Monday, October 31, 2005

"Are We Beasts?" - RIP Dresden 1945

"Are we beasts?" Churchill cried out when he first saw photographs of the devastation caused by the bombing of civilian targets in 1943.

His question is especially pertinent in light of the bombing of Dresden, late in the war, apparently at the urging of the Russians, an act from which Bomber Command subsequently sought to distance itself.

Even in those less squeamish times, the toll of 60,000 dead - mostly women and children, many of them refugees - caused widespread revulsion, even (or perhaps especially) amongst those who ordered it.

The answer to Churchill's question appears to be, "Yes, 'we' are beasts (indeed, our capacity for large-scale, indiscriminate murder puts us in another context altogether from the merely beastly) - but we probably had to be in order to win the war."

The restoration and rededication of Dresden's Frauenkirche yesterday, more than 60 years after its destruction, marks an opportunity to mourn those thousands of innocents who died in the ruins of Europe during the 1939 war.

Telegraph Opinion Necessary or not, Dresden remains a topic of anguish

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Horrors of English Humour - A.A. Gill On English Rage

"English comedy is war by other means," writes A.A. Gill in today's Sunday Times. "Most people share a joke, the English aim them."

Gill, a Scot who's spent all his life in England (and has no plans to move away), cannot reconcile himself to his Englishness. He thinks (for example) that the English ability to invent sports (and the codes which govern them), springs - as English humour and snobbery do - from an urge to suppress a very English, brutal rage.

In this suppression of rage we find the greatness of the English , Gill reckons. This may be so, for all we know. The rage in his condemnation seems a little half-hearted (maybe all too Caledonian), all the same.

I hate England - Review - Times Online

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Chirac Allies Sentenced In French Corruption Trials

The Daily Telegraph writes about the many sleazy senior political allies of President Chirac who were yesterday sentenced for corruption. The case focussed on kickbacks received by the politicians - for school building contracts.

Chirac's RPR party was the principal beneficiary, leading a defence lawyer to comment on the "empty chairs" in the courtroom, one of which, he suggested, should be filled by "the president whose name we dare not utter."

Telegraph News President's men tumble in Chirac sleaze trial

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Iraqis Approve Draft Constitution

Everyone - well, everyone who's bothered to notice it - is being very downbeat about the approval of the Iraqi constitution by Iraqi voters. But the fact that a majority of Sunnis have now bought into the idea of a federal Iraq is surely news of unalloyed excellence, removing one of the most-cited justifications of the Islamist jihad, which was that the Sunnis were being excluded from the political process.

This signal from the Sunnis, that they would prefer to participate in setting up a federal democracy, added to Saddam Hussein's upcoming trial, are two huge milestones, and anyone would've thought they deserved a little more recognition than they're getting.

Guardian Unlimited Special reports A small and fragile step forward

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

European "Transparency" Proposals Shelved

Siim Kallas' plans for greater transparency concerning European Union farm subsidies and lobbying "gifts", which were due to have been adopted by the EU Commission yesterday, were taken off the agenda at the last minute.

A spokeswoman for Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission President, said this was due to practical considerations about how to implement the proposal, rather than to substantive objections to its spirit.

A move to transparency in the matter of subsidies has already been started in Denmark and Holland. In Denmark, where getting the information from the government proved an Herculean task, the Danes learned that the great majority of EU subsidies went to the likes of an ex-minister for food and agriculture, the current farm Commissioner, the royal family and big corporations like Danisco.

Unsurprisingly, such revelations are terrible PR for the EU's discredited CAP policy, and for its lacklustre reputation for combatting fraud. To stymie Kallas' modest proposal may keep the lid on the whole sorry business a bit longer, but sooner or later the EU's supine toleration of corruption is going to backfire on all those who benefit from it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Margot Wallström's "Plan D" for the EU Commission

Claude de Bigny, the blog's irrepressible historical correspondent, has been mixing it over at Margot Wallström's blog (Margot Wallstrom, a Swedish politician whom many suspect of wishing to leave Brussels to return to Stockholm, is the EU Communications Commissioner).

