Commentary Magazine


Topic: GBP

Scotland Recovers, and Plans to Waste, Oil for Food Kickbacks

A Glasgow-based engineering firm, Weir Group, has been fined 3 million pounds and had 13.9 million pounds of illegal profits confiscated after it admitted paying kickbacks to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. Weir Group, the BBC reports, made payments of 3.1 million pounds to the regime, plus another 1.4 million pounds to “an agent in Iraq” (regrettably not named in the judgment) in order to secure a contract worth approximately 35 million pounds. Weir Group, now under new management, fully acknowledged and apologized for its wrongdoing.

The judgment by Lord Carloway correctly describes the Oil for Food Programme as “bedeviled by corruption,” though his Lordship is charitable in stating that this was recognized “by 2004.” Actually, by 2004, the investigation into the Oil for Food fraud had not begun, and the scale of the corruption — and the extent to which individuals, companies, and UN officials were complicit in it — was certainly not fully established.

The sorry saga prompts a few reflections on Oil for Food and the problems inherent in it. The first is that doing prohibited business with dirty dictators is amazingly profitable: Weir Group made almost 14 million pounds off a contract worth 35 million. Even after making illegal payments amounting to 4.5 million pounds, that leaves about 10 million pounds of profit, about 30 percent of the value of the contact. There are very few legitimate businesses, here or abroad, that can boast that kind of return on “investment.” Other shady businesses will probably find doing deals with regimes under UN sanctions similarly profitable. Read More

A Glasgow-based engineering firm, Weir Group, has been fined 3 million pounds and had 13.9 million pounds of illegal profits confiscated after it admitted paying kickbacks to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. Weir Group, the BBC reports, made payments of 3.1 million pounds to the regime, plus another 1.4 million pounds to “an agent in Iraq” (regrettably not named in the judgment) in order to secure a contract worth approximately 35 million pounds. Weir Group, now under new management, fully acknowledged and apologized for its wrongdoing.

The judgment by Lord Carloway correctly describes the Oil for Food Programme as “bedeviled by corruption,” though his Lordship is charitable in stating that this was recognized “by 2004.” Actually, by 2004, the investigation into the Oil for Food fraud had not begun, and the scale of the corruption — and the extent to which individuals, companies, and UN officials were complicit in it — was certainly not fully established.

The sorry saga prompts a few reflections on Oil for Food and the problems inherent in it. The first is that doing prohibited business with dirty dictators is amazingly profitable: Weir Group made almost 14 million pounds off a contract worth 35 million. Even after making illegal payments amounting to 4.5 million pounds, that leaves about 10 million pounds of profit, about 30 percent of the value of the contact. There are very few legitimate businesses, here or abroad, that can boast that kind of return on “investment.” Other shady businesses will probably find doing deals with regimes under UN sanctions similarly profitable.

The second is that this judgment comes almost seven years after the illegal payments ended, and almost a decade after they began. Lord Carloway justified the imposition of the fine, in part, on the grounds that it would “deter future offenses.” Well, one can hope. But judgments that come so late after the offense are not likely to deter. Furthermore, Lord Carloway had remarkably few similar cases on which to base his decision, so, frankly, the odds of getting away with this sort of kickback scheme must still look pretty good — especially because the corruption of Oil for Food came to light only because the U.S. and its allies overthrew Saddam. One wonders if the conclusive proof of Weir Group’s payments — and they are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg of payments made round the world — will prompt any opponents of the war in Iraq to reflect that, just maybe, Saddam was not so securely “in his box” after all.

And third, there is the question of what will happen to the money recovered by the Scottish government. That may be the most depressing part of the saga. Let’s be clear about this: the illegal profits that Weir Group earned were stolen from the Iraqi people. The money should be returned to them, in full, with the fine included as interest. Instead, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has stated that some of the funds will “be put to good use through our successful cashback for communities program” — in other words, spent to fund what the government describes as “diversionary activities for young people.” The remainder — “a significant sum” — will be used to “support the Scottish government’s international development work.”

Fantastic: the fate of these millions of pounds, stolen by a corrupt government and a corrupt firm, will be to fund soccer pitches in Scotland and foreign-aid programs that have already wasted billions. Well, knowing that would certainly put me off paying bribes to Saddam. But maybe it’s an appropriate decision: money born of corruption will flow to an activity that all too frequently promotes it.

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Mullahs Outfox Obama — Again

The Iranian regime at every turn has befuddled and outwitted Obama. The mullahs stole an election and brutally suppressed and murdered protesters while convincing Obama to hush up or risk offending them. They made the most of “engagement.” They got the Americans to buy into a silly agreement in which an unverifiable amount of enriched uranium could be shipped out of the country. And then they nixed the deal, prolonged the pre-sanctions phase, made friends with other anti-Israeli and anti-American regimes, and turned the UN session into a forum for their own propaganda. Now they’ve topped themselves:

Iran said on Monday that it had reached an agreement, brokered by Brazil and Turkey, for a nuclear fuel swap that could undermine efforts in the United Nations to impose new sanctions on the Iranians. Iranian state media quoted senior officials as saying the deal provided for Iran to ship 1,200 kilograms — about 2,600 pounds — of low-enriched uranium to neighboring Turkey in return for 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. …

There was no immediate response from the United States or other nations in the international group dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. … If the latest agreement meant Iran was now prepared for an exchange outside its own territory, that could represent a potentially significant step, said a diplomat in Vienna who spoke in return for anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. … It was unclear whether the Obama administration, which has insisted on the need for new sanctions, would take any new iteration of the original United Nations-based deal for a fuel exchange.

