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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

A Concept’s Time Has Come and Gone



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In these glum days we have to find comfort where we can, and the Daily Telegraph tells me that Charles Saatchi has offered his collection of 200 examples of conceptual art to the nation, and the nation has refused them. The purpose of art is to make a statement about the human condition. The purpose of conceptual art is for the artist to make a statement about himself, to do with cows sawn in half, sharks pickled in formaldehyde, life-size naked figures strung up by their feet, and such-like. So the words “art” and “artist” ought to be replaced by ”quirk” and “exhibitionist” or “Narcissist.”  The Daily Telegraph spells out a few names, “Jake and Dinos Chapman, the Indian artist Jitish Kallat and Tracey Emin, whose unmade bed, My Bed, came to symbolise the young British Artists movement of the 1990s.”

You have to give it to Charles Saatchi. He’s the doyen of public relations, and he was using its techniques to create a market.  He’s been searching for unknown exhibitionists whose quirks he could buy at opening prices and hang in his private gallery. On the basis of sponsorship by someone so successful in the public-relations field, reputations and prices rose. Saatchi’s collection has been valued at tens of millions of pounds.

Tate Modern under its director Nicolas Serota is a home for quirks and exhibitionism but it nonetheless did not want Saatchi’s bequest. Nor did the Arts Council, the government-funded agency for the arts. Like sub-prime mortgages or Greek government bonds, conceptual art is proving just another bubble whose time to burst has come.

Stalin Creep



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Let’s remember the names of the three Russian girls now turning their country upside down — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, or more simply Nadya, Masha and Katya. They form a group called Pussy Riot, and staged a “Punk Prayer” on the altar steps of the cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. This involved shouting, “Mother of God, drive out Putin.” No doubt this performance was vulgar, even blasphemous. No doubt too the group’s name and antics are copied from Western pop-folk — I cannot call them artists.  But they were arrested, they have spent the last five months in prison, and now been brought to trial handcuffed to butch female warders who might have come straight from Gulag or even Buchenwald.  In pure totalitarian style, the verdict had been pre-arranged. In 179 trials, Judge Maria Syrova, a Party hack if ever there was one, has given just one verdict of not-guilty. The girls received sentences of two years. Their lawyers said they would appeal, and one of them risked his own future by adding that the girls would not humiliate themselves by begging pardon from “such a bastard” as Putin.

Putin is emulating Stalin in coercing the people, but the difference today is that a good number of them are not afraid of the consequences of open opposition. Outside the court Nadia’s husband declared, “I feel like we have to make a revolution.”  Demonstrations broke out in Moscow and then in New York, Paris, Brussels, Sofia, and other cities. The KGB-like police have arrested a number of opposition activists, for instance Gary Kasparov. One of the White House spokesmen who give the regular impression of being born without a spine, said that he was “deeply disappointed,” while his opposite number in the British Foreign Office was “deeply concerned.” They must just want the laughter to echo round the Kremlin and the dispatch of some champagne to Judge Syrova, for her participation in creating political prisoners once again in the country.

When the Emperor Napoleon ordered the judicial execution of a harmless Duke, Talleyrand  — a diplomat from the days before the lily-livered official creeps of the present — made the unforgettable crack that this was “worse than a crime, a mistake.” The Pussy Riot girls are also harmless, and Putin has made a mistake. Violence is more and more likely to overtake his intention to remain dictator until well into the next decade.

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Cultural Dishonor



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Mitt Romney lately made the very obvious point that Muslims are held back by a culture that keeps them bound in past customs, some of them really harmful, and blocks modernizing. It is election time, so critics tried to make out that he should not have said it. Such critics would do well to reflect on a case of honor killing in Britain.

Farzana and Iftikhar Ahmad came to Britain from a remote village on the northeast frontier of Pakistan. They brought with them a view of the world so limited that it may properly be called inhuman. In this culture men do what they please. Mr. Ahmad married a Danish woman and had a son with her before abandoning them. He saw nothing wrong with being an adulterer, a bigamist, and an absent father. Settling with Mrs. Ahmad in Warrington, Cheshire, he had four daughters. Again, in this culture, women are held to embody the honor of the family and the community, their marriages are arranged, and any sign of independence on their part brings shame. This is wiped out by an “honor killing,” a not very satisfactory euphemism for murder.

