Sunday, 3 June 2007

Luntz's Logical Lapses?

Chrisco is back, after being rather busy travelling around Latin America and attempting to save the world (not at the same time).

Readers of Liberal Review and Politicalbetting will know that I have in the past raised some questions about the practices of Frank Luntz (here) and here.

It appears that we Irish seem to be much more skeptical about Dr. Luntz (anyone who saw the roasting he got from John Bowman during RTE's coverage of the Irish elections will know what I am talking about).

A piece in today's Sunday Independent seems to add to the impression that Frank's snakeoil is much more saleable in GB than IE.

'How Luntz logic pulls a Rabbitte from the hat

"Luntz blames the leader, and exonerates the Fine Gael party. Enda Kenny, it seems, can do no right. He was a constraint on the party.

The Luntz suggestion is that Kenny, who has just organised the party's greatest recovery, should be dropped as Fine Gael leader, if the party hopes to advance further.

It is a strange analysis that defies not just logic but the plain facts and simple common sense. Never mind that Enda Kenny has brought Fine Gael and Labour close to power, when Labour, the Greens and the support of some independents are included: in fact, they are within a couple of seats of forming a government."

Perhaps Frank's dials just don't work as well here; or maybe it's just because he is from the outset breaking the fundamental rule of Irish politics, repeated by a retiring senior TD to a journalist when the election was called. "Never try to apply logic or reason to Irish politics, because if you do you'll just get hurt."

Friday, 16 February 2007

From lecture theatre to court room; reflections on the U.S.

Not mine, though; those of Prof. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, as published in The Independent. I have been writing about the U.S. rather a lot in the past week, but I was reminded of this thoughtful and insightful article by my reflections on the American South of the other day.

"No one truly knows a nation," said Nelson Mandela, "until one has been inside its gaols." Last week, after living in the USA for more than a year without understanding the country, I acquired - briefly - a gaolbird's authority. I can now share insights you can only get from being assaulted by the police and locked up for hours in the company of some of the most deprived and depraved dregs of the American underclass.

For someone like me - a mild-mannered, middle-aged professor of scholarly proclivities, blameless habits, and frail physique - it was shocking, traumatising and deeply educational. It all started on my first morning in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was attending the annual conference of the American Historical Association. Unwittingly, I crossed a street at what I later learnt was an unauthorised crossing. I had seen plenty of pedestrians precede me. There was no traffic in sight and no danger to me or anyone else.

Apparently, however, as I was later told, "jaywalking" is a criminal offence in the State of Georgia. But I had no idea I had done anything wrong.

A young man in a bomber jacket accosted me, claiming to be a policeman, but with no visible evidence of his status. We got locked in mutual misunderstanding, demanding each other's ID. I mistook the normal attitude of an Atlanta cop for arrogance, aggression and menace. He, I suppose, mistook the normal demeanour of an ageing and old-fashioned European intellectual for prevarication or provocation.

His behaviour baffled me even before he lost patience with me, kicked my legs from under me, knocked my glasses from my nose, wrestled me to the ground, and with the help of four or five other burly policemen who suddenly appeared on the scene, ripped my coat, scattered my books in the gutter, handcuffed me, and pinioned me painfully to the concrete.

I was bundled into a filthy paddy-wagon with some rather unsavoury-looking fellow-prisoners and spent eight hours in the degrading, frightening environment of the downtown detention centre, with no humiliation spared: mugshot, fingerprinting, intrusive search, medical examination, and the frustration of understanding nothing: neither why I was there, nor how I might get out.

Had I made it to my historical conference, I might have learnt about medieval pumpernickel-production or 17th-century star-gazing. Instead, I discovered a lot about contemporary America.

First, I learnt that the Atlanta police are barbaric, brutal, and out of control. The violence I experienced was the worst of my sheltered life. Muggers who attacked me once near my home in Oxford were considerably more gentle with me than the Atlanta cops. Many fellow historians at the conference, who met me after my release, had witnessed the incident and told me how horrific they found it. Even had I really been a criminal, it would not have been necessary to treat me with such ferocity, as I am very obviously a slight and feeble person. But Atlanta's streets are some of the meanest in the world, and policing them must be a brutalising way of life.