Today Margot writes about the long comment threads which are such an attractive feature of her blog, as they are written by a cross-section of people, most, if not all, confirmed Eurosceptics. Amongst them is a fair smattering of Little Englanders who continuously berate Margot for being, as they say, a moron, an evil, unelected bureaucrat with sinister power over every little aspect of their lives.. Margot today refers to a question which Claude de Bigny has been posing of late - whether her much-vaunted "Plan D" for democracy and so on, is a genuine listening exercise, or merely a "closed" PR exercise.

Some of the Eurosceptics, notably Dr Richard North, are refusing to join in the debate about the future of the EU because they say the EU is not democratic and must, therefore, "be destroyed". This stance upsets Claude as it seems to leave no other option but armed insurrection, a kind of wilful intemperacy which is not at all to de Bigny's fastidious taste.

Margot comments on Claude's question as follows:

" The exchange I found the most interesting recently is between Claude and some others. He says that perhaps some ‘eurosceptics‘ (still don‘t like that term) prefer to stay out of the mainstream and continue to sneer from the sideline in a superior way. I could say today is Wednesday and some people would say that was the fault of the EU and that I am an unelected bureaucrat.

"Claude asks if it is naïve to take me at my word about Plan D. Might Plan D cause a radically different model for the EU to emerge? I don‘t know Claude, but my intention is certainly that this listening to what citizens have to say should be real and should be a serious exercise, with a follow-up. It can not be just “bla bla”."

The challenge is now for the Eurosceptics to show that they are not Euronihilists. The challenge for Margot Wallström is to deliver a debate that is as open and radical in its terms of reference as she implies she is up for.

EUROPA - Margot Wallstr?m, Vice-President of the European Commission: my blog

The Psychological Make-up of a Suicide Bomber

In The Psychological Make-up of a Suicide Bomber: , Joan Lachkar writes:

"Suicide bombers share many of the group dynamics of gang members. They are highly traumatized children who have been abandoned, have had severe losses, have been betrayed, and have been raised by unavailable or absent caretakers (alcoholic, abusive or violent parents). They grow up with endless, relentless rage, shame, and humiliation. Their most dominant feature is the desire to retaliate, get even, find a scapegoat (the police, a school principal, a teacher, a vulnerable new kid in the block, a victim on whom to project their most vulnerable parts."

Sounds plausible, up to a point. But only up to a point, and its very plausibility betrays its weakness, trying to explain the irrational in the easily understood terminolgy of a rational bien-pensant. And it flies in the face of what has been a central learning of recent suicide bombings and attacks in the west: - that perpetrators are often seemingly well-adjusted, non-traumatised members of the societies they want to destroy.

The blog thinks it's time for a revised psychological model to explain that fact - or, perhaps better, an admission that long-established psychological preconceptions cannot adequately explain - let alone deal with - this mentality of evil nihilism.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In Memoriam: Balthasar Oomkens von Esens

Claude de Bigny, the blog's historical correspondent, writes:

Today is the 465th anniversary of the death of Balthasar Oomkens von Esens, Lord of Harlingerland, during the siege of Esens by troops of Bremen in 1540.

Balthasar was the son of Hero Oomkens the Younger von Esens (+1522) and Irmgard (or Armgard) Countess of Oldenburg.

He was first cousin to the King of Denmark and a descendant of an old Frisian landowning family which was also involved, after the manner of the time, in maritime trade - otherwise described, by unkind critics, as "piracy" or freebooting. The arrangement was that the lord would commission seamen to carry out raids or boardings of "enemy" ships. This practice aroused the ire of the Hanseatic cities, such as Groningen, Hamburg and Bremen, which fell victim to it (although they were involved in similar piracy themselves).

On one occasion, a crew of 50 "pirates" commissioned by Balthasar fell into the hands of the Bremen city authorities, who in a disgusting act of legal murder, beheaded all of the men. Balthasar's rage was such that he in his turn - according to some historians - beheaded the Bremen hostages held by him in Harlingerland, as was his right.

