? As for beaches, they prefer ones that are privately owned, by them or their friends. And no mere physical beauty can make a place as attractive as a highly favourable tax regime, and from that point of view Dubai’s pretty much unbeatable.

In any case, that regime means that you’re saving so much money you can easily get away as often as you want to visit somewhere with better views – Switzerland, say, or the Caribbean, where fiscal advantages are marginally less attractive.

That’s presumably why the boats, or perhaps I should say small ships, in the marinas never seemed to move anywhere. They’re badges of wealth proudly displayed by absentee owners who feel little need to use them, and probably spend most of their time in more salubrious places.

To me, few places I’ve visited have seemed less salubrious than Dubai. Synthetic, soulless, a millionaires’ playground with none of the joy of the child’s variety. What marks it most is the reek of money; whether that’s a scent or a stench I leave it to you to decide, according to taste. 

Herself much quoted, Dorothy Parker liked the words of Maurice Baring: ‘If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it’. For me, Dubai is where the Lord has offered the same people their spiritual home.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Protecting citizens against the threats of feckless Liberals

‘The Guardian has handed a gift to terrorists,’ proclaimed the Daily Mail this week.

The Mail gets the knife into the Guardian

I read recently that it’s deeply unfair – lazy history, in fact – to point out that the Mail was the paper that supported the Nazis in the thirties, so I shan’t mention it here. Let me instead say that the Mail tends not to be on the side of the little man, but prefers to throw its lot in with the great, the powerful and the wealthy, all three usually much the same thing.

The Guardian, on the other hand, tends towards a kind of wet liberalism with which I also like to identify. So the Mail wasn’t so much turning on one of its own, as pursuing its long vendetta with a publication it anathematises.

In this instance, it was referring to comments made by Andrew Parker, head of the British security service MI5, about publication of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the way the NSA in the States and GCHQ in Britain snoop on pretty much the whole population.

‘Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists,’ Parker intoned. ‘It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will.’

The controversy keeps rumbling on. David Cameron, for instance, has come out in support of the Mail and castigated the Guardian. And the accusation is serious, suggesting that the revelations lay us open to attack by some of the most fearsome, and hateful, people out there.

Not everyone agrees with Parker, though. As the Guardian informed us, Nigel Inkster, former director of operations and intelligence at the counter-intelligence agency MI6, believes that ‘those most interested in the activities of the NSA and GCHQ have not been told much they didn’t already know or could have inferred.’

Well, quite. It’s emerged that Osama bin Laden simply had no telephone or internet connection in the house where he lived, and was eventually killed, in Abbotabad in Pakistan. Serious terrorists know they need to keep well away from phones and e-mail if they want to stay safe.

Not that it kept Bin Laden safe.

It seems it’s the rest of us that the spooks want to keep in the dark about the extent of their spying. Perhaps because they feel a little embarrassed to admit how much they’ve been sneaking into the private affairs of the very citizens they’re charged with protecting. Perhaps because they know just how dangerous that kind of behaviour is.

Why is it dangerous? Well, I don’t believe the current British government, however vile it is, really wants to use intelligence obtained by clandestine means to crush opposition or hang on to office. Nor do I think that the current intelligence chiefs are motivated by anything other than the sincere commitment they proclaim, to defeat terrorists and any other enemies that threaten us.

But what if we found ourselves with a different government and a different set of espiocrats running the spy establishment?

After all, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the winter olympics in Sochi, in Russia. It looks as though they are going to be the most heavily monitored games in history. Russian intelligence organisations will be reading e-mails, listening to phone calls, checking on internet traffic, of competitors, spectators and journalists alike.

’s Russia has recently taken a further lurch into homophobia. A tightening set of restrictions are being placed on its gay community. It’s a safe bet that one use of all this surveillance is going to be against anyone trying to resist this shameful trend. 

That’s when this level of spying becomes extremely disagreeable. But, some will say, it couldn’t happen in the West. Could it?

