Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Militant Pine Marten has returned to the forest for a fortnight

I shall return with some new mustelid musings on August 15th or thereabouts. Have a good first half of August everyone (assuming optimistically that there is anyone).

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Al-Qaeda is just a Nihilist religious Trotskyite movement

The Algerian press reports a state of confusion, disbelief and incomprehension following yesterday's claim by the local Iraqi Al-Qaeda franchise that they had executed Ali Balarousi and Azzedin Belkadi, two Algerian diplomats who had been abducted in Baghdad last week. Many Algerians do not understand why diplomats from their country, which although it cooperates with the US to fight terrorism, has been no great supporter of America's actions in Iraq, have been targeted by an Islamist group in Iraq. It is a reasonable question.

Following the abductions, the group's communique claimed that the fact that Algeria had kept its embassy in Iraq open implied support for the American-led invasion and for the current Iraqi regime. When it announced the murder of the two diplomats, it justified the action by saying that Algeria doesn't apply Sharia Law, provides "support for Christians and Jews in Iraq" , and is responsible for the "shedding of Muslim blood" in Algeria, a reference to the bloody struggle between armed Islamist groups and government troops in the 90s.

None of this is even a half-decent attempt at explaining exactly why these people claiming to be Al-Qaeda considered it necessary to murder the two diplomats. The language of the two last sentences of their communique provides a better insight into their motivations however:
"Praise Allah, those who carried out the abductions snatched the Algerians from the hands of the police in the very centre of Baghdad. They succeeded without a single one of them being caught."
These people are boasting. It's that simple. Why do they abduct innocent people, taunt them, humiliate them, parade them around like caged animals? They do it for the jazz. They're glory hunters. Maybe they really do believe that this furthers God's cause, or that this will liberate Iraq, or some other similar nonsense that they have been told by the people who do the thinking for them.

But the tone and style of this little text and other announcements by like-minded Islamist groups are remarkable in that they are identical to that used by hard-left revolutionary movements. Take, for example, this little paragraph:

"This struggle, under conditions of an overwhelming predominance of Imperialist relationships on the world arena, must inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally to civil wars and externally to revolutionary wars. Therein lies the permanent character of the Islamic revolution as such... The Islamic revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena."

Who do you think said that? Abu Musab al-Zarqawi perhaps? Or maybe Ali Benhadj, the former number two of the Front du Salut Islamique who was arrested in Algiers yesterday after appearing on Al-Jazeera to "salute the mujahideen of the Resistance in Iraq". No, actually it's an extract from Leon Trotsky's The Permanent Revolution, in which I replaced the word "capitalist" with "Imperialist" and "Socialist" with "Islamic". This form of high-profile violence has no value at all in terms of an ordinary resistance movement, it will simply degenerate the situation further. But it makes sense in the context of a Trotskyite model of exporting and propagating an Islamist revolution.

From the personal point of view of the author of the communique who calls himself Abu Maissar El Iraqi and claims to speak on behalf of the "Department of Information of the Al-Qaeda Organisation in Mesopotamia" (note the self-agrandising use of the nom de guerre "El Iraqi" and the excessively inflated job title), what is there to gain from this? Probably violent death at some point down the line. One could hope that he really does believe that he'll find himself with 72 virgins in the afterlife, because apart from that, there isn't much to look forward to. But this is the wrong way of thinking about the problem, because the people who carry out these actions in the name of God are, paradoxically, nihilists.

Strictly speaking, Nihilism is an extreme rationalist ideology that rejects religion, but these words could come from an Al-Qaeda textbook:

"Be severe to yourself and severe to others. Suppress the sentiments of relationship, friendship, love, and gratitude. Have only one pleasure, one joy, one reward -- the triumph of the revolution. Night and day, have only one thought, the destruction of everything without pity. Be ready to die and ready to kill any one who opposes the triumph of your revolt."

They are in fact taken from Michael Bakunin's Revolutionary Catechism. So these men do not expect to achieve anything in this world, or even to stay alive. All that counts is that they should destroy as many of the institutions and people that oppose their pseudo-religious ideology as possible.