This is preposterous given the dispositions of Brazil and Turkey these days, the impossibility of verification, and the likelihood that these nations would return the nuclear material whenever the Iranians wanted it. But it is not significantly less preposterous than the original deal the Obama team gushed over, and the administration may now see this as an escape hatch. (Done! Problem solved!) As the report notes, “the blessing of Turkey and Brazil for such a swap agreement could put the Obama administration in the awkward position of appearing to take an unreasonably hard line.” Because, you see, we wouldn’t want to insist on a “hard line,” namely, that a brutal Islamic fundamentalist state dedicated to the eradication of Israel be forced to forgo a nuclear program or face dire consequences.

The Iranian regime at every turn has befuddled and outwitted Obama. The mullahs stole an election and brutally suppressed and murdered protesters while convincing Obama to hush up or risk offending them. They made the most of “engagement.” They got the Americans to buy into a silly agreement in which an unverifiable amount of enriched uranium could be shipped out of the country. And then they nixed the deal, prolonged the pre-sanctions phase, made friends with other anti-Israeli and anti-American regimes, and turned the UN session into a forum for their own propaganda. Now they’ve topped themselves:

Iran said on Monday that it had reached an agreement, brokered by Brazil and Turkey, for a nuclear fuel swap that could undermine efforts in the United Nations to impose new sanctions on the Iranians. Iranian state media quoted senior officials as saying the deal provided for Iran to ship 1,200 kilograms — about 2,600 pounds — of low-enriched uranium to neighboring Turkey in return for 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. …

There was no immediate response from the United States or other nations in the international group dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. … If the latest agreement meant Iran was now prepared for an exchange outside its own territory, that could represent a potentially significant step, said a diplomat in Vienna who spoke in return for anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. … It was unclear whether the Obama administration, which has insisted on the need for new sanctions, would take any new iteration of the original United Nations-based deal for a fuel exchange.

This is preposterous given the dispositions of Brazil and Turkey these days, the impossibility of verification, and the likelihood that these nations would return the nuclear material whenever the Iranians wanted it. But it is not significantly less preposterous than the original deal the Obama team gushed over, and the administration may now see this as an escape hatch. (Done! Problem solved!) As the report notes, “the blessing of Turkey and Brazil for such a swap agreement could put the Obama administration in the awkward position of appearing to take an unreasonably hard line.” Because, you see, we wouldn’t want to insist on a “hard line,” namely, that a brutal Islamic fundamentalist state dedicated to the eradication of Israel be forced to forgo a nuclear program or face dire consequences.

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Re: Not Your Father’s Tories

Max Boot is worried about the future of Britain’s armed forces under the Conservatives, should they be so lucky as to win the election on Thursday. He’s right to worry, but this isn’t a Conservative problem. It’s a British problem. As a letter in today’s Times from three senior British security officials makes clear, the plans of the Liberal Democrats – who stand a chance of forming a part of a coalition government – are even worse: they encompass, amidst much else, a profound skepticism about the United States, an abandonment of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and a refusal to even contemplate pre-emptive military action against Iran.

The Conservative emphasis, as Max notes, is on the need to save money in defense through reform. There is something to be said for this. Since 2004, the size of the Ministry of Defense’s civilian ranks has shrunk by 19 percent. Yet expenditures on civilians are up by 13 percent, and rose almost twice as fast over that period as the cost of an actual member of the forces. This is because the cuts on the civilian side have come exclusively out of the lower salary ranks, while the bureaucracy at the top has grown.

In short, the picture here is identifiably the same as it is elsewhere under Labour: more top-down control, more bureaucracy, more spending on senior officials, more waste, more disguised debts, and fewer actual capabilities.  From this point of view, Liam Fox’s promise to scrutinize the top ranks of the forces is encouraging, because it puts the emphasis on one of the areas where Labour has failed to contain costs.

But at the end of the day, reform will not be enough. Indeed, Britain’s last Strategic Defense Review, in 1998, was premised on the idea that savings from procurement reform would fill the acknowledged gap between Britain’s means and its ends. Those savings, predictably, failed to materialize. As I point out in a forthcoming article from the Royal United Services Institute, the gap between Britain’s budget and its procurement programs alone to 2038-2039 is now on the order of 300 billion pounds. And the RUSI report that Max cites estimating an 11 percent real decline in defense spending to 2016-2017 is wildly optimistic: the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the level of implied cuts at 6 percent per year by 2015.

All of that is really bad news. But here’s the worst of it: Britain is going to justify its cuts by drawing on the arguments the Obama Administration is using to justify cuts on this side of the Atlantic. Both states accept that defense budgets will decline in the coming decade. Both states blame the size of today’s defense budgets, in part, on the competitive extravagance of the armed services. Finally, both argue that defense acquisition reform is vital because the nature of war has changed: failure to reform will therefore result in defeat as well as waste. So, sure, worry about the British forces. But worry about ours as well.

Max Boot is worried about the future of Britain’s armed forces under the Conservatives, should they be so lucky as to win the election on Thursday. He’s right to worry, but this isn’t a Conservative problem. It’s a British problem. As a letter in today’s Times from three senior British security officials makes clear, the plans of the Liberal Democrats – who stand a chance of forming a part of a coalition government – are even worse: they encompass, amidst much else, a profound skepticism about the United States, an abandonment of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and a refusal to even contemplate pre-emptive military action against Iran.

The Conservative emphasis, as Max notes, is on the need to save money in defense through reform. There is something to be said for this. Since 2004, the size of the Ministry of Defense’s civilian ranks has shrunk by 19 percent. Yet expenditures on civilians are up by 13 percent, and rose almost twice as fast over that period as the cost of an actual member of the forces. This is because the cuts on the civilian side have come exclusively out of the lower salary ranks, while the bureaucracy at the top has grown.

