Guilty and Guiltier – One law for the 99% and . . .


It’s just a beautiful game. Yeah, sure!

Well, at least he’s been sentenced to jail, even if he’ll never actually see the inside of a cell. Argentinian and Barcelona football superstar Lionel Messi has been handed a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud – and his father was apparently in on the business too whereby the Spanish government and taxpayers were defrauded of €4.1 million.

Pretty much everyone knows the round-ball game, most of its administrators and many of its top players are corrupt as hell – though fans touchingly continue to take matches and tournaments seriously. I can’t see it getting any better if courts don’t start treating the crooks they catch the same as they would the rest of us.

Tax evasion is bad enough when we wage and salary-earners, and pension beneficiaries, have no escape from the internal revenue sharks. But what about taking your nation into an unjustified and unprovoked violent invasion of another country far from your own borders, assisting in the destruction of that country’s infra-structure, collaborating in the deaths of tens of thousands of that country’s innocent citizens, and creating in the process a chaotic power vacuum that has totally destabilised the entire region? Thirteen years after the event, Former LABOUR Party Prime Minster Tony Blah expresses no regret for his genocidal actions – and Knight of the Realm Sir John Chilcot, after a seven-year investigation, stops well short of demanding that Blah be brought to justice for his war crimes.


What went on under the blanket?

As for multi-millionaire, Roman Catholic convert, man-of-the-people Tone, he has this to say: “The intelligence assessments made at the time of going to war turned out to be wrong, the aftermath turned out to be more hostile, protracted and bloody than ever we imagined…. and a nation whose people we wanted to set free from the evil of Saddam became instead victims of sectarian terrorism. For all of this, I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe.”

Well, we expect weasel words from politicians, so we shouldn’t be surprised – but notice that Blah ‘expressed’ sorrow and regret rather than actually feeling it. Is there an apology wrapped in all that BS or not? If so, it’s for stuff done in the passive voice, by agents unknown. ‘Our’ intentions were pure – is that the royal ‘We’? As far as I remember, United Nations inspectors were quite clear at the time. They had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction; so whose ‘intelligence’ was being ‘assessed’ and by whom? Anyone with half a brain understands that PM Blah knowingly and deliberately misled the British Parliament and its constituents. And for what purpose? I would be interested to see a statistical comparison of the number of Iraqi citizens who died under the Saddam regime, and those who have died as a direct result of the Bush family invasions.

Still, that’s in the past, except for the ISIS/Daesh bogey spawned in the chaos created by poodle Blah and his owner George Dubya. However, it’s starting to look very much as though the world’s exemplary democracy, the United States of America is about to elect its first woman president. That’s Hillary Clinton, who knowingly and deliberately used her private email server for official business while she was Secretary of State; who lied about what she had done to investigators, and tried to cover her tracks.

In spite of that, the FBI investigation has decided that she should not face criminal charges. Apparently she and her ‘aides’ were merely ‘careless’ and despite ‘evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information’, there is ‘no evidence’ that Mrs Clinton had a deliberate intention.

Cartoonist Gary Varvel: The new Clinton scandals

How bad can Donald trump be?

Now I must admit to some confusion here. What exactly was the ‘carelessness’ the FBI are referring to? Was Mrs Clinton careless in her wrongdoing and in getting caught? Or was she careless in carrying out her duties as Secretary of State? If the latter, what confidence can anyone have that she is competent to be President of the world’s sole remaining superpower? And can anyone clarify for me what exactly a ‘potential’ violation is? It seems the USA has ‘statutes regarding the handling of classified information’ – and I am curious to know whether these statutes were violated or not. I imagine there must be some citizens and potential voters in the United States who would also appreciate clarification on that point.

I have read a number of articles recently describing a growing disillusionment with politicians around the globe, and an emerging trend among voters to punish them for their lies and deceit. The ‘Brexit’ vote in the United Kingdom and the general election in Australia are cited as examples of the trend. Sad to say, such negative voting probably won’t make the world a much better place in the short term – but if it gives corrupt and dishonest political leaders a headache or two, some might think it’s worth it.


Bliar Bliar Pants on Fire

Tony Blair 'could face war crimes charges' over Iraq War_1‘Tony Blair apologises over Iraq War’, read the headline. What war was that? I remember an unjustified invasion and large-scale destruction of a non-threatening country by the mighty United States and its poodle ally led by Brit Tony Blah. Turned out that was the one they were talking about.

Well, that quibble aside, did the guy actually apologise? Depends how you look at it. In an interview with CNN, the former war-monger-turned Roman Catholic is quoted as saying:

“I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.” 

“I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.”

Asked by host Fareed Zakaria if the Iraq War was “the principal cause” of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), he was reported to have conceded: “I think there are elements of truth in that.”

BLAIR_dead_iraqis360_445647073So, there you have it. Twelve years on, one of the prime perpetrators of that dreadful outrage against humanity admits that the whole business was a f**k-up . . . except that he clings to the straw of belief that Saddam Hussein deserved to go.

Apart from that, how do understand those weasel words? ‘I apologise for the fact that (unspecified) underlings gave me incorrect information which I, in my innocence, accepted without question.’ He neglects to mention that the invasion was launched in spite of United Nations’ repeated assurances that they could find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Whatever happened to ‘The buck stops here’? If not at the Prime Minister’s desk, then where?

And then, not only did we go to war on the basis of ‘wrong intelligence’, we also made mistakes in planning, including failure to seriously consider what would happen after Saddam was ‘removed’. For which I apologise!!!

And what, I wonder, are the ‘elements of truth’ in the proposition that the Iraq war/invasion was ‘the principal cause’ of the rise of ISIS? If you object to the word ‘principal’ here, Tone, why don’t you say so?


See, that was your big mistake. As a LABOUR PM I could get away with anything 🙂

So what are the consequences for a leader of the free world who led his country into a war more than 5,000 km from its own shores on the basis of faulty intelligence? A war which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, shattered that country’s infra-structure, and created fertile ground for the growth of ISIS – a mysterious military force now being offered as excuse for further invasion of the region?

According to a report in the UK’s Telegraph, Tony Blair’s fortune now stands at ‘a staggering £60 million’, which includes ‘a property empire covering some ten homes across England and worth in excess of £25 million’.

Not surprisingly, he has plenty of unscrupulous followers who are prepared to pay the former Labour Party prime minister as much as £200,000 for a single speaking engagement in the hopes of learning the secret of his success.

Earlier this year, Britain’s Independent reported that ‘Blair pulled out of addressing The World Hunger Forum in Stockholm because his £330k price tag for turning up and talking just couldn’t be met.’ The World Hunger Forum!!

I couldn’t find more recent figures to confirm if he’s still getting it, but five years after stepping down as PM, in 2012, and in spite of his personal wealth, Blair was receiving income and expenses from the British tax-payer to the tune of £435,000 a year.

Clearly none of the foregoing counts as sin in the Roman Catholic Church, who accepted Blair into its fold in 2007. Apparently Blair saw common ground ‘in seeking this path of truth, lit by God’s love and paved by God’s grace’ – and no lightning bolt from the blue struck him dead on the spot!

