Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Picky Feeders

Guardian Comment is Free, full text

29 April 2008
Ian Williams

According the aphorism, in foxholes and shipwrecks we all become believers in divine intervention. I consider this unproven, but it is certainly true that in a worldwide crisis some of the most unlikely people start looking to the United Nations.

Ban Ki-moon's speeches on the food crisis have had widespread coverage in media more accustomed to overlooking his pronouncements than broadcasting them, and the organisation and its associated agencies are working hard on the problem.

He has rung the alarm bell, and it has resonated across the world. But just as provable divine intervention in firefights and storms is rare, sadly, one cannot help but wonder about the likelihood of successful multilateral intervention.

Secretary general Ban says "we are familiar with the causes: rising oil prices, growing global demand, bad trade policies, bad weather, panic buying and speculation, the new craze for biofuels". However, we have been familiar with these causes and their effects for a long time. Thomas Malthus has had a bad press, but what he said was true. Too many people chasing too few resources leads to shortages and possible famines. The small print that Malthus overlooked - that technological advances could increase supply - has saved us so far.

For some years now the world has teetered a few weeks from famine, but only eschatological and apocalyptic futurists took much notice. The markets would deliver.
After the world wars, Europe set the pace for food autarky, an example followed by China, India and other major developing nations. Feeding your own people was too important to leave to the kindness of strangers. Under pressure from neoliberal economics, these governments have been moving out of the food security business, but it may have been throwing the loaf out with the cupcake.

It is true that some subsidies and some tariffs may have had a deleterious effect, but after all, most people will look to their government to ensure essential food supplies. Leaving it to the markets produces potato famines and speculation. If you rely on hedge funds for lunch, you eat thorns.

The green revolution that boosted Asia's food production is running out of steam, and it depended on heavy inputs of fertilisers and fuel, both in turn dependent on oil and other hydrocarbon inputs.

At the same time, the North American grains that used to be the backstop against the world's famines and the supplier for the World Food Programme (WFP) have been diverted into highly subsidised and fuel-inefficient production of corn syrup and gasohol.

Even Fidel Castro, who has, after all, engineered a few shortages himself, saw this one coming a year ago and warned what would happen. In fact, so did we in Comment is Free.

Ban's agenda is frankly interventionist, at both national and global levels. Apart from getting his own agencies and the World Bank together on the issue, he wants world leaders to address the issue at the forthcoming food security conference in Rome. Now that they can see the running horses, it is possible that there will be a rush to close the stable doors.

The first issue is that the WFP, the main emergency supplier for poor countries, is broke. Originally set up at US instigation to distribute food surpluses, it now has to buy its supplies on the world market, where prices are soaring, and the UN is asking for $755m to refill its granaries. Will governments happy to pour money into weaponry or banks shy at "discretionary" expenditure like this in the face of a recession?

Ban wants the world "to address trade distortions that weigh so heavily on the poorest nations," which means an end to subsidised exports to developing countries that destroy their local agricultural sector. Ironically the WFP was beginning to use local supplies instead of dumping American surpluses to ruin local farmers - but politically it was only feasible because gasohol production had burnt up the surpluses. It will be interesting to see, however, if his call for the elimination of biofuel subsidy will get past Archer Daniels Midland's sentries on Capitol Hill.

That is the real test. As Harry Hotspur responded to Glendower, who could "call up spirits from the vasty deep", "why so can I, but will they come when you do call?"

Ban Ki-moon can call on governments to act, but will they put aside their short-term national interests for long-term global goods? Between soaring food and fuel prices, and panic reactions around the world, it is possible that the mild-mannered and quietly spoken Korean may have their attention.

Whether we have the wit to postpone proof of Malthus's theory is still an experiment in progress.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Getting Carter

Making peace often involves talking to unsavoury people, so Jimmy Carter should be praised for engaging with Hamas

Ian Williams
Guardian, Comment is Free
April 25, 2008 6:00 PM | Pr
intable version
It is odd that while Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon benefited from post-presidential canonisation, even the Democratic contenders keep a discrete leper's leap away from Jimmy Carter.

Carter's belief that even the most evil dictators will see the light is a testament to his Christian faith in redemption. It can be exasperating if you do not share his principles, but it is certainly preferable to the predestinarianism and damnation that informs other, less Christian evangelicals. Indeed, many probably find his Southern accent and piety a trifle over-unctuous. However, it is certainly not enough to explain his ostracism, which is almost entirely caused by his views on the Middle East.

Condoleezza Rice, representing the administration that brought the world the Iraq debacle and has earned the lowest-ever standing at home and abroad (in particular in the Middle East), saw fit to lecture him for talking to Hamas despite state department instructions. Carter denied getting any such warnings, but who are you going to believe: the most mendacious administration in history or the ex-president who wears his principles on his sleeve?

In any sane polity, there would be profound respect for the views of a president who engineered the only durable Arab-Israeli peace deal at Camp David, one that has now lasted over 30 years. Of course, meeting Hamas is considered very bad. Elected they may have been, but democracy has its limits in this brave new world where the label "terrorist" has more pungency and even less discrimination than Joe McCarthy's "communist". Indeed, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, called Carter a "bigot" yesterday. Can you imagine the reaction if a US envoy to Israel - or a presidential candidate - had used that term about several Israeli ex-prime ministers who truly deserve it?

On the other hand, perhaps we should remember that Carter's triumph at Camp David involved him dealing with Menachem Begin, the former leader of a group that had negotiated with Hitler's emissaries; assassinated Lord Moyne, the chief allied emissary in the region; massacred Arab civilians at Deir Yasseen; and blown up Jews, Brits and Arabs with equal-opportunity ruthlessness at the King David Hotel. Peace often involves talking to unsavoury people.

The other accusation against Carter was that he used the term "apartheid" in passing when talking about the settlements. No matter that Israeli commentators have also used the term, nor that those who should know - South Africans like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu - have also done so, leaving their global halos undimmed. Carter did not even mention the extensive Israeli collaboration with the apartheid regime, on nuclear weapons, fighter planes and less bellicose forms of sanctions evasion or indeed the occupation's quantitative leap beyond the old South African regime - racially segregated roads.

Carter brought back indications that the Hamas leadership were prepared to buy into the only peace plan that has the support of considerable numbers of Israelis and of Arabs, a two-state solution based on the 1967 boundaries. Immediately, the usual suspects rushed to rubbish this. Hamas must not only recognise the reality of Israel's existence, but its "right" to exist. It is like asking American Indian tribes to accept the morality of manifest destiny before they could run their own reservations.

Interestingly, no one has asked Israeli government ministers to accept unequivocally the Palestinian state that has been promised for so long by the rest of the world. However, reciprocation apart, no one should doubt that those who condemn Carter, dismiss the Hamas offer and refuse to talk to them do not want peace.

There can be no peace unless the substantial proportion of Palestinians represented by Hamas sign on for it. There are significant elements in the Israeli government, like those who assassinate Hamas leaders every time a ceasefire is in the offing, who do not want any peace that restricts their activities in the West Bank.