Once in gaol I discovered another, better side of Atlanta. The detention centre is weird - a kind of orderly pandemonium, a bedlam where madness is normal, so that nothing seems mad. It's windowless, filthy, and fetid, but strangely safe, insulated and unworldly: like Diogenes's barrel, a place of darkness conducive to thought - for there is nothing else to do in the longueurs between interrogations, examinations, and lectures from the sergeant in charge about the necessity of good behaviour.

Some raffish underworld characters befriended me, but so did the detention centre personnel.

In gaol, I saw none of the violence that typifies the streets. On the contrary, the staff treat everyone - including some of the most difficult, desperate, drunk, or drugged-out denizens of Atlanta's demi-monde - with impressive courtesy and professionalism. I began to suspect that some of the down-and-outs I shared space with had deliberately contrived to get arrested in order to escape from the streets into this peaceable world - swapping the arbitrary, dangerous jurisdiction of the cops for the humane and helpful supervision of the centre. Nelson Mandela, I think, was right to say that gaol is the best place to make judgements from because, "a nation should be judged not by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest." If Atlanta is representative, America, by that standard, comes out commendably well.

I then met the best of America when I appeared in court. Everyone, including the judge himself and the wonderful vice-president of the American Historical Association, who accompanied me to lend moral support, told me to get counsel to represent me. A lawyer I had consulted hurriedly that morning had advised me to sue the city. But I had no stomach for such a hostile and elaborate strategy. Instead, I watched Judge Jackson at work. He had 117 cases to try that day. He handled them with unfailing compassion, common sense and good humour.

I noticed that my charge as the judge read it - "failing to obey a police officer and obstructing the police" - did not match the semi-literate scrawl the accusing officer had scribbled on my citation: so I reckoned that, if necessary, I could get the charges dismissed on those grounds alone. Meanwhile, I simply appealed to the wisdom and mercy of the judge.

It only took him a few minutes to realise that I was the victim, not the culprit. The prosecutors withdrew the charges. The judge then proclaimed my freedom with kindly enthusiasm and detained me for nothing more grievous than a few minutes' chat about his reminiscences of the Old Bailey.

The first lesson is obvious. The city authorities of Atlanta need to re-educate their police. I can understand why some officers behave irrationally and unpredictably. Much of the downtown environment in their city is hideous - inoffensive to the eye only when shrouded by the often-prevailing fog. The sidewalks are thronged with beggars who can turn nasty at night. The crime rate is fearful.

The result is that the police are nervy, jumpy, short-fused, and lacking in restraint, patience or forbearance. But witnesses tell me that up to 10 officers took part in the assault on me. This is evidence not only of excessive zeal, but of seriously warped priorities. In a city notorious for rape, murder and mayhem the police should have better things to do than persecute jaywalkers or harry an impeccable, feeble foreigner.

Moreover, Atlanta depends on its convention trade. The way the conventions centre is designed is extremely practical. There is plenty of good, reasonably priced accommodation. But if Atlanta continues to accumulate a reputation for police frenzy and hostility to visitors, the economy will crumble.

At least, the police need to be told to exercise forbearance with outsiders - especially foreigners - who may not understand the peculiarities of local custom and law.

But, at the risk of projecting my own limited experience on to a screen so vast that the effect seems blurred, I see bigger issues at stake: issues for America; issues for the world. I found that in Atlanta the civilisation of the gaol and the courts contrasted with the savagery of the police and the streets. This is a typical American contrast. The executive arm of government tends to be dumb, insensitive, violent and dangerous. The judiciary is the citizen's vital guarantee of peace and liberty.

I became a sort of exemplar in miniature of a classic American dilemma: the "balance of the constitution", as Americans call it, between executive power and judicial oversight.

I have long known, as any reasonable person must, that the courts are the citizen's only protection against a rogue executive and rationally uncontrolled security forces.

Though my own misadventure was trivial and - in perspective - laughable, it resembles what is happening to the world in the era of George W Bush. The planet is policed by a violent, arbitrary, stupid, and dangerous force.

Within the USA, the courts struggle to maintain individual rights under the bludgeons of the "war on terror", defending Guantanamo victims and striving to curb the excesses of the system. We need global institutions of justice, and judges of Judge Jackson's level of humanity and wisdom, to help protect the world.

