Thursday 29 November 2012

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

There are stories and experiences from childhood that we all recall with some fondness.  Even if we do not bring them to mind they are in our hearts, a warm glow that never dies.  It is the things we learn and love in innocence that have the greatest resonance.

I was reminded recently of Heidi, a book for children and those who love children by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri.  I was particularly fond of the story of Heidi and her grandfather because I had a very close relationship with my own grandfather, my father’s father, with whom I used to stay when my parents were away on lengthy business trips.  It was my grandfather who introduced me to the Snowman.

I don’t remember when exactly.  I must have been, oh, about four years old.  It was before I went to school anyway.  It was near Christmas, that much I do remember.  The Snowman in question is a story book, pictures without words by Raymond Briggs, another book for children and those who love children.  Like Heidi it tells of a bond, this time between a little boy and the snowman he builds one wintry afternoon in his garden.  By magic it comes to life; by magic the boy and the snowman fly.

It was made into an animated film by Channel 4, one of our terrestrial television companies, with a sublime score by Howard Blake.  When I was growing up it was broadcast every Christmas; perhaps it still is.  With us watching it became an annual event.  The holiday simply would not have been the same without it, as if there was no Christmas tree, no lights and no watch night service in church. 

By far the best bit is the flying sequence.  In the animation it is accompanied by Walking in the Air, a song that still makes me teary with nostalgia;

We're walking in the air
We're floating in the moonlit sky
The people far below are sleeping as we fly

I'm holding very tight
I'm riding in the midnight blue
I'm finding I can fly so high above with you

Far across the world
The villages go by like dreams
The rivers and the hills, the forests and the streams

Children gaze open mouthed
Taken by surprise
Nobody down below believes their eyes

We're surfing in the air
We're swimming in the frozen sky
We're drifting over icy mountains floating by

Suddenly swooping low
On an ocean deep
Rousing up a mighty monster from his sleep

And walking in the air
We're dancing in the midnight sky
And everyone who sees us greets us as we fly

We're walking in the air
We're walking in the air.

There was one Christmas – I was now about six I think – we spent in our family cottage in the north of Scotland, a really remote spot in Easter Ross.  It snowed, heavily.  I built my own snowman in the garden with a little help from father.  It was as big as me, that I remember clearly, with an old hat on his head and a scarf around his neck. 

I waited and waited for him to come to life.  I so wanted to fly like the boy, to go to the North Pole and dance with Father Christmas and all of the other snowmen.  I didn’t and I did.  My snowman remained frozen in the garden, mute and unmoved.  But he came alive in my dreams that night.  And – who knows? –maybe dreams are just a gate to another reality, a world where everything is possible and nothing denied.  It was for me.  The Snowman was the gateway.  

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Free to Under Threes: Amsterdam by Night

If Paris is beige Amsterdam is red, brick red to be exact.  It’s a compact city, really quite charming in many ways, a city of museums and canals, the city of Van Gogh and Rembrandt. 

I was there a couple of years ago, walking everywhere because it’s possible to walk everywhere, all the attractions being within a reasonably close distance of one another.  It was pleasant to give way to the city’s easy charm, at least by day, because it is charming by day.  The night is different; the night is darker; the night is a deeper shade of red. 

We stayed in the Grand, once a medieval convent and then the city hall and now a hotel.  It’s a step or two from Dam Square, right in the centre of the city.  It’s also a step or two from the Red Light district, another tone altogether.  

Is there anything quite as sad as desire?  Is there anything as sad as women for rent and the men who are drawn to them?  I hate clichés.  I really do not want to say that the prostitutes appear in a state of undress like slabs of meat in a butcher’s window, but that’s exactly how they seemed to me.  It was one of the most depressing things I have ever seen. 

Amsterdam's legalised window brothels have been in existence for over ten years now.  It’s such a part of the city scene that groups of tourists - not potential clients - are taken on walking tours to see the sights.  Thomas Cook, the company originally founded to promote ‘ethical and educational’ tourism, has since 2005 led excursion through the area, delightful jaunts advertised as “free to children under three.”

Personally I found walking through the area really quite threatening in the dark.  I’m glad I was not alone.  It’s difficult to pinpoint but I just felt a general air of menace, not helped by the groups of men of Eastern European and Middle Eastern appearance milling around by the canal bridges.

It was all meant to be different; it was meant to divorce prostitution from pimps.  It hasn’t.  The whole thing has been a failure.  Rather than discouraging criminality it has allowed it to flourish under an uncomprehending official eye.  Now the councillors of De Wallen, the district where most of the brothels are located, worried about the community’s reputation, have decided on a cleanup. 

The problem is the loverboys, not the sad cases who come for sad sex, but the traffickers, mostly of Asian descent, who lure women into prostitution and then keep them there, locked in emotionally and financially if not physically.  According to an article I read in the October issue of the political journal Standpoint (Window brothels get the red light), their victims are put to work in windows so that they can be kept under constant watch, surveyed by tourists, ogled by punters, monitored by pimps. 

Migration from outside Europe has made the problem worse.  A large number of these women have been trafficked illegally to begin with.  Once caught in the game they have no choice but to play the game. Reporting abuse to the authorities might easily result in eventual deportation. 

I use the word ‘pimp’ but officially there are no ‘pimps.’  After all, the whole sordid business is just a business.  Instead of pimps there are ‘managers’ or ‘facilitators.’  I expect it was the ‘managers’ and ‘facilitators’ I saw in friendly groups by night, one of whom attempted to accost me.  As I say, I’m glad I was not alone. 

“People are starting to hear that our system has a lot of crime and violence against the working girls linked to it”, said one of the beat policemen in the area, “The trafficking problem and the Turkish loverboys, they are all coming to the surface now.  Really we have allowed it by being too adventurous with allowing prostitution to be such an attraction in our city.” 

Here is a case where Liberality has had exactly the same effect as Prohibition: in tackling one set of problems it has engendered others, worse in ever degree.  Human trafficking, drug trafficking and money laundering are all in place.  I bet that’s something not touched upon on the delightful meat tours, free to under threes.

The boy has put his finger in the dyke.  To prevent a continuing flood of filth The Prostitution Framework Act will come into force in the New Year.  This includes a requirement that all of the working girls register with the authorities.  It also raises the minimum age for prostitution from eighteen to twenty-one.  Will it work?  It seems doubtful.  It seems more likely that the underage girls and the illegal immigrants will sink ever deeper into the dark of the Amsterdam night, shepherded away by the loverboys to even sadder levels of degradation.  

