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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The French Sour on Hollande



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It’s like old times to come back to France and find how discontented the French are. There hasn’t been a Socialist president since the late François Mitterand, and so the voters decided to give another socialist a go. A mistake, much to be regretted. In the space of a year, François Hollande has become the most unpopular president ever recorded; three quarters of those polled want him out. Recession has led to 3.2 million unemployed, another record number. Taxes have also never been higher; the better-off have fled abroad, and with them 150,000 young people. The French lady I sat next to yesterday in the south of France told me that her two children in their thirties have been laid off and have no chance of finding jobs now.

It’s as though the voters have forgotten that socialism is the tried and tested instrument to impoverish any country unwise enough to adopt it. The Left in France clings to a decayed Marxism, so one alternative to Hollande is the rabid Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who sees himself as Che Guevara. He and his followers are out in the street, and yesterday assembled for theatrics in the Place de la Bastille. Bigger demonstrations are mounted in Paris and other cities against the law to allow gay marriage, which has passed in the Assembly but still has to be ratified. “Manif pour tous,” is currently the national cry, or “A demo for everyone.”

Listen to the screams of Figaro, a choice example of mainstream media. Yesterday’s issue chronicles Hollande’s failure to implement any of the promises he made while campaigning for office. No less than four other articles pitch into Hollande, one of them by François Fillon, a former prime minister. The title of his contribution says it all: “Hollande is leading the country to catastrophe” — the last word in immense type.

Most dramatic of all, Hollande is blaming Germany for forcing austerity down the throats of the EU members, on the grounds that this is the way to prolong and deepen an already severe recession. Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, collaborates with other socialists to accuse German chancellor Angela Merkel of “selfish intransigence.” All she really wants, a memo of theirs says, is reelection in the fall. They are calling for confrontation.

France’s abject surrender to Germany ever since 1940 has left Europe on its knees. This break between the two countries may be a foretaste of the larger break-up of the Europe Union. If Hollande engineers that, even unconsciously, he will have redeemed socialism.

On Syria, Obama Offers Words Alone



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The outcome of the civil war in Syria is bound to test the balance of forces in the Levant, and further afield too. The United States has enemies in Iran and Hezbollah and vulnerable allies in Israel and Jordan. The predicament has evidently been too much for President Obama, and instead of a coherent policy he has so far come up with words alone. Among those words was a warning to Bashar Assad not to resort to poison gas. To do so, the president declared, would be to cross a red line, or in the other thumping cliché of realpolitik, a game-changer. There are precedents. Intervening in the Yemeni civil war, Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser had used poison gas, and Saddam Hussein devastated his Kurdish population that way. Assad is another despot who will stop at nothing.

Well, Assad has crossed the red line and changed the game. Sarin is a nerve gas with unmistakable symptoms, and victims showing those symptoms and dying from them have been named and photographed. British intelligence confirms their death through gas, and so does Israeli military intelligence. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has a response, “We still have some uncertainties about what was used.” An official spokesman has “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin has been correctly identified. Politico reports that the White House has called for a “comprehensive United Nations investigation.”

More words, then, and weasel words at that. Temporarily, this may just pass muster as fact-checking. But if it turns out that when President Obama lays down red lines and games-changers he doesn’t actually mean it but is only prevaricating, then the position of the United States is compromised, its word becomes meaningless, and its enemies are free to do as they please while its allies are left in the lurch. The warfare certain to break out in such an eventuality will be multiple, bloody, and dangerous.

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The Wall of Prats



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In these grim times, the French are showing a bit of form. Magistrates there are extremely influential, perhaps more so than politicians. They form a union, and have premises in Paris. In a rather sturdy joke, the legal chaps have now turned one of the walls there into “Le Mur des Cons.” This consists of photographs of the people in public life whom they don’t like and want to hound. The rude word here has rather lost its force through repetition, so in English we speak about the Wall of Prats.

The magistrates are tendentious lefties, of course, so former president Sarkozy is prominently up on the wall. So is a former prime minister Edouard Balladur, and intellectuals such as Guy Sorman, Alain Minc and — to balance things out a bit — President Mitterand’s side-kick, Jacques Attali, and sporting figures who have let down the national team. Paris is echoing with the sound and fury of it. Here is also a reminder that in the hearing of General de Gaulle someone once said famously that “cons” ought to be eliminated. “A vast enterprise!” was the general’s response, valid for all times.

Nice Boy Terrorism



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In the years since 9/11 there have been lethal acts of Islamist terrorism, notably in Britain and Spain, but many more have been detected in time and thwarted. Security forces are becoming more proficient. Still, Islamist terrorists are certain to search for ways to succeed. No amount of interpretation or argument is going to stop those who are ready to kill and to die for the sake of religious ideology. These acts and their perpetrators have to be seen for what they are.