One of the daughters, 17-year-old Shafilia, had English friends, wrote poetry, wanted to be a lawyer; in other words, was Westernized. Shafilia asked the police and social workers for protection, but they turned a blind eye. One day in 2003 Mr. and Mrs. Ahmad held her down on a sofa, and Mrs Ahmad, her mother, said, “Just finish it here.” They suffocated her by stuffing plastic bags down her throat. The other daughters watched. It has taken until now to bring the Ahmads to court, a process which of course the Ahmads charged was “racism.” The judge put his finger on the crime with the words, “an expectation that she live in a sealed cultural environment separate from the culture of the country in which she lived was unrealistic, destructive and cruel.” He sentenced both Ahmads to life imprisonment.

I may be wrong, but I can find no outcry against the practice of honor killing. An independent member of the local Police Authority, Salma Afzal, herself another Muslim, flatly gave a figure of 10,000 honor crimes a year, but even more flatly went on, “We don’t know how many women disappear.” The authorities, the human-rights throng, the columnists and do-gooders, apparently have no intention to push for preventive action, but are willing to wait out these killings and with luck then punish the killers. This is a domestic microcosm of the much larger clash of cultures brought upon the whole world by the likes of the Iranian ayatollahs and the Muslim Brothers whose intention is to kill everyone outside their Muslim culture.

Damaging Bunkum



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Nil de mortuis nisi bunkum, as the ancient Romans so well expressed the decorum that anyone writing an obituary about the recent dead should keep in mind. The death of Gore Vidal spurred The Times of London yesterday into a magnificent outburst of bunkum. The paper carried five items about him, a two page obituary, an editorial with the title “The Best Man,” and no less than three separate articles, and all of it eulogy.

Here is an outstanding example of the way the media manipulate public opinion and so create fake reputations. Vidal became a media mascot by imputing every sort of evil to his own country. That’s what they want to hear out there, isn’t it, that the United States is going down, and deserves to, though it’s taking the world with it. Besides, Vidal was connected to some upper class people, so he must have been telling it like it is. One of the Times eulogists heard a critic on television describe his novels as meretricious. To which Vidal responded, “meretricious — and a happy new year.” Someone will have to explain to me why this journalist thinks that ranks Vidal as a wit the equal of Oscar Wilde.

For the record, I have never succeeded in reading more than a few pages of a Vidal novel. Twice I have been sent books of his to review, and twice I had to return them because there is nothing to them except concealed boasting. Devoid of interest in anything human, the writer’s voice oppresses. For the record again, I can’t remember meeting anyone so full of himself as Vidal. Oozing self-love, he was insufferable. I crossed the room to avoid him. The bunkum will fade fast, but it has done the damage of keeping out better writers and making a travesty out of what long ago was a living culture.

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The Moral Equivalent of War



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I find it difficult to get my head round the fighting in Aleppo. Are the great walls and the citadel and musty old Barons Hotel where Lawrence of Arabia signed the visitors’ book about to be flattened? Such destruction would be a loss for humankind comparable to the destruction some years ago of Sarajevo where all sorts of institutions including museums and libraries were hit. How is such a fate to be avoided? These cases, and many just like them, are genuine tests of strength, with winners and losers. So great are the rewards, so punishing is failure, that those engaged resort to extremes. Scruples are inhibiting, no more than a sign of weakness.

William James, the philosophical brother of the novelist Henry James, proposed a solution: We needed what he called in a fine phrase, “the moral equivalent of war.” Obviously there was no moral equivalent that could have saved Sarajevo or Aleppo. It’s all about the killing of your enemy and the disposal of him on your terms. That’s been going on in this part of the world for centuries. “Once in Aleppo a base Turk I slew,” Shakespeare makes Othello say in a version of “him or me.”

The quite widespread view that the Olympic Games are a moral equivalent of war seems untenable. That torch parade round the country where the Games are held is a legacy from Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer, the impresario who delivered just what his patron wanted. There is something totalitarian about it, and about the conception of purpose-built new stadiums and columns of athletes marching in step under their national flag. What on earth is the point of national teams with national flags when the Games exist to discover the individual with the top performance? Instead of being the moral equivalent of war, this is more like war by other means.  The East Germans used to be outstanding at this, giving the impression that they were a power to be reckoned with. At the moment China heads the table with many more medals than the United States, and millions will be drawing the conclusion that the former is winning a war that is very real though undeclared, while the latter is losing it.

