France's Grudge Match with Qaddafi (FrumForum March 2011)

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Many commentators seem surprised by France’s enthusiastic leadership of the intervention in Libya.  They should not be.  It arguably makes perfect sense that the French, so rigidly opposed to the overthrow of Saddam, and so reluctant to do any real fighting in Afghanistan, should be champing at the bit to send bombers to Benghazi and Qaddafi packing.

It is not simply a matter of Sarkozy opportunistically jumping into the hegemonic gap left by a feeble, ideologically torn American president. And it hardly needs to be said that it may have little to do with principle, or an urge to defend an oppressed people against a brutal tyrant.

But then France’s criteria for taking military action abroad, with or without UN approval, tend to be radically different to those of their fellow Western countries, with pride, prestige and cultural issues playing as important a role as economic self-interest or self-defense.

For instance, in the 1990s France supported the Hutu government in Rwanda and then sent troops to protect the fleeing Hutu Genocidaires, because it saw that regime as a French-speaking bulwark against the Anglophony of the invading Tutsi RPF.

When these odd – to British and American understanding – criteria are not at stake, French participation in allied interventions tends to be notably ineffective or even counter-productive, as in Afghanistan, or in Bosnia, where French officers actually warned Serb paramilitary forces of imminent NATO air strikes.

France’s conspicuous role in pushing for the current intervention in Libya no doubt had many motives, some of them conceivably quite altruistic, others less so. But two of the latter probably have much to do France’s ongoing quasi-imperial role in North Africa, and a Gallic hunger for vengeance  – the latter being a phenomenon that seems particularly hard for contemporary Anglo-Saxons to appreciate.

Put simply, France is finally taking revenge for the Libyan terrorist bomb that brought down UTA Flight 722 in 1989 – long forgotten everywhere but Paris – and for Muammar Qaddafi’s repeated military attempts to establish Libyan control over Chad and other French-speaking neighbors.

Even before the current crisis, a measure of Paris’ ongoing hostility to Qaddafi was the fact that France, normally so quick to befriend the most ruthless and murderous third world dictators, especially those with oil wells, surprised its Western allies when it opposed loosening sanctions on Libya in 2003.

To understand why French air force bombers tore into a column of Libyan army vehicles on Friday, it helps to know where some of those jets are based. It was not the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, but the dusty, sunbaked base in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. The landlocked country that sits south of Libya and smack in the middle of the continent became a French colony in 1920. Though it theoretically achieved independence in 1960, if you go to Chad, there is little to indicate that it is no longer an imperial possession.

At the swimming pool of the Novotel, shaven headed Foreign Legionnaires flirt with the wives of French officials. The currency is the French-African franc, excellent croissants may be bought all over the capital, there is a daily flight from Paris. The French embassy is like a fortress, and still the largest establishment in the country. Every morning and every evening the Mirages roar off from the airport to remind the natives who is really in charge here.

Since uranium and oil were discovered here, the French have become even more reluctant to leave, as the former dictator Hissene Habre discovered to his cost. He made the mistake of entertaining overtures from American oil companies. As a result, when the inevitable coup attempt came, with one of his former generals Idriss Deby leading a column of pick-up trucks from across the border in Sudan’s Darfur province, the French ensured his defeat.

I heard the story of what happened from a former soldier in Habre’s army, while we were driving by a long line of wrecked and rusting armored vehicles.  He described how he had been in a column of (French supplied) tanks and armored personnel carriers heading to meet Deby’s rebels. A French Army helicopter landed in front of the column and an officer told the Chadian general in charge that a ceasefire had been signed and that the force should return to the capital. As the column turned back in the direction it had come, more French helicopters appeared. And opened fire. With his armor thus shattered Habre was finished, and Deby took power. He too has faced rebel invasions speeding towards the capital, but so far the French have used their Mirages to give him early warning of their arrival.

For more than two decades the biggest threat to French dominance of Chad – and other Francophone countries in Central and West Africa has come from Libya. Qaddafi’s forces have battled those of Chad four times since 1978. During the first three invasions, in 1978, 1979 and the winter of 1980-81, the Libyans allied with local rebel forces, supporting their infantry with armored vehicles, artillery and air support. The third invasion resulted in the de facto partition of Chad in 1983 with Libyan forces controlling the country’s northern half, above the 16th parallel.

Fighting broke out again in 1986. But this time, in what was called the Toyota War a French-backed and equipped Chadian army was able to check the 300 tanks and Soviet-supplied helicopters of Libya’s expeditionary force.  Stunned by the reverse, Qaddafi sent his elite Revolutionary Guard into action and dispatched bombers into the south of Chad. The French responded with air strikes on Libyan airbases and Chad’s army proceeded to smash the Libyan force, eventually crossing into Libya itself. The French forced a ceasefire on their Chadian clients — who were also receiving American intelligence and advice — before they could launch their own invasion of Libya proper. By then Libya lost almost a tenth of its army, with some 7,500 troops killed, and Chad’s President Hissene Habre found himself in control of the long disputed, uranium rich Aouzou strip between the two countries.

In an act of revenge similar to the Pan Am 103 bombing over Libya, Qaddafi’s secret service apparently arranged the bombing of UTA flight 772 which was scheduled to fly to Paris from Brazzaville via Ndjamena on September 19, 1989. It blew up over Niger, forty-five minutes after leaving Ndjamena, killing all 115 passengers.

A French investigation found evidence of Libyan involvement and a French court later convicted in absentia six Libyan agents, including Qaddafi’s brother-in-law and deputy head of intelligence, Abdullah Senussi. Qaddafi of course refused to extradite them to France. Their getting away with mass murder has rankled the French state ever since.

Though it is twenty-one years since that act of lese majeste and mass murder, revenge must indeed be sweet. And the French can also enjoy the rare satisfaction of knowing that unlike the British they did not betray themselves or the victims of a blown-up airliner by the kind of deal with Qaddafi that saw Abdelhasset Megrahi released.


Taking the Private Jet to Copenhagen (Sunday Times Mag 29 Nov 2009)

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Any celebrity flying the green flag needs glittering eco-credentials. But how do they justify the fleet of customised planes, the luxury homes and the posse of servants

Hypocrisy is the vice we find hardest to forgive, but it’s also the one we most enjoy discovering in others. And nothing piques our interest more than eco-hypocrisy as practised by the “green” celebrities who have been spouting green virtue but spewing out hundreds of tons of carbon from their private jets or multiple holiday homes around the globe.

There was Sheryl Crow, who had called upon the public to refrain from using more than one square of toilet paper per visit (“except on those pesky occasions when two or three are required”) and who was leading a Stop Global Warming concert tour across America. It was revealed that while Crow travelled in a biodiesel tour bus, her 30-person entourage followed in a fleet of 13 gas-guzzling vehicles.

John Travolta notoriously encouraged the British public to do its bit to fight global warming – after flying into London on one of his five, yes, five private jets (one of which is a Boeing 707). In 2006 his piloting hobby produced an estimated 800 tons of carbon emissions, more than a hundred times the output of the average Briton, according to the Carbon Trust.

It is less well known that Tom Cruise – who has campaigned for the LA-based environmental group Earth Communications Office – also has an air fleet and a licence to pilot his five planes, including a top-of-the-line customised Gulfstream jet he bought for his wife, Katie Holmes.

Harrison Ford, who is vice-chairman on the board of Conservation International, voices public-service messages for an environmental federation called EarthShare, and once shaved his chest hair to illustrate the effects of deforestation, is another hobby pilot. He once owned a Gulfstream but now makes do with a smaller Cessna Citation Sovereign eight-seater jet, four propeller planes and a helicopter.

Oprah Winfrey, who preaches eco-virtue from her TV pulpit, travelled in a 13-seat Gulfstream IV private jet for years – the preferred model for celebrities and the super-rich. (She has replaced it with a faster Bombardier Global Express.) The public first became aware of her private-jet habit when her plane had to make a forced landing in California in 2005; it was reminded of it this year after one of her stewardesses was fired for allegedly having sex with the pilot while Oprah and other passengers were asleep.

Jennifer Aniston told reporters that to save the Earth’s precious water resources she brushes her teeth while in the shower. But she also flew a hairdresser to Europe to accompany her on a recent publicity tour for the film Marley & Me.

Perhaps more egregious, because she is a much more in-your-face global-warming campaigner, is Dame Trudie Styler, film financier and wife of Sting. Not only do she and her husband run seven homes and travel between them in private jets and a fleet of cars, but in 2007 an employment tribunal revealed Styler was furious when her pregnant chef refused to travel 100 miles to prepare some soup and salad. (The chef had regularly made the trip in the past, travelling by train and taxi.) And Sting recently had to contend with accusations that the Police were “the dirtiest band in the world” because of the scale of their last tour and the carbon footprint of the fans who went to see them.

This spring Styler was accused of hiring a private jet to take her and an eight-person entourage from New York to Washington, DC, for the White House correspondents’ dinner, even though there are dozens of scheduled shuttle flights she could have taken, not to mention fast trains. Strangely, Sting flew commercial to the same dinner. When challenged, Styler reportedly defended herself by saying: “Yes, I do take planes. My life is to travel and to speak out about the horrors of an environment that is being abused at the hands of oil companies.”

U2’s latest world tour features three stages and a giant claw that ensures as many spectators as possible get a decent view. Alas, transporting the whole shebang around the world is estimated by to produce the carbon equivalent of the annual emissions of 6,500 British homes – or a rocket trip to Mars and back.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin has been fingered as one of music’s biggest eco-hypocrites. George Monbiot, a writer and environmental campaigner, noted on his blog that Martin flew thousands of miles on his private jet, including brief trips between LA and nearby Palm Springs. Monbiot calculated that Martin’s trips back and forth to see his family produced 250 times the carbon emissions of an average Briton.

Monbiot also cited an interview Martin gave in which he discussed his angry global-warming song, then boasted about his family’s profligate private jet use, saying of his daughter: “As she gets older, hopefully she’ll come and see us when she wants. I always thought it’d be cool to be in school and say, ‘I’m not coming in today – I’m off to Costa Rica to see my dad play.’ I do think that wins you a few points.” Martin replied to criticism by pointing out that he paid for the planting of mango trees to offset the carbon emissions of his tours and flights home.

There are endless other examples of hypocrisy by green politicos. David Cameron was once photographed virtuously riding his bike to the House of Commons, with his official car behind him, carrying his suit and briefcase. Ken Livingstone, who swore he would make London the world’s greenest city when he was mayor, made scores of arguably unnecessary flights to foreign destinations. The supposedly green Barack Obama had a St Louis chef flown 850 miles just to make pizza at the White House.

