David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Khodorkovsky’s Future


The injustice done to Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be held against Vladimir Putin as long as anyone has an interest in history.  One of the first and richest Russian oligarchs, he ran Yukos, an oil company second only to the giant Gazprom.  The moment he looked like moving into politics, Vladimir Putin fixed him by inventing charges of tax evasion and having him sent to a prison camp in Siberia. When the five-year sentence ran out, Putin had it extended for another five. That’s how they do things over there, and always have, from the czars to the Communists.

Nobody knows what’s been going on behind the scene, but there has been some deal. Khodorkovsky asked for a pardon, saying that this was not an admission of guilt but a request to see his aged and infirm parents. You wouldn’t want to ask Vladimir Putin for mercy, would you, but Putin has let him go. The poor man looks like a zek, as they used to call political prisoners in old days — the skull shaven, trying to make the grimace on his face look like a smile.

Germans received him in Berlin, just as 40 years ago Germans had received Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The more things change, as the French put it, the more they stay the same. Published in exile, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago changed perceptions in the West. Khodorkovsky is a businessman not a writer, but he too could change perceptions. The injustice done to him is the basis for a political platform, if he so chooses. Quite a few commentators are comparing his situation to that of Nelson Mandela — it’s a winning hand to enter politics to rectify a wrong that everyone can recognize.

Unfortunately quite a few other commentators argue that Putin would never have let him go if he foresaw any danger of Khodorkovsky becoming a figure in the opposition. They say Putin did it to smooth the way of the winter Olympics coming up soon at Sochi in Russia. It will be intriguing to see who is right.

Not a Religion of Peace


Islam, so say apologists, is a religion of peace. If so, how come that Muslims happen to be fighting Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and animists right across the world? The official body representing Muslim countries has recently put out a statement that the question reveals prejudice they like to call Islamophobia. For them, the price for freedom of speech is too high, and they recommend banning criticism of Islam altogether.

As it happens, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale are now standing trial for the murder and partial decapitation of a soldier in an open London street in front of passers-by. Of Nigerian origins but born British, they are both converts from Christianity to Islam. They plead not guilty and express no regret on the grounds that they are “soldiers of Allah,” engaged in war with enemies. On account of many passages in the Koran, they explain, “We must fight them as they fight us.”

The evidence that the faith conditions Muslims to fight for it is by now overwhelming. Yet every horror precipitates Western leaders to parrot that Islam is a religion of peace. This is a classic case of transference in the jargon of psychology, whereby the aggressor and the victim exchange roles and responsibility.

Apologetics of the kind are escapes from reality, a refusal to look at consequences, accepting blame that belongs to others in the hope that a quiet life will follow. A Muslim who calls himself Ibn Warraq is the only writer I have come across who addresses this crucial phenomenon. Why I am Not a Muslim, an early book of his, openly condemns Islam as backward and bigoted, totalitarian and unreformable. He was the first to point out that Western apologists for Islam are simply not telling the truth. Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies, his new book, is a bit more specialized but still for the general reader. He makes the point that Arabs conquered the Middle East and it was only after centuries of abuse and persecution that Christians tried to recapture it. Popes and presidents apologizing for the Crusades are out of order, absurd even. Walter Scott put in place the falsification reaching down to the present that Muslims are peace-loving gentlemen and Crusaders war-mongering thugs. Not even Ibn Warraq can explain the transference, but his description of its sources is enough to clear the air.

In that great anti-totalitarian novel 1984, the hero Winston tries to reassure himself that people don’t really surrender to deception and lies, thinking, “If there’s hope, it lies with the proles.”  Today, if there’s hope it lies with finding many more Muslims like Ibn Warraq.



Thought for the Day


Four American presidents are attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and not one attended Mrs. Thatcher’s funeral.


Praising Mandela, with Gratitude and Guilt


Nelson Mandela leaves this world amid a massed chorus of praise. A colossus, a hero, a statesman, another Churchill, he “guided the world” according to Mr. Blair, “a legend in life and now in death,” according to Mr. Cameron. Public figures of all kinds are speaking in those high tones. Apartheid in South Africa was inhuman, and the part that Mandela played in bringing about its collapse is indeed historic. In the 1950s and 1960s, so it appears, the banned Communist Party of South Africa and the African National Congress started an armed struggle. In a much-publicized speech, British prime minister Harold Macmillan had encouraged “the winds of change” throughout Africa. National movements duly recruited followers and the likes of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania took advantage of these movements to come to power.