I feel happy and privileged to be able to live and work in the United States. On the whole, in my work as an historian, I have argued consistently that America has had a benign influence on the world. The growth of anti-Americanism fills me with despair, as I see ordinary, decent, generous Americans getting the blame abroad for the follies of the American government and the crudities of the American image.

I hope that if some good ensues from my horrific misfortune, it will include more future security from police misconduct for visitors in Atlanta, and more awareness in the world of some of the virtues - as well as some of the vices - of US life."

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

The night they drove old Dixie down

I have just watched this Top Gear clip courtesy of Duncan Borrowman


As far as I can see, the whole piece at the petrol station was fabricated. Note that we never actually hear any threats, or see anyone acting in any sort of threatening manner. The pickup full of "red-necks" with a dog that arrived was actually a bunch of Mexicans.

The woman at the petrol station was actually trying to help them out - asking them if they were trying to get themselves beat up in this "hick town"? She turned angry with them because Jeremy Clarkson "tore up her parking lot" when he sped off. She was warning the film crew that the other two muppets had better not do the same.

And finally, the cameras go off - and we get some carefully recorded walkie-talkie messages and frantic cuts of them scrubbing their vehicles.

This is an excellent class in what video editing, music and carefully selected 'beeps' can achieve for dramatic effect.

I have travelled across the American South, and found it a wonderful experience, full of genuine, honest, and extraordinarily friendly people. Admittedly my boyfriend and I didn't walk hand-in-hand down the main street of Alabama hick towns, but then again there are large portions of South London where I wouldn't do the same.

Tennessee just happens to be one of my favourite places in the world, and I would recommend it to anyone as a holiday destination. And at the risk of sounding like I have an obsession with anti-Americanism (and I am not accusing Duncan Borrowman of being anti-American), we (and I include myself in this) laugh at 'hicks' (and I don't mean Bill); we laugh at their stupidity, their backward ways, the fact they married their first cousin.

But, having been across the South - from Virginia to Louisina and back - it struck me that what we are actually making fun of is poverty and lack of education. In the state of Mississippi, 30% of adults are functionally illiterate; in Alabama it is 1 in 4. Life expectancy in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina is lower than in Mexico. The difference between the top and bottom ends of the scale in the U.S. is roughly comparable to the difference between the average life expectancy in Japan and in several countries in West Africa.

We will always laugh at rednecks; hell, they even laugh at themselves. We pulled up at a gas station in Blue Ridge, Georgia, where the wizened and toothless attendant was sat on the forecourt, believe it or not, smoking a cigarette. Upon hearing the English accent of one of my friends, he looked at us, completely deadpan, and asked:

"Why is it so hard to solve redneck crimes?

They got no dental records and the same DNA."

The South is deep red America (although this red state v blue state thing is a recent convention; for much of the past 50 years many Republicans went to great lengths to make sure Democrats were depicted as the 'red' (read pink) party. Southerners believe the most strongly in the things we commonly believe to be quintessentially American - faith and the flag, God and guns, suspicion of government (particularly the federal government) and dislike of gays. They believe in the American way, and are suspicious of foreigners.

Yet the saddest thing is that these are the same people who have been betrayed most by the American way, and left in poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and bad health. And as is so often the case, it is those who have been failed by the system who are the first to put their life on the line to defend it.

Jokes about rednecks will never stop being funny, but the reality of life in much of Alabama is rather more tragic.

New Harvard Study: Who, Where and Why Americans Live Longer or Die Sooner

*A pedant writes... Bagdad is in Florida, just outside Pensacola on the Gulf Coast, not Alabama.

Monday, 12 February 2007

US military tells Jack Bauer: Cut out the torture scenes ... or else!

Even if I do say so myself, it is nice to know that this blog is read in high places (by which I do not mean behind the bike sheds at Eton). No sooner do I make a point about the depiction of torture in 24, than The Independent reports that Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan of the United States Military Academy at West Point has hopped on a plane to Hollywood to complain to Fox about the effect the show was having on troops in Iraq and on America's image abroad.

Says Gen. Finnegan:

"I'd like them to stop. They should do a show where torture backfires... The kids see it and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about 24'?

"The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do."

While I would quibble with the last point (torture never causes Jack any angst because it is the 'patriotic thing to do'), it is nice to know that I am not a hyper-sensitive politically correct loon, and the powers that be do take these things seriously.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Well Worth Reading (the link I mean, not this...)