That must be one of the most convincing arguments I’ve heard in support of atheism for a long time. Richard Dorkins, are you listening?

Santa Claus, Mevlana Rumi and the Spirit of Christmas

Of the numerous debates ongoing in Turkey these days, one of the less headline-grabbing, but nonetheless significant, is on the question of whether citizens should (or should not) celebrate New Year.
For me personally, it’s not a big deal. I have lived in the country long enough to give up missing the festive brouhaha of Yuletide. For the majority Muslim population, life goes on as normal without holidays and the associated partying. In addition, I have the antipodean’s difficulty of coming to terms with a mid-winter Christmas/New Year halfway through the academic year for schools and universities. It’s just not right!
Of course it’s that Christmas business that’s causing the debate in Turkey. They don’t celebrate it. Muslims may recognize Jesus as a major prophet, but not of sufficient importance to justify closing the country down. That’s a Christian thing. On the other hand, after the Republic came into being in 1923, one of the early modernizing reforms was switching from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar one. As a result, midnight, Tuesday 31 December will see 2013 CE click over to 2014, as it will for most of the global community.
I suspect, however, that’s not the big issue for Turks objecting to New Year celebrations. After all, pretty much the whole world (including a few avowedly Islamic states) explodes fireworks and indulges in extravagant private and public spending sprees at this time. More to the point is that, in Turkey, Father Christmas (Noel Baba in local parlance) seems to have become established as a popular icon, along with the decorative paraphernalia and retail sector feeding-frenzy associated with Christmas in historically Christian countries.
Norse god Odin
painted by Georg von Rosen
Ironically, displays of pyrotechnics and white-bearded old guys dressed in red and white have very little to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas either, which, as you may recall, is somehow related to the birthdate of that religion’s eponymous founder. There are even, and, in fact, there have long been, Christians of a more purist bent, who object to the extravagant feasting, drinking and commercial exploitation of a day supposedly devoted to the instigator of a religion dedicated to the pursuit of a more spiritual agenda.
Despite discussions about the origins of Santa Claus in northern Europe, and links to an earlier Christian worthy, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern Turkey), it seems that we owe most of our contemporary Christmas iconography to the United States of America, God bless them. Much of it originated with a 19th century academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore, who penned (anonymously at the time) a poem entitled ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more likely known to you as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in which he laid out the key principles of a merry old guy dressed in fur dismounting from a sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down chimneys and filling children’s stockings with presents. The story was taken up and further embellished in 1902 by Lyman Frank Baum, creator of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with the final touches being added by added by the Coca Cola Company via an advertising campaign in the 1930s.
So there we have it. Not much connection to a poor Jewish woman giving birth to her first child amongst the animals in a stable two thousand years ago, so laying the foundation of a belief system that would eventually encompass one third of the world’s population. Then there’s the problem of the date, even with pretty much universal use of the solar calendar. For a start, the actual date of Jesus’s birthday is unknown. 6 January was initially preferred by the Eastern Orthodox Church, who later decided to go along with 25 December, the date selected by Roman Catholics in the 4th century. The breakaway Armenians, however, preferred to stick with 6 January. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision of the calendar in 1582 resulting in a loss of ten days. However, Christians in a number of counties, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova, while embracing 25 December, steadfastly refuse to accept the disappearance of those ten days, and continue to use the older Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on what, in the Gregorian system, is January 7.
Confused? Well don’t think those are the only problems. According to Wikipedia, ‘Yule, or Yuletide, is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas.’ This pagan mid-winter event apparently went on for twelve days with much feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and was associated with a rather fascinating supernatural phenomenon known as the Wild Hunt, and with the god Odin, or Woden, after whom Wednesday was named (coincidentally Christmas day this year, so you may want to mention him in your prayers).
So what’s it really all about? Probably you’d have to say, people generally (with the possible exception of those religious puritans) like to find reasons for partying, and Christmas/New Year provides an excellent pretext. Mainstream churches may lament declining congregations making it increasingly difficult to fund the kind of monumental buildings and associated large staff numbers they once took for granted – but if we are honest we will admit that institutionalised Christianity really only latched on to a much older event that was already being celebrated. People were getting together with family and friends, feasting and giving gifts to brighten the depths of winter and look forward with optimism to the beginning of a new year long before bishops, Popes and Holy Roman emperors decreed religious uniformity.
Of course, it is impossible.  “There’s nowt so queer as folk” goes the old saying (from before ‘queer’ took on its current meaning). You can scare people into superficial conformity with threats of torture and incineration, or social ostracism, but as soon as you release the pressure they will begin to reassert their individuality. The internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of organized state religion are evident from the beginning, as shown by constant splintering and breakaway sects. So, on close inspection, the wailing and hand-wringing over Christmas losing its true meaning sound a little hollow.
Sad to say, if you google ‘Why I hate Christmas’ you will come up with approximately 372 million results – twenty-five percent more than the entire population of the United States! Time constraints at this busy time of the year prevented me from visiting all of them, but one site in particular, Eight Reasons I Hate Christmas, made some points that appealed to me:
  • All the extra waste it produces. All that gift-wrapping ending up at landfills.
  • The awful music – What do you feel like doing when you hear another saccharin rendition of  ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?
  • Frenzied shopping and burgeoning consumer debt.
  • Negative psychological effects, including increased suicide rate.
  • Tacky Christmas decorations made by desperately poor people in Asian sweatshops. 

