Monday 29 September 2008

Observer: Macca the victim of Zionist plot

Barbara Ellen got all worked up in yesterday's Observer about Paul McCartney's gig in Tel Aviv: 'What on earth was he up to....could only blather pompously about "helping the peace process"...Oh the agonising stupidity and arrogance of the man!'

Ellen obviously has some difficulty understanding why any musician should want to play in Israel. Then, she confesses, a 'dark thought' occurs to her:

Was Tel Aviv just more evidence that McCartney is the most pussy-whipped music icon ever? A former Beatle who lets his birds boss him around and tell him what to do.

Think about it. It was lovely Linda who turned Paul on to vegetarianism. Then there was all that rolling about with seals with Heather. Now he has a Jewish girlfriend, the glamorous Nancy Shevell, he's suddenly playing concerts in Israel and 'finding out for myself what the situation is'.

Just as the Guardian could only explain Barack Obama's support for Israel by portraying him as 'compelled' by the mysterious 'lobby', so Ellen is forced to conclude that McCartney is under the 'dark' influence of a Jewish femme fatale (the gender and racial stereotypes come thick and fast...).

It couldn't be, could it, that the former Beatle was merely exercising the right of a musician from one democratic country to perform in another friendly, democratic country? Or is Ellen aware of some cultural boycott of Israel that I haven't heard of? If so, does it also apply to countries in the region with much worse human rights records, such as Syria, Iran or Egypt, and would she have made such a fuss if McCartney had toured there? 

The Contentious Centrist has linked to this post and elaborates on the dubious stereotypes underlying Ellen's remarks:

This whole swollen carbuncle of a story can only make sense to an antisemitic reader. As anyone with some common sense and moderate knowledge would have to see that Ellen's free associations, which she probably takes to be cute witticisms, tell us more about her own demons than they do about McCartney and Israel.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Palin panic?

Staying with the US election: 

After Sarah Palin's trainwreck of an interview with Katie Couric (hilariously sent up by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, though the real thing was beyond parody), the McCain campaign is reported to be in a panic about Thursday's vice-presidential debate. One theory has it that McCain's proposal to postpone last Friday's presidential debate was actually a ploy to make sure that the Palin-Biden encounter never happens (he cannily  suggested moving the first Obama-McCain meeting to the Thursday VP slot).

Given the damage that a poor performance by Palin could do to McCain's chances, plus the latter's propensity for theatrical gestures when things get desperate (postponing the first day of the Republican convention to fly down to hurricane-threatened New Orleans, announcing the choice of Palin to undermine the impact of Obama's acceptance speech, 'suspending' his campaign to ride to the rescue of the bailout plan), it's a fair bet that the old maverick will stage another distraction before Thursday's showdown.

While acknowledging that I'm only a humble transatlantic observer of the campaign, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the coming week will see one of the following strategies adopted by the McCain campaign:

1. Plant a smear story about Joe Biden, perhaps digging up some long-forgotten dirt from his past, in order to neuter him politically before the debate.

2. Do the same to Obama - maybe going public with some scandal that they've been keeping in reserve for just such a moment - to create a media storm and distract attention from the debate.

3. Announce that Sarah Palin, or one of her children, has been taken ill, necessitating a sudden return to Alaska, and a postponement of the debate.

4. If all else fails, go for the nuclear option and declare that (perhaps because of some version of No.3) Palin is withdrawing her candidacy.

Thanks to the growing chorus of disillusionment with Palin among conservatives who only recently hailed her as an inspired choice, No.4 no longer seems quite so unlikely - despite the enormous risks. As to who would step into Palin's shoes, here's a question: why did Rudy Giuliani accompany McCain to Oxford, Mississippi for the debate, and why did he and not Palin take on the traditional veep role of boosting the candidate's performance in the spin room and on the networks after the debate? It's just a thought - but if anything comes of it, remember that you read it here first.

I didn't think of this one. The (London) Sunday Times has picked up a rumour from inside the McCain camp that Bristol Palin's wedding could take place just before the November election, thus creating a distraction and garnering sympathy for her mother's candidacy. Alternatively - should we look forward to an announcement before this Thursday's debate that Bristol has gone into labour and needs her mother at her side? In this increasingly unpredictable election year, anything is possible.

