Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Syrian lives... or American money?

Almost the only thing you can say with certainty about what’s going on in Syria is that it is ghastly. A humanitarian crisis on a large and rapidly expanding scale.
It looks like all-out war between the regime of President Assad and a very mixed rebellion whose precise personnel, aims and support are decidedly unclear. Murky.
It’s not just hard to see who the good guys are in this – it’s hard to see that there are any good guys at all. Except, perhaps, that almost-silent majority of the Syrian people who are on neither side but who are, almost inevitably, the real victims.
And should the United States and its line-up of Western cheerleaders launch air attacks “against Assad”, those ordinary people will be the real victims of that too.
One fears for them. And one dreads to think where the conflict might lead, especially with Russia standing out in support of Assad.
Of course, the world’s been used to America and Russia acting out their mutual aggression in the form of proxy wars elsewhere.
The Cold War wasn’t so cold in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Congo, Nicaragua, Afghanistan... And if the Cold War supposedly ended 20-odd years ago, with the fall of Communism, perhaps we are seeing now the onset of Cold War II (or III).
It would have advantages for both the major (off-field) players, in the form of hard cash from weapon sales. Which is the ultimate underlying motive for most modern warfare.
Early reports on last Tuesday night’s devastating attack on Ghouta questioned whether the apparent deaths of 1,300 men, women and children was a hoax. No one seems to believe that any longer. But what really did happen?
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said this: “The only possible explanation of what we have been able to see is that it was a chemical attack.
“So we believe this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale… It was the only plausible explanation for casualties so intense in such a small area.”
Grim indeed. But quite why the use of chemical weapons should be designated as the “red line” beyond which Assad would be the target of world disapproval is not clear.
Killing people with nerve gas is appalling. But is it any more appalling than, say, killing them with Cruise missiles, Colt 45s, Kalashnikov rifles or knives? With medieval siege-engines and broadswords? Or with drones?
Hague went on to describe as “vanishingly small” the odds that the Ghouta massacre had been committed by rebel forces to frame the government.
Really, Mr Hague? Smaller than the odds that Assad would order such a senseless killing – just when Barack Obama had drawn that infamous “red line”?
When investigating any crime, a sensible starting-point is to ask who benefits. It’s pretty clear in this case that it’s not the Assad regime.
The alternative view – that it was the foul work of rebels intent on drawing America into the conflict – was put forward by Russia. Of course. But it has also been very clearly argued in a less obvious quarter.
The online journal Zero Hedge does not exactly represent mainstream American opinion – in fact it tends to be described as “dissident”. But its main focus of interest is the US stock market, its writers are Wall Street insiders and it is one of the most widely-read and influential voices on American financial affairs.
And it predicted a month ago that “something” would happen soon to goad President Obama into going to war in Syria.
Not because it would suit him to do so. But because it would suit the flagging US economy to big up its spending with another good foreign war.
It’s happened before. One of the prime causes of the Second World War was the Great Depression of the 1930s, which started – like the present global recession – in America.
And the ultimate big winner of that war was the USA, which emerged with its economy reinvigorated and flourishing, while devastated Europe set about picking up the pieces.
Obama is said to be “cautious” about going in with all guns blazing. In that, at least, he appears to be saner and humaner than his predecessor in the White House.
Let’s pray he can resist the pressure from the more gung-ho elements in his own administration, the Federal Reserve and allies like Mr Hague.


For some reason – does anyone really understand how these things work? – photos of a gargoyle at Paisley Abbey near Glasgow have gone viral on Facebook and Twitter.
Well, it’s a very nice gargoyle, clearing depicting an alien creature very like the one in the movie Alien.
But before you go drawing conclusions about aliens visiting medieval Scotland, let me point out one thing. The abbey itself may be 13th century, but most of its old gargoyles were replaced by new ones in the early 1990s.
And no one in their right mind, surely, would suggest that mermaids, dragons and unicorns roamed the fields and shores of medieval Norfolk. Yet genuinely medieval carvings of all of those can be found in Norfolk churches.
One wonders, then, what mind the writers Graham Hancock and Erich von Daniken must be in to see ancient Japanese carvings of “men in spacesuits” as “proof” that extra-terrestrial forces visited ancient Japan. Or what possesses the History Channel to undermine its genuine programming by giving airtime to their poppycock.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

