Hands across the backwaters

Yes, like all of you I’ve been scratching my head over McCain’s pick of Alaska governor, creationist beauty queen and friend of the polar bear Sarah Palin for the VP slot. (Okay, she does kind of have that Tina Fey thing going on, but anyone who would vote McCain on that basis deserves a good slap. Even I’m not that shallow.)

But something good has already come of this, in that I’ve discovered the wonderful Mudflats, your blogging guide to the swamp of Alaskan politics, a swamp that evidently rivals our own boglands. A great read it is too, and evidently achieving a deserved new readership. Sir, I salute your indefatigability!

McCain puts his chips on the female vote

Okay, so let’s turn our attention to the States, and the endless presidential election, now in its convention period. And isn’t it amazing how everyone is the candidate of change and reform, even the ruling party candidate?

So, this week we’ve had the Democrats in Denver, and as expected their candidate, Irish-American senator Barack O’Bama, put on a show worthy of Freddie Mercury in his pomp. And in a football stadium, forbye.

But it’s been interesting to see the two candidates’ picks for the vice-presidential slot. As Michael Moore was saying a little while ago, so useless are the Dems at elections (Al Gore even managing to win the election and still not become president) that O’Bama could quite plausibly have picked a retired general, or a Republican. Which would not have won over any actual Republicans, but would have pissed off his base no end. Instead, he’s picked Irish-American senator Joe Finnegan Biden, a conservative Democrat who has been in the Senate seemingly forever, a reliable ally of any corporation that wants legislation sponsored, and a former supporter of the Iraq invasion. Way to go, Barack! Although I suppose the demands of a balanced ticket required that the VP slot go to an old white dude. This, by the way, is yet another illustration of just how radical O’Bama is prepared to be, as if the presence of Zbigniew Brzezinski as his foreign policy guru wasn’t enough of a clue.

And today all the focus has been on the Republicans, who already have an old white dude, Irish-American senator and Civil War veteran John McCain, as their presidential candidate. Left to their own devices, the Republicans could easily have picked a second old white dude. I personally was hoping for McCain’s closest political friend, Sen. Joe Lieberman, just so the two could do a re-enactment of Grumpy Old Men. But the speculation had centered around Mormon tycoon Mitt Romney, and several conservative men in suits from the rectangular states.

And then McCain, as is his wont, throws us a curve ball. Republican pollsters have evidently impressed on their doddering candidate that he needed youth on the ticket. (This would make their attacks on O’Bama’s inexperience more difficult to sustain, but then McCain’s age and health have considerable negative potential.) And, such has been the bitterness amongst the Dems that the McCain camp evidently reckon they could picked up some bitter Clintonites. But hmm, the Republican Party is not exactly heaving with youngish, presentable women. And so they have turned to an almost complete unknown, the rookie governor of Alaska, moose-shooting milf Sarah Palin.

This is almost stunningly transparent in its cynicism. While Clinton herself is far from being a fire-breathing liberal, her female supporters generally are quite liberal, and very pro-choice. Palin is not only anti-choice, but crazily anti-choice. And, as far as I can see, on just about every count she’s more conservative than McCain by far. As well as being just as strident a supporter of Big Oil as McCain, which may not play well in an election where energy will be central. Will Hillary supporters be swayed by Palin, simply because of her gender? I’m sure a few might, but if that’s the case in any numbers it will surely make the point that American politics today are more about the optics and the demographics than actual policy.

You never know, this may turn out to be an inspired choice on McCain’s part. But I have the sneaking feeling that his curve ball may curve back on him, like one of those Australian wooden frisbees.

Rud eile: just for a moment, may I express my irritation at the news media. Of course, we know the media are neophiliacs, which is probably a big reason for why O’Bama has got such an easy ride, once he had established his newness as a narrative. In the British media, by far the worst offender has been the Grauniad, which has apparently decided that its readers really need six articles on O’Bama every day. But now something even newer and shinier has spun into view. And today on the BBC news it’s been all, “Sarah Palin! Whoo! She’s young! She’s female! She’s new! She’s eye candy!” Which is fine for a little while, but after several hours you start to wonder where the substance is. And isn’t Justin Webb supposed to be providing analysis?

