Saturday, December 31, 2005

Through the Glass Lightly

Through a looking glass
David Shariatmadari
20 - 12 - 2005

An eighty-year-old newspaper and a superstitious moment give David Shariatmadari fresh perspective on his anxious modern condition.

Ever felt worn down by the modern world? Find yourself fantasising about other lives you could have lived – as a courtier at Versailles, a geisha, perhaps a pipe-smoking Edwardian gentleman? A vision of the world as a simple place, without bio-terrorism, frankenstein foods, melting ice-caps. Life in serene freedom from latter-day horrors.

Except that some people still speak of the bad old days. My father, who grew up in Iran, used to say the second world war had been the most difficult time of his life, despite the fact that the country didn’t see any fighting. “We spent hours queueing for bread, and when we got it, it was the worst kind, and all burnt,” he recalled. My grandfather could have talked to you about the Depression, his own father about the shock of the Great War.

Every generation has its earth-shattering moments. So why do we tend to believe we’ve never had it so bad? It’s easy to see a ‘meant to be’ quality in the past that makes it seem less frightening although, at the time, it might have felt like the old certainties were unravelling. And of course, it’s hardly in the news media’s interests to reveal that there’s nothing new under the sun.

So indulge me for a moment in a detour into my personal life. A few weeks ago I broke a full length mirror. Not only had it been my sole means of judging how well my top half matched my bottom half (faux pas have since been witnessed), like most outwardly rational people, I secretly retain one or two superstitions, among them a belief that smashing mirrors is serious bad luck. I began to worry that I had just brought seven years of misery on myself. Perhaps I should have found comfort in the fact that this would surely mean I could expect to live another seven years, and might as well stop worrying about plane crashes and terminal diseases for that period of time. Already a bad omen, it then became a source of guilt as my housemates rightly decided it was up to me to dispose of it. I wasn’t sure how. In the end, I went at it with a hacksaw and a hammer, breaking it into manageable pieces and no doubt compounding the bad luck in the process.

Between the mirror and the hardboard backing were the brittle yellowed pages of a newspaper. Checking the date, I was surprised to find that it was a British Daily Mail from 11 July 1925. Back then, John Logie Baird was tinkering with the first TV set and F. Scott Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby. ‘Ah,’ I thought wistfully, falling into the trap, ‘another world’. Not quite.

Among the adverts for liver salts, nerve tonics and baby carriages was an article titled ‘Tragi-comedy of Monkeyville’. Monkeyville, it emerged, was Dayton, Tennessee, where John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, had been arraigned on charges of teaching evolution. Very odd. Less than a week before, I’d been listening to a woman on the news. “The last time this happened, it was in the old world and people got burnt at the stake” she protested, from the epicentre of another crisis over whether to allow the teaching of creationism in American schools. I was ready to believe her line about this being something new and alien. Countless reports give the impression the Christian lobby in the US has never been stronger. But as my paper showed, the debate about the role of biblical teaching is far from new, even on her side of the Atlantic.

Perhaps stranger was that British shock at the anachronism of the debate was as tangible in 1925 as it is in 2005. John Blunt writes “one suddenly perceives that Tennessee is a much more incredible place than New Guinea, and that America contains mysteries of outlook that make China appear simple”. He articulates an uneasiness, not alien to modern-day UK citizens, at being closely identified with the United States but uncomfortable with some of its mores. Blunt warms to his theme: “the strange prejudices of, let us say, a Kalmuk do not astonish one, because everything about him is completely different from oneself; but the stranger prejudices of a Tennessee farmer do astonish one, just because he appears, in so many ways, to be very much like oneself”.

Equally disconcerting is the American love of spectacle, the desire to turn the proceedings of a courtroom into a piece of entertainment (O.J. Simpson springs to mind). The paper’s special correspondent notes sniffily that on arrival the presiding judge stopped to allow photographs to be taken. Clearly enjoying his few moments of fame he posed again, his gavel raised, before calling the case. Blunt wonders that “the most modern business instincts appear to be mixed up with a mentality that flourished hundreds of years ago, and the dark intolerance of the Middle Ages to be mingled with a strong desire to “boost” the occasion”. That desire to “boost” the occasion is now so much in evidence that it passes without comment. This is one aspect of the article, at least, that would seem quaint to the modern reader.