At the end of the film An Inconvenient Truth, the unbearably earnest former presidential candidate Al Gore asked his audience: “Are you ready to change the way you live?” His own huge Nashville mansion consumed over 20 times the electricity of an average American home. Indeed, according to the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, it burnt twice as much power in the month of August 2006 than most American homes do in an entire year. Another inconvenient truth revealed that the former senator spent $500 a month just to heat the indoor swimming pool in his lavish domestic establishment. The 100ft houseboat he bought in 2008, on the other hand, was said to be powered by biodiesel.

Gore gave the usual response of the green celebrity caught not practising what they preach. He said he made up for his consumption of electricity and production of carbon dioxide by buying carbon offsets – some from his own offset company.

SUVs and four-wheel-drive cars are another eco-sin green celebs find hard to resist. Those who have harangued the public against driving these wicked vehicles – but who turn out to have recently owned at least one themselves – include Barbra Streisand, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz.

Of course, the SUV is often parked next to a virtuous Toyota Prius hybrid electric car, but the former doesn’t exactly cancel out the latter. However, as one Hollywood agent told me, the real reason so many people in Tinseltown drive a Prius is because “it’s the only car you can drive which costs under $35,000 which doesn’t make everyone think that your career has gone down the toilet”.

It was just as green activists began worrying about eco-fatigue – the green equivalent of compassion fatigue – two years ago that the first wave of celebrity eco-hypocrisy stories hit. The first thing these stories did was make us feel better about our own relatively minor eco-failings. They also allowed us to vent the irritation we feel about being lectured by actors, rock stars and lesser species of celebrity.

There is something annoying about the way “ordinary” people are being told they must give up their “addiction” to cheap travel, when no leading Hollywood star – not even Leonardo DiCaprio, who often flies commercial – can bring themselves to relinquish the private jet.

Yet there is something absurd about criticising celebrity eco-hypocrites. People who become film stars and rock gods usually do so because they want to join the jet set, and the jet-set life is inherently wasteful. It’s the profligacy that makes it fun and gives it its status. They are unable to give up their private jets because celebrity status is connected to travelling in the most exclusive way possible. Hence, just about all the things celebrities do to get away from “civilians” are unsustainable in green terms.

There are notable exceptions to the rule of green-celebrity hypocrisy. Ed Begley Jr from St Elsewhere and Best in Show became a vegan in 1970, bought one of the first electric cars, and has lived for years in a self-sufficient house that uses not just solar and wind energy but a toaster powered by a stationary bicycle. And unlike so many green celebrities, Begley Jr has a sense of humour about his crusade: on an episode of The Simpsons in which he plays himself, he is shown driving a vehicle powered entirely “by my own sense of self-satisfaction”.

The famous neo-hippie Woody Harrelson lives in a sustainable community in Hawaii, grows most of his food, uses only solar power, wears hemp clothes, eschews animal products, and fuels his car with biodiesel. Brad Pitt has done more than tell other people how to change the planet. His charity Make It Right New Orleans has built 13 ultra-energy-efficient greenhouses in an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The Copenhagen summit next week will generate vast quantities of hot air. It will see 16,500 people coming in from 192 countries. That amounts to 41,000 tons of carbon dioxide, roughly the same as the carbon emissions of Morocco in 2006. Also, the organisers will lay 900 kilometres of computer cable and 50,000 square metres of carpet. More than 200,000 meals will be served and visitors will drink 200,000 cups of coffee – at least that will be organic.

When asked if the carbon footprint might have been reduced by turning Copenhagen into a video conference, a spokesman for the event said: “For such a major agreement, people need to meet together and negotiate face to face. We have delegates from all over the world. Video-conferencing systems are extremely useful, but they don’t match the personal touch. This is one of the main factors in having a good conference.”

Some of the charges laid against celebrities who are allegedly hypocritical about their green commitments are either unfair or don’t really stand up when examined closely. In 2008, Sting took a lot of flak when a US watchdog organisation, Charity Navigator, rated his Rainforest Foundation as one of New York’s worst charities. This was because only 41% of almost $2.2m raised at a Rainforest Foundation concert made its way to projects on the ground.

But while many leading charities spend at least 75% of their income on projects rather than fundraising and salaries, it is normal for charity concerts and balls to cost almost as much as they raise. Many of the better-known mega-charities spend a shockingly large amount of what they get from the public on fundraising, image advertising and swanky offices, but are not subject to the same scrutiny as organisations set up by a superstar.

It is also worth looking at the agenda of the green critics who slam celebrities for their eco-hypocrisy. They believe anything short of the immediate adoption of a pre-industrial way of life akin to that of peasant villages in the Middle Ages is a sellout. For them, Sting’s Rainforest Foundation is unforgivably capitalist.

Perhaps it is better that public figures say the right thing, even if they are not doing it themselves. Does it really matter that much that those who ask us to behave better are imperfect in their own behaviour? You could argue that if Trudie Styler believes that GM food, which she fiercely campaigns about, is a bigger threat than global warming, she is entitled to do so, and to fly her organic non-GM products from her Tuscan estate to the counters of Selfridges.

After all, it seems fairly clear that celebrity advocacy of green lifestyles does actually work, at least in the sense that it has made green concerns extremely fashionable.

Some of the nastiest accusations of hypocrisy have been thrown at the Prince of Wales. The “Green Prince” has been mocked for, among other alleged crimes, chartering a plane to South America to raise eco-awareness. Prince Charles’s spokespeople responded saying it would have been impossible to make 48 appointments across three countries in 10 days by regularly scheduled flights.

Unlike the common run of “green celebrities”, at least the Prince of Wales publishes annually an exhaustive green audit of all his homes and activities. Its content includes the paper usage of his household, the fact that his thirsty Aston Martin runs on bio-ethanol from wine wastage, and that his emissions for non-official travel are less than half of what they were two years ago.

If film stars and rock stars followed his lead by publishing their own eco-audits, the public might be more likely to listen to their exhortations.


How Hollywood Finds Its Causes - Sunday Times (Oct. 04, 2009)

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Meet the discreet power brokers of the talent agencies who match influential charities with guilt-ridden celebrities

The headquarters of the United Talent Agency is in a gleaming white building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Inside, it looks and feels surprisingly like a corporate law firm. The men pacing around the glass-walled offices wear crisp white shirts and sober ties, a silvery telephone headset attached to one ear; the women could be East Coast attorneys except for their prominent décolletages. Everyone is in good shape and somehow looks like an actor playing a businessperson.

Since the 1970s, the Hollywood talent agencies have become the most powerful institutions in the entertainment industry by “packaging” clients and projects. This ability to combine writers, directors, actors and financial backers has given them tremendous leverage over weakening studios and made agency heads into power brokers. It is less well known that they also have the power to transform any cause or charity and make it fashionable by packaging it with the right spokespeople, inserting its messages into television programmes and films, and by exploiting their own growing clout with politicians and government officials.

The biggest talent agencies have “foundations” to direct their companies’ considerable philanthropic efforts. It is their job to match their clients – actors, directors, musicians and athletes – with suitable causes in almost the same way that the old studios arranged marriages for stars. Whenever you see a film star in jeans and a baseball cap, patting the head of a skinny, ragged child in some dry, desperate village in Africa or Asia, the chances are that the actor’s journey began in one of these shiny offices in Los Angeles.

UTA’s clients include Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, Gwyneth Paltrow and Owen Wilson, plus film-makers like the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Larry David, Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson. But I am here today to meet Rene Jones, the stylish director of UTA’s foundation.


A gorgeous receptionist takes me to meet Jones, an understated blonde who used to work as a fundraiser for a California senator and knows how the prospect of meeting a Hollywood star can magically open doors. I ask her how the process of matching charities with stars actually works, picturing fraught brainstorming sessions with “talent” who have never read a newspaper and who think that the Middle East is next to the Midwest.

“It’s mostly counselling advice,” Jones coolly explains. “You meet, get to know one another, and then you act as a matchmaker and bring credible organisations to their attention. It’s not always an instant process, but the ones that last longest are those with an organic connection.”

It sometimes seems as if even the most junior celebrity has a cause, preferably to do with Africa or saving the world from carbon emissions. Jones is all too aware that there has to be a good fit between a client and a chosen cause. “There is nothing worse than someone who may be well-intentioned but is out of their element.” An embarrassing appearance by an underprepared or unenthusiastic star will do nothing for a charity, for the reputation of the star – or for the agency that has brought them together. “It’s not just a matter of jumping on the red carpet with some talking points.”

These days, foundation heads like Jones and Michelle Kydd Lee, her counterpart at Creative Artists Agency – the biggest and most influential of them all – are familiar figures in Washington, acting as quasi-ambassadors from Hollywood at meetings with the joint chiefs of staff at the Pentagon or White House officials. They vet causes, visit projects around the world and are courted by top UN officials and heads of NGOs. Then they go back to Hollywood and inform the film industry about this crisis or that epidemic or a new kind of aid project.

Over the last decade and a half, the agency foundations have grown in influence as Hollywood has become obsessed by philanthropy and social activism. It is now all but socially unacceptable for Hollywood big shots – and wannabe big shots – not to have a cause. Yet little has been written about the foundations’ existence or the power they wield. Hollywood agencies are famously discreet, even secretive, as they must be for their clients to trust them. It stands to reason that their foundations operate in the same way.

I first came across the hidden infrastructure behind Hollywood’s embrace of Darfur, Burma and other trouble spots on a reporting trip to Central Africa a couple of years ago. While waiting for a UN plane to land on a desert airstrip, I was told by the famous peace-broker John Prendergast, the very man who took Angelina Jolie on her first trip to the Congo, how he regularly flies to LA to pitch to screening rooms packed with actors and film-makers.

As we chatted, an e-mail pinged into his BlackBerry from a British-born soap star who had been to one of his talks at her talent agency. How could she help to end the suffering in Darfur, she asked? It was then that Prendergast told me about the work of the agency foundations. “They’re a force of nature,” he said. “You can achieve a lot if you guide them in the right way.” Now I was in Los Angeles to find out more.

I grew up in LA and my father was in the film business, so I had a fairly good idea of what to expect: the token leftist politics born of guilt, the conformism, the cynicism and ruthlessness. It would not be as crass as the scene in the film send-up Brüno, in which a flamboyantly gay Austrian talk-show host asks two giggling publicists to find him a cause that could help his career: “Dar-four is a big one, so what’s next? What’s the Dar-five?” But it might be close.

As ever in Hollywood, that caricature turned out to be less interesting than the reality. At a Saturday business brunch in the high-ceilinged living-room of a Spanish colonial house not far from the Beckhams’ mansion, a thirtysomething star, his manager and agent, an expat director from Ireland, a screenwriter and a couple of producers were spreading cream cheese and smoked salmon on fresh bagels before getting down to the nitty-gritty of negotiating a deal. I said I was investigating the new Hollywood philanthropy. “It’s all guilt money, man,” the agent laughed. “Just guilt money.”

