Monthly Archives: February 2005

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On the side of liberty 

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times (subscribers only) reflects on president Bush’s Brussels visit and reckons Europeans came off looking the worse. As much as it pains me to say it, I think he may be right:

  It seemed that every time the US president talked of liberty, one or other European leader would unfurl the standard of stability. Every American evocation of idealism collided with European realism. The religion of realism once preached by Henry Kissinger has been cast out by the evangelicals in the White House only to be revered as revealed truth in the self-consciously secular chancelleries of Old Europe.
  Thus when [Ukrainian president Viktor] Yushchenko joined the US-European summitry at Nato, the reception from some European leaders was cool. France’s Jacques Chirac left the room after the opening statements. Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero remained ostentatiously silent about Mr Yushchenko’s ambition to turn Ukraine into a fully fledged democracy.
  I am assured by French officials that this was not a co-ordinated snub. Mr Chirac had a pre-arranged meeting that could not be rescheduled. To others, though, it seemed an odd coincidence that, in shunning Mr Yushchenko, these three leaders had avoided giving offence to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As Mr Zapatero left the room he was heard to remark that the session had not been “very sexy” – this from the leader of a country not too long ago freed from fascism. Mr Schröder’s silence seemed similarly deaf to the more recent liberation of East Germany.
  It is not just the French and Germans though. Tony Blair gets as close to Mr Bush’s rhetoric as any European leader. But the British prime minister’s liberal interventionism, which long predates the Iraq war, sees him attacked both by foreign policy realists on the conservative right and by those on the left of his own Labour party who now value anti-Americanism above internationalism.
  Though it pains me to say it, there is something in the distinction made by Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, between “Old” and “New” Europe. If the leaders of much of the western half of the continent are at best uncomfortable with the rhetoric of liberty, the same cannot be said of the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. The Poles, the Czechs, the Lithuanians and Latvians speak Mr Bush’s language, and unapologetically so. It was no accident that while the big powers of western Europe (Britain included) hesitated as the Ukrainian crisis first unfolded last autumn, the Polish and Lithuanian presidents insisted the European Union take a stand on the side of democracy.

As Stephens goes on to point out, the core of the European idea was once liberty: it was the bulwark against a return of totalitarianism. But that inspiring vision seems a long way away in the streams of bureaucratese that emanate from Brussels and other EU outposts.

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Dawkins against the LSE 

I heard Richard Dawkins lecture last night on “Is evolution predictable”. He’s famously good as a speaker: not as flamboyant as some, but wonderfully relaxed and literate. Of course he has perhaps the most extraordinary tale the world has to offer us to tell, but he does tell it well.

The lecture was at the London School of Economics, as part of its Darwin@LSE series. What I didn’t know beforehand was that there is a culture of anti-Darwinism at the LSE, and the Darwin programme is in part a reaction against that tradition.

It’s not, needless to say, the anti-Darwinism of the creationists, who would get as short shrift at the LSE as at any place of intelligence. Instead, it’s a left-wing critique of Darwinism that seems to have its roots in the distortions of social Darwinism earlier in the twentieth century.

Dawkins told me afterwards that his view was that social scientists that choose to ignore Darwinian thinking need to explain why, since evolution provides the fundamental explanation of why we are what we are.

That much is understandable. But John Ashworth, a former director of the LSE, told me a quirkier reason for the hostility. When William Beveridge was director of the LSE, he hired Lancelot Hogben to bring some dash of scientific thinking into the institution. Aside from his famous works popularising mathematics, Hogben’s own work concentrated on a particularly large kind of toad. As happens, Hogben’s toads started hopping about the LSE, getting everywhere they weren’t supposed to be.

When Ashworth asked Helena Cronin to start the Darwin series in the early ’90s, the first question Ashworth was asked at a faculty meeting was, “Does she work on toads?”

Whether it’s toads or social Darwinism, the result is that important, developing fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics seem to be passing the LSE by.

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A great dateline 

Thomas Barnett’s weblog has an amazing dateline today: Sjøkrigsskolen, which translates as the Sea War School.

