Revenge of the Cold Called

August 14, 2008

While it’s not generally possible in a business context to do too many nasty things to cold call sales people, the same rules do not apply when one is out of the office. Fortunately, in Britain, there is a Telephone Preference Service which is supposed to act as a barrier to unwanted marketing calls; this is by and large successful, but still, some ignore the rules.

Vengance is justified; the most skilled crusader against the scourge of unwanted telephone calls is the comedian Tom Mabe. Here follows one of his bouts of verbal jujitsu with a telemarketer, which hopefully will encourage the individual to change his career:

How to deal with a Telemarketer by Tom Mabe

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It’s a Cold Call World

August 14, 2008

TelephoneOne of the most irritating aspects of my job is that I receive many speculative sales calls. I’m more unfortunate than most in this regard: a director who has since left the company gave away my name and direct phone number, and this information has been seized upon by unscrupulous firms like a school of piranha devouring a cow.

I recently received one of the most ridiculous ones yet: yesterday, I was offered e-marketing services from someone who claimed to know my predecessor.

“I’m just phoning him to give him an update as to my whereabouts…we were going to do some work together,” he said.

“I’m afraid he’s been gone a while,” I replied.

“Oh? I was sure I spoke to him 4 months ago.”

“He’s been gone since October.”

After this rather unpromising start, he barrelled forth into a long spiel about how his e-marketing services could help me. The stench of bovine excrement wafted from his pitch; I could visualise the individual at the other end of the phone, seeing him as rather young, perhaps a recent graduate in Media Studies (translation: “unskilled”). It was likely he was under the whip hand of some supervisor who was demanding he make sales. I know the type; I have had bosses that were so desperate to make sales or improve margins, that they were willing to engage in outright trickery: in a former place of employment, I was instructed to tack on a £15 fee for plane tickets, which would not become evident until the end of the online booking process. The idea was that this “fee for processing” would enhance the margins. I said no. This same boss also wanted to have the default option for car rental checked to “Yes” in the same process; again, I said no, and found evidence which had indicated his previous attempt at this same deception had led to actual losses. This boss spent much of his life demanding sales, saying “sales” over and over, as if driving his people into the ground was going to make these revenues magically appear.

As much as I could sympathise with the salesman, I really didn’t need his services, nor did I think his company should be encouraged in following their present approach. I politely turned him down; he demanded to know where my predecessor was, and why my phone hadn’t had its answering machine message changed to indicate that he had left.

“I haven’t bothered to change it, because I get deluged by calls like this. Bye.”

I hung up.

Such calls represent an increasing portion of my working life; I get between 20 and 30 of them per week. I often am in the middle of a thought when they occur, and they tend to derail my work. In my experience, recruitment firms are particularly bad: one gets the impression that they’re all operating out of garden sheds and tack on “Professional” or “International” onto their names in order to make it seem like they’re in Canary Wharf rather than sitting amidst bags of compost in Slough. Furthermore, virtually all the calls are the same: the salesperson tries to indicate that I somehow know them, and that their firm is as established as Plymouth Rock…or at least the Blarney Stone.

Sometimes I test whether or not the salespeople the human: my methodology is simple, I merely inform them of how many calls I receive and guage their reaction. The human beings are apologetic and break into nervous laughter; “how am I doing?” one of them asked, and started chuckling. Another young lady similarly threw away her script and expressed her sympathy.

More often than not, however, they steamroll on; I have no vacancies available, I state this up front. However this makes no difference: they continue to try and shake me, as if my business necessities can be directed by the needs of the garden shed crew rather than what we require. A recruiter I spoke to yesterday turned desperate and frightened: he was begging with me, pleading with me that he was somehow different. Ironically, by acting this way, he only managed to sound the same as the rest. In his favour, at least he didn’t outright lie: a firm I never heard of rang not too long after, saying that I told them to speak to me at around this time. I did nothing of the kind.

For me, this is the clearest demonstration yet that the British economy is in dire trouble. I’m not talking about the present credit crunch and stagflation, though the news from the Bank of England yesterday was not encouraging. Rather, this is indicative that the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy has been abortive; while those with actual skills are doing all right, those who didn’t have an interest in technology or science are being left behind, and are now fighting over scraps in sectors that have low costs of penetration. As the young lady candidly informed me, all you need to start a recruitment firm is a telephone and a computer.

This indicates difficulties in other ways; there are very few recruitment companies which show any differentiation whatsoever. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of one. This speaks of a lack of strategic vision: the emphasis is on pounding sales out of the ground and squeezing the blood from every stone, rather than rethinking the entire approach.

Not only is this failing to generate sufficient activity to grant these firms anything other than a mayfly existence, it isn’t serving the needs of skilled personnel. Six months ago, I did have three vacancies to fill; however, the candidates thrown my way by recruitment firms were by and large unsuitable. In fact, it was clear that my brief had almost been totally ignored. In the end, only one of the three vacancies was filled by using a standard recruitment firm; to make matters worse, I’ve since been informed that this recruitment firm has approached my new employee after he passed his trial period to see if he was still happy.

