Newsnotes 2007 08

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M Williams

The Case of the Unarmed Assassin [Berezovsky Case]

Putin and Solzhenitsyn

October 1987: when capitalism nearly died

Afghanistan: the Ministry of Silly Goose-steps

Mercenaries in Iraq: Can Fight, Won’t Win

Boy Scouts: Lambs to the slaughter [World War One]

Pope looks to the future [China]

Imaginary Democracies [Electoral Franchises]

Whither the weather?

Galaxies far far away [Galaxy Zoo]


The Case of the Unarmed Assassin [Berezovsky Case]

A man comes from Russia, with the reported intention of assassinating Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky, you may remember, was a man who grew enormously rich while his fellow-citizens grew poor. A man who refused to cooperate when Putin got Russia back to something like normality, albeit still poorer than it was when the Soviet system was abolished.

The British Secret Service have spotted the man and are waiting to pounce. But the man has a problem – he can’t get hold of a firearm. London kids are shooting each other every few weeks, but this fellow can’t get ‘tooled up’.

“The sources said the suspect arrived from Moscow and was followed while he made contact with a number of people in an attempt to buy a handgun. The police and MI5 waited to see whether he would be able to acquire a firearm before making a move, but a decision to arrest him was taken after he failed to do so.

“The man was questioned at the high-security Paddington Green police station – used for terrorist suspects – for two days and then handed over to the immigration services, who revoked his visa and deported him.

“One reason why the man was not charged was because he was not armed. And although intelligence had led the security agencies to believe that a plot was being organised against Mr Berezovsky, there was not enough presentable evidence to put before a court…” [A].

To get this little detail, you’ll need to have either read the London Independent or else a Russian news source.[B] The once-trustworthy BBC leaves it out.[C]

A man planning murder who can’t get hold of a gun can’t have been working for anyone important. That much should have been obvious to all of the journalists who splashed the story and made dark hints about Putin being somehow involved. Are they stupid, or have they stopped caring about telling the truth?

Meantime “a Brazilian judge has ordered Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky to be arrested following money-laundering allegations linked to a Sao Paulo football club.” [D] The BBC did at least give that a mention, but the story soon got forgotten about.


Putin and Solzhenitsyn

The West valued Solzhenitsyn for as long as he was weakening the West’s main rival. They totally failed to learn anything from him. The Neo-Cons and the New Right in general are bad at see other people’s point of view. They are unable to understand why other people will never love them as much as they love themselves.

The New Right threw away their Cold War victory. They humiliated Russia in the 1990s and they have been humiliating the Islamic world more recently. They seem genuinely surprised that people react against this. Baffled by gestures like Russia planting its flag on the sea-bed at the North Pole. (But they may be right about the geography. [H])

There can be no civilisation without emotion. The great weakness of the European Enlightenment was that it thought cold-blooded calculations would lead to enlightened sentiments. It actually led to elegant selfishness, the unlikeable aristocrats whose refusal to reform provoked the French Revolution.

The European Enlightenment was also anti-democratic. The 18th century was an era of Enlightened Despots, with hybrids of enlightenment and democracy being a bit unstable. But people will accept an authoritarian ruler if a multi-party system has clearly failed. As Solzhenitsyn put it:

“Vladimir Putin — yes, he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag. As for service in foreign intelligence, that is not a negative in any country — sometimes it even draws praise. George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA, for example…

“Gorbachev’s administration was amazingly politically naïve, inexperienced and irresponsible towards the country. It was not governance but a thoughtless renunciation of power. The admiration of the West in return only strengthened his conviction that his approach was right. But let us be clear that it was Gorbachev, and not Yeltsin, as is now widely being claimed, who first gave freedom of speech and movement to the citizens of our country.

“Yeltsin’s period was characterized by a no less irresponsible attitude to people’s lives, but in other ways. In his haste to have private rather than state ownership as quickly as possible, Yeltsin started a mass, multi-billion-dollar fire sale of the national patrimony. Wanting to gain the support of regional leaders, Yeltsin called directly for separatism and passed laws that encouraged and empowered the collapse of the Russian state. This, of course, deprived Russia of its historical role for which it had worked so hard, and lowered its standing in the international community. All this met with even more hearty Western applause.

“Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible — a slow and gradual restoration. These efforts were not noticed, nor appreciated, immediately. In any case, one is hard pressed to find examples in history when steps by one country to restore its strength were met favorably by other governments…

“Although many fortunes were amassed in Yeltsin’s times by ransacking, the only reasonable way to correct the situation today is not to go after big businesses — the present owners are trying to run them as effectively as they can — but to give breathing room to medium and small businesses. That means protecting citizens and small entrepreneurs from arbitrary rule and from corruption. It means investing the revenues from the national natural resources into the national infrastructure, education and health care. And we must learn to do so without shameful theft and embezzlement…

“When you say ‘there is nearly no opposition,’ you probably mean the democratic parties of the 1990s. But if you take an unbiased look at the situation: there was a rapid decline of living standards in the 1990s, which affected three quarters of Russian families, and all under the ‘democratic banner.’ Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore. And now the leaders of these parties cannot even agree on how to share portfolios in an illusory shadow government. It is regrettable that there is still no constructive, clear and large-scale opposition in Russia. The growth and development of an opposition, as well as the maturing of other democratic institutions, will take more time and experience.” [E]

The logic of this is that Russia should have done what China did, give people more individual freedom but keep the party firmly in command. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t say any such thing, of course. When he talks about 1917, you find him ignoring the actual basis of the October Revolution, that the Bolsheviks could offer ‘bread, peace and land’ while the Kerensky’s government was determined to go on fighting Germany. He seems to see the Bolshevik Revolution as an outbreak of ruthless inexplicable violence while most of Europe was peacefully occupied slaughtering millions of their young men in trench warfare. (You get much the same said about Ireland’s Easter Rising, of course.)

But Solzhenitsyn is very clear about how the West screwed up:

“When I returned to Russia in 1994, the Western world and its states were practically being worshipped. Admittedly, this was caused not so much by real knowledge or a conscious choice, but by the natural disgust with the Bolshevik regime and its anti-Western propaganda.

“This mood started changing with the cruel NATO bombings of Serbia. It’s fair to say that all layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings. The situation then became worse when NATO started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by literally millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one fell stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc.” [E]


October 1987: when capitalism nearly died

In 1987, the Soviet Union was still quite strong. It might even have expanded again if the West had looked to be in trouble. Which it briefly was, around the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution (actually 7th November 1917, once the calendars were brought into line).

The stock market crash of 1987 was the largest one-day crash in history. The 19th of October saw the Dow Jones index lose more than 22% of its value. Possibly it was triggered in the UK, by reactions to the Great Storm of the 15th to 16th. But underlying it was a massive economic instability, a market bubble quite as bad as the 1929 crash that triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s.

What happened next was Nigel Lawson’s give-away budget of 1988. People later talked about a ‘Lawson Boom’ that had begun in 1986, comparing it to the ‘Barber Boom’ of the 1970s (which coincided unhappily with the first Oil Crisis of 1973). In 1990 this was used as a term of condemnation by John Smith, then Shadow Chancellor and briefly Labour leader before dying of a heart attack and clearly the way for Tony ‘the Bliar’ Blair. In a House of Commons debate, John Smith quoted a report which said:

“There have been three phases of this sort, all of which had serious consequences.

(a) Maudling’s dash for growth 1963-64 ;

(b) Barber’s boom, 1972-73 ;

(c) The Lawson boom, 1986-88.

“We are back in the stop phase of stop-go economics for the third time under Conservative guidance of the British economy. The Government tell us, as we are stuck in the stop of yet another stop-go following the depressing and worrying cycle of economic mismanagement, that we will soon be back on track.” [F]

Maybe Lawson paved the way for ‘Black Wednesday’, Britain’s 1992 ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. (Accidentally making the reputation of George Soros in the process). This could be argued about, you could also blame Norman Lamont, who was in charge at the time. Or John Major who had set the rate. Current Tory leader David Cameron was a Special Adviser to Lamont at the time, but somehow this did him no harm.

