Camel greeting

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Religious Tolerance and the Armenian Question

Readers of this blog may remember that, in my February post, I referred to H. Res. 306, a resolution before the US Congress which would give official recognition to the events often referred to as 'The Armenian Genocide'. It appears that Congress, in its collective wisdom, has seen fit to pass the resolution. At this stage, I have other matters in hand, and I don't propose to comment. However, in the interests of giving both sides a fair hearing, you may like to check out the website of the Turkish Coalition of America.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Dersim and the Politics of Inclusion

I first came to Turkey just after Mel Gibson and his team won five Oscars for their 1995 cinematic hit, ‘Braveheart’. For some reason that romanticised tale of kilted Scots fighting manfully but futilely against their powerful southern neighbour struck a chord or two with Turkish audiences. The film ran for three years in Istanbul cinemas without a break. ‘Titanic’ didn’t come close in this part of the world!

Mel Gibson strikes a blow
for Scottish nationalism
I’m sure you remember the final stomach-churning scenes of the film, where the defeated but unrepentant William Wallace is hanged, drawn and quartered by his English conquerors as an example to others who might seek to emulate his troublesome ways. Wallace’s tormentor gives him the option of a quick death on condition of swearing allegiance to His Majesty, the King of England. However, the Scots hero draws strength to undergo the agony ahead from a small boy in the crowd, who will clearly carry on the fight if Gibson (sorry, Wallace) shows the necessary fortitude.

Scotland was an independent nation in those days – we’re talking about the early 14th century – so it was perhaps a bit rough to treat Wallace as a traitor. Nevertheless, that gruesome punishment remained in force in the United Kingdom for the crime of high treason into comparatively modern times. The Crowns and Parliaments of Scotland had been well united by the time Prince Charlie led his ill-fated rebellion against King George II in 1745. It was only 60 years since his grandfather, James II, had allowed Judge Jeffreys to butcher survivors of the Monmouth Rebellion, so the Bonny Prince knew what to expect if he was caught. He wasn’t, luckily for him (speeding off to the Isle of Skye on his bonny boat, as the old song has it, and thence to a life of exile in France), but the Scots Highlanders who had supported him were not so fortunate. The Battle of Culloden lasted just over an hour, say the records. However, the aftermath of the English victory was not only a massacre of the wounded, but a prolonged killing or displacement of the clansmen, their women, children and the elderly. It was a systematic programme, more or less successful, to civilise the highlands, bring them under the rule of law, and to suppress the Gaelic language and tribal culture.

Hanging drawing and quartering was apparently not considered a seemly punishment for women, for whom burning was the favoured punishment in those times. The last burning in England took place in 1789 – the year of the French Revolution (‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, you remember!). The more anatomically specific alternative for males remained in force rather longer. The last man in England to suffer the fate of William Wallace was hanged and beheaded in 1817. Several more fortunate rebels actually faced the penalty in 1839 – but their sentence was commuted to transportation, and butchering as a punishment was finally removed from British law in 1870.

Well, that’s all very interesting, I hear you say, but what relevance does it have for the post-modern world. Even Turkey, with its reputation for human rights abuses, could not possibly condone such treatment of political prisoners or even terrorists. And you'd be right. Capital punishment itself was abolished completely in Turkey in 2004.

Nevertheless, an event in 20th century Turkish history has recently seen the light of day, and warrants a little examination. Dersim, now known as Tunceli, is an area in eastern central Anatolia, traditionally home to Alevi, Zaza and Kurdish people. According to one source I came across[1], this was the last area within the Turkish Republic to be brought under government control. It is not easy to come to a clear understanding of who these people are. Kurds are an ancient race, of Iranian origin, speaking a language with Indo-European roots. Many of them espouse the Alevi branch of Islam, held to spring from the Shi’a sect (not of much consequence in Sunni majority Turkey), but with connections to earlier religions and much older folk traditions. Zazas, it seems, generally incline to Alevism, but there is scholarly debate about whether their language is related to Kurdish, or distinct from it.

Be that as it may, it seems that the inhabitants of Dersim/Tunceli had been resisting all attempts to bring them into the fold of civilisation for some time before the watershed events of 1937-38. According to van Bruinessen 1,

the only law they recognized was traditional tribal law. Tribal chieftains and religious leaders wielded great authority over the commoners, whom they often exploited economically. They were not opposed to government as such, as long as it did not interfere too much in their affairs . . . There was a tradition of refusing to pay taxes — but then there was little that could be taxed, as the district was desperately poor. Young men evaded military service when they could . . .’

Undoubtedly there was a certain amount of brigandage and banditry, and government attempts to impose the rule of law may have met with actual physical discouragement. We may think that the situation was similar to that of the Scottish Highland clans prior to the final solution discussed above, with one major difference: we are talking about the 20th century here, rather than the 18th. The Turkish Republic was a mere fourteen years old, and in a pretty parlous state. Republican reformers, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were attempting to forge a nation from the ashes of the defeated, divided and defunct Ottoman Empire. They were trying to create an identity based on the hitherto unpopular concept of Turkish nationalism; to establish a modern, secular democracy in a land whose tradition was Islamic, monarchic and borderline medieval. Their eyes were fixed on European models of civilisation, most of whose representatives had long since suppressed and/or civilized their last remnants of nomadic or pastoral tribalism.

Furthermore, we are talking about the 1930s, not a period much renowned for the tolerant treatment of troublesome and undesirable minorities. So what happened in Dersim? It seems the government of the day made attempts to assimilate the Alevi Zazas into their brave new secular civilized Turkish Republic - and the local tribes objected, to the point of open rebellion. The government, needless to say, had recourse to military coercion. Many died, villages were destroyed, local people were displaced, martial law was established, there was a general ban on the Kurdish language, dress, folklore and names, and, as one would expect, a good deal of anger and enmity continued to seethe underground. Well, you can’t make a civilisation omelet without breaking a few eggs, it seems.

So what’s the solution? The present day government of New Zealand is not about to hand Aotearoa back to its indigenous Maori inhabitants; just as the British government continues to resist attempts by Scottish nationalists to cede from the Union and go it alone. No Turkish government will ever accept the handing over of its eastern provinces to an independent Kurdistan, even if the majority of ‘Kurds’ wanted it – something which is by no means certain. However, the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr Erdoğan, recently apologized publically [2] for the events known collectively as the 'Dersim Massacre'.

It’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it! You can’t ever right the wrongs of history. History itself is a progression of successive societies, chieftains, monarchs, invaders and whatnot, asserting their pre-eminence, and imposing their will on others by the right of might – irrespective of whether the ‘others’ may have had a prior and better claim to the territory in question. Nevertheless, smart leaders of the victorious party tend to apply the principle of enlightened self-interest. The new nation you seek to establish, the new civilisation whose superiority you assert, will have a better chance of long-term success if you give the conquered people a share of its fruits.

