Saturday, July 03, 2004


...if blogging will be a bit lighter than usual over the next few days. Had a car accident earlier on today. I'm fine, the car less so. Will still blog when I can.


Friday, July 02, 2004

Help prevent the repeat of "the nightmare of 2000" 

A fantastic idea whose time will hopefully never come:

"Several members of the House of Representatives have requested the United Nations to send observers to monitor the November 2 US presidential election to avoid a contentious vote like in 2000, when the outcome was decided by Florida.

"Recalling the long, drawn out process in the southern state, nine lawmakers, including four blacks and one Hispanic, sent a letter Thursday to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asking that the international body 'ensure free and fair elections in America,' according to a statement issued by Florida representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who spearheaded the effort.

" 'As lawmakers, we must assure the people of America that our nation will not experience the nightmare of the 2000 presidential election,' she said in the letter.

" 'This is the first step in making sure that history does not repeat itself,' she added after requesting that the UN 'deploy election observers across the United States' to monitor the November, 2004 election."
Mind boggles. Dear America, that's what Representative Johnson and her ilk think of you: a corrupt banana republic where elections are stolen by an evil junta. Call in the United Nations - forget Darfur or Iraq - I'm sure that the "world community" would be much more interested in preventing "the nightmare of the 2000 presidential election" from repeating itself. After all, it's easier than trying to solve some real problems like genocide, tyranny or WMD proliferation, and as an added bonus it would also solve the Bush problem - no Bush, no problem - and the UN can return to the business as usual.

Eagerly anticipating Mr Annan's response. In the meantime you can also contact Representative Johnson and tell her what you think of the whole idea. "Regrettably, [she's] only able to respond to emails from my constituents within the 30th District of Texas," so you might want to give her a call instead.


Great day for justice, confusing day for the media 

Have you heard the latest secret? I'll let you in on it: Saddam is defiant. Reuters says so, so does Fox, NPR, and Singapore's "Straits Times" (of all the media outlets in the world, it's the "Arab News" that actually calls him "abusive").

Of itself, this tells up preciously little - Slobodan Milosevic was also defiant when put in the dock at the Hague; so were the Nazis at Nuremburg. Most bloodthirsty tyrants are; that's how they get on top and stay on top for so long. Defiance, however, has little to do with the charges, or the merits and demerits of the case.

One could argue that for once the media is not engaging in commentary but actually reporting facts - after all, Saddam was pretty defiant with his refusal to accept the legality of the proceedings and his insistence that he's still the president of Iraq. The problem is not the observation itself but the spin. While the thought strikes me as too disgusting to contemplate, I fear that now that Saddam is in the spotlight again, he might become a bit of an anti-hero for all the usual suspects, including in the media, a Miltonesque Satan that you cannot help but sympathise with considering his plight.

Hasn't Churchill once said that if Devil himself had come out against the Nazis he would be obliged to say a few kind words about him in the Parliament? Is this why so many news outlets have chosen to quote in their headlines Saddam's proclamation that George Bush is the real criminal?

I hope not, but reading the reports I'm not very optimistic. Todd Pitman of the Associated Press can hardly contain himself:

"In court, he was clear-eyed, calm and most of all - unbowed. The world's first look at Saddam Hussein since he was dragged from a hole by U.S. troops seven months ago was a far cry from the shaggy-haired, haggard and somewhat dazed man last seen getting a dental exam in a military video clip."
South Africa's News 24 is similarly impressed:

"Saddam unrepentant... Frailer, but still oozing confidence, Saddam Hussein pitched insults at arch-enemy United States President George W Bush... Visibly aged with dark rings under his eyes, Saddam spoke smoothly and with authority throughout the hearing, often talking down to the young judge [ah, youth versus experience - ed.]... Saddam looked composed in video footage... His distinguished look was a far cry from the bedraggled state he was in when found hiding in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit on December 13."
P. Mitchell Prothero of the UPI echoes these sentiments, although in his defence he's only reporting on what other reporters have said:

"But in stark contract [sic - contrast] the muddy bearded figure found hiding in a 'spider' hole last December by American troops, Saddam took a tone of defiance... According to pool reporters in the room, Saddam's demeanor and appearance was generally impressive compared to the figure seen in his December capture. His beard was neatly trimmed and his charcoal-colored suit dapper, but without a necktie."
A cynic might say that if you compare Saddam's appearance now, to his appearance after being dragged from a hole in the ground, there is no doubt that he will appear to be more impressive. But why not instead compare his appearance now to his appearance when he was in power? Why not indeed?

By contrast to the above-mentioned reports, Nicolas Rothwell, Australia's News Ltd correspondent in Iraq, obviously wrote about a different hearing:

"[T]he ousted dictator, in a hoarse voice, questioned the jurisdiction of the tribunal... Saddam, visibly tired, defended his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait... Although fallen, stumbling and unimpressive on his only appearance since his capture seven months ago, Saddam remains a spectre above Iraq..."
No wonder the news outlets were confused about what the Iraqis thought about it all: "Saddam's defiance strikes chords with Iraq" writes P. Mitchell Prothero of the UPI (only to actually say in the article that "[t]he effect that the first appearance of Saddam since December in the view of the Iraqi public was mixed... [The] reaction was confused and mixed..."). TVNZ, on the other hand, actually means what it says in the title of the story: "Court appearance draws mixed reaction." Stay tuned for more of mixed reactions over the coming months - from the media.

And while you're all here: Why not check out all the good news from Afghanistan that you might have missed in the media.


Thursday, July 01, 2004

The culture that matters 

A few days ago I wrote about how J Lo's buttocks are conquering the world, but not necessarily making it safe for democracy:

"Yes, you can take what you want out of the West - technology and economic progress, for example - you can modernise without Westernising. But only in the short term. In the long term, you have to realise that the reason the West (broadly construed) is so rich and powerful is because it's open and free."
Mark Steyn has similar thoughts but, if anything, he's even more pessimistic:

"America, almost in inverse proportion to its economic and military might, is culturally isolated... If you define 'cultural dominance' as cheeseburgers, America rules. But in the broader cultural sense, it's a taste most of the world declines to pick up."
Steyn's right - the culture that matters most is not of the pop variety, or fashion and amusement - it's the political and economic culture - the values. And as he observes, there doesn't seem to be too many takers for the American values, whether in Europe or the so called developing world. That's a problem: "[P]ower abhors a vacuum. If America won't export its values – self-reliance, decentralization – others will export theirs."