Presidential debate inspired by 'West Wing'?

In the first US presidential debate on Friday evening, moderator Jim Lehrer struggled to get the two candidates to take advantage of the agreed format, which allowed them to talk to each other directly, rather than having to address all their answers to him.

In yet another example of life imitating art in this campaign, it turns out that the idea to adopt this free-flowing format may have been inspired by The West Wing. According to Lawrence O'Donnell, who was a writer and producer on the show, he tried to persuade Lehrer to chair the fictional debate between Santos and Vinick, but his contract wouldn't allow it. However, both Lehrer and the debates commission were intrigued by the unmediated format of the debate and studied the tapes carefully. 

Of course, in the West Wing version, the decision to throw aside the usual debating rules and address each other directly was taken spontaneously by the candidates, rather than determined in advance. What's more, in the fictional version both Santos and Vinick engaged in lively, respectful debate with each other. In the real life version, one candidate (Obama) respectfully acknowledged his opponent's achievements, while the other (McCain) stubbornly refused to use his rival's name or even to look at him. Obama may have inspired the characterisation of Santos, but despite some superficial similarities, John McCain is no Arnie Vinick.

For a full list of parallels between The West Wing and the current election, see also here, here, here and here.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

The Secular Conscience

Via Butterflies and Wheels I've just discovered Austin Dacey's blog, The Secular Conscience (strapline: 'Conscience first, before God or government'), which I'll be adding to my blogroll. Dacey is a philosopher who works as a UN representative for the Center for Inquiry. 

The blog is currently reporting on Dacey's and the CfI's sterling efforts at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, against moves to outlaw defamation of religion. His book, The Secular Conscience, was published earlier this year.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

David Miliband: man of the peepaw?

Voice coach Luan de Burgh wonders what's happened to David Miliband's voice:

At this year's Labour conference he sounds like Rory Bremner doing Tony Blair. Or, to put it technically, the heir to Blair has abandoned the "dark L". That's not some sinister Labour faction plotting against Gordon Brown but the sound we make when pronouncing words with an "L" towards the end, such as "people".

Listening to a clip from 2002, Miliband is very clear and articulate. Back then, the foreign secretary used all of the consonants. Now, in a speech at the conference and elsewhere, as well as dropping the dark L - so the "L" sound at the end of "people" becomes a "w" sound - he is also dropping "t" from the end of words.

Take "government". In 2002, Miliband pronounced it with three clear syllables and the little "n" - gov-ern-ment. In 2008, Miliband has joined those who replace the "t" on the end with a glotteral stop: it becomes something like "guv-mund".

I don't wish to brag, but you read about it here first. Back in June 2007 I wrote this about Miliband:

There's only one thing I find irritating about him, and that's his habit (copied from his mentor Tony Blair) of affecting an Estuarian tinge to his otherwise copybook RP/Oxbridge accent. This manifests itself most obviously in what we might call 'the nob's glottal stop.' Some years ago, The New Statesman ran a regular feature on 'the nob's pronoun': public figures saying things like 'He told my wife and I' - which were intended to sound extremely correct but were in fact deeply ungrammatical.

The nob's glottal stop has the opposite intention: of making middle-class speakers sound like 'ordinary' folk. So we get hyper-educated politicans like Blair and Miliband talking about the repor' they've just read - all righ'?

De Burgh thinks Miliband is trying too hard to sound like a man of the people (peepaw?) :

These changes are often subconscious but can also be chosen. People often adopt an accent that says, "I'm one of you." I might do it too if a plumber is giving me a quote so they don't assume I'm wealthy. But Miliband risks over-egging the pudding, as you can hear on radio phone-ins such as the Jeremy Vine Show in July, when he said: "We 'ave a role to play."

Of course, trying to sound like members of your audience is a game at which all politicans are adept. During the recent US primary campaign, it was noted that when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traveled to southern states, their accents also tended to drift southward. But in Britain there's a particular class dimension which means that this kind of imitation risks coming across as condescension. As I wrote last year:

I think it irritates me because I find middle-class people pretending to be working-class affected and patronising, and perhaps because (coming from a working-class background) I spent my childhood being told not to speak like that, if I wanted to get on. If I had to try hard to speak proper, why shouldn't they?