In short, the picture here is identifiably the same as it is elsewhere under Labour: more top-down control, more bureaucracy, more spending on senior officials, more waste, more disguised debts, and fewer actual capabilities.  From this point of view, Liam Fox’s promise to scrutinize the top ranks of the forces is encouraging, because it puts the emphasis on one of the areas where Labour has failed to contain costs.

But at the end of the day, reform will not be enough. Indeed, Britain’s last Strategic Defense Review, in 1998, was premised on the idea that savings from procurement reform would fill the acknowledged gap between Britain’s means and its ends. Those savings, predictably, failed to materialize. As I point out in a forthcoming article from the Royal United Services Institute, the gap between Britain’s budget and its procurement programs alone to 2038-2039 is now on the order of 300 billion pounds. And the RUSI report that Max cites estimating an 11 percent real decline in defense spending to 2016-2017 is wildly optimistic: the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the level of implied cuts at 6 percent per year by 2015.

All of that is really bad news. But here’s the worst of it: Britain is going to justify its cuts by drawing on the arguments the Obama Administration is using to justify cuts on this side of the Atlantic. Both states accept that defense budgets will decline in the coming decade. Both states blame the size of today’s defense budgets, in part, on the competitive extravagance of the armed services. Finally, both argue that defense acquisition reform is vital because the nature of war has changed: failure to reform will therefore result in defeat as well as waste. So, sure, worry about the British forces. But worry about ours as well.

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It’s One Small Step for Man. Full Stop.

So even Neil Armstrong has a beef with the president:

The first man on the Moon has teamed up with the last man, Gene Cernan, to confront President Obama over his “devastating” plans for Nasa’s $108 billion (£70 billion) Constellation programme. Mr Obama wants to scrap Constellation, which was meant to develop new space ships to replace the shuttle, take astronauts back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars.

The death of the project would set America’s space programme on a “long downhill slide to mediocrity”, Armstrong declared yesterday. “It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to re-create the equivalent of what we will have discarded,” he said in a statement.

Gizmodo, the fantabulously popular tech site, has a longish piece mourning the death of JFK’s dream (language alert — some people are very passionate about this).

NASA was the very first place I ever dreamed of working for. When I was a kid, the sci-fi of Star Trek was quickly becoming the sci-nonfi of July 21, 1969 — and I wanted to design spacecraft. In elementary school I could name all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions before I could name all the states’ capitals. (And I still get Oregon’s wrong.)

This generation of kids, however, will have to dream of working for the government in other capacities, like used-GM-car salesman, or perhaps branch out into the expanding field of debt-consolidation advocacy.

I’m almost tempted to say, “Save us, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re our only hope.” Almost.

So even Neil Armstrong has a beef with the president:

The first man on the Moon has teamed up with the last man, Gene Cernan, to confront President Obama over his “devastating” plans for Nasa’s $108 billion (£70 billion) Constellation programme. Mr Obama wants to scrap Constellation, which was meant to develop new space ships to replace the shuttle, take astronauts back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars.

The death of the project would set America’s space programme on a “long downhill slide to mediocrity”, Armstrong declared yesterday. “It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to re-create the equivalent of what we will have discarded,” he said in a statement.

Gizmodo, the fantabulously popular tech site, has a longish piece mourning the death of JFK’s dream (language alert — some people are very passionate about this).

NASA was the very first place I ever dreamed of working for. When I was a kid, the sci-fi of Star Trek was quickly becoming the sci-nonfi of July 21, 1969 — and I wanted to design spacecraft. In elementary school I could name all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions before I could name all the states’ capitals. (And I still get Oregon’s wrong.)

This generation of kids, however, will have to dream of working for the government in other capacities, like used-GM-car salesman, or perhaps branch out into the expanding field of debt-consolidation advocacy.

I’m almost tempted to say, “Save us, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re our only hope.” Almost.

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The Economy Drive

The parlous state of Britain’s economy and budget and the necessity of cuts in government spending should be common knowledge. The British public certainly grasps the situation. Its one manifestation is the data by the polling firm Ipsos-MORI. In its latest monthly “Issues Index,” which invites interviewees to name as many issues of concern as they care to, “Economy/Economic Situation” stands at 49%.

By contrast, issues that Labour might be thought to own, such as “Pollution/Environment” (8%), “Poverty/Inequality” (7%), and “Low Pay” (3%) are of distinctly tertiary importance to the public. Given today’s statement by Pimco’s Head of Global Portfolio Management that Britain stands a better than 80% chance of losing its AAA credit rating, on the grounds that the government’s debt reduction plan “is lacking in conviction and . . . is lacking in details,” focusing on the economy makes a good deal of sense.

As Pimco’s criticism of the government implies, the only man not willing to grasp the nettle of reality is Gordon Brown. Mike Smithson, the proprietor of the lively Political Betting blog, points out that in a weekend interview with Andrew Marr, Brown refused to acknowledge even the possibility of cuts in government spending.  As Smithson puts it, “The interviewing trait where Mr. Brown is at his most vulnerable is when he seeks to deny something that is clearly the case. Less charitable people than me might use the word ‘porkie.’ The problem is that he does this when it is so obvious.”

A big part of dealing with the problem of government spending will be reducing the size and cost of the British civil service. This is a problem in the U.S. as well, as publications such as the Economist and columnists like Michael Barone have pointed out recently, but anything the U.S. does in this context, the UK can do worse. The most recent Sunday Times notes that in 2009, 21.1% of all UK labor was employed by the state, and that – measured by hours on the job, rate of wage inflation, or salary – it is almost always better to be paid by the government than by a private employer. Even in the highest paid job, the private sector pays better salaries, but the government offers a much larger pension.