More good comment, as always, over at Cedar Lounge.

Update 30.08.08: May I recommend to readers this take on affairs from way up in Alaska itself.

Summer reading: Mark Steel asks, “What’s going on?”

So I’ve just finished the left’s smash hit book of the summer, Mark Steel’s new tome What’s Going On? Regulars can rest assured that a wider selection of summer reading will be reviewed, but Mark is as good a place to start as any.

If you know Mark’s material, there is a fair amount here that will not be surprising. That is, we get lots of comedic ruminations about the state of the world. The antiwar movement is covered here, along with Mark’s thoughts on the changing composition of the working class, the British education system, the homogenisation of town centres, the entertainment industry and celebrity culture, and much more besides, all delivered in the patented Mark Steel style. Which, it’s true, can sometimes be a little annoying in that what works in performance doesn’t always translate to the written page. Mark can be a little shouty, and he’s still very much addicted to the “it’s as if…” or “I was expecting him to say…” clause. But, at his best, reading Mark is like listening to a mate tell you brilliant rambling stories, and often he is at his best here.

What lends this book a little piquancy is that Mark is forced to deal with being middle-aged. This must be doubly painful for someone who likes to be down with the kids – I know little of this “hip hop” of which Mark speaks, but I can well imagine that a fortysomething man might feel a little out of place in the mosh pit. Parenthood also looms large here, notably the socialist parent’s dilemma of how to get your kids to be sceptical of all authority except yours. There’s the issue of how advancing age makes you more sensible. And there’s also an underlying theme of mortality. Mark finally meets his idol Joe Strummer, then a few weeks later Joe dies. Mark strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bob Monkhouse, started surreally by Bob approaching Mark in the Television Centre car park and saying how much he loved Reasons to be Cheerful, which he’d got as a 75th birthday present from Jeremy Beadle. But by this point Bob has terminal cancer, and soon he dies. The seemingly indestructible Paul Foot dies. Hovering over this, unspoken, is the premature death of Mark’s close friend Linda Smith. Unspoken, I assume, because Mark must have been terribly upset. I know I was upset, and I’d never even met her.

The background to all this is Mark’s two divorces, first a painful split from his long-term partner, then the end of his thirty-year association with the Socialist Workers Party. To begin with the former, this is a shame. I always thought Mark was a good bloke, and Bindy was nice, and human. These are qualities you value on the left, instead of taking them for granted, which might tell you something about the actually existing left. After all, the reason Linda Smith inspired so much affection was that she wasn’t just extremely funny and on the right side, she was a real person.

But to get back to Mark’s situation, he does get genuinely poignant here. He’s self-critical and, I think, emotionally honest, which is all we can expect of him. After all, it isn’t really anybody’s fault. Mark could mention his partner’s bursts of bad temper, or the trials of living with a comic, whose first instinct is to look for the punchline rather than the soothing word. But, really, what we’ve got here is the common phenomenon whereby two people fall out of love, and do it gradually, almost without noticing, before realising one day that they just don’t like each other very much. And even then you find that sentiment, or hope springing eternal, or concern for the kids, or sheer bloodymindedness, keeps you together much longer than is wise.

Then there is the settee phase. I have been there, and can absolutely vouch for Mark’s accuracy. Because the settee is bloody uncomfortable, and there is no way you can fit your body into it painlessly, you end up lying half-awake through the small hours, gazing in fascination-cum-bemusement at all those channels. The question of how shopping channel hosts can be so enthusiastic at selling shit; the jaw-dropping GOD Channel; weird esoterica on the Open University – this is the nightly fare of the settee-bound. Although I didn’t become addicted to Icelandic buggy racing as Mark did, preferring to watch repeats of Herman’s Head. And tied in to this is the horniness of the settee-bound, as you become more obsessed with sex the less you’re getting any. And, then there’s the fact that the 40-year-old libido is much less predictable than its 20-year-old oppo. In any case, it’s one thing to get aroused watching some soft-porn show, or a Nigella Lawson cookery show (a fine distinction I’ll grant you), where the whole point is to achieve arousal in the viewer. But you know you’re in a bad state when you’re watching Newsnight and you suddenly realise that a 20-minute discussion of the American economy has completely passed you by because your brain has been running scenarios of all the ways you’d like to bone Kirsty Wark.