The question then was the fate of the whites. On what terms could they stay in independent African states? Might they be expropriated or killed? French, Portuguese, Belgian, and some British settlers thought it prudent to flee, and some were expelled — this transfer of land and power is still current, for instance in Zimbabwe. These various collapses on the part of European settlers radically changed perceptions of Empire. Hitherto Empire had been seen as positive, developing what needed to be developed, introducing the infrastructure of hospitals, communications, transport, resolving tribal disputes, and keeping the peace. Nationalist Africans could now claim that Empire had served only to enrich Europeans, and was nothing more than a criminal enterprise. Most Europeans have internalized the accusation, and believe it.

Apartheid South Africa fought with arms to survive, and when that proved a failure the victorious Africans were expected to exact revenge. Seemingly, it was not in Mandela’s character to shed blood and that is most certainly to his lasting credit. A lesser man might have behaved like Robert Mugabe and attacked the whites, wrecking the political and economic future of the Africans in the process. Now and again, Mandela showed that he could have been another Third World tyrant, sincerely embracing and approving Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and others. Instead he let the whites off the hook, and the massed chorus of praise rests partly on gratitude over the present, partly on guilt over the past.

Meanwhile in Ukraine . . .


Things were going so well for Vladimir Putin. He’s fixed himself another ten years or so in the Kremlin. He’s getting the Russians back in the Middle East, arming Iran and Syria and most likely Egypt too, all the while making child’s play of outsmarting President Obama. The intention is to put in place a modernized Soviet Union, that is to say a Russia without Communism but obtaining what it wants by throwing its weight about as it used to do. It’s vital to regain control of Ukraine, the huge country that is Russia’s Near Abroad. In old days an armored division or two would have rolled. Now trickery has to serve. Putin has come so close, putting Viktor Yanukovych in as president of Ukraine; tucking Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the opposition, away in prison for years; and practicing some neat commercial and financial blackmail. So close!

Putin and Yanukovych rely on the ethnic Russians who settled in the country in the Communist era. Ethnic Ukrainians are first and foremost nationalists. For them, membership in the European Union appears to offer an escape route from the new aggressive Russia and a safeguard of identity. Rejecting the EU option, Yanukovych has brought huge numbers of Ukrainians out into the street in most cities. In Kiev, the capital, an attack on the statue of Lenin shows that they’d got the point.

This isn’t a demonstration, said one of the leaders, it’s a revolution. Sure enough, barricades are up, government buildings are under occupation, riot police are beating people up though so far nobody has been killed. President Obama and the EU have no idea what to do, except to utter pro forma condemnations of violence. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, is a new convert to the idea of the EU, and he and his Swedish counterpart are backing Ukrainian membership, no doubt seeing this as a way to block Russian expansion. At the moment, an international issue is shaping and there’s no good resolution in the offing. There’s irony too! Away in the background, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, is only one politician among others describing the EU as the old Soviet Union in disguise, and predicting its collapse.




I tend to think of Harvard as an abode of lost souls, but it can’t be all bad since Ruth R. Wisse is a professor there. In these confusing times, she is a humanist who does what humanists ought to do, namely sort out what is right from what is wrong. Just now, she sent me her newest book, No Joke. Making Jewish Humor. In the trade, you are not supposed to write about books by people you know and think well of; “puffing” is the word for it.


Well, here goes. This short book is a unique comment on the condition of Jews. Jewish humor, as Mrs. Wisse puts it, has been a chronic habit of mind. Sometimes the joke is at the expense of Jews, sometimes at the expense of their enemies. Sometimes a joke implies surrender to what cannot be reformed or resisted; sometimes a joke is “creative defiance,” in another of her sharp definitions. In whatever the language and whatever the country, even in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, a joke is able to pose the essential question whether to accept reality or to deny it. Life and death can turn upon it.

Hours after I finished reading this brilliant book, the news came through that the Western powers had come to an agreement with Iran. Iran is supposed to delay opening a plant with a program for developing an atom bomb and to curtail its production of fissile material. In return, seven billion dollars held back under sanctions will be released. The Iranians confidently claim that their right to go nuclear has been recognized. After six months, all being well, there will be further agreements. The West has surrendered, with further surrenders implicit down the road.

Responding to this triumph, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejoiced that God’s grace had given him what he hoped for. Huge and attentive crowds shout, “Death to America, Death to Israel.” The ayatollah also broadcasts that Israel is an “unclean, rabid dog,” and vows it will soon be destroyed. In the night, a BBC reporter laid out what this might mean, describing how Syrians are cutting the penises off boys and chopping them up in front of the victims as they die. Of the 120,000 or so Syrians killed so far, 11,000 are children.

