Sunday, September 28, 2008

The US Election (1)

I watched the first US Presidential Debate on 26 Sept p.m. (here, 27 Sept, early a.m.). Of course it was on the US channels, but it was also on BBC and Al Jazeera. The entire world is affected by the US Election, and is watching to see what’s happening.

The pundits were saying McCain was trying to avoid the debate because he was behind in the polls. This is, of course, completely backwards. The candidate who is ahead doesn’t want anything that might change that, and so tries to avoid anything like a real debate. The candidate who is behind has nothing to lose, and hopes for an upset, as happened in ’60 when an unknown Kennedy looked very presidential, and a well-known Nixon looked shifty. No one really listened to the ‘debates,’ but the majority of viewers decided they were going to vote for Kennedy.

My guess: McCain wasn’t feeling well, but didn’t want to admit he was sick, just as in ’92, Bush, Sr. didn’t want to admit he was feeling ill, went he to a dinner while very nauseated, and threw up on the Japanese PM. So McCain said the debate must be postponed until he felt better the financial crisis was resolved. Then, after surreptitiously seeing a good physician, McCain managed to make it to Mississippi. But we’ll never know. At least Letterman and the other comics got some good jokes out of McCain’s request to postpone the debate.

The usual pattern was that first term presidents ran for a second term, and, if the president was in his second term, the vice-president ran. (The last time this pattern was broken was in ’52, when the Republicans put up the wildly popular General Eisenhower, and the Democrats put up Stevenson as a sacrificial lamb.)

The party holding the presidency must try to convince the voters that things are great, that it was the policies of the president (and vice-president if it’s a second term) that made things so great, and that re-electing the party in the White House will keep things great. In ’32, a year much like ’08, the usual term for a financial disaster was a ‘panic.’ Hoover said that his wise administration had avoided a panic, and that the economy was just in a little depression. The term ‘depression’ stuck, and replaced ‘panic’ to describe a complete financial disaster. (So now the terminology is: if you have to tighten your belt, it’s a recession. If you don’t even have a belt to tighten, it’s a depression. If you don’t even have any pants to hold up, then it’s a panic.)

The party out of power tries to convince the nation that things are terrible, and that it is entirely the fault of the party in the White House that things are so bad.

Now, we have both the Democrats and the Republican candidate (but not the Republican party) in complete agreement that the US is in a crisis, and that the Republican president is responsible. This, at least, is new.

Obama says the nation is in crisis, and only new leadership can get the US and the world out of the crisis. McCain says the nation is in crisis, and only an experienced Navy hand can steer the nation out of these troubled waters.
And so they ‘debated.’ The US has had presidential debates for at least 150 years. Once, historians tell us, the candidates actually debated. Then debates fell out of fashion. Then, beginning with the ’60 election, the US has had something called ‘debates.’

In a debate, the moderator poses a question with two sides, and the debaters argue for opposite sides. The debate has openings, then rebuttals.

In the US presidential ‘debates,’ candidates and the moderator agree on a list of questions. A coin toss determines who will give the first answer to the odd questions and the second answer to the even questions. Both candidates then parrot their platform positions on each question.

This year, the moderator of the first debate, Jim Lehrer, asked the candidates to actually debate. They refused.

On each question, Obama’s position was always: we need new leadership; and McCain’s was always: we need experienced leadership.

Obama promised a solution to the financial crisis that would protect homeowners and the markets without rewarding the villains responsible for the crisis. Great solution, and Obama gave specifics about how he will accomplish this: by providing new leadership. Obama also said that a solution will require raising taxes on the rich, and cutting taxes for the poor and the middle class.

McCain likewise promised to solve the financial crisis with a solution that will be fair and equitable, and only McCain will be able to do this because he has the experience. And McCain will not raise taxes on anyone, because raising taxes would just exacerbate the crisis.

Obama sounded more confident and presidential at first, but, since they weren’t really saying anything I hadn’t heard before, I fell asleep. When I woke up, the pundits were saying that, as expected, Obama sounded slightly better than McCain at the beginning when the candidates talking about the economy and the financial crisis, and McCain sounded slightly better than Obama toward the end, when they talking about foreign policy, but I missed the foreign policy bit, so I’ll have to take the pundits’ word for it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ex-pat shebabs in Dubai in the New York Times

The New York Times has an article from their series about the experience of the Arabs. The article in question is about the experience of young ex-pat Arabs in Dubai. The article does not seem to be aware of the '20s article in The Atlantic Monthly by a UK colonial administrator. And the New York Times article shows only a superficial understanding of Dubai. Or of shebabs. The author, a very competent writer, but perhaps not so competent a reporter, believes everything the shebabs told him.

