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Friday, 27 July 2012

A Minute for Munich

I am pleased that several Liberal Democrat MPs joined MPs from other parties to sign this Early Day Motion calling for an official minute's silence in memory of the eleven Israeli coaches and athletes murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972 (a terrorist being "someone who uses violent action, or threats of violent action, for political purposes"). 


During this minute's silence (I was not myself in Trafalgar Square), I thought of the eleven people who were murdered, and the West German policeman who was killed during the failed rescue attempt. I also thought of the people killed in the terrorist attack during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and of the people murdered by terrorists in London on 7 July 2005, a mere day after we had heard that London had won the 2012 Olympics.

By the way, the terrorist group at Munich called itself Black September, named after King Hussein's disgusting massacre of thousands of Palestinians in Jordan in September 1970. Had Black September used that Jordanian massacre of Palestinians as some warped justification for attacking Jordanian (not Israeli) Olympians in Munich in 1972, it would still have been an appalling terrorist atrocity, and one that could never be justified. Surely it is possible to be pro-Palestinian, and perhaps to be harshly critical of some Israeli policies and actions, without opposing a minute's silence for the Israelis murdered at Munich in 1972? Yet, according to the head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, a minute's silence for the Israelis murdered in Munich would contribute towards "divisiveness and the spread of racism". 

So, if a dislike of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians is to be a motive for not memorialising murdered Israelis, should a dislike of the the UK's war in Iraq be a motive for not memorialising the victims of 7/7? If Kurdish terrorists murdered Turkish athletes in the Olympic village, would we see Turkey's appalling treatment of the Kurds as a reason not to observe a minute's silence for those Turkish Olympians who had been murdered? What about if it was Kashmiri separatists murdering Indian athletes? Or Chechen terrorists murdering Russian athletes? 

The International Olympic Committee really should institute a minute's silence every four years for everyone murdered by terrorists in or around the Olympic Games.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Marble Arch fountains

As part of the rather lovely restoration of Marble Arch and its green space, the London-ocracy came together in committee, and I was on it as I was then working as Thames Water's Local and Regional Government Liaison for central London.

Thames Water was involved in restoring the fountains, which are switched off today for cleaning - two nice chaps from the maintenance company Conway kindly pointed me towards the plaque commemorating Marble Arch's re-opening, replete with a Thames Water logo (https://www.westminster.gov.uk/press-releases/2009-06/marble-arch-lights-up-the-west-end/ - I didn't go, although invited).

Even with the fountains switched off for a little while today, it all looks rather beautiful.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Boris on the buses

Oh dear God. Just now on my bus in the leafy Outer London/Herts hinterland that is the border between New Barnet and its counterpart to the East, I heard, competing with the noise of the engine and so only semi-audible, the voice of Boris Johnson saying words to the effect: "Hi, this is the Mayor of London. The Olympics starts in a few days time, blah blah, blather blather, so there will be transport changes across Greater London, yawn chortle snort. So don't get caught out! Check before you travel..."

All well and good, but in the wonderfully soporific atmosphere that is the norm on a bus in my part of the world at this time of the day in such utterly lovely weather, the excitement of hearing the Mayor's voice in this way was so great as to almost wake the driver.

It did seem a little incongruous, as, to those of us who live in my deeply urban local area (pictured), it does feel as if the Games are happening in a far-away place of which we know nothing (with all Londoners being privileged to pay an extra chunk of Council Tax specifically for the Olympics - a specific extra surcharge, marked separately on the bill - it's great that so many events are happening in Dorset, Scotland and Hertfordshire, whose residents were denied the opportunity to pay this extra bit of Council Tax, while not a single bit of the Olympics is happening in the London borough that has paid more for the Games in extra Council Tax than any other, that borough being, of course, Barnet).

But enough of my humbuggery. It's Christmas! Or at least, it's about to be the sort of event that will give many people the sort of pleasure and enjoyment that I get from Christmas, an exciting election night and a trip to the cinema to see the latest great new film, all rolled into one. Many, many people across the worlds of sport, culture and public service will now work very hard and deliver a huge amount that is memorable, excellent and entertaining for millions of people all over London.

