Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Metaphorical Bull

Radically Centrist is back! I'm not sure how long for, but I hope to keep posting regularly, if infrequently, for the foreseeable future.

It seems that somebody has decided to take the bull of stagnant peace negotiations by the horns of destiny and give themselves an ultimatum. The shock is, that somebody is Mahmoud Abbas. I say "shock", but a little analysis shows that Mr. Abbas is the only person in a position to do anything at the moment:
  • Ehud Olmert is in the midst of a corruption investigation and is unlikely to win the coming Israeli elections.
  • Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal (of Hamas) can't make any significant change without incurring the wrath of their membership.
  • George W. Bush is fading into the famous "lame duck" stage of his presidency. (This was amply displayed by his rather limp speeches surrounding Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations.)
  • Tony Blair doesn't seem to have the respect of anyone in the Middle East - certainly not the Palestinians. This is reflected in his lack of visible progress since his appointment as the Quartet's envoy in the region.
Thankfully, Mr. Abbas has realised the pivotal role he now has in the peace process, and this ultimatum should give Israeli negotiators a reason to exist once more: if Abbas resigns, his successor is unlikely to be a suitable "partner for peace", to use the Israeli phraseology. Given Mr. Abbas's lack of progress in recent years, both in the peace process and in improving the daily lives of Palestinians, the people of the West Bank may well elect a Hamas President in six months' time. This would almost certainly stall any ongoing negotiations indefinitely. However, there is no need for such pessimism, as independent candidates like Mustafa Barghouti gained a significant number of votes in the last Palestinian Presidential elections*, and I predict that they will do better again next time.

Mr. Abbas's acknowledgement that "regional extremists [are] coming out victorious [while] both the Israelis and the Palestinians are reluctant to make a deal" is also significant. I believe that this statement is the first time a Palestinian President has tacitly acknowledged his own negotiation team's reluctance to compromise with Israel. I do not believe that Yasser Arafat would ever have said such a thing.

In my opinion, little concrete progress will be made until Olmert, Abbas and Bush have all been replaced. I predict that their successors will be Binyamin Netanyahu, Mustafa Barghouti and Barack Obama, respectively. If this situation were to arise, Israel might once again be seen as the belligerent side, if Mr. Netanyahu's recent speeches in the Knesset, and elsewhere, are a good guide to his current philosophy. None of this bodes well in the short term, but once the current generation, known forever to me as a generation clinging to the status quo, is replaced, perhaps we will have reason to be more optimistic.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Prophetic (well, not quite...)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter* to the Jewish Telegraph (Liverpool) in which I said, among other things, that Palestinians are more concerned with having a non-corrupt government than they are about which party is in power. Therefore, my argument went, the demise of Fatah in last year's elections was mostly due to perceived (and often actual) corruption in their ranks. I argued further that most Palestinians do not support Hamas' fundamental principles (as set out in their charter: "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad") in the sense that they are prepared to settle for a compromise in the form of a two-state solution.

The following week, a reply appeared. It was written by someone from a Leeds-based Zionist group and was highly critical of my letter. One point in particular seemed to rankle the author: my characterisation of Palestinian opinions. He referred to another opinion poll showing that many Palestinians support suicide bombings against civilians, among other things. While I respect his opinion and accept that the poll to which he referred is valid, a poll reported today in Ha'aretz shows Palestinians becoming disillusioned with Hamas, something I have thought might happen for a while now.

The title of this article sums up how I feel about this: on the one hand, I just want to say, "I told you so!"; on the other hand, my prediction is hardly unique. I have seen numerous pieces on analysis, both in the Israeli and British press, predicting the collapse of the Hamas government when they are shown to be spending government resources on rockets to fire at S'derot rather than on schools and hospitals. The poll reported today shows:
"...47 percent said the Fayyad government is performing better than the previous Hamas-led Cabinet led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. In comparison, 24 percent favored Haniyeh's government, while 23 percent said there was no difference between the two governments. Six percent did not answer." (courtesy Ha'aretz)
(These results are from a sample of 1,200 people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and have a margin of error of 3%.)