The moment Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were identified, everyone with a voice started asking what their motivation was. This is the archetypal Western misunderstanding of the archetypal Islamist attack. Surely they must have had some grudge, some insult to be revenged. Or it was “workplace violence,” in the absurd apologia for Major Nidal Hasan, the Islamist killer of Fort Hood. People came forward to say how amazed they were that two such nice boys who knew America and Americans could be big-time criminals. But the two had studied how to turn pressure-cookers into bombs, and they went out wearing suicide vests. Nice boys and religious ideology, alas, can be compatible.

During the crisis, Memri, the invaluable agency translating the Arab media, showed an interview with one of the multitude of intransigent Muslim clerics who are keepers of the religious ideology. Justification for bombings of non-Muslims depends on men like him and he promised more of them. The brothers were mujahideen (jihadists, that is), he said, and Muslims have the duty imposed on them by their faith to go on jihad. That’s all the motivation they need. The elder brother is quoted saying that he didn’t understand Americans. No more did Sayyid Qutb, the philosopher of Islamism who has influenced this generation of Muslims to believe that if only they go on jihad their values must one day rule the world. Men of the kind can’t understand Americans; their ideology precludes it.

It is of course right to make sure not to pin collective guilt onto Muslims. The uncle of the two brothers repudiated in noble language what they had done, saying they had shamed their own Chechen people. From the days of the czars down to Yeltsin and Putin, Chechens have mobilized by means of Islam. Extremists from Saudi Arabia have been radicalizing them further, and many are to be found fighting wherever the clerics are promoting jihad. A freelance fraternity, a sort of New Model International Brigade, are already stretching our physical and intellectual resources. Think what it will be like when Iran hands over to them a nuclear bomb. 

For Whom the Bell Tolls



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Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Respect for human life should be an absolute. There are people in Britain rejoicing in the death of Lady Thatcher. Most are marginal, too young to have lived through the Thatcher years and are merely repeating the clichés of their elders. Still, they are dancing in the street, singing and celebrating. The BBC makes sure to give them a better hearing than the stuffy old bores paying their respects to a valued prime minister. And a few of these marginal figures have been in political life as Communists, Marxists, Trotskyites and the rest of it. These are would-be commissars and gauleiters who would have signed death warrants without batting an eye-lid. Disrespect for human life raises the level of hatred to such a pitch. Not that much keeps us safe from those who rejoice in death. At the present time, the perpetrators of the Boston bombings are unknown. Those explosions are also death warrants, and whoever issued them have the mentality of the commissar and the gauleiter. Should those who did the bombing ever be caught, they will be found to have no comprehension at all of my opening sentence.

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Let Us Now Praise Mrs. Thatcher



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Let us now praise famous women, and they don’t come much more famous than Mrs. Thatcher. Yes, she was Baroness Thatcher, titled as befits a former British prime minister, but she was one of the people and plain Mrs. fits very well. Her father was a grocer in a small way, and he taught her those qualities for which Britain was once respected the world over, decency, thrift, fair dealing, standing up for what is right. She believed that making choices for yourself is the way to a fulfilled and happy life, and the state can’t do that for you. Under her influence, those time-honored British qualities had one more flourish.

Like every past British prime minister until her woeful successors, she believed in helping friends and punishing enemies. Up with Ronald Reagan and John Howard, down with General Galtieri and Saddam Hussein. She gave Mikhail Gorbachev a long-running tutorial. Her one mistake was to commit Britain further to the European Union. When she tried to correct this, the French president François Mitterand said she had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula. Her ministers were unable to deal with this combination of looks and brains. In return she would say that she could do wonders for Britain if only her ministers were not so wet and defeatist and she had half a dozen of them to rely on.

Philip Larkin, the one great poet at the time, was asked on a television program how he could possibly be a capital C Conservative since that meant supporting Mrs. Thatcher. She was so intelligent, he said blinking owlishly, and so sexy. Inviting him to Downing Street, Mrs. Thatcher said she liked his poems. Quote one, he replied, and she came out with his line about being as sharp as a drawer full of knives. I heard her once discussing a dramatization for the stage of a Dostoevsky novel. Her comprehension of issues and her power to summarize them set her apart. A really good argument toned her up for the rest of the day.

