Monday 17 August 2015

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

The intersection / Chuck Coker
An article on religion in politics from 2010

In 1775, just  before the birth of the United States, and two years after the Boston Tea Party, British lexicographer Samuel Johnston declared that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Today, after hearing the modern day Tea Party, it appears that religion may the first refuge of the scoundrel.

The problem is that nobody actually knows the thoughts of the Almighty, but some people fancy that they have privileged access to this information. Take the invasion of Iraq. George Bush and Tony Blair, were guided by God to invade, whilst, those more traditionally considered to be on the receiving end of the Holy hotline were speaking out against such an attack. This included a cross-schism alliance of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The obvious conclusion is that, either the Creator of All has a stranger and darker sense of humour than previously suspected, or some people confuse their own desires with divine instruction.

The latter is the more plausible. It has been said that the problem with religion isn’t that God made Man in his image, but that Man has the tendency to make God in his image. So often, people, especially those in the political sphere, find that they are doing God’s work, and that they are also living in God’s own country.

Who can argue with that? Not a sinful voter who went for the other candidate. There can be nothing more dangerous than a political figure who believes they are doing God’s will. Or are things slightly more complicated than that? The puzzle is that people react to faith in different ways. Martin Luther King Jr’s faith enabled him to act with great courage, not on his behalf, but on a moral crusade, the rightness of which is accepted by all but the lunatic fringe.

Is this the same faith that produced Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker or even Sarah Palin? A God who believes in big guns and small taxes? It appears that the religious sentiment, that once produced great reformers has now switched sides.

We can look at the main branches of the Christian faith in the West. Both the Catholic Church and the Church of England have spent the last few decades tearing themselves apart over... women priests.

The justification for this is an arcane reading of theology, derived from interpretation of scriptures. The rest of the world has moved on from these medieval injunctions.

In recent years various atheists, including leading top God botherer, Richard Dawkins, have argued the case against religion. How these books, or in some cases, polemics, are received is usually down to the reader’s religious beliefs. However, most of these books share a certain perspective.

The real target of the author’s ire is not the existence of a divine being, but how religions, sects and cults have placed a rigid interpretation on spiritual teachings and then imposed them on others, frequently by using violence or psychological manipulation.

For religious tolerance to thrive, what needs to happen is for those who claim to be pronouncing God’s judgement to learn a little humility and to understand that they could be wrong. After all, they have been proved wrong on many issues already, just ask Galileo.

As Martin Luther King jr said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

When we understand this, the spiritual journey becomes something that unites us, rather than dividing us.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Van Rompuy's Haiku Anthology To Cause A Storm

The Herminator
A satirical look at the short poem president who found time to publish his haikus in 2012

The President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy has announced that he will shortly be publishing a collection of his Japanese poems. He has been known to relax by composing the traditional short rhymes for many years, but this collection is going to cause outrage, according to a source who has seen the preview copies. 

The source said, "I can't believe how disgusting they are, people are going to be surprised and offended." The mild mannered President, it is alleged, uses the compositions as an outlet for his darkest thoughts, and one reader has shown Brussels Jungle some extracts:

Baroness Ashton
Wearing tight leather bodice
Tied up in my bed

Dreaming of power
Listening to Barroso
Wanting to shoot him

An aide explained that, "If people think that is shocking, wait till they read his book!" The tranquil President has been seen carrying around a large black notebook to Council meetings and an aide, who wishes to remain anonymous said, "he never lets it out of his sight, but he spends all the meetings just quietly scribbling in it. We thought he was taking notes of the meetings or using it as a diary." 

The true story is more disturbing, according to the President's inner circle, one of whom was visibly shaken as he recounted looking inside the book, "I was really tempted to see what he was writing, I know it was wrong, but I accidentally spilled a glass of water over him at Council and as he went away to dry off, he left the book behind, so I took it and had a look inside."

"What I saw will remain with me for the rest of my life. I wish I had never opened the infernal book, perhaps God is punishing me for my curiosity," said the aide, through tears. He took a long drink from a bottle of whiskey and continued his tale, "Inside, I saw that he had written 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. Over and over again. 

There must have been over 200 hundred pages, each covered with the same phrase. Only the last few pages were different. There he had scrawled in a red crayon 'REDRUM' all over the page. I'm really scared to be near him, he frightens me."

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Letter from Santa

From Xmas 2011 and Austerity has reached the North Pole

Dear All,

First of all, Christmas is postponed, probably until Q2 in 2012. The reason is that we’ve all been waiting for the markets to quiet down so I can shuffle some funds around before we can get into serious toy production. What? You’re surprised? Of course I need hard cash to get this show on the road, did you really think I finance it all with magic beans? Stability bonds?