Nelson Mandela understood this when he became the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Mandela had spent 27 years of his life in prison, a victim of the apartheid political system that allowed white people, making up 10% of the population, to rule and oppress the non-white 90%. It would have been understandable if he had taken the opportunity to exact revenge from his persecutors, now that he was in power – but he didn’t. He encouraged his people to work on a process of reconciliation, to heal the wounds of the past and take the reborn nation forward.

The Ottoman Empire, for all its failings, survived for more than six centuries, and one reason for its longevity may have been the millet system, whereby it granted freedom of religion, use of language and practising of traditions to the disparate groups within its borders: Orthodox Greeks, Armenians and Jews, as well as Muslims of all shades. The British Empire may have been geographically the largest the world has known, but even the most generous historian would not grant it a span of much more than 300 years. More realistically, the 19th century and twenty or thirty years either side of it would encompass its actual period of dominant power. Interestingly, the British one was probably the only Empire that never had an Emperor. Its subjects owed fealty to the King (or Queen) of England – a rather remote concept for most of them, and the requirement to accept a homogeneity of language and culture may have hastened the empire’s demise.

But I’m not here to criticize the Brits. My purpose is to congratulate Mr Tayyip Erdoğan for his efforts in reaching out to the unhappy Kurds and Zazas among the citizens of Turkey. Admittedly, his motives have been called into question by some. He has been accused of taking advantage of a sensitive issue to score points against his main political rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose family apparently has Kurdish/Alevi origins in the Tunceli/Dersim area. Well, it’s an unusual politician who does not avail himself of an opportunity to make political capital, and I’m not going into that matter either. Mr Erdoğan’s words will be measured against his actions in the future. Any apology for past wrongs will be hollow without governmental measures to extend financial support to Turkey’s impoverished and disadvantaged citizens in the east, many of whom are Kurdish. Schools and hospitals are needed, and industrial development to provide employment opportunities. Poverty and deprivation are the soil in which rebellion and terrorism flourish. Alleviating these conditions will not make all the malcontents disappear overnight – but it will at least deprive them of a receptive audience.

In February 2008, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the aboriginal people for more than a century of cruelty, oppression and marginalization inflicted on them by successive governments. It’s too early to say whether Mr Rudd’s words will result in action to reduce the dreadful rates of infant mortality, educational failure and unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse, petty crime and imprisonment, among Australia’s indigenous people – but certainly, without recognition and apology, nothing can change.

I want to make two points here. The first is that, unfortunately, no civilized society can tolerate outlaws, despite their traditional romantic appeal. Pretty much every modern civilized society you care to examine has, somewhere in its history, an event or two where it felt obliged to use force to suppress a group whose continued existence was perceived as a serious threat to its own integrity and stability. We’ve mentioned the United Kingdom and Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. We could go on to look at the United States’ treatment of Native Americans, or its catastrophic Civil War, fought to prevent a division into Union and Confederacy – but you get the gist. My second point is that such use of force can, however, only be justified in the long-term if the result is a stable civilized inclusive state, the benefits of which extend to the vast majority of its citizens.

The Republic of Turkey has, since its inception, looked to the West as a model of cultural and economic development, of democracy and civilisation. The West, for its part, has often chosen to judge and belittle Turkey for its perceived backwardness and barbarity. It is important, then, for Western nations, if they are to maintain the moral high ground, that their civilized democratic institutions demonstrate a capacity for inclusion. Unfortunately, recent events seem to suggest that they do not. ‘Occupy Wall St’ protests have spread to major cities all over the developed world, suggesting a ‘Capitalist Spring’ (or ‘Autumn’) that has elicited outbursts of government force to suppress it. One of the rallying cries has been ‘We are the 99%’ – the supposed proportion of society held in economic servitude to the 1% elite.

I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but I have to say that I feel a 99:1 split may be exaggerating the situation a little. However, one statistic I did come across in the last week gave cause for alarm. A General Election was held in New Zealand the weekend before last, and reports are saying that voter turnout was, at 65%, the lowest in more than a century. Certainly, the implication that 35% of the voting-age population are so disaffected that they do not bother to exercise their democratic right is disturbing. General Elections in the UK in recent years have produced a similar ominous trend. Figures in the USA are even more striking. Statistics show that the proportion of eligible voters turning out to choose a new President hovers around 50 to 55%. If you look at mid-term Congressional elections the percentage drops below 40!

Well, it would require more exhaustive research than I have time for, to demonstrate a clear correlation between these voting patterns and the August riots in UK cities, the Wall St protestors, the general increase in terrorist activity around the globe, and the huge popularity of movies with anti-establishment heroes like William Wallace. All I can say for certain is that I applaud Tayyip Erdoğan for extending a hand of apology and reconciliation to the victims of the Dersim rebellion  - and I fervently hope that his words translate into actions which will achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth in his rapidly developing nation.

1The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38)’, Martin van Bruinessen
2  23 November 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Vikings in Constantinople – Globalisation Then and Now

Globalisation is an interesting business, with positive and negative effects on all aspects of life in our contemporary world. Most of us tend to think of it as a modern phenomenon, when, in fact, the process has been going on since time immemorial. Polynesian migrants, originating in Asia, traversed thousands of kilometres of trackless Pacific Ocean, eventually finding their way to New Zealand, perhaps the last significant land mass in the world to be populated.

The territory currently occupied by modern Turkey, on the other hand, has long been at the focal point of mass migrations of humanity. Not everyone is aware, however, that Vikings, those widely wandering wayfarers, found their way down the navigable rivers of Eastern Europe to the Black Sea and the largest city of the Medieval world, establishing a presence there a thousand years before their modern descendents from Northern Europe flocked to the beach resorts of Mediterranean Turkey. I’ve always had a penchant for historical fiction. As a kid, one of my favourite writers was Henry Treece, whose 'Viking' Trilogy included a novel entitled ‘The Road to Miklagard’. Check it out! Not only did those hairy guys with the horned helmets discover America centuries before Christopher Columbus, they also had several goes at conquering Constantinople from the Byzantine Greeks, and if you can believe some sources, actually founded Russia in their spare time.

Longship in Viking Museum,
Ribe, Denmark
Like Turks, Vikings have tended to get a bad press over the years. Raping and pillaging seem to have been standard male activities for most of recorded history, so it is perhaps a little unfair to single out Vikings (and Turks) for special mention. On the plus side of the ledger, the Vikings had a pretty significant influence on much of Europe from the 8th to the 11th century, to the extent that that period of European history is often referred to as ‘The Viking Age’.  Certainly they propelled those distinctive dragon-prowed long-ships to some quite surprising places. Advanced shipbuilding techniques such as the development of the keel, and clinker-built construction, in conjunction with sophisticated systems of navigation, enabled them to travel regularly to Iceland, Greenland and the east coast of North America.