Paris Hilton, the publicity-addicted heiress, had barely finished her 23-day prison sentence after violating her probation for drunk-driving in 2007 when she announced that she was going to Rwanda. Naturally, she would be taking cameras. “I love everything documented,” she said, presumably more in reference to her reality shows than her infamous sex tape. She added that it was important to do the trip, because “there are a lot of misconceptions about me”. Hilton never made it to Rwanda, but this year the celebutante tweeted a photograph of herself holding a child at a hospital in Guatemala.

John Prendergast gets furious when cynics bring up bandwagon jumpers like Hilton. “Who f***ing cares?” he said. “Just because this one is unserious and goes for the wrong reasons, so what? That’s not why Clooney goes. You can’t put Paris Hilton in the same category as Clooney or Angelina. It’s like confusing Bush and Obama.”

Some confusion is forgivable. Many people found it ridiculous when Gwyneth Paltrow and 16 other celebrities appeared in beads and “tribal” face paint in magazine ads proclaiming “I am an African” in an HIV/Aids campaign devised by Iman, the Somali-born model and wife of David Bowie. The inevitable parodies on the net proclaimed: “I am a Martian.”

My own somewhat cynical expectations were confirmed when I attended another brunch by the rooftop pool at the Raffles L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. It was another boiling day. The brunch was a family affair, thrown by a music agent visiting from New York. The Hollywood people sat under a pale canopy, looking on at a trio of oil-slathered Brits roasting in the midday sun. The music agent also thought the idea of setting up an actor with a charity was a joke. “You shouldn’t need an agent to tell you about a charity,” he said. He himself donates large sums to a charity devoted to a form of cancer that afflicted his father. “You should give with your heart, from your life experience,” he said. But he admitted ruefully that agency foundations are a powerful draw for talent. He had just lost a musician client to CAA because the artist was impressed by its charitable efforts. “CAA uses it as a signing tool, and it works,” he said.

I relayed his comment to Peter Safran, a top talent manager educated in Britain. To my surprise, he defended the foundations’ matchmaking services. “If you’re a 24-year- old actor and you’re suddenly making $4m a movie and you want to do something charitable, how would you know how to do it? It’s just not part of your skill-set,” he said.

The generosity of celebrities is not always for show.

Few people know that David Arquette, star of the Scream slasher movies and husband of Courtney Cox Arquette, serves on the board of Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organisation, and goes to food banks weekly. Or that Ryan Reynolds, star of The Proposal, ran the New York marathon to raise $100,000 for the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research – Reynolds’s father is afflicted by the disease.

There is, of course, a tradition of social service in Hollywood going back to the first world war, when Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford campaigned for the Red Cross. A quarter of a century later, Edward G Robinson tried to raise public awareness of the Nazi holocaust. You could argue that cynicism and greed have always coexisted with philanthropy and public service; indeed guilt about the former has probably inspired the latter.

Still, Hollywood’s charitable activities traditionally focused on the film industry, such as fundraising for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which supports actors and technicians who have fallen on hard times. But that began to change in the 1980s when Elizabeth Taylor became the world’s leading Aids activist after the death of her friend Rock Hudson. Bono, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have since become international figureheads.

Hollywood charities have not only gone global, they have changed the very culture of the film business. All the main UN organisations, not just Unicef, now have “goodwill ambassadors” from Hollywood: Angelina Jolie represents the UN High Commission for Refugees, Drew Barrymore the World Food Programme. And the agencies have played a key role in this transformation. When Jolie decided she wanted to get involved in refugee issues after making Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia, she turned to Michelle Kydd Lee at CAA’s foundation.

CAA – which represents, among others, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Will Smith and David Beckham – was the first talent agency to get involved in the charity business in the mid-1990s, during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Its headquarters is a futuristic 12-storey glass-and-steel tower in Century City. Inside, it is sleek, smooth, quiet, exuding power and sophistication. This is the superpower of agencies. Talking to Kydd Lee, a brunette in her forties who runs the CAA Foundation, it is impossible not to get caught up in her enthusiasm. “When you’re at a Golden Globe dinner party,” she says with pride, “the conversation isn’t about shoes or purses or watches like it used to be. It’s about important stuff like the Janjaweed and foreign policy.”

When I ask her how she matches clients to causes, she says: “I ask them, ‘What issue means the most to you? What makes you angry? What would you get out of bed for at 5.30 on a cold morning?’ Then I give them a stack of reading and see if they are willing to do their homework. What we do not say is, ‘Come to another rubber-chicken dinner and have your picture taken.’ What we will do is help you with a long-term strategy for your philanthropy and make sure it is credible, financially solvent and has a stable infrastructure.

“We have all these different networks and we bring people together,” Kydd Lee explained in a gleaming conference room. Bono’s One campaign was launched at CAA, and a slide show at the agency given by the former vice-president Al Gore turned into the film An Inconvenient Truth. “Long before people knew what ‘carbon offset’ was, we were discussing climate change. We had had scientists come and talk to us about it. People come to us first.”

CAA was thus able to link various environmental advocacy groups with the launch of the film The Day after Tomorrow, to the benefit of both the film-makers and the activists.

Such is CAA’s influence that when the agency began to focus on malaria last year, this suddenly became a subject Hollywood people cared about. It was CAA that arranged for FC Barcelona to team up with the Fox soccer channel and to back Malaria No More, a charity that sends thousands of lifesaving $10 mosquito nets to Africa. “FC Barcelona is a client, and the UN rep on malaria is a friend of ours,” Kydd Lee explained breezily. Here was a classic example of packaging – using the same skills that brought together stars and movies to package their favourite causes.

This year CAA is concentrating its efforts on helping military veterans and their families. It has arranged screenings of the latest Harry Potter film for families of troops in Afghanistan – including one at RAF Halton near Aylesbury – and arranged for clients such as Christian Slater and Bradley Cooper, the new comedy star of 2009, to visit troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The day before my visit, CAA staff met in the lobby and assembled 2,500 “care packages” to be sent to Afghanistan.

Sometimes, activists who come to pitch their causes to the agency are hoping for something more than an endorsement or a spokesperson: what they are seeking is a form of product placement. “We bring in the show-runners [the people who devise TV series] and show them what’s going on in education or the environment, and maybe they can incorporate that in their shows,” Kydd Lee explains.

One of the charities she works with wants to diminish the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, so she is arranging a meeting between the charity and the writers of Grey’s Anatomy, the hospital-based series. “We hope to shape popular culture,” she adds. “That’s rocket fuel. That’s the neutron bomb.” In that particular case the insertion of a message seems benign enough. But you can imagine how, if the practice became more widely known, this charity version of product placement might infuriate those who already dislike Hollywood’s overwhelmingly liberal political bias. Kydd Lee herself is unabashed about her politics and delighted by the foundation’s influence. Her mission is to transform Hollywood, and therefore America, through the skilful, targeted use of celebrity magic.

John Prendergast first got a sense of the power of this magic when he returned with Jolie from the Congo in 2003 and posted an online diary called Ripples of Genocide on the website of the Holocaust Museum. “It received so many views that the servers crashed,” he said.

When the actress Lucy Liu went on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 after visiting the earthquake zone in Pakistan, Unicef received tens of thousands of telephone calls and there was a 240% spike in donations. But, said Prendergast: “I don’t think the money raised by celebrities is transformative. The biggest assistance they give is raising public awareness and driving political action.”

He is convinced that the situation in Darfur would be much worse if it weren’t for the spotlight shone by the likes of George Clooney and Don Cheadle.

Although Americans in general give more to charity than citizens of any other country, Kydd Lee attributes much of the new Hollywood charitable activism to the Bush presidency, seen by Hollywood’s liberal majority as an entirely dark time. “During the Clinton presidency there was enormous give and take between the White House and this community,” she said. “That was over when Bush became president. Then, after 9/11, people began thinking about why it had happened and what is important in life.”

Hollywood’s obsession with philanthropy may also be a sign of deeper cultural shifts in the entertainment industry. The screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, a prominent conservative, is convinced that it reflects a profound change in the way that actors see themselves. “People become actors because they want adoration and adulation,” he said. “But these days they’re surrounded by MBA types, and it often feels like being an actor is an immature thing to be. Their agents and publicists are better educated than they are. In the old days an agent was a high-school dropout too.”

Having a cause, Chetwynd ventured, is a way of regaining the specialness that movie stars once had. “It’s strictly an internal thing. They’re still glamorous to others, just not to themselves. People screaming at the Oscars don’t care if Clooney has been to the Congo.”

Michelle Kydd Lee said something similar. “I’ve been with actresses who are not even that famous and the paparazzi are swarming like seagulls on a french fry. The people with video cameras who are trying to capture something to sell on the web are even worse. They say the most disgusting things, just to get a reaction.

“If all this is coming at you anyway, you might as well try to use it in a positive way to help someone. Princess Diana was brilliant at that – you know, ‘You’re following me anyway, so come with me to the Aids hospice.'”

That night, at Dan Tana’s restaurant, a Hollywood hangout owned by the former chairman of Brentford Football Club, a British expatriate screenwriter told me that, for all its absurdities and excesses, the culture of Hollywood philanthropy was something to admire and even emulate.

“It’s easy to mock this stuff,” he said, “but compare these actors to our footballers, who spend all their money on booze and hookers and renting a f***-off house in Ibiza. Would it be so bad if Manchester United, or any place where young people suddenly came into a lot of money, had a compulsory meeting with a philanthropic counsellor? It would at least put the idea into their head.”


A Clownish Killer (FrumForum Oct 21, 2011)

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It is perhaps a shame that no one will have a chance to interrogate Gaddafi and find out the details of his regime’s involvement in crimes like the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, the equally appalling but less cited bringing down of UTA Flight 772 in 1989, the bombing of the Berlin discothèque that led to Ronald Reagan’s air-strike on Tripoli, or his support for various terrorist groups.

On the other hand, it is far from sure that had he been tried in a court of law that Gaddafi would have given his enemies the satisfaction of hearing the truth. It is not clear that the trial of Saddam Hussein really did much psychological or political good or that it would not have been better for Iraq if he too had been dispatched near his hiding place.

As one looked at the photographs and videos of Gaddafi’s capture that went so quickly around the world, it was hard to feel quite as overjoyed as his captors evidently were. For any civilized person the images of the former dictator wounded, beaten, bloodied and begging for his life were disturbing. I had to remind myself of the thousands of terrified, bloodied people stripped of their dignity, who must have begged for their lives in his dreadfuls prisons before they were murdered. (Apparently Gaddafi liked to broadcast videos of victims of his show trials urinating on themselves in fear before they were tortured or executed.)

Then there were the mass executions, the purges that followed the many attempted coups and revolts against him, the wars he fostered in Chad and elsewhere, the bloody but little-reported anti-African campaigns conducted by his Islamic Legion mercenaries.