And another thing. There’s going to be a delivery charge. Normally a bit of pie and whisky is a suitable trip for my chimney acrobatics, but as things are tight, you want to leave around €20 per kid with the booze. Oh, and no cheap supermarket stuff. A single malt is what’s required, or at a push, some Wild Turkey. It’s purely medicinal and helps keep the cold out while I’m riding the jetstream.

I’m also going to tighten up the rules on who’s been naughty. Frankly, being a kind old soul, I let a lot of stuff slide, you know the minor bits of trouble they all get into, thinking it was all part of growing up, but the fiscal situation means that I’m going to be applying the naughtiness criteria a lot more strictly. Be prepared for it. Leave a folder of supporting evidence by the bedside, it will save time.

Of course some things change. I might pop over Italy. I’ve avoided it for several years after Berlusconi suggested I should visit his party after I’d finished my rounds. Very nice it was too, a BBQ, lots of ladies and sambuca . Left the sled outside and went back to check on it a few hours later. One reindeer missing. The little swine had taken one of my finest sleigh pullers and cooked him.

Poor little Bunga Bunga, he was a favorite of mine. For Berlusconi to BBQ him was bad, to then feed him to me was very bad, but to then go on and name his sordid little gatherings after sweet little Bunga Bunga is just grotesque. I’ve not been back since. I would go and see Mario Monti, but, well, what do you buy the man who has… nothing?

The other big news is that I’m leaving the North Pole. It’s melting and I’d rather not take the chance that I’ll be spending the New Year watching my home melt. We had a group of slightly too shiny young things looking the place over for signs of global warming, wanting to “make observations on climate change.” Got ‘em smashed on home brew vodka (aka Santa’s Little Helper), got the elves to strip them down to their underwear and left them on a small iceberg. They looked like Smurfs as they drifted off. Not too sure where, exactly. Let’s say it’s a pretty good bet that they’re heading south.

So are we all. Watching a Herzog film about Antarctica, with the elves and a few drinks, we were stunned to see the South Pole base. Now, we kind of knew that our place was going a bit downhill, but when we saw that base, we all looked at each other and thought. “Nice. We’ll have it.” Already occupied? No problem. I’ve been showing the elves John Carpenter’s remake of ‘The Thing’. They’re finding it inspirational…

I reckon they’ll have it cleared in a few days.

Monday 10 August 2015

Fighting the drug trade

A 2011 interview with Raymond Yans as the International Narcotics Control Boards issue their annual report.

Do you see any changes in the way the international drug trade operates?

If we look at Europe, a lot of trends start here and continue elsewhere. One trend, that is new, is the designer drugs, which are new chemical substances, such as mephedrone, which is just a little different to other substances and the people who use this, usually clubbers have changed from ecstasy, which can be difficult to find. It is much more dangerous and there have been quite a few deaths reported from this. It started in the UK in 2007 and is now spreading through Europe and beyond.

The focus on the report seems to be on criminalizing and using prohibition. Is that a rounded strategy?

We check how states are implementing the drug control conventions that they have agreed to. We know about the global debate, which is launched by those who claim that harm reduction is better than drug prohibition.

The problem is that if you try to legalise, do you think that the health of the population would be better? We don’t think so. If you consider that any new dangerous substance can be launched at young people, do you think parents will agree with this? We are aware that controlling drugs is difficult but we are not convinced that not controlling them is right.

The stress seems to be on law, not treatment or education. These new drugs you mentioned are designed to get around existing laws, I’m not sure a prohibition based approach is working

The INCB has a very balanced position. The first chapter of our report last year was on prevention. This year it is about corruption. We insist on the basic necessity of having a prevention policy. It is the most important thing in drug control, is to try and prevent the first drug use.

Another important thing is not to consider drug users as outsiders. They should be taken care of and every country should try to install facilities to treat them, including substitution therapy, such as methadone and syringe exchange programs. We do favour all of this, a balanced approach.

You get your information from governments around the world. If we take Afghanistan, there have been many reports that very high levels of the government are involved in the drugs trade. Does that compromise what they tell you?

We are aware of this and, we do have information from the international community as well. Our analysis is also based on that, not just what the Afghan government is telling us. On the other hand, INCB is a quasi-judicial body and we are applying to Afghanistan one of the articles in the 1961 convention.

Right now, we are preparing an important mission,  to the President of INCB for the highest levels of government in Afghanistan to visit us in Vienna, for a confrontation about the Afghan drug control, or not control, policy

How do you see the link between the drug trade and corruption?

Corruption is not new and it’s not limited to drug trafficking. It has been around since human beings started exchanging goods. We are trying to limit the scope. The problem is that some countries, which are now states where drugs, especially cocaine is passing through. The amount of money involved in cocaine trafficking is higher than some small nations wealth.

We see in some West African countries, a slow deterioration of the efficiency of the state itself. This is directly connected with corruption from drug trafficking and we want the international community to pay special attention to West Africa.