For sure, the Viking reputation for violent invasion of other people’s territory is not undeserved. They actually managed to lay siege to Paris for a whole year in the late 9th century – eventually having to be bought off by a couple of French Kings, remembered by historians as Charles the Fat and Charles the Simple. You can’t help wondering who would have given kings such unflattering epithets – their own disgruntled subjects? Or perhaps a gang of triumphant Vikings at a drunken after-battle celebration. Anyway, as a result, a significant chunk of north-western France became known as Normandy (land of the Northmen) whose inhabitants famously conquered the English in 1066, and may be said to have exerted a civilising influence on the local Anglo-Saxons. Certainly their monumental Romanesque architecture, and their idiosyncratic dialect of French left lasting impressions on English cathedrals and the language of English law.

Well, Leif Ericson’s achievement in crossing the Atlantic and setting foot in North America is no longer controversial. Some modern Americans apparently go so far as to commemorate his feat on 9 October each year. Modern Russians, however, are understandably reluctant to accept that the origin of their very name is Scandinavian; still less that they owe the foundation of their nation to the Vikings. Nevertheless, there exists a persuasive argument . . . 

The name ‘Rus’ referred originally to Swedish Vikings who, in the 8th and 9th centuries, found their way to Eastern Europe and what is now northern Russia. Needless to say, their practice of exacting tribute did not always endear them to the locals. Nevertheless, it seems that indigenous Slavic and Finnish tribes, unable to agree amongst themselves, actually invited a certain Viking lord by the name of Rurik, to come and rule them – this around the end of the 9th century. The result, according to some historians, was the establishment of a proto-state, Kievan Rus, which eventually evolved into modern Russia. Slavic historians, on the contrary, are not keen on this theory; and they have, on their side, an absence of signs of lasting linguistic or cultural influence remaining from the Scandinavian presence.

I have no intention of entering into the controversy, for the reasons that I’m not a historian and I don’t particularly care either way. However, it does seem to me that, from what we know of Vikings, they were not especially interested in, or temperamentally suited to, putting down roots and investing the kind of long-term energy required to enforce their language and culture on local peoples. Some small linguistic peculiarities do survive in modern English, from the time when Viking invaders made their presence felt on England’s eastern coast – but on the whole it seems that the Viking way was to move on to greener and more immediately profitable pastures. Those who remained behind tended to be assimilated into the local culture. We have already noted the Norman adoption of the French language – and it seems the Vikings who settled in what is now Russia, also adopted Slavic customs and language.

But getting back to Henry Treece, and the point of this post – the Vikings apparently referred collectively to the towns and forts they established in what is now northern Russia as Gardariki. From there, the more adventurous among them found their way down the Volga and Dnieper River systems to the Caspian and Black Seas, where they inevitably came into contact with the top dogs in that part of the world, the Byzantine Greeks. Undeterred by the size and reputation of the Byzantine Empire, the upstart Scandinavians apparently launched several attacks on the great city of Constantinople (which they called Miklagard) in the 9th and 10th centuries.

These attacks were unsuccessful, of course, but they did have the result of obliging the Byzantine Greeks to develop a healthy respect for these blond berserkers from the frozen north. It was around this time that the rising power of the Muslim Arabs to the south was beginning to pose a more serious threat to the Empire. With admirable pragmatism, the Emperor Theophilus began the tradition of employing Viking hatchet men in defence of his realm. Thus was founded the so-called Varangian Guard, which, in later years became the personal bodyguard of the Emperor Basil II and his successors. Evidently there was considerable too-ing and fro-ing between Scandinavia and Asia Minor, with Viking mercenaries sending at least some of their earnings home, before heading back to retire in comfort. It is said that this occupation was so enticing to young warriors that the King of Sweden felt obliged to pass a law preventing his subjects from inheriting property while working for the ‘Greek’ Emperors.

Once again, not much evidence has survived of the presence of these Norsemen in the Near East. There is, however, an interesting item of graffiti in the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, now the Aya Sofia Museum in Istanbul. Carved into the marble balustrade of one of the galleries is a runic inscription (dated to some time in the 11th century) recording the presence of a certain Halfdan – who, one assumes, was finding the ceremonial rites of the Orthodox Church a little tiresome. At the other end of the journey, two runestones, also dating from the 11th century, have been found at Risbyle in Sweden. The stones bear inscriptions to the memory of Ulfr of Skolhamarr, and one of them, it seems, includes an Eastern Cross, common in the Byzantine Empire at the time. To commemorate the international connection, the local Swedish municipality has apparently included such a cross in its official coat-of-arms.

As a final twist to this story, it seems that the Varangian Guard began to lose its Viking character in the 11th century. Around this time, the ranks of the Imperial bodyguard began increasingly to be filled by Anglo-Saxon warriors from England. Interestingly, however, the Vikings were also, albeit obliquely, responsible for this trend. Apparently the depredations of Vikings in England, and later, the conquest of the country by their kinsmen the Normans, led to considerable dispossession, redundancy and unemployment of the native English warrior class – many of whom, it is said, took their services elsewhere, namely, to the court of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople.

Now, if you are a follower of this blog, you will be aware that one of my major themes is the inter-connectedness of historical events. I have written elsewhere about the Crusades, and my feeling that Papal motives went beyond the normally stated objective of reclaiming the Holy Lands from the heathen Turks. As I was writing the above, it crossed my mind that there, in the 11th century, you had significant numbers of middle and upper-middle class guys from England and other parts of western Europe getting a glimpse of the wealth of Eastern civilisation, and returning to tell tales of its splendour to the folks back home. So, when Pope Urban II made his famous call, in 1095, to Western Christendom to unite in arms and make the 3000 kilometre journey to liberate the Holy Places, there may well have been thoughts of material as much as spiritual gain in the minds of those noble knights and true. Such thoughts could conceivably have added persuasive force to the Holy Father's arguments.

Well, the more things change, the more they remain the same, as the French say. The US government is currently working towards a withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, as Britain also seeks to cut back its military presence abroad. You might wonder, then, why so many Americans and other foreign nationals would opt voluntarily to go to Iraq and engage in the kind of activities that normally only trained soldiers would carry out. The reasons, of course, are money and adventure. In August 2010 it was estimated that there were in excess of 11,000 ‘private security contractors’ (read ‘mercenaries’) in Iraq – and analysts expect that number to rise significantly as US military withdrawal continues.