Scarier to me, however, than the gross commercial exploitation is the evidence I see that state-sponsored, institutionalized religion is fighting back. And it’s not just the Muslims. I began this post with the observation that some authority figures in Turkey are arguing against the celebration of New Year – we assume for religious reasons. But what are we to make of Time Magazine’s choosing the Roman Catholic Pope as its Person of the Year? Whatever the personal qualities of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis I), the fact remains that he is head of a monolithic, multi-zillion dollar institution with a one-and-a-half millennia history of religious intolerance, promoting violence at local and international levels, sponsoring schools and orphanages sanctioning abuse of vulnerable boys and girls, and expounding a doctrine that supports a hierarchical wealth-based status quo condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery. Am I exaggerating? It seems to me that, even if we ignore its past sins, any church accepting New Left plutocrat Tony Blah into its community of faith without administering a hefty dose of penance raises serious doubts about its spiritual credibility.
So party on, dude, at Christmas time, say I! And if you are truly looking for spiritual succour in a world drowning beneath a flood of materialism, you may want to look in less-frequented corners. Fortunately, there are sources to be found. One week before (the Gregorian) Christmas Day, Tuesday 17 December marked the ‘Wedding Night’ of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known in the Western world simply as Rumi, the 13thcentury Sufi mystic. Şeb-i Arus (Persian for ‘Wedding Night’) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. His tomb, in the modern Turkish city of Konya, is a place of pilgrimage for people of diverse cultures and religious backgrounds who appreciate his non-denominational message of universal love.
Tomb of Mevlana Rumi, Konya, Turkey
Those who do make the trip to Konya will find queues of respectful visitors waiting to enter a green-tiled mausoleum bearing the inscription, ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ Interestingly, the revered founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is reported to have said something similar: ‘To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.’ In spite of this, it is difficult to go anywhere in Turkey without seeing images of that gentleman’s face. As human beings we are constantly subjected to the tension between the transformative power of ideas and the siren allure of material wealth. Atatürk himself, sometimes accused of being an enemy of religion, made it clear that what he was opposed to was the perversion of religion by seekers of temporal power. 
According to Atatürk, Mevlana was ‘a mighty reformer, who had adapted Islam to the Turkish soul.’
17 December is actually the date of Mevlana Rumi’s death – well, truth to tell it is the nearest Gregorian equivalent given that he died within the borders of the Muslim Seljuk Empire. For Rumi, his death was not an occasion of sadness since it brought about his union with God (hence ‘Wedding’). As a result, there was no need for reincarnation or resurrection. The physical body was the cage that trapped humanity in the world of material unhappiness. To die was to escape to a better, if incomprehensible, other.
At the same time, the Sufi path is not a rejection of physical realities. ‘[Rumi’s] poetry and doctrine advocate unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity, and awareness through love’ as the means to achieve personal fulfilment and build a better world on earth. He summarised his practical philosophy of life in seven pieces of advice, the last line of which is an oft-quoted admonishment against hypocrisy:
Cömertlik ve yardım etmede akarsu gibi ol.
Şefkat ve merhamette güneş gibi ol.
Başkalarının kusurunu örtmede gece gibi ol.
Hiddet ve asabiyette ölü gibi ol.
Tevazu ve alçak gönüllülükte toprak gibi ol.
Hoşgörülükte deniz gibi ol.
Ya olduğun gibi görün, ya göründüğün gibi ol.
In generosity and helping others be like a river.
In compassion and grace be like the sun.
In concealing other’s faults be like the night.
In anger and irritability be like death.
In modesty and humility be like the earth
In tolerance be like the sea.
Either show yourself as you are, or be as you seem.