Post-1945, socialism was deconstructing Britain and everything it represented. The ruling class kept on making the same misjudgment, that the reason for decline and ruin was that the country did not have enough socialism. More state control, more egalitarian leveling down, more regulation! Mrs. Thatcher did her best to destroy the machinery of socialism. How the intellectuals hated her for it, and still do. Their petulance, the bigotry, the vituperative nastiness, knows no bounds. Oxford, the university where she had studied chemistry, childishly refused to give her the honorary degree that all previous Oxford-educated prime ministers had received. Baroness Warnock, preeminent moral philosopher of the Left, reproached her for wearing blouses bought from Marks and Spenser, the popular chain store. I ask you, which of these two is the snob?

Socialists struggle to regain control of public opinion, and every day do what they can to hand over to the state the responsibility for the kind of lives “ordinary people” are to be allowed. Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy stands in their way.

Reflecting on the Life and Death of Muhammad Mehriz



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Muhammad Mehriz, an Egyptian, is a figure of our times. His story has been picked up by Memri, an invaluable service that monitors the entire Arab media, and then translates and broadcasts the findings. Muhammad was 27, with a wife three years younger. He was a lawyer in a private firm in Cairo. He was well-connected, as his brother Yasser was a leading spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. The photograph that Memri posted shows a serious man holding his little daughter lovingly in his arms.

Sometime at the beginning of the year Muhammad went to consult the sheikhs of Al Azhar, the ancient centre of Sunni learning in Cairo. He wanted to know what sharia or Islamic law had to say about his possible volunteering to fight alongside the rebels in Syria. The sheikhs told him that sharia justifies his departure for Syria. Muhammad drafted a note, stating that jihad for the sake of Allah is an obligation on all Muslims. After a very few days in Syria, he was killed in Aleppo. His brother Yasser eulogized him.

First reflection: This man was a middle-class lawyer with no military training and no possible use to the rebels.

Second reflection: The keepers of the faith in Al Azhar deliberately sent him to his death.

Third reflection: How can an educated and settled family man believe that Allah wants him to kill? Why isn’t he thinking for himself?

Fourth reflection: In previous days Nazis and Communists couldn’t be argued out of their fatalism. The religious compulsion of the man’s belief has to end in death, his own or his victims.

Obama’s Chamberlainite Policy



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“You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and will have war,” Winston Churchill said on hearing of the Munich agreement that sold out Czechoslovakia in 1938 and was indeed the prelude to war. How that judgment resonates!  Neville Chamberlain was the man in Churchill’s sights, and one can have some sympathy for him. He wanted to avoid bloodshed and that is not dishonorable. One can have some of the same sympathy for President Obama. He has avoided taking part in military action in Libya, in Mali and most glaringly in Syria. The decision to withdraw from Iraq and in the future Afghanistan reveal Obama to be essentially a pacifist. Which is all very well except for the famous shaft of light Hilaire Belloc throws on the stance:

“Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.”

Obama could just get away with a Chamberlainite policy towards Libya and Mali because he was able to leave the British and French to take action. Kim Jong Un, Ayatollah Khamenei and Bashar Assad may not be exactly Roaring Bills but all have been skillfully profiteering from Obama’s mind-set, manipulating him into the Pale Ebenezer position. A day looks like dawning when Iran will reveal its nuclear weapon, quite probably made and tested in North Korea out of sight of Western intelligence. Tacit permission to Bashar Assad to do his worst is likely to be a mistake Iraqis, Lebanese, many thousand more Syrians, and possibly Israelis and Palestinians will have to pay for with their lives. Refusal to lead first of all allows Assad’s regime and the rebels to fight to the death and the watching world puts the blame on Obama and the United States. Then this pacifist stance hands initiative to the killers. Of course it is displeasing and dangerous to confront killers but more displeasing and dangerous not to confront them. Real enemies of the United States are taking advantage of Obama. He seems to have been formed intellectually by the 1960s conviction that keeping the peace is imperialism, colonialism, and what not. Not so. Failure to intervene in Syria now clearly prolongs Assad’s stop-at-nothing tyranny, alienates potential allies among the rebels and must soon set off widespread sectarian fighting — a guarantee of war and dishonor.

Mediterranean Descent



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The folly of human beings is on full display in Cyprus. The government there is in the process of seizing compulsorily up to 40 percent of deposits in the banks. Generally, Cypriot lawmakers and officials able to speak English appear on television and mournfully pretend that this robbery is reasonable, or if not reasonable then inevitable. Deposits had been guaranteed. The men and women in the street understand perfectly well that raids on their deposits mean that the Cypriot government is no longer bound by the rule of law. They also understand that this raiding is the price demanded by Germany for bailing them out. Quite simply, the Cypriot government is an accomplice, a tool of those more powerful who are imposing their will.

