Tuesday 27 April 2010

Startling Moon

Startling Moon was the Reading Group’s book for May and is one of very few - two or three - books I have read by Chinese authors. Though it has to be said they have all been written in English by Chinese who have emigrated to the west. Startling Moon is by Liu Hong who was born in Manchuria in 1965 and left China in 1989 and now lives in England. The book which was published in 2001, appears very much like an autobiography as the protagonist and narrator was also born in Manchuria in 1965 and the book ends in 1989, though with the narrator still in China.

The narrator and main protagonist is Taotao and the book is her memories of her life from childhood in northern Manchuria through university in southern China to living and working in Beijing. The story starts with Taotao as a five year old who vividly though simply describes the hardships and restrictions of life in provincial China in the 1960s and 70’s. Liu Hong quite successfully presents us with the Cultural Revolution as seen through the eyes and ears of an obedient and apolitical girl. Though Taotao and her own parents do not suffer themselves, other members of the family do and the book is suffused with an air of repression. It is still surprising to learn just how poor conditions where in those days in China, at least in northern China. Cabbage seemed to be the main source of food and the long winters were extremely cold indeed.

Conditions however do improve, as does their diet. And Taotao wins a place in a University in southern China to study English. This was her first experience of living away from her family and during these years she makes new friends and gradually and very timidly becomes a bit more politically aware. However she remains pretty much an obedient Chinese girl, accepting the constrictions imposed by the Communist regime. Even when she moves to Beijing to work as a translator in Beijing these constrictions - on where you can live and where you can work - are more irritating than anything more profound.

Even here she turns out to be incredibly lucky and manages to get a job as a translator for a film company that is about to travel to Inner Mongolia to shoot an international film. This of course is the cue for all kinds of images of freedom - the wide open spaces, a different and more open culture, not to mention all those westerners. Taotao enjoys the freedom of her new job and it is during this journey that she becomes fully sexually aware, though nothing physical happens. The last section of the book is mainly back in Beijing in 1989 during the run up to the pro democracy demonstrations and their subsequent crushing by the regime. However Taotao is only peripherally involved in any of this as she is more interested in her blossoming sexuality and specifically her relationship with Robert, another westerner. In fact a lot of the latter part of the book is spent on Taotao’s inner debate on whether she should or could have sex with a man before marriage. The events at Tiananmen Square are almost a substitute climax for her unfulfilled sexual longings.

I enjoyed the book as it gives what seems to be an authentic description of one girl’s experiences of growing up in China during a critical period in its history. It is a very personal book which in many ways is its strength. Taotao’s inner debates about sex and propriety spring from her account of her childhood and her family’s and the state’s expectations of a ‘good Chinese girl’. What the book doesn’t really do or even attempt to do is to give an insight into the background to the pro democracy movement. Taotao herself has led a pretty good life. In Chinese terms, almost a charmed life. Though at one stage she feels trapped in what she thinks will be her job for life, she immediately gets another job in the glamourous film industry. As her friend points out, ‘things are not as rigid as before’. And Taotao herself never becomes actively involved in any political activity.

Sunday 25 April 2010

UK Election - Where’s the Beef?

The longer this election campaign goes on, the less enlightening it becomes. Most of the main issues facing the country are pretty much totally absent from the media coverage including the so-called leaders’ debate. And when key issues are covered we find that all three main UK parties are more or less the same - despite all the froth and feigned excitement on the part of broadcasters.

Perhaps the single most important issue in the election is the economy. And this is where for all the apparent differences, there is paradoxically most agreement. All of the main UK parties are preaching the need for severe cuts in public services - more savage even than the infamous Thatcher cuts from folk memory, according to New Labour. Yet the only differences among the parties is one of degree and timing. The same applies to other aspects of the economy. There has been no real investigation into how we got into this mess and in particular the role of our banks and the rest of the financial sector in creating the economic crisis. Though the LibDems are in favour of breaking up the banks, there are no details and they do not seem to question the continuing dominance of our economy by the City of London. It is a similar story with taxation. Minor differences are blown up by the media as signs of real change. However none of the parties is proposing to overhaul our taxation system and bring in a genuinely fair system. In sum all the three parties are working within the same neo-liberal consensus on the economy. The same consensus which has dominated our discourse for decades and the very consensus which created the conditions for the present economic crisis.

It is the same with the other important issues in the election. Virtually all the coverage is on the minor differences within an overall consensus. For example on trident and our seeming love affair with military adventures. All the main parties support the war in Afghanistan and wish to maintain or strengthen our conventional forces. Even on our so-called independent nuclear weapons the differences are more apparent than real. The LibDems would merely postpone any decision. But they still intend to keep a nuclear capacity. Once again there is no real alternative offered by the main parties.