So much for what drives the footsoldiers of this Islamist revolution, but what of the masterminds, the people who orchestrate the violence, or at least encourage it, who recruit those who dirty their hands? They'd probably tell you that they're fighting God's War, come up with some suitable rant about Djihad, but this is nonsense. What they want is temporal and spiritual power over as many people and as many countries as possible. To this end, they have poisoned the minds of the kind of people who are prepared to carry out atrocities in Madrid, on the London Underground, in Baghdad by infiltrating schools, mosques, governments etc, all this despite having no formal organisation. And their strategy is to take advantage of the chaos and horror in Iraq and Afghanistan for example to position themselves as the de facto only credible source of authority and power. They deliberately aggravate the situation and escalate the violence, and through mediatic coups like these latest murders, they present themselves as leaders of the resistance, they claim to speak for all those without a voice. And if they convince enough people that this is the case, it will become the case.

Abu Maissar El Iraqi and his colleagues will have been dead for a long time, as will countless others that they claim to be fighting for, and if all goes according to their plan, these Nihilist religious Trotskyites will enjoy the sort of power that the Council of Guardians in Iran dream of. That's if it all works out according to their plan. The good news is that it won't, because these people are so wound up in theory and dogma that they can't see the reality of the situation which is that the vast majority of Iraqis and Afghans have no interest in this way of doing things and are in fact rather interested in having a decent earthly life. This will go on for years, countless thousands will die, and then it will dwindle and extinguish itself in a puff of hubris. What an unbelievable waste.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

"Gruetzi Meister Petz! ": Swiss forced to rethink hardline naturalisation policies as bear applies for citizenship

It's not often that you read anything about Switzerland in the news, and when it does happen, it tends to be unpleasant. Unsavoury financial dealings, the rural German-speaking cantons rejecting membership of the EU, electing really nasty right-wing candidates to the Federal Council or being really unwelcoming to immigrants. So it makes a pleasant change to read that an inhabitant banished from the country since 1904 has returned unexpectedly: the bear has wandered back into Switzerland.

In addition to the ubiquitous and frankly tedious cow, the brown bear is an important symbol for the Swiss, and in particular for the inhabitants of the capital, Bern, which was named after the bear. Admittedly, this could have happened under more auspicious circumstances, since the town was founded in 1191 by Duke Berthold V of Zaehringen after he killed a bear there in the course of a hunt (apparently). As it happens, the nature of the relationship between the Swiss and the bear never really changed all that much, and the last reported bear in Switzerland was shot in 1904.

The bear in question was sighted by three people in the Ofen Pass National Park in the Graubuenden, a region which is about as mountainous, rural and remote as it can be in Europe. It also shares the characteristics of many other locations with a similar topography: it's insular, riven with incomprehensible rivalries and people have a tendency to dislike those from the next valley, let alone foreigners. In fact, the good people of the Graubuenden were instrumental in making sure that it remained very, very difficult for anyone to gain Swiss citizenship.

So the question that the locals must ask themselves is whether they are prepared to welcome Meister Petz home. After all, according to Swiss law, the final say on whether or not someone is accorded citizenship belongs to local communities, and they don't come much more local than those in the Graubuenden. If I were them, I wouldn't worry about the bears. There are never very many and by and large, they keep themselves to themselves (until they take a dislike to you and rip your face off). However, they may have a legitimate gripe if the wolves that have reestablished themselves in France, having travelled from Italy, turn up. One tried it last year, but the fresh mountain air must have disagreed with it because it promptly found itself dead. The fact remains that French experience reveals that wolves have learned some new tricks since they were last in the vicinity.

In 2002, the newly arrived French pack came up with a brilliant idea: why bother running down roe deer which aren't very big and are pretty fast and agile, when you can kill 400 sheep in one go with next to no effort? The result was this:

How do they do it? Well they just scare a herd of sheep towards a cliff edge and watch them plummet to a messy death. You can see how this would annoy the locals quite badly. As a result the French PTBs authorised the killing of some of the culprits. However despite the fact that there is a branch of French administration specifically charged with dealing with wolves (the Lieutenants de Louveterie were instituted by Charlemagne), it's turned out that so far, no-one has been able to remember how you hunt wolves and I'm not aware of any success. Bears by comparison regularly get themselves shot by mistake, as happened to a female named Canelle a year ago.