Gaddafi was a genuine monster and mass murderer, of foreigners as well as of his own people. Unfortunately some of the aspects of his personality and dictatorial style that helped him retain power for all those decades also served to obscure just how vicious he was.

The clownishness and the comic-opera costumes in particular made it harder to see him as a tyrant every bit as savage and cruel as more conventional third world dictators. We Westerners from countries with genuine elections tend to put too much faith in appearances. (It is why so many people wrongly assume that Syria’s Assads are not as cruel or dangerous as dictators sporting military fatigues and sunglasses, or wearing an animal pelt across their shoulders.) Gaddafi was indeed a clown but he was of the evil, John Wayne Gacy kind that inhabit nightmares.

It is worth examining further why Gaddafi seemed less horrible than he really was, and how he managed to gull informed foreigners who should have known better. Partly this was because he may have been a clown but was far from a fool. But it was also a function of the way greedy, cynical or bigoted foreigners chose to see and present him.

One thinks especially of LSE director Howard Davies, and his colleagues who only decided that it was wrong to take Gaddafi’s money after the killing of protesters this February; the thousands who had already been killed or tortured in the Abu Salim prison were beneath their notice. Or Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, who was seduced by Gaddafi and his slick international socialite son Saif al-Islam (apparently still alive and at large) into heralding a “Tripoli Spring” when the regime was actually happily murdering dissidents like Fathi Eljahmi.

Presumably Whitson’s head was too stuffed with Zionist and American crimes, real or imagined, for her to see what was really going on in Tripoli, though it would be a mistake to underestimate the charm that Gaddafi could deploy when necessary. In recent years his efforts to maintain an image as a Ladies man – including the female bodyguard corps and his troop of East European nurses – seemed sad and ridiculous. He began his rule as a handsome, dashing young officer and soon found that he had a genuine knack for seducing earnest foreign women. Indeed, one of the reasons why the coverage of Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli tended to be so hostile and so credulous of Gaddafi’s claims about civilian casualties was because a key BBC correspondent on the ground fell under his romantic spell.

It my also be that Western leaders and their publics generally misunderstand and underestimate third world dictators. If a dictator rules a notoriously underdeveloped country or, like Gaddafi, dresses like Michael Jackson, takes a tent to foreign capitals, and pursues strange, egotistical hobbies like novel-writing, then foreign interlocutors assume that he (in the modern era it is always a he) is a kind of joke figure, brittle and easy to overthrow given a modicum of effort.

The truth is that anyone who can hold onto violently seized power for more than a year or two is probably a person of impressive unpleasant abilities, especially if they are ruling over a compulsively conspiratorial society accustomed to political violence. Tyranny is not easy. To do what Gaddafi did and remain in power for four decades required remarkable cunning, psychological acuity, political skill, emotional intelligence and cleverly applied ruthlessness. (It is why dictators like him sometimes find it laughably easy to manipulate or outmaneuver the heads of state of more powerful democratic countries: our elected politicians have not been schooled in an academy where failure means the firing squad or the gallows. )

Arguably Gaddafi was even cleverer than that murderous survivor Saddam Hussein: unlike the Iraqi he usually knew when to stop supporting terrorists, working on weapons of mass destruction and irritating American presidents into taking military action.

Of course in the end, both he and Saddam made fatal errors, and in the end it was Western military force that brought about their downfall and death. Moreover it is probable that Gaddafi would never have met his end near a storm drain in Sirte if Saddam had not first been overthrown by the US-led coalition. When I was at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May, I was told by several young activists of the “Arab Spring” that the toppling of the Iraqi dictator had changed their mental landscape: the overthrow of their longtime overlords no longer seemed inconceivable.

Whether something or someone better will replace him is impossible to tell at this early juncture. It is just possible that when Gaddafi’s henchmen claimed to skeptical foreign journalists that the army was battling “al Qaeda” fighters, that they were not always lying. And it is all too likely that (as was the case in Iraq) the tyrant long ago killed, crippled or drove into exile every person or party capable of forming a liberal, decent, moderate, efficient government, and that almost everyone who remained has literally been brutalized by the experience of living under his tyranny. Hence the brutality of his own end.


Time to Abandon Britain's CCTV Policing (Financial Times Aug.10, 2011)

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Many observers have been baffled by the performance of the Metropolitan Police during London’s recent riots, with officers seeming to stand by as homes were attacked and businesses destroyed. This was partly poor tactics, but it was also a function of a deeper malaise – a model of passive policing that has failed and must now be abandoned.

The Met’s acting head denied his commanders were ordered to “watch and wait”, rather than intervene, but it looked as if they had concerns that overrode the maintenance of order. Self-handicapping rules against baton rounds and tear gas were justified because their use would be seen as an “escalation” – a symbolic break with precedent, signalling that authorities had lost control. Why the symbolism of such weapons would be more troubling than footage of flaming buildings remains a mystery.

At a deeper level, however, the culprit is an out of date philosophy of reactive policing. Back in the 1970s many US forces, including the New York Police Department, abandoned beat policing and took to the car. The policy proved to be a disaster and has now been abandoned in almost every big American city. In the UK, however, beginning in the 1990s, the Met went in the opposite direction, seizing on closed-circuit television as the primary tool of law enforcement.

This seemed like a modern and glamorous new world of monitoring trouble spots with cameras and racing to crime scenes in cars. But among other problems it created a vacuum of authority in public space. Add in other cultural and legal factors and this vacuum can quickly be filled by violent young people with no respect for adults or the law. Their sense of impunity was proved correct last weekend, as gangs found that they could take over one high street after another.

This endemic overreliance on technology also deforms policing culture: officers lose any sense that their job is to deter crime by their presence alone, rather than just to react. This attitude was all too apparent after the riots when officers, and then the home secretary, seemed puzzled that the public was not satisfied with assurances that (thanks to CCTV) most of the looters would be caught.

Obsessed with such technology, the Met’s response to problems of police bureaucracy has also been a shambles. In New York in the 1990s, when police and unions complained about the weight of paperwork, the city hired thousands of civilian employees to perform office functions, allowing a dramatic increase in the numbers of police on the street. By contrast, the Met hired some 3,000 civilians, gave them six weeks’ training and put them out on the street in place of real police as “community support officers”.

These PCSOs are often all that passes for a police presence in British cities. London, meanwhile, has become one of the least-policed big cities in the developed world – a process that has seen the abandonment of two centuries of police wisdom, and arguably the abandonment of the public. Any hope of deterrence is lost when burglars know there is scant risk of bumping into a bobby on the beat. Worse, interactions between the public and police now tend to be rare, highly charged and prone to mutual misunderstanding. Police stations are unwelcoming fortresses, impossible to contact on an informal basis, as calls are funnelled through centralised call-centres.

Working in an office and monitoring screens are seen as more “professional” than trudging the streets. In recent decades Britain’s police have also begun to insist on being called “officers” in the American style. However, this promotion, along with the adoption of US-style tool belts dangling with nightsticks and pepper spray, has not been accompanied by an American-style drop in crime appreciable by the public.

American police forces long ago abandoned the passive approach. In its place came an updated version of the local model pioneered by Sir Robert Peel in the early 19th century, although one leavened with new theory and technology. Crime dropped and morale rose as officers felt they were more than clerks arriving at crime scenes. The only good thing to come out of this crisis would be if Britain followed suit.

The writer is a senior research fellow at Civitas, and a former adviser to New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani


Why They Rioted in London (Commentary October 2011)

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The riots that erupted in London on August 6 finally petered out after four days. By then thousands of police officers had been drafted from other parts of the United Kingdom to stand guard on the streets of London and the city’s own Metropolitan Police had finally taken a more active tack against the looting, including driving armored vehicles toward clumps of rioting youths. Copycat looting then took place in Birmingham and Manchester and other cities that had sent their cops to the capital. Londoners joked that the real reason rioting had stopped in their city was because their looters had already taken all the consumer goods they wanted and had now settled down to watch the violence up North on their new plasma TVs.

In Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, three Anglo-Pakistani men were killed while guarding stores from looters. Indeed, all those killed or seriously injured during the rioting seem to have been civilians standing up to the rioters. There were some 180 police injuries, although none of them life-threatening—except that to a police dog whose skull was shattered by a thrown brick. There are no reports of any looters being injured.

Footage of the rioting captured by onlookers, police cameras, the media, and the rioters themselves revealed a policing strategy that puzzled viewers in Britain and around the world. Lines of police officers, wearing full riot gear, stood by and watched as youths smashed windows, set buildings afire, and looted stores. In some places the youths hurled missiles at the police, who occasionally sent out snatch squads to arrest individual assailants. In South London, a cameraman filmed 30-odd young men squaring up to a police line. You could see fearless toughs get in the face of cops who were wearing full armor and carrying batons. The police looked frightened and, in the absence of an equine or canine squad, had no equipment that would give them significant combat advantage over even an equal number of rioters. After a couple of minutes the police broke and ran, chased by the youths.

It was a scene unimaginable even in the most liberal European countries. Nevertheless, senior officers refused to consider, let alone order, the use of tear gas or baton rounds even to defend their own men and continued to use tactics designed to control football crowds and mass demonstrations. Their spokesmen assured the media that thanks to watchdog cameras installed across the city and amateur footage posted on some social networks the looters were using, all the criminals would eventually be identified and caught. They seemed genuinely mystified that this did not satisfy their questioners or that it might be their duty—and the fundamental obligation of the state—to stop the ongoing violence.


It has been obvious for a while that British police attitudes to public order are problematic. Even before August’s crime wave, the police lost or surrendered control in three major public-order incidents in London over the past year. These include the incident in November 2010 during which the Conservative Party’s headquarters—a mere rock throw from Parliament—were destroyed while police officers stood by helplessly. At a second demonstration against student cuts a month later, the police did nothing as youths burned one of their vehicles and defaced the Cenotaph, Britain’s memorial to its war dead. That same day, demonstrators attacked the Prince of Wales’s limousine; his police detail allowed the attackers not only to shake the vehicle but jab the Prince’s wife with a stick. The Commissioner of Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, praised the Prince’s armed protection officers for their “enormous restraint,” even though the incident made it obvious to the world just how easy it would be for terrorists to kill the future head of state.

But these incidents pale in comparison to the apparent inability or unwillingness of the Metropolitan Police to stop the August riots. Since then Britain’s police leadership and police unions have fiercely defended their strategy and tactics. But the message communicated by their actions and inactions during those four days and nights of anarchy was clear: the police had priorities other than the protection of property and the safety of ordinary civilians. Property and public safety were of course matters for concern, but not worth breaking heads or breaking a self-imposed ban on using tear gas, baton rounds, or other non-lethal anti-riot weapons.