Who cares if I'm not very interested in it? Many other people are, and many of those people are not very interested in some things that I am interested in, and those things get promoted some of the time, so it's quid pro quo. I hope and expect that the Games and the surrounding stuff will be a great success.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Angie Bray's Freudian "great things"

Angie Bray, Conservative MP for Ealing Central, was yesterday sacked as Francis Maude's Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) after rebelling on Lords reform (a PPS is an MP who, for no extra salary, acts as a minister's "eyes and ears" among backbench MPs, keeping the minister in touch with backbench opinion). Today's Standard has Ms Bray saying: "The whips tell me there's no way back, but historically there are cases of MPs who rebel on an issue being able to go on to great things later on." Don't hold back, Ms Bray. This is no time for false modesty. If you think that, in historical terms, you are destined for great things, then you just come right out and say so...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The public and Lords reform

Sam Coates writes in The Times: "Yet this week [some Tory MPs] have put their careers on the line for a piece of legislation few members of the public care about." I would argue, rather, that members of the public do care about Lords reform, and do understand why it matters. It is not that they do not care, it is that they often do not find it very interesting. That is an important distinction. A lot of things that we care about (because we know that they matter) are also things that we can sometimes find boring. Some of the most important things in life are also the most boring, so the public has little interest in reading much about them. But that's not the same as not caring, and it's not the same as not having an opinion. I think most ordinary people do know why Parliament matters and so do care about Lords reform. They just don't often care very actively, unless prompted to do so. In most pubs, you could get people going on this subject quite easily, I reckon. Everybody gets what it is about, as with Scottish independence and Europe.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Yasir Arafat radio clip

The London-based radio station Voice of Russia rang me up yesterday and asked me to comment (as someone who blogs about the Middle East) on this news story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18695634. So I did, at: http://m.ruvr.ru/data/2012/07/06/1297773270/05072012_PollyBoiko_YasserArafat.mp3.

I also said, when asked if I thought that the Palestinians might use this story as a reason not to talk peace with Israel, that I hoped that President Abbas and his entourage are really not that stupid.

I personally see no mystery as to how Yasir Arafat died; as the BBC says, Mr Arafat's medical records: "showed he died of a massive haemorrhagic stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an unknown infection. Independent experts who reviewed the records told the paper that it was highly unlikely that he had died of Aids or had been poisoned."

I am, of course, not responsible for the views of any of the other people commenting in this clip.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Timbuktu's Islamophobic Islamists (and don't forget Tunisia)

Tragic to read that historic Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, in Mali, are being destroyed by Islamists. Yes, Islamists destroying Islamic shrines. Yet more proof that being a political Islamist and being a pious Muslim are not one and the same thing. As one British former Islamist, Maajid Nawaz, put it recently (following his recent trip to the Middle East on a Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel fact-finding trip): 
I became an Islamist without ever having read the Koran...People may not know but Islamists often come from educated, liberal backgrounds, in fact many of them are irreligious. Disillusionment with what they see around them, coupled with a powerful ideological narrative, leads to their political conversion. The ritual aspect of Islam, things like praying and fasting, I have noticed, comes as an afterthought.
Meanwhile, given that the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, is anyone paying attention to what has happened there in recent weeks? I appreciate that we've been all been busy watching urgent sport, but it would be nice if somebody cared. Apart from some genuinely commendable anti-terror co-operation, I am ignorant of what the UK is doing re:- Tunisia, and our embassy's website leaves me little the wiser. 

I don't mean to sound cynical or critical of individuals, as there is doubtless lots of great work being done - besides, when did it become our job to solve all the problems of the world? Having said that, I blogged previously about the UK's tremendous efforts to bolster good governance, free media and the open society across the Middle East and North Africa, as highlighted in an excellent speech by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

As a British taxpayer, I am genuinely very pleased that the UK is spending £40 million on the Arab Partnership Participation Fund "for political reform, supporting free and fair elections, stronger parliaments, media and judiciaries". In Tunisia in 2011/12, this UK fund paid for projects with such titles as "Supporting the media to develop a code of conduct for reporting on elections", "Transforming National Tunisian Television into a Public Service Broadcaster" and "Protection of freedom of expression" - and I'm all for that. 

But it is highly dispiriting, particularly in light of these great British endeavours, to read today on the BBC that: 
The Tunisian commission tasked with reforming the country's media has resigned, citing government censorship.
Kamel Labidi, head of The National Authority for the Reform of Information and Communication, said it "does not see the point in continuing its work"..."The body warns of the gravity of the situation in the realm of information and accuses the government of reverting to forms of censorship and disinformation," Mr Labidi said.
What is there to say?  