Quite simply again, this is the updated version of the bargain that the Bolsheviks once struck. They seized everyone’s deposits and in return offered benefits in housing, education and so on. So long as one stayed clear of politics and stifled all opinion, one could most likely accept the bargain. Just as hatred of Bolshevism spread so hatred of Germany is spreading. The loss of your money at the orders of unaccountable foreigners whose names may even be unknown is too unfair to be borne.

The matter cannot possibly stop there. Who now will ever invest in Cyprus? Who could be rash enough to start a business there? Think of the future level of unemployment. And now that Germany has revealed that it can protect its interests so harshly, who will keep deposits in Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, even French banks? Fear is driving money out of the Mediterranean countries. Think of the runs on the banks and the currency controls to come. Big depositors are Russian and Arabs. Unfortunate Syrians have found a refuge that isn’t a refuge at all, only more distraint. What is the fitting word for politicians who think that it is quite all right to dispense with law and to make enemies certain to take them on by whatever legal means or subterfuges they can? What if Russia freezes or extorts foreign deposits?The worst outcome would be that people in these Mediterranean countries accept the descent into neo-Bolshevism, poverty, and control. The best outcome is liberation from the European Union that generates its steady features of blind injustice and cruelty.

Germany vs. Russia in Cyprus



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It’s Germany versus Russia again. The fate of Cyprus might seem a small matter but it is bringing on another round in that age-old struggle between the giants of the continent of Europe that has brought so much death and destruction. Cyprus is bankrupt in all but name, with debts it can never repay. The local banks have shut their doors and some may never open again. A member of the euro zone, the island scrapped its native currency, the Cyprus pound. Now it turns to Germany to bail it out. Germany could do so without much strain. Even back in Soviet days, Russians could enter Cyprus freely, without the visas other countries demanded. So first Communists and then Yeltsin oligarchs used Cyprus to launder their stolen billions. Suitcases of dollars came in. So Russians are the main depositors in Cypriot banks, and if Germany were to bail out such people Mrs. Merkel, the Chancellor, would almost certainly lose the next election.

In a difficult position, Mrs. Merkel agreed to a bail-out on condition the Cypriots also pay. She imposed the confiscation of up to 10 percent of all deposits, on small accounts and on Russian accounts too.

Simple robbery by government is not good policy. Desperate to have their money, Cypriots are rioting. That’s only the half of it. A Cyprus delegation is negotiating in Moscow a possible bail-out by Russia, and suddenly a geo-political crisis emerges. Russia could pay the missing billions in return for rights to gas deposits in Cyprus waters that are ready to be exploited. These gas fields are next to Israeli fields about to be exploited. The first Russian fleet in the Mediterranean was in the 1770s and the Russians have been trying to establish naval bases there ever since. It didn’t work out in Egypt, nor in Algeria, and they are almost certainly about to be forced out of their base at Tartus in Syria. Cyprus would be a splendid alternative.

The British garrisons could be made to leave, Russia could extend its powers of domination through control of energy, and at last secure a permanent presence in warm waters.

The European Union was designed to prevent national rivalries. Critics have always warned that it would in fact regenerate them by putting the strong in a position to bully the weak. So it proves. Mrs. Merkel no doubt meant well, but victimized and enraged Cypriots compare her to Hitler. She obliges them either to submit to robbery by government or to rebel, much as Hitler forced similar pre-war predicaments on Poles and Czechs. What a precedent!

Stealing from Cypriot Depositors



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The Great Men and Geniuses in charge of the European Union have sprung one of their astonishing surprises. This involves stealing money officially, to call it by its proper name, what’s more stealing from people in Cyprus who are mostly not well off. Cyprus is the latest EU member to be bankrupt and in urgent need of a bail-out. Depositors in Cypriot banks had been assured that the money in their accounts was safe, guaranteed. That turns out to have been a lie. Depositors will have from 6.75 percent up to 9.99 percent confiscated from their accounts. The measure does not spare anyone, not even pensioners. The big holdings belong to Russian oligarchs, and they know how to take care of themselves, treating Cyprus as an outdoor safety deposit box.

Tacitly acknowledging the injustice, the British government has stepped forward to reimburse British soldiers and support staff garrisoned there.

This is not the first official stealing of the kind. Italy did not meet the requirements to join the euro, and covered its fudging by taking without warning a percentage from deposit accounts. There may well be little money left in countries already bankrupt, but now there is the risk of a run on the banks in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, and even France, all of whom are as dodgy economically as Cyprus. Any thoughtful person with a bank deposit in those countries will do whatever can be done to empty it.