Much as I like the man, it's difficult not to concur with Luan de Burgh's closing words of advice to Miliband: he should be himself - not another Tony Blair.

What would Bartlet do?

A fictional president gives Barack Obama some advice:

GET ANGRIER! Call them liars, because that’s what they are. Sarah Palin didn’t say “thanks but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere. She just said “Thanks.” You were raised by a single mother on food stamps — where does a guy with eight houses who was legacied into Annapolis get off calling you an elitist? And by the way, if you do nothing else, take that word back. Elite is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence. While you’re at it, I want the word “patriot” back. McCain can say that the transcendent issue of our time is the spread of Islamic fanaticism or he can choose a running mate who doesn’t know the Bush doctrine from the Monroe Doctrine, but he can’t do both at the same time and call it patriotic. They have to lie — the truth isn’t their friend right now. Get angry. Mock them mercilessly; they’ve earned it. McCain decried agents of intolerance, then chose a running mate who had to ask if she was allowed to ban books from a public library. It’s not bad enough she thinks the planet Earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago complete with a man, a woman and a talking snake, she wants schools to teach the rest of our kids to deny geology, anthropology, archaeology and common sense too? It’s not bad enough she’s forcing her own daughter into a loveless marriage to a teenage hood, she wants the rest of us to guide our daughters in that direction too? It’s not enough that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose, it should be the law of the land that she has to carry and deliver her rapist’s baby too? I don’t know whether or not Governor Palin has the tenacity of a pit bull, but I know for sure she’s got the qualifications of one. And you’re worried about seeming angry? You could eat their lunch, make them cry and tell their mamas about it and God himself would call it restrained. There are times when you are simply required to be impolite. There are times when condescension is called for!

You can read the whole Bartlet-Obama interview (via the pen of Aaron Sorkin) here.

A couple more eerie parallels between the Obama-McCain race and the fictional battle between Matt Santos and Arnie Vinick:

In the TV version, the maverick moderate Republican Vinick (sound familiar?) comes under pressure to name a populist rightwinger as his VP, to placate the conservative Christian base.

And the plans of both candidates are threatened, just before the election, by the incumbent president's decision to embark on an expensive foreign war. Vinick: 'There goes my tax cut'. Santos: 'There goes my education plan' (or words to that effect). You can imagine McCain and Obama having to make similar accommodations in the light of Bush's financial bailout.

Thursday 18 September 2008

In praise of...Michael Tomasky

I'm reading Hillary's Turn, Michael Tomasky's account of Mrs. C's campaign for the Senate in 2000. It's a real page-turner, on a par with Bob Woodward's classic The Choice about the 1996 Clinton-Dole race. Even if (like me) you're not a Hillary fan, Tomasky's book offers some fascinating insights into the senatorial election process and some interesting background on the history of New York politics. 

For those who followed the protracted Clinton-Obama struggle earlier this year, there are also some intriguing parallels. It's not just that many of the main players in Clinton's primary campaign - Penn, Wolfson, Ickes et al - cut their teeth in the Senate race (though Hillary was also helped in 2000 by David Axelrod, now Obama's campaign mastermind). Part of the fascination also lies in seeing how the recent campaign inherited many of the faults of the first one. Hillary's 2000 bid was dogged by the same in-fighting among campaign staff, the same problem of what to do about Bill (then, as now, more of a hindrance than a help to his wife's chances), and the same issue of how to get a rather stiff and earnest candidate to come across as warm and empathetic. But Tomasky's book also shows the growth of a candidate, and it's clear that the Hillary who ran for president in 2008 was a smarter and sassier politician than the ingenue who took her first nervous steps in New York in 2000.

One of the most surprising revelations of the book, in retrospect, is that the demographic group whom Hillary had most trouble winning over was white women - precisely the section of the population that in 2008 comprised her most devoted supporters. It's difficult to recall now just how suspicious both middle and working class women were of the then first lady back in the late '90s.