What’s more, some British ministries have become increasingly top heavy: more generals, fewer privates. In the Ministry of Defense, for instance, the number of workers in the lowest two pay grades has fallen by about 19,000 since 1997, while the upper tiers have increased by 2,000. I have my suspicions about just how real the headcount reductions are – you can achieve seeming miracles by contracting out, as the MoD has done extensively under Labour – but even if you take the cuts seriously, they’ve not stopped total civilian pay from rising 13% from 2003/04 to 2008/09, as against a 12% rise for pay to the forces. The cost of the senior grade pay and pensions must be a major part of that increase, which is particularly scandalous given Labour’s general cheapness when it comes to defense spending, and what should have been the effect of a substantial decrease in the size of the MoD.

The pension question is particularly interesting and dangerous. The Institute of Directors estimates that the unfunded cost of public-sector pensions in Britain over the next 50 years is about 335 billion pounds. Given the relative sizes of their economies, that’s even larger than the $2 trillion shortfall the U.S. faces, according to the Financial Times. And every time Brown or Obama hires someone else, that shortfall gets a little bigger, and the size of the productive economy gets a little smaller.

It makes me think, first, of the superb “Yes Minister” episode on “The Economy Drive,” in which Sir Humphrey proves to Jim Hacker that, in order to achieve increased efficiency, you have to hire more people. And, second, of Margaret Thatcher.  The UK National Archives have just released some of her early Prime Ministerial memos. Her first priority: cut the civil service by at least 5%, and preferably by 20%. “What,” she asked, “are we doing with 566,000 that can’t be done with 500,000?” An excellent question, then and now.

The parlous state of Britain’s economy and budget and the necessity of cuts in government spending should be common knowledge. The British public certainly grasps the situation. Its one manifestation is the data by the polling firm Ipsos-MORI. In its latest monthly “Issues Index,” which invites interviewees to name as many issues of concern as they care to, “Economy/Economic Situation” stands at 49%.

By contrast, issues that Labour might be thought to own, such as “Pollution/Environment” (8%), “Poverty/Inequality” (7%), and “Low Pay” (3%) are of distinctly tertiary importance to the public. Given today’s statement by Pimco’s Head of Global Portfolio Management that Britain stands a better than 80% chance of losing its AAA credit rating, on the grounds that the government’s debt reduction plan “is lacking in conviction and . . . is lacking in details,” focusing on the economy makes a good deal of sense.

As Pimco’s criticism of the government implies, the only man not willing to grasp the nettle of reality is Gordon Brown. Mike Smithson, the proprietor of the lively Political Betting blog, points out that in a weekend interview with Andrew Marr, Brown refused to acknowledge even the possibility of cuts in government spending.  As Smithson puts it, “The interviewing trait where Mr. Brown is at his most vulnerable is when he seeks to deny something that is clearly the case. Less charitable people than me might use the word ‘porkie.’ The problem is that he does this when it is so obvious.”

A big part of dealing with the problem of government spending will be reducing the size and cost of the British civil service. This is a problem in the U.S. as well, as publications such as the Economist and columnists like Michael Barone have pointed out recently, but anything the U.S. does in this context, the UK can do worse. The most recent Sunday Times notes that in 2009, 21.1% of all UK labor was employed by the state, and that – measured by hours on the job, rate of wage inflation, or salary – it is almost always better to be paid by the government than by a private employer. Even in the highest paid job, the private sector pays better salaries, but the government offers a much larger pension.

What’s more, some British ministries have become increasingly top heavy: more generals, fewer privates. In the Ministry of Defense, for instance, the number of workers in the lowest two pay grades has fallen by about 19,000 since 1997, while the upper tiers have increased by 2,000. I have my suspicions about just how real the headcount reductions are – you can achieve seeming miracles by contracting out, as the MoD has done extensively under Labour – but even if you take the cuts seriously, they’ve not stopped total civilian pay from rising 13% from 2003/04 to 2008/09, as against a 12% rise for pay to the forces. The cost of the senior grade pay and pensions must be a major part of that increase, which is particularly scandalous given Labour’s general cheapness when it comes to defense spending, and what should have been the effect of a substantial decrease in the size of the MoD.

The pension question is particularly interesting and dangerous. The Institute of Directors estimates that the unfunded cost of public-sector pensions in Britain over the next 50 years is about 335 billion pounds. Given the relative sizes of their economies, that’s even larger than the $2 trillion shortfall the U.S. faces, according to the Financial Times. And every time Brown or Obama hires someone else, that shortfall gets a little bigger, and the size of the productive economy gets a little smaller.

It makes me think, first, of the superb “Yes Minister” episode on “The Economy Drive,” in which Sir Humphrey proves to Jim Hacker that, in order to achieve increased efficiency, you have to hire more people. And, second, of Margaret Thatcher.  The UK National Archives have just released some of her early Prime Ministerial memos. Her first priority: cut the civil service by at least 5%, and preferably by 20%. “What,” she asked, “are we doing with 566,000 that can’t be done with 500,000?” An excellent question, then and now.

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Cambridge University of Saud

England’s Cambridge University and Edinburgh University have accepted a £16 million endowment from Saudi Prince Al-Walid to create Islamic study centers that “aim to carry out research and public engagements designed to increase understanding between the Muslim world and the West.”

What exactly does “understanding” mean? A month after 9/11, when the same Prince Al-Walid tried to purchase New York City’s “understanding” for $10 million, he said it meant the attacks were to cause the United States to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause.” Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani made himself understood by rejecting the “re-examination,” the “balance,”and the check.

No such luck in England. And now two of the West’s finest universities have been bankrolled in the “understanding” racket.