Tuesday 27 November 2012

A Million Tragedies

If you’ve seen the David Lean film version of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago you may recall the scene where Lara, hearing wolves howl in the snowy distance, turns to Yuri in fright, saying that this is a terrible time to be alive. This is in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed; history in action, a process that overwhelmed so many individual lives, consumed by fear, uncertainty and terror.

But Lara did not know then how bad things were to become, that the wolves would not stay in the distance or outside the door. In the end she herself was to be the victim of the greatest fear of all – Stalin’s all-consuming Purge of the late 1930s which reached its murderous height in 1937, the Yezhovchina, named after Nikolai Yezhov, then head of the NKVD security apparatus.

In his novel Pasternak writes of his character;

One day Lara went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street, as so often happened in those days, and she died or vanished somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list that was later mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women’s concentration camps in the north.

She was a nameless number, that’s all, drawn into the maelstrom like so many others. As Stalin is reputed to have said, a million deaths is not a tragedy, merely a statistic. The victims of his regime are gone beyond recall, just a meaningless list of meaningless names, voices that can no longer be heard. The rest is silence.

But it’s not. The silence has been broken with whispers. It has been broken by The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes, a British specialist in Russian history. It isn’t a new work; it was published as long ago as 2007. The subject certainly interests me, having read and reviewed other books on this phase in Russian history, here and elsewhere. I would have tackled it eventually though I finally came to it as the dust settled after one of the little sandstorms that overtake publishing and the academic world now and then, inevitably obscuring the horizon

I’ll come to this in a bit. Let me begin by saying that I consider Figes to be one of the best historians in his particular field. I hugely enjoyed his account of the Crimean War and I think A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 is the single best account of the whole period.

I do not think The Whisperers has surpassed this achievement, but it is still an important forward step in historical research. Its achievement lies in what I would call ‘a panorama from below.’ This is the voice of the voiceless, of people who experienced the Great Terror at first hand, not the politicians, the ideologues and the apparatchiks but the ordinary people of Russia.

Working with a team of researchers, Figes has recovered so much personal testimony on the threshold of an even greater silence. For that alone he is to be commended. He also draws on family archives, letters, diaries, personal memoirs and so on, testimony that would have otherwise have been forgotten, unread and turning yellow with age.

In Stalin’s Russia Big Brother, in the shape of the secret police, was constantly keeping the private citizen under observation, ready to pounce, like a wolf, on the least sign of deviation. I write ‘private citizen’ but there really was no privacy and no retreat. Stalinism fed on moral corruption, and moral corruption begins at the level of the individual.

Yes, the state was ever watchful but it depended most particularly on those who were prepared to denounce others, either for base motives of personal gain – apartment space was at a premium - , or because they wanted to wash out some ‘stain’ in their personal biography by proving themselves more orthodox than the orthodox. One published notice serves here: “I, Nikolai Ivanov, renounce my father, an ex-priest, because for many years he deceived the people by telling them God exists, and for that reason I am severing my relations with him.”

Deception and self-deception, lies and half truths, all were absorbed into a jungle-like struggle for survival. Commenting on one journal from 1937 Figes notes that “…people were becoming so adept at concealing meaning in their speech that they were in danger of losing the capacity to speak the truth altogether.”

In a way personal life turned into a bizarre Greek tragedy, all emotion hidden behind masks. Those desperate to speak the truth turned in on themselves, like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, confining their thoughts to diaries, a release carrying its own particular danger.

The title has a double meaning that becomes increasingly obvious the further one reads. Whisperer in Russian has two senses: those who speak quietly for fear of being overheard, and those who inform on others, even friends and family, for fear of being suspected. Denounce, in other words, before you are denounced. Figes writes that “The distinction has its origins in the idiom of the Stalin years, when the whole of society was made up of whisperers of one sort or another.”

Personal and moral corruption came through fear and intimidation. There is, however, another form of corruption, one which begins not with baseness but with idealism. The key example here is one Konstantin Siminov, whom Figes singles out as the ‘central figure’ of The Whisperers. He was a journalist, novelist and poet who enjoyed a particularly successful career under Stalin, demonstrating his loyalty time and again.

There was no opportunism here; he was a genuine believer. Even the arrest and disappearance of family, friends and colleagues did nothing to dent his enthusiasm. It was this enthusiasm that allowed him to embrace every ideological perversion, including Stalin’s late anti-Semitism. He was loyal even after the end. As the truth began to come out after the dictator’s death, Siminov held to his early course. The alternative was just too awful: the alternative was to admit that his whole life had been based on a fraud. In the end he did. This was to be his particular tragedy.

The Whisperers is an important book, I would go so far as to say a crucial one, a necessary testimony coming at just the right point in time, coming as a new fog of lies and misinformation about the past and about Stalin descends on Putin’s Russia. Even so it’s not a perfect book; there are flaws. As I hinted above, I read it in the aftermath of a controversy earlier this year. Russian publishers scrapped a projected translation because of alleged ‘inaccuracies.’ The story was picked up by Peter Reddaway and Stephen Cohen, two American academics, who published their findings in The Nation.

Errors of fact are always a concern, particularly when those errors concern people who are still alive. But it seems to me that given the scale and scope of The Whisperers, given the mountain of primary material, such a thing while not excusable is at least understandable. Many of the errors, though, seem to have been introduced by the Russian translators or were present in the source documents. Once this had been taken into account the author wrote that it left “…a few genuine errors in a book based on thousands of interviews and archival documents. These I regret.”

I do not regret this book, perhaps one of the most ambitions and worthwhile exercises in oral history ever undertaken. The flaws notwithstanding, it is a commendable achievement. It is, if you like, the story of a million tragedies.  

Monday 26 November 2012

Waiting for Siegfried

Let me begin with a personal anecdote.  Father has travelled extensively across the world on business, usually flying first class.  On one trip to Hong Kong he saw Leon Brittan, then Deputy European Commissioner, in the departure lounge for the flight back to London

I should add that Brittan, who formerly had served in Margaret Thatcher’s government, is a politician for whom he does not have a great deal of time.  "Never mind", he thought, "he's on his own. I'll ignore him." But no sooner had he boarded the flight than he discovered that he was the only 'independent' in the first class cabin. Every other seat was taken up by Brittan and an entourage from the Commission.  I do not know what the fare is now, but then the first class return flight to Hong Kong cost around £8000, that’s almost $13,000. 

I suppose it’s only to be expected that the Deputy Commissioner would travel first class.  It really is stretching things, though, when all the toadies of his court, who did little but drink the free champagne and talk too loud, should also travel at the expense of the benighted European taxpayer. 

