Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mr Murdoch has declared war on us...

The direct, personal decision by Rupert Murdoch to fly in the face of the rules that are supposed to circumscribe newspaper editors and publish the unfortunate pictures of Price Harry in flagrante is an act of both political calculation and of defiance.

The Murdoch Empire is not merely on the back foot, it is in the dock, both of law and of public opinion. Murdoch now resorts to twitter to apply the whip to the nag of the British body politic, but his newspapers retain the power that they had before the hacking scandal virtually intact. Indeed, the arrogant and high handed culture that led to the wreck of the News of the World remains untouched- as this latest 10 day wonder shows.

Murdoch knows that the publication is a clear breach of the PCC editors code, but he has decided to run the story to remind the politicians of the power that he has. It is not just Prince Harry who has unfortunate or compromising stories in the Sun Editor's desk.

However, I think that the Dirty Digger may have- not for the first time- misjudged the public mood.  The fact is that a clear majority in polls have not supported the publication by The Sun. Of course it is an act of public hypocrisy, bearing in mind that a substantial number of people have already searched for and found the pictures on the Internet. Yet there is a big difference in the public mind between finding stuff online and having it delivered through your front door. The fact is that a large number of people believe that the wayward Prince is entitled to his privacy, as long as they can find out what naughty fun he has been up to. What happens in Vegas should at least stay online. Murdoch, by over ruling his editors and breaching the code, has made a point of major significance to Leveson: How do you stop me?

Yet he has over reached himself. Jeremy Hunt may have been all smiles when he met Murdoch at Wimbledon (a rather ill advised meeting for both parties, one might have thought), but the old rogue has underlined just how malevolent an influence he is. He may have thought that by proving his power, he was sending a message prohibition on action against him by the British political class, in fact he may have merely underlined the need for his total expulsion form the British body politic.

The trial of the News International executives and journalists will be as sensational as any over the past decade, and should any turn against their former proprietor, as they may, it will be fatal to the Murdoch Empire.

This act of spite and defiance is more likely to hasten that ending. I predict that Leveson will be damning and that at last this malign, poisonous influence on British politics will finally have run its course.   

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Unleashing the (Estonian) hooligan within


“Of course you know”, said a friend of mine the other day, “Kalevipoeg is really simply a football hooligan”.

Well, of course, an Estonian mythical giant is, by definition, going to have certain Estonian characteristics:
A large capacity for alcohol- check
A desire to spend time deep in the countryside- check
An ambivalent relationship with Finland- check
Wanting to be anywhere except Estonia for long periods of time- check

Yet it had not occurred to me that Estonia’s great national hero could be seen in quite the same light as the A Team Young Casuals of [NAME DELETED ON LEGAL ADVICE] United FC. Now that a new translation of the Estonian national epic is available, it will give a wider audience the opportunity to encounter the proto-hooligan and judge for themselves. For, I have to admit, the behaviour of Kalvipoeg does seem to be predicated on a remarkable level of violence, drunkenness and yet more violence. It comes as something of a surprise to realise that the national epic is to a great degree the product of respectable medical gentlemen- particularly Drs. Friedrich Faehlman and Friedrich Kreutzwald. One cannot help thinking that the contrast between their sober Victorian existence and the litany of trolls, magic salt mills, dwarves, maidens of the North, giants of the West, incest, violence, drunkenness, murder, fights, more violence, spirits of the darkness, magic flying boats and so on reflects a degree of wish fulfilment. Either that, of course, or Kreutzwald had seen Cardiff on a Saturday after the match, though there is no record of him having done so.

These days, of course, the reality of Estonia has rendered the dreams of a mythic Estonia far less important. Estonians do not quote the characters of the national epic as archetypes, in the way that Latvians, for example, do about their national epic, Lāčplēsis. Yet still, there are many landmarks that retain a connection with the epic, in the same way that King Arthur has various seats, castles, pools dotted around the more scenic parts of Britain, so the rocky heights of Toompea form a fittingly giant grave for Kalev and in everyday life, there are various Kalev sports clubs. Yet, perhaps appropriately it is Linda, the leading female character in the epic, who carries most resonance today- the Linda’s stone carelessly dropped from her apron into Ulemiste lake- by Tallinn Airport- the tears of Linda, which seem enough to fill any mildly brackish body of water in the country, all these are indeed proverbial in their use. The sense of loss and sadness which sometimes seems to lie at the root of much of the Estonian psyche is certainly well expressed in Linda. Perhaps that is why it was at the statue of Linda near Pikk Hermann that the singing revolution first began to find its voice.

But what of Kalevipoeg himself?

He does have a large and ferocious dog, and, when drunk, is capable of exceptionally poor judgement- while also making a lot of noise. He is very keen to get into a fight, and in particular when away from home he likes to mix it with the nastiest trolls, sprites, devils etc.(not so often at home). So I think the idea of Kalevipoeg as a football hooligan might make some sense- if it were not for the fact that Estonia’s national football team is now doing so well. Hooliganism is usually the product of defeat, but as Estonia has just sailed up the FIFA world rankings to stand currently at 49th- above such former giants as Romania, Austria or Bulgaria, defeat for Estonia’s football team is ever rarer. So, whatever motivates Kalevipoeg- my own view is a truly massive hangover- it is unlikely to be football.