This attitude seemed all the stranger given that the same police department with its costly scruples about baton rounds had not hesitated to bring firearms to the arrest of a crook in Tottenham or to shoot him dead in his car without knowing if he was armed. This was the incident that sparked the first riot on August 7.

Selective police inaction in times of riot is not unknown outside Great Britain. Famous cases of governments allowing mobs to vent their anger include Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to allow anti-Sikh mobs to avenge his mother’s murder with four days of mass slaughter in New Delhi in 1984. Even in New York, during the Crown Heights riot of 1991, the NYPD allegedly took a hands-off approach to anti-Jewish violence, in part due to the attitude of then Mayor David Dinkins.

In London, however, the police did not stand off because politicians had asked them to, but because doing so reflected their overall attitude toward enforcing the law. If the public and even some politicians in England were angered by the failure of the police to challenge the looters for three days, they should not have been surprised. It was only the latest and most dramatic demonstration of a bizarre policing philosophy that implicitly rejects not only the “broken windows” theories embraced so successfully in the United States, but the basic principles of modern policing established by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.


One of the differences between London and New York, and indeed London and any other major Western city, is the absence of visible police on the streets of the British capital. Of course there are always uniformed officers guarding the Westminster governmental district, stationed in front of embassies, and patrolling potential terrorist targets such as courthouses and the major railway stations. But if you avoid those places, you could easily walk for hour upon hour from North to South or East to West or in any conceivable direction without ever seeing a police officer on foot.

Even in the crowded equivalents of midtown Manhattan—shopping areas such as Oxford Street or Times Square–like Picadilly Circus—the famed British bobby is notable by his absence. Instead, London enjoys a kind of virtual policing, much of it provided by thousands of government cameras.

This has certain obvious disadvantages beyond the absence of someone trustworthy of whom lost children and tourists might ask directions. Over the last few years, clever thieves have raided major jewelry shops in Picadilly in broad daylight, correctly secure in the knowledge that it would take a police car at least 15 minutes to arrive through the perpetually jammed traffic (there are no traffic cops) and that there is absolutely no chance of running into a passing patrolman. If more London criminals had the brains and stopwatches, there would presumably be many more such raids. Any criminals who tried the same thing in the Diamond District on New York’s 47th Street, on Paris’s Champs Elysée or Rome’s Via Veneto would find themselves in the arms of the law within a block or two. But then, in all these countries the police still consider it their business to deter crime rather than to react to it after the fact, with investigation, arrests, and so forth.

It should be said that during your notional walk across London, while you will not encounter a bobby on the beat or leaning against a wall keeping an eye out like an NYPD cop, you will very likely see a squad car or two racing by, sirens screaming. In some areas, especially between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., you might spot a pair of “police community support officers” (PCSOs) plodding along the sidewalk. They are the equivalent of Times Square’s private security guards, but are paid for and trained by the city. Lacking powers of arrest, they are essentially human decoys. The brainchild of Sir Ian Blair, a London police chief celebrated for his Oxford degree, skill with management jargon, and public sensitivity to issues of race and gender discrimination, PCSOs function in the main to reassure a public disconcerted or annoyed by the disappearance of the bobby on the beat. They might confront you and give you a ticket if you are a middle-class, middle-aged white person who litters or rides a bicycle on a sidewalk; if you are a tough-looking teenager, they are apt to cross the street and walk away fast.

One of the most telling aspects of the comparative evolution of policing in the UK and the United States is the way the two cultures dealt with excessive demands of paperwork and bureaucracy at key moments in their recent history. In Rudolph Giuliani’s New York, the NYPD hired civilians to deal with the paperwork so officers could get back out on the street and use the abilities and skills for which they had been expensively selected and trained. In London, by contrast, Commissioner Blair hired thousands of civilians to walk beats as PCSOs so that highly trained police officers could do what was seen to be more important, less demeaning, and more professional desk work.


Just about everyone knows that London’s notorious network of cameras and PCSOs do not deter crime. This is not simply because there are too many cameras for even a small number to be monitored, or because they might not be recording, or because they might not be facing the right way into underlit underpasses—although most of us who have served on juries or watched criminal trials know that this often is the case. It is because almost immediately after the police started to cover cities with these eyes in the sky, criminals and hooligans began to adopt an effective countermeasure to such technology in the form of the hooded sweatshirt. The term hoodie soon became a slang term itself for the thugs wearing one. Ordinary, law-abiding teenagers adopted the hoodie look because it was cool in a “gangsta” way, but not coincidentally, because it inspires fear or respect in other kids and adults.

It is obvious from the footage of the August riots in London and other English cities that many if not most of the looters were hoodie youths, even though a startling number of grown-ups and ostensibly respectable young people were tempted to join in the easy pickings, especially on the second and third nights.

Oceans of British ink have been spilled since the riots on efforts to understand why the hoodie hordes (seldom larger than a hundred strong) did what they did. Among other contemporary problems, family breakdown, Britain’s Anglo-Jamaican version of gangsta culture, consumerism, and the disappearance of discipline from the schools all played a role, while projected government cuts in youth centers and education benefits probably did not. But much of that discussion was beside the point. The key to the violence was not amorality or alienation; it was not the decline of the sense of duty; it was not even the colossal sense of entitlement fed by the British media’s obsessive truckling to youth culture. What inspired youths from all over London to copy a local disturbance in the racially tense district of Tottenham, and then to keep on looting for four days, was a justified and confirmed faith in their impunity and the exciting realization that their freedom and power was even greater than they had previously suspected.

It was faith based on long and repeated experience. If you have been given the run of the streets, if you know that the chances of your being caught and then being punished for a minor crime are minimal, then you have little reason to fear the authority of the state or the adult world. Of course that faith was, until early August, countered by doubts or at least a sense that there might be limits to what could be done. But when that faith was put to the test by the most outrageous behavior most of them could imagine, it was marvelously confirmed: they were able to smash, steal, and burn, and no one in authority did anything serious to stop them.

Some brave unarmed citizens did stand up for law and order. Several of them got stomped. Others, mostly immigrant storekeepers defending property that represented decades of exhausting work, showed such fierce determination that the looters slunk away in search of easier targets. But the state was either absent, or as the world saw, bizarrely passive.

Among the rioters interviewed in the midst of the looting (several reporters who went where the police feared to go had cameras smashed, although none was hurt), a surprising number articulated a spirit of impunity combined with defiance. One declared to a TV correspondent’s mike, “We are looting and showing the police they can’t stop us!” Another told BBC radio, “I’ll keep doing this every day till I get caught.” And even then it wouldn’t matter, he explained to the interviewer, “as it’s my first offense.”

Many observers were confused by the fact that the looters did not seem to be particularly angry. They seemed instead to be joyful. Some were clearly high on violence and destruction. The greed so often referred to in subsequent newspaper jeremiads about “Thatcher’s children” seems to have played a lesser role. One reporter in Manchester saw a teenaged girl loot a Blackberry from a mobile-phone store and then smash it on the ground. “We’re not doing it for the stuff,” she told him. “We’re doing it for the laugh.”

This is not an attitude that the middle-class middle-aged leaders of Britain’s media and political set find easy to understand, especially as traditional explanations for riots such as deprivation or anger at discrimination clearly do not apply. The British commentariat is unaware of the phenomenon of sports riots in North America, during which relatively privileged people like students at the University of Massachusetts and Ohio State and hockey fans in Vancouver burn cars, attack police, and smash windows, all for the sheer mass-hysterical joy of mob violence.

Those sports fans, who presumably were not especially evil or alienated, perpetrated acts similar to those of the British rioters, but only for a few hours. They did it because, at that moment, they could. They stopped because the police stopped them. The British rioters, on the other hand, faced the temptations implicit in a situation in which the state had vanished and the law had for all practical purposes been suspended.

Those entrusted with enforcing the law, by ordering their men to stand around impotently rather than use appropriate force, communicated to the mob and the country at large the message that they did not value the law enough to fight for it. And if the police do not value public order or private property enough to hurt and get hurt, you can hardly blame a feral hoodie for having no respect for the former or the latter.


Since the riots, the reflexive reaching for economic or spiritual explanations for the looting has drowned out the words of the looters themselves. It has simultaneously distracted attention from those responsible through their inaction and from the damage that was done as a result.

Certainly there is an unwillingness to connect the failure of the police to stop the rioting with the deepening failure of the police to maintain law and order in England since the early 1990s. Nowhere is this more the case than with the police themselves or, more accurately, with Britain’s police chiefs. The latter have been uniformly adamant that police performance was superb given their resources, that nothing could have been done differently or better, and that all criticism is ignorant and not constructive—“armchair generalship,” to quote London’s acting commissioner.

The police establishment was especially angry with Home Secretary Theresa May when, after praising the brave men and women on the front line (and having previously opposed the recruitment of former NYPD chief Bill Bratton as London’s next commissioner), she openly wondered if more forceful tactics might have been appropriate.

Unfortunately, thin-skinned defensiveness has been the norm in recent years on the rare occasion that the British policing establishment is confronted with even mild criticism on matters of effectiveness. (Criticism concerning matters of ethnic discrimination in hiring, promotion, and law enforcement are a different matter, as those prompt self-mortifying rituals and internal inquisitions.)

For their part, top police in the UK are traditionally deferential to the shibboleths of the ruling elite, hence the political correctness that consumed the various British police forces during the reign of Tony Blair’s New Labour Party. The Tory administration of David Cameron has until now been even softer on crime and criminals than its predecessors were. This is partly because of its coalition partners, but mostly because the Prime Directive of Cameronism has been “detoxifying the Tory Brand” and changing the conservatives’ image as the Nasty Party.

Public anger however has prompted something of a shift in tone, a shift that has taken the top cops by surprise. They are used to complaints in the popular press and have become good at dismissing public irritation at the lack of police on the streets as the results of tabloid sensationalism. The problem, they always say, is one of perception. Their numbers, after all, show that crime is down. What is needed to reassure the public is not policemen on the street, but better marketing. And British police do indeed put a great deal of effort into branding themselves, with advertisements proclaiming the success of various community policing efforts.

The efficacy is somewhat undermined by all the other police advertising and posters warning the public not to leave valuables where they can be seen through car or house widows. (Leaving jewelry or a phone out on a table where it might be seen by someone looking into your home is apparently a provocation. It invites burglary just as a bulging wallet invites pickpocketing or, presumably, a short skirt invites rape.)

In the collective mind of Britain’s self-consciously “modern” police services (they are no longer police “forces”), criminals are forces of nature, like earthquakes or thunderstorms. You can no more prevent their predations than you can prevent the tides. In the long term, society can perhaps decrease crime by addressing its root causes, like inequality and poverty, but that is for the politicians. What the police can do effectively, however, is preserve social peace by monitoring “racism” (ie. white racism,of course) along with Islamophobia and other offensive and dangerous prejudices.


