There has been widespread publicity – and volumes of commentary and angst  – about whether young women (and some not so young) who left their home countries to travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State should be permitted to return to their original countries.

In one case in the UK, the Home Secretary has revoked Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship, a decision supported by apparently 78% of the British population, and possibly effectively rendering her stateless – which even the Home Secretary acknowledges would be illegal.

In the USA, Donald Trump has instructed that another bride, Hoda Muthana, should not be allowed to return to America.

But perhaps there is a more nuanced reaction that should be considered.

Firstly, both these women, and others, claim they were brainwashed into originally heading to IS, and then for supporting it.

In the case of Muthana, she unquestionably urged violence against her American compatriots. In the case of Begum, she reported seeing “a decapitated head in a waste bin” and not being “fazed” by the experience, and that the terrorist bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester was “retaliation” for Western bombing.

However, despite these being utterly abhorrent opinions, it may still be that there are arguments in favour of such people being allowed “home”.

The problem is by no means limited to the West.

As the BBC reported in May 2018 more than 2,000 Russian women have disappeared in Iraq and Syria. Some will be dead. Some will be held by the Governments of those countries, (some of the Russian women and others are rumoured to have been taken to prison in Baghdad, where they face execution), or by anti-IS militia such as Hashd al-Shaabi. Some will be in hiding, or in refugee camps. Is some cases, when captured with their husbands, the husbands have been executed.

So can anything be said for allowing such people to return to their countries of birth or citizenship?

Their age

Most people would concede that decision-making at the age of 15, as in the case of Begum and the two friends that went with her (both now dead) would be wildly different from even a few years later.

Or when, as in Muthana’s case, (she left when 19), she was making decisions in a cloistered and very severe background with little or no external input. For example, she says her family in Alabama were deeply conservative and placed restrictions on her movements and interactions, factors she claims contributed to her radicalisation. “You want to go out with your friends and I didn’t get any of that. I turned to my religion and went in too hard. I was self-taught and thought whatever I read, it was right. I look back now and I think I was very arrogant. Now I’m worried about my son’s future. In the end I didn’t have many friends left, because the more I talked about the oppression of Isis the more I lost friends. I was brainwashed once and my friends are still brainwashed.”

Whilst Begum says she does not regret travelling to Syria, which has been widely reported, she also says she came to believe that IS deserved to be defeated because it was corrupt and cruel. That is a much more nuanced attitude. Such an attitude expressed openly in the ‘Caliphate’ would have seen her executed.

In Muthana’s case, she speaks of having made a great mistake in travelling to join IS, of being manipulated, of being ignorant.

Do we believe them? Are they sincere? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would it make any difference if they were?

The essential question here is should we punish people for life, effectively, because of errors made – even egregious errors – when they were children, or when they say they were misled?

The pressure on them inside IS

There is ample evidence that IS placed such “brides” under huge pressure.

They were rigidly kept under lock and key until they married a fighter, to which they would not have been introduced, simply shown a photograph.

Once released into marriage, their movement was severely restricted, and any attempt to live an independent existence could result in terrible punishment. Soon after Begum’s marriage, (just three weeks after she arrived in the area), her husband was arrested, accused of spying, and was imprisoned and tortured for six and a half months.

It is not impossible to imagine that women such as Muthana would, effectively, have continued being “brainwashed” during their time in IS territory, or become too afraid to change their minds or express any different opinions. Whilst Muthana does not deny sending inflammatory tweets when she first arrived, and after her first husband was killed, she then claims her Twitter account was run by an IS fighter. Why did she stop sending her own tweets? Should we at least ask?

Are they actually guilty of any crime?

There is an argument that the women gave succour and sustenance to a terrorist organisation through their very presence. But other than this somewhat nebulous charge, have they actually broken any laws that would justify them being permanently excluded?

in 2015 Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the three girls would not face terror charges or be treated as criminals. And in Begum’s case specifically, Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said at the time there was a “difference between the person running around northern Iraq with a Kalishnikov” and three schoolgirls who had been duped into travelling to Syria. However as Ms Begum is now 19, she is legally an adult. If she was under 18, UK authorities could argue they still had a duty of care to her. That might be more complex now. Then again, Security minister Ben Wallace said last week: “As a British citizen she has a right to come home here. We are obliged to make sure our citizens have rights, no matter who they are,” he told Sky News. But he dismissed any suggestion of sending officials to meet Ms Begum, saying: “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists in a failed state. Actions have consequences.”

Should they be obliged to face prosecution?

Though it might be unclear what they would be charged with, it may well be that the women concerned should be prosecuted in a court of law.

Sir Peter Fahy, a retired senior police chief who was the leader of the Prevent terrorism prevention programme at the time the girls left the UK, told BBC Radio 4 that if Begum was to now return, British authorities would first detain her and investigate whether there was enough evidence to prosecute her.

He said it was understandable why the government was “not particularly interested” in aiding her return. “If the woman was showing complete remorse, it would be completely different,” he said.

However this begs the question, should an individual’s guilt or innocence, whatever their actions, not be judged by a jury of their peers? Is there actually any more basic premise for western societies which support the jury system?

Fighters returning to their countries of origin are routinely taken to court, judged and sentenced. Why is one course of action right, and another wrong?

If it is simply because there are actually no laws under which to charge the women, that is surely not a reason to sentence them to exile in limbo in absentia.

Do we want them just running around anywhere?

Many IS brides are in camps (or areas) controlled by America and/or her allies in the region. European countries show no great enthusiasm to bring captured IS fighters home to face prosecution, nor to go to dangerous areas to interview or assess them.

But President Trump has publicly asserted that if the Europeans don’t steep up he will simply open the gates and let them go. In which case, will the women be released as well? To go … where? With what attitude or future actions?

So much is unclear.

Can they be rehabilitated?

The answer to this question is ‘probably’. De-radicalisation programs around the world actually show high levels of success.

The question is what is actually of more use to our society – de-radicalised people who were given a chance to atone for their behaviour, or permanently locking them out of sight overseas?

It is, of course, impossible to predict what future contribution they might make, but it is equally impossible to argue “None”. They might end us as useful members of society. They may even be part of an effort to help to prevent other young people becoming radicalised. In that sense, bringing them home would start to redress their foolishness.

Last but not least: what about the children?

Both these women – and many others – have very young children. No one would argue the children have done anything wrong, apart from having the misfortune to be born in a war zone.

Do the sins of their parents require them to be punished too? Surely not. And many people have said that their children should be allowed entry. But if we are to then obdurately refuse to take their mothers back, is that morally supportable? There is no evidence that the mothers are abusive towards their children – rather the opposite, in fact. So on what grounds can we or should we separate them?

At least 730 children have been born inside ISIS territory to foreign nationals, including 566 born to Western Europeans. Are they all to stay in refugee camps in Syria or surrounding countries?

Our conclusion?

It is often said that it is easy to forgive those that we agree with, or who are essentially good people. But it’s harder – and perhaps more relevant – to forgive those that we do not like.

Both of these women, and others, have expressed hateful opinions, as well as more complex ones.

But the issues they pose go to the heart of our judicial system. And they also talk to who we are as people, and how our attitudes to them define our societies, and how we wish to behave. Decisions about their future should not be made on the basis of pandering to mob disgust, even if that disgust is perfectly understandable.

Our view is that it is far too simplistic to argue, as social media has done, “Pah! They made their bed, let them lie in it.”

Why? Well, for one reason above all.

If we eschew totally the opportunity for rehabilitation – or even for measured punishment that fits the crime – then there would only be one sentence for all transgressions or crimes. And that sentence would be life in jail, or execution.

Now who does that sound like?

Our regular Reader, and Facebook friends, will know that we are somewhat exercised over the collective insanity that is Brexit. Wandering around the world wide interweb thingy, we saw this: To us, it seems remarkably apposite:

Leavers “We voted for Brexit, now you Remainers need to implement it”

Remainers “But it’s not possible!”

Leavers “The People Have Spoken. Therefore it is possible. You just have to think positively.”

Remainers “And do what exactly?”

Leavers “Come up with a Plan that will leave us all better off outside the EU than in it.”

Remainers “But that’s not possible!”

Leavers “Quit with the negative vibes. The People Have Spoken.”

Remainers “But even you don’t know how!”

Leavers “That’s your problem, we’ve done our bit and voted, we’re going to sit here and eat popcorn and watch as you do it.”

Remainers “Shouldn’t you do it? It was your idea. We were happy.”

Leavers “It’s not up to us to work out the detail, it’s up to you experts.”

Remainers “I thought you’d had enough of experts?”

Leavers “Remain experts.”

Remainers “There are no Leave experts.”

Leavers “Then you’ll have to do it then. Oh, and by the way, no dragging your feet or complaining about it, because if you do a deal we don’t want, we’ll eat you alive.”

Remainers “But you don’t know what you want!”

Leavers “We want massive economic growth, no migration, free trade with the EU and every other country, on our terms, the revival of British industry, re-open the coal mines, tea and vicars on every village green, some nice bunting, and maybe restoration of the empire.”

Remainers “You’re delusional.”

Leavers “We’re a delusional majority. DEMOCRACY! So do the thing that isn’t possible, very quickly, and give all Leavers what they want, even though they don’t know what they want, and ignore the 16 million other voters who disagree. They’re tight trouser latte-sipping hipsters who whine all the time. Who cares?”

This was created by Ishtar Ostaria and kudos to Ish.

We’d like to engage in one more bit of speculation.

The best intelligence at the moment seems to be that May will bring a deal back to the UK Parliament to pass which leaves the situation virtually as it is now, with Britain inside the EU, except Britain will lose all influence over the EU by not having any input in the EU parliament or ministerial conflabs. How that improves Britain’s standing is beyond us, even though it is what we speculated would happen years ago.

OR May will come back to the Parliament and say “This can’t be done, we need to defer Article 50, possibly for quite some time.”

This will create a political furore in Britain, even if it actually makes sense.

May might then go to the country for a renewed mandate, and with Labour languishing because of their leadership’s inability to oppose Brexit, and the Lib Dems seemingly unable to make up significant ground on them, she will probably get it. Which won’t make Brexit any easier, but which will entrench probably the most incompetent Government in recent British history in power for another five years.

British civil discourse is being rent asunder by political toxicity, and the country is led by donkeys. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 1.14.17 pm

The world is going through convulsions currently about the just-released new movie Mary Queen of Scots, primarily because of the acting skills of the remarkable Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, both of whom apparently light up the screen, and admiration for the lush staging of the story, both in terms of the gorgeous countryside and the recreation of medieval court life.

