Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Hey, I was there. So what?

When the film "Saving Private Ryan" came out I discussed the possibility of going to see it. In the end I decided that half an hour of Omaha Beach was more than I could take. "Huh," - came the grumpy reply. - "Then there are two and a half hours of Tom Hanks." Well, that settled it. I have not seen the film but I do recall one or two interesting comments about it.

The more astute critics pointed out that the battle scenes at the beginning were not precisely "realistic" because no participant sees that much of a battle. In other words, if I should want tales told of what happened when people landed on Normandy beach and which houses they saw I would ask one of the participants (well, I should have done some time ago as not many of them are still around).

If, on the other hand, I want to know more about Omaha Beach or other landings, I would turn to a participant if I can be certain that he has not let the "I was there" mantra stand in his way of finding out more about what happened, how and why. But then, somebody who was not there is as likely to have found all that out and much more likely to have made sense of it because his understanding would not be clouded by that mantra.

There have been so many cases of people talking nonsense and trying to trump all arguments with those three words. Let me recall another incident. I went to a conference at which there were several talks about Northern Ireland. This was around the time of the Belfast Agreement. Many sessions were about the Agreement and what might come out of it.

One talk was given by a chap who had been in the army in Northern Ireland, then went on to the security services, then became disenchanted with the whole endeavour and spent a good deal of time criticizing those services. (I cannot recall his name but the story will stand for several. People with long memories will remember those recanters.)

This particular chap refused to acknowledge that there was any Soviet involvement in financing and arming the IRA or some section of it. First or all, he did not think the USSR was the "evil empire" and secondly he had not witnessed any arms from that source being supplied to the terrorists.

When people in the audience pointed out that several consignments of arms from Czechoslovakia had been intercepted he became peevish. "I was there and I saw nothing of the kind."

It is possible that we are talking about a particularly silly person here but I don't think so. There are three problems with the "I was there" meme.

The first is the obvious fact that the people who "were there" did not see much more beyond their own immediate surroundings. If it was a battle, the famous fog of war would have prevented all participants at whatever level from knowing exactly what was going on. If wherever it was they were, was a country, a political system or a society that was not immediately familiar, the chances of understanding what it is they saw are near to zero.

Not so long ago (but before the financial crisis hit us all but some of us more than others) I had a discussion with a very eminent economist, who shall remain nameless as one cannot tell who might be reading this blog. (Hey, one can dream.) We talked about China.

His point was that China was powering ahead, everyone could achieve what they wanted and go where they wanted to, including abroad. He wasn't saying that many people in China can go abroad to study and to work but that pretty well anyone who wanted to could do so. And no, he did not think there were any serious internal tensions in the country. He had been there and he could see none. Nor was he told about anything like that though he was allowed to travel anywhere he wanted to and talk to anyone he met.

I expressed some cautious scepticism, which was based on my reading of the news and some knowledge of the way Communist countries operate. For one thing, I doubted that he really could go anywhere he wanted since his trips had to be arranged by the authorities. For another, I wondered whether he really could have talked to anyone he wanted not being able to speak any form of Chinese. The people he talked to were either those very few who could speak English well enough to be able to express complex information or those chosen by his interpreter.

Which brings me to the second problem with the "I was there" meme. Though there is no particular reason why people who were there should not use that experience as part of a process of acquiring knowledge (and many do), there is all too often a resistance to being told something or anything about the place where you have been.

Once again, let me bring up another example, this time to prove that I am not completely arrogant and narrow-minded as some broad-minded and very liberal members of the forum have said. A few days ago I listened to a talk about recent developments in Indonesia. These are rather frightening and I shall blog about them very soon. After all, Indonesia must be one of the countries that the likes of Justin Webb are exhorting to "give America another chance". But I digress.

This time I am not going to tell who the speaker was because the meeting was conducted strictly under Chatham House rule (which means I can use the material). Suffice it to say that we were listening to a man who had studied Islam and Islamism in South-East Asia (as well as some other countries), spoke several of the languages and had followed developments in Indonesia very closely. Oh and he had also just come back from the country.

His talk, however, was about what he knew rather than what he had experienced when he "was there", so the interspersed tales of what happened to him and to people he knew were merely illustrations. "I was there" was not the main reason why people listened to him.

The third problem with the meme is that those who go there and stay there often see what they want to see and, even more often see what others want them to see. Let us not forget the role of the media in the Vietnam debacle, still not fully acknowledged. That, of course, leads us to the perennial problem of understanding the role of the media and its peculiar agenda, topic for another posting.

However, it is worth recalling yet again the descriptions people "who were there" gave of various Communist countries, starting with the Soviet Union, continuing with China, North Vietnam, Cuba and assorted others. The best known of those "who were there" was the Pulitzer Prize winner journalist, Walter Duranty. (S. J. Taylor wrote and excellent biography, entitled "Stalin's Apologist".) He lied, probably quite deliberately for reasons of his own, about the Soviet Collectivization, the show trials and the purges.

When challenged, he responded with those famous words: "I was there. I know." Several determined journalists' careers were destroyed by Mr Duranty who had been there and, therefore, "knew". His Pulitzer Prize still stands.

He was not alone. Others lied deliberately for political and ideological reasons. Paul Robeson made it quite clear when he was in Moscow during the second big purge, in 1949, which was also gearing to be the second holocaust of the Jews on Soviet territory, that he knew what was going on. But he refused to speak about it on his return to the States. In fact, he denied that anything untoward was happening. He had been there and he "knew".

