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The Daily Briefing 2/12/05
1 Ayaan Hirsi Ali risks her life for free speech
Contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash recently saw the film "Submission" that cost Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh his life and has resulted in politician and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali being placed under 24-hour guard. The film is available to view on the net, here. Garton Ash also got to speak and have dinner with Hirsi Ali, and was both inspired by someone with the courage of their principles, and shamed by politicians prepared to sell them out for short-term popularity. (Any resemblance to Australian politicians is purely coincidental of course.) "Now here's what Tony Blair, the home secretary, the attorney general and the rest of the cabinet need to do. First, they should go back and read the magnificent pages in which John Stuart Mill explains why what he calls the "collision of opinions" is vital to the preservation of liberty, and why it is "obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining" attacks on either religion or what he calls "infidelity". (I know they are very busy people, so here's the exact reference: pages 58 to 61 in the Oxford World Classics edition of On Liberty. Private secretaries please photocopy and include in tomorrow's red boxes.) Then they should reflect on the example of a brave Somalian woman who, inspired by authors such as Mill, is risking her life every day to maintain our right to free speech."
TIMOTHY GARTON ASH/THE GUARDIAN
2 Fighting on the Washington front
Probably the most important battle fought since the invasion of Iraq is the one being waged on the Washington Front. Given the response to recent Bush pronouncements about Iraq, his latest speech has gone down reasonably well (we are talking comparatively here). The Washington Post's editorial said that basically Bush was on the right track, in part because there were no other options, but that he "continues to understate the magnitude of the challenge"; while its news report said the speech had "no new substance".
Fred Kaplan in Slate thought it was good that at last there was a strategy, even if it was a muddle. "It is symptomatic of everything that's gone wrong with this war that, after two and a half years of fighting it (and four years after starting to plan it), the White House is just now getting around to articulating a strategy for winning it."
The NYTimes editorial was the most scathing: "A president who seems less in touch with reality than Richard Nixon needs to get out more."
Two of the best reporters in Iraq, John Burns and Dexter Filkins report that it went down well with the troops, although it's the public that needs to be convinced and won over, not the grunts. " ... for the first time in the two years since the conflict here turned brutal, the war Mr. Bush described sounded much like the one his generals grapple with every day."
For a taste of opinion from the other side (not that there is much of it around yet), who better than Christopher Hitchens (link below, in a piece written before Bush's speech). "It would be wonderful if an elected Iraqi government and parliament—which is thinkable after this December—took the decision to thank the coalition and to invite it to fold its tent and depart. But anyone who thinks that this would stop the madness of jihad need only look at Afghanistan, where a completely discredited and isolated minority continues to use suicide-murder as a tactic and a strategy. How strange that the anti-war left should have forgotten all of its Marxism and superciliously ignored the fact that oil is blood: lifeblood for Iraqis and others. Under Saddam it was wholly privatized; now it can become more like a common resource."
And over at neo-con central, otherwise known as The Weekly Standard, John Hinderaker believes the CIA is waging an undeclared war against Bush. "Recent events indicate that the CIA might even be willing to compromise the effectiveness of its own covert operations, if by doing so it can damage the Bush administration. The story began last May, when the New York Times outed an undercover CIA operation by identifying private companies that operated airlines for the agency. The Times fingered Aero Contractors Ltd., Pegasus Technologies, and Tepper Aviation as CIA-controlled entities. It described their aircraft and charted the routes they fly."
3 The smell of phosphorous in the morning
Maureen Dowd fans can give thanks to Truthout.com for not having to pay to join her as she gets inside Dick Cheney's head and finds out that he is not happy with the political turn of events in Washington. OK, so it's Dowd, and so you know what her take on this is likely to be, but it's hard not to like a column that includes a line TDB wished it had thought of for the recent links about Falluja. "It always goes this way with the cut-and-run crowd. First they start nitpicking the war, complaining about little things like the lack of armor for the troops. Then they complain that there aren't enough troops. Well, that would just require more armor that we don't have. Then they kvetch about using incendiary weapons in a city like Falluja. Vice likes the smell of white phosphorus in the morning."