So, the Vikings went to Miklagard, the Crusaders to Jerusalem (and Constantinople), and Americans will, no doubt, continue going to Iraq. The processes of globalisation, and its handmaiden, privatisation, are timeless and irresistible. But let’s not kid ourselves that they spring from altruism and benevolence towards anyone’s fellow human beings.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Atatürk's Republic and the Wall Street Protesters

One of the peculiarities that most strikes visitors to Turkey is the pervasive presence of a political leader who died more than seventy years ago.  Every classroom in every school, every office in every government department has his picture on the wall; every public square in every village, town and city has a statue prominently placed. Our tendency is to feel that there must be an element of compulsion involved. How can a free people willingly engage in such idolatry? Certainly other nations have their founding heroes, but I can think of none who holds the place in his people’s hearts that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk holds in the hearts of the people of Turkey.

Perhaps the nearest rival is George Washington, whose pictorial place on the US dollar bill symbolises his importance as founding father of the United States. The English have two queens with particular claims to fame: Elizabeth I, the mother of England, and Victoria, of the British Empire – but nobody much hangs their pictures on the wall these days. Cross the Channel to Europe and you’ve got Napoleon Bonaparte in France. However, since he set back republican progress for the best part of a century, you might question his achievement. Prior to him, you have to go back to the 9th century to find a French leader of much note, but who’s heard of Charlemagne these days, much less knows what he did? Germany has a more recent claimant (if we tactfully ignore Adolf Hitler). Otto von Bismarck was the driving force uniting the German nation in 1871, and you’d have to say Europe would be in much deeper trouble these days without the Germans. Peter the Great did a lot of big stuff for Russia back around 1700, but I don’t know what the Russians think of him now. Outside of Europe? Well, Gandhi in India, of course, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa; hard to find fault with them. The Chinese might suggest Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro was the public face of Cuba for most of fifty years. That’s quite a club to join, isn’t it!

But how do you rank them? What criteria would you use to determine their impact on the world? If you go for population size of their countries, Gandhi and Mao Zedong top the list. On the other hand, if you think in terms of global economic and military power today, and the lasting effects of his legacy, it’s hard to go past George Washington. When it comes to personal sacrifice and commitment to a cause, Mandela, and once again, Gandhi look pretty good. Take the business model of time and motion effectiveness and Bismarck got the job done quickly, which suggests impressive personal power and influence.

Now I’m sure many outside Turkey will ask how a Turkish leader, however idolized in his own country, can be considered fit to stand in such company. Well, leaving the idolization aside for a moment, you may not be aware that the United Nations and UNESCO declared 1981 (the centennial year of his birth) as Atatürk Year in the World, the only occasion on which they have awarded such an honour. The wording of the 1979 resolution goes like this:

The General Conference,
Convinced that eminent personalities who worked for international understanding, co-operation, and peace, should serve as an example for future generations,
Recalling that the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mustafa Kemal Atatûrk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, will be celebrated in 1981,
Bearing in mind that he was an exceptional reformer in all the fields coming within UNESCO’s competence,
Recognizing in particular that he was the leader of one of the earliest struggles against colonialism and imperialism,
Recalling that he set an outstanding example in promoting the spirit of mutual understanding between peoples and lasting peace between the nations of the world, having advocated all his life the advent of ‘an age of harmony and co-operation in which no distinction would be made between men on account of colour, religion or race’,
1. Decides that UNESCO shall co-operate on the intellectual and technical planes with the Turkish Government for the organization in 1980, at that Government’s financial expense, of an international symposium designed to bring out various aspects of the personality and work of Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, whose action was always directed towards the promotion of peace, international understanding and respect for human rights;
2. Requests the Director-General to take the necessary steps for the implementation of this resolution.
Well, that would seem to take care of the question of international recognition. Nelson Mandela has been named a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and UNESCO issued a commemorative medal to mark the 125th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth – but neither, as far as I know, has yet been accorded a ‘Year’ to himself. So let’s return to the reasons why Atatürk remains so beloved by the Turkish people, and I want to draw your particular attention to these words from the UN resolution: ‘he was an exceptional reformer in all the fields coming within UNESCO’s competence’. These fields are summarized by the letters ESC in the acronym: ‘Educational, Scientific and Cultural’. So clearly the people at the UN had other factors in mind than mere military success when they decided to honour Atatürk. Books have been written on this subject, so for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on one aspect – his achievements in the field of economics.

Undoubtedly, Mustafa Kemal’s military successes, achieved against global military powers of the day, were remarkable. Nevertheless, he himself recognized the limitations of victory gained by force of arms. The report of the Turkish Ministry of Finance for 2011 leads off with these words attributed to Atatürk:

‘The greatest political and military victory cannot last and is doomed to fade away quickly unless it is crowned by an economic victory.’

It is appropriate, then, to glance briefly at the Turkey which gained its status as an independent republic in 1923. The first thing to recognise is that the new Turkey was the rump of the old Ottoman Empire, a once proud entity that had become the plaything of European powers, and a laughing-stock for its social, cultural, technological and economic backwardness. The Anatolian heartland comprised around twenty percent of the territory of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, and a minute fraction of its peak in the 17th century. When it became the Republic of Turkey in 1923 it had been devastated by ten consecutive years of war on fronts on all its boundaries. The total population was around 13 million and productive manpower was severely depleted. Adult literacy was less than 20% and there were nearly 13,000 people for every doctor. The Republic had been achieved, but the economy was in tatters. Building a modern developed nation required a vision and a mechanism.

Mustafa Kemal’s economic mechanism was ‘statism’ (Turkish devletçilik). The essence of this is that ‘the state has a major and legitimate role in directing the economy, either directly through state-owned enterprises and other types of machinery of government, or indirectly through economic planning’ [1]. His vision was an educated population with an improved standard of living for all, and a nation free from foreign control. It was, we may say, the ‘Third Way’, so sought after (but sadly, not found) by New Labour politicians and pseudo-leftists of the Tony Blair variety – avoiding the pitfalls of Socialism/Communism on the one hand, and unfettered free market capitalism on the other. To the extent that Turkey under Atatürk vastly improved internal communications (including new and improved roads and railways), quadrupled electricity generation, and greatly increased agricultural and industrial production, we can say his policies were successful.

An interesting question, of course, is how he managed to achieve these successes. Money does not grow on trees, as we are often told – and within six years of the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the world was plunged into a catastrophic economic Depression. Now I’m not going to pretend that I know where the money came from, but I want to share with you some things I do know about that period of world history, in which Atatürk was an important and well-informed participant.

