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Freedom

Going to Dunkirk

Thursday, 27 July, 2017 0 Comments

Going to the new Christopher Nolan film, that is.

The British retreat to the coastal French town of Dunkirk in late May 1940 was a key moment of the Second World War. Several hundred thousand British and Allied troops were encircled by the Germans. Had Hitler attacked, he would have captured a quarter of a million men, stripping Britain of its army and putting enormous pressure on London to enter into peace talks with Berlin. But the Germans didn’t attack. Their nine Panzer divisions stopped outside Dunkirk. And the British were able to start their evacuation from the beaches with the result that most of the their troops got home. Some 300,000 men were rescued — two thirds British, the rest French.

As the exhausted troops were disembarking along the south-eastern coast of England, the five members of Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet met on 27 May to discuss entering into peace negotiations with Germany. Churchill was passionately against any such move, but the foreign minister, Lord Halifax, was for talks as he felt England’s negotiating position was stronger with France still in the war. He also believed that Britain’s goal should not be to fight Germany, but rather to preserve as much independence as possible in a peaceful coexistence.

During the following day’s Cabinet meeting, however, the tide turned in favour of Churchill when he declared absolutely that there would be no surrender, and that as long as he was in office, he would never negotiate with the Nazis. “If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” he declared, “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood on the ground.”

He was thinking of the 68,111 killed, wounded or captured British troops at Dunkirk.


Cuba libre!

Saturday, 26 November, 2016 0 Comments

The national cocktail of Cuba tastes best when raising a toast to freedom. But there’s more to it than just cola, rum and lime; it’s all in the way you make that Cuba libre.

Ingredients:

1 part Bacardi Oro rum
2 wedges of lime
2 parts Coca Cola
Ice cubes

How to mix: Fill a long glass with ice. Squeeze and drop the lime wedges into the glass, coating the ice well with the juices. Pour in the Bacardi, top up with chilled Coke and stir gently. Now, say, Cuba libre! And remember: Fidel Castro imprisoned and impoverished his nation. He was one of the most evil men of his time. Sic semper tyrannis.

Cuba libre


The memory hole in Europe and China

Wednesday, 16 March, 2016 0 Comments

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “memory hole” is a slot into which government officials deposit politically incorrect documents to be incinerated. Thoughts of Orwell’s warning were awakened by two recent occurrences, one minor, one major. Let’s start with the minor. A Google search of this blog for references to Steve Jobs produces a results page that ends with the notification: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.” This is a consequence of the EU’s “Right To Be Forgotten” ruling, which is Orwellian in its implications.

Now, the major matter. A week ago, the Hong Kong Free Press reported that “All traces of Hong Kong English language newspaper the South China Morning Post have been wiped from social media platforms in China.” The writer, Karen Cheung, added the Orwellian aspect with this ominous sentence: “The paper’s disappearance from Chinese social media came weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to tighten control over the news in China, saying that ‘state media must be surnamed Party.'”

As an ex-English teacher, Alibaba’s Jack Ma must be familiar with the works of Orwell. If his bid for the South China Morning Post goes through, he may be tempted to complete its descent into the memory hole. Why would Ma want to buy the paper? “Maybe he’s been told to,” speculates Big Lychee. Orwellian.

Censor


Rumsfeld develops an app at 83, posts on Medium

Tuesday, 26 January, 2016 0 Comments

Harold Wilson, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is supposed to have said “A week is a long time in politics.” And it’s true. Just look at those Clinton-Sanders poll predictions from Iowa. The same could be said of the internet, except the window is narrower. A day online is the digital equivalent of the political week: “24 hours is a long time on the web.” Yesterday, we were quoting Dave Winer’s blog post titled Anywhere but Medium and who is posting on Medium now? Donald Rumsfeld. “At 83, I Decided to Develop an App” writes the nemesis of Saddam. The app is called Churchill Solitaire and it has a fascinating back story that involves Hitler, a young Belgian government aide named André de Staercke and, of course, Sir Winston. Snippet:

“Churchill Solitaire is a game that is a host of contradictions — simple yet complicated; frustrating yet fun. Now it lives on for a new generation — a fitting tribute to a great man. And starting this week, it is available to the world on the AppStore and will soon be coming to other platforms.

I can’t say if this is the last app I’ll ever be involved in — after all, I’m only 83! But it is safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg has nothing to worry about.”

Whatever one thinks of Donald Rumsfeld, one should be willing to accept the wisdom of the opening statement of his Medium post: “Among the things one learns as time passes is that everyone has to age, but not everyone has to get old. One of the best ways to stay young is to keep learning.”


It is 2022 and the votes are being counted in France

Tuesday, 17 November, 2015 0 Comments

On the day that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was published in France, two Islamist terrorists stormed into the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people, including eight journalists. Among the dead was the economist Bernard Maris, one of Houellebecq’s closest friends. The tragedy and the coincidence were interpreted as a portent, but nobody could agree as to its significance. Conspiracy theorists wondered if Houellebecq had not somehow provoked the attack. The fact that the publication date of the book had been signaled long in advance did nothing to deter them.