You can view the trailer for the movie below:

From Ronan’s powerful screen presence and mastery of a Scots accent to Robbie’s ineffably emotional performance, audiences seem set to love the film. Alex Hudson of Exclaim! wrote, “The real star here isn’t Mary at all, but Elizabeth — brilliantly played by Margot Robbie, who conveys a thin veneer of confidence disguising a deep well of neuroses.”

The danger, though, for all that both leading ladies’ offer masterful performances, is that people will mistake it for history, which it is not.

As Benjamin Lee in the Guardian said:

“Historians have already labelled the film problematic from Mary’s Scottish accent (apparently her real accent was French) to the film’s dramatic in-person confrontation between the two queens (apparently it never happened),” he writes.

But your annoyance with these deviations will depend on how you view the gap between history and historical drama and while there are some embellishments, they’re embellishments that have been added to previous adaptations and the primary facts appear relatively untainted, the truth shocking enough to propel the plot by itself.”

 

It’s an interesting point. Mary and Elizabeth never met, but a personal meeting between the two of them is pivotal to an understanding of the story. Does that really matter? Perhaps not. As one commenter pointed out in the comments for the trailer: “No one is watching this for educational purposes. Nobody’s gonna pay to watch a movie about (people) passive aggressively writing letters. ”

The same is true of one of the best films we have seen in recent years – certainly the finest leading performance – with Bohemian Rhapsody.

The film plays fast and loose with the chronology of events in Freddie Mercury’s life. For example, it appears to criticise Mercury for attempting solo albums, but ignores the fact his fellow Queen members were doing the same. It places the revelation of Mercury’s HIV infection as just before the seminal Live Aid performance, where band members confirm they knew a lot sooner than that.

See the trailer here – and see the film. We cannot recommend Rami Malek’s performance highly enough. It is utterly mesmerising and well deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

 

Other noted movies to depart from strict historicity include recent efforts like Outlaw King (about Robert the Bruce), and the Darkest Hour (with Oscar-winning Gary Oldman as Churchill), and many others that are great movies, not so great history.

Churchill never rode the London Tube, for example, but the scene where he chats amiably to working class travelers is central to understanding his motivation to keep fighting the war with Hitler. Similarly, Churchill is portrayed as a hero for standing up to the defeatism of Chamberlain and Halifax, which he was, but ignores the vital role played by Labour Leader Clem Attlee, who was vital in bolstering support for Churchill.

The interesting question for all movie goers and critics is whether these mild changes to actual historicity really matter much, or whether compiling a compelling story is the higher priority, a story which contains within it deeper truths about the people and events concerned.

It will be interesting, in particular, to see what people make of Mary’s character in this film. Critics have argued that the film has strong feminist overtones, and it has certainly been promoted as such, portraying both Mary and Elizabeth, to a degree, as victims of the patriarchy in their society.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 2.27.04 pm

Mary of Scotland in France

But that would surely be a case of too easily dismissing both women. They were both extremely strong-willed, eloquent, extremely well-educated, frequently sure of their personal direction, often capricious, sexually aggressive, charismatic and very often arrogant. Neither were especially merciful to those who opposed them.

Mary in particular undoubtedly endured bad luck. The early death of her first husband, Francis II of France, very possibly robbed her of a peaceful and contented future. (That she was deeply in love with Francis seems undoubted.) His death, and her subsequent return to Scotland, landed her in the middle of a deeply charged and volatile situation, riven with competing forces and religious tension, for which nothing could have adequately prepared her.

But she didn’t help herself. As history would have it, and with one eye on the English throne, she managed to annoy both her Catholic and her Protestant subjects.

Mary’s real downfall – which is often portrayed as due to her scheming (history being written by the victors, in this case Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil) – was her obvious claim to be the rightful successor to Elizabeth, and as such her inevitable role as the lodestar of hope for English Catholics still smarting after the death of Mary Tudor and the accession of the protestant Elizabeth.

Even though Elizabeth would not name Mary as her heir – fearing being supplanted by her if her legitimacy was too strongly endorsed – she assured the Scottish envoy Maitland that she knew no one with a better claim than Mary. It is questionable, at least, whether Mary could ever have escaped her fate once landed in Scotland. She was simply too important – or too dangerous – for too many people.

What is certain, though, is that Mary’s own choice of male partners was largely the single most obvious factor in her undoing.

Mary made a fatal error in falling in love with and marrying Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, which infuriated Elizabeth who felt the marriage should not have gone ahead without her permission, as Darnley was both her cousin and an English subject.

Elizabeth felt especially threatened by the marriage, because as descendants of her aunt, both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and their children, if any, would inherit an even stronger, combined claim. In being ruled by her heart rather than her head Mary shows herself as much less circumspect than her cousin, who more than once put away from her men she clearly loved, but who were not suitable as husbands.

The marriage to Darnley, another Catholic, also prompted a Protestant rebellion. Thereafter Darnley’s dubious character and cack-handed meddling in politics led directly to Mary fleeing Scotland and her eventual death.

Similarly, her subsequent dalliance with and marriage to Lord Bothwell was also a disaster. Far from pacifying the Protestants, the marriage shocked Protestants and Catholics alike, with many people believing Mary had conspired with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Whether or not this was actually the case has intrigued historians, who do not agree on her guilt. What is certain is that Mary badly miscalculated the effect of her relationship with Bothwell on her long-term survival as Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth proved by far the more wily of the two Queens.

For many years, with Mary captive in England, she balanced what seems to have been genuine concern for Mary’s well-being with a desire to see her either restored to the Scots throne within a Protestant state, or simply to neuter her threat. But whatever she did, the Catholics of England – encouraged and abetted by Mary herself – simply wouldn’t settle down. Rebellions in her favour in the North of England, the Ridolfi plot, a plan to marry her to the Spaniard Don John of Austria who would then invade England from the Netherlands, (that one was directly down to the then Pope), the Throckmorton Plot, the William Parry plot and finally the Babington plot made it clear that Mary was actively plotting to replace Elizabeth, and her assassination. Indeed, it could be argued that with evidence repeatedly piling up Elizabeth was remarkably patient with her wayward cousin.

Mary’s eventual execution was inevitable. It was required to secure the realm.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that she does not deserve our sympathy, and her courage at her execution undoubtedly plays into the sympathetic view of her held by many people.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had she ever become Queen of England. When her son by Darnley, James I of England, succeeded Elizabeth, he came down hard on the English Catholics in a way that Mary probably would not have. James’s severity kept a lid on the ever-bubbling cauldron of religious strife in the country for 22 years, and it is arguable that Mary would not have been as successful, and may even have returned to the violent religiosity of her namesake, “Bloody” Mary Tudor.

But James’s son, Charles, who seems to have shared many emotional characteristics with his grandmother, clearly failed to manage the fault lines in English society, and he, too, paid with his head.

Nothing in Britain would ever be the same again. And the much-mooted union of Scotland and England would not actually occur until 1707.

Oh those crazy, whacky Catalonians.

In Catalonia – that’s the bit in the North East of Spain constantly arguing with Madrid – think Barcelona and surrounds – don’t be surprised if you’re admiring someone’s nativity scene and there, hidden among the traditional nativity characters, is a little figure, trousers down, doing his business right in the middle of the holy scene.

As the BBC report, a pessebre, a Catalan nativity scene, contains all the usual suspects. There’s Mary and Joseph gazing down lovingly at baby Jesus, sleeping in his manger. There are the oxen, gently lowing, and perhaps some shepherds. But look closer, and hidden among the traditional characters is a little figure, trousers down, “taking a dump” right in the middle of the holy scene.

 

Yes, he’s doing what you think he’s doing.

 

The caganer – literally ‘defecator’ – is a staple of Christmas in the area. The traditional figure depicts a peasant wearing black trousers, a white shirt and the classic red Catalan cap – the barretina. He may also be smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. As you do, when …

“It’s like the funny part of something that is supposed to be very serious – the nativity,” laughed caganer collector Marc-Ignasi Corral, 53, from Barcelona. Yes, the figure is so popular it even has its very own society, the Friends of the Caganer Association (L’associació Amics del Caganer), of which Corral is a proud member. Founded in 1990, the society has around 70 members – some from as far afield as the US – who meet twice a year.

Traditional caganers are made from clay, fired in a kiln of more than 1,000C, then hand-painted. As the industry has grown, the caganer has evolved; now there are many different kinds, both in design and material.

“I’ve got ones made of soap, I’ve got chocolate ones, but those are meant to be eaten of course,” said Corral, whose bookshelves are dotted with his collection of more than 200 caganers. “I’ve got glass ones… I’ve seen them made from Nespresso capsules.”

Firmly planted in folk tradition, the roots of the caganer are vague, but generally agreed to date from around the late 17th or early 18th Century when the prevailing Baroque tradition, both in Catalonia and beyond, focused on realism in art, sculpture and literature.

In their book El Caganer, authors Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà write: “This was a time characterised by extreme realism… all of which relied heavily on descriptions of local life and customs. Here, working conditions and home life were used as artistic themes.”

The reason it has been passed down the generations, however, is clear: the idea of defecating has traditionally long been linked to everything from good luck to prosperity to good health.

“Excrement equals fertilisation equals money equals luck and prosperity. Or so say the anthropologists,” said historian Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, emeritus professor at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University“It is said that to not put a caganer in the crib will bring bad luck,” added caganer maker Marc Alos Pla, whose family runs caganer.com, the world’s biggest caganer producer. This year he predicts sales will surpass 30,000.

And far from seeing the caganer as uncouth or even graphic, Catalans have a relaxed view of them as merely depicting a natural act.

“We don’t see it as rude. I mean as rude as when you go to the toilet,” Corral laughed. “We hide things – we’re in a society where we’re hiding everything. We hide death for instance.”

Furthermore, Catalans do not stop at one unusual Christmas tradition.

 

Give the poo log a whack!

 

Caga Tió, literally the ‘Defecating Log’ (also called the Tió de Nadal, the ‘Christmas Log’) is also a staple in many Catalan homes in the run-up to Christmas. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, on 8 December, families start ‘feeding’ Caga Tió scraps of food. He is covered with a blanket to keep him warm until, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, when he has had enough to ‘eat’, the children hit him with sticks while singing a song that encourages him to defecate:

Caga tió / Poo log
Caga torró, avellanes i mató / Poo nougat, hazelnuts and mató (cheese)
Si no cagues bé / if you don’t Poo well,
et daré un cop de bastó / I’ll hit you with a stick
Caga tió / Poo log!

Of course the log doesn’t produce any old excrement … he defecates Christmas presents.

Before hitting the Tió, children go to another part of the house to pray for him to bring them gifts, while their parents take the opportunity to stash small treats like Christmas sweets under the blanket.