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry, after all. In Al-Walid’s 2001 check memo to the U.S., he called for Israel to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. It’s been almost three years since Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and two years since Kadima–the Israeli political party founded on the very basis of giving land to Palestinians–became the largest party in the Knesset. With that out of the way, maybe Al-Walid just wants the West to “understand” why teenage Muslim girls go missing from Bradford, England, or what it is that offends British Muslim pupils about their teachers assertion that the Holocaust happened, or why British Muslim clerics say “We have to rule ourselves and we have to rule the others.” You know, Islam/West “understanding” stuff.

England’s Cambridge University and Edinburgh University have accepted a £16 million endowment from Saudi Prince Al-Walid to create Islamic study centers that “aim to carry out research and public engagements designed to increase understanding between the Muslim world and the West.”

What exactly does “understanding” mean? A month after 9/11, when the same Prince Al-Walid tried to purchase New York City’s “understanding” for $10 million, he said it meant the attacks were to cause the United States to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause.” Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani made himself understood by rejecting the “re-examination,” the “balance,”and the check.

No such luck in England. And now two of the West’s finest universities have been bankrolled in the “understanding” racket.

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry, after all. In Al-Walid’s 2001 check memo to the U.S., he called for Israel to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. It’s been almost three years since Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and two years since Kadima–the Israeli political party founded on the very basis of giving land to Palestinians–became the largest party in the Knesset. With that out of the way, maybe Al-Walid just wants the West to “understand” why teenage Muslim girls go missing from Bradford, England, or what it is that offends British Muslim pupils about their teachers assertion that the Holocaust happened, or why British Muslim clerics say “We have to rule ourselves and we have to rule the others.” You know, Islam/West “understanding” stuff.

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Bookshelf

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60′s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60′s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

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Troth Blighted in Old Blighty

In a story out of Great Britain today we read that the proportion of Britons getting married is now the lowest since records began in 1862, with the number of weddings held in 2006 the smallest since 1895, when the population was little more than half its present level.

The figures, from the Office for National Statistics, show that fewer than ten in every 1,000 single adults in England and Wales got married in 2006. Among men the rate was 22.8 in every 1,000, while among women the rate was 20.5 in every 1,000. When marriage-rates were first calculated in 1862, the level was 58.7 in every 1,000 for men and 50 in every 1,000 for women. Even during World War II, the article says, marriage rates for women never dropped below 40 in 1,000 (they fell below 30 for the first time in 1995). The general decline of marriage has been under way since 1972 when marriage rates were more than 78 in 1,000 for men and 60 in 1,000 for women. Also of note: today religious marriages in Great Britain number fewer than 80,000, compared to 157,490 civil weddings.

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In a story out of Great Britain today we read that the proportion of Britons getting married is now the lowest since records began in 1862, with the number of weddings held in 2006 the smallest since 1895, when the population was little more than half its present level.

The figures, from the Office for National Statistics, show that fewer than ten in every 1,000 single adults in England and Wales got married in 2006. Among men the rate was 22.8 in every 1,000, while among women the rate was 20.5 in every 1,000. When marriage-rates were first calculated in 1862, the level was 58.7 in every 1,000 for men and 50 in every 1,000 for women. Even during World War II, the article says, marriage rates for women never dropped below 40 in 1,000 (they fell below 30 for the first time in 1995). The general decline of marriage has been under way since 1972 when marriage rates were more than 78 in 1,000 for men and 60 in 1,000 for women. Also of note: today religious marriages in Great Britain number fewer than 80,000, compared to 157,490 civil weddings.

There is, as one might imagine, a political and policy component to this story. According to the article,

[t]he evidence that marriage is withering away at an increasing pace was met with a furious response from critics of Labour’s benefits system, which disregards the status of husbands and wives and pays parents extra to stay single. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis claimed the Government had “fuelled family breakdown” and researcher Patricia Morgan, who coined the phrase “marriage lite” to describe cohabitation, said Labour had succeeded in “eradicating” marriage. “This is what they have tried to achieve and they should be congratulating themselves,” she added. “But it is a disaster for children, families and society.”

. . . [T]he tax and benefit system came under most fervent attack. Advantages for married couples have gradually been withdrawn, joint taxation-ended in the 1980s and Gordon Brown withdrew the last tax break for couples, the Married Couples Allowance, shortly after Labour came to power in 1997 . . .

. . . Labour family policy has for a decade maintained that all kinds of families are equally valuable and ministers have campaigned for all references to marriage to be removed from state documents. The Tories promised they would provide incentives for couples to get and stay together. David Davis said: “This is a sad indictment of the Government’s policies which have penalised families and fuelled family breakdown. Stable families are the best formula for bringing up children and preventing delinquency, anti-social behaviour and crime. So a failed family policy is itself a major cause of crime.” He added: “Conservative policies will support the family by shifting the tax burden away from families and giving 1.8million families an extra £2,000 a year.” Researcher and author Mrs Morgan said: “I have been reading the Children’s Plan put out by Children’s Secretary Ed Balls last year. It does not mention marriage once. This Government has removed the idea of marriage from research and public documents and from the tax and benefit system.”

These developments are part of a broad, on-going trend. In his book on marriage The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Collapse of the American Family (2001)*, Bill Bennett reminds us that in 2000, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he has seen in his forty-year political career. He answered, “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” He said that this transformation had occurred in “an historical instant. Something that was not imaginable forty years ago has happened.” The distinguished historian Lawrence Stone wrote, “The scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent and seems unique.” And the demographer Kingsley Davis added, “At no time in history, with the possible exception of Imperial Rome, has the institution of marriage been more problematic than it is today.” Scholars now speak of a trend toward a “post-marriage” society.