My experience as a candidate was also an unhappy one. I used a recruitment firm in obtaining my present role, but the gentleman I dealt with was, to put it plainly, a psychopath. When I turned down the initial offer as being too low, he phoned my office, going through the switchboard, rather than calling my mobile; had my boss at the time intercepted it, it could have spelled real trouble. Second, he then proceeded to scream and berate me for not accepting the offer. In the end, I had to directly negotiate with my present employer.

No entrepreneur is exploiting this wretched state of affairs. If capitalism is so dynamic and so capable of change, then why has something as dreadful as this not been altered? In fact, why is it getting worse? The truth be told, the emphasis on quarterly results, getting the money no matter what, even if it means cheating and lying, leads to a situation where imagination is viewed as a luxury, and strategy is measured in minutes, not years. Some countries’ business cultures, such those in Japan and the Netherlands, do take a longer term view, however one hopes they aren’t squeezed out by the “animal spirits” that seem to drive behaviour here in Britain and the United States. After all, we are crashing into the buffers because of it: the economy is not generating the right sort of value, it’s not producing the right sort of jobs, it is skewed towards speculation in all endeavours, which leads to short term booms, and as we’re experiencing now, very painful slowdowns. It also means that the environment is completely ignored in the pursuit of profit, which has a cost that can’t be measured in mere pounds and pence.

I am skeptical that policy makers are thinking about the practical, day to day issues of the economy in this manner; they’re too busy tinkering with interest rates and pushing up pass rates on A-level exams. I suspect that for the moment, the dreary cold call world will continue. My response will be to continue to hang up.

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Beijing Paranoia

August 12, 2008

In a previous piece, I wrote that the Beijing Olympics were typified by an air of paranoia, due to the desire to ensure everything was pristine. I must admit to having been surprised by the lengths that they are willing to go.

First, we have an item from the BBC’s Jake Humphrey:

I thought about telling you how desperate China seems for these Games to look absolutely perfect – a lady was even hoovering the pavement outside my hotel this morning!

But that’s not all – it’s just emerged that the Opening Ceremony contained a fairly insidious fraud, namely this:

As it turns out, the little girl was just lip-synching, as the UK Daily Telegraph reports:

Chinese officials have admitted deceiving the public over another highlight of the Olympic opening ceremony: the picture-perfect schoolgirl who sang as the Chinese flag entered the stadium was performing to another girl’s voice.

The girl in the red dress with the pigtails, called Lin Miaoke, 9, and from a Beijing primary school, has become a national sensation since Friday night, giving interviews to all the most popular newspapers.

But the show’s musical designer felt forced to set the record straight. He gave an interview to Beijing radio saying the real singer was a seven-year-old girl who had won a gruelling competition to perform the anthem, a patriotic song called “Hymn to the Motherland”.

At the last moment a member of the Chinese politburo who was watching a rehearsal pronounced that the winner, a girl called Yang Peiyi, might have a perfect voice but was unsuited to the lead role because of her buck teeth.

This is a pretty despicable thing to do to a young girl, however, “officially”, she’s OK with it:

“I am proud to have been chosen to sing at all,” she is reported to have said.

It’s not like she could have said anything else, however.

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In Praise of Kirsty Coventry

August 12, 2008

Kirsty CoventryThe Olympics are not supposed to be political; or rather, politics should be a minor consideration, given the spirit of openness and generosity that ideally will prevail through the expression of the Olympic ideal. Sport, it is believed, can unite nations that otherwise are suspicious of each other, if not at each other’s throats. After all, we even saw an act of reconciliation between Georgia and Russia after the 25m pistol shooting event in Beijing: the bronze winning athlete from Georgia, embraced her silver medal winning Russian counterpart during the awards ceremony. Both stood together and called for peace.

Now that I’ve gotten all those lofty platitudes out of the way, I can state the truth: the Olympics are deeply riven with politics. China did not spend $40 billion on the Beijing Olympics because it thought it would make a profit. Nor do hard up nations like North Korea divert huge resources into sport because they think it’s fun. Competition between nations is seen by a number of regimes as a means by which to express their superiority. We saw this particularly during the era of Communism, and previous to that, in the ostentatious displays of Nazi prowess during the 1936 Olympic Games. Sport is in fact a weapon, whether it is trying to show that men of iron are being forged in the blast furnace of a new socio-economic system, or in mass displays of exquisite “harmony” and unity.

In my opinion, however, the best sort of Olympic political statements are those which are entirely unintentional. This leads us gracefully to the case of Ms. Kirsty Coventry, a swimmer from Zimbabwe.

As has been well reported, Zimbabwe is a basket case, plagued with hyperinflation, racial tension and violence. Mugabe has brutalised his own people in a most stark fashion for years; most recently, he threatened and murdered his way to re-election as President. Fortunately he has been so naked in his power grab that the rest of Africa has been compelled to put pressure on him to mend his ways. Thanks to this diplomatic push, there are negotiations presently going on between the regime and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which may yet yield a power-sharing arrangement. In the meantime, it is still fair to describe Zimbabwe as a “troubled” country, more down and out than up and coming.