The best part of his post, however, was his comment on the dispute between the US and Europe over ending the arms embargo on China:

  This just isn’t going to work. The US can’t trade with and invest in China like crazy, sell arms to both Taiwan and Japan, and then tell the EU not to do the same with China on both trade and arms. We just don’t get to decide which other Core powers get to arm and under what conditions. China’s rising economically, and like any other country in such a trajectory, it builds up and modernizes its military. We can’t stop that, but we can shape it and work to make that process dovetail with a rising security alliance between us two. But the Bush Admin seems to think they’re in the driver’s seat on this one, when they’re not. I mean, China’s supposed to keep buying our debt so we can spend lots on our military and then we get to tell them what they can or cannot buy in military arms?

I don’t think you can argue with his logic. There are a raft of inconsistencies in the US policy (some of which Barnett explores further in his post). But I have to confess that I feel torn on this issue. The Realpolitik is as Barnett writes. There is, however, an amoralism about the European eagerness to get on with selling anything and everything to the Chinese, whatever the human rights record. I know the US will eagerly sell killing machines to a host of unsavoury regimes, but rushing to add another one to the list isn’t pretty.

A caution about social networking software 

Barry Ritholtz: “Eventually, there may be some consolidation [of social networking companies] — we see it starting already. That means two things: One, I have no idea where my personal data and address book will ultimately end up, what company or person; and B) the liklihood is that at least 2 but more likely 3 and probably 4 and maybe even 5, and quite possibly 6 of these firms will go belly up, the long dirt nap, buy a farm.

“And when that happens, the VC’s investments will be worth zero, nada, zilch, and they will seek to recoup something, anything, even just pennies on the dollar (pretty please?). And then the vultures will come in: strip the offices down to the bare walls, sell everything thats not moving for pennies on the dollar. Aeron Chairs (ha!), PCs, desks, wall cabinets, EVERYTHING.

“And when that happens, when the Bankruptcy Judge brings down the gavel, the most valuable asset these companies have — all of my personal info, plus all of your contact info, plus every person you know’s name/number/email address — will be sold to the highest bidder. They may promise that they will protect your data, but I simply do not believe they can control anything post banckruptcy. The contracts are ignored.”

Aggregating Labour blogs 

In the comparatively undeveloped world of UK political blogs, someone has come up with the good idea of gathering all Labour-supporting weblogs on one site.

It doesn’t look as though it’s part of their plan to truly aggregate the sites, by bringing the various feeds directly into the site. Still, it’s a good initiative. I’ve submitted Davos Newbies in the south London category, even though I don’t often comment on intensely local issues. But my local MP, I’m happy to say, is Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports Tessa Jowell.

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More on HST 

I’ve had some responses to my post about Hunter S Thompson that deserve reply.

Mark Sloboda notes that Thompson spoke to his generation in a way that Miller “never did and never will”. I’ll hazard a guess that I’m about the same generation as Mark, given that my formative years coincided with Thompson’s golden age. Lisa Williams writes:

  I think the difference between Miller and Thompson is that Thompson started a movement, and Miller didn’t.
  Sensible people could argue that Miller was a greater writer and artist. But I don’t think that many people went to see a Miller play and then went home and said, “I’m going to write my own play.”
  But a lot of people read HST and went out and committed journalism. It reminds me of the quip (which I can’t remember the source of) about The Velvet Underground: Only 1,000 people bought their first record, but every one of them started a band.”

Miller may have produced relatively few playwrights, but I think a lot of people saw Death of a Salesman or The Crucible and felt their view of the world had changed profoundly.

I think it would have been wrong to skip over Thompson’s death. But it’s curious to me that the US mainstream media seems to have judged its news and cultural value at about my estimation, while the British media elevated Thompson to the kind of titanic figure that I don’t think his work merits.

I devoured Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and his other early works when I was a budding journalist in the ’70s. There was unquestionably a liberating frisson in his approach. Ditto for the young Tom Wolfe, who did gonzo before Thompson, although without the same degree of wildness.

For me – and one of the reasons I write this weblog is that I can offer my own, unadulterated opinions – Thompson should be marked as a good, minor cultural figure and one who let his talent go to waste in the last third of his life.

Put Thompson in proportion 

This may seem uncharitable, but I think the coverage of Hunter S Thompson’s death is completely over the top.

It made the BBC’s main Ten O’Clock newscast last night and Newsnight followed with a lengthy feature. This morning, it’s the front page of most of the broadsheets. The Independent devotes its entire front page to a tribute from Ralph Steadman to Thompson. The Guardian follows the front page story with the cover of G2 and more tributes.