While Hamas are by no means a marginal force among Palestinians (especially in Gaza), their support has certainly diminished substantially - something that can only be good for the peace process.

*If anyone would like to see a copy of my letter, leave a comment below and I'll email it to you.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lamb and Lynx

Tonight I saw one of the most moving films I've ever seen. It was a documentary by James Quinn about the Gaede family of California, focusing on the 14 year-old twins, Lamb and Lynx: the "Nazi Pop Twins" as the programme calls them. It might seem strange that a film about neo-Nazis - or "White Nationalists" as April Gaede, the twins' mother, describes herself - could be moving, but it was: here's why.

Several years ago, readers may recall a BBC TV series called "Weird Weekends". Each episode involved Louis Theroux visiting a group of "weird" people - almost all in the USA (where else?!) - and following their lives in an ultra-objective manner. Subjects included UFO enthusiasts, porn stars, gangster rappers, televangelists, and body builders. I loved the series and it kept me on the lookout for other programmes involving Louis Theroux, since he is the reason it was so brilliant. His next BBC TV project was "When Louis Met...", in which he met some weird/eccentric/wonderful people (depending on your point of view).

Then, in 2003, "Louis and the Nazis" was broadcast. This film changed my life. I had never before realised that violently racist people like Bill and April Gaede still existed anywhere - let alone America, the home of the Civil Rights movement. And if it did exist in America, I assumed it would be in some Deep South backwater where the KKK still had a membership not countable on one hand, but no: they lived in rural California. The story of how April Gaede had brought up her twin daughters shocked me. They had been taken out of school at a young age and their mother had taught them all she knew about what most people would call White Supremacy. Her views had, as you might expect, rubbed off on them. Actually, more than that: Lamb and Lynx had become indoctrinated to the extent of becoming almost robotic in their pronouncements of the evil doings of non-Whites (the capital 'W' definitely applies here) and their hatred was only topped by that of their mother. April's father, Bill, was similar: when Louis intimated to him that he might be Jewish, Bill said that if he ever caught a Jew on his land he'd shoot him unless he was running away at top speed. (Incidentally, Louis Theroux is a non-practising Jew.) But the twins were the focus of the story.

Lamb and Lynx together form a band called "Prussian Blue". (The name refers to a chemical found in small traces at Nazi death camps. Holocaust deniers claim that this supports their opinion that either Jews and other non-Aryans were not slaughtered on mass by the Nazis or that this was not done on the scale commonly believed by the vast majority of historians.) Their songs were the most violent I had ever heard coming from two pre-teen girls playing a guitar. They spoke of death and destruction in a future war between whites and "the rest". There didn't seem to be one iota of compassion in them when they were on stage, but as soon as they're done (and away from their mother), everything changes. Even aged around 8-10, they had strong views on immigration (then again, who doesn't in the Southern USA?), but it was always clear that they weren't so sure that all non-whites were bad and that all whites were good.

Several years later I bought a book by Theroux called "The Call of the Weird" in which he revisits some of the people he filmed in his various documentaries, including the Gaede family. At the time of writing, the twins were in their early teens and they had changed. They seemed to be becoming disenchanted with their mother, to the extent they would dissent when she was not around, albeit choosing their words carefully. They said they wanted to move into more mainstream music, something that seemed to imply a wish to break with their past. They continued to perform at "White Power" rallies but, to Louis, their hearts didn't seem in it any more.

