Monthly Archives: January 2010

From the FT’s comment section:
Sue Cameron: Enough, minister: the mandarins make their stand
Christopher Caldwell: Inequality in a meritocracy
Vanessa Friedman: Outside Edge: Charles, defender of the f leece
Richard Waters: Man in the News: Steve Jobs
Editorial: Blair holds his ground on Iraq
Editorial: Launching the pad
Editorial: Monsters, Inc.
Lex: The agenda-setting column on business and finance

Kiran Stacey

The myth has been around for long enough now. “Football is business,” proclaimed The Independent when the Glazers took over at Man Utd. “The Football Business” runs the title of a book by David Conn of The Guardian. There are even university courses about the link between football and business.

Maybe it was true once, but since the arrival of Roman Abramovich, followed by the Glazers, Randy Lerner, Thaksin Shinawatra, George Gillett, Tom Hicks and many and various others, football has become little more than a rich person’s playground.

According to one estimate, Abramovich has spent at least £600m on Chelsea since he arrived in 2003. He and Randy Lerner at Aston Villa are held up as the ideal type of foreign owner, for, as David Conn puts it rather euphemistically in the Guardian “investing” millions in their clubs. But this is not an investment. As Abramovich shows, this is spending with little hope of return, at least financially. Perhaps there might be some returns in terms of status or prestige, but financially, football no longer pays.

Gautam Malkani

How apt that JD Salinger should have gone to the Great Writers’ Retreat in the Sky on the exact same day that Apple unveiled its latest piece of high-tech handheld gadgetry, the iPad.

Although The Catcher in the Rye defined adolescence for generations of angst-ridden teenagers - and still sells by the bucketload –  one reason the novel doesn’t have quite the same resonance with the young and acned of today is because their lives have been so totally transformed by the sort of technology peddled by the likes of Apple. 

If the world Holden Caulfield narrates against in the novel was – to use his favourite word – phoney, the propagation of mobile phones and other forms of handheld entertainment technology means today’s teenagers are engulfed in a very different layer of artifice. So much so, they’re usually too distracted to notice the world beyond it.

On a practical level, it’s the quick buzz offered by these devices that makes it so much harder for young people to perservere with reading novels. Then there are the virtual spaces teenagers inhabit when they relocate their existence to Facebook or Twitter – and, more importantly, the values those spaces promote. After all, what could be more phoney than mobile phones that allow you to log on to your Facebook page and advertise the latest developments in ‘Brand You’ to your mates? While the concept of the teenager that Salinger helped create was characterised by counterculture,  today that same demographic looks more like a marketing category obsessed with consumerism.

But perhaps the real incompatibility between Salinger’s novel and the kind of technology unveiled the day he died makes sense when you think about the book’s plot.  In the age of the iPhone and Blackberry, few teenage protagonists can just up and run away to New York without being tracked by their parents. It’s the same with all boy’s adventure stories – the existence of a mobile hotline to mummy makes it pretty difficult to inject a genuine sense of danger and suspense.  This perhaps explains why many of the books that do appeal to today’s teenagers are steeped firmly in the fantasy or horror genres. Meanwhile, those few successful  novels about the more earthly business of coming-of-age (such as Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood) tend to be set before mobile communications technology existed. For example, Charlie Higson, author of the Young James Bond books, has cited the mobile phone as one of the reasons he decided against setting those books in the present.

Of course, I’m probably guilty of the kind of hypocrisy Holden Caulfield would curse me for: I’m focusing my first-ever blog post on the downsides of technology. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading posts all over the web from teenagers mourning Salinger’s death. But the point is that while today’s forms of electronic entertainment might make it easier for teenagers to enthuse collectively about books like The Catcher in the Rye, it makes it much harder for people actually to read them. 

Being Apple’s first foray into the eBook market, the iPad itself might hold out hope of reversing these trends and making the novel feel more relevant again. But downloading The Catcher in the Rye on to a backlit screen instead of thumbing a dog-eared, dirt-stained paperback? Salinger would be glad he didn’t live to see the day.