This essential consensus extends to other important issues such as the constitutional future of the UK and the future of the EU. Though much is made about the slight nuances of approach, fundamentally they all sing from the same hymn sheet. All are in favour of the UK staying in the EU - even the Conservatives for all their anti EU talk, are firmly committed to the EU. It is the same with the future of the UK. The one issue where there is a real divide is on our election system. Here the LibDems are still committed to changing to proportional representation. However on other matters there is almost total unity. None more so than on the continued existence of the UK itself. All three parties are staunchly unionist and none is talking of alternative visions for the country. Never mind Scotland, what about England? Very little is said about how to incorporate England into the world of devolution. Even the LibDems seem to have given up on their long held advocacy of a Federal UK.

This broad consensus on the key issues perhaps explains the sudden inclusion of the LibDems in the Leaders’ debates. It is almost as if the media has decided arbitrarily to extend the cosy arrangements to now include the LidDems. After all they present no threat to the status quo.

Yet it is not as if there are no alternatives. There are other political parties which advocate different ways not just of running the economy, but of what kind of country we could become. It is just that our mainstream broadcasters conspicuously fail to cover these alternatives.

The Greens for example offer us a very different kind of economy altogether. They also, along with the Nationalist parties oppose any replacement for Trident. UKIP offer us the choice of leaving the EU as opposed to minor adjustments. And of course Plaid Cymru and the SNP offer us a future where there is no UK. However very little of these alternatives are offered to the electorate on a regular, consistent basis.

From the media perspective it seems as if the UK has become a bit like Iran, in which only the chosen few are allowed full media coverage. Though instead of some college of clerics, here it is the all powerful media who get to decide which parties get access to regular coverage and which do not. And this is supposed to be a democracy?

It is clear from recent opinion polls that increased media coverage does affect voting intentions. There has been a big boost for the LidDems as a result of their inclusion in the TV debates. If this boost translates into a significant increased share of the actual votes on election day then this arbitrary decision of the broadcasters will have materially affected the outcome of the general election. The basic unfairness of all this is allready becoming more and more apparent. Even former Labour spin-doctor Lorraine Davidson has admitted that the current system significantly compromises the ‘free and fair’ status of the general election.

What is most disturbing about this general election is the extent to which the leading players in the media and in the three main political parties are all part of the same cosy exclusive little club. In this respect the UK is becoming more and more like the USA. There a tight little group based in Washington seem to be in control of both the mainstream media and the two main parties. As usual the great Glen Greenwald captures the essence of this, describing Washington as an insular, incestuous, fundamentally corrupt royal court, populated - as all sickly imperial capitals are - by political and media courtesans and other hangers-on. The situation in London, as evidenced by the current general election, does not seem to be much different.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Fair Elections?

We hear a lot about how unfair elections can be in various parts of the world. However it is generally assumed that in the good old UK, the home of the mother of Parliaments and all that jazz, elections are naturally fair and above board. This is not really the case and over the past forty years or so, general elections have become progressively more and more unfair. And this year’s election will go down as the most blatantly unfair election in modern UK history.

The root of this unfairness is the way in which the media and in particular radio and TV treat the various parties standing in the election. The media on the whole behave as though the UK still has a two party system. Over the years the LibDems (the LIberal Democrats) and in Scotland the SNP (Scottish National Party) have show this to be manifestly untrue. The LibDems seem to have made a breakthrough this year and at least during the election campaign are getting more or less equal coverage as the Tories and New Labour. However this just shows up the arbitrary way in which our elections work and highlights even more the discrimination against all the other parties.

In other countries there are legal regulations about the amount of coverage that broadcasters must give to parties and candidates standing for election. In the UK whatever regulations there are amount to not very much and the key decisions are taken by the main broadcasters and the leaders of the three main political parties. And you can bet your bottom dollar that fairness to all is not a phrase that was ever uttered during these discussions. The result is that in an election that looks like it will be the closest in decades, the great British public is being offered a biased coverage of the campaign and denied the opportunity to fairly compare the merits and demerits of each party.

The parties that suffer most are the so-called minor parties. There are two types of “minor” parties in the UK. There are those, the Greens and UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) which seek representation across the UK. And then there are the parties that only operate in one of the constituent nations of the UK - SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymri in Wales for example.

In some ways the UK wide minor parties suffer the most. Their leaders do not appear on the so-called Leaders’ Debates nor the Chancellors’ Debates which have become a key feature of this election. In addition, the main broadcasters do not give regular daily coverage to the campaigns by these so-called minor parties. While the leaders of the three main parties feature in almost every news broadcast on a daily basis, the Greens and UKIP are relegated to very limited appearances on the TV and radio. Thus name and visual recognition which is an essential part of modern elections is pretty much denied to them. The manifest unfairness of this is compounded by the boost that the increased coverage this year has given to the LIbDems - their polling figures have shot up dramatically. Why should the Greens and UKIP be denied this possible boost? It is not as if these parties are insignificant in voting share. In the European elections, which use Proportional Representation, both parties won respectable shares of the votes and opinion polls regularly show that significant numbers of electors support these two parties. And this is without the benefit of fair coverage.

In Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland the situation is different. Here the problem mainly resides in the failure of the main broadcasters to have adjusted to the new constitutional settlement in the UK. With the advent of devolution there are in effect four elections taking place. Since there is no English Parliament, in England this election is about education, health, social services, crime, transport as well as the economy, defence and foreign affairs. In the other parts of the UK, all the “domestic” issues are the responsibility of the devolved parliaments or assemblies. Which means that here in Scotland for example the UK election is really only about the economy, defence and international relations. However the main broadcasters who are all based in England hardly ever make this distinction and most of the UK wide broadcasts are in effect about the “English” election.

So we in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have to listen to daily coverage of what the main parties will or will not do for education, hospitals, the police etc, which have very little if any relevance to “our” election. This situation is particularly ludicrous in Northern Ireland where none of the three main UK parties are standing. Yet voters in Northern Ireland have to put up with all this coverage devoted to parties that none of them can vote for. Politics in Northern Ireland is pretty special and the main divide is still between the catholic/republican vote and the protestant/unionist vote. Within the province coverage will be reasonably fair with respect to the main Northern Irish parties, though yet again the Greens will probably lose out.

In Scotland and Wales the situation is less absurd, but more damaging. Since none of the main UK parties stand for election in Northern Ireland all this bias in UK wide broadcasts is likely to have little impact. Though one of the Unionist parties is in an alliance with the Tories. However in Wales and Scotland all three UK parties are standing and the extra coverage they get in the media is clearly unfair to the other parties. This bias and its potentially damaging effects is particularly acute in Scotland. Here the party of government in the Scottish Parliament is the SNP and according to which election you take as your reference point, the SNP is either the largest or the second largest party in Scotland. Yet the SNP are excluded from the kind of coverage that is given to the Tories, New Labour and the LibDems. I find it very hard to see how this blatant unfairness can be justified

It is no defence of this exclusion to claim that this is a UK wide election, since the issues in Scotland are different from those in England. Neither is it any kind of defence to argue that the election is about potential UK Prime Ministers. Given our first past the post system, unless you live in the constituency of one of the so-called potential Prime MInisters you cannot vote for them. Even then you can only vote for or against one of them. Which effectively excludes about 99% of the electorate from this great decision.

When the dust has settled and the results are in, just remember that media coverage of this election is the most biased and unfair ever in UK history. If this kind of favouritism took place in Russia, there would be an outburst of moral frenzy from our media and our three main UK political parties condemning such blatant bias. Yet when it happens here - why the same media and political elites are in on the act.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Places I will (probably) never visit

This weekend we should have been in Rome. It was to be part of Kathleen’s 60th birthday celebrations. However due to the spread of volcanic ash from Iceland all flights have been cancelled. Missing out on Rome got me thinking about other places that I would like to visit, but will almost certainly not manage to do so, (though I do hope to get to Rome sometime).

When younger I imagined I would visit most of the world and just loved the idea of travel and seeing and experiencing different countries and lifestyles. Alas, life is never quite so simple. Advancing years limits the time available for all this travelling. Not to mention the distances that need to be covered and the increasing costs involved in getting half way round the world. Add in my fear of injections and I am forced to conclude that my youthful dreams of visiting exotic places are most likely to remain just dreams.

South America was always one of my favourite destinations. This probably dates back to the World Cup Finals in 1958 in Sweden which were won by the fabulous Pelé inspired Brazil. Something about the place just caught my imagination. Brazil seemed and still seems so different - hot, steamy, exotic, lively - just about everything Scotland is not. And Rio de Janeiro still looks like a fabulous place for a holiday, with beaches and mountains in addition to all the usual attractions of a great city.

The rest of South America is pretty interesting too and I would really like to go to Buenos Aires in Argentina. In part this is out of my love and fascination for the tango. What better place to learn to tango? Buenos Aires also seems to be quite a beautiful and interesting city in its own right. One of the more European cities in South America, it would probably be relatively easy to feel at home there. This is one place that I still have hopes of actually visiting.

The one other South American destination I would love to visit is Ecuador. Just the thought of being on the Equator is in itself enticing enough. However Ecuador is also rich in Indian culture and the scenery must be just out of this world. And there is the prospect of a breathtaking railway journey from tropical Guayaquil on the Pacific coast all the way up to Quito, 2 800m up in the Andes and the second highest capital city in the world.

The part of the world I would most like to visit would have to be India. No doubt this has much to do with Britain’s imperial past. My paternal grandfather was a regular soldier in the British Army and my father was born in Kanpur in northern India while the family was stationed there. The secondary school I attended in St. Andrews was Madras College, and was named after the city of Madras in southern India. This was where the school’s benefactor had made his money. So I have always felt I had a personal connection with India. And of course India is such a wonderfully rich country - rich in not just wealth, but in culture and landscapes. Classical art forms - music and dance, colourful festivals and a mouth watering range of unique cuisines are the main attractions for me.

There is so much to see in India, that even if I were able to get there I could only ever hope to visit but a part of the country. It would be lovely to visit where my father was born. I’m not sure that Kanpur is that great a place on its own, but the Ganges valley is the heart and soul of Hindu culture and Hindi speaking India. A visit to Kanpur would be but one stop in a tour of northern India. Highlights would include the capital Delhi, Varanasi, Kolkata and a railway journey up to Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalaya. The latter two places are in West Bengal so I would get to experience another one of India’s great cultures - Bengali.