This one will not lighten Cheney's mood. Martin van Creveld is a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the world's most respected military historians. According to a Guardian report on the article soon to be linked to, "Several of his books have influenced modern military theory and he is the only non-American author on the US Army's list of required reading for officers." In the Jewish-American weekly Forward, Creveld describes the Iraq was as "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them" and says "Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial along with the rest of the president's men. If convicted, they'll have plenty of time to mull over their sins."
4 All the good news money can buy
The LATimes originally broke the story that the US military was "secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq". But the article linked to below gives a fuller account of the practice, as well as reporting that it might not all together be a good idea. "Many military officials, however, said they were concerned that the payments to Iraqi journalists and other covert information operations in Iraq had become so extensive that they were corroding the effort to build democracy and undermining U.S. credibility in Iraq. They also worry that information in the Iraqi press that's been planted or paid for by the U.S. military could "blow back" to the American public."
The LATimes also reports on an oil deal struck by the Kurds that may not help bring harmony to Iraq. "A controversial oil exploration deal between Iraq's autonomy-minded Kurds and a Norwegian company got underway this week without the approval of the central government here, raising a potentially explosive issue at a time of heightened ethnic and sectarian tensions."
JONATHAN LANDAY/KNIGHT RIDDER
5 Why do you want to bomb us
On the list of things to worry about at work, wondering if a little taste of "shock and awe" is going to be come through the airconditioning tower sure beats worrying about getting a parking spot in the carpark. While most of the world is yet to make up its mind as to whether George Bush was joking to Tony Blair about bombing Aljazeera's head office, the staff at the Arab network have taken to tracking events on the blog linked to below.
And in The Guardian, the station's director general Wadah Khanfar makes a plea to Bush for answers. "I brought many questions with me to London; it would seem that I shall return to Doha - where al-Jazeera is based - with even more misgivings. Officials in Britain have come up with nothing, and their silence is likely to reinforce suspicion and mistrust. This will not be the end of the road; we are taking legal advice and won't rest until we know the full truth."
And Newsweek is reporting that a "a senior official at 10 Downing Street, Blair’s official residence" told the magazine's "London Bureau chief Stryker McGuire: "I don't think Tony Blair thought it was a joke."" (That may have been obvious in the initial report, which said that Blair had to "talk Bush out of it". Out of what? Telling such a bad taste joke?)
6 Conservatives against militarism
As the long-suffering reader knows too well, since late last year, TDB has been fascinated by the splintering in conservative ranks over the presidency of George Bush. Even if you have not followed that debate, and are little interested in it, don't pass up on this essay too quickly. Author Thomas E. Woods draws on the work of conservative academic and writer Robert Nisbet as he critiques Bushism, militarism and the nature of the modern presidency. "Nisbet, therefore, as even this brief survey reveals, was altogether different from the interchangeable automatons and mediocrities who pass for conservative commentators in 2005. Among the worst aspects of the collapse of traditional conservatism is that my children will grow up in a world in which vulgar and belligerent nationalism will be presented to them as the alternative to leftism. Nisbet would not have been surprised at this unfortunate situation. But he would surely have continued to employ his talented and incisive pen against it, reminding his fellow Americans that in the midst of the right-wing noise machine there still existed, if somewhat chastened and neglected, a humane and principled conservatism to which civilized men could repair."
And former congressman Bob Barr at The American Conservative Union Foundation warns of the dangers of militarism. "America is developing a public love affair with the military, but it's a dangerous love affair."
THOMAS WOODS/THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE
7 Religious nationalism
This handy summary atop Meera Nanda's essay saves us some time in helping you to decide whether you want to read it: "Parallels between the Christian right in the US and Hindu nationalists in India show how crucial it is to defend the Enlightenment idea of the secular state. While it is important to give faith its due, faith too must give reason its due. The postmodern deconstruction of science has, ironically, been very hospitable to reactionary religiosity."