Kiran Stacey

For days, columnists have been positing their own questions for Blair to answer about the invasion of Iraq. Today, for six hours, the five members of the Chilcot Inquiry have been asking the ones Blair actually has to answer.

For the latest events, see our Westminster team’s live blog. On this blog we will be summing up the reaction, which, unsurprisingly, started hitting newspaper websites and other blogs almost as soon as Blair sat down.

Anthony Seldon, Blair’s biographer, set the stage well for today’s drama in this morning’s Times, in which he argued Iraq was “this country’s Watergate”. There has been a tendency for observers to be cynical about Blair’s appearance today, saying that nothing new will be learned. But Seldon makes the valid point that it is an important moment in British political history, if nothing else. “We have never seen a day like this in British history, with a former Prime Minister being publicly questioned about such a contentious policy,” he writes.

But has it turned out to be more than just a symbolically important occasion, and has it told us something new?

Kiran Stacey

The Times
Anthony Seldon, Iraq is our Watergate. Blair must tell the truth
Richard Dawkins, Hear the rumble of Christian hypocrisy
Hugo Rifkind, iPad? It’s an iThing leading to iFatigue

The Guardian
Martin Kettle, The real problem was Blair’s policy towards America, not Iraq
Hans Blix, Blair’s blind faith in intelligence
Simon Jenkins, Palms, Kindles, Nooks and iPads – none are as cool as Gutenberg’s gadget

The Telegraph
Norman Tebbit, The Iraq war was legal, the bungling of it was criminal

The Independent
Terence Blacker, Pity those who get a bonus
Johann Hari, Washington corruption is smothering US future

The Washington Post
Robert Samuelson, Bernanke’s simple task
Charles Krauthammer, Soft on terror

The Huffington Post
Tamara Holder, Why the terror trials must not be held in the US

The New York Times
Roger Cohen, Exit America

From the FT’s comment section:
Philip Stephens: The west wavers between the enemy and the exit
Martin Wolf: Britain’s strategic chocolate dilemma
Fiona Harvey: Green is the colour of climate discord
Daniel Gros: Greek burdens ensure some Pigs won’t fly
Editorial: Obama sticks firmly to his guns
Editorial: Greek tragedy is not yet inevitable
Editorial: Britain’s growing inequality problem
Global Insight: Clive Cookson, Climate sceptics bask in warmth of bad news
Market Insight: Gillian Tett, Calls for a new Bretton Woods not so mad
Notebook: Jonathan Guthrie, Go west, young entrepreneur
Lex: The agenda-setting column on business and finance

James Mackintosh

You’d have thought that after two centuries of defeat in negotiations (and wars) with Afghanistan, Britain would have learned its lesson, but no. Here we go again: the Great Game strategy of divide and rule, paying off leaders and patronising the population, is now official western government policy.

The new strategy reeks of hypocrisy: we plan to set up a $500m fund to bribe pay Taliban fighters to switch sides, Gordon Brown said today (Germany calls it a “Taliban cash-for-clunkers” programme). At the same time, western governments are bemoaning the widespread bribery in Afghanistan.

Clearly there is now a massive incentive for moderates to switch to the Taliban, so they can switch back and claim some of the bribe cash.

American soldier: “Hands up anyone who’s in the Taliban. No takers? That’s a shame, I’ve got $500m to share out. Oh, you all are? Great.”

Furthermore, the approach is likely to confuse western voters already upset about the hundreds of lives lost and billions of dollars spent to maintain a war against the Taliban. Compare and contrast the payments policy, and news that Taliban could be given political positions, with what voters have been told:

Barack Obama, from his speech just over a month ago, described the Taliban (accurately) as “a ruthless, repressive and radical movement”

Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

Even yesterday, he used his state of the union speech to promise to “support the rights of all Afghans – men and women alike”. How is that compatible with giving political positions to Taliban extremists who want to repress (to put it mildly) women and force all men to grow beards? Just insisting that they renounce such policies isn’t going to change their religious views – particularly when Saudi Arabia, not known for its religious tolerance, is involved.

Anyway, here’s Hamid Karzai, today:

We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al-Qaeda, or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution. We will establish a national council for peace and reconciliation and reintegration, followed by a peace jirga in Afghanistan.