Read the whole thing; the piece is longer than Steyn's usual op-ed piece but he's perceptive as always. What's the solution? I'm not sure, but I hope it won't take a political and military cataclysm of some sort to make the world start appreciate America again.


Iraq is always half empty 

Glass is never half full in Iraq.

Item 1

The "Financial Times" reports on a study of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among the troops that have served in Iraq. The study has found that "19.5 per cent of troops who served in Iraq had moderate or severe mental health problems. If milder symptoms such as anxiety are included, the number rises to 27.9 per cent."

Two specific points:

"Advances in technology and battlefield medicine have reduced the casualties from military action in Iraq... Indeed, low casualty rates disguise the number of 'close calls, such as having been saved from being wounded by wearing body armour', which the report notes can cause trauma."
Any mental health problems are of course bad, but this is arguably good news: in past conflicts more soldiers got killed and wounded; now they're suffering from the PTSD instead. I know which one I would choose.

"[M]ental illness is higher than in earlier conflicts such as the first Gulf war, the US study claims... In the first Gulf war 2-10 per cent of veterans suffered from the condition."
Which could have something to with the length of the military operations (ground war, after all, took only 3 days), and the absence of occupation and guerilla warfare in 1991.

More importantly, if you check the information on the website of the National Centre for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, you'll find the following:

"The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study estimated in 1988 that the prevalence of PTSD in that group was 15.2% at that time and that 30% had experienced the disorder at some point since returning from Vietnam...

"About 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD. An additional 20 to 25 percent have had partial PTSD at some point in their lives. More than half of all male Vietnam veterans and almost half of all female Vietnam veterans have experienced 'clinically serious stress reaction symptoms'."
Which, all things considered, doesn't make the Iraq war more unusual than any other war, however tragic the PTSD is for the individual sufferers and their loved ones.

Item 2

The "Seattle Times" reports on the Government Accounting Office's study of Iraq: "Iraq's basic services worse now than before war, GAO says":

"In a few key areas - electricity, the judicial system and overall security - the Iraq that America handed back to its residents Monday is worse off than before the war began last year."
Leaving aside for a while the perennial problems of electricity supply and overall security, let's focus on these two conclusions:

"The country's court system is more clogged than before the war, and judges are frequent targets of assassination attempts.

"The new Iraqi civil-defense, police and overall security units are suffering from mass desertions, are poorly trained and ill-equipped."
Alas, no one who has any idea about the operation of a totalitarian state apparatus could possibly argue that the Iraqis are now worse off. Judicial system might be "more clogged" but no longer with cases of treason, or numerous other offences against the glorious regime of Saddam Hussein. Security forces might indeed be weak, but they're no longer oppressing religious and ethnic minorities or political dissidents, or indeed anyone they feel like.

If you actually take time to read the whole GAO report as opposed to taking bits and pieces out of executive summaries, you might actually get a more complete and balanced picture of a country in transition, where a lot has already been done and a lot remains to be done. Also bear in mind that the report doesn't substantially address such aspects of life like political, economic and personal freedoms, all unheard of in Saddam's days. But that would put you in danger of acquiring the full picture.


Latham: still no clue 

Australian Labor Opposition leader Mark Latham still doesn't get it, now latching onto comments yesterday by the Australian Defence Force Chief, General Peter Cosgrove, who is reported to have said that ending the violence is Iraq depends on reducing the number of foreign troops and getting enough professionally trained Iraqi forces onto the streets.

Said Latham, who still supports the idea of withdrawing the Australian troops out of Iraq by Christmas:

"I think he is right in saying that and it backs up the view that I've been putting for quite some time. A lot of the violence in Iraq is obviously uprising against the reality or perception of foreign occupation and if you reduce or eliminate that foreign occupation you eliminate a lot of the violence."
Actually Mark, a lot of the violence in Iraq is obviously uprising against the reality or perception that Iraq might become a normal, decent, democratic country, instead of either a Baathist or an Islamofascist basketcase. There's no "uprising" anymore either in Fallujah or in the Shia south; there are only thugs beheading hostages and setting off bombs outside Iraqi police stations and Iraqi political parties headquarters.


Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Good news from Afghanistan 

If there is one place where good news in the media is harder to come by than Iraq, it's Afghanistan. For all the fashionable talk about Iraq distracting the Bush Administration from the war on terror, it's largely been the media who have ignored Afghanistan except for the occasional story about another skirmish with the Taliban remnants or the explosion in opium cultivation.

For the start, you can read CBS's Tom Fenton and his reactions from travels around Afghanistan:

"You know the old saying: No news is good news. But in the news business, it is just the opposite: Good news is no news - which is why you have been hearing so little from Afghanistan recently.

"Iraq has been grabbing the headlines. Even the most confirmed optimist would find it hard to see a ray of light there today. But there is a growing body of evidence that things are beginning to improve in Afghanistan. To see why, you need to travel around Afghanistan a bit. That's something the media find hard to do in Iraq now - many news crews rarely venture out of their hotels in Baghdad."
Not letting the media off the hook, we also need to understand the good news limitations in the Afghani context. An isolated, poor, largely rural country with harsh landscapes and limited natural resources, Afghanistan has been for the past quarter of a century cursed with constant violence and oppression. Good news from Afghanistan will not in any foreseeable future mean mushrooming shopping malls and health care clinics in every village. But for the people who have suffered so much, relative peace and an absence of theocracy are a good start.

Still, here are some recent stories from Afghanistan that you might have missed:

DEMOCRACY: Democratic elections are still set to take place in the second half of the year. Says President Hamid Karzai: ""Having promised the Afghan people elections in the month of September and having had this remarkable success with the registration of voters we must go and we should go for elections in September."