Arthur Miller, who died on 10 February, received slightly less coverage. Miller is a playwright who will be read and performed as long as there are theatres. Thompson was an immensely entertaining writer, a pioneer of what he called gonzo journalism and a colourful character. But I don’t think anyone other than the odd journalism student will be reading him in 20 years.

What I am certain of is that no one will be reading anything Thompson wrote after the mid-70s. Since then, he’s been more famous for the character Duke in Doonesbury than for any of his own efforts.

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Boom boom 

Overheard on the radio this morning: what food will Jacques Chirac be serving George Bush today? Conflict de canard.

National decline 

BBC: “Italy has reacted angrily to a Swedish TV advert which disparages Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s relationship with the media. The Italian foreign ministry summoned Sweden’s ambassador to complain about the spot for Sveriges Television (SVT).”

The Swedes quite properly have told Italy that if they have a complaint, take it up with the television station, not the government.

It’s a sign of how thoroughly twisted Italy’s polity has become that the foreign ministry gets riled by this sort of thing. I love Italy, but the continued tawdriness of Berlusconi and his crowd makes me despair.

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Clueless about blogs — and politics 

I would have expected The Guardian to be more sophisticated about both politics and weblogs. But something must have slipped for them to run a particularly clueless piece by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith about political blogs.

Duncan Smith reckons right-wing bloggers have become a new power in the US, responsible for forcing the resignations of left wingers (in his view) Eason Jordan and Dan Rather. On the left, on the other hand, he argues that blogging and the power of Internet-mobilised communities has driven the Democrats into the arms of wild-eyed liberals.

So what about Britain? “The blogosphere will become a force in Britain, and it could ignite many new forces of conservatism,” Duncan Smith writes. “The internet’s automatic level playing field gives conservatives opportunities that mainstream media have often denied them.”

What forces of conservatism? Every analysis I’ve seen of the British populace shows that they are eager for continuing social democratic reforms. Where the political spectrum in the US has moved decisively to the right in the last 20 years, in the UK the reaction to the rightward tilt of the Thatcher years has been a clear swing to the centre left. The extremes on both sides have been moderated at the same time.

The problem the Conservatives (and conservatives) face in the UK isn’t a lack of media. It is that they have not yet undergone the successive reforms driven throught the Labour party by Neil Kinnock, John Smith and, finally, Tony Blair. With the failures of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and now Michael Howard, the Conservatives have yet to find their Kinnock — and certainly there doesn’t seem to be a Smith or Blair on the horizon.

And the media situation is nothing like Duncan Smith’s fantasy. With most media groups in the UK controlled by conservative owners, it’s hard to see what opportunities have been denied. In the US, the mythology — and it’s clearly a myth — about the liberal media has a powerful hold. In the UK no one pretends the media is anything other than on the right. What about the BBC? The best testament to the Beeb’s stance is that it regularly attracts howls of range from all three major parties in Britain. All of them reckon the BBC is institutionally against them. Which shows it is doing something right.

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London’s good, bad and ugly 

There are two big news stories in London at the moment. The encouraging one is the visit of the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation team to run its collective rulers over the London 2012 bid (incidentally, something is very wrong at the main domain — all that appears is a directory leading to the English or French sites, with no bells or whistles).

I’m very pro bringing the Olympics to London, because I love both the city and the event, but principally because I don’t think you’ll find better all-round sports fans than the British. It would be wonderful.

A bare majority of Londoners agree with me because there is a mood of pessimism and carping that remains common in England. Maybe an Olympic win would dispel that once and for all.

Sadly, the other story concerns London mayor Ken Livingstone’s refusal to apologise for crass remarks to a Jewish reporter for the London Evening Standard.

Ken has always been a loose cannon, occasionally ill-advised. What he has made evident, however, is how casual anti-semitism remains acceptable on both the left and the right in Britain.

Here’s the evidence from just the last couple of days. On Wednesday, The Guardian ran a mildly amusing article about 40 reasons why London is better than Paris (that Olympic contest again). Here’s reason 24:

  The Phantom of the Opera, Paris: lived in the Palais Garnier, which looks like a piece of jewellery a South African Jewess might wear…

And today brought news of an interview that the odious Princess Michael of Kent had given to a German newspaper. She thought the reaction to Prince Harry’s Nazi uniform had been unjust (there wouldn’t have been such a storm, she argues, if he’d worn a hammer and sickle). “The press has a different sensibility because of its ownership structure.” No decoder ring necessary for figuring that one out.

