The friend of my enemy is my enemy
According to a speech given in March at North-Western University School of Law, by Eric Holder, the current U.S. Attorney General, the Obama administration reserves the right to kill enemies of the United States, whether they be foreign or U.S. citizens, without judicial review. It’s not as if we didn’t already know this, what is exceptional is having it confirmed by a senior official through open channels. Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), said at the time that Holder’s speech “raises profound legal and moral questions”, almost as if those questions were not raised as long as the policy remained covert.
The ACLU reaction was, however, sharpened when another senior official, Defense Department counsel Jeh Johnson this time, speaking only last month at Yale Law School, a preferred location for floating trial legal balloons, insisted that the President’s authority in such cases is “without geographic limitation” and that “U.S. citizens do not enjoy immunity” from extra-judicial killings. The doors are now clearly wide open for massive abuses of executive power by any future leader, claims the ACLU, particularly since there is no prior disclosure on these cases, neither is one permitted to discuss them in a court of law for reasons of national security.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
The ACLU would quite reasonably like to know why the government is “permitted to declare in court that discussing a program would jeopardize national security, when it has already disclosed the same program” in public speeches at two renowned law schools. A further argument that friendly agents would be compromised by disclosure might have been valid before, but no longer. “The government has told the courts that its targeted killing program is so secret that even its existence can’t be acknowledged, but that proposition can no longer be taken seriously,” concludes Ms Shamsi. “If the Attorney General can discuss the targeted killing program at a law school, then the administration can surely release the legal memos it uses to justify its claimed killing authority, and also defend its legal justifications in court.” None of this need involve the names of non-American friendly operatives or of those in covert service, and besides, the prosecution of Pakistanis who helped trace Osama bin Laden and the feeble non-defence of these agents put up by the U.S. administration in a couple of milk-toast memos, has definitely poured scorn on that argument.
Further muddying the waters is a more recent “clarification” by Attorney General Holder: “Some have called such operations assassinations,” he says. “They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced” – Gosh, Mr Holder, you mean those targets are still alive? They’ve been zapped with a stun-gun and beamed over to Roswell, maybe? – “Assassinations are unlawful killings” – Well yes, they are actually, Mr Holder, but do go on. I imagine you’re now going to tell us that these are not ‘unlawful killings’ but ‘extra-judicial executions’ and that there’s a difference, even if I don’t get it, because you are doing the killing, not some barbaric little rogue state – “The U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defence” – ah yes, that wedding feast was VERY loud – “against a leader of al Qaeda or an associated force presenting an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful, and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes.”
Let’s just give you a few pieces from the timeline on this particular ‘executive power’:
February 18, 1976: President Ford issued Executive Order 11905, barring U.S. personnel from assassination plots – “Prohibition on Assassination: No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”
January 26, 1978: President Carter renewed the ban with Executive Order 12306 – “Prohibition on Assassination: No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination. Restrictions on Indirect Participation in Prohibited Activities: No agency of the Intelligence Community shall request or otherwise encourage, directly or indirectly, any person, organization, or government agency to undertake activities forbidden by this order or by applicable law.”
December 4, 1981: Executive Order 12333, signed by President Reagan continued the ban, stating under section 2.11: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
When covert goes overt, does that make it right?
These measures, however, did not prevent the existence, throughout the 1970s and 1980s of a “Special Activities” branch of the CIA for the covert elimination of naughty boys. I do not know whether the Presidents of the period signed off on those executions, I rather doubt it. Thus it is to Mr Obama’s credit that he has since confirmed signing every extrajudicial killing order of individuals on his terrorism A-list himself. Because, in January 23, 1995, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12947, which approved the drawing up of such a list, thus re-opening the door to the targeting of individuals for elimination by lethal force. By signing the death warrants, for that is what they are, which land on his desk in the oval office each time a listed target is located, Mr Obama is telling us that the buck stops here. Except that it doesn’t, it stops somewhere on the road to Damascus when a 17-year old kid and his radical uncle are vaporized in their old Subaru. No real responsibility touches the President, despite his signature, because he has already freed himself by executive order from the constraints of answering to a court or even to the Congress for his actions.
Apologists for Obama, and I admit to having been one on occasion, argue that this is just part of the “War on Terror” declared by his predecessor Mr Bush, a war into which he has been co-opted. They will claim legality for his actions under the Homeland Security Act. However, former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano, who is highly respected for his general probity, despite his closeness to the New Right libertarian agenda, challenges the constitutionality of that Act and recently called Barack Obama’s kill list “blatantly unconstitutional”. I offer large sections of his argument at this point, since the Judge’s opinion is both cogent, pertinent and well worth the read:
“We have known for some time that President Obama is waging a private war. By that I mean he is using the CIA on his own — and not the military after congressional authorization — to fire drones at thousands of persons in foreign lands, usually while they are riding in a car or a truck. He has done this both with the consent and over the objection of the governments of the countries in which he has killed. He doesn’t want to talk about this, but he doesn’t deny it. How chilling is it that David Axelrod — the president’s campaign manager — has periodically seen the secret kill list? Might this be to keep the killings politically correct? Can the president legally do this? In a word: No.
The president cannot lawfully order the killing of anyone, except according to the Constitution and federal law. Under the Constitution, he can only order killing using the military when the U.S. has been attacked, or when an attack is so imminent and certain that delay would cost innocent American lives, or in pursuit of a congressional declaration of war. Under federal law, he can only order killing using civilians when a person has been sentenced lawfully to death by a federal court and the jury verdict and the death sentence have been upheld on appeal. If he uses the military to kill, federal law requires public reports of its use to Congress and congressional approval after 180 days.
The U.S. has not declared war since World War II. If the president knows that an attack on our shores is imminent, he’d be hard-pressed to argue convincingly that a guy in a truck in a desert 10,000 miles from here — no matter what his intentions — poses a threat to the U.S. so imminent and certain that he needs to be killed on the spot in order to save the lives of Americans who would surely die during the time it would take to declare war on the country that harbours him, or during the time it would take to arrest him. Under no circumstances may he use civilian agents for non-judicial killing. Surely, CIA agents can use deadly force to protect themselves, but they may not use it offensively. Federal laws against murder apply to the president and to all federal agents and personnel, wherever they go on the planet.
Obama has argued that his careful consideration of each person he orders killed and the narrow use of deadly force are an adequate and constitutional substitute for due process. But the Constitution provides for no such thing. He has also argued that the use of drones to do his killing is humane since they are “surgical” and only kill their targets. We know that is incorrect. And he has argued that these killings are consistent with our values. What is he talking about? The essence of our values is the rule of law, not the rule of presidents.
The Constitution applies to all persons, not just citizens. If you read the Constitution, its protections are not limited to Americans. And that was written intentionally, because at the time it was written, they didn’t know what Native Americans would be. When the post Civil War amendments were added, they didn’t know how blacks would be considered, because they had a recent decision of the Supreme Court that said blacks are not persons. So in order to make sure the Constitution protected every human being: American, alien; citizen, non-citizen; lawful combatant, enemy combatant; innocent, guilty; those who wish us well, those who wish us ill … they used the broadest possible language, to make it clear: Wherever the government goes, the Constitution goes, and wherever the Constitution goes, the protections that it guarantees restrain the government and requires it to protect those rights.”
This last paragraph would alone justify reintroducing the doctrine of Pax Americana if only it were adhered to. But in a world where the U.S. government reserves the right to kill other people’s citizens, but does not admit the right of foreign courts to try members of the U.S. military or call government officials to the witness stand, it must be clear to all how very far that nation has strayed outside the bounds of its own constitutional safeguards, and thus how unworthy it has become of its own claim to be a guarantor of universal freedoms.
Much influenced by her elder cousin Sylvia, she was considered a “firebrand” in the thirties for espousing “militant pacifism” and for using direct action tactics to promote women’s issues, even if her finest hour in that cause actually involved trashing a Cornish MP’s greenhouse and paying a very stiff fine. She later followed Sylvia’s lead in condemning Italian actions in Ethiopia and even “fought” (though in what capacity no one is sure) in the Spanish civil war, where she claimed to have stolen the ribbon from Earnest Hemingway’s typewriter as a punishment for “being boorish”. She was an Aldermaston marcher and continued to proudly wear a CND button on her Sunday coat right up until the 1980’s when, alongside the anarchist “A”, it became a badge of the punk generation. “I quite fail to see the connection between nuclear disarmament and forcing nappy pins through your eyebrows”, she said, when asked by the vicar why she no longer wore it. This village parson, who had never seen a London punk, laboured for years under the misapprehension that Jocasta had lost her marbles before someone finally explained the odd reference to him.
My own memories of Great Aunt Jocasta were equally adventurous. She taught me to “Indian track” and to recognize the trails of badgers and foxes. Perhaps because I was never myself a Scout, Jocasta (who had taken tea with Millie Baden-Powell as a senior Girl Guide) became my ideal “Akela” as I wormed along a hedgerow on my tummy (“You’re breathing like the 9:15 to Paddington, Edwin, they’ll hear you down in Somerset”) or built an “almost-invisible” tree-house. She would let me “assume camouflage” (twigs in my hair and a bit of burnt cork would do the trick) and “forage” for food, even in her own house and garden. She would never dream of punishing me for raiding her raspberries, although Timms, her “stayed-on-after-the-war” German gardener, was of another opinion. But Jocasta believed that everyone should hone their survival instincts. She herself was a compulsive hoarder – of winter clothing, rubber bands, clothes pegs, jam, vinegar, mustard, corned beef, marmite, porridge oats … and almost any kind of book, review or pamphlet. For those who have lived through several major conflicts, barbarism is always at the gate, if not already inside it.
Although Aunt Jocasta was well-read and educated, she preferred a good detective story or even a children’s adventure to most of what we would call “literature”. Her all-time favourite character was Pip from Great Expectations, followed closely by Oswald Bastable of ‘Treasure Seeker’ fame. “Show me a finer book than ‘The Railway Children’, ‘The Borrowers’, ‘The Midnight Folk’, ‘Stig of the Dump’ or ‘Minnow on the Say’ and I’ll bake you a cake”, Jocasta would say to anyone who asked why children’s literature so predominated in her bedside collection. We all knew better than to risk the cake!
A little later, Jocasta also taught gawky, ten-year-old me to improve my cricket, a sport at which she had excelled at a time when it was considered impossible for her sex to even understand the game, let alone play it. My less-than-average aptitude for batting was balanced by bowling a deadly, though rather erratic, fast spin, which Great Aunt Jocasta called “Edwin’s googly”. By the time I was thirteen, this talent was sufficiently developed to get me into the Junior Colts team at school, but sadly no further, as my more-luck-than-judgement capacity with a bat became obvious to all. However, there were other fields to conquer: “A young man should know how to row and how to punt”, said Jocasta, and by punting she meant Cambridge and “the Backs”, not Cardiff Arms Park and a Rugby ball. Thus it came about that I would spend my half-term holidays learning to correctly feather an oar when steering a skiff across Hyde Park Lake, how to “hand” someone in and out of a rowing boat gracefully, and how not to get hopelessly stuck in the mud like a stranded gondolier while other pole-wielding gallants glided their cargos of precious undergraduate maidens effortlessly down the Cam.
If Great Aunt Jocasta was a hard-driving*, rather reckless fairy godmother to me, she was the world to my uncle Haviland, who thought his favourite aunt incorporated all the values he would look for in a wife, and sadly never quite find in a single package. Apart from the skills I have already mentioned, to which he was likewise introduced as a boy, but by a much younger and even more dangerous Jocasta, Haviland’s love of the secret life comes from learning to decode tiny messages written on theatre ticket stubs and suchlike that Aunt Jocasta would leave pinned to the kitchen door frame. Without deciphering these the boy would never be able to find his best shoes, his Christmas or birthday present, his Easter egg or, most famously, the all-important gold ring that Jocasta had concealed when things were already running dangerously late for Sir Daniel Crispin’s wedding (father of Amanda “Mandy” Crispin, see “The Marriage of the Arnolfini’s, Parts 1 & 2”) and Haviland was a very nervous Best Man.
At the funeral and thereafter, these and many other tales were told. But they all stopped short of the full story. Was it tact or a sense of unease that prevented anyone from mentioning the last dark decade as Jocasta’s mind began to more than merely wander while her all-too-healthy heart ticked inexorably on? The scenes of paranoia, the midnight “escapes” from her own house, where she insisted the KGB – why them and not MI6, nobody knows – were holding her prisoner, her setting fire to her own library and nearly burning the house down, the day she attacked poor Timms – himself a very old man and barely able to wield a spade – with a fruit knife: all these ghastly events and many others slid away down a dark passage into mildness and mumblings, blank stares, gentle rocking and the utter incomprehension of a lonely soul, cut off by a relentless disease from all consciousness of her own history, her present state or even her own kind.
