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A Wand for Donald

Just in case you’ve been trapped down a coal-mine for the past couple of days (or kidnapped by space aliens, or otherwise cut off from the global information flow), the most widely shared news story all over the world for the past 48 hours has been about the magic wand shop in the beautiful village of Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield. It won’t sell wands to Muggles.

In JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the accompanying movies, the most important cultural phenomenon of the early 21st century, Muggles are people who just don’t have the magic. They are not witches or wizards; they’re not even house elves. And Slaithwaite, although it is one of the jewels in West Yorkshire’s crown, is not widely known outside the British Isles even in magic circles.

What brought Slaithwaite’s magic wands to the world’s attention was Richard Carter, the proprietor of the aforesaid magic wand shop (called Mystic Moments). He declared to an inquiring journalist that he would not sell any of his lovingly hand-made wands to Harry Potter fans, because they don’t really believe in magic.

Wands are “spiritual tools,” Carter said. “If I had someone come in wanting a wand just because they liked Harry Potter I would not sell them one, not matter how much money they were offering. I can tell what people are like when they walk in by their aura.”

“You wouldn’t believe how many real witches and wizards there are knocking about,” the wand-maker continued. “You would be amazed. They know they can come in here and reveal themselves without people thinking they’re mental.”

Mean-spirited cynics are suggesting that Richard Carter said this because it would get him lots of publicity. JK Rowling herself came to the defence of her gazillions of heartbroken young readers, tweeting “Oh, yeah? Well, I don’t think they’re real wands.” But they are real, or at least as real as Carter can make them. He does believe that they work, at least in the right hands. And maybe they do

If you secretly believe in magic and you have made promises that are impossible to keep, it would certainly be worth giving one of Carter’s wands a try, especially as they only cost $25-$40 each. Which would explain why several foreign-looking gentlemen have recently been seen on Britannia Road in Slaithwaite.

One of them was Chinese. Not that Chinese visitors are all that rare in Slaithwaite – it’s a lovely town with a canal running right alongside the High Street – but most of them don’t come in long black limos with embassy plates. This gentleman parked around the corner, lurked in the shadows until Mystic Moments opened, then dodged in, spent about twenty minutes in the shop, emerged with a brown-paper parcel under his arm, and sped away.

Speculation was rife in the Silent Woman public house later in the day that the visitor had been sent by the Chinese government to get a magic wand for President Xi Jinping. Harold Crossley, the reigning geopolitical expert in the saloon bar, opined that Xi is in deep, maybe terminal trouble because he keeps insisting that the Chinese economy is in good shape when it is actually near collapse. A magic wand is obviously his last chance.

Later in the day a car from the Turkish embassy drew up right in front of Mystical Moments, and a diplomat walked into the shop bold as brass. But he came out crest-fallen and empty-handed. Harold reckons that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wanted to put a hex on his rival Fethullah Gülen, and everybody knows that Richard Carter doesn’t let his wands be used for black magic.

The most intriguing visitor, though, was an American gentleman who drove up in a rental car. Nobody knew who he was, and to add to the mystery Grace Robinson, who was in the shop at the same time, said the man had tried to pay for his wand in Russian rubles. And it’s no use asking Richard, who is always the very soul of discretion about the identity of his clients.

The mystery was only solved when Ernie Best, who patrols Slaithewaite’s twenty-two parking meters, came into the Shoulder of Mutton for his evening pint. He had been putting a ticket on the American’s car for parking on a yellow line when the man came out of the shop and told him to stop. “You can’t do that to me. I’m Paul Manafort,” the man had said.

The name didn’t mean anything to Ernie, who made Manafort wait while he finished writing the ticket, but the well-travelled landlady of the Shoulder of Mutton spotted it at once. “That’s Donald Trump’s campaign chairman,” she said. The pub went silent: everybody was shocked that Richard would let a man like Trump have a magic wand.

But Richard is subtler than that. News is just in that Manafort has been demoted by the down-market Mussolini he works for. The new Chief Executive Officer of Trump’s campaign is Stephen Bannon, from the right-wing website Breitbart News, a man who was once described by the website’s editor as “Trump’s personal Pravda.” So it looks as if Trump’s magic wand didn’t work after all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Mean-spirited…do”; and “Later…magic”)

Eighty Years On: Is 2016 the New 1936?

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx, 1852

We would all prefer a farce to a tragedy, so let us hope that Marx was right. But he has been wrong a few times in the past, so we must entertain the possibility that what awaits us is tragedy.

The “first time”, in this instance, was the 1930s, when the painfully slow recovery from a global financial crash led to political polarisation, beggar-my neighbour trade wars, and the rise to power of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist leaders in a number of countries. The consequences included the Second World War, death camps, the first and only use of nuclear weapons, and forty years of Cold War.

Well, we had our global financial crash in 2008, and the recovery has certainly been slow. Average incomes in many Western countries have still not recovered to pre-2008 levels, and the growth of nationalist and racist sentiment is evident in major countries like Britain (the Brexit vote), France (the rise of the National Front), and above all the United States (Trump).

The wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that transformed so many developing countries at the end of the Cold War ended with the failure of the “Arab Spring”, leaving a new dictatorship in Egypt and civil wars across the Middle East. In parts of Asia the process has even gone into reverse (military rule in Thailand, death squads run by populist elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia).

Authoritarian, ultra-nationalist governments hostile to the European Union have come to power in post-Communist Eastern Europe (Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice government in Poland). And a trade war is brewing between the United States and China no matter who wins the US election in November.

You could add to the list of worries a new ruler in China (Xi Jinping) who is more autocratic and readier to play the nationalist card than any other Chinese leader since Mao, and a Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe) who promises to remove the anti-war clause from the constitution. Not to mention that addict to high-stakes international brinkmanship, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Quite a list, but does it really mean that we are back in 1936 (fascists in power in Germany, Italy and Japan, civil war in Spain, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union), with the catastrophe of global war just three years away? Or is it just a grab-bag of local problems, failures and worries of the sort that are bound to exist in a world of almost 200 independent countries? Probably the latter.

Right- and left-wing parties are a legitimate and inevitable part of any democratic society, but they both tend to spin off or mutate into more extreme and paranoid versions of themselves in times of economic hardship. It is difficult to argue, however, that the times are really that bad at the moment.

Times are very hard in most developed countries for the old working class, who have been left behind by globalisation, and that is where most of the support for right-wing extremism comes from. But there really aren’t enough of them to take over the state: Trump will not win in November, the National Front will not win next year’s French election, and the Brexiteers in Britain – well, that remains to be seen.

The Middle East is a disaster area, of course, but it is a pretty isolated disaster area, apart from occasional small-scale terrorist outrages in Western countries. To live in fear of a world-wide Islamic caliphate is as delusional as to hope for it.

Democracy is not in retreat in Africa or Latin America, and the pluses and the minuses more or less balance out in Asia (military rule in Thailand and more authoritarian elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia, but more democracy in Burma and Sri Lanka). Nor should we see the triumph of a couple of ultra-nationalist parties in traditionally nationalist Eastern European countries as a sign of things to come in the rest of Europe.

This is not to say that the European Union will survive in the long term without major changes. We are going through a historic shift of the centre of gravity of the global economy from the North Atlantic world to Asia, and many things will have to change as a result.

It is possible that the United States and China might stumble into a military confrontation at some point: that risk is implicit in the kind of power shift that is underway in the early 21st century. But we are not on the brink of any great and awful calamity in the world. It is not 1936.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Right…moment”; and “This is…result”)

Russia’s New Friend

There was more than a hint of groveling in Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s approach to his new “dear friend”, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

First came Erdogan’s carefully worded apology in June for ambushing and shooting down a Russian plane on the Syrian border last November. The Turkish economy was reeling under the ban on trade and tourism that Moscow had imposed after that ill-considered outrage, and Erdogan was trying (unsuccessfully, at that point) to get it lifted.

Then came the attempted military coup in Turkey on 15-16 July, when the Turkish president realised that he didn’t have a friend left in the world apart from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The US goverment almost certainly wasn’t behind the coup, but it was clear that it wouldn’t have minded terribly if Erdogan had been overthrown. Neither would the European Union or NATO, Turkey’s most important alliance.

All the governments of Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbours, Iran, Iraq and Syria, see Erdogan as an enemy, and so does about half of his own population. (His fiercely pro-religious domestic policies have split Turkey right down the middle.) He is involved in an unwinnable war with Turkey’s own Kurdish minority, and the rebels he backed in Syria are losing the war there. This is a man desperately in need of friends.

Erdogan has only himself to blame for his isolation. It was his Sunni religious enthusiasm, not Turkish national interest, that led him to back the Syrian revolt aimed at overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (non-Sunni) leader. He kept the Turkish-Syrian border open to supply the Syrian rebels, including Islamic State and the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, thereby alienating the Western countries that are Turkey’s main allies.

Last July he re-started a war against Turkey’s big Kurdish minority, breaking a two-year ceasefire, in order to appeal to right-wing Turkish nationalists and win a close election. He has also bombed and shelled the Syrian Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, who are America’s most important allies in the ground war against Islamic State. And he deliberately shot down a Russian bomber because Russia was helping Assad survive.

In other words, Erdogan is an impulsive short-term thinker with no grand strategy who has put Turkey and himself in a very difficult position. That’s why he had to fly to St. Petersburg this week to visit his “dear friend” Putin – who, of course, greeted him with open arms.

Putin is always happy to score points against the West, and Turkey has Nato’s second-biggest army (although half its generals have just been jailed or dishonourably discharged). Restoring trade ties will help Russia too (although Turkey was hurting much more). But Erdogan was the supplicant here – so what will be the price of his “friendship” with Putin?

First and foremost, it will be an end to Turkish support for the Syrian rebels. No more missiles smuggled across the border from Turkey to shoot down Russian helicopters, and indeed no more arms, money or recruits crossing the border at all, particularly for the fanatics of Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate (currently trading as Fateh al-Sham) who are doing most of the fighting against Assad’s regime.