I also learnt from this book (although it might well have been mentioned as an aside in the TV programme) that April Gaede had been attacked by a black man when she was in her teens. She says a man attacked her, entirely unprovoked, and that she managed to escape only after biting him, and she believes that, had she not done so, she would have been raped. While this one event can surely not explain her politics on its own, it does offer an insight into the mind of a person with such extreme views. People holding such views are often held up by the mainstream as delusional or mentally impaired. Perhaps she was indeed psychologically damaged by this attack to the extent that it made her hate all black people for the rest of her life; perhaps not. Either way, it seems to me that April Gaede does have some major, unresolved problems in her life that cause her vitriol to continue to propagate while her beloved daughters are turning away from her, at least politically.

The most recent part of this story was told in the film I began this article by describing. The twins are now 14 and they want to "take a break" from their music career for a while. They repeatedly say that they "just want to be normal", and they show this by telling James Quinn about their love of shopping and dressing up. As with the last stage of the story, the twins have further distanced themselves (politically, but certainly not emotionally) from their mother. They now openly express their disquiet about her racism and seem fed up of being lauded as the heroes of the White Nationalist movement. They don't want to be thrown out of bars any more - as they are in one scene in the film. They no longer want to be associated with people like "Stormtroop 16" (a White Power band who, in the film, tell of their admiration for Prussian Blue). However, they still love their mother and she still loves them. It's a very tense relationship and you can't help but feel sorry for the twins.

While I'm sure that my sympathy for Lamb and Lynx is shared by many people around the world, I also sympathise with April Gaede. This might seem an ultra-liberal stance, and not something I would advocate given my previous posts to this blog, but it is nevertheless true. I feel the same sort of sympathy for April Gaede as I do for the soldiers in Iraq who have been mentally scarred by what they have experienced to the extent that they can be exploited by over-zealous commanders and end up torturing prisoners in a pretence of extracting information, when their subconscious motive is really to release the pain and anger they feel inside for having taken part in such a brutal war. (I should point out that I, in no way, condone the torturing of prisoners, or anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. All that I am saying is that people do strange things in strange situations and we should not judge them by the standards of those of us who are fortunate enough to live relatively stress- and pain-free lives.) April Gaede has known nothing her whole life except begrudged tolerance bordering on hate, and a combination of factors during her childhood seem to have pushed her to the extreme.

I believe that, one day, both April and her daughters will leave the politics of hate behind them, once and for all. I can't see them shaking hands with the Rev. Jesse Jackson any time soon, but neither can I see them participating in the "race war" they insist is imminent. Perhaps Lamb and Lynx's move away from White Nationalism will persuade others to take a step towards the mainstream too; we can only hope.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What if...

...the kidnappers of Alan Johnston had been Israeli? Would the world have reacted differently? If so, would this indicate a double standard being applied to Israel?

These questions were explored by Charles Moore in a recent article in the Telegraph. Here is an excerpt:
But just suppose that some fanatical Jews had grabbed Mr Johnston and forced him to spout their message, abusing his own country as he did so. What would the world have said?

There would have been none of the caution which has characterised the response of the BBC and of the Government since Mr Johnston was abducted on March 12. The Israeli government would immediately have been condemned for its readiness to harbour terrorists or its failure to track them down.

Loud would have been the denunciations of the extremist doctrines of Zionism which had given rise to this vile act. The world isolation of Israel, if it failed to get Mr Johnston freed, would have been complete.
It seems to me that very little overt action has been taken to secure the release of Alan Johnston. The story has received significant media coverage, but certainly not as overwhelmingly so as the case of Ken Bigley, who was kidnapped and murdered in Iraq in 2004. This surprises me, because Mr. Bigley was an engineer -- one of many -- working in Iraq, some of whom had been kidnapped before Mr. Bigley, only to be released after a short time and, probably, a ransom payment; whereas Alan Johnston is a very highly-respected journalist, both in Britain and in the Middle East, who has now been captive for several months. His kidnap has provoked mass protests in Gaza, where he lived and worked, but there doesn't seem to be much fuss about the situation back in Britain. This strikes me as very odd.