Nato’s Mark Sedwill seems to have hit the nail on the head, in the same Reuters story:

But Mark Sedwill, newly appointed NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, suggested some hard choices would have to be made about whom to involve in talks.

“If we are going to bring conflicts like Afghanistan, civil conflicts, to an end, that means some pretty unsavory characters have to be brought within the system,” he said.

The White House seems to have drawn the line at Mullah Omar, but everyone else seems to be available for government jobs and western money – as long as the Taliban renounce some of their more unsavoury policies, particularly on women.

(It is worth mentioning that the last time the west started to talk to the Taliban, those leading the talks – allegedly, since at least one of them denied it – were promptly thrown out of the country by the very government now planning to talk to the Taliban. Michael Semple, one of those thrown out, argued last year that the fraud at the last election would leave Karzai too weak to negotiate properly with the Taliban.)

To be fair, a similar approach of paying off relatively moderate fighters seems to have (mostly) succeeded in Iraq. But Iraq’s government is working far better than Afghanistan’s, and Iraq is a far more developed country, with less extreme (although still conflicting) religious groups.

The Taliban clearly have plenty of support on the ground; as long as that remains, they can maintain their attacks indefinitely. So talking to them makes sense. But it seems vastly over-optimistic to assume that bribing some of their fighters to switch sides will solve the problem without giving their leaders genuine political power. If they fail to bring in at least some of their (vile) policies, the leaders are bound to return to the fight.

It may be that to secure peace, the Taliban have to be given a Pashtu statelet in a devolved country. But we shouldn’t imagine that putting a Taliban minister in the government or paying off fighters will solve the problem if laws are not changed to adopt at least part of their extremely nasty approach to women (not to mention banning kites, the country’s national pastime). If the west is about to hold its nose and deal with these people, it needs to prepare the western public for a gigantic U-turn on democracy and human rights.

Kiran Stacey

The Times
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, We will stay until Afghanistan is secure
Anatole Kaletsky, Britain can relax on its bed of nitroglycerine

The Telegraph
Edmund Conway, Davos 2010: How to buy friends and influence people

The Guardian
Phillipe Sands, Goldsmith’s change of mind on Iraq appears a compromise of his independence
Michael Tomasky, Obama is back in the fight

The Washington Post
Editorial: He didn’t say enough
E.J. Dionne, Determined to win

The New York Times
Gail Collins, United we rant
Alan Blinder, The Fed’s best man

The Huffington Post
Sandip Roy, Did Obama kill immigration reform?
Nathan Gardels, China vs the US at Davos

The Daily Caller
Lanny Davis, A bipartisan healthcare bill is still possible

The Wall Street Journal
Tom Gross, Obama misjudges his misjudgement
Con Coughlin, The trial of Tony Blair

The Independent
John Kampfner, And still no one has been held to account for Iraq

From the FT’s comment section:
John Gapper: Volcker has the measure of the banks
David Pilling: China will not be the world’s deputy sheriff 
Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff: Why we should expect low growth amid debt
Zalmay Khalilzad: To win the war, empower the Afghan economy
Charles Roxburgh and Susan Lund: An early warning system for asset bubbles 
Editorial: Britain’s growing inequality problem
Editorial: Sri Lanka’s uncertain election
Editorial: In the driving seat
Global Insight: Matthew Green, Conference avoids crux of Afghan conflict
Market Insight: Mansoor Mohi-uddin, Challenges loom as the carry trade unwinds
Notebook: Robert Shrimsley, Believe the hype, the iNotebook is here
Lex
: The agenda-setting column on business and finance

James Mackintosh

It isn’t just David Cameron’s followers who have to learn an obscure language (“fagging”, “slack bobs”, “beaks” and “divs”). Dan Hannan, the eurosceptic Tory MEP, points out that in part of Cameroon, the country, they actually speak a language called Eton. I recommend learning the rituals of the posh school if you want to get ahead under the next government, rather than visiting Yaoundé.

FT dot comment

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Politics, economics, high finance and morality – this blog addresses the issues being considered by the FT’s comment team, and their thoughts.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.


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