I dare say things are much worse now.  There is so much about this venal and corrupt organisation that simply never comes to light, so much about the waste of its bloated bureaucracy.  I was interested to note, though not at all surprised, that the EU’s own auditors have refused to sign off on its accounts for the past eighteen years. 

For me the EU, aside from the ever present challenge to the integrity and sovereignty of our nation, means one thing – waste.  But it’s not just waste; it’s a total disregard for the interests of the ordinary taxpayers.  It’s almost as if the Eurocrats are an old new aristocracy, full of a sense of entitlement, full of disregard for the serfs who have to pay for this entitlement.  There they are, every one a Marquis St. Evrémonde, sitting in their luxury coaches, tossing the occasional coin to the plebs as they pass by. 

I mention all of this as a background to Saint David Cameron’s tilt with the European Dragon, roaring for more in the latest budget talks.  The beast wants approval on a £809million ($1296million) budget, with lots more perks, privileges and first class junkets.  Cameron wants to cut the monster down.  Contrary to expectations, he wasn’t alone here, with delegations from Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands also pushing for cuts. 

Meanwhile a gang of Estonian farmers gathered outside the dragon’s lair, demanding that his horde grow bigger.  Oh, they are not on the perks; they just get subsidies from the so-called Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which allow a lot of peasants to pursue peasant-like farming that turns the rest of us into, well, peasants.  It seems to be all part of the grand aristocratic plan. 

This is only the first round.  The beast is not even wounded.  It will come back, breathing fire.  Estonian farmers and the CAP can go hang.  The truly important thing is the beast’s own well-being.  Pee Wee Herman Van Rompay, who masquerades as the European President, the Great Bureaucrat in person, was unable to identify a single euro of potential cuts on administration, which accounts for 6% of the total budget.  Alas, the beast may eat him alive if he did.

No sooner were the talks over than the leaders slopped off for a spot of luncheon, all washed down with a delightful Chateau Angelus Premier Grand Cru, an unpretentious little claret, a real pinch at £120 a bottle. This is our Brave New Europe that has such worthies in it.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair, shouting from the sidelines, says that leaving Europe would be a ‘disaster for Britain.’  What a perfect reverse barometer Mister Cosmopolitan is, a man who fills me with more contempt than the dragon has gold.  This is a man who, if he had had his way, would have taken Britain into the common currency years ago.  This is a man who clearly knows an awful lot about disaster.  We will be ‘irrelevant’ outside the EU he says.  I just hope we are as irrelevant as Switzerland and Norway rather than relevant as Spain and Italy.  The Dragon and Blair deserve one another.  Personally I’m waiting for Siegfried to emerge.  David Cameron, contrary to appearances, is no dragon slayer.  

Sunday 25 November 2012

Papal Bull

The Pope has written a book.  There is probably nothing unusual in that.  I feel sure lots of past popes have written books, and the present pontiff is noted for his love of the pen, along with just a soupcon of theological controversy.

I rather thought Catholicism was all dogma.  “Oh, don’t be so dogmatic”, I can hear Pope Benedict say in my mind’s ear, “there is always room for a little flexibility in faith.”  There seems to be more than a little room when it comes to aspects of the Nativity. 

Christmas approaches with alarming speed.  But Christmas may not be Christmas at all, at least according to Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives, a new addition to the Papal back catalogue published last week.  Never mind the season, never mind the month, never mind the day: Jesus was born years earlier than is commonly supposed.  The accepted date was based on a miscalculation by Dionysus Exiguus – also known as Dennis the Small –, a sixth century Eastern European monk. 

Dionysus is now best known for the concept of Anno Domini (AD) – in the year of our Lord.  I remember once in a religious studies class, after we had already established what BC meant, we were asked if any of us would care to hazard a guess at AD.  Without pause for thought I replied “After Death.”  “I’ll give you after death”, the teacher said.  I was a bit of a minx, you see. 

According to Benny, Dennis was a bit of a menace when it came to dating. We do not know how he calculated the year of Christ’s birth but he got it wrong, perhaps by as many as several years.  Jesus, you see, was born BC; born, in other words, before Christ!  The contention isn’t new; other scholars have made such a claim, now weighted with a papal imprimatur. 

My goodness, here is the head of the Catholic Church dealing in doubt.  What next, I wonder?  I’ll tell you what next: the Infancy Narratives has no room in the inn for cattle and donkeys.  The ox and ass did not keep time as the drummer boy played because they were not there.  It’s all a myth, the Pope says.  “There is no mention of animals in the Gospels”, he writes, in what is the third and last part of his biography of Jesus.  The inclusion of domestic animals in the Nativity scene was most likely inspired by pre-Christian traditions. 

Not to worry, boys and girls; there will be no Papal Bull ejecting the menagerie, even that set up every year in Saint Peter’s Square.  Even so, it’s as well to remember that it’s just a lot of bull.  So, too, apparently is the singing heavenly host greeting the birth of Christ.  His Holiness writes that the angels did not sing Hark!; they only spoke the words.  Maybe they were crooning. 

But when it comes to the really important stuff, when it comes to the Virgin Birth, there is no room for doubt or papal equivocation: this is the literal truth, the dogma upon which the faith stands or falls.  The Pope is insisting on the word of the Gospels and only the Gospels, which ironically aligns him with seventeenth century English Puritans, who, in their own literal way, literally dispensed with Christmas altogether, a pagan festival unsanctioned by scripture.

It seems to me that there is a kind of naïve purity or theological blindness here in an argument that is too subtle by half, and that half concerns the element of myth from which all belief takes succour.  When one removes the myth one removes the magic.  It is the need for this sort of primitive reassurance that moves mountains, not Papal monographs.  

Thursday 22 November 2012

Ignorance is Strength

 What should happen, do you think, when a crime has been committed?  For me the answer is simple: the offenders should be brought to account; justice should be done and be seen to be done; the law should be applied.  No, that’s wrong; if the law is broken it’s far better to spend heaps of money thinking up new laws, legislating for more legislation, laying rules upon rules.  That’s the way to do it; that’s the British way.

We’re having a Public Inquiry here at the moment into the ethics of the press.  Headed by Lord Justice Leveson, it was set up in a panic by Prime Minister David Cameron last year in the wake of the News International phone hacking scandal.  Panic, I say, because it was a way of distancing himself from people with whom he was altogether too cosy. 

Oh, how we love Public Inquiries in this country.  It’s a way of ensuring that resources are well spent, not on the trivialities of life like decent public services but on truly important things like legal fees.  So far Leveson has soaked up £5.6million, that’s about $8.9million. Just think of all the golf club bashes that will cover.  