Julian Assange, The Unauthorised Autobiography – Review

‘Indian [Native American] history is the antidote to the pious ethnocentrism of American exceptionalism, the notion that Americans are God’s chosen people. Indian history reveals that the United States and its predecessor British colonies have wrought great harm in the world. We must not forget this – not to wallow in our wrongdoing, but to understand and to learn, that we might not wreak harm again.’
That quote comes from a book I picked up on our recent visit to the USA, ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’, by James W Loewen who, the back cover tells me, is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont. My copy is the updated 2007 edition of a book that was first published in 1995 and claims to have won the American Book Award and the Oliver C Cox Anti-racism Award of the American Sociological Association.
The words can be found in the last paragraph of the 4th chapter, which is as far as I have got so far. The chapter is entitled ‘Red Eyes’, and discusses what Loewen refers to as ‘the most lied-about subset of our population,’ Native Americans. The learned professor’s thesis is that textbooks used in US high school history courses have presented, and mostly continue to present, an idealised programme of White American-centred myth-making and patriotic indoctrination that bores and frustrates students, and bears little relation to the reality of their nation’s past.
Earlier chapters deal with the process of hero-making, the true importance of Christopher Columbus, and the truth about Thanksgiving. In discussing that sacred event on the all-American calendar, Professor Loewen points out that the traditional ingredients of a Thanksgiving meal, pumpkins, turkey, corn and squash, were all indigenous to the Americas, and that the pilgrims, in reality, were indebted to their Indian neighbours more than to their God for survival in the new colony. He further informs us that celebration of the famous feast dates only from 1863 when President Lincoln, looking for ways to stir up patriotic fervour, declared the date a national holiday.
Well, as you will expect from my title, I am not here to review the Professor’s book. Loewen is discussing history, though he does include the warning that the present cannot be properly understood without a realistic appraisal of past events. My aim was to set the scene for a discussion of contemporary events that demonstrate the same processes at work: tailoring the story to suit a desired end result, overlooking inconvenient facts, and creating scapegoats and villains to justify a particular course of action.
When it comes to studying history, the problem is not so much that the true stories are not available – rather that they are generally only available to researchers and serious students. The rest of us are lulled into soporific acquiescence by the barrage of ‘facts’ served up by the weighty textbooks we lugged around at school. When it comes to contemporary issues, we are at the mercy of the mainstream news media, for the most part controlled by business and political interests whose purpose is rarely to present an unbiased account.
I am greatly indebted to my experiences in Turkey for opening my eyes to how much my own worldview had been shaped by those factors. One of my earliest such experiences was attending a celebration where Turks were commemorating 18 March 1915 as their day of victory in the First World War theatre we know as the Gallipoli Campaign – in defiance of New Zealanders and Australians who know our boys didn’t even get there till 25 April! Of course if you search you can find details of the Royal Navy’s earlier disastrous attempt to force a passage through the Dardanelle Straits – but that didn’t feature in any accounts I heard or read in my school years.
I guess life was easier in those days for government, military and status quo propagandists when the general public’s sources of information were fewer in number, narrower in scope and more easily controlled. I learnt, many years after the event, and from a very unofficial source, that the British military had been testing its atomic weapons in the trackless wastes of Australia’s central desert – and I was shocked. Surprisingly, many people still don’t know about the Brits’ nuclear testing programme, although I guess it’s no longer classified information.
Another historical fact I learnt recently is that the United States had five military bases in Turkey during the Cold War, with nuclear weapons, missiles and artillery aimed at targets in the Soviet Union. The thing is, I can’t help feeling that the Australian public, and maybe the public in Britain and in other NATO countries too, for all I know, would have liked access to that information at the time, in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s when it was extremely relevant to events on the international stage, and they might have exercised their parliamentary vote according to whether a political party supported or opposed the business. American citizens also might have been less starry-eyed and gung-ho about President JF Kennedy’s threat to start World War III if the Russians didn’t pull their missiles out of Cuba.
It’s a fantasy, I know, but what if British and United States voters had had been able to eavesdrop on conversations between George Dubya Bush and Tony (the Poodle) Blah prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq? What if the Queen (bless her heart) had heard Tony promising Cherie that he’d convert to Roman Catholicism just as soon as he stopped being Prime Minister?
Sadly, in those pre-Wikileaks days, they weren’t, and Her Majesty didn’t. Then, almost overnight, thanks to a white-haired computer geek from Townsville, Australia, the world changed – and I suspect, hope, pray, it will never be the same again. Wikileaks was the website that brought us memorable video footage from a US Apache helicopter gunship where we heard the crew chattering excitedly like 13 year-old war-gaming kids, heard the tak-tak-tak of the cannon as the gunner got the ok to ‘Light ‘em up!’, saw the mostly unarmed civilians, including two Reuters Agency photographers, dying in a hail of 30 mm shells, saw the small van with its occupants, including two children, trying to pick up the wounded, and  suffering the same fate. War photography too will never be the same.
It was Wikileaks again that allowed us to overhear US diplomats expressing their refreshingly undiplomatic feelings about world leaders most of us have serious doubts about: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah pressing the U.S. to ‘cut off the head of the snake’ by taking action against Iran’s nuclear program. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described as ‘feckless’ and ‘vain.’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed as ‘risk averse and rarely creative.’
Of course, I understand that President Obama and his Secretaries of State past and present, Hilary Clinton and John Kerry are seriously p—d off with Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. I can totally understand how they would be happy to lock him up in some federal penitentiary until they felt he was suitably penitent – which might be a while. On the other hand, I know there are some Americans, and even a few Australians, in spite of the reluctance of their government to stand up for the guy, who believe he did the world a favour by making that stuff available, and are secretly hoping the Ecuadoreans will find a way to spirit Assange out of their embassy, past those London bobbies, and off to the sanctuary of Quito where he can keep giving us insights into events and information our leaders would prefer us not to know.
So I want to tell you a little about the book I read before starting on the one dealing with the lies I learnt at school. It’s called ‘Julian Assange, the Unauthorised Autobiography’, and it may be even more important than the one about Steve Jobs.
One detail that needs explaining early on (and the publisher, Canongate Books does so) is how an autobiography can be unauthorised. Apparently Assange signed a contract and worked with a chosen writer, but later tried to pull out of the deal. By that time, according to Canongate, money had already changed hands (and been used by Assange to pay legal bills) and 38 publishing houses were committed to releasing the book. So here we have it – unauthorised but apparently straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
The book begins with Assange in a cell in Wandsworth Prison in London, comparing himself to Oscar Wilde, who, at about the same age, but in an earlier century, had spent time there after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – Victorian-speak for male homosexuality. Assange’s sexuality seems to be more mainstream, but it’s not until the penultimate chapter that we get his side of the business with the Swedish lasses. At first he is more concerned with giving details of his court appearances and time in prison, despite not having been charged with any crime – and explaining why he believes it’s not actually about the ladies.
From Wandsworth Gaol we flashback to Australia, mostly northern Queensland, where Assange was born into a hippy alternative lifestyle in an idyllic tropical paradise tinged with reality by the difficulties of being raised by a 19 year-old politically active solo mum. I’ll skip the details, but those were interesting times – and young Julian seems to have grown up in an environment of healthy anti-establishment scepticism.
The 1980s decade brought the personal computer into middle class homes, and for Assange, the world-changing technology came in the shape of a Commodore 64, produced by a now defunct company that, for a time there, actually outsold IBM PC compatibles, Apple machines and Atari. The C64 became his ‘consciousness’. Assange and his computer geek peers ‘always knew that the world was more modern than [the old guard] realised. Cairo was waiting. Tunisia was waiting. We were all waiting for the day when our technology would allow an increasing universality of freedom. In the future, power would not come from the barrel of a gun but from communications, and people would know themselves not by the imprimatur of a small and powerful coterie, but by the way they could disappear into a social network with huge political potential.’
Assange tells of his hacking exploits, under the code-name Mendax, starting in the late 1980s, as he rose to the challenge of ‘getting past a barrier that has been erected to keep you out’. One of his better efforts, apparently, was hacking his way into the computer system of the Pentagon’s 8thCommand Group. He compares his circle of like-minded freedom fighters to the 17thcentury Levellers in England – a political movement which, according to Wikipedia, ’emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance’, expressing their ideas in a manifesto they called ‘Agreement of the People’. Perhaps, in a premonition of what was to come, Assange writes that ‘Governments were much more scared [of the power of the internet] than they were of people demonstrating in the street or throwing petrol bombs over barricades.’ In a chapter headed ‘Cypherpunks’,he speaks of a movement ‘engaged in establishing a system for the information age . . . that would allow individuals rather than merely corporations, to protect their privacy.’
What this movement produced in 2006 was Wikileaks, ‘the most secure platform for whistle-blowers the world had ever known.’ The essential principles were: so-called human rights are only rightsif they are enforceable; ordinary citizens are often in possession of information the rest of us should know for true democracy to operate; if they want to share it they should be able to do so in privacy and anonymity; once they decide to share the information, it needs to be published by the mainstream media.
The 70-page Appendix to Assange’s autobiography contains details of the most noteworthy leaks made available via the Wikileakswebsite, many of which were picked up by major news media, to the benefit of their circulation, no doubt, and to the extreme embarrassment of many governments: the Standard Operating Procedure Manual for Guantanamo detention centre, for example, and information provided by a former employee of Julius Baer Bank (HQ in Zurich) detailing how the bank assisted wealthy clients to move taxable funds to tax-havens in the Cayman Islands.
The book is a fascinating read, essential for anyone wishing to access an alternative view to that presented by those ‘outed’ governments and their lapdog news media. As Assange notes, the Information Age has rendered obsolete, or at least highly debatable, many legal concepts laid down in simpler times, not least of which is the question of who ‘owns’ information. Of course, as those 17th century Levellers discovered to their cost, the establishment elite in any society will fight tooth and nail to preserve their power and privileges. Sad to say, Assange may have been unduly optimistic about the democratic freedoms new communications technology would bring to Egypt. Possibly we will never know the extent to which the governments of the United States and Saudi Arabia influenced the military coup in Cairo. As for Wikileaks, we watch in stunned disbelief as the debate is switched from shocking revelations about events actually taking place behind the scenes on the world stage, to the romantic escapades of an Australian citizen and two sexually liberated Scandinavian women – with the active connivance of news media that were previously so keen to publish the leaked material.
Back in England in the 1640s, leaders of the Levellers were tried and hanged, or hunted down and shot by Oliver Cromwell’s men– thereby collapsing one of history’s early movements advocating popular democratic freedoms. We are currently waiting to hear how many lifetimes Private Bradley Manning will spend in prison; and Russian President Putin has seriously upset the US Government by granting asylum to Edward Snowden, who would otherwise very likely share Manning’s fate. How long Julian Assange can hang out in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London remains to be seen. The important thing for supporters of true democracy is not to lose sight of the real issue.
‘It is not Wikileaks the United States government is afraid of, and it is not Julian Assange that they are afraid of. What does it matter what I know? What does it matter what Wikileaks knows? It matters not at all. What matters is what you know. This is all about you.’