Germany is the driving force behind this measure, partly to avoid having itself to pay for Cypriot profligacy but also in the belief that it’s salutary for people to go through some collective suffering for the debts accumulated in their name. To lie to the people and to rob them is to break the trust on which the democratic social contract rests. If such arrogance and folly do not end in throwing out the Great Men and Geniuses who have assumed power over them, then Europeans will show that they have been well and truly broken.

Iraq, Ten Years Later: Breast-Beating and Guilt



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Swathes of public opinion have come to believe that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein ten years ago was a crime. Or to quote the old mischief-maker Talleyrand summing up one of Napoleon’s decisions, worse than a crime, a mistake. Guilt about the doings of the West is an inverted assertion of Western superiority and power, which is why the public so love it — we are the agents, others are the patients. The breast-beating enfolds self-congratulation. Attaching to George W. Bush, this false kind of guilt helped put Barack Obama in the White House, and has made Tony Blair so unpopular that he hardly dares show his face in Britain. An official by the name of Sir John Chilcot is chairman of a committee due to report on the Iraqi invasion, and the expectation is that this will expose Blair’s frivolity, war-mongering, and subservience to Bush.

Certainly the cost to the Allies in blood and treasure was high. It’s unproven, but as many as 100,000 Iraqis may have lost their lives.

Undoubtedly it was a mistake after the military campaign to take on the administration of Iraq. The Allies lacked knowledge of that complex society. At the time I was recommending Ahmad Chalabi to play the General de Gaulle role. I still think he would have been better than the Garners and Bremers who were shaken out of Uncle Sam’s sleeves, and just as good as Nour Maliki, today’s prime minister. When Maliki asked for the unconditional withdrawal of American troops, Obama made no attempt to negotiate. This was another mistake, real and mysterious. A permanent garrison in the country of U.S. troops would have kept the peace if need be, and remained to throw a shadow over Syria, Iran, and Pakistan.

The Sunday Telegraph devotes its recent issue to breast-beating and guilt. Commanding officers complain that Blair left them no time to train or to equip properly. Someone called Mark Etherington writes that he and a single American were left quite alone and without policy instructions in charge of a province with almost a million inhabitants.

“We must tell the truth: Britain was humiliated” is a heading that runs across two pages. In another two-page spread, Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington in the run-up to the campaign, depicts Blair as a man with no will of his own but “evangelical” in worshipping Bush. Coincidentally, former socialist foreign secretary David Miliband thinks that Bush was the worst thing that ever happened to Blair. Neither of them a Talleyrand, Meyer and Miliband are maestros of self-promotion through guilt.

Maliki is proving uncomfortably authoritarian but he not a killer like Saddam. A political process, however imperfect, exists in Iraq, and that is Bush’s doing. Here was a first chance to settle conflicts of interest without violence, and the Arab Spring at the outset built on that. All European countries including Britain have long since dispensed with a foreign policy worthy of the name, and are powerless even to stop immigration reaching danger levels. Blair was another prime minister unable to stop the rot, but at least he appreciated that support of the United States is also the defense of Europe.

The Syrian rebels are Sunnis in the process of wresting power from the Alawites and shiite Iran behind them. A sunni, Saddam would be aiding the rebels in whatever ways he could. Men and weapons are smuggled across the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iraqi sunnis have already killed Syrian loyalists who had entered the country. It is a blessing for everyone that Bush has made sure that Saddam is not here to exploit and extend this ghastly war.

Beppe Grillo: History Repeating Itself as Farce



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One of Benito Mussolini’s better quips was that anyone could govern Italy but it is pointless to do so. And that’s where Italy is today. At the outcome of the general election, the Left and the Right, respectively under an old Communist Pier Luigi Bersani and an old corner-cutter Silvio Berlusconi, are about equal in numbers and equally unable to form a government. Into this political vacuum comes Beppe Grillo. The Five Star Movement is his flash-in-the pan party, and it looks like having some 160 members in the parliament, one of them a 25-year-old postgraduate student who may become the speaker. Swearing not to join a coalition, Grillo is instead institutionalizing instability.

In his sixties, Grillo is a stand-up comedian by profession, and he has disordered white locks, Arafat stubble on his cheeks, and dark glasses, type-casting himself as an ageing hippy. Some of his quips are funny, as were Mussolini’s, but the outlook is too desperate to leave it at that. Italy has a debt of two trillion euros, the highest in the euro zone after Greece. This year alone, Italy has to borrow 420 billion euros to service this debt. The common currency has made the country uncompetitive. In the last decade the economy has shrunk 10 percent and is still shrinking. Youth unemployment is 37 percent. For the politicians who created this horrible mess, Grillo proposes “Tutti a casa,” or send them home. The next recommended step is for Italy to break with the euro and return to its own currency.