The other part of India I would love to visit is the south. Very different from the rest of the country the peoples of southern India are of Dravidian stock and usually much darker in skin colour than other Indians. A tour of Kerala and Tamil Nadu would be just fine. Kerala is on the west coast of India and is very beautiful with serene beaches, tranquil stretches of backwaters, lush hill stations and the home of magical places from my childhood such as Calicut and Cochin. Tamil Nadu is the land of the Tamil people. Tamil is another one of India’s great classical languages and cultures. Tamil Nadu is home to one of the largest centres of the film industry in India and its capital is Chennai, the former Madras of my school. Tamil Nadu is also very rich in Hindu temples as it is the cradle of south Indian temple architecture, and this would be the main attraction in a holiday there.

The rest of Asia is also of course full of culturally rich and fascinating countries which would be great to visit. Thailand, Vietnam and Japan in particular appeal to me. Not to mention China which is just so big that it is almost a continent on its own. And of course way down south there is Australia and New Zealand. For a long time we planned to visit Australia. In particular Sydney which seems a wonderful city, as we had friends who lived there. Alas they moved away before we could go. Carpe diem! Unfortunately all these places are very far away from deal old Scotland, and very expensive to visit. However if we were ever to go anywhere that far away I am sure Kathleen would choose Australia for the climate and language. Though I would definitely choose India.

The other part of the world I would really like to visit is Africa - and sub-saharan Africa at that. Never used to be much interested in that part of the world, but I have become in recent years more and more fascinated by the rich cultures of Africa. Most people who visit Africa tend to go to South Africa and it is easy to see why - spectacular scenery and wildlife, pleasant climate and European lifestyle. A trip to South Africa would be a great experience, but if I ever get the opportunity I would prefer to go to other parts of the continent. East Africa, especially along the great rift valley and the huge lakes - Victoria, Tanganyika and Nyasa - would be spectacular, but most of all I would like to visit West Africa. The most populous part of the continent it is home to some wonderfully rich and gifted cultures. Nigeria alone has three of the most famous groups - Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Very different from the rest of Africa, without the spectacular scenery the attraction of West Africa would be the vibrant lives of the peoples there and their creations in art, music, dance, storytelling and cuisine. Alas this is one of the parts of the world that is most difficult to visit. The hot and humid climate means that you need an array of injections before setting out. And I feel I am too old to be starting on courses of injections. So I very much feat that West Africa is one place I will almost certainly not visit.

There are a couple of places, outwith Europe, which I do intend to visit in the next year or two. The first is Palestine, assuming the Israelis haven’t started another war there. I am now a member of the Dundee-Nablus town twinning Association and most years they send out a delegation. I hope to join them next year. We would obviously visit Nablus, but with luck we will get to see other parts of Palestine. You usually fly into Tel-Aviv, so we will see a bit of Israel, including Jerusalem. This would be a really exciting trip as I would get to see for myself what is happening on the ground as it were and may even be able to help out a bit with some planting of olive trees. It would also be a richly enjoyable experience to see some of the most holy sites for three of the world’s great religions.

The other part of the world I definitely intend to visit is North America. Both Kathleen and I are very keen to visit the big apple itself. We keep postponing our trip to New York, for one reason or another, but time does not last for ever. Must do this sooner rather than later. I quite like the idea of combining New York with a trip to Newport, Rhode Island and on to Cape Cod. Perhaps ending with a few days in Boston. Another place I would like to visit is Montreal. I have always been fascinated by this little enclave of French culture deep within North America. And of course my grandfather, the one who was in India, is buried in Montreal, where he died sometime in the 1920s. Not sure if that could be combined with a trip to New York or not.

The trouble with all this is that once you start on the places you really want to visit the list gets longer and longer. Just in North America alone, I would love to visit the Carolinas, Virginia, New England, Chicago, Montreal, the Rockies and Vancouver. Anyway we will start with New York and think about the rest another year.

Whatever holidays you have planned for the rest of this year, let’s hope there are no more unforeseen delays and that you enjoy them all.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

NATO atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq

More and more evidence is becoming available about the extent of the atrocities committed by NATO troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost as disturbing as the atrocities themselves are the lengths that NATO will go to in order to try and cover up the atrocities. Most of this post is about an incident which occurred in Paktia province in Afghanistan on February 12th.

On that day the Sharabuddin family had more than 25 guests, as well as three musicians in their home in Khataba village to celebrate the naming of a newborn child. There was however very little celebration as five of the guests - two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother - were gunned down by US Special Forces during a botched raid.

This was of course bad enough, but the US forces then tried to cover up their action. According to an investigation by the Times of London this involved the implicated soldiers carving the bullets they used to kill the women out of their bodies and washing their wounds with alcohol to eliminate traces of their involvement. The first US-endorsed story claimed that US forces had killed two Afghan men because the men were insurgents armed with rifles. The initial story went on to state that 3 women were subsequently found dead (their hands tied and their mouths gagged) inside a room in the house (implying that the murder had been carried out by the home’s inhabitants).