Enter Ms. Coventry. She first made her mark in the 2004 Olympic Games, winning a gold, a silver and a bronze in the pool: she is a backstroke specialist, although she appears ready to try almost any event. As she is white, she represents a different face to Zimbabwe, and is the most visible example of a minority that Mugabe has made much hay out of despising. Her success has put the old dictator into a mightily uncomfortable position: in 2004, he had to grudgingly admit that she is their “golden girl”. The reactions of average Zimbabweans were even more effusive; as an indication of their continuing spirit of defiance against the regime, many went so far as to suggest, via the New Zimbabwe publication, that she should be given a farm. In a country riven with violent disagreement, she is, whether she likes it or not, a focus for unity; the fact that she has steadfastly refused to abandon her citizenship for probably far more lucrative arrangements in another nation (she attended University in the United States), has only enhanced her reputation.

Ms. Coventry herself has maintained an air of supreme modesty about her achievements. When she arrived to a triumphal welcome in Harare in 2004, she merely said: “This is awesome! I want to thank you all so much for your support…my race strategies I need to improve on, so I can go faster; I have the medals, but I don’t have the world records yet.”

Furthermore, she is generous with advice to the next generation of swimmers, as this video demonstrates:

casey getting her fly evaluated by kirsty coventry

So how is she progressing in Beijing? Rather well: she has so far won two silver medals. The first was in the 400m individual medley, an event she apparently does not consider her speciality. She obtained the second silver in the 100m backstroke; she recorded a new world record in this event during the heats. Shortly, she will be defending her Olympic title in the 200m backstroke competition. She is already the greatest Olympian to come out of Zimbabwe; I personally hope that a bit more gold will be added to her lustre.

Furthermore, with a bit of luck, a negotiated settlement between the government and opposition will be completed by the time she goes home. As I’m sure she would agree, it’s one thing for her achievements to be one item among many for Zimbabweans to celebrate, it’s quite another if they are the only blessing her countrymen have to cherish. The “princess of sport” (as her countrymen call her) should have the luxury of not being a political figure; it is a distinction she well deserves.

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Crisis in Georgia: Call Kevin Rudd

August 11, 2008

Georgian ProtestorsMy first introduction to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia took place in a Moscow restaurant in 1994. I, along with a group of students, were taken there by our hosts to experience the delights of Georgian cuisine and wine. The alcohol flowed freely, course after course was brought to the table. Georgian music played in the background; as it so happened, our table was on the other side of the room from a Georgian wedding reception. The bride and groom began to dance as the tempo increased, and then the entire wedding party joined in. My memory is slightly hazy, but I do seem to recollect getting up and then being exhausted as I collapsed into my hotel bed.

A pleasant evening, albeit mostly spent unconscious, is not an altogether atypical way for a love affair to begin. Georgia is one of those places I wished to visit; Tbilisi is supposed to be very charming, and steeped in history.

That dream, however, is more distant now than ever. The weekend’s news brought images of horror from South Ossetia, Gori, and Abkhazia; hitherto, Georgia’s history has been as tragic as it has been rich, and it appears that this long road is stretching onward.

There can be no doubt that Russia is in the wrong in this instance. Georgia did try to assault the separatists in South Ossetia, and this was a terrible error. If Russia had merely sent their troops in to the war zone, and secured it from further Georgian incursions, then there would be little to talk about. However, the Russians have significantly widened the conflict by bombing civilian areas in Gori, which is not within the combat zone, and also by opening a new front in the other separatist area, Abkhazia. Additionally, the Russian navy has attacked Georgian ships in the Black Sea.

Georgia has since proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire and begged for the conflict to stop, but Russia has refused to halt their incursions. Russia has made it clear that nothing less than the removal of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili will do, even though he was democratically elected.

This move not only threatens Georgia’s life as an independent nation; an important oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Europe goes through Georgia. It’s the only significant pipeline from the East that bypasses Russia. If this falls under Russian control, then Putin will have sufficient leverage to blackmail Europe. Furthermore, other nations which have shown an independent streak, such as Ukraine, cannot help but wonder if they are next.

The West is in no position to help. If this incident proves anything, it shows once and for all that the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes is an absolute failure. America has so many resources pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan that the idea of offering military assistance to Georgia is laughable at best; furthermore, Bush’s profligacy also means America is broke, and thus has no economic leverage. Dick Cheney and George Bush thundering darkly about severe consequences is the tantrum of the impotent, a flaccidity made all the more acute by the imminent replacement of the American administration.

Europe cannot help either; while the efforts of the French diplomatic corps have been outstanding, their exertions are taking place in a context where the the European Union has a variety of opinions on how to deal with this. No doubt the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs are looking worriedly at Russia’s new assertiveness and want to stand firm. The Germans obviously want to try and lessen the tension. Overall, however, Russia’s control over energy supplies makes Europe a client rather than a creditor.

There is only one nation that can possibly make Russia stop with a single phone call: China. The Chinese have so far not played a role in this crisis; however, it could very well be that they are annoyed that their Olympic “coming out party” has been darkened by this conflict. This irritation, and the opportunity for further gains in prestige could make them act positively.