Supposing Lawson did indeed start a process that was bound to end with something like Black Wednesday. Isn’t it also likely that he helped avoid another Great Depression? Followed what used to be called Keynesian policies, spending money to keep the economy afloat? Postponing economic troubles until after Gorbachev had shot himself in both feet? Ignored Monetarist “truths” when something important was at stake?


Afghanistan: the Ministry of Silly Goose-steps

Was it a ritual insult? Or are they just incompetent? The last Afghan king was officially recognised by the bunch of politicians in Kabul who are the nominal government of ungovernable Afghanistan. They said they were going to give him a nice funeral. But on Channel 4 News I saw something quite ludicrous, the poor man’s coffin being carried by soldiers who were making a total mess of a fancy military goose-step. An impressive display when done right, but those fellows were seriously out of step. It looked more like an impromptu brawl between karate experts

Meantime NATO is doing most of the fighting – this in a nation awash with fighting men, but it seems none of them can be trusted to serve the West’s interests. Or none of them want to fight a war that kills so many Afghan women and children when bombs go astray.

Whatever prospect there was for Westernising Afghanistan was lost with the Najibullah regime, which lasted for a surprisingly long time after the Soviets pulled out. Intelligent people would have made use of him, discarded the Islamists long before they became an open enemy. It is now far too late. Once a focus of development is gone, it is gone and no amount of outside effort can recreate it.


Mercenaries in Iraq: Can Fight, Won’t Win

Lots of people will fight for money, they just don’t plan to die for their pay. A normal army will include large numbers of shirkers and cowards, but also a dedicated minority who make it effective. People who think of the ‘honour of the regiment’ and the overall cause they are fighting for. The dignity of their uniform and centuries of tradition.

Rumsfeld the Wise was sure he knew better, in the run-up to the invasion:

“Rumsfeld called for a wholesale shift in the running of the Pentagon, supplanting the old department of defense bureaucracy with a new model, one based on the private sector. The problem, Rumsfeld said, was that unlike businesses, ‘governments can’t die, so we need to find other incentives for bureaucracy to adapt and improve.’ The stakes, he declared, were dire – ‘a matter of life and death, ultimately, every American’s.'” [J]

This is the essence of New Right thinking – government machines are inherently unfit, whereas competition and the threat of bankruptcy make private enterprises wonderfully efficient. What they don’t notice is that private corporations are efficient at getting money for themselves, which is not the same thing as benefiting the public.

It needed government regulations to stop food manufacturers putting harmful or addictive substances in people’s food. Government regulations to stop the banks running themselves into a crisis bigger than the Great Slump of the 1930s. And the expensive inefficiency of mercenary forces was the reason most serious governments formed their own regular forces in the 18th century. Gave their soldiers status and life-long security in return for a willingness to die in obedience to lawful orders.

In the new mercenary game, the main ‘player’ is a US outfit called Blackstone. “Its convoys have been ambushed, its helicopters brought down, its men burned and dragged through the streets of Fallujah, giving the Bush administration a justification for laying siege to the city. In all, the company has lost about 30 men in Iraq. It has also engaged in firefights with the Shia Mahdi Army, and succeeded by all means necessary in keeping alive every US ambassador to serve in post-invasion Iraq, along with more than 90 visiting US congressional delegations.”[J]

Blackstone have lost 30 men. Italy have lost 33, the UK have lost 158, the US armed forces 3600.[K] The screw-up in Fallujah is the clearest example of everything the USA got wrong. It was a town that disliked Saddam and was initially not hostile to the invaders.


Boy Scouts: Lambs to the slaughter [World War One]

Britain from the 1870s promoted a popular militarism. Previously the Navy had been respected but the Army was seen as a dustbin for dimwits and thugs. But as society democratised, there was a possibility that Britons might decide they didn’t need or care about the Empire. It was rather a narrow stratum of British society that was involved with India and the rest of the non-white Empire. The value of lands suitable for European settlement was easily seen, and attitudes to original inhabitants of those lands were not enlightened. But territories that were inherently alien – who needed them?

