Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Call to Arms

The military intervention in Libya is a far cry from the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq. This time round all the right checkboxes were ticked. An appeal for help from the rebels was heard, the approval from the Arab League was sought (never mind that most of the 22 members are repressive dictatorships), the approval of the United Nations was granted, and it was a genuine coalition of forces from NATO that struck. The first assault, while overwhelmingly comprised of US armed force, included or was soon followed by attacks from some of her European allies. The British initial offensive was carried out by Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon jets. These latter were made by British Aerospace, or BAE Systems, Europe’s biggest manufacturer of weapons.

Times are tough for this gigantic “defense contractor”. There is too much peace around, apparently. And the economic crisis has meant that governments like that of Britain have announced cuts in military spending, which is of course bad for BAE and its shareholders. The company recently projected an expected downturn in profit for 2011. Last year their turnover was 22.39 billion pounds (over 36 billion dollars). But you never know. There is always hope that more wars will break out. And apparently India has an arms shopping list of 100 billion dollars, to be spent within the next ten years. So that sounds hopeful, but of course competition is stiff. Which means BAE is willing to look everywhere and everyone for customers, even Libya’s Gaddafi.

Earlier this month in fact, Barack Obama approved a sale by BAE’s American subsidiary of 77 million dollars worth of military equipment to Libya. That’s right folks, you heard me: Obama approved a sale of military equipment to Libya just a few weeks ago. Sell weapons to Gaddafi at the start of the month, bomb him at the end of the month – how’s that for a foreign policy? Believe me, I’m not making this up.

Made by BAE

But American arms sales to Gaddafi are dwarfed by those of the Europeans. In fact in 2009 European sales of weapons to Gaddafi were ten times those of the USA – the biggest deals have gone to French, Italian and British (BAE) companies. All of these states were involved in the military intervention this week. When Tony Blair made his infamous visit to Gaddafi in 2007, one of many visits he made to the dictator on behalf of British business, he was accompanied by Guy Griffiths, CEO of MBDA Missile Systems, a company partly owned by BAE. Gaddafi was the man who, according to a British court, had organized the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 109 with the consequent loss hundreds of innocent lives. But that didn’t stop Blair from shaking hands with him already in 2004, indeed embracing him. All for the good of British businesses, like arms manufacturers. And when Prime Minister Cameron decided last week to bomb Libya, he first conferred with Ian King, CEO of BAE Systems. Their willingness to do business with anyone, their ability to supply both sides in the conflict means these guys literally get it both ways.

If you visit the website of BAE Systems you’ll immediately find their Social Responsibility manifesto. I’m not joking. There, you’ll be relieved to discover that the company cares a lot about the environment and ensures that their workers are well cared for and the risk of injury in the workplace is minimal. That’s right folks, they are making sophisticated weapons that have the capacity to kill with breathtaking efficiency (but at a high price), but hey, they care about worker’s rights. Are these guys trying to be funny? You’ll also learn that they are an honest company, that they put responsibility and service to the client at the top of their priorities. Well some of that is true – they do provide excellent service to all sorts of nasty clients. But I don’t think they are 100% honest. For years they have done their shadiest deals through a front company called Novelmight Ltd. The firm operates out of Switzerland (what did you expect?), where they rented a small space in Geneva, at 48 Route des Acacias. In December a London court found BAE Systems, socially responsible arms manufacturer, guilty of corruption and fined the company a half a million pounds for bribery during an arms sale to Tanzania.

No doubt BAE will soon make up the difference, once the rebels are in power in Libya and the orders start flowing in. But wait a minute; will these rebels turn out in turn to be tyrants? Who cares? Business is business.

This article was first published in Technorati on March 28th, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards

They don’t get quite the same media attention as the Academy Awards, but the annual Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards are, one could argue, somewhat more important.  Past winners of the award have included al-Jazeera and Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Index on Censorship has been fighting the battle for freedom of expression since its founding by poets Stephen Spender and editor Michael Scammell in 1972. The organization produces a journal, also called Index on Censorship, which for decades has been a significant player at initiating debate, exposing oppression and giving voice to those who have been otherwise silenced.