Furthermore, "This fall's parliamentary and presidential elections will be the first time women have ever voted or even registered to vote in Afghanistan." Read the whole article on the challenges of registering women to vote in this very conservative society. There is also this help for Afghanistan's fledgling justice system: "A New Hampshire lawyer will share his experiences working as the head of the state's public defender program with lawyers in Afghanistan. On Friday, Michael Skibbie leaves to spend two months in Afghanistan to train six lawyers."

Last but not least, the pride in national armed forces:

"To cheers and applause, hundreds of troops from Afghanistan's fledgling national army took up positions on Thursday in the capital of a remote province overrun by a renegade commander a week ago. The green-bereted soldiers [were] sent to the central province of Ghor from neighboring Herat to reassert central government authority."
SOCIETY: Memo to radical feminists: is this why you were opposing the fascist American invasion of Afghanistan?

"Twenty-year-old Rosia knows she is fortunate. Just a few short years ago, the scene of her working outside her home, would have been unthinkable. She said, 'I feel like a new women. I have tasted freedom, and now I know what it means to be free.' Free from the tyranny of the Taliban. 'Sewing has changed my life. It may not seem like a big deal to women in other parts of the world. But it is for me. I am learning a skill that I can use to earn some money. Women were never allowed to work under the Taliban.'

"But that is slowly changing in the new Afghanistan. Some women are returning to work, others are back in school. Girls now make up a third of the four million-plus children in school. At Kabul University, women are freely mingling with men in public. Some are choosing not to wear the black or blue burqa. Instead, many are wearing long shawls called a chador."
Fortunately other feminists do get it:

"Visionary educator Sakena Yacoobi and the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) have been selected by an international panel of experts to receive the 2004 Women's Rights Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation. Professor Yacoobi is President of AIL, which she founded and leads and which serves more than 350,000 Afghan women and children annually."
Children are returning to normal life, too:

"Some 2,200 child soldiers have been demobilized under a programme to reintegrate the young combatants back into Afghan society, the UN Children's Fund said Thursday. The programme began in February and is working in eight provinces, helping boys aged 14 to 18 who once fought or worked as porters and cooks for private militia armies. According to the UN Children's Fund, or UNICEF, which coordinates the rehabilitation effort, there are about 8,000 former child soldiers in Afghanistan, a country recovering after a quarter century of war. Many of them left their units informally during the past year. The programme aims to demobilize about 5,000 young soldiers across northern and central Afghanistan by the year's end. They are offered education and skills training to help them take up a peaceful life in their communities."
And read about this inspirational group of five:

"They have no money. They are in a foreign land whose language they do not speak. They rely on a Greek woman who has brought them to this town on the Aegean Sea island of Lesvos. Their destination is the Athens Games.

"This is the first Afghan Olympic team since the 1996 Atlanta Games, and the first to include women. The athletes are doing everything possible on a meager budget to perform respectably for the Aug. 13-29 games.

" 'The winning and losing is not important for me,' said Friba Razayee, 18, who will compete in judo. 'The world is preparing four years for the Olympic Games. We are preparing three months ... but we will try our best"."
Staying with sports news, the Kabul Golf Club is open for business:

"The fairways were once minefields. Drought has dried up the water hazards. And the greens, made of oily sand, are called 'browns.' Augusta National it's not.

"Nonetheless, even duffers draw fawning galleries at the Kabul Golf Club, which reopened this spring as Afghanistan's only course after being shuttered for more than two decades because of war and political violence.

"Unfamiliar with the sport, many Afghans crowd around as foreigners tee off at the first hole, a 371-yard par 4 that skirts a bombed-out military barrack."
Among them, maybe Afghanistan's very own future Tiger Woods.

DEVELOPMENT: Not in itself good news, as the process tends to create its own problems, but Afghanistan is starting to undergo rapid urbanisation:

"Although largely a rural nation, Afghanistan's urban development is now proceeding faster than ever with reconstruction and rehabilitation well under way. It is estimated that by the year 2045 the country's urban population will have surpassed that living in rural areas, which currently accounts for 80 percent of the total.

"The rapid rise in the urban population, along with the return of refugees from Iran, Pakistan and other countries, is a major concern for both the Afghan government and international organisations. Since the fall of the Taliban regime the population of Kabul city has risen from 700,000 to three million."
Meanwhile, the World Bank is providing a long-term loan of $105 million to assist in developing Afghanistan's electricity network. The private arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corp is also investing $7 million with the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development "to help restore and expand the Kabul Hotel."

Qatar, meanwhile, will construct "10,000 housing units in Afghanistan to rehabilitate war-driven refugees returning home, aside from constructing a central police headquarters building in Kabul, two building blocks at Kabul international airport and several health centres across the country." Qatar has already spent $40 million to help the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

This contribution from Pakistan: "Former Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz has said the government will start construction work on industrial estate project in Jalalabad city of Afghanistan with the cost of on billion dollars." The trade between the two countries currently stands at $500 million a year and is expected to double by the end of next year. And two Iranian banking institutions are planning to open the first Iranian bank in Afghanistan, in addition to British, Dutch and Pakistani banks already working there.

Speaking of infrastructure, Pakistan is planning to build a railway link to Afghanistan, extending from Chaman in Pakistan to Kandahar. And then there is this road project:

"The only time any previous Afghan government paid attention to the villagers of Khanan was to conscript its men or loot its homes. The current construction of a 10-kilometre road at a cost of $25,000 (U.S.) is the first help of any sort that residents can remember coming from Kabul. The road is part of Afghanistan's most ambitious reconstruction project, a plan to distribute $700-million worth of assistance to all of its 35,000 villages."
Meanwhile, economic ties are slowly being built: "Australia's Trade Commission says it is working with a small group of companies that are keen to develop exports links into Afghanistan. Austrade's director for south Asia and South-East Asia David Twine says there is still very little trade between Australia and the war-torn country. Mr Twine told an export seminar in Darwin today most of the businesses will focus on the development of facilities and infrastructure." And Afghanistan might acquire soon its very own venture capital fund, "as a former McKinsey & Co. manager tries to raise $50 million as the south Asian country emerges from more than two decades of conflict."

