Newsnotes 2004 03

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M Williams

Eagle-Doves and Sinking Ships

Republicans as Post-Liberals

Russia’s Broke, Putin Fixes It


Gerrymandering anti-Semitism

2+2=5, says the UN

Axis Of Rather Nice People

True Prophets, Too Good To Be True

Two Whatevers Pompously Partnered for Serial Polygamy

Mars: the wet look

Civil Servants

Eagle-Doves and Sinking Ships [John Kerry]

Senator Kerry looks like a late-blooming liberal. He accepted a duty to fight in Vietnam, and then a further unwelcome duty to come home and oppose it when he could see that it was wrong and doomed. He’s an Eagle-Dove, the reverse of Bush’s Chicken-Hawks, people who used various loopholes to avoid risky military service during the Vietnam War.

But it was Kennedy’s war, don’t forget that. The much-quoted matter of him withdrawing some US ‘advisors’ just before his assassination means the reverse of what it seems: he was convinced that the conflict was nearly won. He authorised the undermining of President Diem, the only anti-Communist leader who was anything more than a puppet. Had he lived long enough to see that the war was not being won, he could not have done anything different from what Johnson did. Except possibly he might have tried invading North Vietnam, repeating the adventurism that he just about got away with in the Cuba Missile Crisis.

What would Kerry do, if he got elected? Little-Man Bush has destroyed Secularism in Iraq, and got the USA committed there and in Afghanistan. Bush has also blown in less than four years the entire budget surplus that Clinton had managed to accumulate in his 8 years. (Has anyone investigated the long-term results of alcoholism and possible cocaine-use on budgeting skills?)

What could a late-blooming liberal do with such a mess, if he inherited it along with a Congress dominated by Republicans? Not a lot, I fear. And he’d get a lot of the blame for not coping with the mess Bush would have left behind.

Maybe it’s better in the long term if the Chicken-Hawks are still there when their own chickens come home to roost. There are even people saying quietly in the financial press that the financial bubble of the 1990s has only partly deflated and that another big crash is quite likely.


Republicans as Post-Liberals [US Republicans]

The necessity of removing Saddam Hussein has been an Transcendental Truth since 1990. Supporting him and selling him weapons up until 1990 is fine, nice people like Rumsfeld did that. Only after the US decided against him does his quintessential evil become an Eternal Truth, and without backdating.

For the New Right, it is also a Transcendental Truth that both democracy and markets yield Good Results. This Transcendental Truth takes priority over the routine observations of bloated or irrational markets and democratic elections producing bad government or governments odious to the West. What happens in the real world is a mere accident and does not cast a slur on Transcendental Truth.

Even assuming Transcendental Truth (which is an old and unsolved religious-philosophical conundrum), why should we suppose that these characters have got close to it? Why should these characters have a right to put the label of ‘Transcendental Truth’ on their own whims and prejudices.

The method of science is to require a hypothesis to account for the known facts, or at least not to be in violent conflict with them. A hypothesis becomes a theory when it successfully predicts knew truths (whether experiments or discoveries). Popper was wrong when he said science had to be disprovable. The idea that whales descended from land mammals was put forward in the 19th century, and was untestable at the time. It would have been very difficult to disprove. But then people started digging up fossil whales, creatures like Basilosaurus that showed the chain of changing bodies that led from a land-mammal to the fish-like dolphins and whales. Had they found something else—say a fish that was losing its gills while remaining fish-like and un-mammalian—then basic biology would have needed a rethink. But so far, the standard view has been a wonderfully good predictor.

The New Right ape the language of science, but draw heavily on economics and political philosophy, areas where science has mostly been avoided. So it is a Transcendental Truth that democracies do not fight wars with each other, despite the mundane truth that the first such was fought in North America between a Confederacy and a Federal Government that were each chosen by a clear majority of white male voters in their respective areas. Likewise the benefits of markets in a Transcendental sense is allowed to outweigh the actual poverty and decline that ‘market reforms’ have brought about.


Russia’s Broke, Putin Fixes It

Gorbachev turned a Superpower into a shambles, and the West praise him for it. Yeltsin took over the shambles and reduced Russia’s wealth and health to an astonishing degree, while giving away state assets that any idiot could make money out of. Then Putin took over and stopped the decline, started telling Yeltsin’s oligarchs to pay ordinary tax on their dubious wealth. And the West finds it very worrying, and surprising that the Russians are intent on re-electing him.