The County of Harlingerland, which came to Balthasar as a mixed patri- and matrimony, comprised the lordships of Esens, Stedesdorf and Wittmund and had first been pulled together into a single lordship by Balthasar's grandfather, Sibet Attena von Esens. The strand which runs through the lives of both Balthasar and his father, Hero Oomkens the Younger, was that of protecting the ancient liberty of Harlingerland against the depredations of the Cirksena family, which attempted to subjugate the historically free Frisian lands from the late fifteenth century.

Both Hero and Balthasar conducted innumerable campaigns to uphold this ancient tradition of freedom and independence, a struggle which was ultimately successful, albeit at a high price.

There is a picturesque legend associated with Balthasar. During an earlier siege of his residence-city of Esens, a musician and his dancing bear were caught in the city. As the siege wore on, provisions ran out and the people were close to starvation. The bear, who had been put into a tower cellar under the city walls, was quite forgotten. In due course, the bear's hunger and frustration became unbearable, as it were, and he broke out of the cellar and started to climb up towards the light.

When he got to the top of the tower, the bear roared out his displeasure and in his confusion his paws dislodged some of the stones from the old city walls, casting them out towards the besieging army. When the besiegers saw this crazed bear roaring and hurling stones at them from the tower, they thought that if the people of Esens had enough food to feed the bear, they must have plenty for themselves, and could probably withstand a much longer siege. The soldiers were also none too keen on facing this manic beast in close combat, so they called off the siege and decamped.

The citizens of Esens led the bear back down the tower and fed him a meal fit for heroes, and adopted him as the symbol of their city, something he remains to this day (he is in the coat of arms of Esens, of Harlingerland (Wittmund district) and East Frisia).

Balthasar Oomkens von Esens died in a later siege. He died childless, so the inheritance passed through his sisters, Onna (or Anna) and Adelaide. Onna married Otto von Rietberg, and Adelaide married her distant cousin, a descendant of Tancko Omcken (also known as Tancko Oomkens van Ommeland), who lived in the family heartland , the Oldambt, in the Ommelanden of Groningen. Although the family no longer have a direct connection to Esens, their descendants are thriving in Holland today. Balthasar, for his part, is honoured with a yearly festival in his name, "Das Jünker Balthasar Fest".

Razzia Against Hell's Angels in Holland

The Dutch police are on a roll. Having just made a mass-arrest of Al-Qaeda-linked Hofstad group members, they have now arrested 45 Hell's Angels across Holland. This represents a quarter of the Dutch Hell's Angels membership, apparently.

The Angels are involved in the drugs trade and also stand accused of extortion and weapons smuggling. Police secured a bazooka, hand grenades and an assortment of automatic weapons during the raids.

Thousands of police have been involved in the crackdown at dozens of locations across Holland. It's a big and necessary change from previous official policy - until quite recently, Hell's Angels were a subsidised minority grouping, with state-supported clubhouses and so forth. Putting them in jail seems a much better use of taxpayers' money.

Link to Volkskrant article (in Dutch):de Volkskrant - Kwart van Angels opgepakt bij actie

Monday, October 17, 2005

Ophover Motte, Wegberg, October 2005

IMG_1323, originally uploaded by Claude de Bigny.

Claude de Bigny, the blog's historical correspondent, who periodically posts on miscellaneous subjects here, has been visiting the old Wegberger Land (part of the Carolingian Mühlgau) in the Rhineland. He has been doing ancestral research in that quarter, and has discovered some little-known but interesting archeological sites, including a selection of mottes. He writes:

"The Ophover Motte is one of three mottes in Wegberg/Beeck, all of which were constructed in the late 10th/early 11th century. Unusually, all three have survived, albeit in a state not instantly identifiable as ancient fortifications. Whilst the other two are scarcely recognisable at all, being surrounded by thick woodland, the Ophover Motte is integrated into a public park - easily accessible and, with a little imagination, recognisable as a motte.

"It is highly probable this defensive network was commissioned by Gerhard (and/or his brother Rutger) d'Antoing von Wassenberg, whom the Saint-Emperor Henry II granted extensive lands in the Niederrhein between 1020 and 1024. In return for the grant of estates and lordships, the brothers were charged with keeping the peace in this anarchic area during a time of unrest.