September the 11th 2001 marked the beginning of the end. Timms had come over from the cottage to check on her, as he always did every evening. Jocasta was in front of the TV watching the eternal re-runs of those awful minutes and hours in New York. Timms was not even aware of what had happened, he had been out in the garden all afternoon and would only learn about the attack the next morning from the radio, so he didn’t find it particularly strange when Jocasta turned to him with a smile and said: “At last they’ve demolished those horrid blocks, Timmy; my God, what an ugly pair of slabs they were. But why must Americans always make such a spectacle of everything?”
* In her Sunbeam Alpine with the top down: “Yes, Edwin, I know it’s a ladies’ car, but that, lest it should have otherwise escaped your notice, is exactly what I am!”]]>
Because, at least on the surface of things, one would be hard-pressed to find a worse time for propounding the soft doctrine of welfare socialism, but people are bleeding to death and such broad and comforting ideas offer solace. Though Monsieur Hollande, with his Bennish pedigree, his airbrushed-on Mitterand gestures and his bland, wonkish manner, hardly seems the type to throw cake to the howling masses, he may very well manage a tray or three of quiche before la Grande Nation finally goes bottom up and joins Spain in relegation to the little league.
Europeans jumping en-masse to the left to bring in those parties who traditionally public-spend their way out of everything is surely a sorry sight for anyone who still wants to believe that parliamentary democracy, as currently practiced, may yet have a future. For it is abundantly clear to even the most optimistic observer that nothing less than a heavy dose of salts and any amount of elbow grease is going to do the trick, if indeed there is even a trick left to be done. Meanwhile, the only purveyors of salts and elbow grease are all on the right, some of them very far, and they are beginning to get out the enema syringes and pull their rubber gloves on.
Mary Poppins would say “spit spot” and tell us that the only way to get a nasty job done is to turn it into a game we can all enjoy: ‘National Central Bank Rounders’ or ‘Pass the Debt Parcel’. Unfortunately, Angela Merkel looks not a whit like Mary Poppins and is not about to go dispensing any spoons of sugar with her medicine. The Greeks are well aware of this and for once are keeping their mouths firmly shut. One thing is certain, if Merkel is trounced at the polls as brutally as Cameron and Clegg’s provincial colleagues, they’ll be dancing the Time Warp all night long in Syntagma Square. After which, the deluge: for not only will Greece be the death of modern democracy in Europe if they default and leave the Euro, but they will also take the entire system down with them. To imagine that the single currency can survive when every major stakeholder is already hedging his bets is a foolish illusion.
My friend Jean-Michel, who exercises his keen mind in retirement with questions of economy in the largest sense, takes an uncharacteristically relaxed view of all this. He argues that since most of the European governments privatized almost everything that was formerly considered res publica in the 1980s, thereby rendering null and void the complex social contract that was the pride of successive socialist administrations, and since these same governments have, at least in recent years, effectively nationalized many of the great but tottering financial edifices that were formerly private, keeping them afloat, nay, even rewarding them with our hard-earned taxes and thus reneging on the fiscal conservative idea of a balanced budget as the sole laudable goal of monetary policy, then it matters not whether we are ostensibly ruled by the left or the right or the centre, as the gargantuan tail will continue to wag the dog until that poor animal dies of shaken baby syndrome.
As for the possible collapse of the Euro, J-M has come up with a wizard ruse for overcoming or warding off that peril. He argues that, beginning in the days when the gold standard proved too restrictive for international growth and we all freed up our money supplies at Bretton Woods, the ‘pass the parcel’ method of financial management has grown to become the panacea for all monetary inadequacies. However, that panacea is no longer a universal healer, but is increasingly seen today as little more than a placebo: relying on everybody else’s good health for its medicinal value and only effective so long as all concerned, whether sick or healthy, firmly believe in it. Since the current system is woefully inadequate and a return to the gold standard would be unthinkable in the face of today’s ferocious global economy and over-extended capital supply, J-M thinks we need to find a new ‘middle way’. His suggestion would be to launch a parallel “hard” Euro in silver and gold coins of 250 and 750 Euro denominations. This second front would work as a reserve or “bankable asset currency” to back up and hedge the soft Euro that we all still need to use as our daily exchange medium.
Neither socialist Polyanna nor reformist Poppins, Jean-Michel’s plan might just have the legs to stave off the demise of a currency that still represents the ideal of a strong Europe and, moreover, it may offer an alternative reserve to both the floundering US Dollar, laden with dark political cargo, and the Pirates of Penzance Pound Sterling of those buccaneer Brits. As the world’s largest public gold reserve holder, these latter would anyway stand to gain from the proposal. Jean-Michel’s half-hard, half-soft Eurolution could considerably slow down the capital flight of those investor nations and multinational companies (even European ones!) who are currently falling over each other to disburse their Euro-credited assets and transfer their Euro accounts to safer harbours.
And this is why I’d like to propose J-M for ECB president and quiche as Euro-dish of the year!
A little further on, the travellers came alongside a third man, a young stone mason by trade who, like the carpenter, hoped to be engaged for the construction of a church in the next major town. The two craftsmen were amused to find that they had never met before, despite having worked on some of the same sites: “but these fine houses are so grand and vast”, said the mason, “that even people who live in them go for years without seeing each other, so we shouldn’t be surprised.” The King was just beginning to protest that this was surely most unlikely, when he thought better of it, realising that he had no idea who half the people were that worked for him, nor what they actually did. Into the awkward silence the mason opined that the donkey was a “most uncommon fine animal” and seemed “most remarkable fresh” and furthermore was clearly not carrying much. Could he put his two heaviest hammers in the panniers? It would make a big difference to his walking speed. The King readily agreed.
Halfway to the next town, just as they were passing a small coppice of beech trees, the little group was suddenly surprised by a young man with ragged clothes and a fierce, feverish light in his eyes who rose like a spectre out of the tall grass by the wayside. His head was swathed in a rather dirty-looking bandage. He bade them not to be afraid of his wild appearance. He had been fighting as a mercenary in a foreign war, trying to earn enough to buy a small farm, until the severity of this wound and the loss of all his weapons and money to looters while unconscious forced him to set his feet homeward, empty-handed. He fell in with them and walked in silence awhile before shooting a keen glance at the two strong young men beside him. He asked them what they did for a living, as they both seemed well-nourished enough. After indicating the donkey, which was by now carrying all of their tools, the journeyman carpenter replied that they were craftsmen seeking work. Life was hard enough, it was true, but they did not go hungry.
“So, whose is the donkey?” asked the young mercenary. The King, not used to being so directly responsible for anything, and suddenly finding it beneath his dignity to claim ownership of such a small, undistinguished and humble animal, replied: “You could say it’s in my care. I was lent it by friends for the purpose of this journey”. This caught the mercenary’s interest. “And what might that purpose be?” The King, who could only think of how his son had talked him into this ridiculous charade, replied: “My son has gone off to study for a year in another country and my wife has taken the opportunity to go and stay with her sister. So, not wanting to be left alone at home, I decided to get out on a walking tour and see the world, something I never had the chance to do when I was younger.” All of this was true enough, as far as it went, so the King did not feel too much like a liar and an imposter.
“Ah, I understand”, said the young mercenary, “it seems that there are five men in this business: one of them – who is absent – owns the donkey that is currently carrying the bedroll and the clothing of a second man – yourself, sir – who has since most generously given away part of same donkey’s carrying capacity to two others – these stalwart craftsmen here – whose interest in the welfare and longevity of the aforementioned animal has thus risen considerably. It occurs to me, that if we were to be attacked by thieves, then the fifth man in the case – myself – would be the only one in present company not obliged to fight in the defence of the donkey. How fortunate, since I am the only one who has nothing (no sturdy staff, no heavy hammer or sharp chisel) that might prove useful in such a scrap. Nonetheless, I would be grateful and honoured if I could at least raise my fists in a good cause. But for that to happen, this donkey must carry something of importance to me. Please allow a poor traveller to place his modest burden in those capacious baskets.” The King, once more, agreed.
At once the mercenary left the road and returned, scant seconds later, struggling under the weight of two mighty boulders. He carefully placed one giant rock in each pannier. “That one”, he said, “is the dream I had when I left home, a dream which has been turned to stone. The other is the weight of the sorrow I feel when I think of my poor parents, and how I have let them down. Let the donkey do his job, I shall be a livelier companion without their burden.” The King, who found this behaviour rather odd, was nonetheless touched by the apparent sincerity in the young man’s voice. The mason and the journeyman took all this with a shrug of their shoulders. “Folk are strange”, their gesture seemed to say, “but we’ve seen stranger things before”.
The sun was now at its zenith and the King, who had already finished his modest leather water bottle, began to complain of thirst. He was twice their age, he could not possibly be expected to keep up this pace any longer without at least a drink. The young mercenary immediately snatched the leather flask from his hands and ran off into the trees. A short while later he reappeared, the leather skin full to bursting with fresh spring water. Yet even while the King was drinking deep, the mercenary mysteriously gathered another pair of rocks and set them in the donkey’s panniers.
By now the donkey was finding the going tough. The day was hot. The road was long. He was small, even for his breed, and the load was well above what he was used to carrying. He was beginning to slow their progress down, and even though the afternoon sun was throwing longer shadows, the day was still oppressively hot. After a while the donkey was making such slow progress that the King, who had started out so optimistically, began to despair of even reaching the next town before nightfall. “We shall arrive too late”, he complained, “They will have closed the gates. There will be nowhere outside the town with a meal and a bed. We shall have to sleep rough. We shall likely be attacked and eaten by wolves.” This last mental scene of savage beasts feasting on his companions only served to bring on his own appetite more. “I’m dying of hunger,” moaned the King, “Breakfast was years ago. How you young striplings continue so long without food is beyond me. If it wasn’t carrying all our kit, I would eat the donkey.”
Hearing this, the young mercenary once more ran off into the bushes. Minutes later he reappeared a little way ahead of them, swinging a dead rabbit. “The creatures out here are far too trusting”, he called. “I didn’t even need a slingshot”. Putting down the rabbit, he began to gather kindling for a fire”. But once the rabbit was skinned and spitted and roasting, the mercenary again went off to look for two large rocks and placed them in the donkey’s basket. The King meant to ask him what the meaning of this odd behaviour was, but the smell of roast rabbit swept the thought clean away.
After supper the band of travellers made very slow progress in the thickening twilight. The King soon refused to continue, insisting that even if the young folk were for going on; his old eyes were not good enough to see the way ahead anymore. Did they think he was an owl? Did they want him to break his neck? He could not and would not walk a step further. It was reckless in the dark and anyway, he was too tired to care about anything other than his bed. Not wanting to vex the owner of the precious donkey, the young men agreed to call a halt. The town could not be very far now. They would bed-down and continue at first light. They would arrive early, as the gates opened, and steal a march on anyone else seeking employment by being first in line at the hiring post.
The three men unpacked the panniers. First the mercenary removed the rocks, so that the mason and the carpenter could get at their tools. Once the tools were removed, the mercenary unstrapped the panniers, unpacked the King’s bedroll and laid it out on the softest bit of turf he could find. Soon the king was under his blankets, but sleep eluded him. The ground was too hard for his aging bones and he needed a pillow. Moreover, the night might get cold and he feared to catch a chill. Hearing these words the mercenary persuaded the mason and the carpenter to give up their coats, which he then stretched out beneath the King’s bedroll. For a pillow, he took the grimy bandage from his own head, saying he hardly needed it now, and wrapped it in the warm, furry rabbit pelt he had scraped clean before supper.
The sun rose next morning to the sight of the mason sleeping fitfully in one pannier, the carpenter shivering in another, while the mercenary tried to keep warm by snuggling up as close as possible to the donkey. The King, who had slept like a baby, awoke with a royal hunger and immediately professed a need for breakfast.
At once the mercenary slipped away into the underbrush to return only minutes later with a handful of plover’s eggs. These he roasted over a tiny fire of twigs and gave them to the King, who declared he had never in his life eaten anything that tasted this good. The carpenter and the mason looked on sullenly as the King breakfasted and took a draught of water, while the mercenary folded up the bed roll, bundled it, together with the craftsmen’s jackets, into the baskets, dropped in the tools and then proceeded to fill up the remaining space with rocks, making sure that there was enough room for another two, really big ones, which he placed on top.