Hat tip to Iain Sharpe over at Eaten by Missionaries for pointing me to this article by Ruth Dudley Edwards, contemplating the differences between Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants.

While I often find myself at odds with Dudley Edwards, this article is interesting and thought-provoking, (although I take odds with section IV, about Irish immigrants in Ireland; Ruth Dudley Edwards may have never experienced any prejudice against the Irish in her 40 years in England, but it is certainly not a typical experience. I, for example, came up against it on literally my first day here. One suspects that Edwards' anti-Catholicism, of which there is still a vain that runs through the English establishment, caused her to be welcomed into the inner-sanctum as 'one of us', despite her being Irish. And by her own admission, playing by the house-rules of her English hosts she has become, to turn the phrase describing the Anglo-Irish nobility on its head, "more English than the English.")

But anyway, back to the article. While RDE is somewhat ambiguous on the differences between 'Irish Catholics' and 'Ulster Catholics' (paraphrase: 'they are the same but different' [which is actually a reasonable enough description, if lacking somewhat in intellectual robustness]), she effectively makes a point that is often overlooked by 'outsiders' (by which I do not mean the Ulster Protestants of the title). Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants are not the same people (not in the literal sense you understand). They are two peoples who share the same wee spot of land in the north-east Atlantic. (We shall not get into the question of the ownership of the land, which is still, in effect, the nub of the issue today. In most of rural Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic farmers, even if neighbours, will not sell farmland to each other).

Commentary and journalistic labels, mimicking the Ulsterfolk themselves, use 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' as short-hand for an understanding of much more profound national and cultural differences.

Outsiders to Ulster often scoff at the notion that one can tell the difference between Catholics and Protestants from appearance; they too are misguided by the religious labels. It is not always that one can tell someone in Northern Ireland's 'religion' from looking at them; in fact, I'd say it is not even often. But sometimes you can - in the same way that I see someone on the bus in London and can occasionally tell that they are Irish/Polish/Italian or whatever.

The labels 'Ulster-Scots Protestants' and 'Irish Gaelic Catholics' do not make for easy conversation, or good journalistic type. But these are essentially the labels we are talking about. And, of course, while neither of these two peoples are 'pure' - they have intermarried down generations with English, and Normans, and Vikings, and Highland Scots, this cannot override the cultural norms, not just religious and 'national' ones, that each buys into and that are separate from the other's.

As Ruth Dudley Edwards points out, Catholics have reveled in celebrating their culture, while Protestants have been reluctant to even respond to the challenge that they have none.

Part of this is, I think, that they are slightly caught on the hook of 'Britishness', which is a topic I shall return to later.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

The G.O.P.: The Party of Fiscal Responsibility

As The Grauniad reports this morning, George Bush's Republican administration disembursed $12 billion in cash in Iraq in a period of less than 15-months. That's the kind of spending that even Victoria Beckham might be a little embarrassed over. What's more, the Coalition Provisional Authority appears to have learned its book-keeping practices from Colleen McLoughlin.

To quote the C.P.A. financial advisor who was asked what happened to $9 billion that was unaccounted for: "I have no idea. I can't tell you whether or not the money went to the right things or didn't - nor do I actually think it's important."

One of the many lessons of Vietnam that appears to have been forgotten is the enormous damage done to South Vietnamese society, and the war effort against the communists, when the country became awash in U.S. dollars accompanied by slack book-keeping and corruption. Huge amounts of money entered the black economy and ultimately ended up in the hands of the N.L.F., whereupon it was used to buy guns - often from South Vietnamese soldiers; and so the circle went round.

It begs the question how much money has Iran actually had to fork out to arm the insurgents, when bags of $2 million in cash were being doled out like sacks of rice?

Hurray for the Guardian! They Fixed Their Error! With Another One!

Well done to The Guardian. As I pointed out yesterday, between the 'staff and agencies' to whom the column was accredited (read 'wire-stories and someone on work experience'), they had managed to mislabel David Owen as a "party stalwart". I pointed this out to them, and was pleased to find an email this evening from the paper generously admitting that it was a "good point", and declaring that they had amended the story accordingly.

Bravo for them.

David Owen has now been rebranded as "a senior figure from the liberal movement", (something that I am sure causes as much embarrassment to Lord Owen as it does to those of us in the liberal movement.)