Even as Rice bans talks to Hamas, the US continues to send cheques to a government that is building settlements in defiance of international law, its obligations under the so-called road map and its solemn promises to George Bush.

Carter deserves vociferous support for his well-meaning and well-informed efforts, not vilification and demonising. It was back-channel efforts like his that were responsible for any progress in the original Camp David and in Oslo. We should not be surprised that the Bush administration does not want to listen to Carter, but we should be very, very disappointed.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Final Chapter?

From the Guardian 22 April 2008

Did some Mesopotamian bibliophile gloat as he surveyed his jars filled with clay tablets and discount airily the idea that papyrus scrolls could ever replace the tangible heft and mystery, the sheer durability, usefulness and ease of handling of a fist-sized clay rectangle? I am feeling the same way about the "modern" book.

The late Roman invention of the book as we know it now, the codex of bound pages of papyrus parchment or paper, achieved the pre-electronic apogee of information storage and retrieval. Just think of the tedium of unrolling a scroll to find that one salacious passage you were looking for. The bound book married ease of reading to the aesthetic pleasures of fine bindings and illustrations, not to mention elegant typefaces and layout.

The development of paper and printing made these things available without taking out a subprime mortgage - the Lindisfarne Gospels required a holocaust of 150 calves to provide the vellum even before a monkish scribe had dipped a pen in ink.

Even on paper, books are wonderful things. I breed them in my Catskill farmhouse, or at least I think I hear the pages rustling furtively at night, and there seem to be more of them all the time, necessitating a continuous state of shelf construction. However, the next revolution is in the air.

Initially, the internet did good things for writers both in production and distribution. My first book entailed day after day sifting through dusty library card indexes trawling for material. Now I can sit on my porch next to the river and trawl the internet for appropriate works, and order them online to be delivered within days.

There are more titles published every year than there were through whole eons of history. Huge numbers - veritable forests-worth of paper - are printed, and much more quickly than ever before.

In the old days, typescript would be laboriously edited, set in print, proofread and printed. Nowadays many titles seem to go from author's computer to the printing press without much even in the way of editorial attention.

When you scan the internet, the online sellers offer second-hand copies along with the new, which does not benefit the authors at all. Modern technology still has its upside. In fact, that first book of mine, The Alms Trade, gestated in dusty libraries and went out of print shortly after publication when Rupert Murdoch bought the publisher to get his hands on its Tolkien titles. Since it was selling for anything between $70 and $120 on the internet, a just-in-time publisher, Cosimo Press, recently reprinted it, so that it is now available for $15 in a handsome trade paperback on better quality paper than the original hardback! I even get royalties.

The technology could save the backlist and the mid-list from the vagaries of American publishers who would rather pulp and remainder than warehouse and sell their books. However, I cannot help but wonder if this is a last flicker of the glorious history of print.

I used to get half a dozen newspapers a day. Now I read most of them online. I have the complete couple of dozen volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary next to my desk, but I doubt whether I would ever buy another such large reference book. The CD or online versions are actually easier to use (if you overlook Oxford's clunky anti-copying system.)

Sentiment and aesthetics apart, the big attraction of a book is its portability. You can read it on the plane or train, on the lav or at lunch, or in the bed or the bath without trailing power cables or risking a shocking end to the story.

But the end is nigh. Amazon has just produced the Kindle, the electronic book reader, which, with all its imperfections, would allow me to travel without the suitcase full of books I take now, burning up fuel and costing weight surcharges.

At present they charge far too much for the downloads, which of course will lead to even more piracy. People do not like paying the same price for a rush of electrons as for a tangible object, and while the electronic ink technology is impressive, it is still not as easy on the eyes as the old black fluid on paper.

But it is a sign of things to come, and the auguries get worse. Google is institutionalising the e-book by scanning and hosting the world's libraries. On one level it is a public service, a contribution to scholarship, but this eleemosynary endeavour is at the expense of the world's authors. When a portable electronic book can download any volume from Google's database, will there be any copyright protection for authors?

On the other hand, if they can fix payments, downloads would knock the bottom out of the second-hand market, and maybe for the first time authors could get the equivalent of residuals.

Nevertheless, while watching the brave new world for potential royalty statements, I will continue to cherish my book-covered walls. Somehow, they are a better statement than a Kindle on the coffee table.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Faithful Follower

Guardian Comment is Free

On Dominie Brown, Pope Benedict and benighted Bush.

Premier Brown and Pope Benedict share some superficial traits, not least a sense of infallibility. But when the son of the manse meets the father of the church, there's no competition in the USA.

There is a reason why it is Captain Kirk who is the hero of Star Trek, and not Scottie down in the engine room of the USS Enterprise. Sad to say, the era has gone when many, let alone most, Americans would resonate to a dour Scots engineer keeping things running steadily down below.

The Pope may not have many divisions, but he is Catholic, which guarantees him a hundred million or so fans. Poor Dominie Brown may "love America", and even may love American TV, but it does make one wonder how closely he has scrutinised either.

If he had viewed closely, he would have realised that the somewhat befuddled and less-than-popularly rapturous reception for "Who?" - as he is affectionately referred to by the person on the street in New York and Washington - puts the "special relationship" in its proper, very low-profile perspective.

As House speaker Tip O'Neill declared "all politics is local". With all those voters behind it, the Vatican can chide the US over abortion and the death penalty. With the inimitable lobby behind it, Israel can break promise after promise over the Road Map, and still ask for more.

However, there is no British lobby in the US, despite millions of expats living here. Collectively they have no presence at all. The cultural flow from Britain to America probably does not resonate too much with most Americans now. Britain is neither the mother country, nor even the original enemy. It is as irrelevant as any other country that generally does what its told.

The Pope never committed the Swiss Guard to Iraq, so he avoids Brown's embarrassment at inheriting a British troop presence there. Brown is in the uncharismatic position of actually having divisions in Iraq that Blair so foolishly committed, but practicing a sort of military coitus interruptus, keeping his troops on the edge of withdrawal but never quite reaching the climatic moment to pull them out.

Indeed, while the Pope is not shy of promulgating dogma, justifying Galileo's fate and generally being a hard man on the theology front, Brown's Americophilia goes so far as to emulate the coy circumspection of American candidates when confronted with a hard issue.

Above all "Don't mention the war", from Basil Fawlty, seems to be the text of the day for Brown, whose editorial in yesterday's Wall Street Journal had all pointedness of an over-boiled haggis. He called for a joint Anglo-American crusade to teach the world English. There is no doubt that Webster's rather than the Oxford English Dictionary would serve as the reference book, but more to the point, the proposal does nothing to excite Americans, who assume that foreigners will learn English anyway. But worldwide it associates Britain ineradicably with the country that opinion polls show is almost terminally unpopular across the world. Now is the time to distinguish Britain, not to put truth in the rumours about it being the 51st state. (It isn't of course. It's a commonwealth like Puerto Rico, bound by Washington's edicts but without representation in its councils.)

As 1945 Prime Minister Clement Attlee proved, you do not have to sparkle to be a great prime minister, but Attlee had a stellar front bench, while Brown does not.

