Saturday, January 21, 2006

ONS agrees with TAE: It's a tax!

In a rare occurrence, the corrupt use of language - not to mention the PR of the BBC - has officially been dealt a small blow. From the Office of National Statistics:
The television licence fee has been reclassified as a tax, because the licence fee is a compulsory payment which is not paid solely for access to BBC services. Previously, the licence fee had been classified as a service charge. This reclassification means that the BBC will move from the public non-financial corporations sub-sector to the central government sector, effectively moving from one part of the public sector to another.
Finally, official recognition that the BBC is not in fact providing a "service" in return for the payment that is coerced out of TV owners. Now perhaps we can move on to the next logical question: If the BBC is not providing me with a service, why should I have to pay for it?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dorfman, the MLA, and Orwell

So get this.

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean writer and intellectual, is invited by the Modern Language Association of America to give a speech on "the role of the intellectual in the 21st century" to a gathering of US professors of language and literature. Provocatively, Dorfman decides to poke a little bit of fun at the self importance and dire seriousness of the intellectuals to whom he is speaking, so rather than delivering the expected speech about the role of the intellectual, he instead relates an outrageous story about how he cannot give the speech he was meant to be delivering because it was confiscated at the airport by a secret division of Homeland Security which detained him at the airport as part of its role in targetting "dangerous" academics. He details an increasingly absurd conversation with the two agents, who "grill" him about possible Chilean sleeper cells in the US seeking revenge against the CIA for its role in the overthrow of Salvadore Allende in 1973. He even has one of the agents telling him that "you guys at the MLA take yourself way too seriously" and that the MLA should "Try some humor" if they want regular people to understand what they are talking about.

One would think (as Dorfman obviously did) that if the idea that the powers that be in the US are concerned about Chilean sleeper cells bent on revenge against the CIA was not enough to tip the audience off that the whole story was a parody, surely the notion that agents of Homeland Security have the slightest idea of what the Modern Language Association even is, much less that they would take enough interest in it to have an opinion about how to sell itself better, would be. But, as Dorfman discovered, the self-regard and paranoia of the modern intellectual class apparently knows no bounds. Following the talk, Dorfman was approached by several people seeking more information and expressing deep concern about the tale. They accepted it as entirely believable. Dorfman says that "Not one of my friends and associates at the convention or afterward dismissed my tall tale as patently absurd."

Now, the obvious conclusion to draw from this is that Dorfman's original thesis was entirely correct, and that these intellectuals deserve mockery. They take themselves far too seriously, and are far too self-important, which in turn feeds their own unbridled fantasies (Dorfman's words, by the way). Only a member of the MLA could possibly be so foolish as to think Homeland Security gives a fig about what members of the MLA think and say. And the irony of a person giving an open and unoppressed speech detailing the oppressions of the police state in which they are giving it seems entirely lost on these humorless linguistic giants.

But is this the lesson Dorfman takes from this experience? Of course not. Seemingly intent on solidifying his standing as a member of the same intellectual class that he has just shown to be gullible fools, Dorfman concludes precisely the opposite.

When I lamented the naivete of my sophisticated audience, the response was unanimous: I was the naive one.

Maybe they were right. My fraudulent yarn was apparently terrifyingly plausible in a country where citizens can be held indefinitely without charges, where wire-tapping without warrants is rampant, where the vice president defends the use of torture, and where the president invades another country under false pretences.

The sad truth about my story is that it comes straight out of the trepidation and terror caused by 9/11. Before that date, I would not have thought of concocting it, because most Americans would not have understood what I was talking about. The sadder truth is that I can imagine an epilogue to my story. The US is hit by an even more devastating terrorist attack. That day, can I confidently say there will not be a knock at my door and that two men, one tall and gangly, the other short and beefy, will not ask me if I recall spreading lies about their efforts to fight the war on terrorism? And that they will not demand that I accompany them, just for a few hours, for some routine questioning?

Thus does Mr. Dorfman join his fellows at the Modern Language Association in establishing the enduring wisdom of Orwell's axiom that some ideas are so absurd only an intellectual could believe them.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

An extraordinary interest in US executions

A couple of days ago, after reading the BBC's article about the execution of Clarence Ray Allen, the convicted murderer from California who spent 25 years on death row, it occurred to TAE to wonder just why the BBC finds the use of the death penalty in the US to be so particularly worthy of its attention. And there can be little doubt about the special interest the BBC takes in US executions. Consider the BBC's coverage for the year 2005:

  • An article on the execution of Donald Beardslee in California
  • An article about a last minute temporary stay of execution for Michael Ross in Connecticut
February March
  • An article about the Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles iunconstitutionalal
  • Kevin Anderson reports that legal rulings in the US are "whittling away" at the death penalty
  • An article claiming that prisoners in the US executed by lethal injection may be "aware" as the poison kills them.
May June No articles

July August
  • Daryl Atkins is ruled to be fit enough to be executed.
September No articles

October No articles

November December So, to sum up, for the year 2005 the BBC covered the executions of 5 specific individuals (and clemency grant of 1) with 21 articles, and touched on the death penalty in the US more generally in an additional 7 pieces. This, in a year in which 60 convicted criminals were executed throughout all of the US. Even if we ignore the BBC's Tookie Williams campaign and count all of its 11 articles on him as one, the BBC still averagied more than an article a month about the US death penalty.

The BBC also repeatedly reminded its readers that the US ranked 4th behind leader China in total number of executions for the year 2004, a fact which presents us with an interesting comparison.

A definitive figure on the number of executions in China for the year 2005 could not be found, but Amnesty International estimates that the figure was "at least 3,400". How many articles do you suppose can be found on the BBC website specifically about executions in China? TAE did a google search on the BBC's site for "china execution [month] 2005". The relevant results were:

January - none
February - none
March - none
April - none
May - none
June - none
July - none
August - none
  • UN envoy cautions China on human rights (with a specific mention of executions).
  • China top court gets power to review death sentences.
October - none
November - none
December - none

So, 3,400 executions in China merits only 2 stories on the death penalty in general, and zero stories on any specific execution, while 60 executions in the US merits 7 stories in general and 21 stories about specific executions. Or, put another way, executions in the US, which total only 1.76% the number of executions in China, get 1,400% of the amount of coverage given to executions in China. And the 1,000th execution in the US since 1976 is, for the BBC, a "landmark" and "milestone" requiring 3 stories, while the 1,000th (and 2,000th, and 3,000th) execution in China since January 1 last year passes by entirely unremarked upon.

Just what is it about US executions that so attracts the attention of the BBC?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Don't miss State of Fear

I just finished reading Michael Crichton's State of Fear, and duly recommend it to anyone and everyone. It was not only a great thriller but also a powerful manifesto debunking one of the great phantoms of our our era - catastrophic man-made global warming. It reminded me at times of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged with its sharp, point-making dialogue. Imagine the force of Fransisco D'Anconia's money speech, only aimed instead at the "science" of global warming and backed by charts and footnotes. It's a powerful book.

And the fate of Ted Bradley, Crichton's symbol for hypocrisy-laden Hollywood do-gooders, is just too perfect to be missed.

BTW, after having finally read the book, I've decided that, as harsh as I was on the BBC's Harold Evans over his column about Crichton and the book, I wasn't harsh enough.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The BBC keeping the Che myth alive

What is it with the BBC's fascination with Che Guevara's friends? Since May, the BBC has done three profiles on three different people each of whose sole claim to anything remotely resembling a point of interest is a past connection to the "revolutionary".

In May, BBC 2 did a documentary giving voice to a fawning look at Guevara through the eyes of, Alberto Granado, Guevara's companion on his early escapades in South America on a motorcycle.

Then in December, Mark Doyle did a piece on Freddy Ilanga, a former Congolese rebel and now surgeon who was Guevara's interpreter during his failed attempt to foment revolt in the DR Congo. Needless to say, Ilanga also admired the "hard-working" Guevara, perhaps even as much as Doyle, who had discovered Ilanga while "following in the footsteps" of Guevara.

Now, today, Deborah Bonello offers up one more feature on yet another FOC, Carlos Ferrer, who has decided to cash in on his association with a book about his time with Guevara. Like the others, Ferrer greatly admires Guevara, while Bonello upgrades him from a mere "revolutionary" to a "now legendary revlutionary".

By the way, none of these tributes to Guevara manage to mention his slightly less romantic role as Castro's chief executioner of political dissenters from the Cuban "revolution". Perhaps some day the BBC might get around to doing stories about Guevara's many victims rather than his acolytes. But, given that the BBC itself seems to be one, don't hold your breath.

From the "Who gives a toss" department

Frontpage headline and article on the BBC's website:

Simpson becomes father at 61

Just how self-absorbed can the BBC get?

