And the heat goes on

Just when it seemed as though all the talk was about Euro crises, things kick off big time down Araby way again. As Syria tumbles towards civil war, Bashar al-Assad has vowed to fight and die there. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi has been detained and subjected to passive smoking, with the possibility of even worse to come. And Egyptians have finally decided that  trusting a corrupt military leadership to run bicameral elections over six stages and four months is no sensible way to secure a transparent and representative government. In respect of the latter country, you could do a lot worse than read the despatches of former New Statesman literary editor Rachel Aspden, who’s over in Egypt researching a book at the moment. She’s a friend, admittedly, but personal connections notwithstanding she writes perceptively and elegantly. She’s blogging for Prospect, and posting more here.

Outsourcing – financial and military

Stricken by a pre-emptive anxiety that I’ll miss the Occupy movement after its eviction, I spent a couple of hours at St Paul’s today. It was rather pleasant. Although critics often accuse the protesters of incoherence or obsessiveness, the complaint seems either disingenuous or dull. It applies potentially to all collective action – because groups of activists invariably attract some nutters and back goals which conflict in part – but political demonstrations have a value over and above the discord. Occupy has done a great job keeping questions about regulation and market corruption on the agenda – and the fact that it doesn’t make unrealistic promises or demands does nothing to damage that achievement.

What’s more, although the site was home to a few ranters and at least one dancing leprechaun, critical faculties and intelligence weren’t lacking. While I was there, the crowd was addressed by a guy called Nicholas Shaxson, author of a book called Treasure Islands, who delivered a lucid introduction to the history and contemporary significance of offshore tax havens, explaining how they were fuelling a competition to deregulate among states that was driving down tax bases and welfare provision everywhere. That’s probably obvious to some people, but I hadn’t previously thought about the subject of tax havens at all, beyond my vague and lazy sense that they help very rich people get richer.

Then, in the evening, I went to a party where someone who’s making it her business to find out about such things told me that the United Kingdom is about to take over aspects of the  drone campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That came as news to me, but it turns out that it’s been relatively public knowledge since at least May 2011, when the BBC reported here that a squadron of ‘Reapers’ were soon going to be flying out of Lincolnshire’s RAF Waddington. Given that British citizens are now being targeted as alleged insurgents on a fairly regular basis – e.g. these two men – that raises some intriguing issues. Insofar as the government has previously felt the need to comment on such operations at all, it’s suggested that America’s in charge, but if it now turns out that British officials on British soil are identifying British citizens for assassination, that won’t wash as easily. Whatever expediency might support, homicides require justification as a matter of law in this country. More to come.

Iran – The Revolution is Still Being Televised

Just watched a documentary by al-Jazeera-English called Letters from Iran, about the political discontent that’s still seething inside the Islamic Republic. The station’s been accused of pandering to hidden Arab agendas for a long time now – see e.g. this post-Wikileaks report – and it’s sensible these days to regard all coverage of Iran with a scrutinous eye, but the programme was a credit to the channel. Almost a year on from Tunisia and Tahrir Square, it’s a reminder that Iranians were demonstrating and dying back in 2009 – and that the opposition has only been eclipsed, not snuffed out. At the risk of damning with the faintest of praise, it put the stooges of Press TV to shame.

Libya, Sharia, the Rules of Civilisation, and the LRB

I’ve just written a piece for the London Review of Books on how Libya’s National Transitional Council should set about investigating the death of Colonel Qaddafi in view of their claims to be inspired by Islamic law. It’s paywall-protected, but just so’s you know, it mentions that Qaddafi himself claimed for four decades to be applying the shari’a, complete with amputations for thieves and floggings for fornicators. Instead of speculating darkly about the introduction of Islamic laws in LIbya, journalists on the ground might therefore be better off trying to find out what the NTC proposes to do about the existing ones.

Slightly off topic, but only just, said LRB is carrying on its letter’s page the second round of a dust-up between Niall Ferguson and Pankaj Mishra, viewable here. It follows on from a review of Civilisation (sic), Ferguson’s celebration of Western social, economic, political and moral genius. Mishra has a knack for over-egging puddings when he writes non-fiction, but his targets on this occasion were well-chosen, and his review was a hatchet-job of rare virtuosity. The exchange of letters is correspondingly excitable. Ferguson quiveringly strains to imply that, absent an abject apology, he’ll be consulting his learned friends; while Mishra contemptuously denies that he called Ferguson a racist, ‘in part because he lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues’.  Literary bloodbaths being what they are, there’ll presumably be pens at dawn for years to come, but Ferguson’s bluster isn’t likely to go anywhere. Although there are plenty of swivel-eyed right-wingers who would love to take a pop at the LRB, what with its supposed political correctness, anti-semitism and so on, Ferguson himself must realize that the High Court is no place to challenge a hostile book review. Especially because the LRB is clearly standing by its writer, and doesn’t lack for a bob or two. And yet, who knows? The smart money might say the spat ain’t going legal, but bruised egos aren’t smart. Watch this case, as they almost say.