Ibrahim Eissa

At a ceremony in London on Thursday nightnight, Index presented its 11th awards. “The Guardian Journalism of the Year” award went to Egyptian campaigner and journalist Ibrahim Eissa. Ibrahim Eissa is no stranger to oppression. During his career in Egypt he has been repeatedly harassed, fired and jailed. In 2008 he spent a few months in jail because he had questioned the health of President Mubarak. In a dictatorship, even the health of the president is a state secret. But Eissa is a disciple of the truth – he founded his own magazine at the age of 15 and called it Al Haqiqa (The Truth).  Last October, in the run up to elections, the 82 year old Mubarak was taking no chances; Eissa, an almost lone voice of independence and resistance, was sacked from his job as editor in chief of the newspaper al-Dostour. Now, just a few months later, it is Mubarak who is unemployed and Eissa is the prize winner. In his acceptance speech the modest Eissa said: “I consider this to be a prize for Tahir Square”.

Other prize winners were Chinese Human Rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (disappeared by the Chinese state nearly a year ago – the award was accepted on his behalf by his wife), the Tunisian online news service, Indian artist MF Husain and the Belarus prisoners of conscience. One would expect that today would be a day in which the free world’s media would celebrate these prize winners. But have you noticed any coverage of these awards in your newspaper?

Article first published as Freedom of Expression Award Winners on Technorati.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

We are Deeply Sorry (But We're Not Counting)

Article first published as We Are Deeply Sorry (But We're Not Counting) on Technorati.

Any idea how many innocent civilians have been killed by our (“our” as in NATO) forces in Afghanistan? No? Well neither do I. No one seems to know. What’s worse, no one seems to be counting. Even worse again, no one seems to even care. Yet it is our taxes that are paying for the killing.

According to Iraq Body Count, the number of civilians killed in the war in Iraq now tops 100,000, at least. But for Afghanistan, a war that we have been fighting now for nearly ten years, numbers, even inexact numbers, are hard to come by. Yet we do know that innocents are being slaughtered by our forces. And it goes on and on and on. Just take a couple of cases from the past few of weeks.

In early March the crew of a US helicopter gunship shot and killed nine boys who had been gathering wood; the oldest victim was 15, the youngest was seven. Shouldn’t we be appalled by this? Chance is, it’s the first you’ve heard about it. But I’m not making it up. President Obama declared his “deep regret” while General Petraeus issued a rare apology, saying: “We are deeply sorry.” The thing is, the apology got more news time than the actual killing – that’s how we’ve become. We hardly notice it when we kill, but we’re so proud of ourselves when we apologize.

Drone attack in Pakistan
While some of us were celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, news came in that a US drone, the preferred lethal weapon of President Obama, had just killed 40 village elders in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. There are conflicting reports about what happened (which is always good when you kill civilians); some say a few al-Qaeda operatives had been targeted and were indeed killed, and the rest were simply collateral damage. Others claim it was all civilians that were killed. Like I said, we’re not really bothered, we’re not even counting. But the Pakistanis are. They, like the Afghans, are counting their dead, and they will remember.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pirates of the Confederation

Article first published as Pirates of the Swiss Confederation on Technorati.

A self styled political party of the digital age is hoping to make big gains in up and coming local elections in the canton of Zurich, in the Swiss Confederation. With the slogan “It is Time for an Upgrade” the Swiss Pirate Party will be joining the more traditional parties in elections on April 3rd. Founded in 2009, with 150 members, the party membership has grown ten-fold and last year the Pirates experienced their first electoral victory, gaining one seat on the City Council in the industrial town of Winterthur.

The Pirates are unashamedly a party of youth – their president, Denis Simonet, a 25 year old IT student, describes the party as “neither right wing nor left wing” but as the party of “the information generation”. While the other parties battle it out over the burning issues of immigration and economic growth, the Pirate Party explain in their election manifesto that the:

“Fear of international terrorism replaces "freedom" with "security" as the greatest good--and many people fall unnecessarily silent in defense of freedom. Personal control of personal information, free access to knowledge and culture, and the protection of the private sphere are the foundation of a future information society. Only on this basis can we create a democratic, socially just, freely self-determined global order."

The Swiss Pirate Party sees itself part of a worldwide movement that wants to participate in shaping this order for the benefit of all. In other words, these young 21st century Voltarians are for Wikileaks and against body scanners in our airports; they are for the availability of culture for all and against taxing CDs, mobile telephones and iPods; they are for protecting our personal data and against governments that treat their citizens like children.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wagner in Zurich