To achieve this, however, the West will need an emissary. There is only one choice that springs to mind: Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia.

Prime Minister Rudd has been one of the quiet success stories of 2008; if power stems from legitimacy and intelligence, then he is stronger than many of his counterparts in charge of larger nations. He has a sizeable majority in Parliament, his popularity ratings, although they’ve taken a knock in recent months, are still high. Furthermore, he was elected in December 2007: he is at the very start of his term, not lingering in twilight. Additionally, unlike President Bush, who has managed to offend the Chinese every single time he mentions human rights, Rudd has skillfully framed the debate in terms the Chinese appreciate: having a degree in Chinese literature, history and language helps. Rudd is fluent in Mandarin (he even has a Chinese nickname, “Lu Kewen”), is well acquainted with Confucius, and once served as a diplomat in Beijing. Thus he was able to give a tough human rights speech at Beijing University without suffering damage in the eyes of the Chinese leadership; rather, Australia appears to be well regarded by Beijing. Australia also has some actual leverage: they are one of China’s largest suppliers of raw materials.

This combination of power, knowledge and understanding simply does not exist elsewhere in the West: Rudd is definitely the man to send to President Hu Jintao to ask for his intervention. That said, Rudd will need to offer an incentive. As unpalatable as it may seem, the West will likely have to suggest that peace talks take place in Beijing under Chinese mediation. This would be a powerful symbol of China’s increasing importance and the West’s increasing impotence: in other words, it’s an acknowledgment of present realities. This would be deeply unpleasant for the United States and the European Union. However, sometimes saving lives matters more than pride; and perhaps “Lu Kewen” could convince the Chinese that the partnership of one western state (probably Australia) would help any negotiated settlement to stick.

The alternative to diplomacy is grisly; the Chechens provided a model for how a small nation can wage a bloody guerilla war against Russia, and it is entirely possible the Georgians could resort to the same tactics. No one wants to see Tbilisi shot through like Groznii; no one wants to see another incident in which Russian schoolchildren are murdered as they were in Beslan. This fate can be avoided, but only if the crisis is approached with imagination, compassion, tolerance and yes, humility. One can only hope there are enough of these qualities left in West…and in the East.

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Review: “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” starring Brendon Fraser

August 10, 2008

Dragon EmperorSome movies are not intended to be high art. Before the invention of television, this was often the case: the thirties, forties and fifties were littered with throwaway films with forgettable characters and laughable story lines. The most extreme examples were the movies that were made to work with the traditional red lens / blue lens 3-D glasses. Usually these “high tech” films were much of a muchness, involving weird creatures reaching out for the audience.

The raison d’etre behind these movies, (and for the sake of argument, let’s call them “Saturday Matinees”), was that they would entertain for a couple of hours and leave the audience feeling as if they got their money’s worth. Mostly these films are now remembered by a few enthusiasts, many of whom are merely reliving their childhoods.

In this sense, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is part of a long tradition. It is a silly, ridiculous “Saturday Matinee”, but if one can park one’s intellect at the cinema door, it is reasonably entertaining.

The film begins with a tale of how China became a unified country under the leadership of a ferocious Emperor (portrayed by Jet Li). Fearing that he would not live long enough to do what he set out to do, he calls upon a sorceress to make him immortal. She then falls in love with the leading general of the Empire; the Emperor kills the general, and in revenge, she turns him into a clay figurine, and his army into the famous “Terracotta Warriors”. Obviously, anyone with a respect for history will be left weeping if they take this portion at all to heart. While it is true that the first ruler of a United China was ruthless and did want to become immortal, he tried to achieve this by drinking mercury rather utilising black magic; the parable of his rule ending earlier than it should have due to the pursuit of eternal life is worth putting into a much grander movie.

After the phony history, the film changes to a scene in Oxfordshire in 1946, some years after the last in the Mummy series finished. Rick O’Connell (played by Brendan Fraser) an American adventurer and gunfighter, is in retirement along with his wife Evelyn. She, apparently, has given up archaeology in favour of writing Mummy-based pulp fiction. I appreciated this plot point, as it was a symbol that the film wasn’t taking itself too seriously.

Sadly, however, Rachel Weisz, who had played Evelyn in the previous films, is gone, replaced by Maria Bello. Ms. Bello does her very best to fill Ms. Weisz’s shoes, but she lacks the vulnerable, hesitant quality that Ms. Weisz brought to the role, which in turn made her so compelling.

It is quickly established that both O’Connell and Evelyn are bored with retirement and long for adventure. It is also made clear that they are estranged from their grown son, who is shown working on an archaeological dig in China and who, predictably, finds the tomb of the First Emperor. It is somewhat difficult to ignore the motifs borrowed from other films: the father / son estrangement echoes Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the adventurer bored in retirement scenario has been used so often that it is almost a cliche. Furthermore, Fraser and Bello do not look nearly old enough to play the parents of their on-screen son Alex (played by Australian newcomer Luke Ford); neither “father” nor “mother” has a single grey hair.