Popular militarism was aimed at convincing Britons that the entire Empire was needed. It did well enough to persuade vast numbers of Britons to volunteer in 1914 for a totally pointless war that hastened the Empire’s decline, as well as opening the door to the Far Left and Far Right. If the war had been declared a draw in 1915, as Germany suggested, then there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution in a crumbling Russia. No Fascism in an Italy made bitter after being cheated of promised territories. No Nazism in a Germany that was treated as defeated after accepting an Armistice on the understanding of decent terms.

Boy Scouts are what the name implies, an organisation that funnels young people towards militarism. Founded by Baden Powell, a military officer with experience in India and Africa.

There is a decent alternative – the Woodcraft Folk, founded in the 1920s as a non-militarist alternative. Not the sort of thing New Labour would be favouring

Pope looks to the future [China]

Roman Catholicism arrived in China in the 19th century, along with opium and foreign armies. In 1949, Mao reasserted the sovereignty of China that had been undermined since the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. Chiang Kai-Shek’s “nationalists” hadn’t even got as far as persuading foreign warships to stop patrolling China’s rivers: the Chinese Communists reasserted normal sovereignty with the ‘Amethyst Incident’.

Another assertion of sovereignty was an insistence that Chinese Christians cut ties with overseas superiors and become purely Chinese bodies. This was a major issue for Roman Catholics, who see their link to the Pope as essential. The faith tended to exist at two levels, an official Church and another underground.

“Chinese Catholics are at present split between the so-called Patriotic Church, tolerated by Beijing, and an underground Church which remains loyal to Rome.

“In an effort to bring order to this chaotic situation, and to improve the prospects of a return to normal diplomatic relations with Beijing which were broken off in 1951, the Pope goes out of his way in his message to praise the recent social and economic achievements of the Chinese people.

“He offers sincere dialogue with the civil authorities, in a spirit of friendship and peace.

“It remains to be seen, however, just how his message is going to be received in Beijing.

“In his letter, Pope Benedict points out that underground activities do not form part of the normal life of the Catholic Church.

“He also stresses that Rome has already accepted the full authority of many of the bishops appointed unilaterally by the Beijing-tolerated Church.

“As far as the Vatican is concerned, he says, there is only one Catholic Church in China.

“The Pope studiously avoids the use of the term Patriotic Church in his 28-page letter.” [L]

China has maybe 12 million Roman Catholics. As an underground church at odds with the society they had little prospect of growth. The same would apply to an officially recognised church that had no clear claim to Catholicism’s ancient traditions. So normal practices are being ignored: “The Vatican has praised the man set to become the new bishop of Beijing, even though he was not selected by the Pope.” [M]

Beijing’s bishop was in fact elected:

“He won 74 out of the 93 votes to easily win over three other candidates in the election in accordance with the regulations of the China Catholic Bishops College and through democratic procedures, said sources with the Beijing Diocese.” [N]

No one seems to remember that the election of bishops was a very old tradition, suppressed by the Papacy during the Counter-Reformation. The Bishop of Beijing also needs to be accepted by the rulers of the state within which he operates, but that too was normal practice before the Counter-Reformation.

Meantime nothing has come of speculation that Tony Blair would officially convert to Roman Catholicism once he ceased to be Prime Minister. Rumour has it that he wanted to do this without accepting those parts of the faith that the current pope sees as essential. Rules also disputed by aa lot of those already within the Church, but does the Pope need more people like that? Liberal Catholicism really has no reason for existing. No reason for not joining the secular mainstream, except nostalgia for the faith. Nostalgia of a more durable sort can be tapped by favouring the traditional Latin mass, as the Pope has also recently done.[Q]

On a lot of social and cultural issues, the current Papacy is really no closer to the UK government than it is to the Beijing government. And there is a lot more to be won in China.

[As far as I know, nothing much came of this.]