Some people think it might have been possible to short-circuit this legal circus.  After all, the various crimes of the less savoury hacks are all covered by existing law: phone hacking is illegal; prejudicing issues to be tested in the courts is illegal; publishing unfounded accusations against the innocent is covered by the law of libel.  Forget all that nonsense; let Leveson dance. 

The issue itself is unsavoury enough.  No grand principle of freedom was being defended.  The hacking hacks at News International were not looking into issues of great public interest.  There was no Woodward and Bernstein fearlessly exposing political corruption.  No; there was a lot of slimy slugs breaking into the private conversations of celebrities and crime victims, a practice that gives muckraking an altogether new meaning.  The law would have done well to follow its natural course.

Instead we have the Leveson sledgehammer bashing a few nuts; instead we are likely to get new regulators challenging the freedom of the press.  We may very well be about to see a process of even more intimidation by those powerful enough to have genuine matters of public interest hidden from the public.  In the baleful atmosphere created by Leveson it’s already happening.  I note that one journalist even received a complaint from a foreign despot, the King of Bahrain, irritated by her coverage of the death of forty of his benighted subjects in anti-government protests.

I have no interest at all in knowing that a seedy and sordid little man like Max Mosley, one of the driving forces behind the move to gag the press, likes to have his bare backside spanked by prostitutes dressed as Nazis.  But I do have an interest in defending free expression; so surely do all of us who blog and tweet, all of us journalists in a sense, all threatened by regulation and intimidation. 

Are we really going to have to re-fight battles that we thought won in ages past because of few untypical arses were interested in celebrity arses?  We may soon have occasion to feel the full truth of William Wordsworth’s poem London, 1802, which opens with some particularly memorable lines;

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. 

If Leveson follows the anticipated trajectory into statutory press regulation then the pen will indeed be stagnant.  We may have need of a new John Milton precisely because he was the first great defender of a free press.  In Areopagitica, a pamphlet published in 1644 during the height of the English Civil War, he argued for free expression and against licensing and censorship.  “Give me the liberty”, he wrote, “to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

I also call to mind John Wilkes, another champion of press freedom, who over two centuries ago argued in North Britain that “The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country.” 

But my favourite quote about press freedom is an observation by George Orwell: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”  It’s a bit like two plus two equals four: if that is granted all else follows. But we may about to find that a Ministry of Truth has emerged post-Leveson, with powers of regulation and interference far in excess of anything that exists at present. 

Between Leveson and Freedom there is no third way.  David Cameron would do well to be mindful of that simple truth.  But for some Ignorance is Strength.  

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Russia is a Beggar

The Beggar Queen
I’m sure it will be no great revelation if I tell you I take no interest at all in beauty pageants.  You know the sort of thing; a succession of women whose breast size is in inverse proportion to that of their brains, telling some slavering old Jimmy Savile-type host that they want to help old people when they grow up, with hints, perhaps, of oral pleasures to come. 

I was amused to discover, though, that one of these contests is called Miss Earth.  What, Miss Earth?  Does the competition come from Miss Mars, Miss Venus and the rest, from the ultra hot Miss Mercury to the cold and distant Miss Pluto?  Now that might be something worth watching!

Earth girls come from all over the Earth.  It wasn’t really the name of the competition that caught my attention; it was the comments of one of the competitors.  She is Natalia Pereverzeva from Russia, different from the usual run of beauties in that she had some unusual things to say about her country. 

Asked what makes her proud of her country, she started off in a glowing if slightly eccentric fashion.  Russia, she said, “is bright, warm, patched, but it is pleasant to slumber under it on a winter evening when the storm rages outside.”  I get it: Russia is really just a giant duvet.  Wait; it’s more than that, it’s “a kind of cow with very big eyes, funny horns and always chewing its mouth oh, what sweet milk she gives!  Oh, how it smells – meadows, herbs and sun.”  A comfort blanket, kindly cows and fragrant herbs, my, my, Russia is obviously the lost Eden.

But it’s not.  In an instant bedding, cows and herbs disappeared, revealing something nasty in the woodshed.  Russia started to smell not of fragrant meadows but of corruption.  “But my Russia – it is also my poor long-suffering country, mercilessly torn to pieces by greedy, dishonest and unbelieving people.  My Russia is a great artery, from which the chosen few people drain away its wealth.  My Russia is a beggar.” 

The beggar cannot help its orphans and its elderly.  Engineers, doctors and teachers are fleeing, as from a sinking ship, because they can’t make enough to live on.  This is her country, she concluded, her dear, poor Russia.

Not the sort of thing one expects in this kind of bash, I feel sure you will agree.  It’s caused quite a stir in RussiaKomsomolskaya Pravda, one of the main tabloids, headlined the story on its front page.  Did our Miss Earth 2012 contestant slam Russia or tell the truth?, it asked.  No, she did not tell the truth, one of its commentators proceeded; her tirade was just a rehash of Western clichés about Russia.  That would not include the bit about duvets, meadows, herbs and cows, I suppose

Dmitry Steshin went on to accuse her of “trading her body in photographs to arouse the sexual instincts of the end consumer, thereby ruining her credibility.”  You can make of that what you will but I rather thought trading one’s body in photographs to arose the sexual instincts “of the end consumer” was what beauty pageants were all about.  Perhaps Dmitry is of a more innocent cast of mind, giving no thought at all to the girl’s future intentions towards old men. 

Alas, he seems rather out of touch with the rest of Russia, or at least the more than 90% of the thousands who responded in her favour in the paper’s online poll.  Clearly the end consumers’ sexual instincts have been aroused by the former Miss Russia’s body of photographs.  Either that or she speaks a deeper truth, one that explodes the self-serving illusions and forms of political deception that Putin’s gangster-state specialises in.  That is no beauty contest.  

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Another Fine Mess

There is a letter from Josef Goebbels to Barack Obama in the latest issue of Taki’s Magazine (Dear Barack Obama), an online publication.  What, the long dead Nazi Propaganda Minister to the present Propaganda President; how is such a thing possible?  Apparently the poison dwarf has taken to time travel! 

Actually the letter is from one Gavin McInnes, not at all thankful on this season of Thanksgiving for the outcome of America’s early November jamboree.  It’s a reasonable effort, though personally I think the real Goebbels could have done so much better.  Mister McInnes rambles and digresses just a tad.  Keep the message simple, that’s the key.  Goebbels knew that. 

Still, once the verbal outer leaves have been stripped away, there is a tasty inner core to the McInnes fruit.  It’s this: Obama won on the basis of what is conceivably the emptiest message in American electoral history: there is simply nothing there, nothing of any substance.  It was all about ‘making a difference’.  What difference, what exactly were people voting for, what exactly made their vote count?  Obama's victory was in essence a brilliant propaganda coup: promising nothing while seeming to promise everything.  Come to think of it these are more or less the same thing, nothing and everything.  