Reading the book has made me want to seek out other work by Tomasky. I was aware before of his articles in the New York Review of Books, and of his excellent coverage of the presidential election for the Guardian. I wasn't aware, though, that he has a reputation as a liberal interventionist. He's written about the problems of the American Left and contributed a chapter to The Fight is for Democracy, edited by George Packer, which I've just got hold of. All credit to the Guardian for appointing someone with Tomasky's views to the editorship of Guardian America, rather than some US proponent of the paper's Milne-Pilger-Steele orthodoxy.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Don't worry be happy

There was a terrific article by Darian Leader in the Guardian the other day, about the current vogue for the 'quick fix' of cognitive behavioural therapy. Leader argues that CBT is based on a view of the personality as 'a set of skills that we can learn and modify' and he draws parallels with the promises of transformation held out by reality TV:

CBT promises change just as swiftly. Unwanted character traits or symptoms are no longer seen as a clue to some inner truth, but simply as disturbances to our ideal image that can be excised. Instead of seeing a bout of depression or an anxiety attack as a sign of unconscious processes that need to be carefully elicited and voiced, they become aspects of behaviour to be removed.

The market has triumphed here, as our inner worlds become a space for buying and selling. We pay experts such as life coaches to teach us how to change in the desired way. Aspects of ourselves, such as shyness or confidence, become commodities that we can pay to lose or amplify.

Leader bemoans the popularity of CBT with government agencies and is critical of Lord Layard, the so-called 'happiness tsar', for persuading ministers to divert resources from more traditional therapies based on rather more complex views of the human psyche. He compares this development with government plans to regulate mediums and spiritualists:

It will not longer be up to us to believe in them or not, but a higher power will tell us who is legitimate and who is not. Just as a new rhetoric of 'science' tells us  that CBT is the best treatment, so it will arbitrate the 'other side'.

If you've been longing for a comprehensive riposte to 'positive' psychology and the government-backed 'happiness' industry, you can read the whole thing here.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Bunting and Odone on faith schools

After last week's launch of a new campaign to outlaw educational segregation by faith and its vigorous welcome by Polly Toynbee, her Guardian colleague Madeleine Bunting responded yesterday with a lengthy defence of the 'strong ethos' provided by religious schools. Bunting's article was more even-handed and considered than many of her past outpourings, though it was shot through with her usual disillusionment with the modern world, as she bemoaned the 'desperate dearth of alternative narratives of transformation' in contemporary secular society.

Bunting's advocacy of faith schools clearly wasn't full-throated enough for her fellow liberal-Catholic-turned-Islamophile Cristina Odone, whose letter in today's paper contends that Bunting 'overlooks the impact these schools have on the Muslim community and in particular on Muslim girls'. Drawing on research appearing to show that state-sponsored faith schools 'increase the chances that low-income Muslim parents keep their daughters in schools', Odone argues that the alternative is parents withdrawing girls 'once they reach puberty, from what they regard as the dangerous playground culture of sex and violence found in secular state schools'. 

This is the kind of argument that looks conclusive on a first reading, but on reflection demands some serious unpacking. You'd need to look at the original research report to confirm whether these are the reasons that Muslim parents are actually giving for taking their teenage daughters out of school (rather than Odone's colourful interpretation of them). And even if this is the case, you'd need to ask whether their stated reasons correspond to their real reasons, or act as a convenient cover for them. Isn't it possible that there are other reasons (the kind you wouldn't necessarily share with a researcher), such as a belief in the segregation of the sexes at puberty, or a cultural prejudice against providing equal educational opportunities for girls? And if so, should the state bow to those beliefs and prejudices by funding religiously segregated schooling? Moreover, shouldn't the state both challenge misinformed generalisations about a 'dangerous playground culture' in state schools, and at the same time work to transform that culture so as to make it welcoming to all cultural groups, rather than simply giving in and accepting their self-exclusion?

Odone goes on to suggest that 'for young people who cherish Islam, the secular culture they experience in state schools can prove profoundly alienating.' But like it or not, it's a secular culture (meaning plural, multi-faith, open to a range of ideas) that we live in, and school is a key site for learning to flourish within it. And the roots of alienation may lie as much in the attitudes to secular society being inculcated at home or mosque as in the experience of school. Being schooled only with people from your own faith will surely increase rather than overcome that sense of alienation. 