8 Slow stream, cold weather
TDB crew spent 2003 in Ireland and Europe and read numerous reports quoting scientists who feared that climate change might weaken or shut down the Gulf Stream. It was viewed as the "doomsday climate change" scenario for countries such as Ireland, that enjoy a temperate climate despite their northerly latitude, because of the warm waters piped up their way from the tropics. Could be a case of enjoy it while it lasts, because Nature reports (link below) that "the North Atlantic's natural heating system, which brings clement weather to western Europe, is showing signs of decline." This is how the NYTimes reported the story. (And it will be interesting to see how that galloping mediocrity whose rubbish on this subject The Australian continues to publish, Christopher Pearson, explains this one away.)
The popular view of global environmental politics usually has "Europe good, US bad". The Independent has published an audit by the European Environment Agency which says it ain't necessarily so. "Europe's claim to the moral high ground over the environment has been comprehensively challenged in a devastating report on its failings in the battle against global warming and pollution. It says Europe is devouring the world's natural resources at twice the global rate."
But let's leave this gloomy subject by noting this report in The Times: BP to spend $8bn on green energy.
9 How long have I got Doc?
Crisis or not, the "aging of the population" it taken to be a subject of great of importance. Here, Peter Costello has produced his "work until you drop" plan, and the same has now happened in the UK: "People in Britain may not be allowed to claim a state pension until they are 69, under plans for reform announced yesterday by Lord Turner of Ecchinswell." (Actually it seems the Indy may have had its mind on other things - other outlets are reporting the age as 68.)
Anatole Kaletsky in The Times has been crunching the numbers as a good finance commentator should, and is not convinced that crisis is exactly the right word.
And in the article linked to below, Tim Dowling says the "people who hold the best available answer to the question "When am I going to die?" are not doctors or scientists; they're actuaries, those anonymous mathematicians who toil in the service of insurance companies, compiling statistics and supplying and interpreting the risk tables upon which the calculations of annuities, premiums, dividends and reserves are based."
10 Indigenous politics and medical marijuana
Among the many agendas being run over at Agendas Galore, otherwise known as The Australian, are the push to get tough on cannabis and for more private ownership of Aboriginal land. Fair enough too, in its editorials and in columns, but not if it skews news reporting, which it unfortunately does. So, here are two contrary views on those subjects. Aboriginal lawyer Megan Davis at On Line Opinion (link below) says that ALP president Warren Mundine is wrong on the private ownership issue, and that his high profile drowns out indigenous opposition. "The tenor of current media debate on issues like Indigenous land policy and welfare policy (welfare policy experimented on Indigenous peoples, later to be rolled out to all Australians) is intended to manipulate public opinion and legitimise radical policy reforms. Yet the recycling of eighties right-wing US poverty theories and the recycling of US style policies to privatise Aboriginal land (which failed miserably for American Indians) must be properly debated by Indigenous Australians - just like the adoption of US style industrial relation laws are being debated."
In the Harm Reduction Journal, Wendy Swift, Peter Gates and Paul Dillon report on the use of medical marijuana. "Australian medical cannabis users are risking legal ramifications, but consistent with users elsewhere, claim moderate to substantial benefits from its use in the management of their medical condition. In addition to strong public support, medical cannabis users show strong interest in clinical cannabis research, including the investigation of alternative delivery methods."
MEGAN DAVIS/ON LINE OPINION
11 Globalisation in a box
Did you know that the transportation cost of an Australian wine selling for €7.50 in Europe is about 12 cents? That is just one of the things TDB discovered in this article about containers, a subject that had not previously provided any interest at all. "Globalization drives containerized cargo, and containers fuel globalization. Steel boxes have become the building blocks of the new global economy. Without this ingeniously simple, stackable and standardized receptacle, we would still be waiting for China's economic miracle, and the American urge to spend, spend, spend would have been stifled in its infancy." (But is the box an archetype, Alexander?)
ALEXANDER JUNG/DER SPIEGEL
12 The smarts, meditation and good eggs
Nature or nurture, inspiration or perspiration, the IQ debate rolls on. The burst of stories earlier in the year about how the modern world with all its gadgets, widgets and (bloody) passwords was lifting average intelligence would suggest that nurture has a fair bit to do with whether humans are born smart, or, if they are lucky, have the smarts thrust upon them. (And given that this is not exactly the thinking person's planet, could we have some more thrusting upon, please?) "Asking whether very high achievers are born or made incites heated debate among researchers because the answer has profound implications for the rest of us. Does the fortunate—or unfortunate—accident of our genetics relegate us to a limited range of career possibilities? Do we all have the potential to become the next Albert Einstein, Bobby Fischer, or Rüdiger Gamm? More to the point, can any of us achieve any mentally demanding goal we choose if only we put our minds to it? And if sheer determination can reliably help attain mastery in a given field, then do biology and traditional notions of intelligence matter as much as we’ve always thought?"