Thanks to an immortality potion contained within a diamond vessel, a ruthless general (who bears a passing resemblance to Chiang Kai Shek, the ruler of Nationalist China) manages to wake the Emperor, who begins tearing up Shanghai in a long chase involving bronze horses, and a truck full of fireworks.

At this point the film gives up any pretence of seriousness, and the brave band, joined by Evelyn’s feckless brother (played by John Hannah) and guided by the mysterious Lin (played by Isabella Leong) wanders into the mountains to prevent the Emperor from finding the “Pool of Immortality” in Shangri La. Predictably, Alex and Lin have a stormy relationship, however the squalls are unrealistically brief and Lin bursts out telling him, “I love you completely!”. The sorry bunch then have a gunfight with the Emperor and the evil general at a tower which points the way to Shangri La. As an added treat, the film throws in the least convincing computer generated creatures (ostensibly they’re Yetis), that I have ever seen. Rick O’Connell is hurt in the fighting, with a blade through the back, and he must be taken to Shangri La and healed with the “Waters of Immortality”, a direct rip off of the healing properties of the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade”.

Needless to say the Emperor gets his hands on those same waters, he becomes whole again, and he revives the Terracotta Army, who will become also immortal if they cross the Great Wall; we’re never told why this is the case. But again, there is more fighting, more gunplay, more people sliced open, stabbed, crushed and sliced to pieces. John Hannah gets the hell out of Dodge and decides to go to Peru as there are, in his words, “no mummies there”. As he’s sadly mistaken, we, the audience, have the last laugh as the lights go up.

I must admit that I was chuckling as I left the theatre. After all, the film’s take on Chinese history was so daft, I wondered how they managed to convince Mr. Li, Ms. Leong and Michelle Yeoh to appear in it. I was also curious as to how the producers managed to avoid the ire of the Chinese authorities given the ridiculous portrayal of post war Shanghai. It’s shown as a town full of bright lights and swinging bands, when it should be an unhappy, torn up city that is dealing with the aftermath of Japanese occupation and the dread of civil war. We get no inclination of the real life conflict between the Nationalist (Kuomintang) and the Red forces; the modern forces we do see are presented as a “paramilitary” group.

But obviously this film was not intended to educate or to enlighten; it was there to pass the time in a pleasant way, just like the Saturday Matinees of previous eras. Yes, its based upon a lot of recycled themes. Yes, its very silly and over the top. Yes, the actors could have sleepwalked through their scenes and it wouldn’t have made any difference, but if one needs a movie loaded with mindless, colourful entertainment, this fits the bill.

This statement, however, comes with a caveat. It was a motif of the Mummy films of the past that the creature was impossible to kill, and thus a sequel was always in the offing. In this case, lest ridiculousness becomes a burden, it is perhaps best to let this series rest in peace.

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So, Beijing

August 7, 2008

Beijing Olympics SymbolThe Beijing Olympics begin tomorrow, and I can’t help but feel a surge of anticipation. I have religiously watched every Olympic Games – both Summer and Winter – for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it’s because there is something compelling about witnessing people giving their absolute all, not holding back any reserves and pushing themselves to their utmost because there may never be another chance to shine so brightly. Perhaps it’s because it represents a chance to discover more about countries which are rarely in the news; for example, few people in Britain or America spared a thought for the South American nation of Surinam until Anthony Nesty won the gold in the 100m butterfly in 1988. And who can forget “Eric the Eel”, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who competed, albeit thoroughly unsuccessfully, in 2004?

Over time, I’ve learned that each Olympic Games can be summarised in a single word. The word for Barcelona’s games in 1992 was “hot”; I don’t believe I spotted a single athlete that didn’t look like they were struggling with the heat. Atlanta 1996 can be summarised as “tacky”: from the awful Smurf-blue “Whatizzit” mascot to the prevalence of corporate sponsorship, it was the epitome of bad taste. Sydney 2000, my favourite Games so far, was “fun”; the Australians are a bright and enthusiastic people, and this spirit was abundantly in evidence. Athens 2004 was “traditional”; after all, the Games had returned “home”.

It may be a bit early, but it appears Beijing 2008 already has found its moniker: “paranoid”. I am not referring solely to their concerns about terrorism and heavy handed police presence, though that certainly is a factor. Nor am I speaking just about how they treat pro-Tibet protesters, though that is a major issue; the Chinese attempts to confine protest to a small “complaints” hut have been laughable. No, the label extends from their apparent terror of embarrassment, driven by a need to be “seen as perfect”. China wants these Games to be its “coming out” party, whereby it proves that it is more organised, efficient, modern and civilised than any other nation.

A good example of this paranoia at work is how the Chinese are addressing concerns about pollution. According to the Guardian newspaper, pollution levels in Beijing yesterday were at twice the level recommended by the World Health Organisation. However, officials said it was not smog, merely a “mist”. This act isn’t fooling anyone; one of the greatest marathon runners of all time, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, will not be participating in the event at Beijing because of its pollution levels. Furthermore, the Chinese are making strenuous efforts to get rid of the “mist”; it was reported yesterday in the London Evening Standard that they are firing “anti-smog pellets” into the air.