“The Tió seems to be a pretty old Christmas idea… in medieval times it was found all over Europe, from Scandinavia down to the Western Mediterranean: the idea of a ‘Yule Log’, which lasted until about World War Two,” Ucelay-Da Cal said.

What is it about these traditions, which in other parts of the world might be seen as explicit or rude, that attracts so many Catalans?

“I love the transgression of norms, the tradition they represent and the artwork in itself,” Corral explained, while Ucelay-Da Cal said the caganer “has a pleasantly subversive quality, naughty but nice, as it were.”

In fact, the themes of defecation are reserved not only for Christmas, but run like a common thread through Catalan culture, from idioms to art.“This fits in with a Catalan (and Spanish) taste for egalitarianism: everybody [poos], however important they may be,” said Ucelay-Da Cal.

When it comes to language, Catalan is filled with stool-related sayings and idioms. Where in English we might say two extremely close people are ‘as thick as thieves’ and in Spanish that phrase would be ‘como uña y carne’ (like [finger] nail and flesh), but Catalans cheerfully say two are people are like ‘cul i merda’– backside and excrement.

“There is a cliché that Germanic languages are [full of] faecal metaphors, while Romance languages stress virility. But certainly the Spanish tradition – and very specifically Catalan scatological custom – would deny this assertion,” Ucelay-Da Cal said.

Defecation has also appeared in Catalan art and literature going back hundreds of years.

In his book, Barcelona, which looks at Catalan history, art and culture, art critic Robert Hughes writes that the figure of the caganer “makes an unmistakable entrance into 20th-Century art” in the work of Joan Miró.

Really? Look closely at Miró’s 1921-22 painting The Farm, and you will see what looks like a small child squatting close to his mother while she does the washing.

This boy, Hughes writes, “is none other than the caganer of Miró’s childhood Christmases. It may also be Miró himself, the future painter of Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement (1935).”

A whole new take on Santa

Christmas is full of funny stuff.

At our business, Dear Reader, Magnum Opus Partners, we have had some fun this year with the Santa Claus tradition.

Did you know the image of Santa we know in many parts of the world today was crafted by ad agencies – and especially Coca Cola’s team of creative thinkers?

He’s not even the same the world over – the traditional British Santa is actually supposed to wear green and has a wreath of holly on his head, and in Russia Santa is a demon accompanied by a snow maiden! In Sweden Santa is a dwarf, in Iceland he’s thirteen naughty elves, and in Holland Sinterklass is a saintly character wearing a bishop’s hat.

In Germany, Austria, and the Czech and Slovakian regions, Santa Claus isn’t even male – children are visited by a female “Christ Child”, who is a benevolent gift-bringer with long curly blonde hair! In Spain and other Hispanic countries, kids welcome Three Wise Men bearing gifts. And it doesn’t even happen on Christmas Day, but on January 6th, the day the Three Wise Men supposedly arrived at the stable.

So what, we wondered, what would Santa look like if his legend was being created by some groovy lunch of creatives today? No great big rotund guy with a white beard, that’s for sure!

Have a look and see what you think of our musings!

 

 

And a very Merry Christmas to all Wellthisiswhatithink readers.

May your Christmas-time be filled with wonder, joy and contentment. And may 2019 bring you at least some of what your heart desires.

 

 

Regular readers will know (a) that I think Brexit is a really, really bad idea, and (b) I have blogged about why often, or waffled about it on Facebook, or whatever.

But after the shambles in the UK Parliament yesterday (Australian time) I thought this BBC graphic might be useful for anyone trying to understand what on earth happens (or can happen) now.

Brexit next steps

The UK Parliament yesterday was a seething mass of regret, ambition, determination and anger.

The problem, as one Brexiteer friend complained to me this morning is that Prime Minister Theresa May was never a Leaver, and therefore the entire negotiation has been bumbled along incompetently in order to leave the British sort of still in the EU and sort of out of it. As Aussies would say, paraphrasing a famous old advertising slogan: “It’s the Brexit you’re having when you’re not having a Brexit.”

Theresa May under pressure in the UK parliament yesterday.

There’s only one problem with this analysis, which is that the current situation could well cost Theresa May her job, and politicians don’t generally engineer a situation which seems tailor-made to see them sacked.

If May wanted a Brexit deal that left the situation essentially a status quo, one suspects she would have dressed it up better to mollify the right-wing anti-European segment of her party, rather than enrage it. (Which presumes that they were capable of being mollified, which is by no means certain.) But when the Minister in charge of the deal enunciated yesterday, as Dominic Raab did, that he’s resigning because he can’t support the deal he himself negotiated, then we are in uncharted political territory.

It is likely that the Brexiteers in May’s party (by no means a majority, but incredibly determined and vocal) were simply waiting for this moment to topple her in favour of one of their own. They won’t get one of their own, but they will succeed in making their party look ungovernable and fractured. Why they would want to do that you will have to ask them.

Nevertheless, putting a deal to Parliament which seems to please no-one apart from a small core of May loyalists seems a failure of political strategy. Doing something to unite the right wing of the Tories, the increasingly marginalised Lib Dems, the much more significant Scots Nats, large swathes of Labour (if not its increasingly unimpressive leader) and even the DUP (nominally part of the government, in effect) is quite a feat.

It may simply be that May has simply run out of time, and had to do something. She may, indeed, prefer to go down fighting on the principle that the people voted for Brexit, and she’s going to deliver the Brexit she can, or die trying. Certainly her performance in the Commons – against a barrage of criticism unlike anything seen since Chamberlain was removed in 1940 – was bullish, determined and courageous.

The problem, of course, is that in terms of what is right for Britain, this is a disaster.

If the deal cannot survive the Commons, then a “No Deal, Crash Out” outcome becomes very likely. Passionate opponents of the EU will say (are saying) “Well, so what? We survived two World Wars, we can manage a bit of trade disruption!” The problem is that this is mere wishful thinking – “magic thinking” – and terrifyingly naive.

The UK currently trades with the EU under rules set down by the EU customs union, which is an agreement that goods can be traded freely, and the single market, which sets a common regulatory structure and allows the free movement of goods, capital, people and services.

Leaving these two arrangements overnight would, first, mean the UK would trade with the EU on the basis of rules set down by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This would end the free movement of goods between the UK and the EU, and mean that tariffs, or special import taxes, would apply on some products. Secondly, customs checks would also be immediately needed between countries where they aren’t currently. Chaos.

Aviation is an example of another key area where problems will arise. At the moment the UK aircraft industry operates under EU regulation both within the EU and for flights to other countries such as the US. If the UK leaves suddenly next March, then some new regulatory arrangement would be needed. This could be worked out in advance, or could ground flights between the UK and EU countries for a period if not. On some scenarios, flights might halt for a few days before things are worked out – but much will depend on what the mood is between the two sides at the time. Any any such disruption would cause untold problems. Similarly in pharmaceuticals, the UK is part of the EU regulatory regime and questions would emerge over pharma exports from the UK,and vice versa. Stockpiling of vital drugs in both the UK and EU countries is already at the planning stage as a fallback. The UK Health Secretary reportedly told the Prime Minister and her cabinet that he ‘could not guarantee that people would not die’ if no Brexit deal was agreed. Matt Hancock is reported to have said that lives will be at risk due to a shortage of medicine in a no deal scenario during the stormy No 10 five-hour meeting on Wednesday.

Britain is also highly dependent on imported food. By value, imports make up more than 90% of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK and half of the meat. A “hard” Brexit is expected to suddenly and substantially increase trade costs and make food imports more expensive, something that could lead to changes in diets and dietary risk factors that influence health. In fact, Brexit could lead to up to 5,600 diet-related deaths per year by 2027, additional healthcare expenditure of £600m, and increase the GDP losses of Brexit by up to 50% according to estimates Florian Freund and Marco Springmann published in a new Oxford Martin School Working Paper.

The stupid thing about all this is that it is only Theresa May’s dogged determination (although disgracefully supported by the grinning idiot Jeremy Corbyn) that “Brexit means Brexit” and therefore there is nothing for it but to “keep on buggering on” in Churchill’s famous aphorism, that is the real problem here. She is full of Thatcher-like passion that “there is no alternative”. But there is an alternative, which is commonsense.

During the Brexit process, and increasingly as the negotiations have become mired in the very complexity that many of us predicted from day 1, the British people have gradually woken up to the fact that they don’t really like the look of what they voted for.

The original referendum was advisory only, and even if we elevate that to the level of Holy Writ as some have (with no basis in law), arguing that it places a moral obligation on the Government to deliver Brexit (this is May’s oft-stated position), this does not allow for the very obvious fact that people change their mind.

When a Government is elected, it undoubtedly has a mandate (of some strength or other, depending on the details of a result) but that Government is elected in sure and certain knowledge that it can be removed if it loses the confidence of the House, or a subsequent election. So why should the result of a referendum be somehow locked eternally in stone, when no other Governmental process is?

The Government has struggled hard to deliver Brexit. And failed. It was always a quixotic and incredibly complex goal.

The terms of the deal May has now put on the table actually leaves Britain economically worse off than staying in the EU, but with none of the advantages that Brexit was supposed to deliver. Far from “taking back control”, it actually cedes further control to the bureaucrats. Crashing out without a deal would be political and economic insanity, although it would be the preferred option for the Brexit fanatics. But in reality they have never truly been in a majority, either in the Conservative Party, or the country as a whole.

Opinion polls now suggest that there is a solid majority of the British electorate who have changed their minds on Brexit as the details have become clear. An even larger majority want the chance to vote on the terms of the deal in a so-called “People’s Vote”. May stubbornly refuses.

It is simple ornery-ness to deny them that chance, especially as it might well produce a result – staying in the EU – which would instantly resolve the current impasse. Such a result would not, of course, prevent the UK seeking to continue to renegotiate any of the terms of membership which it finds especially onerous.

Sadly, such commonsense is in short supply at the moment. Götterdämmerung works in Wagner operas. It’s no way to run a country.

So, the much-discussed mid-terms are over and done with, and the US stock market is up about 2%, as it usually is when the uncertainty of elections is over.

As we predicted a year ago, the Democrats handily won the House, (probably by more than estimated in early reports), and there was an “as you were” result in the Senate, which is likely to leave the Republicans in control. (We say “likely”, because a number of races are still toss ups, but it’s by far the most likely result.)

But what happens next is vitally important to the health of the US economy, and more broadly the world.

Nancy Pelosi, who despite some rumblings is certain to hold onto her job as head of the Democrats in the house, (if for no other reason than she is both a wily negotiator and a fundraising ballistic missile), has spoken warily of the need to work with the White House across the “aisle”.

In return, President Trump has said he wants to work with Pelosi on boosting infrastructure spending and lowering prescription drug prices, two rare policy stances of agreement.

