Sunday, 30 September 2012
There is an enormous need for affordable housing in Britain, but the new houses and flats being built seem to be for wealthy people either to live in or to let to tenants. Four big houses have just been built near to us, but the least expensive is £3.85 million. Even a bed-sitting room can cost £1000 a month to rent, and small flats are advertised at more than £2000. Yet that would be the mortgage rate on a house costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. So why does the government encourage buy-to-let schemes? We should do the opposite; have a tax regime that encourages landlords to sell their surplus housing. That would bring down house prices and help owner occupation.
Friday, 28 September 2012
A few blogs back I quoted T Blair's contempt for history. Now D Cameron has made himself look foolish by similar ignorance. Perhaps we should make ministers pass the test that they have inflicted on immigrants applying for citizenship (well, to be historically accurate, it was Labour ministers... same thing!). These are the very people whose life ambition is to 'make history', forcing through half-baked policy changes just for the sake of doing something. I wonder how many of them have read the history of the 1930s; they are making some of the same mistakes that governments made 80 years ago. And how many of them have reflected on the fact that the terrible revolutions of the past three centuries were born of gross inequality? The misery presently visited on the Greeks, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Irish are comparable with the conditions that produced the French and Soviet revolutions and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.
Thursday, 27 September 2012
Britain's wretched education system just goes on getting more divided. We already had public schools (actually private, but benefiting from charitable status), grammar schools, comprehensives and Church of England primaries. Blair introduced academies and multiplied the number of faith schools. Guvnor Gove brought in free schools. Now he wants to create an 'English baccalaureate', which will be not English but Anglo-Welsh and not strictly a baccalaureate. His 'EBacc' will not compare with the real baccalaureates, French, European and international - highly regarded school-leaving exams taken at age 18 - but will be a new version of O-levels. The more schools are reorganized the worse they seem to get. The sad thing is that we had in the comprehensive an excellent system, but we never spent enough on it to make it work. The public schools are in effect comprehensives, since they will take in any dunce whose parents are rich enough to pay, but what is good enough for the wealthy is deemed too good to be provided free to the rest of the population.
Tuesday, 25 September 2012
I have just read Burr, a brilliant novel by Gore Vidal - the first (chronologically) of his Chronicles of Empire, covering the period from the start of the War of Independence in 1776 to the death of Aaron Burr in 1836. He was the hero of the failed attempt to take Quebec, then New York senator, and Vice President 1801 to 1804. He became notorious after killing General Alexander Hamilton in a duel. After that he set off on a risky attempt to liberate Mexico, was charged by President Jefferson with treason - for which there was no evidence - escaped conviction, but spent the rest of his life in disgrace. Burr is portrayed convincingly as the one honourable man who keeps his word in a world of scoundrels who betray their friends in their struggle for power. He could have been President if he had not kept his promise to help Jefferson to that position - Jefferson the hypocritical 'radical' who owned a bevy of slaves and fathered children by a slave concubine. Two things I learned in particular: that America was dominated from 1776 to 1825 by Virginians, whose farms depended on slave labour; and that the new Republic was from the outset bent on imperial expansion, with the ambition of taking control of the whole of North and South America.
Monday, 24 September 2012
More riots in China! Bad enough to close down a factory producing components for Apple's i-phone5! Is the Chinese government losing its grip? It looks as though its encouragement of violent demonstrations against Japan has backfired. Watch this space! On the other hand, the Muslims in France are to be congratulated on their mature response to the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo; they quietly ignored the provocation.
Saturday, 22 September 2012
Avaaz has put up a charming sequence of pictures to counteract Newsweek's inflammatory front page, showing ordinary Muslims going about their daily work and play. It is important to remember that the number of violent protesters is very small. However, that does not mean that most Muslims are indifferent to Western attitudes; on the contrary, quiet resentment is very common, and has been ever since 1959, when I first visited an Arab country. The question I have been asked over and over again is 'Why can't you treat us as equals?' For fourteen centuries Christians have looked down on Muslims and disparaged their Prophet, and now atheists do the same. This leaves them with a deep sense of injustice, and they point out that they revere Jesus and the Jewish prophets and that they accept Christians and Jews as 'People of the Book'. In one respect they are more Christian than most Christians, for they accept the story of the Virgin Birth as literally true. A peaceful future can only be built on mutual respect between all cultures.
Friday, 21 September 2012
And now the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has pitched in with several pages of material offensive to Muslims. Some people, in their efforts to be clever, are extraordinarily stupid. They appeal to 'democracy' and 'freedom of expression', but their efforts are worthy of Goebbels and Der Stürmer. Having lived for years in Muslim-majority countries and enjoyed the generous hospitality of many ordinary people there, I find it very painful that some Westerners are ready to hate the religion that produces such behaviour. In fact Muslims have often treated each other far worse than they ever treated Christians or Jews.The quarrel between Sunni and Shia began with a dynastic dispute more than thirteen and a half centuries ago and is still killing people daily in Syria and Iraq, with the potential to start up elsewhere.