Now, if Alan Johnston had been kidnapped by Israelis (by which I mean an extremist Israeli group of some description) all hell would have broken loose across the world, as Charles Moore says. Arab countries, in particular, would relish in the opportunity to attack Israel for not doing enough to secure his release. (This would happen whatever Israel decided to do because, as I have seen over the years, each and every action of the Israeli Government is criticised by someone. If they try a multilateral approach, they are criticised by the Israeli Right for appeasing terrorists; if they act unilaterally, as with the Gaza withdrawal, they are criticised by others for allowing the Strip to descend into chaos.)

However, perhaps this is not entirely a double standard. If someone is kidnapped in a lawless, albeit democratic place like Gaza, where kidnapping is a fact of life, it is perhaps not so newsworthy as when someone is kidnapped (for political reasons, anyway) in, for example, London, where such things simply don't happen. (Having said that, the Madeleine McCann case is attracting rather a lot of attention...)

On balance I think that, while Charles Moore does have a point, it is rather unfair to judge the international community on their reaction to an event that did not (and will not, in the foreseeable future) occur. In the meantime, all we can hope is that Alan Johnston is released, unharmed, as soon as possible.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Crying for votes?

The following interview between presenter, Eddie Mair, and journalist and former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris, was broadcast on the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, May 17, 2007 (my transcript from the audio recording; my emphasis):
Matthew Parris: This wasn't sombre: it was fake; it was absolutely ghastly; it was vile; it was loathsome; it was really toe-curling. Why do MPs do this kind of thing? They're getting worse and worse! They all come out in red AIDS ribbons, then they all come out in pink "cancer awareness" ribbons, and they start wearing their red poppies about four months before Remembrance Day - it's all completely false.

Eddie Mair: Don't they care?

Parris: Some may care, some may not care. It's nothing to do with caring. It's because they want to live like the common people, they want to feel like the common people, they want to be in touch with the common people, and they read the common newspapers and they decide that this is what the common people feel, and they get all caught up with it, and it's all to do with trying to associate themselves with the common herd, and they're not part of it: they're politicians.

Mair: Is the next step along from the argument you're making that, in fact, they are, in some way, just looking for our votes?

Parris: I don't think it's as crude as people thinking, "Ha, ha, ha! I don't really care about little Maddy, but I'm going to wear a yellow ribbon 'cause it'll get me votes." I think it's a matter of thinking, "Ah, this is the spirit of the times, this is the Zeitgeist, this is what everyone feels, this is what we're all feeling, this is what I feel," and, by then, they probably believe it. But there's something hollow about it all. Tony Blair hasn't helped by starting to reel off the names of soldiers killed in action at Prime Minister's Questions - can you imagine Churchill doing that?

Mair: Isn't he doing that because, well, I don't know why he's doing it but, if he didn't do it, wouldn't he be accused of ignoring, or forgetting, the soldiers, as he has been in the past?

Parris: He certainly wouldn't be accused of ignoring soldiers by not reading their names out in the House of Commons, because it never was done before. He started it and, I suppose, part of his motivation is genuine. It does also make it rather harder for the Leader of the Opposition to chip in with any kind of aggressive remark when the Prime Minister has just remembered the death of a soldier.

Mair: What about Gordon Brown today, having a meeting with some of the missing girl's relatives?

Parris: Oh, I don't know... you feel so sorry for the relatives and, of course, you feel so sorry for the parents and, of course, on one level, this level of public and media grief is, I suppose, a good thing. Yet there is something disgusting about it and there is something disgusting about politicians wanting to tap into it. I think a little bit of dignity, a little bit of reserve, a little bit of distance, except perhaps for the constituency MP - that's a matter for them.
It's rare I hear or read a piece like that and agree so profoundly and exactly with the sentiments of the interviewee. I can't stand the way some MPs carry jet packs around with them so that they can get onto any passing bandwagon no matter how high it's already piled with other MPs, journalists and "celebrities". (Yes, that word does demand quotation marks.) I wish they'd keep their comments to something like, "My sympathies are with the family but I feel that this is a private matter for them, so I will not comment any further." At the risk of sounding excessively common: as if!