“I think she’s a very smart woman. She has done a very good job,” Trump said at a press conference Wednesday, adding that the two didn’t discuss the prospect of impeachment in a phone call. “A lot of people thought I was beings sarcastic or joking, I wasn’t,” Trump added, in reference to a tweet saying Pelosi deserved to be speaker. “There was nothing sarcastic about it, it was really meant with good intentions.”

But – and it’s a big but – two things are likely to impede both sides’ vaunted good intentions.

Firstly, the desire to impeach Trump for something – anything, frankly – may prove irresistible to many Democrats who are still smarting from two plus years of insults from the Cheeto-in-Chief, after what they consider to have been a stolen Presidential election, and would love to hurt him back.

And Trump does not take well to assaults on his person. If war is declared, it will be fought bitterly.

Secondly, despite some areas of agreement, the Democrats are distant by a country mile from the Republicans on healthcare and will also seek to spread the benefits of a moderately booming economy to their own middle class base and away from the 1% and rustbelt industries that they fell deserted them in 2016.

So whilst the two sides may co-operate – and let us all fervently hope so – the stage is just as likely set for a “do nothing” period of government akin to when Obama lost control of the House.

If the reality of so-called gridlock sets in, then it may limit the current “relief rally”, added Nigel Green, founder and chief executive of the financial consultancy deVere Group. Of such a gridlock, he said: “This will halt deregulation legislation, which in turn will hurt sectors such as banking, energy, industrials, and smaller companies that stood to gain most from looser controls.”

Green’s concerns would be just the beginning, though. The Democrats may choose to wade in on the nasty little trade war going on with China, introducing yet more uncertainty. (Whilst the world might welcome a move to free up trade again, uncertainty on policy settings is what drives stock markets down.)

And what is absolutely certain is there is no appetite in Washington to do anything serious to tackle the ever-ballooning American government debt, from either side, but most definitely not from “tax and spend” Democrats.

Failure to do anything serious about the debt is the ticking time bomb at the heart of the American economy, containing within it a potential fall in the value of the dollar through a general loss of confidence in the essential health of the economy and its currency, and a possible subsequent stoking of inflation. That inflation then causes more uncertainty, and so on we go …

In summary, a fall in the value of the dollar:

  • Makes US exports cheaper to foreigners importing US Goods.
  • It is cheaper for non-US citizens to go on holiday to the US.
  • US consumers face higher price of imported goods.

However a devaluation is often just a temporary increase in competitiveness. Devaluation often causes inflationary pressures which reduce a temporary gain in competitiveness.

Also, as exports become more competitive (ie cheaper to foreign buyers) without firms having to make much effort to make that increase happen, then therefore there is less incentive for them to cut costs and boost productivity, and so in the long run costs will increase and therefore inflation will increase. If firms are well run and they cut costs when times are good then this may be avoided, but there appears to be little appetite for that in the USA at the moment.

If there is a devaluation in the value of the US dollar then there will be an increase in the price of goods being imported to the USA. After decades of manufacturing decline, imports are now quite a significant part of the country’s CPI, therefore increasing their prices will contribute towards cost-push inflation.

It is possible that retailers might not pass the price increases onto consumers but choose to live with lower profit margins, but if the devaluation is sustained, prices will inevitably go up.

The Financial Times have estimated that as a rough rule of thumb, a 10% devaluation may increase prices to consumers by 2-3%, affecting confidence. The components of the CPI most affected by a devaluation in the dollar are:

  1. Air travel (-1.29)
  2. Vegetables (-1.22)
  3. Gas  (-0.71)
  4. Fuel (-0.54)
  5. Books (-0.35)

Numbers 2-5 hit ordinary consumers hardest, of course. That won’t help the party in power.

And after yesterday’s results, that means both of them.

The price of a war between the House and everyone else will be international market instability. That doesn’t help anyone, inn the USA, and beyond. Let’s hope Pelosi and Trump can work that out.

 

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In the 1930s and 40s, many ordinary Germans knew of the Holocaust horror about death camps. Details of the deaths of Jews and other groups in concentration camps were well publicised in the media and elsewhere, as a determined and deliberate effort to de-sensitise the German public to accept atrocities committed on their behalf. This is quite regardless of the fact that millions of ordinary folk must have seen Jews being deported to the camps.

According to a new research study, the mass of ordinary Germans did know about the evolving terror of Hitler’s Holocaust. They knew concentration camps were full of Jewish people who were stigmatised as sub-human and race-defilers. They knew that these, like other groups and minorities, were being killed out of hand.

They knew that Adolf Hitler had repeatedly forecast the extermination of every Jew on German soil. They knew these details because they had read about them.

They knew because the camps and the measures which led up to them had been prominently and proudly reported step by step in thousands of officially-inspired German media articles and posters according to the study, which is due to be published simultaneously in Britain and the US early next month and which was described as ground-breaking by Oxford University Press yesterday and already hailed by other historians.

The reports, in newspapers and magazines all over the country were phases in a public process of “desensitisation” which worked all too well, culminating in the killing of 6 million Jews, plus homosexuals, communists, prisoners of war and others, says author Robert Gellately.

His book, Backing Hitler, is based on the first systematic analysis by a historian of surviving German newspaper and magazine archives since 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. The survey took hundreds of hours and yielded dozens of folders of photocopies, many of them from the 24 main newspapers and magazines of the period.

Landmark

Its results, Professor Gellately says, destroy the claim – generally made by Germans after Berlin fell in 1945 and accepted by most historians – that they did not know about camp atrocities.

He concludes by indicating that the only thing many Germans may not have known about was the use of industrial-scale gas chambers because, unusually, no media reports were allowed of this “final solution”. However, by the end of the war camps were all over the country and many Germans worked in them.

Yesterday OUP said his study exposed “once and for all the substantial consent and active participation of large numbers of ordinary Germans”. Its head of historical publishing, Ruth Parr, called it a landmark study of the terror. “He asks and answers some very difficult questions about how much the ordinary German people knew about the Nazi atrocities, and to what degree they supported them,” she said.

A leading British-born Holocaust historian, Professor Michael Burleigh, said the book was “original and outstanding, genuinely important”. Another authority on the camps, Professor Omer Bartov, of Brown University, Rhode Island, US, described Backing Hitler as “path-breaking – a crucial contribution to our understanding of the relationship between consent and coercion in modern dictatorship”.

Conventional wisdom among post war historians has been that – as Lord Dahrendorf, ex-warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, says in his study Society and Democracy in Germany (1966) – “It is certainly true that most Germans ‘did not know’ about National Socialist crimes of violence; nothing precise, that is, because they did not ask any questions_.” A common explanation among influential modern German historians, including Hans-Ulrich Thamer in his study Wooing and Violence (1986) is that the Nazis “seduced” an unwilling or passive public.

But Gellately, professor in Holocaust history at Clark University, Massachusetts, offers a mass of detail to support the theme of an earlier work, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which caused an international sensation in 1995. Goldhagen’s theme was that “what the Nazis actually did was to unshackle and thereby activate Germans’ “pre-existing, pent-up anti-semitism”.

Gellately began his inquiry after finding a press report – published as routine – of a woman reported to the Gestapo for “looking Jewish” and allegedly having sex with a neighbour. “For decades my generation had been told that so much of the terror had been carried out in complete secrecy,” he writes.

His media trawl, with a research assistant, found that as early as 1933 local papers reported the killing of 12 prisoners by guards at Dachau, the first to be set up as a “model” concentration camp initially for communists.

On May 23 the Dachauer Zeitung said the camp was Germany’s most famous place and brought “new hope to the Dachau business world”.

By 1934 the main and widely read Nazi-owned paper Volkische Beobachter was reporting a widening of policy to other “political criminals” including Jews accused of race defilement.

By 1936 communist prisoners were no longer mentioned: in a photo-essay in the SS paper Das Schwarze Korps emphasised the camps as places for “race defilers, rapists, sexual degenerates and habitual criminals”.

This broadening mission, as Gellately calls it, was reflected in Volkische Beobachter photographs of “typical subhumans” including Jews with “deformed headshapes”. For the first time their detention was said to be permanent. In January, 1937 Berliner Borsen Zeitung reported the SS chief Heinrich Himmler as announcing the need for “still more camps” for “those with hydrocephalus, cross-eyed, deformed half-Jews and a whole series of racially inferior types”.

In November, 1938 the anti-Jewish pogrom on and after “the night of broken glass” was reported countrywide in papers as heroic. The propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, announced that the “final answer” to the Jewish problem would be by way of government de cree, according to Volkische Beobachter

In late 1939, the year war started, newspapers acting on government orders announced a post-8pm curfew on all Jews in case they “molest Aryan women”.

That November the first summary executions of “anti-socials” by police without trial were reported. Papers were told to report these clearly and forcefully.

In March, 1941 the Hamburger Fremdenblatt reported the first mass auctions of possessions of detained or killed Jews. Hamburg became the wartime clearing house and Gellately says at least 100,000 citizens bought items at the auctions.

After this the focus switched. Most press reports about Jews were about those outside Germany. This was because the official but unpublicised final solution was being implemented.

But enthusiastic denunciations by ordinary citizens of Jewish and other “internal enemies” continued to be copiously reported. Backing Hitler discusses 670 cases. By the end of the war Hitler was still getting 1,000 private letters a week, many of them denunciations of Jews.

For more detail on the process of “Othering”, currently enthusiastically being employed by President Donald Trump in America, by the Liberal-National Government in Australia as regards refugees, and by many Governments around the world concerning religious minorities with which they disagree, click here.

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We have restrained ourselves from commenting overmuch on the Brett Kavanaugh matter for one simple reason.

From a distance, one simply cannot, with any real confidence, parse the facts of the matter.

It also raises so many fundamental questions as to spin the mind.

The most important of these are: how does the system effectively adjudicate matters that invariably happened out of the sight of corroborating witnesses?

And how does the system balance the concept of presuming a woman’s testimony of sexual assault to be valid and worthy of the deepest and most serious consideration, with the concept of “innocent until proven guilty by a jury of one’s peers” – a concept so ingrained in our own world view that is assuredly deserves the epithet “fundamental”.

The short answer to these worrysome questions is that ultimately – and unsatisfactorily – the “facts” of any given matter will often come down to opinion. Opinion about the credibility of each party to the dispute.

And opinion, of course, whilst inevitably part of our decision-making process, is simply made up of the accumulated life experiences we have had, and the opinions imprinted upon us by others at some time or other, and although it is a key decision-making tool for all of us, in no way can it reliably be called empirical. Nevertheless, it is often all we really have.