As a pine marten, I welcome the return of the bear to Switzerland. Switzerland without bears is like Australia without kangaroos. So let's just hope that this bear stays there for the requisite minimum of twelve years and can convince the locals that it is willing to make the effort to be a good Swiss citizen. It's going to have to learn to speak Romanche first though.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

"It's worse than that: he's dead, Jim!"

The Militant Pine Marten has just found out with great sadness that God has decided to beam up James Doohan. James Doohan will have been better known to just about everyone in the world as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, the chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise. The Militant Pine Marten readily admits to being a bit of a Trekkie, but for different reasons than the prevalent ones expressed in these tributes left on the BBC website. I have never considered that Scotty, Bones, Kirk and Spock were "part of my family when I grew up", and Star Trek had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to study engineering. I'm sure that James Doohan was a lovely person, but really, I have no idea, I didn't know him. As to whether or not he was a great actor, I'll leave that to others to decide. What does that entail anyway? If it's measured by how much pleasure he brought to people through his performances, then surely he is.

But that's beside the point. The reason for which I am saddened by Doohan's disappearance is that he was one of the faces of a cultural phenomenon that had - and indeed still has - at its heart a fundamentally benevolent, internationalist, pluralist, positive, optimistic view of humanity and its future. I think that Star Trek can be best summed up as the United Nations as it ought to be - in space. It portrays a united humanity that has mostly overcome its' great problems of poverty, inequality, racism, religious sectarianism, intolerance, etc and has instead decided to focus its attention on exploration, on trying to indulge humankind's insatiable curiosity to find out what or who is over the next hill (or indeed solar system), how things work and what we're here for in the first place.

Star Trek portrays a culture that invites others to join it, but imposes it on no-one (do you see rose-tinted parallels with the EU here?). The "Prime Directive" , overused as a plot device, is simply the principle of non-intervention, designed to protect other cultures from possibly well-meaning but misguided or uninformed outside meddling. We could really use an effective Prime Directive of our own. And at the same time, it does not shy away from the fact that sometimes, the rules have to be bent a little, and that there are those out there with whom no meaningful dialogue can exist (they're big in the real news right now).

It shows a version of the future in which science, technology, engineering and medicine form a fundamental part of humankind's development, and are not bad things that destroy the environment. This is all based on the discovery of sustainable non-polluting energy in the form of nuclear fusion, something that I think we will see in our lifetimes if the chaps at ITER do their jobs and indeed are allowed to do so by the PTBs. Personally I detest the backward, mediaeval view espoused by some of the more "virulent" environmentalists that science is bad, that we should all go and live in tree houses. Nuclear fusion and warp speed are where we should be boldly going!

And so I'm sad to hear of the passing of James Doohan, but I hope that through his performances he helped some people realise that it isn't all hopeless, that there is a point in trying to make things change for the better. None of knows how the future will turn out to be, but let's hope that when it comes, it will not be too dissimilar to that shown in Star Trek.

Live Long and Prosper.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Don't buy food from supermarkets: they are utter scumbags

I read yesterday that Asda, the British outpost of the Wal-Mart empire, is pretty unhappy about unfair planning laws that stop it from erecting great big warehouses full of discounted food and drinks and so-called "designer" clothing in every empty space in the UK. As a result, they have sent representatives to see the Deputy Prime Minister, they have been to Number 10 and to the Treasury to ask them if they would be so kind as to remove this restriction to their ability to make a lot more money. The thing is that all the good spots have been taken by branches of Tesco, and Asda/Wal-mart find this terribly unfair. They want a bigger slice of the retail pie, and Tesco has been eating into Asda's pudding of late.