Easily outplayed by the Iranians, the Western representatives have proved intellectually and morally unable to stand up to determined enemies. The will has gone. All Iran has to do now is to lie though lip service and prevarication while continuing its nuclear program in secret, as North Korea did. Western intelligence services are in the dark. Jews are once more on their own. It is inconceivable that they would wait and see if the ayatollah means what he says and tries to chop them up too. Formerly they might have made a tragic-comedy out of their plight by denying reality along the lines explained by Ruth Wisse. This time, they have the means of defending themselves and the price the West will have to pay for its pitiful surrender lies in their hands.

Power, Money & the Prime Minister Turned ‘Hermit’


What do presidents and prime ministers these days have to show for their time in office? Maybe a library or an arts center. Tony Blair, lately British prime minister, is said to have made between 20 and 40 million pounds but all he seems to have done with it is buy a portfolio of properties. Sir Robert Walpole is generally considered the politician who established the role of prime minister and the parliamentary system recognizable today. In the 1730s and 1740s he built himself Houghton, far away from London in Norfolk where the great unwashed could not see what he was doing. Among those he employed was the architect William Kent and the sculptor Rysbrack. He had also amassed one of the finest and largest collections of pictures in Europe.

When I was there a couple of days ago, the immense pile loomed out of the mist, as much as to warn visitors of the huge gap in standing between their insignificant selves and the great prime minister. As a history student I knew that Walpole had robbed the public purse but I hadn’t prepared myself to see his corruption commemorated in stone like this, in effect boasting of his shamelessness. Walpole, I told myself, had been the English Putin. In a recent essay in Commentary, the reliable scholar Leon Aron quotes estimates of Putin’s fortune between 40 and 70 billion dollars, “which would make him one of the three richest men in the world.”

Walpole’s grandson was a wastrel. In need of money, he sold the entire collection of pictures in 1779 to Catherine the Great and they have been ever since in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The collection should have been the core of the British National Gallery, but the public knew how Walpole had acquired it at their expense, and was not prepared to pay for it twice over.

In a generous loan, the Hermitage has helped to stage an exhibition of these pictures so that they hang once more on the walls where they used to be. The exhibition has been much publicized and there was a big throng of visitors. The rooms are all marble and gilt and frescoes, and the ensemble with the pictures is no doubt very splendid. More than that, though, we were all being given a chastening lesson in the effect of power and money, especially on people in high places.  

Italy Shrugs


A friend in Italy sends me what he calls some food for thought about that country.  The coalition government under Enrico Letta is trying to push through the Legge di Stabilita, the term for a budget that satisfies the requirements of “the wise men in Brussels,” in the euphemism of my friend. This budget has provoked 3,093 amendments. Here goes: “Assuming it would take five minutes to read and understand each amendment, this would translate to some 250 hours. If they worked continuously for five hours a day it would take 50 days just to read the amendments, let alone debate them.”

Meanwhile the National Debt has reached two trillion euros. With an interest rate of a modest 3%, interest payments come to some 60 billion euros a year before any repayment of capital. A new tax on property was due to collect 4 billion euros but proved so unpopular that the government renounced it and now debates how to replace it.  My friend has a nasty feeling of living in the collapsing world Ayn Rand describes in Atlas Shrugged.  Where he lives, shops, and services are closing down, and people just shrug their shoulders. “Another Italian miracle is needed. Will there be one?” he asks.

Arafat Exhumed


The death of Yasser Arafat is the stuff of conspiracy theories. The cause of it is unknown. Aged 75 when he died in 2004, he had not been in good health. One rumor was that he had cancer, probably leukemia, and another was that he had AIDS. Ion Pacepa, head of the Securitate, or secret police, in Communist Romania described in a memoir how his organization had to procure young boys for Arafat. Was this true, or disinformation? Announcing that Arafat was so ill that he had to be flown to Paris for treatment, BBC reporter Barbara Plett wept, one of millions who wanted to believe that Arafat’s career of terror and corruption was really liberation from the cruelties of Israel. When Arafat then died in Paris, yet another rumor sprang up that these selfsame cruel Israelis had poisoned him. It is fair to say that most Arabs and maybe almost all Palestinians are convinced of this.

Of all American presidents, Bill Clinton came closest to getting Arafat to compromise, and Hillary Clinton famously exchanged kisses with Suha, Arafat’s wife. Until recently, Suha refused to allow the exhumation of Arafat’s remains or the analysis of his clothes. Once she had given permission, forensic teams from Switzerland, Russia, and France got to work. The Swiss have now reported levels of Polonium-210 high enough to support “moderately” that this is what killed him. Does that “moderately” convey a little, a lot, or nothing? Nine years have passed since the death, and anyone could have tampered with the remains and especially the clothing. Suha has been quick to say categorically that the death was a crime, adding that he had many enemies who might have committed it.