Submission transports readers to the year 2022 as the votes are being counted after the French general election. Marine Le Pen and her Front National are neck-and-neck with the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic grocer’s son, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists, under Manuel Valls, decide to form a coalition with the Brotherhood to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace, but negotiations are tricky. One evening during the talks, François, the narrator, meets a friend whose husband works for the DGSI intelligence service, and the three discuss politics with the aid of port. Snippet:

“But what do they want?”
“They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling. Now, however you look at it, a Muslim education is very different from a secular one. First off, no co-education. And women would be allowed to study only certain things. What the Muslim Brotherhood really wants is for most women to study Home Economics, once they finish junior school, then get married as soon as possible, with a small minority studying art or literature first. Sottomissioni That’s their vision of an ideal society. Also, every teacher would have to be Muslim. No exceptions. Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all, the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.”
“You think the Socialists will give in?”
“The haven’t got much of a choice. If they don’t reach an agreement, they don’t have a chance against the National Front. Even if they do reach an agreement, the National Front could still win. You’ve seen the polls…”

“Are your sure? That sounds so drastic…”
“Quite sure. It’s all been settled. And it is exactly in line with the theory of minority sharia, which the Muslim Brotherhood has always embraced. So they could something similar with education. Public education would still be available to everyone though with vastly reduced funding. The national budget would be slashed by two-thirds at least, and this time the teachers wouldn’t be able to stop it. In the current economic climate, any budget cut is bound to play well at the polls.”

All of this bores François, who Houellebecq depicts as a caricature of the Western middle class: smug, agnostic, narcissistic, alcohol-addicted and sex-preoccupied. But there’s no smoke without fire. The question at the core of the story is how will he manage when his world is engulfed by the approaching wave of zealotry. Sink or swim? If ever there was a book for our times, Submission is it.


Thermopylae today

Sunday, 5 July, 2015 0 Comments

Thermopylae is famed for the battle that took place there in 480 BC, in which an outnumbered Greek force (including 300 Spartans) held off a substantially larger army of Persians under Xerxes. In his poem Thermopylae, C.P. Cavafy points out that although the Greeks knew they would be defeated, they were not deterred. They fought and died for their principles. Cavafy says that if we have values, we should defend them even if we know there is the danger of failure, loss and betrayal.

Thermopylae

Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

C.P. Cavafy


“To drive a car in Arabia is not only wanton”

Tuesday, 19 May, 2015 0 Comments

“In her Saudi Arabia homeland, Lubna Olayan can’t drive, show her hair in public or leave the country without her husband’s permission. She can, however, run one of the nation’s biggest conglomerates.” So begins Devon Pendleton’s profile of the Olayan Group and its manager in the Financial Review.

It is undeniably true that our world has progressed dramatically since Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964. Back then, she piloted a single engine Cessna 180, nicknamed “Charlie”, through a flight that took 29 days and covered 22,860 miles (36,790 km), but despite this achievement some things have remained stubbornly the same. From Three-Eight Charlie, her memoir of that historic flight, this is the touchdown scene in Saudi Arabia:

“Dhahran Airport may be the most beautiful in the world. Its gleaming concrete strip is 10,000 feet long, and the marble-columned terminal is a worthy reminder of the graceful grandeur of the Islamic architecture of the Taj Mahal. A U.S. Navy Blue Angel jet was taking off as I came into the traffic pattern. Several hundred white-robed people were crowded onto the broad steps of the terminal, waiting to see the first flying housewife to venture into this part of the world. As I climbed from the red-and-white plane and was presented with a huge bouquet of gladioli (they had been flown in from Cairo especially for me), they saw from my blue skirt that I truly must be a woman, and sent up a shout and applauded.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the most puritanical, or orthodox, of the Muslim countries, and the Islamic religion makes the laws of the country. From the time of the Prophet Mohammed, Arabian women have been hidden from all but their immediate families. They may not see, or be seen by, the outside world. To show one’s face or even wear bright clothes is a great sin. For a woman to drive a car in Arabia is not only wanton but prohibited by law, under penalty of her husbands being sent to jail. While European or American women are permitted to go in public unveiled, even they may not drive. So the men were puzzled. Probably no one had thought to make a law saying a woman couldn’t drive an airplane, but somehow the men thought it couldn’t be happening.

Then, in the excitement, one of them evaded the handsome airforce guards that Prince — later King — Faisal had sent to look after Charlie and me. He looked into the crowded cabin, saw the huge gasoline tanks that filled the inside of the plane, except for my one seat. His white-kaffiyeh-covered head nodded vehemently, and he shouted to the throng that there was no man. This brought a rousing ovation.”