                                                                                                                                                                                        

A Copy-Cat Mass-Murderer



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You have to have strong nerves to look at the videos of the dreadful scenes in Syria. Day after day, the television channels are showing corpses, and the commentators add to the horror by saying that the films cannot be verified — the implication being that they have been faked. Damascus and Aleppo now undergo heavy shelling and bombing. When Hitler’s Luftwaffe destroyed Rotterdam or Belgrade, the world learnt of it without benefit of video film of these events. When Hafez Assad smashed Hama in 1982 and killed tens of thousands of his people, he could still do so more or less secretly. His son and successor, Bashar Assad, is a copy-cat mass-murderer out in the open.

In the sad days of Hafez Assad, I became familiar with some instinct inborn in every Middle Easterner, which is to sense the degree of danger pertaining around you. The mood on the street is all the information necessary. You just have that prickle that something bad is about to happen. Syrians mostly did not dare to meet someone researching a book like me. Those who did usually behaved like secret policemen. I have paid bribes to more officials in Syria than in any other country.

Damascus is a wonderful and historic city long in the grip of habitual thuggery. One day I saw overt secret policemen beating people away from the famous souk because half a dozen women from the Saudi royal harem did not want to be observed shopping. On another day, my wife and I were visiting the Great Mosque which has the head supposedly of John the Baptist, when a crowd gathered round us and someone slipped a black abaya over her head while whispering, “I will save you from the fanatics.”

On yet another trip I had made sure that nothing revealed the fact that I had come from Israel. In my hotel room I suddenly saw that I had talcum powder bought in Tel Aviv, with a giveaway label in Hebrew. White powder, no scent — Mossad or what. I threw the canister out of the window, where it lay on the lawn in full view. Retrieval would obviously compromise me. It wasn’t paranoia. Hafez was easily recognizable as a cunning brute. How trivial the opposition to him now seems, games-playing really, as Russian-made fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships are raising fire and flame on behalf of another brute, this one just a crude killer.

Kill-or-Be-Killed



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Put yourself into the shoes of Bashar Assad. He and his wife and children could make a run for it, and the Russian soldiers and sailors in the port of Tartus are no doubt on standby to ship him to Moscow. But what is there to do there? No more power, no more looting billions from the Syrian state, no more travel in case someone thinks of arrest and an international court. Besides, the Syrian state forces are huge, and far better equipped than the raggle-taggle opponents.

The rewards that come from fighting it out successfully, then, look more appealing than the loss and the risks of throwing the hand in. And in any case the political culture dictates the decision to fight it out. There aren’t — and never have been — the institutions to mediate clashes of interests, and so victory goes to the strongest and everyone else has to make what terms they can with that. The one certain way of dislodging the strong man is to kill him, and his only certain insurance against such a fate is to get his killing in first.

Since the Arabs obtained independence, kill-or-be-killed has been the ultimate political mainspring of their politics. In a ghastly precedent, the Hashemite family once ruling Iraq, and their prime minister Nuri Said, were trampled to death by a mob in the street. King Abdullah of Jordan, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein, Saad Hariri, Moammar Qaddafi — their fates illustrate what happens in the operation of this political culture.

Torture, massacre, and defilement of the dead replace every moral consideration in people afraid that they are likely to be killed. The murder with a bomb of Assef Shawkat, Bashar’s brother-in-law, is certain to up violence in reprisal. But the more Bashar and his henchmen in the Alawite minority kill the majority Sunnis, the closer comes the threat that they will use their chemical weapons. When push came to shove for Saddam Hussein in another frightful precedent, he saw no obstacle to gassing his Kurdish minority.

Bashar Assad had the opportunity to break the regressive political culture, but instead he exemplifies it. Russia and China and Iran form an Unholy Alliance that licenses his rule and ensures that the political culture of kill-or-be-killed has to work its grim way out. He will not be regretted, but unless or until that same political culture is reformed it must repeat itself in any successor, and everyone is going to have to fear whatever then happens.

José Manuel Barroso, Comedian



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Someone called José Manuel Barroso a great stand-up comic. He has only to come to the microphone, open his mouth and a belly laugh runs through Europe. True, as the president of the European Commission he’s only one among others appointed to impersonate a president, all of them Great Men by tacit agreement among themselves. In Mexico recently he did a splendid turn about having nothing to learn from the United States. Now he excels himself by telling the British that they have an international role but it depends on staying in the EU. What a jolly paradox! And if they leave the EU then Britain will be like Norway and Switzerland. Groucho Marx couldn’t have put it better.