Putin is blamed for throwing out a package that the West sees as wealth-creating. The commentators ignore the minor point that Russia has been made poorer than it was in 1991, and that Western wealth was created by quite different methods. Alan Greenspan absorbed a prototype of New Right doctrines from a silly woman called Ayn Rand. But he hasn’t applied such ideas to the US economy, not to the portion of it that the US ‘Overclass’ finds useful. I doubt we would have a functional US economy if he had really let the market run wild and free when the market signals were all for a spectacular crash.

Russia under Putin is daring to do what the West does, rather than following the ‘Open Legs’ strategy that the West recommends for foreigners. He’s also copying what the Chinese have done since Deng too over: allow foreign investors to do no more than it suits China to let them do. And though it is years too late to do it properly in Russia, he’ll get elected because he’s the best that the poor misled Russians have available to them.

One of his electoral rivals is Ivan Rybkin, is little-known and unlikely to get many votes before his bizarre disappearance in early February. Now he is better-known and still unlikely to get many votes. He’s one of several candidates running on behalf of the oligarchy who acquired wealth and impoverished Russia during the Yeltsin years. The ‘Miracle of the Market’ was Fools Gold; real gold ended up with a few oligarchs who made the society poorer. But nowadays Russia is rejecting capitalism, and Yeltsin’s people are finally gone with Putin’s sudden replacement of his Prime Minister.

(P.S. Mr Rybkin has now quit the election. But even the BBC agreed he was not a serious contender.)


Microsieve [Microsoft]

The news is that Microsoft have yet another ‘patch’ to their software. One should start calling them ‘Microsieve’.

The technical issues are complex. But the heart of it is a design philosophy that intentionally has machines open to external control. The bigger machines used by large businesses mostly keep a sharp distinction between data and instructions. Instructions from a suspect source will be ignored, which is as it should be. But PCs do not, because of the way that Intel and Microsoft have chosen to run their machines.

Remote control is something distinct from remote spying. I’d assume that the US military-industrial complex insisted that computer products have ‘backdoors’ for the US intelligence agencies to use. Whatever you have, they can see, at least if they know where to look. But there was no good reason to make it so easy for anyone with a bit of technical knowledge to seize control of someone else’s machine, mostly without ever needing physical access to the machine.

Part of the problem was that Microsoft was allowed to use its operating system as a ‘loss leader’. And then its internet browser: these core products were given easier integration with their other products, which they make their money from. It’s a process sometimes known as ‘dumping’, or getting market share, and it has worked despite laws that were supposed to stop it happening.

The big alternative is Linux, which works because it is ‘open source’, the work of hobbyists and enthusiasts. But you need to be a professional or a really dedicated computer hobbyist to use it.

Gerrymandering anti-Semitism [Israel]

“It is not anti-Semitic to ask whether Mr Sharon will hold to his promises on the removal of far-flung settlements in Gaza or on the West Bank. However, it is anti-Semitic to maintain that the State of Israel should not exist.” (The Times, Feb 20th 2004)

This confuses a number of different things: racist hostility to Jews, cultural objections to typical Jewish attitudes, religious objections to Jews worshiping differently from Christians and political objections to Zionism as such. They merit separate names: anti-Semitism for racist objectors, anti-Jewish for those with cultural objections, anti-Judaic for those who dislike non-Christian minorities in Christian societies and anti-Zionist for those who think it was a bad idea for Jews to become Europe’s last colonial venture on land that already had native inhabitants. You could also be anti-Israeli without being anti-Zionist: accept the state as a legitimate creation but say that they have no right to any more than they held in 1967, which itself is rather more than the United Nations awarded them in 1948.

Anti-Semitism in the proper sense of the term is a racist hostility to those peoples whose language is or was part of the Semitic family of languages. Logically, anti-Semitism would be just as much against Arabs as Jews—and against Carthaginians, if there were any around. It was one of several variants of 19th century racism. The British and Dutch generally accepted Jews as part of the White Race, as did most WASPs in the USA. In the Civil War of the 1860s, Jews north and south acted much the same as the rest of the white population. As indeed did Catholics and most Protestants, with the Quakers a notable exception in their rejection of slavery.

US attitudes changed with the sixteen-fold increase in their Jewish population between 1870 and 1927. The established Jews had been mostly of German origin and well integrated. The newcomers were from Eastern Europe or Russia, with a mixture of cultures unfamiliar to the USA’s older inhabitants. There was a considerable overlap between conservatism and a general hostility to Jews, sometimes cultural, sometimes religious, sometimes racial and sometime a mix of all of these things.