"The Afghanistan Renewal Fund will invest in fledgling construction, food, textiles and furniture manufacturing companies, according to a document for potential backers. The Asian Development Bank said it may commit $12.5 million and CDC Group Plc, a government-owned U.K. company, may put in $5 million."
Read also this story about Neelab Kanishka who fled Afghanistan with her family in 1989 when she was only 11, is returning to her homeland as the representative of a Salt Lake City-based Internet business Overstock.com, which will become one of Afghanistan's largest employers. Kanishka is in charge of Overstock's Woodstock division, selling hand-made goods.

"These days, Worldstock employs more than 1,500 Afghan artisans among a worldwide network of craft workers. It's an accomplishment that Overstock's CEO, Patrick Byrne, attributes to both an upswing in online retail spending and reliable demand for inexpensive handmade rugs."
You can read more about Overstock in Afghanistan here.

HUMANITARIAN AID: Read about this fantastic grass-roots efforts in Michigan:

"For Khris Nedam and her Northville sixth-graders, it was a daunting project: Change the fortunes of a poor, drought-ridden village in Afghanistan.

"Six years later, the fruits of their fund raising cause Nedam to smile broadly. The Wonkhai village in Afghanistan has a new school, health clinic, orphanage and community well.

"Near the new, deeper well, villagers planted 1,500 fruit and nut trees to help Wonkhai weather famine brought on by droughts.

"All the projects were paid for by the Kids 4 Afghan Kids program begun by Nedam and her sixth-grade class at the Northville School District's Meads Mill Middle School."
And Camilla Barry, teacher from Marin County, California, is returning to Afghanistan for a second stint in Kabul and Ghanzi.

" 'It was successful beyond my wildest dreams,' said Barry, who finances her trips out of her own pocket and with private donations. She'll be paying her airfare herself, but the schools will provide her with food and housing. Her classes last year, taught with the help of a translator, were so popular that her classrooms were often packed with children."
Meanwhile, nine-year-old Djamshid Djan Popal is flying with his father to Ottawa, Canada, to undergo a life-saving surgery on his defective heart. The boy's trip is sponsored by Saddique Khan, a 41-year old father of four, who works at the Royal Bank of Canada. "My immediate thought was what can I do for this kid. I wanted to help this boy. I was thinking about the pain of his parents. It goes right to the heart," says Khan about his reaction after reading Djamshid's story in a newspaper.

Read also about Dr. Mostafa Vaziri, a health and nutrition consultant with the UN World Food Program, who's fighting malnutrition and vitamin deficiency in remote parts of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Japan's Eco Block Support, "[a] nonprofit organization helping mentally handicapped people become financially independent by manufacturing and selling mosaic slabs is to export the technology to Afghanistan to assist physically handicapped people there."

And the Coalition troops are continuing to provide aid, in addition to their military tasks:

"Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment recently conducted combat and presence patrols, air assault operations, cordon and searches in the Mizan district of Afghanistan. During Operation Blue Candle, conducted from May 23-31, they also offered humanitarian aid to citizens of numerous communities. Because of the 'Cacti Battalion,' as the 2-35 is known, Mizan now has a doctor, a school and a light at the end of the tunnel."
And Oklahoma's 45th infantry, which organised collections back home to give Afghani children school supplies and deliver gifts to Kabul's orphans. Read also about Prashant Shah

"a Vadodara (Gujarat)-born Lance Corporal with the US Marines, has been decorated with a medal for using his 'extraordinary linguistic skills' to establish a communication link between American troops and Afghan locals. Shah, who serves with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, speaks not two or three but six languages - English, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu and Pashto. His efforts have earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal."
CULTURE: National treasure, known as "the Bactrian gold - 20,600 pieces of gold jewelry, funeral ornaments and personal belongings from 2,000-year-old burial mounds" emerged into the light of day and is now being catalogued with the assistance of the National Geographic Society.

"Under the Russians it was barely glimpsed. The Afghan Communists allowed only peeks. Through the years of civil war and Taliban rule, its existence was kept secret by a handful of unassuming museum and bank workers, even as other priceless pieces of Afghanistan's cultural history were destroyed...

"For years the gold was feared stolen, lost or melted down by the different forces that seized power over more than 20 years of war...

"Last month Afghan and foreign museum experts broke open the six safes inside the vault for the first time in more than 20 years and began compiling a computerized inventory of the gold for the Kabul Museum."
From high-brow antique to less so modern:

"Afghanistan's first private television station went on air on Sunday in Kabul, some two years after the fall of the Taliban regime which arrested and punished those caught watching TV.

"Afghan TV is funded by an Afghan businessman and will have 18 hours of programming a day. Afghanistan has only ever had one state TV channel which broadcasts for a few hours in the evening, but under the Taliban there were no television stations and it was forbidden to listen to music or watch satellite broadcasts."
Thanks for visiting. Until next time.

But in the meantime, if you want to do something good, remember about the Operation Shoe Fly.


Supersized Ego Me 

It has been done before (including by Soso R. Whaley of the Competitive Enterprise Institute), but the latest trendy anti-corporate propaganda piece "Supersize Me" gets another slap. Writes Imre Salusinszky at the "Australian":

"The Australian tested Spurlock's claims by putting me through a seven-day version. But instead of Big Macs and large fries, thrice daily, I was to concentrate on the healthier offerings. The results were startling. After a week of nothing but Maccas, I feel just fine. And I lost 2.5kg."
Salusinszky didn't actually cheat by staying on McDonald's salads diet the whole time (and who could blame him): "by day three, I was eating from the regular menu, with two conditions: I ate in moderation, and apart from one lapse, avoided the fries." Salusinszky was not only careful about what he ate, but also maintained a regular exercise regime.

The only thing that Spurlock's experience demonstrates is that if for thirty days you eat nothing but the most fattening offerings from the McDonald's menu and don't exercise, you're a fuckwit. It might make you fat and depressed, but it will also make you rich and popular among the trendy leftie crowd who believe that fast food chains make our kids obese so they can sell them to Halliburton to plug holes in ruptured oil pipes in Iraq.