And so they went on their way through the damp morning mists of what promised to be another scorching hot day. But it was only a mile or two later, and in clear sight now of the town, perched as pretty as a picture on top of a nearby hill, that the donkey gave a great sigh, collapsed to its knees, keeled slowly over sideways and lay lifeless. With a roar the King shouted: “You lout, you barbarian, you brutish ruffian with your damnable rocks, you’ve killed my donkey.”
“No Sire! With respect, it is your Majesty who has killed the donkey. When your Majesty’s tax collectors ruined my father’s farm, the donkey died. When my mother stitched 100 hessian sacks a day to keep us alive, the donkey died. When my brother had to haul coal at the age of eleven, the donkey died. When my sister would disappear in the evenings and come back with food or money or a bottle of wine, each time the donkey died.
“You wonder what the meaning of the stones is. I told you: broken dreams and sorrows. When the King is thirsty, donkey carries his thirst. When the King is hungry, donkey carries his hunger. When the King has to rest, donkey carries his weight. When the King is cold, donkey keeps him warm, even though he shivers through the night. His Majesty slept well and ate a good breakfast this morning. Hallelujah! It merely cost the life of a faithful beast. Everything you do is a weight on his back. You have only to raise your finger and another rock falls on donkey.
“And is donkey even yours that you burden him so? No, you merely borrow him for a time until he has to bear your successor. Despite this obvious truth, you are quite ready to give away his strength and substance to the very first flatterer who gets your ear. You bother us with your cares and suffering. But who hears donkey’s lament? Who knows his sorrows? Who witnesses his suffering? Who will carry his load?”
The King, who had listened well enough to all this, was still dealing with the first sentence:
“So you know who I am!”
“We all know who you are, Sire,” said the carpenter
“We always have, Sire,” added the mason
“Then, who the hell are you?”
“We are but poor shadows Sire”, said the mercenary. “We flit across the stage of your life and make a great show out of precious little. Yet when we speak, sweet Truth herself bends an ear to listen. And when we bow, trust me, angels kneel.” So saying, the mercenary crouched down beside the donkey and whispered in one of its oversized ears. At once the animal stood up as if nothing had happened and began to graze the grass verge.
“This is witchcraft”, shouted the King, “this simply cannot be happening. That beast was dead.”
“My hammers are made of painted wood, Sire”, said the mason. “My chisels are too”, added the carpenter. “And most of my rocks”, said the mercenary, “are made of mashed paper. Only the donkey is genuine, though he is a veritable prince among actors.”
“And I”, said the King solemnly, “am a damnable ass among princes. I imagine my son was behind all this, am I right?”
Well, of course he was right. And so it happened that the father learned a great deal about statecraft in a single, fine spring day, while the son enjoyed but the briefest of visits to their powerful neighbour, though just long enough to capture the heart and colonize the loins of the sweetest, bonniest, most curvaceous little chamber maid as ever plumped up a pillow. The King, God bless him, would consider nothing less than marriage. He was quite adamant that his son should marry a commoner. The world, as he reasoned to anyone who would listen, would surely be a better place for it?
And it was.
As the fine young son grew up, he still seemed to need very little. He could not be persuaded by his father to dress in rich clothes, nor did he hanker after the usual paraphernalia of the wealthy, neither was he the least interested in the politics of power or the coercive arts of diplomacy. Nonetheless he was a prince of legendary handsomeness and about as big and strong a boy as the country was small and weak. His mother and father doted on him and hoped that he would soon become more conscious of his noble station and be a credit to both of them. They hoped in vain.
For the prince preferred to live rough. He would disappear for days on end and come home reeking of the stables, or with mountain flowers in his buttonhole, his cheeks flushed and his hair in a tangle. His friends were ruffians and jesters, actors, poets and bohemians. His ways were those of the street, not the boulevard, his behaviour that of the courtyard, not the court. The King, who understood that powerful potentates have powerful responsibilities and must comport themselves accordingly, was understandably anxious. His son was not only failing in his own right, he was also undermining the monarchy’s importance with his light-hearted behaviour. People would never respect him, and disrespecting the son would lead to disrespect of the father, of that the King was certain. And so he decided that before his son came of age, the boy would have to spend a year in one of the rich neighbouring courts, to see how truly powerful princes lived. The King hoped that such impressive, living examples would be a better school than his own advice had so far proved.
But when the Prince heard of his father’s plan he was furious. He raged at the King for plotting to make him leave his friends and at the Queen for intending to see him dressed in silly clothes with hundreds of pearl buttons and layers of lace. He said he would never leave the country of his own volition. They’d have to take him over the river by force. His parents, who loved him after their own fashion, were shocked at this outburst. The King came up to his apartments later on and sat on his son’s bed trying to calm him down and explain his reasoning. Finally the prince said: “I’ll go if you go”. The King asked him what he meant by that. The prince replied: “If you go out into the world for a year, dressed as a normal citizen, the way I have been doing, day after day, night after night, then yes, I’ll go abroad and live like a proper prince and study the ways of courtiers and learn politics and diplomacy. But those are the only conditions under which I agree to leave”.
And so it came about one bright spring morning, that the Prince, resplendent in newly tailored finery, said goodbye to his mother at the eastern, riverside gate of the palace, while his father the King, dressed as a man of simple means, bearing a staff and accompanied by a tiny donkey carrying his bedroll, a few items of clothing and two capacious but empty saddle panniers of soft wicker – ostensibly for souvenirs – passed under the western gate and set off down the broad avenue that ran right through the country’s modest capital and out the other side.
… to be continued
Thanks to the tiny Eye of Fatimih that a stranger had attached to the brim, and in which I now wholeheartedly believe (there is nothing like a miracle to achieve a quick conversion), the wind carefully puffed my Panama to the centre of the road, out of the way of the massive wheels, just as a kind official, who had witnessed the whole event, tapped me on the shoulder. He indicated that I should wait three minutes while he phoned a colleague. This colleague rescued my hat from almost certain abduction by a poor street-sweeper with a handcart and took some secret route up to return it to me, battered but useable, well within the given time.
I felt embarrassed as I thanked the rescuers profusely; the hat is worthless to anyone but me. It has already travelled far too far, and it shows. In truth, it would have suited the street-sweeper better. If I mention this anecdote at all, it is to underline the extreme courtesy and friendliness of everyone who crossed my path during my all-too-brief sojourn among the “ottomen” and “ottowomen” of this hospitable land. Two persons of some importance in this echoing labyrinth, to judge by their uniforms, had taken the time to help a single tourist in very mild distress. The same would prove true of the heavily armed policemen in riot gear (what sort of riot they were expecting, I cannot imagine: a mass run on halva, a fight to the death with pistachio nuts?) who gave clear directions to my hotel, of the kind old man at the Sokulu Mosque who let me climb to the upper storey and even turned some extra lights on to help with my photography, of the hotel staff, whose natural warmth was such a welcome contrast to the exaggerated friendliness of the bazaar salesmen, of the people on the tram, so ready to point out landmarks and advise you when to get off, of the district police sergeant who shared his thermos of tea …
Someone on the plane had told me I might have difficulty finding enough people who speak English, and that Turkish was a whole world away from any familiar language. How wrong they proved to be! Not only could most people manage a little English, or at least a little German or French, but the Turkish language is also full of French and some English influences, rendering it quite approachable for the layman, despite its strange accents. A hotel is an “otel”. A hairdresser is a “koiför”. A cash exchange bank advertises its “deviz”, a tunnel is a “tünel” and a bus is an “otobus” when it’s not an “otokar”. Indeed, one begins to wonder what the Turks did with their sick people before they had an “ambulans” to put them in, how all those 600 concubines managed to rid themselves each week of the least trace of bodily hair before there was “epilasyon” to help them, where one caught the train before there was a “gar”, how one crossed the Bosporus before there was a “feribot”, what they ate in the park before the “piknik” was invented, what they strolled along before there was a “bulevard”, how anything stylish was conceived before the advent of “dizine”, what a new idea was before it became “orijinal”, where you ate prior to the arrival of the “kafeterya”, where you set up your desk before there was an “ofis” to go to, where you found relief before there were “tuvalets” – which can, by the way, be found in abundance in Istanbul, at every mosque and in most public squares, for men and women, all scrupulously clean, all well-equipped with soap, fresh water, paper and towels: a far cry from Brussels, which until recently boasted, if that is the right word, but one solitary public urinal for the entire city – and just what this country lived from before there was “turizm”.
Long before Ataturk turned the nation’s gaze firmly westwards to invite those selfsame tourists in, something many Turks are quite understandably starting to regret, the Sultans were already keen to modernize their realm. They imported European art and values and endeavoured to make their country accessible and attractive for outside investment at a time when the income they received from their autocratic ownership of monopolies in spices, silks and ceramics was declining fast. This was a successful tactic, but unfortunately it led them into some bad decisions later on, one of which was a dodgy alliance with the wrong side in the First World War.
Despite having had their bread well-buttered by a series of British monarchs (two of them were even inducted into the Order of the Garter, the Queen’s inner circle), the Sultans became enamoured of German power and Prussian state organization, just like the Japanese emperors of the same period, and with the same disastrous repercussions. It was in the nature of the Ottoman rulers to admire a well-run shop, rather than the heap of muddling meddlers that the English had turned out to be. After all, they had run a tight enough ship themselves for many centuries. But this fatal fascination with the Teutonic led them to be swept away along with those great houses of Europe, the Hapsburgs and the Prussians, the Bourbons and the Romanovs, the Esterhazys and the Sachs Gothas, whom they had so admired from a distance, but whose proximity proved so deadly.
Et in arcadia ego. It would appear that even mountains of Turkish delight cannot save you from a bad case of realpolitik when you import too much pragmatism into your magic carpet world full of eastern promise. The construction of the ingratiatingly European Dolmabahçe Palace marked the beginning of the end. “Choose your friends from among those who flatter you the least” was a maxim of the Orient. The Sultans not only failed to follow their own rule of thumb, but were also caught off guard when others did.
The Bonetti-Bowie house is an odd building, though not untypical for France. The bel étage (yes even a farmhouse occasionally had one of those when living almost cheek to jowl with palaces) and upper floor are domestic, the ground floor is strictly for storage and utilities. The sprawling old place also has a most commodious attic, or series of attics, of differing degrees of gloom. Why am I telling you all this? Well, Mack and Luka have birthdays which are only a few days apart. They generally use this fortunate proximity as an excuse to throw but one party a year … a rather large one, to which friends and colleagues and family are liberally invited on the “bring-a-bottle-or-plate-of-quiche-or-preferably-both” model.
The week prior to this annual party, which tradition has fixed on the first Saturday in April, regardless of when Easter may or may not be, is the setting for a ferocious bout of house cleaning and tidying. Because, like many of their ilk, and I’m referring to journalists, not their loving families, Mack and Luka are almost as pathologically untidy without as their minds are ordered within. And so, for seven days, regardless of whatever other deadlines have to be met, the two of them rush around with dusters and brooms and those feathery things for spiders’ webs, and the song of the vacuum cleaner is heard in the land. But ‘stage one’ of the Great Tidy, before nary a mop can be wielded in anger, is rather classic. I witnessed it myself one year and was struck by its efficacy and ruthlessness.
Each of them emerges from some part of the two domestic floors they occupy, carrying a pile of papers, magazines, brochures, bills, letters and general what-have-you that has been allowed to accumulate like driftwood on any available surface (all of which are required for the party) to place it on a small temporary, folding table on the landing. Picking up the first item from the pile and holding it for the other to see will elicit a lightning response of “up”, “down” or “file”; where “up” means relegate to the attic (old Xerox paper boxes stand ready) “down” means banish definitively for recycling (diverse bulging bags and boxes are stored downstairs in the ‘inutility’ room and taken to a city facility once a year), while “file” means stuff into a cupboard, out of sight out of mind, until enquired after, or most probably not.
I quizzed Luka on the good sense of this method, and he assured me that they have never once been seriously bothered by the loss of something vital, never once needed to retrieve an item from the attic or regretted throwing something out that might have been important and very seldom even looked into the various stuffed cupboards and compartments until they physically burst open and have to be subjected to another process of “up/down/file” triage just to slim them down.
The terrible, or sustaining and benevolent, moral behind this tale is that nothing that comes though your letter box or out of your printer or is thrust into your hand on the street or that you pick up at a gallery or a show-room, at a conference or a trade fair really matters very much. Don’t worry; bills, if mislaid, will always be re-sent. Upon that you can rely. Almost everything else is simply flotsam and jetsam, the wood pulp-based dross of life. And yet we gather and hoard and stack and file and box and archive and index and stock and shelve and log a staggering quantity of this stuff through which our descendants must at some future date wade for days.