And after all this, with your aching back and your head full of the 700 Club and Icelandic buggy racing, after all the times you’ve tried to get off the settee, it’s actually a bloody relief when it’s all over.

Then there’s Mark’s parting of the ways with the SWP, an organisation he joined at 18 and was remarkably loyal to for a very long time. On this I’ll give Mark two cheers and a rap over the knuckles, as will become clear. The background to this is the decline of the left’s traditional environment. The trade unions are not quite a hollow shell, but they aren’t far off. You’re more likely to find a supporter of the Iraq war in the Labour Party than in the population at large. There is a culture of protest among youth, but these youth are really cut off from older traditions and are apt to ask you, “Socialism, what’s that then?” in the manner of a teenager showing mild curiosity in his dad’s James Last albums. And, not surprisingly, the far left hasn’t a clue how to respond to all this. The left’s responses have veered between ignoring what the kids are doing, outright hostility and intervening in such a cack-handed way as to put the kids off the left for life. That’s why you meet so many kids on demos in Dublin who are vehemently “anti-Leninist” – it’s not that they’ve considered Lenin’s politics and decided to reject them, it’s based on their concrete experience of groups claiming to be Leninist. It doesn’t help, either, that much of the left is deeply incestuous, with cliquish habits and elaborate systems of etiquette that might almost be designed to put young people off.

So Mark becomes impressed by the disconnect between the shoots of resistance he sees, and the organisation he belongs to. You have here an organisation in obvious decline, but which goes on making grandiose proclamations about the fantastic opportunities ahead. There are two possible responses to this – denial or questioning. Unfortunately for Mark, while the SWP is a great place to get questions on abstruse doctrinal issues answered, it isn’t a very welcoming place if you want to ask open-ended questions, and especially not if the question you really want to ask is, “Have we just gone mad, or were we always like this?”

Since Mark is good enough to ask “Or is it me?”, I can set his mind at rest by informing him that some of the harebrained organisational wheezes he complains about have roots in a time prior to his membership. For instance, there was the time in the 1970s when Cliff became convinced that the group’s slow growth was a function of other people’s lack of enthusiasm, or as he put it that “the organisers have got to start pulling their socks”. Cliff then set an enormously damaging precedent by appointing himself membership secretary, getting the district organisers to submit recruitment tallies, and regaling the monthly NC with a league table showing the red-hot recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Needless to say, the organisers quickly became wise to Cliff’s game, so that by Month 3 the only thing measured in the league table was who was the most brazen liar. (Usually this was Roger Rosewell, a particular favourite of Cliff’s at the time.) As if to prove this wasn’t an isolated lapse, Cliff followed this up with the Leading Areas plan, according to which an area that was doing well (say, Manchester) would be identified extra resources. Of course, the organisation’s limited resources meant that this penalised areas that were already struggling. Cliff gave us to understand that, such would be the shining example set by the Leading Areas, that struggling areas would be inspired to redouble their efforts and would therefore benefit from a kind of trickle-down process. And that worked as well as might be expected. Cliff had lots of good ideas, but he was also prone to daft brainstorms, and the trick lay in knowing just how seriously to take him at any given time.

Since Mark was one of Cliff’s golden boys, it may be too much to expect him to bring this stuff up. But, that aside, Mark is very good at skewering the pretensions of the post-Cliff regime, and particularly of Kim Jong Rees, whom he seems unable to mention by name. Which is fair enough, as since Cliff’s death the leadership cabal have staggered from one disaster to another. One example Mark deals with is the SWP’s claim to have 10,000 members, which was clearly an enormous exaggeration and one that only became more enormous as time went by. But considerations of face meant the CC couldn’t admit a declining membership, which they would need to on the basis of the old definition that a member was someone who paid subs, attended meetings and sold the paper. Instead, we got the immortal line that “We have to redefine the definition of membership.” Which meant, of course, membership lists packed full of names of people who weren’t members. At this point Mark writes:

It was as if the aim was to maintain a steady amount of enthusiasm, but because there was around one-fifth of the number there used to be, everyone had to be five times as enthusiastic to keep things even. Some people, unable to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, would drift away. And then the enthusiasm demanded of the remainder would become even greater. I had a vision that at the end of this process there’d be one person left, standing at the top of a mountain yelling, ‘IT’S MAGNIFICENT!!!’