Present economic difficulties, of course, are all the fault of George W. Bush.  Let’s see how thin this wears over the next four years.  Barry O, as one of the respondents to Doctor Goebbels said, is Bush on steroids! 

Meanwhile the great Barry treads the world stage anew, as fumbling and as cack-handed as ever.  America’s East Coast liberal press fell on Mitt Romney’s alleged gaffs like a pack of hungry dogs in pursuit of a bone; there is really no surprise in that.  No matter how meaty the Obama bones they remain curiously uninterested, and I don’t suppose there is any surprise in that either.

Here, let me throw some flesh your way. There he was in Asia, meeting Burma’s Ang San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ahng Sahn Soo Chee), possibly the most famous human rights’ activist in the world, long held incommunicado by the country’s military dictatorship.  Associated Press reports that he pronounced her name wrong several times.  She is now seemingly Aung YAN Suu Kyi.  He also made a mess of his greeting to Burma’s new president;

The meeting came after Obama met with Myanmar's reformist new President Thein Sein – a name he also botched.  As the two addressed the media, Obama called his counterpart "President Sein," an awkward, slightly affectionate reference that would make most Burmese cringe.  Note to presidential advisers: For future rounds of diplomacy, the president of Myanmar is President Thein Sein – on first and second reference.

You may recall that Obama once made some abject overtures to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” during his first term as president, decisively snubbed by Iran’s Islamist dictatorship.  The process of appeasement continues.  Burma is the name of the country.  It’s the name that Aung SAN Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition use; it’s the name used by the United Nations; it’s the name used officially by the United States itself.  But Obama continued to refer to ‘Myanmar’, the name preferred by the former military junta and by the present fig-leaf civilian administration.  I expect if he had been around at the time of the Khmer Rouge he would have called Cambodia ‘Democratic Kampuchea.’ 

In the Telegraph Neil Gardiner writes;

It is rather embarrassing, as well as sad, that the leader of the free world can’t even pronounce the name of the most famous human rights activist on the planet. Or that he is so quick to appease Burma’s authoritarian regime by calling it “Myanmar”. Barack Obama’s gaffes demonstrate not only a marked lack of attention to detail and a high degree of amateurishness on the part of the White House, but also a disturbing willingness to curry favour with unsavoury regimes. Hardly a good omen for Obama’s second term.

That’s rather well put, I thought, a little more targeted than ‘Doctor Goebbels’ fireworks.  Meanwhile, as far as the real Doctor is concerned, Americans might do well to reflect on the following in the years to come;

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

Monday 19 November 2012

Firing the First Shot

Liberty and no Union
Secession is in the air.  I’ve been keeping an eye on the rapidly evolving situation in the States.  The latest information I have is that the Texas petition now has well over 110,000 signatures, almost four times over the threshold for an official response on the White House’s We the People website. 

The 25,000 signature threshold has also been exceeded in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, with some other states not far behind.  Nationally the petitions lodged in all fifty states have collected close on a million signatures.  America wants to leave America

This is all great fun.  I don’t take it seriously and I’m certain that the vast majority of signatories do not take it seriously either.  But it’s most certainly boosted spirits on the American right, deflated by Romney’s defeat.  It shows how agile Americans are at bouncing back.  The people are using We the People in a way that Obama could never have anticipated when the site was set up.  The comment in the Washington Post was spot on; there is indeed something empowering about putting your name on a document that sticks it to the establishment.

I’m a secessionist.  Oh, not so far as the United States is concerned.  That’s a Union best preserved.  It’s the European Union I want my country to leave.  I have little doubt that a secession petition here would gather hundreds of thousands of signatures in a very short time.  But it Americans have some form of empowerment, even if only in online petitions, we have none at all.  All of the main parties are committed to membership of Europe.  David Cameron, the Prime Minister, may blow a little anti-European wind from time to time, but that’s all it is – wind. 

Day by day the European monster eats away at English freedom, imposing upon us foreign laws and foreign customs.  It’s taking liberties, liberties that were once ours.  What I resent most of all is that we have become the victims of France’s fear of Germany and Germany’s fear of itself.  We have become the victims of a history that is not ours, of a political and dictatorial style that is most assuredly not ours.  Secession is the only way of rediscovering ourselves, of reclaiming our own past and our own traditions. 

I call to mind Edmund Ruffin.  If you’ve never heard the name he was a political activist in the Old South, a Virginian and a strong believer in states' rights and secession.  He was in South Carolina when it became the first state to leave the Union in December, 1860.  He is also reputed to have fired the first shot on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, thereby beginning the Civil War. 

Well, now, I hate the European Union as much as Ruffin hated the Federal Union.  I hope in my lifetime to see my country take the road to secession.  If we ever have a referendum on membership I would be delighted to fire the first shot.  

Sunday 18 November 2012

Cameron’s Gay Week

I no longer support the Conservative Party.  My goodness, I should really keep quiet about this; my family would be outraged!  That’s not quite true.  I know my late grandfather, a life-long Tory who once met Churchill, would be sad, but mother and father have, along with me, become increasingly disenchanted.  I will always vote for decent Tories like Boris Johnson, London’s mayor; I will not vote for a faux Tory like that hopeless muddle-head David Cameron, all windmills and gay marriage. 

I may in future support a Conservative Party, and that party is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).  I’m writing this in the wake of the parliamentary by-election in the middle England seat of Corby.  Formerly held for the Tories by the idiotic Louise Mensch – such a little mensch - , it was taken by Labour last Thursday with a comfortable swing.  You know the sort of thing – if this result was repeated across the country blah de blah de blah. 

I expected the Tories to lose, they deserved to lose, but the UKIP advance was a delight to behold, a warning, if you like, from Conservatives to the Cameroons.  Attracting over 5000 votes, some 14% of the poll, the party moved into third place behind the Tory candidate.  Even more gratifying, the pestilential Gay Liberation Front, also known as the Liberal Democrats, lost their deposit. 

It’s as well not to make too much of this sort of thing.  The boast that UKIP is now the ‘third party’ in English politics is premature in the extreme, in some ways as asinine as the ‘if this result were repeated’ mantra.  But it shows that the traditional support for the Conservative Party is in danger of haemorrhaging away to the right.  It shows just how sick and tired people are not just with the ghastly European Union but with Cameron and his feeble-minded politics.  His version of Conservatism is just another Gay Coalition Front. 

