28 October, 2008

Nazis – I hate those guys

I sometimes look at stuff written by Eric Martin, one of those "bloggers". He talks about international affairs and US politics in an interesting manner, and I am not just saying that because he uses Belle & Sebastian lyrics as post titles. Anyways, in this post he talks about the crazy world of the American Right, where people seem to think that if Barack Obama becomes president then he will force socialism down the throat of the freedom loving American people. The persecution complexes of these people are fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed one linked-to rightwing blog, where the chain of reasoning went like this:

FACT 1: An FBI informant in the Weather Underground declared that, back in the 1970s, people in that organisation* talked about the need to exterminate the 25 million Americans who would never accept socialism.

FACT 2: One member of the Weather Underground was Mr Bill Ayers.

FACT 3: Bill Ayers subsequently served on the board of an organisation with Mr Barack Obama.

FACT 3 (b): Bill Ayers may have corrected essays that Barack Obama wrote while in college.

CONCLUSION: Barack Obama may well exterminate 25 million Americans if he is elected president.

Meanwhile, the liberal controlled media have been talking about how two American Nazis have been arrested on charges of conspiring to murder Obama and a load of students in a school mainly frequented by African Americans. Obviously, nothing has yet been proved and it is easy to stereotype skinhead with swastika tattoos, but one thing about the case leaped out at me – the two skinheads are alleged to have planned to wear top hats and tuxedos while carrying out their murderous crimes. Does anyone know what this is all about? Do top hats have some kind of cultural significance that is lost on people from outside the USA?

Image source

*the Weather Underground, not the FBI.

27 October, 2008

October Surprise?

US helicopters have entered Syria from Iraq to launch an attack on the village of Sukariya, killing eight people. US authorities claim the helicopters were attacking dangerous al-Qaida targets, but Syrian authorities have stated that the dead were a local man and his three children, together with a farm guard and his wife, and a fisherman. Syrian analyst Joshua Landis speculates that the attack might have been on smugglers spotted by a satellite and mistaken for al-Qaida agents. As can be imagined, Syrian authorities and people in the area attacked are a bit annoyed by the Americans' actions.

It is being assumed that this attack, the first into Syria by US forces, must have been approved at the highest level in the US administration. The timing is puzzling to some. President Bush's administration is in its last days, and his likely successor favours engagement with Syria, as do the Democrats in Congress and the leaders of most western countries. The raid on Sukariya may be just a parting shot to an unfriendly country by a failed president keen to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. However, you would not have to be totally paranoid to wonder if this escalation is intended to create a bit of international tension that might distract attention from the economic crisis. If voters buy into the idea that John McCain is the man to deal with international issues then a period of tense confrontation with Syria could be just what his campaign needs in the few weeks before the election.

Syrian witness reacts to US raid
Syria hits out at 'terrorist' US
What could lie behind Syria raid?

Justice for Franco's victims?

One feature of the Spanish Civil War period was the number of extra-judicial executions it saw. While both left and right carried out these kind of crimes, the white terror of the Nationalists seems to have claimed far more victims and been far more systematic. In the early stages of the war, leftists and other perceived enemies of the rightists in the Nationalist zone were exterminated in a highly organised fashion. When Spain made its transition to democracy after Franco's death, many of the perpetrators of these crimes were still alive, but they were amnestied by a law in 1977 covering crimes committed during the civil war period.

Now Baltasar Garzaon, a senior Spanish investigating judge, has reopened some of these cases through an astonishing legal sleight of hand. In many cases, the bodies of the Nationalists' victims were never found. Garzon argues that this makes these cases ones of kidnapping, and the continued non-appearance of the bodies (or the victims) means that the cases technically continued after 1977 and so are no longer covered by the amnesty. Suddenly some very old men are facing the prospect of having to answer in court for the crimes of their youth.