Owen Lattimore, an influential scholar went, together with US Vice-President and well-known Soviet sympathizer, Henry Wallace, on a trip organized by Lauchlin Currie, one of the heads of the Foreign Economic Administration and Soviet spy, to China and Mongolia.

Their stop-over in Siberia and inspection of the Kolyma concentration camp network has entered the myths of history, largely because of their description in National Geographic "as a combination of the Hudson's Bay Company and the TVA, remarking on how strong and well-fed the inmates were and ascribing to camp commandant Feliks Nikishov 'a trained and sensitive interest in art and music and also a deep sense of civic responsibility'".

Subsequently, Professor Lattimore defended himself by explaining that he could not really snoop on his hosts and, anyway, the camps could not have been that bad as some people did survive. By then he had become a supporter of Mao in China and wrote extensively in justification of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Who could argue with him? He had been there.

Was Professor Lattimore a knave or a fool? Which one was Vice-President Wallace? What of the numerous British and American journalists, politicians, important visitors, diplomats who wrote utter tosh about various Communist countries? Did they see what they wanted to see or were they simply content to let their hosts do the showing?

It really did not matter. They had been there and, unlike those who had left or fled from those countries, they could go back and report again the same old rubbish. They had to be believed.

Where do we go from here? Can one really not believe anybody who had been there? Obviously, that is nonsense, though I tend to ignore heavily financed, heavily guarded special war correspondents flown in by the BBC, CNN, what have you, to report back about a situation they encountered for the first time on landing at the airport.

It seems reasonable that one must discard "I was there" as an argument. "This is what I saw and experienced" can be of interest as long as it does not transcend into some kind of an irrefutable argument. But "I know because" has to be followed by such words as "I have read", "I have studied the language" or "I understand the system/society/technology". Without any of that, the answer to "I was there" is inevitably "So what?".


Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Some people change the world (sort of)

Marxist theory says that individuals do not matter at all – history progresses through great shifts caused by internal contradictions connected with classes. Curiously enough, Marxism has produced more cults of personality than possibly any other political ideology. It actually started with Marx himself, who broke up the First International to prevent it from slipping into Mikhail Bakunin’s control.

The followers of Ayn Rand, who proclaim themselves to be the exact opposite of Marxists though all too often they are the mirror image, believe in change and progress through a few brilliantly gifted individuals. One suspects that put into practice this ideology would, too, result in rather unpleasant consequences. But the basics of Randianism are considerably more accurate and attractive than those of Marxism.

The point is that neither theory is correct. There are, of course, individuals who make a great difference to events but mostly changes are cumulative – small and more or less continuous.

Occasionally, one can point to one individual who either made so much difference that his or her absence from historical events would have meant a complete change in direction (Lenin is an example that springs to mind) or managed to focus in himself or herself certain changes and ideas to the extent of being seen as a bearer of those.

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, whose death was announced yesterday, was a supreme example of the second. He was not the only person to write about the horrors of the Soviet system nor was he the first one to do so or the best writer in the field. But, somehow, he became the emblem of the fight against Communism and its supporters, some knowingly evil, some just stupid, in the West.

Solzhenitsyn's first and, possibly, most important appearance was in the relatively liberal (by Soviet standards) journal Novy Mir, in 1962 when his novella “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” appeared. It had been heavily edited by Alexander Tvardovsky, himself a poet and an editor of genius, and has remained Solzhenitsyn’s best work of fiction. (Many years later when the latter had become a grand old man he insisted on publishing the original, rather unwieldy piece of prose. I have never come across anyone who has managed to read that.)

It seems that Tvardovsky was sent two manuscripts, one by Solzhenitsyn about life in the camps and another by Lidiya Chukovskaya about the life outside the camps while the purge was raging. He sent both to Khrushchev for decision and Nikita Sergeyevich decided on “Ivan Denisovich”. Thus history is made. Chukovskaya’s novella, “Empty House” and her other works were published in the West and were not available in Russia till the nineties. She is, as it happens, a very good writer and a very courageous woman.

The publication caused a sensation. For the first time in the Soviet Union a truthful account of life in the camps was published and could be discussed openly. There were a few other tales of this kind, then the curtain came down again.

I remember reading the novella as a teenager and finding it impressive but not nearly as shattering as my parents and their friends found it. I had not lived through the whole period when everyone knew what was going on and nobody was allowed to mention it. Anyone who wonders why people from the Soviet Union are a little odd in their attitudes might like to contemplate what it feels like to lead that sort of existence.

Solzhenitsyn, subsequently was forced into “internal exile”, a well-known Russian phenomenon and spent his time feverishly writing and, when necessary, hiding his work or getting friends to smuggle it out to the West, though he had a very ambivalent attitude to his work being published abroad. His view was that he survived imprisonment, camps of various kinds, and a bout of near fatal cancer that had been cured almost miraculously in Tashkent, in order to be a witness for the truth. (One wonders how he and Whittaker Chambers would have got on. Not very well, I suspect.)

The best novels are those that are based directly on his experience, “First Circle” and “Cancer Ward”, though these, too, had to be edited quite seriously. The sad truth is that Solzhenitsyn was not a very good writer but what he had to say was vitally important to us all. His testimony for truth made him one of those on whom great historical changes depend.

The ultimate example of this was “The Gulag Archipelago”, written in secret in the Soviet Union, buried in various places, away from prying eyes, and smuggled out to the West to be published in various languages in 1973, a year before the author’s own deportation from his homeland.