On the subject of which, I noted from a Spectator blog that Cameron is accused of misleading supporters over the possible loss of support the Conservatives would risk if the government legislated on gay marriage.  In responding to a letter by Cheryl Gillian, the former Welsh Secretary, deeply critical of the gay policy, Cameron claimed that polling data showed that it would make more people vote Conservative.  Oh, Mr Cameron, that’s a lie.  Sorry; I’m breaching parliamentary etiquette.  I should say it’s a terminological inexactitude. 

I hope you won’t mind a slight digression here but people might be interested to know that the forms of language that can be used in Parliamentary debate are governed by strict procedural rules.  It’s all rather quaint, the Speaker ruling if a particular member has crossed the boundaries or not.  Benjamin Disraeli, a former Tory leader then in opposition, was once instructed to withdraw his allegation that half the cabinet were knaves.  Half the cabinet are not knaves, came the response.

Anyway back to Cameron, who is not a knave, just a little confused.  Andrew Hawkins, director of ComRes, the company that carried out the poll, wrote to the Prime Minister correcting his terminological inexactitudes.  Amongst other things he said that “the more important point from the poll…shows both that the party loses more votes than it gains as a result of the policy, and that former Conservative voters are especially less likely to return to the fold.”

Hawkins went on to say that the policy would have a detrimental effect on the Conservative Party’s electoral fortunes if pursued – “your letter states that ‘all of the published polls have found that more voters support equal civil marriage – however described – than oppose it.’ That is simply not the case.”

It was such a gay week from Mister Cameron.  I don’t suppose he is feeling very gay at all just at the present.  

Thursday 15 November 2012

Follow the Politics

In a recent discussion on the resignation of David Petraeus as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) I made the following observation;

Honestly, in this day and age, I’m surprised at such big fuss over something as minor as sexual indiscretion. But always, always follow the politics. I have a hunch that there is more to this story; that Caesar, not just Caesar’s wife, should be above suspicion. 

Well, then, there is indeed more to the story, and yes, it touches more on politics than personal morality.  The story of Petraeus, his biographer and inamorata and the third woman would be difficult to make up, even in the most farcical sex farce.  The toing and froing between the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also looks ridiculous, intelligence work that might have been conceived in the mind of Inspector Clouseau.  The whole thing would be risible in the extreme if it was not for the tragedy; if it was not the horror of Benghazi.

During the recent presidential campaign not enough was made of the murder of the American ambassador and three others in Libya; not enough was made of the present administration’s intelligence failures.  There are those who still wish to hide the inconvenient truths.  The suggestion – one I find wholly convincing -  is that Petraeus was effectively forced out of office because of potentially damaging revelations he might have made before today’s Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. 

What happened in Benghazi in September must count as one of the most serious breaches of security in recent American history.  The mother of Sean Smith, one of the diplomats killed alongside Ambassador Chris Stevens, said recently that that President Obama had effectively “murdered her son.”  And so he did, by simple negligence.  Obama’s reaction was ‘not very optimal’, to use his own peculiar and tortured English.

Consider the facts.  First the fuss over The Innocence of Muslims was no more than a silly smokescreen.  There was evidence that the attack on the embassy was planned well in advance by Al Qaeda, a 9/11 celebratory bash.  The administration had received hundreds of warnings but did nothing to improve security.  Contrast that with the British, who closed their own consulate after the failed assassination of Ambassador Dominic Asquith earlier in the summer. 

Quite apart from anything that Petraeus might have revealed about the Benghazi fiasco, as a political animal he was suspect, a horse of a Republican colour.  Con Coughlin says in the Telegraph that the general’s friends suspect that his political enemies in the administration simply used his sexual indiscretions as a convenient way of ejecting him from the CIA.  It certainly looks like it, the speed of the whole thing adding to the suspicion. 

Do you believe, does anyone believe, that if Petraeus had been an ‘insider’, if he had been ‘one of us’ these inconvenient facts would ever have come to light?  Even if they had, some kind of effort would have been made to stop the ship sinking.  After all, the Democrats are used to sexual scandals; they know how to manage sexual scandals, even so far as the Oval Office.

There are indeed serious questions as to why Petraeus gave a brief to the House Intelligence Committee that contradicted those of the agency he headed over the events in Libya.  Victoria Toensing of Fox News has written;

For some reason DCI Petraeus backed the Obama unsupported theory that the video made the attackers do it rather than his own Chief of Station’s assessment that it was a planned military attack. Why do the shifting stories and misplaced theory of cause matter?  Because if an administration pushes a political agenda that applauds the killing of Bin Laden as the ultimate act for eradicating the radical Islamic threat, then that same administration ignores its Ambassador’s urgent pleas for more security for fear it will appear Bin Laden’s demise was not the answer to that threat.  Our country’s chief spy is supposed to know which theory is held up by the evidence.

Indeed.  But now he has been silenced.  The guilty may never be put on the spot.  The mystery remains and the questions, the real questions, may never be answered.  Forget the sex.  Follow the politics, always follow the politics.  

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Tolerating the Intolerable

The smirk on his face tells all one needs to know.  Abu Qatada, a notorious hate preacher and terrorist suspect, has been released on bail.  This follows a successful appeal against deportation to Jordan, where he stands accused of various terrorism offences. 

I’m sure you’ve heard the script before – he will not get a fair trial, say the liberal old judges sitting on the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, proving once again that an ass is far too intelligent an animal to be compared to the law.    It’s not justice denied, it’s not justice delayed; it’s justice mocked.  More than that: we as a nation are mocked, a refuge for every murderous fanatic who knows how to manipulate the system.

Apparently David Cameron, our benighted Prime Minister, shares the nation’s ‘frustration’ at this latest development.  Nick Clegg, his Deputy, says that the government is still “absolutely determined” to deport Qatada. 

Now, here’s a question for you: what does Cameron’s ‘frustration’ and Clegg’s ‘determination’ amount to?  Oh, I know, the answer is just too, too simple.  They amount to precisely nothing, because nothing is what we shall get.  Oh, sorry, that’s not true: we shall get years and years of Abu Qatada. 

I personally would send Qatada off on the next plane to Amman.  No, I don’t care about the asinine judges and I don’t care about the European Convention of Human Rights, adopted wholesale into our own legal system without consideration or reflection by Tony Blair and his toy town government.  I don’t care if the evidence to be used against Qatada in Jordon is based on confessions obtained by torture, the chief objection of the judges.  I don’t even care if he is tortured himself; I just want rid of him; I do not want this appalling man to breathe English air.  I really do not care if he breathes any air at all. 

This is too, too awful of me, don’t you agree?  Taking a more than usually pompous tone in the Telegraph yesterday, Dan Hodges writes that the calls for the immediate deportation of Qatada will rightly receive short shrift –“Once we start simply ignoring the laws of the land, Abu Qatada has won.  Nor do we want politicians muscling aside our independent judiciary.”