So it's all up to him. If Brown wants to play the dour Dominie, it's about time he got some hellfire and damnation in his sermons to Americans that will make them sit up and remember them. Reading the riot act to a lame duck president who historians consider to be the US's worst ever will do Britain no harm, and could lend some charisma to its prime minister, who is beginning to make grey John Major look like a superstar.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

No to Clinton

Reason we dare to hope for an Obama victory
April 17, 2008
Tribune, London
Ian Williams - Letter from America

MY FAVOURITE memory of Hillary Clinton is her address to New York trade union activists fundraising for her Senate campaign. “I have been associated with the same causes as you all my working life”, she declared with her typical brass-necked chutzpah. Indeed she has. She was a corporate lawyer working for anti-union companies.

While many of the Republican attacks against her smack of fervent misogyny, the Clintons give plenty of more rational reasons to provoke unsupportive reactions. Hillary has all the negative connotations of Bill’s tenure, but lacks her husband’s charisma and political charm.

Barack Obama is not the new prophet to lead the United States out of the wilderness of neo-liberal capitalism, but his election would augur well for the maturity of American society. It would indicate that the scars of slavery were fading and, along with them, the Republicans’ “Southern strategy”, aimed at winning white voters.

Obama did not always have the lock on black American votes that he now has. Clinton inherited her husband’s tremendous (and not objectively merited) support among them. It was hers to lose – and she did, as she sent out coded signals to whites, which black voters were historically well-equipped to decode. Registrations of young black voters have soared across the US – and it is open to question whether they would actually turn out for Clinton in a presidential election.

On the other hand, Obama’s deft footwork has benefited him in the racial minefield of American politics. His skin colour is belied by his mixed race origins, so that white voters who would cavil at what they see as the influence of “professional” blacks can and do support him. His thoughtful speeches on this issue show that Obama knows how to walk the tightrope, while Clinton’s cynical attempts to push him off seem to be backfiring.

One question is the Hispanic vote, which has been going solidly in favour of Clinton. Many Hispanics are, in their own way, redneck about blacks. It remains to be seen how the endorsement of Governor Bill Richardson – hitherto the most prominent Hispanic Democratic candidate – will help Obama in the primaries. In the presidential election, it is unlikely Hispanics will switch to the Republicans whose overtly anti-immigrant and covertly racist attitudes offer little to them.

Underlying the attenuated ideological content of the Democratic Party, both Obama and Clinton have been raising more money from the Republicans’ natural business base, which perhaps suspects the right-wing ideology of the conservatives makes McCain unelectable. Obama has been even more successful in this area than Clinton, which should serve as a reality check to leftists and keep their expectations within modest bounds.

However, an Obama victory would be a fitting nemesis for the “new” Democrats and the Clintons, whose dark side becomes more apparent as Hillary sees herself baulked of what she had taken for granted.

The Clinton strategy – the model for Tony Blair’s “new” Labour – depends on raising funds from wealthy people and staying unconstrained by pandering to the “special interest groups” representing the poor, workers and ethnic minorities, whose votes are taken for granted. In the primaries, Hillary neglected “unimportant” states, just as she neglects “unimportant” people.

Her Karl Rove-style tactics against Obama have exacerbated her conscious abstention from building a grassroots campaign to raise serious doubts about her ability to win the race to the White House against McCain.

Regardless of any damage to her party, she will not bow out, hoping that its senior officials – the so-called super delegates – will defy their constituents’ mandates and support her at the Democratic convention.

In contrast, Obama has built up a national grassroots campaign, which is hardly surprising. That is how he built his political base in Chicago. Unfortunately for Clinton, many among the party leadership now see her as the least viable option to break the Republican hold on the White House. But by fighting to the last, she ensures the Democrats are, in the nature of the primary system, eviscerating themselves in public while McCain concentrates on November’s election.

What does all this mean to the rest of the world? In terms of foreign policy, it is justified in cheering for Obama. McCain supports the war in Iraq and hews to a vigorous unilateralism mitigated only by a rationality lacking from the current administration. At least he recognises the need for allies and is opposed to torture.

Clinton is basically a neo-conservative who stayed with the Democrats. She supported the war in Iraq and now only opposes it for the inimitably Clintonian reason that open support is an obvious vote-loser. She has the spine her husband lacks, but shares his unscrupulousness.

Obama has been a voice of reason, consistently opposing the Iraq war, calling for engagement with Iran and Cuba and even sailing dangerously close to the wind on the Israel-Palestinian issue.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Green Menace

From Comment is Free Guardian 14 April 2008

A small correction is in order, apparently the Senator is not actually a member of DSA, although he spoke at their convention and happily accepts donations _ Ian W.

In a country where many socialists seem to prefer sniping from academic ivory towers to active involvement in the political process, most Americans are blithely unaware of the US Senate's first and only avowed socialist. In Britain, Bernie Sanders would be a media celebrity like Tony Benn or Claire Short. In the US, the junior senator from Vermont is equally free with his strongly held opinions, but he would have to be caught tapping his feet in an airport toilet stall to hit the talk shows.

Brooklyn-born Sanders moved to Vermont in 1964, becoming mayor of Burlington in 1981. He represented the state in the House of Representatives from 1988 until 2006 when he won the Senate seat at the age of 65.

It's not as if he did it as a stealth socialist. Sanders is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, who represent the US at the Socialist International - but do not put up candidates of their own. Even so, his flat urban vowels, his challenged coiffure and couture, with his arresting look from behind his glasses combine to make him almost a stereotype of the earnest Brooklyn socialist intellectual who made his own way from the tenements.

But in Vermont, he is "Bernie", and hard work and palpable sincerity more than make for his serious demeanour and lack of gladhanding.

Perhaps fortunately for him, the tiny hard left in the US wants nothing to do with him and his pragmatic Old Labourish policies. When he (along with most of the European socialists) supported intervention in Kosovo, some of his staff resigned in protest.

Technically he is listed as "Independent", but he is no Lone Ranger. He takes the Democratic whip and co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus - a 72-member grouping of the lower house's most liberal members and the biggest such grouping on the Hill.

He speaks fondly of Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, discounting the suggestion that his five committees - "excellent assignments" for a junior senator - may be a consequence of his strategic importance to the wafer-thin Democratic majority. In his early terms in the House he used to tell his more conservative Democratic colleagues exactly what he thought of their timidity, but his approach has mellowed, not necessarily because they moved left, but because the Republicans went so far right.

Now, he sees some cause for optimism. "We've had probably the most right-wing government in the United States in modern history - perhaps forever," he says. "A year ago, extreme right wingers like Tom Delay and Bill Frist were running the Senate and House - but that's been pushed back."

But, as he often does, he immediately qualifies his enthusiasm: "I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said that a Democratic victory in the House or Senate gave us a progressive Congress. It's a lot better than a right-wing extremist government, but it is a centrist government over which big money has a lot of influence."

He concludes: "We still have a long way to go to develop a government which is going to represent the working families and middle classes of America." (British readers should note that the American "middle class" encompasses almost anyone with a regular job.)