Some damn thing in the Senkakus

A long hiatus from blogging, although there has been much to write about. I was travelling across Europe at ground level, for a change, of which more in later blogs. 

One of the countries I travelled through was Germany, where despite the marvellous array of beautiful landscapes and quirky towns and villages with centuries of history to chose from, sooner or later one comes up against the appalling 12 years of Nazi rule. In the beautiful abbey of Quedlinburg we find that the sinister and creepy Heinrich Himmler expelled the church to build an absurd and horrible SS shrine around the grave of Henry the Fowler- the first king of East Frankia- that is proto-Germany, rather than West Frankia, which was proto-France. In Bamberg, an equally beautiful world heritage site, we find the "Bamberg Knight", the supposed archetype of the Aryan man- though to my eyes a rather effete looking piece

Nazism was a kind of death cult, and the symbolism of death's head and the glorification of war is undoubtedly genuinely scary. Yet, there is also a weird comedy in the blatantly un-Aryan looking Himmler and Goebbels demanding the Germans fully conform to some bizarre blond and blue eyed stereotype. The Nazis were a criminal organisation and as such it is almost too easy to dismiss Germany's previous incarnation- the Kaiserreich- as being similarly unworthy, since in the end it led to the monstrous evil of the Hitler gang. Yet, looking at the solidity of the buildings of the pre-World War I era, it is harder to consider that the country was in the grip of the same kind of criminal or irrational leaders that comprised the so-called Third Reich.

In fact the entry of Germany into the First World War seems as much a horrendous miscalculation about the impact of warfare as anything else. After the series of easy victories that created the German Empire in 1871, Germany had been pacific to a far greater degree than, for example, Britain. Whereas British troops had been in action in many places, not least in South Africa, German troops had not. Whereas British troops had already seen things, like barbed wire, snipers and even trench warfare, the Germans still had the illusion of the easy mobile victory. Thus the Germans also fatally underestimated the scale of what they were about to unleash. War for the Germans was an instrument of policy, and it took the horrors of Flanders to understand that it could also be an instrument of annihilation. 

Europe has been the cockpit of human history for nearly four centuries, but the exhaustion of the two world wars and the rise and fall of the twin evils of Soviet and National Socialism has forced Europeans to recognize that there is almost no peaceful course that can be worse than war itself. This is not, however the case in Asia. Of the wars of the twenty-first century so far, we have seen Asia, not Europe, become the point of contention as China, and to a lesser extent India achieve greater economic power. Wars have taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan of course, but also in Georgia and now Syria. Great power stress is now between China and the United States- that great Euro-Pacific behemoth- with other stress between China and Japan and indirectly, through Pakistan, with India. This is why the growing assertiveness of China concerning unfinished territorial disputes is now of increasing concern. The shaky legitimacy of the People's Republic of China remains internally challenged, but is also challenged by the existence of Taiwan as a standing rebuke to the Communist oligarchs. Yet the blue water claims of the PRC may now be enforceable, as China acquires far stronger military and naval forces.

Yet, as the riots in China show, there is not the same idea of war being the ultimate evil in Asia as in Europe. The destruction of anything Japanese- including cars, which were presumably owned by Chinese- could easily lead to the Chinese Communist leadership being backed into a corner by its own nationalism.

As in 1914 these are loose groups, rather than formal alliance structures: Japan and Taiwan do have formal alliances with the United States, but to a weaker extent the ASEAN countries are also associated with the United States, and also tend to regard China as a strategic and economic rival. The great unknowns are India and Russia, which presumably are antagonistic to or supportive of China respectively. Russia has its own dispute with Japan, whereas the days of Sino-Soviet tension are now firmly in the past, with Russia and China adopting common positions over the Arab Spring and other human rights issues.

For Europe, only Russia matters, for otherwise we do not have a dog in this game- yet of course if Moscow did form a pact with China, then NATO would be facing a strategic problem in its own back yard. The claims of Russia against their former satellites may be illegitimate, but they are just as real as China's claims against their neighbours- though without -so far- the real means of challenging NATO's interdiction.

The Senkakus are a potential flash point that is just as dangerous for world peace as Sarajevo was. We in Europe are not immune- facing as we do the unstable regime of Vladimir Putin. A global discussion on the contending issues of China's sea borders would be a far better means of defusing the issues than conflict- especially in the only continent, so far, where nuclear weapons have actually been used.

The miscalculation of Wilhelmine Germany led to the Great War, and the subsequent emergence of the untrammelled corruption of Hitler and Stalin. An Asian war on a similar scale could only lead to similar evil. Let us hope that there are global leaders of sufficient vision to understand the delicate and dangerous situation that humanity finds itself in again, just 98 years after 1914.