This totally false version of what happened was of course the version that was presented to the public. Virtually all of the mainstream media dutifully recounted the NATO lies without making any attempt to question its veracity. If anything some of the US media go overboard and jazz up the official version. This is akin to propaganda. And it is not as if there was no counter evidence available. Right from the beginning of this story some reporters and agencies questioned the NATO account and even had the audacity to go and interview the family and their neighbours in the village where the atrocity happened. These included Associated Press and the Pajhwok Afghan News, an independent news agency created in Afghanistan to enable war reporting by Afghans.

Special mention should go to Jerome Starkey, reporter for the Times of London. He has a most interesting article on the whole event on the Nieman Watchdog Foundation website. As he states in his piece: “The only way I found out NATO had lied -- deliberately or otherwise -- was because I went to the scene of the raid, in Paktia province, and spent three days interviewing the survivors. In Afghanistan that is quite unusual. NATO is rarely called to account. Their version of events, usually originating from the soldiers involved, is rarely seriously challenged.” (my emphasis) Starkey’s full article can be read here.

This should be the key story about our invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. How easily we, the public, are lied to by our military and our politicians. And, to make matters even worse, how willingly our mainstream media, with one or two honourable exceptions, colludes in all this lying.

A further example of this collusion can be found in a typically forceful post entitled More cause and effect in the War against Terrorists, by the great Glenn Greenwald. ABC News reported on the attempt by the U.S. Special Forces to apologize to Haji Sharabuddin, the 80-year-old patriarch of the family, by offering him two sheep (a gesture of begging forgiveness in Pashtun custom). ABC News in an online article included this:

“Presenting sheep is such a powerful form of requesting forgiveness that the father is now obligated not to take revenge, even though he has told reporters he wanted to become a suicide bomber. . . . “

The ABC News article celebrates the fact that the sheep offering "will help defuse" lingering anger over the massacre and may help quell the demand for an investigation, limiting the fallout of the incident.

Greenwald in his post, which you can read here, goes on to reveal how we come to know all about the above attempt at an apology. He writes, “The reason we know about the U.S. Special Forces' sheep sacrifice is because The Times of London's Jerome Starkey, who broke the story about what really happened in the Eastern Afghanistan civilian killing, was present at the scene and described it in detail, including the fact that the U.S. Vice-Admiral who offered the sheep, along with Afghan soldiers, wanted to bar the media from witnessing the event and refrained only when the family members insisted that they stay. In contrast to ABC 's sunny report that all is now forgiven, Starkey writes:

"When people come to your gate and ask forgiveness, according to Afghan law, it’s difficult to reject them," Haji Sharabuddin said later. "I am happy they came." But the family insists that it still wants justice. "I don’t care about the money," Haji Sharabuddin said. He believes the troops attacked after faulty intelligence from one of his enemies — a spy. He wants the Americans to face international justice and the spy handed to Afghan authorities and punished. "When they surrender the spy, then I will make a decision. Maybe I will forgive them," he said.”

But the fact that this 80-year-old man was vowing to perpetrate a suicide attack on U.S. forces speaks volumes about the effects of our actions in that country. And lest anyone thinks that this atrocity in Paktia was an isolated incident, there is a whole litany of such atrocities. All initially denied, then covered up and only late in the day finally admitted to. Another Glenn Greenwald post, here - How Americans are propagandized about Afghanistan - gives some more details about the pervasive nature of the atrocities committed in our name. In the post he also reports on the, largely overlooked statement from Gen. McChrystal, where he admitted, regarding U.S. killings of Afghans at check points: "to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. . . . We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." And as I documented before, the U.S. media constantly repeats false Pentagon claims about American air attacks around the world in order to create the false impression that Key Terrorists were killed while no civilians were.

Further confirmation of the willingness of our “boys” to commit acts of wanton violence comes in this video, published by Wikileaks, of another “incident”, this time from July 2007 in Baghdad. The footage shows an attack from a US helicopter, in which a group of around 7-8 people are shot down. The group included two TV cameramen for Reuters who has been trying since 2007 to get the military to release the video. Wikileaks does not say how it got it.

On the video, the U.S. troops later fire at a van that comes to pick up a wounded survivor from the assault. Then, as U.S. ground troops arrive, one of their voices on the intercom is laughing about having driven over a body. It is also very disturbing to hear the troops doing the shooting talk about “engaging with the individuals”, when what they are doing is killing apparently innocent civilians.