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Kaddish in Homeland

Please don't read this if you have not yet watched Homeland and if you therefore don't want to know what happens. I'm watching it on my PVR, a Humax that my friends and I call the Hoover.

Anyway, back in April, the Jewish Chronicle (JC) ran a diary piece (http://www.thejc.com/news/the-diary/66188/kaddish-a-tv-terrorist) about how, in Homeland, the Mandy Patinkin character (Saul Berenson - with a name like that, and played by Mandy Patinkin, we're presumably meant to assume that he's Scottish, or perhaps Korean) says kaddish (a Jewish mourner's prayer) for a dead terrorist. As I was then looking forward to eventually watching Homeland on the Hoover, and as I do like Mandy Patinkin (I loved Chicago Hope), this fairly piqued my interest.

Then, some time later, a friend was praising Homeland, and he said in passing that there's this great bit where this guy's just died, and Mandy Patinkin shows his respect for him by muttering something in Arabic. Are you sure, I said - I saw this JC thing about Patinkin saying kaddish?

Then another friend was talking about Homeland and I said, oh yes, what's this thing about how the guy dies, and Patinkin says a prayer that the JC said was kaddish, but was it kaddish, or was it something in Arabic? Kaddish being mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew, incidentally. And this second friend said that it wouldn't have made sense for it to be kaddish, and it must have been a Muslim prayer, and, besides, we don't know that Saul is even Jewish.

Just watched it, and yes it's kaddish - I listened carefully, in case it was a prayer in Arabic (or Urdu - the dead character was surely Pakistani?), but no, it's kaddish, including the lines "uvḥaye dekhol bet yisrael/beʻagala uvizman qariv veʼimru amen". "Bet yisrael" is the House of Israel, and do Muslims say "amen" at the end of prayers? I don't know. One ought to know, but I don't know.

Leaving aside my enjoyment of my own pompous pedantry - or is it pedantic pomposity? - I am fascinated: what did the Homeland team intend viewers to think when Saul uttered this prayer? Were viewers supposed to get it, or was it deliberate misdirection, especially as (at this stage on the Hoover) I am thinking that we are possibly supposed to see Saul as a potential red herring in terms of who is the traitor (if anyone is)?

Although my two friends took it as being that Saul was showing respect for the dead man by reciting a Muslim prayer. And it turns out that it was kaddish - in other words, a Jew showing Jewish respect for the death of a Muslim. Which makes perfect sense to me, because as soon as I saw Saul in Episode One, I knew that he was The West Wing's Toby Ziegler (only older and less cross) and David from Rubicon all over again - I got the shorthand telegraphy of his being a wise old American Jew whose conscience troubles him like indigestion.

Would Homeland's American audience (a tiny two million, in a country of 300 million, so this is niche American viewing that we're talking about here - in a country with six million Jews, many of whom surely fit the 'urban intellectual' demographic that might exemplify Homeland's audience) be expected to recognise kaddish, or was it done in the full knowledge that most people wouldn't get it, and that this would thus only add to the mystery for most viewers, and add further to online debate about what is going on (http://mobile.avclub.com/articles/blind-spot,64132/?mobile=true)?

Kaddish is one of the more famous Jewish prayers, and those Jews and non-Jews who have seen many plays or films about Jews will perhaps have heard of it, with its opening words ("Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba") not being wholly unfamiliar in context, particularly to an American audience. Wikipedia even tells me that Rocky recites it when someone dies in Rocky III.

But in Homeland it is not in context, not least because Saul says it quietly. Had I not been forewarned by the JC, would I have heard it and gone "Eh, what? Was that kaddish?", or would I simply have got it? I think I would have got it.

And as for Saul more generally, I do sometimes have an over-active J-dar, but to me he is obviously playing a Jewish archetype that is familiar from American TV, not least with a name like Saul Berenson. The Hoover yesterday showed me Episode Two, in which Saul goes to get a warrant from a judge in a gentlemen's club. Saul admires a painting that the club has just acquired, and says sonorously that it is by "an artist who, it turns out, was not only Dutch, but also Jewish". "In a club with no Jewish members," responds the judge (whose club it is). "That's your point, isn't it Saul?"

