Friday, December 13, 2002

Birth Control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon Back Again...

I've been swearing off having a go at the Guardian for a while because it becomes addictive, and I have to be careful not to overindulge. But I've been good this week, so I reckon I owe myself a treat.

Reading Jonathan Glancey's column instantly put me in mind of this song.

Remember Vietnam? More than two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died. Country Joe McDonald was a war veteran. He first sang the I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag in 1965:

And it's five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die

It was innocent Vietnamese villagers, though, who died at My Lai on March 16 1968. Led by Lieutenant William Calley, "Charlie Company", a unit of the US Eleventh Light Infantry, massacred 500 unarmed villagers. My Lai was a turning point in the uncalled-for US invasion. How, Americans began to ask, could the US have God and "Charlie Company" on its side? In what ways was "Charlie Patrol", President Johnson and the US morally superior to the Vietcong, Ho Chi Minh and an ancient Far Eastern civilisation?

Walter: These rich fucks! This whole fucking thing - I did not watch my buddies die face down in the muck so this fucking strumpet -

Dude: I don't see any connection to Vietnam, Walter.

Walter: Well, there isn't a literal connection, Dude.

Dude: Walter, let's face it, there isn't any connection. It's your roll.

With the experience of Vietnam behind them, what is the moral impulse driving George Bush and Tony Blair to war in Iraq? If Washington and Westminster know what they are fighting against - Saddam Hussein and his "weapons of mass destruction" - what are they fighting for? Is there more to it than installing an oily new regime in Baghdad subservient to Sheriff Bush? Or a military administration led by Tommy Franks, a general who looks as if he has walked straight off the set of Dr Strangelove?

I see. Does Tommy Franks look like Ken Adam, the production designer of Dr Strangelove, who no doubt walked both on and off the sets of that particular film? Does he resemble Slim Pickens? Keenan Wynn? He sure as hell doesn't look like Peter Sellers.

What can our civilisation offer this ancient land, still free of the excesses of US consumer culture, beyond "regime change"? Will we help invest in public hospitals on the one hand, and archaeology on the other, or in lucrative oil extraction and fast-food joints? How do we value this cradle of our own civilisation, its history, peoples, antiquities?

I don't know, Jonathan, you tell me. Perhaps the Iraqi people are capable of picking and choosing what they want from Western consumerism, which is what they have been doing for decades anyway. They're not a bunch of naive savages in danger of being seduced by the glint of a Coca-Cola bottle. I also wonder which freedom they consider more important: freedom from "US consumer culture" or freedom from Iraqi Secret Police electrodes-attached-to-genitals culture?

Is our creed more than a confusion of cheap energy, discriminatory education, junk food, shopping malls, cynical housing -

Okay, halt right there. In what sense is housing cynical? Do semi-detached villas form cliques and distribute disparaging e-mails? Do bungalows stab loft-apartments in the back? Wouldn't housing policy have been a better description? Never mind, go on:

- privatised public services, property deals, celebrity culture, the machinations of multinational corporations, leisurewear, chic pornography, the right to bear arms, and a deep-seated fear of the Saracen bogeyman handed down in popular legend, and half-baked government dossiers, from the crusades?

I don't know what kind of nursery stories Jonathan Glancey was told but I've yet to come across a child channeling their buried racial memory when they have nightmares about monsters under the bed: "Daddy! It's the bogeyman - and he's got a scimitar!!".

Most decent British and American citizens, not loath to protest against unrighteous war nor to fight for a just cause, want and deserve better than this. We need to know what we are fighting for, and to give more than a damn.

I know I've been hard on the guy but I do sort of agree with Glancey that we should say why our liberal democracy, for all its faults, is morally superior to an unruly tyranny like Iraq. But I wouldn't be so quick to separate society's "good" values (morally improving public services and so on) from the "bad" (anything Jonathan Glancey deems vulgar). He might find the idea unpalatable, but people who consume reality television and fast food are exercising exactly the same rights as those read John Ruskin, Robert Tressel and the Bible. That's what freedom is all about: the ability to live life by your own standards, even if other people deride them. If Glancey is looking to sing the virtues of our society over outright dictatorship he could pick worse places to start.

Thursday, December 12, 2002


Anyone who has visited stateside blogs in the past week won't have failed to notice the avalanche of criticism that has landed on Republican Senator Trent Lott because of his comments defending segregation. President Bush has rebuked him but stopped short of calling for his resignation as majority leader. It looks increasingly likely that Lott's disgraceful comment and the half hearted, insincere-sounding apology that followed it have made his position untenable. I was heartened that just about every Conservative writer around jumped on him without a moment's hesitation.

The story that just won't die

When I watched Tony Blair appeal to the media to let the whole Cheriegate thing drop I just thought that is like a red rag to a bull. There's nothing that's going to refresh the media's appetite like telling them they have had their pound of flesh and they have had enough to eat now thank you. It's a tactic that looks as much like trying to dictate the agenda as staking a claim on the moral high ground. The story will go away once it has run its natural course and not before.

You have to wonder at the Downing Street Press Office's behaviour last week, when each press release contradicted the last. Mrs. Blair might be guilty of nothing more than poor judgement (although there are still a few unanswered questions about her role in Peter Foster's extradition case) but the Press Office's instinct was to lie and backtrack at every opportunity.

Driveway Madness

Roger Windo of Gloucester has been the victim of the daftest bureaucratic tangle you can imagine. On Sunday he woke up to find an unfamiliar Toyota Picnic parked in his drive, preventing him from getting his car out. It didn't belong to any of his neighbours so he contacted the police:

But neither the police or Gloucester City Council could help because the T-reg Toyota Picnic is not breaking the law and not causing a public obstruction.