Following on from these posts: Adam LeBor reports on the odd last-minute decision by the London Review of Books not to publish a review article about King Hussein of Jordan by Bernard Avishai. According to Adam, Avishai's account of the king's support for a moderate, Western-leaning Palestinian state didn't 'fall within the current London literati bien-pensant view of Israel'.

Writing about the affair on his blog, Bernard Avishai describes how he 'jumped at the chance' to present a more complex view of the Israel-Palestine situation to British readers. On the Wednesday before the Friday of publication, Avishai was asked to finalise his bio. Then:

The next communication I received was from Mary Kay Wilmers, the editor-in-chief, a letter of apology with a cheque and the claim that the piece 'does not work - or at least not for us'. No explanation, no request for revisions. The article that replaced mine, I soon learned, was a last minute report about how Israeli were shooting up Gaza.

Those who have followed the LRB's metamorphosis into the literary house-journal of the anti-American, anti-Israel left won't be surprised - and will know how to decode that 'not for us'. And it seems Wilmers has form in censoring articles that don't follow the magazine's party line. Avishai links to a 2002 Telegraph article which describes her spiking of a piece by David Marquand that had the temerity to commend Tony Blair's response to the September 11 attacks. In her email to Marquand, Wilmers wrote: 'I can't square it with my conscience to praise so wholeheartedy Blair's conduct since September 11'. She had no qualms, though, about publishing Mary Beard's infamous suggestion that America 'had it coming'.

I know it will hardly have the magazine's editors quaking in their boots, but my subscription now hangs by a very slender thread.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Wrongs and rights

Julian Baggini makes a useful point with regard to Terence Koh's 'blasphemous' statue. He argues that saying we have a right to offend doesn't mean that we are right to offend. This distinction can get lost in the heat of debates about religious offence, though more often than not it works the other way round. In the case of the Danish cartoons, those who took offence, and their supporters in the media, frequently muddled up a moral judgement that publishing the pictures was unwise and gratuitous, with declarations that it should be prohibited by law. So the reverse of Baggini's dictum is also true: saying that someone is foolish, rude or unkind to cause offence to a particular group doesn't mean that they shouldn't have the legal right to do so.

I'm less comfortable with another of Baggini's points. He argues that 'you just can't ignore the background against which lampooning takes place'. He goes on:

Christians, for example, are not oppressed, despite what some wannabe martyrs would have us believe. British Muslims, in contrast, are a somewhat beleaguered minority. We should think twice before mocking them because, while comedy speaking truth to power is funny, the powerful laughing at the weak is not.

I agree with his first sentence, but not with the second, if only because everything he says about Christians could be applied equally to Muslims. Recent events have taught us that there are as many (if not more) 'wannabe martyrs' (both literal and metaphorical) among Muslims as there are among Christians. I notice that Baggini refrains from describing British Muslims as 'oppressed', perhaps fearing that this wouldn't quite wash, but I think even the weaker word 'beleaguered' is questionable. Muslims enjoy complete freedom of religion and expression in Britain (unlike the truly beleaguered religious minorities in some majority-Muslim countries). And despite the part played by political Islam in recent terrorist atrocities, no restrictions have been placed on the practice of their faith and there have been remarkably few attacks on Muslims because of their beliefs. If some people of Muslim heritage are economically or otherwise disadvantaged in Britain, this has more to do with social class and with racial rather than religious discrimination. 

Moreover, who gets to decide which (religious) groups are 'weak' or 'beleaguered' ?Fundamentalist Christians might argue that, in an increasingly secular and sceptical society, these adjectives also apply to them. Jehovah's Witnesses are a minority group with very little social power: does this mean that their beliefs should be off-limits for artists and humorists? Surely it's possible to lampoon the ideas without attacking the people who believe in them?

Norm adds a further point:

By his choice of example Julian makes life too easy for himself. Mockery of the weak is an egregious practice of course. But what if someone makes a criticism of Islam - or any religion - in perfectly measured terms and some take offence, perceiving this criticism as mockery? What if the satirical treatment of a sacred figure in a work of fiction arouses anger, pleas for censorship, death threats? What if it is disputed between difference parties whether certain images or statements are offensive or not? In such cases, the right to say what you think - within the usual limits concerning incitement to violence and defamation - trumps what any of us might believe is the right way to behave.