The causes of the collapse of marriage range from the rise in the Western world of a highly individualistic ethic, to a profound shift in moral and religious attitudes, to the sexual revolution, to the widespread use of abortion and the pill, to changes in law, among other things. The precise damage that the collapse in marriage is having on different societies is hard to measure – but we know it cannot be good. Marriage remains the best arrangement ever devised when it comes to sexual and emotional intimacy, raising children, and finding fulfillment and completeness between two people, not to mention things like financial security, better health, and longer lives. It is, as Bennett wrote, “the keystone in the arch of civilization.” It is also, for those of us who are people of faith, an honorable estate, instituted by God.

Revivifying marriage will not be an easy task, and it will depend on much more than government policies. But laws matter a great deal, as we have learned any number of times on any number of issues (among them welfare and crime) – and they surely matter when it comes to marriage. Laws, after all, reflect a society’s attitudes – the things we deem to be worthy of our support and disapprobation.

Great Britain is now experiencing the consequences of having devalued marriage in law, and the Tories are right to advocate steps to fortify traditional marriage. There are few institutions more in need of repair and few issues that are more worthy of our attention.

* Full disclosure: I assisted Bill Bennett in writing the book.

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Harems on The Dole

The International Herald Tribune reports that male British citizens who’ve taken multiple wives in countries where polygamy is legal can claim welfare benefits for them in England.

There’s more to worry about here than the exorbitant cost of England’s welfare overreach or the plunging respect for traditional nuclear families. Here’s the Tribune:

The ministry estimates that up to 1,000 polygamous relationships exist in Britain, and the ruling is expected to primarily benefit members of the Muslim minority who married elsewhere under Islamic law.

In July of 2007, a British court found Muktar Said Ibrahim and three accomplices guilty of trying to bomb London tube stations in retaliation for England’s involvement in the Iraq War. In order to figure out the monetary expense to English tax payers, you’d have to add £165,000 to the cost of the trial. That’s the amount that Ibrahim and his buddies had collected in welfare before attempting to blow up some Brits on their way to work.

There are three interlocking points: without personal investment in a nation’s productivity no person can ever call themselves a citizen of that nation in anything but the legal sense. Furthermore, a country cannot make one-way accommodations for a sector of its population and hope to see a shared sense of citizenship develop. And when a significant minority of that sector is bent on undoing the nation itself, such accommodations amount to state-sponsored masochism.

The International Herald Tribune reports that male British citizens who’ve taken multiple wives in countries where polygamy is legal can claim welfare benefits for them in England.

There’s more to worry about here than the exorbitant cost of England’s welfare overreach or the plunging respect for traditional nuclear families. Here’s the Tribune:

The ministry estimates that up to 1,000 polygamous relationships exist in Britain, and the ruling is expected to primarily benefit members of the Muslim minority who married elsewhere under Islamic law.

In July of 2007, a British court found Muktar Said Ibrahim and three accomplices guilty of trying to bomb London tube stations in retaliation for England’s involvement in the Iraq War. In order to figure out the monetary expense to English tax payers, you’d have to add £165,000 to the cost of the trial. That’s the amount that Ibrahim and his buddies had collected in welfare before attempting to blow up some Brits on their way to work.

There are three interlocking points: without personal investment in a nation’s productivity no person can ever call themselves a citizen of that nation in anything but the legal sense. Furthermore, a country cannot make one-way accommodations for a sector of its population and hope to see a shared sense of citizenship develop. And when a significant minority of that sector is bent on undoing the nation itself, such accommodations amount to state-sponsored masochism.

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Susceptible to Cyber-Terror

Gabe Schoenfeld has written skeptically about the new Defense Science Board study, which raises alarms about the Department of Defense’s vulnerability to cyber-attacks, especially in light of the fact that so much of our software code is written abroad, “some in countries that may have interests inimical to those of the United States.”

Gabe wonders:

If our adversaries are as good as we are saying they are at exploiting vulnerabilities in our technology, why are their brilliant programmers not going off on freelance missions to tap in, say, to the electronic systems of a Goldman Sachs and transferring its assets to themselves?

The short answer is they are doing precisely that. It’s just that the public doesn’t hear much about it because the targeted institutions want to keep as quiet as possible for obvious reasons, so as not to encourage copycats and not to endanger the confidence of their clients, investors, and counterparties.

The Financial Times broke the story of one such attack that occurred in 2005. Israeli-Russian mobsters based in Tel Aviv succeeded in hacking into the London offices of the Japanese bank Sumitomo, and almost managed to transfer some $500 million to their own bank accounts. According to one account, this was how the operation was carried out:

Thieves masquerading as cleaning staff with the help of a security guard installed hardware keystroke loggers on computers within the London branch of Sumitomo Mitsui, a huge Japanese bank.

These computers evidently belonged to help desk personnel. The keystroke loggers captured everything typed into the computer including, of course, administrative passwords for remote access.

By installing software keystroke loggers on the PC’s that belonged to the bank personnel responsible for wire transfers over the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network, the thieves captured credentials that were then used to transfer 220 million pounds (call it half-a-billion dollars).

These thieves were nabbed in time by Scotland Yard, but if they had succeeded it would have been the greatest bank robbery of all time.

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Gabe Schoenfeld has written skeptically about the new Defense Science Board study, which raises alarms about the Department of Defense’s vulnerability to cyber-attacks, especially in light of the fact that so much of our software code is written abroad, “some in countries that may have interests inimical to those of the United States.”

Gabe wonders:

If our adversaries are as good as we are saying they are at exploiting vulnerabilities in our technology, why are their brilliant programmers not going off on freelance missions to tap in, say, to the electronic systems of a Goldman Sachs and transferring its assets to themselves?