Julian Assange The Unauthorised Autobiography(Canongate Books, 2011) 339 pages 

Czechs and Chechens, Christians and Muslims

I read an article in a recent Time magazine by a gentleman who had apparently spent some time in Turkey and Israel. The gist of his thesis (as far as I could understand) was that he had found living in those countries strange because of the level of security evident in daily life. His main evidence for this in Turkey seemed to be a shortage of rubbish bins in public places.
Well, I will admit I have found this frustrating myself, but alongside the other difficulties one must surmount to live in a country without a tradition of British colonialism, it ranks as a relatively minor inconvenience. I have also got used to metal detectors and cursory security checks on entering the large modern shopping complexes mushrooming in every corner of the country. More surprising to me was the presence of a guard with an automatic weapon outside every police station, and small troops of armed uniformed soldiers jogging around the streets of my local neighbourhood. At least the latter phenomenon seems less in evidence these days since the justice system started calling top military brass to account for their roles in past military coups and planning of the next one.
I haven’t been to Israel, so I can’t speak for conditions there, but I suspect that, if anything, security will be more visible. Why wouldn’t it be? This is a dangerous region. Grievances go back a long way in a part of the world where Turks, in Asia Minor for a thousand years, are regarded by many as Johnny-come-latelies, and Islam, which took hold in the 7th century, as an uninvited guest who has outstayed his welcome.
Getting back to Turkey, it’s a question of give and take, don’t you think? I accept a certain level of visible security in return for feeling relatively safe on the streets and in public places. And I do, I really do! I feel safer in Istanbul than in my own home town of Auckland, for example. I may have mentioned before that I am a keen cyclist. Turkish friends are surprised when I tell them I feel less threatened cycling in the frenetic traffic of megalopolitan Istanbul than in underpopulated New Zealand. My anecdotal evidence was supported recently by a news item suggesting that motorists in NZ deliberately target people on bicycles. I can’t speak with authority about the United States, since my one brief visit doesn’t entitle me to make generalisations. However, I can say I would prefer to see the automatic weapon in the hands of a uniformed accountable servant of the state than freely available to any adolescent with bipolar disorder and a grudge against society.
We have friends in Boston, so we have been following with interest and concern news about the bombing at the annual marathon race. It was mightily impressive to see how the general public and law enforcement agencies united to catch the perpetrators within a matter of days. Still, I can’t help having some misgivings about the business. One question that comes to mind is how many security cameras operating 24/7 there must be in that city for authorities to see those two guys with their backpacks prior to what we must assume was a totally unexpected event. Do you prefer your security visible or invisible? Is it better to catch the lunatic fringe after the event or deter them beforehand? Of course, terrorist bombers are by definition dangerous characters, and you wouldn’t expect police officers to mess around with kid gloves – but it is surely unfortunate that one of the supects was shot dead and the other is fighting for his life in hospital, the gunshot wound in his throat making it difficult for him to tell his side of the story.
European geography clarified
My major concern, however, is the xenophobia that clearly lurks very close to the surface in the psyche of many US citizens. Much of it stems from ignorance, and America certainly has no monopoly on that human failing. I read that diplomatic staff representing the Czech Republic found it necessary to expain to denizens of the social media netherworld that Chechnya is in fact an entirely separate country, about as far from their borders as Cheyenne, Wyoming is from the White House – though Cheyenne is at least still in mainland USA. Forty percent of Czechs are reportedly Christian, with most of the rest preferring not to label themselves, which, apart from geographic location, differentiates them from the people of Chechnya who are, according to my source, overwhelmingly Muslim. In fact it’s a pity the bombing suspects weren’t of Czech origin since in that case we would probably have heard less about their religious affiliations.
Sadly, however, the Muslim connection seems to have been established, no doubt further cementing hatred in the minds of US and West European citizens all too ready to blame followers of the Prophet Muhammed for most of the world’s current problems. At least, then, we must be grateful that the two young men were not Iranian, otherwise Operation “Smash Iran Back to Paleolithic Oblivion” would probably already be under way. The Chechen connection is actually surprising. You might have expected the Moscow or St Petersburg marathon to be a preferred target, given that Russians have been suppressing, persecuting and displacing Muslim people of the Caucasus region for more than two centuries. But once guys get it into their minds to kill and maim ordinary citizens going about their lawful business, they’ve probably ceased thinking in ways that you and I can understand.
Another big question in my mind, though, is to what extent do these two sad Chechen lads represent the worldwide Islamic community of faith? And following from that, should we consider their Muslim affiliation the key rationale for their actions rather than their twisted personal psychological state? According to Wikipedia, approximately 1.6 billion people, or nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s population is Muslim. They are  the majority demographic in fifty countries, and speak sixty native languages. In addition, there are 178 million Muslims in India (roughly equivalent to the population of Pakistan), and around twenty million each in China, Russia and Ethiopia. By the law of averages, you’re going to expect a few nut cases amongst that lot.
Apparently it is less easy to get an accurate estimate of the number of Christians in the world. Most sources agree that Jesus leads the world’s largest religious congregation with numbers ranging from 1.5 to 2.2 billion. The same source tells me there are 125 countries with majority Christian populations, although that total includes a good number of international minnows, Greenland, the British Virgin Islands and the Falklands, for example. Somewhat to my surprise, my own homeland, New Zealand, only just scraped into the list of Christian nations with 55.6 percent, not, as you might suspect, because of vast inflows of Taoists, Shintos and Buddhists, but because, like the Czechs, most of you guys claim to be atheists or just want the pollsters to bugger off and mind their own business.
Speaking of Christians, it was George Bush the Son and his Holy Spiritual offsider, Tony Blah, professed Believers both, who led that ‘coalition of the willing’ back in 2003 – convinced, against all the evidence, that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. But then, weight of evidence to the contrary tends not to be a major factor in the belief system of the more dedicated follower of Christ. The USA is the most ‘Christian’ nation on Earth, with almost 250 million faithful, and around half of them are apparently convinced that Jesus Christ will return to Earth and Rapture them some time before the year 2050, though there is disagreement about the exact date.
Nevertheless, both Bush and Blah would have dearly loved to see Muslim Turkey join their band of willing helpers when they invaded Iraq, if only to show the world that it wasn’t just a latter-day Christian Crusade. Maybe Turkey missed a good opportunity there to join the Christian club as an honorary member – but sometimes you just have to stand up for what you believe is right – or against what you believe is wrong, would perhaps be more accurate.
These days it seems that the tide of opinion, even amongst previously willing supporters, has turned against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The number of Iraqi deaths is open to considerable debate – estimates range from one hundred thousand to more than a million. Even if you look at the lower end figures, the Iraq Body Count Project, generally accepted to be conservatively reliable, gives the  total as over 170,000 including 120,000 civilians.  The number of US military personnel killed is more precise – 4,409, with other ‘coalition’ deaths bringing the total to 4,799.
I certainly don’t want to make light of that awful day in Boston last month, especially since we know that one of the three killed was an eight-year-old child – and many of the injured will be maimed for life. Perhaps the bright spot in an otherwise tragic event is that those weapons of mass destruction surfaced after all, having made their way across the Middle East, Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to east coast USA. 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will apparently be charged with using them, and if convicted will, quite rightly, face the death penalty. I have to confess, however, to some disappointment that the WMDs turn out to have been relatively small bombs made in his big brother’s kitchen from domestic pressure cookers, rather than the more impressive chemical, biological and nuclear arsenal we were encouraged to believe in at the time.