Quite so, and Mark is good on how an organisation that used to pride itself on its realism and modesty, Cliff’s occasional brainstorms aside, became mired in denial and self-deception – or, to quote Duncan Hallas’s immortal description of the WRP, “bluff, bluster and bullshit.”

Mark reaches the end of the road with the SWP around the time of the Respect split. And on this he’s quite strong, because Mark is far from being an uncritical groupie of George Galloway. In fact, Mark’s position is similar to my own, that, while George has unique and probably indispensable strengths, he can also very often be a pain in the hole, and sometimes he’s an outright menace. But when George made his very measured criticisms of Rees – criticisms that would seem pretty commonplace to anyone who’s ever dealt with Rees – the reaction of the SWP leadership was simply crazy. To listen to these guys, grovelling in front of Saddam Hussein and making cat noises on Big Brother were things any of us might do in a moment of weakness, but criticising John Rees was the absolute frozen limit. At one meeting, Mark recounts, a speaker compared Galloway’s criticism of Rees with the 1973 coup in Chile. This completely bonkers analogy was supported by most of the people in the room, including one J Rees. And at this point Mark started to wonder whether he had any place in this crazy organisation.

Right, so far I am with Mark. But, and I have to make this point as a small criticism, Mark may be a good bloke but he’s also a little bit of an asshole. What I mean by that is, the history of the SWP, and other left organisations, is full of people in privileged positions who have known all about the organisational skulduggery that goes on, and haven’t said a word until they have been targeted themselves. I think there is a particular responsibility on people like Mark Steel or Paul Foot or Eamonn McCann, who function as a human face of their organisation and make people feel good about being in it, and who could function as a sort of conscience of the organisation. But normally they don’t. Paul Foot, who I miss a lot, was a lovely man, a brilliant journalist and one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. But it must be said that, when confronted with the SWP leadership and with Cliff in particular, Paul could be the most awful creep. Eamonn has gone along with all sorts of hair-raising stuff, as long as he’s been allowed to plough his own furrow in Derry. And so on.

Now, Mark has to his credit that he did in fact discover a backbone. But there’s a whole lot of people who came before him and got it in the neck good. For example, on the issue of the inflated membership lists, I know that Mark knew about this years ago, because a mutual acquaintance of ours blew the whistle on the membership figures, and could have done with a little moral support. I suppose what I’m getting at is, it can be a little aggravating for Mark to be recounting stories of leftist craziness and tailing it with “I felt like saying…” No, but you didn’t, Mark. No doubt you had your reasons, but a little acknowledgement of this point wouldn’t go amiss.

This may seem like a bit of a negative note to end on, but it’s just a small point that needs to be made. Overwhelmingly, I really enjoyed What’s Going On?, finding it to be probably the best thing Mark has written. It’s funny, of course, poignant in parts, angry in others and genuinely insightful. I’ve thought for some years that Philip Roth’s bitter divorce was the best thing that could have happened to him as a writer. Perhaps we can say the same of Mark.

Ireland declares war on Utah

Well, not quite, but I couldn’t help noticing this story in the Telegraph. The gist of it is that the Irish Catholic, a publication I really should look at more often, has been doing some drum-beating around the issue of parish records deposited in the National Library of Ireland. The fear is that intrepid Mormons could use these records to identify their Catholic ancestors and arrange posthumous baptisms.

This has me a little puzzled. All right, it is plausible that the parish records in the NLI might be so used. LDS researchers have been assiduous in using all kinds of public records to trace family trees. On the other hand, you would have to be the deceased ancestor of an actually existing Mormon to qualify for the procedure. As far as I’m aware, the LDS Church is not in the habit of trawling through archives and arranging proxy baptisms for just random punters.

There’s also a little theological issue. Posthumous baptism by proxy is a well-established if little understood LDS practice, and I can understand how individual Catholics might be upset at the thought of it happening to their ancestors. But does institutional Catholicism recognise the procedure, and afford it any significance? Any answers would be most welcome.

