Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: failing states

Questions

(The Editor ruminates on the decline of print media)  I’m a reasonable sort of fellow, all things considered.  ‘All things considered’  even includes the continued absence of an intern.  These days when nine out of ten of the old news media are either out of business, or clinging on by writing illiterate clickbait or ‘human interest’ stuff (probably invented by a Californian computer programme), I don’t hope for properly established colleagues.  (But the continuing absence of Manos, inventive, energetic, and Greek though he was and probably still is, must count as a major plus on the balance sheet.)  But when I semaphored this morning down to the weather ship that I was ready to send over another posting of the journal, if Violette could spare the launch for a few hours, a sudden feeling of frustration swept over me.  Here I have been offering news, predictions and solutions over the years, to the world at large, at no fee.  In return there is a motley flow of insults – usually based on wildly inaccurate guesses about my personal characteristics, habits  and principles and about what I ‘really mean’ when I have posted something – together with implausible stories about the noble character of the correspondents, equally implausible pleas for money based on ‘our old friendship’ (i.e having been in the audience when I gave a speech in some benighted hangout, today entirely wiped from my memory), and – a small trickle in the mighty flow – the odd note of  thanks and sometimes the very much more odd original observation (but don’t worry – none have been reported to libel lawyers or the Jockey Club).   Also over the past three years, two gifts, unless they also were intended as insults, one being a pocket English dictionary, and the other a ticket to a long vanished rock festival.  Even if I and my sane readers are part of a tiny minority trying to stir the giant anthill of the English-speaking (or English-mangling) world into a renewed production of helpful ideas, any project of getting useful results by simply laying observable facts before an educated audience becomes closer to a deranged delusion every day.  So today I am turning things round, and putting questions to my readers instead of answers and comments and warnings.

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  1. Why do golf courses have eighteen holes (apart from those produced by moles and incompetent beginners)? To be taken seriously a game or pastime must involve a certain amount of skill.  In the case of golf the skill consists partly in successfully striking a small ball from a starting point called the tee,  if necessary many times, until it falls into a hole maybe 100 or 200 metres away, but more importantly in choosing the path over the intervening terrain which will enable the ‘golfer’ to do this with the least possible number of strokes.  There is absolutely no reason why this should require 18 different stretches of terrain (unless we believe legends about contests among the eighteen tribes of Pictdom).  Most of eighteen such parcels of land wherever located could either be used for a better purpose by more people, or simply left in a natural state until some more meaningful use is discovered.   In the latter case (and probably both) the demand on the local water supply would be enormously lower, and the price of water supply to local residents would drop.  Three holes would be quite sufficient to allow the ‘golfers’ to show any skill they possess, provided that the ingenuity of the landscape experts is up to choosing six different ways to approach each hole, starting from six different tees, aided if necessary, by whatever ancillary landscaping seems desirable or amusing.

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  1. The United Nations issues statistics as if they were free licences to draw on money freely provided by an organisation with money in truckloads. (Come to think of it… – but  no, let’s not follow that line right now.)  One natural result is that ‘rankings’ of the world’s nations are available for all manner of characteristics, from ‘Legislation against the use of telepathy by female students in  examinations’ to ‘Percentage of the population registered as professional fire-eaters’.  Much of this has no genuine significance for the daily life of the average human or humanoid, yet the instinct to try to be ‘ahead of the rest’ and especially the bureaucratic instinct to discover some activity in which ‘we’ can ‘lead the world’ combine to produce mountainous  activity and efforts, however fatuous, to try to hoist ‘our’ nation to the top of some list or other.  Can the UN be asked to compile an annual ranking of nations based on the truthfulness of average citizens, or, perhaps better, of average members of their legislative assembly?  (Any halfway competent psychology department should be able to rustle up a few relevant parameters and appropriate questionnaires over their morning coffee.)

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  1. If you haven’t been keeping up with the news lately, Vladimir Putin is Russian, and that by itself is enough to ensure he is classified as one of ‘them’. (This would still hold good even if his Russian-speaking family had long been settled in what since 1954 has been officially  Ukrainian territory.)   Alexei Navalny is also Russian, but leads political opposition to Putin.  He has repeatedly led actions of protest against Putin, and has been sentenced to prison a number of times, so according to OPA (Official Political Algebra, a calculus of great generality and extraordinary simple-mindedness) he scores ‘good’ with European governments (even if there remains  some uncertainty as to whether he is actually ‘one of us’).  However the terms in prison, or house arrest, have been quite remarkably short in the circumstances, 20 or 30 days, and not even served in full in all cases.  Also the film clips with Navalny awaiting trial or being released from custody show him looking very bullish and confident, certainly not being harassed by the policemen around him, nor apparently battered or suffering long-term injury (or dead) as seems to be normal for protesters throughout the Middle East.  Much the same goes for shots of him being arrested during a protest declared illegal – handled vigorously, certainly, but by no means brutally unless the camera is lying.  And people keep turning up to his protests.  This is puzzling.  Is he a special case?  Is there actually now some element of de facto tolerance of street protest in Russia?  Or is Navalny actually part of a government plan to give the appearance of a country where protests are not strictly allowed perhaps, but not met with ruthless repression?   (And if the latter should that be taken as a step in the right direction, or as a dangerous manipulation of attitudes to  human rights?)