Imaginary Democracies [Electoral Franchises]

Britain was not a democracy before 1884, the year that an electoral reform gave the vote to 60% of the adult males living in the British Empire. No women voted [in national elections] in Britain until 1918. There was British-style democracy for mostly-white colonies, but not for non-white colonies until much later.

The media prefer a different definition of democracy, equating it with a two-party system in which power gets decided by elections. Britain had that from the 17th century, had it as a way of continuing the Civil War of 1639-1689 without actual bloodshed. Elections were decided by a tiny minority of the population, by people who had a shared idea of how the country should be run.

If the USA had had a referendum on its Constitution of 1787, it would probably have failed. Public oppinion was cool on the matter, but a majority of the elected representatives were persuaded. Only in the 1830s did the USA become definitely democratic, in the sense of government being controlled by a majority of the adult male whites.

[The Constitution was drawn up by leading politicians in 1787.  It is more normally identified as the 1789 Constitution, this being the year it came into effect, with the significant amendments known as the ‘Bill of Rights‘ added to it.]

The global norm has been for societies to industrialise under an authoritarian regime, and then maybe opt for multi-party democracy. Switzerland and the USA both had democracy while still mostly rural and agricultural. Both had civil wars in the mid-19th century, though the Swiss one was quick and relatively painless. States which get democracy first, tend to get either a breakdown into some kind of autocratic rule, or else a civil war. That applies even in Scandinavia, where old traditions of representative government broke down for a time and then were revived. In Sweden, for instance, a not-very-democratic Parliament was dominant in the mid-18th century and was tamed by King Gustav III’s coup d’etat in 1772. Democracy happened after the basic form of the society was set.

China at the start of the 20th century followed Western advise, overthrew its traditional rulers and tried to copy Western ways. A total disaster, with the country fragmented until Mao re-united it in very non-Western style in 1949. Economically, China was pretty much flat-lining under the Western-style Republic. Growth began under Mao: his quarter-century doubled the population and trippled the economy, as well as establishing the basics of a modern industry. Deng would not have got such a good deal from the West if he hadn’t been starting from a strong economy that could grow independently.


Whither the weather?

In Britain, we have floods. South Asia has much worse floods, hundreds of people drowned.[P] South-East Europe has a massive heat wave with deaths among the vulnerable. All business as usual?

Britain has had floods before – but usually in winter. The general trend in recent years has been for drier summers and wetter winters. This year reversed the pattern, with the worse summer floods for 200 years. Major winter floods remain an alarming possibility.


Galaxies far far away

What do you do if you have pictures of maybe a million galaxies, taken by a robot camera that’s been looking at the entire sky in some depth? One answer has been to bring in outside enthusiasts who can classify them as spiral, eliptical or occasionally a merger of two once-separate galaxies.

“The human brain is much better at recognizing patterns than a computer can ever be. Any computer program we write to sort our galaxies into categories would do a reasonable job, but it would also inevitably throw out the unusual, the weird and the wonderful.” [R]

Humans also have a continuous capacity to surprise each other. They got 80,000 volunteers, far more than expected, each doing hundreds or even thousands of classifications since the project began in early July. The million galaxies have been classified several times; the current aim is to have 20 separate assessment of each shot to balance out errors and misunderstandings. And to test the crazy-sounding notion that spiral galaxies are more likely to rotate clockwise or anti-clockwise, as seen from Earth, depending on which part of the universe they are found in.[S] That was based on a study of 1660 galaxies: what will be found from a million remains to be told.

[It was found that galaxy rotation is in fact random, with observers making systematic errors. But the project made many positive and interesting discoveries, including the enigmatic ‘Hanny’s Voorwerp‘.  It continues in expanded form as ‘Zooniverse‘.]


[A] [[]

[B] []

[C] []

[D] []

[E] [,1518,druck-496003,00.html]

[F] []

[G] [,,2138878,00.html]

[H] Wikipedia [Lomonosov Ridge] and []

[J] [,,2138878,00.html]

[K] Wikipedia [Casualties of the conflict in Iraq since 2003]

[L] []

[M] []

[N] []

[P] []

[Q] []

[R] []

[S] []

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