The writing of “Gulag” between 1958 and 1968 is a phenomenal achievement, made even more so by the knowledge that if any of it had been found, if even one of Solzhenitsyn’s few friends (he could not afford too many) betrayed him, he would have found himself in another labour camp for many years or, possibly, in a psychiatric hospital where the torments were even more horrific. Still, he wrote it and hid it and allowed friends to take it out.

In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for literature but did not actually collect it till after his deportation. He did not want to leave the country for fear of not being allowed back and the Swedish government, rightly, refused to give it him at the embassy in Moscow.

“Gulag Archipelago” is not the first book about the Soviet repressions, nor is it the best book, though the later, edited versions are extremely readable. Actually, the subject matter is such that even the original three-volume version is readable, despite the repetitions and unnecessary diversions. On the other hand, Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror” came out in 1968 to much acclaim; there had been various memoirs, not least “Under Two Dictators” by Margarete Buber-Neumann.

Conquest’s book did a great deal of damage to the bien-pensant left in the West with his careful collection of as much material as he could find; his completely matter of fact tone; and by the fact that it came out in the year when the Soviet tanks put an end to the notion of “Communism with a human face”. This was yet another example of enemies agreeing on the truth of political events and the large well-meaning crowd being left out in the cold. Knowledgeable and principled opponents of Communism recognized that it could not have a “human face” and predicted that the Soviet Union will have to intervene forcibly. The Soviet apparat agreed. It was the soggy, well-meaning, slightly leftish public opinion that was shocked.

“Gulag Archipelago” and Solzhenitsyn’s life and personality caused even more of an outcry. The world seemed to divide into those who read and understood the book (or, at least, parts of it) and those who refused to have anything with it, maintaining hysterically that it was all an imperialist plot to discredit the socialist ideal. The point was that “Gulag Archipelago” abandoned any pretence that everything in the Soviet Union was fine until Stalin came to power. (Conquest did not pretend but his theme was more limited in scope.)

The horrors of the Leninist system and of the short interregnum were detailed as far as Solzhenitsyn could gather material. The publication of the book was one of those events about which one can say with some certainty that the world would never be the same again. In the Soviet Union banned and samizdat copies circulated but the whole work was not published till 1989. So far as I know it is still in print.

Solzhenitsyn’s life in exile was less of an exemplar. His refusal to have anything to do with his neighbours in Vermont led to some resentment at first. Eventually, the neighbours shrugged their shoulders. If he preferred to stay at home and write, surrounded by extra security; if his contacts were the international great and the good rather than the good citizens of Vermont; so be it.

For some people Solzhenitsyn continued to be the great oracle as he attacked the West for its weakness, venality, materialism and corruption as well as for not intervening more decisively in the Russian Civil War of 1918 – 1921. Others felt that this showed some ingratitude but, more importantly, a refusal to understand what democracy and liberalism were really about. In words that have become sadly familiar to us, Solzhenitsyn proclaimed that democracy was all wrong because mere humans cannot really debate and disagree on God’s order of things.

Then there was the problem of his supposed anti-semitism. The subject is too convoluted for me to go into now. The row centred on his proclamation of trenchant Russian nationalism and his assertions that the Russian autocracy was not anti-semitic. Whether he was himself that way inclined remains the subject of ferocious arguments – his followers in Russia certainly were. The Russian nationalist dissidents of the last decade of the Soviet Union were not liberal or democratic in their outlook and despised the likes of Andrei Sakharov. Had Mr Kagan and his colleagues spent some time talking to them before 1991, they might have been a little less optimistic in the subsequent years.

What Solzhenitsyn did was to write feverishly. He produced various papers that ranged from his entirely admirable Nobel speech to his less than admirable late analyses of what was happening and what should happen in the Soviet Union and then in Russia. But mostly he was writing “The Red Wheel” cycle of novels about the Soviet tragedy as seen through the lives of a few people. Very few people, if any, have managed to get through the novels. He republished his early works in their unedited version and that was not a huge success either.

In 1994 he went back to Russia to be greeted with official acclaim. Finally, his own homeland accepted him for his achievements in the fight against the powers of darkness. He was not happy because he did not like the way the country was going – as few did in the mid-nineties. Putin’s regime, on the other hand, he accepted and even supported publicly as being a truer Russian model. One wonders how he squared that entirely with Putin’s comments about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.

It is a little hard to summarize a man of such calibre so soon after his death, which explains the raggedness of this piece. A towering figure of the fight against the Evil Empire, undoubtedly; much over-rated as a writer because of what he wrote rather than how he wrote it; and a questionable and controversial political thinker. There is no question, though, that he was one of those who changed the world (sort of).

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Letter to my MSP

Dear Mr Welsh,

Can you please explain to me why Tayside Police have top of the range VW Passats with leather interior as patrol cars?

I appreciate the Police do need fast response vehicles, after all pedestrians don't just mow themselves down but it doesn't take much effort to find vehicles in a similar performance bracket at a more realistic price.

It does seem indicative of an attitude that money magically appears from above. I can provide them with payslips to demonstrate effectively that it does not.

Were I a little wealthier I would perhaps not mind the Police having a few luxuries but when Dundee and Angus is an employment blackspot and I am more likely to bump into a unicorn than an NHS dentist I feel I am being cheated somehow.