At a slightly later date, Erdogan will be expected to downgrade his relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the revolt’s main Arab backers, and re-open contacts with the Assad regime. In the long run, Moscow hopes, the result will be a decisive Assad victory in the Syrian civil war. Even a month ago that seemed improbable, but Turkey is the only route by which money and weapons from the Arab Gulf states can reach the rebels.

There is inevitably a flutter of concern in Washington about this new “Turkish-Russian axis”, but none of the likely consequences in the Middle East will damage American strategic interests. Washington hawks still insist that the United States can destroy both the extreme Islamists AND the Assad regime, but the realists in the US military and the Obama administration now accept that Assad’s survival is the lesser evil.

And the hawks in Washington need not worry about NATO’s future: Turkey and Russia are not getting married. They are just getting into bed together for a while, until Erdogan feels less threatened.

Turkey’s fundamental strategy for the past two centuries, under sultans, elected governments and occasional military regimes alike, has been to have a powerful foreign ally to counter-balance the permanent threat from the great Russian power to its north.

For the past fifty-two years that powerful foreign ally has been the United States, and by extension the NATO alliance that America leads. The geopolitical calculations that drew Turkey into that alliance have not changed. Erdogan is not planning to break his country’s strategic ties with the US, and the humble pie he is being forced to eat may hasten an end to the killing in Syria.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“There is…evil”)

Malaria and Chickens

I had malaria once, and it was extremely unpleasant. I had been working in Yemen, but I actually contracted it when I was flying home on a Dutch airline that must remain nameless. The flight made a stop in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and the plane was parked out on the runway while waiting to pick up passengers – right on the edge of a mangrove swamp on the Red Sea coast .

The pilot turned the engines off to save fuel, and then opened the door to give us fresh air. It was night-time, and so a million mosquitoes swarmed into the plane. In five minutes everybody had been bitten multiple times. The passengers then revolted and the pilot shut the door and turned the air con back on, but it was too late.

I fell ill and collapsed a couple of weeks later, when I was at my wife’s family’s house in a small village in southern France, but I was lucky. My wife, who grew up in Africa, thought it was malaria, and the village doctor (who had served with the French army in Africa) confirmed it, so there and then he gave me a massive dose of antimalarial drugs.

By the time they got me to the hospital in Bayonne, they couldn’t even find any of the Plasmodium parasites in my bloodstream. They kept me in hospital for a couple of days anyway, but it wasn’t that bad, because in French hospitals they give you wine with your meals.

Small crisis, not many hurt. But the point of the story is that none of this would have happened to me (and presumably to some of the other passengers too) if only there had been chickens on the plane.

Statistics can sometimes lead to significant medical breakthroughs. In this case a team of Ethopian and Swedish scientists did a statistical study in three villages in western Ethiopia about the feeding habits of nocturnal, malaria-carrying Anopheles arabiensis mosquitoes. The results were instructive.

Outdoors, the mosquitoes preferred to feed on cattle (63 percent of bites), with human beings coming next (20 percent), and goats and sheep bringing up the rear (5 percent and 2.6 percent). Indoors, people provided 69 percent of the mosquitoes’ meals, compared to cattle at 18 percent and sheep and goats coming last again. (In this part of Ethiopia, people sometimes bring their animals indoors at night.)

There were also plenty of chickens around, both indoors and out. But in one outdoor sample, only one female mosquito out of 1,200 had chicken blood in her. In the indoor sample, none did. MOSQUITOES DON’T BITE CHICKENS.

Why not? Maybe evolution has taught mosquitoes to avoid chickens because chickens eat mosquitoes. But how do mosquitoes actually spot a chicken? Certainly not by sight: tiny compound eyes are good for spotting movement, but they do not give you much detail or any distance vision at all. So maybe by smell? That would be handy.

We can’t disguise ourselves as chickens, but we could try smelling like them. Or at least have something that smells chickeny nearby. In one experiment, the scientists even hung cages with live chickens in them over people’s beds at night, and lo! They had very few mosquito bites – fewer even than people sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets.

Admittedly, this approach is a bit impractical for general use. Something more compact and less noisy would be preferable. So the scientists tried putting chicken feathers near people’s beds, and it still worked. Then they tried distilled essence of chicken odour (isobutyl butyrate, naphthalene, hexadecane and trans-limonene, if you must know), and that worked too.

Almost half the world’s population (3.2 billion people) lives in areas where malaria-bearing mosquitoes are present. About one in fifteen of those people actually comes down with malaria each year, and almost half a million of them die of it. Many tens of millions more spend a long, agonising time being very sick indeed.

Anything that cuts into those numbers would be most welcome, and prevention is much better than cure. CHEAP prevention is even better, and compared to insecticide-treated bed nets and various experimental vaccines, just sprinkling some “essence de poulet” (chicken fragrance) around before going to bed has got to be cheaper.

Essence de poulet probably won’t be on the market for a while yet, but hats off to Professor Habte Tekie of the University of Addis Ababa and Professor Rickard Ignell of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who led the Ethiopian-Swedish team that did the study. (Their full report is available online in the 21 July issue of Malaria Journal)

Meanwhile, if you want to bring a chicken along on our next camping trip, it’s fine with me. But don’t get the supermarket kind. They don’t work as well.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…handy”)