All this shows how damaging our continuing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is to us, in addition to the damage we are doing to Iraqis and Afghanis. This aspect of the occupation is well brought out in this post by Helena Cobban on her blog - Just World News. She writes" "All these revelations that keep coming out about the strong propensity of U.S. (and Israeli) troops to engage in excessive violence, and the propensity of their respective high commands to cover up that fact, underline a couple of important lessons:

  • 1. Armed conflict is always violent, and extremely damaging to anyone who is in the war zone. No matter how often they tell us about "pinpoint accuracy", "smart weapons", and so on, the vast majority of the violence involved in armed conflict is brutal and anything but "pinpoint".
    2. Armed conflict always also brutalizes those sent out to engage in it. And it brutalizes people more and more over time, as acts that earlier are seen as taboo or "exceptional" progressively become more and more routine. Time was, in Israel, the military would rigorously investigate the cause of every death-in-conflict of a Palestinian. Then it stopped doing that. Then it started acting as if extrajudicial executions could be considered as "just routine"...

Using violence to try to resolve differences is outrageous, and barbaric. All of us who live in countries that claim to respect human life and human liberties should renounce it. Guess what, we do now have international institutions that, if further strengthened, could help us resolve all the world's big conflicts without recourse to war."

Sunday 11 April 2010

Recent Reads

This post is a sort of general overview of my reading since the turn of the year. I have managed to cram in quite a few books and nearly all of them have been thoroughly enjoyable. Some I listened to rather than read, as I am becoming a big fan of audiobooks. I can get on with my stitching and still enjoy a good read. I haven't written about each book, only some.

I now find that more of my reading consists of crime or detective novels. However I still manage to fit in a good selection of what might be termed non crime novels. These latter were:

The Business - Ian Banks

Transitions - Ian Banks

Ordinary Thunderstorms - William Boyd

No longer at Ease - Chinua Achebe

The Sea - John Banville

The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

Scottsboro - Ellen Feldman

The Good Mayor - Andrew Nicoll

Vile Bodies - Evelyn Waugh

Regeneration - Pat Barker

The Painted Kiss - Elizabeth Hickey

The two Ian Banks novels are quite similar in some ways, as both are about an imaginary organisation - The Business or The Concern - that secretly controls lots of the world’s business activities. The Business is quite a gentle book and nothing really bad happens and ends on a positive and happy note. On the other hand Transitions, which is his latest book and the one I am currently listening to, is altogether a darker and more violent tale. It is also unusual in that it has certain science fiction traits. An interesting and exciting tale. Still awaiting the end.

The Plot Against America is a most intriguing novel. It is based on a “what if” premise. In this case Lindberg wins the US Presidential election in 1940 and ushers in pro-nazi policies. The novel which is written from the perspective of the youngest child in a Newark Jewish family, recounts how drastically their lives change. A very impressive and quite chilling tale. Scottisboro is at the opposite end of the literary spectrum as it is a fictional account of the real life events surrounding the Scottsboro case from the 1930s, when seven young black boys were accused of raping two white women. Well written it is nevertheless a very sad tale.

The Painted Kiss is another fictional account of a true life relationship, that between the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge. However this is more fiction than fact as not too much is really known about their relationship. A good novel nevertheless which gives an insight into artistic life in early twentieth century Vienna.

As I mentioned above I now find that I am reading more and more crime novels. An interesting perspective on the popularity of crime novels comes from Maxine Clarke, who wrote the following explanation of why she reads crime fiction, on her own blog. “Now I read mainly crime fiction – which is ghettoised by many opinion-formers as “crime fiction” but I always experience, and see, it as “traditional story telling” which has its roots in Greek drama, other classical drama to and including Shakespeare and beyond, and the great Victorian and other period novels. The books I loved as a child and young woman were by Dickens, George Elliot, Arnold Bennett, the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Emile Zola and so on, and before that Conan Doyle, Lancelyn Green, Stevenson, Rosemary Sutcliffe, C. S. Lewis et al. - to me, crime fiction is a natural extension of those.

Crime fiction is plot-driven, true, but the better examples of it have much additional depth in terms of character, craft, setting, conviction (political or ethical beliefs, for example) and insight. Crime fiction, like children's fiction (think J. K. Rowling), is not afraid to tackle the big issues. Literary fiction, in attempting the same, is too often self-regarding, tentative (one can almost feel the author's awareness of the "literary" review, along the lines of "the goalkeeper's fear of the penalty" to quote Wim Wenders), and hence over-personalised or over-intricate. I would even go so far as to suggest that the better literary fiction has its roots in crime fiction, thinking of Ian McEwan's evolution as a novelist, for example.”

If you like crime fiction, Maxine’s blog is an invaluable resource, and you can access it here.

My recent crime fiction reads:

The Terracotta Dog - Andrea Camilleri

Doctored Evidence - Donna Leon

Raven Black - Ann Cleeves

White Nights - Ann Cleeves

If the Dead Rise Not - Philip Kerr

Glasgow Kiss - Alex Gray

Truth - Peter Temple

Heart of the Hunter - Deon Meyer

The Ice Princess - Camilla Läckberg

The Draining of the Lake - Arnaldur Indridason

Silence of the Grave - Arnaldur Indridason

The Redbreast - Jo Nesbø

Andrea Camilleri, whose work is set in Sicily and Donna Leon, whose tales are set in Venice, are old favourites of mine. The other authors are all new to me. Ann Cleeves is English and lives is Yorkshire. However, she has succeeded in writing a quartet of books set in the Shetland Isles. Which is even more remarkable as she has never lived there. However she has spent some time on Fair Isle, and has visited Shetland. This is all by way of saying what a wonderful job she has done in creating what seems to me to be a vivid and realistic account of life in Shetland. She has also created some very enthralling and attractive characters. I have now read the first two in the series and hope to complete the set fairly soon.