In these things, therefore, we often rely on our gut instincts. Our “feel” for the situation. Indeed, sans identifiable facts we fall back on aphorisms and folk wisdom. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Recent research into “mob decisions” or the “wisdom of crowds” seems to tell us that the collective wisdom of large groups of people is more often likely to be right than wrong, born of some sort of collective hive mind experience that is not yet clearly understood, although much conjectured upon.

One such folk aphorism is “there’s no smoke without fire”.

This is the simple belief that when a quantity of controversy is in the air, something genuine must be behind it. And it is, indeed, a reliable indicator, to some extent. Over and over again investigations based on the appearance of smoke do, indeed, eventually reveal the fire behind it. The problem is that it also often amounts to nothing at all. Smoke can be manufactured by interested or malign parties, nowadays more easily than ever, to the extent that leads people to assume “it must be so”. This effect is magnified hundreds of thousands of times in a world where social media endlessly repeats “facts” that are not, in any empirical sense, facts at all. In a sense this is by no means solely a modern affair. For example the infamous Dreyfus affair from 1894 to 1906 divided France deeply and lastingly into two opposing camps: the pro-Army, mostly Catholic “anti-Dreyfusards” and the anti-clerical, pro-republican Dreyfusards. It embittered French politics and encouraged radicalisation on both sides for decades. But today, the effect is infinitely more powerful, and therefore infinitely more caution is indicated.

The Wikipedia article on Wisdom of Crowds is well worth reading. It reveals the pluses and minuses of this phenomenon. Ironically, one real danger is the desire to feel “connected”, leaving us at the mercy of our own emotions, urgently vacuuming up opinions and “facts” that confirm our world view. This goes way beyond mere confirmation bias, which is a well-understood phenomenon. It goes to what we actually believe to be happening around us. It affects our empirical view of the world. Our opinions become our reality. Doubt or rationality become dangerous to our mental well-being.

So what has the Kavanaugh case revealed about our ability to perceive truth? We would argue the following:

1. Whilst many men and women (and especially women) have become swept up in the outrage surrounding the accusations, many have also seen the entire matter as a political hit job on a decent man, or sought to downplay the matter “even if it is true”. Which way the opinion falls may depend on our personal backgrounds, or how we perceived the demeanour of the central characters.

2. U.S. President Donald Trump said he is “100 percent” certain that Christine Blasey Ford named the wrong person when she accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in testimony during his Supreme Court nomination hearings.

Yet Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was “100 percent” certain it was Kavanaugh who sexually assaulted her in the upstairs bedroom of a home in a wealthy Washington suburb in 1982 when both of them were teenagers. Her testimony before the committee was steady, largely unemotional, circumspect and appeared credible. And for many, that testimony dredged up painful memories of their own experiences of sexual violence, that had often been privately endured for years. Ford’s manifest bravery in the face of those who were at times both hostile and disbelieving also empowered survivors; they felt that they were no longer alone and that they too had a voice. Many felt the urge to take action, both in support of those who had been affected but also to change societal attitudes to sexual harassment.

3. In stark contrast, the Judge’s testimony was at turn tragic, angry, (bordering on fury), and sometimes overtly political and partisan. If he was an innocent man wronged then his emotions could quite clearly be understood. If he was a guilty man found out, then it appeared he was erecting an ever-growing smokescreen of emotive blather, to obscure any matters of fact. Which it was will depend entirely on the pre-held opinions one brings to watching his testimony. For many on the right it was understandable, credible and even long overdue. A warrior of conservatism fighting back for his reputation and his life against a conspiracy involving the Democratic Party, left wing media and femi-nazi activism. For many on the left his speech epitomised male privilege and a machismo-drenched “winner takes all” mentality which betokened no opposition. The left’s response to the entire brouhaha is well laid out here.

So what can we conclude from this riveting but sorry matter?

For all that the President tries to spin it one way, the short story is that the Senate have now said they believe Ford to have been untruthful, whether mistakenly or deliberately.

This must inevitably be a huge psychological blow to women everywhere who may delay reporting sexual assault for all sorts of very good and well-understood reasons. At the very least, concerted efforts must be made to encourage women to speak up against sexual violence perpetrated against them, whenever it was. If the net outcome of this matter is that fewer women will seek redress, that would be a dolorous outcome indeed.

The new Justice of the Supreme Court may have revealed himself to be temperamentally unsuited to such a senior role, no matter the guilt or otherwise of his case, nor the level of his legal acumen, which is by all accounts very high. At least one former Supreme Court Justice and 2,400 law professors believe this to be the case. It may be that his intemperate testimony will haunt him even longer than the facts or otherwise of the accusations against him.

In any civilised society, there must surely be a thorough legal investigation into the two other complainants against the Judge, if only to dismiss their accusations. To leave their matters swinging in the breeze is merely to prolong the saga. Indeed, should the Judge himself not call for them to be investigated, to clear the air, even though he has publicly rejected them? And if he does not, why not? What does that say, if anything? And what if those people – or Ford herself, indeed – bring a civil case against the Judge? How would that affect his ability to carry out his role?

Last but by no means least, the case has shown the American political system, and society in general, to be in an even more toxic state than everyone already knew it to be, if such a thing were possible.

American today looks more than ever like it did in the war-fuelled and conflicted era of 1968 and its surrounds. People simply seem unable to listen to one another, or to debate politely. They choose what to believe based on their political allegiance and not a careful review of known facts. In the world’s most significant liberal democracy, that is a matter of active danger, as people may give up on the model altogether in sheer frustration. Indeed, there are those that argue that the political classes are already preparing to do exactly that. A confluence of power and money is taking place which threatens to ride roughshod over institutions and process – and which is utterly uninterested in pesky little matters such as facts.

An unhappy time, in short.

You also deserve, Dear Reader, to know what we think.

In our view, the performance of the Judge in cross-questioning revealed him to be unfit to hold the highest level of judicial appointment in America, perhaps in the world, in its impact. Not because of his opinions – he’s entitled to those – but because of of how he chose to express them. But one can make excuses for his brutalistic performance, call it a one off, or argue we all might fail when under such scrutiny. All of which might be true. Or might not.

So to make our own judgement, fraught with incapacity and uncertainty, we will rely on one last piece of folk-wisdom, using an aphorism popular in our home of Australia.

When it seems impossible to be certain on the rights and wrongs of any given matter, ask yourself, “Does it pass the sniff test?”

Like a piece of meat lifted to quivering nostrils, does it “smell” fresh or tainted?

And to our nose, the Kavanaugh matter simply does not pass the sniff test.

But then again, we might be wrong.

A grieving NSW mother, whose teenage daughter was sent home from hospital a day before she died from meningococcal, has warned others to be aware of the potentially deadly symptoms.

Central Coast student Mischelle Rhodes, 19, came down with a fever last Tuesday, but was sent home from hospital with painkillers and died the next day.

“The hospital did some blood tests, gave her Nurofen, gave her Panadol and sent her home,” the student’s mother Anjini Rhodes said.

“They said she was okay.”

A Central Coast mother is grieving after her teenage daughter Mischelle Rhodes, 19, died from meningococcal.

Central Coast student Mischelle Rhodes, 19, came down with a fever last Tuesday, but was sent home from hospital with painkillers. Source: 7News

By Wednesday morning, Mischelle was getting worse and began vomiting.

Her mum took her back to Gosford Hospital and by lunchtime there was quick-spreading rash.

“And she told me, ‘Doctors told me I’m going to die’,” Ms Rhodes said. Her organs were indeed failing and Mischelle sadly died that afternoon.

“I thought she was going to be okay… [she was] such a healthy, beautiful girl. I didn’t think this was going to happen,” the grieving mother cried as she described her pain.

“It just took my beautiful girl away so fast.”

A Central Coast mother is grieving after her teenage daughter Mischelle Rhodes, 19, died from meningococcal.

The teen died the next day after a rash quickly spread. Source: Mischelle Rhodes / Facebook

Symptoms to watch for include sudden onset of fever, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light and a blotchy rash.

Her mother issued a warning to parents and others presenting symptoms, saying: “Don’t leave hospital until everything’s been looked at.”

Mischelle is the second meningococcal fatality on the Central Coast in a month, following the death of a 38-year-old woman. But the cases are not linked. There have been 41 meningococcal cases across NSW this year, including three which were fatal.

“It can strike pretty much anybody and at any age,” NSW Health’s Dr Peter Lewis said.

“We see cases at all ages and throughout the year, but this is actually the time of year where we tend to see more cases occurring.”

A free meningococcal vaccine is available for children aged 15 to 19.

Aussies considering a quick break in one of the many plush resorts popping up in Cambodia need to stop and consider whether they want to reward the loathsome Hun Sen regime with their much needed foreign currency. You can read about the case here:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45364695

The savage jailing for six years of elderly Aussie journalist James Ricketson is clearly a nonsensical, Kafkaesque attempt to stifle both journalistic freedom and criticism of the increasingly authoritarian Government.

Cambodia is a country which relies on Australian aid, (somewhere around $80-90 million in the most recent year), has close governmental contact with Australia, and which needs close trade ties with Australia to continue its development from the nightmare of the Pol Pot era.

It’s time the Australian Government stopped pussy-footing around human rights abuses by our near neighbours. Incoming Foreign Minister Marise Payne – no shrinking violet  – has an opportunity to stamp her authority on the position by demanding that Cambodia release Ricketson forthwith.

No ifs, no buts, no diplomatic doublespeak, no procrastination, no face-saving formulas. Now.

For heavens’ sake, Cambodian prosecutors can’t even say who Ricketson was supposed to be spying for.

If you wish to urge Marise Payne to take immediate and effective action, we suggest you email her on:

Email: Senator.Payne@aph.gov.au

Foreign Affairs: Foreign.minister@dfat.gov.au

#Asia #Asean #MarisePayne #Australia #justice

Mission Beach, Far North Queensland, looking over to Dunk Island

A flying visit to Far North Queensland – in this case a wedding at seemingly endless Mission Beach – reminds me powerfully of my childhood visiting the coastal tropical paradise than runs almost the length of the Eastern seaboard of South Africa.

Like South Africa, the bizarre and the wonderful and the otherworldly abound in FNQ. Driving along little country lanes one passes over rickety old bridges covering deep slashes of dark, mysterious water; streams that tumble and cascade through the rainforest to the ocean turning into turgid, broad estuaries where the rainfall and sea mix.

This is not a place to step out of the car. There is hardly a waterway here that is not home to the ubiquitous salt-water crocodile. Slowing down and gazing out of the car window for tell-tale eyes or snouts reminds me powerfully of driving around African game reserves spotting rhinos amongst the thorn trees and bushes. You don’t get out of the car there, either, without the benefit of a guide and good running shoes. Here neither would help you much if you ventured incautiously into the creek, looking for some barramundi to BBQ for dinner, nestling beneath the waterside vegetation. Mr and Mrs Croc can make about 30mph through the water, and you’re easier to catch than a barra.