L’Orient est rouge

PRC showmanship, old style…

Chen wins gold with stunning dive

That Madam Miaow gets about, doesn’t she? Not only giving us stimulating discussion on the wireless about the Beijing Olympics, while taking time out to win a weightlifting gold, but now striking gold in the diving. And apparently discovering the secret of eternal youth while she’s at it.

Oh, I’m sorry. Our staff informs me that this is in fact 15-year-old Chen Ruolin, looking very serious in this picture, who has won gold in the 10-metre women’s platform to take China’s tally of diving golds to seven. Good for her.

In an age when image is all, what’s a grumpy Scotsman to do?

I was reading Turbine last night, in search of a cure for insomnia, and happened upon the mag’s discussion of the Labour leadership crisis. As luck would have it, WorldbyStorm has some pertinent points to make in re Austin Mitchell’s contribution.

But this whole thing raises a few interesting questions for me. Actually, I think Brown is the victim of a number of things – an extraordinary run of bad luck, a dogmatic attachment to NuLab orthodoxy in the face of events,  a herd mentality in the press (not unlike what John Major suffered) and, not least, an electorate that’s thoroughly fed up with New Labour and isn’t inclined to listen to anything the government has to say. Hence, I suppose, the polls indicating that a change in leadership wouldn’t improve Labour’s dire prospects.

But there was something else that struck me, and it was this. During a recent Newsnight debate, all anyone could talk about was that Brown wasn’t as good at projecting his image as that great snake-oil salesman Blair. He didn’t let his personality come through. He didn’t smile enough. People who know the guy say he’s affable and witty, but everyone else seems to think he’s a dour misery-guts. While Cameron was doing lots of cheesy photo-ops with his agreeable wife and family, Brown was reluctant to do so. And so on. Even the Tory was saying this.

And, you know, in these days of politics minus political differences, this is really what it comes down to. The cult of personality.

The undoubted master of this new postmodern politics was of course Bill Clinton. Slick Willie was a phony through and through, of course, but he was a brilliant phony. You remember that woman with the terminally ill partner who confronted Mr Tony on the election trail to complain about his medical treatment, and how embarrassed Mr Tony looked and how he had nothing to say to her? If that had been Clinton, he would have flung his arm around the woman, said he felt her pain, and demanded to meet her partner immediately and listen to his story first-hand. That was the great thing about Clinton. Even when you knew the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye, you could hardly help being swept along by him.

And so it continues. The current Democratic presidential candidate, Irish-American senator Barack O’Bama, clearly models his style on Clinton (with maybe a touch of Bono thrown in). And so it is that “Dave” Cameron obviously models himself on Mr Tony. Brown, for whatever reason, can’t do that kind of politics, or at least can’t do it well.

So what of the future options for Labour? Well, Labour has never in its history defenestrated a leader, and the party constitution makes it exceedingly difficult to do so. That means that Brown can probably hang on as long as he wants, helped by the other putative candidates’ unwillingness to take on an obviously poisoned chalice.

The other candidates don’t really inspire much confidence either. If you look around Brown’s cabinet, it’s like something out of The Stepford Wives. Ed Balls? James Purnell? Yvette Cooper? These people are lightweights, products of the NuLab conveyor belt. None of them cuts a credible dash, and far too many are simply placemen who hold office purely due to Brown’s favour rather than any obvious talents.

There is of course the prince across the water, the Foreign Secretary, nine-year-old wunderkind David Miliband. Clearly a young man in a hurry, and dead lucky Brown didn’t have the bottle to sack him for blatant disloyalty. Some folks say young Miliband is a sharp intellectual, although his first foreign policy speech – where he raised the prospect of extending the European Union into Africa – struck me as just a little crazy, just a little too wonky for his own good. George Galloway was denouncing him on the wireless the other week as the son of “Britain’s leading Trotskyite”, but I remember Ralph Miliband and know for a fact that he was never a Trot in his life. George must have been having a senior moment. But, even if we apply the logic of postmodern personality-driven politics, I can see Miliband having a bit of an image problem. He’s just a bit too reminiscent of the young Blair for comfort. To tell you the truth, he looks like just the sort of squirt who Dennis the Menace should be chivvying with a catapult. Maybe in a decade or two…

I’ve heard some Labour people speak highly of Jacqui Smith’s ability, and tip her as a possible future leader, but again, I have trouble seeing it as a realistic prospect. Over the last year, Jacqui has learned the hard way the great peril of the Home Secretary’s job, that you can do very little about crime but at the same time every headline-grabbing crime will make you look bad. Can the Home Secretary stop some teenager getting stabbed? No, but she’ll get the blame if there’s a wave of stabbings.