Jerrie Mock

Although she was warmly welcomed by her hosts, Jerrie Mock was not tempted to stay in the Kingdom. “It sounds terribly romantic, but as long as Islam rules the desert, I know that if I find a black camel-hair tent and venture in, I’ll be hidden behind the silken screen of the harem, with the other women, and my dinner will be the men’s leftovers.” Much has changed for the better since 1964, but Lubna Olayan still can’t drive, show her hair in public or leave Saudi Arabia without her husband’s permission.


The demise of the Daily Telegraph

Wednesday, 18 February, 2015 0 Comments

“On 22 September Telegraph online ran a story about a woman with three breasts. One despairing executive told me that it was known this was false even before the story was published. I have no doubt it was published in order to generate online traffic, at which it may have succeeded. I am not saying that online traffic is unimportant, but over the long term, however, such episodes inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper.”

So writes Peter Oborne, the former chief political commentator of the Telegraph. His account of the demise of a once-great newspaper is painful to read, but Why I have resigned from the Telegraph must be read by all who value press freedom. Before addressing the scandals that forced his hand, Oborne documents the small but significant erosions of standards in the newsroom:

“Solecisms, unthinkable until very recently, are now commonplace. Recently readers were introduced to someone called the Duke of Wessex. Prince Edward is the Earl of Wessex. There was a front page story about deer-hunting. It was actually about deer-stalking, a completely different activity. Obviously the management don’t care about nice distinctions like this. But the readers do, and the Telegraph took great care to get these things right until very recently.”

The abandonment of quality was quickly followed by a surrender of principle. Peter Oborne makes his case by citing examples of the paper’s cowardly response to the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and its own suppression of the HSBC scandal. Both are profoundly shocking. “A free press is essential to a healthy democracy,” Oborne says and he reminds us that, “There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.”

The greater tragedy here is that the perversion of the Telegraph is happening at a time when Vladimir Putin is demonstrating that the news is just one more tool to be perverted for propaganda and disinformation. The West needs truth tellers to defeat this assault on its values and the Telegraph should be in the front line defending us at this dangerous time. Thanks to the brave intervention of Peter Oborne, we now know what needs to be done to save the Telegraph from the enemies within.


Primo Levi remembers the horror of Auschwitz

Tuesday, 27 January, 2015 0 Comments

Primo Levi described his return to Italy from the Auschwitz concentration camp in La tregua (The Truce). The Truce In this Paris Review interview, Levi reminisces about one of the book’s characters: “You remember Mordo Nahum? I had mixed feelings toward him. I admired him as a man fit for every situation. But of course he was very cruel to me. He despised me because I was not able to manage. I had no shoes. He told me, Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.”

Today, as the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should strive to understand the revulsion that Primo Levi felt towards those who took part in the Nazi extermination campaign and also towards those who could have but did not speak out against it. In memory of the murdered millions, here’s an excerpt from The Truce:

“There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is hate that is not in us, it is outside of man. We cannot understand it, but we must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Consciences can be seduced and obscured again — even our consciences. For this reason, it is everyone duty to reflect on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were ‘charismatic leaders’; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the soundness of things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art, perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently learned and practised. The ideas they proclaimed were not always the same and were, in general, aberrant or silly or cruel. And yet they were acclaimed with hosannas and followed to the death by millions of the faithful.”


The Warmth of Other Suns

Friday, 16 January, 2015 0 Comments

In 2014, more than 276,000 people immigrated to Europe illegally. That’s almost 140 percent more than in 2013, according to figures published by the EU. The most of these migrants sailed across the Mediterranean, and the newest method of trafficking them is cruel and effective. The smugglers buy cargo ships from scrapyards, pack hundreds of people onto them and collect thousands of dollars from every one. Then, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the captain sets the auto-pilot for Italy and jumps ship.

Migrants

Isabel Wilkerson addresses the mass movement of people in the The Warmth of Other Suns and while her focus is the American South during the 20th Century, the eloquent conclusion she reaches is universal:

“The migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
They left.”

The warmth of sun


Christopher Hitchens on Charlie Hebdo

Friday, 9 January, 2015 1 Comment

In February 2006, the late, much lamented Christopher Hitchens addressed the “international Muslim pogrom against the free press”. In light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, his words are need re-reading today:

“When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, he did so in the hope of forwarding a discussion that was already opening in the Muslim world, between extreme Quranic literalists and those who hoped that the text could be interpreted. We know what his own reward was, and we sometimes forget that the fatwa was directed not just against him but against ‘all those involved in its publication,’ which led to the murder of the book’s Japanese translator and the near-deaths of another translator and one publisher. I went on Crossfire at one point, to debate some spokesman for outraged faith, and said that we on our side would happily debate the propriety of using holy writ for literary and artistic purposes. But that we would not exchange a word until the person on the other side of the podium had put away his gun.”