Much of this bumph is unique in its kind, which defies its being indexed with anything else, and yet is somehow insufficient to qualify for its own category: an A5 booklet on Scandinavian wood-burning stoves, a brochure about earth-sinks and heat pumps, a twenty page monograph on black olives, an item on the etymology of the fools-cap paper format, how to restore a clay pizza oven, a description of the lead drain-spouts around Durham cathedral, an article on the origins of the hot-cross bun etc… All frightfully interesting, but life’s too short.
The late Lord Inchcape, who sat on the boards of numerous city companies and was fabulously wealthy in his own right, which is unusual among the gentry, had a novel way of dealing with paperwork, deadlines, unwelcome information, red-tape, verbose contracts, restraining clauses, the minutes of steering committees and suchlike: he would simply wait until his in-tray got unbearably full and then set fire to it. Apparently this in no wise affected his business success and nothing of any real import was ever delayed, mislaid or derailed by this alarming habit. He had unwittingly stumbled upon a truth no self-respecting civil servant wants us to unearth: paper is not as all-powerful and life-threatening as we are given to think.
While I was still a boy, uncle Haviland once took me to his officers’ mess. I found it scarily tidy. “These officers have SIMPLY NO IDEA of what constitutes a mess”, I thought, comparing it in my mind with my sisters’ bedrooms … Yet an acquaintance of mine is an officer of another kind; Public Relations Officer for a large institution. Her desk resembles a mountain range. There are surely many thousands of things upon it of which she can know absolutely nothing. The papers and brochures and CD-ROMS and presentation folders lie 50 centimetres deep across the entire surface. All communication has to be routed by the switchboard to her cell phone, even when she’s in her office, because her fixed-line telephone is so well-buried as to be inaudible. Yet she is a paragon of efficiency, never drops the ball, juggles half a dozen PR campaigns at once and always remembers people’s interests, birthdays, names of spouses and children etc. A colleague once put “restricted zone” striped tape around her desk, together with a sign saying that since the recent discovery of an Etruscan village, access was now exclusively reserved to archaeologists.
A few days ago I happened to drop by for a chance at lunch. She told me she now had a new office on the third floor. They’d installed an architectural draughtsman’s desk, the kind that slopes. It wasn’t a solution. Piles of stuff were beginning to climb the walls in the corners of the room instead. But at least the phone was available. I asked what had happened to the old mess. It all went into a skip and got carted off for recycling, she told me. It couldn’t have been important. Life still went on. No one had ever openly wondered whether she’d looked at, evaluated, considered, listened to or watched any of it. Yet budgets are drawn up and people are hired to create all this printed stuff; entire PR departments, just like her own. How hollow and frustrating such lives must be.
Mack and Luka’s party will be fantastic, as always. But up above, the ancient floors must creak under the strain of all that paper that is valued just enough not to be thrown out, but not enough to be referred to, not enough to be read, not enough to provoke any thought or action other than “up”, “down” or “file”: sad, but nonetheless … somehow liberating!
So what’s wrong with Kiribati and Vanuatu, you may ask? Nothing; they are both heaven on earth, but unfortunately they are being washed away by ever stronger ocean currents, an increase in tropical storms and steadily rising sea levels. It doesn’t matter where you stand on the issue of global warming, whether you are a naysayer or an acolyte, there is no denying the reality on the ground … or at sea in this case. As warmer oceans expand, and as those parts of the polar ice that used to be supported by land masses diminish, average tidal levels are rising. This is dangerous enough for a nation like the Netherlands, with sophisticated flood technologies and formidable barriers to contain and resist the surging sea, but to tiny island states without such means, where an increase of a few inches means that saline levels in the sweet water-table (if there even is one) rise to levels that render agriculture impossible, a difference of two or three feet threatens the very existence of the land and its people.
The changes now taking place are not the temporary vagaries of an otherwise stable climatic cycle. Meteorologists and physical geographers agree: they carry an air of doom laden finality. We are imperceptibly moving from a barely tenable situation into a prequel of “Waterworld”. The government of Kiribati currently insists that its bid to buy an available 6000-acre estate on Fiji is designed to serve initially as an additional means of providing food for its people, whose agricultural economy is being weakened by extreme weather. However, Kiribati’s President, Mr Anote Tong, gives substance to the rumour of emigration when he does not dismiss the idea of relocation out of hand. Moving 103,000 islanders from Kiribati to Fiji (population 850,000) would, he says, be a policy of “last resort”.
These incremental alterations in sea level might be nothing to get too alarmed about, were it not for the extraordinary inertia inherent to very large bodies. For once such a process has become reliably measurable in something as vast as the world’s oceans, it is already so advanced that any curative reaction to it must be given a timeframe not of decades, but of centuries. The tiny islands of Micronesia simply don’t have centuries anymore. They may not even have decades. Excessive winds and ocean currents, coupled with the steady erosion of protective coral reefs (as water temperatures become too high to support such delicate systems) mean that these already fragile islands, some of which only rise a few feet above the waves, could simply be swept away next hurricane season … or the one after.
We are taught to believe that a risk is a challenge, that dangers are to be not only surmounted, but even used to our advantage. I can think of only one way that we, as an entire species, can take advantage of this slow menace. We need to embrace the ocean as it once embraced us. What will this entail?
Firstly, we will have to open up our landmasses to accept at least some of the extra salt water. A system of well-sealed sea-water canals could serve as super-highways for entire floating factories powered by wind and solar, which would not carry commodities from A to B, but carry complete manufacturing and agricultural activities instead. Raw materials would arrive at coastal ports to be taken up by these gigantic barges and slowly transformed, over a distance of hundreds of kilometres, into finished products. The higher density of salt water would enable such colossal undertakings to deliver greater economies of scale. At least in the United States, China, Russia and Europe, the trucking industry, as we know it, would be transformed. We might even consider suburban barges, each a decent-sized village, with several decks, which would dock in our cities during the week and move out into the country at the weekend, carrying their populations and all their facilities with them.
Secondly we could consider the creation of low-displacement artificial islands out on the high seas. These would be built on a triangular web of tube frames with giant, flexible-jointed, ball-floats at every apex. Such webs could carry osmotic fibre matting which would serve as a bed for composted topsoil to develop hydroponic gardens, vegetable plots etc. The upper sections of the ball-floats would serve as dome-shaped buildings: dwellings, offices, storage and utility spaces etc. These flexible floating islands would have to be of sufficient size as to easily outride even the stormiest ocean. Ideally, the giant triangles would be arranged to form reef-like “landmasses” surrounding a central protected harbour, itself accessible through a single channel and assuring a relatively calm haven. The islands would take advantage of their free-floating nature to follow (phototropic sensors driving thousands of electric motors) either the sun or the rain, depending on what was most needed at the time. In other words, they would not anchor in any particular place, but would “claim” a certain nomadic territory, much like a timber wolf, and roam it freely.
However, there is one project dear to my heart, which would involve a well-anchored island: the creation of a giant hotel, leisure, conference and business centre, mid-way between the British Isles and New York on the southern great-circle route – somewhere near the Azores, but with no nationality, no immigration controls, no visas, no customs duties, no sales taxes – in fact, no taxes at all other than a harbour fee for every ship that would dock, every plane that would land there. You can call my vision of a genuine “last resort” utopian, if you like. I call it Atlantis.
* By the way, moving to Fiji is not exactly like popping next door for a cup of sugar. The Fiji group of islands lies more than 2000 kilometres south of Kiribati.]]>
Then there is the German way. You park with ostentatious care, always leaving a respectful ten centimetres between your car and the next at the apex of each manoeuvre. When leaving your vehicle, you walk around it to verify its parallel position to the curb and equidistance from its neighbours. You then take out your phone and snap both their number plates, as well as the state of all four fenders (two of yours and one each of theirs) just in case one of the other drivers should turn out to be not quite a true blue Teuton after all.
Americans do things differently. Firstly, they hang huge protective rubber mats over the fenders of their gigantic SUVs to tell the world either what lousy parkers they are or what lousy parkers they assume everyone else is. Then, after requiring upward of five frustrating minutes to cajole their power-steered, automotive humungoid into a space large enough for a small aircraft carrier, during which activity everyone else’s ingress or egress from the parking lot, street, or gas station apron is effectively blocked, they step nobly back into the general right of way to survey the result. Satisfied that they have managed to park astride the divider between two spaces, thus denying the use of the remaining space to anyone whose ride is wider than a Harley, they will then mosey off to the store to stock up on all those strange commodities that Americans mistake for food.
Meanwhile, the rear end of the giant urban cruiser (Americans ONLY park forward, it’s a patriotic thing) has been left protruding far enough into the main gangway to make it hard even for pedestrians, let alone other vehicles, to get past. This is because what they call the hood of the vehicle is so vast that no one, not even Pythagoras or Euclid using trigonometry, would want to calculate its distance from the opposing row with any exactitude. So what, might you ask, is the two-inch thick rubber mat actually for, if not for nosing up cosily to ones brothers from Detroit? Well, sure, but if you did that, then no one could benefit from the philosophical worth inherent in the embossed gold legend your mat carries: “God, Guts and Guns made America Great”.
Now, the engine in that monster would take any normally sized family car from zero to 100 kmh (0 – 60mph) in about five seconds and on up to a top speed of 200 or so. Fortunately for all of us, the sheer weight of the average SUV leaves such performance in dreamland. They are ponderous, clunky, pug-ugly and their tyres scream if they negotiate a bend at anything much more than walking speed. These US models are larger than anything sold over here in Europe. They are built on truck chassis and under-taxed accordingly as utility vehicles. This fiscal incentive is one of the only two arguments in their favour. The other, unexpectedly, is not interior size, since most of the footprint is taken up with imposing muscularity: fat fairings, big hood, broad shoulders, tractor wheels etc., but rather the hope that they will stay on the road through floods and tornados in those states where such things are common. That makes them part of a paradigm, or at least a self-fulfilling prophecy, because these days, partly because of the continued existence of these guzzling hulks, such natural phenomena are becoming more frequent.
Cars like these only make sense in the USA. The mind-numbing 55 mph (89kmh) speed limit that still blankets some states means that the feel of riding in a big-engined, lazy-revving vehicle keeps you in your personal comfort zone. What I noticed in New York State (and this may well be true of many others that have raised their limits with fatal results) is that the roads themselves are neither sufficiently well-engineered, nor surfaced, nor marked nor signposted to support higher speeds anyway. As soon as it rains or dusk draws in, you lose all sense of your position on the highway as the non-reflective markings disappear. Add to this the poor state of the tarmac, a total lack of cambering in curves, the atrociously random signposting and the lack of normal driving skills evident in the average American motorist and you begin to be grateful that no one is moving faster than you.
The proof of this particular pudding came when the Chevrolet sedan in front of my little rented Nissan burst a tyre in full rush-hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway and, instead of hitting his warning lights and moving smartly over onto the perfectly free, available and immediately accessible hard shoulder (as any European would do), he began to lose speed dramatically while staying in lane. Coming to a stop, and forcing me to do the same (the density of traffic prevented me from passing on the left), the driver swung his door wide open into the dense traffic, causing yet more chaos. He then climbed slowly out, stretched like a man getting up to fetch a beer and stood scratching his head and looking with a bovine air at his wheels.
To avoid being crushed by the Mack behemoth barrelling down behind me I steered smartly, if illegally, onto the hard shoulder, slipped by on his right and made my escape from this frightening and potentially tragic situation. I shall never again laugh at the state-wide New York limit. It probably saved my life. Whether it saved the life of the suicidal idiot in front I shall never know. There’s not much justice in the world, so he probably lived to drive another day and will even go forth, find some equally bovine partner and multiply. There’s one born every minute, they say. So at least the future is assured.