The author also speaks of the Turkish water pipe, which he said was called a shisha in Egypt.

The water pipe, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is an Arab invention, later spread into the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and the British Raj. The New York Times calls the water pipe a shisha in New Jersey. The traditional English word, imported from the Urdu of the British Raj, was hookah as late as 1997. By 2005, the term shisha began to appear (without italics) in the New York Times articles.

Reading the article, it seemed to be almost a paid advertisement for Dubai.

My own view is that the Arab world can be divided into three parts:
One part has no oil, and is among the poorest part of the world; a second part has vast amounts of oil, and is neither among the poorest nations nor among the richest nations.

The third part consists of just Dubai, which has a negligible amount of oil, but is among the world's richest nations.

I don't know how Dubai does it, but I think a lot of the credit goes to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

11 Sept 2008

Once again, the 11th of September is upon us, bringing more questions than answers.

The New York Times had an article that few Arabs believe the US report that 19 Arab shebabs managed to destroy the Twin Towers, damage the Pentagon, and crash a fourth plane in a field, killing all aboard. Which is not surprising, given all the US websites claiming to have ‘proof’ that Arab shebabs were not involved. The fact that none of the authors or readers of these websites has studied elementary metallurgy or mechanical engineering doesn’t stop them from including complex metallurgical and mechanical engineering formulae in their analyses (all completely wrong or inappropriate) ‘proving’ the impossibility that 11 Sept ’01 occurred in the way the world watched on television. My first question is not, ‘What really happened?’ but ‘Why can’t people believe their own eyes?’

I personally spoke to the family of one of the 19 martyrs who died to oppose what he perceived as US neo-Imperialism, and they are quite proud of their martyr, but cannot understand how he managed the courage to die such a painful, fiery death. They have no such courage, but are inordinately proud that one family member did. The only thing that would give them that courage would be a US campaign against them, a campaign to exterminate all of them in the name of vengeance and prophylaxis, a campaign that made it clear that they had nothing to lose by suicide attacks on US forces. As of current date, the US has not done that to the family I visited, only to Iraqi and Afghani families who had nothing to do with 11 Sept ’01.

Still, I have spoken to many people who believe either that there were never any shebabs, or that the 19 shebabs were duped, thinking they were going to hijack the planes to a friendly Middle Eastern country, only to find that Mossad had tampered with the autopilots so that Mossad could direct the planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, in parallel with contradictory belief that no aeroplane could have caused the collapse of the twin towers.

My second question is, ‘Why does everyone say that Bush, Jr. is so stupid?’ ‘What,’ I ask, ‘has he lost of economic value?’ The US is a democracy. After the 19 shebabs destroyed the Twin Towers, the US voters wanted to punish all those responsible, meaning everyone associated with cloth head coverings, or, as they are commonly known, ragheads. These include not just Arab shebabs, but also other Muslims, and even Sikhs. The US voters pronounced guilty every member of any group associated with an ethnic group that ever wore turbans or ghutras or keffiyehs. After Bush, Jr., ordered vast sums of money spent to kill a confirmed 87,387 Iraqi civilians (up to unconfirmed estimates of more than a million Iraqis and Afghanis), the US voters confirmed his actions in the 2004 election. The voters attempted, unsuccessfully, to vote against Bush, Jr. in 2006, but the Democratic Congress, elected on an anti-Bush, Jr. platform, said it must continue to give Bush, Jr. carte blanc to do whatever he wants. For seven years, Bush, Jr., has given huge no-bid contracts to his friends, and no one dares question his actions. No Third World president would call this stupid! So my second question is, ‘Why does anyone else?’

My third question is, ‘What happened to the idea of individual responsibility?’ After World War II, the English-speaking world was indoctrinated with the idea of individual responsibility. The Allies hanged Nazis for (among other things) practising collective punishment. English-language documentaries of World War II condemned collective punishment. When Timothy McVeigh killed 189 men, women, and children, US investigators tracked him down, then the US criminal justice system tried, convicted, and executed him and him alone (one accessory before the fact was incarcerated, but avoided execution since he didn't actually participate in the actual bombing).