We’ve recently seen a big upsurge of support in Britain for the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. It’s one of those classic protest movements which is defined above all by being anti: anti-immigrant, anti-liberal, anti-European Union. And, in particular, anti-gay: it has opposed government moves to legalise same-sex marriage, for instance. It is hardly inconceivable that, despite the resistance many of us will put up, UKIP might find itself in the not very distant future at least able to influence power, perhaps even as a coalition partner in government.

Now imagine a UKIP minister – and still worse a UKIP Home Secretary – turning to an intelligence service under his authority and asking it for information about gay activists. The spooks might refuse, but they could be replaced. And with the lack of legal oversight revealed by Snowden, how would we even know whether they’d refused or not?

Besides which, in an atmosphere in which certain people had come to regard gays as a threat, as they apparently have in Russia, wouldn’t the spies feel it was their duty to report on them?

And here’s another scenario which is at least as insidious.

Britain is a country run by wealthy people who know and support each other. Imagine a minister about to be exposed for abusing his office by a journalist who is, perhaps, not entirely without blemish himself – maybe he’s having an adulterous affair. The minister picks up the phone to his old friend, perhaps someone he was at school with, in the upper reaches of one of the intelligence organisations.

Without oversight or proper legal control, who can say with certainty that the friend won’t get the information the politician wants and leak it? Perhaps not to the Minister, but to a pliant organ of the press. Then the journalist is discredited, his career perhaps wrecked, over a matter irrelevant to his work, while a bent Minister is spared the exposure he so richly deserves – and which we so badly needed for our protection.

A gift to terrorists? By publishing the Snowden material, the Guardian has made a gift to ordinary citizens, increasingly vulnerable to bad behaviour by government supported by the spooks.

If the Mail‘s so upset, that only shows how quickly the establishment closes ranks against any move that champions the citizen against the powerful.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Dumbing down the electorate? According to the OECD, there's no need

Now here’s an interesting insight into our societies.

England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales decided, perhaps wisely, not to take part in this study) are 14th out of 24 countries rated for literacy by the OECD. The United States is 17th.

On numeracy, England and Northern Ireland are 18th, the United States 22nd.

I particularly liked one of the test questions, in which respondents were asked whether the following sentence makes sense or not: ‘a person who is twenty years old is older than a person who is thirty years old.’ 

I think that tests a key skill: the aptitude that allows us to understand that the taxation system in the UK and US favours the poor over the rich, or the concept that in England we’re all in this struggle against financial crisis together, all being called on to sacrifice in the same way and to the same extent.

Interestingly, the OECD does lots of studies. Another shows that once you take taxation into account, the UK is 28th out of 34 countries when it comes to income equality, and the US a near-championship level 31st. The populations can barely read or count, but boy are they good at getting themselves ripped off by the guys with their hands in the till.

And the best news of all? This is all going to get even more intense. Among 16 to 24 year olds, England and Northern Ireland outperform the United States on literacy, coming 22nd out of 24 and leaving the US trailing behind at 19th; but on numeracy, young Americans notch up the perfect score, a straight bottom, 24th out of 24 where England and Northern Ireland can only get to 21st – honourably into the 20s but hardly comparable to the US.

That means that, without undue optimism, we can expect our electorates to get still dumber, especially in the US. With such levels of numeracy among the young, there are good grounds for hope that the Tea Party will be able to go on persuading voters that it’s a fine thing to lay off half a million people without pay, that this won’t have a knock-on effect when those people start defaulting on their obligations, and that still more to the point, there’ll be no consequences when the country defaults on its debts too.

John Boehner looking impressive.
The OECD's finding explain why he impresses so many
With a younger generation boasting such enviable levels of skill, there’ll be no difficulty getting people to accept that it’s perfectly reasonable to pass legislation, get it cleared by the supreme court and endorsed in a presidential election, and then refuse to fund government until it withdraws it. I think that’s called demanding with menaces, but the literacy results suggest that enough people won’t be able to read or understand either word.