To some scientists and particularly cosmologists, the very fact of being able to ponder this mystery puts us at the heart of what Paul Davies calls the Goldilocks Enigma. If the porridge here is so eminently just right, does that mean that the diverse physical parameters upon which we depend and the cosmological constants that govern them have been “fine tuned to favour the emergence of life”? In this last sentence, even though I wrote most of it myself, I have trouble with almost every word. Let’s take it step by step:
ONE – is the porridge here “just right”, or have we merely adapted to second-rate porridge and, by so doing, developed more through the hardship of doing porridge under primitive conditions than we might have developed as idle lotus eaters in a truly “ideal” Eden? We cannot know, so argument from default becomes futile;
TWO – “diverse physical parameters” are exactly that, diverse. And in this diversity and even divergence may lie the reasons for our apparent success. We might otherwise have been forty-foot tall photophobic pachyderms, eaten up the entire vegetation of our low gravity planet in two shakes of a lambs tail and died of hunger sometime back in the early Neolithic;
THREE – “upon which we depend” … but surely, if they were not dependable, we should not depend on them but would necessarily depend on others. Take oxygen, for example: it’s tricky enough stuff, highly volatile, caustic and inimical to many of our basic minerals. Yet we depend on it. If that were not so, we might now be highly philosophically developed but anaerobic, single-celled flagella with an über-dimensional intelligence embracing the entire galaxy, or then again, we might not;
FOUR – as for “the constants that govern them”, since the tiniest change to any one of these would make all life as we know it, indeed the entire history of the universe from its very first picoseconds frankly impossible, Jim, we are faced with the choice either of speculating from our position of ordered uniqueness about a state of absolute and entirely unpredictable chaotic desolation or having to assume that another kind of universe would have eventually emerged a pico or two later. This universe (which may exist anyway, parallel to ours), would permit other kinds of life so far outside our carbon chauvinist model as to be literally unimaginable since the concepts governing them can only be expressed in seven dimensional transparent toroids that resonate to an omni-present sub-bass frequency transmitting from some indefinable source so loudly as to liquefy all solid matter and make any kind of cogitation impossible;
FIVE – “have been” … ouch, dodgy territory. Use of verbs suggests volition. Volition suggests intelligence, which in turn suggests the very thing we are trying so hard to avoid: the Elephant in the Room (Just sit still, children and it’ll get bored and wander off. No, Kevin, it doesn’t like popcorn!)
SIX – “fine tuned to favour the emergence of life”, this of course exposes the entire unstable paradox: either we reason from what we know and predict that which we do not know, then test our prediction by opening it up to rebuff (the scientific method), or we jump from the chicken to the donkey (as the French say) and reason that because we already know a thing, we were perhaps destined to know it, insofar as the conditions for attaining such knowledge were invested in the very origins of the thing we know, which just happens to be our own existence, which in its turn happens to be the actual agency and vector of our supposedly a priori knowledge. Yes, I just bit my own tail and nobody heard me scream.
When dealing with cosmic bears and their cosmic porridge it does well to remind ourselves that while the devil will probably be in the details as usual, we should not react by trying to shove God into any gaps that occur in our own plausibility. Proof of an active creator, if there is ever to be such proof, must emerge from a coherent and fully validated method, not be determined by default due to our inability to imagine things other than the way they are. Yes, the laws of physics and the mathematical constants of cosmology do seem to have resulted, at least in one spectacularly unimportant corner of our little suburban galaxy, in the formation of a narrow bio-sphere within which fat brown cockroaches may go forth and multiply most vigorously, but that doesn’t give them the right to start talking of manifest destiny.
We seem to live in a universe in which bears will serve themselves porridge and then walk out the door to go hunting while it cools off at vastly uneven speeds, quite heedless of the laws of thermodynamics. Yet fortunately, alongside such curious proofs of serendipity, this Goldilocks Universe has also conspired to make the 2012 London Olympics fall within the Charles Dickens Bicentennial Year, which shall doubtless give me something even more meaningful to write about anon. By the way, my money’s on the Artful Dodger for the 200 metre hurdles.
PS: For an interesting excursion into the theory of Copernican Mediocrity and the probable prevalence of life in our galaxy, please read “Where is everybody?” one of my postings from June 2010 in which I discussed, among other things, the evaluation principles of “Six and the S.E.T.I.”
PPS: the expression “Doing Porridge” is jail-speak for incarceration at her majesty’s pleasure.]]>
We know that governments generally have a poor reputation when it comes to social engineering and active intervention in the family, yet we would all agree that there are situations where agencies definitely should get involved. But for every horrible tale of a child undergoing a regular Calvary of vile treatment unnoticed for months or years, for every honour killing whose warning signs were ignored for reasons of political correctness or fear of being branded racist, there are a dozen less spectacular cases of social services over-reacting to unfounded assertions of child abuse. Recent revelations about state-managed “abductions” in the UK, Australia and Ireland and the currently raging debate in the US over the intrusive actions of state and county CPAs (Child Protection Agencies) are at least the equal in sheer hair-raising creepiness to anything the Swedes can dream up in their over-controlled socialist paradise.
American CPAs even stand accused of deliberate scams carried out at the expense of legitimate but poor birth families to the advantage of adoption agencies and the coffers of the state. In some cases this may just represent the ranting of the habitual perpetrator turned victim, but in others it may not. Because apparently these agencies actually earn more federal money the more children they place into care. And once the matching funds have increased, the agency can employ more people. This in turn converts into more promotable positions and bigger desks for those near the top. The situation has become so blatantly obvious since a state representative first blew the whistle in California, that the internet rumour mill and even some reputed press outlets are now treating it as a nationwide conspiracy to provide “cheap” children to wealthy childless couples. How can it be, people are asking, that such a high percentage of these ostensibly “damaged” kids and “shaken” babies turn out so eminently blue-eyed and adoptable?
At issue are not just the dubious financial models regulating our social services, nor are the ethics and policies of these institutions solely at fault. Rather we stand on the brink of redefining how much Nanny we want to have in our state and how much parental independence and family sovereignty we can afford to allow in return for a bit less molly-coddling. Let’s go back to the case in the first paragraph. Many of you may be horrified at the thought that someone might strike their child even in a moment of anger, how much more so when that child knows it is “in for good hiding” delivered by a parent in cold blood. But if that “good hiding” is little more than two whacks on the bum with a wooden spoon: no damage done, no further recriminations … is it really a matter for state intervention, abduction and the institutionalization of a child (or children, in the Swedish model), not to mention the collective punishment of an entire family? Surely we have lost sight of the greater good, the preservation of a family unit, merely to assuage our fashionable social consciences?
One might further argue that a parent, however old-fashioned his or her parenting model, who cares about the success and behaviour of their offspring to the point of physically disciplining them is infinitely better than the great unwashed mass of sloppy parents who simply expect television, schools, the health system and social services to take care of everything they have failed to do and pick up all the pieces they have dropped. I have not grown up into a violent person despite my rigorous upbringing. On the contrary, I am diplomatic and placid to a fault in most situations. Yet I was thrashed with a hazel switch as a child, both at home and at school. It didn’t happen very often, maybe a dozen times in ten years, but I can honestly say that I roundly merited it on each occasion. I can also honestly say that I preferred to be judiciously whacked a couple of times (the legendary six of the best was extremely rare – you’d have to set the school on fire for that – one or two strokes was the norm) and then sent on my way with a few words of unrelated small-talk, a ginger nut biscuit and a thimble-full of sherry, than to have to put up with the sort of psychological hazing, emotional blackmail and guilt theatrics that passes for structured education in some more “modern” families and schools.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not pro-corporal punishment. Although I often might be heard to say that someone (a grandstanding politician, potty-mouthed popstar or uppity celebrity) needs a good spanking, I don’t usually mean it in a literal sense, because it’s probably far too late! And if I had kids of my own I’d prefer to get through the year without recourse to anything firmer than a “good talking-to”. I would rather set the kind of moral example and nurture the kind of domestic climate as would render all forms of violence, even punitive, irrelevant. I would try to inspire confidence and self-discipline, integrity and a sense of worth in my children. I would try to keep all channels of communication open. However, should all these brave resolutions fail with a particularly recalcitrant child, and were he or she to perform an act of sufficient cowardice, cruelty and general turpitude to merit it, I would at least like to think that the strap would be an option still open to me as a last resort without necessarily incurring the wrath of the entire nation or having the Spanish Inquisition break my door down and drag my daughter off to a nunnery.
The invention of modernity
The term modern has been around since the Latin from which it derives, but only in the restricted sense of “that which is currently happening”, which might be a secret coven of subversives working on radical reform or a stuffy gathering of old pedants intent on preserving privilege and opposed to any kind of change. Insofar as both these events could occur simultaneously, modern (in its ancient sense) could apply equally to either of them. It would seem that, at least in English, the word was first used in its “modern” sense of contrasting with the established method, idea or thing, towards the end of the 16th Century.
In historical terminology, “modern” designates an epoch that begins after the dark ages and ends right now. The modern epoch traces the urbanisation and secularisation of society as well as the demographic changes that altered traditional structures of power. Although earlier periods had seen the introduction of techniques and materials that were startlingly new and changed the way people worked (bronze, iron, glazed pottery, glass, woodblock printing etc), it wasn’t until the late mediaeval chartering of towns, the first agrarian revolution and the setting up of guilds and corporations that the conscious application and championing of newness became a predominant driver of social change. While we would find most of the sixteenth century shockingly primitive, yet we can resonate to Shakespeare as an essentially modern playwright, because that’s exactly what he was. He offered works that were repeatable, relevant and defining: all of which are generally accepted aspects of a modern thing, idea or phenomenon to this day.
The rise of the modern man
The frame of repeatability, relevance and definition can be used to class anything as either outdated or modern. Take the steam locomotive, the newspaper or the postal service: all of these were wonderfully repeatable (and we can still produce them), yet their lack of relevance to our age is as clear as the way they defined a certain way of being for the people of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To be modern then was to be informed of a thing in the newspaper first thing in the morning and to take a train up to London to witness it yourself or simply write a letter to The Times about it that would arrive on the editor’s desk the very same day. The personal computer, in all its forms, now offers all these services even faster (newspapers, postal services and railways have, for the most part ,miserably failed to maintain their standard), and if we really have to “be there”, we can still take a modern train or travel in our infinitely relevant, repeatable and defining personal transporter, the car … or such is the dream at least.
A thing, service, phenomenon or idea must score sufficiently high on repeatability, relevance and the way it defines – by its very existence – a trend, class, group, movement or simply a precise moment in time in order to exist at all in the modern world. The invention of modernity as a concept has thus gone hand in hand with the gradual emergence of modern man as an independent creature with a personal style in a personalized space and a personal world view. Notwithstanding, all the diverse elements making up the former have been filtered through the creative, commercial and social processes of vast networks of resourceful people who have tested them for their robustness, validity and market value … otherwise they would simply never have emerged as styles, preferences, objects, philosophies or opinions.
A feature of this current period, which we still refer to in cultural terms as “post-modern” (a ridiculous notion to pure historians, but understandable once you have decided for all time that Picasso and Pollock were modern artists, Stockhausen and Schonberg were modern composers and the Bauhaus school defined modernity in architecture) is that we can no longer separate ideas from the technologies that vector them. The Internet is thus as much an ideal as it is an electronic data exchange network. The movement of dramatic arts, fine arts and publication from the real to the virtual is a similar phenomenon, impossible to separate from the ever more refined technologies that act as carriers.
Writing on the subject of art and the technology of its creation, Paul Valéry already offered the following observation in the 1930s: “In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing transformation in our very notion of art … the astonishing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful.” I don’t think he was talking about Power Point presentations, 3D cinema, Flickr or YouTube. So, even if they occasionally rise to the challenge, I believe much of his prophecy remains as yet unfulfilled.
A further attribute of modernity, and a less desirable one, is evanescence. The great idea that defines its time can hardly be expected to define another age as well, unless the cyclical mill of history manages to present it in a new and refreshingly digestible guise to some future generation. Capitalism and socialism are both ideas that patiently suffer reinvention every few decades. Temperance is enjoying a new lease of life, as are virginity and vegetarianism. But we will probably wait in vain for slavery or feudalism, paternalism or orthodoxy to once more be perceived as modern.
Objects are even less fortunate. Aside from the slim chance of returning as nostalgia to take on a new lease of life and redefine a new generation of stylishly modern aficionados, like vinyl records or the Fiat 500, the life of an object as something acceptably modern is generally very short indeed, unless, like the Eames chair, the buildings of Mies van der Rohe, the Fender Stratocaster, the Cuban cigar, the image of Uncle Sam or the Coca-cola bottle, you are lucky enough to be perceived as iconic: a status that confers incredible longevity, possibly even eternity. Steve Jobs may be the first person ever to have combined the attributes of cool, visionary, utilitarian and iconic in a single person and extend it to a whole line of repeatable and relevant products and services that have defined their own class and shaped an entire culture.
The once and future thing
Will Jobs still be a giant in 2050? Will Marilyn Monroe still be modern in 2099? Will Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley still hang on walls? Will James Dean, Kurt Cobain and Ché Guevara still represent rebellion in the 22nd century? How long will the ubiquitous smart-phone in its latest and coolest iteration be considered a cult object rather than just something you have? Paul Valéry, once again, already envisaged if not precisely ipad 2, then certainly something very like it: “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.”