Rumour has it that Tayside Police, like any other government agency is in a rush to clear its budgets before April renewal and well over half a million is up for grabs internally. Are we to see Police offices kitted out with HD plasma screen TV's like the MOD?

At a time when government spend is well north of 40% of GDP, on the brink of an economic catastrophe I'll wager the people of Angus need their money more than you (the government) does.

I have not lived here long but I have already witnessed farcical internal waste with regard to software procurement in the Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care, prompting an expensive mopping up operation.

This in the same month Tayside NHS Service Improvement, a quango of sorts, books out the entire Apex hotel for a consultation session it will most likely ignore and Tayside NHS proudly announces it's so flush with resources it can cater for the peoples of Kenya too.

Meanwhile, I'm considering booking a budget flight to Budapest to have a tooth filled because no dentist in Arbroath can take me.

Can I have my money back?

Yours sincerely,

Peter North.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Bored to Death

The budget hasn't been a politically engaging event for some time now. We know we're going to get screwed. All that matters is how and how much. But even that isn't a concern at this stage. They've just about sussed that they've pushed their luck and shouldn't push it any further if they wish to keep the public disengaged from politics.

The cynic in me was half expecting a raft of green taxes but they aren't that stupid. They know it's not washing with us. We even knew that expensive 4x4's would get a hit, but who among us buys them new anyway? Everybody was expecting fags 'n' booze to go up and no-one is the least bit concerned. We will adapt as we always have.

In this respect successive governments remind me of first world war generals persisting in sending troops over the top in the certain knowledge they will be slaughtered in the first ten seconds. Just because it didn't work the first hundred times, doesn't deter them from doing it again and again.

And of course we get no sign of action on the emerging economic crisis because announcing solutions means admitting there's a problem. Meanwhile the rest of the world is preparing for a long and frightening battle with the bailiffs.

It seems they have learned much from their masters in Brussels. Keep it just boring enough to ensure no-one in their right mind pays any attention.

In fact the only thing remarkable about the theatre production today was the sheer contempt Labour backbenchers showed for the proceedings. Nothing new there and I'm sure the public shares the sentiment but as the old man says... We are watching. Waiting and watching.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The things done in the name of being green

The Metro newspaper, one of London’s freebies, has a special section on its website on the subject of Green Hysteria Climate Watch, which, interestingly enough, never publishes a single article that does not fit the accepted we-are-about-to-die-by-drought-or-flooding-or-whatever because of the wicked Americans and their supporters who will not sign up to Kyoto.

For instance we have seen little reference among all the hysterical hype about what might or might not happen in the next fifty years and how we must all go back to the Stone Age in order to preserve Mother Earth to the following:
U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels decreased by 1.3 percent in 2006, from 5,955 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MMTCO2) in 2005 to 5,877 MMTCO2 in 2006, according to preliminary estimates released today by the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The economy, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), grew by 3.3 percent and energy demand fell by 0.9 percent indicating that energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP) fell by 4.2 percent. Carbon dioxide intensity (CO2 emission per unit of GDP) fell by 4.5 percent.
This compares rather well with the non-reduction among all the Kyoto signatories.

Nor do we hear a great deal about the ever higher carbon emissions from large developing countries because it is not THEIR FAULT. Got that? Actually, we never hear about Russia’s carbon emissions and that country did sign the rapidly expiring Kyoto Treaty.

The website does mention the “10,000 experts for Bali summit” but you have to read a long way down to see any mention of all the journalists as well and that the jamboree “is expected to create about 50,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases”. Never mind, somebody, somewhere is going to plant “4,500 hectares (11,000 acres) of trees … to offset the emissions from the talks”. I am sure those overworked and exploited peasants in Third World countries will be thrilled to bits.

Actually, they have the figures wrong. The Sunday Times has calculated the event a little more precisely and came up with 15,000 people (though that includes journalists as well) and 100,000 tonnes of CO2.

It would appear that the expected numbers were an understatement as more and more organizations deem it necessary to send representatives (or, perhaps, the entire organizations) to this beautiful island with its delightful climate incredibly important conference.

That, rather conveniently, would fit with another part of the website, Saints and Sinners of the greenie pantheon. Friday’s saint was Kevin Rudd, who is sort of promising or threatening to reverse John Howard’s policy of having nothing to do with the Kyoto Treaty by saying that perhaps Australia will sign up to it.

Sinners are just about everybody who does not go along with the demands of the UNDP (that would be the programme that continues to pour money into North Korea without bothering to find out what happens to it). It seems to me that given the realities of the Bali Conference, outlined, among others, by the estimable Claudia Rossett, the Metro should put the entire conference and all its delegates, hangers-on, global bureaucrats, NGOs and media members among the Sinners.

Sadly, it is not possible to find the most entertaining of Friday’s articles on the site. Perhaps, they will be there on Monday after all the copies of the Metro and other London freebies have been swept up to add to the enormous pile of rubbish taken out of London underground and London buses every evening.

One of them, by John Higginson was entitled “Beams of fright warn of calamity”. It is all about the Eden Project in association with the Metro projecting frightful warnings on Tate Modern and Battersea Power Station to tell us that
It is estimated sea levels will increase by 10 cm (4 in) every ten years. Experts say this will affect us all and mean a 0.5 m rise by 2050. It is thought even a small increase will raise the risk of serious flooding along the Thames Estuary.
Setting aside the question of who actually estimates, says and thinks all these things and on what evidence, one cannot help wondering how illuminating huge buildings quite unnecessarily and thus wasting a great deal of electricity would help the world.