“Combinazioni” is the brilliant Italian term for finding all-purpose ways through dead-ends, and maybe in the end Grillo will do deals like the others. And maybe his mind-set will prevent him. A comic, he’s also a nutter who has taken anti-Semitism on board and spews full-time hatred of Jews. Israelis, he believes, are using a translation service called Memri to conspire against Arabs. To him, Iran is a lovely pacifist country, traduced by Zionists. Hitler, he has said, was eliminating Jewish financial dictatorship.

Between the world wars, democracy failed throughout continental Europe, to be replaced by elementary fascism. It’s often quoted that history repeats itself as farce, so it’s quite perfect that Grillo should be a professional comedian. Inept, limited but too vain to acknowledge their limitations, the politicians of Europe have created the political space for the new digital-age fascism. We can’t guess how great the collapse is going to be, but the folly of those responsible for leaving us in this position is hallucinating.

An Open Book



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One of the unexpected bonuses of having to do with print is the books that arrive unsolicited.  An advance copy of Distant Intimacy from the Yale University Press has just taken me by surprise.  Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein have been exchanging e-mails over the course of a year, the former in London, the latter in Chicago.  I can’t think of a better snapshot of the cultural landscape of today’s English-speaking world.  The mix of humor, regret, praise, and sniping is to be found nowhere else that I know of.

Both have a lifetime’s experience of this landscape on which to draw.  Epstein was editor of The American Scholar for 23 years, he’s published a great deal in every sort of outlet.  Raphael is the author of many novels, film scripts, a huge range of journalism, with classical studies including a book out a few weeks ago about Flavius Josephus, the Jewish soldier who threw his lot in with the Romans and turned historian.  They belong to the old school but are well able to navigate today’s shallows.   Gossip is one benefit that comes with experience like theirs, offering comic insight into Harold Pinter, George Steiner, Vladimir Nabokov, and a hundred others of their likes and dislikes. “I’m not a passionate admirer of Isaiah Berlin,” Raphael opens up , to go on, “Had he been a washbasin, Isaiah would have only one tap and it would’ve been tepid.” One of his best cracks is about Jean-Paul Sartre: “Maoism was his Viagra.”  Epstein commemorates the great Ed Shils and his falling-out with Saul Bellow.  If Bellow was to spend two hours on the lap of the Queen of England, Shils boiled it down, he’d have two observations, that the Queen had no understanding of the condition of the modern artist, and that she was an anti-Semite. Shils it was who improved on goyim, the Yiddish word for non-Jews, by calling another minority gayim.

You enjoy the book, I can hear the accusation, because these two are your friends and under the panache of with-it prose they’re a couple of old-style conservatives.  Raphael is indeed a friend and I hope one day to meet Epstein.  The poet Dom Moraes was a prodigy, India’s answer to Arthur Rimbaud, and I once said to him that I never wrote about books by friends.  Oh, he said, I only write about books by friends.  Literary reputations on both sides of the Atlantic are bringing me round to that point of view.

The Strange Story of Ben Zygier



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The story of Ben Zygier, emerging in dribs and drabs, is as absorbing as it is strange. He was a young Australian who emigrated to Israel. There he had passports in names other than his, and not all identifiable as Jewish or Israeli. Mossad, I presume. When a team of Mossad agents went into Dubai in January 2010 and assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhoud, the man responsible for arming Hamas, some of them were using Australian passports. Was Zygier somehow involved in that? What we know is that in December 2010 he was found hanged in a prison cell in Israel. Not any old cell either, but one of maximum security built to keep in solitary confinement the young man who shot Yitzhak Rabin dead. What was the accusation? Nothing is known so far about a trial, or a sentence. According to reports, Zygier’s warders did not even know his name.

One theory with currency is that on some trip back to Australia he informed agents there about Mossad’s use of Australian passports. They must have found that out anyhow, and the tip-off, if tip-off it was, hardly seems a reason for putting Zygier away in a maximum-security jail, and even less reason for Zygier to hang himself. Bob Carr, the Australian Foreign Minister, tilts more towards the Palestinians than the Israelis, and he is making mileage out of this business. Prime Minister Netanyahu has let drop some cryptic words about the necessity to keep state secrets under wraps.

Naturally I have no idea of the reality, but the sole frightful treason that Zygier could have committed would be to inform the Iranians of measures to be taken against them. Discovery might be enough to prompt his superiors to put him away in that maximum security jail. Realization of what he had done might have been enough to push him to hang himself. There is bound to be speculation that Mossad will have murdered him. From what I know of Israel, that is inconceivable. I cannot help feeling that Zygier’s fate will prove like a large rock rolling down a mountain, gathering pace and crushing whoever and whatever it hits at the bottom.