For someone writing in 1931, Valéry was far, far ahead of his time. Did that make him modern? No, it made him a priest, an oracle. Prescience is the art of correctly imagining the future, modernity is the art of making it happen now for everyone. Take Buckminster Fuller as an example. He was modern in the 1970s and 80s. In his own decade he was a strange and marginal visionary who has since managed to scrape over the threshold of “footnote” to take his rightful place in the pantheon. The present isn’t what it used to be either.
Echoes of “Lord Jim”
A French marine lawyer, Pierre-Sébastien Boulay-Paty, writing in the 1800s on the subject of the recently revised maritime code for merchant and passenger shipping concluded that although “we have come a long way from the daunting maxim that the master should necessarily go down with the very hull that has been his home – for courage need not transgress the limits of the foolhardy or suicidal – yet it is nonetheless clear that the captain must be the last person to leave the vessel.” The code, which is just as valid today, at least in theory, also requires that a captain confer with his officers before giving the order to abandon ship. He is then to designate those in authority for the evacuation (should the gravity of the situation require any change to standing orders) and is to carry the counter-signed minutes of these decisions with him, together with the ship’s logbook, when he finally leaves the bridge.
The gigantic cadaver of the Costa Concordia is now a sad witness to how far we have travelled, from “women and children first” to a “devil take the hindmost” attitude that would do credit to the best tenets of Thatcherism. Here we have a captain who was already sitting in jail, possibly facing multiple charges (wilful disregard of maritime regulations, dereliction of duty, causing an environmental hazard …) while the majority of his passengers were still being either fished from the water or airlifted from a ship that could quickly become a death-trap were the weather to worsen significantly. Moreover, many of those rescued not only reported having hardly seen a single officer throughout the entire ordeal, but also that they were jostled aside by crew members desperate to get into one of the available lifeboats, all of which were now on the port side, since the vessel’s extreme list had rendered the starboard boats inaccessible.
Motley dressed as spam
Should we be surprised? Well, no actually we should not. The days when crew serving on passenger vessels were imbued with a sense of maritime discipline have vanished along with the whole concept of a homogenous merchant navy: a body of honourable men and women sharing common values and training. These used to be the pride of all great nations, holding a status only slightly inferior to their more specialized and belligerent colleagues. Nowadays you might be lucky enough to have a few officers on board who have worked their way through the more traditional type of marine training. Then again, you might not. The Brits are still top-notch at this: despite a declining fleet, UK merchant navy personnel are still sought by all the flags of the world. But for the most part, the fine uniforms and polite smiles that greet you on a modern cruise ship belong to hotel personnel who have been retrained, retooled and recycled for service on a luxury liner. Even the “genuine articles” are less genuine than in days of yore. While the captain and his first officer are still highly privileged positions, the remaining officers, the navigator and all the technical support staff are not necessarily a team that have worked together through thick and thin, but are more likely to have been short-hired at competitive rates of pay. They will be competent and doubtless sufficiently experienced, but one should not expect much loyalty or initiative over and above the stipulations of their minimum service contract.
As for the generality of the crew, those who do most of the work will be underpaid and underprivileged in the extreme. Confined to quarters for lack of a visa whenever the ship is in harbour, they will be distinctly third-world and rightfully disgruntled with their lot as they languish in sweaty, waterline cabins while their passengers are enjoying the local night life. They will have little interest in displaying any kind of unusual behaviour, such as bravery, which might draw unwanted attention to the irregularity of their status. Of the Costa Concordia’s crew of about a thousand, 200 were Indians and 300 were from the Philippines, where “women and children first” doesn’t really cut the mustard. The rest were probably the usual motley band of North Africans and East Europeans from the Baltic and the Balkans. Only those with some degree of authority would be Italian.
Setting another course
This floating United nations, now gutted on the rocks, once represented all that is best and worst in our modern world: a diverse mix of rich and vibrant cultures united in poverty and mutual respect for the harshness of life below decks, where mere inches separated them from the pampered tourists with their glossy women, ‘living the dream’ for a few short weeks in the lap of luxury. The Costa Concordia was a city, albeit a small one, and as such was a microcosm of the socio-economic layer cake we currently inhabit, where the gross devolution of responsibility is designed to serve the gross evolution of wealth. Any attempt to crew an Italian ship of such a size entirely with Italians would be as economically disastrous as trying to have American peaches harvested entirely by American citizens. Yet Angela Merkel has told us that the multi-cultural model has failed, and she may be right … in which case the wreck of the Costa Concordia is not just Captain Schettino’s “SS Patna”, an albatross from which he may never redeem himself, but Italy’s “Raft of the Medusa” as well.
All of this should make Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seem somewhat less of a populist demagogue and dictator-in-waiting and somewhat more of a visionary exponent of a new, homogenous European nation-state model … after all, he rejects the multi-ethnic paradigm of valid minority contributions to culture, just as he rejects the res-publica of a state in which authority resides in a government that is responsible to as well as for the people, preferring to jettison the former almost entirely and define the latter in a very narrow frame.
Forward to the past
Twenty years ago, when we first took notice of him, he seemed thirsty for democratic renovation and eager enough for the changes his country would have to undergo. But electoral defeat in 2002 at the hands of a socialist coalition, which included many of the communist freeloaders he thought he’d seen the back of, gave him a different kind of thirst, not for democracy, but for revenge. He is having that revenge now and he intends to make it last, by securing his authority with a deluge of restrictive laws (72 in just the last two weeks) that effectively restructure Hungarian political life. You read it here first: we are looking at the start of a dynasty, a dynasty that traces its economic template to the great industrial moguls of the 19th century and its political template to a mix of the ‘Putin/Medvedev model’ with added ingredients even grimmer and frighteningly familiar to generations of Europeans.
Because there is a name for the impressing of the national association of journalists into a fiefdom of the party, there is a name for the subversion of the constitutional court and its reinvention as a mere rubber stamp tribunal, there is a name for the gathering of all previously independent cultural outlets – such as theatre groups, orchestras, opera, ballet and youth organizations – under the aegis of single ministry, there is a name for the political appointment of judges, the submission of the judiciary to political expedient alone and the assignment of particularly sensitive cases to particularly obedient judges, there is a name for the forced integration of the national bank into the finance ministry, there is a name for the coerced adoption of a single state religion and the withdrawal of state recognition for other faiths, there is a name for the monoptic promotion of a doctrine of nationhood as defined by a sole ethnicity, just as there is a name for the aligning of all school textbooks to overlap entirely with that same doctrine …
The word employed by Adolf Hitler was “Gleichschaltung”. It was the beginning of the end. Captain Orban runs a very tight ship, but one which may yet land him on the rocks. We should all take warning!
What the Belgians failed to achieve with their Mercator projection and its feeble attempts to make their tiny country look bigger, they will finally accomplish by dint of sucking American kids’ brains out once the latter have been reduced to sugar-saturated imbecility by a surfeit of waffles (as if that hadn’t already happened).
Danny Wind is convinced that the waffle will be the main Belgian weapon of subjugation, closely followed by sprouts, beer and chocolate. I suppose the original plan involving Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and a burst of Beethoven’s 9th narrowly missed total world domination. Like Mr Wind, this author is also concerned about the seriousness of the Belgian threat to ‘world peace’ (whatever that is) and feels that necessary steps must be taken. Desperate situations call forth desperate measures.
In support, and despite some niggling concerns about the ethical correctness of eliminating Van-Eyck, Rubens, Rops, Delvaux, Folon, Spilliaert, Audrey Hepburn and the internal combustion engine, I would like to offer the burgeoning Belgian genocide movement an anthem, albeit a rather ragged one, to cheer their spirits and help them overcome any initial squeamishness.
So, without more ado, here it is:
“Death to all Belgians” *
Oh, let’s kill all the Belgians
If that is what it takes
To free the world of waffles,
Witloof, sprouts and inline skates
Yes, do let’s kill the Belgians
Who needs Brel anyway
Magritte or Maigret, Tintin,
Audrey Hepburn or Solvay?
Let’s kill the Belgians slowly
By rendering them for fat
Their girls beat ours at tennis
And we can’t forgive them that
We should kill all the Belgians
And not wait another year
They pee on public buildings!
They mix cherries with their beer!
Ah, let’s kill all the Belgians
We needn’t stop to think
Just wave goodbye to Bakelite
And saxophones and zinc
A good Belgian’s a dead Belgian
Let’s all be sure of that
They drown their “frites” in mayonnaise
And their country’s far too flat
Jawohl, destroy the Belgians!
Firestorm Bruges and Gent
With a conscience clear as crystal
We’ll have no need to repent
For, if you kill the Belgians
Why, what is there to forgive?
They loosed the Smurfs upon us
How can we let them live?
* In observance of Commandment 13a, paragraph7 of the Codex Droodicorum, in which it clearly states:
“Thou shalt kill all the Belgians
Save thy neighbour, spouse and friend
(Where a few kilos of chocolate
For exceptions might amend)”
Curiously enough, the combination of pasta and fireworks plays a central role in my posting this week, as it is one of the curiosities of this little Ardennes village. Whereas we lack some basic amenities – for a town hall, post office, supermarket or railway station you’ll have to drive to Spa and emergency services must also be bussed in if you need anything more than a single gendarme or a lone voluntary fire officer with a water pistol and a cell phone – yet we have been blessed with two churches, two rather good Italian restaurants and two bakeries.
This has to do with geography. The old core of the village perches halfway up the western slope of a narrow valley. But due to the construction before the Great War of a trunk road along the crest of the opposing slope, a number of villas, such as mine, began to be built in the 1920s, forming the “new” village, which eventually resulted in a “new”, hideously stockbroker-gothic church, though served by the same priest and acolytes, a “new” bakery (dubbed in a supreme act of imagination “La Boulangerie Nouvelle”) and the only fuel station for miles around: an art deco gem that mournfully waits to be pimped in the gleaming plastic, international branding of its licensed provider. This last also supplies the heating oil for my horribly thirsty Edwardian furnace and features a modest shop selling the usual choice of crisps, beer and pre-cut logs for the fireplaces of Flemish visitors with no local connection and charcoal for their barbecues.
But it is the Italian restaurant occupying the former rectory building next to the hideous church which interests us today. Not only is it excellent, but its terrace holds a commanding view across the valley to the “old” village. For most of the year this is a delightful perch offering a vista both bucolic (woods and meadows) and human (the village square, the old church, the library housed in what was the “old” rectory (these days our priest is pumped up, like our water, from Spa) and the terrace of l’oppositione. For the restaurant on my side of the valley, run by a family from Tuscany, lies in a direct sight line with the restaurant on the other side, founded by a widow from Naples, whose husband, an itinerant miner, helped build the local reservoir here and died in the attempt, killed by a flash flood in a tunnel together with some other of his unfortunate compatriots. The business is now in the hands of her son, himself married with a family of his own.
These two rival clans with their rival cuisines from different traditions, unlike the Capulets and the Montagues who preferred raw steel and insults, like to face off across the warm summer air on clear evenings in May by vamping stanzas from the opera at one another, in which they wickedly excoriate the others’ culinary skills; all in good fun and strictly in the language of Boccaccio. They also used to hold rival and ever grander firework displays on New Year’s Eve. Used to, that is, until the tradition began to escalate out of all reasonable proportion in the 1990s. A truce was called by the grandchildren, who probably feared their inheritance might go up in smoke, and it was agreed that both families and their clientele would in future contribute to a single display to be held each year in alternance (a word which my spell-checker refuses, but which Mr Webster has included in his Morocco-bound monster): one year Neapolitan, the next year Florentine.
This year it was the turn of Naples, which suited me very well, as my niece Beth, together with her husband Angus and their two kids: Erin (whom you met a short while ago) and three-year old Simon, were over to stay from Boxing Day to New Year. I have become Erin’s favourite great-uncle since doing “the right thing” at her school nativity play (pouring oil on troubled waters rather than fuel to the fire), so I was glad to play host to Beth, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot, even during her reckless years as a downhill racer, when Fiona despaired of ever holding her grandchildren in her arms, believing she would be more likely to bury her daughter than see her married to such a steady city man as Angus.
At a few minutes to midnight (for these particular Italians are scrupulous about timing) we were all out in what I call the loggia, a sort of kiosk-like covered terrace, backed on to the house and glassed in on its two ends. Leaning on the balustrade along the open side we looked out across the quiet valley and smoked cigars. Since the “Passing Cloud” incident, when my life was saved by a cigarette (see Drood, “And a cold back”, too, 21 December 2010), I have decided to offer hostages to fate now and then by smoking a cigar on significant occasions. By “we” I mean neither Beth nor the children (Simon was in bed anyway and Erin was keenly aware that her three years of seniority were just enough to see her through to the end of the fireworks and not a minute later), I mean Angus, Jean-Michel and myself. Beth and Erin, despite the mildest New Year’s Eve in 130 years, were cuddling in blankets on an old raffia couch.