In any case, most people going by Tate Modern and seeing illumination on its huge walls will assume that it is yet another “work of art” that Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate Galleries is so fond of.

Incidentally, Tate Modern has just been given £50 million by the government in an exceptional grant, to make it into the “world’s best gallery of modern art”. A lost cause, I fear, as anyone who has looked at its collection of twentieth century art can testify. Forget Tate Modern – lovely building, pathetic art – go to the Courtauld or the Estorick in Islington.

The other article is about David Cameron speaking at Greenpeace and proposing various new ideas about saving the earth. His immediate proposal was to become energy efficient like Greenpeace’s London offices. Of course, we do not know whether that energy efficiency amounts to anything much more than what most householders try to achieve anyway, because they do not like paying huge bills.

David Cameron said:
Imagine a country where each community is able to meet its own energy requirements instead of relying on a few huge power stations.
Well, we did have a country like that once. It was in the Middle Ages and very few of us would like to go back to those living standards. My suspicion is that energy efficient or otherwise, Greenpeace gets its electricity from a huge power station.

An interesting organization, Greenpeace. A lovely website, in fact, several websites, as befits an international organization and each of them tells us that
Greenpeace exists because this fragile Earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs action.
OK, stop laghing at the back there. Just how fragile is Earth? It’s been through some traumatic experiences and survived. And anyway, did that fragile Earth ask Greenpeace to be its voice? Was there an election or competitive submissions from different organizations? Not on your life.

Actually, Greenpeace is not as mushy as all that. It is a tough organization with a good ability to publicize itself, often at the expense of other environmentalists. It is a wealthy outfit with many donations but they seem very reluctant to publish their accounts on the website. Any website.

They insist that they take no money from governments or any corporate donors only from individuals. There must be an awful lot of very rich donors who are ready to part with their cash.

Actually, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. For instance, Public Interest, an organization set up in the United States in 2002, to watch the non-profit organizations and how they deal with the money given to them, has shown itself to be a little dissatisfied.

Back in 2003 it filed a complaint with the IRS, pointing to a report in which it accused Greenpeace of using money donated to it under tax exemption rules for activity that definitely cannot be exempt.
Examples of taxpayer subsidized activities undertaken by Greenpeace include:

Blockading a naval base in protest of the Iraq war,
Boarding an oil tanker for a banner hanging,
Breaking into the central control building of a nuclear power station,
Padlocking the gates of a government research facility.

Because Greenpeace receives significant donations from large entities such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Turner Foundation, the report also calls into question the accountability of these donors.

"Foundations that make tax-exempt contributions are responsible for verifying that their funds are used appropriately," Hardiman said. "In the case of contributions to Greenpeace, either the foundations have no idea how their money is being spent, or they are knowingly allowing their funds to be laundered for illegal advocacy and civil disobedience."
Apart from anything else one must point out that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Turner Foundation are not individual donors. They are, in fact, corporate donors.

Here is a list of all those “individual” donors:
Despite its groovy, incense-fueled image, Greenpeace relies on multi-billion-dollar foundations to pay its bills. Many of these, ironically, were launched by spectacularly wealthy capitalists, the very bogeymen against whom Greenpeace ceaselessly rails. Among Greenpeace Fund, Inc.'s underwriters, PIW identifies the following:

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
The John Merck Fund
Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Inc.
Turner Foundation, Inc.
In 1999 Canada revoked Greenpeace’s tax-exempt status, arguing that it was inappropriate.

All of this may or may not be important. All we are asking is that Greenpeace should make its accounts available on the website, so we can all judge where the money is coming from.

Anyhow, David Cameron trotted off to Greenpeace in London to propose his party’s energy policies:
Decentralised energy provides a clear example of how this virtuous circle can work.

By enabling people to generate their own electricity, we are literally giving them more power over their own lives.

This really is power to the people.

Once people start generating their own electricity, they will become far more conscious of the way in which they use it - they will become more responsible about energy use and their own environmental impact.

And the overall effect of these changes will be to make Britain greener - to help reduce our carbon emissions and thereby contribute to a safer country and a safer world.
Well, all right, politicians have to come up with stuff like that, and it goes on for pages, but anything concrete there?
From controversies over low cost airlines, to the endless green lifestyle newspaper supplements, the emphasis can often feel like an accusatory: "what are you going to do about it?"

And solutions are often perceived to involve higher costs, more tax or some form of personal sacrifice.

While of course it's important that everyone feels empowered to be part of the solution to climate change, I think we need to shift the burden of emphasis from "what are you going to do about it" to "what are we going to do about it?"

We are all in this together and we need to challenge the idea that fighting climate change is nothing more than a burden on consumers.

We need to shift the public debate away from a simplistic focus on the individual and towards a vision of dynamic industrial change, challenging the whole hydro-carbon dependency of our economy.

We need an emphasis on research, innovation, new markets and entrepreneurial solutions. We need to champion the potential of UK plc to compete aggressively in the new low carbon economy.
At least he has recognized that people are not impressed by the greenies who talk the talk but rarely walk the walk, preferring some high-powered car to ride in or a private jet to fly in. Furthermore, shifting the debate away from individuals and the taxes they might have to pay, this is another way of trying to prevent the hoi polloi from pointing to the hypocrisy of the greenie establishment. (See Bali conference above)

We should also welcome his emphasis on research and development rather though it is not entirely clear whether he knows what the words mean since quoting the Stern Report is not precisely the most scientific way forward.