Which leaves the question: what's so different about Vermont that it can send Sanders to the Senate? While admitting that on issues like healthcare, the example of nearby Canada helps, the senator does not think that his rural state is an aberration. "It about class," he declares. His electoral support is based on pragmatic and political attention to his constituents' economic interests. "In Vermont, and elsewhere, the most serious economic problem facing America is the collapse of the middle class. The vast majority of Americans have suffered a decline in their standard of living and we are engaged in a race to the bottom."

He shoots off the staccato statistics with the ease of frequent practice: since Bush took office, five million more Americans live in poverty, three million more have lost their pensions, seven million more have lost their health insurance and median household income is now $2,000 less. "That's the dynamic of the American economy. It's not talked about very often by the corporate media, not often discussed in Congress."

Implicitly he condemns many of his Democratic colleagues and suggests that their refusal to address such crass economic issues allows conservatives to trap them into fighting on the forlorn battlefield of social and cultural issues. He charges that "the media plutocracy in this country has tried to establish that you are liberal if you are pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-environment, and you are a conservative if you are against those."

Some liberals take him to task for voting against some gun-control legislation. "It's less of an issue now," he shrugs, and he points to Vermont's zero gun-control laws, high gun-ownership "and one of the lowest crime rates in the country".

So he opposed tort liability for gun makers and supports guns for hunting but voted against allowing "the import of assault rifles whose sole purpose is to kill people, and most hunters think so as well," which does not stop the NRA from giving him its lowest rating.

That does not mean he indulges in gratuitous red-neckery to win votes. "I'm probably one of the strongest environmentalists in the Senate," he notes, "and I have a 100% voting record on human rights and gay rights, civil rights," he declares matter-of-factly with no false modesty.

But, he returns inexorably to his theme, if the Democrats pounded away at the impoverishment of working Americans, the "tax breaks for the billionaires, the corporate welfare that goes to the oil industry and the banks and other big entities they could have a lot more success than they have had".

He explains their failure to do so: "As elections get more and more expensive, you have people in the Senate and House spending huge amounts of time raising money from the wealthiest people, listening to their concerns, and ignoring the needs of the middle class and working class."

But Sanders counters with his own example: "If you stand for something, you can raise money even in this corrupt campaign system." He relied on over 50,000 grassroots contributors to win two-to-one against a wealthy Republican "who spent more money per voter on the campaign than anyone else in the history of Senate elections". But he sadly accepts the likelihood of his colleagues going to the business interests, because that's where the money is.

Sanders points to real examples to demonstrate the feasibility of his programmes - "the many achievements that democratic socialist governments have made over the years in Europe and Scandinavia such as the various types of national healthcare systems. We're the only industrialised country in the world that does not have one, and yet we spend twice as much on healthcare as any other country."

He lists the benefits of European welfare states with envy at their achievement but indignation that "they are beyond anything the average American could dream of. In America, 18% of our children live in poverty, in Scandinavia it's 3 or 4 %."

So with a Democrat Senate, House, and an impending possible Democrat in the White House, can we expect a national health system soon? Sanders is careful to point out the obstacles: "I'm not much into speculation, but the power of the insurance companies is incredible and the power of the pharmaceutical companies is even more so - probably the most powerful lobby in the world. And they've spent hundreds of millions on lobbying and campaign contributions."

And in that context, he laconically ranks the major Democratic primary contenders. He considered John Edwards the "most progressive", but with Edwards having made an early exit he deems Barack Obama to be to Hillary Clinton's left. Although he thinks one of them is going to win the presidency, "even then, developing public policy that defends the middle class and working families will be extraordinarily difficult because of the power of big money over the Congress."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Let's Make a Deal - PRC and the Dalai Lama

Comment is Free -the Guardian 11 April
Ian Williams

It's absurd to claim the Olympics are not political. They are clearly designed to showcase the host country - and its government. No one knows which party will be in government in Whitehall for the London Olympics, but very few doubted which regime would be in charge in Beijing when the international Olympic committee picked it as the venue for this year's games.

It was equally clear that there were many interest groups eager to use China's concern that no one rained on its big parade to get leverage. The Olympic committee itself secured commitments on freedom of expression for the press, and NGO pressure has already secured weakening of China's support for Sudan. Watch out for similar processes and protest if Beijing protégé Robert Mugabe tries to hang on in Harare.

But over Tibet, Beijing is missing a serious opportunity. The Dalai Lama has made it clear all along that he would cut a deal with Beijing short of independence - which is not necessarily true of younger Tibetan activists suffering under Chinese occupation tactics. However, the Dalai Lama has enough clout to swing a compromise.

He is, after all, no longer young. In fact he is older than the People's Republic itself. Technically, when he dies, he enters the Celestial Olympic relay race. The monks in Tibet will go on their cross-country run to see into which newborn his soul has sprinted. At the risk of violating the new strictures from the UN human rights council on disrespecting religions, I may say that I doubt this myself.

Indeed even the Dalai Lama himself seems agnostic on the question, since he has been suggesting elections and similar un-heavenly ways of appointing a successor. The atheists in Beijing indignantly condemned any hint that reincarnation was not the way to go, waving the Book of the Dead with the fervour with which they once brandished Mao's Little Red Book.

Of course, some Chinese and their apologists claim that the Chinese occupation freed the Tibetans from religious obscurity and backwardness. They may even have a point. But then the British claimed to be rescuing Ireland from the backwardness of obscurantist papism - but forgot to ask the Irish about it. China is making the same mistake, and flooding the Himalayas with Han settlers is unlikely to help.

It is in the nature of totalitarian thought processes that they do not have to connect the dots between their dicta. If the Dalai Lama is a living, divine reincarnation, then they really should talk to the one they have now. He is urbane, reasonable and pragmatic by most quasi-divine standards,

When he dies, there will almost certainly be a schism: one effectively nominated by the Commissars, and another by the Tibetan Diaspora. The "Chinese" one will be rather young and inexperienced by definition, not to mention somewhat tainted by Beijing's hand in the selection, while the exterior one, if elected, would lack the traditional authority.

The existing Dalai Lama could accept a Hong Kong-style deal, albeit with real autonomy, in return for a Chinese flag and token garrison in Lhasa. Beijing allows Hong Kong to control the admission of other Chinese citizens, even though they share an ethnicity and languages. Tibet, and indeed the Uyghurs in Xinxiang should have the same privilege of controlling immigration. Hong Kong has its own representative offices around the world. Of course one presumes that the Tibetans want no sunset clause on their autonomy and democratic elections - which would give Beijing good reason to control the border to stop the infection spreading.

It would certainly be cheaper than the PRC's costs to maintain the occupation, which brings no economic return for the occupiers.

The alternative is that eventually China will have to accept that sovereignty is not a divine mandate from heaven, but derives from the consent of the government, and that Beijing's behaviour in Tibet is boosting the calls for independence. History proves that denying a people a say in their future reinforces their demands.

Time to talk to the Dalai Lama.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bear Necessities

Bear necessities
Speculator, Investor Relations Magazine
Mar, 2008

Ian Williams presents plans to stave off a recession

Seeing Washington’s response to impending recession is like watching bears at play. The package Congress proposed at the end of January was a limp measure that smacked more of designer impotence than macroeconomic thrust.