Dawn was breaking on the morning of her 29th birthday, December 23rd 1857, when the beautiful and artistically gifted Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the multi-millionaire Otto Wesendonck, awoke in her bedroom in the splendid palatial mansion that they had had built on a green hill overlooking Lake Zurich.  The sweet and melancholic sound of a chamber orchestra came from downstairs.  Leaving her bedroom she crossed the gallery, with its collection of Old Masters lining the walls and descended the marble grand staircase, to the vestibule below.  There, watched by marble busts of Socrates, Demothenes, Sappho and Augustus and a bronze Hermes, a small group of musicians played exquisite music, composed in her honour for the occasion.  And there, conducting the ensemble, was the composer and organizer of the event, her lover and musical genius, Richard Wagner. The intense relationship that had blossomed between Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck is not simply of anecdotal interest; their love formed an integral part of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, acknowledged by many to be the greatest opera ever written.
Villa Wesendonck during the time of Wagner

Wagner’s wife, Minna, was at the early morning birthday celebration too.  Wagner had persuaded her to provide the sandwiches and coffee.  But when Mathilde’s husband Otto, who happened to be Wagner’s generous financial patron, returned from a trip abroad he was furious when he heard how, in his absence, Wagner had orchestrated such a scene with his wife and given himself the freedom of the house. Wagner had overstepped the boundary of what was acceptable with this public gesture of intimacy, and the tongues of Zurich’s staid burghers were set to wagging.
Villa Wesendonck today: The Rietberg Museum
Wagner and Otto mended their fences, more or less, and life returned to what constituted normal in Wagner’s world.  He and Minna inhabited a house provided by Otto, next door to the Villa Wesendonck, where Otto and Mathilde lived.  Here, he enjoyed the peace and quiet to compose Tristan und Isolde.
Villa Schoenberg, where Wagner composed Tristan und Isolde
Letters and short notes rifled back and forth between Wagner and Mathilde.  A few months later, in April 1858, this idyllic situation was shattered when his long- suffering wife intercepted one of his letters to Mathilde.  Appalled by its intimacy she claimed (probably wrongly) that it bore witness to an illicit love affair and a scandal ensued. By August the situation had become intolerable. Wagner begged Mathilde to flee with him, but she chose her rich husband rather than her poor composer. Wagner, now estranged from his wife, fled alone to Venice, where he continued to compose Tristan in a palace on the Grand Canal, and continued to correspond with Mathilde.  The following year he returned to Switzerland where he finished Tristan in Lucerne in August, 1859.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Piccard in Space

Art and science are about to meet in a new opera that will premiere at London later this month. Auguste Piccard was born in Basel, Switzerland and studied physics at the world renowned Federal Institute of Technology (the ETH) in Zurich. In 1931 Piccard ascended in his own spherical, aluminum gondola, that hung from a giant balloon, to a height of over 15,500 meters above the earth. He braved the freezing cold, toxic balls of mercury, cosmic radiation and a serious roasting by the sun, in order to find evidence for fellow ETH graduate Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and to study the planet’s stratosphere. No man, or woman (though three years later his sister-in-law would become the first woman to ascend into the stratosphere), had ever gone higher, and this in a time that predates rockets. A year later he made a second ascent from just outside Zurich that took him even higher. Thousands of curious onlookers availed of the special trains that took them from Zurich’s city-centre to watch the mad professor as he climbed into his gondola and disappeared into the midnight sky. It was recorded for the cinema and we can view this event again here.  (Mind you, they wrongly refer to him as a “Belgian professor” – he was a Swiss professor in Brussels.) On this trip he would ascend to an altitude of ten and a half miles. Ultimately, his highest ascent of all reached an incredible 23,000 meters – that’s over twice the altitude of a commercial intercontinental flight today.

The Belgian cartoonist Herge was inspired by Piccard’s exploits and based his character Professor Calculus, the archetypical absent minded mad scientist in The Adventures of Tintin, on Piccard, while the Star Trek character Jean- Luc Picard is also a nod to our Swiss scientist. Now, Piccard is about to be remembered again, this time in opera. Musician and composer Will Gregory has been commissioned by the BBC to compose a work for the BBC orchestra. His opera, “Piccard in Space” will receive its premiere performance on March 31st at London’s South Bank Centre.

Monday, March 7, 2011

John Fitzpatrick and Che Guevara: Mao Zedong and Barack Obama

One day in 1962 a teenage boy called John Fitzpatrick was working in a pub in the little windswept town of Kilkee in the west of Ireland when in walked none other than the Agentinian revolutionary and hero of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara. The famous anti-imperialist (who was partly of Irish descent) had been on a flight from Havana to Moscow.  His plane had stopped to refuel at Shannon airport, on the western seaboard of Ireland, but nasty weather blew in from the Atlantic (as it often does) and had delayed his departure. Hence Che's unexpected appearance that fateful day in the hotel bar in Kilkee.