The USA is full of right-wing Christians who are enthusiastic pro-Zionists, yet also anti-Jewish in their objections to liberal culture, and fired by a belief that Jews and others are damned to hell unless they convert to some suitable religion. These are uneasily aligned with a small group of right-wing Jews who do most of the thinking for the USA’s branch of the New Right. (Much more so than in Britain, though most US Jews vote Democrat whereas Jews in Britain are spread right across the political spectrum. The last poll I saw—it was in The Economist several years back—found that Jews were slightly more likely to vote Tory than non-Jews. But part of this was social, they were mostly self-employed and were a little less likely to vote Tory than most of the self-employed. Britain and the USA are very different on religious matters: the British ruling class officially accepted Jews into its ranks in the 19th century, and hard-line Christian sects mostly vanished in the 20th century. In England and Wales, those who are still serious about Christianity are mostly Catholic or Anglican and liberal-left in outlook.

I’m tempted in this context to say something about ‘The Gospel According To Mad Max’. But I’ll wait till next month, when I’ve had a chance to see it—it opens over here on March 26th, a couple of weeks before Easter. For now, I note that it is top of the US charts, and has had an even bigger opening than Return Of The King. But if Jewish-Americans find it anti-Semitic and yet it is loved by the mainstream supporters of the people they are working with politically, doesn’t that suggest they are associating with the wrong people?

I will also say that Pasolini’s The Gospel According To St. Matthew is the one and only decent, accurate and unpretentious telling of a gospel tale. The four accounts are different, and if you were to follow literally Chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus would have to ride into Jerusalem balanced like a circus clown on two different animals! But Pasolini’s telling was serious, and looked at who the original Jesus might have been. As one reviewer said, “don’t expect to see a white, long haired, bearded, blue eyed man as Christ”, which is the norm in older Hollywood films.


2+2=5, says the UN [Iraq War]

The USA has established itself as a ‘global bully’, with the UK as bully’s back-up. And the UN has accepted a role of lackey in the process.

It’s obvious that a poll in Iraq would have had vastly more chance of success if it had been done last year, while the Iraqis were still uncertain. But also they were reluctant to accept the exiles whom the USA favoured. They are even more reluctant nowadays, with a virtual certainty that Sunnis would elect people as close to the Resistance as Sinn Fein are to the IRA. While most Shias would vote for religious parties who want the US out. Supposed ‘technical’ difficulties are fictitious: the UN ration cards are a pretty good guide to who would be eligible to vote in an election that would

The UN act as US lackeys, endorsing the US notion that the election cannot be held before June. The security situation isn’t going to make it easier after June, not unless the Resistance should unexpectedly collapse. But Annan has supported the US desire to give nominal sovereignty to its chosen circle of Iraqi supporters. And that the Iraqi people can be locked out of the process for as long as the US sees fit. Anything to do with them spying on him?


Axis Of Rather Nice People [Iran]

Meantime there looks to have been a geopolitical shift regarding Iran. The Shia mainstream in Iraq are the USA’s best chance of getting out of Iraq without disaster, if they can be persuaded to work with the Kurdish separatists and with the mixed bag of exiles the US brought back. And while Shia religious leaders take a different view from the dominant theologians of Iran, there is also an obvious community of interest.

Just as the coup in Haiti must have ‘got the nod’ from the USA, so the decision by Iran’s hard-line leaders to undermine their soft-line opponents probably stems from a wider understanding with the USA.

The Iraq war has been enough of a mess to discredit the notion of going on to conquer Iran, and perhaps other places. Maybe the US has some notion of a war against North Korea, which is pretty isolated. But Iran’s leaders know that the USA is shadow-boxing when it comes to them. They were able to treat their ‘Reformists’ with contempt, knowing that nothing bad would happen because of it.


True Prophets, Too Good To Be True [Iraqi Communities]

There has not yet been an authentic communal civil war in Iraq. Kurds are separatists, seeking to go their own way along with fellow-Kurds who still dream of the ‘Kurdistan’ they were promised at the Versailles Conference. Other fights have been political, Communist and anti-Communist, Baath and anti-Baath. Which makes one wonder why the media accepted the idea of civil war, well before horrific bombings that might have sparked a civil war.

And didn’t. The Shia and Sunni overlap, any communal war would be terrible for both sides. If journalists had got it into their heads that a civil war was coming, who filled their heads with it?

