Thursday, January 19, 2006

Yahrzeit for Chaim Bermant

This Sunday marks the eighth anniversary of my Father's Yahrzeit. Looking through his many articles, I couldn't help noticing this piece about Harold Pinter, published on the 15th February 1991. Even now, it is so relevant:

Harold Pinter is a man of few words, most of them silly.

Yet he is one of the foremost playwrights of our time - which does not mean he is a Shakespeare or even an Ibsen, but he does have a deep insight into the quirks of human nature, and a unique ear for the ambiguities and gaps of human speech.

He eavesdrops on silence. Where others are generally concerned with people who have too much to say and say it too vehemently, he is concerned with people who have too little to say and and don't know how to say it at all and his audience gets caught up in trying to extrapolate meaning from what may seem to be meaningless. He is the poet leaureate of the inarticulate.

I can't claim to have seen all of his plays, but the only one of his characters I found unconvincing was the professor in The Homecoming, for professors seem a little outside his range. He is far happier with characters of limited intelligence and, if his public utterances are anything to go by, he shares their limitations.

Yet there seems to be a general belief that anyone who displays a talent or genius in one area of life must have something worthwhile to say on every other, and when a week or two ago the Observer invited about a dozen well-known figures to comment on the rights and wrongs of the Gulf War, Pinter was inevitably among them.

There has been much debate in recent months on the concept of a just war. Wars are murderous and messy, for if one knows how they begin, there is no telling how they will finish and if the world was full of Pinters (who was a conscientious objector even in peacetime) one could probably get by without any wars (though it would be become an insufferable place in other respects).

The world, however, is rather more complicated and there can come a time when war with all its hazards carries fewer dangers than appeasement and that time came when Saddam Hussein devoured Kuwait on 2 August.

If ever there was a single instance of unprovoked aggression, this was it and one might have thought that it would not be impossible for even the most peace loving of men to muster a good word for America, or at least a bad one against Iraq.

Not Pinter.

Pinter's thinking, if one may call it that, goes back to the Vietnam war, when all good men and true - not a few of them Jewish - seemed to think that the Viet Cong were the innocent victims of American aggression. America in fact had good grounds for its intervention. I'm only sorry it failed, and given the subsequent history of the area, the people of Vietnam must be even sorrier.

In this particular instance, however, Pinter invoked America's intervention in Grenada, Panama, and Nicaragua, as if they could be spoken of in the same breath as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

America was welcomed as a liberator by the majority of the population in all three countries, and, in each instance, it withdrew the moment it installed a stable and representative government, whereas Kuwait has actually been incorporated as a province of Iraq.

Pinter laughs at the suggestions the Americans 'were inspired by a determination to keep the world clean for democracy' but in fact they were doing just that.

They are unlikely to make Kuwait clean for democracy because there is no such thing as a democratic Arab state (and precious few Muslim ones). But the fact that Kuwait happened to have been, and is likely to remain, a feudal oligarchy, is no reason why it should be left to the mercy of Saddam Hussein. And, of course, if he had been allowed to keep Kuwait, he wouldn't have stopped there.

Nor does Pinter spare a thought for the unprovoked attacks on Israel, the threat of gas warfare or the actual use of poison gas against the Kurds. He sees the world in simple terms and reacts to the events like the product of a third-rate poly who has been brought up on a diet of pre-packed political slogans and presumes that any country or cause actively supported by America must be in the wrong.

America has not always been inspired in its presentation of policies, and it has occasionally been clumsy in their execution, but, with all its faults, no great power has been so mindful of its responsibilities, and none has been less assertive, and it can be seen at its best in the present crisis.

So much for le libéralisme anglo-saxon

It's official, the UK is no longer a low tax economy. UK Business Online reports that the UK's fiscal burden will hit 42.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, according to a recent analysis of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development figures. This is up from the level of 37.5% in 2000. By contrast, the fiscal burden in Germany will fall to 42.1% of GDP, less than Britain’s for the first time in in a generation. Britain will also outspend Germany from next year, the OECD figures also show. In 2007, German government expenditure will fall to 45% of GDP, while British public spending will hit a new high of 45.7% of GDP. To make matters worse, the UK's unemployment level is steadily climbing back towards the million mark for the first time in years.