But, again coming back to postmodern image politics, there is the rather delicate matter of… well, there’s really no avoiding this… Jacqui Smith can’t be Labour leader because her boobs are too big. This sounds like a Jim Davidson punchline, but I’m quite serious. Politics remains a thoroughly sexist business, where women are judged on their appearance, weight or shape in a way that would never be applied to men. In Jacqui’s case, the lobby correspondents, some of whom evidently never left the sixth form, manage to make some sniggering reference to her ample rack on a weekly basis, sometimes in the most improbable of contexts, not to mention the way she’s parodied in Private Eye. If she ever did a walkabout in casual clothing then, as sure as night follows day, the press pack would go berserk. So, until journalists as a group grow up and realise that women have had the vote for ninety years, that’s too bad for Jacqui.

Actually, if there’s one person in the current cabinet with enough substance to be a plausible leader, it’s Jack Straw. And this conclusion surprises me a little, because I’ve never much cared for Jack. But, with most of the substantial and experienced figures in Labour either retired, discredited or dead, it looks like the only student leader from 1968 never to be remotely radical is the last man standing. But again I can see Jack falling foul of today’s post-Blair-and-Clinton image-driven politics. Isn’t he just too old, too grey, too dull? And, right enough, even Jack himself must know that he’s never going to set the world alight.

Isn’t all this just a trifle superficial? Of course it is, that’s the whole point. Mainstream British politics today, Tory and Lib Dem no less than NuLab, is a desert of superficiality where somebody like “Dave” Cameron can be considered a credible political leader on no other basis than being young and having good hair. No wonder my old comrade Peter Hitchens is depressed. So am I.

Oi, Pigsy! It’s Gail Walker Watch!

I suppose it had to happen. Yes, Gail Walker does China. Lord help us. You see, Gail is boycotting the Beijing Olympics. Which is to say, she’s not watching it on the telly. I suppose, if it makes you feel better…

I’ve had a bellyful of despots and tyrants this year. From the Chinese themselves and their initial reluctance to let foreigners in to assist with their earthquake disaster, regarding outside aid as an admission of communist failure. To the vile Burmese regime, propped up by the Chinese, consigning thousands of their own to death by persisting in isolationism. To the genocidal atrocities of Darfur at the hands of a lunatic in charge of Sudan — one again propped up by China. To the monster of Harare who has defied international opinion and continues to run Zimbabwe with the support of fellow African ‘leaders’. I’ve had enough.

Well, I thought the initial PLA response to the earthquake was rather good, unless you believe the Chinese are too backward to carry out relief work without help from the civilised world. And there are plenty of knowledgeable commentators on Sudan who reckon the Chinese have played a moderating role there, which may or may not be correct. In any case, I’m not certain that China’s extensive commercial interests in Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe constitute actual “propping up”. It may be closer to the mark to say that the Beijing regime aren’t too fussy about who they trade with. Free market and all that.

The decision to award this year’s Olympics to Beijing was unbelievable to begin with. That nation has easily the worst human rights record on the planet.

That’s right, worse than North Korea, worse than Saudi Arabia, worse than Uzbekistan, worse than DR Congo… and I suppose China is also to blame for the mass slaughter in Iraq.

The vicious repression and colonisation of Tibet is just the most visible of its crimes.

The Tibetan language is compulsory in schools and government; ethnic Tibetans are exempt from the one-child policy; Tibet is the only region of the Chinese state where Buddhists are allowed to join the Communist Party; Tibet is likewise the only region that was exempted from Deng Xiaoping’s purge of literally millions of Cultural Revolutionists. Not that the Tibetans don’t have legitimate grievances, but maybe “most visible” is a good way of putting it. The Uighurs probably have a tougher time of it, but they have the misfortune to be of the Muslim persuasion and aren’t nearly as sexy a cause as the Tibetans.