Frustrated Dave and Determined Nick most assuredly won’t do that, or anything else, for that matter.  Once the law of the land starts to offer shelter and protection to the enemies of the land then it is worse than useless.  Fine, I’m happy to let Qatada have the victory, just so long as he smirks about it in Jordan.  What I want is a politician less ‘frustrated’ and less ‘determined’; I want a politician with the character of Alexander, one who acts, not talks, one who has the courage to cut through the Gordian Knot and to hell with the consequences.

In essence what I want is to see the loathsome Abu Qatada smirk on the other side of his face.  As it is he is likely to spend years amongst us, all at huge public expense, smiling away at the stupidity of our judges, our law, our politicians and our country, a country that can tolerate the intolerable.  

Tuesday 13 November 2012

A House Divided

I was amused to discover on Blog Catalogue last night that secession petitions are flooding into the White House in the wake of Barack Obama’s re-election to the presidency.  What, are we really back in 1860, is American on the threshold of a new Civil War?  No and yes, is my answer, a point to be clarified a bit later.

There they are, pleas flooding in from some of the same offenders: from Texas, from Alabama, from Georgia, from Louisiana, from South Carolina, from North Carolina, from Tennessee, from Arkansas and from Florida, all former members of the old Confederacy.  There are also petitions from Missouri and from Kentucky, states that at least had a presence on the Stars and Bars.

But – my goodness – there are also petitioners from the blue North, from Indiana, from Oregon, from Michigan, from Montana, from New Jersey and – would you believe it? – from New York!  So the Civil War solved nothing.  Secession is alive and well in American political consciousness!  Actually, it’s one of the great ironies of American history that the original thirteen states in casting off one imperial union bound themselves to another, far less mutable in every sense.

Anyway, Obama has only himself to blame.  Oh, I don’t mean in being re-elected, though that is the clear cause of an autumn of discontent among some Americans.  I mean he is at fault in agreeing to the White House’s We the People website, set up last year with the aim of allowing “all Americans a way to engage their government on issues that matter to them.” 

The promise is that if a petition from any given state reaches 25,000 signatures within thirty days the White House has to respond.  When I drafted this article yesterday evening Texas had already exceeded this threshold with 34,000 signatures.  Now it stands at 77,000.  I await Obama’s reaction with interest. 

Most of the petitions make reference to the words of Declaration of Independence;

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and institute new Government…

That from Texas is more specific, taking us to the real heart of the matter;

Given that the state of Texas maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world, it is practically feasible for Texas to withdraw from the union, and to do so would protect its citizens' standard of living and re-secure their rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers which are no longer being reflected by the federal government.

I think this is superbly put.  On the news sites I’ve looked at a lot of the responders are saying that the whole thing is racist, that there are lots of people, especially in the South, who simply do not like a black man in the White House.  I’m not saying that’s not true; it probably is in some cases, but I can see no evidence on the point.  This kind of observation looks more to me like an unthinking reflex: that criticism of Obama, any criticism, is almost racist by definition.  It’s a way of sidetracking the real and substantive issues over his imperial presidency. 

With Obama back there are genuine concerns, as the Texans make clear, over the future direction of the country.  It’s as well that people have an opportunity to make their views known, even if it’s only to challenge the darker angels of Obama’s nature.  He is hoist, so to say, with his own petard! 

Anyway, the real issue is about consensus, the real issue is about democracy itself.  In any normal electoral process the minority, small or large, bows out with reasonable grace, agreeing to abide by the outcome, recognising the government as their government, even if they did not vote for it.  In essence this is governing by consensus, a civil society bound together by a common understanding, a common set of values.  

The alternative, a highly dangerous state of affairs, is governing without consensus, where the minority feels alienated from the whole political process.  This was the state of affairs in Northern Ireland for decades. Now I'm not suggesting that the United States is any way similar to Northern Ireland, but fissures are appearing in the body politic which may very well have serious future consequences.  Many people increasingly begin to feel that the federal government no longer represents their interests, no longer reflects the principles upon which the nation stands.   

No, we are not back in 1860 but over the next four years a new kind of civil war may very well be fought. Obama clearly presides over a house divided, more divided than it has been in decades.  If anything his victory has compounded his problems.  His constituency is younger, poorer, browner, more blue collar and less self-reliant.  John O' Sullivan rightly notes in the Spectator, that this will inevitably lead to pressures for more regulation, more welfare, great government spending, higher taxes and more unionisation; it will lead to expectations that Obama, faced with a precipitous fiscal cliff, cannot meet, at least not without ruining an older and wealthier America, no matter its race or ethnicity.  Meanwhile America's creditors, particularly China, are looking on.

So, yes, the house is divided against itself.  Will it stand?  I honestly can't say.  But one thing I am certain of - Obama is no Lincoln.  

Monday 12 November 2012

Life and Fate

I first read Anna Karenina when I was in my mid-teens.  I remember being deeply moved by the story of Anna and her doomed love but I missed a lot of Tolstoy’s subtlety.  I say this because I have now reread this magnificent book in the light of the recent film adaptation with Keira Knightley in the role of Anna.

In my review of the movie I described the novel as a War and Peace of the emotions.  But it’s actually much more than that.  Though it is more intimate in an emotional sense than War and Peace Tolstoy also manages to capture the sweep and grandeur of a particular period in Russian history.  It’s an effortless shifting of focus really, from interior feelings at one point to exterior settings at another, inside and outside captured with almost perfect comprehension.

The novel opens with arguably one of the most recognised lines in all of world literature;

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

On my first reading I thought this was a reference to Anna and her own relationships, first with her husband, Alexis Karenin, a man she clearly does not love, a man she never loved, and then with Count Alexis Vronsky, the great passion of her life, a man she loved too much.  But it’s not.  In the immediate sense it’s a reference to the marriage of her philandering brother, Stiva Oblonsky, and Dolly, his much suffering wife.  Beyond that it really touches on a variety of relationships.  It touches, in a deeper sense, on a larger family, that of the Russian aristocracy, on the threshold of a precipitous decline.

The title is deceptive.  Much of the novel does indeed focus on the tragedy of Anna but not in an exclusive sense.  It might just as well have been called Portraits of Marriage; for marriage and relationships is what it’s all about.  Not all unhappy, I should add.  For in counterpoint to the story of Anna, Karenin and Vronsky we have that of Kitty, Dolly’s sister, and Constantine Levin.  This, as it turns out, is the novel’s one happy family, resembling no other. 

