Wednesday, August 31, 2005

How to Win in Iraq

An article in Foreign Affairs, by Andrew F. Krepinevich, argues that the US should put the primary focus in Iraq on providing security - rather than confronting the terrorists - and that this approach will take at least a decade to be successful.

Link:Foreign Affairs - How to Win in Iraq - Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.

French FM Attacks Euro-Bank's Political Independence

The French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, has called on the European Central Bank to be more repsonsive to the blandishments of national politicians. The bank's low inflation strategy has kept interest rates low and unchanged for the past 27 months, despite this not being in the interests of some EU countries, Italy especially.

The trouble is that the ECB was explicitly set up to be free from political pressure, and given a mandate to ensure price stability and a strong euro. That this is not always in the interests of the participating countries was patently clear before the euro's introduction, and was one of the main objections to it.

At Germany's instigation, the euro was to be protected by a Stability Pact, to curb free-spending, high-debt countries with an elaborate system of checks and fines. Germany has since been the worst offender against the Pact, today announcing that it will, for the fourth year running, exceed the deficit. As we noted here on January 17th, the Pact is dead, and its passing has undermined the euro's chances of survival.

If the ECB were to bow to the demands of individual countries, the currency would become the plaything of the biggest countries, who would scrap among themselves to set the monetary policy best suited to them. No-one could possibly win from such a change of tack.

The alternative is to abandon the euro and revert to national currencies. Whilst a breakaway is looking increasingly plausible, again in connection with Italy, it would represent a huge loss of face for the EU Commission and its predecessors, and an enormous setback to dreams of ever closer union. But it is high time for a feasibility study into the matter, so that European taxpayers can evaluate for themselves whether it's worth paying the price to correct this premature, crumbling monument to hubristic pan-European government.

New Orleans Flooded as Levees Break

The initial impact of Hurricane Katrina wasn't as cataclysmic as the hype had predicted. But in the aftermath, the levees and dykes protecting New Orleans have broken under pressure from the sea's storm-surges, flooding 80% of the city. A terrible disaster has occurred in this place of beauty and grace.

New Orleans is the blog's favourite American city, and we pray for all the victims, and hope the looting doesn't get out of hand.

Guardian Unlimited Special reports Death toll rises amid the devastation

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Cunning Contentlessness of Intelligent Design

One problem with Intelligent Design is that it doesn't posit any hypotheses of its own, beyond the claim that the universe was intelligently designed. As George Gilder, a long-time affiliate of the (pro-Intelligent Design) Discovery Institute, has said: "Intelligent design itself does not have any content."

Lacking content, Intelligent Design is impossible to refute. Cunning, that.

Daniel C. Dennett explains the approach in detail in:Edge: SHOW ME THE SCIENCE by Daniel C. Dennett

Read Claude de Bigny's take on religious faith and evolution here.

Update: The Case of the Female Orgasm and Intelligent Design

Monday, August 29, 2005

Peter Mandelson's Bra-Wars

Peter Mandelson has finally broken off his jaunt in Italy to help sort out the European retailing crisis he has caused in the matter of clothes imported from China.

Mandelson erected the EU's protectionist barrier to hinder cheap Chinese imports and to protect textile producers in France and Italy. Despite strong protests from Holland and Denmark, warning that a crisis would result, Commissioner Mandelson rushed through his ill-thought-out legislation.

The result is what has been described as "the worst retailing crisis since WWII". Countless orders placed by retailers before the new restrictions came into force, and already paid for, have been held up at customs for the past weeks.

Mandelson is now in China with his EU team, hoping to sort out the mess. "I hope member states will cooperate and won't prevent the speedy passage of those procedures," he said, placing the blame for his legislation squarely on the nations involved.

Whilst everyone will wish Mandy well, we must ask whether it is wise for the EU Commission to employ such men. Mandelson was a laughing stock in the UK long before his EU appointment, having twice been sacked from the British cabinet by his dear friend Tony Blair after unsavoury financial scandals.

People like Mandelson often end up being "promoted" to Brussels. It is wrongly believed they can cause less harm there. This time it is the turn of European retailers to pay the price.

Guardian Unlimited The Guardian Mandelson plan to end Chinese trade row

Flat Tax "on the March Across Europe"

The appreal of a flat tax-rate is growing. First championed in the ex-East bloc nations of Europe, the idea is gaining high-profile adherents across Europe. In Germany, for example, Chancellor-candidate Angela Merkel of the centrist CDU has appointed Professor Paul Kirchhof, a prominent flat-rate guru, to her election team as economics spokesman. Whilst noone thinks Kirchhof will be able (should Merkel win) to translate his thinking into instant policy, it is a clear signal that Europe's largest market, and most sclerotic economy, is opening up to new fiscal approaches.