But I was young and foolish when I watched those documentaries, and drew the wrong conclusions. The Nazis were not wrong for practising collective punishment, but for practising collective punishment against Europeans. Europeans are individualistic, and must be held individually responsible. But every Mercantile Imperialistic Power justifiably utilised collective punishment against Asians, Africans, and the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Western hemisphere and the Pacific islands. These people are tribal, so, if one commits a crime, it is appropriate to execute twenty members of the tribe as punishment. This is also cheaper than paying for criminal investigations to ascertain the actual perpetrator.

So, when 19 shebabs killed 3,000 US citizens, the appropriate response was to kill at least 80,000 tribesmen as punishment. As an Israeli tank commander responsible for killing Palestinians as collective punishment told me, ‘What else can you do about suicide bombers? Give their families medals?’

Once, after a commoner executed a King of England, then held control of the country until his death, the courts ordered his dead body tortured and mutilated in punishment. But, after 11 September 2001, there weren’t even any dead bodies to torture and mutilate, so what response other than collective punishment was possible?

After all, the Nazi scientists ‘proved’ that only Western Europeans are really human: Slavs, Jews, Asians, and Africans are more closely related to the Simians than to Western Europeans.

And this is a position that is extremely popular with the Simians, who, like many proud families, try to deny any association with close family members confined to institutions for the criminally insane. Or worse, close family members who should be confined to such institutions, but who have managed to elude institutionalisation. In consequence, the Simians enthusiastically agree that they might be related to Asians and Africans, but are completely unrelated to ethnic Europeans.

And I certainly can't blame the Simians for their position.

Monday, September 08, 2008

My first Ramadan in the UAE (Pt. 2)

My co-workers told me that I must experience iftar, whatever that was. Since I had never heard of Ramadan, I had, a fortiori never heard of iftar. Back then, the UAE weekends were Thursday and Friday, so the nights to go out were Wednesday night and Thursday night. One of the local organizations had posted about our building signs: ‘Come to an iftar presentation, “The True Meaning of Ramadan,” by a famous Islamic scholar.’ Naturally, I signed up.

On that first Thursday night of Ramadan, Some co-workers and I proceeded to a tent erected by a Hilton Hotel. Inside, we saw a buffet, but weren’t sure what to do. We followed the crowd who filled their plates. The buffet consisted of a selection of Arabic dishes I had seen before. There were the usual Arabic salads: tabouli, houmous, muttabel, & etc., then a section of hot foods: grilled meats, rice, and vegetables, and finally a section of desserts: Umm Ali, cakes, biscuits, and fruits. A typical diner filled several plates, as well as several glasses from the fountains of fruit juices. Then, as I followed, we all proceeded to our places, set our plates and glasses down, and sat with folded hands.

Finally, two minutes after sunset, the azan sounded, and everyone began to eat.

Then, a man in Western dress got up onto the podium and announced, ‘I’m very sorry, but our featured guest tonight called to say that the true meaning of Ramadan is family, and he will be spending this iftar with his family, and will not be able to come tonight.’

So we finished our iftars, and found that the cost was $5. Then we all went home.

I was still curious, so I went into the city centre before sunset on several evenings during my first Ramadan. Several restaurants had signs, ‘Iftar buffets,’ so, each evening, I selected one and went in. There was invariably a buffet, and, as I watched, people queued up at the buffet well before sunset and filled several plates and several glasses. I invariably proceeded to copy them.

As the azan sounded, everyone began to eat furiously, as they had in the Hilton tent. Once iftar was over, everyone left. The food was the same as that available on the menu, but I was able to pile up my plates with items that would have cost at least $10 a la carte, while the cost of the iftar was only $5, the same as at the Hilton. I found that most restaurants provided a $5 iftar as a promotion to fasting Muslims.

So I managed to gain a few pounds that Ramadan, but never saw any of the special foods only available during Ramadan. I later learned that these are provided in all the homes of Muslims during Ramadan, but are not generally served by restaurants. And I was not invited into any Muslim homes during my first Ramadan.

Friday, September 05, 2008

My first Ramadan in the UAE (Pt. 1)

I had never heard of Ramadan before coming to the UAE, which now strikes me as strange. Many of the authors I had read must have spent time in the Islamic world, and I would have thought they would have mentioned Ramadan. Of course, in the British Officers’ Club, the staff served tea at 1600 hours, regardless of where the Club was located, or the Islamic month, so the writers might not have noticed Ramadan, or might have felt it would not be of interest to their readers.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Ramadan, formerly spelled Ramazan, first appeared in English around 1500, in a translation of a French scholar’s description of Islam (he said Ramazan was like Lent). Ramadan continued to appear occasionally in travellers' memoirs, in a few novels, and in Byron’s long poem, Childe Harold, but I had never read any of these.