Needless to say, fingers are already pointing at Israel. They certainly had the capacity and have conducted targeted assassinations. But Israeli politicians and the military always said that Arafat invariably took decisions that did harm to his cause, and therefore Israel had an interest in preserving him as Palestinian leader. Again, true or disinformation? The Russians used polonium to kill Alexander Litvinenko, so they know the form. Their forensic experts have not yet reported, nor have the French. If they too come up with a verdict supporting that “moderately,” the conspiracy-mongers will be occupied for years to come.


EU’s Flush


The Marx Brothers once put on a serious show about Napoleon, but the audience couldn’t stop laughing. So Harpo gave up, and said, “Emperor, the garbage men are here,” to which Groucho replied, “Well, tell them we don’t want any.”

This happy scene was brought to mind by the latest inspiration of the geniuses in Brussels in charge of the European Union. There are Islamist-terror alerts all over the place; the talk is all of deficits and recession; EU unemployment is now 19 million — and lo! what comes out of  Brussels is a paper with the magnificent title, “Development of EU Criteria for Flushing Toilets and Urinals.” Yes indeed, bathroom flushing standardized all over the continent is the future. We are to have five liters for lavatories and one liter for urinals. Think of the committees that will have met, the statistics, measurements, experiments in volume, travel to remote places to inspect variant designs, Turkish lavatories, and Bulgarian multi-seats (and what about Portaloos?).Grown men with expensive educations and tiptop credentials must also have discussed for hours the increased production of cisterns, extra work for plumbers, new costs, taking into consideration the views of ecologists, town planners, and officials in the 28 languages of the EU.

A letter published in the Daily Telegraph was from a chap obliged by EU regulations to replace his nine-liter tank with a six-liter tank. Now he has to flush twice, using twelve liters and he concludes, “This, to me, sums up the EU.”   

In old days I used to see quite a bit of Sid Perelman, who wrote the Marx Brothers scripts. What a skit this flushing masterstroke would have been for him.          

Regulating the Press under the Guise of Morality


“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” In this hammer-blow of a sentence, Lord Macaulay was speaking about Byron, whose life was a public scandal but whose gifts were great. People have been left to make up their minds for themselves where the balance lies between the man’s abuses of women and his poems.

Rebekah (why this deviant spelling?) Brooks and Andy Coulson are now the subject of a similar fit of morality. In the 1990s they were editors of a Sunday newspaper, The News of the World, whose owner was the press magnate Rupert Murdoch. The paper specialized in revelations about the sexual conduct, that is to say misconduct, of people thought to be celebrities, pop stars, television personalities, footballers, and such like. It came out that journalists or freelancers employed by the paper were paying corrupt policemen and civil servants for inside information while also hacking the telephones of all and sundry in the search for dirt. Such snooping and invasion of privacy is of course illegal. Accused of authorizing this behavior, Brooks and Coulson are on trial at the Old Bailey. If the jury finds them guilty, they will surely be sent to prison.

Selling in millions, the News of the World played a leading part in cheapening daily life. Loathsome as the practices of the paper were, even worse was the way it assumed that it was offering the British public what it wanted. Glorying in scandal-mongering, the paper pretended to be on a mission to cleanse filth. Readers could be titillated and feel good at the same time. Invited to be hypocrites, they were also being patronized as persons of so low a cultural level that they couldn’t be considered cultured at all.

There was no need to buy the paper and to be degraded by doing so. Mr. Murdoch closed it down. But it is not good enough apparently to let the court decide what responsibility Brooks and Coulson may have for hacking and paying bribes. As though responding to public outrage and under cover as guardians of morality, politicians are attempting to take control of the press. It’s become an issue of free speech that will be tested in court and afterwards. A commission of enquiry under a judge came up with a recommendation for strict regulation of the press, and this is to be established by a Royal Charter. In the light of the hard and historic battle to have free speech, it won’t work, but if it were to, then the News of the World was right to hold British culture in such contempt.

‘Obstinately Faithful’ to France’s Lost Identity


“The European Union will collapse like the Soviet Union,” says the French politician Marine Le Pen. It is a dramatic prediction and she’s a dramatic person to be making it. Forty-five years old, she took over the Front National, the political party built up by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. A rough-house character, he nonetheless spoke for French nationalists and ran against Jacques Chirac for the presidency. Marine is far more presentable, more intelligent, and the French seem prepared to agree when she tells them that they have no control over their economy or their borders and must restore the sovereign state. The Front National has just won a local by-election. Opinion polls indicate that the Front is more popular than the Socialist Party of François Hollande, currently president, who does not help himself by muttering about Europe’s “regression and paralysis” as though he and the Socialists had nothing to do with bringing all that about.