The spread and spread of palm oil

You can forget the snails and the frogs’ legs, preposterous clichés at best. You can leave the over-rated, over-crusty bread in its bin. And you can set the cheese aside for now – though that’s not at all easy for me to do. If there are two things that should really symbolise French food they are croissants and a particular chocolate spread.
They may not be what you’d expect to find in a fancy restaurant, either side of the Channel, but no breakfast table in a French home or café is properly laid without them.
My teenage daughter doesn’t like either of them, which may be the strangest thing about her. It was her primary source of trepidation when embarking on a recent exchange visit to a French family.
Knowing her fear of croissants, we acquired a jar of Nutella to familiarise her with the flavour before she went. With the result I ended up eating most of the jar myself, rediscovering a taste from my own teen years.
I’m not the total sucker for anything chocolate-flavoured that so many people seem to be, but that dash of hazelnut makes it a lot harder to resist.
As for croissants, I’m not sure how they achieve that distinctive taste and texture – flaky on the outside, stretchy inside – but if you’ve never eaten one in France you won’t know just what I’m talking about. For some reason, anything called croissants served anywhere outside their homeland are simply not the same.
For those of us who care not just about how our food tastes, but where it comes from, there are problems, however.
I was disturbed this week by a revelation from an old friend we stayed with recently in beautiful Burgundy.
“Generally I cook stuff from scratch but I draw the line at croissants,” Cheryl said. “We had a surprise today because we found out there was some palm oil in frozen croissants in our fridge. Looks like I may be making the next croissants myself after all.
“Can I just suggest that you have a look at your processed food and see just what has been put in the stuff you bought.”
Follow that piece of advice and you may find your kitchen cupboards are full of palm oil.
If the ingredients listed on tin or packet include an unspecified “vegetable oil”, chances are it’s palm – if it’s the healthier olive or sunflower oil, it’s likely to say so.
Several companies in France – including supermarket own brands – have taken lately to labelling products proudly as “free of palm oil”. Which tells you how far ahead of us they are in recognising a real issue.
But what’s wrong with palm oil anyway?
According to the World Health Organisation, eating it increases the risk of heart disease. But it’s the effect of it on the health of the planet that really concerns me.
Particularly the rate at which high-yield, industrial-scale plantations are spreading across several parts of the world, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, patches of South America and a large swathe of Africa.
In many places these plantations are taking the place of ancient rainforest, a sterile monoculture displacing what was the most vibrant biodiversity anywhere.
On the grand scale this is bad for the atmosphere, a very likely cause of global warming.
On the local scale, in Borneo and Sumatra, it’s bad for creatures such as the orang-utan, now in danger of extinction.
And if you’ve ever watched Bruce Parry’s excellent series ‘Tribe’ you’ll know how people too are driven off their land by companies chasing the big profits palm oil can bring. Peasant farmers in Colombia, Honduras and Malaysia are among the thousands who have lost their homes and livelihoods.
Earlier this year Nutella, in a bizarre tie-up with WWF (that’s the World Wide Fund for Nature, not the wrestling association), announced that in future all its palm oil would come from “sustainable sources”. So that’s good and green, right?
That word “sustainable” is one of the tricksiest around.
However “sustainable” that oil farm is today, it’s still likely to be on land that was primal forest until yesterday.
It may be capable of sustaining Western food habits, fancy soap products – and our not-as-green-as-they’re-painted “bio-fuels” – but it’s no longer sustaining the plants, people and creatures who used to live there.
And justice for all?

WHEN is a cause “just”? It’s a question worth asking because that’s when the USA says it will use drone strikes – missiles fired from unmanned aircraft.
In late July the Americans resumed a campaign of drone attacks in Yemen, a desperately poor and troubled country you might think had enough problems already.
Last week there were eight drone strikes in different parts of that frightened and confused country. Was every death they caused “just”?
Worldwide, there have been American drone attacks on 27 different sites in the past six months.
Was all the fear spread by the overhead buzzing of the remote-control planes “just”?
If this is how America wages the “war on terror”, it seems legitimate to ask which side are the terrorists.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

'If they can't afford treatment they don't deserve it'

It was nearly 40 years ago, over college port and toasted crumpets, that I got my deepest insight into the thinking of what is now Britain’s ruling party.
A newly arrived undergraduate, I had been invited by one of my fellow freshers to partake of those refreshments in his rooms.
His suite (or “set” in Cambridge jargon) was as different from my own accommodation as his suave self-confidence was from my long-haired naïvety.
His windows looked out on the historic grandeur of Trinity’s Great Court. My one window was too high to look out of directly but in any case only gave onto a blank wall a few feet away.
My room, tucked under the bend of a staircase and surely once a cupboard – or perhaps servant’s quarters – would almost have fitted in one of his armchairs.
Unlike him, I had only my local authority grant to live on, and that meant the cheapest room in college.
He had been at Eton – I believe he was head boy. Three other Etonians were also among the 18 of us studying English at Trinity in our year.
I was the first pupil from my school to go to any university. I was the only one of the 18 to have come through the state system.
It was, I can only assume, curiosity that prompted his invitation. He’d probably never met a comprehensive-school boy before. I had certainly never met anyone like him, or his room-mate (we’ll get to him later).
The conversation was polite, but I became increasingly incredulous. After all these years I forget most of it, but I know we came to a disagreement about the National Health Service, of which I approved (and still do). He was arguing for its abolition, along with that of all welfare benefits.
“So what you’re saying,” I suggested to him, “is that anyone who can’t afford treatment doesn’t deserve treatment.”
“Precisely,” he said.
So there it is, laid out plain, the core of Conservative philosophy (although at that time he still called himself a Liberal). The pretence, that they care for ordinary people, stripped bare.
Within three years I had my second-class honours degree (he spent a year longer getting his). Within another six, he was editor of The Spectator, while I was still a junior member of a provincial paper’s sports department.
About the time I joined this company as a sub-editor at the Ipswich Evening Star, he was appointed editor of the Daily Telegraph, having already run the Sunday edition for three years.
These days he’s probably better known as Margaret Thatcher’s biographer. And as the man who told a national radio audience on the day of her funeral that those places where she wasn’t popular – basically Scotland, Wales and the north of England – were “relatively less important” than those wealthier, southern parts where she was loved.
If this comparison of Charles Moore’s career with mine sounds like sour grapes, it really isn’t. I wouldn’t trade my life for his – though there have been times, I’ll admit, when I have envied his worldly success.
I recall it here only as an illustration of the way class and privilege continue to pervade our allegedly democratic society.
I don’t believe the differences in our careers have anything to do with ability or hard work – though it may well be that his elbows are sharper than mine (which are, frankly, on the soft side).
The difference is between money and the lack of it. Between my old school and his, which also happens to be that of the mayor of London and 19 British prime ministers, including the present one. Oh, and Oliver Letwin – Moore’s best chum at school, Cambridge and probably still.
That’s the same Letwin who devised the Poll Tax, thereby inadvertently contributing to Thatcher’s downfall. And who is now, as Minister of State for Policy, probably more responsible than anyone else for deciding what the government gets up to next.
Would you trust the NHS – or anything else that really matters – to these people? I wouldn’t.