The cynicism and bad faith of leftie propagandists is only exceeded by the naivete of their audience. After "Supersize Me", what's next?

Spurlock does thirty laps a day for a month in a swimming pool filled with radioactive sludge and his hair fall off, thus clearly demonstrating the need to close down nuclear power stations.

Spurlock eats one kilogram of DDT every day for a month, causing his pet canary to lay eggs with unnaturally thin shells. By the way, Spurlock dies.

Spurlock visits local places of worship, urinating on the altar and smearing feces on the walls; each time he's ejected by the outraged congregation, proving once and for all that those Christian nuts are really intolerant and can't take a joke.

Speaking of left-wing propaganda, blogger Frank J makes the point out that contrary to the oft-quoted media claim that "Fahrenheit 9/11" set the record for the highest opening by a documentary is in fact incorrect. "Jackass; the Movie" grossed $22.8 million over its opening weekend, a million more than Moore's work. In fairness, that's not quite correct; the actual takings as oppose to estimates, put "Fahrenheit" at just under $24 million.

Still, there are parallels. "Jackass", "Fahrenheit" and "Supersize" all involve people doing stupid stunts that none of us of sound mind would try to repeat. "Jackass", however, does it for fun, without a political agenda. Hence, it's not art.

That's why the "New York Times" A O Scott wrote about "Jackass":

"[D]emented science experiments... [W]hat if you snorted a line of wasabi? You'd vomit... [T]his small tribe of young white men is motivated by extreme boredom and a playful, quasi-erotic sadomasochistic camaraderie... [L]ike a documentary version of 'Fight Club,' shorn of social insight, intellectual pretension and cinematic interest."
Here's A O Scott on "Supersize Me":

"[A]ffable, muckraking documentary, elaborates on some facts that everyone seems to know: mainly, that the United States is in the midst of an epidemic of obesity and related health problems, and that fast food is bad for you... [M]ovie... goes down easy and takes a while to digest, but its message is certainly worth the loss of your appetite."
Or take "Chicago Tribune" Mark Caro on "Jackass":

"[W]illful idiocy for idiocy's sake."
And Mark Caro on "Supersize Me":

"The logic of Morgan Spurlock's 'Super Size Me' may not be airtight, but you don't feel like he's telling a whopper... For the record, McDonald's never recommended that anyone binge on its food for a month like Spurlock did. Still, if Spurlock was looking for a dramatic, effective--and, by the way, very funny--way to make his point about the fast-food chain's culpability in our culture of rampant obesity and homogeneity, he found it."
So that's the secret of success: doing stupid things for a "good cause". I'd rather snort wasabi, thanks.


Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The media cheers on the handover 

You can always trust the "Guardian" to put a positive spin on the events in Iraq. Writes James Meek:

"Something happened in Baghdad yesterday, but what exactly? What we know is that somewhere in Saddam Hussein's sprawling former cantonment on the banks of the Tigris, behind silver miles of new razor wire, behind high concrete barriers stronger than most medieval fortifications, behind sandbags, five security checks, US armoured vehicles, US armoured soldiers, special forces of various countries and private security guards, behind secrecy and a fear of killing so intense that none save a handful of people knew it had happened until after it was over, an American bureaucrat handed a piece of paper to an Iraqi judge, jumped on a helicopter, and left the country."
Yes, yes James, we get the point, thank you very much. The humiliated superpower running scared and hiding in a deep deep hole, and all that. Of course, an official change-over pageant marred by a terrorist super-strike would make for a better copy, but alas it's not to be. So all we're left with is sniping:

"Bremer who waved from the steps of his departing C-130 didn't only leave sovereignty, in the form of a terse two-paragraph letter, with the Iraqis. He left 160,000 foreign troops, a broken economy and a land beset by ruthless, reckless armed bands."
No one questions German or South Korean sovereignty, the economy was broken by Saddam and is now doing much better, thank you very much for asking, and the fact that people set off car bombs and behead hostages is of course America's fault. The situation is only dire if the media is there to report it - by this standard, Saddam's Iraq was a much better plece to live indeed. It's true that the media doesn't invent crises, it only reports them. The problem is the crises it doesn't.

Note also Meek's constant attempts to find spatial continuity between Saddam, and the Coalition and the new authorities: "somewhere in Saddam Hussein's sprawling former cantonment on the banks of the Tigris... The handover was held in a single-storey former Saddam-era guesthouse... On one side, the huge new US embassy. On the other side, Saddam Hussein's lavish principal former palace or, as it is known since yesterday, the annex to the US embassy... There was a curious ceremony in the Zone's convention centre which, apart from the odd Saddamish mural, could be a convention centre anywhere". Saddam, Saddam everywhere. It could have something to do with the fact that the only decent buildings in Baghdad belonged to Saddam, but let's just leave the readers with some sinister associations at the back of their mind.

Patrick Cockburn at the "Independent" is equally cheerful:

"[Bremer's] legacy is a land racked by war and violence. The cloak-and-dagger secrecy of the transfer of sovereignty underlines the degree to which US rule is being challenged in Iraq."
Don't worry Patrick, now that Bremer's no longer in charge the attacks will stop, because the jihadis don't really want to turn Iraq into another Talibanistan, they just want the Yanks out, right?

In the "Sydney Morning Herald", Paul McGeough titles his piece "Now for the wrath of the oppressed". It's not quite clear whether he means the wrath of the provisional government against the terrorists, the "insurgents" against the authorities, or the Iraqi people against the government, or all of the above.

And at "Time", Tony Karon complains about being left out:

"If Iraqi history was made Monday in Baghdad, nobody told the Iraqis. Literally: The transfer of political authority in Iraq from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to a largely U.S.-appointed Interim Government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was brought forward two days early to avoid its moment in the headlines being bathed in blood by insurgent violence — the five-minute event attended only by handful of participants, aides and journalists passed in secrecy deep inside the "Green Zone" which separates government and Coalition facilities from the ever-dangerous streets of the capital. Still, Allawi proclaimed it "a historical day".
Fool, doesn't he know that it's "a historical day" only when the "Time" reporters are invited to cover it?