Thursday, 20 September 2012
Two items in this morning's news: the wealth of the 400 richest Americans has grown in the past year by 13% to $1.7 trillion, equivalent to one eighth of the nation's whole economy, according to Forbes magazine. Beside that the fines of $11 billion imposed for malpractice on 26 pharmaceutical companies in the past three years look like peanuts. Admittedly, some of the ultra-rich use their money and influence wisely, but plenty of them do not. Meanwhile Republicans call Obama a socialist or communist because he wants a modest amount of redistribution. Our lopsided world gets more unbalanced every year. How much longer can this go on?
Wednesday, 19 September 2012
The latest 'green-on-blue' killing of NATO troops by their supposed allies in the Afghan security forces should convince everybody that the West's war in Afghanistan is lost. The only question is how to get out as quickly as possible. I think the answer is on tiptoe. No deadline, no noise: just remove troops quietly before there are blue-on-green revenge killings to make things worse. And start with the little English prince! And this should be the beginning of general disengagement from the Muslim world. We should stop all arms sales, stop supporting 'friendly' dictators, stop aiding insurgents, stop sending helicopter gunships or drones against suspected terrorists. They should be left to sort out their own problems in their own way. We have been trying to control Muslim populations for hundreds of years, especially since their fossil fuel reserves were discovered. We have tried to force them to sell us oil and gas on our terms, but even that has not worked since OPEC was created. In the end, any savings we ever made were long since cancelled out by the immense expense in warfare that the policy engendered. Will any of this happen? Probably not, as long as America maintains its imperial mentality, but that rests on the hegemony of the dollar. Sooner or later, the decline of the American economy will bring about a dollar crisis and a new international monetary system. That may be not so far into the future.
Monday, 17 September 2012
Amazing news! Riots in China,where the public is usually held under such tight control! But these are not protests over the widening gulf between rich and poor or the denial of free expression; they are expressions of nationalist fervour directed against Japan. It is all because of a dispute over some uninhabitable lumps of rock claimed by both sides, and more exactly about the division of possible oil fields. With Japan closing down the nuclear power stations on which it has relied so heavily, access to petroleum is potentially a vital interest. The simple answer to this, as to all territorial quarrels, is international law. But in our crazy world hardly any government wants the simple solution. Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941, pledging their countries to peaceful resolution of disputes, Yet America turns a blind eye to Israel's illegal settlement of Palestinian land acquired by war, and Britain refuses to go to the International Court over the Falklands. Are we just hopelessly tribal animals?
Sunday, 16 September 2012
Speaking in 2003, the abominable Blair said 'There has never been a time when... the study of history provides so little instruction for our present day.' This was the man who had helped the abysmal Bush to invade and occupy Iraq. It was earlier that year that a journalist (I think it was Robert Fisk) asked him in a press conference to comment on the Sykes-Picot agreement. Blair had not heard of what Mr Sykes and Monsieur Picot had agreed in 1916, namely the division of the Arab Provinces of the Turkish State between Britain and France, out of which came the whole sorry mess of the modern Middle East. There is now total incomprehension between most Westerners and most Muslims; and much of it is down to ignorance of history. People in the West can't understand why so many in Muslim-majority countries get worked up about a crappy anti-Islamic home movie made by adolescent idiots in California. People in the Muslim world can't understand why they seem to suffer so many gratuitous attacks from America and Europe. The trouble is that most Westerners do not know what every Muslim knows, even if only in the vaguest way: that Islam once ruled the known world between Europe and China, and that its supremacy was then taken away by the expanding British, French, Dutch and Russian empires. This was not supposed to happen. Muhammad had come to renew the religion of Abraham, Moses and Jesus; their followers should have accepted his message. This folk memory does not make for easy relations. Westerners don't look back so far. For Americans, history starts in 1776, and even of that they seem to remember a mythical version. Europeans are aware that their continent was once dominated by the Roman Empire, but the history of the nation-states goes back only a few centuries, and even the 19th century seems like a different world. With leaders like the bothersome Blair, our knowledge of history is not going to improve.