Now, as I say, I do sometimes have an over-active J-dar, but hello, a character played by Mandy Patinkin (who rivals Maureen Lipman in the known-to-be-Jewish stakes), called Saul Berenson, looking and sounding like every rumpled Jewish intellectual we've ever seen in the movies? He gets into a discussion about the fact that he's in a Washington gentlemen's club that doesn't accept Jews as members - is it not conceivable that this character might be Jewish, and that the writers intend us to pick up on this?

I love also that he is not wearing a tie and puts his coffee cup, minus a saucer, on the arm of his antique leather armchair, having ignored his host's question about how he takes his coffee, and having added his own artificial sweetener - it's a power play. He's exactly the sort of bearded university type that this sort of gentlemen's club wants to exclude. That's why he acts like that when he's there.

To me, he's clearly supposed to be Jewish from the off, just as Carrie is clearly supposed to be attractive, and just as Brody is clearly supposed to be an educated Brit, given that he is played by Damian Lewis - oh alright, my theory isn't foolproof. It is called acting and there's more to it than just casting types; Patinkin can play non-Jews, just as Lewis is playing a non-Brit.

And if you like these things less quietly telegraphed, then nothing beats the oh-so-subtle 'outing' of The West Wing's two Jewish regulars in this great scene from the very first episode: http://youtube.com/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D8unqrdurxyg&v=8unqrdurxyg&gl=US#watch_actions. When I see Homeland, and when I see that even Saul's Jewishness is not immediately obvious, then I can see why Aaron Sorkin decided to make it obvious from the off in The West Wing.

Fw: Urgent: Lords Reform

As that throaty-voiced American-sounding man who does the voiceovers for movie trailers at the cinema might put it: "From the people who brought you the Yes to AV Campaign..."
------------------

From: "Peter Facey, Unlock Democracy" <peter@unlockdemocracy.org.uk>
Date: Wed, 4 Jul 2012 11:16:10 +0000
To: Matthew Harris<matthew.harris@hotmail.co.uk>
Subject: Urgent: Lords Reform

Unlock Democracy

Lords Reform Bill - click here to write to your MPHi Matthew,

Let’s cut to the chase. Over 1,300 people have written to their MPs following the publication of the Lords Reform Bill, but we need to get that figure to at least 2,000 before the House of Commons debates it on Monday. We just need you to ask them a single question and our tool makes it easy for you. Will you write to them today?

Write to your MP right now

The debate around House of Lords reform is hotting up. Last Saturday, the Telegraph published some original Unlock Democracy research showing how dozens of peers claim tens of thousands in expenses despite only occasionally bothering to vote - or not voting at all[1]. This includes: the Earl of Rosslyn, a Metropolitan Police Commander who claimed £15,750 in 2011 despite not voting or speaking once or sitting on any committees; Lord Truscott, who claimed £44,100 tax free in 2011 two years after being suspended for offering to change legislation for a paying client, despite only voting 19 times; and Lord Hanningfield, who claimed £9,310 in the nine months running up to being imprisoned for expenses fraud in July last year - despite not voting or speaking once during that period.

The House of Lords has repeatedly proven itself to be incapable of reforming itself. It is only considering taking action on peers working as lobbyists now - 3 years after the “cash for influence” scandal and 19 years after the “cash for questions” scandal which forced the House of Commons into cleaning up its act. Lords wouldn’t even be grudgingly talking about reform now if the government wasn’t looking like it is going to get serious about introducing elections to the second chamber. If the government is forced into abandoning the House of Lords Reform Bill, it will be back to business as usual in the Lords.

At Unlock Democracy, we’re working hard to persuade MPs on both sides of the chamber to vote the right way when the Bill is debated in the Commons next week. But we need your help. We need to get as many people as possible to write to their MPs and send us the response.

This achieves two things. Firstly, it helps us to keep track of where the MPs stand - and put pressure on the ones who we think are open to persuasion. Secondly, it shows your MP that their constituents care about the issue. One letter from you is worth five letters from a pressure group like us.

Please write to your MP today, using our simple tool

Thank you so much!

Best wishes,

Peter Facey
Director, Unlock Democracy

Notes:

[1] See our press release here: http://action.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/media/news/entry/lords-reform-new-research-reveals-the-price-of-patronage



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