Staying with matters of the mind, Wired reports on the scientists who have been teaching the Dalai Lama about meditation. "Scientists present at this month's meeting included Richard Davidson, a Harvard University-trained neuroscientist who has done pioneering research on Buddhist monks, and Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University professor who studies the effects of stress on the body. They told the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and an audience of 2,500 about recent experiments showing meditation can strengthen the immune system, prevent relapse in people with depression and lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress."
And not sure what the connection between all of that and this story is, but you might be interested to read about the global trade in human eggs and the ethical issues it raises.
ELIZABETH SVOBODA/SCIENCE & SPIRIT
13 Short story and top books
Jonathan Franzen last year enthused about Alice Munro's work, saying she had a "strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America".
Lists, always with the book lists. Earlier this week, TDB linked to the NYTimes list of the top 100 books of 2005. That has now been whittled down to the top 10, with reviews, and in some cases, extracts, interviews and slide shows.
In Slate, Tom Shone looks at Alan Moore's "Watchmen", "the comic-book series that supposedly revolutionized the industry, defrocked the superhero, and invented the graphic novel at a stroke", as it approaches its 20th anniversary. Time has not been kind, he thinks. "A new edition, retitled Absolute Watchmen and published this month by DC, has drawn critical superlatives and comparisons with Pulp Fiction and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In truth, it's more like the White Album, a fractious, blitzed masterwork. This is not a comic book that wants you to go "Wow." It is a comic book that wants to let the air out of your tires."
ALICE MUNRO/THE NEW YORKER
14 Size matters to Kate Moss
And we are not talking about the amount of coke in a line. TDB does not often link to the work of The Sun, but masterful pieces of the celebrity reporting genre can not be ignored. Apparently the official version of the bust up between Kate Moss and "junkie rocker Pete Doherty" was that he did not stay in drug rehab. (For those who are thinking this is already too much information about people who they don't know or care about, a warning - it is about to get much worse.) Pete, who appears to have no shame (and not much of something else) "insists" in the interview linked to below, that this is not the real reason, oh no. "But the forlorn Babyshambles frontman insisted: “The real reason is that I can’t buy her diamonds and my d*** is too small.”" (While such things are undoubtedly a handicap in the hunt for celebrity skirt, TDB feels sure that calling yourself "Babyshambles" didn't help.)
The course of true love can run off a ditch, through a field and over a cliff for all sorts of odd reasons, but who knew that taking different sides in celebrity break-ups (a la Pete and Kate) was one of them? Chris Ayres in The Times didn't until his wife sneered at him for being on 'team Aniston'. "For those not familiar with Hollywood mores, it is traditional in the event of a celebrity break-up to align fiercely everything about yourself with the spouse for whom you have the more sympathy. During the divorce of Aniston and Brad Pitt, for example, T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the slogans Team Aniston or Team Jolie went on sale at Kitson, the Los Angeles designer emporium. There is, naturally, an element of irony to all this. But irony, as every Angelino knows, is quickly going out of style. So the irony itself is becoming ironic, which means there is no irony: we’re starting to take this stuff quite seriously. "
In other bits 'n pieces, Catherine O'Brien looks at the difficulty of getting good help these days as she warns of the dangers an au pair can bring.
Sarah Lyall in the NYTimes reports on the invention of a devise to keep rowdy teenagers away from shops.
The world's most difficult puzzle has been solved. Perhaps. It seems not everyone agrees. "Ted Clarke, 79, believes that he has devised the largest acrostic square — ten letters by ten, spelling out the same words horizontally and vertically — in the English language."
Thousands of elderly people, mostly women, are being accused of witchcraft and then murdered or maimed by vigilante groups in Tanzania.
And the "Is my bum too big for this injection?" has had wide (no pun intended) coverage, but for those who missed it.