Friday, 14 September 2012
As soon as news came of the killing of the Ambassador, Obama ordered two warships to move to Libya (into territorial waters?!)and demanded that the killers be brought to justice. But what about the idiots who made an inflammatory anti-Islamic film and put a clip on YouTube? And who dubbed it into Arabic? Is there no law against hate-speech or incitement to violence in California? The people responsible should be brought to justice too. Or would that be too displeasing to Romney and Ryan? The next few weeks will be an anxious time in America and in the world. Romney comes across as a fool who would shoot first and ask later, and Ryan is a disciple of the abominable Ayn Rand. How he squares Catholicism with her gospel of egoism is a great mystery, but he probably believes in the Prosperity Gospel - the doctrine that God's elect are marked by their wealth. The greatest anxiety is over Iran. Will Netanyahu hold off his project of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities? Perhaps it depends on who he thinks will win the presidential election. He probably fears that if it is Obama the opportunity will have been lost, in which case he might be tempted to unleash the demons before it is too late. But the catastrophic consequences could change the election anyway. A ray of hope: Sami Michael might be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature next month. He is the voice of sanity, an Iraqi Israeli who calls for equality and respect between the peoples of the once-Holy Land - European and Oriental Jews, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, Jews, Muslims Christians and Bahais, Israelis and Palestinians. It's the only way.
Thursday, 13 September 2012
Right on cue the excellent American Ambassador to Libya dies in a fire provoked by a ridiculous anti-Muslim film put together in California with ham actors and an idiotic script on a low budget. But this is just the latest product of the anti-Islamic industry that I mentioned in my last post. The hate-Islam business has several levels. There is an academic wing, with people like Patricia Crone producing endless sceptical studies that cast doubt on every aspect of the religion's own account of itself. Then there is a populist literature like Tom Holland's 'The Shadow of the Sword' that makes the scholars' abstruse works accessible for the ordinary reader. People like the producers of this new film turn this junk into naked insults. And finally thugs like Breivik decide to get into action. Unfortunately, there are Muslim hotheads who respond with violence, and there is a lack of Muslim leaders giving a calm and reasoned answer to the Islam-haters. A vicious circle of attack and counter-attack is set up, giving the impression that there is an inevitable and general clash of civilizations. Most people are ignorant of the centuries during which Christians and Jews, and later Hindus and Sikhs lived peacefully in societies ruled by Muslims. In the West, and particularly in America, the Medieval Christian demonization of Islam is reborn.
Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Some Egyptians have rioted because of an American film, which they say insults the Prophet. Why are there so many Muslims who lack the self-confidence to laugh at such pinpricks? Muhammad himself ignored disrespectful talk. The Koran says (6:68): "When you hear the signs of Allah disbelieved and ridiculed, do not sit with them until they turn to other talk." Did anybody see the ridiculous film recently on Channel 4 "Islam: the Untold Story"? A clueless looking Roman historian, Tom Holland, who seems to know no Arabic, wanders around claiming that we know hardly anything about the origin of Islam. He visits several extreme sceptics, who say they can tell him next to nothing, and he consorts with a group of Bedouin as if they were experts on Islamic history. There is a minor industry out there, casting doubt on every source of information, claiming that the Koran was gradually put together to provide an origin story for the religion, scorning the oral literature that began to be compiled within a few decades of Muhammad's death, ignoring the chains of authority that the early Muslims quoted "A told me that B said that the Prophet told him..." There's nothing like that for stories in the Gospels. As for the Koran, since the same text is used by Shia Muslims as by Sunnis, it must have been finalized before they started fighting, 24 years after the Prophet died. Otherwise the Shia would surely have edited it to support their claims. This gives credence to the Muslim claim that an official edition was prepared 19 years after his death, on the basis of sheets guarded by the Prophet's widow Hafsa and probably written by his secretaries under his dictation. No other religion has a document so unassailable. What does risk bringing dishonour on Islam is the continuing violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Koran says (4:93): "Whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is everlasting hell..." Ninety years ago there was serious talk of recognizing Twelver Shia as a fifth, Jaafari branch of Sunni Islam. Alas it came to nothing.
Saturday, 8 September 2012
Over a year since last I blogged! Is this going to be an annual event. I intend to try again, and for today I have suggestions for the French police searching for the killers of Mr and Mrs al-Hilli: go to Baghdad! A friend has said that al-Hilli went there recently in an attempt to get back property confiscated by Saddam Hussein. Well, after America turned Iraq into a capitalist free-for-all, that property must have been taken over by some local oligarch, just as so much was grabbed by Russian billionaires in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. If anybody had a motive for getting rid of al-Hilli, that person is likely to be in Baghdad, or wherever Iraqi oligarchs hang out. Al-Hilli probably discovered he was being stalked; that would explain his sudden departure on holiday. And it would explain why, from the camp-site where the family spent their last night, he headed up such a remote track, hoping to throw off his pursuers - until he saw a green 4-by-4 and realized the game was up. There is not much chance that his 8-year-old daughter will have understood what was happening, and I'll be surprised if anything is found in England, except perhaps some correspondence with people in Baghdad. Perhaps the French should call in the Iraqi police to help. Or perhaps Tony Blair could supply a list of Iraqi oligarchs!