Now I feel terrible for those poor Wal-mart shareholders, and I have no particular love for Tesco. However mostly I feel nothing but a deep loathing for the big supermarket chains. The supermarkets are responsible for the biggest orchestrated, legal rip-off of anyone who has anything to do with food for the past few decades. And since everyone is intimately involved in food, that's all of us. Asda and Tesco make much of their low prices in all their advertising and marketing, but this is just smoke and mirrors. Because for every 99p pack of economy sausages (and no-one in their right mind should contemplate eating such a thing anyway) that a customer buys, they will also buy two frozen pizzas on special offer for a tenner that they hadn't planned to buy, and the in-house magazine (why? Why on earth would anyone want a supermarket's magazine?). Then they'll make a series of other impulse purchases, and return home having spent a lot of money on items that they didn't really need or want, too much fresh food that they will end up throwing away, and instead will eat the miserable frozen pizza. Every Day Low Prices, my mustelid bottom!

Their other great mantra is telling consumers about choice. Rather like our political masters in fact. However this is also a great big lie. When Tesco and Asda receive planning permission to open a hypermarket on the outskirts of a town, they inevitably kill off the local competition. The construction of an out of town supermarket is retail napalm for the local area. And fewer shops mean a more restricted choice for consumers. Supermarkets inevitably mean that consumers are faced with a homogenised, standardised food offering. I hope that the people from Asda are sent packing. However they'll probably present John Prescott with a report all about offering consumers more choice, with a forward by Digby Jones (N.B.: I haven't written about Digby yet but his time will come. Supermarkets are quite simply expensive and rubbish. If you can possibly avoid it (and you can, just use the local market instead), don't buy any food from them.

PS: While one section of the machinery of state is engaged in discussions to help Asda to rip us all off some more, Defra, formerly the Ministry of Rural Cleansing, has just produced a report snappily titled The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development. This is actually quite interesting reading on a related topic. Another reason not to buy food from the damned supermarkets.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Celebrate Bastille Day to spurn the terrorists and the timorous PTBs

I almost fell out of my tree with disbelief when I learned earlier today that the annual "bal populaire" in honour of France's national day, known as Bastille Day in the English-speaking world, in London had been cancelled this year. Apparently the local Powers That Be decided that the general security situation was too dangerous just now, and so decided to abandon the festivities.

What spineless, timourous muppets.

Think of the words that are usually daubed all over the place, amongst the piles of red, white and blue paraphernalia: "Liberte, egalite, fraternite". Those are pretty close to being the very things that the people who orchestrated the bombings in London last week disapprove of. There could be no much greater show of defiance, no more conspicuous display of scorn than to have a great big, loud party, full of not only French but also British and others celebrating these great ideals. I say ideals because obviously France slips up on "Liberte, egalite and fraternite" with some degree of regularity, but at least there's a collective sense that those are the things that people believe in. But the officials decided that it was just too dangerous to make a demonstration of this. Surely that should be for the people who want to attend to decide?

Don't give in to this officially-sanctioned fear. This evening, go out and celebrate these ideas derived from the Enlightenment. They may be high ideals that we'll never quite attain, but they are pretty much what the West and friends believes in, they are universal values not just for the French but for everyone. So don't let a bunch of terrorists and two-bit officials scare you into subdued mumbling in front of sensationalist news reports.

Tonight, go out and have a drink, a laugh and a dance for Liberte and sod the fear-mongers!
Joyeux 14 juillet a tous et a toutes!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Pyrrhic victory in the War Against Terrorism isn't worth winning

Charles Clarke is increasingly displaying squirrel-like hoarding behaviour. He's collecting information like a squirrel collects nuts and acorns. Pine martens often eat squirrels for breakfast, so this has attracted my attention. Our beloved Home Secretary seems to believe that hoarding vast amounts of information about everyoneis the solution to just about everything. His pet ID cards project is supposed to be the solution to benefit fraud, illegal immigration, identity theft, so-called health tourism, terrorism... Oh no, hang on, not terrorism it appears. Following last week's bombings in London, Charles Clarke was asked on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme if he thought that ID cards would have prevented them. "I doubt it would have made a difference" answered Mr Clarke. To give credit where it's due, at least he's admitted that they wouldn't be much use to ensure our security. That particular huge pile of information about the details of every single resident of the United Kingdom wouldn't have helped one jot. So having cleverly worked this out for himself, what conclusions did Mr Clarke draw from this realisation? Maybe we should concentrate time, money, technology, expertise and effort on some real intelligence work on the ground. Or maybe there should be sniffer dogs in Tube stations. I don't know exactly, I'm a pine marten, not a policeman, but some measure that could demonstrably deter or obstruct terrorism.