Philip Kerr and Alex Gray are both Scottish writers, though their work is very different. Special mention to Philip Kerr who last year won the Barcelona prize, the richest prize for crime fiction. If the Dead Not Rise is one of a series set in Berlin in the 1930s, and a very good tale too. Will definitely read more of this series.

The other novels are all by non UK writers. Peter Temple is an Australian and Truth is set in Melbourne and is a terrific read. You do have to make a few adjustments to the inclusion of some local Australian patois and the book is centred on political infighting within Victoria State - so you need to be on your toes while reading this. Deon Meyer is a South African and The Heart of the Hunter is set in post apartheid society. Though suspicion and corruption are still alive and kicking. The story is fast paced and takes you all over the country.

The other books are all by Scandinavian authors. Part of the post Wallander and post Stieg Larsson discovery of hidden treasures from that part of the world. Camilla Läckberg is Swedish and The Ice Princess is the first in the Erica Falck series set in the real-life small Swedish coastal town of Fjallback. Arnarldur Indridason is an Icelandic writer. Never imagined I’ld be reading and enjoying Icelandic novels. Both are good. The Draining of the Lake in particular as it features Icelandic students who studied in East Germany during the early 1950s. This alone was a revelation to me. Jo Nesbø is from Norway and The Redbreast is the third in the Harry Hole series. Mainly set in Oslo The Redbreast is about neo-Nazi activities in present day Norway, but also goes back in time to the second world war and the story of Norwegians who fought on the Russian front for the Germans. The twin stories come together in the exciting finale.

My next crime book will also be from Scandinavia. I await with great pleasure The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell, he of Wallander fame. This is not though a Wallander novel. It has had good reviews so I am quite looking forward to reading it. If you haven’t read any Scandinavian crime fiction, I would thoroughly recommend giving it a try. If you want further convincing try this article on The Strange Case of the Nordic Detectives by Laura Miller.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Israeli Justice? - The strange case of Anat Kam and the dog that didn’t bark

Anat Kam? Most people will probably never have heard of her. She is an Israeli journalist who has for the past four months or so been under house arrest in Tel-Aviv for allegedly leaking secret Israeli defense ministry documents. The journalist who probably received the leaked papers has now fled Israel and is currently living in London, fearful for his safety if he returned to Israel.

So far there is nothing too special about this story. After all if you leak secret papers you might well be liable for arrest. What however makes this story not just interesting but scandalous is the reaction of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and the Israeli government. For they have secured a gag order on the media which forbids journalists and bloggers in Israel not only from reporting on the details of Kam’s prosecution, but from even acknowledging that she had been detained.

Thus this is not just an everyday story of leaking damaging secrets, but the attempts of an almighty state to control what its own citizens can know. In other words this whole incident raises serious questions about the nature of Israeli society. An Israel which likes to boast that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. An Israel which is a bastion of “Western” values. And an army which is “the most moral army in the world”. Luckily for us, every so often we get to see behind the carefully constructed smoke screens and the truth about Israel emerges. And it is not a pretty picture.

First of all the quasi omnipotence of the IDF and its security apparatus - Shin Bet - is laid bare. Not only can they easily obtain a gagging order on the whole of Israel’s media, they can even keep this secret from top politicians. Apparently the Speaker of the Knesset was kept in the dark about this. Is this the kind of “Western” values that Israel upholds?

Secondly we can see the essential subservience of the Israeli media. Willingly or unwillingly, virtually all of Israel’s media has complied with this gagging order with the exception of a few Hebrew language bloggers. So much for a free press. And so much for standing up to unjust actions by the overweening authorities. If all or at least the majority of Israeli newspapers and media had defied the order, what would have happened? Would the IDF storm every newspaper office? The complicity of the overwhelming majority of the Israeli media is more akin to life in a military dictatorship than to life in a ‘Western’ democracy.

Linked to the inaction of the Israeli media is the even more scandalous reaction of the mainstream media in the West itself. Or rather the lack of reaction. For this is a classic example of the Dog that Didn’t Bark. It is not as if they don’t know. Newspapers and TV channels with offices in Israel will have been aware of this story every since it began, but chose to remain silent. The rest of the world, or at least the English speaking world became aware of the story in early March. That was when US blogger Richard Silverstein first revealed the story in his blog Tikun Olam. He has kept up with the developing story on a regular basis ever since. Other English language bloggers have also picked up on the story. Yet with the odd exception - the Guardian and Independent in the UK, the Huffington Post and to-day, the New York Times, in the US - our mainstream media has chosen to remain silent. Why? Whatever terrible things Shin Bet and the IDF may be able to do to journalists in Israel, our brave reporters in London, New York and elsewhere are pretty safe. Or are they? Perhaps the reach of the IDF does extend as far as threatening the lives of journalists in the UK and the USA. Most unlikely all the same. So what dose explain the continuing silence here in the West - the home of the free press and investigative journalism?