Better to stick to the beach, except swimming is unwise, even out of stinger season. The waters hereabouts are stocked with jellyfish of all kinds. Some will give you a nasty sting that’s reasonably easily treated with vinegar, or if none is to hand, urinating on the wound. The well-known “bluebottle” is one such – a blob of nastiness followed by a seemingly endless strand of stinging tail that wraps round your leg all too easily. But that’s just a nasty annoyance. Others, such as the virtually unspottable irukandji, will kill you, if the people with you don’t know that when you stop breathing you’re not yet dead, and if they perform mouth-to-mouth you’ll wake up again. But even if they are so briefed, who wants to find out how good their memory is? About a centimetre across at the biggest, their tendrils can be up to a metre in length. Their sting – they fire little barbs into you just to make sure – is 100 times more potent than a cobra and 1000 times more potent than a tarantulas. And that’s just the irukandji. There are others.

Back to the resort pool after a nice walk on the beach, then.

Mind you, while we’re discussing tarantulas, when walking after dark it’s wise to avoid the spiders webs that end up strung across paths in what seems like no time flat, especially as, yes, most of the spiders round here will give you a nasty suck. Luckily we spotted one substantial specimen crawling on our arm yesterday and flicked it off as it reared up to go for a nibble. We were not stung, but a blood pressure count taken up to an hour afterwards would have seen us whisked off to ER quick smart.

There are actually more killer sharks down south than there are up here, but they’re around. Mind you, their threat (which really is not very great, if you look at the stats) seems trivial when compared to the crocs. We were told that just a few days before our arrival a 4.2 metre specimen was spotted patrolling up and down the beach – not lurking in his estuary where he was meant to be. Backwards and forwards, with a hungry look in his eye.

Why are the crocs so numerous? Well, they’re protected, for one thing. But the real answer is easy. Lots of fish to eat. Lots and lots of fish. These waters are swarming with tasty comestibles for croc and man alike, which is why fishing would have to be pretty much the number 1 leisure activity in these parts, after drinking cold beer – and, of course, no one said you can’t drink beer and fish simultaneously.

None of the above should deter you from visiting. For one thing, the plant life in the area is worth a visit on its own. Riotous bursts of variegation and colour in endless variety are testament to a growing environment close to that of the Garden of Eden. Hot … damned hot … and very wet. Plants that are mere pot specimens in our home town grow here to above head height. With the blazing tropical sun broken up by the high branches of palm trees and then filtered again by the progressive layers of ferns and other delights, not only is it possible to stay cool, but one can also wander as if in a primordial landscape just metres from civilisation. So long as there are no water courses nearby.

Port St Johns “Second Beach”

As I said, it reminds me powerfully of childhood holidays in Natal and the Transkei/Pondoland. I fell to thinking of one time – we were at a delightful out-of-the-way spot called Second Beach at Port St Johns – and I would have been perhaps 11 – when a local Xhosa boy called Winston (after Winston Churchill) offered his services to our family as a gillie. Essentially, a baiter of hooks, a runner of errands, and a stand-in babysitter for me. Winston was maybe 14 and ineffably cool. Wise beyond his years, always smiling, never fatigued, endlessly obliging. For being permanently available to do whatever was needed, he was rewarded with what was then probably two or three pounds a day – enough for him to live moderately well, although I am sure it went home to his family, and he was gifted the occasional fish, which definitely did.

He seemed to have an almost magical ability to tell us where to cast our lines into the waves to catch the hard-fighting great-eating South African shad, even when there weren’t tell-tale flocks of seabirds diving into the waves to eat the bait fish on which the shad would gorge themselves. Indian shop-keepers – always at the beach before us no matter how early in the pearly dawn light we rose – would walk off the beach muttering “one fish, one fish”, which was code for “Not much around today, man.” But Winston would just stand looking at the water, one leg resting on the knee of the other in perfect balance, until he would point and motion to where he thought there might be fish. He was always right. It was freakish.

Winston saved my life twice that summer. One time, he took his eyes off me for a second when we were playing, (I was playing, he was nursemaiding), and I waded across an estuary to look at a metal sign on an obelisk in the water. As I got there, and started sinking inexorably, I saw that it was a warning against quicksand, in which I was now stuck. Winston swam across the top of the water and grabbed both my hands, pulling me up and out. I was terrified. He just chuckled.

Another time, we were in one of those yellow inflatable oval dinghy things that hang off the back of bigger boats, paddling around in the estuary, doing nothing much. I think I was carelessly dangling a line off the back, which might have stirred up the local fish population a little, as suddenly there was a massive crash on the bank next to us, and vast turbulence in the water. Ignorant, and excited, I went to the side of the boat to see what was what, and was batted back into the middle of the boat by Winston, who then stood there with his paddle raised. “Ingwenya!” he said to me urgently, “Ingwenya!” After a few moments he grabbed both oars and rowed for our lives. I have no doubt that had I leaned over the edge of the boat I would have been crocodile dinner. And Winston would have been in deep shit for having got “little baas” eaten.

When we got back to the holiday hut we were staying in I went and stole two Peter Stuyvestants from my brother’s pack and gave one to Winston, who I had admired smoking the most disgusting bush cheroots imaginable. From the pocket of his ragged shorts, which seemed cavernous enough to hold a seemingly endless cornucopia of useful things, he produced matches and we lit up and strolled to the beach to calm down.

“Ingwenya!” he laughed at me again, and did a little pantomime of a massive jaw closing shut over my head. “Ingwenya!” I assured him I had the point, and tried to convince him I wouldn’t be so stupid as to look over the edge of any boats, ever again. Certainly not in tropical waters. He didn’t understand a word I said, of course, but we just laughed and nodded, him smoking an entire cigarette in two or three huge draughts of smoke, which he blew out of his nose, and which I tried to emulate, but just ended up sneezing with watering eyes.

As I stared into the murky depths of forest and creek today, I caught myself wondering what might have happened to Winston.

Did he end up coughing his life away in the dust-filled gold and diamond mines around Jo’burg?

Did he get swept up in the communal violence that plagued South Africa during the transition to majority rule?

Or did he stay near Port St Johns, baiting hooks and rescuing little pale boys, and now he sits somewhere high on the hills in Transkei, surrounded by his family, and his cows, and watches the ineffable sunsets, and warns his grand-kids to watch out for crocs.

I like to think he does. I hope he has a long and happy old age. I hope he still catches fish. And has plenty of cigarettes.

The “little corporal” Napoleon, standing at about 5 feet 7 inches, was actually taller than most of his compatriots.

According to the National Post, this misconception may have arisen because of the difference between French and British inches at the time. In French measurements, Napoleon was 5 feet 2 inches, but French inches were longer than British ones.

 

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Others believe it all started with a satirical cartoon with Napoleon being held in an British general’s hand. Or is that the King? We’re not sure.

Just another example, we feel, of “history being written by the victors”. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo we suspect Wellington would have become a silly creature of fun with boots up to his arse, and Nelson a bent and hobbled cripple.

This historical oddity, though, raises an interesting question. How many sources for history do we really need if we are to attain a “balanced” view. What weight should be placed on various sources? And what duty do we owe to the living to get it right?

One would suppose very few French people feel especially hard done by because we generally think Napoleon was a short-arse. But let us take, for example, the history of indigenous owners of land since appropriated by Empires various or immigrants: the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for example. They see the arrival of the British as a murderous, genocidal invasion of lands they had occupied for at least 40,000 years. Our view of the North American first peoples is founded almost entirely on the myth making of 19th century broadsheet writers and comic books, the owners of which had a vested interested in selling the “white man” as a brave and honourable creature, a position gleefully adopted by Hollywood who were selling movies to those white people’s descendants, of course, and not the grandchildren of the noble (and more often ignoble) savages. Blacks in Africa were invariably shown as feckless and ignorant, despite have created civilisations that pre-dated Europe by thousands of years – ditto the Arab world which was apparently entirely composed of wild eyed zealots with flashing knives and not some of the greatest scientists in history, Aztecs and Mayans did little more with their time than cut the hearts out of slaves and toss their bodies down the sides of pyramids despite centuries of learning on astronomy and mathematics that were centuries in advance of the “West”, the Chinese were corrupt satraps despite their progress in civil administration, medicine, art and literature, and so on and so on ad infinitum.

All these civilisations were the victims of “othering”. The process by which we ridicule, marginalise and often slaughter those whom we defeat, and we simply do not concede either honourable or laudable characteristics to the defeated.

So it is perhaps instructional to consider those who are “othered” by the media, politicians, and common opinion in the West today.

The myth-making runs in overtime about, in no particular order, “lazy, venal” South Americans, “disaffected, drug-addled” American people of colour, “dangerous, inhuman, violent” Muslims, (we are sick of pointing out that if Muslims as a group were really violent the West would currently be at war with 1.2 billion of them, and probably losing, but there it is), disorganised and corrupt Italians and Greeks, drunken Irish, endlessly warring Africans, and many more.

Well. It is our birthday, today, Dear Reader. We are getting older. As someone so kindly pointed out in a message to our mobile phone earlier, “your senior years are now really upon you”. Well, yes, they are. So if you will permit me, an observation from the full height of the mountain I have so far climbed.

Whomever we are discussing, and wherever they are in the world, what has struck me most forcefully as I have gone through this life is actually how similar people are. Whoever they are. Wherever they are. No matter what their cultural background.

People everywhere simply want to live in peace. To celebrate family, and have a chance to provide for them. To speak, walk and breathe freely. To live free from fear, and with enough wealth that they don’t fear want, either.

The same things essentially frighten all of us, and the same things usually please us, inspire us, and elevate us.

We are all much more alike than we are unalike.

One of the most educational things today is to observe on social media how a “meme” of something silly, charming, and encouraging can be shared by people of all cultures, all types, all ages, and all sexes, umpteen millions of times. Very often, those memes involve conspicuous acts of kindness. Of gentleness. Every time someone clicks “Share”, they are affirming our common humanity.

If social media has a true purpose, it is perhaps to remind us that what unites us, as a species, is much more than ever divides us.

This is not to argue for a common or enforced blandness. Educator, campaigner and orator Booker T Washington once said, “In all things social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”.

That’ll do me. For my birthday present, I’d really like it if you agreed, Dear Reader. Let’s stop “othering”, and be the hand that creates mutual progress.

 

 

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Sitting in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California looking back on his wasted life is Sirhan Sirhan, the aggrieved pro-Palestinian Jordanian who fifty years ago today fatally shot Bobby Kennedy for his support for selling war planes to Israel.