Norway and Switzerland indeed! The former has the second highest GDP in the world, the latter the fourth highest. Offered the choice between being another Norway or Switzerland, and continuing under the thumb of Great Men like Barroso, pretty well every British voter will opt out of the EU. The return of sovereignty is coming anyhow, as the alternative is unemployment currently at 11 percent in the EU, riots and bloodshed, and poverty at Third World levels because there isn’t the money to bail out the culture of entitlement.  The death throes are unpleasant, but at least we have Barroso to distract us.

Mrs. Clinton’s Deluded Statement



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The United States has no policy towards Syria, and it shows. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the awkward position of trying to make something out of nothing. Things are going from bad to worse in Syria, and all Mrs. Clinton finds to do is to make a statement that the departure from that country of Manaf Tlass is a positive step. “Regime insiders and the military establishment,” she burbles, “are starting to vote with their feet.”

In reality, the entire Tlass family embody everything that is harmful in Arab political culture. The one and only principle of such people is to do whatever advances them, and everyone else can go to the wall. Sunnis themselves, they have become rich and powerful by obsequious service to the ruling Alawite dictators, first Hafez Assad and then his son Bashar. The head of the family is Mustapha Tlass, and as Minister of Defense for 32 years, no less, he made sure to reward himself. A master of crude brutality, he boasted that he gave the orders that led to the killing of 241 U.S. marines in Beirut, and also to the beheading of 28 Israelis taken prisoner in the Yom Kippur war. He had a publishing company whose purpose was to market racist rubbish about Jews, putting his name to some of it. For the past year or so he has been in Paris.

In the usual manner of these careerists, Mustapha has made use of his offspring. Manaf was promoted a general in the regime’s elite forces, most of them Alawites now busily butchering Sunnis by the thousand. Another son, Firas, heads a company identified as MAS, which has a monopoly supplying the army with the weapons doing the butchering. They have left Syria but they are not voting with their feet, in Mrs. Clinton’s deluded phrase; they are calculating their next advance. All that can be expected of such odious opportunists is more of the same.

Western Wrongs



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Bashar Assad looked a beaten man in the interview he gave a few days ago. When he said that his responsibility as president was to fight the “terrorists” you could see from his expression that he knew how false and feeble he sounded. At the outset early last year, he could have maneuvered to keep power through skillful compromise, on the lines of the Army Council now ruling Egypt. Deliberately limiting his options, he made sure to engage in a test of strength. That is consistent with the culture, witness how Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddhafi and many another Arab ruler had done the very same. And it is why the notion going round that the Arabs are progressing towards democracy is wishful thinking. To be interpreting events according to Western culture is to be condescending and wrong. 

In the last few days at least 1,000 Syrians have been killed. It is all too likely that the total figure of 15,000 dead is too low by a factor of three and even four. Blood-letting and savagery on this scale makes it impossible for Bashar to revert to being the head of state that he was. By now, his sole available option is more force. Sure enough, helicopter gunships are flying over Damascus and other towns. The shooting down of a Turkish jet follows the strict logic of a ruler who has engaged in a trial of strength. Another Turkish jet coming close, or Turkish tanks crossing the border, would up the level of violence. If it so chooses, Turkey can exercise the option to wage war.

In this pass, the West has no idea what to do. Geneva is a city prone to stage treachery and delusion, but even so it is hard to credit that Hillary Clinton would allow herself at the start of the meeting there about Syria to appear on television giggling and shaking hands with the odious Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister and prime accomplice in murder. Unchecked, Bashar’s test of strength will go to extremes and end in catastrophe. This is a moment when the whole Western order is proving its irrelevance.

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Islamism’s Time



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Midway through the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, I used to go to Cairo more or less every year. The traffic in the city reflects a society in which the law is merely indicative and it is every man for himself. So I relied on Muhammad who became a friend as much as a driver. He used to warn that time was running out, the Muslim Brothers would inevitably take over Egypt, and that meant disaster. I can still see the look of unhappy resignation on his face.