What would you like to see the EU do?

We could say many things, because the drug problem in Europe is an important one.

I would like to mention precursors, the chemical products that are used to make drugs, like acetic anhydride, used in refining heroin, and a lot is produced in Europe. With the help of the Commission and member states we could see that there is trafficking of this, from Western Europe, to Afghanistan. It is a very important point. If there was no such trafficking it would be impossible for Afghanistan to make heroin.

Last year, the European Commission published a report about the problems of acetic anhydride trafficking and underlined a few solutions. We are concerned that, one year later, none of those solutions has been implemented so we would like to ask the EU to take stronger measures over the trade in this chemical, so that there can be no diversions of it away from the legal trade to the illegal trade.

Highlights from the INCB report

In Europe alone, there are 15 “designer cathinones”; most worrisome is the designer drug 4-methyl-methcathinone (a.k.a. mephedrone). Abused in a growing number of countries, mephedrone has resulted in a number of deaths and has become a drug of wide abuse across Europe.

The abuse of cocaine is spreading from Western Europe to other parts of the continent.  1.2% of all European citizens used cocaine in the last year; Spain reports the highest percentage (3.1%).  The number of cocaine abusers in Western and Central Europe doubled from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2008.  The combined cocaine consumption in these 2 sub-regions accounts for more than a quarter of global cocaine consumption.

The illicit market for opiates in Europe is the world’s largest. Western Europe is the world’s largest market for heroine and the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Germany account for 60% of European consumption.  The Russian Federation has the highest percentage of opiate (heroin) abuse (1.6%) in Europe.  European countries consume almost half of all heroin abused worldwide.  Practically all heroin available in Europe originates from Afghanistan.

The illicit and dangerous cultivation of cannabis is on the rise in Europe.  68% of global cannabis seizures in 2009 occurred in Western Europe.

Eastern Europe is one of few areas in the world where HIV prevalence is on the rise; the use of contaminated equipment for drug injection was the source of over 50% of the newly diagnosed HIV cases in Eastern Europe.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Hell and high water: Television, New York punk pioneers

Iconic New York proto-punk band;s debut was released in 77, containing the acclaimed track, Marquee Moon

While many believe that the iconoclastic punk music started in London in late 1976, like many revolutions in sound, the revolt had begun earlier in a different place.

New York in the mid 70s had attracted the attention of the Sex Pistol’s manager, Malcolm McLaren as he headed out to manage the then decaying city’s trashiest band, the New York Dolls, giving him ideas he would take across the Atlantic and call his own.

The New York scene that was based around the legendary dive bar, CBGB, out of which came bands like Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Joan Jett and Talking Heads.

But before even these, there was Television, a group formed by Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine and their music, edgy yet melodic, abrasive yet tuneful was more like the birth of independent music than mere punk.

By the mid 70s they had rebuffed several major labels, including making a recording for Island records, produced by Brian Eno, but this too was rejected as Verlaine didn’t like Eno’s efforts, saying, "He recorded us very cold and brittle, no resonance. We're oriented towards really strong guitar music ... sort of expressionistic."

Patti Smith got them another label and her boyfriend produced a session, but Verlaine still wanted his hands on the dials. Hell left and Fred Smith of Blondie took over the bass.

Eventually in the hot summer of 1976, Verlaine was offered the chance to produce, and got former Rolling Stones producer Andy Johns to assist. In preparation, the band rehearsed the album all day, every day, rejecting most of their creations over the last three years.

The album was almost entirely recorded live in the studio, in one take, including the title track, which some of the band thought was a rehearsal not a recording. No frills were added to the production, leaving a minimal, authentic feel.

In February 1977 it was released.

Verlaine later said, “As peculiar as it sounds, I've always thought that we were a pop band. You know, I always thought ‘Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles. And then I’d realise the title track is ten minutes long, with two guitar solos.”

It was something very different. Jason Heller of The A.V. Club described it as an "elegantly jagged art-punk opus" which it is, and the guitar work between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd made the record one of the most striking and innovative in rock music.

The cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe, Lloyd too the photo to a copy shop and got the copyist to play with the colours while reproducing, which the band preferred to the original photo. The copy went on the cover, the photo on Smith’s wall.

Many reviews were highly positive; often slightly bewildered as it was something strange and new.

Many may not have heard of it, but if your tastes ever reach beyond the mainstream, your favourite guitarist has almost certainly been influenced by this album and its mesmerising title track.

Try it. From its doubled not beginning and another guitar riff floats around till the bass, then drums come in and finally, the strained, plaintive flowing vocal starts, “I remember how the darkness doubled, I recall lightning struck itself,” and you’re off on a remarkable track from the most influential album you may never have heard of.

Monday 3 August 2015

Who's really paying for the financial crisis?