Breaking a Taboo in the Arab World



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Last October, someone by the name of Abdullatif al-Mulhim wrote an article that broke a taboo. He told fellow Arabs something they are never allowed to hear, that their wars against Israel have only harmed themselves. Hostility towards Israel is almost sacrosanct in Arab countries, and learned men on public platforms solemnly assert that Jews are descendants of apes and pigs. It is dangerous to keep people in ignorance like this. The real enemies of the Arabs, Mulhim spells out, are corruption, lack of good education and health care, and so lack of respect for human life. Arab dictators, he goes on, have committed atrocities against their own people far worse than all the full-scale Arab-Israeli wars. What decided him to write like this was starvation, killing, and destruction in one or another Arab country. The final clincher is that Palestinians in Israel or under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza are happier and in a better situation than their Arab brothers who came to liberate them.

I know nothing about Mulhim except that he is described as a retired officer of the Saudi navy. And now Amal al-Hazzani publishes two articles with similar observations. She is Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics at King Saud University in Riyadh with quite a list of contributions to professional journals to her credit. In Israel, she writes, “politicians are distinguished by their sincerity and devotion to the higher interests of the state.” Arabs listen to the cheap words of poets and politicians who heap insults on Israel from their luxurious hotel rooms. They are still unaware where, why, and how their feelings of hate towards Israel come about. While they have sunk into hating, the Israelis have built eight public universities and 200 museums and become a rival to America in the programming and software industry. Israelis have got where they are by intelligence, or as she explains, by learning Arabic and studying the culture of Arabs. Her admiration for these achievements is clear.

The Middle East is exploding and the explanation for these articles may lie in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that is to say Sunni versus Shiite, or Arab versus Persian. The Saudis are frightened of the imminent finalization of an Iranian nuclear bomb and they see President Obama as weak, variable, more likely to surrender rather than use military measures to stop the nuclear threat. Israel would certainly take military measures and so there is a coincidence of interests. The Arab press is controlled, and it may be that the ground is being prepared for welcoming a strike. As far as I know, neither has been pressured by authorities, let alone punished. Both of these writers may also be free spirits with the courage of their opinions. If ever the word gets out to the masses that hatred of Israel is irrational and counterproductive then there will be a repeat of perestroika and the Arab Spring will become a reality.

The Demonization of Jews by the British Establishment



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Gerald Scarfe is the main cartoonist of the Sunday Times of London, and that newspaper sells over a million copies and is addressed to educated people. The latest cartoon is a caricature of Benjamin Netanyahu, looking murderous, holding a bloody trowel with which he is building a wall. The body parts and tortured faces of Palestinian men and women are depicted in this wall. The caption reads, “Israeli elections. Will Cementing Peace Continue?”

A Liberal Democrat member of parliament by the name of David Ward coincidentally issues a statement accusing Jews “within a few years of liberation from the death camps” of “inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new state of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”

The Sunday Times and the Liberal Democrat party aren’t sets of mindless street brawlers like the pre-war British fascists but defining components of the Establishment. For years, the media have been misrepresenting the Palestinians as blameless underdogs who want nothing but peace and never do anything that might drive Jews to defend themselves. Scarfe and Ward evidently believe that their demonization of Jews is neither shocking nor repulsive but a rightful and heart-felt expression of public opinion. So liberals and leftists easily finish up as storm-troopers after all.

Great Britain to Exit the EU?



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For years now, I have experienced the strange sense of living in a Britain that is abandoning its identity, and might even disintegrate. The country is the fourth or fifth largest economy in the world. Educated and creative people are all around. The proposition that others had to govern us has always been incomprehensible. Did the British lose an empire only to be incorporated in someone else’s empire?

Part of the strangeness was that Conservative prime ministers advocated this surrender. Mrs. Thatcher, a patriot, resisted only when she was out of office. Apparently the Conservative party could not stand up for its beliefs and would let itself be destroyed. David Cameron has at last made a speech to the contrary. It is not the Churchillian speech required by the circumstances, but a good speech none the less. He claims — I imagine masking the truth — to want the country to stay in the European Union. He proposes to negotiate over the next four years — repeat four — for terms that allow for membership and independence. Then a referendum in 2017 will decide whether Britain is to stay in or get out. One of the many fools who populate the Obama administration instantly spouted that the United States wants Britain to stay in, apparently unaware that in this course of action America’s most reliable ally would become a small part of a bloc designed to stand against America. The polls gave Cameron a boost. A large unanswered question is what he will do if the Europeans refuse to negotiate. It’s been a long decline, and Cameron can be accused of playing for more time, but the first irreversible step has been taken, and Britain at last looks likely to leave the EU and recover itself.