Monkeyville wasn’t the only story with eerie parallels to the present. I found British hooligans making nuisances of themselves on the continent, and the enormous cost to the taxpayer of the mass-slaughter of diseased cattle (tuberculosis, not foot and mouth or bird flu, was the animal affliction of the moment). Some unlucky hack had been sent across London to see how long it would take to get from Marble Arch to Liverpool Street at 11.30 in the morning. He spent fifty-two minutes behind the wheel, including the twelve minutes it took to cross Tottenham Court Road – a time that would raise few eyebrows today. Though there was the occasional grocery barrow to contend with on his nightmare drive, at least he didn’t have to risk encountering one of Mayor Ken Livingstone’s unlovable new ‘bendy buses’.

In the parliamentary section I read that Conservative MP Sir Robert Gower intends to ask a question about the British Broadcasting Company. At the time solely a radio broadcaster, then as now it was funded by a licence fee. Gower wanted to ask the minister responsible whether, in view of the profits made by the BBC over the past year, a reduction in the fee would be in order. The BBC’s funding is still hotly debated today – so when was the golden age of consensus on our public service broadcaster? It never existed.

Among the letters, a Major Bagley holds forth on the lamentable record of Great Britain’s sporting representatives before attempting to explain “why foreigners win”. The reason, he claims, is the lack of “organised games” in all but the best schools and universities in the UK. To anyone who follows the British press today, hand-wringing about our international sporting performance and the ‘crisis’ of physical education in schools is familiar background noise, though the Ashes victory and successful Olympic bid may have produced a brief lull.

On the back pages, America reappears, but this time the mind of the tourist, not the Tennessee farmer, is dissected. To understand the annual influx of visitors from the US, Europeans need look no further than the tedious uniformity of American culture: it doesn’t matter where you are in the States, “buildings, furniture and clothes are everywhere identical, and language is too”. It is the variety of the old world that attracts them, though with prohibition in full swing, the chance to sink a few can’t have been far from their minds. But something odd is afoot; parts of London, Paris and Rome are beginning to look the same as well, the same as everywhere else, that is. “The imposing new Regent Street, for example, that has arisen in the last few years might just as well be a piece of Winnipeg or Sydney as of London”. Anxiety about globalisation, a favourite twenty-first century preoccupation, was already in full swing in 1925. Many now see the classical canyon of Regent’s Street as the epitome of Grand Old England and instead deride the proliferation of Norman Foster’s glass blobs. The objects are different, but the sentiment is the same.

Browsing my old newspaper I wonder at the egotism in assuming we are the first to experience anything. It seems bizarre that the surprise is fresh every time we are reminded that people in the past were just like us. Here is reason not to take the media’s frequent predictions of doom, disaster and cultural decline too seriously. There are some things, you could argue, that genuinely are new: modern weapons, AIDS or global warming. But on examination, how similar even these problems are to the challenges faced by earlier generations: no small comfort – they survived them, after all. The man on the street in 1925 was as beset by uncertainties as we are. The prospect of another, much more frightening war loomed large, and everyday tribulations, the traffic, the economy, the loss of old ways of life, were stories beloved of editors then as now.

My advice, the next time you’re anxious about the rise of creationism, cloned coffee shops or the state of the world in general, is to go to the library and ask to see a copy of a daily paper from 1930, 1910 or even 1860. The longer view may be the more realistic.

Letting Sleeping Watch Dogs Lay

The Sound of Silence: As in Dogs Not Barking
by Ian Williams
December 31, 2005

It was like hearing the first cuckoo of spring. MSNBC called this week to see if I would be interested in discussing the UN's waste, mismanagement and corruption in handling the Tsunami funds twelve months ago. It was, they suggested, “The biggest financial scandal since Oil for Food.”

It was, in fact, deja vu all over again. Twelve months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami, I was being ferried around the studios to discuss the shock and horror of UN Humanitarian Affairs chief Jan Egeland calling the US "mean".

Mere technical details like the fact that he had said no such thing did not dam the tidal wave of indignation bouncing off the walls of the conservative echo-chamber.

Egeland had actually said that the developed countries had almost all failed to meet their own targets of 0.7% of GDP going to Overseas Development Assistance, which is indisputably true. He did not specify that of all of them, the US was the meanest, but I had no compunction about reminding viewers.

In fact, the US had offered an initial $30 million at the time of the Tsunami, which the talking heads all considered as the height of generosity. As the scale of the tragedy broke, the administration added several zeroes to its initial offer. However the purpose of the show was not to congratulate me on my prescience, it was to find another excuse to attack the UN.