It’s usual practice for an intellectual to frame the terms of a debate in France — think Raymond Aron, Jean-François Revel, Alain Besançon. Now Alain Finkielkraut steps forward. A philosopher and die-hard leftist since student days in 1968, he cannot possibly be accused of nationalist extremism like Marine Le Pen, but his new book puts wind into her sails. Its title, “Identité malheureuse,” has to be translated along the lines of “France’s lost identity.” In measured tones, Finkielkraut asks if such a thing as French identity still exists. Muslim immigrants and their defenders on multicultural grounds have values that have nothing to do with being French. He defines the generation now growing up as “post-literary,” meaning that they are ignorant about the heritage that nominally is theirs and don’t have any idea of what they should be defending. Careful to ensure he can’t be accused of the dreaded Islamophobia that speedily destroys the reputation even of a left-wing intellectual, he is clearly unhappy about the consequences of mass-immigration from Muslim countries.

Le Point is a serious magazine, and its latest issue splashes Finkielkraut’s new book. In a supporting interview, he quotes with horror the Muslim secretary of a committee against Islamophobia who said, “Nobody has the right in this country to define for us what is French identity.” He concludes the interview with the statement, “I remain obstinately faithful to the France that is undoing itself before our eyes.” Le Point took the precaution of inviting Ghaleb Bencheikh to respond on behalf of Muslims, and he argues forcefully that social change is in the order of things, and that Muslims bring their culture, too.

European elections next year appear likely to result in the creation of an anti-EU bloc with the Front National setting the pace. In which case Finkielkraut will have to get used to being on the receiving end of unbridled polemics.

The Independent ‘Fisks’ On


One of the comic characters of the day is Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of the Independent, a London daily. There’s a good deal of fun to be had from his carry-on. His latest hit is to have put into the mouth of Bibi Netanyahu the words “an anti-Semite,” purporting to apply this unwelcome put-down to the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The Independent has admitted that Fisk made up this nice little slander, and has removed it from its webpage.

The Independent has a habit of this kind. Not so long ago, one Johann Hari was fired for inventing quotes. Interviewing people, he pretended that what they’d said to others had been said to him. Far more inventive, Fisk shapes reality to fit his overriding fantasy that the United States is wicked, responsible for the ills of the Middle East with wicked little Israel yapping along behind it. Here are the Great and the Little Satan in an anglicized version. Naturally anticipating the worst of these evil-doers, he lately took it for granted that President Obama would attack Syria, and this would be “the stupidest Western war in the history of the modern world.” Like any mullah in Tehran, he accuses Israel of war-mongering and manipulation: “U.S. cowardice will let Israel’s isolated right off the hook.” Dire as the forecasts are, they have a way of never coming true.

The critics who spotted the false Netanyahu quote have also described how Fisk and the Independent “create stories and sell them as factual reports; they suppress evidence; they invent records to fit their world view; they turn statistics on their head; they pedal plots; they bitterly resent the military prowess of Israel; they portray its leaders as Nazis.” Fisk has wondered whether al-Qaeda really did destroy the twin towers. The verb “fisk” and its present participle “fisking” have entered everyday vocabulary as terms for routine absurdity, much as the Duke of Wellington gave his name to a type of boot, or Mr. Macintosh to his raincoat. You really can’t help laughing.

‘They Do Things Differently There’


In a house in Tripoli, a commando squad from the United States snatches Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda man with a long record of murder. Commonsense tells you that this couldn’t be done without a tip-off from an insider who for some reason was prepared to give him away, or an outright agent planted on him. This is the city in which the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were recently killed. A Russian woman now shoots a Libyan army officer, and the Russian embassy is stormed. And shortly after five in the morning, a column of cars with 150 gunmen identified as belonging to a militia with the weird and wonderful name of Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries pulls up at the five-star Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan lives on the twenty-first floor and they kidnap him, ostensibly to revenge the rendition of al-Libi.

You’d think he was a dead man walking, but not a bit of it. A few hours later there he is in a smart blue suit with a nice tie telling a crowd that caution and wisdom are the order of the day. Who knows what’s going on? Apparently a thousand militias are operating in Libya, but then again a thousand militias are also said to be fighting in Syria, so perhaps the figure is more symbolic than realistic, as in A Thousand and One Nights. Syria has three main Islamist groups rising to thirteen if the smaller ones are taken into account. The relationships between each other and then with the so-called secular militia shift on a basis so regular, so confusing, and so personalized that it is not possible to make sense of it.