I have just been reading ‘A History of Economics’ by the eminent American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith. It’s getting little old now, since it was published back in 1987, but I think, as an observer of our world in economic terms, Galbraith pretty much hits the spot – and his predictions for the future have a ring of truth when tested against our own experience of the last decades. He explains why classical orthodox economic thought was so helpless in the face of the Great Depression. Simply put, the Depression shouldn’t have happened. In an ideal free market world, prices, wages, investment, interest, and production all balance each other out at their optimum level. Leave it to the market, and all will be fine. But it wasn’t, of course, as five or six years of the laissez-faire approach served to show. In the end, it was the English economist, John Maynard Keynes, coupled with the economic stimulus of the Second World War that got the world into the good years of the 50s and 60s. Keynes it was who sanctified deficit spending, whereby governments were permitted, nay, encouraged, to push-start their moribund economies by spending beyond their income, the gap to be bridged by private-sector borrowing. Keynes’s legacy lives on, despite the ranting of conservatives for balanced budgets. The USA is far and away the largest debtor-nation on Earth.

Something you won’t find in such histories of economics is reference to a debate that shook the world of finance in the 1920s and 30s, and continued in some countries well into the 50s and 60s. This was the question of where money actually comes from. As Galbraith says, and everyone knows who pauses to think for a moment, ‘money’ is not an easy concept to tie down. Clearly the notes and coins in our wallets are a small part of it. There are the bank deposits that we may or may not choose to call on with our chequebooks and ATM cards. There are the credit cards with their generous limits that we may or may not choose to make use of. There are the personal loans for cars, houses and holidays that my bank often offers me, of which I may or may not avail myself. Some economic thinkers and politicians after the First World War were of the opinion that what they called the ‘nation’s credit’ should be under the sole control of the state.

John A Lee -
my favourite New Zealander
I want to inject a little New Zealand history here, since that is what I am most familiar with. At the height of the Great Depression, in 1935, New Zealanders, in desperation, elected their first ever Labour Government. The leader of that government, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, is undoubtedly the nearest thing we have to an ‘Atatürk’ in our history. Twenty and even thirty years later, pictures of that saintly man were still to be found hanging in the houses of grateful citizens. A large mausoleum stands to his memory in a park in one of Auckland’s most beautiful locations. Savage’s fame rests primarily on one achievement: the building of a large store of state houses. The project employed thousands of New Zealanders at a time when unemployment was at a disastrous level; stimulated industrial production at a time when there was no money for investment; and provided low-rental, good quality accommodation for previously impoverished and ill-housed citizens. In the eyes of ordinary New Zealanders, Savage was a worthy candidate for beatification!

The thing is, it wasn’t really Savage who did it. The mostly forgotten architect of the scheme was a First World War hero, charismatic orator and self-educated economics whiz-kid by the name of John A Lee. Despite being a major factor in the Labour Government’s electoral success, he was overlooked for ministerial appointment, and thrown the under-secretaryship of housing as a consolation. Seizing his chance, Lee persuaded his cabinet colleagues to authorize the provision of Reserve Bank credit (ie new money) at minimal interest to finance the housing project. It was the one and only time such a measure was used. NZ’s Finance minister was summoned to London, where it is thought he was told by political and financial leaders to toe the orthodox line in future. Lee, who refused to cooperate, was expelled from the Labour Party – and subsequent Labour Governments have fallen into the accepted borrow-and-hope mould.

But it wasn’t just an isolated incident. Canadians especially liked the Social Credit (as it became known) financial concept, and public pressure forced the government to set up a Royal Commission on Banking and Currency in 1933. Continuing electoral support for the idea obliged the New Zealand Government to follow a similar course in 1955. Both Royal Commissions acknowledged that money creation is, in fact, a function of the private banking system, rather than the sovereign right of the state, as most people naively continue to believe. It has been suggested that Keynesian deficit financing was a direct response to, and an attempt to destroy the momentum of the monetary reformists. If so, it was largely successful. ‘Money is power’ [2], and these days, the idea has pretty much disappeared from sight or public interest. Present-day US citizens attempting to invade Wall Street, and like-minded souls protesting in cities throughout the world against the immorality and social destructiveness of the activities of the financial sector know what they are angry about – but unfortunately have no rallying philosophy or mechanism to offer as an alternative.

That’s another reason why we need to take another look at Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his generation of thinkers from the 1920s and 30s. Atatürk must have had almost unlimited opportunity to amass a personal fortune and establish a political or financial dynasty – but he didn’t do it. He divorced his only wife, sired no children (as far as we know), and his surname died with him. I would like to leave you with three quotations from the store of wisdom the man left to us:
  •        Social status is of no use to the nation – service is the thing. Whoever serves the nation has the highest status.
  •        Educators, what our republic needs from you is young people who can think, know right from wrong, and have open minds.
  •        War can only be just or justified if it is fought out of sheer necessity or for reasons of national defence, or pursued by a people awaiting their sovereignty, their very lives depending on it.

Further Reading (if you would like to follow up some of these ideas on economics and alternative financing):

[1] Wikipedia quoting the Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy
[2] A quote attributed to Russell H. Conwell, Baptist minister and founder of Temple University, Philedelphia

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Cyprus, Turkey and the EU – Getting it wrong again?

I don’t remember when I took out my first subscription to Time Magazine. I’m sure I must be one of their most loyal long-standing followers. Certainly there are occasions, generally during the lead-up to another United States presidential election, particularly when the opposition are going through the seemingly endless mumbo-jumbo of trying to select a candidate to challenge the incumbent, when I wonder why I bother. But I renew my subscription, mainly because I have never found a satisfactory substitute: a convenient and colourful package which keeps me more or less up-to-date with what’s going on in the world, from arts and literature to technology and politics, international affairs, sport and economics, to medicine and the environment.

Scary thought!

Sometimes you have to read between the lines, of course, and always be aware of its Americo-centric viewpoint – but lately they seem to have been working on that. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a number of distinctly Muslim-sounding names showing up among their team of writers. On the other hand, there’s been another, more disturbing trend in recent issues: a most uncharacteristic negativity, or pessimism about the state of the world: the inevitability of food shortages, how to deal with the reality of sea-level rise – and, scariest of all, a cover story entitled ‘The Decline and Fall of Europe’[1].

I’m not an economist, and I’m not privy to any inside information. Some of us thought the capitalist system was on the verge of collapse back in the 70s, but somehow it managed to keep itself going. The US Dollar, the Euro and the Pound Sterling seem remarkably strong, considering the parlous state of the economies they represent, so clearly there are issues involved beyond my ken. Nevertheless, if United Europe does survive into the third decade of the 21st century, it will, in my opinion, be more a result of good luck than good management.