We should be deeply grateful to the OECD for providing the hard evidence for why it is that, though the US is playing on the financial brink, and Britain
’s anaemic recovery is benefiting only a tiny minority of the population,  the American Tea Party and British ConDems still enjoy otherwise inexplicably strong poll positions.

‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,’ said H L Mencken. The OECD has shown us why he was right. And that the sentiment can be applied just as confidently in Britain. Or at any rate in England and Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Syria: not ashamed to be naïve

Isn’t it heartwarming that US Secretary of State John Kerry, in full agreement with his Russian opposite number Sergey Lavrov, can describe himself as ‘very pleased’ with the initial work on chemical weapon disarmament now under way in Syria?
Lavrov and Kerry: best of friends these days...
That contrasts with his position less than a month ago. Asked on 9 September whether there was anything Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid being targeted by US cruise missiles, Kerry replied:

‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’

Now I’ve been told it only demonstrates how hopelessly naïve I am that I failed to spot the clever bluff that Kerry was playing. He never had any intention of actually using the missiles, he just wanted Assad (and the Russians) to believe that he might. All the time, what he was really after was putting enough pressure on the regime in Damascus to force it to the negotiating table.

Well, perhaps. But I remember the run up to the Iraq war, when the State Department was using the same kind of language, claiming that their intention was to set the bar so high Saddam Hussein simply couldn’t clear it. In other words, they’d made up their mind to go to war, come what may.

It felt to me as though the US administration was going down that route again. They didn’t want to give Assad any way of wriggling away from a missile attack, and no one was as committed to aggressive action than Kerry.

Which was strange, as he’d never seemed a real hawk before. But then it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been disappointed by a politician’s second thoughts.

So, in my naïve way, I’m over the moon that Kerry’s now ‘pleased’ with the progress achieved by diplomacy, without a shot being fired, without a single civilian killed by ‘collateral damage’ (at least, not inflicted by the West: the warring factions in Syria are causing tragic levels of casualties daily).

What changed over the last month? Time was bought for diplomacy. 

There’s no doubt the US threat was effective. Moscow took it sufficiently seriously to bring pressure to bear on Assad; friendless and isolated, Assad gave way and decided to meet UN requirements on his chemical weapons; the international community agreed to give this initiative time to prove itself a failure or a success; and so far it seems to be going well.

As important as the US threat of force was the time for negotiation to work. And that was made available by US allies refusing to support its unilateral action. In turn, that gave Obama and Kerry pause, and Putin the opportunity to act.

Now, wouldn’t it be major step forward if this experience marked a new trend for Western nations to moderate each other’s aggression, rather than forever working themselves up to new military adventures?

But that
’s just more naïvety on my part, no doubt.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

You gotta laugh

Laughter is the saving grace of mankind.

Many of our worst problems are caused by acute sense of humour breakdowns. I mean, if the Tea Party could appreciate the irony of the wealthiest nation on Earth spending more than anyone else on healthcare without even being able to cover the whole population, they might not be driving their nation and the world into uncharted waters of financial mayhem.

Even better, if US voters could see what a bunch of tenth-rate clowns the Tea Party Congressmen were, they might just treat them with the derisive laugh they deserve and stop voting for them.

In the meantime, while I wait for the day when the pits of our society – I’m sorry, I meant the pinnacles of our leadership – learn to stop taking themselves quite so seriously, I can at least get some enjoyment from the smiles around in my neighbourhood.

And I’m using the word ‘neighbourhood’ in its literal sense. 

On one side, we have a neighbour from hell, who does all she can to test the sense of humour of anyone nearby – indeed, most of the street. Her idea of a party is to have loud fun until about 1:00 in the morning, and then drift into increasingly bitter, and equally loud, altercation involving screaming, tears and not infrequently the smashing of crockery, for the rest of the night.

But on the other side we have people it’s a delight to know. Two sisters living together, with sons and grandchildren around. The  grandchildren, incidentally, find it just as unfunny as we do to be woken at 4:00 in the morning by the other neighbour.