Jean-Michel had provided the smokes and insisted, suitably sotto voce, that they had been rolled on the silky inner thighs of dusky Cuban beauties. I was just wondering to myself whether this practise would not give rise to specific occupational illnesses, such as eczema or even melanoma, when the first rocket went up, accompanied by a wall of Roman candles and a sigh from several hundred throats. At once all serious thoughts fled my mind to be replaced by the beatific ecstasy of pyrotechnics at their very best, enjoyed from a position of privileged topography. If only all our swords could be turned into such ploughshares as these.
Speaking of swords, ploughshares and biblical imagery brings me to my next point, which came up on the same evening after Beth and Erin had gone in and Jean-Michel was waxing eloquent under the influence of port. We had all been shocked at the supper table earlier when Erin told us how sad she was at seeing “those horrible black men who spat at that girl”. We all wondered what strange new reverse-racist perversion had come to trouble a child of six. Beth explained that they weren’t black men but men in black. “What on earth have Tommy Lee & Will done to Erin?” I asked. No, Beth didn’t mean those Men in Black but a crowd of ultra orthodox Jews who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand even stricter measures of propriety from their less extreme, though also orthodox, brothers and sisters.
Ah, now I understood. So I explained to Erin that these people think God has told them how everyone else should dress and behave, on which side of the street to walk and where to sit on the bus, but that really they are a very tiny minority (the Sicarii) within another tiny minority (the Haredi) within another small minority (the Hasedim) within another minority (followers of the Jewish Faith) and that God has probably not got much to do with it. “They’re just really scared of girls is all, Erin”, I said, “When you’re a bit older you’ll realise why.”
Out on the terrace with our stogies, J-M came up with his universal anti-extremist plan: “Offer them a country”, he said, “like we jointly created Israel after the war. Those ultra guys don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist anyway. They have that in common with their arch enemies. They could just as easily live somewhere else until their Messiah comes. So give them Nebraska or Chile or Somalia or some other bit of land no one really wants. And then invite all the Taliban and the Mullahs to join them, and the White Brethren and all the Christian fundamentalists too … let them all in: universal tolerance for the intolerant will be the motto. Anyone can go and live there, but no one can leave unless they renounce it all in writing.”
“Better still”, I added, “Women and children can leave any time they like and go to live anywhere else with full right of asylum, no procedure! In the end there would be no women left, except those who are seriously into weird beliefs and odd wardrobes. In fact we should extend that policy to all states practicing extreme sexual inequality. In a few years there’d be no more Saudi, no more Iran, no more Afghanistan, no more West Bank Ultras” … I have a dream.
I’m not really sure whether such a policy would make much of a dent on the Christian Right. They have their very own female dragons. I’m also not so sure that “universal tolerance of the intolerant” would be the sort of slogan to get people up off their feet and moving to new horizons. After all, our prison population in Belgium is predominantly young, male and Muslim and they all demand to eat Halal food at the tax payer’s expense. Fair enough, they’re welcome to it. But shouldn’t they, in all fairness and by the same argument, also be loudly demanding to have their hands cut off at the wrist in accordance with the dictates of the Shari’a?
Too bad, for a moment back there I thought we might have the beginnings of a movement, sort of the opposite of “Occupy Neasden” or whatever. But even the strictest orthodoxy will only get you so far, it seems, and that’s about as far as the canteen and no further. Still, just a few fine cigars later and already we have another major problem more or less sorted. I’m starting to believe that 2012 may turn out to be a good year after all.
Perhaps I should explain what is going on here. Haviland’s big bash is his 99th birthday. He thinks it immoral to so far outlast his own century as to no longer really understand the times he lives in – by the way, I think he’s fibbing. There’s not a trick that gets past the old beak – in addition he’s far too modest to want a telegram from the Queen. So he has made it clear to everyone that this will definitely be his last birthday and we’d better get used to the idea and certainly not give him anything he can’t drink or smoke as he intends to “go down in a miasma of cognac and cigars” within the next twelvemonth. I might find this desire to be off the nation’s books and out of its pocket laudable, but I don’t. Firstly, Haviland could still run a half marathon. Yes, it would take a while, but he’d finish. Secondly he isn’t on the nation’s books. I doubt whether there’s a single official mention of him outside Debretts and quite possibly not even there, that’s how secretive he is. I’m not even sure whether he went to Harrow or Charterhouse. He is claimed by both, but on the register of neither. His record at Cambridge got destroyed in an unfortunate incident involving a decanter of port, a large dog and a fire extinguisher. No one can say what he studied there and the rest of his passage through life is equally nebulous, all records expunged.
Apart from having an RAF administration complex, Haviland Corner, named after him because it was built at the end of a former airstrip in Norfolk, where the hanger housing his Lockheed F5 reconnaissance plane once stood, he is otherwise invisible above ground except to the aging owls of Whitehall. The man is a blank sheet, a void, even though he seems, by his own account, to have been everywhere and to know everybody. I once saw his passport from the fifties and sixties. It was suitably dog-eared, but entirely devoid of visas apart from a single trip to Switzerland, in the skiing season, if you please. Your average maiden aunt from Sevenoaks has travelled more. Thirdly, insofar as he’s not on the nation’s books, he’s not in its pocket either. There was the generous matter of the house at Blake Atherton being redeemed from the bank at a wave of Winston’s magic wand and I know he has a humble and presumably well-merited pension. But apart from this, Haviland is no burden upon the coffers of the state: a raven at the tower costs more to keep. But the die is cast. My uncle is a determined man and will doubtless keep his appointment with the reaper. I’ll be sad, but it’s been a longer innings than most men get by a couple of decades, so none of us can complain, least of all him.
The other matter, Fiona’s outburst, will be harder to deal with. Basically Grandma has burned her boats with her grand-daughter’s school (where she used to pick Erin up almost every day) and is now, if not actually blacklisted, certainly non grata. It was the bloody nativity play that caused it. She exploded when she learned that the shepherds were going to sing “We will, we will rock you! Boom, duff-duff boom!” to a baby Jesus lying in a day-glo recliner chair freezing his little holy tootsies off outside the ‘Three Kings Cash’n’Carry’ with his welfare mum ‘Lisa-Marie’ and his Dad, ‘Loser Joe’ from the tattoo parlour, while waiting for the doors to open for the January sales. Erin’s class teacher who, as the most junior member of staff, was probably mobbed into helping with the play in the first place, tried meekly to defend its “social relevance”. At this Fiona screamed, in a voice that could be heard by everyone in the entire school: “Social relevance, my sainted arse! The thing’s nothing but an excuse to get a chorus of nine-year old mini-strumpets to dance indecently to “Like a virgin”, which I might remind you, Miss Fynrose, was a hit back when you were a teeny and I still looked seriously hot in a skirt. Where’s the relevance in that? Whose play is it anyway? The children’s or Mrs Cathy-come-home bloody Bexford”
Mrs Bexford, I should add, is the school principal and head of English, which includes anything relating to drama. Fiona went on to say in a tone just as hectoring and strident that “she”, meaning the principle, “probably sprinkles inner city grit on her muesli every morning! A brace of oxen singing ‘Who do you think you are?’ from the Spice Girls, angels on motorbikes, bloody hell! Don’t you lot ever grow up. Peter Fonda just turned 70 and Marlon Brando, Steve Mcqueen and James Dean all died before you were even bloody thought of. Your ridiculous ‘N-Act-Tivity, as you so coyly insist on calling it, is about as relevant as Harold Macmillan’s Facebook page. It’s just a nasty bit of cheap blasphemy. Give the kids their dreams back, you coven of trendy hags!”
This last was uttered just as Mrs Catherine Bexford BA came storming down the stairs and pointed, shaking with rage, to the door. Fiona left as regally as she does everything in life, but has not been seen there since. Her cleaning lady now picks up Erin from school and the little girl is deeply hurt by all the fuss her granny has caused and very sad about the whole business. Now Edwin is to go in like a lamb where Fiona went out like a lion. I am to be meek and understanding. I am to be every toddler’s friend. I am to be Santa’s little helper. I am to mend fences. I am to clap loudly every time Erin, dressed as a biker moll, comes onstage. I am to shed a tear when she sings her angelic little song, the chorus of “She talks to angels” from the Black Crowes, actually a desperate ballad about addiction. Why do I want to cry about all this? Is it because innocence was once just that … innocent? Is it because that song somehow foreshadows the crucifixion of a girl by her own hand? Is it because Fiona is possibly right, we should leave the kids to be kids, good grief, life’s short enough!
No, it’s because a seventeen month old baby was just shot dead by a grenade and gun-toting maniac on the edge of the Christmas market in the suitably gritty but stylish city of Liège, a place I love, a place that feels a lot like some kind of hometown. Christ! That could have been baby Jesus. The shooter could have been ‘Useless Loser Joe’ from the tattoo parlour. The young girl with shrapnel in her lungs could have been sixteen-year-old ‘Lisa Marie’, welfare mother. Once again the law fell asleep on the job in this little country and lawlessness immediately filled the vacuum. It doesn’t take much these days. It seems everyone is on a hair trigger, not just my dear cousin.
Now pass me a bucket and a mop. I’m off to school where I have some serious groveling to do. Afterwards I shall party for Haviland’s sake, but I fear my heart will not be in it. Meanwhile Erin, the sweet angel, will sleep secure and comforted that her world is back to normal. It is an illusion of course, but one we may all hope to preserve as long as possible.
“Reading the Riots”
Other things that we never really doubted have emerged from a recent survey of the opinions of actual rioters on their motivation and grievances. A collaborative effort between the Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics (LSE) carried out interviews with 270 people who actively participated in the riots in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham and Salford. Among their findings:
- there is a general sense of anger at the intrusiveness of “stop & search” policing but its ineffectiveness at solving real crime;
- people are fed up with the way a certain privileged elite always lands butter side up, even in a crisis;
- young people are sick of the government robbing the poor and disadvantaged to pay for their own fiscal errors or to shore up the banks;
- in particular, many are angry at the increase in student tuition fees and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance;
- although a slight majority of rioters were from African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities, motivations were varied and very few of them were prepared to describe the uprisings as “race riots”.
However, a significant proportion of those questioned in this first part of the “Reading the Riots” survey readily admitted that they were there to cause havoc and, above all, get their hands on “free stuff”. There is nothing as depressing as having your prejudices confirmed.
Apropos “free stuff”
Those who thought that joining the European Community and later the Euro would be the fast track to wealth and respect for poorer nations have now been proved decisively wrong. Of course, if Europe had the kind of political and judicial clout that could match its (rather flabby) economic weight, we might stand a chance of seeing the billions salted away by Greek oligarchs and Italian mobsters returned to the common purse. This not being the case, the sick man of Europe is now Europe itself.
However, there are still options. Before we sell our daughters to the Chinese (who currently have somewhat of a shortage) we could always force two classes of Euro profiteers to shoulder their share of the burden. If all our grossly overpaid European parliamentarians were to take a voluntary wage cut of 1000 Euros per month and waive some of their benefits (such as the money they get for signing the attendance register at eight in the morning on a Friday before slipping off to the airport), and if they could communicate that zeal to all of our obscenely overpaid ministers and top civil servants, both national and European, we would save (at a conservative, strictly “Droodian” estimate) about half a billion per annum.
The other class of profiteers who should be frog marched to the counter are those giant companies who have their head offices in London, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin but manage to avoid paying their taxes like other citizens. Either they simply DO NOT PAY (“ha, ha, who’s gonna make me: you and your mum?”) or they rely on highly tedious, very long and complex legal procedures to either mitigate or procrastinate. In Belgium, the beer and beverages giant INBEV and the Indian conglomerate Arcelor Mittal have been among the first to claim subsidies to aid them in “creating employment” but among the last to pay their dues.
If there were effective courts at the European level, with an acceptance of their decisions in all member States, such companies could simply be barred from selling their products or otherwise doing business anywhere within the EU until their outstanding tax bills had been paid. The billions to be harvested by such fierce and effective financial legislation would refloat Greece a hundredfold. The money is definitely there somewhere, just not where we want it, that’s all. And that’s why, at least until further notice, Christmas is cancelled in Euroland.
Of course, I don’t want to exaggerate this phenomenon. There are still enough people with a traditional sense of values who are ready to offer sex for money and money for sex. Two thirds of the world’s marriages are contracted and conducted largely along these lines. And prostitution, probably the more honest version of this exchange, continues to flourish. Yet nobody can deny that sex, as a pure commodity, has lost a lot of its zing. As usual, the entertainment industry leads the way. Sex alone no longer pulls in the punters. To be relevant, it needs to either fill a genuine plot function (an idea unheard of twenty years ago) or to be wrapped up in a fetish or two, such as cars, death, leather, dope, body modification or gender play. Failing this there is always the hardy and romantic film noir option or the choice of deconstruction in a violent stream of tiny sight & sound bites.