The original six nations of the 1957 European Economic Community had expanded to twenty-seven by 2007. The European Commission has stated that it believes accepting countries like Bulgaria and Romania into the Union will encourage them to make the reforms needed to bring them in line with European standards – and it’s becoming increasingly evident that they were wrong. There is no need for me to question the wisdom of accepting twelve new members since 2004. The current economic woes of the EU speak eloquently for themselves. I do not intend to argue for the acceptance of Turkey. I am well aware that the Commission has many reasons for postponement. However, it seems that the long-running Cyprus problem is about to blow up again, and this, I believe, is a direct result of misguided EU policies.

The Government of Turkey has announced its objections to two matters related to the Cyprus problem. The first is that the Republic of Cyprus (in fact the Greek republic of Southern Cyprus) is planning to begin offshore drilling for natural gas. The second is that the aforesaid ‘Republic of Cyprus’ is in line to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in 2012. The Turkish Government is understandably upset, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs has conveyed their strong feelings to the EU Commissioner.

Interestingly, the report I read referred to ‘the 37-year Cyprus conflict’, which implies that the problem began when the Turkish Government at the time sent troops to the island and established the partition which continues to this day. This line of thinking has led to international condemnation of Turkey, and recognition of part of the island as representing the whole. However, it doesn’t take much research to establish that the roots of the problem go back way beyond 1974.

Like everywhere else in this part of the world, the island of Cyprus has a long history of conquests and occupation. It became a Roman province in 58 BCE, and subsequently part of the Eastern Byzantine Empire. When the Arabs began their expansion in the late 7th century, Cyprus was in the firing line, and the Byzantine emperor came to a compromise arrangement with the Muslim caliph whereby both ruled the island jointly – until the Eastern Christians were able to reassert ownership in 965 CE. As we have noted elsewhere, crusading Christians from Western Europe did not focus their aggression on Muslims alone. Ever wondered where Richard the Lionheart actually was when Robin Hood and the downtrodden English were struggling against wicked King John? It seems at least some of his time was spent conquering Cyprus (from Christians) and rescuing a French damsel-in-distress (as knights were expected to do in those days).

For the next four hundred years, Cyprus was occupied and ruled by a succession of crusaders and their hangers-on, various local potentates and Genoese mercantile interests, until finally it was purchased by the Venetians, from whom the Ottomans took it by conquest in 1571. It should be noted that, during those four centuries, the religion of the rulers was Roman Catholicism, whose adherents had little love for their Eastern Orthodox cousins, whom they persecuted and kept in subservience.

Needless to say, the Ottoman conquest was not a peaceful affair. It was pretty much standard practice in those days for conquering armies to exact revenge on the defeated populace in proportion to the amount of difficulty they had put the conquerors to. Nevertheless, the Ottomans subsequently applied their ‘millet’ system to the island, whereby the Greek Orthodox community was allowed to maintain its own culture, language and religion. Without this tolerance, it is arguable that there wouldn’t be a Cyprus problem today – the island would be simply Turkish and Muslim. Take as a comparison, the situation in contemporary France and Spain, where religious dissidence was violently suppressed, resulting in homogeneous communities of (Roman Catholic) ‘faith’.

So, Cyprus became Ottoman territory, and remained such for the next three centuries. Its Greek Orthodox inhabitants may not have been altogether happy, but at least they were allowed to stay, to speak their own language, practise their own religion, and within certain limits, administer their own affairs. Ottoman domination came to an end in 1878 when the British claimed the right to occupy the island. How this came about is an interesting example of 19th century European power politics. Russia is a huge country, but an ongoing historical problem has been the lack of convenient all-seasons sea access to the west. Consequently, a major focus of its expansionist drive has always been gaining access to the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Mediterranean. An important facet of Britain’s foreign policy in the 19th century was preventing them from doing just that.

In 1877-78, the Ottomans were engaged in a losing war with Russia, who were altruistically supporting the nationalist struggles of Romanians and Bulgarians in the Balkans, and Armenians in eastern Anatolia. At the conclusion of this war, the European Great Powers met, at the Congress of Berlin, with the Ottoman Empire, to reorganise the Balkans, which more or less meant ejecting the Ottomans. While everyone was looking the other way, the Brits managed to insert a clause whereby they acquired ‘informal’ control of Cyprus. Behind this move, of course, were, the recent opening of the Suez Canal, the growing importance of oil as an energy source, and the associated inclination of Britain to consider the Mediterranean part of their own sphere of influence.

Informal control of Cyprus was formalised in 1914 when the British illegally annexed the island. The Ottomans weren’t happy, but were far too occupied fighting for survival elsewhere to offer any opposition. Many Muslim Turks left the island, especially during the population exchanges at the end of the Turkish War of Independence in 1923. In the 1950s a struggle for independence began, largely involving the Greek community who wanted not only independence, but ‘Enosis’ (union with mainland Greece). The British Government on its part was reluctant to surrender its strategically important military bases on the island, and opposed the insurgents, often employing local Turks as police to maintain order (thereby, needless to say, exacerbating inter-communal bitterness).

Eventually, however, the struggle was partially successful and Cyprus became an independent nation in 1960. The new constitution, guaranteed by the British, Greek and Turkish Governments, enshrined significant representative rights to the Turkish minority, somewhat reduced, but still close to twenty percent of the population. The Greeks hadn’t given up, however, and the main evidence of this was their choice of Michail Christodolou Mouskos, a.k.a. Archbishop Makarios III as first president of the new republic. Hard to imagine a more provocative choice, given the saintly archbishop’s well-known involvement in the Cyprus independence movement and strong support for Enosis, but there you are. Within three years he was proposing amendments to the constitution to reduce specific Turkish representation. Cypriot Turks withdrew from the government and increasing incidents of inter-communal violence broke out. Greeks from the mainland began entering Cyprus to aid the struggle for Enosis and Turks began to retreat into safer conclaves. In 1964, a United Nations peacekeeping force was set up on the island.

Over the next few years, The Turkish Government repeatedly warned the international community about violence and intimidation of the Turkish minority. There was talk but little action, and in July 1974, the military junta in mainland Greece sponsored a coup to depose the good archbishop and take over the island. Turkey’s first response to this was to ask the other guarantors of Cyprus’s independence, Greece and Britain, to intervene to stop renewed violence on the island. Receiving no reply, the government under Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sent troops, and enforced partition of Cyprus into northern and southern sectors, which continue to this day. Interestingly, it was the threat of war with Turkey that led (by a process too complex to detail here) to the restoration of parliamentary democracy on the Greek mainland.

Interesting too is the fact that Great Britain (or the United Kingdom - the terminology still confuses me) retains two significant chunks of the island (in total, a little over 250 km2) where it maintains military bases. These areas, of course, are not within the Turkish sector, though in theory they are not Greek either.