For both John Fitzpatrick as well as for Che Guevara their brief encounter would have unexpected consequences. Five years later Che was dead, killed by reactionary forces in Bolivia. Fitzpatrick was by this time a young, politically engaged artist. When he heard of the bloody death of his hero he decided to somehow immortalise the great revolutionary, and prevent capitalists from erasing Che from history. In 1968 Fitzpatrick created his famous poster, based on a photo of Che Guevara taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda. By not charging any copyright fee he hoped that the capitalist world would be flooded by the image of the communist martyr. His success went beyond his dreams.  Che's image is today one of the ten most recognised portraits in the world, ranking alongside the likes of The Mona Lisa.

For years I have remarked on the irony inherent in the popularity of this iconographic image of Che Guevera. It seemed to me to be a contradiction that leftist rebellious youth buy posters and T-shirts of their communist hero and thereby put money in the pockets of the capitalists who own the rights to the image. It seemed just a little paradoxical. Little did I know, it is the result of a plan by one Irishman.

Last month Irish TV news carried the story that John Fitzpatrick has announced he is taking legal steps to claim and enforce the copyright and, in September, he will travel to Cuba for the opening of a new Che Guevara Culture Centre and he hopes to present the Guevara family and Cuba with the rights to the image. In this way, sales of the image will finance Cuban communism.

Of course Che's image is not the only political portrait that decorates many a T-shirt.  Last week a friend of mine sported a T-shirt with Mao's face.  A colleague remarked that he felt it to be inappropriate for my friend to wear the portrait of one of the world's greatest mass murderers.  Never mind that the country where these mass murders are said to have taken place has totally commoditized Mao's image.  Mao can be found on mugs and watches, T-shirts and posters and many Chinese taxi drivers these days have a medal of Mao hanging in their cars.  He has become a lucky charm, a bit like the holy medals of the Virgin Mary that hang from the mirrors in many Irish taxis.  One man's mass murderer is another man's saint.

Mao is often associated with the red sun
And what about all those who donned a T-shirt of Barack Obama not so long ago, when it seemed to some that change was about to happen.  For some he represented a new style of politics, almost a saviour. For others he was a continuation of the 1960s struggle for racial equality, the heir of Martin Luther King Jr.. For a few he always represented the likes of Goldman Sachs, the economic status quo and politics as usual. (The latter probably didn't wear his T-shirt or hang up his poster).

His first Presidential decree was to call for the closing of Guantanamo Bay, but it still remains open, with 172 prisoners.  Some of them have been there for nearly nine years and have never been charged with any crime.  In Afghanistan Obama increased the number of American troops and continues to prosecute a war there which, according to many experts, is unwinnable.  Meanwhile, off the front page, the number of Afghani dead continues to pile up. Last week the American crews of two helicopter gunships killed nine boys as they were collecting firewood. General Petraeus apologised and President Obama expressed his "Deep Regret" for the error. That brings the total number of civilians killed by NATO troops in Afghanistan (that we know of) this month to 80. If you missed this news, it's probably because you were busy watching the revolutions in North Africa unfold, which is of course what you are expected to be watching.  Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan continues, but is not being televised.  If you come from a NATO country, it is being paid for by your taxes. Perhaps there are those who still look on Barack Obama as some sort of saviour.  But to wear a T-shirt with Obama's image might have gotten you into trouble in Kabul last week, as demonstrators howled in outrage at the latest massacre. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that Obama is like Mao, or Che. It's just one man's saint is another man's mass murderer.

Please click on this link if you want to read my post on the War in Afganistan and the European Enlightenment

If you want to hear John Fitzpatrick tell his own story, then watch this interview:

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek on Arab Revolutions

If you are looking for some interesting analysis of recent events in the Arab world, although broadcast over a month ago on Al Jazeera - this interview with Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek is still worth watching.  Tariq Ramadan was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and the most influential Swiss citizen.  Born a Swiss national to Egyptian immigants, his grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Today he is Professor at Oxford and in Lausanne and he was, until last year, Professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam - he was sacked when it became known that he had his own TV programme on Iranian state TV. He is regarded as the voice of modern European Muslims, and describes himself as "Neo-orthodox".  When he was appointed Professor at Notre Dame University in the USA some years ago the Bush regime revoked his visa, which gained him the nickname among Islamophobes "The Professor of Terror", which is patent nonsense.  Slavoj Zizek probably needs no introduction - Marxist-Leninist-Lacanian philosopher and revoutionary he is Professor of Philosophy in London at Birkbeck's Institute of Advanced Studies and at the University  of Ljubjana in Slovenia