In fact, I am somewhat surprised that no one has yet found a way to link the Hurricane Katrina debacle to the UN. But somehow the right does not want to remind people about the New Orleans debacle.

I doubt that we have heard the last of this newly launched Tsunami canard, not least since Bill Clinton's position as UN Special Envoy makes it a double whammy for the right. The UN is always wrong, it is simply a question of pinning its inherent wrongness to a topical peg.

However we can draw some comfort. Could it be that that "Oil for Food" as a subject has lost its appeal even for the rabid right?

On one level, this is probably no bad thing, since the voluminous but vapid Volcker Report finally said all there was to say, and probably a lot more than was worth saying, about the alleged scandal.

De minimis Lex non curat, says the old legal saw, "The law does not concern itself with trifles." If only we could say the same of much of the media, which of course concerns itself with little else.

For a year every minute item about the Oil For Food Program has been bellowed breathlessly from the conservative media.

And suddenly, there is silence. Last month Kojo Annan, son of Kofi, was awarded large damages against the Murdoch-owned London Sunday Times, which had to admit that its story connecting him to Oil For Food contracts had no substance. You did not see the story on Fox, MSNBC, or any of the usual cabal.

In December, the US charged two colonels who had worked for the "Coalition Provisional Authority" with accepting bribes of $200,000 a month for steering contracts to companies that were seemingly just shells. They worked with someone whom the Coalition Provisional Authority hired as comptroller with a budget of $82 million -- despite a previous felony conviction for fraud.

It did not make the headlines. Senator Norm Coleman and Congressman Henry Hyde did not call for the resignation of the chief executive of the organization involved, one George W. Bush.

And no one mentioned that much of the money involved presumably came from the $10 billion surplus that the UN Oil For Food Fund had handed over to the Development Fund for Iraq, controlled by the CPA. During its blessedly short life span, the American dominated CPA spent nearly $20 billion of the $23.34 billion of Iraqi funds it had under its control for just over a year. It spent just $300 million of the US taxpayer funding pledges of $18.4 billion for Iraq's reconstruction.

At a press conference at the UN on Wednesday 28 December the members of the International Accounting and Monitoring Board set up by the Security Council to monitor CPI spending of DFI funds, reinforced the impression that the Pentagon's efforts to freeze them out were a waste of effort. The body bared its gums and refused to bark at the clear evidence of gross waste, mismanagement and corruption by the CPA.

The board simply examined 24 sole sourced contracts that the CPA awarded worth more than five million dollars. In fact, we discovered during the press conference, they had paid KPMG to "audit" 23 of them, representing some $600 million, which it was suggested was mostly a process of examining American government audits.

The Pentagon had heavily censored what they provided to the IAMB until Congressman Henry Waxman posted their devastating reports on his website.

The biggest sole-sourced contract was Kellogg Brown Root, the Halliburton subsidiary which walked off with $1.6 billion. KPMG recused itself from this, so the IAMB relied on the work of the Special Inspector General for Iraq as well as the Pentagon audits.

Just consider. The US gave a sole sourced contract to a subsidiary of the company that had had Vice President Dick Cheney CEO from which he is still rolling up deferred compensation. The audit was carried out by Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General, appointed by President George W. Bush, whose lawyer he had been in various forms way back to his time as Governor of Texas.

Through almost complete media silence about this ultimate in potential whitewashes, one cannot help but hear echoes, of the febrile demands for transparency from the UN, on the need for external checks. If Kofi Annan had appointed his own lawyer to conduct the Inquiry that Volcker actually headed, can you imagine the frothy indignation?

It also emerges that the IAMB did not examine the other contracts at all, not even to check the open-ness and fairness of the bidding, let alone to see if the money from the Development Fund was in fact spent on behalf of the Iraqi people as mandated.

In fact, even Bowen's report managed more indignation than the IAMB has so far mustered. Almost the only admonition from the Board has been to suggest mildly that the US reimburse the $200 million plus that KBR overcharged for fuel supplies to Iraq. Bowen found a massive $8.8 billion of Development Fund for Iraq money could not be accounted for

That was the result of Defense Department Audits that the Pentagon tried to conceal from the IAMB, and which were only revealed by Waxman who has managed far more indignation about it than the IAMB's public statements display. One cannot help suspecting that some of the board's five members have had words with US administration officials. Even Bowen complained about this one.