Until two decades ago, British policing was dominated by big ex-servicemen who were too tough, disciplined, and experienced to be intimidated by teenagers, even teenagers with knives. The general public also was less easy to intimidate and less tolerant of antisocial behavior. Both the police and the general public knew that the establishment, led by people who had fought wars and run empires, was very much on the side of order.

The primary reason the police today seem to be torn about their role in enforcing law and order is that they have absorbed some of the more toxic attitudes of the country’s new ruling elite, an elite that takes its lead from the media and marketing industries. The police know that their masters in the new elite are not only obsessed with youth culture, but also subliminally hostile to policing in its traditional form.

When the baby boomers who later formed the core of New Labour were young radicals in the late 1960s, the police were “pigs”—brutal defenders of an unfair social order, lovers of the British Empire, representatives of the most reactionary elements of the working class. Some continue to have an ambivalent attitude toward order itself and sympathize more with those who challenge the law than with those who submit to it.

The Cameronites have tended to be every bit as youth-obsessed and soft on crime as their Blairite and Brownite predecessors. One got a sense of the Conservatives’ confusion about crime and class from Home Secretary Theresa May’s words when it was suggested in August that the police use water cannons against rioters. She primly announced: “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police is through consent of communities.”

It is a fascinating and revealing sentence, and not only because of its implication that rioters must consent to the means used against them, or that there is a “looting community” in the same way that there are black and gay communities. May must know that eminently consensual societies like, say, Holland do use water cannon. She also knows that the great majority of Britons would not see the use of water cannons or tear gas or other nonlethal methods as evidence of unacceptably nonconsensual or authoritarian government.

The “we” to whom May was referring does not really signify the British people as a whole but rather the enlightened elite. There is and has long been a big gap between the political class and the people when it comes to law and order in Britain. The political class tends to be insulated from crime and therefore does not take it very seriously. And because Britain is a much less democratic and culturally demotic society than the United States, the views of its elite prevail on such matters. It is why Parliament always votes against the death penalty even though a majority of the electorate continues to favor it.

It was telling that when stories of New York City’s crime turnaround under Rudolph Giuliani reached the UK at the turn of the millennium, the city’s careful combination of “fixing broken windows” law enforcement and the deployment of officers to neighborhoods experiencing crime spikes was wrongly described as “zero tolerance” policing. The latter sounds crude, authoritarian, frighteningly American to educated British ears, and no British politician has ever understood or championed it. Indeed, pundits, judges, and politicians on both sides of the British political divide often find it easier to empathize with young criminals than with the humdrum, law-abiding, unromantic, “unquestioning” working-class folk the hoodies prey on. The country’s legal establishment has been far too obsessed with often chimerical police racism and brutality and too little concerned with the surrender of public space to violent lumpen youths.

Anyone who has dealt with the British Foreign Office over the last half century or observed a British decolonization effort is likely to have encountered a similar preference for the extreme and therefore authentic “native” forces over reasonable, dull, Westernized types. In fact, British foreign and military policy is actually a surprisingly useful guide to underlying assumptions and attitudes of elite Britain. The British Army in Iraq used a playbook similar to that of the Metropolitan Police with equally disastrous results.

The Prince of the Marshes, a memoir by writer and MP Rory Stewart about his year working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, recounts an incident in Maysan province, where a Sadrist mob threatened the governor’s headquarters. To his shock, the British troops whose job it was to guard the building decided not to turn their guns on the mob, which then stormed the building and wrecked it. The colonel explained to Stewart, then deputy governor of the province, that the building was mere bricks and mortar and not worth the taking of human life. The Iraqi who served as the province’s governor was furious. He understood the precedent that had been set, the authority that had been permanently undermined, and the power that had been granted to the mob.

After 2005 the British military officials decided that the army’s very presence in the streets of liberated Basra, the most important city in Southern Iraq, provoked violence and caused casualties, and that absence was therefore the answer. It withdrew into fortified bases and sat in them while various militias and street gangs fought for control of the city streets. When U.S. pressure on London prompted a feeble and doomed effort to restore order, the British garrison discovered that the Basrawis whom they had betrayed had come to hate them.

The one good thing about the August riots may be that they have forced the political class to confront the factors that have caused the police to become unfit for purpose and made British cities so dangerous that you are six times more likely to be mugged in London than New York. If the Cameron government were to leap on this opportunity to reverse the evolution of law-and-order policy, it might reap great political benefit. If it fails to do so, it may discover there are far worse fates for a Conservative party than being thought mean.


London Aflame (NR August 29, 2011)

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What happens when you let teenagers run your country.

YESTERDAY, August 8, I was watching live looting footage— some of it from districts near mine or where friends were hunkered down behind locked doors— with appalled fascination, when the 1992 L.A. riots came to mind. It was not be- cause here in London we have had any- thing like the savage assault on Reginald denny or the gun battles between cops and street gangs. It was the reports from shop- ping districts where stores were in flames and the police nowhere to be found. It reminded me of that first day or so of the L.A. riots, when LAPd chief daryl Gates allegedly held his officers back and allowed South Central to burn, just to show propertied Angelenos how much they needed him and his men. Given the cuts in police budgets planned by the Cameron government (which has “ring-fenced” or increased money for foreign aid, climate-change prevention, and Britain’s grossly inefficient health ser- vice), anyone could be forgiven for wondering whether the Metropolitan Police’s leadership was allowing neighborhoods to burn to make an economic point.

If that was the plan, it was a foolish idea. The Cameron administration is dominated by liberal young men from privileged backgrounds or the media- marketing elite. They would never live in the kind of neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the violence, and who are unlikely to empathize with the white- working-class and immigrant shop – keepers whose stores were trashed and burned. Law and order has not been a Coalition priority, as should have been obvious from Cameron’s notorious “hug a hoodie” campaign before the election, in which he called for more understand- ing of the alienated youths who make urban life a misery for the old and the weak.

But in any case, it has since become clear that London’s Metropolitan Police was doing its feeble best considering its inadequate equipment, training, and pub- lic-order doctrine, not to mention its poor leadership by politically correct appa- ratchiks. It was unprepared to counter the planned looting, which had been orga- nized using mobile phones and social net- works—though this has happened before in London, as well as in foreign cities hosting G12 and G20 summits. Worse, it foolishly assumed that sending small numbers of riot police—or rather police in riot gear—would intimidate looters into giving up and going home.

Instead, in some places, gangs of 30 or more hooded teens sent the cops scurrying in retreat. In other areas, the police stood their ground and bravely took the bricks and rocks hurled in their direction, but did not—perhaps could not—stop or dis- perse the youths setting fire to stores and sometimes the homes above them. They seemed to be waiting for the rioters to exhaust themselves and go home—which took many hours and much destruction. It was only where there were police horses and dogs—and there were too few equine and canine units to be in every riot area at once—that looters were driven off or arrested in significant numbers.

As usual, the Met did not equip its officers with baton rounds or tear gas or water cannon or any of the non-lethal riot-control technologies in standard use around the world. This was because, as its leaders subsequently said, with the sup- port of the home secretary, the use of such weapons would represent an unacceptable escalation. It would signal a loss of control—as if burning department stores did not. It was telling that there were injuries among the police but none among the riot- ers. “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon,” claimed Home Secretary Theresa May. “The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities.”

You can make of her peculiar logic what you will, but the sentiment is shared by the entire law-enforcement establishment in Britain, if not the ordinary constable in the street. Watching the footage of rampaging youths taunting the London police, I remembered how, when I was living in New York’s East Village during the L.A. riots, there were the beginnings of a copy- cat riot in the neighborhood. A couple of hundred kids, many of them the anarchist youths who had taken over Tompkins Square Park that summer, marched up St. Mark’s Place to Second Avenue and started breaking windows. A line of police appeared on the avenue—ordinary street cops, but many wearing helmets—and walked calmly but determinedly in the direction of the bottle throwers. It was over in less than two minutes.

The cops knew what the British bobbies have forgotten—that if you nip a riot in the bud, fewer people get hurt, and it’s better for everyone. It is why in Paris, where I also once lived, the police break out the tear gas the minute they see a crowd get- ting out of hand—it demonstrates that the forces of law own the street, and it saves lives. I would not necessarily want a ver- sion of France’s extremely aggressive and tough CRS in London—though arguably it is what Britain needs—but I cannot help thinking that if the patrolmen of Gotham’s 9th precinct, with a few reinforcements, had been flown here on Sunday morning, they would have brought the whole thing to an end within hours.

On this the third day since the violence began, any racial and ethnic dimensions of the looting have yet to be parsed, at least in the mainstream media. From the footage it is clear that the rioters are mostly young and male—and that the mobs include plen- ty of white youths, though in some areas they seem to be disproportionately black.

On the other hand, members of Britain’s South Asian and Muslim minorities seem to have played little or no part in the vio- lence. On the contrary, large numbers of Muslim youths in the Bangladeshi-domi- nated sections of London’s East End first guarded their mosques and then went to defend stores and banks from marauders.

In North London on the second day of the violence, Turkish and Kurdish store- keepers banded together, took up bats and broomsticks, and chased away would-be looters, despite being threatened with arrest by the police. (That is not a typo. The police were doing little or nothing to stop the looting, yet felt an urgent need to preserve their monopoly on the lawful use of force.) Though the victims were more diverse than the perpetrators, who tended to attack shopping areas in edgy, trendy mixed neighborhoods, it was striking that only immigrants seemed to show any seri- ous inclination to defend their property and their livelihood. They were like L.A. Koreans, only without guns, a fact that made their courage even more remarkable.

As well as helping themselves to liquor and jewelry, the looters seemed to have a typically teenaged predilection for sports- wear, mobile phones, and flat-screen TVs. However, they were also happy to smash up hairdressers, fast-food restaurants, and grocery stores.

Despite talk in the media and in left- wing circles about the riots’ being the result of public-sector cuts and unem- ployment (which is indeed high among Britain’s undereducated youth), the rioters showed little compunction about destroy- ing the workplaces of others. Moreover, the footage, much of it taken by the looters and their pals and then posted on the Web, showed little evidence of anger. Their mood seemed exuberant and excited—not unlike that of the students and sports fans who have recently rioted in North Amer ican cities after the local team wins or loses a major game.

None of the major commentators here in the U.K. seem to have heard of the sports- inspired riots in Vancouver and at Ohio State. They reflexively assume that anyone who sets cars on fire or smashes up a Starbucks must be motivated by anger or oppression. Perhaps because its mem – bers generally come from sheltered back- grounds, the British commentariat has little sense of the potential for violence, or the joy in disorder and aggression, to be found in most young men of military age. It is an odd thing, because I remember how, as Cambridge undergraduates, some of my friends and I did some dumb and destruc- tive and illegal things—when we were confident that we would not be caught or that the price to be paid would be minimal.