Telegraph | Opinion | Whatever Brown says, the flat tax is coming

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Inequality Taboo

Charles Murray, writing in Commentary, calls for an opening-up of the debate about statistical differences between the sexes and races.

That aptidunal differences between social groups are empirically provable is no longer controversial in scientific circles, although public discussion of the subject remains inhibited, both scientists and writers staying out of the controversy for pc careerist reasons. The intolerant and misinformed reception of Murray and Richard Herrnstein's "Bell Curve" in 1993 amply demonstrated this. The findings were widely misinterpreted as "racist". Hysteria on that score hasn't diminished in the twelve years since.

Yet if empirical evidence is overlooked in the implementation of our moral principles, unwanted, unlooked for effects will certainly undermine our well-meant intentions.

Link to Murray's article in Commentary:Commentary

Friday, August 26, 2005

What Drives Al Qaeda?

In this month's Le Monde Diplomatique, Olivier Roy writes that

Most of all, al-Qaida is concerned to smash the political common front and confine Muslims to a purely religious or ethnic identity that most of them want nothing to do with. It is deliberately out to provoke a clash of cultures, perhaps because, at bottom, the real problem of the radicalised youth is their relation to culture of any kind.

Roy reckons Al Qaeda's militants aren't interested in liberating the Middle East, or in reconquering Spain, or whatever. The various temporal justifications Al Qaeda has occasionally made for its violence, Roy believes, are purely opportunistic, seeking to tap into widespread Muslim dissatisfactions and so build support. Al Qaeda itself has no specific political grievances, but is "in combat with the world order as they (sic) see it."

Al Qaeda is influenced in this, Roy believes, by the Salafists, who wish to purge Islam of all outside influence. Salafism, like Al Qaeda, opposes cultural and national forms of Islam. Not all Salafists, however, are jihadists.

Roy's article refines a view we posted here last month, based on the ancient political roots of Islamist violence. For although Al Qaeda isn't itself a political movement, its solution (jihad) involves the removal of all political institutions, and the assumption of their power by - one assumes - Al Qaeda.

The link is to Le Monde Diplomatique's English-language site:Britain: homegrown terror

Thursday, August 25, 2005

RIP: Jack Slipper ("Slipper of the Yard")

Jack Slipper, or "Slipper of the Yard" has died aged 81. Slipper was the policeman most associated with the 1963 Great Train Robbery - particularly with Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber whom Slipper, as a detective sergeant working on the case, had helped to convict. Biggs promptly escaped from Wandsworth prison, climbing a 20" wall and jumping down a hole sawn into the roof of a waiting van. Biggs then went on the run, first to Antwerp (where he had remarkably ineffective and very painful plastic surgery), then in Australia, then, from 1969, in Brazil.

When Biggs' whereabouts had been established by the Daily Express in 1974, Jack Slipper went to Rio de Janeiro, under the impression he could arrest and bring him back to justice. But before Slipper could nab his man, Biggs impregnated his Brazilian girlfriend, Raimunda. The Brazilian authorities accordingly refused to let Biggs be taken out of the country. Slipper returned home alone, and was pictured asleep on the plane, sitting next to an empty seat.

There was much more to Jack Slipper than the Biggs saga. During his service with the RAF in Rhodesia, he was light heavyweight champion of the Combined Services there. Aside from the Biggs case, during his time at the CID he helped solve the Bank of America robbery and other cases during the 1970s. He also helped introduce the "supergrass" system in Britian, offering criminals indemnity in return for evidence. But he knew that he would always be remembered for his relationship with the Great Train Robber.

When Slipper visited Biggs at his Brazil villa in 1993, he asked him, "So, Ronnie, does crime pay?" Ronnie Biggs shook his head. "I've got nothing left," he said. In 2001, Biggs finally returned to Britain to give himself up.

Telegraph News Jack Slipper

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Europe Visited by Fire and Flood

Apocalyptic weather is raging through Europe now, with heavy flooding in Romania, Switzerland and Bavaria, whilst endless drought has sparked off the fires blazing across Portugal. An apocalypse is all about revelation and judgment, and a widespread strand of instant judgment in the western media tells us, quite unscientifically, that man's responsibility for global warming is to blame. Another strand, equally self-confident and even more brazenly unscientific, sees the hand of a vengeful Deity at work. Neither explanation appeals to this blog. At least al-Jazeera can be relied on to give an impartial, fact-based account.