But no. Charles Clarke thinks that what we need is - wait for it! - another gigantic hoard of information about every single individual. Specifically, Charles Clarke now wants to keep records of every single telephone call, email and text message for five years, to ensure the traceability of terrorists' movements, and to foil plots such as the London and Madrid bombings. Now that's pretty intrusive I think. But that doesn't deter Mr Clarke, because he wants this applied across the entire EU. Charles Clarke wants to snoop on 456 million people.

I appreciate that Clarke needs to be seen to do something in the wake of the attacks on London, but this is ridiculous. The amount of data that he's proposing should be amassed is so vast as to be practically unusable. Never mind the cost and logistics of this proposal, how would the security services ever find the relevant, useful information? Al-Qaeda operatives are unlikely to send emails such as this one:


Hey Ahmed, how's it going?
Are we still on for the car bombing of the Royal Palace in Copenhagen on Tuesday at 3.15pm?

Take it easy,

Information on its own is of no use whatsoever. Where would you start looking? What would you do? Run filters on emails for the words "Al-Qaeda" and "terrorist jamboree"? It's extremely unlikely that you'll foil any terrorist plots in this way. But it is extremely likely that you could charge a lot of innocent people for "acts preparatory to terrorism" and "glorifying or condoning" acts of terrorism.

The problem is that a lot of draconian legislation intended to counter terrorism ends up being used against ordinary criminals, or even ordinary citizens. For example, last week the Law Lords decided that in the case of a prisoner named Harry Roberts, the Parole Board could keep evidence that was used to deny him parole secret, under the appalling "Special Advocates" system. Since the defendant cannot see the evidence, he also can't defend himself. This dubious system was introduced by the The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA).

Charles Clarke seems to believe that he can protect us all from terrorism amongst other ills by giving the State the means to keep track of everyone's movements, particulars and communications. However we have come a long way since the time when this sort of constant surveillance was the norm in the Eastern Block (Jaruzelski era Polish joke: "Poland is the only country in the world where the TV watches you"), and there is now so much data to collect and sift through that it's doubtful whether it is even technically possible to do so at all, let alone effectively. One need only look at the difficulties that current police states have in trying to do this sort of thing. "Seditious" websites are popping up faster that the Chinese government can shut them down. Iran has effectively given up trying to control electronic media and Persian is now the fourth language on the Internet. Cuba only manages to control it because no-one can afford computers.

I don't wish to be blown up on my way to work, but I do not want the State to keep me under surveillance "for my own good" either. In the past year, people have started interrupting email conversations, stating reasons such as "I don't want to end up on some government list". That is not a concern that citizens of free countries are supposed to have. What is the War on Terrorism about after all? Isn't it about preserving our freedom, our liberties, our way of life? If we sacrifice those in the interests of beating the enemy, then it really is a Pyrrhic victory.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Benjamin Franklin - Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The next French president will be a comic character

Since Jacques Chirac has clearly thrown in the towel and decided to cruise out the remaining two years of his mandate as President of France by slowly turning into the Duke of Edinburgh, a pine marten's thoughts must turn to pondering what will happen afterwards. One thing is almost certain: the next French president is not going to be in the De Gaulle mould, that is to say grand old statesmen who consider that they embody what De Gaulle "une certaine idee de la France" , or as Louis XIV (the prototype for De Gaulle) more honestly said, that they are the State. France is going to have a new model of president, possibly even one who isn't yet of pensionable age.