The plan’s proponents pretended that handing out cash to individuals would promote spending and get the economy up and screaming, but there is little chance the cash injection will penetrate in any meaningful way. With the over-extended credit of most Americans, not least those about to default on subprime loans, the money will be more of a welcome contribution to debt relief than a provocation to shopping sprees.

Indeed, those sufficiently frugal not to be in debt are probably sensible enough to put the money aside for the looming rainy days all the talk of recession presages. But those hard-core consumers who do rush out to spend their IRS checks will stimulate only the economy of China, thereby exacerbating the underlying problems of trade and fiscal deficit that have brought us to where we are – because so much American manufacturing has been exported to places like China that any consumer spending ends up over there.

Equally, there is little or no evidence tax breaks for business will do anything more than transfer yet more wealth to the small percentage of CEOs and owners who have amassed more of the country’s cash than at any time since the robber barons ravaged the country – though at least the robber barons built the oil, steel and rail infrastructures that were the foundation of the country’s rise to economic preeminence. The financial engineers and hedge funds will leave not even the tiniest shrub to mark their passing.

We may have to go back to the now not-so-New Deal. Admittedly, that culminated in the best stimulus of all: a big war during which the government taxed heavily and spent lavishly in a targeted way. Of course, we are already in a war (or two, or three), but this is perhaps the first war in history where the belligerent government has cut taxes heavily while borrowing the money to finance hostilities, not from the public in the form of war bonds, but from the country most Americans would probably point to as their fastest-growing political and economic rival.

For decades the economic consensus in Washington has been prejudiced against public spending, except on corporate welfare or the Pentagon (sometimes it is hard to tell the two apart). As a result, US cities are filled with potholed roads, bridges about to fall down, and schools that need refurbishing both physically and intellectually.

Spending on these puts money directly into the domestic economy without pulling in imports, and invests in the future of the US and its citizens. An expansion of railways and public transit systems not only boosts the economy, but also reduces dependence on imported oil. And investment in education and training produces human capital that ensures an advanced future economy.

In fact, the best stimulus is to hit the G-spot: government. Washington’s spending on infrastructure would result in a lasting investment in both physical and human capital – and lots of smiles and satisfaction all round.

Road Blocked

Comment is Free
Ian Williams
19 April 2008
On Monday the speaker of the New York state assembly, Sheldon Silver, emerged from a closed committee room and, in an announcement as skimpy on voting details as Robert Mugabe's election commission, killed mayor Mike Bloomberg's traffic congestion pricing plan.

In a gesture seemingly as futile as the synchronised seppuku of the suicide squad in the Life of Brian, the Democratic group not only killed a measure wanted by the residents of Manhattan, which would also help reduce oil consumption and carbon production, they also spurned a tidy offer of some $350m for the transit authority from Washington.

The latter was a rare gesture from President Bush, who perhaps noticed the notorious limo jams on his way between the Waldorf Astoria and the United Nations, although others more cynical suggest it was a vain attempt to leave a legacy - any legacy - of environmental concern for his two terms as Exxon's plenipotentiary in the White House.

Just after Bloomberg took office, I actually stumbled across him on the platform of City Hall Station. He was not grandstanding. There was no camera in sight, nor in fact any visible security. I was the only press around, and I was accidental. On his way uptown, on the Lexington Avenue line, he explained it was the only way to get uptown at peak hour, even though he candidly disclosed that the mayoral limo was going along separately to pick him up later.

But he knows the problem, the streets of stalled vehicles hooting their horns and farting their toxic brew of half-digested petrochemicals into the lungs of the overtaking pedestrians on the sides. Opponents of the plan concentrated on the relatively small amount of CO2 that it would save, discounting the noxious and nauseous effects of idling diesel engines. But there is the very serious time cost. People in the city have to build in extra hours in case of jams, which, of course, always spontaneously generate before you when you are running for a train, plane or meeting.

It's worth mentioning that the tail-back from Manhattan jams stretches way beyond the initial area below 60th Street, affecting all the other boroughs as well with congestion and lung clotting.

Bloomberg picked up the idea from London's leftist mayor, Ken Livingston, and it was backed by a coalition of unions, community and environmental groups and corporations - and even the state Republicans. His plan, although far from perfect, was a solid answer to a real problem, and indeed, if ever there was an area made for pricing it is Manhattan, with points of entry at the tunnels and bridges, many of which are already paying a toll. Only one in five Manhattanites, and only two out of five in the whole city, have a car.

To be fair to speaker Silver, despite the deserved bad press he has had, he does not seem to have actively killed the plan. It was more in the nature of "thou shalt not kill but needst not strive, officiously, to keep alive". He was responding to his colleagues' suburban prejudices, which are deeply engrained in American life. To return to the Life of Brian, they think like the People's Front of Judaea when it decrees that comrade Stan has the right to have a baby, even if he can't, because he's a man. With almost primordial suburban prejudice, they each defend the right of every American to drive where they want to, even if they can't, because there's no room and because the imported oil is running out and costing more each day.

The story is emblematic of the poor prospects of the US being able to deliver leadership on carbon emissions. As Bloomberg post-mortemed: "Even Washington, which most Americans agree is completely dysfunctional, is more willing to try new approaches to longstanding problems than our elected officials in the state assembly." That was presumably a nod of thanks for the desperately needed $350m, but which overlooked the latest cut in Amtrak's budget, which had added resonance on a day on which hundreds of domestic flights were cancelled yet again.

If a self-evidently sensible measure, wanted by the citizens and representatives of the city that has the most intensively used transport system in the country and backed by a wide cross party coalition, and a massive Federal bribe, can smash into the barrier of the divine rights of drivers, then it does not bode well for American compliance with, let alone leadership on, the larger issues of global warming. When these things get to Washington they will meet some serious lobbying power from big oil, big coal and big SUVs. It looks like we'll have to rely on Chavez and the Sheikhs to keep upping the oil prices to get a reality check.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pressed into Service

This was in the Guardian CiF yesterday, 7 April.
Sorry for the silence of the last few days, I was locked out of the site by Google's Robot which decided that this was a spam blog... robocop showed his failings and it took a week to reinstate.


Twenty-four years ago, I switched on my first modem. It was a treacly 300 bps, but it made me a speed hog then for those who knew about these things. Most did not have a clue. In the early days, email and computers gave an early-adopting journalist comparative advantages over the two-fingered typists.

When I first moved to New York, the British press corps there used to get up early, read the tabloids, rewrite their juiciest stories and be in Costello's, which was the de facto press club, by mid-day, knocking a few back while they discussed whether to carry on drinking all day or break it up with a round or two of golf. I was freelance, but enterprising. I could sell the same story, judiciously rewritten, to papers across the globe, from Australia to Fiji to Britain, with direct input into their systems.

And then things got connected. As the internet spread, foreign editors would already have read their tab sources by the time their alarm clocks rang. They wanted more, and as they developed their own online editions, the hacks were chained to their computers to meet the insatiable demand for material. Staff journalists' workloads soared. Costello's closed.