The link is to the al-Jazeera report:Aljazeera.Net - Europe fires, floods leave trail of death

British Muslim Leaders Condone Pan-Islamism at the Expense of British Values

A piece by Mihir Bose in today's Telegraph claims that British Muslims are losing affinity with their cultural roots, are not acquiring an affinity for British values, and that this is a trend implicitly condoned by British Islamic leaders such as the poisonous Sir Iqbal Sacranie, with the effect of letting Saudi-sponsored pan-Islamism fill the resulting vacuum.Telegraph Opinion British Muslims forgetting their roots

Monday, August 22, 2005

Intelligent Design: A Testable Hypothesis?

Claude de Bigny, the blog's historical correspondent, has been mixing it with the bloggers over at MemeFirst in the Intelligent Design "debate", and today he hypothesises about evolution and belief in the Deity:

"Whilst belief in a God may be unscientific, or even false," de Bigny speculates, "the evolutionary path of the human race has made it essential to its continued success as a species. When humans abandon their false Gods, in other words, they will be ripe for their own demise. That would be a fine universal irony, and one only a Creator could possibly have come up with (arguably)."

De Bigny may be on to something. It may well turn out, moreover, that scientific method is inherently incapable of discovering the ultimate "truths" about the universe and its condition. Trouble is, we haven't found anything more provably effective than science at grasping these matters and, if such a thing were to exist, only science would be capable of identifying it for us.

The link is to Stefan Geens' piece at MemeFirst:MemeFirst: Intelligent Design: Finally a testable hypothesis

Update: The Cunning Contentlessness of Intelligent Design.

Update 2 : The Case of the Female Orgasm and Intelligent Design

Iran Runs Rings Round the EU3

The new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to his parliament yesterday, links Iran's import of a range of goods from "certain" European countries to the dispute over his country's nuclear programme.

"They (ie the EU3) expect to intervene in Iran's domestic affairs and make Iran silent about important regional and international issues," he said. "This is cruel and unfair. Our nation will not tolerate such behaviour on the international scene."

Well, alright then.

The EU3 - UK, France and Germany - have got into a cruel cul-de-sac in their "negotiations" with the Iranian regime. A signal of this came when Chancellor Schroeder of Germany, in full election mode, took pains to say that Germany would not be party to a use of force against the wily imams - a sure sign of desperation in the face of stalled discussions, the more so as nobody, not even President Bush, had been advocating violence.

At the same time, more and more anti-war commentators are pointing to the benefits to Iran of Iraq's current constitutional difficulties. They ascribe an almost godlike level of cunning and effectiveness to Iran in successfully destabilising Iraq and forcing its government into a theocratic, anti-American mould. This may or may not be premature. But at any rate, the idea that the EU3 could ever have prevented Iran from developing enriched uranium, using threat-free diplomacy alone, seems ever more absurd and naive.

Link to EU Observer

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Wine Drinking in Islam

Wine drinking was accepted by the early Muslims - great Caliphs, such as Yazid I "of Wines", were well-known as enthusiastic imbibers, and the Prophet himself appears to have drunk moderately.

The Islamic prohibition of alcohol only came after the tolerant and civilised Ommayyad dynasty gave way to the more killjoy Abbassids.

The link is to an article by Abul Kasem; the attached comments are also interesting.Wine Drinking in Islam by Abul Kasem

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Sibet Attena von Esens (+1473), Earl of Harlingerland

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1473 of Sibet Attena von Esens, who first united Harlingerland under his rule during the mid-fifteenth century.

The picture is of his funerary monument, which was erected by his eldest son and heir, Hero Oomkens the Younger von Esens, in St Magnus Church, Esens.

Friday, August 05, 2005

St Maurice d'Agaune, Valais

The blog will be on pilgrimage for a few weeks, travelling to St Maurice d'Agaune, in Valais. This is a holy place, rich in ancient ancestral associations, and the blog hopes to return refreshed and infused with a stronger, purer sense of purpose.

In the meantime, please do scroll through the blog's archives, which contain lots of worthwhile reading.

East German "Proletarianisation" Blamed for Deaths of Nine Babies - Schoenbohm's Election Polemics

Jörg Schoenbohm, Interior Minister of Brandenburg for the centrist CDU party, has commented on the case of an east German mother who killed nine of her babies without her neighbours having noticed anything amiss.

"I believe," he said, "that communist party-enforced proletarisation is one of the significant causes of moral dereliction (Verwahrlosung) and violent tendencies."

"In a totalitarian system," he added later, as if trying to dilute the toxicity of his charge, "the spreading of shared values (Wertevermittlung) was a low priority. It was best not to be too involved in other people's lives."