His central idea is energy being produced by local small providers, presumably through various alternative methods. Sounds about as useful as that Chinese idea of the fifties of having a miniature steel foundry in every backyard.

On a more practical level he has suggested that
stores such as Tesco and Asda should make their premises energy efficient and generate excess power which could be sold back to the grid. Under Conservative climate change proposals, there would also be moves to make it easier for home owners to install equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines.
The greatest difficulty there is expense. It is not quite clear whether Mr Cameron is suggesting subsidies or targeted cuts in local taxes. Surely, not the latter. After all, he would not want to overrule local councils.

Let’s face it, if Mr Cameron really wanted to make Britain self-sufficient in energy, he would talk about nuclear power stations. Like the old-fashioned greenie that he is, the goes up in smoke (so to speak) as soon as the “n” word is mentioned.

Another one of Mr Cameron’s proposals has caused some perplexity in One London’s offices. The Metro reported it in the following words:
All homes should have meters which measure how much electricity they are using, he said. Similar systems worked well in countries such as Germany and Holland, the Tory leader added.
What on earth does he mean? Every home has a meter already. If there is gas and electricity, there are two meters. Does he not know? Who deals with such matters in his household?

My attempts to con the speech came up with this possible explanation of what that paragraph is about:
In the Netherlands, for instance, in little more than a decade, combined heat and power (CHP) became the single largest supplier of the country's energy needs.I want to see a similar revolution happen in Britain.

I do not take a view of which energy sources should be used - I simply want to see them operate on a level playing field.

I want Britain to adopt micro-generation: small providers, including homes and businesses, producing energy for their own use, using a variety of methods from combined heat and power, to wind to solar photovoltaic power.

The policy paper we're publishing today sets out how it can done.

A new system of 'feed-in tariffs', by which people are paid for the energy they produce, will stimulate diversity and decentralisation of our power supply, as well as incentivise energy-saving.

In Germany, a feed-in tariff system has seen a far faster growth in renewable energy and the creation of over 250,000 jobs in the wind energy sector alone.

There is absolutely no reason why that can't happen here.
I am not sure the creation of heavily subsidized jobs in the wind energy sector is necessarily the solution to whatever energy problems we face at the moment. Furthermore, I need to hear a great deal more about those micro-generators before I disconnect my present gas and electricity supplies. Among other matters I want to know more about what trials have been made, where, on what scale and what the results were, beyond those 250,000 jobs.

Generators might make sense for those sky-scrapers in New York, though not many of them have gone down that way, as Mr Cameron would know if he actually read what happened during that famous black-out. But individual households making their own energy?

Eventually, I found that reference to the meters:
Consumers will be able to monitor how much electricity they are using by installing smart meters that make information readily accessible.
This is not precisely what the Metro implied but it is still muddled. Smart meters are not quite what Mr Cameron thinks they are.

Wikipedia defines them:
A Smart meter generally refers to a type of advanced meter (usually an electrical meter) that identifies consumption in more detail than a conventional meter; and optionally, but generally, communicates that information via some network back to the local utility for monitoring and billing purposes (telemetering).
This article in the Guardian goes into greater detail:
The government and energy supply industry yesterday began a £20m trial to encourage households to curb their use of gas and electricity and reduce Britain's emissions of greenhouse gases.

Some 15,000 homes will be equipped with so-called smart meters, allowing consumers and suppliers to track energy use, cutting out the need for meter readings and estimated bills. Another 8,000 homes will be given stand-alone display units, which show consumers how much electricity they are using and what it is costing but which do not pass on information to the energy supplier. Another 17,000 will get advice on how to economise.
In other words, the savings will come largely from this being a more efficient (possibly) way of reading electricity meters. Gas seems not to be involved. This is not the same as saving electricity or the planet though it would probably cut energy bills.

As for people being able to see how the electricity is used and where they might be able to cut down, this could be rather a problem. In the first place, the people who are likely to act in that way beyond the first exciting week of novelty are the people who spend some time thinking these matters through now. Those who do not, probably will not.

The other problem is that it may not be such a good idea to tell people how little electricity goes on certain aspects of their lives. The recent fuss about computer monitors and computers being left on sleep mode will become impossible in the future once everybody can check how insignificant the amounts of electricity used by computers or monitors on sleep mode.

Beware of giving people too much power.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Fry the bastard!

I could not resist commenting on the banning of Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, Merydydd Hughes. He had been caught speeding in north Wales in May of this year, clocked at 90mph on the A5, near Wrexham, which has a 60mph limit.

Mr Hughes, famously, has previously worked as the Chairman of Roads Policing at the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), and has argued that "less conspicuous" speed cameras would work to prevent speeding and bring down accident rates.

That is the nature of our modern public servants – hypocrisy on legs, but there is a particularly personal issue here. Mr Hughes's officers are known to infest the section of the M1 on their patch, specifically targeting "speeding" drivers.

It was there, in good weather on an otherwise empty motorway at just gone midnight, that I got picked up by a particularly officious member of his force, for doing 82 mph – an offence that got me a six month ban under the totting-up procedure.

Unlike Mr Hughes, of course, I did not have a chauffeur-driven car so a ban was a real hardship – to say nothing of the fine - so forgive me if I wish Mr Hughes all the worst, and wish he'd got six years and been fired into the bargain.