Porn again Christians
Money does not require such props. I swear you could fill the world’s multiplexes with a two-hour, 3-D documentary filmed entirely inside Fort Knox or the Royal Mint. It seems that the less we actually handle the stuff, the more we hanker after it. The Credit Card generation even likes designer jewellery that mimics cash: plastic in my pocket, but the billion dollar bling is real. This century, in which many of us spend thousands on a monthly basis but never get the feel of a crisp hundred between our fingers, has conversely seen the apotheosis of money as itself, rather than a vector for something else.
The Victorians, whose strict Anglican propriety saw to it that they never got a whiff of sex outside the bonds of matrimony, were absolutely obsessed with it. The 19th century was not only the great age of industrial invention. It also saw the development of a massive market in mechanical aids to copulation, all possible kinds of prostitution and a plethora of explicit books, from the most literate erotica to the most sordid pornography. Trade in these goods and services was for most of the century neither censored nor censured, as the leading lights of that hypocritical age refused to openly believe in their existence and considered the bas monde to be too far beneath them to merit improvement. At least in the West, we may be entering a similar historical period with regard to brute cash. A bright young banker, obsessed with up to the minute information, can now follow market developments on his smart-phone while squatting in the same men’s room where his grandfather once ogled a well-thumbed copy of “Gentlemen’s Relish”.
Shanghaied at the ATM
The new boom nations are not keen on plastic. In cash we trust is the rule in Mumbai and Shanghai. But whereas it used to be considered impolite in either India or China to pay for something with a banknote that exceeded the price of the article by more than 50%, now that is exactly the way to show your power: “Here I am, buying a pack of gum. Be thankful I didn’t empty your miserable store! Got change for a hundred?” In China this overt development is more obvious, due to the lack of other alternatives to wealth as a means of gratification. Chinese life offers little by way of empowerment that is not connected intimately with money. The arts and sciences are still strictly monitored and popular culture is, by definition, state culture. Moreover, the Chinese do not generally have a sexual option open to them, meaning that money is not just the new sex, but the latest in that nation’s provision of surrogates for sexuality and personal fulfilment that began with the little red book. Such manoeuvres as forced migration, promotion out of one’s area, the offer of central party influence and privileges if a relationship is broken off have given whole generations any number of reasons not to risk intimacy, certainly not to marry and on no account to have children. But recently, with a shrinking pool of skilled workers and an ageing population, the lack of marriages and/or of marriageable prospects is beginning to cause concern even in the land of “one child policy”. So now money (for what else is there?) is being offered in the form of housing credits as an incentive to get young people hitched. In one town this recently resulted in 95% of those already married getting divorced and then remarrying to take advantage of the special status. This caused the financial meltdown of the city budget.
I only cited that example to show how meaningless traditional social structures are becoming in China, unless backed up with hard cash. After all, this is not really the country that is going to save Europe (and you’d better start believing that, right now), whereas it definitely is the country with the largest population in deep rural poverty and with a per capita annual income equivalent to that of Jamaica. Its economic neighbour India is even lower down the per capita ladder, despite a riotously party-going middle class. Both of these states are basically experiencing a bubble that floats on a cess-pool. It’s hardly surprising they flaunt their cash while they can.
Sex is omnipresent in Indian religion, but banished from popular consumption. Money is also omnipresent, at least in Hinduism – with its gods of cornucopia and good fortune – though suffering from no such limitations. Thus it makes perfect sense to accept wealth as the one tool of self-gratification and status that can give you everything but the genuine intimacy you are denied. Young girls are offered for marriage (usually with family approval only) as soon as they get into high school. Young men are expected to make their way in the world first. The age disparity can become considerable in those extreme areas where “making your way” is the most competitive (urban) or precarious (rural). And since India has learned from America that almost anyone will work for less if you give them the title of manager – gastronomy surface manager, beverage dispenser manager or manager of things beginning with H – there is little marriage leverage to be gained from a great job description. The bottom line is everything.
If the award-winning Indian film “Slumdog Millionaire” had only left us with two powerful images, they would certainly be these: a little urchin swimming through excrement to attain the unattainable and his brother in crime dying alone in a bath full of thousand rupee notes. What many cinema-goers probably failed to realize, is that these two images are completely interchangeable.
With regard to the initial oddness, we may be grateful to the Almighty for choosing the Jews, as it has had the useful side effect of letting the rest of us off the hook. It’s not easy being a favoured one, the bar is either set indulgently low – nothing, however mediocre, will disappoint your adoring dad – or unrealistically high – nothing, however brilliant, will fully satisfy your ambitious mum. For the children of Israel the mixed blessings of favour came thick and fast. They were bombarded by major and minor prophets (anything between 17 and 69 of them, depending on where you start counting and what your frame of reference is), continually exhorting them to be either warlike or meek or more forgiving or more vengeful by turns until they were thoroughly confused and required the collected marginalia of a hundred thousand Talmud scholars to explain just what it was God actually wanted (somewhere along the line that list apparently included strange headgear and separate refrigerators for meat and dairy).
One of these prophets, whose considerable inspiration was not equalled by a sound sense of geography, led them for forty years on a rambling route through 2000 kilometres of hostile territory. Yes, that’s an average of about 150 metres per day, a bit more than a football pitch, hardly exhausting, and I’m assuming they rested on the Sabbath. They were finally allowed to settle by divine affirmation in a rather small country with its back to the inhospitable desert, its face to the threatening sea* and a substrate which turned out to be singularly lacking in fossilized hydrocarbons. Add to this the various persecutions and pogroms they have had to endure, dating from earliest times up to the, hopefully final, holocaust of the last century and you quickly begin to realize what favouritism has cost the tribes of Judah.
As concerns the other oddness, part of it can be found in the Creator’s readiness to back at least two horses. By making a promise to the offspring of Abraham’s rejected concubine that his descendants would be numerous as the sands of the desert, which has already come to pass, and by granting these descendants all the fossilized hydrocarbons in all the surrounding territories, God effectively set up the end-game we are now living through. But the peculiarity of the Almighty did not stop there.
Between the Israelites, confused as to whether they should be virile and warlike in their statecraft or peaceful and consensual, and the children of Ishmael, who traditionally have no such inhibitions and whose sacred book clearly exhorts them to rid holy places of the infidel, God had already very cleverly placed the Christians. These follow an ethical frame which includes loving their enemies (although they have historically demonstrated some rather strange ways of showing this profound affection) and their neighbours as themselves. One way of loving their neighbours has been to get involved in all their affairs in order to nudge them in a propitious direction. This has effectively placed Christian mediators and/or powerbrokers at the axis of all confrontations between the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac.
It is entirely reasonable to ask at this point: what exactly is God up to? Between those who, like Einstein (an agnostic in any conventional sense) cannot believe in a God who plays dice with the universe, and those who insist He has been doing exactly that from the very start, there lies a broad field of interpretation. If God backs several horses in the same race, might His aim, for example, be to observe the normative and determinant capabilities of individual cultures, testing their resilience to changing situations? In other words, are we a research project? If the answer to this question were “yes”, then why is apostasy punishable by death in Zoroastrianism, Islam and Judaism? Deuteronomy, chapter 13, is manifestly clear as to what awaits any prophet who would lead Jews away from their essential ‘jewishness’, as indeed it awaits anyone (even your best friend or your eldest son) who might follow that “prophet or dreamer of dreams”, namely stoning to death and destruction by fire of all that pertains to them. Surely such a policy considerably weakens any serious comparative research, if the participants are not even permitted to opt out when another offer looks tempting. That you may let your faith lapse, like a library membership, but that you may on no account change it does not seem to be a very good way of testing the validity of any one model over another … unless the object of the test is to discover just what people are prepared to die for!
At this point God changes the game plan by introducing yet another major faith into the mix. Arriving in the Holy Land from Persia, by way of successive banishments, the Bahá’í Faith is the bright bird of paradise among religions. It seems too good to be true. As far as I know it doesn’t want to stone you for anything. It recognizes the unity of the human race and the equality of the sexes, even if it curiously fails to extend that equality to its own top institution. It eschews war and violence altogether as viable solutions to human problems except as an absolute last recourse if all combined means of international statecraft should fail. It promotes justice as being the highest good, the light of civilisation and the inalienable right of all people everywhere. It envisages the spiritual, political, economic and social cohesion of the entire planet. It accepts the divine foundations and original teachings of the other great faiths (although it does seem to be trying rather hard when it moves outside the Fertile Crescent to engage with the very different mind-set of Buddhism and Hinduism). It neither claims its own truths as preeminent or absolute, nor does it deny you your legitimate right to make use of the exit if you so wish. So where’s the catch? We know God by now, there has to be a catch.
Well, of course, part of the catch is that you might be risking your life to enrol if your background is Islamic. As far as I know, neither Zoroastrianism nor Judaism have enacted the modern equivalent of a fatwa for many decades now, so you are unlikely to incur much beyond a cold shoulder from them in the 21st century, but it’s worth noting that Christian baptism is doctrinally considered as being for all eternity, which means that your local church will not even recognize that you have left, no matter how often you choose to tell them. It’s all part of a numbers game that in many countries carries a premium in state funding.
The other faiths are going to have a knee-jerk reaction to so much good news in one packet. The Christians will try to smother it in condescension and faint praise. After all, the last time God tried something this conciliatory and constructive, before you could genuflect three times, half of it had turned into the Roman Catholic Church. Yet at the same time, the Bahá’í Faith appears to be quite the oddest example of odd behaviour by the Divinity. It appeals vividly to Jews and Christians, agnostics and people of no previous adherence, yet it springs from an Islamic root, though distinctly out of character with much of that faith. It is not austere except in its lack of ritual, it is not vengeful nor especially on the defensive, it is not expansionist in a territorial sense (although its kingdom is of this world, it is only accessible through another, distinctly unworldly one), it encourages some very modern values, abrogates the laws of slavery and polygamy, sets a respectable minimum age for marriage, is careful about the distribution of power and property … You might be forgiven for asking: “If this was the plan all along, why did we have to wade through Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Jeremiah and the tougher passages of the Quran to get here?”
The Bahá’í Faith’s answer to this question is that you have to eat your greens if you want to get your just desserts. Revelation, we are told is progressive: drowning the whole earth, destroying entire civilian populations with fire and brimstone, killing the firstborn of Egypt, inflicting the indignities of slavery, institutionalized paedophilia** and polygamy, death by stoning, the lash or by fire was apparently exactly what humanity needed at other times in its history but can do without now. I would find this VERY hard to swallow if I chose to believe in a God who was essentially something close to a rational human being but on an entirely different scale. As it is, I do not believe in a rational God, but rather in an extraordinarily arbitrary and whimsical one who, like many creative spirits, is capable of just about anything. Right now He seems to want to tie up all the loose ends of His previous socio-religious sorties and set us on a new trajectory. He appears, at least for the next thousand years or so, to be getting with the programme and taking His medication.
This is very good news and I sincerely hope the Ancient of Days continues on this positive curve. But you can be sure that His new paradigm isn’t playing very well with the followers of the last volume. Islam has almost universally risen up to reject the Bahá’í Faith and sees nothing wrong in persecuting its adherents. That’s not going to be an easy row to hoe when you consider that they are numerically superior to just about anyone else and have placed themselves effectively above all criticism. And how is this new faith going to go down with the ultra-conservative fringe of Judah, the curious headgear and two fridges fraternity? They must either reject it out of hand or accept it in its entirety as the fulfilment of all the promises of past prophets***. Yet either way, accepted or rejected, it will be most odd for God … because He will effectively lose the Jews.
* Something no true son of Abraham has ever been over-fond of, to the point that within the description of St John the Revelator’s heavenly city we find the triumphant statement: “And there was no more sea!”
** Mohammad’s second wife Aisha was just six when taken in marriage by a Prophet who was her senior by a half century. It was by all accounts a most loving and complicit relationship and it’s certainly not my place to criticize (autres temps, autres mœurs), but it did set a rather awkward precedent that has been followed by Princes and Paupers from the Caliphate to the Taliban.
*** These are, after all, the very people who have trouble accepting the modern State of Israel as being Erez Israel (the biblical Promised Land) due to the lack of a returned Messiah, and thus regularly block the international rabbinical council from meeting in Jerusalem, pending that eschatological event.]]>