Lawson loses his compass

Heaven knows Labour is in trouble, but God help the party if it takes Neal Lawson's advice. When it was first launched, I thought Compass was worth supporting, as it seemed to advocate building on the best of New Labour's achievements, while being critical of some of its policies and looking for new directions for the party in the changed circumstances of a new century. But after listening to Lawson on this morning's Today programme, it seems that the organisation is now advocating a return to the failed 'old left' platform of the '80s and early '90s. 

In the course of a brief interview, Lawson repeated a couple of hoary, revisionist myths. Firstly, that New Labour only gained and retained power for so long because the Tory party had become deeply unpopular (this argument is a close relation to the equally false 'John Smith would have won anyway' myth). So why couldn't Neil Kinnock and John Smith break through in the early '90s, when disillusionment with the Tories was at its height? It was only because Blair and those around him modernised the party, revitalised its programme and convinced a hitherto sceptical population that Labour could be trusted, that the landslide victory of '97 was possible. Lawson's second revisionist myth was that Blairism was merely a continuation of Thatcherism in a different guise. Hmm: I can just see Maggie introducing the minimum wage, pouring millions into the NHS, devolving power to Scotland and Wales, and massively expanding early years care for children. Finally, Lawson seemed to hint that old-fashioned centralist planning offered the solution to the country's woes.

It's possible to be critical of some aspects of New Labour's record - PFI and the academies programme are among the sticking-points for me - without comprehensively trashing the achievements of the last 10 years, or believing that what the country really needs is a return to the Bennite true religion. That kind of programme would be even less popular today with a majority of the British people than it was fifteen years ago. Rather, Labour needs to build on the best of its achievements in power, at the same time developing a forward-thinking, twenty-first century programme. Step forward David Miliband.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Scotland, sectarianism and faith schools

The autumn issue of Democratiya is now out. Among the many articles worth reading is this worrying piece by Tom Gallagher, on the growing links between Nationalism and Islamism in Scotland. According to Gallagher, Alex Salmond's SNP is actively encouraging ethnic and religious communalism in the hope of garnering Catholic and Muslim votes. (Incidentally, Gallagher's analysis of the reasons for Labour's decline in Scotland is similar to James Macmillan's, as reported in this post.)

Apparently the SNP 'have mobilised not just autocratic Catholic prelates but radical Islamic politicians in the hope that by offering them group rights they will deliver an ethnic block vote to the party. This raises the spectre, in some eyes, that in a Scotland fully under SNP control, individual citizenship will count for little and the party will rule through a large bureaucracy which franchises control of education, policy, and other policy areas to mobilised factions inside and outside ethnic minorities'.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Nationalists' backing for state-financed Muslim schools and their support for the Scottish Islamic Foundation, whose chief executive Omar Saeed manages to square membership of the SNP with calls for the restoration of the caliphate. Amanullah de Sondy, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Glasgow University, believes that such schools will 'leave young Muslims vulnerable to extremist pressures', while Gallagher is concerned that 'there are no strong voices pointing out that young people could be pushed towards introspection and even religious militancy through the insistence that Muslims combine a Scottish allegiance with an active search for their religious roots'.

Coincidentally, today also sees the launch of Accord, a new campaign that opposes the educational segregation of children by faith. The campaign is supported by a diverse coalition of humanists and liberal religious groups, and is warmly welcomed by Polly Toynbee in an article in today's Guardian:

Accord wants faith schools to abide by the same admissions criteria as other state schools, with no selection by belief. Teachers should be employed for their skills, not their faith. It opposes Labour's new rules for faith schools, which came into law yesterday, allowing them to keep all jobs for the faithful. Teaching assistants, dinner ladies and caretakers may need to get on their knees to keep their jobs from now on.

But the National Secular Society doesn't think the campaign goes far enough.