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  1. How will the world deal with climate change? An easy question.  It won’t.  Just think for a moment.  The necessary changes will be repeatedly spelt out to governments, individually and at major conferences in very agreeable resorts in regions reliably reported as safe from droughts or floods or epidemics of tropical diseases spreading into previously temperate parts of the world.  Faced with demands for corresponding actions, governments will then point out that as they operate within a framework of electoral democracy these matters cannot be rushed; there will be important constitutional implications to consider, and in any case it would be improper for them to proceed in matters of such importance without getting clear consent from the electorate as a whole, i.e. at the first practicable point after the next election, or, should it prove unavoidable, in a special referendum properly organised and arranged at some suitable date.  Some modifications to the proposals will have to be made in any case  since otherwise a number of major programmes already under way for the benefit of the population as a whole would be hopelessly disrupted, making the situation actually more serious in the long term.  Meanwhile the government has already been drawing up plans to face the many challenges, and must of course  stress that it is not acting in its own sectional interests but for the sake of the future of the nation as a whole, since the benefits of the programmes envisaged will not ‘kick in’ until the present generation of political actors will have long retired from office.

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  1. Some of my early years were spent in the UK. At that time an expression still very often heard was “It’s a free country” (referring, in case younger readers may doubt it, to Britain). The confident background assumption to daily life was that the citizenry were free to do any of a great range of things from crossing the road to gathering wild mushrooms, and to swimming, at their own risk, around the craft in a small commercial harbour, without the police or any officious jobsworth interfering  As a lad I gambolled freely around the stones of Stonehenge including on the day of the school outing organised by Mr Snelling when one of the boys from Lower 5A or 5B or C – not Richard Atkinson our host, though he was intensely interested – found the outline of a dagger or sword on one of the stones, an image which may have been waiting there unnoticed for thousands of years.  Nor was it only the careless young who took this freedom from constraint for granted.  My mother was rather proud of the stiff hip which was a consequence of attempting to take a quick route down from the Parthenon where she had been casually, and freely, strolling round admiring the view.  Today, however, just a few decades later, the confident background assumption (held by those – ‘the authorised personnel’ – who have the right (or duty – oh yes, duty) to tell others what they may or, more often, may not do) is that it, whatever ‘it’ may be, is illegal unless explicitly permitted under the law, or relevant bye-laws, or Home Office guidance on implementation (whatever that means).  Nowadays, if you want to visit Stonehenge, basically you can’t, though on presentation of a suitable sum of money you may be allowed in at a ‘safe’ distance from the stones (though woe betide you if your behaviour does not fit the rules of decorum drawn up and written down by the corps of licensed petty bureaucrats or their officially appointed agents.).  Much the same for the Parthenon and other sites across all Europe.  Why this repellent change in just a decade or two?  The answer is of course embedded in the last few lines.  How very much more efficient government will become when the fundamental principle is established that almost anything you might want to do is forbidden, but you can get a ticket or a licence to do it if you simply present the prescribed amount of money to the prescribed representative of the state.

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  1. How do you, as a thoughtful civilised commentator on the effects of technology, feel about the fact – it undoubtedly is a fact – that if mobile phones had been invented in, say, 1650, there would never have been the floods of magnificent music that swept across the world in the next three centuries?

People, flowers and truth

Another of these tiresome sessions with Simon, though fortunately Louise did not come in with him this time. I’ve got it all verbatim, because Karela had left her voice recorder on while she slipped out for a refreshing morning bottle or two in what she assures me is the slivovitz capital of the island.

Simon: Er, sorry, can I disturb you, Ed?

Self:  Without even trying, I’d say. But ask away.

Simon:  I was reading on this website and it said that the whole of a place called Kiribati is going to be under water at high tide within fourteen years. Does that mean it will be a failed state?