Of course, there is a much more savage, bullying edge to this looting and vandal- ism than there was in my generation’s drunken undergraduate pranks. And it is perhaps not altogether surprising that nei- ther the police nor the public generally— with the exception of the tough Turks and Kurds—felt like taking on what were rela- tively small numbers of tough kids (sel- dom more than a couple of hundred). It is not just that many “hoodies” carry knives (this fact was cited as a reason for police caution by one of the ineffective cops the London Times quoted) and have no com- punction in using them. They are accus- tomed to extreme, close-up, Clockwork Orange–style violence.

They are also accustomed to being given the free run of the streets. This is largely because Britain’s police have over the last two decades adopted the hands- off, low-key, reactive model that Ameri- can police departments disastrously moved to in the 1970s but then abandoned in the 1990s, most spectacularly in New York City. But in any case, the hoodies who this weekend demonstrated and rev- elled in their violent power like the gang- sters in Walter Hill’s classic 1979 movie The Warriors tend to be utterly unafraid of adults or any of the feeble sanctions offered by the adult world.

Britain’s schools, laws, media, youth- worship, and policing have created what an angry Harlem preacher once called a “pediocracy”—literally a polity ruled by children, but here meaning one ruled by teenagers. As the world saw and the British public is having to acknowledge, it is not pretty. We can only be grateful that they don’t have Kalashnikovs like their counterparts in such places as Somalia—yet.



Big Bad Brits, And Other Movie Casting Myths (NR April 1998)

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Media people are different, if not from you or me, then from most Americans.

They tend to be upper middle class and, if they are in positions of influence, to be Baby Boomers, i.e., between the ages of 35 and 55. Their politics and their values are influenced more by their generational experience than by anything else. You can see these Boomer values in various ways in movies and on television, but they are most clearly revealed in today’s often bizarre ethnic and sexual casting conventions. The identity of the villain in particular says a lot about the human qualities the entertainment culture considers especially bad: things like uptightness and fatness. Of course, these days the industry is very much aware that there is good stereotyping and bad stereotyping.

Given that “entertainment product” is one of post-Cold War America’s biggest and most influential exports, the assumptions behind the distinction are well worth unpacking.

Hollywood’s ethnic casting conventions are a strange and constantly shifting tableau. Despite the claims of Spike Lee and others that Afro-American actors are cast only as criminals and servants, the truth is that for nearly two decades now — or at least since Starsky & Hutch first appeared on our screens — both movies and TV have had an unwritten rule that all mayors, police chiefs, and police captains must be black. Judges should be black or female or both.

Another rule states that only black writers and directors may make films that feature black criminal gangs. White directors, like Richard Donner in Lethal Weapon, should have their heroes face mixed-race gangs (a phenomenon that exists only on celluloid) or white guys in suits.

There is nothing wrong with this. It may not accurately reflect reality, but it reflects it better than the industry did in the Sixties when blacks really were shown only as criminals, slaves, and victims of oppression.

But recently the industry has begun to go a little further in the direction of wishful thinking. There is now a convention that brilliant physicists should be played by gorgeous babes in short skirts — see The Peacemaker (Nicole Kidman) and The Saint (Elizabeth Shue). By the same token, Hollywood increasingly likes to have computer and math geniuses played by black men (especially Samuel L. Jackson). See Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and Sphere. Both are a kind of affirmative action, but, hey, if they encourage black boys and pretty blonde girls to study — and to study science rather than Oppression Studies — what could be wrong with that?

In the first place, this unlikely casting may not have any such effect — and indeed should not, according to the industry’s own pronouncements. The studios are constantly telling us that the depiction of something on film has absolutely no effect on audience behavior. That is why limiting female lead roles to leggy young chicks with artificially enhanced breasts doesn’t really affect the self-esteem of millions of women or push teenaged girls into anorexia. It’s why showing violence as the only solution to most of life’s problems plays no role in influencing people to take up arms against their troubles.

But if the studios are right, then we should ask if it might actually be counterproductive to have Stephen Hawking types played by Wesley Snipes or Michelle Pfeiffer. After all, it would be very sad if improbable casting made kids see black or pretty female scientists as just another feature of never-never land, as unlikely as an amusement park full of living dinosaurs. (Of course, what the industry really would have you believe is that audiences take the bad stuff with a pile of salt but are profoundly affected by the good stuff.)

But both casting conventions and the choice of villains for your story pose far more problems than they once did, thanks to two real-life political changes. First, the Cold War is over, and so we’ve lost the Soviets and their henchmen. Secondly, Hispanics, blacks, and other ethnic groups are no longer willing to accept what they see as negative stereotyping without noisy (and effective) protest. Which means that the industry must pick its foreign and domestic villains very carefully. You mustn’t go too far with Latino actors playing Colombian drug dealers. Arabs have been overdone. The Japanese now own one of the biggest studios and the biggest film company, and anyway seem a lot less threatening than they once did. The Chinese are out too (especially at Fox) because we want to sell them stuff.

So who? Well, there are still ruthless big corporations and rogue secret agents and crazed Eastern European nationalists. And as historical films come back into fashion we have lots of historical bad guys, and this is where things get interesting. Old-style historical enemies like the Nazis, the Japanese, and American Indians either are too old-fashioned or turn out to have been in the right. So the industry has discovered the perfect enemy: the English.

English accents are now as obvious a sign of badness as smoking a cigarette or having facial scars. You can see this in the recent crop of revisionist historical movies that you might call the Celtic Vengeance School, Braveheart and Rob Roy being the two most obvious examples of the genre. The English in both movies are depicted as not only repressive but also cowardly, ruthless, and effeminate all at the same time. Then there is the remake of Kipling’s Jungle Book in which the Brits are both racist fools and despoilers of the environment. But perhaps the best example is Titanic — the Anglophobe’s Birth of a Nation. In Titanic, everyone with an English accent — including the stuffy upper-class Americans — is either a coward, a snob, a fool, or in some cases a combination of all three. One particularly despicable crew member actually shoots a handsome, bearded young Irishman who refuses to accept the rule of “women and children first” and calls him a “Limey bastard.” This is acceptable, trouble-free stereotyping: after all, Brits are really just WASPs.

Now, Anglophobia often co-exists with Anglophilia. In fact, one is rarely to be found without the other skulking nearby, and that is as true in Hollywood as it is everywhere else. Americans have had a love – hate relationship with the English since before the Revolution. And of course there are certain ethnic groups in this country with a long-held hatred of the English. That of German -Americans — so strong between the World Wars — seems to have dissipated. That of Irish-Americans has not. To be sure, Hollywood’s long love affair with the IRA has nothing to do with Irish-Americans, a group whose presence in the industry is rather small. But in the last few years it has intensified. In recent films like The Devil’s Own and The Jackal IRA terrorists are depicted not just as charming freedom fighters but also as military supermen (not something that even Gerry Adams would claim).

There is also a tradition in Hollywood of having Brits play Germans or Romans in films where Germans or Romans are the bad guys. The accents are a subtle way of stressing the ethnic difference of the villains without actually using subtitles. The English accent also sounds like the kind of accent an organized, hierarchical people like the Romans would have. You know, correct, with good grammar and syntax. It is presumably for this reason that all the Imperial officers in the Star Wars trilogy were played by Brits.

There is another, much older American pop-culture tradition which depicts Europeans more generally as incarnations of evil. It is a tradition which sees Americans as simple, idealistic, and virtuous, and Europeans as cultivated but corrupt and cynical. My favorite modern manifestation of it is the excellent movie Die Hard. Here, a sweat-stained, foul-mouthed, heroic Bruce Willis battles high-tech Euroterrorists who take over a Los Angeles skyscraper. In perhaps an ideal ethnic combination they seem to be a gang of long-haired Germans led by the British Alan Rickman (Kevin Costner’s foe in the PC remake of Robin Hood). In Die Hard 3, Jeremy Irons plays the Rickman role. And in Cliffhanger, the American John Lithgow with an unexplained but flawless English accent plays the murderous rogue CIA agent who wants to kill Sylvester Stallone. The subtext of all these films — and all the ones in which the villain is played by Anthony Price or Gary Oldman — is that we may not be all that cultured and smooth, but we will beat you by virtue of our good hearts, our courage, and our sheer ferocity in combat.

This all sounds harmless enough. And it means work for lots of talented, classically trained British actors who are happy to play psychopaths and/or colonial exploiters for a Hollywood salary. However, Anglophobia in movies and TV has much greater significance than one might at first think, because the emergence of the English as Hollywood’s ultra-villains symbolically expresses fundamental Baby Boomer/liberal values. Antipathy to all those stuffy, overdressed Brits really expresses Boomer attitudes toward the past, toward authority, toward discipline, toward responsibility, indeed toward everything about their parents’ world. In this sense, Hollywood Brit-bashing is a kind of Oedipal acting-out.

Boomers, who have so much invested in the cults of informality and authenticity — whether that means dressing like a teenager, or wanting their children to go to schools where they can call teachers by their first name–need constantly to have their prejudices confirmed. They want to feel better about not giving their seat to the pregnant woman on the bus, about their uncontrollable, grabby children, about feeling uncomfortable being adults.

Does it matter? Why shouldn’t we indulge the Hollywood Boomers’ delusions? If you think that films and television do have any influence on belief or behavior, then the Evil Brit trend may well be bad news. For one thing, we live in a society where some students are taught that the United States Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois, that the Greeks stole science from Africans, and that the Aztecs were sweeties who didn’t really eat people like popcorn.

Anglophobic movies may well serve to make these ludicrous notions seem less implausible. They might also lead to dangerous errors of judgment. After all, anyone who believes that the English are effeminate, semantically correct twits should take care not to get caught in the middle of a European soccer riot involving the fans of an English team. The Argentines made an analogous mistake back in 1981 and it was not a pleasant experience. There are other practical problems with dismissing the Limeys as an epicene race of tyrants: if we rid ourselves of our English inheritance, does that entail jettisoning the rule of law or just Shakespeare and the herbaceous border?

Finally there is the problem symbolized by Alan Rickman in the Kevin Costner Robin Hood. Here you have an agent of feudal authority who gets all the good lines and all the girls before getting it in the neck from the boring good guys. An English poet who wrote about Adam and Eve once found it hard not to make Satan rather attractive. Today we certainly shouldn’t underestimate the danger of giving the Devil an English accent.

National Review April 20, 1998


Paul Johnson's "Winston Churchill, Distilled" (Wall Street Journal Dec. 11 2009)

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Paul Johnson is the most celebrated and best-loved British historian in America, especially by readers of a conservative bent. Astonishingly prolific, he has over three decades produced a series of serious best sellers, all of which present a refreshingly revisionist take on their subjects. Most controversial of all, perhaps, was his defense of Richard Nixon in his “A History of the American People.” But there is plenty in each of his histories to startle readers used to conventional wisdom or the liberal conventions of academia.