The problem was also in evidence, albeit differently, at the sailing venue; in late June, it was noticed that blue-green algae were growing rampantly in the waters near Qingdao. The government mobilised the public and the army to physically remove the persistent plants, whose growth had been spurred by the waste toxins pumped out by Chinese industry. I must admit that this is the first time I’ve seen preparations for an Olympic games which involved soldiers wading into stagnant pools and lifting out armloads of rotting vegetation.

Another symptom of Chinese anxiety is visible in their latter day attempts at what can generously be called “urban planning”. In order to ensure that Beijing was looking at its best, shops and “slums” have been demolished. Migrants and the homeless have been similarly “moved on”. The BBC recently showed the hapless owner of a small corrugated iron sweetshop who had been summarily told that her business was an “eyesore” and was to be demolished. The Chinese government says that those who have been “inconvenienced” have been compensated or moved to better surroundings, but this claim deserves to be treated with the same skepticism that accompanies their claims to respect the Tibetians or Uighurs culture and religion.

A further indication of Beijing’s apprehension can be discerned in the behaviour of foreign leaders. President Bush has denounced the Chinese record on human rights, but he did it in Thailand, and said that any change in China would be in accordance with their “traditions”. It is mildly laughable that President Bush, the “founding father” of Guantanamo, would feel morally capable of lecturing the Chinese on the basis of ethics; that said, it is a symptom of both weakness and duress that Bush felt that he couldn’t voice his hypocritical concerns directly. China, after all, is one of the biggest purchasers of American debt; Bush’s deficits are being run up on a Chinese credit card. Similar pressure has likely been applied to Gordon Brown, President Sarkozy and others: as a result, no world leader is boycotting the Games due to human rights concerns. None of them have forcefully mentioned the plight of the Uighur minority, for example: it is a nation that was independent twice, only to have that independence twice ripped from them, and is now being slowly strangled by government repression and by Han Chinese immigration. No doubt that a message has been sent to the chancelleries and departments of state around the world, which simply says, “shut up”.

Finally, we have evidence from one of the oldest crutches of authoritarian rule: overpowering architecture. The chairman of London’s Olympic committee, Paul Deighton, summarised the scale of this endeavour best: “I think the Beijing Games could end up being unique – I’m not sure how many other countries would have either the resources or the control of the resources to be able to put them behind an event like this.” Among the venues that the Chinese have constructed is the giant “bird’s nest” National Stadium, a swimming venue called the “Water Cube”, which looks like a huge box of soap bubbles, and the Beijing University of Technology Stadium, which possesses the “world’s largest pre-stressed dome”.

All the madness, all the hauteur, all the puffing up and thrusting forward will serve something of a purpose: no doubt the Chinese are going out of their way to try and make matters convenient for the athletes and guests. However, it is rather like trying to have fun as organised by a German drill sergeant: there is an air of “you will enjoy yourself now!” which implies that the charm of previous Games may elude it. One can only hope that this Olympics, like others provided by questionable regimes, will perform its old magic trick of rising above the constraints of its surroundings: after all, even the dreadful Olympics of 1936 was susceptible to being elevated in tone and majesty thanks to Jesse Owens. I will be tuning in, crossing my fingers, continuing in my efforts to purchase a “Free East Turkestan” (home of the Uighurs) t-shirt and hoping for the best.

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Barack the Conservative

August 6, 2008

The fuss made over Barack Obama’s suggestion that drivers should regularly check their tire pressure has been one of the 2008 campaign’s most amusing spectacles. After all, he’s not alone in saying this: the British government has given similar advice to motorists for years. However, this commonsensical idea is being portrayed as simple-minded: the answer to America’s energy shortages, says his opposition, is to “drill, drill, drill”. Worry more about getting more, rather than be concerned about being cautious and frugal.

This is, quite frankly, insane. There has never been a period in human history in which being wasteful was a good idea. Profligate governments find themselves swimming in debt, like Henry VIII’s England, and there isn’t always a Good Queen Bess to rescue them afterwards. Profligate peoples find that their civilisations run out of steam: perhaps one of the causes of the fall of Ancient Egypt was the concentration on extravagance for the dead rather than providing for the living. Nature itself abhors waste: the decay and effluent of one organism often provides fertiliser for another and the cycle of life ensures that “refuse” does not exist in the natural world. Indeed, even carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to achieve photosynthesis. Pure “rubbish” is most assuredly a man-made product. To argue against thrift as a priority, therefore, goes against the grain of Creation itself.

Furthermore, Obama’s suggestion is quite correct: according to the US Department of Energy, maintaining good tire pressure improves mileage by 3.3 percent. This is equivalent to a price drop of 12 cents in a gallon of gas: not bad, and certainly a saving that would have a positive ripple effect on the wider economy, if everyone did as the government suggests. The other tips from the Department are similarly maintenance focused: they state that regularly changing the air filter could improve mileage by 10 percent. Making sure the car is well tuned would add a further 4 percent. In short, it was sound advice: save money, help save the planet, take care of your things. Yet, to some, this is “dumb”; as Rush Limbaugh stated on his radio programme, “”My friends, this is laughable of course, but it’s stupid! It is stupid!”