Self:  Hmm! I don’t think so. There’s no fighting going on there. But I don’t think it will count as a failed state. It just won’t be a state at all.

Simon:  Well, what is a failed state then?

Self:  Basically it’s a state where most of the country is out of the control of the central government, and if there’s any sort of law and order at all outside the capital, it’ll be run by warlords or local tribal groups or something like that, and the ordinary people are short of food or medical supplies, and so on.

Simon: Like Afghanistan, you mean?

Self: Well, no. Afghanistan is basically on the path to being a responsible democracy, with successful presidential elections. In fact the last election produced not one but two presidents. And order is being restored. It just has some localised problems in the south, and the north, and the areas bordering Pakistan, and some other areas.

Simon: So why is NATO – that’s the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – sending in 12,000 troops, marines I suppose?

Self:  I know perfectly well what NATO stands for, thank you very much. And why the hell do you suppose they would be marines? Anyway, those troops are not going to do any fighting. They’re going only to train the loyal Afghan forces, to fight the insurgents.

Simon: But the ones doing the insurging are all Afghans aren’t they? So if they’re all loyal too isn’t there a risk they’ll all insurge against the troops coming into their country who aren’t Afghan, just like the French resisted when the Germans…

Self:  That’s enough of that. Quite different situation. Anyway, you were asking what counts as a…

Simon: failed state. Yes, that was what I –

Self: No, shut up and listen. Yemen could be pretty close to that now. Their president was holed up in Saudi Arabia, because there was a huge rebellion of the Houthis. Blest if I could tell you what the exact differences are between the Houthis and whoever it was who was on the president’s side. Anyway he escaped to Saudi, last year I think it was. He’s only just gone back, and he’s still keeping well away from where the Houthis are, which includes the capital. He and the Saudis got up a coalition consisting mainly of Saudis and, er, other Saudis, to bomb Yemen to restore peace. Been going on a few months now. Quite unpleasant, hospital-bombing there too. United Nations reckon by now at least 80% of the population are in need or urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

Simon:  So that really is a failed state?

Self:  Actually, I’m still not sure it is. You see it hasn’t been like that very long, and anyway the president is firmly pro-west and once he can get a government together he’ll be running things pro-west, just like the Saudis. So it won’t be a failed state.

Simon:  What about Iraq, then? Most of the country is not even nearly under government control, hundreds of people are being killed every month, and it’s been going on for more than ten years, and when the Americans announced they’re sending in Special Forces the government said ‘No way, we don’t want foreign troops in Iraq’.

Self:  No. There may be some short-term disagreements about the best way to fight the insurgents, but longer term Iraq is on the path to being a responsible democracy and order is being restored. That’s been the situation ever since Bush was president.

            If you wanted a copybook example of a failed state it always used to be Somalia, for a long time after the Somalis got fed up with Siad Barre. That was a really bad time with lots of fighting until an islamic organisation called the Courts took over. Then for a while things were apparently tickety-boo until the west realised these fellows were running things according to an agenda of their own. This got alarm bells ringing, and in fairly short order, the Ethiopian army – that’s a christian outfit, and Ethiopia may be pretty rough and ready but it knows which side its bread is buttered, so with a bit of help the Ethiopians were soon in there and threw them out. Didn’t last long, though. When the Ethiopians moved back out, somehow it all fell apart again with fighting and refugees and general chaos again like before, for several years. But the good news now is, with lots of help from the right quarters, they seem to have wised up at last, and the story is most of the insurgents have given up and moved to Kenya. The bad news is, just as we take Somalia off the list, it looks as if we have to put Libya on. And of course, there’s Syria there all the time.

Simon:  But there’s something I can’t help noticing. Is there any special sort of qualification for being a failed state? I mean, do you have to have once been part of the Ottoman empire? Or something else?

Self: That’s enough! You’ve wasted half my morning already. You can make up for it by going and fixing my morning coffee. Jump to it!

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Quotation of the week: ‘Yet another wonderful development in the field of living technologies’. Announced by Dr Adamatzky, of the Unconventional Computing Lab at the University of the West of England, acclaiming the success of an experiment to use the structure of a natural plant as the framework on which to build a conducting circuit. A necessary preliminary to the process was cutting the stem, and thus killing the plant.

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Query of the week: It was touching to see Obama placing flowers in homage in Paris.  Does anyone know if he has ever done that for the women and children killed in the drone attacks he has ordered?

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Thought for the week:   When your government tells you that you are at war with some other state, or some movement, or idea, remember that in war, truth like many other commodities, is rationed so as to give the people just so much as is considered to be necessary for them – and good for the government.