On one level, it is outrageous cheek of Herr Schönbohm to suggest that the communist system - whatever its undoubted evils - brutalised its citizens to this extent, driving them to infanticide and other extremes of violence and moral dereliction - and that its violent, brutish citizenry was spawned out of its policies of "proletarianisation". This is mere sophomoric tendentiousness. What is worse is that Herr Schoenbohm deprecates personal responsibility for the murders, whilst implying, equally absurdly, that the very background of eastern Germans somehow compels them to commit desperate, horrific crimes. Leave aside the implications of such a sweeping moral conclusion for other societies in which, say, schoolchildren gun down dozens of their schoolfriends, or the dementedly paternalistic assumption that any society is a direct cause of any crime committed within it - his suggestion is untenable, almost irresponsible - and won't prove a vote-winner for the CDU.

At the same time, Herr Schoenbohm has stuck his finger into a sensitive spot. It isn't so much that eastern Germans might be offended by his remarks - such assertions are unlikely to come as a complete surprise to anyone anywhere, after all, and, coming from a politician, one would have to be morbidly sensitive to take them personally or to find offence in them. It is more that Germany hasn't yet found a way of speaking about the topic of its own division in a comfortable way.

That's why much of the political media class has rejected Herr Schönbohm's remarks out of hand. One of the favourite terms of dismissal is that his remarks are of Stammtisch-Niveau - saloon-bar-level politics. This always strikes the blog as a strange and telling term of contempt - most citizens, after all, even those never actually found in saloon-bars, do tend to get to grips with politics most intensely, if at all, in saloon-bar type arguments.

We love to reduce the most subtle political calculations to the crassest of simplifications - and will make up our minds - even vote - on that basis. So Herr Schoenbohm is doing good to introduce simplistic saloon-bar ideas to the realm of "high politics", if only to give the high politicians a taste of what he thinks the voters are talking about. That he seriously misunderestimates your average saloon-bar pundit's intelligence is by the bye.

As to the matter of his remarks - they are confined to the general, rather than to the specifics - always regrettable, in the blog's view, as discussion becomes confined to abstractions. It's hard to accept that a communist society is necessarily worse, in terms of good neighborliness, than a capitalist one, if that is what Herr Schönbohm is driving at. One has read of too many western pensioners, after a long unnoticed absence, discovered as dusty forgotten cadavers, half-gnawed away by rats.

Did the active de-Christianisation and totalitarianism of East Germany's communist period worsen conditions conducive to "good neighborliness" more ruthlessly than passive secularisation did in the west? Who knows? It's an academic question: interesting, but less interesting than the specificity of this single, striking case. Aside from that, it remains a staple preconception that daily life in east Germany, although repressed, had a human level of mutual support and warmth that was lost in the west.

Everyone seems to be agreed that "good neighborliness" has been on the decline across both east and west (in the UK and USA too) for the past 50 years or so. Many folks will quibble whether Christianity even had anything to do with it in the first place. There's still so much to be learned about what happened in the two Germanies between 1945-89, and the findings will be subject to much more polemical agitation by the likes of Herr Schönbohm before any can gain common acceptance, even for saloon-bar usage.

In light of which, we say "Cheers!" to Jörg Schoenbohm and his attempt to get a debate started, even if he has been somewhat crass. Looking at the fate of similar "debates" in Germany over the past year (the inane Kapitalismusdebatte springs to mind), it is unlikely to shift prejudices or create any new insights, much more likely to entrench everyone's existing ones.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Germany as Sump of Corporate Corruption

The corruption scandals which have been front page news in Germany over the past weeks are now beginning to damage its image abroad.

An article in today's Guardian claims "corporate Germany is in crisis" and sugggests some of the measures which might have prevented the scandals at companies like Volkswagen, BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Infineon and Commerzbank.

Needless to say, the Guardian's line is that an increase in supervision is needed. But the current system is already riddled with supervision. The unions, board, executives and employees are all organised in such a way as to ensure that a nominal and mutual "supervision" is guaranteed. That is the nub of the problem: mutual backscratching will always creep in and corrupt such set-ups, sooner or later.

To make supervision impartial would only work if outside bodies were involved, with no connection to the company aside from their supervisory role. This is hardly an effective recipe to root out fraud. In truth, it would be more effective to dismantle much of the existing system, which pays lip-service to employee and union particpipation, whilst excluding the crucial "stakeholder" - the shareholder, who has been the prime gull in all this corporate bamboozling. Shareholder pressure, in turn, is far likelier to succeed in the fraud-busting role.