"These holdings were originally centred around Wassenberg, and it is highly likely they also included the nearby "Wegberger Land".

"Whilst Gerhard's descendants became the Earls (later Dukes) of Gelre (Gelderland), Rutger's succeeded to the earldom (later dukedom) of Cleve. Wegberg remained part of the Gelre estates until recent times. The forests nearby were used as the earl's hunting grounds. And the river Schwalm, which was the old border between the dukedom of Gelre and the neighboring dukedom of Jülich, runs right through the centre of Wegberg.

"In line with this descendancy, it seems likeliest that Gerhard d'Antoing van Wassenberg was responsible for the three Wegberg mottes - this one, which is close by the old Ophoven mill, the one near the Beeck manor house, and the one in the woods between them - even though this isn't directly affirmed by contemporary documentation. What is certain is that he was responsible for appointing the motte at Wassenberg as his family's seat, and the place from which he took his original earldom.

"Further mottes in the area include the famous Alde Berg near Arsbeck (possibly also built by Gerhard d'Antoing van Wassenberg, although later associated with the Helpenstein family), which is the largest in the Niederrhein; the island-motte of Tüschenbroich; and numerous others, including an overgrown, scarcely identifiable motte north-east of Wegberg and another just south of Arsbeck.

"In all honesty, a taste for mottes is hardly widespread, but this landscape is profusely studded with their remains. They are agreeably low-key places - with nothing to identify them as historic monuments, aside from the atmosphere of abandoned timelessness which infuses them."

Claude de Bigny, October 2005.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Seven Islamists Arrested in Holland In Preemptive Strike

The Dutch police have arrested seven Islamist members of the Hofstad group in Amsterdam, The Hague, Leiden and Almere in a preemptive action to prevent them assassinating unnamed politicians in the Dutch Parliament. The likely targets would be the MP's Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who wrote the script for assassinated director Theo van Gogh's Submission) and Geert Wilders, another prominent anti-Islamist politician.

At least two of the arrested would-be terrorists had been arrested before but let go due to lack of evidence. No gunshots were fired but the security forces blew up a door in The Hague.

Neighbours of one of the men in The Hague - a married Moroccan with a Surinamese wife and a child - described him as "very nice".

Assuming a major terrorist outrage has truly been prevented, the Dutch are to be congratulated. Furthermore, it seems that letting suspected Islamists go when there is insufficient evidence to try them may be a better idea than suspending habeas corpus to keep them cooped up - an identified suspect on the loose may lead the police to further suspects or, as in this case, specific plots.

Pinter's Prize

The blog is in several minds about the award of the Nobel literature prize to Harold Pinter, an obnoxious lefty actor who turned his hand to play-writing in the sixties.

On the one hand, he is a bolshy luvvie pontificator of the most objectionable kind.

Then again, there's a hint of good old-fashioned social ambition about him - shacking up with Lady Antonia Fraser, a beautiful, charming aristocrat. He is also unapologetically English, something not often seen in the purlieux of the left. Moreover, he's had considerable commercial success with his writing and appears relaxed about his wealth. All this is greatly to his credit.

The plays, of course, are the thing. They appear to be Beckettian gloom-fests, capable of raising a few laughs, but in the blog's limited experience, have neither amused nor disturbed. But thousands would disagree, amongst them, we now see, the bien-pensant, left-leaning panel of Nobel judges.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Socialist Deadbeats Nominated For Key German Government Posts

The three new socialist cabinet German minister-candidates put forward by the SPD today to serve in Angela Merkel's coalition government are truly awful news for Germany's prospects.

Worst of all is Franz Müntefering, who is lined up to be employment minister. This unreconstructed Marxist polemicist became notorious earlier this year when he seemed to blame Jewish capitalists - rather than 8 years' rule by the SPD (of which he is Chairman) - for Germany's economic woes. Chairman Müntefering described capitalists as "locusts" and drew up a list of largely Jewish companies to act as scapegoats. Despite widespread protests, Müntefering remained shameless and unrepentant.

