Freedom

“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.”


La barbarie menace notre civilisation

Thursday, 8 January, 2015 0 Comments

“I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.” — Stephane Charbonnier, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, murdered alongside 12 others in an Islamist attack in Paris yesterday.

Stephane Charbonnier

Je suis Charlie


The Interview solution: YouTube and BitTorrent

Monday, 22 December, 2014 0 Comments

“We would still like the public to see this movie, absolutely,” Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Entertainment, told CNN yesterday. Asked about releasing The Interview via YouTube, he replied: “That’s certainly an option and certainly one thing we will consider.” Last week, the director Judd Apatow predicted the film would be available on BitTorrent within six weeks. BitTorrent claims to have more than 170 million monthly active users and its motto is: “Get started now with free, unlimited downloading.” How would Pyongyang deal with that?


Castro’s hipster apologists

Friday, 19 December, 2014 0 Comments

In the Daily Beast, Michael Moynihan names and shames them: “Here is Matt Bradley, Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal: ‘I really hope I can make it to Cuba before McDonald’s, Starbucks, etc.’ And progressive radio host Matt Binder: ‘Booking my Cuba vacation now before there’s a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, and a bank on every block.’ BBC producer Jeane McCallum: ‘May be time for a return to Cuba before McDonalds moves in.’ And Jonathan Eley of the Financial Times: ‘Cuba: visit now before McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks et al move in. It’s a unique place.'”

That’s just a sample. How predictably predictable they are.


Revolutionary: Watching snow fall

Thursday, 4 December, 2014 0 Comments

In the world of the English idiom, if an activity is like watching grass grow or paint dry, it’s really boring. Watching snow fall is not boring, however, if the place is Bucharest and the year is 1988. Back then, Romania was in the final phase of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s grim Stalinist rule and the most ordinary events assumed extraordinary significance. One of these events was a football match on 3 December between two Bucharest rival teams, Steaua, the Army team, hand-picked by Valentin Ceauşescu, son of the dictator, and Dinamo, the side representing the dreaded Securitate, the secret police.

Despite the wintry conditions, referee Adrian Porumboiu decided that the game should go ahead and it was filmed in low-tech style by three TV cameras. When fouls and fights took place, the director discretely panned over the crowd, almost invisible behind the snow descending in curtains. The film of the game is now a film titled Al doilea joc (The Second Game) and the director is Corneliu Porumboiu, son of the match referee.

The two re-watched the match together, some 25 years later and the father-and-son commentary on the grainy, uncut VHS is layered with meaning. The father can sense the impending national turmoil, the son muses on the archaic poetry of the scene and the whole assumes an extra relevance when one reads about the personality cult and corruption that dominate FIFA, football’s governing body today.


English vs. Chinese

Thursday, 20 November, 2014 0 Comments

Sarah Fay interviews Ha Jin for the Paris Review. His books are banned in China because he writes about “taboo subjects”. And there’s another reason he’s unpopular with the authorities: “I write in English, which is viewed as a betrayal of my mother tongue.” Talking of language, here he compares Chinese with English:

“English has more flexibility. It’s a very plastic, very shapeable, very expressive language. In that sense it feels quite natural. The Chinese language is less natural. Written Chinese is not supposed to represent natural speech, and there are many different spoken dialects that correspond to the single written language. The written word will be the same in all dialects, but in speech it is a hundred different words. The written language is like Latin in that sense; it doesn’t have a natural rhythm. The way people talk — you can’t represent that. The accents and the nongrammatical units, you can’t do it. You can’t write in dialect, like you can in English, using a character to represent a certain sound, because each character has a fixed meaning.

When the first emperor wanted to unify the country, one of the major policies was to create one system of written signs. By force, brutal force, he eliminated all the other scripts. One script became the official script. All the others were banned. And those who used other scripts were punished severely. And then the meanings of all the characters, over the centuries, had to be kept uniform as a part of the political apparatus. So from the very beginning the written word was a powerful political tool.”

Read the whole thing and give thanks for the freedom that allows you to read it.


The drums of Catalonia

Sunday, 9 November, 2014 1 Comment

The Catalans are having a moment today. They’re holding a referendum of sorts on the notion of independence from Spain. But because central government in Madrid forbids the use of the “referendum” word in this case, Barcelona is forced to speak of “a non-binding, participatory process” instead. When Scotland held an independence referendum in September, EU leaders hailed it as an exercise in popular democracy, but they’re hostile to the right of Catalonia to make a similar decision. Why? “Apparently they have forgotten that the right of self-determination of nations is a long-standing, fundamental and universal principle of modern democracy.” So says Latvian writer Otto Ozols in an article for Delfi. Meanwhile, Sydney has voted on “el 9N.”

Catalonian drummers