The short answer is they are doing precisely that. It’s just that the public doesn’t hear much about it because the targeted institutions want to keep as quiet as possible for obvious reasons, so as not to encourage copycats and not to endanger the confidence of their clients, investors, and counterparties.

The Financial Times broke the story of one such attack that occurred in 2005. Israeli-Russian mobsters based in Tel Aviv succeeded in hacking into the London offices of the Japanese bank Sumitomo, and almost managed to transfer some $500 million to their own bank accounts. According to one account, this was how the operation was carried out:

Thieves masquerading as cleaning staff with the help of a security guard installed hardware keystroke loggers on computers within the London branch of Sumitomo Mitsui, a huge Japanese bank.

These computers evidently belonged to help desk personnel. The keystroke loggers captured everything typed into the computer including, of course, administrative passwords for remote access.

By installing software keystroke loggers on the PC’s that belonged to the bank personnel responsible for wire transfers over the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network, the thieves captured credentials that were then used to transfer 220 million pounds (call it half-a-billion dollars).

These thieves were nabbed in time by Scotland Yard, but if they had succeeded it would have been the greatest bank robbery of all time.

There are also, of course, countless cyber-attacks being carried out every day against the information infrastructure of the U.S. and our allies. The most famous of these was the assault by Russian hackers on Estonia’s computers earlier this year. (For details, see here.)

The U.S. is just as vulnerable to such an attack. In fact, as Ralph Peters argues in this New York Post column, our reliance on computer networks and satellites constitutes one of our biggest strategic vulnerabilities. He calls it a “ ‘high-tech’ Maginot Line,” and I would have to agree with him.

The comparison may seem overwrought, but only because no enemy has tried to exploit this vulnerability in a major way. Yet. We do know, however, that China, Russia, and various non-state actors are working to ramp up their capabilities in this sphere. We’d better step up our defenses, or else face the prospect of many of our super-expensive weapons and surveillance systems being rendered useless in a war. There is also the very real threat of cyber-terrorism wreaking havoc with our financial systems. Just imagine what would happen if the fidelity of banking or trading records were compromised on a massive scale: That could be a more severe blow to our economy than the loss of the World Trade Center.

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For the Love of God

The poet of putrefaction strikes again. Or should one say festers again? Since Damien Hirst first achieved notoriety in 1990 by placing a rotting cow’s head in a glass vitrine, he has gone on to immerse a shark in formaldehyde, saw a cow and calf into precise cross-sections, and even to congratulate the hijackers of 9/11 for creating a “visually stunning” work of art. Now the 1995 Turner Prize winner has achieved another milestone. His work entitled For the Love of God, which consists of an actual human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, has just been sold to a consortium of anonymous investors for £50 million. It is (by far) highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.

Virtually every aspect of the work has been the subject of controversy—Hirst was accused of plagiarizing the idea of the skull; of making use of smuggled diamonds; and even of staging the entire sale as a hoax—every aspect, that is, except the use of a human skull as an artistic material. Hirst was quick to insist that he used only “ethically sourced diamonds” but has little to say about the ethics of body parts; presumably the Islington taxidermist who he says sold him the skull, qualifies as an ethical source. (Radiocarbon analysis showed the skull to be about 200 years old.)

Given that Hirst’s career has been based on the exploitation of revulsion, it was probably inevitable that he proceed from the use of animal cadavers to the parts of actual human corpses. Still, it is unclear whether or not he would have crossed this line if it had not been for the international success of Günther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition, whose playfully posed “plastinated” cadavers have done much to erode the powerful social taboo against irreverent treatment of the human body.

A year ago, writing in COMMENTARY about Body Worlds, I suggested that works of art that are deliberately repellent, as offensive as they may be, “at least presuppose the capacity to be disgusted—which places them in a moral universe.” But now Hirst has lost the last vestiges of that capacity; rather than finding his grinning skull disturbing, he reports that it is “quite bling.” For the love of God, indeed.

The poet of putrefaction strikes again. Or should one say festers again? Since Damien Hirst first achieved notoriety in 1990 by placing a rotting cow’s head in a glass vitrine, he has gone on to immerse a shark in formaldehyde, saw a cow and calf into precise cross-sections, and even to congratulate the hijackers of 9/11 for creating a “visually stunning” work of art. Now the 1995 Turner Prize winner has achieved another milestone. His work entitled For the Love of God, which consists of an actual human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, has just been sold to a consortium of anonymous investors for £50 million. It is (by far) highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.

Virtually every aspect of the work has been the subject of controversy—Hirst was accused of plagiarizing the idea of the skull; of making use of smuggled diamonds; and even of staging the entire sale as a hoax—every aspect, that is, except the use of a human skull as an artistic material. Hirst was quick to insist that he used only “ethically sourced diamonds” but has little to say about the ethics of body parts; presumably the Islington taxidermist who he says sold him the skull, qualifies as an ethical source. (Radiocarbon analysis showed the skull to be about 200 years old.)

Given that Hirst’s career has been based on the exploitation of revulsion, it was probably inevitable that he proceed from the use of animal cadavers to the parts of actual human corpses. Still, it is unclear whether or not he would have crossed this line if it had not been for the international success of Günther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition, whose playfully posed “plastinated” cadavers have done much to erode the powerful social taboo against irreverent treatment of the human body.

A year ago, writing in COMMENTARY about Body Worlds, I suggested that works of art that are deliberately repellent, as offensive as they may be, “at least presuppose the capacity to be disgusted—which places them in a moral universe.” But now Hirst has lost the last vestiges of that capacity; rather than finding his grinning skull disturbing, he reports that it is “quite bling.” For the love of God, indeed.