The SPD-proposed Foreign Minister is ex-Chancellor Schroeder's long-term aide, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who can be expected to maintain Schroeder's policy of lining up with the French and Russians against the USA, to push for lifting the arms embargo against China and other such policies.

The finance minister will be Peter Steinbruck, whom voters kicked out of office as prime minister of Nordrhein-Westphalen earlier this year and who will perpetuate the policies that gave Germany's largest state's highest-ever numbers of unemployed.

If these appointments go through (and nothing suggests they won't), it looks like Angela Merkel's coalition government is set for a truly appalling start.

The Genetic Roots of Religious Belief

Robert Winston sets out some interesting thoughts on how religious belief may be a part of our genetic make-up, and how religion may have helped early human societies to suvive better than non-religious societies. He also mentions some smallscale qualitative research amongst identical twins (conducted by Thomas Bouchard) which suggests that the religious impulse is driven more by genetic make-up than by environment.

Winston refers to the difference between "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" religious practice, a distinction first mooted by Harvard psycholgist Gordon Allport in the 1950's. "Extrinsic" religion, Allport proposed, is practised primarily to further an individual's social goals; "intrinsic" religion is an ordering principle of life. Not surprisingly, the fomer is associated with higher levels of guilt and shame, whilst the more spiritual "intrinsics" appear to have lower levels of stress.

Bouchard's research with the identical twins (aside from being purely qualitative) seems to me to raise more questions than it answers. For if the religious impule is indeed genetically useful - rather than, as Richard Dawkins seems to suggest, an "evolutionary disaster area" - it is so primarily at the level of the group, rather than the individual. This would suggest it would be handed down the generations through social interaction, tradition and education, rather than through an individual's genes. Yet the identical twin study suggests that the generational handing down of the religious impulse is genetic more than environmental.

Aside from that, these ideas about religion seem commonsensical enough. Indeed, our own Claude de Bigny has written in similar terms about the prehistorical and future functions of religion, if with a characteristically de Bignyesque twist.

Link to the full article in today's Guardian: Guardian Unlimited The Guardian Robert Winston: Why do we believe in God?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Why the British Today Treat Their Lunatics Worse Than In Hogarth's Day

Theodore Dalrymple, ex-prison doctor, explains that it is due to a misapplication of the writings of people like Foucault - who suggested that lunatic asylums were an expression of the medical "will to power", and of R.D. Laing - who thought that the mad were sane and vice versa.

Such ideas became a kind of official dogma in Britain. This, combined with a wish to reduce the costs of treatment, has led to a dehumanising debacle in which doctors, nurses and prison officers regularly lie and perjure themselves, refusing to deal with the truth about the mad, who are then often treated with appalling barbarity. Dalrymple refers to the gradual "erosion of common humanity," because this evil is not willed by the mostly well-meaning people who commit it, but is the result of laziness, or ambition, or daily routine.

More on Foucault and his misunderestimated insights here.

Link to Dalrymple's article:City Journal Summer 2005 In the Asylum by Theodore Dalrymple

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The War on Terror and the Left

Sasha Abramsky, writing in Open Democracy, argues that the left, in opposing the war on terror on the grounds that it is being waged by the right, thus allows the right to dictate the terms on which the war is being fought (and debated). This is dangerous, he says: it is in the interests of all citizens of the open society that this war is pursued and won. It would therefore be more contructive, Abramsky continues, if the left could identify how they might win it better. He gives some specific examples:

- bring Russia's "loose nukes" under control
- reinforce protection of nuclear and chemical plants
- address problem of legal "black holes" for terror suspects.

Good to see a left wing voice saying these things.

Link to Abramsky's article in Open Democracy:Whose al-Qaida problem? Sasha Abramsky - openDemocracy

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Hollywood Sex and Drug Scenes Not Politically Correct Enough, Australian Researchers Conclude

A silly study by Australian researchers into Hollywood blockbusters reveals that successful films often show people having sex without specifically featuring condoms.

Nor is the harm that can come of unprotected recreational intercourse adequately portrayed.

Drugs too, it seems, are often shown being used without dramatising the baleful effects of addiction (see The Kate Moss Situation for more insight into this).