But what he killed that day was not only the wildly popular primary contender for the Democratic nomination for President, but also the post-war “big government” consensus that had held sway in America since the Depression. With Kennedy effectively died the idea that Government had a legitimate role in enabling social cohesion and attacking evils such as poverty and the racial divide.

After his death, the Democrats turned to Hubert Humphrey as a consensus candidate, but the bumbling Humphrey was never going to be a match for the charismatic and experienced Richard Nixon.

That event began a thirty year or more realignment to the right in American politics, which eventually led to a wider realignment around the democratic world, which affected both future Democratic candidates (such as Carter and Clinton) as well as notable Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. By the end of the process the “post war consensus” around enabling government and Keynsian economics was largely broken, and it is not clear yet whether or not it will ever be revived.

Texan political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics presents a theory of American political development that focuses on the role of party systems that endure for several decades, only to be disrupted by a “critical election”. Such elections not only hand presidential and congressional power to the non-incumbent political party, but they do so in a dramatic way that repudiates the worn-out ideas of the old party and initiates a new era whose leaders govern on a new set of assumptions, ideologies, and public policies. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are perhaps the clearest examples of critical elections, and scholars have disagreed about how well Burnham’s theories still explain American electoral politics. Others contend that 1968 was a realigning election for Republicans holding the presidency from 1969 to 1977 and again from 1981 to 1993.

Some political scientists, such as Mayhew, are skeptical of the realignment theory altogether, saying there are no long-term patterns: “Electoral politics,” he wrote, “is to an important degree just one thing after another … Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans … It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation … It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end.”

That is in all probability true. “Realignment” elections are probably the result of long-term trends that then coalesce around an individual or event. In this sense, the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK is unquestionably onesuch, in that it can be seen as not so much an enthusiasm for Thatcher personally (for some time after her election in 1979 she actually languished in the polls and could arguably have been defeated in the 1983 election were it not for the Falklands War) but as an enduring and growing response to militant trade unionism that had disrupted the country during the previous Heath and Callaghan premierships.

In this sense, though, it is interesting to debate what type of America we might now see had Robert Kennedy survived and won the election. Would we have seen a rejuvenated consensus around government intervention, led by Kennedy’s personal charisma, and fervour? Or was Kennedy a “man out of time”, a liberal consensus man who belonged ten or twenty years earlier? It is an enticing discussion.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in response to the dissent brokered by the civil rights movement thoroughly moved large numbers of older, conservative and male whites (most directly) into the Republican camp. Whether or not Kennedy’s personal appeal and rhetorical flourish would have kept them in the Democrat fold is impossible to say. Republican leaders consciously appealed to many white Southerners’ racial grievances in order to gain their support. Whether or not Kennedy could have “sold” a different narrative is hard to say. The Southern Strategy and its effectiveness certainly annoyed black and other minority voters. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologised to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a national civil rights organisation, for exploiting racial polarisation to win elections and ignoring the black vote. The very substantial preference for the Democrat ticket currently evidenced by the black population stems in part from this period and there can be little doubt that the election of Donald Trump reresented the most stark division between black and white voters in modern electoral history. Would Kennedy have reduced or prevented that divide? Who knows?

Certainly, many left-leaning leaders at the time felt Kennedy’s loss very keenly and for many Kennedy’s death ended the revival of American liberalism.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 2.31.06 pm“King had prepared us for his death, and after it [MLK’s death] happened, there was no weeping, we immediately started figuring out how we were going to carry on the Poor People’s Campaign,” says former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s closest aides.

But that maintenance of effort was scuppered by Kennedy’s death. “That was when I broke down,” says Young. “I think that the rational liberal democratic socialist view of the world, from Franklin Roosevelt all the way to Lyndon Johnson, was really cut short by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.”

Others disagree. “By the end of the 1960s, the forces that were swelling up against the Great Society, which was an extension of the New Deal of the 1930s, were going to defeat whoever the Democrats put up,” says HW Brands, historian and author. “Americans were disillusioned and angered by the violence of the 1960s, and by the failure of the Democratic governments of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to take Vietnam to a successful conclusion.”

Brands notes how also the Civil Rights movement had largely achieved its legislative aims, and so if either Martin Luther King Jr or Robert Kennedy had lived they would have had to battle the great American conundrum of economic inequality and poverty that has thwarted all others.

“That’s a much tougher nut to deal with going off the last 50 years of American politics,” Mr Brands says. “You can repeal laws against blacks, but can you mandate economic equality? Nobody’s figured out how to do it … for a society that is organised economically along capitalist lines.” It’s a fair point.

 

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Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 1.44.58 pm.pngWhat is certain is that the election of Nixon and the general drift to the right that continues to this day resulted in economic policies – an understanding of the economic framework – that are wildly different to what went before … right up to until, perhaps, the election of an innately interventionist Trump administration, with its talk of directly investing in rustbelt industries, trade wars, and all the rest of it – which election can at least in part be squarely laid at the door of voter dis-satisfaction with the actual out-workings of the very “trickle down” economics that the Republicans for a generation have been enthusiastically promoting.

Yet as the result of the Trump revolution, American economic policy is now a curious (and not necessarily sustainable, or necessarily successful) mixture of lowering taxes and increasing spending, of triumphalist nationalism and “America First”, and an apparent rejection of free tradeism. Aided, no doubt, by Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity in some sections of the population, Trump’s election was above all a reaction to the fact that the new consensus, established after Kennedy’s death and pursued by both Democrats and Republicans, hasn’t really “worked”, either.

So it is at least worth speculating exactly what Sirhan Sirhan destroyed that day, 50 years ago. Jeremi Suri, a history professor and author, has commented: “Kennedy … was the last politician who came from a background of Franklin Roosevelt-influenced social welfare policies who could connect with rural voters,” Mr Suri says. “What ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a set of policies of expanding rights, expanding government services and assistance for those in need, and the backlash against that was facilitated by the absence of effective figures like Robert Kennedy.”

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So was Kennedy-ism the last gasp of the liberal consensus, or will we see that consensus revived, at least in part, by a new crop of populist centre-left politicians, in America and around the world, of whom Trump is merely, perhaps, a somewhat confused example?

How do we judge, for example, the huge popularity of a character like Bernie Sanders, a self proclaimed “democratic socialist”, whose economic prescription for America could have been written by any “big Government” thinker from 1926-1966 without anyone finding it in the least unusual or even worthy of much comment?

Was Kennedy’s death merely a pause in left-liberal consensus building, or the end of it?

Time, as always, will tell.

(Some of the quotations in this article previously appeared in a BBC article.)

To get uplifting words of wisdom in your Facebook feed every day, free of charge, just go here https://www.facebook.com/thoughtfortoday/ and click the Like button at the top of the page, where the pink arrow is pointing at it …

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Thought for Today, Day 54 – feel with your heart; remember what’s important.

Helen Keller said: The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

At 19 months old, Keller contracted an unknown illness which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

Even though blind and deaf, Helen Keller had passed through many obstacles and she learned to live with her disabilities. She learned how to tell which person was walking from the vibrations of their footsteps.

Later in life Keller became the world’s most famous activist for the disabled and a noted campaigner on many other issues.

One meeting she held was reported thus: “a message that will linger long with those fortunate enough to have received it. The wonderful girl who has so brilliantly triumphed over the triple afflictions of blindness, dumbness and deafness, gave a talk with her own lips on “Happiness,” and it will be remembered always as a piece of inspired teaching by those who heard it.

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others … she imparted that “helping your fellow men were one’s only excuse for being in this world and in the doing of things to help one’s fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness.” She also told of the joys of loving work and accomplishment and the happiness of achievement. Although the entire lecture lasted only a little over an hour, it had a profound impact on the audience.

Now: what were you worrying about again?

#helenkeller #deafness #disability #courage #hope #thoughtfortoday

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Protesters hold protest signs denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin near the Russian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York in 2015. (Reuters)

The really interesting question in the recent poisoning case in the UK is not if the Russian Government is implicated – it looks highly likely (see below) – but why they would perform such an act now.

When trying to understand the context, two factors are key in our view.

Firstly, Russia is in an expansionist phase, constantly testing the resolve of the West to resist it.

Recent examples are many and varied. Russia is firmly in the camp of rogue state in terms of its murderous support of the Assad regime in Syria, as it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East. It continues to agitate against the Ukraine, maintains a threatening posture against the newly independent Baltic states, and threatens the USA with a “new generation” of nuclear missiles.

Secondly, Putin is up for re-election. He is a populist “strongman”, and that’s why his rule is virtually unchallenged, although factions within the ruling elite in Russia do exist, and jockeying for power in the event of any departure by Putin is constant. In this, Russia has hardly evolved from the days of communist control, or frankly, the Tsars.

Viewed in this light, the murder of a minor spy who has been quietly living in the West for some time – which would be re-reported in Russia, of course – serves two purposes.

It tests the West’s resolve to resist brazen Russian aggression without risking an armed conflict.

Second, it makes Putin look tough. Again.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson thus faces a serious test. If the attempted murder (or it may turn out to be a triple murder, depending on the health of those most affected) turns out to be very obviously to be laid at the feet of the Russian State, what is an appropriate response?

Will the British worry overmuch about the unpleasant despatch of a spy – deaths in that arena happen constantly, of course – and the unfortunate collateral damage of a Wiltshire policeman? Or will they make a lot of huff and puff and do nothing much?

Our money is on nothing much. Perhaps a few diplomats expelled and a strongly worded note.

The British economy – especially the City of London – increasingly depends on the growing petro-dollar and gas-dollar influx of funds “washed” through banks and finance houses in London. And funds from less obvious sources inside the Russian kleptocracy. Putin knows Britain wouldn’t want anything to upset that, especially when complications from Brexit means those funds could easily get switched to other markets. So this event tests how brazen Russian behaviour can be before any real damage is done to the relationship.

Ordinarily, of course, the Brits would turn to their American colleagues for advice on how to handle this latest “Beast from the East” event. (The “Beast from the East” was the nickname given to the recent blast of cold air from Russia that dumped snow everywhere.) But given the inordinately close relationship between Putin and the Trump administration, we feel it is unlikely that Britain will turn there for help and advice. And relations between Britain and the EU aren’t exactly rosy just now either.

Putin is, unlike his American counterpart, a highly calculating man. We believe he may be testing the UK right now simply because it is increasingly isolated and left to its own resources. Simply to see what happens.

How Johnson responds will be fascinating to watch.

THE BBC’s latest reporting follows:

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon and remain critically ill.

A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now in a serious condition in hospital, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said.

Nerve agents are highly toxic chemicals that stop the nervous system working and shut down bodily functions.