As Europe's sclerotic economies begin to take steps to encourage economic growth, the UK appears to be doing the opposite. Having been in power for nine years, Labour are steadily drifting back to their old ways as a tax and spend party. It's a shame really, they've lost the one area for which they had some credibility. In the circumstances, David Cameron's decision to turn his back on Thatcherism was a foolish move, it was the one policy that would have differentiated the Tories from Labour. With both of the main parties lost on economic policy, overseas investors won't be rushing to locate here.

It seems the French will longer have to complain about le libéralisme anglo-saxon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dr Death is back!

Switching on the TV last night whilst eating a fruit salad, I nearly spat my food out. It's not every day you get to watch a human body being dissected in front of a TV audience. Gunther Von Hagens is back, following up his recent Anatomy for Beginners with another TV series, Autopsy: Life and Death. Whilst many "open minded" individuals have praised him for educating us about anatomy, I just can't take this guy seriously. With his trademark fedora hat and his german accent: "I vill now dissect ze intesteens", he's looks part Freddy Kreuger, part Dr Frankenstein. Seeing the reactions of the TV audience, and hearing their nervous laughter, it's clear that Von Hagens is the star of the show, not his corpses. You have to ask yourself, if some run of the mill professor did the same thing at 11.30 on Open University, would anyone be watching?

In fact everything he's done over the past ten years merely demonstrates that his anatomy show has more to do with publicity and shock value than with anything remotely educational. According to the Chicago Tribune, when he originally promoted his touring exhibitions of flayed cadavers, he sent the corpse of a pregnant woman, her torso cut open to reveal the foetus - on a bus ride around Berlin to promote the Bodyworlds exhibition taking place there. The city's Jewish leader compared the exhibits to the lampshades made from human skin at Nazi death camps. Churches held requiems for the dead. In Mannheim, the German Anatomical Society tried to block "Body Worlds" from opening in 1997.

When Von Hagens exhibited his Bodyworlds show in London a few years ago, I remember arguing with a friend who visited to the show. Responding to my criticism, she asked "How can you judge a show you've never been to". It's a line of argument I've never found particularly convincing. After all, do you have to go to Stringfellows in order to find pornography demeaning? The next agrument I keep hearing is that people have willingly 'donated' their bodies to his project. Well according to Wikipedia, it's not at all clear that they have. Finally, there are the statistics, "17 million visitors can't be wrong". Well, people have always been attracted by the macabre, so what's new?

I may not have been to Bodyworlds, but I've seen Von Hagens at work, and he looks more like a travelling freak show host than a scientist. People are fascinated by freaks, and with the exception of Michael Jackson, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone stranger than Von Hagens.

The EU's message to Iran: We're powerless to stop you

It seems the worse things get with Iran, the more the EU prevaricates.

According to today’s Times, Britain and its European allies yesterday backed away from threatening economic sanctions against Iran if the country is referred to the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear programme.

As Britain, France and Germany began drafting a resolution before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer Iran to the UN, an official at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said that Britain favoured a gradual, sustained build-up to force Tehran to comply with its international obligations.

And what exactly is this gradual, sustained build-up? More threats to consider the possibility off issuing more threats?

Iran could have been brought to heel years ago, but why should they be scared? The EU has the mentality of a parent on Supernanny, scared of their unruly children, fearful of what will happen if they actually put their foot down. Ahmadinejad may be a madman but he isn’t a fool. He knows there is nothing stopping him.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Apocalyptic predictions for 2007

Check out this apocalyptic prediction by Niall Ferguson in the Sunday Telegraph.

I hope his dire predictions of World War Three are proved wrong, but unless Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his henchmen are reined in fast, I am not very optimistic. As long as the West continue to make laughable threats such as banning Iran from this years world cup, Ahmadinejad can continue to take the West for a ride.