The al-Zarqawi letter looked like a crude forgery, too crude to be the work of any US intelligence agency. It ludicrously exaggerated US success and downplayed Resistance achievement, suggesting forgers who were hostile to the Resistance and to Shias in general. There are Gulf rulers who lead a Sunni elite over a Shia majority and have good reason to fear an Arab-Shia Iraq. There could also be problems in Saudi Arabia, a bunch of very diverse peoples united only by the fact that the Saud dynasty conquered them.

But someone must have persuaded the media that the al-Zarqawi letter was plausible. Sunni extremists couldn’t managed it. Only the USA has the status and authority. But why?

It makes no sense for the Iraqi resistance to have attacked a Shia religious ceremony. Previous bombs have all been directed at occupying forces or their supporters. As Robert Fisk has noted, al-Qaeda is solidly Sunni, but has never been anti-Shia. Moreover, there was a simultaneous attack in Pakistan, which seems to be work of an anti-Shia group.

The operatives in the attack on the Shia religious gatherings were most likely sectarian Sunnis, probably not part of the Resistance. Possibly displaced Taliban: unlike al-Qaeda, they were sectarian and mistreated Afghanistan’s Shias. Yet it does come very conveniently for the USA. I could believe that they are turning a blind eye, at the very least.

Some of the Shia victims did suspect the US of organising the bombs. You can find Resistance views at, with detailed comments as far back as April 2003. I may say more about this next issue.

It is also notable that the Shia leaders are not falling for it. The media are now noticing that the tension isn’t really communal and that the Shias put the blame partly on foreign hard-line Sunnis and part on the US for making such a mess of security. (Not to mention water, health and employment.)

Meantime the oil price stays high and Iraqi production remains low. The USA might have been better off making a deal with Saddam, on the lines of the one they have now made with Gaddafi.

[Iraq did later drift into communal civil war, of course. And the USA ratted on their deal with Gaddafi when the Arab Spring started.]

Two Whatevers Pompously Partnered for Serial Polygamy [Gay Marriage]

A significant minority of human cultures have accepted homosexuality as a normal part of life. But far fewer have accepted that such a thing as ‘gay marriage’ was possible. The Classical Greeks idolised male-homosexual unions, but never let them overlap with the regular process of marrying to produce children and continue the family.

For all of recorded history, marriage has centred about the status of children born to the wife. These alone were ‘legitimate’, or at least took priority over other children the husband might have fathered outside of marriage. Most cultures also allowed polygamy, two or more wives for one man. A few allowed polyandry, two or more husbands for one woman (which was the arrangement for the heroes and heroine of the Hindu Mahabharata, and also of some modern peoples in Nepal and Tibet.)

The USA successfully stopped the Mormons from practicing polygamy, which was fairly normal in a lot of cultures. I’ve not heard any calls for a re-legalisation, amidst all of the disputes about whether gays could marry. Nor do many people now remember that it was the US that disrupted the previously existing Christian arrangements for marriage, making divorce so easy that the modern system has aptly been called ‘serial polygamy’.

Given that people need a definite and serious culture to live within, I’d see the best solution as being the one adopted in Vermont and mooted over here: a ‘civil partnership’ that gives the same rights between same-sex lovers as is established by a heterosexual relationship.


Mars: the wet look

There’s no place like Mars. Nowhere with a mix of craters and violent weather, a world that isn’t flat or dusty and which doesn’t have canals.

The first spacecraft to fly by Mars showed a landscape depressingly like the EarthMoon. But the moon is a true vacuum: Mars has an atmosphere of sorts. Satellites that took a closer look at Mars saw things that looked remarkably like river valleys and eroded hills. There was much evidence of flows, but these had not been proven to be water before now.

The next interesting question is whether Mars is still wet, possibly with concentrated brine just under the surface and staying liquid well below the freezing point of pure water. Before the landings it would have seemed a crazy notion, but some photographs do suggest mud under a dry top layer.

As for life, watch and wait. If Mars is still fairly wet, the earlier experiments which seemed to rule out life may in fact have found life of a very strange sort, bacteria doing things that no bugs on Earth are known to do.


Civil Servants

If you ask a department to ‘save money’, they will generally do it by cutting functions, or taking a mean-minded attitude to those they are supposed to be serving.

Something different was suggested by the leaked version of a report by Sir Peter Gershon. The talk was of cutting the bureaucracy and streamlining “back office” functions, better service for the same money.

The report is due out in April and may turn out to mean nothing very much. But one can always hope.

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