Naturally I have once again contacted The Guardian pointing out the error...

A Matter of Words and Anti-Americanism

In response to my post of yesterday, commenting on Nich Starling's comments on the death of Matty Hull (I cannot abide the phrase 'friendly fire', in much the same way as I hate 'joyriding'), Nich has got back to me to mention that:

"I didn't mention in my posting that the US denied on several occasions that the video even existed. Liars as well as war criminals."

And while I don't mean to single out Nich in particular, this kind of pointless anti-Americanism, unfortunately not uncommon in Lib Dem circles, saddens me.

For starters, it was the good old British MoD who denied the existence of the tape, not the Americans. Secondly, gross negligence, if that what caused the death of Lance-Corporal Hull, is not a war crime. But commentary on this issue has revealed a depth of anti-American feeling that leads to the tarring of 'the U.S.' with the same brush as Pol Pot and Klaus Barbie.

The weeping of the National Guard airmen (from Idaho, we are constantly reminded in the British media, as if it were a badge of their imbecility*) while certainly for themselves in the knowledge they had not fully followed the rules of engagement ("We're in jail, dude!"), stemmed also from the knowledge that they had killed an ally and a friend. For while this current American government does not show great appreciation for the value of Britain's loyalty (misplaced or not), the American people do.

Not that it excuses it, but the sad truth of the matter is that militaries are secretive, and they kill people. That is their job. It is also a sad truth that when they kill the wrong people they tend to lie about it. Bloody Sunday anyone? Rainbow Warrior? It is the nature of the beast. Sad; hopefully changing; but true nonetheless.

These two American airmen need to face the consequences for their negligence - of that there is no doubt. That the British government felt it easier to lie to a war widow than to challenge the secrecy of the Pentagon in the interests of justice speaks more about the MoD than it does about the United States.

However, the manner in which allegations of 'war criminal' are frequently thrown about is something I find distasteful; it cheapens the word, softens the impact, and dulls us to what are the true horrors of the war crimes the 20th century sadly became sadly too familiar with.

Words matter, and there are some we need to reserve for the most solemn of occasions. We should not allow justified and well-intentioned anger at the folly and tragedy of the Iraq War to blind us to that.

(*I was originally going to use the word moronism, but then realised that looks too much like Mormonism, which is Utah , not Idaho...)

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Norfolk Blogger: The Sun shows video of US planes attacking UK troops - Are America really our ally of choice ?

There are a lot of very good reasons to question the value for the U.K. of having such a close relationship with the United States, but with all due respect to Nich Starling I am not sure that the matter of this video is one of them.

The U.S., particularly the military, have become very sensitive, if you pardon the turn of phrase, to the declassification of information in the wake of 9/11. In fact, so paranoid have the military and intelligence services become, that they have secretly reclassified 55,000 pages of documents that have been accessible in archives and in the public domain in other forms for years, in an effort to keep them from even the American people.

In Congress too, particularly in the Senate, there remains an streak that while not quite isolationist, certainly views with suspicion the supply of any arms or military technology to any foreign government - Britain included - partly because of concerns about information and/or technology leaking out; (this is one the resons why the fiction of Britain's 'independent nuclear deterrent is so proposterous: it is wholly dependent on American co-operation to make the thing work). This leak from within the MoD will not have helped to assuage such concerns.

Nich asserts that there is nothing on the tape that would pose a security risk: probably true, but then again we don't know whether that is wholly true because the upper left area of the video display has been edited to obscure what was originally underneath it. But what is important to remember is that unlike this country, which largely sees itself as a country in someone else's war, America sees itself as a country at war. Things weren't so different when Britain was at war. Go on ask your gran - "Dangerous talk costs lives!" "The walls have ears!"

Certainly the United States has dragged its feet over this whole affair, and IMHO there appears to be a legal case to answer given the catalogue of six failures to accord with the rules of engagement, and certainly the U.S. military must be embarrassed over this whole incident. But let's not get carried away about this, or forget that the British government was hardly falling over itself to secure prosecutions, convictions or even full sentences of soldiers who killed in Northern Ireland under questionable circumstances.

There are good reasons to have a critical reappraisal of "the special relationship", but this incident is small beer from the administration of Mr. "Yo Blair" Bush.