Silent blog 

Apropos my comments yesterday about the future of the World Economic Forum weblog, I think it’s notable that it’s the one weblog that has had nothing to say about the controversy in which it found itself in the middle.

Similarly, the Forum’s official website provides no comment. I think that’s a very old fashioned communication strategy.

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Where next for the Forum blog?  

The World Economic Forum’s weblog describes itself as “an online journal of (your) views that do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum”. It was started last April at the Forum’s meeting in Warsaw, and gained a new design, URL and increased content during the Annual Meeting in Davos last month.

After the controversy over Eason Jordan (see below), I suspect there are two likely paths the Forum will take. The easiest, beyond doubt, would be to suspend the blog. There will be many voices in the Geneva headquarters of the Forum — and in the vital community of its corporate members — advocating such a course. The late Vere Harmsworth — Lord Rothermere — who was an enthusiastic Davos regular, once told me that the Forum’s watchword was to never offend anyone about anything. I don’t think the Forum is so anodyne, but there was truth to Rothermere’s words.

The Forum knows that in today’s world it needs to become more open and transparent. That’s critical for continuing legitimacy. Yet it is also acutely sensitive to any slights or embarrassments suffered by its participants. The Jordan case has exposed some of the risks of what happens when you don’t minutely control everything that emanates from the Forum, whatever the disclaimers about the weblog being independent. It won’t be a popular view within the Forum, but you could also note that the principal risk is that the truth — sometimes uncomfortable — gets out.

The second likely path would be for the Forum to continue the blog, but to place it under stricter control. This could range from having its contributors confined to the tried and tested, to instituting some kind of check-in, check-out approval system before posts go live. I think this would be a pity. My criticism of the Forum blog as it stands (or stood) was the largely humdrum content, that differed little from the session summaries that have long been issued from Davos (Abovitz’s posts were an exception, as were those of Fortune’s David Kirkpatrick).

The whole point of a weblog is to have the unfiltered, honest voice of the writer come through. That isn’t happening yet with the Forum blog, and any tighter controls would make it impossible.

There is a third path, which I would love to see, but I believe is still a few years off for Davos. Unsurprisingly and presciently, Dave Winer was twisting my arm to do this when I ran the Davos programme in 2000. Here’s what should happen. Every participant in Davos is given a weblog of her or his own, just as they are given Davos emails, iPAQs and personalised programmes. Sure, only a minor percentage would do anything with their weblog.

But let’s say that 5 per cent of participants write regularly. That’s 100 new perspectives on an amazing event. The Forum blog becomes an aggregator for the 100 (or however many) individual weblogs. The kind of multi-faceted, rich picture that so many people (myself included) have tried so hard over the years to convey from Davos is delivered seamlessly.

At the same time, encourage some real Forum blogs, written by the insiders in Cologny. I made the first attempts at this, but the art of blogging has moved on from five years ago. Let me see what issues the programme team are wrestling with. What tsouris is involved in putting together the Dead Sea summit, or the southern Africa summit? Why not a Forum Channel 9? Klaus Schwab could even follow the lead of a member like Richard Edelman and write a weekly reflection on the issues that concern him.

I have no doubt which path a confident, forward-looking organisation would take.

Addendum Once I finished writing the above, I read some of the recent posts by Dave Winer and Jay Rosen about how local newspapers can use blogging. The analogies with the Forum are clear. It’s what any organisation that is at heart a community should be doing.

Eason Jordan from the WEF’s perspective 

I was snowed under when the Eason Jordan story broke, so I thought the time had passed to offer any comment.

But then Dave Winer asked me what I thought, and in constructing a reply I realised there was a perspective that had not yet been aired.

It’s a few years since I worked at the World Economic Forum, but my decade-long association with the WEF does give me a good sense of how the organisation thinks and acts.

For those unaware of what happened, here’s a very brief recap. CNN news head Eason Jordan spoke in a non-plenary session in Davos and said something — the facts are disputed — about the US army targeting journalists in Iraq.