Elections, elections everywhere 

Good results in the last few days:

In Canada, while the Liberals hold on to power as a minority government, the right performed much better than in the recent past.

In Serbia, the liberal wins the presidency against a nationalist.

And in Mongolia, the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and the opposition Motherland Democratic Coalition are deadlocked with 36 seats each, with independents claiming three other seats and the Mongolian Republican Party one.

"The democratic coalition are [sic] claiming victory by including three seats won by their independent allies. If officially confirmed, the result would be a dramatic reversal for the MPRP, which held 72 of the 76 parliamentary seats before Sunday's polls and had been confident of an overwhelming victory."


Around the world in 22 blogs 

In the land of Oz, Tim Blair is back from his Malaysian holiday and makes up for the lost (?) time, fisking Phillip Adams and Paul McGeough. Gnu Hunter watches the goings-on around a new Sydney mosque. Meanwhile, Evil Pundit has got his own blog round-up. And while not strictly a blogger (he should be), Andrew Bolt has some thoughts about schools flying Australian flag (the American readers will find it bizarre that it's only now becoming an issue Down Under).

In the U S of A, Hindrocket at Powerline muses on Saddam's 1,500-strong legal defence team. Meanwhile, Iowa Hawk on the real Jack Ryan scandal (gold, as always), and the Illinois resident Pejman has a serious look at the case. Wind Rider at Silent Running has many thoughts on the legacy of Abu Ghraib, and Clayton Cramer on the Supreme Court and detention of alien combatants. Blackfive, meanwhile, has got a letter from a Marine to al Qaeda. Mark at New Birth of Freedom on benefits of life under the Republican administration. At Where Have You Gone, Ronald Reagan? (where, indeed?) some alternative history of intelligence failure hearings. And Southern Conservative ponders on various Clinton nicknames (and other aspects of the "Lizard President" biography).

North of the border, in Canada, there are some interesting times for the right, and Damian Penny is doing some live blogging from the election.

In Europe, Michael at DownEastBlog thinks that Laetitia Casta should be the new head (no pun intended) of the EU (seriously, though, he's got great low-down on what's happening in that regard). Oxblog meanwhile reads the tea leaves for NATO. Still in Zeropa, No Pasaran has the low-down on those striking French workers. And in South Korea, John Kennett reports that workers are revolting too. Speaking of Asian blogs, Simon has got an excellent round-up.

In the Mid East, Isreallycool has some thoughts on the Palestinian Olympic team. And Mohammed at Iraq the Model rejoices in sovereignty (Solomon lists more Iraqi reactions).


Monday, June 28, 2004

Iraq sovereign - two days earlier 

Get one sovereignty, and we'll throw in for you two days extra for free:

"The handover of sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government took place at 10:26 a.m. local time Monday, two days before the June 30 deadline previously announced by the U.S.-led coalition."
It's two days earlier, "to try to thwart guerrilla attacks," said officials quoted by Reuters. That seems like wishful thinking - the jihadis who are exploding car bombs are equally hostile to the Coalition presence as they are free and democratic Iraq; hence the attacks against Iraqi security forces and Iraqi political parties. So the violence won't magically stop, but it's now up to Iraqis to take the responsibility for dealing with the enemy within.

Iraq - you've got my best wishes for the future.


All in the same EU-boat, Part 3 

It's time for another one of our regular Euro news round-ups (see the top of the side bar for the links to previous two parts), where we check the pulse of the Old World hoping to discover the secret of the continent's enduring sophistication and moral and intellectual superiority, only to conclude yet again:

Europe, you're just like the rest of us, only older.

It's not all happy sailing this week, as Europeans discover what their fellow Europeans really think about them. "In a 19-country survey by Reader's Digest, Germans topped the list of the least appreciated Europeans, garnering a cool 22 percent of the responses to the question 'which Europeans do you like least?' As an explanation, respondents cited the Germans' 'loud and nationalistic' manner." As evidenced, presumably, by their drive to surrender their (and everyone else's) sovereignty to the European Union. "Not only were they the least well liked, but Germans were also named Europe's 'least friendly' citizens, pulling in 27 percent of the vote in that category. Perhaps unsurprisingly they cleaned up in the categories 'most hardworking' and 'most efficient'." And the Old Europe is not very welcoming of the newest members: "Other laggards in the overall popularity contest were Poles, Russians, Hungarians and Slovaks."

Italy scored the highest as "the country where most people would like to live, whose citizenship most would like to adopt and the nation whose people have the most sex appeal" and the best cuisine. Spain was the second-most popular country, followed by France. In the same survey, "If given the choice to change nationalities, 22 percent of Belgians would choose to become French while 16 percent of the Dutch would choose to become Belgian." But no one would like to become Dutch?

Lastly, and perhaps unexpectedly, Britons are seen as possessing Europe's best sense of humour. Italy was second, followed by France tied with Spain. The poor Swiss were last.

Another recent study tackled the Europeans' flirting skills. According to six characteristics, "sensitivity, humour, romanticism, tenderness, vigilance and responsiveness", assessed by both sexes, Italians came on top (so to speak) with an 89% satisfaction score, followed by French at 82%, Spaniards at 79% and Belgians at 72%. Sadly

"The United Kingdom obtained a satisfaction rating of just 40 percent, mainly because of a low 28 percent rating English women gave to their male counterparts."
The British - funny, but not in bed.

Germans can take heart (or at least half-heart) from a study by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation on the experiences of foreign researchers at German universities: 93% profited intellectually from their stay. Overall conclusion, however: "Crippling Bureaucracy But Great Beer." In another great achievement for Germany, its highway rest stops have been deemed the best in Europe. "The worst performer was Great Britain, where six of the eight rest stops tested failed due to catastrophic hygiene and high prices. Italy did the worst when it came to hospitality." The survey has been conducted by ADAC, "Germany's leading automobile association," but I'm sure it's unbiased. Germans, of course, should know a lot about Europe's highway rest stops, having once visited so many of them from the Atlantic all the way to Moscow.