Non-Muslims Are Damned to Hellfire!

A report on tonight's Newsnight draws attention to certain Saudi Wahabi textbooks that are apparently used in the King Fahad Academy, a generally well-respected Islamic school in my manor of East Acton.

There were truly objectionable references to Jews and Christians as "pigs and monkeys" in the books, but I am not sure whether I can agree with objections to the contention in one of them that non-Muslims are condemned to hellfire.

I do not know enough about Islam to say whether or not it is an article of faith that infidels are condemned to hell, but if it is I cannot see how one can object to it being taught. When asked, Christian friends have told me that they fully believe that I am going to hell for all eternity (where presumably I will be exposed to rather a lot of fire) when I die; this based on the belief that I was a Catholic, by the way, not an aetheist.

Well, if that's what their faith tells them, that's what it tells them. Speculation on my eternal fate, as long as it breaks no law, is not the business of anyone - neither the BBC or OFSTED.

I can't see how this statement can be construed as incitement to racial hatred; incitement to religious contempt, or perhaps even pity, perhaps, but that is hardly worthy of 15 minutes of 'investigative journalism', or the intervention of the government.

Religious tolerance does not mean having to accept that all religious beliefs are equally valid; surely religious tolerance is about accepting that other people are entitled to hold whatever beliefs they choose, even if it is that infidels, gays, or heretics are destined to watch repeats of El Dorado on a loop for all eternity. (That does not, however, mean that people of faith should be entitled to discriminate on religious grounds; they can believe what they want, but should be required to treat everyone with equal respect.)

Essentially, this was a piece about an objectionable chapter on the teachings of an early Islamic scholar who compared Jews and Christians to "pigs and monkeys"; the director of the school maintains this chapter is not taught, and quite rightly in my view refused to promise to throw out the entire book because of the content of a chapter that is not even used as teaching material. Newsnight had to bring this other 'objectionable' section to make it worth their time doing a piece on it.

I am not of the opinion that it was licence fee-payers' money well-spent.

Oi, Owen! Shut it!

So, David Owen has been opining about how Ming Campbell should hand over the leadership of the Liberal Democrats to a "young Turk". O.K., so a man whose party (the S.D.P.) at its last electoral outing finished behind the Monster Raving Loony Party has given his opinion on the leadership of the Lib Dems. Fair enough. But rather more egregious is the coverage given to his remarks in The Guardian.

The opening paragraph of their story is:

"Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership of the Liberal Democrats suffered a fresh blow today after a party stalwart called for him to be replaced by a 'young Turk'."

I just fired off this email to The Guardian, (

"Dear Sir/Madam,

The above-mentioned story of Tuesday, February 6, 2007 begins with the sentence, “Sir Menzies Campbell’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats suffered a fresh blow today after a party stalwart called for him to be replaced by a ‘young Turk’.”

Anyone with the most basic knowledge of British political history would be aware that David Owen is not a “party stalwart”, nor even to my knowledge a member of the Liberal Democrats. He broke away from his own party, the S.D.P., after the majority of that party voted to merge with the Liberal Party and form what is now the Liberal Democrats.

He sits in the House of Lords as a cross-bencher, not a Liberal Democrat.

If Lord Owen is a stalwart of any party, rather than a bitter old man whose own party went against his wishes, it is of the S.D.P – which has one branch in Bridlington, I believe, and about a dozen members."

I suggest others do the same.

Friday, 2 February 2007

The Torture of '24'

At the risk of sounding a bit obsessive (which I am), I return to the topic of the TV show '24' and its depictions of torture. I really love the show, and have just been watching some more of series 4 on DVD (it's nowhere near as good as 1 and 2, but entertaining nonetheless).

How the use of torture is portrayed on the show is interesting, though a little troubling (if you are opposed to the use of torture). Basically Jack Bauer is the 'have a go hero' at CTU who is not afraid to break the rules, and some skulls, to get the job done and save America. While others fanny around with a kid glove approach (it's just occurred to me that a kid glove is a glove made from a kid, which is a kind of weird concept), Jack isn't afraid to shoot the suspect or electrocute his gonads with a broken lamp to get the information that he needs. And of course, he always does get the information he needs.