That and its 60-year bullying of Taiwan, a nation to which China and the rest of the world have conspired to deny official status.

Whether Taiwan actually is a nation is a debatable point. If the recent Kuomintang landslide is anything to go by, it’s less than clear that most Taiwanese think it is.

And the spectacle of BBC reporters ‘interviewing’ these lackeys billing and cooing over the wonderful achievement of China in wasting billions on its Nuremburg fantasies really isn’t my cup of tea.

Eh, now we’re back to Gail’s bugbear of the BBC. She doesn’t have to watch, but is she seriously implying that the event shouldn’t have been covered?

What we have here is called ‘appeasement’. These games are the exact equivalent of the 1936 Games in Hitler’s Berlin. They were awarded for the same reason. There was profit to be made from Hitler, just as there’s profit to be made from China.

Yes, it’s exactly the same, isn’t it? Every government we don’t like is the modern analogue to the Third Reich. Say what you like about Gail, she never knowingly understates her case.

In fact, the vast majority of Chinese will continue to be completely illiterate, in a poverty which belongs to the Stone Age. China may go from Jurassic Park to Blade Runner, but most of it is Jurassic Park. The earthquake exposed the truth about this fraudulent ‘modern’ economy.

Actually, the spreading of literacy on a mass scale is one of the real concrete achievements the PRC can point to. And as for the earthquake… well, Hurricane Katrina exposed some unwelcome truths about American society, but I seem to remember Gail’s response was to lambast BBC reporters for their alleged anti-Americanism.

In a fortnight, the lights go off again on that sprawling bog of misery which covers so much of the earth’s surface.

But the Gail Walker column we shall always have with us. Selah.

Don’t mess with the Tsar

Forget about the smog in Beijing, it’s more interesting to discuss the huge cloud of humbug stirred up by events in the Caucasus. And this is surely proof if proof were needed of the terminal dopiness of ideas of an ethical foreign policy. As any tyro in IR can tell you, a moral conscience is not an ontological attribute of the state. Realpolitik and the pursuit of interests reign supreme. Like Lenin said, you look for the person who benefits.

First off, we need to get past the idea that Georgia is an actual functioning country – the “beautiful democracy” that the egregious Jim Murphy has been slabbering about – rather than what it really is, a loose patchwork of fiefdoms under an alleged government that bears more resemblance to an organised crime syndicate. Which is pretty much the story of Georgia since the twelfth century. And it’s also worth recalling that not very long ago, Mikheil Saakashvili rigged his re-election and clubbed the opposition off the streets. All that really distinguishes Misha from Robert Mugabe is that he hasn’t lived long enough to have accumulated Uncle Bob’s enviable rap sheet.

A particularly large effusion of humbug has come from Emperor George, who has been holding forth on the need to respect the boundaries of sovereign states. Let’s ignore Iraq and Afghanistan for the sake of argument. Is it irrelevant that US-EU diplomacy has recently carved out and supported the mafia-run statelets of Kosovo and Montenegro? Is it unutterably cynical to mention that Washington is currently sponsoring no less than three separatist movements in South America – Guayas in Ecuador, Zulia in Venezuela and the white ranchers in eastern Bolivia – against governments it finds uncongenial? Would it be totally beside the point to ask the Colombian population about how Panama was created in 1903, for the purpose of giving the Yanks a more pliant government in charge of the Canal?

As far as the Kremlin is concerned, well, we don’t need to impute humanitarian motives or to resort to conspiracy theories. The Tbilisi regime has been putting in a lot of effort to get up the Russians’ collective nose, of which more below. And for many years the Russians have been seriously annoyed about Chechen jihadis operating out of Pankisi with the full knowledge and connivance of the Georgian government. But really, it’s sufficient to see the Georgians opening fire on the Russian army as a clear case of peeing on the Dude’s rug.