Returning to Tehran, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was greeted by demonstrators throwing shoes at him. Can that really have been a sincere manifestation of political opinion, and not theatre staged to show that the least little concession to Obama requires iron courage? “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” is a sentence that immortalized the novelist L. P. Hartley. Muslims are in foreign countries where things are done differently. One soon comes to the conclusion that under the superficial chaos and breakdown shrewd and ruthless men are forming up and bargaining according to well-established operating principles — but how those principles work and what future they will throw up is shadowy enough to be invisible, beyond the comprehension of non-Muslims.

The Lust to Kill


Every year, a number of the great and the good gather at Davos in Switzerland ostensibly to discuss the issues of the day. In 2009 there occurred something truly exceptional. On a platform in front of mass media, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insulted the Israeli president Shimon Peres. Raising his voice, he accused Peres of having a criminal psychology and then said, “When it comes to killing, you know this job very well.” Turkish militants had just tried to run the blockade of Gaza, forcing a clash in which Israeli soldiers killed eight of them. Whether Erdogan was really angry or just thought he had an opportunity to make political capital is beside the point. To dispense with diplomatic convention, it has long been understood, is to dispense with civilization.

Shimon Peres remained silent. He might have replied that the Turks have been famous for killing, and are still at it with Kurds and their own minority Alevis in far greater numbers than just eight. For that matter, Turkey invaded Cyprus, occupies half of it, and is not going to pull out as the Israelis have done from Gaza. Before and during the First War, the Turks killed at least a million Armenians in an early example of genocide. But the writer Orhan Pamuk or the pianist Fazil Say face persecution by the law for calling these things by their proper name.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is a novel by Franz Werfel about the fate of Armenians at the hands of Turks. A classic in its day, it is more or less forgotten. Erdogan’s outburst made me want to read it, and I can pay him a back-hand compliment for this. Over 600 pages, the novel can be ponderous and there ought to be an up-to-date new translation, but the net impact is magnificent. Born in 1890, Werfel was part of the final intellectual flourish of the Habsburg Empire. He could see that the world was falling apart. In 1930 he went to the Middle East to collect material for this detailed and intimate account of a handful of Armenians who withdraw to a defended position to fight and die as free men should. And in order to be free himself, Werfel fled to California where he died of a heart attack in 1945.

“Who now remembers the Armenians?” Hitler asked in connection with the genocide of Jews. Werfel is prescient. He has Enver Pasha, the master-mind of genocide, say like any Nazi, “There can be no peace between human beings and plague germs,” or again, “either they disappear or we do.” Armenians are unexpectedly victorious at one point, and he writes, “The whole people went mad with the lust of killing.”

Every day now brings evidence of people mad with this lust to kill. In Syria all parties are committing acts of utter barbarity. The al-Shabaab terrorists in Nairobi were sadistic torturers, unimaginably degraded. In Pakistan, Islamist suicide bombers explode themselves to kill Christians as they are worshipping in church. All these monsters and Erdogan too ought to be confronted with Werfel’s final moral truth: “The most horrible thing that had been done was not that a whole people had been exterminated, but that a whole people, God’s children, had been dehumanized.”

Ric Beeston, R.I.P.


In his early thirties, Ric Beeston was appointed Foreign News editor of the Times of London. It was a pretty safe bet since he’d already been around the hot spots behind the Iron Curtain and in the Middle East, proving himself a brave man with a judicious head.

Full disclosure, he was a friend. I also knew and had worked with his father Dick Beeston, a wide-ranging correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. In Moscow one evening he had a seat at the Bolshoi. In the audience was Kim Philby, whom he had known in Beirut before Philby defected.  Living in Moscow in his role as a major-general in the KGB Philby was then more or less invisible, giving no interview. Caught on this occasion, he greeted the encounter with the words, “Dick Beeston, as I live and breath,” which made a great scoop in the Telegraph.

A chip off the old block, then, Ric in 1988 was pretty well the first to reach Halabja, the town in Iraq where Saddam Hussein had gassed some 5,000 Kurds and wrecked the health of thousands more. His reports of this atrocity made their impact because he let the facts speak for themselves, unlike lesser writers bent on parading their consciences.  

American intervention in Iraq put paid to Saddam Hussein, and for Ric that was always quite sufficient justification of it. I didn’t discuss with him Bashar Assad’s gassing of his subjects but the editorial line of the Times makes it clear that he should share the fate of Saddam Hussein.