For my part, I would pitch a story to Australia and find they had already lifted it from the Guardian or the Independent. But I was compensated because of the new online venues available for computer-savvy types.

But now the times they are a-changing beyond all recognition. Newspapers are shrinking in size even faster than their circulations, and more and more people are getting their news from the net. This is a mixed blessing.

It may come as a surprise to many commenters on CiF who are prepared to bang away at keyboards pro-bono or pro-malo around the clock, but many of us write for a living.

Few of the new outlets pay enough for the investigation, scrupulous fact checking and sourcing that was part of the craft of good journalism. In the old days of investigation, the job was to investigate allegations and conspiracy theories in a highly critical manner. Now it is to rush into publication with it, or repeat a story that suits you that someone else has rushed into print. Anonymity and pseudonymity should be a warning of tendentious fact-free content, but who can tell? Who can sue?

As the viral success of swift-boating, or of doctored photos showing Obama holding a telephone upside down, demonstrates, fact-checking is becoming a craft secret. As the old British adage has it "if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys." And if you do not pay at all, you get people with agendas, causes or desperate needs for tenure on a life raft of publications.

Isaac Asimov, in between Stakhanovite literary productivity, was an opinionator of Renaissance breadth. A resolute sceptic, he had views on the Bible, science, Gilbert & Sullivan, pornography, history and the rest of human life. But his standard letter when asked to contribute something for free, sought an assurance that everyone else in the process, the editors, publishers, printers and publicists were also forgoing payment.

Like many other writers, my work appears in more places and countries than ever before, with readerships that in quantity and quality should make me very happy. Getting paid for it would make me happier still. It is rare indeed that anyone asks for permission to reprint and a blue moon event when anyone offers to pay.

Once an article has appeared on the net, there are no residuals like for films or TV programmes or music. In the case of music, it is not struggling musicians, but major corporations who have fought viciously and tenaciously to get their cut, and the artists and songwriters are the collateral beneficiaries of corporate avarice.

In the past, the deal was that print publishers paid their writers from the proceeds of their advertising revenues. Now, those revenues are going to the Googles, Yahoos and other internet giants who can, it seems, tell exactly how many times someone has clicked on one of their ads.

We are back to the Asimov equation. Billions are being made out of the internet by the corporations that run it and collect the advertising revenues. Why are the content providers uniquely unremunerated?

The Author's Licensing Society in Britain has collected £156m in a low-technology way for library lending of books and photocopying of pages. So how much of a leap is it for the big internet providers to pay a tiny fraction of a cent every time someone clicks onto a copyrighted page?

Of course, mere drudges and hacks do not have the lobbying muscle to get through, but surely all these newspapers and magazines collectively can do what the mega-music industry has done? They do not have to sue teenagers. Sue the providers, or get legislation comparable to the British library lending fees. Who knows, it could be the salvation of the publishing industry so that it becomes more solid financially and journalistically as it moves inexorably from paper to silicon?

Save journalism. Pay journalists!

The Eye of the Beholder

From the Guardian CiF
April 3 2008

There was a wall I used to pass everyday in Bombay with an image of one of the many religions of that teeming city painted on each concrete panel. It served its purpose as an ecumenical prophylactic against mural micturition. No law was necessary. It was an iconic appeal to mutual respect.

Following the furor about Dutch documentaries and Danish cartoons, Islamic states grandstanding for domestic audiences joined Cuba, China and Russia in passing a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that subordinates freedom of expression to worries about "racial or religious discrimination".

The western countries on the council only abstained on the vote. That was not so surprising, since the dangerously loose wording was very close to that in the recent British Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

Of course, there are indeed Islamophobes about, and one cannot help wondering if the reaction would have been quite as orotund if Christian churches or Jewish synagogues had requested a similar UN resolution.

The Christian record, even since the abolition of the Inquisition, is not exactly without sin, and there was the Israeli army rabbi who suggested that his armed flock consider divine injunctions on the fate of the Amalekites when dealing with Palestinians.

But let's stick with the enlightened Anglo-Saxon democracies.

This Easter, as customary, I watched the Life of Brian, one of the funniest films ever made, which when it came out provoked a reaction in some quarters like some responses to cartoons of Muhammad. Nuns and rabbis picketed it in New York, while various US states and other countries banned it outright.

It actually risked prosecution. In 1978 the House of Lords had rejected an appeal against the nine-month suspended sentence and £1,000 fine against the editor of the Gay Times for publishing a "blasphemous libel" - a poem about a Roman centurion having the hots for Jesus a little too literally. The prosecutor John Smyth told the court: "It may be said that this is a love poem - it is not, it is a poem about buggery."

The editor's worthy predecessor in crime, a Mr Gott, was actually sentenced to nine-months -unsuspended - in 1921 for publishing a pamphlet that suggested that Christ looked like a clown as he entered Jerusalem.

Currently the British Labour government is holding off on abolishing the laws on blasphemy, despite its opinion that they violate European human rights law, while it consults the Archbishops of the Church of England - who consider such action precipitate.

In case any Americans feel too superior, we should recall that in 1940 Bertrand Russell was fired from City College of New York in a case instigated by the Episcopalian Bishop and judged by a bigoted Roman Catholic.

An established Church and compulsory religious education in Britain has produced a fairly agnostic, faith-unfettered nation, while the separation of church and state in the US has produced a hundred million or so creationists. So much for legislating orthodoxy. No wonder the Archbishops, who now represent one of the smaller sects in Britain, want to hang on to legal powers to mask their lack of spiritual influence.

Of course the problem is that with a few tolerant exceptions, like some Hindus, some (but by no means all) Buddhist sects and people like the Unitarians and Quakers, every true-believer should regard every other religion as blasphemous. Muslims believe in the virginity of mother Mary, but not the divinity of Christ. Jews of course, do not subscribe to either. Transubstantiation smacks of cannibalism even to many Christians, and Rome considers eternal suffering in Hell a fit punishment for doubting the Athanasian Creed.

Equally, any religion worth its salt will want its adherents to proselytise with its own brand of good news, which necessarily means questioning the tenets of the 57 varieties.

There is a problem with inciting hatred of actual people: to suggest that every Jew is a Christ-killer, every Christian a Crusader and every Muslim a terrorist is incitement to hatred. But questioning their beliefs is something else. That is where freedom of expression really comes into its own.

There is no doubt that apart from few dangerously fuzzy ecumenical types who want to defend all irrational beliefs against scepticism, what the movers of the UN resolution really mean is to enforce their religion, their truth, against all comers.

Ironically, the Chinese, who supported the UN resolution, should really be under scrutiny for attacking the "Dalaist" clique, which is discriminatory and blasphemous for any Lama-fearing Buddhist. I look forward to the Muslim reaction when the Scientologists complain to the UN that people mock L Ron Hubbard (and we do! Oh boy we do!), or Jews, Christians and the various Muslim offshoots complain about the sermons delivered by Wahabi sheiks and imams.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Young Stalin, Casanova, Igor or both?