Now, at 81 and after years of producing enormous, compulsively readable history books, Mr. Johnson has just written what, at 192 pages, is probably the shortest biography of Winston Churchill ever published.

It came about, he says, because the head of Viking Penguin approached him “saying that young people are very interested in Winston Churchill but we find they are most reluctant to read long books. . . . She said do you think you could do a short biography, and I said ‘it’s a cinch!'”

He gives credit to his success as a historian to his simultaneous and successful career in journalism. “You learn all sorts of tools as a journalist that come in extremely useful when you’re writing history,” he tells me as we sit in the drawing room of the West London house he shares with his wife, Marigold, “and one is the ability to condense quite complicated events into a few short sentences without being either inaccurate or boring. And of course a lot of the best historians were also journalists.” He cites Thomas Babington Macaulay, the French historians Francois Guizot and Adolphe Thiers, and Churchill himself, “a very good journalist and in his own way a superb historian. . . . One of the things I hope this little book will do is persuade people to read Churchill’s own books. ‘My Early Life’ is one of the best volumes of autobiography ever written?it’s an enchanting book, full of fun and humor.”

Mr. Johnson’s own journalistic career meant that he spent considerable time with other 20th-century leaders, ranging from Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer and Ronald Reagan to “that windbag” Fidel Castro, giving his Churchill portrait added depth.

Mr. Johnson met Churchill himself in October 1946 when he was a boy about to go up to Oxford. “He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, ‘Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?’ and he said without hesitating: ‘Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.’ And he then got into his limo.”

The book includes refutations of many of the negative myths that have grown up around Churchill. For instance, that he was drunk for much of World War II. “He appeared to drink much more than he did,” Mr. Johnson insists. “He used to sip his drinks very, very slowly, and he always watered his whisky and brandy.”

Mr. Johnson certainly does not agree with the often-echoed criticism made by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that Churchill had every gift except judgment: “He made occasional errors of judgment because he made so many judgments?some of them were bound to be wrong! . . . On the whole, his judgment was proved to be right. He was right before the First World War in backing a more decent civilized society when he and Lloyd George created the elements of old-age pensions and things like that. He was right about the need to face up to Hitler and he was right about the Cold War that the Russians had to be resisted and we had to rearm.”

He is convinced that “Churchill was more than half American . . . all of his real qualities generally come from his mother’s side.” And despite Mr. Johnson’s own Oxford education (he was there with Margaret Thatcher), he believes that Churchill benefited from never having gone to college: “He never learned any of the bad intellectual habits you can pick up at university, and it explains the extraordinary freshness with which he came to all sorts of things, especially English literature.”

Mr. Johnson also likes to emphasize the importance that painting played in Churchill’s life. Churchill took up the brush after the Dardanelles disaster in World War I, and Mr. Johnson, an accomplished artist himself, believes that his prolific hobby helped him overcome depression for the rest of his life.

And the Dardanelles debacle taught Churchill about leadership in war. “Churchill got the blame, but in fact he never had the power to do it properly. He was determined in 1940, when he took over, to concentrate a great deal of power in himself. That’s why he made himself minister of defense as well as prime minister.”

Mr. Johnson says he learns something new about the craft of writing with every new book. This time, he found that “you can do a huge subject in a small number of words provided you are ruthless. You have to be as ruthless as Napoleon, who told Metternich that he didn’t care if a million men were killed if he achieved his objective.”

On a good day he can produce between 3,000 and 4,000 words, he says, all written in longhand, now that electric typewriters are no longer made. And he has “never employed research assistants of any kind,” adding with a twinkle, “I am an old cottage industry.”

And what did he learn about Churchill in writing his book? “He really created the Middle East in its modern form. Iraq and Jordan, he completely made them. And he made it possible for the state of Israel to exist.”

At one point Mr. Johnson told me that “one of the marvelous things about Churchill is that whatever he was doing, whether fighting or arguing or despairing or bouncing about full of energy, jokes are never far away.” And though Mr. Johnson believes his own best book is the highly praised “Birth of the Modern,” his personal favorite is “Intellectuals,” a collection of biting essays that take (mostly leftish) gurus like Voltaire and John Paul Sartre to task for personal failings ranging from adultery to incontinence. He likes it, he says, “because it has the best jokes. . . . Books must have jokes. People have to be amused because life is so sad.”

—Mr. Foreman is writer at large for Standpoint magazine.



Delhi Anew (Verve Magazine August 2010)

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Delhi’s makeover from bureaucratic backwater to dazzling metropolis has occurred in the blink of an eye. Jonathan Foreman looks at the country’s capital city with a fresh perspective

No place I know has changed as much or as bewilderingly quickly as Delhi. It is not just that it looks and feels so different today than it did when I first visited in the early 1990s. These days its appearance, if not its underlying character, can change in a matter of months, something that just doesn’t happen in New York or London.

Last year I left New Delhi in March and came back in November to find that the semi-tame ‘community’ dogs who had been such friendly companions in my Safdarjung Enclave neighbourhood for the last five years had all mysteriously disappeared. So too had most of the young North- Eastern people who used to live in the area and all of the little momo restaurants that served them. The North-Easterners have presumably migrated to another area or returned to Mizoram; the dogs, however, seem to have fallen victim to some secret government-sponsored Commonwealth Games clean up effort. (Delhi’s governments move in mysterious ways, as the secret release of Jessica Lall’s murderer showed). The winter smog – euphemistically called ‘fogs’ like the infamous ‘pea-soupers’ that used to blanket London – was far thicker and more noxious than the previous five winters, presumably thanks to all the new vehicles hitting the roads every month. And all the routes around town that my girlfriend used to drive now took three times as long.

This was partly because of the massive traffic disruption caused by all the Delhi Metro construction, but had at least as much to do with the dozens of new flyovers that had been erected over the summer. As usual their construction had apparently taken place without much thought as to what happens when vehicles come back down onto the road, so that wherever there is a flyover there is a traffic jam at each end. On the other hand, IGI Airport suddenly boasted an amazing new domestic terminal, one that made the international terminal seem more shabby, provincial and unwelcoming than ever.

However, the most interesting changes for me are the more gradual ones. In the 1990s, many Indians of an elite background not only spoke a rich old-fashioned English with equally old-fashioned English accents, they also boasted elegant old-fashioned manners of a kind you would encounter all too rarely in the UK. However, the trend for education at US colleges, the impact of Hollywood movies and TV (thanks to deregulation) and the impact of visiting American NRIs all mean that younger people now sound, dress and even move more like Americans. That is not necessarily a bad thing. In Delhi, native-born people often complain about the rudeness, crassness and arrogance of NRIs, but their presence here, and the way they complain so quickly and so loudly seems to have had a beneficial effect on service in hotels, restaurants and shops. On the other hand, when I’m in Khan Market squeezing past loud, inconsiderate types shouting into their mobiles, I do miss the gentleness and sweetness and reticence I used to encounter so often when I first came to the city.

I am even more struck by the impact of café culture on Delhi life. Back in the early ’90s when I was a bewildered backpacker, there were Nirulas and the old Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place, and that was really it. It is almost as if the new post-economic-reform middle classes needed a place to meet that bore no resemblance to existing institutions, and then brought them into being. Not everyone approves of the café revolution (though because the first chains weren’t foreign they haven’t attracted the xenophobic spite and paranoia that was faced by the likes of McDonalds). I myself wondered if the popularity of the local Café Coffee Day was somehow responsible for the disappearance of the nice chaiwallah who used to have a little pavement stall at the entrance to the park. But a few months later I bumped into him in the park where he had a new job as a watchman and he told me that his stall had been as popular as ever with local people but had been closed down by the municipal authorities as part of a scheme of ‘beautification’.

The park has indeed been beautified by the addition of new plants and fountains that sometimes work. It is also safer than it used to be. (A female friend of mine who has lived there on and off for a decade used to tell me horror stories about being harassed and attacked when she went running there, even in broad daylight.) In another sign of broader change, when I walk through it with my girlfriend I am rather disconcerted and disappointed to see other foreigners. More important, the monuments in it are better labelled and looked after, in stark contrast to the general neglect of such places which was the norm in the early ’90s, when places like the Red Fort or Humayun’s tomb were rubbish-strewn and seemed to double as public urinals.

It is also fascinating to see how people dress so differently. Delhi used to seem so unsophisticated and conservative compared to Bombay. In the early ’90s, you never saw an uncovered female shoulder, let alone a mini skirt except on foreign women. Today they are remarkably common despite the ongoing scourge of ‘eve-teasing.’ The capital has become a ‘cooler,’ more fashionable, more fun place, one in which the tone is no longer set by officialdom and embassies and khadi-wearing members of Parliament.

In general, the antics of the politicians and bureaucrats now seem considerably less relevant than they once did to the life of the city. You still get the absurd 1950’s style changing of street names so that some elected official can prove his or her patriotic or party credentials (not that anyone outside politics actually calls CP ‘Indira Gandhi Chowk’) but that kind of thing, like the old populist-nationalist calls to demolish the Lutyens bungalows, seems to belong to a different era and to a vastly more insecure and defensive India than the one that has flowered in the last few years.

Local politics of a more serious and practical kind seems much more important than it did in those days. The rise of the ‘Residents Welfare Associations’ in colonies like mine and their ability to pressure bureaucrats to provide the consistent water and trash collection that were once the preserve of only the well-connected, reminds me of the revolution that took place in British urban politics in the mid-19th century when a newly-empowered middle class forced all kinds of reform and transformed London into a modern city with sewage, lighting and running water for all.

Other things have not changed. When I first came I was amazed to see the sandbag emplacements and the rifle-toting policemen and soldiers outside hundreds of official residences. Though the tone of the city is no longer set by the government or central bureaucracy – thanks to the presence and self-confidence of a powerful business class – the capital still seems remarkably militarised compared to the capitals of most other free countries.

Then there are the sounds of the city, that I now find so familiar and reassuring when I come back to town, whether it’s the non-stop hooting of horns at rush hour, or the tapping of the colony chowkidar’s lathi on the pavement at night, or the urgent early morning sing-song of cart-men selling vegetables or fruit or collecting kabadi. I am mindful that even if I get to keep coming back to Delhi year after year, these comforting sounds may cease. After all, when I was a very small boy in London we still had the equivalents of kabadiwallahs (they were called ‘rag and bone men’ and they came around by horse and wagon), and in a few places you could buy fresh fruit from men pushing carts. All that is long gone. Those people and the encounters we had with them were replaced by stores and systems that were unquestionably more modern and perhaps more efficient, like the mini supermarket that has arrived round the corner from our place in Delhi. Yet, something human and intimate and delicate died with their passing.