I actually have quite a bit of time for the Ossetes and the Abkhaz, who seem to have been obscured in all this. These are people who were never part of an independent Georgian state, and certainly never asked to be in Georgia, but who wound up incorporated into the Georgian SSR in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the imaginative nationalities policy of Stalin, Beria and Orjonikidze. (And isn’t it wonderful how our present-day Cold Warriors are so devoted to Stalin’s borders?) Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, they figured, not unreasonably, that everything was on the table and there was no reason why Abkhazia shouldn’t go for independence, or South Ossetia join up with North Ossetia. Maybe, back in 1991, things could have been negotiated amicably. But first the extreme chauvinism of the Gamsakhurdia government, then Kitovani’s fascist paramilitaries trying to “liberate” the rebel republics, sans population if necessary, polarised things intensely, and the Yeltsin-Shevardnadze agreement under which Russia was the guarantor of the ceasefires only froze things without resolving them.

Now, although Georgia is certainly a US client state, I don’t buy the idea that this is a proxy war being waged from Washington. There are enough reasonable explanations internal to Georgia. First you have to consider that Saakashvili came to power in one of these “colour revolutions”, and just like the other governments to have so arisen, his government has turned out to be just as useless, corrupt and repressive as its predecessor. Not terribly popular at home, it’s no surprise he’s been beating the nationalist drum.

When Shevy was in power, he would make the odd speech about the lost territories, but never tried to launch a military offensive to take them. And while Shevy would sometimes make noises about Georgian membership of Nato, that was mostly to annoy the Russians and he never made a serious bid. Misha is not as devious. Where Shevy used to go to Moscow and treat with the Kremlin on a regular basis, Misha has cranked up the anti-Russian rhetoric to a hysterical pitch. Misha has actually tried to get into Nato, and come close to doing so. (It’s sobering to realise that, if the Germans hadn’t put up resistance to that bright idea, Nato would now be legally committed to war with Russia.) Misha has asked the Yanks to station troops in Georgia, and has gone so far as to send Georgian troops to join in the occupation of Iraq.

On a diplomatic level, this paid off. Misha has always been treated royally when he’s been in Washington. He even got John McCain to lead a high-powered congressional delegation to Georgia, during which McCain proclaimed that South Ossetia must be under Georgian rule indefinitely, and never mind what the South Ossetians had to say on the matter. But did Misha really go to war on a punt? Did he think the Yanks had given him a nod and a wink? Could he really be gormless enough to pitch his tiny army against Russia and think he wouldn’t get his ass kicked?

It seems so. In fact, from Saakashvili’s frequent TV appearances over the last few days, the man appears to be in an advanced state of paranoia. When he starts making dramatic claims that are then contradicted by his own government, that’s not a good sign. I think Misha’s calculation was that he could take Tskhinval in a short blitzkrieg, and by the time the Russians started to regroup his American friends would protect him. Well, so much for that cunning plan.

This is not, one fears, going to end well for Saakashvili. Even before his gamble he was at the bottom of Tsar Vladimir’s Christmas card list, and there can be no doubt that the Russians would love to be rid of him. But it’s probably not necessary, whatever Bush says, for the Russian army actually to go into Tbilisi and overthrow the government. It’s just as likely that the warlords and gangsters who wield the real power in Georgia will decide that little Misha is now a liability.

Hoch das Bein, treten Sie ein…

Beijing: The greatest show on earth

What a show. I mean, really, I thought it would be hard to top Sydney, but yesterday’s Olympic opening ceremony was genuinely breathtaking. A personal triumph for Zhang Yimou, beating Hollywood at its own game, and with the kind of spectacle on a massive scale that you would expect from China. The Chinese people can feel very proud of themselves.

And now’s the time for everyone to head out to Beijing. I may not keep up with all the coverage, but I certainly don’t begrudge the deployment of hundreds of BBC staff out there. This is the kind of huge event that only the Beeb has the resources to do properly. But Gordon Brown’s parsimonious decision not to go looks like a bit of a faux pas. Everybody who was anybody was there. Bush, and Putin, and Sarko, and anybody who really mattered. And Britain was represented by, well, Tessa Jowell and Boris Johnson. Then again, they had a plausible reason for attending, but, as Madam Miaow was saying on the radio last night, the London organisers must be scratching their heads wondering how they’re going to follow this.

One more noticeable absence. Why wasn’t the peace process represented? As a taxpayer, I’m outraged that Gregory Campbell and Barry McElduff weren’t there. They could always tell the Assembly they were on a fact-finding mission, researching the possibility of a Norn Iron bid for the Olympics. It could be held at the Maze stadium…

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