Link to Turkish Daily News article about the survey:Turkish Daily News - 'Hollywood fails to show negative consequences of sex, drug use'

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Turkey and the EU

After embarrassing, drawn-out "negotiations", the EU's foreign ministers have agreed to honour the commitments made to Turkey about accession. It is now possible that Turkey will be a full member by 2014.

The trouble is that the undertakings made by foreign ministers at EU meetings rarely have any connection with what their voters want. This was so at the time of the original undertakings and remains so now. The role of Frau Plassnik of Austria, in aiming to offer Turkey only a reduced partnership with the EU, gave voice to the concerns of the majority of European voters.

The whole subject of Turkey's accession is plagued by hoary preconceptions. Most Europeans who feel uneasy about it do so because they view Turkey as a large poor country which will have to be baled out by EU taxes. This is shortsighted: it would be true if Turkey were to join today, but by 2014, relative strengths will have changed fundamentally. Turkey has a fast growing economy. Demographically, it is a young country. The EU, by contrast, is neither; it has minimal levels of growth and is an ageing society. It desperately needs more growth and younger people.

The religious question is even more vexed: whilst Turkey is a secular society (and a fine, rare example of how that can be achieved with a Muslim population) it is overwhelmingly Muslim and in an age of Islamist terrorism this obviously worries many. The question here is whether it is really wise for the EU to become an ever-emptier Christian's club of helpless elderly people living on their pensions, trying vainly to keep out the seething masses of Muslims outside its gates. Even if that kind of exclusion were possible, it would be undesirable.

On another level, Turkey's accession to the EU will fundamentally change the political face of the EU. Using the old distinction between ever "wider" and "deeper" union, Turkey will hugely "widen" the EU, its 70 million citizens currently represent the second largest European population after Germany. This will, one assumes, render impossible the "deepening" fantasies of the older generation of Eurocrats of creating a crazed bureaucratic Moloch.

The debate about Turkey is thus also a debate about what the EU should be. The French, Germans and Austrian governments (for example) want a EU which is highly regulated, conforming to a code of EU laws and "guidelines" in every aspect of national life. The British and Dutch (for example) want a looser, less interfering union more focussed on cooperation in trade. To the first grouping, Turkey's accession presents insuperable problems. To the second, Turkey offers an opportunity to chop off some of the spare fat of the EU.

The benefits to Turkey itself aren't especially clear-cut either. On the positive side, the process of joining the EU is benefiting justice, freedom of speech, the role of women, and the elimination of torture. The EU seems to be providing a framework and some helpful impulses here. It may be that these will end up making Turkish society more pleasant for more of its citizens. Then again, if taken too far, and into less obviously meritorious areas, Turkey could end up saddled with a set of outdated regulations.

As I wrote in July, "I am delighted that the Turks are still minded to join us in our gently decaying, would-be superstate." But the devil is in the detail, and one of the details is that some countries will put Turkey's accession to the vote. If current opinion polls are to be believed, some 80% of EU citizens would not support Turkish accession. Not for the first time, the gap between the ambitions of the EU politicians and their electorates is yawning. The reason is simple: being a success on the EU stage has little or nothing to do with connecting to voters. The rejection of the draft EU constitution by voters in Holland and France (despite taxpyer-funded promotion of the document by most of the political mainstream), was a sign of this.

Normally speaking, voters don't get given the chance to speak on such weighty matters. If they did, EU politicians might show them more respect, maybe even opening up debates about the weighty matters. It would be better for all concerned if this happened with the Turkey accession debate sooner rather than later.

Telegraph News Turkey wins deal to start EU talks

Monday, October 03, 2005

Day of German Unity, 2005

A day of quiet reflection in Esens, as we remember the words which heralded the reunification of Germany, some two years after they were spoken:

""General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: - Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

"As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: "This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality." Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

"And I would like, before I close, to say one word. I have read, and I have been questioned since I've been here about certain demonstrations against my coming. And I would like to say just one thing, and to those who demonstrate so. I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again.
Thank you and God bless you all."

Ronald Reagan, Berlin, 1987. May God bless the great man's soul.