Some time ago, I was struck by a strange sight over the back door of the sisters’ house. It was a clear plastic bag full of water, nailed over the lintel. It looked like nothing so much as the kind of bag in which one might carry back a goldfish won at a fair. The resemblance was underlined by the coppery objects lying on the bottom, but it turns out these weren’t goldfish who’d seen better days but copper coins.

Finally, meeting one of the sisters yesterday, I asked her what the bag was about.

‘Oh, a friend told us that it would keep flies out of the house,’ she explained, smiling self-deprecatingly.

‘And – does it work?’ I asked.

‘No, of course, not. But it’s become a talking point whenever people come round to the house now, so we leave it up there.’ And she smiled again.

A fly catcher? What, seriously?
Or not to be taken seriously at all?
Now, that’s the attitude I like to see. Mockery of one’s superstitions. And a healthy willingness to display evidence of our own laughable behaviour, if only to provoke light-hearted conversation and, no doubt, a smile or two.

If only the Tea Party could learn to behave that way towards itself, our teetering financial system might be a lot more sturdy. And we’d all have a lot more to be cheerful about.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Fascism: how does one resist it?

Did you ever see the Costas Gavras classic film, Z?

When it comes to building tension, few films have equalled it. I particularly liked the use of the rat-a-tat-tat of an IBM golfball typewriter as part of the soundtrack: it provides a percussion accompaniment to much of the work of the Examining Magistrate investigating the violent death of a left-wing politician.

Its effect is particularly powerful when it suddenly stops: the magistrate, having previously always corrected anyone who had referred to the death as a ‘murder’ and insisted that they call it an ‘incident’, had in dictating a report used the work ‘murder’ himself. There is a sudden, deathly silence and then the voice of the typist: ‘don’t you mean ‘incident’?’

But by then it was clear that it wasn’t an incident, that the man had been murdered. And that takes us into the final chilling sequence of the film, as the army’s tanks move in and a military government is formed; those who investigated and exposed a crime find they are now the criminals and facing persecution; even witnesses disappear in quick and mysterious succession.

The setting of the film? Thinly disguised Greece as the 
Colonels’ seized power, back in 1967. I was fourteen at the time and beginning to take an interest in politcs. At that age, whatever I discovered seemed immutable, good for all time. A few years later, I felt nothing but sorrow for a fellow student and friend of mine, a Greek who, it seemed to us both, would be condemned to live with that oppressive and vicious regime for a long time to come.

Keeping Z's veil transparent: 'any resemblance to real events,
to people living or dead, is no coincidence. It is DELIBERATE.'
In the end that didn’t happen. The Colonels fell in 1974 and democracy was restored. Like the change in regime in Spain a year later, it seemed like a new spring in the non-Soviet part of Europe; soon we began to feel that these new democracies were here to stay, and it was hard to imagine them ever drifting back towards Fascism.

Today, for Greece at least, there’s less grounds for that casual optimism. A nakedly neo-Nazi movement, Golden Dawn, took 7% in the polls last year and won its first seats in the Greek parliament.

I say ‘nakedly’ but the reality is that they deny their Nazi roots. These movements always do. But their symbols, their beliefs and most tellingly their behaviour (they organise gangs to use violence against immigrants or minorities), all mark them as belonging to that same deplorable tradition.

Golden Dawn: who could possibly mistake them for Nazis?
Most worryingly, it emerged recently some of their thugs were being given training by elements in the security forces. That really awoke memories of Z: Costas Gavras underlined the ugly nexus between the violent right wing and the military-police establishment.

Now though Golden Dawn have perhaps overreached themselves. A left-leaning singer has been murdered, and a Golden Dawn member has admitted responsibility. The reaction of the authorities has been astonishing for its swiftness and effectiveness. Leading members of Golden Dawn, including MPs, have been arrested and charged with serious offences.