The idealistic and occasionally tiresome Levin is an obvious self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.  I say tiresome because the author allows him to become a vehicle for his own economic, political and spiritual obsessions, which buzz at points as annoyingly as the bees Levin keeps on his country estate! 

For me the fascinating thing about Anna Karenina is just how well it captures a particular social milieu and a particular period in Russian history.  I offer another possible title – Decline and Fall.  There is pathology here, something symptomatic almost.  At one extreme we have the insouciant Oblonsky, thoughtless and shallow, a scion of an ancient family in terminal decline.  At the other we have Levin, a country gentleman who dreams of a communion with the peasantry, while always being apart from the peasantry.  In the middle we have Anna, passionate, transient and destructive, a force of nature.  On the outside we have the peasantry, looking on with incomprehension and bemused contempt. 

It’s often said that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written.  Greatness, it seems to me, is such and elusive and uncertain measure.  There are serious flaws in the book which, at least to me, would seem to stop it somewhere short of ‘greatness’, at least understood as perfection.  But there is something greater than greatness; there is brilliance.  Anna Karenina is a brilliant book, one with breathtaking insight, a handling of character and theme that shows one to be in the presence of a true master of the art. 

Tolstoy’s understanding of human nature is as broad as it is deep.  Although the novel has a third person grand narrative style, the focus changes with the mood, moving from a God-like perspective to interior consciousness with equal ease.  Even Laska, Levin’s dog, is allowed a perspective at one point in the narrative!  Tolstoy’s descriptive power is as grand as it is in War and Peace, though the richness of his country scenes stands in sharp contrast to the anonymity of his urban settings. 

Anna Karenina is a novel of consequences.  In some ways it’s similar in handling to War and Peace, in that the author clearly believes that each individual destiny is shaped by forces that cannot be controlled.  Anna is the novel’s boldest character, one who defies convention, choosing love over propriety.  That is the beginning of her tragedy. 

I suppose it is possible to say that Vronsky also places love, the love of another man’s wife, before propriety, but for him the choice does not carry the same burden, a measure of social hypocrisy, perhaps, though the judgements here are our own, not Tolstoy’s.  His task is simply to show the limits of freedom and the penalties of choice. 

The penalties for Anna are high.  Unable to divorce, she grows increasingly uncertain of herself, increasingly insecure in her relationship with Vronsky, who can, after all, discard her in a moment and marry another, as his mother clearly wishes.  Anna’s passionate nature turns in on itself, driven to destruction by recrimination, doubt and paranoia.  Her story resembles no other in its unhappiness.  It ends in a station; it ends in suicide under a train. 

Is there any happiness to be found here?  Well, as I say, to contrast with the dark there is the light of Kitty and Levin.  If Oblonsky represents shallow and cosmopolitan urban values, Levin – Tolstoy himself – seeks roots in the land, roots in ‘the people’, something of an idealised and unreflective giant.  He finds contentment with Kitty and meaning in life, including spiritual meaning…at least up to a point. 

Tolstoy admired the work of Charles Dickens.  But the thing about Dickens’ novels is that they all have one conclusion – the end of history.  One feels that the action is done.  All that remains is an endless summer of happy families, big meals and blessed death.  Not so with Anna Karenina.  Levin is a doubter; his quest is not over, his happiness less than complete.  His is a story that is also destined to end in a station, the story of Tolstoy’s own future.  

Sunday 11 November 2012

America Defeats America

There are two speeches in American political history that I find wholly admirable.  The first is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  The second is Richard Nixon’s Great Silent Majority oration.

It was the latter I thought of in the wake of Barack Obama’s recent re-election to the White House, specifically the conclusion, where Nixon offered the following observation;

Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.

That’s it exactly: in voting for Obama Americans have defeated and humiliated themselves.  The country faces four more years of drift, uncertainty and decline.  The business of America is business, former President Calvin Coolidge once said.  It isn’t any longer: it’s big government and welfare.  The country is well on its way to becoming just another European social democracy, its standing in the world diminishing by the day.  How are the mighty fallen.

I speak as an outsider, of course, one who has a tremendous respect for the United States and the leadership it has traditionally offered the free world, a leadership, as Nick Gardiner noted recently in the Telegraph, which depended on a sound economy, limited government, free enterprise and a strong national defence.  I speak as an outsider living in a European present, knowing exactly what that entails, a present that is obviously destined to be America’s future.

Yes, I can understand the uncertainty.  I’m sure a lot of Americans voted for Obama less out of love and admiration than fear of the possible changes that a Republican presidency might bring.  Obama, perhaps, offered hope.  What kind of hope, one has to ask?  His record shows clearly enough that it is the greatest of the many misfortunes that escaped from Pandora’s Box.

What did you get?  Was it a new vibrancy, a new economic energy, a new horizon?  No, it was bailouts that bailed out nothing; it was crippling levels of debt that crippled the economy, which will cripple the economy far into the future.  More taxes, more poverty, are all part of the Obama legacy, the answer to which is the vicious cycle of welfare.

The facts are stunning.  America’s national debt now stands at $16 trillion.  Yes, trillion.  Can you picture even one trillion?  I can’t; it’s too big a figure for my limited imagination.  But in actual figures it’s this: 1, 000, 000, 000, 000, that’s a million million.  One trillion dollars laid end to end would reach from here to the sun. Even like this it seems to defy comprehension.  In more manageable terms the actual American debt per taxpayer amounts to $111,414 and rising. 

The position, astonishingly enough, is worse than Greece, Europe’s economic Achilles heel.  The Weekly Standard reported recently that

According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, America’s total government debt will be $16.8 trillion by the end of the calendar year, compared to $441 billion for Greece…On a per person basis, that means U.S. debt is $53,400 for every man, woman, and child, compared to $39,400 for every man, woman, and child in Greece. The disparity between per capita debt in the U.S. and Greece has grown 40 percent (roughly $8,400) since 2011. Now, U.S. per person debt is 35 percent higher than that of Greece, and is also higher than per capita debt in Portugal, Italy, or Spain (which together with Greece make up the so-called PIGS countries).

With rising debt comes declining economic freedom.  The United States has now fallen to tenth place in the world rankings, with government spending exceeding one third of total domestic output. In other words, the US government now spends more than the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of China, Australia and Spain combined.  To this burden has to be added the promised health care reforms, not a dream but a bureaucratic and financial nightmare.

The businessman challenged the lawyer and the lawyer won, that’s the verdict of last Tuesday.  Look for more of the same, look for ‘progressive’ policies that offer no progress, look for increasing forms of paternalism and liberal totalitarianism.  Look, above all, for a nation divided against itself.