From the latest edition of Logos Journal

The Charisma of Evil

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Reviewed by

Ian Williams

When Mel Brooks had Hitler tripping across the stage in the “Producers,” the campy banality makes the horror manageable and laughable. Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the banality of evil almost had her burning at the intellectual stake, but the concept is indispensable for understanding the real world – and perhaps no more so than the present.

The sight of Karl Rove doing a song and dance routine at the White House Press roast, despite its superficial resemblance to Young Frankenstein and the Monster tapping the boards, evokes nausea because its aim is to conceal the horror behind the banal.

However, there is a reverse to Arendt’s thesis, which is the filtration from subsequent history of the charisma of evil, the retrospective denial of the appealing characteristics that put leaders in the position to do so much harm.

In the Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore has come to exhume Stalin, not to praise him. In the process, he has rescued one of history’s most influential characters from the caricatures of both his disciples and his enemies to give a rounded picture of his development, which does much to explain why he and the Soviet state became what they did.

Young Stalin shows how, although undoubtedly evil in his behavior, the Soviet leader was far from banal. He was a complex and charismatic figure, who commanded loyalty that, certainly in the early days, was not just based on fear and terror. The book’s well researched portrait of a complex, courageous, glamorous but ruthless rogue, philanderer and poet, intellectual and ideologist contrasts sharply with the common view of a boorish, uneducated and savage peasant whose animal cunning allowed him to prevail against his moral and intellectual betters.

Young Stalin is bound to disturb many in world where the bad guys are supposed to be bad in every aspect. In a recent review of “Mao” I praised the authors for revealing the depth of the Chinese leader’s crimes, including the deaths of millions of Chinese, but cautioned that their unremittingly negative depiction of the founder of modern China was unconvincing, and failed to explain how he had gained the unflinching support of so many of his victims. I was promptly accused of being an apologist for genocide.

The Manichaean view of history has deep roots in our culture and its dualism morphs easily into crude Marxism: good versus evil, thesis versus antithesis, heroes and villains. It is a rich vein in the popular imagination but it is always distressing to see it extended to the decision-making classes. Goodies and Baddies may be an effective paradigm for writing a Hollywood Western or a James Bond film, but are much less so for explaining history or politics.

In an American presidential context, a clean-living, non-drinking, anti-smoking, pet-loving, vegetarian, faithful war veteran prepared to go to prison for his belief that his people had been wronged would certainly score points with pollsters – if his name were not Adolf Hitler. We do indeed have examples in the current White House team of charming, affable people who neither rant like Tamurlaine, nor kick the dog, but have committed some very serious crimes and are directly responsible for perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Indeed, since real politicians rarely behave like the villains in a melodrama, or even in a Iago-like impulse of pure evil, the popular persistence of this model poses serious political problems, as the successive demonizations of Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, or even Hugo Chavez have shown. On the other hand, their expedient canonizations by opponents of American foreign policy are equally dangerous. Our popular memory of Che Guevara is of the martyr in the jungle, not the supervisor of firing squads in Havana.

Facile comparisons with Hitler and Stalin are often part of such demonizations, so perhaps books like the Young Stalin will help exorcize such diabolical thought processes from the public consciousness.

It is not easy to find an objective view of Stalin. During his reign, he and his acolytes buried much of the earlier “achievements” that Sebag Montefiore reveals - the messy business of bank robberies and direct action, not to mention his serial seductions occasionally tending to pedophilia. Such deeds were not conducive to painting the icon of the leader of the world’s proletariat, nor, indeed with their hints of underlying Georgian clannishness, were they useful for the leader of the Russians. Unlike the warts on Oliver Cromwell’s portrait, Stalin and his official iconographers painted them out – and sometimes expunged the very witnesses as well.

Since Khrushchev’s 20th Congress speech essentially confirmed the anti-communist charges against Stalin, the number of defenders of his record or his motives has shrunk considerably, even if there are probably still more than there should be. Leon Trotsky’s personal animus against the provincial “mediocrity” who supplanted him, still permeates many on the Left, who remain romantically attached to an idealist vision of the October Revolution, and seek to portray Stalin as an aberration from the purity of the Bolsheviks’ aim and methods.

But Trotsky’s own critique of Stalin’s ability, his “mediocrity,” was self-evidently contrafactual. It was Stalin who sat enthroned in the Kremlin while his bitter exiled rival frittered and fretted at the other end of the globe, stricken down by an assassin who died thinking he had committed an heroic deed. As Sebag Montefiore says, “Trotsky’s view tells us more about his own vanity, snobbery, and lack of political skills than about the early Stalin.” Both sides since have rewritten history, but it is clear that within the Bolshevik Party, Stalin commanded a support that Trotsky could not.

The snobbery of Trotsky’s dismissal of Stalin comes oddly from a would-be champion of the proletariat. Sebag Montefiore reemphasizes what other recent historians have pointed out, that Stalin was a voracious and minutely attentive reader, with a personal library of over 20,000 volumes, many of them with marginal notes scribbled in the censorious leader.

He was already a renowned and published poet in Georgian despite his humble origins, but that too was an inconvenient accolade for the helmsman of the Russian-based Soviet empire and was lost from the official historiography.

As an autodidact after his expulsion from the Tiflis seminary Stalin was able to wage class warfare within the Bolshevik Party to isolate Trotsky and other intellectuals and call upon the loyalty of those who had stayed. Sebag Montefiore shows how the Bolsheviks who stayed inside and did the dirty work, wrestling in the mud and blood with the Okhrana had their own cohesiveness and loyalties, which did not necessarily extend to the intellectuals who lived safely abroad.

He demonstrates how Lenin, more than the other exiles, maintained contact and encouraged this sub-culture back in the Empire, and has no truck with the idea that Bolshevism in practice was some forced aberration from cozy social democracy. The exiles lived off the proceeds of the banditry of Stalin and his comrades, even as they snootily despised them.

Stalin was at the core of this group of Committeemen who “had been raised on the same streets, had shared gang warfare, clan rivalries, and ethnic slaughter, and had embraced the same culture of violence.” Sebag Montefiore demonstrates the extent to which the Bolsheviks on the ground shared Stalin’s gangster origins, so that the sectarianism, ruthlessness and perpetual paranoia that we associate with Stalin was in fact an integral part of Bolshevism rather than a personal aberration.

He summarizes, “Leninism-Stalinism is comprehensible only if one realizes that the Bolsheviks continued to behave in the same clandestine style whether they formed the government of the world’s greatest empire in the Kremlin or an obscure little cabal in the backroom of a Tiflis tavern.”

Far from being the “colorless gray Blur” of legend, Stalin was in fact a colorful and almost heroic figure in those underground years, mixing attributes of James Bond with the Scarlet Pimpernel. Women found him attractive, and he responded often, but was often callously exploitive of them, abandoning them and the children he fathered, several of whom Sebag Montefiore has tracked down. While he was never a “nice” person, he was murderous, but not a psychopath, although the cover blurb on the book calls him such. On the one hand he could see inconvenient friends and relatives die with nary a tear, but then he could send gifts and money to old acquaintances down on their luck.