Despite all the foregoing, it is the Greek southern section of the island that is recognized by the international community, and Turkey that is continually blamed for causing and perpetuating the problem. A 1998 decision of the European Human Rights Commission held Turkey responsible for denying human rights to Greek Cypriots by preventing them from returning to their homes in Northern Cyprus. On the other hand, in 2004, the European Union admitted the (Southern, Greek) Republic of Cyprus as a member, despite a clear stipulation in the 1960 Constitution that both sectors of the Cypriot community must agree before the island could join another state. Evidently going for the letter of the law rather than its spirit, the EU decided that, since it is not actually a ‘state’, the condition didn’t apply. Perhaps, in retrospect, Turkish Cypriots would have been better not to resign from the government back in 1963 – though, given the violence being perpetrated against their people, it’s difficult to see what else they could have done.

As I mentioned earlier, it is stated policy of the EU Commission to admit countries which may not have fulfilled all the prerequisites of membership, on the principle that, once they are in, they can more easily be brought into line. Well, ask Angela Merkel if she feels that Greece and Ireland, Spain and Portugal made much effort to bring their economies into line with EU requirements after joining. As for the ’Republic of Cyprus’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that international and EU acceptance has merely hardened their attitude to their Turkish brethren in the north. United Nations Secretaries-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan, both proposed peace settlements for the Cyprus issue. The most recent of these, the Annan Plan (2002), was accepted by the Turkish Government and the people of Turkish northern Cyprus in a referendum, but rejected by the Greeks in the south.

Once again the Cyprus issue is making headlines around the world. The Turkish Government is vociferously objecting to Greek Cypriot plans to conduct natural gas exploration in waters off the coast, and to the likelihood that Greek Cyprus will provide the next EU President. It is unlikely that Turkey would be prepared to go to war over either of these issues, given that they would undoubtedly be warned off by Europe and the USA. However, it is a sign of Turkey’s increasing confidence in the region that its government is prepared to take the initiative on the Cyprus issue rather than continuing to accept a defensive pariah role. If the international community decides to take a more even-handed approach to solving the problem, Mr Erdoğan and his government will probably consider the risk to have been worthwhile.

[1] Time Magazine, 22 August 2011

Thursday, 25 August 2011

UK Riots and the Istanbul Grand Prix - The End of the Golden Rapture?

Faith and belief are marvellous things, aren’t they? I’ve never been one for millenarianism or doomsday predictions. I never doubted for a moment that my Apple Mac would see me through to the 21st century. I’m content to meet my Maker when He (or She) decides the time has come, and I’d sooner not know the date in advance, though I can see how some might want to. I don’t have a great deal of faith in politicians – but I do have some sympathy for the impossible situations democracy puts them in. They have to promise heaven and earth to get elected, then have to back-pedal rapidly when post-election reality bites. Hands up who really thought Barack Obama would be allowed to close Guantanamo and stop the water-boarding.

So I’m not generally one to point the finger at politicians and accuse them of breaking promises. I was pretty sceptical in the first place. And I’m certainly not generally given to laughing at the misfortunes of others. Those recent riots in cities across the UK looked pretty scary, and nothing can excuse the burning of property and looting of businesses large or small. David Cameron’s government re-established the rule of law, and good on him, you have to say. However, I couldn’t help noticing that he pre-empted criticism by referring to his own pre-election promise to mend Britain’s ‘broken society’. It seems that ‘There are pockets of . . . society that are not just broken but frankly sick’ which seemed to suggest that mending society might be just a tad trickier than British voters had been led to believe. We need a medical professional rather than a simple repairman. But then most of us knew that already, right?

I’m not going to join the ranks of those who suggest that inequalities of wealth distribution are the root cause of these riots, and other forms of violent social unrest. I certainly do not intend to suggest that burning and looting are understandable or acceptable responses to social injustice. In fact, I want to agree 100% with Dave Cameron in his belief that pockets of modern society are sick. On the other hand, I’m not sure he and I would agree totally on which ‘pockets’.

Istanbul Park - former home
of Turkey's Grand Prix
My work-place is located on the southern outskirts of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the city. It’s a pleasantly green spot still, despite the building of airports, industrial complexes, monstrous shopping centres and acres of two-storey villas with private swimming pools. A kilometre or so across the fields from our campus stands Istanbul Park, the venue for the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix. Most of the time it sits there, in patient torpor, waiting for the one weekend a year when it will spring to life, and the hills will echo to the whine of high performance engines operating at rpms that would cause our Honda Jazz to melt down to a blob of metal and plastic.

I couldn’t help wondering what sort of money went into this project, so I checked it out, and I can tell you that Istanbul Park was built in 2005 at a cost of €80 million (about 200 million Turkish Liras at today’s rates). I went to the Grand Prix in Auckland once. We didn’t see any spectacular crashes, and we weren’t sitting in a corporate box being served chilled Dom Perignon and crab claws, so maybe I didn’t get the full effect, but honestly, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Still, I’m not one to spoil other people’s fun. Sadly for those other people, however, it seems that the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix may actually be the last one to take place at Istanbul Park. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, head honcho of international Formula One racing, decided to double the fees Turkey would be charged for hosting the race. The Turks said ‘%&$#?@ off!’ or words to that effect, and that, it seems, is that.

Well, of course, running a business like Formula One racing costs money, and no one would begrudge Bernie his right to make a living – but this spat did come to mind when I saw a news item in July that the most expensive house in the USA had just been sold to . . . Bernie’s 22-year-old daughter Petra. Reports say the 5600 m2 house in Bel Air, Los Angeles had been on the market for two years for $150 million, but some tough negotiating got the sellers down to $85 million. I just hope Petra’s making a generous donation to help those starving kids in Somalia. By the way, for the sake of comparison, I read that Mr and Mrs Brad Pitt have just put their California mansion on the market for a relatively modest $13.75 million. I guess at that level, the 0.75 is still important.

Nevertheless, one swallow doesn’t make a summer – and one sick billionaire doesn’t make a sick society, right? But did you see that film, ‘Inside Job’ that won the 2010 Oscar for best documentary? As the Time reviewers said: ‘If you’re not enraged by the end of the movie, you weren’t paying attention.’ I’ve read a number of articles about a gentleman by the name of Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group. Most sources agree that he is a major player in the world of finance, and he has been quoted as saying in a speech in March 2009, that 45% of the world’s wealth had been destroyed by the global credit crisis. However, he took heart that the US government was committed to the preservation of financial institutions (like his, one assumes) and would do whatever it took to restart the economy. It’s hard to establish exactly how much money Mr Schwarzman earns. Some sources say he made $5.1 billion in 2007, down to $702.4 million in 2008. Some say he took a 99% pay cut in 2009 down to a paltry $350,000. Whatever the truth of it, it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of that missing wealth ended up in his pocket. But somehow, I suspect that’s not one of the ‘pockets’ David Cameron was referring to.