This situation leads us to an interesting paradox: if “conserve” is the root word at the basis of “conservatism”, then who is the more “conservative”, Barack or Limbaugh? It is Limbaugh, after all, the self-described “conservative”, that is deriding the cautious use of resources; he has constantly stated his preference for oil drilling, which is the logical equivalent of trying to solve a drought by carrying more water from a diminishing well in leaky buckets, rather than plugging the leaks in the first instance. Barack, on the other hand, is on the side of economy. Yet, it is Obama who is being described as the “dangerous liberal” and seen as “profligate”, particularly with other people’s money.

We should not be surprised by this, however. “Conservatism” is a label for an ideology that has no accurate moniker, which theoretically lumps together people as ideologically dissimilar as Pat Buchanan and Andrew Sullivan. The name has been traditionally used to imply a philosophy that is opposed to radical change: however, the hallmark of the Bush administration has been a great deal of turbulence, even stretching to governments beyond its borders, and closer to home, to undermining the aged and basic protections enshrined in the Constitution. Barack’s call for “change” under these circumstances looks more like a restoration, a step back from the violence and mismanagement that have plagued the United States for the past eight years.

If it cannot be defined in reference to stability, perhaps conservatism can then be defined by its adherence to religion; certainly, President Bush is an overtly “God-fearing” man, who cites Jesus Christ as a favourite philosopher. However there is a case to be made to suggest that Barack has taken on the meaning of faith even more deeply than the President: it merely depends on where one’s emphasis lies, and what one perceives as the greater sin. “Evangelicals” appear to abhor the sin of lust above all others; but which is worse, lust or avarice? So much is spoken of the former that attack on the latter by the “Christian leadership” is a rare happenstance. That said, there is no denying that unbridled lust creates problems: for example, no one desires an increase in teenage pregnancy or venereal disease. However, if ambition is not shackled to responsibility, the consequence is to create a fractured culture in which people perceive themselves to be islands unto themselves. So long as their individual portions of territory is prosperous, they see no problem if the others fail; this is a recipe for eventual anarchy as well as widespread misery.

If a religious context is inadequate, then, perhaps conservatism can be defined in terms of the role of government; theoretically, there is trust in the freedom of the individual to manage their own affairs, and to rise or fall by their own merits. However, this assumption has been blown to pieces by the recent credit crisis: where was this red blooded philosophy when it came to the titans of Wall Street? Surely, if self-reliance is to be the key to virtue, then the likes of Bear Stearns should have been told, bluntly, “you’re on your own”, rather than be a cause of any concern for the state. Obama’s line in so far as it pertains to these large institutions has broadly been that they should be wealthy enough to sort themselves out; his focus has remained on providing tax relief to those at the bottom end of the scale, so they can better steer the waters of economic turmoil.

As the label’s meaning apparently is murky at best, it is perhaps best to say that the conservatism of “conservatives” is a brand, a matter of presentation rather than a coherent set of philosophical tenets. The moniker implies an extrovert, if not aggressive belief in God, family, home and hearth and a hidden license to unbridled consumption. It’s more about portraying Barack as some silly, out of touch elitist than rather examining the practical impact of his proposals and holding to some unrivaled claim to intellectual integrity. It’s more about trying to cast aspersions on Obama’s education and erudition as a distancing factor from the life of most Americans, rather than actually thinking through what he has to say. Smoke and mirrors, shapes and shadows, bread and circuses, we’ve always been at war with Eurasia, the whole show could roll on only so long as the practical limits of consumption didn’t kick in: these are coming to the fore in 2008.

To be completely fair, some conservatives do mean what they say. Mostly these individuals are to be found outside the United States; for example, as Andrew Marr stated in “The History of Modern Britain”, Mrs. Thatcher genuinely thought that opening markets and deregulation would somehow create a culture in which people were actually less extravagant and wasteful, not more. It was a bad line to hear while I was drinking a sip of water; I briefly did a passable impersonation of the Trevi Fountain. In her case, to put it mildly, the idea didn’t work out. It hasn’t worked out, overall. Perhaps it’s time to give the Obama variant of “conservatism” a try.

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Remembering Solzhenitsyn

August 5, 2008

The Soviet Union is back in fashion. A recent book, entitled “Hammer and Tickle”, gave us an insight into how Communism was full of jokes, mostly based around the difficult living conditions and absurd politics. Another timely tome, called “Cars for Comrades”, showed how the Soviet auto industry was also full of unintentional humour (the Volga sedan was so poorly built that petrol fumes routinely entered the passenger compartment – get it?).

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But perhaps the most obvious sign of the Soviet Union’s resurgence as a style icon was a t-shirt that one of my younger work colleagues recently wore: he probably wasn’t aware of its significance, but at the centre of its design was a hammer and sickle. Truly, we are in the process of forgetting what the Soviet Union was; it’s now more silly or chic than sinister.