Rony Abovitz, a Davos participant who was one of a number posting to the Forum’s own blog, wrote that Jordan had said the journalists were deliberately targeted.

Cue storm in the blogosphere, fed not least by right-wing blogs which consider CNN to be a standard bearer of liberal politics. Lots of accusations and denials went back and forth, but in the end Jordan resigned his CNN post.

The World Economic Forum’s own role in this might seem a bit confused. It did the good thing by blessing the blog this year (having tolerated my own blog in 2000). Until the Abovitz storm, I can’t say anything particularly interesting emerged from the Forum blog, but in principle it was a good thing.

When the dispute over what was said arose, a blogger discovered there was a Forum-made tape of the session. Could he see it? No, came the reply from Geneva, it’s off the record. (Jay Rosen has covered the events, and the blogosphere’s role, extensively.)

My first reaction, from afar, was this was ridiculous. Although the Forum has long claimed non-plenary sessions are off the record, this is followed far more in the breach than the observance. Much of the reporting from Davos comes out of so-called off-the-record sessions, without the journalist obtaining the consent of all involved. Further, most people recognise that it is futile to claim an event attended by more than a few people can truly be off the record. Larry Summers, when he was deputy Treasury secretary, told me in Davos that the first thing he learned in Washington was that any conversation with more than two participants would never be off the record (a lesson he has had to relearn recently).

But from the Forum’s perspective, its refusal to release the recording isn’t so ridiculous. The Forum relies on the goodwill of its many powerful participants. So when the Forum tells them that non-plenary sessions are private and off the record, it does need to do what it can to uphold that promise. It was in an iinvidious position.

What certainly could have happened, shielding the Forum from embarrassment, was for Eason to have asked for the recording to be released. Even in more formal off-the-record situations, if the participants agree after the fact, material can move to on the record.

As several people have commented since the Eason resignation, what was on the tape must have been as bad or worse than reported. I suspect the Forum would have released the recording on Eason’s request, but no such request was forthcoming because of what would have resulted.

I’ll post some thoughts later on where I think the Forum should go from here in its blogging initiative.

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The power of wristbands 

My nine-year old son wears a Stand Up, Speak Up black-and-white wristband both because he likes its message (anti-racism) and he thinks it’s cool.

But it was odd to be accosted in a cafe at lunch today by a waiter desperate to get hold of one. Although Nike originally sold them for £1.50 in their shops, they are apparently hard to find now. You can get them on Ebay, our waiter said, but they cost around £15.

Given that the idea is to contribute to an anti-racism charity, selling in an aftermarket seems to me a violation of the intent.

Shlaes jumps the shark 

Financial Times columnist Amity Shlaes left the reality-based community a long time ago. But her most recent column (subscribers only) may mark a new low.

First, she defies economic sense in parroting the Bush administration claim that social security is truly in crisis and that its plan offers a sensible solution:

  Social Security privatisation, especially the Bush plan, is eminently reasonable. The plan will narrow deficits in the long term and erase trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities. (Indeed, anyone who natters on about US fiscal imbalances and does not mention Social Security in the next breath is a hypocrite.) Such reform is the most important domestic step a president can take.

Worse is her characterisation of OMB head Josh Bolten. First she brackets him with Greg Mankiw as the president’s “most credible men in their most credible coats and ties”. Can anyone really say that in the midst of the budget fiasco that Bolten has perpetrated? Brad DeLong, for example, recently opined:

  Josh Bolten is the worst OMB Director in the history of the office–worse than David Stockman, worse than Mitch Daniels. Stockman and Daniels at least understood that the OMB Director was supposed to be the voice in the government for fiscal responsibility, even if they decided to ignore their proper role. Bolten doesn’t even understand what the job is.

I fear for Brad’s blood pressure with Shlaes’s next assertion:

  Robert Rubin, Mr Clinton’s Treasury secretary, taught the country that Democrats also care about fiscal responsibility. The Bush men who are making the case for Social Security privatisation this week are not so very different from the Clinton men who once argued, in an analogous campaign, for the retirement of the 30-year long bond. Blink, and Josh Bolten becomes Bob Rubin.

I can almost hear Brad saying something along the lines of, “I knew Bob Rubin. Bob Rubin was a friend of mine. Director, you’re no Bob Rubin.”