When I was at university, and after I started working, I met many Muslims, but there was nothing noticeably different about them. No Muslim ever said to me, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t come to lunch with you because it’s Ramadan.’ They all managed to fast without my noticing. All I knew of Islam at the time was the Hajj, and that one of my fellow students from Saudi Arabia had been studying logistics, since he was to be on the Hajj organizing committee after his graduation and return to Saudi Arabia.

As my first Ramadan in the UAE approached, my co-workers warned me that it would be a novel experience, but didn’t really explain, saying I would have to see for myself. They told me that the government would announce Ramadan, and I didn’t realize that it had to start on one of two days, only that it was approaching.

My workplace had many water dispensers scattered throughout the building, as well as vending machines, and a large cafeteria that was always crowded with breakfasters before work started, crowded during the lunch break, and had a smaller crowd of snackers and coffee drinkers the rest of the day.

On the first day of Ramadan, all those water dispensers and vending machines were gone, and the cafeteria was dark and empty.

Workers had taped dark paper over the windows of one small room, and Western employees were told that we could slip into that room for a sip of water, or even a sandwich if we brought it in ourselves, but we must neither eat nor drink nor smoke anything anywhere else.

I was surprised to see some of the Muslims on the staff entering the room, but wasn’t sure how to ask about this. Eventually, someone explained that Muslims who are not Emiratis are travellers, and might not be under a strict obligation to fast until they return home.

Our workday was shortened by two hours, but, on the first of Ramadan, I stayed to finish paperwork and check the news via the Internet, and left the building at my usual time, about half an hour before sunset. I was the last one to leave the building, which was by then dark and silent.

The previous day, the street had been busy at quitting time, with many taxis honking at me trying to find a fare. On the first day of Ramadan, the street was deserted. The place where I worked was set on the outskirts of town, so I started walking to where I hoped there would be more taxis, and, eventually, I heard the familiar ‘beep.’ The taxi then drove me home at 150 kph, a speed that didn’t seem terribly dangerous, since we were alone on the city streets, which were broad enough to handle the normally heavy traffic.

From home, I walked into town and arrived about an hour after sunset. Things seemed fairly normal, if a bit quieter than usual. I selected a restaurant I hadn’t tried before and had supper. When I had finished my supper, I went to the grocer’s where I picked up some essentials. Since my purchases weighed more than I cared to carry, I hailed a taxi to take me and my purchases home.

By this time, though, the city centre was completely filled with people. Some were shopping, some were having a bite to eat, and some were just driving around and honking. The taxi remained stuck in the traffic for an hour. The meter charges for both time and distance, and my usual $1 carfare home had risen to $4. We were still less than half way, so I got out and walked the rest of the way home.

For the remainder of that Ramadan, I continued to walk into town after work, and I also made smaller, more frequent purchases at the grocer’s, since I knew I’d be walking home.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

3 September

Today was not a good day in the history of the British Empire. In 1783, the colonies on the East Coast of North America between Canada and Mexico had proved far too expensive to retain, and Britain could no longer justify throwing good money after bad, so on this day in 1783, Britain signed the admission that the British Empire had been defeated by the group in those former colonies called either rebels or patriots, depending on who was doing the calling.

In 1939, Chamberlain declared war on Germany, a declaration that ultimately destroyed what was left of the British Empire, an Empire that once covered one quarter of the globe.

From the end of World War II until the late 1980s, most of what was in the history books about World War II was based on the Churchill histories and analysis, which are about 80% correct. World leaders, of course, concentrate on the lessons proffered by the remaining 20%.

Churchill’s version is that:

1. In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany on a platform of racism and militarism. He promised rebuild the German military and to destroy the Jews and the Slavs. Hitler’s statements in defiance of several treaties signed in 1919 and during the 20s provided ample justification for Britain unilaterally engineering regime change, which, in 1933, could have averted World War II without any bloodshed.

2. By 1935, Hitler had begun to rebuild the German military, but a British police action to unilaterally engineer regime change would have involved a small amount of bloodshed, and would have saved far more lives than were to be lost because Britain continued to ignore the Nazis.

3. Had Britain joined with Czechoslovakia in 1938, the war with Germany would have been bloody and difficult, but British victory would never have been in doubt.