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Middle East's new buzzword: restraint

I have always been fascinated by politicians' use of language, and the word "restraint" has recently come to light as an interesting example of one of two terms having similar dictionary definitions but entirely different political nuances. The second term, in this case, which I believe has been replaced by "restraint" is "inaction". If a politician is accused of "inaction", he/she might as well resign; if however, a politician exercises "restraint", they might well be congratulated by many people as having avoided the second deadly sin of politics: being reactionary.

This wordplay has become all too apparent in the Middle East, particularly relating to the actions of the Israeli Government. Past Labour administrations, such as that of Ehud Barak, were often accused of inaction in the face of terrorist activity. However, the current Kadima-led government of Ehud Olmert has, according to recent reports, been exercising restraint. I think that this shows a shift in Israeli public opinion towards the Left (or, I should say, the Israeli Left, which is rather different to the Left as it is understood in other parts of the world). In my opinion, this can only be a good thing, as it means that the government can refuse to retaliate for Palestinian attacks and rely on being congratulated for their restraint rather than being lambasted for their inaction. Hopefully, this will lead to a situation where Israel no longer feels the need to retaliate for individual attacks, and can concentrate on preventing future loss of life on both sides.

Define "Ceasefire"

An exceptionally short-lived truce was broken today as Palestinian factions renewed their conflict and the interior minster, Hani Kawasmeh, resigned. Meanwhile, the disquiet resulting from the publication of the interim findings of the Winograd Report has intensified. I believe that these events exemplify the difference in culture between those on the Israeli side of the "green line" and those on the Palestinian side. More specifically, I think it shows the difference in approach taken by those opposed to the government of the day on each side.

Many Israelis, a significant majority according to some opinion polls, want Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign. However, they have not formed militias and fought pitched battles on the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Tiberias. Yet that is exactly what some Palestinians opposed to the Hamas-led government have done. Obviously, those firing automatic weapons at each other on the streets of Gaza do not represent the majority of Palestinians but their existence is, nonetheless, worrying.

This begs the question: Why do Palestinians opposed to the Hamas-led government not air their grievances peacefully in the same way people do in Israel and, for that matter, the UK? Unfortunately, that is a question I have yet to answer.

Furthermore, those in Israel who are calling for Olmert's resignation do so because they believe that he led them into a pointless war or, at the very least, grossly mishandled an otherwise-just war; those Palestinians opposed to their government simply do not like Hamas. They may well disagree with suicide bombings and rocket attacks on civilians as a tactic, but they do themselves no favours by expressing such views via the medium of violence. So I would argue that Israelis have more justification to oppose their democratically-elected government than Palestinians have to oppose theirs (although both sides obviously have the right to oppose whoever or whatever they wish), yet one side does so peacefully and the other through the barrel of a gun.

I should point out that there are regular peaceful protests in many Palestinian towns, but they will always be overshadowed by the minority who take up arms at the slightest provocation.

It's been a long time...

...since I wrote anything here. Sorry to those of you who were enjoying (or ranting about) my earlier posts. Anyway, I've decided to start writing again, so here goes...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"I don't like vegetables"

The eight-year-old, fourteen stone (194lb, 89kg) boy who North Tyneside social services wanted to take into care learnt his fate today. It has been decided that he can stay with his parents, but social services have reached a "formal agreement with the family to safeguard and promote the child's welfare".

Also today, Prince Charles called for McDonald's "restaurants" to be banned in order to improve the nation's health. This is the latest in a series of pronouncements by the Prince on a wide range of issues, including global warming, trade, and obesity.

Both of these stories reveal, in my humble opinion, a complete lack of understanding of obesity. Unhealthy food has been around for decades in vast quantities, yet obesity has only become a serious problem in recent years.