It seems quite probable that Ric’s investigations at Halabja caused the cancer that has ended his life at the age of fifty. In a published tribute, Hoshya Zebari, foreign minister of Iraq, and a Kurd, speaks of Ric’s integrity and balanced reporting “as we emerged from tyranny and began our frequently painful transition towards freedom.” It’s unique in my experience for a politician in one country to praise in such affectionate terms a journalist in another – unique but right

Reich-Ranicki the Apparatchik


The German press is carrying fulsome obituaries of Marcel Reich-Ranicki who has just died at the age of 93. Mrs. Merkel interrupted campaigning for reelection in order to say nice things about him. In his long career as the literary critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he made and unmade reputations, and it is fair to say that he was more feared than loved. My encounter with him has something to tell about a side of Europe usually kept under wraps.

Alpbach is an Austrian village which used to have a festival, and one year Reich-Ranicki and I were both invited to it. So was Zbigniew Herbert, the great Polish poet and a most likeable man. In a hall with several hundred people, I had to talk about the responsibilities of the writer, a pretty unoriginal subject, to be sure. Reich-Ranicki then had his turn. He compared me rather elaborately to some sort of sea-bird, started flapping his arms like wings and then generalized about the useless English. Zbigniew Herbert interrupted, saying loud enough for the audience to hear, “Halt’s Maul und setzt dich”(which is ruder in German than its literal translation, “Shut your trap and sit down”). In mid-sentence, Reich-Ranicki sat down.

I asked Zbigniew how he had the power to stop the man as if with a bullet. He had finished his first book of poems, he explained, just after the Communist takeover of Poland. The manuscript had to be presented to the Writers Union for approval. Rejecting him, the relevant apparatchik said that Zbigniew Herbert came from an aristocratic family, had fought the Germans with the Polish Free Army and not with the Communists, and now should do some proletarian job such as driving a tram as he’d never be published. No wonder Reich-Ranicki broke off in mid-sentence — he was that apparatchik. Later on, he’d got out to Germany where he’d have been finished if his past as a literary commissar became common knowledge.

The end of the Cold War set Reich-Ranicki free from his past. In an autobiography he could make out that he really and truly was one of the victims, not one of the oppressors. Instead of pointing out that the savagery of his opinions was a continuation of the wish to control literature, the German public forgave him. R.I.P.

Beyond Parody


One of the funniest political writers of recent times was Michael Wharton, who took the pen-name Peter Simple for his column in the Daily Telegraph. He had a wonderful line in caricature, carrying to extremes the antics of the millionaire Leftist, the trendy bishop, the pushing-back-the-limits television producer and the rest of the self-indulgent gang we all have to put up with. Oh, what would Peter Simple have made of Raquel Rolnik, who has just landed on our shores and added greatly to the gaiety of the nation.

This lady is from Brazil and glories in being a United Nations special rapporteur. The British government is in the process of trying to adjust the entitlements of the welfare state to the capacity of the economy. What attracted Mrs. Rolnik’s attention is a proposal to cut housing benefits for people who have spare or unoccupied bedrooms. A few days in the country were enough for her to report that this is an abuse of human rights. It’s rather rich to talk like that when 54 million of the 190 million Brazilians live without clean water or sanitation. But the best of it is what her elder sister says in an interview in the Daily Mail. Mrs. Rolnik combines a  really solid Marxist formation with the practice of Candomble, an African-Brazilian religion that originated during the slave trade. According to the sister, when Mrs. Rolnik went to do her Master’s degree, “she offered an ebo — an animal sacrifice — to Marx, so he would leave her in peace.” Surely a solid Marxist like her wouldn’t want to be left in peace by the great man, would she? That’s only one of the enjoyable puzzles here.

How does the United Nations manage to find such people? Ebos all round when the going gets rough? Inventive as he was, Peter Simple couldn’t have taken satire so far.


Childish Diplomacy


It is painful to observe the United States being outmaneuvered in the Middle East. Iran used to be one of the pillars on which the American position in the region rested. Now Russia has taken over that pillar. The fanaticism of the mullahs and the cold-power mania of Vladimir Putin form a coalition sweeping from strength to strength.

Syria is not intrinsically a valuable asset, but Iran would have it as a territorial base from which to control Iraq and Lebanon, and to menace Israel. Russia would have a permanent naval and military facility on the Mediterranean, capable of expansion. Videos show the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the field in Syria, with Hezbollah men parading alongside and – sinister omen – giving the straight-arm Nazi salute. A Russian flotilla assembles, and Putin openly declares that Russia helps Syria and will do more. This coalition uses force without asking for permission from anyone.