4. When, finally, Britain declared war in 1939, Britain avoided having the Swastika flying over the Houses of Parliament only by a series of miracles.

5. Finally, had Britain delayed any longer, even divine intervention could not have prevented the Nazis from subjugating Britain as completely as they subjugated Poland and France.

Churchill’s analysis of ’33 and ’35 cannot be disputed: Britain squandered the opportunity to prevent World War II at very little cost.

That, after declaring war in ’39, Britain only survived by a sequence of miracles, beginning with Dunkirk, is also not in doubt.

But Churchill’s analysis of Chamberlain’s attempt to avoid war in ’38 was completely wrong, and Churchill’s maintaining that things would have been far worse had Britain continued to delay is in doubt. And it is these two analyses that have driven US foreign policy since Churchill wrote them.

Churchill, of course, drew a straight line from 1933 to 1939 and beyond, when the history was not at all linear.

Chamberlain’s reputation suffered because he was unfortunate enough to die while still silenced by security concerns. In ’38, most Europeans believed another war could completely de-populate Europe. The European air forces were supposed to have chemical weapons with all the power now known to belong to the neutron bomb: chemicals dropped from aircraft that could completely de-populate every European city, chemicals that could not be stopped by gas masks or air raid shelters.

So, while Chamberlain was promising appeasement, he was installing the world’s most advanced air defence system. Churchill gave credit to the RAF and carrots, but none to Chamberlain, who was no longer around to defend his legacy. Without the radar shield, the Luftwaffe would have arrived at times and places that could not have been anticipated, completed their bombing runs before the RAF could have been scrambled, and returned to Nazi airfields having incurred minimal losses.

In the event, every Luftwaffe air raid resulted in losses that were more than the German economy could replace, so Hitler was forced to abandon his campaign against Britain, and turned East years before his planners said Germany would be ready.

As Waugh wrote in 1953, had Britain gone to war in 1938, it would have been at the wrong time, at the wrong place, with the wrong allies, and for the wrong reasons.

In the late 1980s, some really bad writers (I cannot bring myself to call them historians) claimed that Churchill was completely wrong, that the Jews and Slavs had killed themselves in internal conflicts. If the Nazis killed any Jews or Slavs, it was strictly in self-defence, and Hitler’s racism was completely justified by the sub-human nature of the Jews and Slavs.

The really bad analysis and attempt to deny the Nazi crimes obscures a position that cannot be resolved. Legitimate historians have established that Hitler’s plan, had Britain not declared war, was to annex the primarily German Western areas of Poland, while the USSR annexed the primarily Slavic Eastern areas. Once West Poland was fully digested, the German plan was to implement Operation Barbarossa, beginning in 1943, an Operation intended to destroy the USSR, and turn all of Slavic Europe into German lebensraum.

Churchill was aware of this, but maintained that, after Barbarossa, the Nazis would have been so powerful that no nation on earth would have been able to prevent them from achieving total world conquest.

The unanswerable question is whether Churchill was correct about this. It is possible that, after the planned 1943 Barbarossa War, the winner would have been so debilitated that an Allied victory would have been easy, and Britain could have kept its Empire. Or at least dismantled its Empire in a way that caused fewer problems.

So it is clear that Churchill was correct about appeasement in ‘33 and ‘35, before it was called appeasement.

It is also clear that Churchill was not correct about appeasement in ‘38, and that Chamberlain was wrongly condemned for delaying the war until the air defence shield was in place.

What is not at all clear is whether Chamberlain should have been condemned for declaring war on this day in 1939.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ramadan Kareem

Today is 3 Ramadan 1429 (Islamic dates change at sunset, not at midnight), and I would like to wish both readers of Dubai@Random a Ramadan Kareem. My dictionary defines Kareem as: 'generous, liberal, munificent, bountiful, noble.' May Ramadan be all those things to my readers.

As I predicted, the Saudi TV has completely revamped its programme for the holy month of Ramadan. All the secular programs run during most of the year are replaced by programming that is appropriate to this special month. As two examples,

'Oprah' has been replaced by the more spiritual, 'America's Funniest Home Videos;' and

'Dr. Phil' has been replaced by 'The '70s Show.'

The first season of 'Buffy, the Vampire Slayer' is back , but I don't normally watch that channel, so I'm not sure what it replaces.

At least they replaced one version of 'The Biggest Loser,' with another version, since Ramadan is about fasting.