The show's stance is basically that torture is ok in the name of the greater good. That's not to say that it doesn't leave room for debate - we do see, for instance, innocent and patriotic Americans being tortured if circumstances require it. And, to be fair, Jack recognises that torture is not always the most effective means of getting information - sometimes better 'leverage' can be had via other means. But nonetheless, the general portrayal is that torture is ok, and that it yields results.

It is on this final point that I get concerned about the manner in which similar TV depictions of torture inform debate on the topic. For the reality is that both the innocent and guilty will lie under torture just to make it stop. This is the aspect that is wholly missing from '24': what we always see is the terrorists giving up the required info, instead of a false lead, to make the pain stop. We also see the innocent endure their suffering while protesting their innocence, rather than making something up in exchange for a respite, which is often the case in reality.

Those who argue in favour of 'extreme interrogation techniques' correctly assert that "every man has his breaking point"; they also contend that pushing a suspect to that point is an acceptable way of getting the required information.

What they don't acknowledge is that even the innocent have their breaking point; that's the fact I'd like to see depicted on '24'.

Biden Launches his Bid on the Daily Show

Senator Joe Biden launched his bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was accompanied by the most awful series of gaffes about his Democratic opponents, in particular a few very badly chosen words that were meant to compliment Barack Obama. You can see more below in what has now become the de rigeur 'Daily Show' interview that accompanies any figure in the Democratic Party when they have something to say.

I have to say I like Joe Biden, and think he could well make a good president. He also has a lot of the superficial qualities needed to win the nomination and election - he is telegenic, handsome, good hair, a sense of humour, interviews well, has three decades of experience in the Senate (he was elected to it aged 29!), strong foreign policy credentials. I'd vote for him over John Edwards any day of the week.

On the down side, 'Joe' is from Delaware, a state whose main handicap is its size and where 100,000 votes gets you elected. He also has an occasional scatter-gun approach to things, quite often particularly his mouth, which will undoubtedly land him into more hot water between now and the convention in '08.

I am unsure about Biden's plan for Iraq, which involves turning Iraq into a loose confederation, combined with more regional diplomacy. If the political will in Iraq existed for such an arrangement I could be persuaded of its merits, but at the moment I am just concerned that confederation is the last stop on the way to partition and the break-up of Iraq, and the regional disaster that would entail. But to his credit, long before the Bush administration, or indeed most of those within his own party, had a plan of action for Iraq, Biden had the cojones to get out there with Leslie Gelb and put something forward.

But as I said. I like Joe Biden, and while I don't think he has much of a chance of getting the nomination, or even successsfully positioning himself as the 'Neither Hillary nor Barack' candidate (for which there is room for only one - currently Edwards), he will bring something to the campaign that is to be welcomed.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Blair Questioned; is Scooter Levy's Number Up?

The shock news that Tony Blair was questioned again last Friday has just hit the airwaves.

It seems that Yates of the Yard wanted Number 10 to keep schtum about the interview until Insp. Yates had another word in the ear of Lord Scooter Levy.

It's clear that Blair himself is not going to face any charges over all this; it also looks like there are not going to be any charges under the 'cash for coronets' laws. This just reinforces the comparison, made yesterday, with the Scooter Libby trial (you can see video of Prosecutor Fitzgerald announcing the indictments here.) It is interesting that it was a grand jury in Washington D.C. who decided whether there were charges to be answered in the Libby case, instead of the C.P.S. and the Attorney General as here. I wonder whether a grand jury here would come to a different conclusion than the C.P.S.; the latter needs to feel confident in securing a conviction, whereas the former just needs to be convinced a crime has been committed.

The main question is fast becoming whether Lord Levy panicked and kicked dust in the eyes of the ref.

I hope for the good of politics that this is brought to a conclusion soon.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

'24' and the Scandal of Extraordinary Rendition

I first heard about what we now know is euphemistically called 'extraordinary rendition' about three or four years ago in the T.V. show '24'; I presumed it was an example of creative license, just like the C.T.U. (Counter Terrorist Unit) for whom Jack Bauer worked. I was very disturbed to discover I was wrong.

In the past week, this practice has hit the headlines again, with a Canadian man receiving a pay-out of US$9 million from the Canadian government because it passed on faulty information that led to him being effectively kidnapped by U.S. authorities, sent to Syria (from where he originally hailed) and there tortured and imprisoned for a year without trial.