As can be expected, Garzon's action is proving decisive, with many adopting a best-not-go-there approach to the crimes of the civil war period. It is certainly possible to sympathise with this kind of argument, and in post-conflict situations it is often necessary to forget the horrors of the past in order to embed transitions to democracy or peaceful politics. At this stage, though, Spain has been a democratic state for thirty years, and it is hard to really see how the country could be thrown back into armed conflict by the reopening of some very old criminal cases.

Spanish judge to probe Franco era
End Franco probe, say prosecutors
Franco inquiry polarises Spain

"The Battle for Spain: the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" by Antony Beevor

I have been reading this chunky book on and off for an age, and now I am finished. This book is a completely rewritten version of a book Beevor wrote on the Spanish Civil War ages ago, with the opening of the Soviet-era archives being what most justified a new take on the war. People who are interested in publication histories and versions of books may be interested to learn that this new book was originally published in Spain, and that it has been somewhat truncated for the Anglophone world.

So yeah, the Spanish Civil War. It's a depressing business, really. The bad guys win. The good guys never look they ever have a chance of winning. And the good guys aren't actually that good, being either total cockfarmers or total losers (or both). Just in case you have never heard of the Spanish Civil War, it began when some generals staged a coup against a leftist government. On one side we have the Nationalists – an alliance of right-wing generals, fascists, monarchists, Catholic traditionalists, and a bunch of weird monarchists called The Carlists; the Nationalists received considerable external support from Hitler and Mussolini. The other side, the Republicans, was a leftist hoe-down of liberal republicans, anarchists, socialists, and communists, together with some regional parties; the USSR gave the Republicans a degree of ambiguous support.

The Nationalists won for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they were far better at submerging their differences and uniting against the common enemy. Beevor shows well how the various Nationalist factions were willing to settle for an outcome that (for them) was often suboptimal, but which was better than letting the other side win. The Republicans remained internally divided, with the most bitter tensions being between the communists and their enemies and between centralisers and regionalists. The Nationalists also received much better support from their external allies, with the military assistance of Nazi Germany in particular playing a major part in their victory. The Republicans did receive support from the Soviet Union, and could not have continued the war without it, but nothing they received matched the power of the forces sent from Germany. The Soviets also tied their support to the advancement of their allies within Republican Spain while charging the Republicans exploitative rates for it. The third reason for the Nationalist victory was the grossly incompetent leadership of Republican forces, with battle after battle seeing the same failed offensive tactics being employed. The Nationalists did also make mistakes, but they seemed far more able to learn from them.

It strikes me that the two underlying narratives in this book are Franco's inexorable march to victory, and the extent to which the communists in Spain were total cockfarmers. You never really get any sense that Franco could have been stopped – he had so many cards in his favour that victory for the Nationalists seems almost pre-ordained. But the actions of the communists ultimately helped him on his way. While Soviet support played a key role in keeping the Republicans in the game, it came with an extra dollop of communist paranoia, Soviet advisors and secret police operatives bringing the show trial mindset to Spain. The Republican zone saw the emergence of a mini-police state, with the real or perceived enemies of the Spanish communists and the USSR suffering imprisonment or summary execution.

The effect of communist influence on the military field was perhaps more pernicious. Arms were often refused to units whose commanders refused to join the Spanish communists, and the Soviet advisors saw to it that the Republican war effort followed the stultifying line emanating from Moscow. This saw all efforts focussed on set-piece assaults by massed infantry, with the Republic staging a series of disastrous offensives that could have been lifted from the Western Front of the First World War. Communist paranoia meant that all failures were attributed not to bad military doctrine, unrealistic expectations, poor planning, or an unexpectedly vigorous response by the enemy, but to the influence of Trotskyist-Fascist fifth columnists, so military offensives were often followed by witch-hunts and purges in units that failed to meet their objectives.

But in this day and age, pointing out the failings of communists seems about as relevant as denouncing the double dealing of the Girondins. Does a study of the Spanish Civil War offer any useful insights into the conflicts of today? Eh, I'll have to come back to you on that one.