Monday 1 September 2008

Queasy like Sunday morning

I know it's a familiar and weary theme of this blog - launched with my very first post - but it's still a huge let-down when public figures you've admired give voice to arrant nonsense, particularly when it's of the infantile-leftist kind. Yesterday my Sunday morning reverie was disturbed by two irritating examples, both of them on Radio 4's Broadcasting House

First up was Middle East correspondent Hugh Sykes, who has one of those warm, reassuring BBC voices that make you want to believe every word he tells you. He was visiting Tehran for the first time in a number of years, and though his report wasn't quite in the Michael Moore happy-children-flying-kites category, it came pretty damn close. After a colourful tour of the markets and cafes, and some words of praise for the metro system, but barely a mention of the oppressive nature of the Iranian regime, Sykes paid a visit to the building that used to house the US embassy, which he described as being covered with anti-American and anti-western slogans. Cue explanation of why they hate us so much, going back to the overthrow of Mossadeq in the Fifties. The final sentence of his report went something like 'There's a word for this: blowback'. Now I'm no admirer of the CIA's past antics, but to see something that happened 50 years ago as (to borrow the tendentious sub-title of Stephen Kinzer's book on the coup) 'the roots of Middle East terror' is to overlook the part played by fanatical Khomeinism in fomenting Iranians' rejection of the west and secular modernity. There's a word for this, Hugh: ideology. I shall be more cautious as I listen to Sykes' future reports: apparently, he has form.

Even worse was the contribution of Paul Heaton, of Housemartins and Beautiful South fame, to the same programme's review of the papers. Prompted by presenter Paddy O'Connell to add something to a discussion about the bravery of British troops and their neglect by the government on their return home, Heaton said it was difficult to admire soldiers who had fought in an unjust war, and we shouldn't forget that fighters for the Iraqi resistance, and even IRA terrorists, could also be seen as 'brave'. I always thought Heaton's radical lyrics were a little simplistic, but this disgusting example of moral equivalence was difficult to dismiss as merely naive.

Obama serious, presidential - McCain cynical, irresponsible

Since the primaries ended, the US election campaign had been at risk of becoming boring, but the past week has put paid to that. Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden as a running mate, followed by the drama of Denver, set the Democratic campaign back on track after a poor summer. Michelle Obama's great speech will surely put a stop to those ridiculous stories about the couple's 'elitism' (this from John 'Remind-me-how-many-houses-I-own' McCain) and their patriotism (I loved Jon Stewart's comment: Democrats always have to prove their patriotism, while everyone knows Republicans love America - they just hate half the people who live there). Hillary gave a barnstorming, generically pro-Democratic, anti-McCain speech which ticked all the boxes but ungraciously couldn't find a single word of praise for the candidate. Bill did better, finally conceding that Obama was 'ready' (which was good of him), but I thought the most forceful contributions of the week came from Biden and Kerry. As for the grand finale, thank goodness it didn't come across as the presumptious hubris I'd feared. I worried at first that Obama's rhetoric didn't quite rise to the occasion, but watching sections of the speech in the endless replays since, I've been increasingly impressed - it was serious, detailed, presidential. 

Of course, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate immediately blew the Democrats off the front pages and out of the headlines - as it was intended to do. Was it a brilliant, maverick move, or a massive blunder? As an Obama supporter, I'm hoping it turns out to be the latter. But, even more, as someone who wishes America well, my main reaction is that McCain's choice is an irresponsible and dangerous gesture. For an ageing candidate, not in the best of health, to choose a running mate with no experience of national politics and little interest in international affairs, at a time when the nation is at war, smacks of putting partisan politics before the national interest. 'Country first'? You must be joking. McCain's 'judgement' in foreign affairs was surely the only reason why some on the anti-totalitarian left were tempted to support him. But this decision, coming after Obama's selection of Biden, surely neutralises that argument. 

Now Hurricane Gustav is threatening to disrupt the Republican convention. Already Bush and Cheney have withdrawn, presumably to the huge relief of the McCain campaign. We wait to see whether McCain and Palin's journey to the disaster zone (Obama has chosen not to visit, for fear he might get in the way of the evacuation effort) provides a chance for them to demonstrate leadership, or further evidence of a tendency to play cynical partisan politics at a time of national crisis.