The United States decided not to take any measures to detach Syria from the clutches of this coalition. President Obama has limited himself to sound-bites wishing for the departure of Bashar Assad. The vote in the Westminster parliament that Britain would take no action has been the precedent for Obama to ask Congress to vote on the issue. Putin made it plain that he despises David Cameron and despises Britain as a small island to which no attention need be paid, and now shows contempt for Obama and for the United States as a large nation to which no attention need be paid. The suggestion that Assad might hand his weapons of mass destruction over to international inspectors is inane. To remove the material would take thousands of soldiers over a number of years. Verification is impossible. Chemical weapons deteriorate, so old material could be released while new material was in clandestine production. Seizing on this childish proposition to hand the weapons over as though it were serious, Putin has the initiative over Obama, and may even be influencing Congress to vote no. Intervention in Syria is now altogether unlikely. Assad will be able to resort to lethal gas as often as he needs to stay in power. In the Cold War, Russia nearly got hold of the Middle East by backing Arab nationalists, and now it is getting hold of the Middle East by backing Shiite imperialism. The ensuing humiliation of the United States is self-inflicted, that’s the worst of it.

France and Syria


It’s like old times to hear French president François Hollande and his ministers talking about plans for Syria. “Partant pour la Syrie” is the title of the very jolly song French soldiers used to sing on their way to the conquest of that vital bit of the Mediterranean. They still teach French in Syrian schools, and serve baguettes, all of which perpetuates imperial dreams in the Elysée and the Quai d’Orsay. Long ago, the British put an end to those dreams, and it’s either brave or foolhardy to be proposing a coalition with President Obama. “France is ready,” declares Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault at the top of his voice, only to add quietly “It’s not for France to act alone.” Whatever may lie in store, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech ignoring confused and absent Britain but praising and promoting France as America’s oldest ally. This reminder of the marquis de Lafayette does a little leveling of historic resentment.

The French never quite managed to stabilize mandatory Syria under their rule between the world wars — any more than Britain was able to do in adjoining mandatory Palestine. They protected the Christian denominations, and carried out an experiment of dividing the country up as nearly as possible into more or less autonomous statelets for the majority Sunnis and the Kurd, Druze, and Alawite minorities. Independence from France was bound to entail a free-for-all between these sects and ethnicities whose identities are far too strong ever to combine into a nation-state. The competition to find out which leader of which sect and ethnicity had the brute power to dominate all the others was won by the Assads, first father Hafez and then son Bashar, on behalf of the Alawites.

Led by the Muslim Brothers, in 1982 the Sunni majority rebelled against Hafez Assad. With mercilessness unusual on any human standard, he set an example by massacring 20,000, and perhaps twice as many, in Hama where the rebellion had begun. Cement was poured over mass graves in the city center. Instead of condemning the massacre, François Mitterand, then president of France and a cynic hors concours, took the opportunity to make friendly approaches towards the Assad regime. His successors in the Elysée followed this lead. Few if any politicians exceeded Jacques Chirac in subservience to Arab one-man rulers, whether Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, or Hafez Assad. He was the one and only Western president to attend the funeral of Hafez Assad and was seen to weep over the death of Arafat.

Contacts and bilateral visits were initiated between Chirac and Bashar Assad. Ideas were floated of some Mediterranean political or cultural entity involving Arabs and Europeans in purposes not too closely defined. Nobody quite knows what was the relationship between Chirac and Rafiq Hariri, the multi-millionaire who became prime minister of Lebanon. Rumur centers around hordes of cash in plastic bags. In the early 2000’s, Syrian forces were occupying Lebanon, and car bombs were blowing up a range of prominent Lebanese seeking to regain independence. Hariri was killed in just such a bombing and his murder is rather reliably attributed to one of Bashar’s hit squads. French appeasement of Syria went into abeyance for a couple of years until President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to restore it. To be fair, British Foreign Secretaries, and John Kerry for that matter, are also on record paying compliments to Bashar which are every bit as embarrassing and shameful.

In the sum total of current Syrian atrocities, the murder a few weeks ago by Islamists of Father François Murad may get overlooked. A Syrian Franciscan, he was shot dead in his monastery in a Christian village in Syria. In its way, though, his death may stand for the closure of any French mission in that country. In the French presidential system, a president is not required by law to consult the Assemblée Nationale in order to declare war. What with their wish to have cover for their decisions, President Obama and David Cameron between them have left Hollande to dangle in the wind. He’s on his own. It’s all very well to promise to punish Bashar for his criminal use of chemical weapons, but the means to project the requisite power aren’t available. A poll shows that two thirds of the respondents are against intervention. Parliament has scheduled a debate. The opposition is mustering. And in an interview with the Figaro, Bashar Assad speaks like the thug he is: “The Middle East is a powder keg and the fire is approaching.” The likeliest outcome of the civil war is the break-up of Syria into sectarian and ethnic communities. What a contribution it would be if the French imperial experiment were proved to have been workable after all.



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