It’s a fascinating, if frightening, moment to watch. The great paradox of democracies up against totalitarian violence is to know how far they can go: if they go beyond the rule of law, they may be more effective, but aren’t they themselves then undermining the very democracy they wish to uphold?

But the Greek government has decided that it has to act. And so far it has acted within the law anyway, so one has to wish it well in its aspiration to crush a viper before it strikes.

That’s what makes the spectacle fascinating. What makes it frightening is another historical parallel. In 1923, Hitler launched his ill-fated ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Munich. This attempted uprising was crushed in two days. Hitler was tried and imprisoned – but not deported to his native Austria, as he might have been, since he wasn’t a German citizen.

Instead he was held in comfortable conditions in a castle where he wrote Mein Kampf. He was released after eight months; nine years later, he was Chancellor of Germany.

So the question now is, how will the Golden Dawn’s defendants be treated? Will they be convicted of serious or minor offences, will they face sentences that take them off the political scene?

There’s a lot riding on that. What a shame if another 14 year old has to sit through a successor film to Z in a few years time, and feel the same sense of frustration and anger so many of us felt back in 1967
. Or the same sorrow for the fate of Greece.

Even for another outstanding film, that would be too high a price to pay.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

US government shutdown: a long but hardly honourable tradition

So the Republican Party in Congress, and in particular its Tea Party faction, have pushed the US federal government into shutdown. Such is their hatred of Obama’s limited reforms of the healthcare system, which manages to incur the highest costs in the world while failing provide proper access to care for most of the population.

Obama: suffering exasperations
that were already familiar to Washington
In fact, such is their commitment to preventing comprehensive access to healthcare, that the Tea Party is indifferent to the fate of nearly half a million federal employees, now on forced unpaid leave. What is their right to expect an income compared to the congressional duty to denying care to 15% of their fellow citizens?

Curiously, there’s nothing new in this attempt at starving the government of funds.

The Tea Party’s name is a conscious allusion to the revolutionaries of the 1770s, when the Boston Tea Party was one of the iconic moments in the intensifying resistance to British rule. Among the revolutionaries of that time were many to whom

And the activists back then included many to whom today’s rebels can draw a direct line of descent. Indeed, if the present US constitution was adopted, one of the reasons was to overcome the paralysis that flowed from the inability of the Continental Congress to get States to pay for federal expenditure.

Sound familiar?

Ask any of today’s Tea Party people about the sufferings of the soldiers in the Continental Army of the revolutionary war, and they’d no doubt be unstinting praise of their fortitude and heroism. They might mention the resolve of the army that got it through the terrible conditions of its first winter in Valley Forge, and the debt it owed its general, George Washington, who put up with terrible privations in order to stay with his troops and share their suffering.

What they won’t point out is that the horror of Valley Forge was inflicted by States who refused funding for the Army. Men died, in large numbers, of malnutrition and disease because the very patriots who were quick to back them with words, weren’t prepared to back them with cash.

Sound familiar?

Worse still, many of the farmers in the area where the solders were starving, kept selling produce to the British authorities, because they could offer better rates and pay in a reliable currency.

See? Just like today’s Tea Party. Business first, politics second. And if ordinary people have to pay with their lives or the parsimony of those who claim to back them, well, that’s just the natural order. Like slavery.

In particular, who needs healthcare? The patriots at Valley Forge took their medicine and died – or rather didn’t get any medicine and died – so why should today’s poor expect more?

The classic TV series, Yes, Prime Minister refers at one point to a nation struggling with a military threat to its existence, to which Britain offers , in which a struggling nation is offers ‘every support, short of help.’ Or, to go even further and plunge into paradox, the Tea Party, however rabidly right wing, reminds me of Lenin, who offered to support the British Labour, ‘in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man.’

Yes, that’s the kind of support the American people can expect from the Tea Party.

The only odd thing is that so many of those awaiting on the gallows for their turn to be hanged, keep on offering their genuine support right back. By voting for them.