Ding Dong. Who’s There? A Witch and a Wizard

A Facebook group had, it seems, been planning for several years to make ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’, from the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’, No 1 song in the UK when Margaret Thatcher died. I have no idea what’s topping the charts in Venezuela these days, because I’ve been busy marking student essays at the university where I work. Maybe that’s what did it. An essay topic insinuated itself into my brain, and like the Ancient Mariner’s woeful agony, wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d buttonholed you and shared my tale, so here it is:
‘Compare and contrast the lives and political careers of Hugo Chavez and Margaret Thatcher’
The world lost two colourful and controversial political figures in 2013. Both had served long terms as leader of their countries: Hugo Chavez as President of Venezuela for fourteen years; Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Britain for almost twelve.
Both leaders divided their nations into dramatically polarised groups – those who loved them and those who hated and detested them. Both achieved considerable international recognition during their lifetime. Time ranked Chavez among the world’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ in 2005 and 2006. The same weekly had Thatcher in its ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’. The British magazine New Statesman (admittedly leftist) placed Chavez eleventh on their list of ‘Heroes of Our Time’. A BBC poll to find the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ had Dame Maggie at number sixteen on the list – a ranking somewhat devalued, I fear, by its having Princess Diana in third place.
Pouring cold water in Northern Ireland
Thatcher is said to be the only post-war Oxford-educated PM not to have been awarded an honorary doctorate by her alma mater. Chavez on the other hand received several such awards, from universities as far away as South Korea, Russia and Beijing.
Both were ideologues, committed to particular, somewhat extreme political doctrines which they single-mindedly applied in the face of strong opposition: Thatcher to the monetarism of Milton Friedman, and Chavez to socialism and populism, and his revolutionary heroes, Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara.
Both formed strong bonds with like-minded leaders on the international stage: Thatcher with US presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Father, Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Prime Minister of apartheid-era South Africa, PW Botha; Chavez with South American neighbours Fidel Castro and Rafael Correa, and Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad.
Thatcher crushed the unions, broke down the traditions of collective workplace bargaining, championed an individualistic, free-market privatised economy where financiers were given free reign, and paved the way for a new society with summers of content for the wealthy and an underclass tucked away out of sight, occasionally rising in disorganised protest and ruthlessly suppressed. British Labour MP Glenda Jackson, speaking in a parliamentary debate after Thatcher’s death, described that lady’s achievement as ‘the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country.’
Chavez took on the problems of poverty and slums associated with uncontrolled urbanisation, addressed the evils of inadequate food production and profiteering, and reduced poverty in Venezuela from 59 to 24 percent of the population. He was the leader of a South American nation struggling with the legacy of colonialism, corruption, large-scale poverty and huge inequalities of wealth distribution.
Thatcher, on the other hand, headed a West European country with a history of imperialist and colonial exploitation, and the sixth largest economy in the world, who went to war with a much poorer and technologically inferior South American state to preserve her nation’s right to own a tiny island in the South Atlantic Ocean 12,500 km from its own shores. Cynics have suggested that, if not for the wave of jingoistic patriotism and media frenzy generated by this ten-week mini-war, Thatcher might have been a one-term rather than a three-term Prime Minster. Even her first election victory, in 1979, was achieved with the support of former National Front voters, who deserted their far right nationalist whites-only party to side with the ‘Iron Lady’.
Both premiers came from relatively humble origins – Thatcher, daughter of a Grantham grocer, who did, though, own two stores; Chavez born to small-town working class parents. Margaret Hilda Roberts, however was able to marry a millionaire businessman, Denis Thatcher, who financed her through law school (after her first career as a chemist foundered), supported her in her early political career, and purchased their two comfortable homes, in Chelsea and rural Kent. In an interview in 1970, Hubby Thatcher is quoted as saying, ‘I don’t pretend that I’m anything but an honest-to-God right-winger – those are my views and I don’t care who knows ’em’. Funny how those right-wing loonies always seem to find a way to bring God in on their side. Maggie’s father-in-law, incidentally, was apparently born in New Zealand, so I and my fellow Kiwis can claim some interest in the Baroness’s rise to power.
The Venezuelan leader died in office after a battle with cancer, still popular enough in his own country to have been re-elected to a fourth term as president in 2012. The dear departed Briton was more or less obliged to resign as PM in 1990, shortly before the first Gulf War, which she had egged on – and in the face of serious opposition to her iniquitous poll tax. She lived to see Britain plunged into an economic crisis from which it still has not recovered, brought about in large part by her policies of deregulating the finance sector and fostering greed-driven capitalism. According to reports, she went slowly insane, afflicted with dementia for the last thirteen years of her life.
Perhaps Thatcher’s most shameful legacy was facilitating the destruction of an alternative political voice representing the viewpoint of ordinary people. Her long-term political crony, Lord Howe of Aberavon put it differently: ‘Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.’ Indeed, the subsequent Labour Government under Tony Blah was ‘labour’ in nothing but name.
Whatever you may think of Hugo Chavez, he kept alive the belief in other possibilities – at considerable personal risk. He was actually ousted in 2002 by a coup (said by some, himself included, to have been supported by the United States and the CIA). This belief is lent strength by the fact that the coup leaders had so little local support they were forced to hand back the reigns of power to Chavez after a mere forty-seven hours, making it possibly the shortest military takeover in history. Well, to be fair to Dame Maragaret, she did survive an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army in 1984, and no one would deny that she had the courage of her dubious convictions. According to one source, she was turned down for a job in 1948 as a research chemist for ICI on the grounds that she was ‘headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated’. Violence in Northern Ireland increased considerably in her first term of office, and nine IRA members died on hunger strikes in English prisons. After the assassination attempt, however, she did seem to moderate her stance on Ireland, so perhaps she was not entirely unresponsive to the alternative point-of-view.
Thatcher’s economic policies have sometimes been credited with putting the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain – though the gloss seems to have gone off the ‘Great’-ness again in the last year or two. Even at the time, however, it depended very much on where you were looking from. Her first term as Prime Minister saw a decline of thirty percent in manufacturing output, and unemployment reaching an all-time high of three million plus. Much of her apparent success could be attributed to the huge sell-off of state assets, and increased profits for the companies that survived.
After her resignation from active politics, Thatcher was employed by tobacco giant Philip Morris as a ‘geopolitical consultant’, in a role similar to that played by Aaron Eckhart in the 2005 movie ‘Thank You For Smoking’ – only Thatcher was for real.
As for Hugo Chavez, it would be hard to find a national leader with more starkly contrasting economic and social policies. Undoubtedly, he had the major advantage of heading a country said to have the world’s largest reserves of crude oil. Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem necessarily to oblige a government to show concern for its people.  Chavez’s so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ nationalised several key industries, increased spending on health and education, and aimed to develop systems facilitating participatory democracy. His ‘Mission Zamora’ was a reform programme aimed at redistributing land to the landless. Needless to say it was vehemently opposed by vested interests who hired assassins to terminate supporters and beneficiaries of the reforms. In 2009, Chavez and other like-minded South American leaders established the Bank of the South as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund, which they perceived as pursuing an unsympathetic political agenda. Former World Bank chief economist, Nobel Laureate and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz is on record as expressing approval of this project.
Of course, Chavez had his critics abroad as well as at home. He did not endear himself to the Younger Bush’s administration with his criticism of the US invasion of Iraq. The organisation Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2008 claiming that government action in Venezuela was eroding the independence of the judiciary and ‘undercutting journalists’ freedom of expression’. To put that in perspective, HRW’s headquarters is in the Empire State Building in New York City, and its principal source of funding is George Soros – of whom I have written before.
One example of the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela is a case involving a judge Maria Afiuni, who was arrested on charges of corruption. Apparently she had released on bail a banker charged with large-scale fraud and illegal currency trading. HRW and other groups including the US Department of State felt that the learned judge was being unfairly treated. Chavez’s government was of the opinion that she might have been unduly influenced by under-the-table incentives. Who’s to know?
Well, no doubt debate over the legacies of these two late lamented will go on, with little agreement possible between entrenched positions. Baroness Thatcher was seen off at a state funeral on Wednesday with much British pomp and ceremony. Sadly, some might feel, US President Obama was otherwise engaged, and Hilary Clinton declined her invitation. In their stead the US was represented by George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney – relics, one might think, of a more clearly defined political age.  Former apartheid South African President FW de Clerk was there – but not Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, current president of Argentina, who, I understand, was not invited.
Chavez’s funeral was apparently a less formal, more musical affair. Ms de Kirchner was in attendance, as were Cuba’s Raul Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko as well as Brazil’s Dilma Vana Rousseff. Actor Sean Penn and Hollywood director Oliver Stone had kind words to say, as did maverick film-maker Michael Moore, who quoted Chavez as saying, on their meeting in 2009, ‘He was happy to finally meet someone Bush hated more than him.’ A man could have worse things inscribed on his tombstone.