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Blame the Victims

If you find Karen Armstrong’s argument that the creators and publishers of the Muhammad cartoons were guilty of “failing to live up to their own liberal values” to be outrageous, you should see the non sequitur that follows: “When 255,000 members of the so-called ‘Christian community’ signed a petition to prevent the building of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, east London, they sent a grim message to the Muslim world: western freedom of worship did not, apparently, apply to Islam. There were similar protests by some in the Jewish community, who . . . should be the first to protest against discrimination.”

What Ms. Armstrong does not say, though she must surely be aware of it, is that the controversy about the building of Europe’s largest mosque in London’s East End has nothing whatever to do with freedom of worship. London already has more mosques than any other city in Europe, and there are no restrictions on the practice of Islam in Britain, any more than there are restrictions in the United States or other western countries. The London Markaz, as the proposed “megamosque” would be known, is not a response to local Muslim communities, but the project of a global Islamist missionary organization, Tablighi Jamaat. The complex would include a mosque and other facilities for 70,000 worshipers—that is 67,000 more than the largest British cathedral—to be built next to the site of the 2012 Olympics. The religious compound is designed to attract Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, and to serve as the “Islamic quarter” for the games. The cost, an estimated £100 million ($200 million) would be paid by Saudi Arabia.
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If you find Karen Armstrong’s argument that the creators and publishers of the Muhammad cartoons were guilty of “failing to live up to their own liberal values” to be outrageous, you should see the non sequitur that follows: “When 255,000 members of the so-called ‘Christian community’ signed a petition to prevent the building of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, east London, they sent a grim message to the Muslim world: western freedom of worship did not, apparently, apply to Islam. There were similar protests by some in the Jewish community, who . . . should be the first to protest against discrimination.”

What Ms. Armstrong does not say, though she must surely be aware of it, is that the controversy about the building of Europe’s largest mosque in London’s East End has nothing whatever to do with freedom of worship. London already has more mosques than any other city in Europe, and there are no restrictions on the practice of Islam in Britain, any more than there are restrictions in the United States or other western countries. The London Markaz, as the proposed “megamosque” would be known, is not a response to local Muslim communities, but the project of a global Islamist missionary organization, Tablighi Jamaat. The complex would include a mosque and other facilities for 70,000 worshipers—that is 67,000 more than the largest British cathedral—to be built next to the site of the 2012 Olympics. The religious compound is designed to attract Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, and to serve as the “Islamic quarter” for the games. The cost, an estimated £100 million ($200 million) would be paid by Saudi Arabia.

The London Markaz project is a statement of Islamist triumphalism, intended to send out a signal to the billions watching the Olympic Games. While Mayor Livingstone has expressed support, there has been local opposition to the Markaz from the start. After it emerged that some of the terrorists involved in recent incidents in Britain and elsewhere were linked to Tablighi Jamaat (which is often described as the “antechamber” to terrorism), many Abbey Mills residents of all faiths became seriously concerned about the prospect of a vast Islamist fortress in their neighborhood. The concern about the Markaz is shared by many British Muslims, as well, most of whom are from South Asia, and have no sympathy for the Wahhabi fundamentalism that the new mosque undoubtedly will propagate. Ms. Armstrong seems to turn a blind eye to the neighborhood’s concerns about the mosque. She concludes her Guardian article: “Our inability to tolerate Islam not only contradicts our western values; it could also become a security risk.”

Armstrong’s visit to Malaysia should have shown her what intolerance really means. The country’s former prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, notoriously told a Muslim conference in 2003: “The Nazis killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” In any western country, a politician who talked like this would be finished. But Dr. Mahathir is still treated with reverence in Malaysia.

It is shocking that an influential writer such as Karen Armstrong, who is regarded by millions as an expert on Islam, and whose best-sellers include Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time and The Battle for God, cannot bring herself to tell the truth about Islamic intolerance. Even when her own books become victims of an intolerant government, Karen Armstrong finds it easier to blame the victims.

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No Pomp, Little Circumstance

One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

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One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

These complexities will doubtless be explored at the upcoming Bard Music Festival, “Elgar and His World,” scheduled for a series of weekends this August and October at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The Bard festival features an uneven bunch of musicians, but fortunately it will include such accomplished chamber groups as the Daedalus Quartet and Claremont Trio, as well as the sublime solo violinist Jennifer Koh. Meanwhile, we may relish the many superb Elgar performances on CD, keeping in mind that a poorly performed CD—and there are many such of Elgar—can make any composer seem hard to listen to.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which the composer described as “just an old man’s darling,” was recorded with staunch restraint, flowing grace, and eloquent emotion by the cellists Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier, both conducted by Adrian Boult for EMI Classics. Elgar’s orchestral work Enigma Variations communicates a rare personal tenderness—the variations were inspired by some of the composer’s friends—along with a sense of the passionate heights and depths of human relationships.

Enigma requires a conductor of unusual psychological nuance and direct frankness, such as Elgar himself (although his recordings were hampered by primitive sound equipment) or his friend Adrian Boult. There is also a choice of 1950’s recordings by the great French maestro Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra in the studio; a live radio broadcast; and a surprisingly idiomatic outing with the Orchestre National de France on Music & Arts. And LSO Live recently released one of the best Enigmas ever, led by England’s current dean of conductors, Colin Davis.

Elgar also triumphed in larger-scale works like Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio set to words by Cardinal Newman about a man accepting his own mortality and the prospect of heaven. As conducted on CD by the composer Benjamin Britten with the tenor Peter Pears in the title role, or on an EMI recording with Janet Baker as the angel who guides Gerontius in his last moments of life, it is a work of brooding majesty. Achievements of this rank certainly ensure Elgar’s artistic immortality—whatever Her Majesty’s Exchequer might think.

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