Thursday, 29 November 2007

Unnoted connections

One’s first reaction to the recent tale of the Oxford Union meeting, their invited guests, David Irving and Nick Griffin plus the inevitable uproar was a weary shrug of shoulders – another clever-dick story. As time went on, the story took on a more interesting character, especially if one links it to a couple of other reports, not much noted by the British MSM.

Let’s get the Oxford Union events out of the way first. Over on the EUReferendum blog we have written on a number of occasions that freedom of speech (not incitement of violence but the expression of political opinions, however unpleasant) is of the greatest importance. Let me link to this posting, this and this, just for starters.

Two points can be made immediately about the brouhaha, apart from the curious irony of people demanding a ban on people who have been invited to speak in a debate on freedom of speech. None of the arguments – giving a platform to fascists or just generally unpleasant people, these issues have already been settled, cannot allow the pollution of the Oxford Union – hold water even for one second.

The two points were to do with the University and with Thames Valley police. If the University of Oxford cannot produce people, either insiders or outsiders, who can tear Nick Griffin’s and David Irving’s arguments to pieces then there is a problem in that august institution that should be addressed.

Though the police seem reasonably pleased with themselves, they do not seem to have done what they are supposed to do, which is allow people go about their lawful business. Protestors broke into the Union building, other people did not manage to get in and the debate had to be conducted in two separate rooms. Were the police told not to be too hard on those well-meaning youngsters who screamed abuse at anyone who wanted to hear what the terrible BNP had to say?

In the end, of course, it is the BNP that emerged triumphant from this skirmish, as they have done from all previous ones. They can claim attempted victimization, lack of coherent argument against them and as Nick Griffin put it:
This is a mob which would kill. I have seen them beat old men and women and try to kill them. Had they grown up in Nazi Germany they would have made splendid Nazis.
He is probably right about that last comment and even if he is not, this is possibly not what the demonstrators wanted to hear. Furthermore, I can imagine large numbers of youngsters being inspired by the heroic fight the BNP is putting up in the cause of right and freedom and joining that benighted organization.

In the meantime, out in the big bad world (where British political donor scandals are not considered to be terribly important or even interesting) there have been two anniversaries, both a little artificial, as I shall explain, but both of huge importance with a connection to the Oxford fracas.

The first took place in Russia where President Putin was among those who marked the 70th anniversary of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. October 30 was designated Political Prisoners’ Day in 1974 in the Soviet Union (by the prisoners and their friends not the authorities). In 1991 it became officially Day of Victims of Political Repression.

There were many such days in the Soviet Union, especially under Lenin and Stalin but one day had to be designated and why not this one.

Why the 70th anniversary? That has something to do with the way Russians and, indeed, others from the former Soviet Union talk about that period. When Nikita Khrushchev first spoke about the repressions publicly, he concentrated on the attack levelled at the Communist Party, which was at its height in 1937, the year in which the purges began in real earnest.

So, although the arrests started almost immediately after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934 and although 1938 with the great trial of Right-Wing Deviationist Trotskyites a.k.a. Nikolai Bukharin and others saw far more arrests it is tridsat’ sed’moy god (1937) that serves as a short-hand for the Great Terror of the thirties.

It now makes sense that the victims of that and other Soviet terror were being commemorated on October 30, 2007 (by a strange coincidence the 70th anniversary of the night my grandfather was arrested in Moscow to disappear for ever).

Putin’s participation in the memorial service held near the Butovsky Poligon was full of piquant ironies. Nothing wrong with the place:
The site of the commemorations Tuesday, Butovsky Poligon, is on the grounds of a pre-revolutionary estate on the edge of Moscow. It was a secret prison run by the NKVD, the KGB's predecessor, and is the burial place of more than 20,000 people who were killed during the height of Stalin's purges in 1937 and 1938. In that period, hundreds were sometimes shot there in a single day. Poligon translates as "shooting range."
Recently it has become a Russian Orthodox shrine after it was determined that about 1,000 of those people were killed for their (Orthodox) faith. Nothing wrong with that either.

But what are we to make of commemorations attended by a former and unrepentant KGB/FSB agent who has managed to introduce a miniscule version of Soviet oppression in Russia now? So far, completely miniscule, I am glad to say but the signs are not good.

There was another problem. The service was conducted by the Patriarch Aleksy II, whose links with the KGB/FSB are very well known throughout Russia.

There was another commemoration in Moscow and many others, I expect, in other places.
Survivors of the gulag, the Soviet system of prison camps, gathered Tuesday at Lubyanka Square, near the former KGB headquarters, in front of a monument called the Solovetsky Stone, which was brought from one of the first Soviet prison camps.

Rights activists and opposition politicians later gathered to call attention to those they regard as modern Russian political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oil magnate who challenged the Kremlin, and Mikhail Trepashkin, a former KGB agent who was jailed for disclosing state secrets after working with liberal legislators who suspected the secret police of involvement in a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and southern Russia that set off the second Chechen war in 1999 and helped bring Putin to power.
The Solovetsky camps were set up under Lenin and very unpleasant they were, too.

The third event that went almost completely unnoticed in Britain is the 75th anniversary of what the Ukrainians call the Holodomor, the politically engineered famine as a punishment for the Ukrainian recalcitrance over Collectivization and in order to break the Ukrainian national spirit.