A report in Le Monde today reveals that none other than good old Jose Bove is giving serious consideration to standing as a candidate. For those of you who aren't sure who Bove is, you will probably have heard of him as the farmer who dismantled a branch of McDonald's in 1995 as a protest against poor food and all that it entails. In France, absolutely anyone can stand in the first round of the presidential elections, and so it's quite usual to have a selection of two or three independent candidates with not a hope of making it through to the second round. But Bove's possible candidacy could cause an extraordinary political contest in 2007 because of the following fact: he would actually have a very good chance of winning.

If the old alterglobalisation warrior made it to the second round - and all that is needed for that to happen is that he should be one of the candidates with the two largest shares of the vote in the first round - he would more than likely face the current darling of the French right, the current Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. This would be an incredible result, it would be the most polarised political confrontation that anyone can remember. This eventuality is best illustrated by the following picture, highlighting the uncanny resemblance of Sarkozy and Bove to two universally known French comic characters, both created by the late Rene Goscinny: Asterix The Gaul and Grand Vizier Iznogoud.

In case you're not up to speed with these characters' attributes and what they mean to the French electorate, here's a quick summary. Asterix is a plucky little chap. He's mischievous, he's fiercely independent, loyal, clever and fundamentally anti-authoritarian. In fact, the whole point of Asterix and his village is that they resist the Roman occupation. Iznogoud is the Grand Vizier in Baghdad The Magnificent. He is a self-serving, scheming, cruel man who exploits people and his power to further his own agenda, which is to become Caliph instead of the caliph. He is the embodiment of corrupt state authority. Are you beginning to see how this political scenario could be one hell of an event?

I'm going to assume that by now you're thinking "interesting an idea as this is, it's just some strange mustelid fantasy, it's not in any way real". However it is a fascinating prospect precisely because it's not at all unlikely. It is almost certain that Sarkozy will stand in the 2007 election, and if he does, he will almost certainly make it through to the second round. He is the French right's wonder child, and even if many of them don't like him (De Villepin and Caliph Haroun El-Chirac positively hate him), they will back him because they think he can win. This is not dissimilar to the Labour Party's relationship with Tony Blair in the UK. He is widely seen as a great advocate of law and order, and at a time when there is such a deep climate of fear in France, this is very powerful. He is seen as a doer, for better or for worse, not simply one of the usual givers of vacuous promises. His instincts are pretty authoritarian, rather like David Blunkett.

Jose Bove is a bit of a wildcard because he isn't really a politician. Nevertheless he could be a serious contender. Cast your minds back to the results of the 2002 election. The second round was a contest between the right (Chirac) and the far-right (Le Pen). Chirac had won 19.88% of the vote in the first round, Le Pen 16.86%. You'll notice that candidates don't need a very large share of the vote to go through to the second round. The main candidate of the Left was Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate, who polled only 16.18%. The combined centre-left won 27.12% of the vote, the hard left 10.44%. Importantly, the real winning candidate was "none of the above" as there was a record 28.40% abstention rate. The left-wing vote was split for the usual reasons. The left-wing parties, unable to agree on the colour of dung, fielded no less than seven candidates in as many parties that often only differ on points of detail. If Bove were to have the backing of a significant section of the Left, he could become the candidate of choice for a large section of disillusioned French left-leaning electorate.

He has in fact stated that he will stand only if he has the backing of the hard left and the Greens, and if his candidacy would not cause a repeat of the 2002 scenario by splitting the left-wing vote into insignificance. In other words, if he plays, he'll be playing to win. I would love to see this happen, amongst other reasons because it would make George Bush's head explode, and that alone has to be a good enough reason to pray that this comes to pass.

Would it be a good thing for France to have a government formed by Bove? Probably not. He's good with agriculture, but his economic policies beyond that would most likely be pretty awful. On the other hand, I wouldn't like Sarkozy to have that sort of power either, mainly because of his very authoritarian views. So what's it to be? Asterix or Iznogoud? Well, as Gracchus tells the Roman senate in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus:

"I'll take a little Republican corruption along with a little Republican freedom, rather than no freedom at all under Crassus!"

And Crassus very much wanted to be Caliph instead of the Caliph.