Even more infuriating, police told Mr Windo they could not tell him who the car belonged to because giving him the information would break data protection legislation.

And they warned him that he could face prosecution for criminal damage if he tried to take the law into is own hands by breaking into the car to move it.

Eventually Gloucester City Council traced the car to a Bristol construction company whose employee was off to Disneyland in Paris. They finally towed it away yesterday lunchtime.

I was struck by the police saying that because the car was taxed and parked on private property no criminal or motoring offence had been committed. Yes, okay, strictly speaking that's true but but it was on the wrong private property.

Mr Windo could do nothing because the law ended up protecting something that was effectively trespassing on his property and preventing him from enjoying its full use. He was left to deal with the tangle of laws himself - absurd. I'm dismayed that the police didn't display enough initiative to cut the Gordian knot at some point. A clear a case as any of the letter of the law defeating the spirit of the law, I think.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Say hello to new left-weblog Harry's Place. It's got plenty of principled and intelligent leftist commentary.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Jesus Lives! Santa Dies!

This calls up a picture so vivid that it's just irresistible. The Reverend Lee Rayfield of Maidenhead told children at a Christmas carol service that Santa Claus was dead. You can understand how distraught the youngsters were but you can also imagine the looks on their parents' faces as they thought: Oh no no, please stop, how am I going to explain this one.

Reverend Rayfield's comments were based on the idea that scientific research could dispel the myth of Santa Claus:

Even parents at the service in Maidenhead, Berkshire, were shocked to hear Mr Rayfield say it was scientifically impossible for Father Christmas to deliver so many presents so quickly.

Yes... is that more or less impossible than the Virgin Mary popping a sprog all of a sudden or Jesus nipping back from the dead after a long weekend? I'd love to hear Reverend Rayfield's scientific opinion on that one. He might want to consider scientific research as one of the career paths that will no doubt soon be opening up for him.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Amnesty Less Than Rational

Amnesty International member Sarah Baxter is dismayed at the human rights organisation's eagerness to strike political poses in The Times. She is unimpressed with Amnesty's assertion that it hasn't had time to read the Foreign Office's dossier on human rights abuses in Iraq:

Clearly, Amnesty would be happier if the government had never raised that pesky human rights business. We know this because Irene Khan, its secretary-general, believes that any mention by western leaders of Saddam's well-documented reign of terror is "nothing but a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists. Let us not forget that these same governments turned a blind eye to reports of widespread violations in Iraq before the Gulf war".

And Irene Khan's point is what, exactly? If Amnesty wants to keep its reputation for impartiality it should confine its opinions to the facts alone.

You'd think Amnesty would welcome the publication of the dossier and seize the chance to evaluate its accuracy, especially since its content is gathered from reputable human rights organisations - including Amnesty itself. Instead it is offering comment on the political motives of governments past and present, something wildly outside the remit of its statute.

Amnesty's posturing reveals its increasing hostility towards Western policy: its criticisms of Guantanamo Bay were to be expected, but when they are combined with the latest political axe-grinding they look like simple bias.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Badly Drawn Man

I bit the bullet and went to see the latest bond flick, Die Another Day. It's good, unpretentious fun which occasionally threatens to come alive. It wisely ups the ante on the previous effort, which, apart from the excellent opening speedboat chase, felt decidedly lacklustre.

Director Lee Tamahori goes for the more-is-more philosophy and floods the story with hectic, thunderous action. It isn't subtle, but who cares? It's got just enough style and wit to nudge it in front of the usual Hollywood action fare. We've all heard plenty about Halle Berry's Ursula Andress-alike entrance, and she's on fine form, but it's newcomer Rosamund Pike as undercover agent Miranda Frost who stole it for me. The sparky banter between the amorous Bond (who's understandably frisky after being locked in a Korean prison for a year) and the guarded Frost is one of the film's highlights.

However, some of the computer-generated effects were simply embarassing, in particular the sequence where an obviously fake Bond dodges a massive laser beam on the edge of an iceface. This year I've seen similar CGI stunt figures in Blade 2, Attack of the Clones and Spiderman - and they were all feeble. I hope the movie industry puts this experiment back in the box now - surely audience reactions in test screenings will point them towards doing so. The visual effects maestros need to get it through their heads that if we want to watch graphics of central characters performing death-defying leaps and so on we'll buy a damned Playstation.

Just Add Evil Pantomime Laugh

CNN delivers a Christmas greeting from al-Qaeda, where they spread their message of peace:

Earlier this week, an al Qaeda statement posted to the Internet threatened a strike to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy season - which is December 5 and 6. The statement said, "You have not learned your lesson."

"Oh American people, you are the victim of your leaders, but you are also a partner in the war on us. The gift for the holiday is on its way," the statement continued.

In the al Qaeda statement, the group warned Americans to leave Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Africa and Asia: "Otherwise, you will reap death because of your stupidity in ignoring our warnings to you."

But Andrew Northrup isn't quaking in his boots:

Oh al-Qaeda, the greatest gift you could offer us would be to get someone else to write your monologues. We are going to "learn our lesson"? Our "gift for the holidays is on it's way [mwah-hah-hah-ha]"? One minute we're getting lectured on how labelling terrorist "evil" is simplistic, and the next minute Qaeda sends out threatening web posts which appear to have been ghost-written by Skeletor. This threat will, no doubt, be backed up by blowing up some more Africans. Can we have some better enemies, please?

Via Moira Breen.

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