A New Pope for Easter

Turkish is a fascinating language, and a challenge for the well-meaning holidaymaker who thinks to pick up a little for the sake of international goodwill. One of its peculiarities is a feature known to linguists as agglutination, whereby grammatical functions are constructed by adding suffixes to a lexical root. There is in theory no limit to the number of suffixes that can be agglutinated, and Turks take pride in the following word: ‘Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız?’which has eleven suffixes, and can be rendered into English as ‘Are you one of those whom we have been unable to make Czechoslovakian?’

Of course every country and culture likes to feel that it is the best at, or has the biggest, longest, whatever, of something – it’s a natural human (or at least a male) thing. So as native speakers of English, we understandably dredge our memories for the longest word we know – and maybe come up with ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. It doesn’t quite measure up, but it does at least have a useful and significant meaning (unlike its longer Turkish counterpart): ‘opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England.’ 

Why am I telling you this? Because ‘establishment’ in this context means that Anglicanism is the official state religion of England, which, in turn means that England is not strictly speaking a secular state. The main precedent for this is the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Theodosius I in 380 CE. You might think that the world has moved on a little in the intervening 1630 years, but the English Parliament (wherein twenty-six seats are reserved for senior bishops) is holding the line.

What got me thinking about this was the recent election of a new Pope to preside over the international community of Roman Catholics – more specifically, a couple of discussions that surfaced in a circle of history buffs I follow online. The first was prompted by someone asking the question: If Benedict XVI was not the most intelligent head of state ever, who was?” Now I have to confess, it’s not a question that would ever have occurred to me – not least because I never really think of high intelligence as being a major requirement for a head of state. Nevertheless, once the question was posed, it got me thinking. Is being highly intelligent compatible with being a Catholic? Is the Pope actually a head of state?

Pope Gregory XII, resigned 1415
Well, probably the second question is the easier of the two, so let’s look at that one first. It seems that international law gives diplomatic recognition to two institutions of the Catholic Church: the Holy See and Vatican City. The latter, I was interested to learn, was actually established as an independent state by an agreement, in 1929, between Pope Pius XI and Italy’s ‘Duce’, Benito Mussolini. According to Wikipedia, “Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and the location of the Pope’s residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace.” If that sounds positively archaic to you, it’s not surprising. A ‘See’ in RC parlance was originally the chair in which a bishop sat, but has come to mean the area over which the seated bishop has episcopal authority. Twelve of these gentlemen are said to derive their authority from an unbroken succession going back to Jesus’s twelve apostles. One of them, The Holy See, claims pre-eminence on the basis of direct descent from St Peter himself, and its official existence seems to date from some time in the 5th century.

Fine and dandy. I have no problem with Roman Catholics adhering to whatever beliefs give them comfort in the long dark teatime of their souls. Only I don’t quite understand why they get to have international recognition of statehood on the basis of their strange beliefs and their Pope’s alliance with a fascist Italian dictator in the 1920s. If Catholics, why not Presbyterians? Which brings me to the question of intelligence – and I suppose you’d have to admit that people who can pull that kind of stunt on the international community must be pretty smart characters.

It’s self-evident that you do need some kind of smarts to get yourself elected or appointed to a leadership role at that level of society. After all, the Roman Church does claim to have 1.2 billion adherents, even if 1,199,999,880 of them don’t actually have any say in choosing the new fella. But as for intelligence, that’s a curly one. IQ (Intelligence Quotient) used to be thought of as a way of measuring human intellectual capacity, but has gone out of favour in recent years. Former world chess champion Bobby Fisher (IQ 187) probably contributed to that as his genius for chess descended into vitriolic diatribes against the United States and the Jewish people. These days most discussions of intelligence recognize nine different types, one of which, linguistic, may be what Benedict XVI had.

The big thing for me is that intelligence can’t exist in a vacuum. It manifests itself in outcomes, and from those we will judge the mental capabilities of the individual. So it seems to me we can look at the ex-Pope’s intelligence in three ways. First, the guy is undoubtedly smart, and, discounting Tony Blair’s miraculous conversion, I reckon it must be pretty tough to be intelligent and to believe all that stuff that Catholics are expected to believe. So full points to the ex-Holy Father for being able to compartmentalize knowledge, if that’s what he did. On the other hand, it may be that early in his academic life, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger decided that he wanted power, and thought the Church was a good career path, so he mouthed the mumbo jumbo in order to get where he wanted to be – another sign of a certain kind of intelligence, for sure. Then there’s the fact that Benedict resigned – the first Pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415. Undoubtedly, for believing Catholics it’s a disappointment, and not at all the done thing – but in the greater scheme of things, we may think Father Joseph finally saw the error of his ways – and being able to admit your mistakes may be a another indicator of intelligence.

That last comment may seem unduly harsh, but take a close look at the history of Roman Catholicism and you’ll see what I mean. Here I want to touch on the second topic being discussed by my online friends, which involved some scholarly debate on the definition of ‘heresy’, and whether it differed from ‘dissent’, in the context of Christianity. In the course of my Euro-centred Christian-oriented education, I learned that the early followers of Jesus were strong-minded innocent souls suffering terribly at the hands of Roman Emperors, who employed various methods, of which feeding to lions was a favourite, to discourage the spread of the new religion. What I didn’t learn until much later was that, once those Roman Emperors, for reasons of their own, which may or may not have had much to do with actual spiritual experience, decided to ‘establish’ Christianity as the state religion, the apparatus of institutional persecution was turned on those who failed to toe the official Christian line.

The process, essentially was this: the emperor and his sacerdotal henchmen gathered together in various ecumenical councils, most of which were held within the territory of the Eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire (in modern Turkey) and formulated a doctrine, or set of articles which would thereafter be required beliefs for ‘orthodox’ Christians. These councils, by the way, were convened 300 years or more after the death of the church’s namesake. The articles of ‘faith’ were designed to include elements which made it relatively easy for adherents of earlier pagan and folk religions to find points of contact with the new official system, while, at the same time, provided a basis for getting rid of troublesome parties who might foster dissent from within. The result was a creed, or creeds, containing ‘truths’ never claimed, as far as I am aware, by Jesus himself, and closing debate on matters that a reasonable human being might consider highly debatable, even irrelevant to the essence of the business.