There is a theory that the Great Terror of the mid to late thirties was unleashed by Stalin to some extent in order to cover up the horrific genocide of the Collectivization. Numbers of its victims vary from 13 to 17 million. Well, let’s split the difference and say 15 million, which is possibly the most accurate figure (I am ready to be corrected on that by anyone who has seen more recent estimates).

Collectivization of agricultural land is the cornerstone of Communist power and was carried out everywhere the Communists, those lovable well-meaning characters came to power. The Great Leap Forward in China claimed at least 30 million victims.

There were commensurate numbers of dead in Vietnam, Cambodia and Ethiopia under Colonel Mengistu. In none of these countries, not even the former Soviet ones, where these events happened a long time ago, has agriculture recovered. It is so easy to destroy; so difficult to rebuild.

The process of Collectivization in the Soviet Union, both in its early stages when “kulaks”, that is peasants who had been successful through hard work, were exterminated and through the subsequent confiscation of all, and I mean all grain in a deliberate policy of murdering as many people as possible through famine, spread across all the republics.

It was particularly vicious in the Ukraine for two reasons. The peasantry made up a larger proportion of the population and the land being very fertile they had become better producers; and Stalin with his henchmen was determined to destroy Ukrainian national identity. For that reason the subsequent purge was also extremely ferocious.

President Yushschenko had an article in the Wall Street Journal Europe last Monday when the commemorations were being held. Sadly, the piece is available only to subscribers on the net but I shall quote one or two paragraphs from it.

What the Ukrainians would like is to designate the Holodomor as genocide, a tiresome idea in my opinion. What they also want with some justification is an acknowledgement of what they had suffered, a story that has not been told all that often though Robert Conquest wrote a very good and extremely harrowing book about Collectivization, “The Harvest of Sorrow”.

Yushschenko emphasizes that acknowledgement of the Holodomor does not mean he wants some nationalist apportioning of blame.
We are not doing so out of a desire for revenge or to make a partisan political point. We know that the Russian people were among Stalin’s foremost victims. Apportioning blame to their living descendants is the last thing on our minds. Our only wish is for this crime to be understood for what it truly was.
So what was it?
There is now a wealth of historical material detailing the specific features of Stalin’s forced collectivization and terror famine policies against Ukraine. Other parts of the Soviet Union suffered terribly as well. But in the minds of the Soviet leadership there was a dual purpose in persecuting and starving the Ukrainian peasantry. It was part of a campaign to cursh Ukraine’s national identity and its desire for self-determination.

As Stalin put it a few years earlier: “There is no powerful national movement without the peasant army …. in essence, the national question is a peasant question”. In seeking to reverse the policy of “Ukrainization” that promoted limited cultural and political autonomy during the 1920s, Stalin decided to target the peasantry, representing as it did 80% of the population. His solution to the national question in Ukraine was mass murder through starvation.

Stalin’s cruel methods included the allocation of astronomic grain requisition quotas
that were impossible to meet and which left nothing for the local population to
eat. When the quotas were missed, armed units were sent in. Toward the end of
1932, entire villages and regions were turned into a system of isolated starvation ghettos called “black boards”.

Throughout this period, the Soviet Union continued to export grain to the West and even used grain to produce alcohol. By early 1933, the Soviet leadership decided to radically reinforce the blockade of Ukrainian villages. Eventually, the whole territory of Ukraine was surrounded by armed forces, turning the entire country into a vast death camp.
Not many people got through and those that did like Walter Duranty wrote Soviet propaganda, furiously persecuting any writer or journalist who told otherwise, using those famous words: “I was there. I know.” To this day Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize stays attached to his name.

One man who did write the truth was Malcolm Muggeridge who tried to get some stories out into the Manchester Guardian, who refused to publish anything so bad about the Soviet Union. He collected them in his “Winter in Moscow”.

Yushschenko writes about subsequent purges aimed at a destruction of Ukrainian cultural life as its economic life had been destroyed. To be fair, much of this was going on in the rest of the Soviet Union as well.
Waves of purges engulfed academic institutions, literary journals, publishing houses and theatres. Victims included the Ukrainian Academy of Science, the editorial board of the Soviet Ukrainian Encyclopaedia, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and ultimately the Ukrainian Communist Party.
One can substitute the words Russian or Georgian for Ukrainian and it would be true, none of which diminishes the historic trauma of the Ukrainian people.

So what have these two stories to do with that idiotic performance in Oxford apart from the fact that so much space was taken up by journalistic accounts of undergraduate silliness that the two anniversaries were barely mentioned in Britain? In fact, I have not been able to find a single reference to Holodomor in any British media outlet.

There is more to it all, though. The tales of which I told a very small part above, have been denied, diminished and ignored by most of the Western and, specifically, British academia and writing community.

Have the students ever demonstrated when deniers of Communist holocausts or genocides were invited to speak at the Union? No, of course not. After all, Communists are well-meaning people even though these horrific crimes followed the establishment of any Communist government as surely as night follows day.

Has anyone ever suggested that Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the man who still finds it difficult to tell the truth about Collectivization, should not be given a platform? Not that I know of. Does anyone suggest that Richard Gott who admitted being a paid agent of influence as recently as twenty years ago should be prevented from writing tosh in various publications? Hmmm, not recently.

I have once suggested that we should make Famine Denial a criminal offence and put some of those who have either denied Holodomor or trivialized it on trial. Of course, I do not really mean that any more than President Yushchenko does (I think). But could we possibly have a little logic in our hysterical outbursts?

How can we expect full lustration in former Communist countries when we refuse to face up to our barefaced lies and denials?