Crossing the Channel, which Germans didn't quite manage to do on their last European tour, the times are tough for the British royalty these days, forcing them to seek better fortune overseas:

"The 'true' king of England - Jerilderie rice farmer Michael Hastings - is about to become an Australian citizen.

"New research into medieval England has shown Mr Hastings, an immigrant and the 14th Earl of Loudon, has the most viable claim to the throne of Elizabeth II. Scholar Dr Michael Jones has discovered Mr Hastings is the true heir to the throne of Elizabeth's ancestor, Edward IV, who reigned as the English monarch between 1461 and 1483.

"Delving into archives at a French cathedral, Dr Jones found that Edward IV - whose descendants included the Tudors Henry VIII and Elizabeth I - was the illegitimate son of a French archer. That meant the descendants of Edward's brother George, the Duke of Clarence, had the real claim to the throne."
In totally unrelated news, the UK's first ever nude shopping experience proved to be a flop, as only 15 nude shoppers turned up at Plaza shopping centre in Oxford Street, London. "Oona Graham-Taylor, spokeswoman for the Plaza centre, blamed the disappointing turnout of naturists on the Euro 2004 football championships." Too many balls already in play.

All that appeasement, and all for nothing. As German businessman is murdered in Saudi Arabia and an Islamic website links the killing to Germany's foreign policy, an official government report comes to a conclusion that "It is to be feared that Germany, particularly because of its role in Afghanistan and its participation in the fight against Islamic terrorism, could become the target of violent action." I guess the non-involvement in Iraq just wasn't enough. Germany, you'll have to try harder next time.

In another success in the war on terror, German Chancellor Schroeder has won a legal battle to stop the sale of a novel about the assassination of... a German Chancellor. In the book, titled "The End of the Chancellor: Shooting in Self-Defence", a drugstore operator who goes bankrupt kills the fictional Chancellor during a speech in Hanover, which happens to be Schroeder's home town. "Two months ago, a court ordered the cover picture of a man to be changed so it didn't look like Schroeder. Now Hamburg's State Superior Court has ruled the whole book was in breach of Schroeder's human entitlement to respect as an individual."

No human entitlement to respect as an individual in other places, though. Cruel abuse and mistreatment continue in German prisons: "A German jailbird has been told that the power socket in his cell is not free: a court has ordered part of his earnings docked to pay for electricity for his game console." The electrodes connected to testicles are, however, still free of charge.

Speaking of testicles, some hard words from a German politician Johannes Singhammer, a father of six, who decried Germany's aging population and advised his compatriots to lay back and think of the Fatherland:

"Children are our future. Germans need to work more on that again in bed. Things mustn't get to the stage where German men are scoffed at abroad for being limp."
If the Germans aren't breeding enough, too much solitary entertainment might be at fault: "Pornography web pages with German domains were found to be the most prolific in a study of the global distribution of pornographic web pages by security solutions firm Secure Computing Corporation."

"Virtually every European domain had some pornographic sites, with Germany at the top of the heap with 10 million porn pages - closely followed by the UK with 8.5 million. Australia was third, with 5.6 million pages, while the domain belonging to the tiny Pacific island state of Niue came fourth in the league, with an astonishing 3 million pages of porn."
Go Aussies, but where the hell is Niue? If Internet porn is too crass for you, there's always the artistic variety - taxpayer subsidised:

"Berlin's theatre-goers are notoriously hard to shock. But Spanish director Calixto Bieito's production of Mozart's 'Abduction from the Seraglio' has got audiences pretty hot under the collar.

"The Catalan director has relocated Mozart's 18th century comic opera set in the Ottoman Turkish Empire to a destitute modern world of forced prostitution, drug abuse and senseless violence.

"One particularly blood-thirsty scene involves the character Osmin, played by baritone Jens Larsen, appearing to slice off a woman's nipple. In another scene, he urges a peroxide-blonde prostitute to drink a glass of his urine. Opera lovers expecting wholesome family entertainment were not amused."
Moving across the border, only the French can combine an abuse scandal with reality TV:

"The producers of Celebrity Farm, which followed the experiences of 14 minor French celebrities in a farmhouse for 70 days, are being sued by Arts France, the company that supplied the show's goats, ducks, chickens and a pony.

"The company accused the Dutch television production company Endemol of not properly caring for the animals, thus causing the death of 15 chickens, a duck, a hen and a grey cock, and the injury of a pony."
Dangerous to livestock, dangerous to their own citizens:

"Six French police officers have been detained and charged with raping prostitutes and breaking drugs laws... The six men, who worked at a police station in the down-market Paris suburb of Seine Saint Denis, were arrested and charged on Wednesday with rape, gang rape, breaking drugs laws and failing to report crimes."
Their own, presumably. Other French cops around Marseille were meanwhile kept rather busy with different pursuits: "Around 150 soldiers, police and rangers are to beat scrubland in southern France on Tuesday in a bid to flush out a mysterious animal several witnesses have described as a panther." All in vain, as it transpired: " 'The 'panther' is just a black house cat -- a very big one though,' said a spokeswoman for the local prefecture, adding the animal was about 24 inches long and weighed some 22 pounds." Almost the size of my cat.

The past is catching up with two European countries. The lack of Dutch courage in 1994 is having its sequel in court ten years later: "The relatives of Muslim men and boys massacred at Srebrenica in Bosnia by Serbian troops in 1995 have confirmed they will lodge a damages claim against the Netherlands, accusing the Dutch of failing to take adequate measures to prevent Europe's worst case of genocide since World War II." And it's been over 500 years in the making, but the Spaniards are finally being gotten back for expelling the Jews in 1492. Kansas City's very own "Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn is on a mission to convert people to Judaism in Spain, the land of the Roman Catholic Inquisition."

Elsewhere in Spain, a group of illegal migrants from Africa has had their first taste of the promised land as they were washed up on a nudist beach. "Spanish television broadcast amateur video footage of surprised bathers at the landing at sun-splashed Canos de Meca beach in Cadiz province." We don't know if the migrants liked what they saw.