Dr. Ansari responds

Following my bewilderment over Dr. Ali Ansari’s reference to the apparently essential help provided by Iran to the coalition in liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban, TAE wrote to Dr. Ansari to enquire about just what he meant. Dr. Ansari, who is employed at the University of St. Andrews in addition to being affiliated with Chatham House, was gracious enough to respond, and we exchanged a couple of e-mails. He explained that:
Iran provided the Northern Alliance, as well as logistical support. It is suspected though not confirmed that airspace was used for flights, and publicly Iran offered to assist any Coalition pilots that may be shot down. It is generally acknowledged that Afghanistan would not have been so swift or indeed easy had the Iranians not been on board both during and after - in the Bonn Talks. There was a palpable sense of detente at the time, to be deflected in good time by the discovery of the Karine A, which was used as a justification by the Bush administration to include Iran in the axis of evil, although if Pollack is to be believed, Iran's inclusion was something of an afterthought! Bizarre if that's true because the consequences in Iran were devastating.
He also pointed out:
Opportunities were missed on both sides of course. I wouldn't want the impression to be given that Iran was reasonable while the US was unreasonable. My contention is (as will be discussed in my forthcoming book), that both sides have been unreasonable at the most unfortunate times!
When asked where one might find references to public offers of Iranian assistance to any downed coalition pilots (TAE did several google searches, but was unable to find anything) Dr. Ansari said that he had such references, but couldn’t dig them out at the moment.

TAE also pointed out several quotations of Iranian officials from the fall of 2001 condemning the US operation in Afghanistan, and asked Dr. Ansari how such rhetoric might be explained if Iran was in fact providing essential assistance to the very same operation. He said:
This is just normal public/private diplomacy at work Iranian style (though I should say not exclusive to Iran!). The Islamic Republic could not appear to condone an attack on another Muslim country, but privately, as they were with Saddam, there was barely disguised glee. Iran had almost gone to war with the Taleban in 1998, mobilising some 200,000 troops after the Taleban had massacred Shia's in Mazar e Sharif including 9 Iranian diplomats. There is no love lost between the hard line Sunnis and the Shia. Moreover, Iran had been fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal and the US action (as in Iraq) would open the way up for Iranian gains, as they have been doing methodically since. The great paradox of US-Iran relations is that the animosity disguises a massive coincidence of interests!
It is worth pointing out here that Dr. Ansari’s original point in the BBC interview was that the west (ie the US) had essentially snubbed Iran with the “axis of evil” label after it had provided crucial assistance during the Afghanistan campaign, and that this resulted in a squandered “opportunity” to engage Iran diplomatically over its nuclear ambitions.
…people have long memories in Iran and they say, “Well, we offered them opportunities and they didn’t take them.”
It is difficult for me to understand exactly how Iranian pursuit of a long-held strategic ambition – the demise of the Taliban – by privately cheering on the US as it did the heavy lifting, all the while publicly demonizing the US for domestic political reasons, represents some sort of “offer” of goodwill at all, much less one upon which an attempt to thwart Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons might have been built.

Also of interest is Dr. Ansari’s mention of the Karine A incident. Recall that, in early January 2002 (after Afghanistan and before Bush’s “axis of evil” speech), a Palestinian ship bound for Gaza was intercepted by Israeli commandos, and it was subsequently revealed that the ship contained $15 million worth of illicit Iranian weapons. Dr. Ansari says that this incident, coming at a time characterized by “a palpable sense of détente” between Iran and the US, was “used as a justification by the Bush administration to include Iran in the axis of evil…”

Perhaps, but Dr. Ansari ignores the more fundamental question of whether shipping $15 million worth of weapons to terrorists in Palestine does indeed justify inclusion in the axis of evil, and, if so, just which party, Iran or the US, was actually responsible for the demise of this détente.

In any event, many thanks Dr. Ansari for taking the time to respond, and for clarifying his position for TAE.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Iran responsible for demise of the Taliban?!?

On Friday night, BBC radio’s Five Live did a short segment on the on-going issue of Iranian nuclear development, during the course of which presenter Peter Allen interviewed a Dr. Ali Ansari, a research fellow at Chatham House. The interview begins at just about the 2 hour mark of Friday’s Drive show. After re-capping the current situation, Ansari made what to me is a very strange assertion. When asked what he thought the West should now be doing about Iran’s nuclear program, he spoke of engaging in a “very vigorous diplomatic effort”, and then said:
When there were opportunities to be taken we missed them. You know, let’s not forget that the war in Afghanistan probably would not have succeeded as it did without Iranian help, and of course the Iranians were rewarded with the “axis of evil”. So I mean these sort of things…people have long memories in Iran and they say, “Well, we offered them opportunities and they didn’t take them.”
I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise to find someone on the BBC portraying a perfectly reasonable Iran as having been snubbed by Bush. But does anyone out there have the slightest idea what kind of “help” Iran provided which ensured the success of the US action in Afghanistan following 9/11?