The Muslim Brothers have always been prepared to use force in order to obtain power. All Egyptian presidents from Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat to Mubarak have kept the Muslim Brothers in check through superior force. The modern history of Egypt really consists of the struggle between these two incompatible groupings, the one standing for ideology, the other for privilege. Now and again the army would sweep up a few hundred Muslim Brothers, and execute some by way of frightening the population. Acts like the assassination of Sadat showed the extreme to which Muslim Brothers might go but on the whole they have been tacticians skilful enough to keep the army at bay. They had only to wait their time in the belief that the Islamist revolution that turned Iran into a Shia dictatorship was bound to turn Egypt into a Sunni dictatorship.

The crude dumping of Mubarak by his army colleagues put them irretrievably on the back foot. One false move led to another. They put themselves in the position of trying to fix elections to parliament and the presidency, rigging the committee set up to draft a new constitution, playing games between their candidate Ahmad Shafiq and the Muslim Brothers Muhammad al-Morsi, and all for the sake of continuing to enjoy privilege.

In theory the generals can fight a rearguard action, holding on by cunning and if necessary, violence. In practice the new president and the Muslim Brothers are in a position to claim that they have the superior force of Islam and revolution. It so happens that the Turkish Islamists have just got the Turkish army out of its political role, imprisoning scores of senior officers on the way. This is the time of Islamism everywhere, and millions like Muhammad my driver have no choice but to survive it as best they can, with law as indicative as ever and every man still for himself. 

Kissing the Feet of the Masters of Europe



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What a mess Europe is in! The election in Greece can only leave things as wretched as they were before. Greece has debts that its economy is too limited ever to repay. Whoever governs the country will have to kiss the feet of the masters of Europe for years to come. Meanwhile there are shortages of food and medicines, wages even for government employees are not paid, one person in four is unemployed, the suicide rate has gone from being one of the lowest in the world to one of the highest, the flight of money from Greek banks is already in the billions — in short, the country is breaking apart. Humanitarian aid will be needed soon.

Only a whisker separates the winning party of New Democracy under Antonis Samaras from Syriza, the party of Alexis Tsipras. Samaras will be able to govern only if he can form a coalition, but he already proved he couldn’t manage this after the earlier election six weeks ago. The former politician is said to be right-wing, the latter left-wing, but the distinction has little meaning. Both propose to keep the euro, in other words they declare willingness to kiss the feet of the masters of Europe in the expectation that obeisance will be rewarded with funds, more and more, larger and larger. At the end of that route lies a single federal monetary authority responsible for every EU budget. Never mind that there isn’t time for anything of the kind; people throughout the EU, the Germans especially, are determined not to surrender national sovereignty.

The masters of Europe have always been a small band of men determined to impose their idealized political vision even if this proved akin to a dictatorship. Fortunately stopping short of violence, they were very like the Bolsheviks in mistaking their fantasy of unity for reality. It took eighty years and much suffering to be rid of the Bolshevik fantasy. The best that can be said of this election is that if the Greeks don’t manage to rid themselves of the euro fantasy others will do it for them.

A New Burial Place for Lenin?



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One of the few features of Communism that can induce a smile is how reputations and monuments have to change in conformity with the party line. So yesterday’s Supreme Leader is transformed on the spot into today’s great monster. They made it harder for themselves in the old Soviet Union by embalming Lenin and Stalin and exhibiting them in a mausoleum on the edge of Red Square in Moscow. Stalin was put there in a mass ceremony that got so out of control that about 500 of the faithful were trampled to death. Side by side, the two were the same sinister color, giving rise to repeated rumors that they were actually waxworks. A few years later, Stalin was held to have perverted Leninist Communism, and his corpse was surreptitiously removed and buried elsewhere. “To each his mausoleum” is a slogan that has continued to fit Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh.

After the Soviet collapse, Bulgarians exceptionally vandalized the mausoleum erected in central Sofia for Georgi Dimitrov, once the head of the Comintern. The place became a dump. Boris Yeltsin as president of newly minted Russia tried to turf out Lenin but couldn’t manage it. Now Vladimir Medinsky has his turn. As the minister of culture just appointed by a Vladimir Putin claiming freehold rights to the Kremlin, he proposes to rebury Lenin and convert the Red Square mausoleum into a museum for some unspecified purpose. As befits present-day practice, however, entrance tickets will be expensive. Putin maintains in public that the Soviet collapse has been a world disaster. Spokesmen in the opposition wonder whether Medinsky and Putin aren’t playing games. Until such time as Putin ceases to believe that the Soviet collapse has been a world disaster, Lenin is sure to go on making the flesh of Red Square visitors creep.