Let us imagine for a moment that Anat Kam was an Iranian whistle blower and that she is under house arrest in Teheran and subject to a gagging order which only a few brave Iranian bloggers had managed to expose. And that another Iranian journalist was in hiding in London fearful for his life. Can you imagine the mainstream media remaining silent about this. All hell would break loose about the depravity of the Iranian regime. In fact if this story had happened in any other country in the world it would have made headlines. So perhaps another lesson from all this is the willing complicity of our own media in covering up the true nature of Israeli society. Not only the media but our politicians too. Given the extent to which the USA in particular underwrites Israel, you would have thought some US politician would dare to speak out about this scandalous treatment of the media. Just how far does the reach of the pro-Israel Lobby go?

The other key aspect of this story is the substance of the secret papers that Anat Kam has allegedly leaked. For these papers reveal the fact that senior officers in the Israeli Army, including Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, knowingly violated Israel Supreme Court orders as well as international laws by ordering the assassination of Palestinians even when it was possible to capture the suspects alive. This is what the IDF are so desperate to cover up. Just to be sure about all this. Senior officers in the IDF have ordered the unlawful killing of Palestinians. This is of course a war crime or indeed a crime against humanity. Now the IDF might not care too much about international law, but their actions were also in contravention of Israel’s own Supreme Court. The IDF and its cronies in the government obviously believe they are above the law. So much for the ‘most moral army in the world’.

As Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf puts it in his Promised Land blog: “If this was indeed the liberal democracy some people believe Israel to be, these officers would have been forced to resign and prosecuted. There is no chance of this happening.” Israel has however long ceased to be a Liberal Democracy and the sooner our media and politicians wake up to this fact the better. What Israel has become is a 21st century version of Prussia - a deeply militarised society with a light gloss of democracy - for Jews only - to cover the blemishes. You can read a previous post on this topic here.

The gagging orders on the media show the extent to which the IDF and the Israeli state are terrified of the truth. At all costs not just us in the West, but Israeli citizens themselves must be shielded from the truth. This particular story is only unusual in the severity of the gagging order. However attempts by Israeli authorities to hide the truth are commonplace. Some recent examples.

Jared Malsin, a Jewish American graduate of Yale University, was until recently English language editor of the Palestinian news service Ma’an News. That is until he was deported by the orders of the Israeli security services on the grounds that he had published damaging reports about Israeli military conduct in the Occupied Territories. Clearly the Israelis will go to almost any length to avoid the truth.

Two international activists, Ariadna Jove Marti (Spain) and Bridgette Chappell (Australia), who were living in Bir Zeit in the West Bank were arrested by the IDF last month and threatened with deportation. Their case is currently with the Israel Supreme Court. What makes this case particularly indicative of current trends in Israel is that the main charge against the activists had nothing to do with national security, but with the ideas they expressed. The “crime” involved words, not actions. The arrest by the army, not the police, took place within part of the West Bank that is supposed to be under Palestinian control. Yet Israel clearly ignores this and its so called security forces act with impunity all over the occupied West Bank. This is akin to a US military force crossing the Canadian border to arrest a UK citizen living in Vancouver, taking them to the US and threatening them with deportation. What kind of state does this? You can read more about this case here.

An even stranger case is the fate of the delegation of young Swedish citizens with Jewish and Palestinian roots who had come to Israel to participate in educational sessions with Israelis and Palestinians. The trip was funded by the Olof Palme Foundation in Stockholm. The three Swedish citizens of Palestinian origin were denied entry into Israel and deported back to Sweden. The four with Jewish roots were allowed to stay. One of them though was asked to sign a declaration that he would not enter Palestinian territory. What was this all about? Are the Israeli authorities so terrified of the prospect of Jews and Palestinians living in harmony? You can read more about this here.

I end this post with the final two paragraphs from Max Blumenthal’s account of the Anat Kam case. The full post can be found on his blog here. “While the media blackout casts the darkest shadow over Israel’s already withered democratic institutions, the fact that Kam is being charged with treason is nearly as disturbing. While she may be guilty of leaking confidential documents, she is only accused of malfeasance for exposing a much greater crime, an illegal assassination that appeared to have been authorized at the highest levels of the IDF general command. She is a whisteblower in the tradition of Mark Felt and Daniel Ellsberg. In Netanyahu’s Israel, however, she is being treated as an enemy of the state.

If reporters can be prosecuted or intimidated by the state for exposing acts that the Israeli Supreme Court has declared illegal, then the court holds nothing more than symbolic authority. By voiding the rulings of the court without a second thought, Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus has demonstrated the preeminence of its power. At the same time, its reliance on gag orders has revealed a growing sense of desperation. What else is the IDF hiding?”