In Cyprus, the local authorities aren't as tolerant of nudity. The police there have arrested three people accused of organising a real life "love boat" for British and Scandinavian tourists. Said the police spokesman: "Three people were arrested on Friday night in connection with an investigation into the performing of indecent acts in public... Evidence was collected from witnesses that during boat trips off Ayia Napa sex acts were carried out accompanied by music and drinking." The Cypriots obviously can't recognise a good party when they see it.

Speaking of illicit activities, are you tired of the usual contraband of drugs, arms and illegal migrants? Welcome to Hungary - "Black-market trade in sugar across the Romanian border into Hungary has rocketed since Hungary joined the European Union, reports say. A 25-30% hike in the price of sugar in Hungary since EU entry means it is a more profitable form of contraband than petrol." Stand by for some confused Western European dealers trying to figure out if the "white Romanian" is worth investing in.

Meanwhile, in other international trade news, "German retail giant Metro has been forced to import lorry-loads of euro coins from Austria because of a nationwide shortage of small change." Rather strangely, "German shoppers who use notes to buy goods, and hoard their coins at home, are thought to be partly to blame." Hasn't coin hoarding kind of disappeared after the end of the Dark Ages? At least the frugal Germans and their coin hoards will bring some joy to archaeologists in the fourth millennium.

And lastly, in Holland, "Police and tax office officials launched a major operation at the Vinkenslag trailer park in Maastricht on Tuesday. The raid comes after recent revelations that park residents are paying almost no tax."

Until next time, keep well and stay out of Dutch trailer parks.


J Lo's backside - the new shock and awe 

American popular culture once again wins hearts and minds where the armed forces not always can. Nicolas Rothwell of the "Australian" wanders the streets of Baghdad and chats to the locals:

"Some of us in Salam City only like the Americans, singers like Shakira, Westlife, J-Lo; very beautiful, and a big butt as well," says Sadiq, a recently graduated maths teacher, as he shops at Bahgdad's best music store, owned by the new Iraqi president's cousin.

"The time for American troops to take a step back may be coming closer, in the minds of the young Iraqis of Salam City - but there are some new things, gifts of the invasion, that they don't want to do without: the ubiquitous Nokia 3310 mobile, for instance. 'We call it the family phone, everybody has one,' Sadiq says, 'and we didn't have all this one year ago'."
Elsewhere, Haidar, a refrigerator repair technician, muses on Western movies:

"Iraqi people really like the new releases coming out these days. We've got Army of Darkness and Terminator 3 and Air Strike and The Rock with Sean Connery - that one's about the first Gulf War, and it's full of important lessons for Iraq today, and for all the Middle East... We don't like the American army any more but we really like the movies."
All this sounds like good news of sorts, and on one level it is, but it's so much more important that ideas like free elections, representative government, protection of minorities, freedom of speech and worship, and free market capture the imagination of Iraqis and people elsewhere throughout the Middle East, rather than J Lo's ass or Arnie's muscles.

Cultural influence is good but clearly insufficient to make the world a better place. I remember reading P J O'Rourke's adventures in Lebanon, some twenty years ago now, where he got stopped at a Hezbollah checkpoint by heavily armed militants in Western t-shirts who told him they would like to move to Detroit. Not much has changed since then, either for the better or for the worse.

The real transformation will come when people understand that they can have only so much of the Western imports they long for - popular culture, fancy consumer goods - while rejecting the superstructure that makes it all possible: the free society and the open markets.

Many in the "Orient" have in the past tried to cherry-pick and acquire the Western veneer without the Western substance. Peter the Great comes to mind in Russia, the Meiji emperors in Japan, and most recently Mahathir of Malaysia with his pep talk to Muslims (we "must build up our strength in every field, not just in armed might. Our countries must be stable and well administered, must be economically and financially strong,industrially competent and technologically advanced" in order to counter the nefarious Jewish and Western influences).

Yes, you can take what you want out of the West - technology and economic progress, for example - you can modernise without Westernising. But only in the short term. In the long term, you have to realise that the reason the West (broadly construed) is so rich and powerful is because it's open and free. In the long term you cannot grow the fruits that you desire without the soil that makes it all possible.


Sunday, June 27, 2004

Beheading - the game whole family can play 

Why play Cowboys and Indians, when you can play Jihadis and Infidels. Check out this video of kiddies re-enacting the Berg beheading; it apparently originally appeared on a website run by Sheikh Abu Hamza, currently awaiting extradition to the US (via WND and the Northeast Intelligence Network, which previously brought you the Nick Berg video).


Tragic movie news of the day 

A fire destroyed a movie studio at Movie World, on the Gold Coast, Australia. Millions of dollars worth of equipment have gone up in smoke.

The studio was used to shoot the final scenes of the next Hollywood B-grade blockbuster, "House of Wax", starring everyone's favourite party girl, Paris Hilton. Appropriately, the fire was believed to have been started by a burning candle.

What was that saying about not throwing stones in glasshouses?


Too much sophistication, not enough action 

This is why the Europeans are more sophisticated then the rest of us - because when they protest against Bush they quote Shakespeare:

"Some 500 demonstrators marched on Dromoland Castle, the 16th century turreted mansion in western Ireland where Bush was meeting European Union leaders for a summit.

"When they were stopped at a police road block, they staged their own version of Shakespeare's bloody Scottish tragedy.

"First, a ghost with a whited-out face read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. Then a woman dressed as Lady Macbeth read a list of Iraqi victims.

"Finally, a woman dressed as a witch with a black pointy hat and a flowing cape cast a spell on a man wearing a Bush face mask. The man crumpled to the floor as the witch ordered him to leave Ireland and end the occupation of Iraq.

"The protesters held up a banner adorned with a quote from Macbeth, Shakespeare's powerful drama of death, destruction and ambition in feudal Scotland.

" 'There's the smell of blood still,' read the banner, on which was painted a gory hand. 'All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand'."
Meanwhile, whenever faced with an international crisis in the past decade and a half, Europe has been quite fond of staging their own version of "Hamlet", the story of a young Danish prince who pretends to be insane (or maybe not) in order to avoid having to make any tough decisions (like "should I confront the people who murdered by father?").

Besides, why take geo-political lessons from a man who thought that Bohemia (the Czech Republic) was on the sea?


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