It is fitting, then, that we should get a sharp reminder from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His death, of course, is a great loss, but at the same time it is an antidote to amnesia.

The Soviet Union began with a lot of noble ideals about equality, prosperity and brotherhood; there was a belief that underpinned the average Bolsheviks’ hopes that they were building a better future for humanity by their example. It didn’t take long for their hopes to be crushed by ambitions at the top, and by Stalin’s dictatorial aspirations in particular. Communism quickly became an economic, social and environmental disaster. Millions were killed in the gulag, others had their lives ruined because they fit into the wrong social class (e.g. kulaks or “rich peasant”) or merely because they had been accused of being one of the vragi naroda (“enemies of the people”) or in connection with some arcane (and fictional) plot to kill Leningrad Party Boss, Sergei Kirov in 1934.

The famine in the Ukraine, created by forced collectivisation of agriculture, killed millions more. While the more brutal aspects of the regime faded after Stalin’s death in 1953, it destroyed much of the land through its botched economic planning: ridiculous targets for cotton production, for example, left much of Uzbekistan’s land poisoned from over-use of nitrates. Safety standards were ignored in the dash for nuclear power: Chernobyl is now a synonym for disaster, and the consequences of that meltdown in 1986 are still being felt today. According to Greenpeace, between 1990 and 2004, there were 200,000 additional deaths in Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia due to cancers and other diseases directly attributable to the debacle.

Social consequences are more difficult to measure, but if there was one theme that unifies the Soviet experience, it was the distance between rhetoric and reality. This has distorted Russian culture in such a way that, for example, the Russian government may say it is committed to joint ventures with foreigners, but in practice, it kicks the chairman of an Anglo-Russian joint venture out of the country. Putin may say that he is committed to human rights and democracy, however, he has managed to continue his rule with only a figleaf of democratic propriety in place.

Yet, we’re laughing about the USSR, wearing its symbols, and forgetting these obvious lessons. Even the British government is guilty of post-Soviet amnesia: constant surveillance didn’t make the Soviet Union a happier place, yet there are more CCTV cameras here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Targets in industry didn’t make anyone want to buy Soviet-made products, yet the British government fixes “production goals” in medicine and education which are every bit as aggressive and insensitive.

Solzhenitsyn, a grumpy, cumudgeonly writer, had memory at the core of his life’s work. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is an eternal memorial to the suffering of prisoners in the Gulag. “The Gulag Archipelago” is an astonishingly accurate portrait of the system, how it functioned, and how it utilised slave labour to push the Soviet economy on, albeit to no particular good end. His life, and his expulsion by the Brezhnev regime and into an uneasy exile in the United States (he denounced its extravagance and consumerism), was a testament to the inhumanity at the base of the Communist system. If he had one lesson to teach us, albeit imperfectly, it was as follows: any system that truly advances humanity, has to have human rights at its core. This is not only the right to free speech, but also the right not to be robbed, raped or brutalised by one’s own state.

It is fashionable for progressives to speak of the Soviet Union as a “failed experiment”. This does not nearly go far enough: if we adhere to the idea that human rights have to be at the core of human progress, then Stalinist Communism should be denounced as the brutal, repressive failure that it was. This principle applies also to current regimes which are looked on kindly by some progressives: we may laud Chavez’s assistance to the poor, but his moves to squelch democracy in Venezuela should offend, and the repudiation of those moves by the Venezuelan people should be cause for celebration.

Furthermore, there should be no “romance” about what has happened and is happening in Cuba. Because of Che Guevara’s appeal as a symbol of revolution, and Fidel Castro’s willingness to poke a certain Texan President in the eye, there is often a detectable, if grudging admiration for the regime in Havana. Yet, this is the same regime that in the 1960’s sent homosexuals to re-education camps, and in the 1980’s tried to quarantine those infected with AIDS. The regime still does not recognise the right to freedom of speech or assembly, nor does it hold free elections.

There is a tendency to believe the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”; many Americans certainly believed that about militant Islam in Afghanistan during the late 70’s and 80’s, when the enemy was the Soviet Union. The consequence of this policy was the rise of the Taliban. Backing regimes that do things which are morally repugnant, merely because they oppose the bugbear of the day has the same suicidal consequence for the credibility of the progressive argument, in particular for its stated care for the rights of the individual. Solzhenitsyn has long been required reading on the Right; he should be required reading for everyone.

No doubt the brief reminders provided by the obituary columns will fade away. Putin described Solzhenitsyn’s death as a “great loss”, as he was obliged to do. This doesn’t mean he will be backtracking on his efforts at a Soviet revival: he has recently brought back Red Army celebrations, and even resurrected the use of the Soviet national anthem, albeit with different lyrics. The best tribute to Solzhenitsyn’s life and work is to be disturbed by this, to continue to blow on the embers of memory, and to hope that the flickering glow continues on to those that follow.

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Coming Soon…Dubya the Movie

August 5, 2008

As the trailer indicates, this bio-pic going to be as scary as hell:

Tell me again, how did this man become President?

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