They normally enter the body through the mouth or nose, but can also be absorbed through the eyes or skin.

Mr Rowley, head of Counter Terrorism Policing, said government scientists had identified the agent used, but would not make that information public at this stage.

“This is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder, by administration of a nerve agent,” he said.

“Having established that a nerve agent is the cause of the symptoms… I can also confirm that we believe that the two people who became unwell were targeted specifically.”

He said there was no evidence of a widespread health risk to the public.

Two other police officers who attended the scene were treated in hospital for minor symptoms, before they were given the all clear. It is understood their symptoms included itchy eyes and wheezing.

Analysis

By Richard Galpin, BBC News correspondent – formerly based in Moscow

The announcement by the police that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are the victims of an attack in which a nerve agent was used makes the parallel with the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 even stronger.

Like the radioactive polonium used to kill Litvinenko, a nerve agent is not normally something criminal gangs or terrorist groups can make.

Instead, it is usually manufactured by specialist laboratories under the control of governments – and that inevitably means suspicion will now be very much focused on Russia.

Not only does it have a track record of using poisons to assassinate its enemies, there is also a motive in the case of Sergei Skripal.

As a military intelligence officer in Russia, he betrayed his country by providing information to MI6, reportedly revealing the identities of Russian agents in Europe. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has in the past indicated that traitors deserve to die.

Although the question remains, why would Mr Skripal be attacked now when he has been living in Britain for eight years and came here originally as part of a spy swap?

Mr Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped on a bench outside the Maltings shopping centre.

Police want to speak to anyone who was in the city centre on Sunday afternoon.

They are particularly keen to hear from people who ate at Zizzi or drank in The Bishop’s Mill pub between 13:00 and 16:00 GMT.

Both of those locations remain closed to the public.

There is also a cordon in place outside Mr Skripal’s Salisbury home. A yellow forensic tent has been erected and police have been seen carrying equipment into the building.

Mr Rowley said hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers were working round the clock on the case.

The investigation in Salisbury may take several more days, he added.

Prof Malcolm Sperrin, fellow of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, said: “Symptoms of exposure to nerve agents may include respiratory arrest, heart failure, twitching or spasms – anything where the nerve control is degraded.

“Nerve agents can cause death, but not necessarily at low-level exposure or with a minor dose.”

Alastair Hay, emeritus professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, added: “These are very difficult and dangerous chemicals to make.”

Sergei Skripal and his daughter YuliaImage copyright EPA/ YULIA SKRIPAL/FACEBOOK
Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, collapsed on a bench in Salisbury city centre

A public inquiry concluded the killing of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 was probably carried out with the approval of President Putin.

On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told MPs the UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian “state responsibility” in the Skripal case.

Russia has insisted it has “no information” about what could have led to the incident, but is open to co-operating with British police if requested.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said foreign media had used the incident as part of an anti-Russian campaign.

“It’s a traditional campaign. The tradition is to make things up. We can only see it as a provocation,” she said.

Who is Sergei Skripal?

Undated image taken from the internet of Sergei Skripal in uniform.
Col Skripal, 66, had been living in Salisbury after being released by Russia in 2010

Colonel Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence officer, was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006.

He was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI.

After a Cold War-style spy swap at Austria’s Vienna airport, Col Skripal moved to Salisbury, where he kept a low profile for eight years.

Fascinating stuff via Are you ready for this?

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I’m waiting for my Son to die. At least in Heaven there’s food.

 

Compassion fatigue?

Boredom?

Distracted by the Winter Olympics closing ceremony? Massacres in American schools? Trump’s latest tweet? Football?

What will it take to make you sit up and take notice?

Perhaps this. Warning: distressing.

http://www.bbc.com/news/video_and_audio/must_see/43163173/syria-war-children-struggle-to-survive-in-eastern-ghouta

#assad #syria #russia #civilians #children

If you want to share this story, which is something you could to do immediately to raise awareness of this utter disgrace, please cut and paste the link at the end of this sentence, and post it to your Facebook page or wherever: wp.me/p1LY0z-3ya

NEWS UPDATE

There appears to be some success in the outpouring of anger over Russia and Assad’s behaviour. Please KEEP sharing this story as often and as creatively as you can to ensure that pressure is kept up.?

See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43200956

 

X-ray image of woman with her handbagImage copyright PEAR VIDEO

Worried about your bags being stolen at security? One Chinese woman joined her handbag through an X-ray machine to prevent just that.

Staff at Dongguan Railway Station in southern China were shocked to find the silhouette of the train commuter on their X-ray monitors.

An online video showed the bizarre incident took place on Sunday during the Lunar New Year travel rush.

After climbing off the conveyor belt, the woman checked her bags and left.

Extraordinary X-ray images show the woman kneeling on all fours behind her luggage, still wearing high-heeled shoes.

It is unclear why the woman was so anxious about her handbag, but many people in China carry large amounts of cash when travelling home for Chinese New Year.

X-ray image of woman with her handbagImage copyright PEAR VIDEO

The commuter had earlier placed her suitcase on the conveyor belt before attempting to walk through the security scanner with a small handbag, footage from Pear Video shows.

She was then told all bags had to go through the X-ray machine, but she refused to part with her handbag.

Her solution was to join her belongings on the conveyor belt, and she climbed out the other side unscathed, with one security guard laughing with surprise.

Rail station staff in Dongguan have since advised passengers not to enter the X-ray machines, as radiation given off by the scanners could be harmful, local media reported.

The woman was one of an estimated 390 million people expected to travel by train for the Chinese New Year holiday, which falls on 16 February.

So. OK. Let’s be honest. Who hasn’t wanted to follow their bags through the X Ray scanner, huh? Better than those silly booths you have to walk through that are so narrow that you bang the walls with your elbow so the alarm goes off then you get pulled over  … mutter mutter grumble grumble …

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Watching video footage of a Florida student recording the noise of a gunman firing an “AR-15 style rifle” inside their school – killing at least 17 people, and possibly more when the injured either recover or tragically do not – was not good for one’s peace of mind.

The horrific and terrifying noise that such a rifle makes just a few feet from you will live in the mind of viewers forever. What the long-term effect will be on those who were actually there will be, God only knows. The by-now all too familiar photographs of traumatised children and parents are almost too awful to contemplate.

Indeed, one of the greatest dangers of the current situation in America is that people will turn away, feeling helpless, or simply ignore events through compassion fatigue.

This was the 18th school shooting in the USA this year. Which, it should be pointed out, is not even into its third month.

Worse, the alleged perpetrator was known to the school, had been disciplined while there, and previously banned from the campus with a backpack on.

The time for America to ignore its hugely powerful gun lobby and take action to prevent more occurrences of these acts is now so long overdue that it is not even worth fulminating in shock any more.

America must do take following steps now, or accept that disenfranchised marginalised youths – nearly always male, and clearly disturbed – will continue to act like this with relative impunity.

No, this problem will not be fixed overnight – the solution will be long, tortuous and depressingly tough and complex – but every day that is wasted simply invites another such event. America has to start this journey sometime. If not now, when?

  • “Assault style/AR-15” rifles must be banned throughout the country. For everyone. They are unnecessary for vermin control on farms, they are unnecessary for hunting, they are unnecessary for personal protection, and in the wrong hands they are irreparably and uniquely harmful. That’s it, no discussion, the time has come. Someone needs to show some leadership and get this change implemented.
  • No gun of any kind should be sold, by anyone, to anyone, without thorough psychological and background checks. America needs, as far as it can, to keep guns out of the hands of people who are likely to turn them on themselves or others.
  • The USA needs a gun amnesty to encourage legacy guns out of the community so they can be destroyed. This will reduce the number of guns stolen (currently 200,000 a year from legal gun owners) that end up int he criminal community.
  • People keeping unsecured weapons in their home should be subject to tough new nationally-agreed sanctions including, but not limited to, the permanent removal of their weapons and a ban on them replacing them

None of these aims should be rejected by reasonable advocates of gun ownership. Most people outside of America consider, as we have said many times before, that the right to bear arms is as inherently unwise as the right to arm bears. But it has to be accepted that the American public has a unique view of the matter. But that view can still be respected while making America’s children – indeed, all their population – much safer.

Some will say, again, that the problem is schools that are gun free zones, that all that is needed is more and better armed security. This is, of course, a simple nonsense. No school facility can ever be adequately secured against a madman with a semi-automatic rifle, and that’s the only point that matters. Unless you want to turn schools into the equivalent of armed prison camps, which is not only impractical, but is also not healthy for the children inside them. Why would America want to do that, when Americans can choose instead to rid society of semi-automatic weapons if they so wish?

Some will say, again, that guns are not the only deadly weapon available to assailants. And they’d be right. But it is much more difficult to kill 17 people with a knife, or a baseball bat. And that’s the point. And it is unarguable. It is also unarguable that the vast majority of attacks are carried out with guns, and the most deadly have always been with AR-15 style weapons, simply because of the ease with which multiple shots can be got off.

Some will say again that getting rid of such weapons is too hard, that illegal arms will continue to circulate amongst the criminal classes, and the argument needs to be confronted honestly. Yes, it will be hard to eliminate such weapons from the streets of America, and it will take time. As each such weapon is discovered, it must be destroyed. The population of such weapons will fall only slowly. (Although a gun amnesty will speed the process.) But people committing massacres are not career or professional criminals. They are not even gang members. They are loners, and normally not criminal in any other identifiable sense. In other words, the argument is a simple furphy.

The argument in favour of starting the process of reducing the population of such guns vastly outweighs any difficulties.

Because the question always comes back to “if not now, when?”

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Without political leadership – without bi-partisan political leadership – America is simply doomed to seeing these scenes over and over. What is clear is that the current situation is unacceptable in a modern, free country. If anyone doubts that it is, they should visit 17 households in Broward County tonight.

Already there is evidence that tourist numbers to the USA are being negatively affected by the widespread perception of the country as riddled with gun violence.

And the psychological impact on America’s own population can hardly be imagined.

Let’s work together on what CAN be done, rather than waste any more time arguing about whether anything should be done. And before any smart-alec remarks that this is nothing to do with a writer in Australia, we would simply make three points.

  • Sometimes, a little distance is required to give perspective.
  • We have successfully tackled this problem in Australia and largely eradicated these weapons from our society.
  • We have friends in America. Many of them. And some of those friends have children.

Only when we have sought to address the core problem is it appropriate to say “Prayers and sympathy” to the victims. Because to express such sentiments, but to refuse to even begin to seriously tackle how to prevent events like today’s terrible massacre, is utter hypocrisy. Damnable hypocrisy. And it should be called out as such.

Something must be done. Starting today. That’s the bottom line.