Getting back to Petra Ecclestone, and her generosity to the kids in Somalia, don’t you find it interesting how a girl (or a guy) can make mega-tanker-loads of money from some dodgy enterprise, then, at some later date, donate large sums to a pet charity, and suddenly she’s on the fast track to benefactor’s heaven? Back in 1992 a Hungarian born gentleman of Jewish parentage by the name of George Soros achieved fame (or notoriety) as ‘the Man who broke the Bank of England.’ Surprisingly, the ‘breakage’ didn’t involve safe-cracking, ripping ATM machines from walls, armed holdups, or, in fact, any violence at all. The technique is known in the trade as ‘short-selling’, and, according to well-informed sources, it allowed George to pocket a cool $1.1 billion (whatever that was in sterling at the time).

Well, Wikipedia tells me that Mr Soros is ‘a financier, businessman and notable philanthropist focused on supporting liberal ideals and causes’, but it hasn’t always been so. Back in 1997, when Asian economies suddenly began to crash, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, went public with his opinion that the crash of Asian currencies had in fact been caused by Mr Soros and his short-selling ilk. To be fair, it seems George didn’t actually invent this dubious financial activity. That honour goes to a Dutch merchant named Isaac le Maire, who, it seems, came up with the scheme in 1609. Subsequently, the British Government banned it totally in the 18th century, but more recently un-banned it. Some economists blame short-sellers for the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the US Government passed regulations controlling it – which, apparently, were also repealed in July 2007. Any significance in that date, I wonder? Still, you can’t blame a guy for making a buck any way he can – but again, I feel pretty sure that Dave Cameron wasn’t referring to George Soros’s pockets when he sought the cause of the UK riots. Interestingly, one of united Europe’s attempts to save their common currency has recently involved the banning of short-selling in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.

If you don’t live in the Southern Hemisphere, you probably don’t care overmuch, but New Zealand is about to play host to the 2011 Rugby World Cup Tournament. Old guys like me can actually remember when rugby was still an amateur sport, but these days, it sure as hell isn’t. Professionalism, as you know, means a whole lot more than merely paying the players to play. Commercial sponsors are the life-blood of professional sport – but there are times when they seem to lose sight of the fact that, without the nameless millions of supporters, blood wouldn’t flow. Sportswear giant Adidas is one of the major sponsors of the Rugby World Cup, and they have recently upset rugby fans in New Zealand by offering to sell replica ‘All Black’ uniform jerseys for $NZ220. Quite steep, you might think, especially with the current strength of the NZ dollar – and most NZ rugby fans thought so too, more so when they found the jerseys were available online for about half the price . . . until, that is, Adidas managed to close the sites to purchasers in New Zealand.

Still, manufacturers are entitled to earn a fair living too, and, as the Adidas people have pointed out, they invest a good deal of money in New Zealand rugby. On the other hand, most Adidas products are produced in Asian factories where workers typically earn around $1 an hour. It’s been estimated that the cost of producing the replica All Black jerseys in a Chinese factory is approximately $8 – which leaves a tidy profit for the owners and shareholders of Adidas to pocket. But I don’t suppose David Cameron was referring to those ‘pockets’ either.

Back when I was a lad, science fiction was a popular literary genre. There were some prophets of doom, but, on the whole, there was a strong feeling around in those days that science had, or would soon have, the answers to most of the world’s problems. Labour-saving devices would remove the drudgery from human existence, the green revolution would do away with famine and starvation, and anyway, if by chance we weren’t able to solve all the problems on earth, such as over-population, it wouldn’t be long before we set up colonies on the Moon, Mars, or other extra-terrestrial real estate. The future was generally expected to be Utopian.

Well, somehow, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. A recent Time magazine article[1] on rapidly increasing global food prices suggests that the only way for prices from here is further up. Increasing population, climate change, the channeling of food-growing land to bio-fuel production and falling water tables will all contribute to a continuing rise of demand over supply. ‘Enjoy your dinner tonight,’ the writer concludes. ‘While you can still afford it.’

So it seems that technology isn't going to save us after all, and you’d have to think that most of the major techno-companies in the world have figured that out. Make your buck while you still can, they seem to have decided. Get cell phones into the hands of the Somalian public, and at least they’ll be able to keep in touch while they’re dying of starvation. I guess it’ll be a while before they can afford self-driving cars, but the rest of us have that to look forward to – once the automobile industry gets the bugs ironed out. Despite the entry of Google into the market, I’m backing the Germans to sort out that technology first. Apparently Google’s self-drivers are still tail-ending each other on the testing circuit.

Well, if technology hasn’t got the answers after all, what’s a person to do? Surely there must be hope somewhere. Luckily, there is, and, according to another recent Time article [2], a lady by the name of Michele Bachmann has the matter in hand. Michele has stormed on to the scene as the possible Republican nominee to contest the US Presidency, and she’s hot! Apparently God Himself thinks so, because, so she says, ‘She’s hot for Jesus Christ.’ This divine support has clearly struck a chord with Middle America – probably some of those recently disappointed by the failed doomsday predictions of Harold Camping. The Time writer quotes one of Ms Bachmann’s supporters, a certain Becky Magee, as saying, ‘I think Jesus is coming to get us. I think we’ll be raptured soon.’

Now I’m going to make a confession here, and confide in you that, until May 22, the day after Harold Camping and his flock attracted media attention because the world didn’t end as they had expected, I had always thought rapture had something to do with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But the world has changed in many ways, and even my MS Word dictionary hasn’t caught up with the new usage, as evidenced by the squiggly red line underneath the word when I typed it. Microsoft’s best suggestion was, in fact ‘ruptured’, which may not be far from the truth. My trusty old Chambers lexicon at least provided a range of options:

Rapture: a seizing and carrying away [it says], extreme delight, transport, ecstasy, a paroxysm (a fit of extreme pain, laughter, passion, coughing, etc)
From Latin – to seize and carry off [3]

Well, much as I’d like to think Jesus or some other omnipotent immortal would come and save the world from the consequences of our greed and stupidity, I just can’t seem to get my head around the concept. I have to say, it seems more likely to me that we’ve had the ‘Rapture’; the good old days are over, and we’d better start figuring out ways to save ourselves and Planet Earth, because time, I reckon, is running out.
[1] Time, July 25, 2011
[2] ibid.
[3] Chambers English Dictionary, 1990)