As an illustration of this, let me include an excerpt from the Athanasian Creed, which came into use in the 6th century, and is apparently still, I understand, subscribed to by mainstream western Christian churches, though, perhaps understandably, no longer much used in everyday worship:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible .  . . . So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”
Says who? you may ask. Well, I have to agree, you need a certain kind of intelligence to get your head around that, or even to want to think about trying. You might also suppose the word ‘incomprehensible’, included five times in that text, and rightly applied to any entity worth worshipping as GOD by an intelligent human being, would let you off the hook – but not so. Those words were carefully and specifically chosen to allow authorities to weed out deviants from the true path. The Wikipedia entry on heresieslists fifty-four distinct ideas that have qualified as such over the years under ‘established’ church law, the most recent of which involved a nonagenarian lady in Canada whose followers believed she was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and were duly excommunicated by the Pope in 2007. Early heresies tended to focus on what Jesus actually was, given the church’s insistence that his mother was a virgin and his father was the Lord God Almighty. Clearly an incomprehensible God would need an equally incomprehensible agent to carry out such worldly activities, hence the Holy Spirit (or Ghost, if you prefer). Then the debate tended to get entwined in arguments over whether Jesus’s body was actually like yours and mine, or made of some less corporeal stuff; whether he had a normal soul like other mortal men; and whether there was some kind of divine substance in there too, setting him apart from the rest of us.

The consequence of all this was the establishment of a state religion with a very strict code of ‘beliefs’, and the expulsion, excommunication and persecution of dissenters from the party line (labeled heretics, which has a more resonant ring to it, the better to justify punitive action). The big winner was the Roman Empire, by this time, centred on the eastern capital of Constantinople, especially after the fall of western Rome to the barbarians in 476 CE. It’s also pretty obvious that most of the early action in the birth and evolution of Christianity took place in eastern lands, with the West a relative latecomer on the scene.

Still, once they got going, Western Christians set about making up for lost time. Early convocations of bishops formulating the creeds of the established church took place in eastern cities, Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus, and you couldn’t really deny their conclusions without getting yourself out on an insecure limb. What you could do, however, was sneak an extra word or two into the text (in Latin so the ordinary Joe wouldn’t notice), then, when the time was right, insist that your version was the correct one, thereby creating a doctrinal split, giving you grounds to excommunicate the other side and set yourself up as the true church. Which is more or less what the Romans did. It’s known in theological circles as the ‘filioque’ controversy, and relates to a word inserted into the 4th century Nicene Creed in Spain some two centuries later. By the 11th century, Western Christendom felt itself strong enough to challenge Constantinople for supremacy, and that word provided doctrinal justification for the Great Schism of 1053.

Not long after, in 1071, Seljuk Turks defeated the Eastern Romans in battle and began serious incursions into territory long-considered part of the European sphere of influence. Pope Urban II’s launching of the First Crusade in 1096, and subsequent Crusading invasions by armies from Western Europe may have been ostensibly aimed at freeing the so-called Holy Lands from the clutches of Muslim unbelievers; but subsequent events suggest that uniting Europe under Papal and Roman Imperial authority played a major part; as did a desire to expropriate and/or plunder wealthy eastern lands and cities; and to demonstrate to Eastern Christians where the real power in Christendom now lay.

Things didn’t work out exactly according to Papal plans, of course. The Holy Roman Empire never really got off the ground. The   Byzantine Empire fell, but to the Ottoman Turks. It was another five centuries, nearly, before those Holy Places returned to Western control, by which time they had been in Muslim hands for most of the previous two thousand years, and continue to cause severe headaches for all concerned.

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church had ‘established’ itself as a dominant player in European power games by the beginning of the second millennium, and the concept of heresy was the major tool in its box of tricks for ensuring compliance. It was obvious to many, even in those days, that the search for temporal power had resulted in an organizational structure that had more interest in matters material than spiritual. For four hundred years before the successful emergence of Protestantism in the 16thcentury, various groups (Catharsand Waldensians in France, for example) were challenging the materialism of the established Roman Church, and being viciously suppressed for their idealism.

The Inquisition was not a peculiarly Spanish invention, but it achieved notoriety during the 15th century as the mechanism whereby the Iberian Peninsula was ‘reclaimed’ for Christendom. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave, and the backsliding converted were ruthlessly hunted out. Some modern Catholic sources suggest that there wasn’t as much burning at stakes as we had been led to believe – but the existence of the threat may have been enough to overcome the reluctance of some; and if not, there were less fatal but nonetheless exemplary methods of persuasion, among which foot-roasting was apparently popular.

An interesting concept I came across recently is something referred to in RC literature as ‘The Black Legend’, which argues that most of that Inquisitorial unpleasantness didn’t actually happen, and that stories about events in Spain and Spanish conquests in Central and South America were concocted and spread by Protestants keen to discredit their religious rivals. To me it sounds rather akin to Holocaust Denial. What was the reason for all those Spanish Jews uprooting themselves from their homeland of centuries and resettling thousands of kilometres away in the Ottoman Empire in the 1490s? Maybe they just felt like a change of scenery?

As we head into another Easter weekend, I find myself wondering again about the strangeness of that central event in the Christian calendar. As far as I can learn, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE determined the date of Easter to be the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox, which is why the holiday moves around from one year to the next (a moveable feast, in technical parlance). But you’d want to ask, why would they do that? If you’re commemorating the date Jesus Christ was crucified, why not go for the actual date, or at least fix a date and run with that? Could it have been that a lot of the local populations were partying up large at spring fertility or seed-planting celebrations and the Jewish Passover at that time of year, and the machinery of state decided to make a virtue of necessity? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and then gradually shift the official emphasis. Makes a lot of sense.

Similar theories have been advanced as origins for the stories of Jesus’s virgin birth at the winter solstice, his crucifixion and resurrection at the spring equinox, and the cult of his mother, Mary. Just down the road from the supposed House of the Virgin Mary near the town of Selçuk in Aegean Turkey are the remains of the classical Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek goddess Artemis is linked to the Phrygian female deity Cybele, and the generic Anatolian mother goddess. Virginity was one of their characteristics, as was, paradoxically, a quality of universal motherhood. Associated with Cybele was a young man, Attis, born to a virgin mother who may or may not have been Cybele. Whatever the case, week-long festivities in their honour were being conducted well into classical times, and may have inspired those early church authorities to add sympathetic embellishments to their own creeds.

Well, who knows? It’s all too long ago for anyone to be able to demonstrate sure proof of what actually went on. What we can say with some certainty is that a good deal of what passes for Christian ‘belief’ was determined by power-hungry gentlemen in days of old with very secular imperial aspirations, and a fair amount of rather nasty coercion was applied to ensure that dissidents were silenced or removed to a safe distance. That’s the reason that ‘disestablishment’ movements have constantly resurfaced over the centuries. In the end, the search for truth starts and ends in your own heart. If the new Pope’s ok with that, then I’m ok with him.