25 October, 2008

In other election news

Astonishingly, the United States of America is not the only country in the world that holds interminably drawn out presidential election campaigns. Iran too elects its presidents, and people are already limbering up for the next vote, scheduled for June 2009. Farideh Farhi takes us through the issues and likely candidates.

Apparently you need to win an Iranian election by at least five million votes to be sure of actually winning it, because it is always possible for the country's self-perpetuating elite to conjure up five million votes against someone they don't like.

Link originally from Brian's Study Breaks.

20 October, 2008

A job well done!

The BBC reports that Condoleeza Rice is very pleased with the successes of the Bush administration in the Middle East. She is especially proud of the situation in Palestine.

"The Middle East is a different place and a better place," Ms Rice is quoted as saying.

More. Even More

19 October, 2008

The Other Guy

One of the 20th Century's most iconic images is the one where two American medal winners give the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The two guys giving the salute are Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos (right). I used to wonder about the other athlete, who won the silver medal and was standing in front of the two Americans. Was he even aware of what was going on behind him? He seemed like he had accidentally found himself with a walk-on part in history.

It turns out, though, that the other guy was also an active participant in the events. His name was Peter Norman, an Australian sprinter who had grown up in the socially committed Salvation Army. Norman joined in Smith and Carlos' protest by wearing a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights that they gave him.

Norman suffered greatly for his association with the Black Power protest. The Australian Olympic committee blacklisted him, and chose not to send him to the 1972 Olympics even though he was ranked #5 in the world. In 2000, he was the only living Australian Olympian excluded from making a lap of honour at the Sydney games. However, he was welcomed by the American team, who invited him to stay with them.

Norman died in 2006. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were pall-bearers at his funeral.

His nephew, Matt Norman, has made a documentary film, Salute about the Black Power protest.

Picture and details of the film and Peter Norman's life from the BBC.

15 October, 2008

History has known many bastards

There is an interesting piece on the BBC News website by Simon Sebag Montefiore. He has some kind of historian fellow who has written a book about very bad people who have over the years troubled the world. In the article, he draws attention to some less known human monsters, thereby breaking away from the old reliables of Mao, Hitler, and Stalin. Some of the people he writes about seem a bit second division, but it's nice to see King Leopold getting the recognition he deserves. I was struck, though, by the only living person on Montefiore's list - Ethiopia's mini-Stalin, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, leader of the maniacal communist regime that ruled the country from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. Mengistu's regime was one of brutal internal repression against real or imagined enemies and uncompromising war against regional insurrectionists and the country's Somalian neighbours; his use of famine as a weapon of war pushed the death-toll into the hundreds of thousands.

Mengistu is currently resident in Zimbabwe.

And you can read the article here.

Trouble in Wallachia

Wallachia is a little-known country in eastern Europe, about the size of Luxembourg. Its main export is slivovica, a potent plum brandy. While the rest of the world is gripped by the financial crisis, the good folk of Wallachia are more exercised by the political crisis that has engulfed their nation. A dispute over the country's future direction erupted between Wallachia's King Boleslav I and its political strongman, foreign minister Tomas Harabis. Boleslav has attempted to dismiss Harabis from the government, while Harabis has declared Boleslav deposed in favour of a new queen mother. All eyes are now on the country's national guard – its support will surely decide the day in favour of king or foreign minister, but if it splits then the country faces civil war.

Disputes of this kind are common in countries where monarchs have remained in place in a figurehead role but retain notional reserve powers. While the more democratic elements in such countries argue that the monarch's prerogatives no longer exist in any real sense, the monarchs often feel that they are still entitled to act in an absolutist manner. Wallachia's current travails point out the necessity for clearly delineating the rights and obligations of different actors in the constitutions of democratising states.

More on Wallachia

City of welcomes?