John Monks, was head of Europe's Trade Unions and is now a Peer
Interview with: John Monks Head of European Trades Unions in 2010

In a rare moment of summer heat in Brussels Andy Carling sat down with John Monks the Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation to talk about workers rights, just how we may get out of this financial crisis without increasing the levels of poverty and things that he and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso agree on. The interview follows below.

There seemed to be some unanimity between you and Barroso over the risk of social unrest right across Europe, but you seem divided on how you avoid it.

This is a very, very dangerous period for Europe because the economic crisis was the most severe crisis, and it’s affected the world, rather than specific countries. The costs of the bank rescue have been transferred to the public balance sheet. Within a period of about three or four weeks, the mood in European governments changed, from being relaxed about debt, to panicking.

Greece was the start and it spread to Spain and Portugal and the rest of them dread being in the same position, not least Britain. If Standard and Poor or Moody’s mark you down, that sends your interest rates up and the Greek one is still, on a 10 year market bond, over 10% a year. On a German one, it’s 2.5%.

The power of the markets, which were ironically bailed out by the bank rescues, otherwise they’d have all gone down, has now turned their attention to sovereign debt. They managed to transfer their debt onto the public authorities, who are now in trouble. The initial response to the crisis was quite good, they kept up spending, stimulus packages to varying degrees.

The European approach, since the problem burst on individual countries has been less sure. It took them a long time to deal with Greece and the price of dealing with Greece has got higher and higher. Worse, the terms that Greece has got are penal. The basic message being, if you get into the position Greece was in, Europe will punish you, you’ve broken the rules.

Not only the terms are severe, they’re more severe than the IMF is imposing on other countries, but they’re more detailed. It’s almost a colonial imposition. The German approach is that it’s the rules that matter. We’re going to be tough. Whether the social systems of these countries can stand it, we just don’t know. The real pain will come this Winter. The cuts at the moment have been the prospects of cuts. They’re plans, not operative yet.

Some are arguing for austerity packages as a short, sharp shock? Could that approach have longer term implications?

The question is what kind of short, sharp shocks? Sweden did 50/50. 50% taxes on the rich and comfortable and 50% of public expenditure cuts. They spread the pain in a way that was socially cohesive. Nobody’s talking  50/50 now.

Cameron (British Prime minister), is talking 80/20. 80% public expenditure cuts and 20% tax, not always on those who can afford it. To be fair to him, He’s not Thatcher. He’s very different to her. The very poorest may be protected but those just above will be paying the bloody bills for it.

I think the effects on employment will be harsh. In many areas, especially the poorer ones, 50% are employed through public services. The public sector share of GDP is 50% - 60% in the weaker parts of the UK.

Will we face social unrest?

I’m aware of the pressure from a lot of countries, for Europe wide action. We’re having a day of action on September 29 and that’s building up to be a big thing, there could be 70,000 from Belgium alone.  There will be demonstrations in other parts of Europe and it’s getting momentum.

What effect could these austerity packages have on the European project?

There’s no doubt about it, that Germany, the Netherlands Finland and others believe that you can’t have a sound social system without sound finances. Secondly, they’ve managed more or less to achieve that. If they’re in the single currency zone, that’s got to be the rule otherwise they don’t want to be in the zone. They’re not giving people a free ride.

That is a political reality that the rest of Europe has not yet adjusted to.  The terms for any bailout are getting tougher. Is Europe going to be popular? It’s not, is it? It’s the IMF plus, particularly for countries in the Eurozone. You can understand why somebody in Germany could ask, why didn’t think of that before, but the Euro is a benefit to Europe. God knows what would happen to all the currencies in this crisis, a 1931 type crisis, if we didn’t have the Euro. This is a massive stress test for the Euro.

These cuts being imposed are being imposed, not just in Greece and Portugal, but also in Germany, where they’re obsessed with austerity and I don’t think they need be. I believe in counter-cyclical spending by governments, buy Keynesian economics never went very deep in some parts of continental Europe.

Talking of the 30’s is quite an emotional statement and coupled with Barroso’s reported apocalyptical remarks about the possibility of states losing democracy.

He didn’t quite say that. He did say they could not survive in a recognizable form, which we interpreted as the return of the colonels or something, but he would deny he was quite that lurid. But the mood towards austerity packages is “if you do it you’re in trouble, if you don’t, you’re in a lot more trouble”.

What is your vision of a solution?

We argue that there should be a concerted effort by the EU to spend. 1.4 of EU GDP, which is a hell of a lot of money, on a recovery package, that would be financed, in the main, by Eurobonds, issued to the Euros credit, which is strong, and financial transaction taxes. This would fund investment in sustainable technologies, investment in the young, who are getting screwed most at the moment by the economic situation. Youth unemployment is double the average, and support for the weaker regions.

A fund needs to be assembled, operated by the EIB or EBRD so we’ve got some growth spots and the charge doesn’t appear on the national register.