Similarly, a German court has issued a writ for the arrest of a number of C.I.A. agents involved in the kidnapping of a German-Lebanese man who was kidnapped in Macedonia and shipped off to Afghanistan to be abused for 5 months before being released in Albania. (You'd think they'd at least have the courtesy to drop him off where they picked him up.)

I have to admit to being a fan of '24' - though I could never watch it on T.V. as opposed to D.V.D. because it is too gripping: I don't think I could wait a week for the next episode, and very often I sneak in 'just one more' episode before I go to bed. But there is something about '24' that bothers me; simply put, it feeds the 'terrorist death-cult paranoia' that leads to things like the Roller Dome in Fort Wayne being put on a list of Indiana's some 8000 (!) potential terrorist targets. And while I know there is a degree of pork-barrelling going on there (more potential terrorist targets=more federal funding), the fact is that the chances of being in a terrorist attack are tiny; however, the fear of terrorism that such actions generate actually mean the terrorists are winning.

Too much of what is sometimes called 'asymmetric warfare' is broadly labeled 'terrorism'. But terrorism is not simply random acts of violence by non-state groups. As the word implies, it is designed to instill fear or terror; and for that to be effective the threat doesn't have to be real or present, you just have to be scared.

So, to return to my original point, extraordinary rendition is a form of torture, and a form of terrorism. The concept that the C.I.A. can pick up whoever they want and whisk them away to Crap-knows-where-istan to have God-knows-what done to them scares me; maybe it's meant to scare the terrorists too, but I doubt it.

What's more it angers me - particularly the suspicion that this wretched government acquiesced in it.

This is an issue that the Liberal Democrats should be banging on about more, for it stands right at the heart of what we represent as a party (as Martin Kettle graciously pointed out yesterday - see above).

Come on Ming - make some noise!

A Whiff of Watergate? More Like a Pinch of Plame...

As Peter at Liberal Review has pointed out, over on Comment Is Free Martin Kettle has been questioning Ed Davey's assertion that the ongoing investigation into the 'Cash for Coronets' (© Andrew Rawnsley) affair has a "whiff of Watergate" about it. Martin Kettle asserts, rightly in my view, that one must be careful in making judgment before due process has been allowed to take its course. He is right, of course, that "The dynamic of the Watergate affair was the process whereby that clear-cut crime was linked to President Nixon and his subordinates and their attempts to cover-up their involvement." Thus far, no crime has been proven, and commentators should take care not to besmirch the names of those who are currently innocent in the eyes of the law: Tony Blair no less than anyone else.

To my mind, however, the Valerie Plame Affair appears to be a much more relevant point of comparison, if one is needed. In this incident ('Plamegate', as convention now dictates any political scandal must be called) senior White House officials leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in order to undermine the contention of her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, that the Bush administration had knowingly made the false assertion that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase yellow-cake uranium from Niger.

Even during Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, it was argued back and forth whether a crime had actually taken place, since in the eyes of some it was the prerogative of the executive to declassify information that was formerly classified (somewhat reminiscent of Nixon's "If the President does it, it's legal" argument). Despite having discovered that Bush advisor Karl Rove and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Dick Cheney staffer Scooter Libby were all sources behind the leak, none of the men was charged. Why? Because, Fitzgerald alleges, his investigation was obstructed.

So now I. "Scooter" Lewis Libby stands trial, accused of perjury. Libby, the prosecutor alleges, lied to a grand jury investigating the original allegations, and impeded his investigation. Fitzgerald compared it to a baseball player kicking dust in the face of the referee so he couldn't make a fair call on a foul.

The point no longer becomes whether there was a foul or not, but the actions of the player kicking the dust.

This is where Martin Kettle is wrong, and where Lord Levy should be worried.

Even if he and the others under investigation by the police stayed just on the right side of the law in the cash for coronets affair, but did not co-operate fully with the investigation, then whether peerages were sold or not loses significance.

Did Levy kick dust in the eyes of the ref?

In another political era, Tony Blair might have been able to withstand Levy being charged with perverting the course of justice so long as there are no actual charges brought for the selling of peerages, just as Dick Cheney remained safe in his job since no-one was charged with leaking classified information.

But we are where we are: and that means that any charges against "Scooter" Levy will spell the end of Tony Blair.