Ireland is famous the world over as the land of a thousand welcomes, a place where people are always pleased to see visitors, especially ones keen to spend plenty of money. Many such tourists enjoy an Irish welcome on a trip to Dublin, Ireland's capital. What visitors may not appreciate is that Dublin is less welcoming to Irish people arriving from other parts of the country. These people from outside Dublin (known as "culchies"), are subjected to varying kinds of discrimination and hostility from capital's natives. In fairness, some of the "culchies" bring their fellow into disrepute through petty criminality or displays of public drunkenness, while it would be hard to say that many of them have made any efforts to integrate into the settled life of the capital. Nevertheless, the rise of particularist sentiment among the capital's natives is a worrying development, as this recent report on the Culchie Control Platform and its more violent offshoots reveals.

see also

06 October, 2008

Iceland on the brink

People in Europe are jittery about the financial situation, but at least we are not going through the economic meltdown that Iceland is experiencing. Some of the banks there have been nationalised to prevent their collapse, while the value of the Icelandic krona is apparently in free fall. There are reports of people panic-buying imported foodstuffs, as the foreign exchange is not there to keep buying them in. It all looks a bit grim, and there is a real prospect of Icelanders having to go back to a diet based on putrefying sharkmeat. The government there is in crisis talks with the country's trade unions, hoping that they can save the Icelandic economy by agreeing wage restraint and (perhaps more crucially) by repatriating the monies they have invested in foreign pension funds. The unions are demanding as a quid pro quo that the country apply immediately to join the European Union, something the country's elite have always opposed.

This to some extent reminds me of the unfortunate fate of Newfoundland. Though now a province of Canada, it was once an independent dominion. Then in 1934, its government went bankrupt, and the country lost its independence, reverting to direct rule from London, before it was merged into Canada in 1949.

05 October, 2008


I feel that I ought to make some ill-informed comments about the economic crisis currently sweeping the world. There were interesting developments last week, when my own government announced that the Irish state was going to guarantee all deposits in Irish banks. Apparently this decision was made because there was a real likelihood of a major Irish financial institution going bust, something that would have had catastrophic effects for confidence in our economy. The government guarantee does seem to have restored confidence in the Irish financial system, even though some people are muttering about moral hazard and that kind of thing. Other people are complaining about the state bailing out bankers, though in this case it is more that the Irish state is becoming a deposit insurer - assuming that no bank actually goes to the wall (a big assumption, perhaps), this scheme looks like being quite a money spinner for the state, as the banks will have to pay something like 0.1% or 0.2% of their deposits to the state to be covered.

Greece also instituted a state guarantee of deposits last week. All of this caused some consternation in other European countries, where people complained about how a European-wide solution should have been sought. I think that is easy for them to say, but any kind of pan-European plan would have taken ages to bring together and would not have been easy to create, given the differing opinions on what was to be done. Some countries apparently did not even feel that anything needed to be done; German leaders in particular were reported as feeling that their banks were totally sound, and so did not want them to be entangled with a plan to help stupid banks in other countries. It is hard to know how serious and pressing the crisis in the Irish financial system was last week, but it really does sound like the authorities here could not wait for a European agreement to come into being.

Ireland and Greece did nevertheless find themselves in trouble with their European neighbours. British financial institutions feared that their deposits would disappear off to Irish safe havens, while EU figures talked of the state guarantees as being anti-competitive. For good or ill, however, it looks like the rest of Europe will find themselves having to follow the Irish example. Yesterday German leaders denounced the Irish and Greek move and agreed that there should be no more unilateral moves. Today they found that their banks are as shite as everyone else's, and the German government has announced that they are going to guarantee German bank deposits. The loss of the German middle class' savings in the 1920s is always seen as paving the way for the rise of the Nazis, so presumably Chancellor Merkel wanted to avoid anything similar happening today. Commentators reckon that it is inevitable that Britain will follow suit, with other European states having no choice but to bring up the rear.

Who knows what difference this will make in the long run? There is always a smoke and mirrors aspect to banking and insurance. European states do not even remotely have the funds to cover all their banks' deposits, should all of the banks fail simultanaeously. So as long as no banks, or only a few, fail then we should all be grand. Still, I have read predictions in the Financial Times that the European economy is likely to tank even worse than the US one, due to lower flexibility and stuff like that. We'll see.