As Waxman said back in June, "there has been a stark and telling contrast between Congress' approach to the Oil For Food Program and the DFI. Five separate congressional committees have been investigating U.N. mismanagement of the Oil for Food Program, and more than a dozen hearings have been held. But before today there was not a single hearing in Congress on U.S. mismanagement of the Development Fund for Iraq," which, as he points out, is the successor to the Oil For Food program. (click here)

Waxman reported that the CPA withdrew no less than $12 billion in cash from the New York Federal Reserve Bank DFI and flew it to Iraq, comments -- no less than 363 tons of $100 bills, the largest cash withdrawal in history. In its final feeding frenzy, in the last month the CPA took out $4 billion from the mother of all ATM's in New York including the largest cash withdrawal in history, $2.4 billion.

In a partial audit of $120 million of the $600 million handed out to US military officials for local reconstruction, more 80% could not be accounted for, and $7 million was simply missing.

When I raised the fate of these funds at Kofi Annan's press conference just before Christmas, I was later berated by John Bolton's press officer as an "apologist for the UN," as he questioned my journalistic integrity and accused me of "blurring the line" between the Oil for Food kickbacks and what he characterized the CPA's accounting irregularities. I told him that I was not blurring the line. I was drawing a straight line between them.

If Benon Sevan's $160,000, alleged by the Volcker Inquiry, is headline news for the best part of the year, then I think it is a legitimate question to ask why the CPA's attested multi billion scandal scarcely merits a paragraph in the back pages.

Or is the profession saying that this is a dog bites man/man bites dog scenario? That if the UN is corrupt it is unusual, but massive corruption is too commonplace in this Bush administration to merit mention?

I suspect that this is not what the news editors and producers are saying. But it would be interesting to hear an explanation about what news values mandate that the mote in the UN's eye deserves minute attention but that the beam in the White House's can be overlooked.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, from the New York Observer and Village Voice to the Financial Times and the Guardian. His blog is the Deadline Pundit.

Other Articles by Ian Williams

* Christmas Spirit and Governor Scrooge

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Adieu Enfant Terrible: Bye, Bye, Georgie

Adieu Enfant Terrible: Bye, Bye, Georgie

PEJ News -
C. L. Cook - Partings are always difficult; especially so with intimates. We’ve known you now five years El Presidente, and none will deny, the years they’ve been eventful. But it’s time, past time, we said goodbye.

Adieu Enfant Terrible:
Bye, Bye, Georgie
C. L. Cook

PEJ News
December 27, 2005

There’s no shortage of pretexts for your immediate removal from the office of the President of the United States of America. Incompetence and outrageous perfidy are not, of themselves impeachable, but the number and frequency of your constitutional liberties taken is sufficient to send you down the road, or up the river.

But bye byes cannot be bidden without tenderness, or remembrance of the good times had, and noble deeds done: None are only bad, after all. So, before you go, whether frog-marched, or waved triumphantly into a waiting helicopter from the White House lawn, I’d like to thank you George for what you’ve done during your tenure, interrupted though it may be.

I thank you, George W. Bush for:

Laying bare for the world to witness the venality of American capitalism.

Exposing the myths of American freedom and democracy.

Putting to the torch the lie of American liberty and equality.

Immolating too the concept of America’s good intent (if benign incompetence) in world affairs.

The ruination of the fantasy of your great democracy and the “two” party system.

And your many other contirbutions to our collective enlightenment.

Without your supreme arrogance and determined menace, we others (those with the terrorists, I suppose you’d say) may have suffered further years of a kinder, gentler American empire, watching silent from the sidelines as the mercenaries of commerce plunder and pillage the globe, quieted by the lie of America’s ultimate beneficence.

We, the others, might have fallen, had you done in 2004, for the balm of a contrite Democrat, while his, or her corporate masters, the self-same intimates you knew too well, continued their rapine rampage across the world.

But no longer.

Thank you, Mr. Bush for opening the eyes of the dimmest bulbs among us, who now see with crystal clarity the calamity you represent is more than the failings your character embodies, but the greater evil of your [sic] country’s evolution.

Never again will America’s [sic] leaders, be they blue or red, fool the rest of us. We have all seen, thorugh your ministration, the systemic ugliness and for that alone I bid you fondest adieu and bon voyage on your journey into the history you righteously proclaim dead.

Chris Cook
is a contributing editor to PEJ News. He also hosts Gorilla Radio, a weekly public affairs program, broad/webcast from the University of Victoria, Canada. You can check out the GR Blog here.

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