Making a Bad Case Worse



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Drive anywhere along the coasts of Spain and you see new half-built housing that will never be finished and is already in ruins. Years of disastrous decision-making have gone into making what was bound to be a bubble that must burst. So Spain has to be bailed out with $100 billion just to tide it over for the time being. After only a few hours, the markets realized that this sum is about 10 percent of Spanish GDP, it expands the country’s national debt by an even higher percentage, and Spanish taxpayers are in no position to repay the sum. It’s a classic example of making a bad case worse.

Cyprus is next in line to be bailed out and can wait only a matter of days for the money. The Greeks have a general election coming, also in a matter of days, that will decide whether they get more money. Italy’s up next. Nominally the EU Commissioner for economic affairs is responsible for dealing with all this, and his name is Olli Rehn, a Finn. He’s happy that Spain gets the money on more favorable terms than Ireland, thus setting one country against the other. Furthermore he advocates a single banking and financial authority for all EU countries. The resulting loss of control of their budgets is for these countries really an irrevocable loss of national sovereignty. Insurrection is the likely response to anything of that kind. Rehn is out of his depth in this crisis, but nevertheless with a gift for making a bad case worse.

Negotiation with Iran over its nuclear program is another masterly example of making a bad case worse. For Iran, the issue is inextricably entwined with considerations of honor. To accede to any Western demands would bring shame, and the ayatollahs are therefore bound to resist. Threats on the part of President Obama and his officials are evidently mere posturings and leave them looking ridiculous. As for Syria, Hillary Clinton and William Hague make a point of declaring at intervals that Bashar Assad must go while simultaneously promising to take no steps that might actually bring about his downfall. This open invitation to Assad and his Russian allies to do their worst with impunity is a sure-fire way to turn civil war into regional war.

The name of Count Oxenstierna probably rings no bell, but this 17th-century Swedish statesman did make an observation to his son that applies very exactly to most things happening these days: “Do you not know, my son, with what little wisdom the world is governed?”

Celebrating Almost the Only Monarchy Left



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Britain has been holding a party all its own. A most unusual party, what’s more, to celebrate the fact that Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne for 60 years. Someone had the inspiration that the Queen should sail in the ornate and historic royal barge down the Thames with a flotilla of a thousand boats following. Dressed in a white outfit without a coat, she was to stand in the prow of her barge hour after hour, in what would have been an ordeal for someone half her age.

The weather was miserable, with much cold rain. Nevertheless a million people at the lowest estimate lined the river’s embankments, and they cheered and waved Union Jack flags all day long. What explains the enthusiasm running so wild? Well, the boats were an unforgettable spectacle, a Canaletto painting come to life for an occasion that will never be repeated, with allusions to Handel’s “Water Music” and Dunkirk 1940. It was also possible to sense in the camaraderie of the crowd something more profound. The standing of the country is not what it was; the Empire is no more; nobody can be sure whether there are now any moral absolutes governing behavior; and tomorrow may see a variety of political and economic crashes. None of this is the Queen’s fault. She’s setting the example of how to carry on regardless.

On the day of this Diamond Jubilee, by pure coincidence, Hosni Mubarak, former president of Egypt, was sentenced to life imprisonment allegedly for having ordered his security forces to open fire on demonstrators. Mubarak was the latest in a line of army officers who had replaced the Egyptian monarchy. They were nationalist and socialist, or in one word, fascistic. King Farouk had abdicated the moment army officers had staged their coup, and in exile he let drop the remark, “Soon there will be only five kings left in the world, the King of England, and the kings of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades.” That’s the point. The British monarchy survives by representing everything the nation once was, and what the British people would plainly wish it still to be.

George V., R.I.P.



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The Daily Telegraph specializes in carrying obituaries that draw attention to people who have done something remarkable about which the public knows little or nothing.  George Vujnovich is a case in point. He had his moment of inspired heroism and deserves to be commemorated.

Born in Pittsburgh as the son of Serb immigrants, he happened to be studying in Belgrade in 1941 when the Germans invaded and conquered Yugoslavia.  Escaping home, he was recruited into the OSS, the Office for Strategic Services, the war-time intelligence service and fore-runner to the CIA. He was then stationed in Bari, in southern Italy, in co-operation with British counterparts from SOE, or Special Operations Executive. The overt struggle against the occupying Germans concealed the simultaneous struggle waged between Communist partisans under Josip Tito and the militia of Colonel Draja Mihailovich, a Serb and a royalist. At stake was the future of that whole country.