In fact, what Sebag Montefiore shows was that quite apart from Stalin’s personality, he shared with other Bolsheviks a psychopathic philosophy, in which family, friends, indeed any person, was disposable for the cause.

Compare for example Hitler and Stalin, the twin demons of the Twentieth Century. I suspect that most readers would tilt the balance of evil towards Hitler. Rationally, how do we distinguish between them? What made rational people choose one over the other, often as if there were no other choices?

In any calculus of evil, Hitler may have killed his tens of thousands by 1941, but by then Stalin had slaughtered millions. Hitler had swallowed up Czechoslovakia and much of Poland, but Stalin had by then committed the crime of aggression against Finland, the Baltic States, and by the end, Poland. The Holocaust was yet to happen, and it could be argued that the fate of the Kulaks in Russia until then was worse than that of the Jews in Germany.

One can only conclude that at least part of this inclination to regard Hitler as further beyond the Pale than Stalin derives from intentions. Despite the folk wisdom about the paving material for the Road to Hell, we tend to excuse good intentions and sincerity.

Aryan supremacy was not a cause that most progressive or liberal thinkers see deserving human sacrifice on such a huge scale. But Stalin’s degenerate worker’s state, as even exiled cofounder Trotsky saw it, and the promised socialist commonwealth to come allowed people to don moral blinkers about the sordid and cruel reality of the road that purported to lead to it.

Was Stalin sincere in his desire to bring about a socialist paradise? Sebag Montefiore does not directly answer this question, but his work suggests that Stalin was indeed a true believer, a romantic who wanted to reshape presently imperfect humanity into a more suitable form, no matter the cost in individual human lives. For most of us, in a culture where sincerity is seen as a virtue outside of any connection to reality, that poses much more of an intellectual problem than a caricatured villain out of James Bond or Batman.

It is a question with deep roots in politics. Sebag Montefiore has done the world a service with his portrait of young Stalin – not because of any concern about rescue the dead dictator from libel, but to remind us that in the real world poets and bibliophiles can be gentlemanly and genocidal at the same time and that they might even profess desirable ends. It should be evident that in any rational political analysis, we cannot separate the end and the means. It is not what politicians, governments, guerillas or terrorists profess that matters. It is what they do.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

British Edition of Rum Out Today! and Guardian on Canine Faeces/rum

The British Edition: C April 2008!

Rum: A Social and Sociable History

Paperback Original

Ian Williams

Imprint: Nation Books

Extent: 340 pages

Format: Paperback, 210 x 140mm

ISBN 13: 978-15602-5891-9

Price: £9.99

Publication: 1st April 2008

Rum: A Social and Sociable History

Paperback Original

Ian Williams

340 pages

Format: Paperback, 210 x 140mm

ISBN 13: 978-15602-5891-9

Price: £9.99

Publication: 1st April 2008

Perseus Running Press, 69–70 Temple Chambers, 3–7 Temple Ave, London, EC4Y 0HP

w Tel: 020 7353 7771 w Fax: 020 7353 7786

Distribution: Grantham Book Services

Isaac Newton Way, Alma Park Industrial Estate, Grantham, Lincs, NG31 8EN w Tel +44 (0)1476 541080

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Here is my piece from the Guardian on Ybor City

Ian Williams

It’s better to taste a rum boasting ’smegmatic essence’ than drink a pre-mixed mojito with an invented history
Rum is the stuff of legend - and like most spirits, the legends are made up by imaginative public relations people. Some can’t be blamed on flacks however. For generations the Admiralty was scared to touch the Navy grog ration because of the legend of Nelson’s blood. Allegedly, the Admiral was shipped home pickled in a coffin filled with rum donated by tearful tars. It was also alleged that some less tearful and fearful tars drilled a hole and drained the embalming fluid.

The draining bit may well be true, but when I was researching my book on Rum, I checked the Garrison Library in Gibraltar where they recorded that his remains (minus an arm, eye and Lady Hamilton) were shipped from there in aguardiente - Spanish Brandy.

Maybe the tars were reluctant to give up their grog, or the Purser had difficulty accounting for it as embalming fluid, but captured Spanish war booty doubtless did the trick.

But if an easily falsifiable legend kept Britannia ruling the waves for a century, you can understand, if not forgive, some of the latest PR instant legends. Needless to say Bacardi, which invented the invention of the Cuba Libre, is among the best at it. Their latest, accompanying their invention of the bottled pre-mixed mojito, is an alleged early cocktail, El Draquo, named, not after Sir Frances Drake but his cousin Richard Drake, who they claim was mixing rum, sugar and mint half a century before the first recorded use of Rum in Barbados.

But then Bacardi has written out of history their donations to Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestre, not to mention the banner outside the headquarters offering “Gracias a Fidel” when the guerrillas rode into Havana, so it should not be surprising that they have written themselves into history as the makers of the mojito.

In fact, premixing a mojito, as with any other such cocktail, is a bad idea. Their distinctive taste depends on being freshly mixed. For the last two days I have been tasting other such people’s idea of a good idea as one of 10 judges at the Ybor City International Rum Festival. Here in sunny Florida, in two days we are sampling 150 rums.

The rums on offer range from decades-aged smooth and aromatic nectars to high-octane over-proofs that would easily power any tourist space rocket. The trick of judging is how to sample them without going into orbit yourself. There are a few that are just too good not to swallow, to get the finer points of mouth feel and finish, but even spitting out the samples is no protection as the potent spirit osmoses through the palate into blood and brain.

In fact, some of the more exotic offerings taxed the tasters’ vocabulary and were an open invitation to spit, indeed to gag. I offered one with “overtones of canine faeces,” for one nosing, “smegmatic essence” was another, until we hit the real lulu, which consensus dubbed “canine smegma”. It is a mystery why people would want to do things like that to a drink with such infinite possibilities as rum, “the global spirit with its warm beating heart in the Caribbean”.

Back in the Caribbean, the downside of rum and sugar was of course the slavery which accompanied sugar cultivation around the tropical belt. The celebrations of the bicentennial of the slave trade are appropriate for a rum festival but somewhat premature since of course the British maintained slavery for another quarter of a century and the United States for twice as long. It may be worth noting that while the British seemed to take ending the trade seriously, Washington often gave the impression that it was only kidding.

Now, the Caribbean moved from being the economic epicentre of empires to colonial backwaters. Having kidnapped their populations from Africa and bled them dry, the Europeans and Americans recently have repaid their debt in strange coin. WTO judgments secured by Bill Clinton on behalf of campaign-financing American banana companies removed EU preferences for Caribbean bananas, and EU tariffs in favour of beet sugar and US tariffs to protect high-priced corn syrup, all attacked basic local industries. And it leaves rum as the one common factor of the multilingual “continent of islands”.

The EU, for conscience money, has offered €70m to develop and market Caribbean rum in Europe. I hope that they do not waste it on flavoured concoctions like some of those we tasted, and concentrate on what they are getting better and better at: mature, smooth-aged premium rums that Guardian readers can drink, confident that it gives them a warm glow in their livers as well as a warm glow in their hearts for helping the Caribbean develop.