Coincidental with Cameron’s speech, someone called Neelie Kroes illustrated why Britain must have nothing to do with the EU. Not one in a hundred thousand Brits have heard of this Dutch lady, who occupies the grand position of vice president of the European Commission (the body akin to a civil service, unelected, but giving the orders). She commissioned a report that recommends EU control of the media in every country: watchdogs, fines, permanent banning of journalists, all to ensure that standards “comply with European values.” The blood freezes.

On a different note, the death of Robert Kee reminds me of something he used to tell. Robert was a television personality, a novelist and historian of Irish troubles. A pilot in the war, he had been shot down, captured and finished up in a prisoner-of-war camp some miles outside Dresden. In February 1945, Stalin requested the bombing of Dresden to prevent German reinforcements coming through to the eastern front. The British consented, and are sometimes accused of committing a war crime. Robert in his camp could see the night sky illuminated by flames, and he and the other prisoners cheered and sang the national anthem.

They Never Would Be Slaves?



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Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin are Christians who have had their lives made miserable for their faith. Nadia Eweida wore a silver cross on a chain round her neck, until her employers, British Airways, suspended her for it. Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, for 30 years had a crucifix on a necklace over her uniform, and the management of the Royal Devon National Health Hospital ordered her to remove it, on the absurd grounds of health and safety. A patient, they said, might have an accident pulling it. At the same moment, Gary McFarlane, a marriage counselor, and Lillian Ladele, a registrar, have also given offence on account of their Christian conscience. Neither had any objection to homosexuality as such, but Mr. McFarlane asked to be excused from counseling same-sex couples, and Miss Ladele from marrying them. Both were fired.

Legal proceedings finished in front of seven judges, none of them British, in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This court found in favor only of Miss Eweida; BA had interfered with her right to express her religion. Rejecting the claims of the three other defendants, the court is giving priority to political correctness over freedom of religious conscience.

Many sad aspects come together. The childish conformity of those taking these decisions to ban religious symbolism on behalf of BA and that Royal Devon hospital is unimaginable. One prejudice is being utilized to suppress another prejudice. Freedom of worship is compromised. Christianity is further marginalized. Not a single churchman has come forward to defend these Christians, or if there is one, then he is doing it so discreetly that the mainstream media do not report him. Saddest of all, foreign judges now decide the behavior and beliefs of British people. Those same British people once used to sing that they never never never would be slaves.

The Mess in Mali



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Failed states are common these days, and the latest of them is Mali. Most of it is the Sahara desert, awesome and beautiful in its way but not productive. When I was there, the British taxpayer had just made a gift to the Malians of 250 Land Rovers. Vandalized as soon as they were unloaded, 250 unusable carcasses filled a derelict lot. After the desert came miles and miles of sandy scrub, with here and there villages too remote to be in touch with each other. The villagers had open sores due to diet deficiencies which should have been easy and cheap to remedy.

Nomads, the Tuaregs are different from the villagers. They have their own language, too recently codified to have a literature yet. The men are tall, turbaned and often veiled, and nobody is allowed to see Tuareg women. There’s not much to be done locally except camel-herding, so Tuaregs enrolled as mercenaries in Libya. Some seem to have been with Qaddhafi to the end. Returning embittered to Mali, they staged a coup, drove out the president and declared the Tuareg state of Azawad.

It’s none too clear how al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQIM for short, got into the act, but they did. So did affiliates and rival groups, all of whom are now struggling for power in a free-for-all of Islamists and war-lords. Reports describe public executions and floggings, and the destruction, Taliban-style, of historic mosques and mausoleums built of hardened mud bricks for Sufis, that is to say the wrong kind of Muslims. On my journey towards Gao and Timbuktoo in old days, I stopped in the desert to search for the battlefield where the Moroccan sultan had conquered the Songhrai emperor in the fifteenth century. Out of nowhere, the police arrived and stuck a parking ticket on our Land Rover, with a penalty larger than the one current in London. Three days of negotiation followed with the police chief, the chef de gendarmerie.

Mali now is like Somalia, Afghanistan, or Yemen, a mess that nobody has any practical ideas for cleaning up. The African neighbors know the danger. Nigeria is already bedeviled by the Islamist fanatics of a movement called Boko Haram. The United Nations, France, the Obama administration, occasionally chatter in a way that proves their lack of resolve and inability to get to grips. Another part of the landscape is disappearing, as it looks as though nobody yet is likely to give even a parking ticket to AQIM and the Islamists.

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