Three hundred and fifty Allied bombers had been shot down during raids in the Balkans and Vojnovich made it his mission to bring home all the airmen who had bailed out. Most of these were in territory controlled by Mihailovich. However, SOE in Bari was in the hands of Communists. James Klugmann, a member of the British Party’s Central Committee, and his assistant Basil Davidson, were falsifying reports of the campaign against the Germans in order to persuade Churchill to drop Mihailovich in favor of Tito — Churchill afterwards recorded in his memoirs that this was the worst mistake he made in the war. The airmen themselves had to improvise a runway for aircraft to land, but the first six attempts to rescue them failed. The Telegraph obituary says that the OSS “began to suspect sabotage from communist moles in the SOE.” Misled by these traitors, Churchill had tried to stop Vujnovich. OSS’s director, William “Wild Bill” Donovan appealed to President Roosevelt, and is quoted saying to him, “Screw the British! Let’s get our boys out!”  In the end 512 airmen were flown out to safety without a single casualty or the loss of an aircraft. The Germans never discovered the runway.

After the war, Tito arranged for Mihailovich to be put on trial and shot. One of the more shameful features of the Cold War was the way the Western Allies excused Tito’s crimes and his Communism. For fear of giving offense, Vujnovich’s feat was carefully obscured. “We couldn’t get the truth out,” the Telegraph reports him saying as late as 2008, “Everything was covered up from beginning to end.”

It seems fitting that after the war he became a successful businessman supplying aircraft parts. He lived in New York and died there, aged 97. R.I.P.

Bunny Business



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The crisis of the European Union is gathering pace, several countries within it face insoluble economic distress, the euro is unlikely to survive this year, a number of banks are technically bankrupt – and what’s been exercising the great men with their hands on destiny? The chocolate bunny made by the famous Swiss firm of Lindt, that’s what.

The great men have been examining this chocolate bunny, and they don’t like the way it is wrapped in gold foil and has a red ribbon round its neck. This is “not sufficiently different,” so they say, from the wrappings of other chocolate products. Apparently Lindt has failed to establish the bunny’s “inherent distinctive character.” And the European Court of Justice accordingly issues a fatwa.

Imagine it. Grown men, highly paid bureaucrats, have laboured through years of committee meetings, travelling from 27 countries to attend, amassing files with pleas and recommendations for and against, when it’s all about concealed protectionism for chocolate bunnies that aren’t as popular as Swiss. Hitherto their masterstroke had been the specification of the permissible curvature of the banana. Ordinary people can respond only with a belly laugh – and this may be the only joyful thing to remember when the death throes of this whole preposterous experiment are over at last.

 

 

The Death of European Culture



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Until about a century ago, European culture was a standard for the rest of the world to emulate. Now it is moribund or non-existent. Several commentators of the caliber of Niall Ferguson and Mark Steyn have been saying for some time that the game is up for Europe. It jolted me when not long ago a book of Walter Laqueur’s foresaw that the whole continent was turning into nothing but a tourist trap, with museum attendants and gondoliers and the like preserving the past just to live off it. Perhaps it is coincidence, but in the years since the European Union imposed itself nothing of any cultural significance has been produced under its auspices.

I am in Italy where the newspapers convey this sense of dying out. Here’s an issue of the left-wing La Repubblica with one downbeat headline after another: for instance, “Too much sacrifice and little hope,” or “the Economy is to blame for so many human dramas.” One article states that more than 1,000 businesses are closing each month, and another records how the unemployed are committing suicide, leaving notes like this one from a man who hanged himself in Salerno: “I’m afraid of the taxes to be paid, I’m afraid of what’s awaiting me.”

“Americans in Florence” is a wonderful exhibition in the Strozzi palace that gives a glimpse of how very different things were when Europe still mattered for its creativity. At the end of the 19th century American artists came to that city to absorb its culture. John Singer Sargent was one who painted in the great tradition. His portrait of Henry James, bequeathed by James himself to the National Portrait Gallery in London, shows a man of the same stamp, able and willing to be the master of them all. I knew little or nothing of artists such as Frank Duveneck, the Fabbri brother and sister, Frank Weston Benson and others, but the energy with which they threw themselves into everything around them is unmistakable. The thought came to me unbidden that this American interest in human life is the cultural dynamic that Europeans have lost and that Islamists with their vaunted love of death could never know.

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